Florin Curta

title.none: Nemerkenyi, Latin Classics in Medieval Hungary (Florin Curta)

identifier.other: baj9928.0604.006 06.04.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Florin Curta, University of Floria,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Elod, Nemerkenyi. Latin Classics in Medieval Hungary, Eleventh Century. CEU Medivalia, vol. 6. Debreceb-Budapest: Central European University Press, 2004. Pp. 273. ISBN: $44.95 963-732-604-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.04.06

Elod, Nemerkenyi. Latin Classics in Medieval Hungary, Eleventh Century. CEU Medivalia, vol. 6. Debreceb-Budapest: Central European University Press, 2004. Pp. 273. ISBN: $44.95 963-732-604-9.

Reviewed by:

Florin Curta
University of Floria

This is a timely book! Hopefully, it will facilitate a long overdue reorientation of scholarship on medieval Latin. The contribution this volume makes is best appreciated in comparison with Anezka Vidmanova- Schmidtova's work on the Latin literature of medieval Bohemia and Teresa Michalowska's work on Latin poetry in medieval Poland. [1] Both volumes were dedicated to the formation of Latin literacy in East Central Europe during the Middle Ages. But what about Hungary? How can one produce a serious book about a subject matter that appears not to exist? It is common knowledge that medievalists who specialize in Latin texts often ignore developments in Central and Eastern Europe. On the other hand, "the classical tradition in itself never became an appealing subject in scholarship on medieval Hungary". (10) Elod Nemerkenyi blames the sparse and fragmentary evidence for that lack of interest, but in Hungary the study of medieval Latin literacy has long been perceived as comparatively less important than that of the Latin literature produced by Renaissance humanists. Since classical philology and medieval studies were rarely, if ever, viewed as complementary fields, few even thought that medieval Hungary had any Latin literature worth studying. To write about the medieval historiography or about the influence of Roman law upon the earliest legislation of medieval Hungary was of course quite common and profitable. But to write about sermons, forgotten (if not altogether obscure) theological works, and "minor" authors obsessed with imitating the "ancients" was certainly not.

It is at this juncture that the book under review breaks new ground. The author proposes a new approach to the earliest texts of the Latin literature in Hungary, namely a letter of Bishop Fulbert of Chartres to Bishop Bonipert of Pecs about a copy of Priscian's grammar to be sent to Hungary; the famous Admonitions of King Stephen; the Deliberatio of Bishop Gerard of Csanad; and the book list of the monastery of Pannonhalma. The study before us persuasively shows that these four sources "correspond to the two basic approaches to the study of Roman antiquity in the Middle Ages: while Fulbert's letter and the Pannonhalma book list provide information on the manuscript evidence, the Admonitions and the Deliberatio demonstrate how literate persons reflected on matters related to antiquity." (11) The reader is impressed that much information of historical relevance can be gleaned from a careful examination of these texts by means of what may at first appear as a traditionally philological approach. All this, of course, pulls the rug out from the division between "philology" and "history" that has dominated cultural studies in Hungary, as well as elsewhere, and, by implication, questions the division between historical sources and literary texts. However, while returning some literary respectability to eleventh-century texts such as the Admonitions or the Deliberatio , which have so far been treated almost exclusively as legal and theological sources, respectively, it still remains a great challenge to write about Latin literacy on the basis of such a heterogeneous data base.

The present volume is impressive in the ingenious way in which it defends its subject matter. While "seriously indebted to the work of others" (12), Nemerkenyi's interpretation often diverges from that of previous commentators. His approach may be called "minimalist", since he argues that what we know about eleventh-century Hungary is very little in comparison to the holdings of Carolingian libraries or the cathedral and monastic collections of later centuries. "However, scholarship tends to treat these major centers of learning as reference points, as if these elite cathedrals and monasteries were representative of something that they are not: the average school setting of the eleventh century." (179) In other words, the evidence of Pecs and Pannonhalma is not to be interpreted as meager and, as such, typical for the fringes of the Latin Christendom. In reality, Pecs and Pannonhalma are not very different from the "average school setting" of more central locations within eleventh-century Western Europe. Nemerkenyi takes his cue from Harald Hagendahl in advancing a distinction between literal quotation and paraphrase in order to gauge the influence of Latin texts upon the Admonitions and the Deliberatio . To a large degree, the book delivers on the promise to explore "the complex system of filters through which classical Latin influenced the earliest pieces of literacy in medieval Hungary". (12)

The book is divided into four chapters, "The Cathedral School" (pp. 13- 30), "The Admonitions of King Saint Stephen of Hungary" (pp. 31- 72), "The Deliberatio of Bishop Saint Gerard of Csanad" (pp. 73- 156), and "The Monastic School" (pp. 157-176), followed by a brief conclusion, a very long bibliography, and an index. Nemerkenyi views the letter of Fulbert of Chartres to Bishop Bonipert of Pecs as the first piece of evidence for Latin literacy in Hungary not long after the country's conversion to Christianity. Bonipert was the first bishop of Pecs, mentioned as such in the foundation charter for that bishopric issued by King Stephen in 1009. Nemerkenyi rightly rejects Jean Mabillon's suggestion that the bishop also acted as capellanus , as the highest churchman in the kingdom at that time was the archbishop of Esztergom, not the bishop of Pecs. Nevertheless, the latter was the person responsible for the establishment of the cathedral school in Pecs, and it is in this context that his plea to Fulbert of Chartres must be understood. The Priscian manuscript that the bishop of Pecs requested was a much needed textbook, along with more elementary Latin grammars. But Priscian's Institutiones grammaticae "was not designed for beginners" and was more likely a "university-level grammar" (pp. 26-27). The level of Latin literacy of some of the first students of the cathedral school in Pecs must therefore been quite advanced. However, Nemerkenyi cautiously warns the reader against drawing any hasty conclusions: "Having a Priscian was more or less a common feature of Central and Western European cathedral libraries." (28)

The chapter on the Admonitions of King Stephen is especially enlightening. A text traditionally treated in Hungarian scholarship with more of a historical than a philological emphasis, this work belonged to a literary genre often associated in the Middle Ages with classical and patristic antecedents. The anonymous author used Latin classics "to adapt the medieval idea of Rome to the Carolingian and Ottonian tradition". (54) Quite surprisingly, the image of Rome that appears in the Admonitions is that of the imperial propaganda (pagan Rome), not the Roma noua of the papal ideology (pp. 65- 67). Similarly, in his Deliberatio supra hymnum trium puerorum ad Isingrimum liberalem , Bishop Gerard "refers to pagan authors and secular masters a lot more frequently than to the Church Fathers," despite his contempt for philosophy as opposed to Christian faith. (90) Gerard's attitude towards the liberal arts is very similar to that of Otloh of St. Emmeram, itself rooted in the patristic and Carolingian tradition. However, Nemerkenyi rightly dismisses the supposed dichotomy between ratio and auctoritas as "an oversimplification invented by modern scholarship". (122) The combination of despising and exploiting the classical education in the Deliberatio is no indication of either hypocrisy or dissimulation, but a literary convention in order to demonstrate orthodoxy and to gain a scholarly reputation. Gerard was not an erudite like Gerbert of Aurillac, but it is precisely that that makes him "representative of the mediocre scholar of his day". (122) Equally significant in that sense is his attempt at creating a fictive audience by the use of the second person singular. Nemerkenyi notes that the "written references to orality [in the Deliberatio ] are by no means manifestations of oral transmission as an alternate tool of communication". (150)

In short, the present volume opens our eyes to the fact that the very notion of Latin literacy depends upon ideas of "center" and "periphery", which cannot always give justice to the complex process by which literate people in eleventh-century Hungary interacted with each other and with the traditions of the Latin literature. The present study avoids such terms as "citations" or "borrowings" because it does not aim to tackle the issue of the specific meaning of eleventh-century literacy or to what extent its level in Hungary was below that of other areas of Europe. Instead, it asks which parts of the Latin tradition were used for what purposes in the specific circumstances of a recently converted country, and why. The result is a nuanced and sophisticated picture of Latin literacy in medieval Hungary that proves to be more complex and multifaceted than previously imagined.

The volume is remarkably well edited, with only a few minor errors (e.g., "Frenchmen, instead of "Frenchman" on page 30). To this reader it remains nonetheless unclear what, if any, is the relevance of a long paragraph on the Carolingian tradition from the twelfth to the fourteenth century (pp. 42-43) for the analysis of the eleventh-century Admonitions . Similarly why mentioning the Annals of Hildesheim in relation to Gerard's work (73), knowing that the bishop died long before the entry in the annals was written? But these are all minor complaints. On the whole, Nemerkenyi has given us an excellent interpretation of an important and complex issue.


[1] Anezka Vidmanova-Schmidtova, Laborintus. Latinska literatura stredovekych Cech (Prague, 1994); Teresa Michalowska, Lacinska poezja w dawnej Polsce (Warsaw, 1995).