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Prague in Black and Gold: Scenes from the Life of a European City
Prague in Black and Gold
LIBUSSA, OR VERSIONS OF ORIGIN
What the Schoolchildren Learn
In February 1893, the Czech writer Alois Jirásek, patriot, industrious historian, and late ally of Walter Scott, was preparing a little book for young readers and, in a letter to a friend, expressed his hope that it would make its way without "big band and loud advertising." Jirásek's Old Czech Legends first appeared in 1894, and his hopes, and those of his publisher, Josef Richard Vilfmek, were fulfilled far beyond their expectations. Old Czech Legends has been published and republished for a hundred years now, to be read in and outside school, and every educated Czech remembers at least some scenes and sayings from the book--though perhaps, among the more recent, skeptical generation, not so vividly as those from Jaroslav Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk. Making eclectic use of old chronicles, Jirásek described the wandering of the Czechs, their arrival in Bohemia, where they settled after a perilous migration, and the wise Libussa, who, after she married the peasant lad Pemysl (father of future Czech kings), in one of her trances guided the people to a place in the forest where the castle and the city of Prague, of never-ending fame and glory, were founded.
Jirásek's Old Czech Legends appeared thirteen years after the premiere of Smetana's patriotic opera Libuše (1881), and Jirásek's admiration for Smetana (as a Prague student he liked to go to the old Café Slavia because he could see the composer sitting there) clearly shows. The tales are grand opera, too, highly serious, intentionally archaic in vocabulary and syntax, and written without the slightest trace of irony. The movement of unnamed masses (the chorus) in proper old Czech costumes alternates withceremonious speeches (or, rather, arias) of the rulers, heroines, and heroes; and the space in which events occur is decorously arranged with a fine sense of symmetry and hierarchical proportions, lighting effects included. In Jirásek's tale of origin a tribe from the east, later named after its leader and patriarch, Czech, moves westward and crosses three rivers, the Oder, the Elbe, and the Vltava, and the people think of the far country which they have left behind and begin to grumble about the perils and the fatigue; "there is no lasting rest for us anywhere." Ur-father Czech, their Moses, ascends a mountain rising from the land, and when he arrives at the top: "Lo and behold! The broad landscape unfolded into the endless distance up to the bluish mountain ranges, easily and freely, forests and thickets, glens and meadows, and through the wild green the rivers shone like silver spilled." The land is empty of other people, "and the rivers well stocked with fish, and the soil fertile," and after three days of meditation, Ur-father Czech tells his people that the "land long promised" was right there and that their wanderings were over for good.
A golden age of love, peace, work, and mutual trust followed, at least as long as Ur-father Czech lived; after his death, his son Krok ruled the tribe, always deeply respecting the assembly of elders (Jirásek wanted to stress Czech democratic traditions), but there was trouble when Krok died without a male heir. Each of his three daughters had particular gifts and virtues: Kazi, the oldest, knew healing herbs and often, by uttering the magic names of the gods, was able to save a life in agony; Teta watched over religious rites and guided the people in observing the rhythm of sacrifices and prayers; and Libussa, the youngest, particularly beautiful, unworldly and serious, was able to see what was hidden from other people's ken and to prophesy. The assembly of elders invested Libussa with the power to rule and to judge, and at first everybody was willing to accept a woman's resolutions. Yet when two neighbors fought over the boundaries of their fields and Libussa resolved the case in favor of the younger man, the older exploded in unseemly anger, condemning her and all women, "long hair, short minds," screaming, the spittle running down his chin, that it would be better to die than to bear with the rule of women, a custom unknown to any other tribe.
Pensive Libussa, far from losing dignity, answered that she was a woman indeed and behaved like one, judging not with an iron rod but with compassion, which was unfortunately taken for weakness. After a night of prayers in her sacred grove, she called a meeting of the elders and warned the assembly that a male ruler would demand service and tribute. The meeting would not nominate a candidate, and she made herown decision with the help of the gods, sent out messengers to be led by her magic white horse to find, near a little river, the plowman Pemysl (the "thoughtful," or even the "cunning"), who was working with his oxen. (For some time he has been reappearing on Czech TV before the evening news.) Libussa duly married Pemysl, invited him to see the treasures and her sacred grove, and he began to rule and to judge in his own male way. Once, on a mild summer night when Libussa, her husband, and the elders stood on a cliff above the Vltava River, while looking across the water to the wooded hills she was seized by the spirit, raised her hands toward the other shore, and uttered her prophecy: "I see a great city whose fame will touch the stars!" She guided her people to find a man there who was busy hewing the threshold (in Czech, prah) of a house and asked them to build a castle, to be called Praha, right on the spot. "Just as princes and army commanders bow their heads when they enter a house," she proclaimed, "so will they bow their heads to my city. It will be honored, noble, and respected by all the world."
Not everybody, however, was happy after Libussa's marriage and the prophecy of future glory. Her maidens, who enjoyed high esteem in the time of gynocracy, felt abandoned and "angry when the men held them up to ridicule" and called them "lost sheep." It was Vlasta, Libussa's favorite, who gathered the disconcerted and harassed women; they seized arms, and the "Maidens' War" against the menfolk began. Vlasta deftly organized her army and trained the many women who were leaving their husbands, brothers, and fathers to join the fight; the strong were chosen to lead the attack, and the most beautiful to entice the men away from their battle groups to be killed. Pemysl's male retinue made fun of the armed women, but Pemysl himself warned the men not to underrate the women's strength. In the forest and valleys, much blood was shed mercilessly, hundreds of men died in the field, many were killed in bed, and young Ctirad, strong and handsome--and particularly hated, or perhaps loved, by Vlasta--was lured into an ambush by attractive Šárka, then tortured and put to death. The warriors wanted revenge, and Vlasta, fighting stubbornly, was killed; a counterattack of the maidens failed, all were slaughtered, and the fortified Dvn, or "Castle of the Maidens," was razed. The storyteller would like to side with the young women but finally turns against them because, he says, they had no heart.
What Archaeologists and Historians Believe: Hypotheses and Reconstructions
In the beginning (after firm land had risen for the third time from the primal seas) were the clouds, the sun, the river, and the hills that gently descended to the east and southeast and softly flattened out to the north (at least after the recurrent glaciations of the alpine and northern lands of Europe had come to an end). The region in which, much later, many hamlets, villages, and townships were to constitute the city of Prague was attractive to human beings in search of food and shelter from time without time. A first "flake" of flintstone and traces of campfires, signaling a human presence by 250,000 B.C., have been found at Letky in what is now the north of Prague (a much older site near Podbaba is now being discussed by the experts). After long stretches of inclement climatic conditions, bands of roaming mammoth hunters appeared, as did later settlers, in the Šárka Valley and elsewhere on the west bank of the Vltava River, though always at a respectful distance from the water and, on the east bank, only at higher elevations.
At first, the river was treacherous and deeply cut into the rocks, and hunters and settlers were helpless when its banks were swiftly and recurrently inundated. Much, much later (counting in geological periods rather than historical ages), the river eroded the rocks, the riverbed filled with silt and sediments, and the broadened waters began to flow more slowly and quietly--the composer Bedich Smetana in his symphonic poem "Vltava" (it is known to many listeners by the river's German name, "Moldau") intoned an almost ceremonial and majestic rhythm to indicate the point when the waters enter the Prague region. The left, western bank was hilly, ascending steeply to a high plateau; the right, eastern bank was flatter, at least close to the river, with the exception of a single cliff, later called the Vyšehrad. A number of tongue-shaped, sandy islands emerged from the placid waters, and, in war and peace, people found a few places where they could ford, crossing over, for instance, from the left bank under the castle to what is now called the Old Town, slightly north of where the medieval stone bridges were later built. Economic historians presume that the flowering of Prague was due to its location at an intersection where an ancient trade route from Western Europe crossed the river to continue to Eastern and Southeastern Europe.
The first farming people, of unknown origin and possibly from the southeast, arrived after 4000 B.C. and settled across a wide arc in thePrague regions we now know as Liboc, Bubene, and, on the east side of the river, Libe, and Vršovice and Kr, farther south. They worked the soil with wooden and stone implements, and bartered for copper trinkets and shells with other tribes; in their cult, fertility was of prime importance (Neolithic "idols" showed large breasts and heavy buttocks but paid no attention to head or face). Evidently the Šárka Valley, now an idyllic place of cliffs, forests, meadows, and cherry trees, a forty-minute tram ride from the center of the city and much visited on Sundays by families with children and by little old ladies with their walking sticks, was among the oldest and recurrently peopled places of early settlement, and Dejvice and Bubene, now districts in which shabby flats for blue- and white-collar workers jostle for space with office buildings of the first Czechoslovak Republic and obsolete industries, have the distinction, unsuspected by the tourists, of being sited on the oldest continuously settled places in Prague, perhaps contemporary with the organization of the Sumer city-states and the unification of Egypt.
The Ages of Bronze and Iron did not much change the patterns of settlement in the Prague region, but it was as thickly settled then, a Czech archaeologist has concluded, as it was in the beginning of "historical" time. Bronze and Iron Age farmers mostly lived and worked on the accustomed grounds of their predecessors and what was later Prague's Minor Town (possibly making the first hesitant step closer to the river); on the east side, they still preferred to cling to higher areas, away from the water. All these settlers were "silent" people who left no trace in writing or stories told in chronicles by others; to name these societies and subsocieties, archaeologists tend to define their cultures by speaking of handmade pottery of diverse ornamentation--linear, spiral, and "stroke" wares; new waves of invaders are known as the people of "corded" pottery (their graves yielded skulls, trepanned to heal headaches or exorcise evil ghosts, or both); and the people of "bell-beaker" pottery, possibly from the Mediterranean, arrived with flint arrows and a knowledge of copper and silver.
The Celts appeared in the Prague region by the end of the fourth and the beginning of the third century B.C., and, for the first time, the "silent" evidence of pottery, implements, and graves is confirmed by stories to be read and words to be heard. Greek and Roman historians, from Hekataeus of Miletus to Herodotus and from Livy to Julius Caesar, told stories of the Celts' homelands and far-reaching exploits, and the Celts themselves gave names to their tribes and rivers (Boii-Boiohaemum-Bohemia, Albis-Elbe-Labe), filtered by later Germanic speakers into Latin and Czech. Theywere a people of ostentatious warriors who constantly improved their high technology, used the pottery wheel, and produced implements, weapons, and adornments; the older populations continued to farm for their Celtic masters, with increasing yields. In their time the Prague region participated in a cosmopolitan culture of imports and long-distance trade by exchange; the Celts were in contact with Greek colonies, imported their commodities, including metal mirrors and wine amphorae, as well as Macedonian coins, later imitated in Bohemia and Slovakia with the names of the rulers in the Latin alphabet. The Celtic topography of Prague followed the pattern of older settlements: graves of warriors and their wives have been discovered in the districts we now call Bubene, Libe, and (about eight miles farther south) Kr, and Celtic warriors later fortified their villages as oppida (so called by Julius Caesar) to concentrate their military power and protect the mass production of weapons and jewelry made by craftsmen affiliated with the princes. The most important oppidum in the Prague region was constructed to the south, at Závist, across the river from Zbraslav, and another one at Stradonice, to the west, near Beroun.
In the last century B.C., the glory of Celtic civilization was withering away, and Germanic tribes, ceding to Roman pressure in Western Europe, invaded Bohemia and established dominance for nearly six centuries over a large population consisting of the older farming people and those Celts who stayed on; Celtic pottery patterns, at least, long survived into the Germanic epoch. Nineteenth-century Czech archaeology, no less ideological in its nationalist bent than its German competition, only hesitatingly admitted this Germanic presence and, especially in popular presertations, Czech archaeologists still prefer to speak of the "Roman" period--a label easily fitting the conditions on the south side of the Danube where Roman legions constructed their forts (in Vindobona/Vienna) and garrison towns (Carnuntum) but not really adequate for Bohemia when it was ruled by the Marcomanni and when Roman merchants trekked through the "Hercynian forest" (as ancient writers called the wilderness north of the Danube) to peddle their remarkable imported goods to the Germanic upper class. Political involvement of the Marcomanni with the Roman Empire was close; Marbod, the Marcoman ruler, had been in Rome, admired the efficiency of Roman military administration, and around 18 A.D. had to seek Roman protection when a conspiracy of his underlings forced him into exile in Ravenna and his kingdom collapsed.
Compared with the Celts, Germanic civilization was far from sophisticated; there was no glass or enamel work (though some women wereburied with necklaces of imported amber), the pottery wheel disappeared, and agricultural technology fell back to the more basic ways of pre-Celtic times. Germanic graves, male and female, have been found in the Prague region, and there is evidence of a Germanic settlement, in what is now the Minor Town (actually on Malostranský Square, close to the old café where German tourists now rest their feet before ascending to the castle); and though the Germanic tribes preferred to live in lonely hamlets rather than in thick agglomerations, there are strong reasons to assume that a remarkable concentration of small iron smithies, including shaft furnaces brought from the Germanic north, flourished on the grounds of Dejvice-Bubene-Podbaba, the center of an iron industry in "Roman" Prague. It is less clear why the Germanic population quickly disappeared in the mid-sixth century A.D. during the Great Migration of the tribes, which lasted from the third century B.C. to the seventh century A.D.--originally caused by the search for new soil and later intensified by pressure from Roman armies in the west and raids of the Huns coming from the east. Some Germanic groups may have joined other tribes on their warpaths, and it is probable that at least a generation of Germanic Langobards moved through the Bohemian lands as well.
Nineteenth-century Czech or German archaeologists and historians have spun fine fictions to strengthen an argument for the historical priority of this or that future nation, useful in the battle for historical rights and political power. There have been Czech archaeologists who discovered a Slavic population living in all the appropriate places before the arrival of Germanic tribes; and there emerged, in response, a German theory in the early twentieth century saying that the Germanic tribes, or what was left of them, actually never abandoned Bohemia, resisted assimilation, and created a bridge of continuity to the German colonists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (we are no latecomers either). In the context of Central European conflicts, it is a miracle of its own kind that conscientious scholars on both sides have come to compatible views and sober give-and-take conclusions about a brief encounter, if not a potential symbiosis, of Germanic and Slavic tribes in the sixth century A.D., the one group being increasingly absorbed, and the other constantly increasing in numbers, wave by wave.
The Slavic tribes (known as Venedi or Venethi and Sklavenoi to Byzantine and Latin historians) probably arrived in central Bohemia in the middle of the sixth century. Some of the first waves certainly settled, for a while at least, close to the remaining Germanic and other populations; in some cases, two villages of different cultures lived side by side, likeBezno near Louny; in others, as for instance, at Baba, Germanic Thuringians held on to a Vltava ford while Slavs settled in the surrounding hills. Ultimately, the Slavs dominated the field(s), as Celtic and Germanic tribes had done earlier. The Slav settlers were, like so many before them, attached to the high ground that had been cultivated ever since the times of the Bronze Age farmers, but they also dwelt in the north and northeast, possibly avoiding the south because the soil was poorer there; it is clear that they later extended their reach beyond what is now the Prague periphery and pushed to the Hradany plateau and to the slopes descending to the river from it, the expanse of what is now Újezd Street ("the Thoroughfare"), Neruda Street, and possibly Malostranský Square. Slavic presence, archaeology believes, is revealed by a combination of traces: among them the simple but elegant pottery of the "Prague type"; square huts, partly built into the earth and with a little fireplace in one corner; flat pans to dry or roast grain; and a cremation ritual with burned bones and a few gifts, a knife, or a flintstone to start a fire (many pig bones have also been found, and the unhealthy Czech habit of eating too much pork roast, not to speak of dumplings and kraut, may be a very old tradition). In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Slavs (who had risen against the Avars in the east and the Franks in the west) began to build their own fortifications, large burgs protected by wood and stone constructions to house the emerging families of the noble warriors and to protect ancient trade routes and access to the river fords. There were, possibly, five of these burgs in the Prague region, the most important being, once again, close to the Šárka cliffs, at Butovice and, later, at Levý Hradec, north of present-day Prague. In these burgs, archaeologists have found evidence of fine artistry and Frankish coins, suggesting the growing importance of long-distance commerce.
Archaeological discoveries about the ninth and the tenth centuries firmly combine with evidence in written documents, including Frankish annals, Bavarian topographies, Arabic and Hebrew texts, to fix the places and shapes of events, however distant and diffuse. In the ninth century at least a dozen Slavic tribes were settled in diverse regions of Bohemia, in some contrast to more centralized Moravia, and new groups of feudal chieftains and their retinues emerged to make decisions about war and peace and their peoples. Each tribe began to build fortified burgs and communities, and a contemporary Bavarian geographer indicated that the "Beheimare" (whoever that was) had fifteen civitates and those of the more powerful "Fraganeo" region forty (he may have overstated the numbers).
It was at Levý Hradec that the family of the Pemyslids began to consolidate its power over the Czechs and pushed its claims from there. Only the Slavníkovci, a clan who later united the tribes east and south of Prague and ruled two-fifths of Bohemia, came to resist the Prague dukes, occasionally allying themselves with Saxons and Poles to do so. But on September 28, 995, their well-built civitas Libice fell, and the Slavníkovci and their people, men, women, and children, were mercilessly slaughtered by the Pemyslids, who consolidated their power in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and ruled until 1306.
As happened recurrently in later Czech history, the Pfemyslids and other dukes of the Bohemian tribes confronted neighboring realms of greater power and, throughout the melodramatic ninth century, had a difficult time in furthering their interests by military force or, if necessary, by carefully shifting allegiances. Francis Dvorník (born 1893), the grand old man of early Slavic history, deplores that, in matters spiritual, these western Slavs (including those in Bohemia) were faced early with the only recently Christianized young and half-barbarian Carolingian empire, rather than being able to live, as did the southern Slavs, closer to the gates of Byzantium, long Christian and heir to Greek culture. The "Behaimi" were, after protracted resistance to the Carolingian empire, forced to accept its hegemony (806), symbolized by a yearly tribute of five hundred measures of silver and one hundred and twenty oxen (used by Nazi historiography more than a thousand years later as a political argument about the German power in Bohemia); Bohemian representatives appeared at imperial gatherings carrying the appropriate gifts; and on January 13, 845, fourteen Bohemian duces (chieftains) appeared in Regensburg, capital of East Franconia and starting point of the missionary expeditions to the east, to be Christianized together with their retinues. Not much later, a Frankish expansion eastward ran against the resistance of the rulers of Great Moravia, which originally united Moravia with central parts of Slovakia, and Frankish armies again and again marched through or close to Bohemian territory to reestablish "law and order."
By the year 862, Prince Rostislav of Great Moravia (after the pope had ignored his wishes) asked the emperor of Byzantium to send teachers of the Christian faith who could make themselves understood to the Slavs of Great Moravia, earlier Christianized by missionaries from Bavaria who taught in Latin. Within a year, Constantin (later called Cyril) and Methodius, two learned brothers of Greek origin, were dispatched to Great Moravia to teach in a Slavic idiom (in practice, the one spoken in the vicinity of their hometown of Thessalonika) and possibly to create achurch organization independent of the Bavarian hierarchy. Cyril construed a script, the Hlaholice (or Glagolica), to write down Slavic translations of religious and legal texts, and the Bavarian clerics promptly accused the brothers of the heresy of introducing a fourth language (after Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) to Christian liturgy.
Rome showed unexpected sympathy for the Slavic missionaries, but the conflicts between East Franconia and Great Moravia went on, with many invasions, revolts, cruel betrayals, and sudden reversals of fortune. A kind of temporary balance was restored after the Czech defeat of 872 by the agreements of Forchheim (874), which gave the Great Moravians a chance to extend their power both north and south and (while the Franks were busy with their own internal problems) to make the Czechs accept Great Moravian hegemony. Yet Arnulf, king of East Franconia and last Carolingian emperor, was not willing to accept an erosion of his power; he allied himself with Magyar horsemen who attacked Great Moravia, and it was ultimately destroyed by these invasions and by internal disunity. In the year 895 two Bohemian princes, at least one of them of the Pemyslid clan, again renewed their allegiance to Arnulf and the Franconian empire; Regensburg and Salzburg regained their preeminence in Bohemian church affairs, at least for a while. The collapse of Great Moravia did not, however, end the history of the Slavic rites. The traditions of Cyril and Methodius were preserved among the southern Slavs, and in the first Bohemian churches, in the region of Prague and elsewhere, celebrants of the Slavic rites may have found refuge. An early Church Slavonic legend about the life and death of Bohemia's patron saint--Duke Václav, or St. Wenceslas--was written after he died in 929, and "Hospodine , pomiluj ny" ("God, take mercy on us"), a venerable Czech song possibly dating from the tenth century, preserves resounding traces of its Church Slavonic origins. The Slavic rite survived in the monastery at Sázava until the mid-eleventh century.
During these restless years, the life of Duke Boivoj (c. 852/53-888/ 89), the first Christian ruler emerging from the Pemyslid clan and, probably, the founder of the stronghold of Praha, may have been more dramatic than the faint traces in legends and chronicles reveal. The writer of the first Bohemian chronicle, composed more than two hundred years after his death, believes that real history commences with Boivoj's Christian rule; the dukes before him, the learned chronicler says, were "given to gluttony and sleeping" and "lived like animals, brutal and without knowledge." Boivoj had to cope with Frankish pressures and bloody Czech defeats, and an early legend has it that he accepted Christianity ina rather pragmatic way. Visiting a Moravian prince, he was relegated to sitting in front of and under the table, together with other pagan guests, because non-Christians were not allowed to dine with Christians, and when Methodius, the missionary, explained to him the virtues and, possibly, advantages of the new creed (sitting at the table with others, new might in the field, and so forth), he was duly christened and returned to Bohemia with priests of the Slavic rite; his wife, Ludmila, grandmother of St. Wenceslas who was killed by his enemies when she was sixty-one years old, accepted baptism, too. Boivoj built a church dedicated to St. Clemens at Levy Hradec (the first Christian church on Bohemian soil), but his more traditionalist rivals, dissatisfied by his new allegiance, rose against him and he had to seek refuge with the Moravians and again returned with their help. He may have decided, right then and there, to build an ex-voto chapel about six miles south of Levy Hradec, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and designed as a mausoleum for his family, and it is perhaps more than a poetic thought that he had it constructed on a place called Gigi (Žiži), on the Hradany plateau, sacred to the old gods--as if he wanted symbolically to express his triumph over his defeated rivals. Toward the end of his life, possibly in the late 880s, he made a decision of far-reaching strategic, political, and economic implications, and resolved to shift his residence and that of his retinue from Levy Hradec to an eminent place on the Hradany plateau, close to his new church, and the new castle was called Praha.
The etymology of Praha has long been discussed by historians and linguists, and the final results are not in yet. There are, of course, the Cosmas/Libuše people patriotically adhering to the mythological "threshold" (prah) idea; a few others believe, as did V. V. Tomek in the nineteenth century, that the word referred to the cleaning of the forest by fire (pražiti) or are inclined to derive it from prahy, eddies in the river. More recently, interpreters have come to assert that the term originally denoted a barren place on which the sun beat down mercilessly (na praz) while still others defend the hypothesis that the ancient speakers meant a knob, a little hill, or a terrace near the river--immediately provoking the question what Praha stood for first, the burg or the little market below it, or vice versa.
The important point is that Duke Boivoj (appearing under the name of Goriwei in the Latin annals of the Fulda monastery in 872) decided to erect the burg of Prague not in the solitude of wild forests but in the elevated middle of a Czech settlement close to the river. Archaeological evidence of Slavic settlements on the left (western) riverbank, including the one at Malostranský Square built in the place of older Germanic hamlets,as well as old Slavic cemeteries on Hradany Hill and its vicinity, distinctly indicate that Boivoj and his sons, who continued building, followed the people rather than initiated radical change. The new fortification sat nearly astride an old route from Germany to Russia, which long-distance commercial travelers increasingly used after the Magyars blocked the route along the Danube; merchants went from Mainz to Regensburg and from there north to Prague, where the route reached the fords of the river, and from the other shore on to Cracow and Kiev. The new ducal residence and its suburbium attracted barons, artisans, goliards, scribes, ecclesiastics, and merchants of local and international interests; native people still avoided the right side of the river, often inundated, but iron was made there in small furnaces, the smithies plied their trade, and an ancient cemetery at Bartolomjská Street seems to indicate that a settlement of foreign merchants may also have sprung up there quite early on.
The duke and his family lived in a house best described as a magnificent log cabin, but there was ample space for later changes, and the residence was protected by massive earth embankments, natural ravines, stone walls, and mighty wooden beams locked into each other in intricate grids. The burg of Praha protected the left riverbank, and, by economic and military necessity, another fortification, originally called Chrasten and later the Vyšehrad (the "High Burg"), was built upstream on a steep cliff on the eastern, right bank, but not before the first half of the tenth century. Some of the Pemyslid rulers were to dwell there for some time, and another suburbium, though of modest size, grew around or below that fortification.
Prague is mentioned as a lively trade center by German chroniclers and Arab travelers in the 940s and 950s, but the first international observer who left an interesting record of his visit to early Pemyslid Prague--that is, to the castle and the suburbium on the left bank--was Ibrahim ibn Ya'qb, an erudite Jew from Tortosa, in Spain, who wrote in Arabic. It is difficult to say whether he was a slave trader or a scientist, or both, and he showed so many diverse interests in his travelogue that scholars believed that he must have been two persons of the same name; only more recently have they come to believe that he was sent by Caliph al-Hakam II, of noted scientific interests, as a member of a diplomatic mission to Emperor Otto I in Merseburg, and that he wrote his observations on landscapes, plants, commerce, medical problems, and peoples for a brilliant group of Jewish scholars assembled, at that time, at Córdoba who preserved his text for later readers. He probably arrived in Prague in 965, when Boleslav I still reigned (according to the legend, he had murdered his brother the sainted Wenceslas), and he was astonished to find "Frága" (or "B.ragha[t]," in a more recently discovered version of his manuscript) built of stone and lime, though possibly he was referring to the new walls and buildings of the castle erected by Boivoj's sons and grandsons. He noted that many Slavic merchants, Russians and others, were arriving from Cracow and some from Turkey (modern commentators believe he was referring to Hungary), including Muslims and Jews who bought slaves, tin, and furs. Food was inexpensive, and leather saddles and shields were of remarkable quality. He must have looked closely at what was going on at the marketplace on the left riverbank below the castle; people mostly carried light pieces of cloth instead of coin, and though these pieces of textile lacked value in themselves, they were hoarded like money and used to buy "all kinds of things." Even coming from Mainz and Merseburg, he found Prague ("smaller than towns usually are but bigger than villages") a place "made richer by commerce than all others."
Archaelogical Sites of Ancient and Early Medieval Prague
The Fortunes of Libussa
The first Latin legend reaching beyond the age of Christianity far into the pagan past of Bohemia offered little illumination about the founding of Prague for later historians, artists, and poets, even if they had trusted the text, which many scholars long considered a later falsification. The tenth century writer called himself, with a formula of modesty, a "Christian by name only" and, being in sympathy with the Slavic rite, had little use for pagan stories. Christian's narrative about the woman who guided the people to build Prague takes about five lines. The Slavic Czechs (Sclavi Boemi), resembling "animals without reason," he says, were hit by a plague, asked "some kind of soothsayer" (quandam phitonissam) what to do, and, receiving her advice, built a castle (civitas) and called it "Praga." Only after they had done so and the plague had abated did they find a "very clever and cautious" farmer named Pemysl, make him their ruler, and give him the virgin-soothsayer in marriage. Christian was not really interested in what, to more modern ears, sounds like an echo of a distant fertility cult, uniting a virgin of great powers and a tiller of the earth, and he does not even have a name for the "phitonissa."
It was Christian's later clerical colleague, the learned dean Cosmas, of Prague Cathedral, who in his remarkable Chronicle of the Bohemians (Chronica Boëmorum), written between 1119 and 1125, provided names andscenes of unusually colorful detail. He was a loyal defender of the Pemyslid dynasty and made the story of Lubossa (as many manuscripts of the chronicle spell her name) and Pfemysl the opening chapter of Czech tradition; patriots have for centuries based their visions and claims on his text. Cosmas was the first Prague intellectual, and his book, full of political analyses, documents, lively and occasionally ribald episodes, and eyewitness reports, or so he tells us, has challenged the imagination of his nation for more than nine hundred years. Born c. 1045, Cosmas came from a fairly well-to-do family of Prague clerics (only a century later a legate from Rome began removing married priests from offices in Bohemia), received his early training in Latin, liturgy, and reciting the psalms at the cathedral school, but left Prague, probably in the mid-1070s, to be further educated abroad, and studied at Liège, then an elite church school with close relationships to Prague. Old Cosmas remembered, with tears in his eyes, his years at Liège as the happiest of his life, studying with Magister Franco, once chancellor of the Liège bishopric, and "gambolling, with the muses, on the meadows of grammar and dialectics." He read widely among the ancient classics and the early church fathers, and evidently acquired a taste for scholarly and elegant prose; as a writer he definitely favored Horace, Ovid, Sallust, and Boethius. He returned to Prague in the early 1080s and was appointed secretary to Bishop Jaromír (1068-90), brother of the duke and king (as of 1085), and chancellor at the court of Emperor Henry IV. In the service of Bishop Jaromír and his successors, Cosmas traveled widely, to Mantua and Verona, to Mainz (on his return, he remembered, he had to sleep in the open because houses and churches were filled, after the plague, with corpses), and to Slovakia and Hungary, where he was ordained a priest by the archbishop of Esztergom (Strigonium) rather late in life (1099). As canonicus he ran the economic and administrative affairs of the Prague diocese and once was sent to Moravia to settle a dispute of long standing concerning the market rights of Prague Cathedral and the duke of Olomouc. He was married to Božetcha, whose unflagging loyalty he praised in his chronicle; their son followed in his footsteps (literally, for he too became dean of Prague Cathedral). Cosmas must have been in his mid-seventies when he began to write his chronicle; he nearly finished three books, and a colleague of his added a note to the manuscript saying that Cosmas had died on October 1, 1125, Valete fratres!
Cosmas is not easily given to radical pronouncements. He clearly tries to distinguish, not always successfully, between fictive and true sources (fabulosa/vera relatio), and the most nationalist utterances are often ascribed to speakers in dramatic situations and are not, inevitably, his own. Hecertainly cannot stand well-fed German warriors who are easily defeated by their more nimble Czech opponents; however, when we hear that "asses' shit" (asini merda) would be better than a German bishop who came to Bohemia "without pants," he puts these words in the mouth of an irascible Czech elder, who is ultimately disowned by the ruler himself (the chronicler sympathizes with the elder, though). Cosmas speaks hardly less favorably of the Poles, these "carpetbaggers with uncircumcised lips," whatever that may mean (yet to this day Polish scholars insist, on the basis of a single disputed line in the text, that Cosmas was actually a Pole).
As far as Prague's Jews are concerned, Cosmas does not usually denounce them in his own voice, but he does not seem to be disinclined to approve of what higher-ups in the secular and clerical hierarchy hold against them. He anticipates the later view that Jews are the personal property of the ruler and therefore are not free to leave the country taking their riches with them (if they do, the ruler is right to punish them); and he reports at some length about the anxieties of his bishop who, on his deathbed, bitterly reproached himself for not doing enough to keep Jews who had been forcibly baptized by roving crusaders from slipping back to the beliefs of their forefathers. In his own voice, though, he unsparingly turns against one Jacob--possibly the first Prague Jew in Bohemian literature mentioned by name--who dared to act in the name of the duke in some financial matter (obviously, his transactions were a failure). Cosmas mobilizes much of the repertory of contemporary anti-Semitism against Jacob: his hand makes dirty whatever he touches, his breath kills by poison, Satan is seen to be his steady companion ("many trustworthy say"), he destroys a Christian altar and throws the holy relics in his cesspool (cloaca); yet the Jewish community can ransom his life for three thousand measures of silver and one hundred measures of gold (the duke knows whom he can squeeze); and erudite Cosmas, always ready to serve his ruler, throws in an artful hexameter about Mary Magdalene, on whose day, in the year of the Lord 1124, the entire affair happened. On other occasions, he shows independent and poetic gifts, when writing, for example, about an advancing army in full armor as if made "of translucent ice," or elders at a meeting "confused like fish in turbid waters."
Cosmas is the first who gives the woman who speaks of the glory of Prague the name Lubossa, but he characterizes her ambivalently, as if she were perhaps not entirely explicable by a Christian view of pagan times alone. Her sisters Kazi and Thethka are almost theological allegories of evil: Kazi, compared to Medea, is accused of being a venefica, of preparingand administering poisons; and Thethka is simply a witch (malefica) eager to return people to the blasphemous rituals of yore. Lubossa is unique; in a narrative designed to legitimize the power of the Pemyslid dynasty, Cosmas cannot but celebrate the future mother of his dukes and the king, yet she remains, in his eyes, a rather disturbing character. He begins his portrait with a catalogue of extraordinary praise: "among women she was especially admirable, circumspect in advice, vigorous in her speech, of chaste body, honest conduct, second to none in resolving the legal affairs of the people, affable with everybody and worthy of love, the adornment and glory of womanhood who took care, with discernment, of the business of men" (I,4). Unfortunately, in the human realm nobody is perfect, Cosmas adds, and Lubossa was, after all, a soothsayer (phitonissa); he remarks elsewhere that she and her sisters, through magic art, "played" with the people.
It is during the judgment scene that Lubossa, by her relaxed ways, reveals something of the problems of her character, and the chronicler, or rather the teller of ribald tales, uses words that will be censured by his more spiritual translators and disappear totally from later patriotic legends. In Cosmas's version, Lubossa does not sit on the throne surrounded by the elders (as in later schoolbooks), but receives the plaintiffs in bed. "Resting on her elbow like one who is giving birth, she lay there on a high pile of soft and embroidered pillows, as is the lasciviously wanton habit of women (lasciva mollicies mulierum) when they do not have a man at home whom they fear" (I,4). It is an image of impropriety, déshabillé, spread legs and sensuous disorder, and the male plaintiffs are not sparing in their insults. Women, they say, have little understanding sitting on a throne, and even less when they are lying in bed, where they should be ready to receive their husbands rather than to resolve a legal case. In matters of men Lubossa cannot speak but deceptively, being a woman of a "fissured" body (rimosa).
Lubossa has a difficult time, as is not surprising, when she subsequently warns her people of the dangers of a male ruler; although she proclaims that under male law the new division of labor will change people into those who pay and those who collect taxes, into executioners, cooks, bakers, workers in vineyards and on the fields, furriers and cobblers (to name but a few), they want their duke, whom Lubossa, submitting, provides. Her prophecy of the glories of Prague does not lack a touch of Virgil, provided by the learned chronicler--"Behold, I see a great city whose fame will touch the stars" ("urbem conspicio, fama que sydera tanget," I,7; Aeneid, I, 287: " ... famam qui terminet astris")--and her topography ofthe future castle has remarkable precision. On the west bank of the Vltava River, there is a place protected by the Brusnice brook on the north, while on the south a rocky hill, the Petn, rises above the land and spins around, as if it were a dolphin, turning toward the brook. That is the place where a man hewing a threshold (prah) will be found and the castle of Praga should be built. Paradoxically, Lubossa, the pagan phitonissa, continues her prediction by saying that from that castle, one day, two golden olive trees will grow: St. Wenceslas and St. Vojtch, the famous missionary and first Czech bishop of Prague (she hides the names in a riddle), who will illuminate the entire world by their wonders and miracles. Cosmas enhances the paradox by saying that she would have continued to speak if the hellish spirit of prophecy (spiritus pestilens et prophetans, I,9) had not left her body, created by God.
Even in our century of suspicion, old romantic ideas about Lubossa have surprisingly survived, and the cultural policies of the Communist Party insisted that Dean Cosmas carefully preserved the oral traditions of the toiling masses. More independent scholars, who were averse to simplistic, linear, and strictly national ideas of transmitting narratives, were long unable to publish their arguments. After emigrating to West Germany in 1968, the Czech scholar Vladimír Karbusický, with great learning and astonishing tenacity, radically affected, if not destroyed, the ancient dreams about the simple folk and what they told the scribe Cosmas. Karbusický's hypothesis, fully informed by international scholarship, does away with the strictly Czech qualities of the early stories and shows that they consist of wandering motifs well known from the sagas of other peoples. From the romantic debris a new image of Cosmas emerges--a cosmopolitan littérateur easily conversant with the literary canon of his time who takes his cue from the wandering singers, artists, "kitharists" (about whom he speaks himself), and joculatores gathered at the contemporary Prague court; the scene shifts from the wretched huts of the illiterate peasants to the court of duke and king, as a splendid place for transmitting what the poets recite; art combines with art, and Cosmas reflects the consciousness of the feudal elite.
In such a view, even Lubossa and Pemysl are deprived of their strongly national character (after all, the plowman as ruler appears in the traditions of many societies, including that of Rome, Hungary, and the Goths); Cosmas particularly is seen to have strengthened and at the same time undermined fictive Lubossa by relating her narrative to that of the historical Mathilda of Toscana (1046-1115), a remarkable woman of his own time, who by her diplomatic negotiations between pope and emperoradversely affected Czech dynastic interests, then allied to the emperor. Both Lubossa and Mathilda were women of extraordinary power, both of them ruled and judged, and both, provoking the male world by their energy and competence, invited courtly Klatsch and revealing anecdotes which gave a chance to men of lesser power to take their revenge; it is, indeed, difficult to ignore that, in the entire Chronica Boëmorum, they are the only women about whom Cosmas tells risqué stories. Disorderly Lubossa arguing a legal case from her unmade bed has her counterpart, and not only structurally, in Mathilda, who, at forty-four years of age, marries a seventeen-year-old duke and has great trouble, on her wedding night, in arousing the appetites of the suddenly impotent young man. Cosmas coyly regrets that he has to tell the story, and yet he comes up with a good deal of lip-smacking detail; for three nights, the newlyweds strive for happiness and the duke fears that a magic object has been hidden in the bed that makes it impossible for him to perform as the occasion warrants. The enraged Mathilda puts a stool on a table, takes off her nightgown, climbs up, shows herself all naked to the young man, and, as the learned dean says, "wiggled her ass like a goose who wanted to build a nest" (II,32), telling the duke to search her thoroughly for any hidden magic object. (The young man flees the scene.) The marriage was dissolved, historians tell us, only four years later.
In his radical reinterpretation of Cosmas as a writer preserving the poems and narratives of artists, restlessly traveling all over Europe from court to court in search of noble patrons, Karbusický delivers a blow to sentimental traditionalists, including those of the Stalinist nomenklatura, but he also suggests the productive idea that it is much more important to know what happens to Libussa (to use her traditional English name) in the rich historiographic and artistic material that came after Cosmas than to ask whether there was ever a real person of her name. Her life in history and the arts, to which different nations in different circumstances contributed, should be more important than the shadow of the phitonissa, if there ever was one. Yet intellectual tradition is highly selective, as Karbusický's more conservative colleague František Graus has shown; it forgets, and remembers, whatever it needs. After Cosmas, Libussa asserted her fundamental place as mother of the Pemyslids in the castle of Prague and, as the dynasty died out, assumed a more independent position. The line between the myth and the historical events was increasingly blurred. She was lifted from myth into history; the fourteenth-century Italian Franciscan Giovanni dei Marignolli, who was called to Prague in 1355 (after fourteen years in the Far East) by the Emperor Charles IV to write a worldhistory for him, actually related her to Eliška, of the Pemyslids, that is, to the emperor's mother; in other chronicles, e.g., that of the so-called Dalimil, who wrote earlier in the fourteenth century (c. 1315), she became clearly a woman of the times, keeping her head high at the council of Czech nobility (because Dalimil wanted to stress the importance of Czech barons) and speaking up against the foreigners, Germans, who were flooding the land.
The Renaissance and the Baroque age revived interest in wondrous women of magic powers. The Czech Catholic chronicler Hájek of Liboany, an imaginative sixteenth-century master of poetic inventions, in his own way completed Libussa's historicization by defining abstruse chronologies, and he also followed Dalimil's narrative in offering melodramatic and gory detail about the "Maidens' War," fighting body to body, blood and treachery, eros and thanatos (Cosmos had written about the ancient love game [ludus] of Whitsuntide, using the metaphors of war for wooing and submitting). Hájek is responsible for bringing Libussa closer to Czech and German readers of his age (his book was published in 1541) and of successive centuries. His popular book was adorned with expressive woodcuts, and its translation into German, for the first time as early as 1596, gave Libussa an important place in the Central European imagination. In Dresden, a German play about her was staged in 1666, and Italian opera in Prague, performing mostly for aristocratic audiences, provided La Libussa (1703). Czech rationalists, however, were definitely not enchanted by her or her forebears, and they tried to explain away her myth by the discourse of reason; while Gelasius Dobner, a scholarly Prague abbé, succeeded in totally discrediting Ur-father Czech, he could not prevent Libussa, surviving the myth and the dynasty, from attracting more attention to herself. She was loved by Czech and German romantics; the Czechs were eager for greatness to compete with German history, and the Germans were charmed by the Bohemian forests and their secrets. In Germany, Johann Gottfried Herder wrote a ballad on Pfemysl (1779), which was followed by J. K. A. Musäus's finely wrought and sophisticated rococo fairy tales (1782-86), which spread Libussa's fame among imaginative German and Austrian readers of the 1820s and 1830s. In Bohemia, an old narrative entitled "Libussa's Judgment," in ancient Czech, conveniently emerged in 1818 to provide patriots with a fragment of the epics long missing from Czech literary tradition (unfortunately, these fragments were an ingenious fake).
It would be easy to say that the Great German romantic poet Clemens Brentano experienced Prague through the visions of Libussa when hewrote his "romantic historical" play about the origins of the city, but the workings of his imagination were not so simple. In 1810 he went from Frankfurt, his home, to Bukovany, a Bohemian estate owned by his brother, but he felt ill at ease there. Bukovany was not Arcadia, and the "ugly" Czech peasants were ready "to steal the wheels off the carts." Frustrated, he went to Prague and took long walks under the stars, trying to bring order to the "conglomerate" of Bohemian and Prague images in his mind. He had seen Bohemian glass merchants at fairs in Frankfurt, had heard about the many students at the old university, and had learned of the true "Kabbalah," studied in the Jewish Town more energetically than elsewhere. He had also read about the death of St. Nepomuk, statues of whom he had encountered "on all the bridges of Catholic Germany," about the Hussites and the beginnings of the Thirty Years' War, and he was, being a true lyrical poet, oddly affected by the spectral sounds of the word "Hradschin." To him, Prague was "strangely dark," "adventurously crammed full," "inaccessibly girded," "bridged over and armored"; the intimation of claustrophobia is difficult to ignore. It was the image of Libussa, found in the chronicle of that old (if dubious) storyteller Hájek of Liboany, that fortunately brought serenity, light, and clarity to his mind and prompted him to study the Bohemian past more systematically, in the writings of "lively" Cosmas, whose irony and elegant Latin he admired, and, he claimed, in conversations with the Czech philologist Josef Dobrovský, whose books he bought for his own library. One fine evening in the early spring of 1812 he went up the Petn Hill, looked over the churches and the river, suddenly felt deeply moved by the vision of Libussa and her city emerging from the forest, and resolved to celebrate her and her prophecy in a play, or rather in an entire series of plays, reaching deeply into the past. He was ready to yield to an image of a magic Prague of his own making, and yet in his notes he continued to see the realities of the provincial Biedermeier town of his time, and she, "the modern," responded to him, the "modem" traveler. People made small talk about the theater, which he abhorred; the many minor civil servants were hardly like Pemysl; and though he toyed with the notion that a few of the Czech girls and women he saw in the street were reminiscent of Libussa and her maidens, his lasting and unfortunate impression was of a Prague mannequin in a millinery shop, "affected, stiff, cold, and ugly."
While living in Prague, Brentano untiringly worked on four versions of his grand drama, The Founding of Prague (1815), and the result renders his interpreters, if they remember the play, either speechless or enthusiasticabout something unique and strange. It is certainly not a play to be measured by Aristotelian norms of order, plot, and character but, rather, a text that actually feels impoverished by using mere words rather than music, for there are many songs, martial melodies, lyrical moments, trumpet fanfares; in its desire for musicality and its monumental conception, Brentano's text longs for fulfillment in an opera. Libussa's story is set in the context of a mythological spectacle; lacking an orchestra, Brentano uses an abundance of diverse poetic structures and modes, from the solemn to the grotesque, to show how the dark and devilish forces of the past confront the first stirrings of Christianity anachronistically brought to the Bohemian forest from Byzantium. In Brentano's view, Libussa is a plantlike maiden, aware of the divine ground of all being; and though she can be as cold as steel in turning down uncouth suitors, she is graceful and tender when yielding to tradition and her spouse. There is plenty of melodramatic action, which would challenge a postmodern producer to take the play apart and stage, in the creative spirit of romantic irony, a Brentano collage: the Avars are attacking, and the belligerent maidens in the Bohemian forest (with whom the playwright does not really sympathize) occasionally resemble a distaff version of Friedrich Schiller's Robbers . Libussa's prophecy about the glories of Prague concludes the play, but the conflict of evil and good will clearly continue; she takes her cue about the name of the place from the people working on a threshold in the woods, and she sees a city slowly emerging on the banks of the river, "the golden city / in the mantle of a king / glides down from throne and promontory" (V,9341-42), and "like a starry cincture / around her solemnly the river Moldau [Vltava] flows." Yet it is a highly ambivalent finale; Libussa collapses in agony, and while Pemysl dryly remarks that he will duly define the borders of the new settlement, his people, unaware of future vicissitudes, automatically repeat what they are asked to repeat by their duke: "Prague! Prague! Thou threshold of our deliverance and faith!" (V,9360).
The first tale to include the Prague Jews in Libussa's world appeared in print in 1847, only one year before the revolution that was to divide Czech and German interests and make life even more difficult for the Jews of Central Europe, who were asked to affirm their national allegiances. Salomon Kohn's narrative The Jews in Bohemia's Ancient History, published in German, argued implicitly that Jews were closer to Czechs than to Germans, at least those beyond the Bohemian borders, since before dying Libussa herself prophesies their appearance in Prague, and the narrative makes it clear that they come from the Slavic east rather than fromthe German west: she proclaims that a "foreign, homeless and endangered" people who believe in one God would seek protection in Bohemia; and when, a hundred and more years later, Duke Hostiwit succeeds to the throne, she appears to him in a dream and tells him about the foreign people who will appeal to him for help and protection. In the year 850, the narrative tells us, the Jews are driven out of Muscovy, for many years search for new homes, finally arrive in Bohemia, and, sending two of their elders to Hostiwit, explain that they are the children of Abraham and ask humbly for a place to stay. Hostiwit immediately recognizes that they are the people announced by his grandmother Libussa, consults his council, and grants their wish. In a formal audience, the Jews declare that they will be "loyal and obedient subjects" who will love their new "fatherland" as much as their forefathers loved the blessed land of Canaan, from which they were expelled because of their sins. Hostiwit gives them a place on the left bank of the Vltava River; it is perhaps of some importance to the message of Kohn's story that the Jews arrive in Prague even before the first Pemyslid is baptized. Later, the Jews strongly support Duke Bofivoj financially and otherwise when he must drive inimical German invaders from the region. Clearly, though Salomon Kohn writes good German, his heart is on the side of a pre-1848 territorial patriotism celebrating the history of a shared ground.
The Viennese playwright Franz Grillparzer came to Prague for only a week on a trip to Germany in 1826, "with a kind of prejudice," he confessed himself, against the town and the "narrow nationalism" (Nationalsinn ) of its inhabitants. Grillparzer knew much more about the history of the Czechs than Brentano did, and he kept his mind open to the "grandiose impression" of the town, "the advantageous contours, the broad river right through the middle, ... strange towers and the excellent architecture, and the Hradschin crowning the whole." He compared Prague to Venice in its fusion of ancient and modern, or to Florence, and felt, when he looked down from the Petn Hill as Brentano had done, something fantastic, "strangely consonant with the spirit of the old history of Bohemia." He felt irritated in the Jewish Town (though a few young women there struck him as more beautiful than any he had ever seen), but Prague had all the marks of "the free creative power of the mind" (der freien schaffenden Geisteskraft); and when he left by uncomfortable stagecoach for the north, he felt surprisingly reconciled to the Czechs, whom "he had never really liked" because he had never before had an opportunity to see how they lived in their own ambience. Grillparzer worked on his Libussa play, off and on, hopefully and despairingly, formore than twenty years, from at least 1822, when he jotted down a few remarks about Libussa, to the prerevolutionary time of 1847-48. The first act was performed at a Viennese matinee in 1840, but the completed play did not appear on the stage of Vienna's Burgtheater until 1874, two years after his death, and with indifferent results.
In Grillparzer's play traditional forms uneasily sustain pessimistic views of marriage and the history of humanity; Libussa and Primislaus, as they are called here, after a few wondrous moments of tenderness and anticipation (he saves her from drowning in a swift river) have terrible difficulties relating to each other, man and woman, plowman and princess. He does not want to be at her mercy as humble husband and duke consort, and she (though she loves him) does not want to submit unthinkingly to his wishes and resolves; though she bears his child, they remain an irritated couple, confronting each other in a Strindbergian marriage in which moments of intense if silent love quickly and agonizingly alternate with those of near-hate. (Grillparzer rightly says himself that he endangered the play by an unnecessary intrigue concerning jewels and gold chains.) His Libussa, by loving Primislaus the ruler-to-be, alienates herself from her essential nature, which is, like that of her sisters, one of feeling, solitude, and meditation on a divinely ordered universe; and when she decides that she wants "to be human together with other human beings" (1,405), she takes an irreversible step away from the pure realm of her origins, even though she insists on a matriarchal society inspired by "childlike trust" (1,446) rather than by the "rights" asserted by fierce male litigants:
wherever I look, I see but kindness, mercy
in everything that fills the world for all
Why, right and proof, what are they but the crutches
that help all lame and crooked causes stand? (II,903--4, 910--11)
(trans. by Henry H. Stevens)
It is inevitable that in such a clash of feeling and reason, sympathy and the law, Primislaus's ideas will prevail. He wants to rule by formal order, intends to found the city, cleverly manipulates the elders to agree with his plans as if it had been their idea, and demands of Libussa that she give her priestly blessing to his urban project and "perhaps" provide an artfully arranged prophecy for the astonished nation, to inspire it with "hope of triumph and success."
Grillparzer's productive perversion of the Czech myth keeps Libussaand Primislaus quarreling until she dies; though her husband is ready to cancel the ritual blessing of the future city, which she deeply resents, she insists on going through with it, stamping her priestly foot in a show of stubbornness and declaring that she will be "his obedient wife" again only after the rite. She makes it clear to him that it is his city, not hers; to build a city unfortunately means
to leave behind your goodly cottages
where each lived as a man, a son, a husband,
a being in himself, and self-sufficient. (V,2329--31)
(trans. by Henry H. Stevens)
Instead of independence and self-sufficiency in union, labor and society will be divided, people will be "only parts of some large whole" and crave "use and profit," or even leave with greedy zeal to make "a home in alien countries, alien here." Almost condescendingly, Libussa tells Primislaus that his city will, of course, "thrive and prosper," creating a threshold to history--yet history, she feels, will be dark and bloody before the primal conditions of humanity can be restored. Her visions of the great nations of the world, including the Slavs, are melancholy and far from consoling; all "races dwelling on earth" will, in turn, dominate the scene of history--Romans, Gauls, the English, Germans, "that blue-eyed race o'erflowing with rude force: / blind when it acts, inactive when it thinks" (V,2416). The Slavs, "age-old servants," will finally be masters, and their dominance will be "far and wide, yet never high nor deep" (V,2421), like the Vltava River, as Grillparzer had noted in his diary, in a last chapter in the development of a "weary world" far removed from its origins. Primislaus wants to push her from the altar because her words endanger his political intentions, but before dying, she completes her prophecy: history will come to an end, she says, only when the long-lost moment of feeling is renewed; "then will the days return that now are gone, / the days of prophets and of genius" (V,2482-83). Until then, everyone will be alienated from the essential nature of humanity.
Bedich Smetana's Libuše, composed in 1869--72, incarnates, by intent and shape, the force of Czech national tradition without ever deteriorating into mere folklore. It is a festive opera, if not a national oratorio, which took as much of Richard Wagner as Smetana wanted to without being unduly Wagnerian; it was precisely Smetana's attention to contemporary music abroad that made him unwelcome to the conservative "Old Czechs," influential in politics and culture, and an ally to the more radical"Young Czechs," who were to dominate Czech life in the later 1870s and the 1880s. The problem was that the story of Libuše did not yield sufficient drama for a complete opera, and the libretto, largely based on the fabricated fragment of "Libussa's Judgment," enhanced rather than diminished the problem of the plot. The libretto was first concocted by the Prague pedagogue and Czech patriot Josef Wenzig in his accustomed German, and then translated by Ervín Spindler, a journalist and civil servant, into Czech. In the opera, the litigants, appearing before Libuše, again are brothers, as in many younger versions of the story, but Wenzig and Spindler believed that a love intrigue was needed and introduced Krásava, a rich and somewhat flirtatious Czech maiden who, offended by the elder brother's lack of response to her charms, decides to challenge him by pretending to feel something for the younger. Finally, all is well, the lovers have their happy end, and Libuše proceeds to her prophecy, the culminating scene.
In Smetana's music, Pemysl's arias have a particularly solemn and lyrical charm, and the famous finale for which the opera was written consists of a series of six "pictures" or presentations in which Libuše "shows," as if in a laterna magica, the great heroes and two heroines of Czech history from the year 1034 to the sixteenth century (the nearly four hundred years of subsequent Hapsburg rule are simply eliminated). Libuše evokes the historical meaning of the figures briefly and with dignity--Duke Betislav I and his wife, Jitka, who won Moravia; Jaroslav of Šternberk, who, as it was believed, defeated the invading Tartars; King Otakar II, Eliška of the Pemyslids, and her son, the Emperor Charles IV, three towering figures of medieval imperial glory; the radical Hussites of the fifteen century, including their military leaders Jan Žižka and Prokop the Great, vivace con fuoco and with a strong allusion to the great Hussite Battle Hymn; George of Podbrad, king of peace, elected by his own people in 1458; and, finally, Prague Castle on the hill, "in magic illumination," and a chorus who celebrate the proud nation that never will be defeated, not even by "the horrors of hell."
Contemporary audiences understood very well why the final scene of the opera showed Hradany Castle, and they were thrilled by the recurrent fanfare signifying the power of the ancient Czech state. In 1867, the monarchy had been divided into Austrian and Hungarian parts; the claims of the Czechs, with their long tradition of power and autonomy, had been ignored; and the emperor in Vienna had not been crowned king of Bohemia at Prague Castle, as tradition required. Smetana had kept his composition in his desk for nine years to save it for the opening of theNational Theater, but general enthusiasm at the opening night on June 11, 1881, was somewhat dampened by the official presence of the Hapsburg crown prince, Rudolf (actually of a progressive cast of mind, and a suicide at Mayerling later). Because of some "Old Czech" intrigue, Smetana had been denied a ticket to his own premiere, but Rudolf invited him to his little salon and there created another difficult situation, because, not knowing that Smetana was hard of hearing (due to a syphilitic infection), he tried to make himself understood by raising his voice. Libuše was again performed at the "new" National Theater on November 18, 1883--the original building had been destroyed by fire soon after its opening and rebuilt thanks to the spontaneous financial efforts of the entire nation--but it was a piece too monumental to be performed en suite. Smetana survived the opening of the new theater by only a year: he died in a Prague asylum for the insane in 1884. The famous Libuše fanfare endures at state ceremonies and on the Czech radio, formally announcing the presence of the president of the republic, though Václav Havel, shy of overstatement, does not always insist on its performance.
Grillparzer's play and Smetana's opera, with their final acts speaking of the glories and the vicissitudes of Prague, show how the ancient myth, first told to legitimize the Pemysl dynasty, was monumentalized or subverted in the nineteenth century. The Czechs used it to evoke national history and, ultimately, for ceremonial celebration of the nation itself. Czech tradition, in the age of emancipatory nationalism, culminated in Smetana's oratorio and the attendant achievements of the great nineteenth-century artists and sculptors, yet the national celebration was only two steps away from the stony gesture, the museum, the patriotic postcard, and Alois Jrasek's narrative, however poetic, for the schools. The German romantics had admired Libussa from a distance until Grillparzer turned his analytical mind to unmasking the implications of the ancient myth pertaining to men and women, male rule and gynocracy, the modern division of labor, and the relative, not absolute, value of nations. Strangely enough, it was this analytical and dyspeptic Viennese who fully revealed the bitter modernity of Prague's ancient myth and, by asking corrosive questions, made it different from all other stories about the origins of cities.
Copyright © 1997 by Peter Demetz
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