Prague in Black and Gold: Scenes from the Life of a European City

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Every year Prague attracts thousands of enthusiastic visitors with its Old World charms. For a millennium this beautiful city in the heart of Central Europe, with its ancient townships set on hills and in valleys overlooking a strategic river, has been at the core of everything both wonderful and terrible in Western history. Prague in Black and Gold strips away the sentimental distortions in a brilliant account that clarifies Prague's true place in world civilization. Throughout, Demetz shows how Czechs, Germans,...
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Prague in Black and Gold: Scenes from the Life of a European City

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Overview

Every year Prague attracts thousands of enthusiastic visitors with its Old World charms. For a millennium this beautiful city in the heart of Central Europe, with its ancient townships set on hills and in valleys overlooking a strategic river, has been at the core of everything both wonderful and terrible in Western history. Prague in Black and Gold strips away the sentimental distortions in a brilliant account that clarifies Prague's true place in world civilization. Throughout, Demetz shows how Czechs, Germans, Italians, and Jews have lived and worked together in Prague for a thousand years - and what their peaceful coexistence can teach us in these days of increased nationalism and xenophobia.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With a native's sense of this beautiful city and a scholar's knowledge of it, Demetz, who left Prague in 1949 and is now emeritus professor of German literature at Yale, gives an engrossing account of the city's history and culture by focusing on epic events as well as heroes, villains and martyrs throughout the millennia of its existence. He shows us the city both at its moments of glory and at its depths of decayas a center of European commerce and high culture; a refuge from religious bigotry; a model democracy and a victim of tyrannical regimes; and a popular destination for travelers in different eras. He examines its legends; its multiethnic composition; its role as pawn and critical player in central European politics; the development of its literature and language, with their Latin, German, Czech and Hebrew strains; and the dichotomy between its persecution of its Jews and the influence on its culture of Jewish philosophers, writers, musicians, scientists and artists. A highly literate panorama of a focal point of European culture. (July)
Kirkus Reviews
A very interesting overview of key periods in the four- millennia-old history of central Europe's great "gateway" city (one of the meanings of the Czech Praha), which has also served as a bridge between the Slavic region to the east and the Germanic and Latin areas to the west.

A Prague-born and -raised literary and intellectual historian, Demetz traces the enormous changes the city underwent between the Middle Ages and the eve of WW II. (Strangely, he does not extend his story to encompass either the brief "Prague Spring" of 1968 or the "velvet revolution" of 1989 that, with amazing swiftness, brought about communism's collapse.) Demetz is particularly interesting on the revolt led by followers of the martyred Jan Hus, a precursor to Luther, in the early 15th century, and on how the city affected, and sometimes dazzled, the host of literary and other creative figures who lived there or passed through, from Goethe to André Breton. He also captures repeated moments of tension, and rather more uncommon ones of harmony, between the city's two large ethnic communities: Germans and Czechs. Both groups periodically turned violently against the city's third great community, the Jews, who also provided a disproportionate share of cultural and scientific leadership. Demetz's style is both richly anecdotal and well grounded in a wide range of secondary sources, and he does an excellent job of balancing political and cultural history. (As a city "insider," Demetz seems particularly knowledgeable about Prague's neighborhoods and architecture.) However, he does have a propensity to overwhelm the reader with myriad names and, on occasion, to become bogged down in narrative details.

In general, however, this is a fine introduction to a city that, like Rome or Jerusalem, has equally compelling legendary and actual histories.

From the Publisher
"Demetz focuses on the dark and disturbing aspects of the city's history, as well as on its golden glories...With great erudition and profound engagement, [he] has made it possible for us to come closer to understanding Prague."-Larry Wolff, The New York Times Book Review

"Demetz seems to reveal in the multifariousness of his native ground...[and] gives the flowering of that diversity its full due...A fluid chronicle."-Frederic Morton, Los Angeles Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809078431
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 7/11/1997
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.53 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Demetz, Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Yale University, was born in Prague.

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Read an Excerpt



CHAPTER ONE

LIBUSSA, OR VERSIONS OF ORIGIN

What the Schoolchildren Learn

In February 1893, the Czech writer Alois Jirasek, patriot, industrious historian, and late ally of Walter Scott, was preparing a little book for young readers and, in a letter to a friend, expressed his hope that it would make its way without "big band and loud advertising" Jirasek's Old Czech Legends first appeared in 1894, and his hopes, and those of his publisher, Josef Richard Vilimek, were fulfilled far beyond their expectations. Old Czech Legends has been published and republished for a hundred years now, to be read in and outside school, and every educated Czech remembers at least some scenes and sayings from the book—though perhaps, among the more recent, skeptical generation, not so vividly as those from Jaroslav Hasek's Good Soldier Svejk. Making eclectic use of old chronicles, Jirasek described the wandering of the Czechs, their arrival in Bohemia, where they settled after a perilous migration, and the wise Libussa, who, after she married the peasant lad Premysl (father of future Czech kings), in one of her trances guided the people to a place in the forest where the castle and the city of Prague, of never-ending fame and glory, were founded.

Jirasek's Old Czech Legends appeared thirteen years after the premiere of Smetana's patriotic opera Libuse (1881), and Jirasek's admiration for Smetana (as a Prague student he liked to go to the old Cafe Slavia because he could see the composer sitting there) clearly shows. The tales are grand opera, too, highlyserious, intentionally archaic in vocabulary and syntax, and written without the slightest trace of irony. The movement of unnamed masses (the chorus) in proper old Czech costumes alternates withceremonious speeches (or, rather, arias) of the rulers, heroines, and heroes; and the space in which events occur is decorously arranged with a fine sense of symmetry and hierarchical proportions, lighting effects included. In Jirasek's tale of origin a tribe from the east, later named after its leader and patriarch, Czech, moves westward and crosses three rivers, the Oder, the Elbe, and the Vltava, and the people think of the far country which they have left behind and begin to grumble about the perils and the fatigue; "there is no lasting rest for us anywhere." Ur-father Czech, their Moses, ascends a mountain rising from the land, and when he arrives at the top: "Lo and behold! The broad landscape unfolded into the endless distance up to the bluish mountain ranges, easily and freely, forests and thickets, glens and meadows, and through the wild green the rivers shone like silver spilled." The land is empty of other people, "and the rivers well stocked with fish, and the soil fertile," and after three days of meditation, Ur-father Czech tells his people that the "land long promised" was right there and that their wanderings were over for good.

A golden age of love, peace, work, and mutual trust followed, at least as long as Ur-father Czech lived; after his death, his son Krok ruled the tribe, always deeply respecting the assembly of elders (Jirasek wanted to stress Czech democratic traditions), but there was trouble when Krok died without a male heir. Each of his three daughters had particular gifts and virtues: Kazi, the oldest, knew healing herbs and often, by uttering the magic names of the gods, was able to save a life in agony; Teta watched over religious rites and guided the people in observing the rhythm of sacrifices and prayers; and Libussa, the youngest, particularly beautiful, unworldly and serious, was able to see what was hidden from other people's ken and to prophesy. The assembly of elders invested Libussa with the power to rule and to judge, and at first everybody was willing to accept a woman's resolutions. Yet when two neighbors fought over the boundaries of their fields and Libussa resolved the case in favor of the younger man, the older exploded in unseemly anger, condemning her and all women, "long hair, short minds," screaming, the spittle running down his chin, that it would be better to die than to bear with the rule of women, a custom unknown to any other tribe.

Pensive Libussa, far from losing dignity, answered that she was a woman indeed and behaved like one, judging not with an iron rod but with compassion, which was unfortunately taken for weakness. After a night of prayers in her sacred grove, she called a meeting of the elders and warned the assembly that a male ruler would demand service and tribute. The meeting would not nominate a candidate, and she made herown decision with the help of the gods, sent out messengers to be led by her magic white horse to find, near a little river, the plowman Premysl (the "thoughtful," or even the "cunning"), who was working with his oxen. (For some time he has been reappearing on Czech TV before the evening news.) Libussa duly married Premysl, invited him to see the treasures and her sacred grove, and he began to rule and to judge in his own male way. Once, on a mild summer night when Libussa, her husband, and the elders stood on a cliff above the Vltava River, while looking across the water to the wooded hills she was seized by the spirit, raised her hands toward the other shore, and uttered her prophecy: "I see a great city whose fame will touch the stars!" She guided her people to find a man there who was busy hewing the threshold (in Czech, prah) of a house and asked them to build a castle, to be called Praha, right on the spot. "Just as princes and army commanders bow their heads when they enter a house," she proclaimed, "so will they bow their heads to my city. It will be honored, noble, and respected by all the world."

Not everybody, however, was happy after Libussa's marriage and the prophecy of future glory. Her maidens, who enjoyed high esteem in the time of gynocracy, felt abandoned and "angry when the men held them up to ridicule" and called them "lost sheep." It was Vlasta, Libussa's favorite, who gathered the disconcerted and harassed women; they seized arms, and the "Maidens' War" against the menfolk began. Vlasta deftly organized her army and trained the many women who were leaving their husbands, brothers, and fathers to join the fight; the strong were chosen to lead the attack, and the most beautiful to entice the men away from their battle groups to be killed. Premysl's male retinue made fun of the armed women, but Premysl himself warned the men not to underrate the women's strength. In the forest and valleys, much blood was shed mercilessly, hundreds of men died in the field, many were killed in bed, and young Ctirad, strong and handsome—and particularly hated, or perhaps loved, by Vlasta—was lured into an ambush by attractive Sarka, then tortured and put to death. The warriors wanted revenge, and Vlasta, fighting stubbornly, was killed; a counterattack of the maidens failed, all were slaughtered, and the fortified Devin, or "Castle of the Maidens," was razed. The storyteller would like to side with the young women but finally turns against them because, he says, they had no heart.

What Archaeologists and Historians Believe: Hypotheses and Reconstructions

In the beginning (after firm land had risen for the third time from the primal seas) were the clouds, the sun, the river, and the hills that gently descended to the east and southeast and softly flattened out to the north (at least after the recurrent glaciations of the alpine and northern lands of Europe had come to an end). The region in which, much later, many hamlets, villages, and townships were to constitute the city of Prague was attractive to human beings in search of food and shelter from time without time. A first "flake" of flintstone and traces of campfires, signaling a human presence by 250,000 B.C., have been found at Letky in what is now the north of Prague (a much older site near Podbaba is now being discussed by the experts). After long stretches of inclement climatic conditions, bands of roaming mammoth hunters appeared, as did later settlers, in the Sarka Valley and elsewhere on the west bank of the Vltava River, though always at a respectful distance from the water and, on the east bank, only at higher elevations.

At first, the river was treacherous and deeply cut into the rocks, and hunters and settlers were helpless when its banks were swiftly and recurrently inundated. Much, much later (counting in geological periods rather than historical ages), the river eroded the rocks, the riverbed filled with silt and sediments, and the broadened waters began to flow more slowly and quietly—the composer Bedrich Smetana in his symphonic poem "Vltava" (it is known to many listeners by the river's German name, "Moldau") intoned an almost ceremonial and majestic rhythm to indicate the point when the waters enter the Prague region. The left, western bank was hilly, ascending steeply to a high plateau; the right, eastern bank was flatter, at least close to the river, with the exception of a single cliff, later called the Vysehrad. A number of tongue-shaped, sandy islands emerged from the placid waters, and, in war and peace, people found a few places where they could ford, crossing over, for instance, from the left bank under the castle to what is now called the Old Town, slightly north of where the medieval stone bridges were later built. Economic historians presume that the flowering of Prague was due to its location at an intersection where an ancient trade route from Western Europe crossed the river to continue to Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

The first farming people, of unknown origin and possibly from the southeast, arrived after 4000 B.C. and settled across a wide arc in thePrague regions we now know as Liboc, Bubenec, and, on the east side of the river, Liben, and Vrsovice and Krc, farther south. They worked the soil with wooden and stone implements, and bartered for copper trinkets and shells with other tribes; in their cult, fertility was of prime importance (Neolithic "idols" showed large breasts and heavy buttocks but paid no attention to head or face). Evidently the Sarka Valley, now an idyllic place of cliffs, forests, meadows, and cherry trees, a forty-minute tram ride from the center of the city and much visited on Sundays by families with children and by little old ladies with their walking sticks, was among the oldest and recurrently peopled places of early settlement, and Dejvice and Bubenec, now districts in which shabby flats for blue- and white-collar workers jostle for space with office buildings of the first Czechoslovak Republic and obsolete industries, have the distinction, unsuspected by the tourists, of being sited on the oldest continuously settled places in Prague, perhaps contemporary with the organization of the Sumer city-states and the unification of Egypt.

The Ages of Bronze and Iron did not much change the patterns of settlement in the Prague region, but it was as thickly settled then, a Czech archaeologist has concluded, as it was in the beginning of "historical" time. Bronze and Iron Age farmers mostly lived and worked on the accustomed grounds of their predecessors and what was later Prague's Minor Town (possibly making the first hesitant step closer to the river); on the east side, they still preferred to cling to higher areas, away from the water. All these settlers were "silent" people who left no trace in writing or stories told in chronicles by others; to name these societies and subsocieties, archaeologists tend to define their cultures by speaking of handmade pottery of diverse ornamentation—linear, spiral, and "stroke" wares; new waves of invaders are known as the people of "corded" pottery (their graves yielded skulls, trepanned to heal headaches or exorcise evil ghosts, or both); and the people of "bell-beaker" pottery, possibly from the Mediterranean, arrived with flint arrows and a knowledge of copper and silver.

The Celts appeared in the Prague region by the end of the fourth and the beginning of the third century B.C., and, for the first time, the "silent" evidence of pottery, implements, and graves is confirmed by stories to be read and words to be heard. Greek and Roman historians, from Hekataeus of Miletus to Herodotus and from Livy to Julius Caesar, told stories of the Celts' homelands and far-reaching exploits, and the Celts themselves gave names to their tribes and rivers (Boii-Boiohaemum-Bohemia, Albis-Elbe-Labe), filtered by later Germanic speakers into Latin and Czech. They were a people of ostentatious warriors who constantly improved their high technology, used the pottery wheel, and produced implements, weapons, and adornments; the older populations continued to farm for their Celtic masters, with increasing yields. In their time the Prague region participated in a cosmopolitan culture of imports and long-distance trade by exchange; the Celts were in contact with Greek colonies, imported their commodities, including metal mirrors and wine amphorae, as well as Macedonian coins, later imitated in Bohemia and Slovakia with the names of the rulers in the Latin alphabet. The Celtic topography of Prague followed the pattern of older settlements: graves of warriors and their wives have been discovered in the districts we now call Bubenec, Liben, and (about eight miles farther south) Krc, and Celtic warriors later fortified their villages as oppida (so called by Julius Caesar) to concentrate their military power and protect the mass production of weapons and jewelry made by craftsmen affiliated with the princes. The most important oppidum in the Prague region was constructed to the south, at Zavist, across the river from Zbraslav, and another one at Stradonice, to the west, near Beroun.

In the last century B.C., the glory of Celtic civilization was withering away, and Germanic tribes, ceding to Roman pressure in Western Europe, invaded Bohemia and established dominance for nearly six centuries over a large population consisting of the older farming people and those Celts who stayed on; Celtic pottery patterns, at least, long survived into the Germanic epoch. Nineteenth-century Czech archaeology, no less ideological in its nationalist bent than its German competition, only hesitatingly admitted this Germanic presence and, especially in popular presentations, Czech archaeologists still prefer to speak of the "Roman" period—a label easily fitting the conditions on the south side of the Danube where Roman legions constructed their forts (in Vindobona/Vienna) and garrison towns (Carnuntum) but not really adequate for Bohemia when it was ruled by the Marcomanni and when Roman merchants trekked through the "Hercynian forest" (as ancient writers called the wilderness north of the Danube) to peddle their remarkable imported goods to the Germanic upper class. Political involvement of the Marcomanni with the Roman Empire was close; Marbod, the Marcoman ruler, had been in Rome, admired the efficiency of Roman military administration, and around 18 A.D. had to seek Roman protection when a conspiracy of his underlings forced him into exile in Ravenna and his kingdom collapsed.

Compared with the Celts, Germanic civilization was far from sophisticated; there was no glass or enamel work (though some women wereburied with necklaces of imported amber), the pottery wheel disappeared, and agricultural technology fell back to the more basic ways of pre-Celtic times. Germanic graves, male and female, have been found in the Prague region, and there is evidence of a Germanic settlement, in what is now the Minor Town (actually on Malostransky Square, close to the old cafe where German tourists now rest their feet before ascending to the castle); and though the Germanic tribes preferred to live in lonely hamlets rather than in thick agglomerations, there are strong reasons to assume that a remarkable concentration of small iron smithies, including shaft furnaces brought from the Germanic north, flourished on the grounds of Dejvice-Bubenec-Podbaba, the center of an iron industry in "Roman" Prague. It is less clear why the Germanic population quickly disappeared in the mid-sixth century A.D. during the Great Migration of the tribes, which lasted from the third century B.C. to the seventh century A.D.—originally caused by the search for new soil and later intensified by pressure from Roman armies in the west and raids of the Huns coming from the east. Some Germanic groups may have joined other tribes on their warpaths, and it is probable that at least a generation of Germanic Langobards moved through the Bohemian lands as well.

Nineteenth-century Czech or German archaeologists and historians have spun fine fictions to strengthen an argument for the historical priority of this or that future nation, useful in the battle for historical rights and political power. There have been Czech archaeologists who discovered a Slavic population living in all the appropriate places before the arrival of Germanic tribes; and there emerged, in response, a German theory in the early twentieth century saying that the Germanic tribes, or what was left of them, actually never abandoned Bohemia, resisted assimilation, and created a bridge of continuity to the German colonists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (we are no latecomers either). In the context of Central European conflicts, it is a miracle of its own kind that conscientious scholars on both sides have come to compatible views and sober give-and-take conclusions about a brief encounter, if not a potential symbiosis, of Germanic and Slavic tribes in the sixth century A.D., the one group being increasingly absorbed, and the other constantly increasing in numbers, wave by wave.

The Slavic tribes (known as Venedi or Venethi and Sklavenoi to Byzantine and Latin historians) probably arrived in central Bohemia in the middle of the sixth century. Some of the first waves certainly settled, for a while at least, close to the remaining Germanic and other populations; in some cases, two villages of different cultures lived side by side, like Brezno near Louny; in others, as for instance, at Baba, Germanic Thuringians held on to a Vltava ford while Slavs settled in the surrounding hills. Ultimately, the Slavs dominated the field(s), as Celtic and Germanic tribes had done earlier. The Slav settlers were, like so many before them, attached to the high ground that had been cultivated ever since the times of the Bronze Age farmers, but they also dwelt in the north and northeast, possibly avoiding the south because the soil was poorer there; it is clear that they later extended their reach beyond what is now the Prague periphery and pushed to the Hradcany plateau and to the slopes descending to the river from it, the expanse of what is now Ujezd Street ("the Thoroughfare"), Neruda Street, and possibly Malostransky Square. Slavic presence, archaeology believes, is revealed by a combination of traces: among them the simple but elegant pottery of the "Prague type"; square huts, partly built into the earth and with a little fireplace in one corner; flat pans to dry or roast grain; and a cremation ritual with burned bones and a few gifts, a knife, or a flintstone to start a fire (many pig bones have also been found, and the unhealthy Czech habit of eating too much pork roast, not to speak of dumplings and kraut, may be a very old tradition). In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Slavs (who had risen against the Avars in the east and the Franks in the west) began to build their own fortifications, large burgs protected by wood and stone constructions to house the emerging families of the noble warriors and to protect ancient trade routes and access to the river fords. There were, possibly, five of these burgs in the Prague region, the most important being, once again, close to the Sarka cliffs, at Butovice and, later, at Levy Hradec, north of present-day Prague. In these burgs, archaeologists have found evidence of fine artistry and Frankish coins, suggesting the growing importance of long-distance commerce.

Archaeological discoveries about the ninth and the tenth centuries firmly combine with evidence in written documents, including Frankish annals, Bavarian topographies, Arabic and Hebrew texts, to fix the places and shapes of events, however distant and diffuse. In the ninth century at least a dozen Slavic tribes were settled in diverse regions of Bohemia, in some contrast to more centralized Moravia, and new groups of feudal chieftains and their retinues emerged to make decisions about war and peace and their peoples. Each tribe began to build fortified burgs and communities, and a contemporary Bavarian geographer indicated that the "Beheimare" (whoever that was) had fifteen civitates and those of the more powerful "Fraganeo" region forty (he may have overstated the numbers).

It was at Levy Hradec that the family of the Premyslids began to consolidate its power over the Czechs and pushed its claims from there. Only the Slavnikovci, a clan who later united the tribes east and south of Prague and ruled two-fifths of Bohemia, came to resist the Prague dukes, occasionally allying themselves with Saxons and Poles to do so. But on September 28, 995, their well-built civitas Libice fell, and the Slavnikovci and their people, men, women, and children, were mercilessly slaughtered by the Premyslids, who consolidated their power in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and ruled until 1306.

As happened recurrently in later Czech history, the Premyslids and other dukes of the Bohemian tribes confronted neighboring realms of greater power and, throughout the melodramatic ninth century, had a difficult time in furthering their interests by military force or, if necessary, by carefully shifting allegiances. Francis Dvornik (born 1893), the grand old man of early Slavic history, deplores that, in matters spiritual, these western Slavs (including those in Bohemia) were faced early with the only recently Christianized young and half-barbarian Carolingian empire, rather than being able to live, as did the southern Slavs, closer to the gates of Byzantium, long Christian and heir to Greek culture. The "Behaimi" were, after protracted resistance to the Carolingian empire, forced to accept its hegemony (806), symbolized by a yearly tribute of five hundred measures of silver and one hundred and twenty oxen (used by Nazi historiography more than a thousand years later as a political argument about the German power in Bohemia); Bohemian representatives appeared at imperial gatherings carrying the appropriate gifts; and on January 13, 845, fourteen Bohemian duces (chieftains) appeared in Regensburg, capital of East Franconia and starting point of the missionary expeditions to the east, to be Christianized together with their retinues. Not much later, a Frankish expansion eastward ran against the resistance of the rulers of Great Moravia, which originally united Moravia with central parts of Slovakia, and Frankish armies again and again marched through or close to Bohemian territory to reestablish "law and order."

By the year 862, Prince Rostislav of Great Moravia (after the pope had ignored his wishes) asked the emperor of Byzantium to send teachers of the Christian faith who could make themselves understood to the Slavs of Great Moravia, earlier Christianized by missionaries from Bavaria who taught in Latin. Within a year, Constantin (later called Cyril) and Methodius, two learned brothers of Greek origin, were dispatched to Great Moravia to teach in a Slavic idiom (in practice, the one spoken in the vicinity of their hometown of Thessalonika) and possibly to create a church organization independent of the Bavarian hierarchy. Cyril construed a script, the Hlaholice (or Glagolica), to write down Slavic translations of religious and legal texts, and the Bavarian clerics promptly accused the brothers of the heresy of introducing a fourth language (after Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) to Christian liturgy.

Rome showed unexpected sympathy for the Slavic missionaries, but the conflicts between East Franconia and Great Moravia went on, with many invasions, revolts, cruel betrayals, and sudden reversals of fortune. A kind of temporary balance was restored after the Czech defeat of 872 by the agreements of Forchheim (874), which gave the Great Moravians a chance to extend their power both north and south and (while the Franks were busy with their own internal problems) to make the Czechs accept Great Moravian hegemony. Yet Arnulf, king of East Franconia and last Carolingian emperor, was not willing to accept an erosion of his power; he allied himself with Magyar horsemen who attacked Great Moravia, and it was ultimately destroyed by these invasions and by internal disunity. In the year 895 two Bohemian princes, at least one of them of the Premyslid clan, again renewed their allegiance to Arnulf and the Franconian empire; Regensburg and Salzburg regained their preeminence in Bohemian church affairs, at least for a while. The collapse of Great Moravia did not, however, end the history of the Slavic rites. The traditions of Cyril and Methodius were preserved among the southern Slavs, and in the first Bohemian churches, in the region of Prague and elsewhere, celebrants of the Slavic rites may have found refuge. An early Church Slavonic legend about the life and death of Bohemia's patron saint—Duke Vaclav, or St. Wenceslas—was written after he died in 929, and "Hospodine, pomiluj ny" ("God, take mercy on us"), a venerable Czech song possiblydating from the tenth century, preserves resounding traces of its Church Slavonicorigins. The Slavic rite survived in the monastery at Sazava until the mid-eleventh century.

During these restless years, the life of Duke Borivoj (c. 852/53-888/89), the first Christian ruler emerging from the Premyslid clan and, probably, the founder of the stronghold of Praha, may have been more dramatic than the faint traces in legends and chronicles reveal. The writer of the first Bohemian chronicle, composed more than two hundred years after his death, believes that real history commences with Borivoj's Christian rule; the dukes before him, the learned chronicler says, were "given to gluttony and sleeping" and "lived like animals, brutal and without knowledge." Borivoj had to cope with Frankish pressures and bloody Czech defeats, and an early legend has it that he accepted Christianity ina rather pragmatic way. Visiting a Moravian prince, he was relegated to sitting in front of and under the table, together with other pagan guests, because non-Christians were not allowed to dine with Christians, and when Methodius, the missionary, explained to him the virtues and, possibly, advantages of the new creed (sitting at the table with others, new might in the field, and so forth), he was duly christened and returned to Bohemia with priests of the Slavic rite; his wife, Ludmila, grandmother of St. Wenceslas who was killed by his enemies when she was sixty-one years old, accepted baptism, too. Borivoj built a church dedicated to St. Clemens at Levy Hradec (the first Christian church on Bohemian soil), but his more traditionalist rivals, dissatisfied by his new allegiance, rose against him and he had to seek refuge with the Moravians and again returned with their help. He may have decided, right then and there, to build an ex-voto chapel about six miles south of Levy Hradec, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and designed as a mausoleum for his family, and it is perhaps more than a poetic thought that he had it constructed on a place called Gigi (Zizi), on the Hradcany plateau, sacred to the old gods—as if he wanted symbolically to express his triumph over his defeated rivals. Toward the end of his life, possibly in the late 880s, he made a decision of far-reaching strategic, political, and economic implications, and resolved to shift his residence and that of his retinue from Levy Hradec to an eminent place on the Hradcany plateau, close to his new church, and the new castle was called Praha.

The etymology of Praha has long been discussed by historians and linguists, and the final results are not in yet. There are, of course, the Cosmas/Libuse people patriotically adhering to the mythological "threshold" (prah) idea; a few others believe, as did V. V. Tomek in the nineteenth century, that the word referred to the cleaning of the forest by fire (praziti) or are inclined to derive it from prahy, eddies in the river. More recently, interpreters have come to assert that the term originally denoted a barren place on which the sun beat down mercilessly (na praze), while still others defend the hypothesis that the ancient speakers meant a knob, a little hill, or a terrace near the river—immediately provoking the question what Praha stood for first, the burg or the little market below it, or vice versa.

The important point is that Duke Borivoj (appearing under the name of Goriwei in the Latin annals of the Fulda monastery in 872) decided to erect the burg of Prague not in the solitude of wild forests but in the elevated middle of a Czech settlement close to the river. Archaeological evidence of Slavic settlements on the left (western) riverbank, including the one at Malostransky Square built in the place of older Germanic hamlets, as well as old Slavic cemeteries on Hradcany Hill and its vicinity, distinctly indicate that Borivoj and his sons, who continued building, followed the people rather than initiated radical change. The new fortification sat nearly astride an old route from Germany to Russia, which long-distance commercial travelers increasingly used after the Magyars blocked the route along the Danube; merchants went from Mainz to Regensburg and from there north to Prague, where the route reached the fords of the river, and from the other shore on to Cracow and Kiev. The new ducal residence and its suburbium attracted barons, artisans, goliards, scribes, ecclesiastics, and merchants of local and international interests; native people still avoided the right side of the river, often inundated, but iron was made there in small furnaces, the smithies plied their trade, and an ancient cemetery at Bartolomejska Street seems to indicate that a settlement of foreign merchants may also have sprung up there quite early on.

The duke and his family lived in a house best described as a magnificent log cabin, but there was ample space for later changes, and the residence was protected by massive earth embankments, natural ravines, stone walls, and mighty wooden beams locked into each other in intricate grids. The burg of Praha protected the left riverbank, and, by economic and military necessity, another fortification, originally called Chrasten and later the Vysehrad (the "High Burg"), was built upstream on a steep cliff on the eastern, right bank, but not before the first half of the tenth century. Some of the Premyslid rulers were to dwell there for some time, and another suburbium, though of modest size, grew around or below that fortification.

Prague is mentioned as a lively trade center by German chroniclers and Arab travelers in the 940s and 950s, but the first international observer who left an interesting record of his visit to early Premyslid Prague—that is, to the castle and the suburbium on the left bank—was Ibrahim ibn Ya'qub, an erudite Jew from Tortosa, in Spain, who wrote in Arabic. It is difficult to say whether he was a slave trader or a scientist, or both, and he showed so many diverse interests in his travelogue that scholars believed that he must have been two persons of the same name; only more recently have they come to believe that he was sent by Caliph al-Hakam II, of noted scientific interests, as a member of a diplomatic mission to Emperor Otto I in Merseburg, and that he wrote his observations on landscapes, plants, commerce, medical problems, and peoples for a brilliant group of Jewish scholars assembled, at that time, at Cordoba who preserved his text for later readers. He probably arrived in Prague in 965, when Boleslav I still reigned (according to the legend, he had murdered his brother the sainted Wenceslas), and he was astonished to find "Fraga" (or "B.ragha[t]," in a more recently discovered version of his manuscript) built of stone and lime, though possibly he was referring to the new walls and buildings of the castle erected by Borivoj's sons and grandsons. He noted that many Slavic merchants, Russians and others, were arriving from Cracow and some from Turkey (modern commentators believe he was referring to Hungary), including Muslims and Jews who bought slaves, tin, and furs. Food was inexpensive, and leather saddles and shields were of remarkable quality. He must have looked closely at what was going on at the marketplace on the left riverbank below the castle; people mostly carried light pieces of cloth instead of coin, and though these pieces of textile lacked value in themselves, they were hoarded like money and used to buy "all kinds of things." Even coming from Mainz and Merseburg, he found Prague ("smaller than towns usually are but bigger than villages") a place "made richer by commerce than all others."

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Table of Contents

Preface
Author's Note
1 Libussa, or Versions of Origin 3
2 Otakar's Prague, 880-1278 30
3 The Carolinian Moment: Charles IV and His Age 67
4 The Hussite Revolution: 1415-22 118
5 Rudolf II and the Revolt of 1618 171
6 Mozart in Prague 237
7 1848 and the Counterrevolution 272
8 T. G. Masaryk's Prague 314
Postscript. A Difficult Return to Prague 365
Bibliography 379
Index 397
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2002

    The best book I have read about Czech history

    I looked up Internet to find the address of Mr. Demetz to express my enjoyment with his book, but found this instead. So here I go: The best book about Czech history: As it so vividly with many details describes various descisive periods in Czech history, it makes you understand and feel with the protagonists, be it emperors, religeous reformators or others. I am now at the chapter about Rudolf II and felt I absolutely must write the author to express my thanks for such an interesting book. It is not for the hasty tourist, however, you must have a deeper interest in the history of the Czechs, but for me as an expatriate at the age of three, it made me finally understand my homeland's peripeties and thus being a tourist now will mean something more than seeing uncomprehensible buildings and sights without knowing the historical back-ground.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 29, 2008

    Extremely Interesting Read

    Being raised in Los Angeles i know next to nothing about European History.<BR/>So when i picked up this book and began to read you can imagine i was <BR/>fascinated. The author is truly a gifted writer. And the material holds<BR/>your attention constantly. I did not want to put this down. If you have <BR/>any spare time in your busy life, this is well worth the effort. I love<BR/>this book and i'm not Czech. Thanks to the Author. I Cr 13;8a.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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