Get Your Premium Membership

The History of Bohemian Literature and Writings

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

The earliest records of the Bohemian or Czech language are very ancient, though the so-called MSS. of Zelena Hora (Grüneberg) and Kralodvur (Königinhof) are almost certainly forgeries of the early part of the 19th century. The earliest genuine documents of the Bohemian language comprise several hymns and legends; of the latter the legend of St Catherine and that of St Dorothy have the greatest value. Several ancient epic fragments have also been preserved, such as the Alexandreis and Tandarias a Floribella. These and other early Bohemian writings have been printed since the revival of Bohemian literature in the 19th century. Of considerable historical value is the rhymed chronicle generally though wrongly known as the chronicle of Dalimil. The author, who probably lived during the reign of King John (1310-1346), records the events of Bohemian history from the earliest period to the reign of King Henry of Carinthia, the immediate predecessor of John. A strong feeling of racial antipathy to the Germans pervades the chronicle.

It is undoubtedly to be attributed to the high intellectual level which Bohemia attained in the 14th century that at that period we already find writers on religious and philosophical subjects who used the national language. Old Czech literature.Of these the most important is Thomas of Štitný (c. 1331-1401). Of his works, which contain many ideas similar to those of his contemporary Wycliffe, those entitled O obecnych vecech Krestanskych (on general Christian matters) and Besedni reci (in a rough translation “learned entertainments”) have most value. Štitný and some of his contemporaries whose Bohemian writings have perished are known as the forerunners of Huss. Huss, like many of his contemporaries in Bohemia, wrote both in Bohemian and in Latin. Of the Bohemian writings of Huss, who contributed greatly to the development of his native language, the most important is his Výklad viry, desatera Boziho prikazani, a patere (exposition of the creed, the ten commandments and the Lord’s Prayer) written in 1412. Of his numerous other Bohemian works we may mention the Postilla(collection of sermons), the treatises O poznani cesty prave k spaseni (the true road to salvation) and O svatokupectvi (on simony), and a large collection of letters; those written in prison are very touching.

The years that followed the death of Huss formed in Bohemia a period of incessant theological strife. The anti-Roman or Hussite movement was largely a democratic one, and it is therefore natural that the national language rather than Latin should have been used in the writings that belong to this period. Unfortunately in consequence of the systematic destruction of all Bohemian writings which took place through the agency of the Jesuits, after the battle of the White Hill (1620), a large part of this controversial literature has perished. Thus the writings of the members of the extreme Hussite party, the so-called Taborites, have been entirely destroyed. Of the writings of the more moderate Hussites, known as the Calixtines or Utraquists, some have been preserved. Such are the books entitled Of the Great Torment of the Holy Church and the Lives of the Priests of Tabor, written in a sense violently hostile to that community. A Bohemian work by Archbishop John of Rokycan has also been preserved; it is entitledPostilla and is similar though inferior to the work of Huss that bears the same name.

A quite independent religious writer who belongs to the period of the Hussite wars is Peter Chelcicky (born in the last years of the 14th century, died 1460), who may be called the Tolstoy of the 15th. His dominant ideas were horror of bloodshed and the determination to accept unresistingly all, even unjust, decrees of the worldly authorities. Though a strenuous enemy of the Church of Rome, Chelcicky joined none of the Hussite parties. His masterpiece is the Sít viry (the net of faith). Among his other works his Postilla and polemical writings in the form of letters to Archbishop John of Rokycan and Bishop Nicolas of Pelhrimov deserve mention.

The Hussite period is rather poor in historical works written in the language of the country. We should, however, mention some chroniclers who were contemporaries and sometimes eye-witnesses of the events of the Hussite wars. Their writings have been collected and published by Frantisek Palacký under the title of Stare ceske letopisy.

In the 16th century when Bohemia was in a state of comparative tranquillity, the native literature was largely developed. Besides the writers of the community of the Bohemian Brethren, we meet at this period with three historians of merit. Of these far the best-known is Wenceslas Hajek of Libocan. The year of his birth is uncertain, but we read of him as a priest in 1524; he died in 1553. His great work Kronika ceska was dedicated to the emperor Ferdinand I., king of Bohemia, and appeared under the auspices of government officials. It has therefore a strong dynastic and Romanist tendency, and its circulation was permitted even at the time when most Bohemian books were prohibited and many totally destroyed. Hajek’s book was translated into several languages and frequently quoted. We find such second-hand quotations even in the works of many writers who had probably never heard of Hajek. His book is, however, inaccurate and grossly partial. Very little known on the other hand are the works of Bartoš, surnamed “pisár” (the writer), as he was for many years employed as secretary by the city of Prague, and those of Sixt of Ottersdorf. The work of Bartoš (or Bartholomew) entitled the Chronicle of Prague has great historical value. He describes the troubles that befell Prague and Bohemia generally during the reign of the weak and absentee sovereign King Louis. The year of the birth of Bartos is uncertain, but it is known that he died in 1539. The somewhat later work of Sixt of Ottersdorf (1500-1583) deals with a short but very important episode in the history of Bohemia. It is entitled Memorials of the Troubled Years 1546 and 1547. The book describes the unsuccessful rising of the Bohemians against Ferdinand I. of Austria. Sixt took a considerable part in this movement, a fact that greatly enhances the value of his book.

Though the life of Chelcicky, who has already been mentioned, was an isolated one, he is undoubtedly the indirect founder of the community of the “Bohemian Brethren,” who greatly influenced Bohemian literature. Almost all their historical and theological works were written in the national language, which through their influence became far more refined and polished. Before referring to some of the writings of members of the community we should mention the famed translation of the Scriptures known as the Bible of Kralice. It was the joint work of several divines of the brotherhood, and was first printed at Kralice in Moravia in 1593. Brother Gregory, surnamed the patriarch of the brotherhood, has left a large number of writings dealing mainly with theological matters. Most important are the Letters to Archbishop Rokycan and the book On good and evil priests. After the death of Brother Gregory in 1480 discord broke out in the community, and it resulted in very great literary activity. Brothers Lucas, Blahoslav and Jaffet, as well as Augusta, a bishop of the community, have left us numerous controversial works. Very interesting is the account of the captivity of Bishop Augusta, written by his companion the young priest Jan Bilek. We have evidence that numerous historical works written by members of the brotherhood existed, but most of them perished in the 17th century when nearly all anti-Roman books written in Bohemia were destroyed. Thus only fragments of Blahoslav’s History of the Unity (i.e. the brotherhood) have been preserved. One of the historians of the brotherhood, Wenceslas Brezan, wrote a History of the House of Rosenberg, of which only the biographies of William and Peter of Rosenberg have been preserved. The greatest writer of the brotherhood is John Amos Komensky or Comenius (1592-1670). Of his many works written in his native language the most important is his Labyrinth of the World, an allegorical tale which is perhaps the most famous work written in Bohemian. Many of the numerous devotional and educational writings of Comenius,—his works number 142,—are also written in his native tongue.

The year 1620, which witnessed the downfall of Bohemian independence, also marks the beginning of a period of decline of the national tongue, which indeed later, in the 18th century, was almost extinct as a written language. Yet we must notice besides Comenius two other writers, both historians, whose works belong to a date later than 1620. Of these one was an adherent of the nationalist, the other of the imperialist party. Paul Skála ze Zhore (1582-c. 1640) was an official in the service of the “winter king” Frederick of the Palatinate. He for a time followed his sovereign into exile, and spent the last years of his life at Freiberg in Saxony. It was at this period of his life, after his political activity had ceased, that he wrote his historical works. His first work was a short book which is a mere series of chronological tables. Somewhat later he undertook a vast work entitledHistoire cirkevni (history of the church). In spite of its title the book, which consists of ten enormous MS. volumes, deals as much with political as with ecclesiastical matters. The most valuable part, that dealing with events of 1602 to 1623, of which Skála writes as a contemporary and often as an eye-witness, has been edited and published by Prof. Tieftrunk. A contemporary and a political opponent of Skála was William Count Slavata (1572-1652). He was a faithful servant of the house of Habsburg, and one of the government officials who were thrown from the windows of the Hradcany palace in 1618, at the beginning of the Bohemian uprising. In 1637 Slavata published his Pamety (memoirs) which deal exclusively with the events of the years 1618 and 1619, in which he had played so great a part. During the leisure of the last years of his long life Slavata composed a vast work entitled Historické Spisovani (historical works). It consists of fourteen large MS. volumes, two of which contain the previously-written memoirs. These two volumes have recently been edited and published by Dr Jos. Jirecek.

After the deaths of Skála, Slavata and Comenius, no works of any importance were written in the Bohemian language for a considerable period, and the new Austrian government endeavoured in every way to discourage the 19th-century revival.use of that language. A change took place when the romantic movement started at the beginning of the 19th century. The early revival of the Bohemian language was very modest, and at first almost exclusively translations from foreign languages were published. The first writer who again drew attention to the then almost forgotten Bohemian language was Joseph Dobrovský (1753-1829). His works, which include a grammar of the Bohemian language and a history of Bohemian literature, were mostly written in German or Latin, and his only Bohemian works are some essays which he contributed to the early numbers of the Casopis Musea Království CCeského (Journal of the Bohemian Museum) and a collection of letters.

It is, however, to four men belonging to a time somewhat subsequent to that of Dobrovský that the revival of the language and literature of Bohemia is mainly due. They are Jungmann, Kolar, Šafarik and Palacký. Joseph Jungmann (1773-1847) published early in life numerous Bohemian translations of German and English writers. His most important works are his Dejepes literatury ceska (history of Bohemian literature), and his monumental German and Bohemian dictionary, which largely contributed to the development of the Bohemian language. John Kolar (1793-1852) was the greatest poet of the Bohemian revival, and it is only in quite recent days that Bohemian poetry has risen to a higher level. Kolar’s principal poem is the Slavy dcera (daughter of Slavia), a personification of the Slavic race. Its principal importance at the present time consists rather in the part it played in the revival of Bohemian literature than in its artistic value. Kolar’s other works are mostly philological studies. Paul Joseph Šafarik (1795-1861) was a very fruitful writer. His Starožitnosti Slovanské (Slavic antiquities), an attempt to record the then almost unknown history and literature of the early Slavs, has still considerable value. Francis Palacký (1798-1876) is undoubtedly the greatest of Bohemian historians. Among his many works his history of Bohemia from the earliest period to the year 1526 is the most important.

Other Bohemian writers whose work belongs mainly to the earlier part of the 19th century are the poets Francis Ladislav Celakovský, author of theRuže stolistova (the hundred-leaved rose), Erben, Macha, Tyl, to mention but a few of the most famous writers. The talented writer Karel Havlicek, the founder of Bohemian journalism, deserves special notice.

During the latter part of the 19th century, and particularly after the foundation of the national university in 1882, Bohemian literature has developed to an extent that few perhaps foresaw. Of older writers Božena Nemceva, whose Babicka has been translated into many languages, and Benes Trebizky, author of many historical novels, should be named. John Neruda (1834-1891) was a very fruitful and talented writer both of poetry and of prose. Perhaps the most valuable of his many works is his philosophical epic entitled Kosmicke basne (cosmic poems). Julius Zeyer (1841-1901) also wrote much both in prose and in verse. His epic poem entitled Vysehrad, which celebrates the ancient glory of the acropolis of Prague, has great value, and of his many novels Jan Maria Plojhar has had the greatest success. Of later Bohemian poets the best are Adolf Heyduk, Svatopluk Cech and Jaroslav Vrchlický (b. 1853). Of Svatopluk Cech’s many poems, which are all inspired by national enthusiasm, Václav z Michalovic, Lesetinsky Kovar (the smith of Lesetin) and Basne otroka (the songs of a slave) are the most notable. While Vrchlický (pseudonym of Emil Frida) has no less strong patriotic feelings, he has been more catholic in the choice of the subjects of his many works, both in poetry and in prose. Of his many collections of lyric poems Rok na jihu (a year in the south), Poute k Eldoradu (pilgrimages to Eldorado) and Sonety Samotare (sonnets of a recluse) have particular value. Vrchlický is also a very brilliant dramatist. Bohemian novelists have become very numerous. Mention should be made of Alois Jirásek, also a distinguished dramatic author; Jacob Arbes, whose Romanetta have great merit; and Václav Hladík, whose Evzen Voldan is a very striking representation of the life of modern Prague. Like so many Bohemian authors, Hladík also is a copious dramatic author.

Bohemia has been very fruitful in historic writers. Wenceslas Tomek (1818-1905) left many historical works, of which his Dejepis miesta Prahy(history of the town of Prague) is the most important. Jaroslav Goll (b. 1846) is the author of many historical works, especially on the community of the Bohemian Brethren. Professor Joseph Kalousek has written much on the early history of Bohemia, and is also the author of a very valuable study of the ancient constitution (Statni pravo) of Bohemia. Dr Anton Rezek is the author of important historical studies, many of which appeared in the Journal of the Bohemian Museum and in the Cesky Casopis Historický (Bohemian Historical Review), which he founded in 1895 jointly with Professor Jaroslav Goll. More recently Dr Václav Flajshans has published some excellent studies on the life and writings of John Huss, and Professors Pic and Niederle have published learned archaeological studies on the earliest period of Bohemian history.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things