Conference paper “The Fame and the Negative Image: Opposition and Resistance of the Hungarian Nobility in the Press of the Holy Roman Empire in the 17th Century”

In November 2014, scholars from several universities in Western and Eastern Europe will meet at the University of Konstanz, Germany, to discuss the visualisation of power, resistance and punishment in early modern times.

The overall aim of our conference is to find cross-cultural links as well as sources of conflict and misunderstanding in the respective visual traditions and their socio-political contexts.

Nóra Gézonné Etényi (Budapest / Leipzig) works on propaganda and visual representations of the Ottoman wars as well as the Zrinyis.

For our conference on the visualisation of revolt and punishment, she has prepared a talk on Hungarian opposition and resistance as communicated in the 17th century press of the Holy Roman Empire.

Her talk will explore the different levels and codes of visual communication in the 17th century and explain why both elites and lower strata of society were able to “read” political images:

“For Hungary the seventeenth century was a time of domestic and foreign conflict, which attracted much attention from Western media. On the one hand, Hungary was seen to be playing a key role in the protection of the Christian West, as it was engaged in a war with the Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, the region was the stage of a power struggle between local rulers and the King, which was deemed internationally significant since he was also Holy Roman Emperor. Newspapers, stand-alone pamphlets and extensive historiographical treatises aimed at Western audiences highlighted the rise and fall of opposition leader Ferenc III Nádasdy, the rebellion of Protestant nobleman Thökoly, and the general contribution of Hungarian aristocrats to the stability of Europe. As many of these publications were illustrated, the article will give an overview of the most common genres and iconographical traditions used to visualize the political crises. Apart from references to ancient mythology and contemporary heraldry, the Western image of Hungarian conflicts was shaped by religious iconography. Western media did not only act as neutral observers but intended to conceptualize Hungarian conflicts in a way that favored their ruler patrons. The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor as well as foreign kings and lords hoped to give the commemoration of events their own twist and financed written reports as well as sophisticated imagery. While Hungarian noblemen themselves mainly relied on oral communication to justify their actions, the vast production of prints in the Holy Roman Empire helps us understand the international dimensions of seventeenth-century state formation and confessionalisation.”

Many 17th century illustrations were based on biblical topoi and addressed a broad audience, including the illiterate. At the same time, however, political symbols of the day were strongly influenced by contemporary international relations and the various wars of the 17th century alliance systems.
Common symbols of international power relations (wheel, card-table, public baths, arena, laboratory) showed and taught the necessity of orientation in an enlarged political field. Such visual representations of political information summarised important values and strategies and henceforth became the ideal tool of early modern printed newsletters and pamphleteering. Even though most visual symbols used were rooted in distinct religious or national traditions, 17th century media were able to create and spread new symbols, too. The printed visual information was able to manipulate, guide and rule the public opinion in actual crises as it emphasised the most important elements of everyday news that might have had historical value. After the Treaty of Westphalia, the growing potential for alliances enhanced the political space once more and encouraged the elector princes of the Holy Roman Empire to challenge the imperial authority. Nevertheless did the common external threat – the strengthening of French and Swedish influence combined with the possibility of a Turkish attack – bolster cohesion within the Holy Roman Empire. Publicists within the Empire publicly shared their knowledge of state theory and promoted a normative “balance of power” in opposition to “universal monarchy”.

Dutch print_mene mene tekel_thunderstorm_detail

The propaganda of the anti-Turkish war in Hungary in 1663-1664 reflected this political strategy of the elector princes, but the unexpected and secret signing of the Peace of Vasvár resulted in the realisation of Emperor Leopold I’s interests. Using effective means and collaborating with renowned publishers in Vienna and Nuremberg, the new elite officials at the imperial court informed contemporary public opinion of the liquidation of the Hungarian aristocratic movement and the execution of Ferenc Nádasdy, Péter Zrínyi and Ferenc Frangepán in 1671-1672. In the 1670s, imperial policy was the decisive factor in the relationship between the Habsburg ruler and the estates of the Holy Roman Empire. However, a rather negative overall image of Emperor Leopold I and his court emerged from the writings of contemporary German publicists. This negative image reflects first and foremost Leopold I’s failure to intervene effectively in the defence of Holland, which was under attack from the French army. Furthermore, Leopold had also prevented the free practice of the Protestant religion in his dominions. In the 1670s, the emergence of absolute rule affected the treatment of public opinion, with the principal change being a stricter censorship policy. In the 1670s, many of the publicists’ writings of addressed the consequences of the imperial court’s overt absolutism and the persecution of Protestant preachers. Individual stories revealed the political significance and effective networking of the Protestant community in Hungary and the crisis afflicting towns inhabited by Protestants. The impression we have is a fragmentary one, and yet we can still identify the network of preachers, schoolmasters and peregrine students who were able – thanks to assistance from Protestant intellectuals in German urban centres – to survive the period of persecution as exiles from Hungary. The German Protestant envoys to the court in Vienna noted the effects of the political reality on life in such Hungarian Protestant towns as Sopron and Eperjes. Among the various Hungarian towns with Protestant majorities, Sopron was able to make good use of its geographic location to obtain and provide news quickly in Vienna. In the 1680s, the Hungarian with the greatest reputation in international circles was not one of the dignitaries or upper noblemen who were collaborating with the king and the imperial court in the military arena, but rather an opponent of the ruler: Imre Thököly. In a break with the norms of the era, Thököly politicised in favour of an alliance with the Turks.

Dutch print_sea monster_detail

Until the siege of Vienna in 1683 Thököly was viewed, in the Protestant German states, as a man who defended religious freedoms and the interests of the Protestant towns in Hungary. In contrast, in imperial and Papal propaganda, Thököly was the subject of mockery and satire. In such propaganda, the capture of the fortresses and towns held by Thököly was presented as an achievement of similar importance to the reconquest of areas held by the Turks. A broadsheet published in 1685 portrayed the town of Eperjes as having been the intellectual and economic base of the Thököly rebellion. At the University of Vienna’s publishing house, Johann van Ghelen published a thirty-page report on the two-month siege and conquest of Eperjes, which it referred to as the “rebellion’s workshop”. The destruction of Thököly’s power base was described in such detailed fashion in the imperial propaganda because a substantial amount of printed information had already appeared concerning his political and military activity at the height of his career in 1681–1682. Pamphlets illustrated with equestrian portraits of Thököly had emphasised his upbringing, his family background, his economic and military strength, and the fortresses under his control. Indeed, the manuscript newspapers brought to the imperial diet at Regensburg had underscored his growing political and military significance. In 1684 and 1685, a series of broadsheets reported on the loss of his political influence, focussing on the capture by imperial forces of Eperjes and Kassa. Public opinion in the Holy Roman Empire had traditionally been supportive of the anti-Turkish war. Now the court of Emperor Leopold I needed to define, using modern political arguments, the new position of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Principality of Transylvania in the period of the war of reconquest. The weekly newspapers contained a large amount of essential political information on the development of power relations in Europe. During the anti-Turkish war at the end of the seventeenth century, the presence of the imperial court in political publicist writings and in the popular genres underwent a radical change. Although the operation of propaganda had yet to be institutionalised and the imperial court had failed to achieve a dominant role in the printed news sector, a striking development was the establishment of information channels and networks in which the information communicated by the Habsburg ruler’s court closely reflected the interests of the imperial court.

Dutch print 30 years war 1630


Monika Barget

Monika R. Barget, Universität Konstanz (Germany), vorname.nachname@uni-konstanz.de, Forschungsgebiete / research interests: Frühe Neuzeit / early modern history, Verfassungsgeschichte / constitutional history, Kirchengeschichte / church history, Medien / media, Kunst / art

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