Daily Archives: 1 December 2004

Proto-Modern Czech Nationalism, 15th Century

In 1458, the Czech Diet elected as king of Bohemia the Utraquist leader Jiri z Podebrad (1420-71), who had been regent of the kingdom during Ladislav Pohrobek’s minority since 1453. The “Hussite King” Jiri was the first Czech to sit on the Bohemian throne since the Premyslids over 150 years earlier.

Pope Paul II excommunicated him as a heretic in 1466 and proclaimed a holy war against him. Mathyas Corvinus of Hungary invaded but was defeated in 1468.

The following year there appeared a “Call to Arms in Defense of the Truth,” addressed “to all faithful Czechs and Moravians, genuine lovers of God’s truth and disciples of your own Czech language…. [The pope] inflames and incites all the nations and languages of the surrounding lands against us.” It is a remarkable passage; but one quite typical of its time and place. Virtually all Hussite manifestos since 1420 had struck the same notes. It is evidently medieval in its Christian preoccupations and frame of reference; its fundamentalist certainty is alien, even repellent, to modern sensibilities. But it is no less evidently, and rather disconcertingly, modern–or what we are accustomed, at any rate, to think of as modern–in its identification of truth and virtue with a land, a people, and their language. The Hussites imagined their sacral community in unmistakably national terms and attributed sanctity less to Latin than to their native Czech.

All this happened without the aid of the printing press; the first known book printed in the Czech lands, Guido de Columna’s Trojan Chronicle, appeared in Plzen in 1468. But it is perhaps worth recording that when print capitalism did arrive in Bohemia, it too came predominantly in the Czech vernacular. Of forty-four books known to have been printed in Bohemia before 1500, thirty-nine were in Czech. Over the next hundred years some 4,400 books were printed in the Czech lands. Many were of course religious, among them the magnificent Czech Protestant Bible kralicka of 1579-94. But there were also vernacular histories, geographies, medical works, moral homilies, and (perhaps most tellingly) cookbooks and manuals of household economy. Melantrich, the earliest Czech publishing house (as distinct from individual printer), employed eleven people in 1577. In its thirty-year existence it published at least 223 books–111 of them in Czech, 75 in Latin, and only 3 in German. Pope Pius II, who as papal legate Enea Silvio de Piccolomini visited Bohemia and subsequently wrote Historia Bohemica (1458; first published in Czech in 1510 as Kronika teska), was one who appreciated the importance to Czechs of their native tongue. Writing to Ladislav Pohrobek in 1453, the pope suggests that the Czechs will not let their new boy-king go “until he masters Czech and–beer-drinking.”

SOURCE: The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History, by Derek Sayer (Princeton U. Press, 1998), pp. 40-42

Leave a comment

Filed under religion