Fun Fact

‘Gold, please.’ ~ Grand Theft Relics: comparing Age of Empires 2 to History [1/3]

Not so long ago, on Age of Empires 2, my father and I were holding our ground against waves and waves of conquistadors. My halberdiers were butchered by the dozens and I noticed my father lacked gold to sustain his military production. Faithful son that I am, I tasked a monk with the perilous duty to deliver my relics to my father’s monastery despite enemy raids between both our bases.

Most of the time, however, we see players snatching relics from each other. On Arena maps, light cavalry and monks rush into the no man’s land as soon as players hit Castle Age and it leads to epic micro-fight. Those well versed into the arcane arts can even teleport their monks to snatch relics in the blink of an eye. A blood pact with the Devil is required to gain this wizardly skill, though, since you need two of your monks to shag in a dark alley, which is not very Christian.

Now, I’d like to talk to you about some historic relic gifting and snatching. Since I introduced the early Christian Dukes of Bohemia in a former post, I’ll keep my focus on them for this one.

As you may have read, Václav was the first Christian Duke of Bohemia despite his mother’s Pagan faith. The Přemyslid family strife got to some Game of Thrones proportion, though, when Drahomira, the mother, allegedly had her son Václav murdered by his own brother when he dared to found a rotunda church in Prague. Boleslav, Drahomira’s younger son, was maybe every inch a dutiful son but foremost he was quite the power grabber. With or without his mother’s scheming, he killed his brother without a flinch and took the Duchy for himself. While doing so, however, he also embraced Christianity then he didn’t wait a second to elevate his murdered brother to sainthood.

Go figure.

All this seems weird and fairly unreasonable to us. Yet, there might be a sound political reasoning behind Boleslav’s actions. Not only did he promote Václav to sainthood, he also made him the patron of Bohemia. Every Duke would promote Václav’s cult after Boleslav’s reign and use it as a propaganda of power. However, guilt may not have been the only thing to move Boleslav. Though he abode to Christianity, and therefore had to bow to the Holy Roman Empire, he tried to make Bohemia an independent polity. Sneaky and shrewd as he was, when the Magyars came westwards, Boleslav let them pass through his lands and it took the Duke of Saxony some fierce convincing to bend Boleslav to his will and join him to the Battle of Lechfeld, in 955.

Why does any of this matter? Let’s look at the bigger picture. Capture Age is our friend.

The Holy Roman Empire in 962.

When Václav founded his rotunda church, he acquired a holy relic to dwell it from the Duke of Saxony. That relic was St Vitus’ arm and St Vitus had since become patron of the Ludolfings. What can I say? Two and two make four. The Ludolfings were the Dukes of Saxony themselves. It meant that Prague religious life was enfeoffed to Saxony’s holy patron! Add water to the burned area, the Duke of Saxony was well placed to sit on the vacant throne of the Emperor and that is exactly what Otto I did, eventually, when he was crowned in 962.

Before that fateful year, still in the absence of an emperor in power, and before the Ludolfings claimed and took over the title, Boleslav wished to sunder Bohemia from Saxony’s religious oversight. He murdered his brother to seize the duchy then he made him a local saint so that St Vitus’ cult would not obstruct his personal display of power. This was a very clever move! When Boleslav turned his brother’s cold corpse into holy relics, he insured Bohemia religious life wasn’t overshadowed by a foreign patron. The next step was to elevate Prague into a bishopric and make it as free as possible from Imperial supervision.  

Bohemia’s Christianization was first kicked off by missionaries sent from the bishopric of Passau. Nonetheless, as soon as 895, the bishopric of Regensburg took over the missionary agenda of Bohemia and all substantial religious matters regarding the Přemyslid duchy were settled in Bavaria, Bavaria being nothing but a friend to Saxony.

According to some dubious record in a 12th century chronicle, Boleslav managed to give Prague its own bishopric thanks to the good influence of his daughter, Mlada-Maria, as soon as 967. Nevertheless, it is certain that Prague had its own bishopric in 976 and was freed from Regensburg’s oversight. It was not yet an archbishopric, though, and still answered Mainz. Bohemia would have to wait the Luxembourg dynasty and John the Blind’s reign to see Prague become its own archbishopric. All the credit falls to John the Blind’s son, however, Charles IV.

St Václav (or Wenceslaus) in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 68r

It would be time now to talk about Boleslav II and his epic relic snatching skills. However, I’ll first gloss over the former sentence I wrote, ‘St Vitus had since become patron of the Ludolfings,’ because there are more relics gifting to deal with on that matter!

Little did I know when I started to write this post that St Vitus relics dwelled in ‘France’ before they made their way into Saxony and, from there, found a path to Bohemia’s capital. Even before that, St Vitus’ relics were in Rome! They were moved to St Denis abbey in the 8th century.

Then, what happened?

During the 9th century, the Vikings forced many monks to move out relics from their sanctuary. However, this is not what happened to St Vicus relics. Hilduin, the abbot of Saint-Denis, found himself exiled to the German abbey of Corvey, in Saxony, because he’d allied an enemy of the Emperor, Louis the Pious. Hilduin was quickly reinstated but he made a friend along the way: the abbot of Corvey, Warin. The bound of friendship that united the two abbots is what made the relics transfer possible and moved St Vitus remains from Saint-Denis to Saxony.

First off, this relics transfer hastened the Christianization of Saxony. The German duchy had known very few martyrs: relics mostly had to be imported and St Vitus’ case set up a trend that would only grow stronger. Furthermore, the importation of relics into Saxony tethered its links to the Frankish Empire and helped its integration. Moreover, the chronicler Widukind interpreted the transfer from St Vitus’ relics to Saxony as a translation imperii: the Saxons symbolically inherited the imperial power that the Franks had held for so long when the holy remains entered the Corvey abbey.

A relic transfer was therefore much more than just a symbolic gesture. It could also have deep economic repercussion. Albeit I’ll discuss that in the next installment of this post series.

See you next time for some more relic trivia!

Attack of a monastery ~ Paris, BnF, fr. 2644, f. 142r

Further readings:
~ Nora Berend, Central Europe in the High Middle Ages. Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, c.900-c.1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
~ Anne Van Landschoot, “La translation des reliques de saint Vit de l’abbaye de Saint-Denis à celle de Corvey en 836”, in Revue belge de philology et d’histoire (1996), 74/3-4, p. 593-632.

Epic Arena Relic Swipe
Fun Fact

Short History of the Early Christian Dukes of Bohemia

St Václav (or Wenceslaus) in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 68r

As promised, here begins a very short history of the early Dukes of Bohemia, from Vratislav to Bretislav. Hang on to your hats, fasten your seatbelts, grab your popcorn and enjoy some Crusader King 2 worthy storyline.

Vratislav, living in the first half of the 10th century, hated the Franks. He married a pagan princess to upset their plan of world domination and she was a fine young woman, but she evolved into a bitter old mother. When Vratislav died, his son Václav became Duke of Bohemia. That’s only logical. However, the latter saw many political upsides to embrace Christianity and he founded a rotunda church, right there in Prague. In doing so, Václav also recognized the authority of the Holy Roman Empire over his Duchy and for many years, Christian matters in Bohemia were overseen by Imperial churchmen. This whole situation enraged Ludmilla, Václav’s mother. She plotted to get her first-born and she enlisted the best man for the job, Václav’s own little brother, her second son, Boleslav.

Boleslav was shrewd. Boleslav was smart. He agreed to murder his brother. He carried the deed. He became Duke of Bohemia, hurray! However, he was too smart to backtrack on his brother’s spiritual choices and he embraced Christianity so hard that he promoted his murdered brother to sainthood. #Paradox

The four Apostles in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 1v

From that point onward, St Václav, better known as St Wenceslaus West of the Rhine, became the spiritual patron of Bohemia. All Bohemian Dukes and Kings had to worship him dutifully to secure their dynastic propaganda of power.

Bretislav was quite the state builder. Beyond handing Bohemia a spiritual patron, he also insured his control of the land by building strongholds all over the country. He built the stronghold in Prague, too. He was nicknamed ‘the Cruel’ when people found out that he had quite an expedite way to deal with his political opponents. To be clear, he gifted them with the same fate that he’d offered his brother. Eventually, Boleslav also tried to free Bohemia from the Holy Roman Empire grasp by reaching to Bavaria and helping the Magyar migrate West. However, Otto I was a bit of a tough nut to crack. The Magyar were utterly crushed by the Imperial Army at Lechfeld in 955 and Bohemia was forced to provide troops. It was clear from that point onwards that Bohemia would be part of the Holy Roman Empire because of its Christianization. There was no escape from it.

Boleslav II succeeded to his father. He maintained friendly relationships with the Holy Roman Empire, but most of all, he secured access and control to the silver mines of Kutná Hora and it would greatly benefit to Bohemia in the centuries to come.

The Biblical Magi in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 13v

Boleslav III was the next Duke of Bohemia. Nicknamed ‘the Red’ because he had red hair—what do you want me to say?—Boleslav was a gentle fruitcake. He reigned only a year or two that he already tried to strangle his brother Ulrich and castrated his other brother, Jaromir. Both fled to Bavaria and the Bohemian nobility chose to overthrow their tyrant by inviting Vladyvoj to the throne. Vladyvoj took on the Duchy of Bohemia as an imperial fief from the German King, Henry II, but he died shortly after that. Jaromir and Ulrich still out of the picture, Bołeslaw the Brave, King of Poland, swooped in and took over. Bohemia was from now on into a personal union with the Kingdom of Poland, and free from the Empire. There was no way Bołeslaw would bow to the Emperor. It would be as if the King of England bowed to the King of France only because he holds a fief of the latter.

Wait…

That’s how the Hundred Years War started!

Bołeslaw’s story as Duke of Bohemia was much shorter. Jaromir was quickly put in charge of Bohemia and the Duchy reconciled with the Holy Roman Empire. Then Ulrich took over and ultimately his son, Bretislav I, inherited Bohemia, which he ruled for twenty years from 1034 to 1055.

Bretislav wished to steal a page from Bołeslaw’s book and refused to pay tribute to the Empire. It cost him dearly. He ended up walking barefoot through Regensburg, wearing a penitentiary sack, begging for pardon. The Emperor granted his pardon and Bretislav swore his total allegiance to his suzerain. Bohemia was definitely part of the Empire, it wouldn’t be contested anymore, yet all those wars forged the Duchy as a stable and powerful polity. It wouldn’t be long before it was elevated to Kingdom. Well, two centuries basically. But who keeps count?

The Crucifixion in the ‘Vyšehradský kodex’ ~ Prague, National Library, MS XIV.A.13, f. 42r

Note on the manuscript introduced in this post (thanks to Google Translate)

The Vyšehrad Codex (National Library of the Czech Republic, XIV A 13) is probably the most valuable manuscript preserved in the Czech Republic. Researchers believe that the manuscript is the coronation evangelist of the first Czech King Vratislav I (as Prince II), or that he has composed it to commemorate this event.

The Czech King Vratislav I (ruled as Prince Vratislav II from 1061) was crowned on June 15, 1086 at Prague Castle. The Evangelist contains excerpts from the Gospels that were read at the Mass during the church year. […] The Visegrad Code was originally created without a specific purpose, into stock. Later, approximately one third of the Code was hastily completed on order from Bohemia. It also contains a reading on the feast of Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, who opens the initial D-ixit with a depiction of a throne prince who, as a gesture of his right, expresses his consent to the act of Vratislav’s coronation and symbolically passed it over to the government.

Further Readings:
~ Nora Berend, Central Europe in the High Middle Ages. Bohemia, Hungary and Poland, c.900-c.1300. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
~ Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe. A History of the Holy Roman Empire. Cambridge [MA]: Belknap Press, 2016.

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!

Fun Fact

One man’s death is another man’s trophy ~ John the Blind’s death at Crécy (1346)

The Prince of Wales’s feathers

The legend would have that the Prince of Wales’s feathers date from the Battle of Crécy. Once the French army had been routed, the Black Prince came across the dead body of John the Blind, King of Bohemia. Froissart do actually state that the Prince of Wales and his father, the King of England, dressed in black to pay their respect to their honourable foe. Yet another tale reports that the Black Prince, to pay tribute to the King of Bohemia, took the feathers from the latter’s helmet for himself then even went on to adopt his motto: ‘Ich Dien.’

This romantic version of the story is counterbalanced by a more ludicrous one. The King of Bohemia being blind, it’s believed that he was told when and where to strike with this sword. ‘To the left, Your Majesty! Now, to the right!’ As the joke goes, Henry the Monk of Basel shouted those words to John the Blind once they broke into the English ranks.

Great scene from Orange is the New Black, season 06 – episode 02, bringing back the Cha-cha slide! From today’s standard, it would be easy to deem John the Blind as mentally unstable as “Crazy Eyes”.

Both knights heroically charged the English at Crécy, on August 26th, 1346. Following the Duke of Alençon, they pierced through the fleeing Genoese crossbowmen, maybe trampling a few. A downpour of arrows rained on them. John the Blind couldn’t see anything but he had been advised of the danger. With no regard for his life nor his safety, he had charged nonetheless. His horse had been tethered to those of his companions to help him steer his steed onto the right direction.

‘To the left, Your Majesty! Now, to the right!’ Basel sounded as if he was instructing John the Blind the basic steps of the cha-cha slide. Yet he was telling him when and where to bash his sword on enemy heads. This alleged quote is supposed to deride John the Blind’s last moments. He died at Crécy while charging head on an enemy he couldn’t see. Sure! From a modern point of view, it makes no sense. Why would anyone do that?

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2643, f. 165v ~ Depiction of the Battle of Crécy in Froissart’s chronicle. As the Genoese crossbowmen get slaughtered by the English longbowmen, we see French knights charging through while the rest of the army already turns back.

The fact is that the modern rules of warfare don’t apply on a medieval battlefield. It was expected from Kings and their commanding officers to step on the frontline and to lead from the very front row. It was up to them to behave the way superheroes do today in movies and honour a long literary tradition of valour, bravery and gallantry. I mean, they had the suit and everything. Who could be more dashing on the battlefield than a knight in shining armour dressed up with the coat of arms of his family? They craved to become the fabric of legend and to get a tenth spot among the the Nine Worthies, alongside Alexander, David and Arthur. We need to remember that back then, written history was barely anything but tales of war. There was no study of the economical impact of the Cistercian order in eastern Europe. Only tales of Teutonic knights slaying pagans in the name of God. Tales to which John the Blind contributed himself, by the way.

Sure, when John the Blind does it it’s stupid. But when Captain America and Black Panther go at it, it’s epic. Double standards much?

John the Blind’s death reminds us that mankind isn’t the most level-headed of species. We do tend to act on impulse rather than reason. However it would be wrong to assume that as he charged at Crécy, John the Blind drowned himself in some ‘collective dream’ fixated on an outdated and nostalgic idea of chivalry.

More on that in my next post!

Disclaimer. Sources and further readings to be found at the end of the John the Blind’s series