The nunnery of the Poor Clares at Óbuda, during the excavation and after conservation.
(Photos: Bence Tihanyi)
Katalin Szende
(CEU, Budapest)

Buda, Pest, and Óbuda
(plus Visegrád)

This image illustrates well the state in which remnants of the Middle Ages, both architectural and textual, have come down to us on the territory of the present-day capital of Hungary: destroyed and strongly fragmented. Even after thorough research, only very basic information can be recovered: in this case, the ground plan of the nunnery founded by Queen Elisabeth in 1334.

The territory of present-day Budapest was only unified in 1873; before that it consisted of three major and several minor settlements, the most important ones being Buda, Pest and Óbuda. In terms of age, Óbuda (meaning literally “Old Buda”, originally simply called Buda), on the right bank of the Danube, north of the later Castle Hill, takes pride of place, being founded in the tenth century on the ruins of Roman Aquincum. One of the former royal residences of the Árpádian dynasty in the medium regni, its southern half was already in the queen’s possession in the period discussed here, whereas the northern part was owned by the rich and influential Buda Chapter. The provost of this institution was also chancellor of the second university of the country that operated intermittently between 1395 and 1410. Second in time was the town of Pest, on the left bank of the Danube, built on a strategically very important site, where all the roads of the Hungarian plain converged in order to reach the most favorable point to cross the Danube by ferry. Both of the early centers were destroyed by the Mongol invasion of 1241/42, after which they recovered only slowly and partially. It was during the period examined in this project that they regained some of their former cultural and economic potential. The great winner of the urbanization process, however, was the youngest part, Buda, a new foundation of King Béla IV in the late 1240s. The new Buda hosted a royal house from its foundation onwards, but did not become the primary royal residence until the reign of King Sigismund (1387–1437), in the 1410s. Until then (from 1323 onwards), a fourth town in the Danube-bend, Visegrád, about 40 km north of the agglomeration described above, was the main royal seat. The potential of Visegrád wwas strongly restricted by the Pilis hills that left only a narrow strip on the riverbank for human habitation; nevertheless, the rulers of the Anjou dynasty, Charles I (1308–1342) and Louis I (the Great, 1342–1382), and even the young Sigismund, held their courts there. 

The literary output and cultural life of the Hungarian capitals, just like the more basic levels of pragmatic literacy of this period, can best be accessed by looking at the various social strata that produced, patronized and enjoyed it. The royal court showed the strongest initiative in supporting literary activity and using it for enhancing its own prestige. The genre best suited to promote dynastic power was historiography, its most spectacular example being the Hungarian illuminated chronicle, which contains the history of the Hungarians from their alleged Hun ancestry up to the 1330s, decorated with splendid miniatures. Another important piece, probably not produced but certainly used in Hungary, was the Hungarian Anjou Legendary. Its commissioning by the Hungarian royal court is underpinned by the depiction of the legends of Hungarian saints. The Hungarian royal court in this period also attracted authors of European fame. Heinrich von Mügeln (c.1300–1369), court poet and historian of John, king of Bohemia and Emperor Charles IV, spent several years at the court of Louis I in the 1350s and composed two chronicles on the history of Hungary in verse, one in Latin and one in German. The other famous author who lived in Buda was the Istrian-born protagonist of early Humanism, Pier Paolo Vergerio the Elder (1370–1444).

The secular aristocracy of the period is likely to have followed suit with the royal court in commissioning precious manuscripts, very few of which have come down to us. One of the rare surviving examples is the so-called Nekcsei-Bible (presently kept in the Library of Congress in Washington), produced for Demeter Nekcsei (d. 1338). The noblemen of Hungary were at the same time touched by knightly culture, and they were also keen on acquiring grants of arms from the ruler. Many of these charters and other letters of donation also give a detailed account of the recipients’ deeds; this makes up, to some extent, for the lack of secular epics and chanson de geste-type literature in medieval Hungary.

Ecclesiastical circles played a less pronounced role in the literary life of the Hungarian capitals, since none of them were seats of bishoprics. What is remarkable about the central agglomeration, however, is its rich monastic landscape. The most influential and by far the richest institutions, however, were two nunneries: the Dominicans on the present Margaret Island and the nunnery of the Poor Clares at Óbuda. Both institutions possessed valuable liturgical codices and later became, at the turn of the fifteenth century, centers of vernacular female literacy.

The main foci of urban literacy were the town chanceries that preferred to employ notaries who had studied abroad, and also acquired legal education. Our best source to reconstruct the legal, economic, social and to some extent also the intellectual life of the burghers of Buda is the so-called Ofner Stadtrecht, the law-code of Buda. Among other things, it bears witness to the bilingual character of urban leadership, prescribing the magistrates to swear their oaths both in German and in Hungarian.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the ups and downs of the Hungarian economy followed a different pattern from the general trends of Western Europe. The thirteenth century, a time of growth and prosperity in Europe, was a time of crisis, external attacks and internal social reorganization of the country. This was followed by a true period of “regeneration”, economic reforms, demographic development as well as a social and cultural boom already from the first half of the fourteenth century onwards, when much of the continent underwent a severe crisis. It is exactly the period examined here, when the long-term progress of the Kingdom of Hungary and the more rapid recovery of Western Europe and the Mediterranean “caught up” with each other and produced not only an adaptation of existing models, but a fruitful and vivid interaction between the two territories. The trends in literature, even through the fragments that have come down to us, mirror these processes in an exemplary way.