Page:A history of Hungarian literature.djvu/22

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


The religious spirit was undoubtedly the most prolific source of literature during the Middle Ages. Religion played a very large part in the life of the people. All that was noblest in them was derived from it ; whatever knowledge they had was connected with it, indeed without it their minds would have been almost blank. Chivalry was for the few, but religion was the only luminary on the mental horizon of the multitude, and but for it they would have been almost in darkness. It is not surprising, therefore, that the literature which has come down to us from the Middle Ages is nearly all religious. If we wish to know what men were like in those days we must read their hymns, written on vellum, and bound in leather with brass clasps ; their books of tales, adorned with elaborate initials ; their chronicles, with their quaint coloured illustrations, in which certain stiff, meagre figures may be recognised by their crowns to be kings ; or, perhaps, an occasional fragment of a song, scribbled by some enamoured notary or clerk on the margin of his account books, during the time of the carnival.

The greater part of what has come down to us consists of sacred tales or legends. The earliest Hungarian book (that is, the first large codex) contains the legends relating to St. Francis of Assisi. It is called the Ehrenfeld Codex, after its present owner. Many a legend gathered round the lives of the Hungarian national saints. The most notable came from the line of the Árpád kings (eleventh to thirteenth century). Among them were St. Stephen, who induced his people to embrace Christianity (died in 1038) ; his son, St. Imre, who died in his early youth ; the chivalrous hero, St. Ladislas (eleventh century); St. Elizabeth, daughter of King Andrew II. ; and St. Margaret, daughter of King Béla IV. The literature of legend