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Gecse, Annabella: The Heart of Gemer/Gömör. Studies on the popular religious practice of Gemer/Gömör in Southern Slovakia

Komárno/Komárom and Šamorín/Somorja, Forum Minority Research Institute, Centre for European Ethnology, 2021, 368 p.

The region traditionally known as Gemer (in Slovak) or Gömör (in Hungarian) is a good place for one to study indeed, considering the literature on its history and ethnology.17The validity of this statement is supported by Annabella Gecse’s recent book The Heart of Gemer/ Gömör. Studies on the popular religious practice of Gemer/Gömör in Southern Slovakia, published by The Centre for European Ethnology with Forum Minority Research Institute. The ninth volume in the series “Local and regional monographs”, it examines the nine villages of the Gemer/ Gömör basin with a Roman Catholic majority, including their religious practice, since the early days of the 20th century. The villages under scrutiny include Abovce/Abafalva, Bar ca/Baraca, Cakov/Cakó, Figa/Füge, Včelince/ Méhi, Rimavská Seč/ Rimaszécs, Kráľ/ Sajószentkirály, Uzovská Panica/Uzapanyit, and Vlkiňa/Velkenye in the basin formed by the rivers Rimava/Rima, Blh/Balog, and Slaná/Sajó.
Put differently, the book is concerned with the local religious minority (or minorities). Today, the opposition between Roman Catholics and Protestants28is far less emphasized than, say, in the early 20th century, i.e. the beginning of the period covered by the book; yet, it seems appropriate to regard the then situation as a starting point. In order to illustrate the above point, let us refer to a letter sent to the bishop of Rožnava/Rozsnyó by the parish priest at Včelince/Méhi in the year 1914, in which he calls the congregation in the village “an oasis of Roman Catholic believers living in a Protestant environment”. The inha bitants of the villages discussed in the book may as well be considered as sporadic Roman Catholic settlements surrounded by predominantly Protestant ones; due to their geographical position as far as religious adherence is concerned, they certainly deserve the attention paid to them by Annabella Gecse in her book. Before this volume appeared, we have had but scarce information on the religious practice in the villages involved, which is why Gecse’s book fills a gap, indeed.
The text itself can be divided into four main parts. The two introductory chapters are foll owed by a presentation of life around parishes and filial churches, often with a strong emphasis on their material and financial issues. In the next part, the reader is presented with a chronological, village-by- village, database, which is basically a systematized presentation of archival material relating to the first half of the 20th century. The third part contains a registry of small sacral monuments. Finally, a list of popular religious songs sung at masses at Barca/Baraca from 2009 through 2012 is presented — video recordings of several of them are at the disposal of those who are interested, using QR Codes.
It seems advantageous for us to concentrate on the first major chapter: this is where the reader is presented with the most informative data set. On the one hand, Annabella Gecse, drawing on voluminous archival material, provides an outline, or a detailed analysis, of individual 20th century episodes or processes in the religious life of these villages. On the other hand, she summarizes the processes of their recent past, and also the current ones, based on interviews as well as her own observations.
Concerning the earliest period she discusses, i.e. the first half of the 20th century, it will certainly prove useful for the reader to be familiar with the organization of the Church, the nature and use of the (material) objects used by the parishes, as well as the measurements and methods of production related to land ownership. These aspects assume some essential historical familiarity —and interest — on the reader’s part; at the same time, we are offered some vivid micro-historical “gems”, or “delicacies”, about the individual villages under scrutiny. A good example is the argument between the inhabitants of Figa/Füge and their priest, János Hegedűs, around 1920; the villagers complained about how poorly he performed his duties as a parish priest, while he was dissatisfied with his income. Such conflicts go to show the local ways in a given historical situation. In their letter sent to the Bishopric of Rožnava/Rozsnyó, the villagers of Figa/Füge mentioned as an instance of “a scandal unheard of in this world”, referring to the fact that children at the local school were taught Catholic religious education by a Protestant teacher because, the villagers claimed, the priest refused to teach it. It is also interesting to note that the villagers at Cakov/Cakó embarked on building their own Roman Catholic church building despite the official ecclesiastical ban, but (!) supported by their priest — even selling the local pub in order to raise money. Besides conflicts, one finds nice instances of solidarity amongst villagers in the same community. At Vlkiňa/ Velkenye, for example, landowners allied to help the poorest families of the village in December, 1931: eight Roma families were provided with food throughout the winter; other families were given new boots, holiday costumes, or medicines. We can find a number of similar episodes from each of these villages, showing, in a nutshell, the hardships as well as the beauties of locals’ lives. The limited access to sources will not, generally speaking, enable the researcher to give a complete picture of each single case, which, in turn, can often be presented by way of illustration. Nevertheless, should Annabella Gecse have access to any related (and relevant) source that makes a deep analysis of such cases, we can expect her to write terrifically vivid and informative micro-histo rical accounts on them.
The description of the situation after World War II, as well as the one after the fall of the communist regime, might play a less emphatic role at some places vis-à-vis the earlier periods as described on the basis of archival sources. The various, often trau matic, turning points and political changes, however, had some effects on religious practice, effects that can still be traced — even though the overall image might be fragmentary. As for the recent past, and the present, are concerned, An na bella Gecse often provides a clear description of the customs and practices of believers. A social group that deserves specific mention is that of Hungarian-speaking Roma, accounting for the majority of the young gene rations in several of these villages. Due to their special social and cultural situation, they have a range of different attitudes to Roman Catholic faith; at some places, they have become active participants in the community, but not in some other places. The data and information provided by the book is very important regarding the current social position of Roma people — indeed, we can only hope that the topic will be taken up by further research.
The book, apart from professionals, will most probably be welcome by the inhabitants of these villages, including emigrants, for whom images of early 20th century religious life, or even the huge chronological database, might hold some unexpected curiosities or surprises, possibly involving their ancestry. At the same time, as the author herself remarks in her conclusion, we get a “characteristic image” of each village.

Péter Vataščin