In addition to the founding letter of the Tihany Abbey (1055) and the Mortuary Speech and Prayer (1192–1195), Hungary’s third most precious literary and linguistic find is the Old Hungarian Lamentations for Mary. This is the oldest surviving Hungarian poem, which was rediscovered nearly a hundred years ago and had had a rather adventurous journey until it reached its present place at the National Széchényi Library.
According to 24, the poem, written in two columns and hidden in among 600 Latin sermons, was discovered in the so-called Leuven Codex in 1922.
The irony of fate is that its discovery and survival is linked to the German war barbarism.
During the First World War, when the Germans invaded Belgium, the library of the then-world famous University of Leuven – under unknown circumstances – was burned to the ground. As part of the post-war reparation, Germany had to partially replace the damaged collection of the codices of the library. This was when they purchased the codex from the antique shop of Jacques Rosenthalmünchen. The antiquarian purchased the codex in question in Italy in 1910 – so it is believed that the poem was written down by Hungarian students who studied at an Italian university.
During the Second World War, the Wehrmacht intentionally – following pre-planned orders – destroyed the university’s library. Fortunately, however, some manuscripts and codices – including the Leuven Codex – were put into a metal cabinet for later processing.
When they searched the ruins, they found out that the thick walls of the cabinet protected these relics from destruction.
The university was split in 1968, so the codex became the property of the French-speaking Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve. When they divided the library, they followed a very simple principle: works with even catalogue numbers went to one library and those with odd catalogue numbers went to another.
The Hungarian government had wanted to obtain the precious Hungarian cultural relic since 1923.
After realising that Hungary could only offer valuable exchange material for the Flemish Library, Professor István Muzslay, the director of the Collegium Hungaricum in Leuven, arranged that the codex would be re-instituted into the shelves of the University Library of Leuven. After lengthy negotiations, the Leuven Codex was finally received by Hungary in 1982 through an exchange agreement.
The codex, originally consisting of two volumes, contains sermon cycles. The former first volume contained sermons for the Sundays and feasts of the Church year, while the second volume contained sermons and sketches for fasting, for the celebration of saints, Lent, and other various occasions. The Latin texts are predominantly 13th-century speeches written down by Italian and French Dominican theologians.
The two volumes were re-bound in the 15th century in Pettau, Lower Styria, which is now Ptuj, Slovenia. The city lies along the most important mainland road from Hungary to Italy. Many Hungarian Dominican people of religion possibly travelled through here. The codex’s use in Hungary before the re-binding is proven not only by the Hungarian texts but also by an index, which also refers to the mourning of the Old Hungarian Lamentations for Mary. In one of the sermons on St. Dominic, the unknown, probably Hungarian author commemorates Hungary as “our Hungary” (nostra Hungaria).
Róbert Gragger was the first director of the Hungarian faculty at the Humboldt University and the creator of the Collegium Hungaricum in Berlin. He was the first to spread the word about this very important codex. Our current knowledge is primarily thanks to the research of András Vizkelety.
We do not know exactly when the Hungarian poem was written; we can only speculate when it was first written down. It is certain that is was written down in the last third of the 13th century, probably around the 1290s.
Linguists conclude from style analyses that the poem itself may have been born about half a century before it was written down by someone.