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Hungary

From C. W. Previté-Orton, The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History 2 (Cambridge University Press, 1953), 704.

Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press. This map cannot be reproduced, shared, altered, or exploited commercially in any way without the permission of Cambridge University Press, as it is copyrighted material and therefore not subject to the allowances permitted by a CC license.

The earliest history of the Jews of Hungary is still unclear. The location of their first settlements, the names they used, the few Jewish records, and their religious ritual all suggest a German origin, reinforced by Bohemian Jews fleeing the Crusaders, and of definite Ashkenazi roots. The exotic theory of the Khazar background of Hungarian Jewry formulated by Arthur Koestler in his quasi-historical study The Thirteenth Tribe is not supported by the evidence.* The initial Jewish settlements in Hungary were extensions of Jewish trading posts on the Danube River and formed links in a commercial chain running from northern Italy east through southern Germany toward western Russia. Division of the Jews into particular national entities in this period is misleading: Ulm, Ingolstadt, Regensburg, and Passau were trading points on the Danube in Bavaria settled by Jews from earliest times; as the river flows farther east, Jews are found at Linz, Krems, and Vienna in Austria and at Bratislava, Trnava, Esztergom, and Buda in Hungary. An economic study based on the geography of medieval communities on or near the Danube River, pinpointing Jewish settlements according to the movement of trade from west to east, would therefore make more sense than discussing these settlements in terms of the states of Bavaria, Austria, and Hungary.

The most important early Jewish community in this area was located at Bratislava (called Pressburg in German and Pozsony in Hungarian). Now capital of Slovakia, this city thirty miles east of Vienna was an early seat of the kings of Hungary and remained Hungarian for a thousand years until it was incorporated into Czechoslovakia after World War I. Jewish records cite it from the thirteenth century; in the fourteenth century, before the emergence of Buda as the leading Hungarian city, there were some eight hundred Jews living in Bratislava.

Only a short distance northeast of Bratislava is Trnava (Tyrnau in German and Nagyszombat in Hungarian), now also in Slovakia. This Jewish community formed a kind of appendage of Bratislava. More important was Esztergom (Gran, in German), a few miles northwest of Buda on what is now the Czech border. This city is referred to as early as the eleventh century in Jewish records as a stop on the trade route from Regensburg in Bavaria to Russia. At least a thousand Jews were reputed to have been expelled from the city in 1526, when they became the target of popular hatred as a result of the Turkish victory over the Christians at Mohács.

Buda (now Budapest) was a secondary Jewish settlement until it became the residence of King Sigismund (1387–1437), when the Jewish population expanded greatly. Its leaders were named by the king as representatives of all Hungarian Jewry. The four cities of Bratislava, Trnava, Esztergom, and Buda contained the great majority of the Hungarian Jewish population.

Despite occasional barbarities, Hungary in the late Middle Ages was a comfortable environment for the Jews. Its population, mixed both ethnically and religiously, required the Hungarian kings to practice tolerance regardless of their personal preferences. The countryside was largely inhabited by illiterate peasants still living in a barter economy. The townsmen were mainly German immigrants, whom the kings distrusted. There was little capital available, and a significant part of what there was could only be obtained from the Jews. The papacy, which since the thirteenth century had hardened its position on usury, was constantly pressing the Hungarian kings to restrict Jewish influence; they tried to respond to this pressure, but the frequent incursions of pagan tribes on the eastern frontier required them to buy and provision troops, and they were forced to turn to the Jews to finance the defense of their border.

King Béla IV of Hungary on December 7, 1251, regularized the status of the Jews by adopting a Privilege, or special concession, modeled on the charter of protection given by Duke Frederick II of Austria on July 1, 1244, to the Austrian Jews. It gave the Hungarian Jews a monopoly on moneylending, prohibiting competition from the Lombards and Cahorsins. Despite opposition from the Church, the nobles, and the townsmen, this Privilege remained in effect until the Turkish conquest of 1526. Indeed, Andrew III (1291–1301), the last of the Arpad dynasty, proclaimed that the Jews of Bratislava were to enjoy all the liberties of citizens, which in effect declared them to be burghers with equal rights before the law. This new status made these Jews almost unique in Europe at that time from a legal point of view.

In the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries some outstanding Jewish figures appeared on the Hungarian scene. Throughout a good part of the thirteenth century Jewish counts of the treasury—whose duties included serving as customs officers, mint masters, tax farmers, and general lessees of the exchequer—dominated Hungary as similar officials dominated Castile, Aragon, and Portugal at the time: in fact, there seems to have been traffic of such high personages between Hungary and the Iberian states in this period. These Hungarian Jewish counts appear to have been legitimate noblemen, for any Christian king had the right to raise a subject to the nobility, and the records clearly use comes (or the form comiti) (“count,” in Latin) to describe their position. The most important of the Jewish counts was Teka, a neglected figure in medieval Jewish history who loomed large indeed not only in early thirteenth-century Hungary but in Austria as well. Count Chenok (Ḥenok) and his four sons, Wolfel, Altman, Lublin, and Nickel, were also prominent figures, as were Samuel and Fredman (the coinage of Teka, Chenok, Altman, and Fredman is illustrated later in this discussion).

In the late fifteenth century the Jews, several of whom were apostates, though maintaining their ties to the Jewish community, again stand out on the Hungarian economic scene. The royal treasurer of King Matthias Corvinus (1458–90), who favored the Jews, was a Christian convert by the name of János Ernuszt. Another apostate, Imre Szerencsés (referred to as Fortunatus in the Latin records), was treasurer of Louis II (1516–26), and a practicing Jew, Isaac of Kaschau, was director of the royal mint. It was King Matthias who created a new and unique office, called variously Princeps Judaeorum, Supremus Judaeorum, or Praefectus Judaeorum. The last title became the one commonly used: Prefect of the Jews, most easily translated as the director or administrative officer of the Jews. The king did not create this post out of generosity but shrewdness; he realized that a Jew thoroughly intimate with Jewish affairs and with a finger in every pie could squeeze more money in taxes from the other Jews than could a Christian susceptible to relatively petty corruption. He was correct, and though the Jewish prefects of Hungary come down in Hungarian Jewish history as glittering and almost mythological creatures, the evidence indicates that ordinary Jews paid heavily for this prestige as tax collections soared. Like the glory of King David and King Solomon, with a similar base of prestige, the high office did not last long. It was restricted to the Buda family originating with a man named Mendel (sometimes spelled Mendl), a prominent moneylender who had emigrated from Germany a few years earlier (see Nos. 165–68).*


*This is not to say that some Hungarian Jews (and even more, some Crimean Jews) may not have been Khazar by ethnic background. The mass of Hungarian Jewry, however, is Ashkenazi.

*There is a complicated literature related to the names of the Mendel family members. For those interested in such esoterica, the writings of Sámuel Kohn (1884) and Sándor Büchler (1901) are of interest. It has been postulated that Mendl Ivd, the patriarch of the family, had the given name of Judah or Judeus, and that there were two Jacob Mendels, the earlier, the son of Mendl Ivd, being called Jacob Judah Mendel, while his son was called simply Jacob Mendel. Earlier writers did not seem to realize that Christian documents of the period typically followed the name of a Jew with Ivd, or Ivdei, a statement as to the religion of the person named and not part of the name itself. For example, after the death of Mendel in 1493, a document in Latin refers to “Issak and Jacob, sons of the former Mendel the leading Jew of Buda.” The name Mendel as used here is clearly the sole name. A Latin letter from 1516 states, “Jacobum Judeum, filium [sic], providi Judei Mendel,” clearly establishing that the Jew Jacob was the son of the Jew, Mendel, not Judah Mendel but the Jew named Mendel. The records also mention a Nigri or Niger in Latin documents and a Schwartz in German documents; these are other names for Jacob Mendel, who apparently was unusually dark in coloring and thus acquired this nickname. Other German documents call him Menlein, then changed to Menteli.

*This is not to say that some Hungarian Jews (and even more, some Crimean Jews) may not have been Khazar by ethnic background. The mass of Hungarian Jewry, however, is Ashkenazi.

*There is a complicated literature related to the names of the Mendel family members. For those interested in such esoterica, the writings of Sámuel Kohn (1884) and Sándor Büchler (1901) are of interest. It has been postulated that Mendl Ivd, the patriarch of the family, had the given name of Judah or Judeus, and that there were two Jacob Mendels, the earlier, the son of Mendl Ivd, being called Jacob Judah Mendel, while his son was called simply Jacob Mendel. Earlier writers did not seem to realize that Christian documents of the period typically followed the name of a Jew with Ivd, or Ivdei, a statement as to the religion of the person named and not part of the name itself. For example, after the death of Mendel in 1493, a document in Latin refers to “Issak and Jacob, sons of the former Mendel the leading Jew of Buda.” The name Mendel as used here is clearly the sole name. A Latin letter from 1516 states, “Jacobum Judeum, filium [sic], providi Judei Mendel,” clearly establishing that the Jew Jacob was the son of the Jew, Mendel, not Judah Mendel but the Jew named Mendel. The records also mention a Nigri or Niger in Latin documents and a Schwartz in German documents; these are other names for Jacob Mendel, who apparently was unusually dark in coloring and thus acquired this nickname. Other German documents call him Menlein, then changed to Menteli.

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
311-314
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-SA
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