The Raven King

Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of His Lost Library

by Marcus Tanner

Yale, 288 pp., $35

It sounds like somebody's screenplay. A mysterious, charismatic Hungarian king, known as The Raven, who had ascended the throne as a teenager after narrowly escaping a murder plot, first imprisons his fellow Transylvanian, Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula), then invites him to be his guest, crushes the Turks in a series of spectacular battles, builds palaces and collects books, and marries a tempestuous Italian princess whose retinue of cunning Italian courtiers try (without much success) to introduce refinements like forks and individual plates to Hungarian dinner tables. Meanwhile, in drafty castles along the Danube, the envious nobles are plotting their revenge.

But I don't think we'll be seeing Brad Pitt or Russell Crowe in the movie version of The Raven King, Marcus Tanner's account of the life and times of Matthias Hunyadi, or Corvinus (Raven), anytime soon. The story of the 15th-century king and national hero, who established Hungarian hegemony from the Black Sea to Vienna and was celebrated for his anti-Turkish prowess by Italian poets and several popes, ends in a series of anticlimaxes. He died young, in his forties, essentially from overeating, bloated and gout-ridden in Vienna. His wife, Beatrice of Naples, seems to have been remarkably ugly as well as overbearing: Forget Angelina Jolie, let's see if Rosie O'Donnell is available.

After his death in 1490, all of his achievements were quickly undone. He left the country bankrupt and divided. It was soon overrun by the Turks, who occupied Buda, the capital, for nearly a century-and-a-half. His palaces were destroyed or turned into barracks, the books he had accumulated in a magnificent library were lost or dispersed, Beatrice was tricked into a humiliating fake marriage with a Polish prince and finally had to slink back to Naples.

Marcus Tanner tries gamely to bring the king's story and times to life, interspersing his narrative with accounts of his own travels in Hungary and Romania searching for traces of lost palaces and books, but this is a book that will be avidly read by late medieval central European history buffs and bibliophiles, who can all fit comfortably into one not very large room. For the general reader, however, there are some arresting facts and anecdotes.

Matthias's library, which assumed mythical proportions during the nearly half-a-millenium when people were still looking for it, actually had only between 2,000 and 2,500 volumes in it. But that apparently made it the second largest in Europe at the time, outside the Vatican library, which wasn't much bigger. Of those volumes, ornately bound and stamped with a Raven insignia, only 216 survive in scattered libraries and collections in Europe and America.

Some of the scholars sent by the king to Italy in search of these books were notable oddballs. One of them discovered, and seems to have participated in, what can only be described as a flourishing gay subculture in Renaissance Italy, and we get some mildly obscene verses on the subject translated from Latin. Matthias and everyone else at the time consulted astrologers, the celebrity shrinks of their day.

Matthias himself seems to have been a relatively enlightened and good-natured despot. He actually read some of the books he collected. He didn't care much for religion. He got along well with the Jews in his realm. His "Black Army" of elite soldiers was notoriously ruthless, wiping out villages and everyone in them during his campaigns, but he didn't seem interested in the "strange tortures" and "sadistic eccentricities" devised by his Transylvanian colleague Vlad the Impaler. He won over the pleasure-loving Viennese after he besieged and occupied their city, and he tried, mostly in vain, to get Italian humanists to come and make Hungary more polished.

It cannot be said that Tanner succeeds in making Matthias Corvinus a vivid or memorable character. Although he was still very much remembered in Hungary in the 19th century, the country lost two-thirds of its territory (including Transylvania) after World War I and, under the Communist regimes in Hungary and Romania, his story, like his legacy, was effaced. Today, Tanner notices that even the Hungarian tourists in Budapest walk past his monuments without a second glance while heading for the statues of new national heroes, martyrs of the anti-Communist resistance like Cardinal Mindszenty.

But for those who have been to Hungary, and who like the country and people, as I have and do, Tanner offers, almost incidentally to his story of a half-forgotten monarch, the somber story of a country whose history has been a little too interesting for its own good.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.

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