Gábor Barna– Tamás Grynaeus

Sándor Bálint (1904-1980),
professor of ethnography at Szeged

Sándor Bálint and his research on folk religiosity

Sándor Bálint was among the pioneers in Hungary in research on folk religiosity and one of the first in Europe in this field. He also became an outstanding researcher of European comparative studies in this subject.
    His study of religious folk life led Sándor Bálint to recognise many new things, setting an example for modern thinking in European as well as Hungarian scholarship. One of these was his definition of the concept of folk, one of the most debated fundamental theoretical issues of ethnography. Already in the 1930s and 1940s Sándor Bálint understood the term to apply not only to the peasantry; he defined it much more widely, classifying in this category all social strata and groups that had a community-type culture. And although Sándor Bálint always emphasised the community nature of “folk culture” and “folk religiosity”, he was the first to examine the individual inspirations of this religiosity and the “holy persons”, outstanding individuals who organised this religiosity, and to show their distinctive world and personalities. His book "Egy magyar szentember, Orosz István önéletrajza" [A Hungarian holy man, Autobiography of István Orosz]  was seminal not only in the ethnology of religion but also in research on biographies and outstanding folk individuals.  In his introduction he gave a historical perspective, showing the roots of this type of religious person going back to the licentiate traditions of the Middle Ages and early modern age.  Sándor Bálint analysed such individuals who transmit and renew culture in a number of themes: a peasant who told tales, a peasant and a townsman who composed songs.
    We can also thank him for the first study analysing prayers, published in 1937.  He examined the influence of the various spiritual currents on the constantly renewing and changing forms of prayers. He considered not only the prayers living in oral tradition but also the role of cheap popular literature which had a continuously strong influence from the 16th century. He placed special emphasis on the “letters from heaven” which still circulate in printed form and manuscript, the prayers formed from liturgical texts. He also presented the prayer paraphrases, the rosary and pilgrimage prayer texts.
With his investigation of the paraliturgical world of folk religiosity, the veneration of Mary and the saints, and pilgrimages Sándor Bálint expanded the thematic boundaries of research. He collected his various studies that had appeared on this subject and published them in 1944 in a separate volume titled Sacra Hungaria.  In the foreword he calls research on religious folk life a neglected field, although in his view “there is no need to prove that the centuries spent in Catholic or Protestant Christianity have not passed over our people without leaving a trace”. From the methodological viewpoint too, he set an example of the interdisciplinary approach, a holistic view and understanding analysis of life and culture. In his book titled A Boldogasszony vendégségében [Guests of the Blessed Virgin], he attempted to capture the spirituality and atmosphere of the main Marian places of pilgrimage in Hungary. His essays on the different places are brilliant examples of modelling.
In his work that appeared posthumously under the title of A hagyomány szolgálatában [In the service of tradition]  he republished a number of studies on religious folk life. His broad and deep knowledge of religion and his many-sided interests helped him to interpret, among others, the finest Hungarian legend ballad of Beautiful Júlia (The girl taken to heaven). He convincingly showed how it contained mediaeval visions, symbolism of the Lamb and contemporary views of death.

Region and culture

Another main line of his work – not unrelated to the former – could be summed up as: the town of Szeged and the wider Szeged region. Nevertheless, when his oeuvre is considered, his work titled Szeged reneszánszkori műveltsége [Renaissance Culture of Szeged]  is often neglected. Sándor Bálint did not write introductions on theory and methodology, either in this work or elsewhere. The reader has to discover his approach from the work itself. The great lesson of this book is the way he drew a picture of the economic and social history and the cultural aspects of Szeged in the 15th-16th centuries – a purely Hungarian peasant–burghers’ town, and then in this context portrayed the local monastic culture, the university and literate culture introduced by students from Szeged studying abroad, then the role of the Reformation, the Turkish occupation and the resulting Szeged diasporas. It was in this way that, for example, goldsmiths from Szeged worked in Munich where they became members of the local guild and within a few generations were assimilated into the society of the town. He was the first to analyse the aspects of Szeged relevance in the miracle stories recorded at the tomb in Újlak (now Ilok, Serbia) of St John of Capistrano, who died after the victory in 1456 over the Turks at Nándorfehérvár (now Belgrade) . In this work he drew on his encyclopaedic knowledge of the literature.
Szeged városa [The town of Szeged] is a summary of the cultural history of his native town, with special emphasis on its architectural history. He shows the revenues the town derived in the Middle Ages from the salt trade, fishing and agriculture, and from agricultural industries, forming the foundation of the settlement’s cultural life. Its fortress at the confluence of the Tisza and Maros Rivers was of strategic importance right up to the 18th century. Turkish troops were stationed in it from 1552 for a century and a half. The local people adopted a number of dishes and items of dress from the town’s Turkish population. Writing about the Szeged witchcraft trials in the 18th century, he not only referred to their folkloristic significance but also observed that they were a form of expression and release of social and private conflicts. Today, this interdisciplinary, holistic approach is regarded as very modern and an example to be followed.
The same can be said about his book Szeged-Alsóváros [Szeged Lower Town] which can also be regarded as our first monograph of a place of pilgrimage. He analysed the history of this part of the town and its everyday life and religious culture in close connection with the Franciscan monastery and church, and over a period of five centuries.  

    Another big area of his work was thus research on the town of Szeged and its vicinity, the Southern Great Plain, in a complex approach. He wrote the monograph on paprika and slippers, two things regarded as characteristic of this region, both cultural consequences of the Turkish occupation in the 16th-17th centuries. His major work in which he set out the fruits of decades of research is Szögedi nemzet [People of Szeged].  As a result of the research done by Sándor Bálint, the peasant past and culture of Szeged and vicinity became the best known region in Hungary, but here too his research was not confined to the culture of a single stratum, the peasantry. He saw culture as a whole, with its social, historical and European connections, adopting an interdisciplinary approach to its study and analysis. In this he certainly remains an example for us to follow.


Biography (1904-1980)

Sándor Bálint was born on August 1, 1904 ¬ on the day of Saint Peter’s Chains – in Szeged-Alsóváros, the agricultural/peasant part of Szeged, into a peasant family of paprika-growers. After his father’s early death, he was raised and educated by his mother alone. Through his relatives he was familiar with the peasant society of the Lower Town and the traditional way of life that he later studied.
    After completing elementary and higher elementary school, he matriculated under the Piarist fathers. This school played a decisive role in the development of his interest in ethnography. Sándor Bálint graduated from the university at Szeged which had fled to the town by the River Tisza from Kolozsvár/Cluj occupied by the Romanians. At the Francis-Joseph University  he was able to hear the ethnography lectures given by Antal Herrmann, then an elderly man, who played an important role in the institutionalisation of ethnography in Hungary.  In 1929 the country’s first department of ethnography opened under the direction of Sándor Solymossy in the Francis-Joseph University of Szeged. Sándor Solymossy was a folklorist who also had an interest in questions of general ethnology. His main research fields were the folk-tale and beliefs. Sándor Bálint served as an unpaid teaching assistant in his department from 1933 and in 1934 he was habilitated by Solymossy in non-material ethnography.
    Sándor Bálint taught in the Szeged Catholic teacher training college from 1931-1945. He was a very charismatic teacher. His students still remember him with the greatest affection, respect and recognition. In the 1939/1940 academic year, after the death of Professor István Györffy, he gave lectures on folklore at the Budapest University. In 1944 he received an award as a special full professor. In 1947 he was appointed head of the department of ethnography as a full professor. From 1945-1948 he was also active in politics and became a member of parliament for the Democratic People’s Party. After the communist take-over in 1948 he suffered the consequences of this for the rest of his life.
From 1951 to 1965 for ideological reasons and because of his earlier role in politics, the communist authorities stripped Sándor Bálint of his venia legendi, banned him from teaching, and placed him in a job in the University Library with his earlier salary. It was only after the revolution of October 23, 1956 that he was able to take part in university teaching again, from January 1957. However, after a long period of police surveillance he was tried on trumped up charged and in 1965 he was given a suspended prison sentence and forced to retire on February 1, 1966. Frigyes Kahler and Márton Velcsov have compiled the documents of his police surveillance and trial. They make sadly instructive reading.
Sándor Bálint died in Budapest in a car accident on May 10, 1980. This was his life in brief outline. His funeral in Alsóváros in the spring of 1980 was a silent protest in favour of civic values and against the socialist dictatorship.


The judgement of posterity – how we see him

During his life Sándor Bálint enjoyed great social respect and recognition due to his openness towards everyone, his cheerful nature and readiness to help, as well as his devout Christian life. It was only official communist Hungary and its representatives that showed antipathy to him. After the change of political system (1989/1990) a street, school, cultural centre and folk dance ensemble were named after him. His statue in the Szeged pantheon faces the tower of the mediaeval Demetrius Church in Mátyás tér, the church of the Lower Town where he would always liked to have lived. There are reminders, points preserving memory and people preserving memories who knew him. From time to time articles of various length describing his merits are published.
Sándor Bálint was an intellectual of peasant origin who did not forget his roots even when he rose to become a university professor. He was a highly cultured teacher who spoke foreign languages and was at home in architecture, literature, music, ecclesiastical and liturgical history, history, geography, ethnography and folkloristics. He was well versed in music and music history. He regarded himself first and foremost as a teacher. He taught not only in his lessons and through his textbooks, but also through the example of his life. He impressed everyone with his great erudition, his deep faith and his pure, spontaneous humanity. He spent his entire life in his native town of Szeged and devoted a great part of his work to research on his beloved town. Neither his native town nor his life pampered him in return. What he found most painful was the complete neglect to which he was subjected after the communist take-over following the Second World War. He did not receive the recognition he deserved or help from colleagues in his discipline and there was a time when he received no help from his university workplace either. His readiness to help others and his Christian love of his fellow men were treated as naivety. At the end of his life the financial problems caused by his forced retirement were burdens impeding work, weighing on body and soul, and all this was accompanied by political and ideological exclusion. However, he was willing and able to transform these from “labour at the galleys into a laboratory”, a workshop helping him to accomplish the big tasks he undertook. His loyalty – to his wife who was very ill in the last stage of her life, to his faith, his political convictions, his Hungarian identity and his people made him an outsider in a dark political period, in local and national society where values were reversed. Apart from his friends, he was surrounded in his daily life by a host of informers.
    His professional philosophy can be summed up as the aim of making peasant culture part of national culture, similarly to the work of Béla Bartók. He set an example, both as a scholar and as a man. In the inhuman dictatorship called socialism he represented the ideals of Christian humanism, he was a scholar with a European education and outlook, a real teacher, who cultivated his discipline with great humility and did a great deal for his native town and its vicinity and in general for research on folk life.


Bálint, Sándor
    1942 Egy magyar szentember. Orosz István önéletrajza [A Hungarian holy man. Autobiography of István Orosz]. Budapesti Egyetem Magyarságtudományi Intézete és Franklin kiad. Budapest. Repr. 1991, Szolnok
    1944a Sacra Hungaria. Tanulmányok a magyar vallásos népélet köréből [Studies on Hungarian religious folk life]. Veritas, Kassa
    1944b Boldogasszony vendégségében [Guests of the Blessed Virgin]. Budapest.
    1975 Szeged reneszánszkori műveltsége [Renaissance culture of Szeged]. Akadémiai kiadó, Budapest.
    1981 A hagyomány szolgálatában [In the service of tradition]. Magvető, Budapest.
    1983 Szeged-Alsóváros. Templom és társadalom [Szeged Lower Town. Church and society]. Szent István Társulat,Budapest.
    1994 Selbstbildnis. Acta Ethnographica Hungarica Vol. 39. Numbers 3-4. 247-257.
Bálint, Sándor – Barna, Gábor
    1994 Búcsújáró magyarok. A magyarországi búcsújárás története és néprajza [Hungarians on pilgrimage. History and ethnography of pilgrimages in Hungary]. Szent István Társulat, Budapest.
Bálint, Sándor – Lang, Ernő
    1984 Ötvennégy levél – negyvenöt válasz. Fiftyfour Letters – Fortyfive Answers. The
correspondence between Professor Dr. Sándor Bálint and Ernő Lang. Adelaide.
Barna, Gábor – Juhász, Antal – Pusztai Bertalan
    2004 A néprajz szegedi műhelye [The ethnography workshop in Szeged]. (Manuscript, in press). Szeged.
Juhász, Kálmán
    1921 A licenciátusi intézmény Magyarországon [The institution of licentiate in Hungary. Budapest.
Kahler, Frigyes
    2002 III/III-as történelmi olvasókönyv 2. Adalékok az emberi jogok magyarországi
helyzetéhez az 1960-as években. A „gondolat és szólásszabadság” [Historical readings on the III/III security department. Data on the situation of human rights in Hungary in the 1960s. The “freedom of thought and speech”]. Válogatta, a bevezetőt írta és jegyzetekkel látta el -. Kairosz Kiadó, Budapest.
Minker, Emil
    2003 Szeged egyetemének elődei [Forerunners of the Szeged university]. Szeged.
Sávai, János
    1982 La partecipazione dei laici al lavore pastorale in Ungheria nei secoli XVI – XVII.    Roma
Tüskés, Gábor
    1980 Bálint Sándor (1904-1980) és a magyar vallási néprajz [Sándor Bálint (1904-1980) and Hungarian ethnography of religion]. Katolikus Szemle, 32, 3-4, 215-223.
Velcsov, Márton
    1995 Paleae sunt. Bálint Sándor pere [The trial of Sándor Bálint]. Szeged. (Manuscript)