Humanista a határon: A késmárki Sebastian Ambrosius története

TitleHumanista a határon: A késmárki Sebastian Ambrosius története
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsKármán, Gábor
Author(s) of reviewed materialSebők, Marcell
Title in EnglishA Humanist at the Frontier: The Story of Sebastian Ambrosius from Késmárk / Kežmarok


PublisherBudapest: L’Harmattan
ISBN Number978-963-236-000-3
Full Text

L’Harmattan’s new series, opened by Marcell Sebők’s Humanista a határon: A késmárki Sebastian Ambrosius története (in English translation: A Humanist at the Frontier: The Story of Sebastian Ambrosius from Késmárk), is the third Hungarian book series titled Microhistory. Its predecessors had fairly different styles. The first attempt in the late 1980s and early 1990s was administered by the publishing house Magvető,  and focused exclusively on the works of Hungarian authors. It included works with a rather wide methodological range that included more classical social history,  the liberal use of case studies (Vera Bácskai), in addition to works on the history of representation and material culture (Péter Szabó, Walter Endrei), and those that successfully combined medievalist genealogical research with a social studies approach (Erik Fügedi). The second series was published by Osiris in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and opened its scope towards the translations of international literature. Therefore, apart from publishing the book which is usually referred to as the first Hungarian piece of microhistory in its narrower methodological sense (Lajos Für’s Berceli zenebona, 1784: Kísérlet a történelmi pillanat megragadására /The Squabble at Bercel: An Attempt to Grasp a Historical Moment/), the publications of the Osiris series included classics from the field, including works by Natalie Zemon Davis and Giovanni Levi. The L’Harmattan series inherited the editors from Osiris.  Their goal was to combine the traditions and objectives of the two previous series. Apart from further translations from the international body of literature, they also hope to publish more original Hungarian works written with the methodological tools provided by microhistory – a historiographical tradition which is increasingly widespread in Hungarian history writing.

Marcell Sebők is one of the initiators of this process. After having published a selection of methodological articles and case studies of historical anthropology and microhistory, he moved forward to using the methodology in his own fieldwork this time. An earlier version of the Humanist at the Frontiers was defended as his doctoral dissertation in 2001/2002 at ELTE University (Budapest), which was radically re-shaped before the publication of the book. The story of Sebastian Ambrosius (1554–1600), a Wittenberg student, Philippist theologian, clergyman from the Szepesség / Zips / Sepš region, and Humanist correspondent of many authorities of his age, has reached its audience after this long creative process.

Any biographical writing has to struggle with the problem of structuring: although the life of a person seems to be a perfect story in itself – as it has a clearly defined beginning and also an unquestionable end –, it often proves immensely difficult to define clearly what the story is about. While striving to share the fullest body of information about their protagonists with the reader, authors have to take all possible measures to avoid their work would turning out to be a bunch of unconnected facts of rather anecdotic nature. Sebők uses a skillfully chosen method to structure his material, one he calls mosaics of a biography: although he starts the story with the birth, family and education of Ambrosius, he later abandons the chronological principle and uses a thematic ordering instead. In this way, the activities of Ambrosius as Protestant minister and especially as religious polemist become the main focus of his book.

This is a very legitimate center for analysis, as it seems to have been the most important for Ambrosius, at least as mirrored by his own publishing activities, and those who published against him. Religious polemics have fascinated the historiography of the Hungarian Reformation since the 19th century. However, Sebők dedicates limited space to the traditional questions of this research area, namely the clarification of theological differences between theologians and their adherents. He summarizes the most important differences between orthodox Lutherans and followers of the Melanchtonian interpretation of the Bible through Ambrosius’ works – who himself was a Philippist, and yet was accused several times of Crypto-Calvinism. However, the author's main focus lies elsewhere, namely in the strategies and methods of communication and conviction between the two opposing sides.

These questions – which have been standing in the focus of the last twenty years of international Reformation research – receive a thorough analysis from different perspectives. Reading the numerous treatises published by the Philippists and their opponents at the Zips region between 1587–1600, Sebők argues that despite the differences in the quality of argumentation, both sides preferred to reiterate the sophisticated argumentations of their predecessors rather than present new ones. The techniques of argumentation also show a rather unified pattern, even if Ambrosius’ application of those is far superior to that of his opponents: the systematic presentation of both sides of the debate, with a reiteration of their own arguments. Also, a comparative analysis of the personal remarks – as an accessory and sometimes substitute for further theological arguments – from both sides produced interesting results, showing the orthodox Lutheran side, represented by Georg Creutzer, Gergely Horváth, Elias Lani and others, as the more aggressive one.


Sebők’s analysis does not end with a clarification of the authors’ textual strategies. It continues with the survey of the methods by which debates were organized, and social networks were organized, both of which were intended to further each side's arguments. A very interesting discussion on Gergely Horváth, Ambrosius’ main opponent, shows how he was able to use his social status as an important nobleman of the region to strengthen the position of his side, and how this was counter-balanced by the Patron of Ambrosius, Sebestyén Thököly. This discussion of clientele systems shows the successful application of the results of current international research.


Lastly, one chapter out of the five concentrates solely on the question of Ambrosius’ communication strategies in the Respublica litteraria of his age. On the basis of the surviving pieces of his correspondence with no smaller contemporary authorities than Theodore de Bèze, Johann Jacob Grynaeus and Hugo Blotius, Sebők discusses the problems of Ambrosius’ entry into these circles, his maintenance of the contacts, the support expected (and sometimes received) from these early modern intellectuals, and so on. The results – significant for the study of the entire region – show that at the end of the 16th century, this Protestant minister from Zips was dealt with on a more or less equal basis by some of the leading personalities of the intellectual life of Europe.


Apart from this multi-perspective analysis of his activities as a religious polemist and theologian, other important questions also receive some attention, such as the national/ethnic allegiance of Ambrosius or his everyday life as a minister. These pieces of the mosaic complete the book as a biography, even if some of them receive too much space. For instance, the description of the debate around the introduction of the Gregorian calendar is too extensive, if one considers the rather meager role Ambrosius played in it. Together with an elaborate survey on the role of the calendars in everyday life in early modern Hungary, it is all too obvious that this chapter was born as a separate article. Sadly, it stands apart from the general structure of the book, although with some additional work its results would have been easily applicable to the overall frame of Ambrosius’ biography.

Unfortunately, even if the reshaping of the dissertation took many years, the book bears some traces of an all-too-speedy submission, and would have benefited greatly from the contributions of a strict editor. On the one hand, the book would have needed some reduction: the descriptions of religious polemics are sometimes just too lengthy to follow, and in many cases, some points of the analysis are being reiterated with no reference to the earlier discussion. Moreover, the reader frequently meets sentences where subject and verb are not in concordance, and there are cases where the footnotes will provide much work for anyone who would plan to track down some archival material Sebők used (especially in the case of the referenced archives in Slovakia).

Nevertheless, the overall impression should not be compromised by these problems, which will hopefully be solved in the English version, which the author promises to bring forth in his acknowledgements. In short, Sebők’s book combines an outstanding knowledge on methodological questions and the current problems in Reformation Studies with very thorough research and a clear historiographical style. With the multiple perspectives of his analysis, his book will certainly be a must-read not only for those interested in the questions of early modern Lutheran church history, but also those concerned with the urban history of the Zips region, the history of Humanist learning and education, the system of patronage and clientele, and that of the Respublica litteraria.