Misszionáriusok a kora újkori Magyarországon

TitleMisszionáriusok a kora újkori Magyarországon
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsDénes, Ilona
Author(s) of reviewed materialTóth, István György

book. Title translated:
Missionaries in Early Modern Hungary

PublisherBudapest: Balassi Kiadó
ISSNISBN 978-963-506-720-6 (pbk).
Review year


Full Text

The establishment of the Holy Congregation for the Propagation of Faith in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV represented a landmark in the organization of the Catholic mission worldwide. Missionary activity became an 'international affair' for the benefit of the restoration of Catholicism, with headquarters that collected and processed data from the field. No measure of the central authorities of the Church can be understood without taking into account the role of the Propaganda after this date. The merit of the late professor István György Tóth, among many others, is to have pointed out the relevance of this institution of the Roman Curia, emphasizing the interconnections between missionaries present at different times on the territories under Turkish rule, and revealing the mechanisms of communication which coordinated their missions in the early modern period. These issues are explored on the pages of the present volume, as well as throughout professor Tóth's scholarly activity.
The book, a compilation of studies resulting from over a decade of research conducted in the archives of the Propaganda, previously published as introductions to the many volumes of sources Tóth had discovered and deciphered there or as individual journal articles, was planned before the tragic and untimely death of the author. It is the culmination of long years of assiduous intellectual pursuits.
Besides the intrinsic value of the studies, which bring new sources onto the scene of the Hungarian and international scholarship that are subjected to the scrutiny of a highly critical reader endowed with remarkable linguistic skills, it is the intention of the author to modestly re-evaluate his previous work that transforms this volume into a model for historians who venture to study the complex story of early modern Catholicism. As professor Tóth admitted, browsing through the piles of reports, letters, notes sent by missionaries to Rome was nearly a Herculean task. At the same time, new findings often led to the reconsideration of older source publications – such was the case, for instance, of several significant letters published by the 19th century Bosnian historian Eusebius Fermendzin, often incorrectly or incompletely edited and presented to the scholarly public, but which were part of an otherwise valuable work, as professor Tóth acknowledges.

István György Tóth is as critical about his own studies as he is about the said source publications. Coupled with his effort to render eloquence to the stories of the most important figures that carried out the missionary activity in Hungary (but also Transylvania or Moldavia), the present volume becomes not only an indispensable tool for the student of the religious, cultural and social history of Hungary, but also a landmark for the methodological exploration of subjects in a historical period with scarce and often contradictory sources. By re-evaluating his previously published articles, the author sets high standards for critical thinking in history, underlining the importance of the constant corroboration of different sources and of the attentive reading of at times seemingly indecipherable materials. The author notes that it is not the authority of historians we should rely on, but on facts, inasmuch as the sources allow it. In the introduction he expresses the firm belief that historical knowledge develops continuously and notes that the readers are not concerned with what an author knew fifteen years ago but, rather, they want to read about 'what is the most we can know today – which is, of course, relative.'
The articles in this volume are organized in three different sections (or books). The first one deals with the mission in the territories of Ottoman Hungary, contouring the activity of such outstanding individuals as Bonifacio di Ragusa, Don Simone Matkovitch, Matteo Benlich, and others. The second section focuses on Royal Hungary and Transylvania, mostly presenting Italian missionaries and including miscellaneous articles, such as on the circulation of books in the region (Könyv és misszionárius a 17. századi Magyarországon és Erdélyben) or the first census on the Sechler lands from 1638 (A székelyföldi katolikusok első népszámlálása. Szalinai István bosnyák ferences 1683. évi vizitációja). The last section renders surveys of the missionary activity from the perspective of the religious orders. Special attention is given to the Bosnian Franciscans (who had a significant role in Ottoman Hungary), but also the Dominican order and the Paulian mission.
The eclectic character of the studies chosen for this monograph permits, however, some general observations on its contribution as a whole. Firstly, the author never loses sight of the general framework of the missionary activity, especially as it had gained a more homogeneous nature after the establishment of the Propaganda. Rendering this homogeneity is not an easy task, but the volume admirably succeeds at doing so. Secondly, it allows us to visualize the gradual implementation of the decisions from the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in the field, or the failure thereof, as the case may be. Professor Tóth contributes to the debate regarding the practical measures of the Catholic reforms in the post-tridentine era by showcasing how it was carried out in practice. A pertinent example is that of Bonifacio di Ragusa, the first Papal Visitator appointed in the region. In accordance with the instructions he had received from Pope Gregory XIII, Bonifacio took with him numerous propaganda materials for distribution, among which there were catechisms, the decisions of the council and books about the errors of the heretics.
Thirdly, we are presented a detailed picture of the individual relationships between missionaries from diverse religious orders, whereby we can understand their competition to acquire a better image and the upper hand in carrying out the mission. The ever-growing envy towards the Jesuits, who were monopolizing the overseas missions and the efforts of the Jesuits themselves to undermine members of other orders and to safeguard this monopoly are subtle insights into the manner these organizations subsisted.
The three sections collect fifteen studies and an additional article which, instead of providing a conclusion, presents Rome's changing perception of Hungary in the 17th century (A Szentszék Magyarország-képének változása a 17. században). But the challenges faced by the Catholic Church in Hungary are rendered throughout the volume. The country's division into three parts after the fall of Buda (1541) represented organizational problems due to the political and administrative structure: the Habsburgs and Ottomans shared most of the territory, while Transylvania became a principality. The rapid advancement of the Reformation greatly added to the issues Rome had to deal with in the region. In the lands under Turkish occupation the priority was the status of Catholicism and the reports confirmed the worst fears of the Papacy: there were hardly any priests, and the presence of Ottoman authorities proved to be a serious predicament for the propagation of the faith.
Overall, the monograph is also a valuable addition to the history of East Central Europe, by scrutinizing the political dynamics between the greater European powers and the Ottomans, and especially by grasping the effects of the Turkish occupation in the region. The simple fact that the Catholic Church viewed the region under Ottoman rule as a distinct territorial jurisdiction is indicative of the divisions that this expansion had created in Europe.