Precedents to Roma Written Culture and Literature in Hungary

Precedents to Roma Written Culture and Literature in Hungary

Written by János Orsós


The common-held view that Roma written culture and literature emerged only in the 20th century is based on a false assumption. To illustrate this, I would like to take a brief look at the time before the last century in connection with this subject.

I relied on Zoltán Beck’s treatise [1] in defining the concept of Roma literature. While Beck offers a number of approaches to determine the notion, in this piece I will put the emphasis mainly on “authorial dominance”, that is, I will focus on texts that were not only written in some Gypsy language, but their authors are also of Gypsy origin. Rajko Djuric argues that the unfolding of Roma written culture and literature in Central and Eastern Europe was closely intertwined with the cultural, artistic and political self-organization of the Roma. I would like to demonstrate with my examples that cultural and literary initiatives from Gypsy authors existed already in the periods before the 20th century and these developments were guided by political intentions that aimed to construct an (ethnic) nationality identity. I would like to introduce Hungarian poets, translators and dictionary editors of Roma origin whose works have unjustly sunk into oblivion.

In the 17th and 18th centuries a number of literate Roma studied in higher education in Hungary, like, for example, Dávid Grausser and Mihály Császlai [3], but the publication of works by authors of Roma origin dates from the late 18th century. The first Gypsy-Hungarian glossary was made around 1790 [4] in the Calvinist College in Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca), with the involvement of Mihály Vistai Farkas, a student of theology of Gypsy origin. The eighty-page manuscript contains 2148 Gypsy words and its creation was led by one of the pioneers of Roma research in Hungary, Pap Mihály Szathmári, an instructor of theology at the college in Kolozsvár. The editors of the glossary supplemented the text with the print pages of a Latin-Hungarian dictionary from 1768, with numbers added to them that made it possible to match Gypsy and Latin words. [5]

The glossary was included in Régi cigány szótárak és folklórszövegek (Old Gypsy dictionaries and folklore texts), a three-volume reader edited by Károly Bari, published in 2013. A letter of request written by Vistai in 1787 also survived, in which he appealed to his former professors to support his application for the position of a village schoolmaster. [6] The short text reveals a high level of education of its author.


Mihály Szathmári Pap and Mihály Vistai Farkas’s Gypsy-Hungarian glossary, cca. 1790 (Source: The digital library of the “Lucian Blaga” Central University Library Cluj)

In the 19th century János Ipolysági Balogh, Ferenc Nagyidai Sztojka and József Boldizsár were the Roma intellectuals who, besides their work as dictionary editors, produced the first translations and – in Sztojka’s case – literary texts. With these works, they became part and a (perhaps forgotten) source of pride of both Gypsy and national culture.

János Ipolysági Balogh (1802-1876) was a schooled Gypsy musician, with three years of high school education [7], who also participated in the Hungarian revolution of 1848-49 as a military bandmaster. He was a member of renowned violinist and composer János Bihari’s band for six years as first violinist. Later he was also a band leader in Ipolyság and Selmecbánya. He was present in the battle of Temesvár on August 9, 1849. [8] In addition to music, he professed an interest in linguistics, he translated a number of Catholic prayers to Gypsy language, which he himself published in a booklet entitled Legelső czigány imádságok a melly mind a két magyar hazában levő czigány nemzet számára (Very first Gypsy prayers, which [are] for both nations in the Hungarian home) in 1850. [9] Besides, the manuscript of a Hungarian-Gypsy dictionary made by him also survived, which, according to József Szinnyei’s contemporaneous work entitled Magyar irók élete és munkái (The Life and Works of Hungarian Writers, 1891–1914), was “in Archduke József’s possession, with the portrait of the author”. [10] Balogh also corresponded with the member of the Habsburg family [11], who, besides being an advocate of Gypsy issues, also spoke the Gypsy language well. The archduke had a high esteem of Balogh, because the aforementioned work served as a basis for the royal descendant’s grammar book Czigány nyelvtan (Gypsy Grammar), subtitled Romano Csibakero Sziklaribe (1888). János Ipolysági Balogh died at seventy-four in Selmecbánya, the costs of his funeral were covered by Archduke József. [12]

József Boldizsár (1825- 1878) is a Gypsy musician from Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca), about whom we know only little, unfortunately. Szinnyei’s literary lexicon reveals only that Boldizsár was a literate Gypsy musician, who translated Petőfi’s poems into Gypsy language, a number of them getting published in the journal Összehasonlító Irodalomtörténelmi Lapok (Journal of Comparative Literary History, later Összehasonlító Irodalmi Lapok [Comparative Literary Journal]), edited in Kolozsvár. [13] According to Szinnyei, “the larger part of his translations is in a private collection, and also his Gypsy dictionary.” [14] In the 31st issue of the journal (1878), an obituary notice appeared, commemorating the late Roma colleague of the publication. [15] It turns out from the text of the obituary that Boldizsár died on June 5, 1878 of consumption. He was paid the last honors that are due to the heroes of the 1848-1849 revolution: the funeral procession was led by a hussar soldier and his coffin was adorned with a badge of freedom fighters.  It’s due to his work as a translator that the Gypsy language renditions of Sándor Petőfi’s poems “Reszket a bokor mert…” (The Quivering Bush) [16], “Mit nem tettem volna érted…” (What Would I Not Have Done) [17] [18], “Elfojtott könnyek” (Choked Tears) [19], “Mi foly ott a mezőn” (What Flows on the Meadow?) [20] and “Esik, esik, esik” (It’s raining) [21] were published.


Összehasonlító Irodalomtörténelmi Lapok (Journal of Comparative Literary History), Vol. 2. No. 21., January 15, 1878 (Source: The digital library of the “Lucian Blaga” Central University Library Cluj)

As mentioned earlier, Archduke József “played an important role in the support of Gypsy intellectuals, above all that of his favorite Gypsy, Ferenc Nagyidai Sztojka, whose Gypsy dictionary was published twice financed by him.” [22] The Canadian publisher Magoria Books considers Nagyidai (1855-?) to be possibly the first Roma poet whose works endure to this day. [23] Nagyidai’s dictionary, entitled Ő császári és magyar királyi fensége József Főherceg Magyar és czigány nyelv gyök-szótára (His Emperor and Hungarian Royal Majesty Archduke József’s Root Dictionary of the Hungarian and Tsigane Language), was published in 1886 and it contains a literary supplement of an ample volume with Sztojka’s works.

Thus, the dictionary editor and poet Nagyidai is credited with the first works of Gypsy literature in Hungary. Nagyidai divided the dictionary, published in two editions (1886, 1890), into four main parts. The first  section contains 13.700 Gypsy words and their Hungarian counterparts, the second includes liturgical texts (Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and other prayers) and Gypsy language translations of works by poets such as Sós Márton Etédi (“Magyar gyász” [Hungarian Mourning]) and Petőfi (“A király esküje” [The King’s Oath], “Vándorlegény” [Wayfarer], “Ilyen asszony való nékem” [Such a Woman Suits Me], “Befordultam a konyhára” [I Turned into the Kitchen], etc.). The third part includes Nagyidai’s own poems in Gypsy and their translation (“Királyi üdvözlet” [Royal Greeting], “Rudolf koronaherceghez” [To Crown Prince Rudolf], “Jókai Mórhoz” [To Mór Jókai], etc.), while in the fourth, Gypsy songs, wisdom sayings, name day and New Year’s wishes, as well as two historical dramas by Sztojka can be found. The play entitled “Czigány lakodalom” (Gypsy Wedding) takes the reader back to the 15th century, while “Czigányvár!” (Gypsy Fortress) recounts the second recapture and abandonment of the fortress of Nagyida, from the time of Róbert Károly’s reign.


Ferenc Nagyidai Sztojka dictionary editor, poet and translator (Source: Magoria Books)

The 200-page volume also includes Sztojka’s epic poem “A cigányok vándorlása” (The Wanderings of the Gypsies), made significant by being a lyrical work written independently by a Roma author, attempting to adapt the myth of origin of the Roma people. Nagyidai narrates the wanderings of the Gypsies in and around Hungary, their customs and fate in fifty-seven stanzas. The legend recounted by the poem dates the arrival of the ethnic group to as early as the time of the “barbarians” and Attila, the Hun ruler.

No force could capture the fortress, not even Attila’s troops. Although in the beginning the Roma lived in prosperity, starvation set in and they began wandering, leaving the fortress to voivode Pál Sztojka. During the journey, the nation of the Roma was divided into nine groups and that’s how they reached, among others, Debrecen, near Szeged, the border of Bosnia, Simontornya, Nagyszeben and Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca). They practiced various professions: pot making, horse trading, commerce, metalwork, masonry and carpentry (in Bosnia they are involved in building a fortress), and the groups that abandoned nomadic life received education and also excelled as soldiers.

This work of Ferenc Nagyidai Sztojka’s can be seen as part of the great canon of Romanticism for a number of reasons, as it well fits the expectations of the period. On the one hand, he resorts to the mixed genre popular in Romanticism, epic poetry, bordering between epic and lyre. On the other, the representation of Gypsies was nothing new in the art of the time, as in 19th century literature, poetry and painting the Gypsies embodied a strange, mysterious otherness, the exotic, with its unbridled love of freedom and nature. What makes this work of Nagyidai’s an important and highly interesting piece of literature is that Sztojka, well ahead of his time, unlike the artists of Romanticism and Modernism, does not look on the “exotic other”, the Gypsies, with a colonizer’s gaze, but attempts to formulate the Gypsies’ own narrative as a Roma author.

I saw it important to present a portrait of the authors above because their activities well prove that the beginnings of the Roma written culture and literature can be traced back from the late 18th century onwards. These examples testify that the 19th century saw literate Roma who led an intellectual life and made efforts to legitimize Gypsy language, bring Hungarian and Gypsy cultures closer [24], and develop an own identity, a national consciousness.


Translated by Arpad Bak

Works Cited

[1] Beck, Zoltán. A lehetséges roma irodalom. Pécs: Pécsi Tudományegyetem, 2003.

[2] Djuric, Rajko. “A rromani (cigány) irodalom.” Iskolaultúra 8.12 (1998): 21-29.

[3] Szathmári Pap, Mihály and Vistai Farkas, Mihály. Vocabularium Zingarico-Latinum et Hungaricum quod fieri fecit, curiositatis caussa, Michael Pap Szathmári per Michaelem Farkas, alias Vistai natam Zingarum, Collegii nostri, per aliquot annos civem togatum. 1768–1796. MS. Lucian Blaga Central University Library, Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

[4] Ágnes, Lukács. “Interjú Landauer Attilával.” Fogom a kezét, és együtt emelkedünk: tanulmányok és interjúk a romaintegrációról. Eds. Ferenc Gereben and Ágnes Lukács. Budapest: Jezsuita Könyvek, 2013. 45-62.

[5] István, Szabadi. “A protestáns tudományosság és a cigánykutatás kezdetei: Szathmári Pap Mihály cigány szójegyzéke.” Könyv és könyvtár 17 (1994): 141-155.

[6] Szabóné Kármán, Judit. “A magyarországi roma/cigány értelmiség historiográfiája, helyzete, mentális állapota.” Doktori értekezés. Pécs: Pécsi Tudományegyetem. 2012.

[7] Szinnyei, József. Magyar írók élete és munkái. Budapest: Arcanum Adatbázis Kft., 2000 [1891–1914].

[8] Csemer, Géza: Habiszti. Cigányok élete – étele. Almanach. Budapest: Lettera, 1994.

[9] Szinnyei: op. cit.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Eredeti czigánylevelek. Közli József főherczeg.” Egyetemes Philologiai Közlöny 14 (1890): 737–768.

[12] Csemer: op. cit.

[13] Szinnyei: op. cit.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Összehasonlító Irodalomtörténelmi Lapok. 2.31 (1878): 660.

Click to access BCUCLUJ_FP_106543_1878_002_031.pdf

[16] Petőfi, Sándor. “Izdral o czino ruk, ke.” Trans. József Boldizsár. Összehasonlító Irodalomtörténelmi Lapok. 2.21 (1878): 440-441.

Click to access BCUCLUJ_FP_106543_1878_002_021.pdf

[17] Petőfi, Sándor. “Szoná cshunyomászmé vás tuké.” Trans. József Boldizsár. Összehasonlító Irodalomtörténelmi Lapok. 2.23 (1878): 483.

Click to access BCUCLUJ_FP_106543_1878_002_023.pdf

[18] Petőfi, Sándor. “So na cunyomas mé vas tuké.” Trans. József Boldizsár. Összehasonlító Irodalmi Lapok. 19.191-192 (1887): 3135.

Click to access BCUCLUJ_FP_106543_1887_011_191_192.pdf

[19] Petőfi, Sándor. “Kéde rovosz.” Trans. József Boldizsár. Összehasonlító Irodalomtörténelmi Lapok 2.26 (1878): 534.

Click to access BCUCLUJ_FP_106543_1878_002_026.pdf

[20] Petőfi, Sándor. “Szothadél o koj ne máll.” Trans. József Boldizsár. Összehasonlító Irodalomtörténelmi Lapok 2.26 (1878): 534.

[21] Petőfi, Sándor. “Pérel, pérel, pérel.” Trans. József Boldizsár. Összehasonlító Irodalomtörténelmi Lapok. 12.115-116 (1878): 2101.

Click to access BCUCLUJ_FP_106543_1882_006_115_116.pdf

[22] Soós, István: “Pártfogónk és királunk.” Napút 8.9 (2006)

[23] Nagyidai Sztojka, Ferenc. Root Dictionary of the Hungarian and Tsigane Language. Excerpts. Romani Dictionary & Language Centre.

[24] D. Magyari, Imre. “A magyarországi cigányság irodalmáról.” Doktori értekezés. Debrecen: Debreceni Egyetem, 2013.