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

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

by Peter Demetz

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Prague is at the core of everything both wonderful and terrible in Western history, but few people truly understand this city's unique culture. In Prague in Black and Gold, Peter Demetz strips away sentimentalities and distortions and shows how Czechs, Germans, Italians, and Jews have lived and worked together for over a thousand years.

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Prague is at the core of everything both wonderful and terrible in Western history, but few people truly understand this city's unique culture. In Prague in Black and Gold, Peter Demetz strips away sentimentalities and distortions and shows how Czechs, Germans, Italians, and Jews have lived and worked together for over a thousand years.

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.

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Prague in Black and Gold

Scenes from the Life of a European City

By Peter Demetz

Hill and Wang

Copyright © 1997 Peter Demetz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3064-2



What the Schoolchildren Learn

In February 1893, the Czech writer Alois Jirásek, 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." Jirásek's Old Czech Legends first appeared in 1894, and his hopes, and those of his publisher, Josef Richard Vilfmek, 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 Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk. Making eclectic use of old chronicles, Jirásek 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 P emysl (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.

Jirásek's Old Czech Legends appeared thirteen years after the premiere of Smetana's patriotic opera Libuše (1881), and Jirásek's admiration for Smetana (as a Prague student he liked to go to the old Café Slavia because he could see the composer sitting there) clearly shows. The tales are grand opera, too, highly serious, 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 with ceremonious 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 Jirásek'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 (Jirásek 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 her own 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 P emysl (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. P emysl's male retinue made fun of the armed women, but P emysl 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 Šárka, 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 D v n, 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 Šárka 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 Vyšehrad. 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 the Prague regions we now know as Liboc, Bubene , and, on the east side of the river, Liben, and Vršovice 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 Šárka 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) Kr , 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 Závist, 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 presertations, 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 were buried 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 café 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-Bubene-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.


Excerpted from Prague in Black and Gold by Peter Demetz. Copyright © 1997 Peter Demetz. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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