Saint Stephen and his royal laws

The speciality of Saint Stephen’s First Book of Laws is that during the creation of these laws, he wanted to achieve a close conformity between the laws and the Christian doctrines. It seems that an increasingly humane, kind-hearted approach towards criminals prevails in them, but besides that very strict religious punishments (for example penitence and fasting) were often ordained against recusants, aiming re-education.

20165811P2.jpgStephen I of Hungary (or King Saint Stephen) - at his birth he was named Vajk and his Latin name is Sanctus Stephanus (cc. 975 – 15 August 1038) - was the last Grand Prince of the Hungarians and the first King of Hungary. He was the son of Grand Prince Géza and Grand Princess Sarolt. He established the Christian Hungarian state, he was one of the first Hungarian Catholic saints, an outstanding figure of the Hungarian history and the chief patron saint of Hungary.


King Saint Stephen in the side-aisle of the Cathedral – Tibor Endre Tóth, PDM

20165741P2.jpgMany religions honour people, who are regarded as saints and their lives are considered extraordinary in religious aspect. According to the Catholic Church, saints are people, who probably went into heaven after their exceptional lives and as they are close to God, they might mediate between God and people. According to the early Christianity, every believer was a saint in principle, but nor in those days could they make sure whether a member of the community was a real believer or just a wolf in lamb’s clothing, who joined the community for some interest or counting.

005664.jpgIn the first century in the early Christian communities, enduring persecution was considered a kind of test, which was a primal proof that a certain believer was a true Christian. The tradition of respecting saints originates from here, because in the beginning it consisted of commemorating the victims of Christian persecution at their tombs. The stories of martyrs had great importance in spreading religion as well, because many people became believers after seeing their example. This is why Christianity proved to be almost ineradicable, because the more they were persecuted, the more people became sympathizers and believers. During the following centuries, the tradition of respecting saints transformed, widened, thus it was not limited to the victims, but other points could be considered in the determination of it. One of the persons, who won the title of saint, was King Stephen of Hungary, whose laws played an important role in his canonization.


One of the characteristics of King Stephen’s 1st laws is that they contain rather benign punishments overall, except for some exceptions. For example, there was no death sentence in case of voluntary manslaughter in the heat of passion:

“If someone commits voluntary manslaughter due to rage or insolence, one must pay one hundred and ten gold species according to the mandatory of our council. Fifty of them must be given to the king’s treasury, fifty to the relatives, and ten to the judges and mediators. In addition, the murderer must atone according to the provisions of religious laws.” – Stephen I’s 1st laws

The mildness of King Stephen’s 1st laws was not a sign or proof of weakness, but rather the manifestation of a kind of Christian goodness.

“If you study these laws in details, you can see that the spirit of mildness and mercy predominates them in general. (…) Especially the first laws (…) shaw this real Christian benignant spirit.” – István Dezső, 1937.


Saint Stephen the builder – Jenő Haranghy’s mural in Keszey Restaurant, Budapest, 1937  - MKVM, CC BY-NC-ND 

20165801P2.jpgIstván Dezső thought that an important aim of King Stephen’s laws was the “reparation” of criminals, and it seems that the religious punishments (fasting, atonement) served as tools for that. As these laws contain several religious elements, we might conclude that the mildness of these laws also had religious reasons. It could be related to the doctrine that is often wrongly interpreted as an extremely tolerant indulgence of the Catholic Church, which is actually in connection with the doctrines of Jesus Christ. He asked their disciples not to treat one another in proportion to the sins they committed but much more warm-heartedly.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. (…) that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” – Gospel of Matthew 5:38-48

milleniumi_megmelkezs_003_b.jpgFrom Stephen’s part, it could be a rather brave and risky action to enact Christian doctrines. What we consider extreme goodness or naivety was actually a very wise thing to do, and it is also proved by the experiences of today’s jurisdiction systems. In practice, it seems (and it is a well-known statement in legal terms since Beccaria) that the retentiveness of punishments is not determined by their gravity (but by other factors), thus the aggravation of punishing elements does not necessarily reduce the incidence rate of committing a crime. 005658.jpgHistorical data hint that the bloodiest crimes were committed often in the countries and centuries that applied the cruellest punishments. To tell the whole truth, we have to mention that the 2nd book of laws of King Stephen I contains numerous brutal punishments, and despite its mildness, even the religious reward like a whole week of fasting seems a relatively hard punishment through today’s eyes. Not to mention whipping.


Fishermen’s Bastion with the Saint Stephen statue - MKVM, CC BY-NC-ND


 Stephen receiving a crown from the Pope  - Magyar Nemzeti Digitális Archívum és Filmintézet, CC BY-NC-ND


Religious medallion with ribbon issued in 1938 on the occasion of the double Holy Year  - Piarista Rend Magyar Tartománya, CC BY-NC-ND

If one eats meat during the fasting period, one must be fasting for a week locked up. If one eats meat on Friday, one must be fasting for a week in a dark prison.” – Stephen I’s first laws

dia_030629.jpgHowever, this can be considered a rather mild and humane punishment, regarding his peer King Boleslaw I of Poland, who had the teeth broken out of a person that breached fasting. We can also see that Stephen made great efforts to re-educate witches:

Witches must be taken to the church and given to the priest, who will make them fast and teach them religion.” – Stephen I’s first laws

It seems that the concepts of punishment and re-education were closely linked in certain laws of Stephen I. It is probable that the religious punishments that aimed changes – during the period of Stephen – had a stronger re-educating and deterrent power than detention might have had in itself.

Károly Erdélyi

Translated by Zita Aknai


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