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Hungarian Review: CSARODA AND THE HUNGARIAN REFORMATION: A TRAVEL ESSAY – PART I

In honor of the fast approaching Easter holiday, we at Hungary Today would like to present our readers with an excerpt from an essay from the excellent literary journal The Hungarian Review.

In the article below, author Gordon McKechnie uses his own personal travels to provide a lens onto the Reformed Church of the village of Csaroda, the history of the Hungarian reformation, as well as onto Hungarian history as a whole.

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“You cannot climb the tower of the church in Csaroda. But if you could you would look out across a flat land stretching away from you in all directions. The horizon to the east is today in Ukraine. In every other direction you are looking at country that has been part of Hungary for more than a thousand years. This province is called Bereg. Only a small part of historical Bereg remains within Hungary today. The rest of it, including its capital – Beregszász – lies to the north and today within Ukraine.”

In 1946, a Hungarian poet stood in front of the Reformation Wall in the Parc des Bastions in Geneva. Gyula Illyés’s poem – Before the Reformation Monument in Geneva – is now regarded as one of the most important Hungarian poems of the 20th century, alongside his better known 1950 poem One Sentence on Tyranny. In his poem, Gyula Illyés (1902–1983), in his Paris youth a left-wing activist from a Roman Catholic paternal background, asks the question “Do you believe there would be a Hungarian nation if there had been no Calvin?” His answer is “I do not think so.”

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Exterior of the Reformed Church in Csaroda

You cannot climb the tower of the church in Csaroda. But if you could you would look out across a flat land stretching away from you in all directions. The horizon to the east is today in Ukraine. In every other direction you are looking at country that has been part of Hungary for more than a thousand years. This province is called Bereg. Only a small part of historical Bereg remains within Hungary today. The rest of it, including its capital – Beregszász – lies to the north and today within Ukraine. Beregszász has been outside the borders of Hungary since 1920 – first in Czechoslovakia, then in the Soviet Union, then in Ukraine. But its population, still majority Hungarian speaking, voted in 2010 to change the town’s name from the Ukrainian “Berehove” back to the Hungarian “Beregszász”.

In 895, forced westward from their homelands on the Pontic Steppe by a very unpleasant people known as the Pechenegs, the wandering Hungarian – or Magyar – tribes, under the leadership of Árpád, crossed the Carpathian passes into the Carpathian Basin. Later generations of Hungarians would frequently draw parallels between their own nation and the Children of Israel in the Old Testament, an analogy that still finds a voice, sometimes a rather fanciful voice, in remote corners of the Internet.

The Promised Land that the Magyars found in the Carpathian Basin is said to have reminded them of their homeland to the east. If you want to see why that might have been so, travel west from Debrecen across the utterly flat Great Hungarian Plain – the Pannonian Plain –, the Alföld in Hungarian. Some of the plain is now the Hortobágy National Park. Here is the largest continuous stretch of natural grasslands in Europe, the farthest west extension of the Eurasian steppe. At the end of a hot summer it looks like a desert. The upright timbers of “heron wells” – the ancient Middle Eastern sweep well known in Arabic as shaduf – dot the landscape and protected herds of long-horned Hungarian Grey Cattle raise far-off dust clouds as they roam among distant mirages. The ancestors of these iconic pale cattle probably arrived here with the incoming Magyar tribes in the 9th century. Az alföld, a poem by Sándor Petőfi (1823–1849), considered by many to be Hungary’s national poet, did much to foster the image of the Great Plain as the quintessential Hungarian countryside.

On closer inspection, though, you do see water in this desert-like landscape. It comes as a surprise to see despondent earth-caked water buffaloes wallowing in muddy sloughs. We walked alongside the overgrown ponds of an abandoned fish farm that once exported its product as far as the markets of Amsterdam, and watched an ornithologist there ring a reed warbler before releasing it to continue its journey to Africa. “There are fewer of them now”, he said. “Climate change is widening the Sahara and it becomes more difficult for these little birds to make it across to their winter habitats.” Or else they are trapped, killed and eaten in Cyprus, where songbirds are an illegal delicacy, and never make it to Africa.

By contrast, the natural vegetation of the countryside around Csaroda is forest and still, between the orchards, fields and pastures that separate the tidy villages, woodland breaks up the views to the horizon. It is also a low-lying land that has long been prone to floods, often on a devastating scale. Levees have been built along the course of the River Tisza to protect the villages and farmland. Some of the many bicycle tracks that connect the villages of Bereg run along the tops of these dykes. When you cycle along the track past the church at Tivadar, you are level with its roof.

We dined one night on hearty bowls of catfish soup liberally seasoned with paprika. The fish had come from the Tisza. There was a recent season, however, when local fish was off the menu. In 2000, a tailings pond at a gold mine near Baia Mare in Romania burst its dam. The cyanide-laced muck made its way down the tributaries into the Tisza. All the fish died. Hungary has since then led the campaign to ban the use of cyanide in gold-mining operations, and the gold mine has recently been closed down.

Within ten years of arriving, the Magyars had conquered the entire Carpathian Basin and, from their new home, were raiding the settled lands to the west and south. Then, in 1000, King Stephen (a descendant of Árpád, later canonised, and now gracing the 10,000 forint note) adopted Christianity and Hungary became a settled Roman Catholic kingdom. This Christian coronation at the dawn of the millennium has become a seminal event in Hungarians’ interpretation of their history. The 2011 Hungarian Constitution begins with a reference to it: “We are proud that our king Saint Stephen built the Hungarian State on solid ground and made our country a part of Christian Europe one thousand years ago.”

Uniquely among all the tribes that invaded Europe from across the Pontic Steppe over the centuries – Huns, Avars, Mongols, Tatars – the Magyars founded an enduring nation, and established their impossible Uralic language in a sea of Indo-European – Germanic, Slavic, Romance – speakers. “Hungarian is actually a very easy language”, I was told. “In Hungary even young children learn it.” Give or take Croatia and the fracturing of the country during the conquest of the Ottoman Turks (1541–1686), the geographic extent of Hungary remained more or less as it was in the time of St Stephen until the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.

In adopting Roman Catholicism, Hungary also established itself as the south- eastern bulwark of Western Christendom. To its south and east, the populations faced Byzantium rather than Rome. In due course, and with one exception (Russia), all those Orthodox kingdoms – including Constantinople itself – fell to the Muslim Ottoman Empire. That put Hungary in the first line of defence against the rising power of the day.

In the summer of 1456, three years after the fall of Constantinople, the Ottoman armies sought to conquer the Kingdom of Hungary. A force of somewhere between 60,000 and 160,000, under the command of the Sultan, set out to besiege the strategic border fortress of Nándorfehérvár, now Belgrade in Serbia, then on the southern frontiers of Hungary. The defence fell to János Hunyadi, Voivode of Transylvania, who had spent most of his life battling Turkish encroachment. Alongside his troops were sling-and-scythe-wielding peasants enthused for, and led in, the cause of defending Christendom by Giovanni da Capestrano, a seventy- year-old Franciscan friar. In all, the Hungarian force numbered less than 30,000. Yet the siege was broken and in a spontaneous battle outside the walls the Sultan’s troops were scattered and the Sultan himself wounded.

Of such significance was the looming siege of Belgrade to Western Christendom that the Pope ordered church bells everywhere to be rung at noon each day to remind the faithful to pray for the defenders of the fortress. The “noon bell” soon turned into a commemoration of the Hungarian victory, and in many churches across Europe the “noon bell” still rings.

In the weeks after the victory, Giovanni da Capestrano (later canonised) and János Hunyadi (now remembered as one of Hungary’s greatest heroes) both died of the plague – a vicious side-effect of medieval warfare. But János Hunyadi’s prestige as a scourge of the Turks was a key factor in the election of his son, Matthias Corvinus (whose portrait is on the 1000 forint note), as King of Hungary in 1457. The battle of Belgrade and the reign of Matthias Corvinus, one of Hungary’s greatest kings, were key to keeping the Turks out of Central Europe for the next sixty years. The Preamble to the 2011 Hungarian Constitution: “We are proud that our people has over the centuries defended Europe in a series of struggles…”

Belgrade did, however, eventually fall to the Ottomans – in 1521. Then, in 1526, the Turks were back with a huge army, this time in an anti-Habsburg alliance with François Ier of France that shocked Christendom, and led by the greatest of all the Ottoman Sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent. At the fatal battle of Mohács, the much smaller Hungarian army was wiped out. The young king Louis II died in a flooded brook while retreating from the battle.

The battle of Mohács, on 29 August 1526, is one of the most significant in European history. It marked the end of the powerful medieval Kingdom of Hungary. It brought Muslim Turkish power into Central Europe. Hungary had to pay tribute to Istanbul and, from 1541, the country was in effect divided into three. The central part of the kingdom, including Buda, the royal capital, became a Turkish province, complete with mosques and hammams. The former are gone now, but the steamy successors to the Turkish baths still abound. The west and the north became Royal Hungary, paying tribute to the Ottomans, but under the rule of the Habsburgs in Vienna. The east became the Principality of Transylvania, under Turkish suzerainty but, within those bounds, pretty well an independent Hungarian state.

Mohács  brought  the  Habsburgs,  then  aggrandising  their  domains  through clever marriage alliances, into the non-German speaking lands of Bohemia and Hungary; for Louis II had been king not only of Hungary and Croatia but also of Bohemia. The Habsburgs eyed the empty thrones with interest. The crowns of both Hungary and Bohemia had been elective. The Habsburgs now insisted that they should be hereditary and therefore theirs. But Bohemia was largely Hussite, Hungary was increasingly Protestant, and the Habsburgs saw themselves as the bulwark of the Roman church and, as time progressed, of the Counter- Reformation. Problems loomed.

Take a step back: events that were taking place elsewhere in Europe would bring changes more profound than Mohács to Western Christendom and find a powerful and lasting echo in Hungary. On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther (1483–1546) nailed his ninety-five theses to a church door in Wittenberg and as early as 1523 Lutheran doctrines were being taught in Buda. In that year an edict was promulgated in Hungary with penalties of loss of life and property for Lutherans. Nonetheless, in the words of J. D. Wylie’s History of Protestantism, an old leather- bound set of three nineteenth-century volumes that once belonged to my great- grandfather and that sat on the bookshelves of my childhood homes, “Perhaps in no country of Europe were the doctrines of the Reformation so instantaneously and so widely diffused as in Hungary”. By 1600, 90 per cent of Hungary was Protestant. How do we account for this?

While in much of Western Europe feudalism was in retreat, in Hungary it was consolidating in the 15th and early 16th century. Hungary sits on some of the most productive agricultural land in Europe and the growing populations to the west represented an increasing source of demand for Hungary’s grain, cattle and pigs. Big farming operations were needed to exploit the opportunities. G. R. Elton, Reformation Europe, 1517–1559 (1963): “Personal liberty gave way to serfdom; peasant farming to estate farming; and estate farming on that scale created effectively independent domains in the hands of great owners. A weak monarchy conceded rights of rule.” Fear of a national strongman had led to less than fulsome support for János Hunyadi’s 1456 defence of Belgrade and, after the authoritarian rule of his son, Matthias Corvinus, to the deliberate election of weak successors to the crown of St Stephen – the Apostolic Crown of Hungary. In 1526, much of the Hungarian nobility had declined to send troops to Mohács. After Mohács, there were two rival kings – the Habsburg claimant and János Zápolya – and a crisis of national identity.

The church, too, had lost its independent voice. G. R. Elton again: “The Hungarian Church, in fact, was effectively dead, controlled and staffed by king and nobles with virtually no spiritual life left in it at all.” Only a few Franciscan voices spoke out against the status quo. A spiritual vacuum was waiting to be filled. With the fracturing of central power after the battle of Mohács, persecution of religious dissent became more difficult. The many German-speaking communities in Hungary and the advent of printing presses meant that there was ready access to the ideas of Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, Bucer and others.

Turkish rule was harsh. When it eventually ended in Hungary, the lands that had been under direct Turkish rule were largely depopulated. Twenty-two villages of Hortobágy and all their inhabitants had been wiped out, never to be resettled – contributing no doubt to the desert-like appearance of the area to this day. Others who lived in Turkish-ruled regions escaped to Transylvania or Royal Hungary. But the Turks were indifferent as to whether their Christian subjects were Roman Catholic or Protestant and this in itself gave an advantage to the Protestants. In  fact,  given  their  Muslim  abhorrence  of  images,  the  Ottomans  probably looked marginally more favourably at Protestant, and particularly Reformed, places of worship. When they realised that the Protestants were also opposed to the Habsburgs, the Ottomans sometimes encouraged Protestant preachers. “The Reformed gained their ascendancy in Hungary not least because Reformed Protestantism was an emphatic rejection of Habsburg allegiance” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation, 2003). In the late 18th century a worried member of the Council of State said, “If I ask a Calvinist peasant what his religion is, he answers: I am Hungarian by faith. The reign of the Hungarian language will mean Calvinist reign” (quoted in Botond Gaál, Calvinist Features on the Spiritual Face of the Hungarians, 2007). To be Hungarian was to be Reformed.

The Statue of protestant Prince of Transylvania István Bocskay on the Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland.
The Statue of protestant Prince of Transylvania István Bocskay on the Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland.

Over the next two centuries of conflict between Ottomans and Habsburgs, persecution of Protestants was at its most severe when the Habsburgs were in the ascendancy and waned when the Ottomans were more powerful. To this day, although there are Reformed congregations throughout Hungary, the geographic strongholds of the Hungarian Reformed Church are in those parts of the country farthest from Vienna – in the Great Plain, in the east of modern Hungary, and among the ethnic Hungarians in Romania.

The simple but beautiful little church in Csaroda is a Reformed church. (The Hungarian Református is often translated into English, as it is on the sign outside the church in Csaroda, as “Calvinist”. Jean Calvin (1509–1564), the French-born, “second-generation” Reformer, who led the Reformation in Geneva, was the most prominent theologian of the Reformed party. But he was by no means the only one.) We stood, awaiting the keyholder, in the shade of one of the many trees in the green area that surrounds the church. Wasps hovered over a purple carpet of fallen plums fermenting in the heat. Beyond the whitewashed church, a thatched whitewashed house stood. In the other direction were long south-facing houses with their gable ends to the street. In the garden of one of them the upright timbers of a swing well preserved a memory of a bygone age. There has been a village here for a very long time. We reflected on its name: Csaroda.

Place names and the layers of memory they perpetuate are endlessly fascinating, and none more so than, despite their fierce exteriors, those of Hungary. Even if your map did not mark the River Tisza, you could trace its course through villages with the “Tisza-” prefix – Tiszabecs, Tiszakóród, Tiszaszalka, Tiszavid… The prefix “Kun-” marks places where Turkic-speaking Cuman refugees were settled in the 13th century on lands depopulated by the devastating Mongol raids of 1241 that killed possibly half of Hungary’s population – Kuncsorba, Kunhegyes, Kunmadaras… Jászberény, Jászjákóhalma and Jásztelek tell of the Jassi people, who spoke an Iranian language and who retained a degree of autonomy until 1876. And what about Hajdúböszörmény? “Böszörmény” is an old Hungarian word for Muslim and we know that Muslims, migrants from the steppe, lived hereabouts until the 12th century. Early in the 17th century, István Bocskai ennobled 9,254 free peasants who had supported him against the Habsburgs. The prefix “Hajdú-” denotes their towns. Lurking beneath the name “Livada”, a town in northern Romania where the population is still more than 60 per cent Hungarian, is its old Hungarian name, “Sárköz”. A former President of France draws his name from here. It means “muddy alley”. Csaroda derives its name from the Slavic tongue of its pre-Magyar inhabitants – čierna voda, “black water”.

The Csaroda church dates from the 13th century. The wooden spire is more recent. The church’s thick whitewashed exterior walls are pierced by only a few tall thin Romanesque windows. In front of you, as you enter the narrow door, are the smiling faces of Byzantine-style saints that date from the early years of the church. Another medieval (14th century) fresco covers the walls of the apse. In 1555, the church of Csaroda became definitively Reformed. The frescoes of the old religion were covered over with a white plaster and there they remained, hidden for more than 400 years. In 1642, the plaster was redecorated with the floral patterns and text lauding the church’s patron that are still there. It was not until the 1970s that work was undertaken to uncover and display the medieval artwork.

Geometric, cross-stitch embroidery decorates the pulpit, the central table and some of the wooden pews. Despite the church being long and thin, built originally with a focus on the altar at its east end, the pews are now set out on three sides of a square around the central communion table and pulpit. An intricately carved hood hovers over the pulpit. The focus is now on the “Word” and the seating arrangement, that recognises equality before God, would not look out of place in a Presbyterian Highland kirk.

You would also see a similar seating plan in a Reformed church in the Netherlands. For instance, in the rather grander setting of the Great Church of Haarlem – the former cathedral church of St Bavo that became definitively Reformed in 1578, twenty-three years after Csaroda – the pulpit with its carved hood stands against a thick Romanesque column towards the west end of the towering Gothic nave. At the foot of the pulpit is the table and around it on three sides are rows of simple wooden chairs with straw seats. On a Sunday morning some will sit here with their backs to the site of the former altar from the church’s Roman Catholic past, far away at the east end of the building.

We travelled along the empty back roads of Bereg, and those south of the River Tisza in the old county of Szatmár. Fields of maize and overripe sunflowers awaited harvest. Dry, dusty tracks led away between woods and field. All the houses seemed to cluster in villages. We saw no farmhouses in the fields between them. The villages were quiet, tidy and resplendent in late summer flowers – geraniums, canna, lilies, marigolds, petunias, black-eyed susans… If there were a village fleuri prize in these parts, it would be a serious competition; but in the end I would award it to Kömörő. Along the street that leads to the strange cemetery at Szatmárcseke, where the wooden headstones seem to be modelled on upended boats with a series of notches carved into them, the hot afternoon air smelled wonderfully of plum jam being made.

Every village here has a parish church in its centre. Every one of them is a Reformed church. Where they were unlocked we went in and saw the same Genevan lay-out of the pews around the pulpit that we saw at Csaroda, the same simple white-washed walls, the cross-stitch-embroidered linen decorating the simple furnishings, the painted or carved hood over the pulpit. We found a Greek Catholic church on the outskirts of Beregdaróc. It was a couple of hundred metres from the Ukrainian border, bore the date 1955, and its gate was padlocked. We passed an ill-kempt Roman Catholic church near Beregsurány. If there are other churches in the area that are not Reformed we did not find them.

The village of Tákos lies three kilometres west of Csaroda. Its peaceful, wide main street is flanked by substantial, solid houses, each almost of identical size, each fronted by flowers. The street is two streets really, so broad is the green area in its middle. The tiny (Reformed, of course) church here, on the long green, is one of the most charming we saw in Bereg. The floor is made of dull-red, baked-earth tiles. The ceiling is low and wooden panelled. In each panel is a painted floral design. Similar designs, all in colours muted by time, decorate the fronts of the pews and the balcony. The pews are arranged here too on three sides of a square, facing a round table. The table – and the tops of the front pews – are covered with linen cloths embroidered in red. A painted pottery vase with flowers in it stands on the table. In this simple place the art is straightforward, dignified, folk art. Gone are the elaborate painted images that were meant to aid worship but which had, in the Reformed view, ended up distracting from true worship of God. The walls were plain white.

Diarmaid MacCulloch says that “to step into a Transylvanian Reformed church building was often to find a riot of newly painted colour and even figure decoration that would alarm censorious western European Calvinists”. We saw none of this, however, in the churches we visited in Bereg and Szatmár. Tákos was the most decorated among them and even it had no images……..

Read the rest of Gordon McKechnie’s article at the Hungarian Review’s website.