Debrecen and literature


The common roots of a traditional ‘Debrecen identity’ are perhaps best exemplified by the fact that the same emblem – the lamb bearing a flag – is emblazoned on the coat of arms of the municipality, the Reformed church district and the Alföldi Printing House alike. This connection represents a unique local culture that we may define as a Debrecen-based literacy. Debrecen literacy is a historical construct founded on the five-hundred-year-old presence of the Reformation: its basic framework is provided by the Reformed College and the printing press and it is first and foremost represented by books. 

Of course, books are not the sole carriers of knowledge and erudition in Debrecen, but any artefacts printed in the city, illustrated by local artists, and prepared by local traditional handicraft techniques, especially if they hold content created in the city or concerning the city –literary texts, scholarly treatises, etc. –, are a trademark of that specific literacy. 

For half a millennium Debrecen literacy has been defined by the harmonious dynamic of such binaries as a reverence of traditions and an openness to novelty as well as the interplay of the local and the international. The Reformed College of this small Eastern European city has had close relations with institutions in Germany, the Netherlands and England since the 16th century. Thanks to these ties hundreds of students visited Europe, studied abroad and brought back learning – in the form of books, too. Thus Debrecen could always boast the latest achievements of European learning at the same time as the great cultural centres. 

The College was home not only to the dissemination of knowledge but also to creative activities. Students of the past learnt the ways of shaping texts simultaneously to the art of engraving, which sprouted from the craft of book illustration. Yet, the College had an impact outside its walls, too, establishing thousands of connections with the town apart from the council, the town leaders and the religious communities, as the tutors and students were key actors in the local cultural scene.

Debrecen is a unique place because the city is present not merely in its real space but the imaginary space of literature, too. Those wishing to learn about Debrecen and the Debrecen identity can do so by reading literary works. At the same time the city is also being built in virtual space. The culture of literature is the locus where the real, the imaginary and the virtual meet.