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When the Future is Present: Anglo-Saxon Studies in Hungary, 2004


Katalin Halacsy Scholz, Eötvös Loránd University (Budapest)

Long-time readers of the Old English Newsletter will perhaps recall that in the Fall 1994 issue there already was a group of short summaries about Anglo-Saxon studies in different countries in Eastern Europe, Hungary among them. After ten years they might find it interesting to read an update; I hope those for whom this is the first meeting with Hungarian scholarship will also find the information useful.

The study of the Middle Ages is a thriving field of scholarship in this country, in all aspects of history, archeology, art history, musicology, and different kinds of interdisciplinary approaches. But naturally medieval studies are centered on the study of this geographical area. The study of medieval England has been cultivated by English departments, which considered it their task first of all to deal with the history of the English language, and teach medieval English literature. More interdisciplinary and culture-centered approaches have grown up only recently.

The most general impression of the past ten years is that we have become much more involved in the scholarly community, and with Hungary's joining the European Union in May 2004 these ties will hopefully be even closer. With the borders open, conferences are no longer unreachable, it is possible to organize student exchanges like ERASMUS/SOCRATES in Europe, books can (theoretically) be ordered from foreign publishers, we can compete for foreign grants, and it is individual initiative rather than the whims of arbitrary authorities that shape one's scholarly career. The younger generation of scholars, besides learning Anglo-Saxon, will grow up with the intricate knowledge of how to write grant proposals. These very favorable changes have not been accompanied by financial paradise, either for individuals or for universities, but at least now we have the pleasant feeling that we can complain about the same things as our western colleagues.

Naturally our department libraries have to cater first of all for the basic needs of English majors whose numbers have grown extremely fast since English replaced Russian as the first foreign language taught in primary and secondary schools. That means that there are very limited funds for purchasing books and other materials for Anglo-Saxon studies and research. Thankfully, the Internet, as well as the generous gifts of colleagues such as Professor Paul Szarmach and the Medieval Institute of WMU, often help us cover the large gaps in library holdings.

At the seven major universities in Hungary where students can earn an M.A. in English, they have to complete either one or two courses in the history of the English language—i.e., they cannot get a degree in English without learning about its history, the Germanic languages, Old and Middle English, and without reading at least a few lines of medieval English prose and poetry in the original. Although this does not seem much at first sight, it is very important, because it means that students do not remain ignorant about the fact that "things happened in English" before Shakespeare. During these basic courses some students develop an interest in early English; if they find these compulsory courses interesting, they are willing to take others in Medieval English studies, Anglo-Saxon among them, as electives. As a result of this a fair number of M.A. theses are written about topics in diachronic linguistics and medieval English literature; an average of four are completed each year at the three universities in and around Budapest with which I am most familiar (Eötvös Loránd University, Pázmány Péter Catholic University and Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church).

The Medieval Program at ELTE started in 1993 and has steadily continued with a small number of students each year. It has been endangered by the retirement of two colleagues, but seems to be recovering. A similar program, which does not provide a degree (merely a statement of its completion in the diploma of the participant) will shortly be launched at the Catholic University.

Ten years ago a small Ph.D. program in medieval English started within the framework of the English Renaissance and Baroque Literature program of Eötvös Loránd University, which attracted a group of enthusiastic students. There are eight active members in the program now. In May 2004 Lilla Kopár completed and defended her dissertation, The Iconography of Viking-Age Stone Sculptures: Visual Evidence of Religious Accommodation in the Anglo-Scandinavian Communities of Northern England, the first Ph.D. dissertation on an Anglo-Saxon topic ever written in this country. Happily there are more to come: among those who have already started Ph.D. work, three have chosen Anglo-Saxon topics.

In 2004 the Ph.D. program in literature was accredited at Pázmány Péter Catholic University also, where medieval studies, the study of Latin and Greek, and Hebrew studies are very much supported; the program has already gained a good reputation. We are looking forward to candidates wishing to study medieval English literature on the Ph.D. level, too, and in a short time this may become the best center of Medieval English and Anglo-Saxon studies in Hungary.

Quite naturally our small faculy of four cannot be experts on the wide range of topics students are interested in, and so I am particularly grateful to a number of colleagues among the readers of this short summary who have generously helped my Ph.D. students in a number of ways, getting grants for them, enabling them to have access to large research libraries, consulting with them, reading their work, etc. Professors Paul Szarmach of Western Michigan University and Matti Kilpiö of the University of Helsinki are almost honorary members of the faculty, and without the assistance of Professor Rosemary Cramp at Durham Ms. Kopár's dissertation would be far less comprehensive than it is.

The enthusiasm of our Ph.D. students is the most spectacular result of the growth of Anglo-Saxon studies in Hungary over the past fifteen years. Our students have regularly participated in the biennial HUSSE (Hungarian Society for the Study of English—a member of ESSE) conferences in Hungary, the Medieval Congress in Leeds, and even in the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo (which is quite a feat considering the distance they must travel to do so), sharing their achievements with the international community of scholars. They have contributed a number of scholarly articles to the journal ANACHRONIST at Eötvös Loránd University, and Pázmány Papers in English and American Studies published by the English Department of the Catholic University. Five of them have full-time jobs at English departments, which enables them to pursue a scholarly career, and keep interest in the study of medieval English literature and culture alive even at a time when at many places research and teaching in this field are being curtailed.

Anglo-Saxon studies in Hungary have gained ground, acquired prestige among scholars of English, and found a measure of popularity among students even at a time when in this country a degree in English has become a kind of key to a number of jobs not at all connected to philology or literature.

As to future prospects, at the moment we cannot see very far along our road in the united Europe. Together with 28 other countries, in 1999 Hungary signed the Bologna Declaration which marks out a number of great aims for higher education in these countries, among them easily readable and comparable degrees, a common credit system, and widespread student mobility. One directive, however, which will uniformly introduce two cycles in university education—well known in English speaking countries as B.A. and M.A. levels—will basically upset the present Hungarian system. Under the present system a college degree can be obtained here after studying for four years and a university degree after five years; the two channels are kept separate, and the two programs are quite different. The four-year program in English is geared towards more practical knowledge, which naturally does not include scholarly intricacies like diachronic lingustics. In the five-year program, however, which is geared towards more theoretical and scholarly studies, there is room for such matters. I am hopeful that medieval studies can be preserved because the general five-year program has room to include wider perspectives.

If the Bologna Process introduces a two-tier system, the B.A. program will have to be very general, catering to the average English major who might want to enter any number of different fields, who in effect needs only proof of a good knowledge of the English language and moderate familiarity with English-speaking cultures. The program will not be designed for the smaller number of future scholars, and thus it will be very hard to preserve any required component of medieval literature or linguistics. I sadly suspect that if this appetizing dish does not figure on the main menu, fewer students will develop a taste for the Middle Ages, and fewer still will want to have larger portions of it. We can advertize good medieval English M.A. programs, but who will know why those are interesting—even more interesting than business English?

This is the challenge of our future. Nothing has yet been decided as to the content of these new programs, however, and we are still confident that our efforts for Anglo-Saxon studies to take root in Hungary will not have been in vain.