Czech Literature up to the Hussite Wars


Literature in Czech has a continuous manuscript tradition from the latter part of the 13th century. From the 14th century onwards numerous texts are preserved in a growing variety of genres, both verse and prose. Any brief survey of this literature, not to mention works in Latin and German as well, will inevitably amount to a mere sketch map of certain landmarks and trends.

Before the late 13th century Bohemian literature was predominantly composed in Latin, with documents from at least the mid 11th century. A number of Old Church Slavonic texts dating back to the late 11th century are also associated with Bohemia and Moravia, but all, except for the fragmentary prayers of the probably 11th-century Prague Folia, have been preserved elsewhere. Old Church Slavonic texts perhaps composed in Bohemia include the 10th or 11th-century First Life of Wenceslas. The Lives of Constantine (Cyril) and Methodius, our main sources for the account of the Moravian mission, may be Moravian in origin. while various other texts, including the Second Legend of Wenceslas, and some translations from Latin, are plausibly attributable to 11th-century Bohemia, presumably to the Sázava Monastery.

Some Latin works from Bohemia also refer to the Slavonic liturgy, notably the finely composed, later 10th-century legend of Ludmila and Wenceslas by the monk traditionally named Christianus. Church Slavonic influences may also be detected in some early manuscript glosses, a few religious terms, and in the famous, evidently earliest Czech hymn Hospodine, pomiluj ny (Lord, Have Mercy Upon Us). [See also the Chrestomatie for the text in its original orthography and additional information.] Further early Latin texts include the first annals, legal documents, and sermons of the 12th or 13th century in the so-called Opatovice Homiliary. The most famous work from this period is Cosmas's Bohemian Chronicle (Chronica Boëmorum / Die Chronik der Böhmen), an important historical work of literary skill and erudition. Cosmas (1045-1125) studied at Liege, became Canon and Deacon of the Prague Chapter, and diplomatic adviser to the Bishop. He began his chronicle in about 1119, and died still engaged in its writing. He is our first source, with Christianus, for some of the ancient legends, including the stories of Přemysl the ploughman, or the "War of the Maidens", with its curious resemblance to Greek legends of the Amazons. Cosmas displays a clerical and dynastic patriotism, with moments of anti-German sentiment. From the late 12th or early 13th century there is evidence also of Latin church drama, in the fragment of an Easter play preserved in the St. George Officium. Latin education was acquired at the school of St. Vitus in Prague, and at the church of the Vyšehrad Chapter, while some scholars, like Cosmas, travelled abroad, especially to Italy and France.

Later we find a substantial tradition of writing in German, beginning with verse texts of the 13th century, and continuing of course up to the 20th century. A number of German poets spent some time in Bohemia, including the poets Reinmar von Zweter at the court of Václav I (1230-53), Friedrich von Sonnenburg at the court of Přemysl Otakar II (1253-78), and also Heinrich Cluzenere, who composed a verse legend of the Virgin Mary at the king's behest. The cultivation of German poetry reached a peak under Václav II (1278-1305). In his reign Ulrich von Eschenbach completed his Alexandreis (1287), while his Willehalm von Wenden, the story of the crusader William of Toulouse, sings King Václav's praises. Frauenlob (pseudonym of Heinrich von Meissen d. 1318) wrote formally complex love poems. Heinrich von Freiberg composed a panegyric to the Czech lord Jan z Michalovic (Ritterfahrt Johannes von Michelsberg) describing his tournament exploits. The Czech lord Remunt z Lichtenburka inspired the same poet to complete Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan. King Václav himself is supposed to be the author of three surviving German love poems. Later, in about 1400, amongst other later medieval German works originating in Bohemia, there is what is reckoned to be the outstanding masterpiece of pre-Reformation German prose, the Ackermann aus Böhmen [Oráč z ČechHusbandman from Bohemia], the work of a Bohemian German, Johannes von Tepl (born Schüttwa, Bohemia, circa 1355, died c. 1414). This work, in the form of a dispute between a widower peasant, the Ackermann, and Death, presents a confrontation between dogmatic Christianity and the Renaissance spirit, and was influenced by Petrarch (his De remediis utriusque fortunae, already translated into German). The earliest surviving Bohemian administrative documents in German, around 1300, antedate similar texts in Czech (c. 1370).

The earliest contemporary manuscript evidence of Czech language before the later 13th century consists of individual words and phrases. The first (two) sentences are 13th-century glosses in the Litoměřice Chapter charter. The two oldest verse texts only survive in l4th-century manuscripts: the prayer-hymn "Lord Have Mercy Upon Us" mentioned above, perhaps late l0th-century, and the later, probably 12th-century hymn "Saint Wenceslas, Duke of the Bohemian Land" (Svatý Václave, vévodo České země). We have only indirect evidence of the oral culture which must always have existed: e.g. in the proscription of pagan cultic songs and plays, mentions of the use of traditional tales, and their literary elaboration, we presume, by Cosmas. Law was also handed down orally, and some of the terms in the first legal texts are undoubtedly pre-Christian.

A continuous manuscript tradition starts in the late 13th century, with the Ostrov Hymn Slovo do světa stvořenie (The Word before the world's creating) and the fine longer Hymn 'Vítaj kráľu všemohúcí' (Welcome omnipotent King), found in the prayer codex of Kunhuta, daughter of Přemysl Otakar II, and Abbess of the St. George Convent in Prague. The earliest large-scale Czech work is the anonymously composed Alexandreis or Legend of Alexander the Great, dating from around 1300. Freely based on the Latin text of the French poet Walter of Châtillon (Gautier, Gualtier de Châtillon) and other sources, the preserved text consists of 3363 lines, about two fifths of the original. Eschewing complicated poetic apparatus, the work focuses on the person of Alexander himself, portrayed neither as historic pagan nor anachronistic Christian, but a perfect knight and feudal lord prefiguring the crusaders in his military exploits. With its contemporary references, dramatic narrative, graphic depiction of war, pithily proverbial and metaphorical lyrical expression of moral and Christian sentiment, it is a work of considerable quality.

The one thing quite certain about the author of the slightly later so-called Dalimil Chronicle, is that his name was not Dalimil, which is a later misapprehension. This first Czech-language chronicle is a trenchantly moralising, but also at times grotesquely humorous verse narrative, emphatic in its anti-foreign, anti-German sentiments, old-fashioned, clannish even, in its warrior-mentality and pre-chivalrous code of honour, die-hard in its disapproval of contemporary knightly pastimes. Based largely on Cosmas, the chronicle treats Czech history from its legendary origins up to 1314, the first year of John of Luxemburg's reign, lambasting bad princes and praising good, and delighting in the chopping-off of German noses. Racial pride and prejudice is natural to this author. Cheerfully legendary and inaccurate, in romping irregular lines of rhyming verse, the Dalimil Chronicle is more propaganda than high literature, one ought to observe, yet its robust vigour of language and clear-lined, delightfully simplistic colourful narrative made it a favourite: there was even a medieval German version.

Roughly contemporary with the Alexander Legend is a series of fragmentary Christian verse legends, including those of Judas and Pontius Pilate, based on the popular Latin collection, the Legenda aurea of the 13th-century Italian Jacobus de Voragine. Two outstanding later 14th-century examples of this widespread medieval genre are the Legend of St. Procopius and Legend of St. Catherine. The first of these narrates quite matter-of-factly, without elaborate stress on miracles, the life of the first abbot of Sázava as a devout Christian patriot, fending off foreign, German, intrusion. The second tells, in eloquent language mingling the spiritual and scholastic with the sensual idiom of courtly love romance, of the love of Catherine of Alexandria for Christ, her spurning of the emperor's hand, conversion of his pagan scholars, and martyrdom under torture for Christ's love. Courtly romance itself is represented by various verse tales, including the longest 14th-century Czech verse composition of all, almost 9,000 verses in length, the Arthurian story of Tristan and Isolde (Tristram a Izalda). Long neglected by scholars, this skilful non-patrician transformation of its German sources is a work of convincing subtlety of human observation, able at depicting the movement of character feeling, projected through direct speech or details of action and behaviour. The courtly love code inherited from France via Germany is also reflected in the Czech 14th- 15th-century love-lyric tradition, which ranges from simple lyrical texts of evidently popular origin to an elaborate song by the first-named Bohemian composer Master Záviš with courtly-type imagery and aristocratic conventions of feudal service, loyalty, and unattainable love.

Cleverly punning, drastic medieval humour is exemplified by the 14th-century Czech dramatic text known as Mastičkář, a version of a comic episode added to the Easter story in which a Quack-Salver purveys ointment to the three Marys visiting Jesus' tomb. Not only does it contain coarse references to masturbation, monkly fornication, and so on, but there is also a mock resurrection, achieved by the anointing of one Isaac's backside. Humorous, satirical or parodic poems, often associated one way or another with University life, include Podkonie a žák (The Groom and the Scholar), Svár vody s vínem (The Dispute of Water and Wine) and Czech-Latin macaronic verses. Other contemporary verse satires include the "Satires on Tradesmen and Aldermen" and "The Ten Divine Commandments" (c. 1340). Alongside related Aesopian fables, one should also mention the satirical, moralist, even mystically religious, but also humorous allegory, Nová rada (A New Council of Beasts) by the aristocratic poet Smil Flaška z Pardubic (d. 1402), in which the various animals, according to their nature, eagle, pig, bear, dove, etc., advise the young king, evidently Wenceslas IV on how he ought to behave.

Although some vernacular legal texts start to appear (the oldest is c. 1360), scholarly matters continue to be treated mainly in Latin writing, for example the Zbraslav chronicle (Chronicon Aulae Regiae) of the German Peter of Žitava, abbot of the Zbraslav monastery (d. 1339), or Charles IV's autobiography, Vita Caroli, soon translated into Czech, as was the chronicle of Přibík Pulkava z Radenína, with which Charles was also involved. This period also saw the earliest Czech-Latin vocabularies, associated with the name of Master Claretus (Bartoloměj z Chlumce). The later 14th century in Bohemia also gave rise, as in England, to the first complete vernacular Bibles. The first entire Czech Bible is thought to have been initiated by Charles's court in the 1360s, translated by a group of Prague Dominicans and others, and completed by the 1370s. The surviving torso of Wenceslas IV's own library includes a German Bible, incomplete, but using the text of one of the oldest complete translations, originating In Prague circa 1375-90, and inspired by the wealthy burghers, primarily Martin Rotlev, the Prague Fugger of the 14th century. Another remarkable achievement In an area hitherto monopolised by Latin is the meditative theological prose of Tomáš ze Štítného (c. 1335 - c. 1409). Pre-Hussite Czech vernacular prose culminates in notable late 14th and early 15th-century versions of medieval classics such as the Trojan Chronicle and Marco Polo's Travels. The most striking and unconventional Czech fictional prose work is the early 15th-century anonymous work known as Tkadleček, The Weaver, an ambitious text, evidently inspired by the German Ackermann, though about four times longer. The Weaver takes the form of a lengthy dispute between a lover, the weaver-of-words, and Misfortune (not Death as in Ackermann), who has deprived him of his beloved mistress (not wife); the shifted thematic framework produces a more worldly treatment, sometimes courtly, even Renaissance-like In its handling of the love theme. The writer shapes his syntactically colloquial-effect, loose-limbed text into a luxuriantly rhetorical and lyrical tapestry, emotionally, defiantly, disputing with Misfortune, reflecting with word-intoxicated volubility and busy citations of classical authorities on the lover's predicament, and the circumscribed nature of the human condition.

Though preceded by other scholars and preachers such as the German Konrád Waldhauser, or the Czechs Jan Milíč z Kroměříže, Vojtěch Raňkův z Ježova [Albert Ranconia ab Ericino], and Matěj z Janova, the figure of Jan Hus (c. 1371-1415), strongly influenced by the English Wyclif, has inevitably come to overshadow his immediate predecessors and contemporaries, though some were more radical in their thinking. His scholarly writings were mainly in Latin, but his Czech sermons had a wide popular impact, and extended well beyond purely theological matters; morality leads him into social criticism, attacks on sinful clergy, and the privileged positions of Germans; they are often trenchant in their skilfully and pithily expressed rhetoric. Hus is also remembered for his letters, especially those written from Constance. He paid careful attention to language, avoiding archaisms, and discussing pronunciation, dialect variation and the influx of foreign, often German loanwords. A famous proposal for spelling reform, using diacritic marks over consonants to distinguish different sounds (e.g. Š "sh" from s "s"), is also attributed to him, and it forms the basis of modem Czech orthography.

The years of Hussite conflict and religious passion encouraged verse-pamphleteering, and moral didacticism, the writing of often warlike vernacular hymns, and anti-Catholic, but also anti-Hussite satires, as well as contemporary chronicles, polemics and sermons. The most famous of the hymns is undoubtedly Ktož jsú boží bojovníci (Ye Who Are God's Warriors), the battle song of Hussite armies. Polemical verses include the allegorical Hádání Prahy s Kutnou Horou (Quarrel of Prague with Kutná Hora), which presents Prague in the form of a lovely lady, symbolising Hussitism, while Kutná Hora, as an ugly hag, defends the Catholic side. The Catholic party in turn is supported by the scurrilous "Song of the Wycliffite Woman" and by "Václav, Havel and Tábor": set in a burnt-out church, the work presents Catholic Václav who rejects Hussite violence in dispute with Hussite Tábor, while Havel the Praguer represents compromise. A related Latin propagandist text, Carmen insignis Coronae Bohemiae (Poem of the Noble Bohemian Crown) by the moderate Prague Utraquist and Hussite chronicler Vavřinec z Březové (1370 - c. 1437), celebrates the Hussite Victory at Domažlice in 1431, depicts satirically the terrified flight of the crusaders, and ends with a vision of peace. In a later prose allegory by the Utraquist Ctibor Tovačovský z Cimburka (1438-1494), the Hádání Pravdy a Lži o světské zboží a panování jich (Quarrel of Truth and Falsehood over Worldly Goods and Their Mastery, 1467), Truth stands for Utraquism, Falsehood for the Roman Church, and the author supports the party of King George of Poděbrady.

Amongst this 15th-century material, largely unimpressive in thought and literary merit, it is a severe contrast to find one thoroughly unconventional thinker, Petr Chelčický (c. 1390-1460), pacifist rather than Hussite in his theology. Chelčický witnessed Hus in his youth, received an education, but lived most of his life as a member of the lesser gentry in the village of Chelčice near Vodňany. A defender of primitive, biblical Christianity, he opposed both the official Church, as corrupt, not susceptible of reform, and the Hussites, for fighting injustice by violence. In his treatises Chelčický condemned the idea of a just war and recognised only spiritual resistance to the devil. He declared the non-biblical character of the traditional division of society into three estates, nobles, clergy and peasants. He attacked church accumulation of property and saw the life of the rich nobility as parasitic on the peasantry. In his largest and most famous work, Siet viery (The Net of Faith, c. 1440-1443). Chelčický's biblical net represents the true faith which saves souls, like a net pulling in fish from the sea. Sinners and heretics tear this net, especially the pope and rulers. For Chelčický the recognition of the Church by the Roman emperor Constantine made it a worldly un-Christian institution. He rejects church rituals, pictures, and statues. Though the state is temporarily inevitable, one should have nothing to do with public administration, which is organised violence, or commerce which lives off the work of others. The just society is formed by those who work and produce with their hands. Evil must not be opposed by violence, - one must turn the other cheek. Chelčický's biblical pacifism was recognised by the Russian novelist and thinker Lev Tolstoy as a forerunner of his own thinking.

In defying the authority of the Church of Rome, in Chelčický's case substituting the authority of the Bible, the Hussites were clear precursors of the Lutheran Reformation. Like the Reformers, however, the Hussite religious writers, including the highly unconventional Chelčický, were on the whole dogmatic, partisan, and self-righteous.

© James Naughton, draft, Sept 2004
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Last updated: January 2018