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John Vitez of Sredna – a 15th century prelate and humanist


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Matić, Tomislav. (2017). John Vitez of Sredna – a 15th century prelate and humanist. PhD Thesis. Filozofski fakultet u Zagrebu, Department of History.
(Poslijediplomski doktorski studij medievistike) [mentor Grgin, Borislav and Ivić, Nenad].

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This paper deals with the descent, education, career path and cultural and political activities of John Vitez of Sredna (first or second decade of the 15th century – 1472), one of the most prominent scholars, patrons of arts, politicians and diplomats of the 15th century Kingdom of Hungary. Through the use of complete contextualization of the subject of our study and of prosopography, I will attempt to attain a complete image of John Vitez as a prelate and Renaissance humanist of his era. His person and actions will be observed in the context of their time and surroundings, and compared to the actions of his contemporaries of a similar status. I will also explore Vitez's involvement in the struggle for the bishop's see of Zagreb in the mid-15th century, and through this lens attempt to shed some light on that complex subject. While studying Vitez's origins, I felt it necessary to describe the origins of his family and the activities of his members, his father's in particular. It is relevant to note that Vitez's family, the nobles of Gračenica and, since the end of the 14th century, of Sredna, had never referred to themselves with the surname „Vitez“ – that was a misappropriation of later historians. The nobles of Sredna were a standard lower-middle ranking noble family of Medieval Slavonia, no different from a number of others. It has been beneficial to John Vitez's career, though, that his father Dennis served in King Sigismund's army on at least one occasion, and had contact with the King's court on several occasions. This might have helped to propel young John to higher education and service in the King's chancery. The education received by Vitez could have only been Medieval in nature. There is no proof that he had contact with any of the early Renaissance humanist leanings present in Italy at that time. We know that he did enter the University of Vienna in 1434, but have no further knowledge of his achievements there, except for a fairly certain assumption that he did not attain any higher academic degrees. However, the education that he could have gained in Vienna corresponds with the skills and interests he displayed later in his life, such as the manner of his use of the Latin language, his skill in composing letters and his interest in astrology. They were all on a firmly Medieval footing, but Vitez's interest in astrology later brought him in contact with some of the most prominent astronomers of his time, such as Georg Peuerbach and Johannes Müller Regiomontanus. Astrology remained one of his first and foremost interests throughout his life. It is unfortunate that we cannot tell to which degree his decisions were based on astrology, but one of his contemporaries and acquaintances, Galeotto Marzio, stated that Vitez would not do anything without consulting the stars first. It is important to note that many other Hungarian prelates studied in Vienna as the same time as Vitez, and their activities there are also considered in this work. Through this we can determine that in this aspect, Vitez's activities were similar to those of other persons who were his allies and rivals later in his life. Beside this interest in astrology, Vitez's interest in Renaissance humanism was probably sparked by maintaining contacts with some of the prominent Humanists of his era, such as Enea Silvio Piccolomini, through his work in the Kingdom of Hungary's diplomatic service. Vitez's principal patron during the early stages of his career, Johannes de Dominis, could have been an early influence and role-model. But it is also fairly certain that Vitez tried to uphold the image of a patron of the arts through providing the means for aspiring students to study in Italy, purchasing expensive books, sending gifts to artists and scientists and maintaining a lavish court, famous for its library. He did so probably with the purpose of increasing his fame and, thereby, his influence in European spheres of power. This influence helped him considerably when it came to extricating himself from dangerous situations, such as when he was arrested in 1457 by King Ladislas V as a supporter of the Hunyadi family. It also undoubtedly helped advance his career. But we can say, without a trace of doubt, that the main driving force behind his success was chance. Vitez started his career as a lowly scribe in the royal Hungarian chancery in the 1430's. By 1439 he managed to attain the status of protonotary, and he probably gained the attention of Johannes de Dominis, who was a prominent diplomat at that time. The latter was probably the one who introduced Vitez to international diplomacy and selected him for a member of the embassy which was supposed to negotiate with the Polish king Wladislas III in 1440 and invite him to take the throne of Hungary. Vitez was later rewarded for his services with the provostship of Oradea, with Johannes de Dominis as his bishop. After the latter's demise in the Battle of Varna in late 1444, Vitez succeeded him as bishop, probably as a stop-gap measure in the chaotic circumstances caused by a power struggle that followed the King's death. Vitez's career up to this point was no different than the careers of most of the other persons of his rank and origins. However, chance propelled him to the position of one of the most powerful people in the Kingdom of Hungary. Nevertheless, his status depended mostly on the support of John Hunyadi, governor of Hungary in the period from King Wladislas's death until the release of King Ladislas V from the tutelage of the latter's cousin, Emperor Frederick III. Vitez served Hunyadi as a trusted diplomat and court official and composed his famous collection of letters during that time. In this work I have also studied Vitez's activities regarding the governing of the vast possessions of the Bishop of Oradea and his relations with his neighbours and other great lords. They provide us with a vivid image of the intricacies of conflicts and cooperation among the landed elite of Vitez's time, and also with the difficulties of running an enormous network of estates, such as the Bishop of Oradea's, simultaneously with fulfilling the obligations of a spiritual leader and political adviser. Vitez realized early on the advantages of establishing a powerbase of trusted underlings, which were mostly former members of the Chapter of Zagreb, exiled from their diocese in 1445 and brought to Oradea by Vitez. This was only one of Vitez's ties to the Diocese of Zagreb at that time. He was also the host of the exiled bishop, Demetrius Čupor, and wrote a number of letters in support of the latter, both in his own and in the name of his patron, John Hunyadi. The Diocese of Zagreb was where the latter's interests clashed with the interests of his arch-rival, Count Ulrich of Cilli, and Vitez participated in their struggle on Hunyadi's side. In 1452, however, after King Ladislas V was unexpectedly removed from his cousin the Emperor's tutelage and brought to the throne of Hungary, Bohemia and Austria, Vitez was named the King's secret chancellor. This was again the result of an unexpected set of circumstances. While serving the King, Vitez travelled with him to Vienna and Prague, establishing cooperation with other great diplomats of his time, such as Prokop of Rabštejn and Ulrich von Nussdorf. His acquaintance with Enea Silvio Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, also stems from this time. This was the first time in Vitez's career when he achieved greatness and fame on a European level, by participating in a number of Imperial Diets, leading embassies and receiving foreign dignitaries in King Ladislas's name. He also established a cooperation with the then governor of the Kingdom of Bohemia, George of Poděbrady, and probably learned much about the art of governing from him. This era of Vitez's life ended abruptly with the Battle of Belgrade in 1456 and the killing of Ulrich of Cilli by the Hunyadi faction shortly after it. It is difficult to determine Vitez's role in the latter, but it is certain that he prospered while the Hunyadis held King Ladislas V in their power. This lasted only for a brief period, and Vitez was arrested in 1457 together with the rest of the Hunyadi supporters. However, his case was special in that he was soon found innocent and released by the King himself, and that he rejoined the King in Vienna and Prague not long after his release. These occurrances happened simultaneously with upheavals and struggles within the royal chancery, in which Vitez's rivals, such as Stephen Várdai, tried to advance their own careers at Vitez's expense. This time, Vitez managed to come out on top, and he was again a leading court official at the time of King Ladislas V's untimely death in late 1457. By pure coincidence, he found himself in Prague together with the Hunyadi family's last remaining scion, the future king of Hungary Matthias Corvinus. In the 1458 election Vitez tipped the scales decisively in Matthias's favour, by securing the support of George of Poděbrady. In the years that followed, Vitez was at the pinnacle of his power as the child-king Matthias's chief advisor and policy maker. Vitez's activities during that time consisted of trying to secure Matthias's position, and by extension, his own. He established a wide array of alliances and brought his confidants to positions of power, such as his nephew Janus Pannonius, who became Bishop of Pécs, and Demetrius Čupor. In the early 1460's, after Matthias's position became if not completely secure, then at least not immediately threatened, Vitez promoted a policy of maintaining peace with Hungary's Christian neighbours and concentrating on waging war on the Ottoman Empire. In this he had the support of his old acquaintance, Pope Pius II. This policy culminated in negotiating a permanent peace treaty with Emperor Frederick III in 1462, which was initiated by Vitez himself, against King Matthias's will. After this time, Vitez's power waned, as King Matthias started to learn the game of politics and sidelined Vitez by elevating his rivals, such as Várdai. This is also the time when Vitez's involvement in the Diocese of Zagreb comes to the fore, as Matthias attempted to reduce Vitez's power by surreptitiously forcing him to accept the transfer from the bishop's see of Oradea to Zagreb. This attempt did not succeed, but this short backstage struggle resulted in a severe reduction of Vitez's autonomy when it came to foreign politics and the strengthening of Matthias's position. Nevertheless, Vitez was still a valuable asset and his services were indispensible. That is why Matthias did not remove him from his favour, but elevated him to the position of Archbishop of Esztergom and Primate of Hungary in 1465. The period after 1465 is the time when Vitez's fame abroad grew the most, promoted by his relative Janus Pannonius and secretary George Polycarpus of Kostolány. It is also the time when Vitez realized that he couldn't act contrary to King Matthias's will, which was proven when Demetrius Čupor was permanently removed from the Diocese of Zagreb in 1465. From then on, Vitez advanced King Matthias's projects, which involved preparing the ground for a war with George of Poděbrady, who was in the meantime crowned King of Bohemia. Ironically, Vitez was the person whom Poděbrady trusted the most at the Hungarian court, as evidenced by the sheer volume of letters in which the latter extolled Vitez's sincerity and righteousness. When war with Bohemia broke out in 1468, it seems that Vitez actively supported Matthias by providing him with troops, advice and diplomatic influence. He also fully supported the King in the previous year, during an uprising caused by excessive taxation, primarily in Transylvania. The war with Bohemia dragged on and the support for it waned. Also, this war meant the end of the policy of peace with the Christian neighbours of Hungary, which Vitez helped build. This meant that Hungary was no longer on a full war footing against the Ottoman Empire, and Ottoman raids frequently devastated the Hungarian countryside. The breakdown of relations with Emperor Frederick III in 1470 shocked Vitez to such an extent that he first withdrew from politics, and then started openly opposing King Matthias, who was, as it seemed, leading the country into ruin. It is unknown to what extent Vitez was willing to go against Matthias, but in this work I explore his participation in the 1471 conspiracy against the King and in the subsequent revolt, which resulted in the failed attempt of bringing the Polish prince Casimir to the throne of Hungary. I reexamined a number of primary sources and concluded that Vitez probably did not actively participate in the rebellion, but rather sought to gain as many concessions from Matthias in exchange for his support. Vitez finaly fell from grace in early 1472, when Matthias discovered that he still maintained connections with Poland, and decided to preventively strip Vitez of a majority of his power, at least until the peace negotiations with Poland were concluded. Vitez was briefly incarcerated, and soon released under custody. However, he had already been seriously ill, suffering from kidney stones, and shortly after his release he died, in August 1472.

Item Type: PhD Thesis
Uncontrolled Keywords: Ivan Vitez, prozopografija, 15. stoljeće, kasni srednji vijek, renesansa, humanizam, povijest književnosti, Ugarsko Kraljevstvo, Slavonija, plemstvo, Bečko sveučilište, obrazovanje, diplomacija, vanjska politika, Zagrebačka biskupija, zagrebački kaptol, crkvena povijest, prelati, kanonici, Varadinska biskupija, Ostrogonska nadbiskupija, Janko Hunjadi, Ladislav V., Matijaš Korvin, Juraj Podjebradski, Češko Kraljevstvo
Subjects: History
Departments: Department of History
Supervisor: Grgin, Borislav and Ivić, Nenad
Additional Information: Poslijediplomski doktorski studij medievistike
Date Deposited: 27 Apr 2017 14:15
Last Modified: 27 Apr 2017 14:15

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