Hungarian Renaissance Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Matthias I Corvinus expanded the boundaries of Hungary, established an advanced legal code and court system, ushered in enlightened social and judicial policies, and inspired lasting cultural achievements in Hungary.

Summary of Event

When Ladislas V, king of Hungary, died in Prague without an heir, Matthias Corvinus, the eighteen-year-old second son of the Hungarian national hero, János Hunyadi, became a leading candidate for the crown. Mihály Szilágyi, Matthias’s uncle, organized the lesser nobles to support Matthias, and on January 24, 1458, a diet in Buda elected him king. The competing claims of Casimir IV of Poland and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, the brother-in-law and uncle of Ladislas, respectively, were rejected. Szilágyi and János Vitéz, Matthias’s tutor and mentor, then negotiated the release of the young king from Prague, where he had been imprisoned by Ladislas’s scheming uncle Ulrich. Hungarian Renaissance Ladislas V Matthias I Corvinus Hunyadi, János Vitéz, János Szilágyi, Mihály George of Podebrady Vladislav II Pannonius, János Matthias I Corvinus Ladislas V (king of Hungary) Matthias I Corvinus Hunyadi, János Szilágyi, Mihály Casimir IV Frederick III (Holy Roman Emperor) Vitéz, János George of Podebrady Pannonius, János Vladislav II (king of Hungary) Matthias I Corvinus

George of Podebrady, king of Bohemia, extracted a substantial ransom for Matthias, but he also betrothed his daughter, Catherine, to Matthias. The diet enacted a law, forbidding the new king from imposing taxes without their consent, which King Matthias I Corvinus pledged to obey in his coronation oath. Nobles also were prohibited from bringing armed retainers to diet meetings, thus bringing peace and calm to such meetings and allowing the king to rule effectively. With the aid of Vitéz, King Matthias quickly repaid his uncle for the ransom payment to George of Podebrady. Matthias also negotiated a settlement with Emperor Frederick III and ransomed the sacred crown of Saint Stephen.

Appointed regent, Szilágyi sought to dominate his nephew but was quickly outmaneuvered with Vitéz’s assistance. Matthias took full control and established a strong centralized government, conducting state affairs through his own chancellery and royal council. These bodies were largely composed of younger men, selected by Matthias for their capabilities rather than their familial connections or wealth. In this way, he minimized the influence of the diet and reduced the political power of the magnates.

To pursue an effective foreign policy and maintain his position as king, Matthias reinforced the militia in 1458 by ordering every twenty jobbagy (households on the lands of great lords) to supply one mounted soldier. This quota was increased to one soldier per ten households in 1465. More important, beginning in 1462, Matthias organized the “Black Army,” a hired standing army of twenty thousand cavalry and ten thousand foot soldiers. This force, an innovation for the time, gave Matthias a reliable standing army independent of the nobles. Military;Hungary

To support his army, Matthias reorganized finances under royal administration and greatly increased taxation Taxation;Hungary . He canceled the existing tax exemptions granted by his predecessors for many properties, communes, and districts. A new treasury tax of one-fifth of a gold florin for every town house or peasant homestead was introduced in 1467 and was quintupled in 1468. In addition, Matthias regularly levied special taxes. The actual taxes fell on the jobbagys, except in the case of the poorest nobles: Nobles having no jobbagys were required to pay the taxes personally. In this way, Matthias more than doubled royal revenues to almost two million gold florins. This increased wealth proved a burden, however, that provoked unsuccessful conspiracies against him in 1467 and 1471.

Matthias’s legal code, the Decretum majus, proclaimed in 1486, protected and defined individual rights. His reformed legal administration speeded legal procedures, which formerly were a function of the periodic meetings of the diet, and it largely prevented bribery. Law;Hungary It also curbed the influence of the magnates. Lower courts were organized in each megye (county) and met at regular intervals. Courts consisted of a föispán, the king’s administrative representative in the megye, four elected judges from the megye, and ten homini regius, or king’s men. Appeals were first submitted to the tabula regia judicaria, presided over by a professional judge known as the protonotarius. Above this, the supreme court consisted of the king and assisting members of the royal council.

Matthias also encouraged Hungarian cultural development. János Vitéz, who was one of his principal agents and became archbishop of Esztergom in 1465, had begun his humanistic career under King Sigismund but served the Hunyadis for more than thirty years. Vitéz made his bishopric a center of culture and began accumulating the library that became the Corvina. He employed talented copyists whose works were distributed among distinguished Humanists. His interest in astrology Astrology;Hungary led him to commission a treatise for calculating solar and lunar eclipses. Vitéz also founded the short-lived University at Pozsony (Bratislava). Another outstanding Hungarian Humanist of the time, John Czezmicei, known as János Pannonius, served as bishop of Pécs and was Vitéz’s nephew. Pannonius was a prolific and influential poet, but much of his work was written in Italy and is unrelated to Hungarian life. While he served as bishop of Pécs, however, his poetry became more serious and more Hungarian in character.

Matthias’s most significant achievement was his magnificent library. Starting in the early 1460’, the Corvina grew rapidly under the management of Taddeo Ugoleto. Buyers, copyists, and illustrators were engaged in Vienna and many Italian towns. A library workshop at Buda employed some thirty men in copying and illustrating. Some early printed works also were acquired and a short-lived press was established at Buda in 1478. The first map of Hungary was also produced in Matthias’s court. After Matthias’s death, many books were lost, as scholars failed to return volumes borrowed from the Corvina. Finally, the Ottoman Turks captured the library and added its contents to the sultan’s library in Istanbul after the fall of Buda in 1541. About 170 of approximately 2,000 volumes contained in the Corvina have survived, and titles of an additional 300 books are known. A significant number of early editions of the classics are based on volumes from the Corvina.

Matthias effectively protected his royal position but in hindsight appears misguided for not having opposed the Ottomans more vigorously. When the newly crowned Matthias returned to Hungary from Prague, he was engaged to the Czech king’s daughter and, under pressure from the Hungarian magnates, loyally refused to break the alliance. In 1464, after the death of his first wife, Matthias severed connections with King George of Bohemia, a Hussite, and, in pursuit of his ambition to be elected Holy Roman Emperor, he volunteered to lead a crusade against “heretical” Bohemia. Matthias attacked Moravia, occupied Brno and Olomouc and, with the aid of Catholic lords, was crowned king of Bohemia in 1468, despite the fact that George of Podebrady retained that same title.

Seeking support against King Matthias of Bohemia, King George of Bohemia immediately made Władisław Jagiełło, son of the Polish king Casimir IV, his heir. Upon George’s death, Emperor Frederick recognized Jagiełło as King Vladislav II of Bohemia, leaving Matthias to face both the Poles and Bohemians. The war’s expense forced Matthias to request a tax increase at the Diet of 1470. Refused, he collected the taxes without consent, thus igniting a conspiracy involving his longtime allies, János Vitéz and János Pannonius, who worked to usurp his throne and replace him with Casimir, the younger son of the Polish king.

Casimir invaded with seventeen thousand men but quickly withdrew when Matthias successfully reenlisted the sympathy of many magnates and proposed remedies for many of the conspirators’ complaints at the Diet of 1471. Vitéz reconciled with Matthias but soon died. Pannonius died while fleeing the country, and the diet adjourned itself for two years. The war in Bohemia, however, continued until 1478, when the Treaty of Olomouc Olomouc, Treaty of (1478) affirmed Matthias’s possession of Moravia, Silesia, and Lausitz and allowed both Matthias and Vladislav the title king of Bohemia. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Turks successfully invaded southern Hungary and constructed a fortress, Sabach, on Hungarian territory. Matthias mounted a campaign against the Ottomans and besieged Sabach, which surrendered in 1476.

Throughout his reign, Matthias was forced to contend with Emperor Frederick’s unrelinquished claim to the Hungarian throne. After his Polish-Bohemian war, Matthias fought three campaigns against Frederick between 1477 and 1490 to end Frederick’s influence. The first two wars ended on Matthias’s terms and gave him all of Bohemia. Frederick did not comply with all the terms, however, and hostilities resumed. In the third war, Matthias captured Vienna in 1485. There, Matthias died on December 6, 1490.

Significance

Matthias’s legacies to his nation and to Eastern Europe were of varying durations. Militarily, his conquests were lost soon after his death, and Hungary was left alone to face the Ottomans. In the legal sphere, Matthias’s code and courts were more advanced and more humane than most contemporary systems, and the memory of them as an ideal had a lasting impact on the European juridical imagination. Their immediate practical effects did not long survive following Matthias’s reign, however, giving rise to the saying, “Matthias is dead—justice is lost.” It was arguably the cultural achievements of Matthias’s regime that had the most obvious and lasting effects on early modern history, and it was this development of intellectual and artistic culture that resulted in his reign being designated as the “Hungarian Renaissance.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bak, János. “The Late Medieval Period.” In A History of Hungary, edited by Peter F. Sugar, Peter Hanak, and Frank Tibor. London: I. B. Tauris, 1990. Comprehensive though short account of Matthias’s life and times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

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    Bibliotheca Corviniana, 1490-1990: International Corvina Exhibition on the Five Hundredth Anniversary of the Death of King Matthias, National Széchényi Library, 6 April-6 October, 1990. Budapest, Hungary: The Library, 1990. Catalog of an exhibition of materials from Matthias’s library. Includes color illustrations and bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Birnbaum, Marianna D. Thr [sic] Orb and the Pen: Janus Pannonius, Matthias Corvinus, and the Buda Court. Budapest, Hungary: Balassi, 1996. Collection of eleven interdisciplinary essays on the Hungarian Renaissance, focusing especially on Pannonius’s poetry and Matthias’s library. Includes color illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Erdei, Ferenc. Information Hungary. Vol. 2 in Countries of the World, edited by Robert Maxwell. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press, 1968. A Marxist account of Matthias’s reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feuer-Tóth, Rózsa. Art and Humanism in Hungary in the Age of Matthias Corvinus. Translated by Györgyi Jakobi. Edited by Péter Farbaky. Budapest, Hungary: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990. A study of Matthias’s court, his patronage of the arts, and the spread of Humanism in the Hungarian Renaissance. Includes eight pages of photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klaniczay, Tibor, and József Jankovics, eds. Matthias Corvinus and the Humanism in Central Europe. Budapest, Hungary: Balassi Kiadó, 1994. Anthology of essays originally presented at a conference on Matthias I and Humanism in Székesfehérvár, Hungary, in May, 1990. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Macartney, C. A. Hungary: A Short History. Chicago: Aldine, 1961. Includes a brief account of Matthias’s reign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pamlenyi, Erving, ed. A History of Hungary. London: Collets, 1975. A detailed history of Hungary that includes discussion of Matthias and his accomplishments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sinor, Denis. History of Hungary. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1959. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976. Includes a chapter on Matthias. With maps and index.

1454-1481: Rise of the Ottoman Empire

Apr. 14, 1457-July 2, 1504: Reign of Stephen the Great

June 12, 1477-Aug. 17, 1487: Hungarian War with the Holy Roman Empire

1514: Hungarian Peasants’ Revolt

1526-1547: Hungarian Civil Wars

Aug. 29, 1526: Battle of Mohács

1576-1612: Reign of Rudolf II

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