Czech Literature and Language

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CZECH LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE. The story of Czech language and literature in the early modern period (in fact, up to the very end of the eighteenth century) is one of a struggle to survive as a literary language that is more often frustrated and denied than rewarded. The primary reason for this is that geographically and demographically, the Czechs were more exposed to the pressures of a numerous and expansionist Germandom than other Slavs during the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries.

Bohemia was among those Slavic areas that had received Greco-Slavonic literacy and culture from Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century, after which it underwent a Catholic Latinization, which was subsequently reinforced by the thirteenth-century arrival of the Franciscan and Dominican orders in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia. Literature at this time and into the fourteenth century was dominated by liturgical composition in Latin. Midway through the thirteenth century, some prayers were translated from Latin into Czech. The first original works in Czech, such as songs, prayers, epic poems, and legends in verse, began to appear. One of the earliest and best known is "The Song of Ostrov" (composed 12601290), which celebrates Christ's incarnation. Czech prose writing also began around the same time, in the form of hagiographies written by usually anonymous authors. While most early writing was religious in nature, there also survive some few examples of profane literature, once numerous folk songs, chivalrous love poetry, and chronicles. All of this Old Czech literature shows in its forms and content the considerable influence of the Latin West, although it also reveals the survival of some early Slavonic traditions, which will later on reemerge. It does contradict a supposition that thirteenth-century literary life in Bohemia was already predominantly Germanic.

The reign of Charles IV in Bohemia (13461378) spread the influence of Italian humanism. Charles himself was familiar with at least the works of Petrarch, Cicero, and Seneca. Charles was also interested in historical chronicles, and commissioned the writing of several histories of Bohemia, which were also translated into Czech. A particular characteristic of fourteenth-century Czech humanism is the Devotio Moderna, a movement based on a more personal connection with one's God. This led to the production of numerous pious works written in the vernacular, including Czech translations of the Bible.

The successor of Charles IV, Wenceslas (ruled in Bohemia 13781419), allowed political infighting between the higher nobility and lower Estates to dominate the years of his reign, to the detriment of intellectual and cultural life. He also presided over a decline in the moral standing of the church, which was particularly wealthy and privileged in Bohemia. This led to the further growth of a reformism that had already taken root under Charles IV. Jan Hus was a product of these times and tensions. Born around 1371 in Husinec in Southern Bohemia, Hus was ordained a priest in 1400 and became rector of the University of Prague in 1402. Distressed by the corruption of the church around him, while he himself lived an unimpeachably clean life, Hus was attracted to the teachings of the reformer John Wycliffe. He especially liked Wycliffe's reforms in church practices. While not agreeing with all of Wycliffe's proposed doctrinal changes, Hus preferred Wycliffe's universalism to the nominalism that was embraced by the German professors at the University of Prague. When in 1409 King Wenceslas decreed that the Czech language should become the official language of the university, most of the German professors left the university, which lost its reputation as an intellectual center and gained one as a center for heresy. Hus himself came under increasing attack and was finally excommunicated in 1411, imprisoned in 1414, and executed in 1415. The Hussite Wars of 14201436 further disrupted intellectual and cultural life.

Hus's impact on Czech language and literature was great. He wrote his most important and influential works, letters, and essays to explain his positions between 1412 and 1415. He wrote in the vernacular language of Prague, simultaneously modernizing, creating orthographic reforms, and making the language more phonetic. Humanism continued to develop in both Bohemia and Moravia, where Hussitism was less prevalent and Catholicism dominated, through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, despite the disintegration that followed the Hussite Wars. In 1468, printing was introduced into Bohemia. Of those who wrote in the Czech language, Bishop John Blahoslav (15231571) of the Unity of Czech Brethren was clearly the most important for the development of the literary language. Not only did he translate the New Testament into Czech, he also wrote a Czech grammar. Stylistically, he carried the language forward into a new, more expressive form. In 1588, a committee of the Unity of Czech Brethren translated the entire Bible, which was published in Moravia.

In the late sixteenth century, literature in the Czech language was promoted by a publisher, Daniel Adam of Veleslavín (15461599), who sought out and published religious works, geographies, chronicles, histories, lexicographies, and translations of all types. While some have called this an early "golden age" of Czech literature because of the quantity and variety of publications, others have pointed out that there was little of exceptional quality or originality among them.

Still, the late sixteenth century must have appeared indeed as a golden age after the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 destroyed the old Czech Protestant nobility and resulted in a thoroughgoing Germanization of all intellectual and bureaucratic life in Bohemia. For the Czechs of Bohemia, the seventeenth century was one of utter ruin, politically, economically, and nationally. Some Czech scholars continued to work abroad, either in Western Slovakia or, as in the case of John Amos Komensky (Comenius, 15921670), in Poland. Among his best-known and influential works are Janua Linguarum (an encyclopedia/grammar), The Labyrinth of the World, Orbis Sensualium Pictus (a children's picture book), and Pansophia.

The Counter-Reformation did not produce much in the way of original or memorable literature in the Czech lands. However, a publishing group founded in 1670, The Heritage of St. Wenceslas, did play an important role in ensuring the survival of the written Czech language by publishing religious works in Czech for simple people. History writing was also popular under the Jesuits. For example, in 1677, Bohuslav Balbín (16211688) published Epitome Rerum Bohemicarum. However, Czech linguistic patriotism was badly reduced by the end of the seventeenth century. The destruction of the Czech Protestant nobility, the Thirty Years' War (16181648), the reduction in Czech population, balanced by aggressive German colonization and the domination of German language among the Habsburgs, all took its inevitable toll. In 1774 German was made the official language of instruction in Bohemia, and Czech was all but lost as a literary language.

The eighteenth century did not bring relief to the Czech cultural patriots until it was nearly over. The War of the Austrian Succession (17401748) was especially hard on the Czechs. Only toward the end of the century, under the influence of Enlightenment thinking, and especially that of Joseph II (ruled in Bohemia 17801790), did the Czechs begin to regain some ground. The popularity of Johann Gottfried von Herder's "folk nationalism" helped to advance the cause of national cultures. In 1784 the Royal Bohemian Society of Science was founded, heralding a new age of Czech intellectualism. Joseph's brother, Leopold II (ruled 17901792) founded a chair of Czech language at the otherwise still Germanized University of Prague. He had also chosen to be crowned with, among others, the crown of King Wenceslas. As the nineteenth century opened, Czech language and literature were poised for a comeback from the dark days of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

See also Austrian Succession, War of the (17401748) Bohemia ; Comenius, Jan Amos ; Habsburg Dynasty: Austria ; Herder, Johann Gottfried von ; Hussites ; Thirty Years' War (16181648) .


Dvornik, Frances. The Slavs in European History and Civilization. New Brunswick, N.J., 1962.

Kann, Robert A. A History of the Habsburg Empire, 15261918. Berkeley, 1974.

Kann, Robert A., and David V. Zdenĕk. The Peoples of the Eastern Habsburg Lands, 15261918. Seattle, 1984.

Anita Shelton

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Czech Literature and Language

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