Ethnography and Hungarian Prehistory

Tamás Hofer

* Taken from Budapesti Könyvszemle - BUKSZ, Fall 1996, pp. 301-303. Edited version of a lecture held at the conference "Ethnography and Prehistory," organized by the Hungarian Prehistoric Committee of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences on December 5, 1995. The term "ethnography" here refers to the Hungarian version of "national ethnography" as it evolved in 19th-century Central Europe.  

The history of ethnography, indeed what was one of its key trends, may well be described as its gradual emancipation from the role of a mere data base for prehistory.

In 19th-century Central Europe the word "ethnography" referred to scholarly books dealing with the origins and prehistory of individual ethnic groups. Karl Freiherr von Czoernig's 1855 ethnography of the Austrian Empire (including the Hungary of the time), or Pál Hunfalvy's The Ethnography of Hungary (1876) fall into this category. Ferenc Kállay, in a work regarded as a precursor to ethnographic research, Magyar régiségek nyomozása (The Search
for Hungarian Antiquities, 1823), published his observations about the agriculture and settlement pattern of the Great Hungarian Plain in order to throw light upon the life of the Hungarians of the Conquest period. 1


Ethnographic museology at the end of the nineteenth century in Hungary saw "material ethnography" as capable of throwing light upon historical processes.


Herrmann conceived of culture as being composed of elements and expressed its historical stratification through a metaphor taken from geology, which played such a significant role in the scientific-evolutionist thought of the nineteenth century. This approach left open the possibility that underneath cultural components which were acquired as a result of later influences, peasant culture may contain the "strata" of prehistoric times, of earlier homelands.

This view implies certain ideas about folk culture, and, in general, the nature of culture, and the possibilities and tasks of ethnographic research. First of all, it presupposes that particular folk cultures are permanently associated with particular peoples. In the presentation quoted above, Herrmann did not discuss the relationship of elite culture to folk culture within the national cultural framework. However, it is clear from his argument that in his view, there is a peculiar dichotomy in national culture: the common folk and the elite live in two different kinds of historical time. History actually "takes place" on the level of the elite while the folk level carries on tradition beneath, or outside, history.

A further presupposition is that culture is constituted of elements, and these elements are passed on from one generation to the next in an identifiable, barely changing fashion. The task of ethnography is the study of "culture" as a collection or set of these elements. Individual human beings, in and of themselves, are practically uninteresting from the point of view of research: they only appear in the picture as the "carriers" or guardians of culture.

Antal Herrmann's presentation was part of a campaign by means of which ethnography, a relatively late arrival on the scene, hoped to gain acceptance for itself. It was ethnography as a discipline declaring its independence from the prevalent highly emotional enthusiasm surrounding folk culture and from illusions regarding prehistory. In 1891, at the funeral of Pál Hunfalvy, the first president of the Hungarian Ethnographic Society, Antal Herrmann eulogized him thus: "with universal, modern knowledge and an unflinching critical spirit he helped objective truth to victory [...] over spurious folk traditions, which only flatter national vanities," and he equally refuted the Hun origin of the Szeklers and the "imagined Roman-ness" of Romanians. 5 By then the historic-prehistoric interpretation of folk culture had become the battlefield where matter-of-fact, critical argument clashed with the enthusiasm of amateurs.

In contrast to the one-sided search for ancient eastern elements, the newly institutionalized discipline classified and compared, thereby distinguishing layers and influences. It was even capable of marking off its concepts with clear and universally valid definitions.


The period of drawing conclusions from the comparison and spread of isolated cultural elements was followed in the 1920s and 1930s by a reconstruction of folk culture as a process based on archival sources. This brought about yet another critical reappraisal of illusions about prehistory.


In A Magyarság Néprajza (The Ethnography of Hungarians, 1934), Györffy summed up his views as follows: "However, we do not regard the nomadic-type agriculture of the Great Hungarian Plain to be a direct descendant of pre-Conquest Hungarian agriculture ... prior to the Turkish occupation, in place of today's towns with vast surrounding fields were small villages with a small number of fields. In these villages the agricultural activities were similar to what we can see today on the eastern half of the Great Hungarian Plain in the areas not devastated by the Turks. The overwhelmingly nomadic type of agriculture of the populous towns of the Great Plain came into existence as a response to the demands of large scale, extensive animal husbandry, which revived and expanded following the destruction caused by the Turkish occupation." 12


The other area where prehistoric illusions gained ground was the interpretation of folk art. József Huszka, an art teacher who was prominent in collecting and publishing examples of folk art in books which were very popular at the turn of the century, claimed that the motifs of the frieze cloaks, "szûr"-s, of the Great Hungarian Plain, decorated with embroidery and appliqué, were of eastern origin. He looked for Persian and other eastern parallels to the various motifs. István Györffy devoted a voluminous work to the history of "szûr" embroidery and demonstrated that it evolved by the beginning of the 19th century from certain motifs of contemporary upper class and bourgeois embroidery and designs utilized by furriers. Györffy consoled his compatriots who would have preferred to imagine that the past of folk art stretched back as far as possible, that "even if this ornamentation is recent, its exceptional originality and undoubted beauty brings at least as much glory to the Hungarian creative genius as would be represented by the ability to conserve forms unchanged for fourteen hundred years, if we were able to demonstrate such continuity at all." 14

Györffy -  along with his colleagues and students -  also clarified the historical place of those folk costumes made of colorful factory-produced cloths, which were characteristic of several peasant groups during the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. Györffy's book on the internationally known Matyó folk costume, which had become a tourist attraction, demonstrated that the costume and its ornamental embroidery first appeared as late as the end of the 19th century with its flowering taking place in the 20th century. Earlier "the Asian love of pomp" had also been mentioned in connection with the Matyó. 15


More recent historical research has shown that the peasantry, by the middle of the 19th century, released from feudal bonds and beginning to use the opportunities afforded by a national market and capitalism, could for generations harbor the illusion that it could fit into modern society even while retaining "peasant" styles and ways of life. 16 Among certain groups, this transitional period brought about
the blossoming of the peasant style of folk costumes, folk music, festive customs, etc., creating a "golden age of the peasantry." 17 Many mistook these
phenomena of transition for relics of a prehistoric past -  yet it was the same period for which Györffy had shown that these phenomena were fundamentally the expression of a process of belated embourgeoisement, occuring amidst the trappings of peasant forms.

Ultimately, today's national ethnography tends to regard the structure of culture and the processes of change as far too complex to make the extraction of prehistoric "fossils" possible from the cultural repertoire of the recent past, as Antal Herrmann had wished to do. Even if one can posit the existence of a chain of traditions reaching into the ancient past within a background of certain cultural characteristics, a close examination of the past of "cultural elements" will not reveal a trajectory associated with a given ethnic group but rather a complex, far-reaching network of predecessors. When writing about "ancient types of objects" with regard to folk art Károly Viski already saw this: "In this category we may suppose the existence of two layers: 1) a set of ornaments and motifs we brought with us from the East, and 2) that which we found here or adopted later on. At this point in time we cannot differentiate very clearly between the two. A part of the motifs we brought with us, and of what we found here constitutes the common heritage of Eurasia or of an even wider cultural area." 18

Ethnography, ethnology, and anthropology can also choose to use their observations relating to the lifestyle and social organization of nomads and people in the process of becoming sedentary to create analogies for prehistoric reconstructions. A final possibility is to study the consciousness of Hungarians, the ideas and myths relating to their prehistory, even in matters that are not usually covered by scholarship. Unraveling the desires, interests, and compensatory mechanisms at work in them may help us to see the historical processes themselves more clearly. Hopefully, this brief outline will also contribute to the reconstruction of the history of our ideas on our own prehistory.


1 * Karl Frh. v. Czoernig, Die Ethnographie der österreichischen Monarchie. Bd. I-III. Wien, 1855-1857; Pál Hunfalvy, Magyarország ethnographiája (The Ethnography of Hungary), Budapest, 1876; Ferenc Kállay's essay appeared in the 1823/VII volume of the journal, Tudományos Gyûjtemény, with the signature K.I. (pp. 3-38). István Tálasi called attention to the identity of the author and to the significance of the article in his "Kállay Ferenc és az alföldi nomád mezõgazdálkodás" (Fe-renc Kállay and Nomadic Agriculture on the Great Hungarian Plain), Ethnographia, 1946, 57 (1945), pp. 13-19. For the historical context of the discipline cf.: László Kósa, A magyar néprajztudomány története (The History of Hungarian Ethnography), Budapest , 1989; Britta Rupp-Eisenreich-Justin Stagl, (eds.), Kulturwissenschaft im Vielvölkerstaat. Zur Geschichte der Ethnologie und verwandter Gebiete in Österreich, ca. 1780-1918. Wien, 1995.


5 * Antal Herrmann, "Hunfalvy Pál mint ethnographus" (Pál Hunfalvy as an Ethnographer), Ethnographia 2 (1891), p. 383.


12 * István Györffy, "Gazdálkodás." (Husbandry). In: A magyarság néprajza. (The Ethnography of Hungarians), II. Budapest, nd. (1934?) p. 243.


14 * István Györffy, Magyar népi ruhahímzések. I. A cifraszûr. (Hungarian Folk Costume Embroideries, I. The cifraszûr), Budapest, 1930. p. 7. (The quote is from Károly Viski).

15 * István Györffy, Matyó népviselet. (Matyó Folk Costume), Budapest, 1956. Cf. Tamás Hofer, " A népmûvészet Györffy, István kutatásaiban" (Folk Art in the Work of István Györffy), Tiszatáj, 38 (1984), No. 7, pp. 35-41.

16 * Cf. Károly Vörös, "A parasztság változása a XIX. században" (The Transformation of the Peasantry in the 19th century), Ethnographia, 89 (1977), pp. 1-13.

17 * The "golden age of the peasantry" is an expression used by Orvar Löfgren for that period of embourgeoisement in the history of Swedish peasantry when the transition to capitalism is already underway, but the peasantry continues to retain, and even further elaborate, the peasant lifestyle. Orvar Löfgren, "Szemléletmód változások a skandináv etnológiában." (Changes of Interpretation in Scandinavian Ethnology), Ethnographia, 93 (1982), pp. 89-111.

18 * Károly Viski, "Díszítõmûvészet" (Decorative Art) In: A magyarság néprajza. II. (The Ethnography of Hungarians), Budapest, nd. (1934?), p. 383.

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