Czech Renaissance Literature and Humanism


In the more settled times after the Hussite Wars, with George of Poděbrady's peacemaking diplomatic initiatives and reviving European contacts, there appear signs of a more empirical knowledge-seeking and investigative attitude to human affairs. We find the start of a long line of informative, often well written and still very readable Czech travel memoirs. For example, there is the Czech-language description of a journey to France in 1464, Diary of an Embassy of King George, by the page Jaroslav; and an account surviving in Latin translation of Lev of Rožmitál's journey in 1465-7 "to the end of the world" (the coast of Portugal), written by one of his company, Václav Šašek z Biřkova.

A strong emphasis on the Christian value of education informed by classical scholarship becomes apparent, influenced by attitudes in Reformation Germany. The more anthropocentric philosophy of Renaissance art derived from Italy ill matched the Reformation zeal of many Czech writers, but the cult of classical Latin style, and the instructive focus on secular subject matter, were more easily compatible with the Reformation outlook.

Early signs of Italian humanist influence had been visible already in some learned Latin correspondence of Charles IV's circle, showing acquaintance with the style of Petrarch, whom Charles had met in Mantua and Prague. A later meeting point is found in the person of Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (1405-64), one-time Papal legate to Bohemia, later Pope Pius II, who wrote a Latin history of Bohemia, soon translated into Czech. An early work in humanist style is a Latin dialogue of 1469 by Jan Mladší z Rabštejna, in which four Bohemian noblemen discuss George of Poděbrady's relations with Rome.

The nearest thing to a vernacular Renaissance poet at this time was King George's son Hynek z Poděbrad (c. 1450-92), identified as author of several surviving works, including the erotic poem "A Dream of May" (Májový sen) and a collection of amusingly written bawdy prose stories from Boccaccio, augmented by one of his own.

The Utraquist Prague University remained decayed, small and conservative until the early 1500s, infertile ground for the new scholarship; earlier humanist writing, Latin and Czech, was cultivated in private circles. Book printing reached Bohemia early, by the 1470s (traditionally the first Czech title was the Trojan Chronicle, printed in Plzeň), and over thirty books in the Czech language were printed in Bohemia before 1500.

Latin verse became widely practised, and its writing was taught in schools. The thousands of surviving examples (elegies, odes, idylls, satires etc.) are mostly pale imitations of Virgil, Horace and other classics, predominantly occasional verse (for birthdays, weddings, etc.). There were however distinguished practitioners of Latin, both Catholic and Utraquist; often they were educated burghers. A leading figure was the Catholic nobleman Bohuslav Hasištejnský z Lobkovic (c. 1461-1510), who studied in Bologna and Ferrara, author of philosophical prose, letters, and verses, amongst them a satire on Bohemian national life Ad sanctum Venceslaum satira (1489); another early Renaissance humanist was Šimon Fagellus Villaticus (Šimon Bouček, c. 1473-1549), associated with Plzeň, and noted for freshly written epicurean verses on love, wine and friendship. A significant circle was centred around the liberal Catholic Jan Hodějovský z Hodějova (d. 1566), including Matouš Collinus (1516-66), first teacher of Homer at Prague University, who studied at Wittenberg, and David Crinitus z Hlaváčova (153 1-1586), author of a Latin metrical version of the Song of Songs. Distinguished Latin poets in the period from Rudolf's reign up to 1620 were Jiří Carolides (1569-1612), Jan Campanus (1572-1622), Jan Chorinnus (d. 1606), author of freshly expressed nature poetry, Pavel z Jizbice (d. 1607), author of personal love verse, and Elizabeth Weston (Westonia, d. 1612), an Englishwoman whose parents came to Bohemia where she compared her fate in verse to Ovid, and married an imperial lawyer.

The one-time friend of Bohuslav Hasištejnský z Lobkovic, but a Utraquist adherent, Viktorin Kornel ze Všehrd (1460-1520) turned away from Latin to Czech, praising it as potential equal of the classical tongues. An outstanding lawyer, his views on the need for vernacular literature and translations are expounded in a well-known preface to a Czech translation from John Chrysostom. Translation was a cardinal pursuit of vernacular humanism in Bohemia, as indeed it was in Tudor England. Other important early translators include Řehoř Hrubý z Jelení (1460-15 14), outstanding translator of Erasmus's The Praise of Folly, Václav Písecký (1483-1511), first translator from Greek (1510), and the printer Oldřich Velenský z Mnichova (c. 1495-after 1531) who translated from Lucian, Erasmus, and Luther. Another important author was the Utraquist Prague burgher and printer-publisher Mikuláš Konáč z Hodiškova (d. 1546), whose works include versions of Boccaccio, Petrarch, Lucian, Aeneas Sylvius (Česká kronika, 1510), Burleigh, Capua (Pravidla lidského života, material ultimately from Indian Fables of Bidpai), an adapted biblical drama Judith, and a Boccaccian play, inaugurating Czech Renaissance drama.

Translation went hand in hand with adaptation and anthologising. The priest Jan Češka composed a set of moral essays presenting the modern noble ideal, using material mainly from Petrarch, but also Seneca, Cicero, etc. Moral instruction combined with entertainment was achieved in a variety of works, for example by sundry versions of Aesop's fables going back to the 14th century. One edition made an early Czech printed book, in 1488; later versions by Jan Akron Albín Vrchbělský (c.1525-probably 1551) appeared in the largest volume of 16th-century entertaining prose, Ezopa mudrce život s fabulemi aneb básněmi jeho (Prostějov 1557), which also contains facetiae taken from Sebastian Brant.

Several original Czech prose works from the 1520s to 1570s show the impact of Renaissance humanist style. The most famous is the colourful, much read Bohemian chronicle of Václav Hájek z Libočan (1541), material from which was incorporated in the Latin chronicle Historiae regni Bohemiae (1552) of Jan Dubravius (Jan Skála z Doubravky, 1486-1553). Even more widely read in Europe was Dubravius's treatise on fishponds De piscinis (1547).

The Unity of Brethren, founded in 1458 and under the influence of Chelčický, at first stressed faith above higher learning, but soon, led by Lukáš Pražský, the Brethren changed course in this respect, founding influential Czech schools and printing presses in the spirit of Christian Reformist humanism. After shifting their centre to Moravia, under persecution, they founded their own printing house, administered by their bishop Jan Blahoslav (1523-71), who had studied in Wittenberg, where he met Luther. Blahoslav edited a great hymn-book of the Brethren (1561), for which his work Musica (1550) was partly a preparation, and he produced an outstanding scholarly translation of the New Testament (1564), which led to the Brethren's complete Kralice Bible (1579-94), the equivalent in Czech of the English Authorised Version.

Publishing in the later 16th century is closely associated with the scholarly circle of Daniel Adam z Veleslavína (1546-99), Prague historian, publisher of many finely produced Czech-language works, including translated books on Muscovy, the Turks, and Jewish history. This period saw a general flourishing of scholarly vernacular literature, including geography, law (Pavel Krystyán z Koldína, codifying municipal law), medicine, botany, chemistry, and astronomy (both Tycho de Brahe and Johann Kepler worked in Prague under the Emperor Rudolf). One should also note lexicography: Jan Vodňanský's Lactifer ("Milkbearer"), a Latin-Czech vocabulary from the early 16th century; more important, in the second half of the 16th century, two dictionaries by Tomáš Rešel (Reschelius), Dictionarium latino-bohemicum (1560) and Dictionarium bohemico-latinum (1562). Most important were Veleslavín's dictionaries, trilingual (1586) and quadrilingual (1598) thesauruses (arranged by subject), and the alphabetical Sylva Quadrilingua (also 1598). These were later used by J. Jungmann for his classic multi-volume Slovník česko-německý of the 19th century. Early grammatical writings include Matouš Benešovský (Philonomus), Grammatica Bohemica (1577), Beneš Optát, Petr Gzel and Václav Filomates, Gramatika česká (Náměšť, 1533) for the Brethren, Jan Blahoslav's Deklarací na Grammatiku českou (1571), notes on the preceding work. The first systematic general grammar is by Vavřinec Benedikti z Nudožer, Grammaticae bohemicae libri duo (1603).

Travel writing was a strong area throughout this period. Accounts of journeys to Palestine were supplied in the late 15th century by Martin Kabátník, a member of the Brethren sent to look for original Christianity, and Jan Hasištejnský z Lobkovic. Another account of such a journey, with famous sea descriptions, was written in the 16th century by the observant and scientifically minded Oldřich Prefát z Vlkanova, and a further account was written at the end of that century by Kryštof Harant z Polžic. Kryštof Harant was one of the 26 executed on the Old Town Square on 21 June 1621. His brother Jan Jiří, who emigrated in 1628, wrote a memoir of his experiences and the anti-Habsburg opposition. Central and southern Europe - Austria and Hungary, Bavaria and Italy - was described by Bedřich z Donína (c. 1574-1634). In 1599 Václav Vratislav z Mitrovic wrote of his participation in a diplomatic mission to Turkey (involving imprisonment and the galleys), a book available in a very readable 19th-century English version. Turkey was also visited by Václav Budovec z Budova, remembered for his Antialkoran of 1614, on Islam, and his correspondence with his Moravian friend Karel starší z Žerotína. Another travel diary is the Latin manuscript volume of the young nobleman Zdeněk Brtnický z Valdštejna (1581-1623), covering the years 1597-1603. It begins with his time studying at Strasbourg University, then travelling to France, the Netherlands, England, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy, returning to Moravia in 1602. After 1620 he was imprisoned in Špilberk Castle in Brno, where he died after falling ill. (There is an English translation of the section describing Elizabethan England, entitled The Diary of Baron Waldstein, tr. by G.W. Groos, London: Thames & Hudson, 1981.)

Earlier literary historians observed a lack of non-devotional Czech verse of any literary significance throughout this period. This picture is slightly revised by the now less censorious attitude to the 15th-century verse of Hynek z Poděbrad described above, but also by the discovery in Brno in 1961 during rebinding of part of a printed collection of anonymous 16th-century love lyrics, showing Renaissance stylistic qualities, irregular and also complex stanza patterning, as well as popular love-song features and medieval influence (Brněnský zlomek milostných básní, c. mid 16th century, 291 lines of verse, perhaps one-fifth or one-sixth of the whole). Later poets of moderate quality in the period before 1620 include Šimon Lomnický z Budče, author of moralist verse collections, and Mikuláš Dačický z Heslova, known for his Memoirs as well as his satirical verse.

More lively intrinsic literary interest is aroused today by some uninhibited comic texts, notably the irreverently entertaining Plzeň work Frantova práva (Franta's Laws, 1518), preserved in a single copy, which in a form which parodies guild regulations makes fun out of disreputable rules for everyday life, drinking, debt-management, etc. and tells funny ridiculous stories about heaven and hell and foolish husbands. Less engrossing than this, and other, mostly less entertaining works of the kind, are various political satires, songs against Ferdinand I, anti-Popist and anti-Jesuit verses.

The 16th century also produced a number of satirical and biblical plays, often adaptations. Apart from Konáč's biblical play Judith already mentioned (1547), there are biblical dramas by Pavel Kyrmezer, Jan Záhrobský z Těšína, Jiří Tesák Mošovský, and others. Alongside Konáč's other, secular, drama of 1547, Hra pěknejch připovídek, there are three early 17th-century didactic plays by Tobiáš Mouřenín z Litomyšle, and farces such as Selský masopust (1588) and Polapená nevěra (1608). There are also Latin dramas, such as Tobaeus by Jan Aquila z Plavče, 1569, or the University scholar Jan Campanus's play Bretislaus of 1604, noteworthy for its national theme. Although there was no equivalent of Shakespearian theatre - some of these works were performed by schools - there are some modest parallels to Tudor theatre in the Czech vernacular plays; while professional stage theatre in Bohemia and Moravia only began in the 18th century, as in Germany and Austria, long before that there were of course village dramatic performances, travelling shows, puppet plays and similar entertainments.

© James Naughton, draft last revised 2001
back | next

Last updated: January 2018