However many the items of knowledge imparted by a Hungarian schooling, two in particular are all but universal. One seldom finds a person even of a distinctly unbookish tendency that cannot call to mind at least a line or two of János Arany’s celebrated poem A welszi bárdok (The Bards of Wales[1]), the memorising of which is practically de rigueur in schools, while equally well known, spelling and all, is the Old Hungarian phrase Fehervaru rea meneh hodu utu rea.

In modern form [Székes]fehérvárra menő hadi útra, “to the military road that goes to Székesfehérvár”, this is the earliest recorded phrase in Hungarian that contains a grammatical element. It occurs in the foundation deed given by András I (Andrew I) in 1055, the ninth year of his reign, to the new Benedictine abbey at Tihany in western Hungary, and forms part of the specification of the lands granted to it. The rest of the document, apart from names of places, is in Latin, but at this point the writer’s concentration evidently failed him and these few vernacular words slipped from his quill. The little phrase from Tihany is of interest not only as a datable specimen of the old language, but also because it shows both that the writer was probably a Hungarian and that even at such an early date Hungarian was a written language.

The king’s generosity to his foundation is amply demonstrated in its endowment: 20 aratra of land – aratrum means “plough”, and as a measurement roughly equals 18 English acres or 8.28 hectares – with 60 peasant households, 20 winemakers and vineyards, 20 cavalrymen, 10 fishermen, 5 grooms, 3 cowherds, 3 shepherds, 2 swineherds, 2 beekeepers, 2 cooks, 2 tanners, 2 blacksmiths, 1 goldsmith, 2 coopers, 2 millers and 2 mills, 1 turner, 1 laundryman, 1 skinner and 10 maids. In addition, 34 messengers “with horses under them”, 100 cows, 70 sheep, 100 pigs and 50 hives of bees. In addition, 50 ponies annually from the royal herd “for the needs of the brethren”. Altogether the “servants of the Church” number 140 households.(2)

In his delightful work Utazás a Balaton körül(3) (Journey around the Balaton) of 1896, Károly Eötvös says a lot about Tihany and in particular examines the question of the original monastic numbers, quoting a curious calculation which gives the figure of a maximum of twenty. In conversation with abbot Albert Bresztyenszky it is pointed out by the scholarly Sebestyén Gábor Kocsi that the proposed number of monks is nowhere stated in the foundation deed; although twenty aratra of land could have supported five hundred monks, a vineyard that one man could work would not produce more than twenty akós of wine – about 240 imperial gallons – which, Kocsi feels, would be an adequate supply per monk per annum; this consideration must limit their number to twenty. One wonders how the gravitas commended by the Rule of St Benedict would stand up to a routine two thirds of a gallon a day for each monk – five English pints, three litres or four standard modern bottles would be quite sufficient to make glad the heart of man, even though medieval wines had lower alcohol content than those of today!

The abbot does not demur at what might seem a licence for over-indulgence, but is definitely embarrassed at Kocsi’s pointing out that ten maids are provided in the deed. To be precise, says Kocsi, the king’s ordinance required them to be young, fresh, ruddy of cheek, healthy and unmarried. And their quarters, night and day, were to be in the monastery, although the king did not specify their duties. The mere thought of the slightest immorality is, of course, dismissed out of hand, and after discussing such possible uses for them as attending on female visitors Kocsi asserts that their main function would be to keep the monks cheerful. He that only eats, drinks, sleeps and prays is liable to become dull – poor company for the king, should he come to call – and will also fall prey to such complaints as gout, rheumatism and catarrh. The monks would have taken very little exercise – no hunting, fencing and so on for the likes of them, nor would they go boating on the adjacent Lake Balaton – and in the interests of health would have profited by hearty laughter, but their social status would preclude them from keeping a jester. The merry monarch thus had the monks’ bodily well-being in mind in making this provision – maids would be much more amusing than stale old churchy jokes.

Kocsi also considers the matter of the bees. He does not offer statistics on the likely yield of fifty hives, nor on honey consumption per monk per annum, but speculates rather on the king’s provision of beekeepers. The abbot knows that the foundation deed provides for two apinarii, who, he maintains, are beekeepers, deriving the word from apis “bee”. Kocsi, however, insists that the Latin for beekeeper is mellifex and that apinarius, which he derives from apinae “juggling, tumbling” from the Greek απατη “amusement, pastime”, means a clown or tumbler, and that this furthers what he has said about the provision of entertainment. He claims the authority of such Fathers of the Church (post-117, of course) as Tertullian, St John of Damascus and St John Chrysostomos, and of sundry weighty lexicographers. The abbot has no answer to such erudition – he is neither a linguist nor a patristic scholar – but expresses the hope that there will be no more talk of the maids, to which topic Kocsi returns at once, pointing out that King András was influenced in his provision by the views of no less a personage than St Gellért.


 What are we to make of all this? Eötvös’s characters are real enough. Sebestyén Gábor Kocsi (1794–1864) was an eminent lawyer, member of Parliament and notable polymath. Béla (not Albert) Bresztyenszky was abbot of Tihany from 1838 to 1850 and a distinguished mathematician. Eötvös himself (1842–1916, no relation to the famous József and Loránd of the same name) was also a prominent lawyer, particularly celebrated for his courageous and successful defence of the Jewish accused in the notorious Tiszaeszlár case of 1883, and came from Mezőszentgyörgy, near the east end of Lake Balaton. He can hardly have been present at a meeting of Kocsi and Bresztyenszky, and so clearly picked up the tale as an anecdote.

A vineyard in the Tihany region, small enough for one man to manage, might well yield 1,500 or 2,000 litres of wine in a normal year. That one person should routinely drink so much certainly seems inadvisable if not impossible, but in the eleventh century fermented drinks were safer than water, and alternatives were few. But however many vineyards there were of whatever size, they would have been intended to provide for the whole abbey, laity included, as everyone would have required wine. Kocsi’s calculation of monastic numbers on that basis, therefore, is eminently unreliable, though his figure may well be reasonably accurate.

Kocsi’s apparently erudite account of the beekeepers will not bear scrutiny either. The word mellifex “honey-maker” is attested only once,(4)but his explanation of apinarius is incorrect. Apiarius “to do with bees”, is the correct form, but the deed has quite legibly apinarii; this form is unattested, and we have here a simple spelling mistake, with the -n- attracted from the following coquinarii “cooks”. The rare word apina “trifle, nonsense” is attested only twice,(5) but the Greek απατη means “trick, deceit”, and is not cognate with apina. Of Kocsi’s patristic authorities only Tertullian wrote in Latin, though he, like the others, was certainly born after AD 117.

As to the maids, the deed does indeed list ten ancillae, an inescapably female term. The idea of women living in a medieval monastery seems very far-fetched, whatever advanced views may be attributed to St Gellért (the story in Utazás a Balaton körül comes from his Life by Ignác Batthyány, nineteenth-century bishop of Transylvania). The deed says not a word either about their being young, fresh, ruddy of cheek, healthy and unmarried, or about where they are to live.

If, however, one adds up the numbers of persons listed by occupation in the deed one finds a total of 183, not 140. This latter number is that of “households of servants of the Church”, while the former includes thirty-four mounted messengers, who must have constituted a “lodger unit” in military parlance, serving the king rather than the abbey although stationed there. If they and the maids are discounted the number is reduced to 139, and one must suspect a slight error – either an i missing from somewhere (perhaps the number of swineherds is incorrect, as it does not match that of cowherds and shepherds; perhaps there should be two goldsmiths, as the craftsmen listed on either side of the single goldsmith are two in number) or a simple mistake in the addition (Roman numerals are not very useful for making calculations!). The monks themselves are not counted; of them, the king simply says monachorum gregem ibidem aggregavimus “we have gathered there a body of monks”. Furthermore, peasant households would have contained whole families, so that those dependent on and working for the abbey would have numbered far more than 140; László Erdélyi(6) puts the figure as high as a possible 700. It seems reasonable to postulate that the king’s messengers were not considered “servants of the Church”, while the maids were women from peasant households close to the abbey, wives and daughters of those listed by occupation, and therefore not separately reckoned in the 140 – nor yet “living in”! In fact, this section of the deed could be better drafted. The sentence Inter omnes namque sunt servorum ecclesiae mansiones cxl makes better sense if it follows cerdo i, the last occupation listed, and is followed by Preter hec ancille x, emissarii xxxiiii etc. if these are not to be reckoned in the total, as preter hec implies.

So on all counts Eötvös’s reader is subtly and wittily misled. We have common sense set aside in a spiritedly imaginative interpretation of the foundation deed, and some quirky, cleverly fictitious etymology. The morality of religious houses was often ridiculed by protestants – both Kocsi, a native of Debrecen, and Eötvös were protestants – but one may suspect that in so developing this anecdote the famously fair-minded Eötvös wished to score, in suitably erudite manner, off both a fellow lawyer and those who lampooned the Roman Church by representing the monks of old as alcoholics and lechers.

1 See Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 77, October 1999.

2 Sunt igitur aratra xx cum lx mansionibus, vinitores cum vineis xx, equites xx, piscatores x,agasones v, bubulci iii, pastores ovium iii, subulci ii, apinarii ii, coquinarii ii, sutores ii, fabri ii, aurifex i, dolatores ii, molendarii ii cum molendinis ii, tornator i, vestimentorum ablutor i, cerdo i, ancille x. Preter hec sunt emissarii xxxiiii cum subditis equabus, vacce c, oves septingente, porci c, apium vasa l. Preter hec ad necessaria fratrum per singulos annos constituimus de armento regali l polteros. Inter omnes namque sunt servorum ecclesie mansiones cxl.

3 A new edition by Vitis Aureus, Veszprém, 2007.

4 Columella, Res rustica 9, 8, 8.

5 Martial, Epigrammata I:113 and XIV:1.

6 A pannonhalmi Szent-Benedek-rend története (The History of the Benedictine Order at Pannonhalma), Budapest, 1902–1916, vol. X, p. 238.

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