Readings of Miklós Bethlen

The Readings of Nicolau Bethlen based on his autobiography

Selected by Ágnes Máté

(The following extracts are from Bernard Adams' translation)




Indeed, that part of Christianity which even today accords greater, almost divine honour or worship to the saints errs therein; for as Isaiah the prophet says in chapter 64:2 (I shall always quote from Tremellius’s version[1] ; let saying that once be sufficient for a hundred times): Abraham knows us not, Israel knows us not, and what Job says (14:21,22[2] ). If indeed they know nothing of their own most dear, indeed holy seed and posterity and have no care for them: shall they regard the judgements and sayings concerning them of the world that is alien to them?

(Chapter 1)

As concerns studies, I was very greatly inclined to theology, mathematics and history, and to reading; in my youth I read the whole Bible every year ab anno 1661 usque ad annum 1684, that is twenty-three times one after another, from beginning to end, always beginning on my birthday 1-a septembris, and that much I accomplished without fail; neither travel, nor hunting, nor campaign interrupted it, but after that in Austrian times many deputacio[3] s, commissions, councils and other dreadful cares and distractions did so; but after that too it was very pleasant to turn the pages and read, and during my imprisonment my soul had a single food, on which I live to this very day; and I advise my son above all books to read and love the Bible, just as I have done.

(Chapter 4)

[1] A Latin translation from the Syriac by Emanuele Tremelli (1510-80), an Italian Protestant. This was in wide use among the Hungarian Protestants, and the Károlyi translation (1590) relied on it heavily. English quotations will be from the Authorised Version.

[2] His sons come to honour, and he knoweth it not; and they are brought low, and he perceiveth it not. But his flesh upon him shall have pain, and his soul within him shall mourn.
[3] Committees

Inspirations and Patterns for the Autobiography

In this my examples and guides are St Job, Nehemiah, Augustine, that great doctor, Francesco Petrarch and Jacobus Augustus Thuanus[4] , who themselves wrote accounts of their lives. For that reason too I have not written in Latin, although it would surely have been easier and more convenient for me to do so; I do not mean that I understand Latin better than Hungarian, because I certainly cannot vaunt myself for that, nor do I: but that Latin, with its richness and centuries-long cultivation by great minds, is more convenient for the description of things than Hungarian.

Thus passed the twenty-fourth year of my life, as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 12[5] : Rejoice, young man etc. but know that God will bring you to judgement etc. and in verse 2: Youth is vanity etc. I am not ashamed with Augustus and Petrarch to confess the blemishes of my youth, and in the midst of them to wonder at and glorify my God’s gracious providence for me which surpasses human believing, for He has accomplished in me not only that which is in Genesis 6:5 and 8:22[6] , but also what is in II Corinthians 12:9[7] and Genesis 20, the final verse.

(Chapter twenty Concerning the sins of my youth)

[4] Jacques-Auguste de Thou (1607-42), French magistrate, historian and autobiographer.
[5] The text referred to is in fact Ecclesiastes 11:9-10: Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment. Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity.
[6] Genesis 6:5--And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 8:21--...for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth...
[7] My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. The reference to Genesis 20 seems inapposite.


That there are those few hours difference between the courses of the sun and the moon, and that proportio radii ad peripheriam in circulo is not a whole number but a small and incalculable fractio comes into it (concerning which a man has written a whole book, and came little short of going mad in so doing) are God’s mysteries in Nature, of which he speaks amply in the final part of St Job, but for what Job himself says see 26:14[8] in particular, and 28:12 to the end. Unto man he said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil, that is understanding. The knowledge of such mysteries of Nature in itself alone profits us little unto salvation, and lack of knowledge does us little harm; indeed, when, after sober and measured examination we cannot achieve full understanding, that ignorance is turned to our benefit, if, that is to say, through it we acknowledge our weakness and humble ourselves; the lower we go down to hell, the higher we shall be raised up to heaven, as David says finely of himself in 2 Samuel 6:22; we shall rise up, mount up all the more, to the wonder and worship of God, and shall all the better curb our dangerous curiositas and incredulity towards those great mysteries such as the Holy Trinity, the incarnation of God’s son and the letting in of sin, and many others. If we cannot fully grasp the beauty of the neck or tail of a peacock, it is enough to marvel at it (Job 39:16[9])

[8] Lo, these are parts of his ways, but how little a portion is heard of him? but the thunder of his power who can understand?...But where shall wisdom be found?..
[9] Perhaps 39:13 is intended: Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks?..


Although great philosophers have striven to show, and have finely done so, that in man it is the soul that engages in all those bodily activities which dumb animals all perform without understanding souls: certainly we learn more from Theology than from Philosophy, because birth, procreation, sensibility and death do not treat man any differently from dumb animals, but only laughter does, which has in certain philosophers given rise to the definition of man: Homo est animal risibile--Man is the animal that laughs. For that reason men condemn or mock medicuses, that they examine the human body and nature so much that many of them become atheists, profanus, and hold the opinion that I mentioned recently (Ecclesiastes 3:21). This is why the book Religio Medici[10] was written.

[10]Sir Thomas Browne, first published 1642.

On the Bondage of the Will

 And it is a sorry thing that Protestants, although agreeing together in all truth, quarrel on this point with deadly hatred, which none will ever give up. This is the mother of disputatios de praedestinatione, gratia universali, libero arbitrio, and although certainly Martin Luther himself wrote a fine book De Servo Arbitrio against Erasmus, they agree that some shall be saved and some damned, Matthew 22:14[11] , 25:34[12] ; John 17:8; but then they slaughter and cast one another into hell over how to interpret these passages: John 3:17[13] , although verse 18 explains it all finely, 1 Corinthians 15:22[14] (but see verse 23); 1 Timothy 2:4,6[15].

(Chapter twenty Concerning the harmful nature of this profitless disputatio in Christendom, especially among Protestants.)


[11] For many are called, but few are chosen.
[12] Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
[13] For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned...
[14] For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming.
[15] Who will have all men saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth...


Seeing therefore the hold that sudden, blind moods had on me, and knowing (James 1:20) that the wrath of Man worketh not the righteousness of God, I strove in every way to be cured and stand against it, both by my prayers in the sight of God and with other help and observations. I turned frequently in my mind and studied Seneca’s De Ira and the fine exempla of Plato, Cato and the other Stoic philosophers, and I enjoined my people not to cause me to argue to excess over matters, not to accuse one another, not to annoy me, to air their grievances nonetheless with confidence but wisely, or through my wife, a clergyman or some senior servant, with whom I could not deservedly be angry on account of the injury that they related.

(Chapter Three Of my moods of anger)

Childhood books from the grandfather

This was later most conducive to my studying under him, because I hurried to him and studied under him with pleasure when anno 1652 I was placed with him in Fejérvár; all the more so as that Fogarasi used to beat me terribly and ‘made me idle’, as it is usually called; because he would make me lie on my back on the ground and hold up my head, my hands and my feet, and hit one or the other with his stick, sometimes my head with his three-tailed whip; sometimes he would make me stand on a stone on one leg, in a word, he treated me so roughly and foolishly that I complained to my father and told him that I was certainly not learning.

My second tutor was Mihály Fogarasi, who was still alive not long ago at a fine old age in his deanery. He started me on Latin, under the direction of Pál Keresztúri, because of whom my father often took me and my tutor to Parliaments and sessions of the High Court, where Pál Keresztúri frequently had me taught and examined before his very eyes and gave instruction on how I was to be taught at home; although my father, as a pupil of Pál Keresztúri, was not ignorant in this, as God had so blessed the work of Pál Keresztúri that among his pupils not even one disparaged him. Once Pál Keresztúri came to Bún to see my father; at that time my tutor and my father had so arranged matters for me that I should learn five or six words before lunch and dinner, and when I wanted something to drink I should say one of them in Latin and Hungarian and so be given a drink, but if I could not I was given nothing. He was sitting there at table and I came out with a big cry (because so I had to speak very urgently) and a Latin word, and was given a drink. On hearing this Keresztúri afterwards went to my father and said that they should stop doing that at once, and let me eat at table undisturbed and happily, because those few words were not worth the harm which they would surely cause to my confidence, my mind and my health. It was therefore stopped, to my great delight, because indeed it had been a heavy burden upon me, and in that way I had not been able to eat properly but only mumbled my words to myself; in the frame of mind in which I was, if Pál Keresztúri had presented me with a village I would have been no more pleased to receive it from him, and I loved and respected him as a kind old man, even better than my father. This was later most conducive to my studying under him, because I hurried to him and studied under him with pleasure when anno 1652 I was placed with him in Fejérvár; all the more so as that Fogarasi used to beat me terribly and ‘made me idle’, as it is usually called; because he would make me lie on my back on the ground and hold up my head, my hands and my feet, and hit one or the other with his stick, sometimes my head with his three-tailed whip; sometimes he would make me stand on a stone on one leg, in a word, he treated me so roughly and foolishly that I complained to my father and told him that I was certainly not learning. And that he did, not because of my work or naughtiness but because of his own foolishness, on which I will not dilate further for the sake of his memory as he later became an honoured and learned student and then a pastor. But he certainly so deterred me from studying that if I had not been taken from him I would not have learnt anything, and so he was dismissed. This I have written here for the benefit of parents and teachers alike. Although I was not angry with him, I never actually threw in his face that I had reached majority and was his patron; and as he was my second wife’s instructor in the catechism, not very long ago I myself gave him a gold piece or two on her account and entertained him.

The ridiculous Raimundus Lullus

Pál Keresztúri’s good fortune consisted not in that he was, during his life and career, more learned than all others, because there were in his time great professors and pastors both in Transylvania and Hungary more learned than he, whom I have known. Nor did it consist in some magical, mysterious secret, for the attribution of which to him he himself (which I cannot praise) was partly responsible, when he said of Localis memoria and the Ars Lulliana, that he would not teach it to anyone for less than a hundred pieces of gold, and he did not teach it to me, but I think that he was waiting for me to grow up. Thank God I do not know the Lulliana, they are merely foolishnesses of foolishnesses, not only vanities of vanities, of which I shall say no more, but only that if a man of learning has a great sorrow or melancholy comes upon him, let him read Raimundus Lullius, especially cum iconibus[16] , and he will laugh until he cries over it. Localis memoria is more tolerable, of which I shall say more below. Nor did it consist of his having chanced upon rare minds, because they were equal with regard to neither intellect nor edification, but nevertheless something clung to them, as to Imre Rhadák, who was also his pupil, and if nothing else was at least a good writer, though otherwise in his life a profane and wicked man--but Keresztúri’s teaching and good fortune may be summed up as follows: (...)

[16] There existed an illustrated edition of this work.

Keresztúri Pál oktatása

7. He taught the rules of grammar, syntax and prosody, of course, but spent little time on theory and went on quickly to examples, practice and exercises, in which he was assiduous and indefatigable. When I was small I read the Colloquia of Corderius and a little printed Gospel with miniatures. Comenius’s[17] works for teaching Latin were at the time perhaps in preparation, because I studied none of them.

(Chapter Eight Concerning my studies and Pál Keresztúri’s method)

9. He so chose passages that the vocabulary and phrases that we had learnt all allowed us to understand them, and he himself told us whence and how we could absorb them more easily, and as far as possible our passages were about childish, light, sometimes amusing matters, so that often as he dictated and we wrote we would laugh quite a lot at them; I believe that he took much from the writings of Bebelius[18] and other similar writers. Never, especially at first, did he give us a long passage, but only short ones, but we wrote six, eight, ten or more daily; I know that once we only wrote dictation for almost two months; I would not venture to say, and could not, how many hundreds there were, but there were an exceptionally great number. There were stories urging to virtue and good morals, histories, fables etc. Many of them he dictated, by which means he accustomed us to writing quickly; sometimes he offered gifts to any of us that could write in Latin when he dictated in Hungarian, which I too sometimes achieved. He would sometimes exercise our minds in this way, saying seven or eight Hungarian words, sometimes fewer, e.g. fire, water, man, tree, ox, town, village, and would tell us to write a composition in Hungarian; what we wrote I do not know, and certainly it was nothing very substantial, but he would praise it and then make us one by one translate our own work into Latin. At first he himself or Jászberényi corrected the passages, but when we were sufficiently proficient he tested us by reading them, returning them and saying that there was a mistake or mistakes which we were to correct; if we could find and correct them that was good, and if not then he or Jászberényi did. He made the better correct the work of the less good, with praise to the former and disgrace to the latter, which caused great competition and more profitless and clamourous quarrels than [there have been] over the crown.

10. Then, when he had exercised us for a long time in passages and could see that we had progressed to that extent, he proceeded at once to the rules of prosody, took and put into our hands some writing consisting of words picked or written in alphabetical order; the first line under M comes to mind: molossus molestat monachum, and all the rest were without taste or meaning likewise; the first syllable of each of those three words is short, and he wrote in advance in the margin of the page which was short and which long, and we read out those pages in a great, rapid gabble, rattling them off, frequently in front of him at table, in school or in his own room, because that was the classis or common room, and I believe that he had taken them from Smetius[19] . When we had more or less mastered quantities he demonstrated that the hexameter consisted of six feet of different sorts, and the pentameter of five likewise. He would write a couplet and tell us to write a line. He handed me Smetius, a poetic thesaurus and the pages, mentioned above, which we repeated, and I began verse composition; I believe that it was in keeping with my age and knowledge and he praised me, and so for a month instead of passages I wrote only verses and he only gave me subjects: write as many couplets as you can about that, because there was no limit to the number. He corrected them, proceeding as above with the passages although by this time I was by myself. What I wrote at that time I do not know, much foolishness no doubt, but I acquired a ready skill in versification such that in a day I would write seventy, eighty or even a hundred couplets, at which all were amazed. He taught metres in Hungarian and Latin, and successfully.

13. What authors he taught I can scarcely tell, because I had to hand only pages of excerpta quaestio, responsio; nevertheless, when he had been teaching in the universities the Peripatetic and Aristotelian philosophies had flourished and struggled against Ramus; Cartesius came into being only in my boyhood, and Coccejus[20] too: thus I know Keckermann’s Logica, Timplerus’s Metaphysica, Zacharias Ursinus’s catechism[21] , and he himself edited excerpts from Aristotle into quaestiones et responsiones, as I have mentioned above. We spent much time on Logic; he often practised Barbara celarent[22] etc. Once, when he had filled our minds with those many quaestiones et responsiones, and had set us to forming arguments and syllogisms, he began to give us only the materials: write arguments about this, let us see which of you can write more? What I wrote I certainly do not know, but as above in the case of verses I wrote arguments as prolifically as I had previously written couplets; it is a great pity that none remain. Perhaps they would have ranked beside Raimundus Lullius and Epistolae obscurorum virorum, and it would have delighted me to look at pupas ingenii puerilis[23] . Indisputably there can have been nothing of substance, nor would my age have permitted it.

 As Apáczai had known me while I was yet under Pál Keresztúri he had seen or heard of the things mentioned above and knew all about them: he realised that although my mind was like a confusum chaos there were nevertheless in my head some seeds of knowledge, that I had a knowledge of Latin sufficient for the understanding of books of one kind and another, and that by giving form and order to the hotchpotch of material he could do me much good; he was very pleased with me and gave me the title of optimus and charissimus discipulus, and both in publica professio and in privato collegio in his room began to teach me assiduously. Publice in Theology he taught the Medulla of Amesius[24] , in Philosophy Cartesius and Regius[25] . Privatim he began to teach me the Arithmetica of Ramus, the Geometria of Metius[26] and in Law the Institutions of Justinian, but both he and I were very unfortunate in two respects: I-o: He had difficulty in finding me fellow students for subjects new to Hungarians, as they were ill disposed to it, and it required little short of force for him to attract Boldizsár Macskási, who later became a man of repute in Transylvania, and Gábor Vadas, who was a good-for-nothing, János Köpeczi, later a stalwart doctor of medicine, and György Szentgyörgyi, who became a Doctor of Theology and a pastor. II-o: When we had made a good start, into Transylvania came the Tatar khan, the vajdas of Moldavia and Wallachia and the Cossacks, the Grand Vizier took Jenô, Lugos and Karánsebes[27] , made Ákos Barcsai prince, and we were undone. There were unrestrained change and ruin in the country, and my brother Pál and I together were taken to my father and mother’s house in Segesvár, greatly to the detriment of our studies, quasi vero Segesvár was stronger than Kolozsvár; but so God wished to visit me and spoil my studies, because that flight took place in June anno 1658, and I did not go to Kolozsvár to study until January anno 1659. I wasted those six months as follows.

(Chapter Eleven Of the same)


[17] The Czech educationist JA Komensky (1592-1671).
[18] Henricus Bebelius, from 1497 a professor at Tübingen, whose work on Ancient History remained in vogue for centuries.
[19] Henricus Smetius a Laeda (1537-1614), Flemish doctor and poet, author of a work on prosody.
[20] Petrus Ramus (1515-72), French philosopher; Cartesius is René Descartes (1596-1650); Johannes Coccejus (Koch) (1603-69), German Calvinist theologian.
[21] Bartholomeus Keckermann (d.1690), professor of Theology at Danzig and Heidelberg; Clemens Timplerus (fl.1604), teacher in Steinfurt gimnasium; Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83), German Calvinist theologian.
[22] The first words of a series of hexameters listing the various types of syllogism.
[23] The playthings of a boy’s mind.
[24] Vilhelmus Amesius (William Ames, 1576-1633), English Puritan theologian. His Medulla Theologiae (The Shield of Theology) is referred to here.
[25] Henricus Regius (Henri le Roy, 1598-1679), French doctor of Philosophy and Medicine, a follower of Descartes.
[26] Adrian Metius (1571-1635), Dutch doctor and mathematician.
[27] Bethlen seems a little confused here. Jenô was surrendered (without a shot fired) to a vastly superior Turkish force on 2 September 1658, and György II quite unjustly tried its officers, beheading three of them. Lugos and Karánsebes were ceded soon afterwards by Barcsay in his negotiations for the crown. Bethlen makes no reference to the sack of Gyulafehérvár which took place in the intervening period.

Studies in Heidelberg

I lived in Heidelberg usque ad Majum 1662. My course of study was (Pál Csernátoni has corrected me where I have forgotten after so many years): 1. The Rhetorica and Logica of Ramus, privatim in my lodgings. 2. The great Arithmetica of Ramus, which I studied privatim in the college with a professor of Mathematics named Lunelschoss. 3. I went to lectures on Theology by Professors Spanhemius, Fabritius and Hottinger. 4. I went to the lectures by Samuel Puffendorf, then a young man but later a great and famous, learned juris doctor, and Hugo Grotius taught de jure belli et pacis. 5. I studied German with a teacher who came to my lodgings. Lunelschoss also began to teach me Algebra, but after the first four species I tired of it as a thing useless for life in the world and excessively speculative for serious study. I do not know whether Hottinger was flattering me, but he prophesied marvellously great good fortune for me in the world. There was at that time in Heidelberg an old man of rank named Joachimus Camerarius, who had been secretary to Friederich V, King of the Czechs, and to Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, and was a most benevolent tutor to me, a councillor to the Elector too, a very learned man who had seen and heard much, and was held by all in great honour and respect. He had a fine mansion on the bank of the Neckar, outside the town. Such was my course of study in Heidelberg until May anno 1662.

Studies in Utrecht

In May anno 1662 we left by ship, first down the Neckar which joins the Rhine at Mannheim, and then down the Rhine to Holland. I will leave to the geographers quantum fieri potest brevitati et compendio studeo[28] the many fine towns and castles in which we were or which we passed. So we went to Ultrajectum ad Rhenum[29] , as it is called to distinguish it from Maastricht. There I lived for more than a year. This was my course of study, in addition to public lectures, because no one at the University will become learned from those: 1. Theology. I studied Amesius with the famous Doctor and Professor of Theology Ferenc Burmann[30] . 2. Physic or Philosophy with Henricus Regius. 3. The Institutions of Justinian with Paulus Voë or Futius[31] . 4. Geometry. Euclid with Dimmerbroeck, Professor of Mathematics[32] . 5. Universal, especially sacred history, with Gisbert Voë also known as Futius the elder[33] . 6. Fortification or military architecture with a very old and drunken man called Wasner, a famous mathematician, who came to my lodgings and taught us as a group of five young gentlemen. He knew no Latin, only Belgian, and his hands shook so with age and drunkenness that he could not draw a line, never mind write a word, until he had drunk a goodly glass of brandy in the morning or two glasses of rough wine after lunch; when he had drunk it his hand was steady. Therefore even when we were making arrangements he struck a bargain: he taught for an hour every morning and at noon. I made great progress in this subject, and therefore translated from German into Latin the Architectura of Adam Freytag[34] ; it is among my writings if it has not been destroyed. 7. I studied French assiduously, and the language teacher came to my lodgings. 8. I also studied fencing and equestrianism. 9. I also began to learn the virginals, but nothing came of it except that it cost me twenty thalers, the reason for which was my foolishness and my teacher’s, because once I had I learned the keys my teacher wrote in a lined book a mass of German, French and devil knows what tunes, courantes, allemandes, sarabandes, but of these I could not recognise any with my mind or voice, but twanged and clanged the wretched virginals according to the keys, but it was deadly dull, and so I gave it up; if I had learnt to play hymns on it today too I would be a good virginalist, but as it is I can do nothing; anyone can learn from that. 10. I read many books besides.

(Chapter Fourteen Of my further travels and studies)


[28] I strive, as far as may be, for brevity and a full account.
[29] Utrecht.
[30] Franz Burmann (1632-79), Calvinist theologian and Church historian.
[31] Paul Voë (Futius) (1619-77).
[32] Ysbrand van Dimmerbroeck (1609-74) lecturer in Medicine.
[33] Gisbert Voë (1589-1676).
[34] Adam Freytag (fl. 1st half of the 17th century); his Architectura Militaris is referred to.

Studies in Leiden

It occurs to me that there were of us cives academiae students of all sorts to the number of two thousand four hundred, professors twenty-two, among whom were the famous theologian Hejdanus, and also Coccejus, Raëy in Philosophy, and in Literature and Philology Gronovius, Hornius etc[35] . I had private tuition, however, with no one, but wasted a few weeks and thalers on the Arabic language in a class of two or three pupils of the astronomer Golius Gassendus. Also I studied civil architecture and perspective in German with an old German named Nicolaus Goldmannus (he was not a professor); I attended public lectures and debates, especially those of Gronovius, Hornius, Trysius and Raëy; I heard Coccejus very seldom, and Heerebord too, although he was a famous man. I never permitted myself to take part in a debate, nor did my age, position, purse or, I think, my knowledge permit me, although even I could perhaps have struggled against some weakness, but I saw that the aristocratic youth was not accustomed to indulge in profitless vanity and did not wish to. Such was my studying usque ad annum 1663, until the November, when I had begun my twenty-second year in September. Now follows my travelling.  

Once Csernátoni and I made an excursion to Franeker, to see the famous university in that tiny town, but we were there only some five or six days and returnd via Zwolle, Kampen, Daventry, Neomagum, Rotterdam and Dordracum[36] to Leyden; in some places we went on foot, and saw very big, fine towns, but I do not know what profit there is in seeing only many stone walls and people. Qui multorum mores videt et urbes[37] , he profits. Meanwhile my brother Pál Bethlen and his servant arrived in Leyden.

[35] Abraham Hejdanus (1597-1678); Johann Raey (fl. 2nd half of 17th century), a pupil of Descartes; Friedericus Gronovius (1611-71); George Horn (c.1620-70); Petrus Gassendus (1592-16 5).
[36] Neomagum is the modern Nijmegen, Dordracum is Dordrecht.
[37] He that sees the customs and cities of many peoples.



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