Gypsies in the history of Hungarian protestant churches

Not many of us are aware of the fact that the responsible participants of the Debrecen Synod (1567), an important event in the forming of the Hungarian Reformed Church1, already took the issue of Gypsies into consideration. The Book of Church Law voted on this occasion consisted of 74 paragraphs, and the 45th one, which was probably written a little prior to the Synod by Péter Méliusz Juhász, stated that “individuals of any age and nationality should be taken in by the church”. This paragraph already referred to Gypsies by their present-day name. Although the context in which this group was mentioned is very obviously negative (a typical feature of the age), it is still clear from the wording that Gypsy origin by itself cannot exclude anybody from the church. According to the paragraph, ministers were only kept from christening, marrying and supplying communion to those individuals “who despise the word of God and the fundaments of Christian faith, who do not want to listen to the word of God… just like many Gypsies and similarly godless people”.

The 11th paragraph of the Upper-Hungarian collection of church orders (1595), which discusses the question of “who do not deserve the sacraments and a rightful funeral” was also written in the mindset of the Debrecen Synod. This text says that “those who despise the Word of God and the fundamental truths of Christian faith, and what is more, are not familiar with the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed … just like many Gypsies and other vile people, should not be christened, granted holy communion or a church funeral”

Another collection of decrees (The Borsod-Gömör-Kishont paragraphs) from the 16th century (exact place and time of origin are unknown) has a sentence in its 28th paragraph which mentions Gypsies in the following way: “since Gypsies or the Moré people despise the sacraments and the Word of God, no minister is obliged to deliver any of the sacraments to them until they have shown true conversion”

Reading through these several-century-old statements one point becomes clear. As opposed to certain sweeping approaches which assume that in early modern times belonging to the Gypsy ethic group in Hungary was indentical with a general exclusion, from these sources we get a more nuanced impression. This was an era where Gypsies were obviously not categorized as a racial or ethnic group – with insurmountable barriers – but a kind of peripherial “social”community whose bad reputation still did not question – at least for protestants – the fact that Gypsies are human beings just like anybody else. 

Only two decades later (June, 1613) a Gypsy wedding celebration took place in the Nagybánya Reformed Church. The only reason why we know about it is that an unknown and by all means Catholic scribe mentioned it in his Latin records, calling it a godless deed that a Calvinist minister married a Gypsy couple in his church. 

From five years later we have an interesting data which comes from Southern-Trans-Danubia, a completely different region of Hungary. In 1618 Count Ferenc Batthyány issued a deed of gift, which at the same time was the first written record of the reformed congregation in Száva, Baranya county (according to our present-day knowledge). This document says that the lord lieutenant of Sopron bestowed land upon Pál Kölgyesi, the “new” vicar of Száva, partly on condition that he would take care of the Gypsies’ spiritual well-being in the settlement. 

As an example for the efforts of Calvinist2 ministers supporting the cause of Gypsies, we have a record from 1687 of a young Gypsy man who was accepted as a student into the Reformed Collegium of Nagyenyed. His name was listed in the matricula studiosorum of the collegium as David Grausser, alias Vaskohi. Other than his name, all we know about him is his Gypsy identity, his assumed place of birth and the fact that after completing his studies he worked as a school master in Gyéresszentkirály (the most probable solution of the abbreviated form of ‘Gy.Sz.Király’). 

In light of Grausser’s example, Istvány Szőnyi Nagy‘s frequently quoted lines in his “Hungarian School” (1695) will hardly surprise us: “First of all, preachers should use good teaching to entice their listeners to pursue the habit of reading and writing. Thus, these people themselves will seek opportunities to learn more and more. We see a nice example for this in the Ecclesia Reformata of Kolozsvár, where many of the faithful, not only the young but also the elderly are eager to study the books. Some of them are Gypsies, who became enthusiastic readers, or even writers.”

The regulations of the Olaszliszka Church (1694) and the puritan preacher, István Szentpéteri‘s (1655-1730) manuscript “The devil’s rib” (1712-1713) stand close to each other chronologically. They both seem to return to the views of the 16th century Synod in the sense that they place Gypsies among superstitious people who should be cast out, just like magicians and people with “bad reputation”

An important example for the protestant church’s dedication to the cause of Gypsies is that in Tiszadob, as a member of István Porkoláb‘s later liquidated congregation, beside some local noblemen and peasants a Gypsy person was also listed. 

An indicator of early protestant interest for the Gypsy language is an account from 1747 about Péter Szentgyörgyi, a senator from Debrecen, who, in addition to the basic languages of the age spoke Gypsy as well. 

István Váli, reformed minister of Almás (present day Dunaalmás) in Komárom county, deserves credit for the recognition of the Gypsy tongue as a New-Indic language, and thus the assumption of Gypsies having come from India. Paradoxically, it was not him, but a much less known lutheran minister from Szepes comitat who wrote the first significant work on ciganistics, and beside referring indirectly to Váli’s discovery, he preserved for us a great amount of information about Gypsies. 

This minister was Sámuel Augustini (ab Hortis) (1729-1792), primarily known as a mineralist and botanist.3 Samuel Augustini’s most significant works are his two dissertations, which he completed during his studies in Greifswald and Berlin (Dissertatio de methodo generali construendi omnes aequationes algebraicas – 1755, Dissertation de vocatione divina naturali – 1756). He also published a botanical study in Vienna (Prolegomena in systema sexuali botanicorum – 1777), and compiled a topographical volume, which did not appear in book form until over a hundred years after his death (Topographische Beschreibung des Flusses Poprad oder Popper in der Zipps aus dem Jahre 1782).4

His only well-known work of Gypsy studies is entitled Von dem heutigen Zustande, sonderbaren Sitten und Lebesart, wie auch von denen übrigen Eigenschaften und Umständen der Zigeuner in Ungarn. It is a book-size volume of articles, which bears no indication to its author’s name other than the signal “ab H” following the last piece of writing. These articles were originally published in the 1775-76 issues of the Viennese periodical “Allergnädigst privilegierte Anzeigen aus sämmtlichen kaiserl. königl. Erbländern” edited by Dániel Tersztyánszky (1730-1800). 

Without mentioning – or even knowing – the author’s person, a German scholar, Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb Grellmann used Augustini’s book as a basis for his study “Die Zigeuner. Ein historischer Verschung über die Lebensart und Verfassung, Sitten und Schicksale dieses Volks in Europa, nebst ihrem Uhrsprung”. Gottlieb Grellmann is presently considered by most the founder of modern Gypsy studies. This author, who was born in Göttingen, had his book published first in 1783, then in 1787, although slightly altered. In the book he never refers to Augustini as a source, his only reference is the Viennese periodical (which he calls Wiener Anzeigen). Grellmann’s book, which for the first two hundred pages practically follows Augustini’s train of thought and generally repeats his statements (and among them, a few faulty ones) was published in addition to the German original in English, French and Dutch languages at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. Augustini’s work thus became the most fundamental scientific study on Gypsies for the following two centuries, even though the real author’s name was only known by certain Hungarian scholars.5

The analysis of Augustini’s book is outside the scope of this study. The Hungarian version has recently been made accessible for Hungarian readers with the excellent translation of Dr László András Magyar. It is also important to point out that the two earliest texts of the Gypsy Lord’s Prayer (according to our present day knowledge) can be read in this book, in two different versions. The first of these was already called “old” by Augustini, and the text has become so corrupted that its interpretation would be quite a challenge. The second one, which, thanks to Grellmann is still referred to by Western European scholars of Gypsy studies, is easy enough to interpret with the help of some knowledge of the Gypsy language, and what is more, it was obviously affected by a Hungarian, and clearly protestant context. 

The reformed theologian István Váli,6 an also misunderstood, but more famous figure than the lutheran preacher of Szepes, served as a calvinist minister between 1756 to appr. 1780 in Almás (Komárom county). During his theologian studies in Holland, he was the first European to recognize the similarity between the Gypsy tongue and the Singalese language spoken by his South-Indian – more correctly, Ceylonese – fellow students at Leiden University.7 This discovery is dated to 1753-54 by scientists of modern times. We learn about it from Augustini’s book, in which a letter by Sámuel Székely Dobai (1704-1779), memoir writer, certificate and coin collector refers to István Váli, directly after the chapter about the Gypsy language.

Although his discovery threw light on mere etimological similarites, István Váli was right in recognizing the Gypsy language’s new-Indic origin, or, to be more exact, its relationship with certain Indian languages. The “discovery” of the Indo-European family tree, that is, the detection of a historical relationship between the Sanscrit and the Latin, Greek and Germanic languages was only to come ten years later; thus, Váli was the first to oppose the generally accepted myth of Gypsies’ Egyptian origin, which had been believed ever since the Middle Ages.

The truth of Váli’s discovery was later justified with the help of comparative linguistics. August Friedrich Pott (1802-1887) German linguist, a great figure of historical linguistics from the early ages of the discipline discussed the theory in his two-volume book entitled “Die Zigeuner in Europa und Asien” (1844-45). 

The first significant Gypsy glossary in Hungary was compiled by Mihály Szathmáry Papp (1737-1812), professor of theology in Kolozsvár. This was a list of 2148 words from the 1780s, and it is presently kept in the archives of the University of Kolozsvár. The material can be identified with the language of the still present, scattered group of Transylvanian Romungro Gypsies. Christoph Cellarius‘ Latin dictionary, which was published in Kolozsvár (1768) contained an attachment entitled Vocabularium Zingarico-Latinum et Hungaricum. Quod fieri fecit curiositatis caussa Michael Pap Szatmári. Per Michaelem Farkas, alias Vistai natum Zingarum. Colegii nostri per aliquot annos civem togatum. (Gypsy-Latin and Hungarian glossary which was commissioned by Mihály Pap Szatmári, and compiled by Mihály Farkas, also known as Vistai, a born Gypsy, who was for a few years a gowned student of our collegium.) 

This glossary, as seen from the title, was completed with the cooperation of Mihály Farkas Vistai (?–?), a Gypsy student of the Reformed Collegium of Kolozsvár. We know nothing about Farkas Vistai’s life, except for a letter addressed to the consistory of the university (1787). This document was published in the Erdélyi Múzeum, 13/1896 by Dr István Török, the principal of the collegium. The author of the letter was applying for a school principal’s position, and in the process, he asked the professors for their support, which he received. Unfortunately, we have no record of where this Gypsy person became employed. 

Another person we definitely have to mention here is János Breznyik (1815-1897).8 He was not only a lutheran minister, but also the renowned principal of the Lutheran Highschool of Selmecbánya. He learned the Gypsy language, and based on the Romungro (Hungarian Gypsy) material he collected in the settlements of Domony, Vácszentlászló, Kóka and Tápiószecső he wrote his Elements of the Gypsy Language, which was finally published in the periodical New Hungarian Museum (issued by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) in the year 1852, under the pseudonym János Bornemisza. He wrote a remarkable, but unfortunately not very well known survey on Gypsies. To this day, it is the most complex, and from every aspect most significant description of a by today extinct Carpathian Gypsy dialect. 

Although the works of Sámuel Augustini, János Breznyik, Mihály Szatmári Pap and István Váli are indispensible in the context of Gypsy studies, it would not be realistic to say that these were the only Hungarian protestant scientists who produced excellent books about the Gypsies of their time. Perhaps with a bit of favouritism, it would be right to add that the works of the calvinist József Benkő (1740-1814) and the lutheran András Clemens (1742-1815) were also useful contributions to the discipline of present day Gypsy studies.9

1It is out of scope of the present study to give and overview of the history of dealing with Gypsies of the Hungarian Catholic Church or the Catholics in general. It is not unworthy though to mention here that the first known trace of the Gypsy language has been found in the notes of Johannes von Grafing, a Bavarian Benedictian monk, most probably from the turn of the 15-16th centuries. The exact time and place where he took his notes is uncertain. The most significant memory in the Hungarian context is the Kájoni-codex, a manuscript collection of church hymns from a Franciscan origin, including two gypsy songs with highly distorted texts, probably recorded in the mid-17th century. Endre Pozsár (1856–1930), a Catholic priest, descendant of a musician gypsy family according to available sources, also needs to be mentioned. 

2Some minor and scattered sources show that not only the Reformed Church dealt with Gypsies this time. The Transylvanian Lutheran pastor Martin Kelpius (1659–1694) published his book entitled Natales Saxonum Transylviae in 1684, presenting the nations and languages of Transylvania, and presenting still known Gypsy words with surprising accuracy. 

3The Augustini family came from Silesia. Georg Augustini, their earliest known ancestor arrived to Hungary in the mid-16th century. The most respected member of the family, Keresztély Augustini (1598–1650), great-grandfather of Samuel Augustini, was born in Késmárk, attended German and Swiss universities, and founded a botanical garden for the Austrian emperor in 1631, and for this received a nobility with the noble name ‘ab Hortis’. Samuel Augustini himself accomplished his basic studies in his town of birth, Kakaslomnic and Poprád. (His father, Samuel Augustini the elder (1678–1755), was the Lutheran pastor of Poprád (Deutschendorf) since 1710.) After attending the high-schools of Lőcse and Besztercebánya, he studied law in Eperjes, and later, from the early 1750s he was a theology student in Wittenberg, Greifswald and Berlin. After returning home in 1757, he took the pro-rector’s position at the Lutheran Highschool of Késmárk, and remained in it for a few years. Finally, from 1761 until his death, he served as a lutheran minister in Szepesszombat. 

4This latter was published only in 1900 by Rudolf Weber in Késmárk. 

5Both the Slovakian Viera Urbancová and the Dutch Wim Willems think it mistakenly that they were the first to identify Samuel Augustini ab Hortis as the author of the articles. 

6István Váli, probably born in Kocs village (Komárom county) in 1708/09, matriculated to the Reformed College in Debrecen in 1725. For a brief period in 1750 he was a pastor in Kaba, and later in 1753/54 he studied in Utrecht – a quite unusual age in his time. Between 1756–1780 he served as a pastor in Almás (Komárom county). His only surviving book titled “Római imperátorok tüköre” (Mirror of Roman Emperors) was published in 1778. The place and time of his death is uncertain. His family name appears in the literature very unconsequently as Wályi, Wáli, Vályi, Váli, Valyi. The most frequent form in non-Hungarian studies is ‘Vali’

7These students were, in fact, children of Dutch colonial officials. Wim Willems also discovered their names: Johannes Jacobus Meyer, Petrus Cornelissen, Antonius Moyaars.

8Breznyik was born in 1815 in Iklad, Pest county. He spent his years as a highschool student in Aszód, Selmecbánya and Pozsony. For a short while he was a private tutor in Göd at the Dercsényi family’s residence. He later studied at the universities of Jena and Halle. From 1842 he was a lecturer of Hungarian language and literature in the Lutheran Highschool of Selmecbánya. He was placed twice in the principal’s position, but in 1849, following the war of independence he was deprived of his office, and in the following years he had to work as a lecturer again. He returned to Selmecbánya and became the principal of the school in 1858. He worked as the head of the institution until 1889. Among many works, he wrote a book entitled History of the Lutheran Church and Lyceum of Selmecbánya, whose first volume was published in 1883; the second volume appeared in book form in 1889. 

9Benkő reported basic facts about the eighteenth-century Transylvanian Vlach Gypsies, while in the Romanian dictionary of Clemens the word ‘beás’ can already be found, which means ‘woodworker Gypsy’.