Ferenc Rákóczi II. Confessio Peccatoris, Memoirs. Translated by Bernard Adams; with an afterword by Gábor Tüskés. Budapest: Corvina, 2019. 2 vols. 628 pp. $69.99 (paper), ISBN 978-963-13-6564-1.
Reviewed by Charles Ingrao (Purdue University)
Published on HABSBURG (June, 2020)
Commissioned by Jonathan Singerton (Universität Innsbruck)
Prince Ferenc II Rákóczi (1676-1735) is a seminal figure in the annals of both Hungary and the Habsburg monarchy, primarily by virtue of the eight-year kuruc war (1703-11) that he headed against Leopold I (1657-1705) and Joseph I (1705-11). Given the dearth of scholars proficient in Magyar, he has never been the subject of a scholarly, Western-language biography; even treatments of the rebellion that bears his name have been limited to individual chapters in histories of Hungary or other related subjects. Western readers have long had access to the prince’s Mémoires in French translation. Now they can not only read the memoirs in English but also the far more obscure Confessio Peccatoris that covers elements of the prince’s life before and after the rebellion.
Rákóczi actually began writing the Confessio first, in 1716 during his postwar exile in Paris. Although the Latin text was framed as a humble acknowledgement of his sins and shortcomings, it also traced key events in his childhood and early manhood prior to the kuruc war. He abruptly set it aside in the spring of 1717, when the Ottoman sultan invited him to relocate in Constantinople. The Porte was doubtless eager to capitalize on the prince’s ability to rouse his followers against Emperor Charles VI (1711-40), who had intervened in a Venetian-Ottoman war that had broken out in 1714. Clearly the candid admissions of the Confessio were not an appropriate vehicle for the role that both the sultan and he envisioned. Instead, the prince responded by quickly penning his famous memoir in French as an instrument of wartime propaganda. Only with the sultan’s final defeat in 1718 did Rákóczi resume work on the Confessio, this time by covering his years of exile. He sent both manuscripts to France at the end of 1734, fully intending to publish the memoirs posthumously. Rákóczi died in 1735, with the memoirs appearing in 1739. Over a century would pass before the Mémoires appeared in Magyar (1861), while the Confessio languished until it was finally published in neo-Latin (1876) and Magyar (1903).
The intermittency of the two projects presents an unusual challenge since the chronology begins and ends with the Confessio, with the memoirs positioned in the middle. The editor and publisher resolved this problem by publishing the two volumes separately, implicitly inviting readers to pick up the Confessio, put it down halfway through so that they can consume the Memoirs before completing the second half of the Confessio. Of course, there are substantive and stylistic differences between the two volumes. Whereas both relate the actions and character of countless actors with whom Rákóczi interacted, the Memoirs focuses more readily on the Alltag of military events and tactics. It is here where the prince attributes his ultimate defeat to the lack of money, weapons, and prospective allies, whose empty promises he never seems to have recognized. He also relates how his only experienced fighters in the opening months of the rebellion were outlaws, especially returning veterans of Imre Thököly’s earlier revolt who much preferred to drink, sleep, and pillage. He also relates how he decided to launch the rebellion in the expectation that he would be able to join forces with Bavarian Elector Max Emanuel—only to have those hopes dashed at Blenheim (1704). Later on he insists that he accepted the Transylvanian crown fearing it would otherwise be offered to the Protestant Thököly, thereby turning a revolt against Habsburg tyranny into a religious war. He discounts any notion that the kuruc war was a brutal civil war by readily praising opposing commanders and relating how his own forces typically concluded successful sieges by offering Austrian garrisons the honors of war. He does, however, identify the Habsburg Serbs (“Rascians”) as the “natural enemy of the Hungarian” who routinely massacred innocent civilians. Meanwhile, the prince reserves his greatest criticism for the Magyar nobility, especially those aristocrats who initially hesitated to join him until the mass support of their own peasants convinced them that it was safe—indeed, safer—to switch sides. Even then, he constantly derides their vanity in embracing cavalry rather than infantry commands as beneath them, thereby leaving a skill deficit that the Austrians would exploit in virtually every ensuing battle.
Whereas the Confessio occasionally alludes to military and, especially, diplomatic developments, it dwells much more on the prince’s interpersonal relations during the pre- and postwar periods. In the process Rákóczi leaves little doubt of his piety and commitment to his Roman Catholic faith that began with his Jesuit upbringing. Nor can we question his remorse in confessing sexual transgressions (including a lengthy affair with a Polish countess), a series of power struggles with his sister, or the vanity that sometimes led him to make poor decisions. Indeed, his remorse validates the judgment of Austrian, German, and other Western historians who have blamed him for his credulity in believing the promises of foreign leaders whose help he sought against the Habsburgs.
Both editions are well served by Bernard Adams’s elegant translation and expert notes, much as the reader benefits from an introduction by R. J. W. Evans that precedes the Confessio. The helpful essay that Gábor Tüskés appends to the Confessio might have been better placed in the beginning. It is regrettable that neither volume includes an index or any maps with which to handle the lengthy succession of names and places. Nonetheless, both volumes will be welcomed by scholars, who might consider assigning the Memoirs’ s wartime narrative or the Confessio’s representation of the early modern société des ordres.
. One projected multivolume account, Baron Ladislas Hengelmüller, Hungary’s Fight for National Existence or the History of the Great Uprising Led by Francis Rakoczi II, 1703-1711 (London: Macmillan, 1913), ended with a single tome covering the rebellion’s first three years. For chapter-length treatments, see also Charles Ingrao, In Quest and Crisis: Emperor Joseph I and the Habsburg Monarchy (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1979); and Orest Subtelny, Domination of Eastern Europe: Native Nobilities and Foreign Absolutism, 1500-1715 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/habsburg.
Charles Ingrao. Review of Rákóczi II, Ferenc, Confessio Peccatoris, Memoirs.
HABSBURG, H-Net Reviews.
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