Hungarian literature has a glorious past stretching over many centuries and a well-deserved place in world culture. Generally, however, it is less known than the literatures written in, for example, English, French, or German. The Hungarian language, a member of the Finno-Ugrian family, was never spoken by more than fifteen million people in any given period. Nor did adequate translations of Hungarian literary works in the more widely known languages exist until the beginning of the twentieth century. Even then, chiefly the writings of contemporary authors succeeded in breaking through the language barrier and becoming known to, and appreciated by, wider audiences. Most of the greatest Hungarian poets, novelists, and playwrights of earlier periods are still a "secret treasure" of the Hungarians.
The earliest literature in Hungarian was created, as is the case with so many other national literatures, not by individual writers but by the people, collectively, and it came down through the channels of traditional sayings, folk tale motifs, and fragments of ancient lyrics of folk songs. After the emergence of the organized state in the eleventh century, individual authors appeared on the cultural scene. With them, Hungarian literature took a new course and, following the European political, social, and cultural pattern of the times, developed as an integral part of Western Christian civilization.
The beginnings of Hungarian poetry as a conscious form of art go back to the middle of the thirteenth century and their only surviving relic, a religious poem called Mariae Lament, testifies to an extraordinary sense for form and beauty of language. The landmarks of poetry throughout the centuries are the humanist poet, Janus Pannonius (fifteenth century;) the soldier poet, Balint Balassi, who created a genuine new style in lyrical poetry (sixteenth century); and the first great epic poet, Miklos Zrinyi (seventeenth century). They were followed during and after the time of the language reform, which was initiated by a group of writers who created the foundations of modern literary Hungarian, by Mihaly Csokonai Vitez, Ferenc Kazinczy ("The