The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown

The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown

by Hugh L. Agnew

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In this first up-do-date, single volume history of the Czechs, Agnew provides an introduction to the major themes and contours of Czech history for the general reader—from prehistory and the first Slavs to the Czech Republic's entry into the European Union.  See more details below


In this first up-do-date, single volume history of the Czechs, Agnew provides an introduction to the major themes and contours of Czech history for the general reader—from prehistory and the first Slavs to the Czech Republic's entry into the European Union.

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The Czechs

And the Lands of the Bohemian Crown

By Hugh LeCaine Agnew

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-4493-3


Maps, Epochs, Seers, and Saints

A popular sixteenth-century map-making convention represented Europe as a female figure, with Bohemia, the lands of the Crown of St. Wenceslas, as its heart. This metaphorical location has long appealed to the Czechs and is tailor-made for tourist brochures. Since the heart is the body's center, it reinforces another favorite Czech location on the map of the mind, the center. Milan Kundera, a Czech émigré writer, helped revive the concept of "Central Europe" during the 1980s, but his lament for a lost center resonated with older Czech attitudes about their central position in Europe, rooted in the nineteenth century. This center also represented moderation, opposed to extremes in any direction. Another Czech mental map locates them centrally between the cultural forces of the Germans and Latins (sometimes simply called "Europe") and the world of the Slavs, which could be opposed to Europe if the occasion warranted. As the westernmost Slavic nation, the Czechs have also seen themselves as a bridge centered between the "West" and the "East," a metaphor that saw an unhappy revival after World War II.

The Czechs and their homeland are usually not the center of other people's mental maps. One need not limit oneself to Neville Chamberlain's phrase on the eve of the Munich Conference in 1938, about "faraway lands" and "people of whom we know nothing." William Shakespeare used Bohemia to stand for any far-off, exotic clime, even equipping it with a coastline. In succeeding centuries, as the commercial and then industrial revolutions transformed the European economy, the Austrian Empire and with it the Bohemian crownlands ended up trailing behind and struggling to catch up with the West European powers. Twentieth-century politics also relegated the Czechs to the "Eastern" side of the political divide that shaped the dominant European map for the last two generations. Even since 1989, with thousands of Westerners (including Americans) living in Czechoslovakia and its successor republics, these lands are still hardly in the middle of our mental maps.


The physical setting for this history is fixed easily enough: the lands of the present-day Czech Republic, which closely correspond to the core of the historical Kingdom of Bohemia (Bohemia proper, Moravia, and part of Silesia) lie between 51° 03' and 48° 33' north latitude, and 12° 05' and 18° 51' east longitude. The climate is continental and temperate. Physically, the Bohemian lands enjoy natural mountain frontiers: the Krkonoše and Orlické Hory (also known as the Sudeten Mountains) on the northeast bordering Poland, the Šumava mountains blending into the Ceský Les (Bohemian Forest) along the southern and southwestern frontier with Austria and Germany, and the Krušné Hory on the northwestern border with Germany. The Bohemian-Moravian Plateau marks the border between Bohemia and Moravia; the White Carpathian (Bílé Karpaty) chain separates Moravia from Slovakia in the east. Though lacking Shakespeare's coastline, the Bohemian lands enjoy adequate connections to major European river systems. The Elbe (Labe) flows into the North Sea, the Oder (Odra) into the Baltic, and the Morava (which gives its name to Moravia) into the Danube and thence to the Black Sea. The most significant tributary of the Elbe is the Vltava (Moldau), immortalized in Bedrich Smetana's tone poem "Má vlast" (My Country), which flows from south to north along almost the entire length of Bohemia.

The human inhabitants of these lands have long exploited their natural resources. In prehistoric times copper, tin, and iron ore were mined in the Bohemian lands. Gold was extracted from the sands of the Otava River, and silver from Kutná Hora (Kuttenberg), Jáchymov (Joachimsthal), and Príbram (Przibram) contributed to the wealth and power of the Bohemian kings, just as Czech uranium (often from the same locations as the medieval silver mines) contributed to the nuclear power of the Soviet Union. Other mineral resources include coal, though high-quality black coal is relatively scarce. Deposits of poorer quality brown coal have been mined extensively, but burning brown coal for power has caused serious environmental damage. Alternative energy sources like hydroelectric and nuclear power remain controversial. High-intensity industrial farming also contributed to environmental degradation through erosion and the buildup of toxic chemical residues from over-use of fertilizers and pesticides. These contemporary ecological problems represent one facet of a relationship between land and people that stretches back over millennia.

In gentler ways, too, centuries of human habitation have shaped the Bohemian lands. Forests (spruce and fir in the higher elevations, with broadleaved trees such as oak, beech, birch, and linden at lower levels) interspersed with fields characterize the landscape. Human hands felled trees and cleared fields, transforming the woods by removing undergrowth so livestock could graze. The Czech speciality of carp-raising in large ponds, dating back to the Middle Ages, created another typical feature of the countryside. Perhaps there is some affinity between Jakub Krcín of Jelcany, monomaniacal pond builder in the sixteenth century, and the planners of the Lipno, Orlík, and Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros dam projects in the twentieth? At any rate, the relationship between human beings and their land remains significant to Czechs in many ways — from environmental politics to weekend cottages and trips to the woods for mushrooms.


What, then, about the people who have inhabited these lands? Recently discovered artifacts have pushed the estimated date for the earliest human presence here to between 1.6 and 1.7 million years ago. Through the long millennia of the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, Homo erectus, Homo neandertalensis, and the anatomically modern Homo sapiens left their traces in the Bohemian lands. It is difficult to say whether humans moved into and out of the region with the changing climate during the last Ice Ages, or stayed continuously. When the Ice Ages ended approximately 10,000 years ago, humans had to adapt as the cold, dry steppe habitats, with their herds of large mammals, were replaced by broadleaf forests and animals similar to today's. The changed hunting conditions encouraged smaller human settlements concentrated along rivers and lakes, where fishing supplemented forest hunting.

Even greater changes in human society came with the introduction of farming and domestic animals — possibly the greatest development in human culture since the use of fire. With the change from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies, the Neolithic, or New Stone Age, begins. Neolithic settlements in the Balkans pre-date the sixth millennium B.C., in the course of which they spread through the Danubian basin into the Bohemian lands. Scholars argue over whether farming societies arose in Europe independently, through immigrants from the Near East, or through "historical convergences" that spread influences from one people to another. Of the major domesticated plants and animals, only cattle were native to Europe: sheep, goats, wheat, and barley were imports from the Near East.

Farming societies were established in Central Europe by the fifth millennium B.C., and thereafter it appears that human settlement in the Bohemian lands was more or less continuous. Archaeologists usually identify the successive cultures of the Neolithic, Bronze Age (end of the third millennium B.C. to eighth century B.C.), and Iron Age (eighth century B.C. to the present) by some typical feature, often ceramics or burial practices, or by the site where they were first discovered. Without written records it is difficult to say with certainty, but one broadly accepted view holds that most Neolithic Europeans were Indo-European speakers. This probability becomes definite only with the historically documented Celts of the later Iron Age.

When the Celts came into contact with the ancient Mediterranean world, they found their way into the writings of Greek and Roman authors and onto the historical stage. From these references we learn that a Celtic tribe known as the Boii inhabited the region in Roman times, and from them the country derives its common non-Slavic name, Bohemia. The Celts, whose settlements in Bohemia date to the mid-fourth century B.C., were skilled craftsmen, built settled communities, and had a highly developed social organization. The further development of Celtic society in the Bohemian lands, however, ended in the first century B.C. The most important cause was the arrival of Germanic tribes moving into Bohemia from the north.

The Romans clashed with the Germans beyond their frontier several times during the next centuries, but by the later fourth century Roman power was waning rapidly. At that time the Huns (a nomadic people of Asian origin) attacked the lands of the Ostrogoths near the Black Sea, setting off mass population movements, the "barbarian invasions" linked to the decline of the Roman Empire in the west. During the turmoil of the next century, the Bohemian lands were relegated to the periphery of the Roman world, and historical sources mention them only rarely. The Germanic tribes also disappear from the sources, and instead a new people begin to appear in the region, coming initially from the north and east — the Slavs.

The origins of the Slavs are still much debated. Generally, scholars agree that they expanded in historical times from an area north of the Carpathian Mountains, between the middle reaches of the Dniepr and the upper and middle Oder and Vistula rivers. The Slavs arrived gradually, in small groups, seeping into the spaces left by the departure of the Germans, coexisting with and absorbing remnants of previous communities. By the beginning of the seventh century, Slavic settlements had expanded throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, from the mouth of the Elbe and the Baltic coast to the shores of the Black, Adriatic, and Aegean seas.

The Slavs belong to the Indo-European linguistic family, and at the time of their migrations they probably spoke fundamentally the same tongue. Latin and Greek sources refer to them as Sklavenoi, Sclaveni, Sclavi, and so on, but they called themselves, according to the first written records of the ninth century, Sloveni. This term is sometimes derived from slovo (word, implying the ability to speak intelligibly) while their name for their neighbors to the west was Nemci (from nemý, incapable of speech, mute). Over the course of centuries the Slavic linguistic family differentiated into three branches: the West Slavic (including Czech, Polish, Lusatian Serbian, and dialects of now-extinct Slavs along the Elbe and Baltic coast), South Slavic (Slovene, Croatian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian), and East Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian, and Belo-russian). The development of separate standard Slavic languages began with the creation of Slavic states during the ninth and tenth centuries.

The early Slavic states formed in a historical setting shaped by the still-existing legacy of the classical world. One source of that legacy, the Byzantine Empire, preserved an urban, imperial, Christian civilization, ruled by an emperor whose line of succession ran back to Caesar Augustus. In the Romanized provinces of Western Europe the Christian church was well organized, with a hierarchical structure of bishops based on the former Roman cities, owning the supremacy of the bishop of Rome, the pope. The Christian church in the west, however, operated without the powerful political authority represented in Byzantium by the emperor. Even after the papal coronation of Charlemagne, king of the Franks, as emperor in 800, it was the pope who was recognized as the vicar of Christ. From the tenth century onward, the popes balanced between the revived imperial power and other forces, notably the western branch of the Germanic Franks (the future France). As the Slavs moved into Southeastern and Central Europe, including the Bohemian lands, their development would be affected by influences coming from each of these sources.


With the arrival of the Slavs in the Bohemian crownlands, the main character of our history steps upon the stage. That at least was how Cosmas of Prague, dean of the cathedral chapter, saw it. Author of a twelfth-century Latin chronicle that makes him the first native historian of Bohemia, Cosmas recounts how the Slavs' tribal leader, Cech, takes them to the summit of mount Ríp to look at their new homeland, "that land that I have often promised you, a land subject to no one, filled with game and birds, flowing with sweet milk and honey, and ... with a pleasant climate." Cosmas's tale of the Czechs taking possession of their promised land reappears in later chronicles, remains until today part of the Czechs' historical imagination, and immediately evokes recognition. Though this story is the stuff of great legends, it has no historical documentation. What we can piece together from fragmentary written sources and archaeological evidence nevertheless gives us a picture of the arrival of the new settlers and their adaptation to their new surroundings. That adaptation — settling beside, displacing, and gradually absorbing remaining groups of non-Slavs — took several centuries.

By the mid-sixth century another group of Asian nomads, the Avars, dominated the Slavs and remnants of Germanic peoples in the Pannonian basin. According to a Frankish chronicle, these Slavs revolted against the Avars in 623 or 624, choosing as their leader a Frankish merchant named Samo. After defeating the Avars, Samo established a personal realm, the earliest state among the Western Slavs, where he ruled for thirty-five years. Samo's empire (which probably included part of the Bohemian lands) dissolved after his death. The Slavs returned to their tribal associations, settling around fortified sites on high ground.

Early sources sometimes use the Latin-derived terms "Bohemia" and "Bohemians" as though they represented a single land and people, but at other times they mention different Slavic tribal names. These tribal groups gradually changed from kinship-based to territorial associations, grouped around a fort and its ruling family. Ninth- and tenth-century sources suggest that Bohemia had three such tribal groupings, including the Czechs in the center, while with the exception of one tribal group in the north, only Moravians are mentioned in Moravia. The free males decided tribal affairs, choosing a leader from among the prominent families. The status and functions of this leader (called in Czech kníze, prince or duke) is reflected in the names of some of the early dukes: Svatoslav, Jaroslav (religious ritual), Mojmír, Premysl (virtues of ruler-ship), Borivoj, Svatopluk (military prowess). A rudimentary aristocracy of prominent families helped cross tribal boundaries and led to the formation of larger political units.

A powerful and ambitious neighbor, the Germanic kingdom of the Franks, hastened the Slavs' political organization. The Frankish ruler Charlemagne restored the empire in 800, and extended its control through Bavaria, Saxony, and Italy. The Slavic regions beyond also beckoned to Frankish merchants, missionaries, and ambitious noble warriors. From 805 to 806, Charlemagne's armies defeated the Czech tribes and forced them to pay tribute. Following his death in 814, Charlemagne's heirs quarreled, weakening the Frankish state. His grandson, Louis the German, who controlled the eastern portion (Treaty of Verdun, 843), reasserted Carolingian authority by religious expansion. From the bishoprics of Regensburg, Passau, and Salzburg Christian missions set out among the Slavs.

The Slavs in Moravia responded to the Frankish example first. Their duke, Mojmír I, was baptized at Passau in 831, and thereafter the Moravians built stone churches in their fortified settlements, the earliest known example consecrated at Nitra in the 830s by the bishop of Salzburg. In January 845, fourteen "dukes" of the Bohemian Slavs also arrived at Louis's court in Regensburg to accept baptism, but when Louis intervened in Moravia to place Mojmir's nephew Rostislav on the throne, they renounced their politically motivated conversions.

Rostislav had his own interests in Bohemia, where he clashed with the East Franks, highlighting the dangers of Frankish social and religious penetration. In 860, Rostislav asked the pope for Christian missionaries directly from Rome. When his request had no results, Rostislav turned in 863 to the Byzantine Emperor, Michael III, and Patriarch Photius. According to the Slavic Life of St. Methodius, the Moravians told the emperor: "We have prospered through God's grace, and many Christian teachers have come to us from among the Italians, Greeks, and Germans, teaching us in various ways. But we Slavs are a simple people, and have none to instruct us in the truth, and explain wisely." The patriarch and emperor selected two Greek brothers from Salonika, Constant-ine and Methodius, for this task. They knew the Slavic language in daily use around their native city, and translated portions of the liturgy and scriptural texts into it, using a writing system invented by Constantine, the glagolitic script.


Excerpted from The Czechs by Hugh LeCaine Agnew. Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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