Featured Lendület Member: Emőke Rita Szilágyi

Most people know only a few significant Hungarian humanist authors from the 15th and 17th centuries (the most famous of them being Janus Pannonius, Balassi and Zrínyi), although many other writers and poets also worked in Hungary during this period. Emőke Rita Szilágyi, research fellow at the Institute of Literary Studies at Research Centre for Humanities, head of the Lendület research group on Humanist Canons and Identities in the Kingdom of Hungary (1450-1630), is trying to remedy this shortcoming with her winning Lendület grant: in the coming years, she will investigate who among the authors active in the 15th through 17th centuries have remained in the public consciousness, and why, or why they have fallen out of it.

2024. február 12.
Emőke Rita Szilágyi

Several questions led Szilágyi and her colleagues to the topic for which they were awarded the Lendület research grant. The researched period (between the 1450s and the 1630s) is conventionally considered to be the golden age of Hungarian humanism, from the first appearance of Janus Pannonius until around the first decades of the 1600s. The majority of the research team works in the Renaissance Department of the Institute of Literary Studies, with the participation of the DigiPhil digital philology project at the Institute, while Levente Nagy works as head of the Department of Romance Philology at ELTE.
“When people are asked what they know about old Hungarian literature or humanist literature, they usually only think of the names they learned in school, such as Janus Pannonius, Bálint Balassi, Miklós Zrínyi, and they don't know any others,” says Szilágyi. “These authors are of course, in a certain sense, the best, and they left behind a fantastic body of work, but

the Matthew effect is also very strong in literary studies; to put it simply: if you are quoted by many people and are thus famous, you will be quoted by even more people and thus become even more famous.

This distorting effect means that the works of other contemporary authors and their works are obscured; they are overshadowed by the works of authors at the top of the canon, even though the works of the most eminent authors can only be understood in their own particular context, in the context of their own era.”

The Matthew Effect is named after two quotations from the Gospel of Matthew: “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” (New Translation of the Bible by the Hungarian Bible Society, Mt 13:12); and “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (Mt 25:29). In general, the effect means that those who start from a position of advantage will go further, while those who start from one of disadvantage will fall even further behind. At the same time, it is not only the few authors in focus that distort our knowledge of humanistic Hungarian literature, but also a kind of ranking between genres – poetic and historical works are completely overrepresented in literary studies: besides Janus Pannonius, the works of Mátyás’ court historian Antonio Bonfini are much more widely studied, because they are understood to be much more highly valued.

By contrast, those who wrote eulogies or university textbooks, for example, are not as well-known because the genres in which they wrote are simply not fashionable. But what the Lendület research team is interested in is precisely how these canonisation processes develop in synchronic intersection, that is,

the extent to which the authors we now consider exceptional have emerged from the contemporaneous perspective.

It is easy to imagine that the names we know today only rose to prominence and became popular later, and they were not considered successful authors in their own time. Thus, what circumstances and aspects led to the later rediscovery of these authors is also a question worth exploring.

“The 15th century saw the beginning of book printing, which helped enormously in the survival and dissemination of a work. Of course, it is also a good sign that an author is in fashion if many copies of his works are produced in the manuscript tradition,” continued the research team leader. “These are relatively objective measures of popularity. Later, however, in the textbooks of the 18th and 19th centuries, many other criteria – political, linguistic, sectarian – were used to select humanist authors. Thus, it is not always possible to clearly determine from their later publication how well known and successful they were in their lifetime.”

Throughout the 15th and 17th centuries, literacy (and literacy in the mother tongue) steadily improved, so the awareness and popularity of contemporary Hungarian authors increased – but initially they created for a relatively small readership. Nevertheless, most authors were well known, not necessarily for their writings alone, but because they held high positions in the church or in the state administration and the court. Some were diplomats, archbishops, advisers or family physicians to monarchs, or their court historians. Most of them therefore had, as it were, civilian jobs that gave them a reputation and a livelihood. For most authors, the state of patronage at the time was not sufficient to make a living from writing alone.

Primarily, the research team will be carrying out source discovery research, with a great deal of library and archival research planned both within and beyond our borders. Abroad, research will focus on archives in the Czech Republic, Moravia and Slovakia as well as archives in Romania, Austria and Italy. The sources collected will then be processed in various ways. One project will involve the preparation of the last volume of a critical edition of the correspondence of Miklós Oláh, Archbishop of Esztergom and 16th century humanist writer, which will be published in print and online. In addition, the collected sources will be metadated and placed in the Institute’s database. This work will initially be difficult to get off the ground, but later research will make it much easier to identify patterns, networks and connections between different texts.

Perhaps the biggest task involved in the research will be the presentation of the Neo-Latin literature of the examined period. To this end

an English-language handbook on the period will be written, which will fill a gap in international literary studies.

Most of the examined works are written in Latin, since Hungarian-language writing was only established in this period. Latin was the official language in Hungary until 1844, which means that the written Hungarian language was still in its infancy during the period under study, whereas Latin had already provided authors with a stable and varied means of expression, not least as a kind of lingua franca, the language of communication and science throughout Europe.

This makes it easier to compare Latin works of different origins from the same period, and makes it easier for foreign scholars of Neo-Latin literature to understand Latin works in their own country. However, if scholars in a given country do not write English-language textbooks on the works of their own authors, their research results will not be included in international scholarly works (otherwise there would be no source works on them that are understood and used by everyone). The research team is also organising a number of conferences and plans to publish several monographs and volumes of studies in the coming years.

“We are also involving artificial intelligence in the research.

We will explore the networks between texts using Intertext, a software from Yale University that analyses the similarity of works, similar to plagiarism detection algorithms,” says Szilágyi. “We want to use this software to understand which authors have reused the works of other authors, for example, at the level of quotations or word usage, so we hope to bring a newer, deeper level of canon research into our investigation.”