Q&A

Why you should NEVER trust your government when it comes to Medieval History—I’m looking at you, Czech Republic!

What you’ll find in this post

So my good friend Brother_Judas texted me on Reddit about some oddity regarding Czech history. He’d been doing some more reading to draw more of his beautiful maps, when he came upon this information:

In 1002, Duke Vladivoj was enfeoffed with the Duchy of Bohemia from the hands of King Henry II of Germany. With this act, what had been a fully sovereign duchy became part of the Holy Roman Empire. After Vladivoj died the next year, the Polish duke Bolesław I the Brave invaded Bohemia and Moravia. In 1004, after the Poles were expelled from Bohemia with help from Henry II, Duke Jaromir received the duchy in fief from the king.

It puzzled my good friend, you see, because I had showcased a map depicting the Holy Roman Empire in 962 that included Bohemia as part of the Empire. Brother_Judas had seen and studied that map. So he came back straight to me, demanding answers in the most gallant fashion.

The Holy Roman Empire in 962

He wrote the paragraph I quoted then reported that he’d found this information on a website belonging to some department of the Czech Ministry of the Interior. It’s a good thing he translated the thing for me because I sure couldn’t have been able to read it! That’s why, dear children, making friends from foreign countries is a most valuable thing.

Well, I was in a pickle, wasn’t I? I mean, you trust me to upload solid and trustworthy historical information on my blog. Then comes along a government full of officials that contradicts me. This is upsetting. If I had lied brazenly, you’d unfollow right away and I wouldn’t blame you.

Now, wait a minute. Who told you any government was trustworthy when it comes to sharing historical information? Have you not read 1984?

I went back to that book I found the HRE 962 map that I had shared. It was published by Harvard University Press. That only should vouch for its intrinsic value. However, it happened more than once that an academic rushed his writing, didn’t check his sources and oversimplified things. Beyond the map itself, what did the text say?

The emperor was rarely able to help missionaries once they set off into the wild north and east. Those sent to Denmark were expelled in the 820s and Christianization made no headway there until the conversion of Harald Bluetooth in the mid-tenth century. The cooperation of local elites proved indispensable, especially as conversion entailed simultaneous acceptance of imperial suzerainty and payment of tithes. The Bohemian leader (and later saint) Wenceslas had been educated as a Christian and accepted imperial overlordship, only to be murdered on his brother’s orders in 929. Bohemia was forced to acknowledge imperial suzerainty in 950, though resistance to Christianity persisted into the eleventh century. Nonetheless, conversion of much of its elite proved significant in spreading Christianity and imperial influence to the East Elbian Slavs and to the Poles and Magyars. Vojtech (Adalbert), a missionary martyred by the Prussians in 997, came from the Bohemian ruling family.

Then I read a bit further down:

Otto III was subsequently criticized for converting tribute-paying princelings into independent kings. It is more likely that Boleslav and Istvan considered themselves the emperor’s primary allies, while Otto regarded himself as king of kings. The relationship remained fluid because of internal changes in the Empire, Poland and Hungary. Boleslav’s successors were not crowned kings, and his son Mieszko II returned the royal insignia to the Empire in 1031. A royal title could mark temporary ascendency over domestic foes, while submission to the Empire was a favored tactic of weaker rulers seeking external backing. In practice, Poland remained a tributary of the Empire from the 960s until the late twelfth century without this infringing its internal autonomy or requiring its ruler to participate in German politics. In this sense, it remained more distinct than Bohemia, which was clearly an imperial fief by 1002.

The author, Peter H. Wilson, is a history professor at the All Souls College of Oxford. I should take his word but I didn’t. I spotted a reference of his: Nora Berend, Central Europe in the High Middle Ages. Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, c.900-c.1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. I decided to check that book out too. On the one hand, Nora Berend herself is a professor at the St Catharine’s College of Cambridge. On the other hand, her book is a marvel. The following stellar review had even been written by Christian Raffensperger in Speculum, a top-notch historical review centered on Medieval History:

The arrival of this book is more than welcome for those of us teaching medieval history beyond Western Europe … The work required to produce this must have been immense and the payoff is tremendous for the reader … Central Europe in the High Middle Ages makes the medieval histories of these three incredibly important medieval polities available to an English-language audience of students and scholars, and it will hopefully facilitate the expansion of the idea of medieval Europe throughout college classrooms.

So, basically, Nora Berend’s book is the shit. No surprise there, it’s a Cambridge history book. Therefore I took upon myself to peruse its third chapter on ‘formation of polities and Christianization’ and here’s another quote I can hit you with:

Boleslav I attempted to counterbalance the growing political power of Germany under Henry I by tightening Bohemia’s traditional relations with Bavaria, leading to a long-standing alliance. Boleslav continued his father’s policy of strategic co-operation with the Polabian Slavs, which lasted for more than two centuries. He also tried to take advantage of German–Hungarian conflicts, and allowed the Magyar plunderers to pass freely as they made their way to Thuringia and further west. Nonetheless, he was forced to accept the suzerainty of Otto I in 950, and resume tribute payments. Bohemian assistance was provided to the German king to defeat the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955. Bohemia fell under the permanent control of the Empire, albeit indirectly.

Let’s conclude. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? What the hell happened? What the story behind all this? Well, you kind of know it by now. Nonetheless, make sure to check out my short history of the early Dukes of Bohemia, from Vratislav to Bretislav, in my next post!

1 thought on “Why you should NEVER trust your government when it comes to Medieval History—I’m looking at you, Czech Republic!”

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