Tuesday, August 16, 2011
August 16 -- Feast of Saint Stephen of Hungary
Stephen, first king of Hungary, had a gift -- nay, a genius -- for building his nation. Son of Geza, third duke of the Magyars (Hungarians), he inherited the title duke in AD 987 when he was about twenty-two. At the time, his people were semi-nomadic and mostly pagan. They'd swept in from Europe about a century before, burning and pillaging everything in front of them, until they more or less settled in the broad plains of eastern Europe with a tentative peace with the Holy Roman Empire. To cement that peace, Stephen married Gisela, the sister of the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bavaria, Henry II.
Having been baptized at age ten, and recognizing that neighbors in most directions were Christians, he embarked on a plan to convert the Magyars. Yet it is never as simple as it looks. The schismatic church politics of his time demanded caution. If he threw his lot in with the Orthodox Church, his Catholic brother-in-law might have cause to conquer him and annex his territory. If he accepted too much help from his brother-in-law and the Bavarian archbishop, he might as well be annexed because Hungary would be overrun with Germans priests, teaching everyone to read German, speak German, think German, be German.
Wisely, he asked for the Pope's permission to form a Hungarian Church, independent of the Bavarian archbishopric. Once he had that, he asked the Pope's permission to call himself a king. Popes were easily flattered by that, believing that such requests meant the kings were submitting to their authority, so Pope Silvester ordered a crown to be made and sent to King Stephen. Otto III, then Holy Roman Emperor, crowned him under the Pope's banner on Christmas Day, AD 1001.
Stephen did not race ahead to organize bishoprics all over his country (as had been done centuries earlier in the West). To do so would have required recruiting foreign priests and he was foremost a Hungarian nationalist. Instead, he encouraged Hungarian priests to step up their games until they were ready for the major leagues, and when they were, they got their mitres. He also forbade marriage between pagans and Christians, but further required marriage of everyone except the clergy. Every Hungarian with an instinct for self-preservation saw which way the wind was blowing and took the dunk. He set up a national law code and a feudal system of governors, making Hungary a model of national administration.
It is, therefore, a bummer that his son died in a hunting accident. Perhaps if he had been less religious he might have left more heirs, but after Prince Emeric's death there were three potential rivals, none of which could make a better claim on the throne than the others. The nation fell back into barbarism and paganism, leaving Stephen's reign to fade into a semi-mythical golden age.
About the pictures: The stamp, of course, is the saint himself. The modification of Colbert's portrait riffs on the Grateful Dead's lyric, "Saint Stephen, with a rose..." as does the photo of St. Stephen, New Brunswick. And the jester is a common Dead icon from the time of that song.
Posted by Tom Major at 4:00 AM