Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image and Identity

28th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 29-30, 2008

Maria Dobozy, Sebastian Tinódi’s Songs of the Turkish Wars in Hungary

Sebastian Tinódi (1510–1556) was perhaps the most prolific Hungarian poet of the 16th century, the period of the Turkish invasion of Europe. His historical songs describe and praise the fighters (Hungarian and Austrian) in Hungary combating the Turks. An accomplished lutanist, he composed his own melodies for the songs and shortly before his death had printed a through–composed book recording the Turkish incursions. The songs primarily reveal three-way intercultural cooperation and conflict between Turks, Hungarians, and Austrians in a frontier society. I am primarily interested in the poet-performer’s use of language to interpret for his audience the special cultural and ethnic characteristics and historical events of this region based on his own and his informants’ first-hand experience of the battles.

Even though Sebastian Tinódi is little known in the West because he has not been translated, his poetry certainly participates in the pan-European literary movement of crusading and panegyric song. His range of topics and performance skills attests to an education and itinerant life-style typical for artisans and singers throughout most of Europe, to cultural cross-fertilization of melodies and literary genres, and to the acceptance and continuing application of the crusade ideology inherited from the twelfth century. Several poet-singers and heralds (Spruchdichter and sprekers) in German and Dutch regions composed songs with comparable battle themes and ideological goals, for they record eye-witness accounts of fighting against non-believers, praise their patron’s heroism in battle, and present an updated, fifteenth century crusade ideology for northern Europe in the area dominated by the Teutonic Knights. Tinódi did the same in Hungary. When Tinódi praises individual heroic nobles, we find that his rhetorical presentation of battles can be traced back in German poetry to predecessors like Friedrich von Sonnenburg (c.1270–90). In his youth he fought in battles himself. Later he traveled from fortress to fortress singing for the garrison knights. Although his praise poems reflect the cultural encounter between Muslim and Christian and support the Christian warriors, he justified the battles against the Turks in the same way that the chronicles of the Teutonic Knights justified the conquest of the Slavs. (The Turkish invasion also resonated with Spaniards. Bernardo de Aldana saw the situation as a reconquista and went to Hungary to fight the infidel in 1548.)

I will discuss one song, the "Battle of Eger" ("Egri históriának summája") written in 1552 just a few days after the battle. He describes how Captain Dobó and his 2000 men fought off the Turkish army far superior in force for 38 days and eventually forced the attackers to withdraw. In the poem Tinódi sets up an ethnic and religious identity using inherited crusade ideology. Although Hungarians serve the Emperor Ferdinand, Tinódi does not locate Hungary on the margins of the German Empire but at its center. My goal is to demonstrate that Tinódi’s poetry needs to be understood as a contribution to the central themes of literature dealing with crusading on the continent. At the same time, his works are important for understanding the particular literary transformations and political upheavals in south-central Europe.

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