THE CZECH READER
HISTORY, CULTURE, POLITICS
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
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Chapter One Between Myth and History (The Premyslid Dynasty)
Romans called the Celtic tribes in the Czech lands Boii, and from this name is derived not only "Bohemia" and the German word Böhmen, but perhaps also the name for Bavaria. At the end of the first millennium BCE, the Celts died out in the Czech lands, followed by the Germans, who left the country around 530 CE. Czechs and Moravians arrived in East Central Europe soon after, together with Slovaks, Poles, and other western Slavs. They supposedly called the land Cechy, after a mythical ancestor. In the nineteenth century, the term "Czech" began to be used to distinguish ethnic Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia from their German and Jewish compatriots.
In the Czech lands nomadic pagans soon metamorphosed into settlements of Christians, led by rulers in the rough castle town of Praha (Prague). This history is fragmentary and fraught with the dynastic clashes and murderous ambition so often romanticized in the propaganda of nation building. There is no doubt, however, that the establishment of the Carolingian empire in the second half of the eighth century was of crucial importance for the future of the Czech lands. Central Europe was actually created by Charlemagne, together with the first Western European empire. Western Europe needed a chain of vassal states to protect its inland borders, a huge buffer zone separating it from Eastern Europe.
The earliest historical accounts—and rich archeological records—come from southern Moravia. There, in the ninth century, the Great Moravian Empire was established, adopting Christianity and expanding into southwestern Slovakia and Bohemia. In 880 a papal decree describes the archbishopric of Great Moravia, with Methodius as its head, and the Slavic liturgical language, then used alongside Latin. Methodius and his brother Cyril—Greeks from Thessalonica, where both Slavic and Greek were spoken—had been dispatched by the Byzantine emperor as missionaries to the Great Moravian Empire. The brothers founded the Slavic literary tradition by translating Christian liturgical texts into Old Slavonic. In 863–67, Cyril wrote an important prologue to his translations of the four Gospels, the first poem in Old Church Slavonic.
Only in the tenth century did political power move to Prague, after the Great Moravian Empire was destroyed in 906 by a Magyar invasion. From Prague to Mikulcice, the presumed center of the earliest western Slavic empire, is today only two and a half hours' drive. But in Czech history this topographical shift meant a leap from the edge of the Byzantine Empire, Greek culture, and Old Church Slavonic into the orbit of Latin and the Roman Empire, which was reinstalled in 962. Old Church Slavonic survives in the song "Hospodine pomiluj ny" ("Lord, have mercy on us"), still sung in Czech churches. Not only does it contain Old Slavic words like pomiluj, it does not include any word that might not have originated in that language.
In the creation of the Czech state, the crucial role was played by Duke Boleslav I (935–72), at first adversary and later ally of the first Holy Roman emperor, Otto I. Boleslav I is called "the Cruel" because he assassinated his ruler and older brother, the later sanctified Václav I (ca. 907–35). His reason was that he opposed not his brother's Christian zeal but Václav's fealty to the Germans. Boleslav began to rule Bohemia (and perhaps also Moravia) from a network of castles, extracting taxes to maintain his powerful armed forces. We have an eyewitness report of Boleslav and the Slavs of his time from a Jewish trader who visited Prague in the tenth century.
The ambitious vision of Boleslav I was later realized in the Golden Bull of Sicily of September 26, 1212, wherein Emperor Frederick II affirmed the Premysl Otakar I (1198–1230) as the king, rather than the duke, of Bohemia and recognized the independent position of the Bohemian kingdom in the empire. From that time onward the election of the Bohemian king was an internal matter, but the Czech ruler, as one of the foremost imperial princes, had a key position in electing Holy Roman emperors.
The rise of Prague's rulers led them to claim a respectable past. Cosmas of Prague (ca. 1045–1125), who wrote the first Czech chronicle, played down the Moravian roots of the Czech state and replaced them with a founding myth starring the soothsayer Princess Libue and Premysl the Ploughman. The story, significantly set west of Prague, suggested an exceptional dynasty and a state without equal. Not long after Cosmas finished his chronicle, the Prague-centered myth of Premysl the Ploughman was painted on the wall of the Premyslid rotunda in Znojmo, one of the oldest "historical" paintings in Europe. Following the collapse of the ancient Roman Empire, the visual arts survived in only a few places; monumental architecture, sculpture, and painting began to revive only in the twelfth century. Czechs were active participants in this revival.
What made possible this rapid acculturation of Czech lands? The reasons are manifold, but monastic orders certainly played a role. In 1142, the first Cistercian monastery in the Bohemian kingdom was founded in Sedlec, near Kutná Hora. Unlike the Benedictines, who preferred mountain sites, the Cistercians set up their monasteries in fertile valleys, because they preached economic self-sufficiency, not only to live in isolation but also to create a "Divine Order" in the landscape through their rational planning and perfectly organized work. A quick spread of technological innovations was secured through the Cistercian ideal of unity. Cistercians across Europe worked and lived uniformly and prayed in identical monastery churches, all consecrated to the Virgin Mary. The Cistercian model, centered on the mother house of the order, Citeaux in Burgundy, linked Bohemia with the economic and cultural heartland of Europe.
Colonization of the densely forested country began in the eleventh century, and the foundation of cities in the thirteenth century brought an influx of foreigners, above all Germans, but also Jews. The Czech glosses in Bohemian Hebrew manuscripts are among the oldest examples of the Czech language. Bohemian Hebrew literature was soon more extensive than that written in Latin, which had become the sole literary language of Bohemia after the Old Slavonic culture died out. Of the Prague Hebrew texts of the twelfth century, only titles are preserved, but from the thirteenth century we have several works of the local Talmudic school, influenced by French Judaic tradition.
Germans were invited by Czech rulers as early as the reign of Otakar I. German farmers settled in the mountains at the periphery of the Bohemian kingdom; German miners and craftspeople populated the new towns. German colonization peaked in the thirteenth century, and the colonists profoundly changed their new homeland. The German legal code (ius teutonicum), which suited the requirements of a market economy better than the indigenous law codes, prevailed in villages and towns throughout Bohemia and Moravia.
In the thirteenth century, silver was discovered in Bohemia, spawning a city around one of the richest European mines of that time. Kutná Hora (literally, Cowl Mountain, after miners' hoods), soon began to match Prague in size, wealth, and political importance. Around 1300 Václav II centralized minting in his kingdom at the so-called Italian Court in Kutná Hora, named for the Italian coin minters who worked there. Here the Prague groschen (from Latin denarius grossus, i.e., thick) were produced. They were one of the most popular coins in Central Europe until the beginning of the fifteenth century. Václav II also issued the Ius regale montanorum, the first written mining code, which was based on ancient Roman law.
In Dante's Divine Comedy "Ottacchero, the mighty Bohemian," is modeled on Otakar II; he and his kingdom are commemorated (Purgatory 7, line 100). While the political ambitions of the thirteenth-century kings brought fame and prosperity to the Bohemian kingdom, they also created new problems. As might be expected, one of the first literary works written in the Czech language is the militantly anti-German and xenophobic Dalimil Chronicle of the early 1300s. At that time Germans had influenced the Czech royal court to adopt French chivalric culture. The chronicle's anonymous author, presumably a nobleman, urges Czech kings to rely exclusively on Czechs. He finishes by recommending that Czech aristocrats elect kings from the local people, as advised by "Libue, who was never mistaken."
The last Premyslid on the Bohemian throne was Queen Elika (Elizabeth), who married Jan ( John), son of Henry VII of the Luxembourg dynasty, who was the German king and Holy Roman emperor. Jan of Luxembourg signed the Visegrad Treaty in 1335, a political milestone in the early history of Central Eastern Europe. In this treaty the kings of Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary committed themselves to mutual cooperation, attempting through diplomacy to avoid military conflicts. These commitments were renewed in 1991 by the leaders of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, who later became members of the European Union. They still met as the Visegrad Four, although all four states' borders had changed countless times in the previous millennium.
Report on a Journey to Prague in 965 Ibrahim ibn Yaqub at-Turtushi (died 997)
Ibrahim was an early medieval Jewish traveler whose keen interest in natural conditions, technology, and ethnography shows that he was a well-educated and curious man (note his detailed description of a tenth-century sauna bath). He may have traveled to Central Europe on a diplomatic mission for the caliph of Cordoba, Al-Hakam II, for whom the report was probably destined. Although in 973 he attended the court of Emperor Otto I at Quedlinburg, his great interest in economy and commerce suggests that he was a merchant, one of the Radhanites, multilingual Sephardic Jewish traders who dominated world trade between 600 and 1000, keeping alive the old Roman trade routes and traversing the whole of the known world. Their northern trade network connected Western Europe and the Far East. To Prague flowed the goods from Byzantium, to be exchanged for corn, oils, furs, tin, lead, and slaves—although the Radhanites preferred goods of small bulk and large profit, such as spices, perfumes, incense, silk, and jewelry. In 2007, excavations in Prague's Malá Strana (Little Quarter) uncovered tenth-century limestone walls that confirmed Ibrahim's description of Prague in that time.
Slav lands extend from the Mediterranean Sea to the northern ocean. People from the north, however, seized parts for themselves and continue to live even to this day among them. Slavs form many different tribes. Formerly, they were united under one king, whom they called Mâhâ. He was from a tribe called Velinbaba, which they respect greatly. Then discord began among them; their association foundered. Their tribes formed different factions, and each tribe is ruled by a king. Currently, they have four kings: the king of the Bulgars; King Boleslav [Boleslav I, the Cruel] who rules Prague, Bohemia, and Cracow; Mieszko, king of the north; and in the far west, Nakun, whose country is bordered to the west by Saxons and partly by Danes. Nakun's land is cheap to live in, and so rich in horses that they are exported. The men are equipped with helmets, swords, and armor.
Thus the Slavs build most of their citadels: they go to a meadow rich in water and shrubs, where they make a round or quadrilateral space as the shape and circumference of the castle, and as one observes, they dig a trench around it and heap the earth, securing it with planks and palings in the manner of a bastion, until the walls reach the intended height. Also, a tower is measured for the castle on whatever side one wants, with a wooden bridge to go in and out....
As to the land of Boleslav, it extends from the city of Prague up to the city of Cracow, a trip of three weeks, and it borders on the land of the Turks [present Hungary]. Prague is built with stone and lime; it is the largest trade center in this land. To this city [Prague] come Russians and Slavs from the city of Cracow, with their goods. And from the land of the Turks come Muslims, Jews, and Magyars with goods and merchants' weights. From these merchants they buy slaves, tin, and various furs. Their land is the best in the north and the richest in food. For small change one gets enough wheat for a month. And for the same price one gets as much fodder [barley] as a horse needs for forty days, or ten hens. In the city of Prague they manufacture saddles, bridles, and the thick shields that are used in these lands. Also manufactured in the land of Bohemia are fine scarves woven like nets, unsuitable for any practical use. Their price is fixed: ten scarves for one little coin. With them people trade and reckon. They fill entire trunks with them and use them to buy wheat, slaves, horses, gold, silver, and other possessions [the Czech word platit, to pay, comes from plátno, linen]. Strangely, the inhabitants of Bohemia are dark with black hair, and pale skin is rare among them....
When a boy comes of age, his father procures a woman for him and pays a marriage gift to her father. Marriage gifts are generous among the Slavs and the accompanying ceremonies are like the Berbers'. If two or three daughters are born to a man, they are the basis of his fortune, but if he has sons he is impoverished....
Slavs are on the whole bold and aggressive, and if they were not split into many disparate groups and units, no people on earth would conquer them by force. They inhabit lands most fertile and most abundant in food. They are very diligent farmers and devote themselves to food production, in which they are superior to all the peoples of the north. Their products go by land and sea to Russia and Constantinople....
Famine would not follow from a lack of rain or a drought, but only from too much rain and humidity. Drought does not dishearten them because of the humidity and extreme cold. They plant in two seasons, in midsummer and spring, and harvest two crops; most of all they sow millet. The cold is healthy for them, winter even when severe, but they cannot bear hot weather. That is why they are unable to travel to the land of the Lombards [Italian peninsula], because of excessive heat, which overcomes them....
Generally distributed among them are two diseases; hardly any people remain untouched by them. These are two kinds of skin eruption: measles and ulcers. They avoid eating chickens, because as they say, it encourages measles. Instead, they eat beef and goose, which suit them. The clothing of Slavs is loose, with narrow cuffs. Their kings keep their wives out of sight and are extraordinarily jealous of them. Sometimes one man has twenty or more women.
Most trees in the valleys are apples, pears, and peaches. There is a strange bird, which is green on top and repeats all the sounds of humans and animals that it hears. In Slav language the bird is called sba [Czech pacek, starling]. There are also wild chickens, which are called in Slav language tetra [Czech tetrev, grouse]. They have delicious meat and can be heard from the treetops for a distance of four miles. There are two varieties: black and variegated, more beautiful than peacocks. Slavs have various kinds of string and wind instruments; the length of one of their wind instruments is more than two ells; the string instrument has eight strings and its bottom is not rounded, but flat. Their drink and wine is honey....
The Slav countries are very cold, coldest when the nights are moonlit and the days are clear; then it is powerfully cold and the frost is strong, the earth is like stone; liquids freeze, wells and springs are coated as if by plaster, so that finally they too are like stone. When people breathe through their noses, they discover that their beards are covered with ice that is like glass and breaks off, unless they are warmed by a fire or come under a roof. When night is dark and day gloomy, the ice melts and the freeze eases off.
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