Bohemia under Hapsburg misrule/Place of Bohemia in the Creative Arts

3616502Bohemia under Hapsburg misrule — Place of Bohemia in the Creative Arts1915Will Seymour Monroe



By Will S. Monroe, Professoor State Normal School, Montclair, N. J., Author of “Bohemia and the Čechs,” “Comenius and the Beginnings of Educational Reform,” etc.[1]

IT remains to call attention to the place of Bohemia in letters, art, music, education, social and religious reform. In this connection it may be pointed out that the civilization of the Bohemians is distinctly older than that of the German-Austrians, and that it developed wholly independent of the Teutonic art movements in Germany and Austria.

In the matter of literature, Bohemia occupies a place of distinction and priority. The development of the vulgar tongue took place at a comparatively early period. Some of the most ancient of the poetic documents date back to very early times. Indeed, the prose literature of Bohemia, after the Greek and Latin, is one of the oldest in Europe. The three centuries from the time of Charles IV. to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War covers the early brilliant period in literature. Two centuries of intellectual barrenness followed the fatal battle of the White Mountain and the usurpation of the Bohemian Crown by the House of Hapsburg. The ancient constitution of the kingdom was suppressed and it was replaced by a slightly veiled system of Teutonic absolutism. The lands of the Bohemian nobles, who had been patrons of letters, were confiscated and given to generals in the Austrian army and to Austrian noblemen. The inhabitants of the flourishing cities, that had been strongholds of the national language and literature, were driven into exile and their places were taken by immigrants of non-Bohemian birth. The country people were reduced to a state of serfdom and attached to the soil. The pillory, the gallows, and the whipping-post were the sinister arguments that were employed to obliterate all traces of national culture.

Not only was there a complete arrest in the remarkable literary movement that intervened between the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, but most of the literary treasures of the previous centuries were destroyed by the royal edicts of the reactionary Hapsburg rulers. This was done with the notion that the brilliant period of Bohemian existence might be blotted out and forgotten. The book-destroyers that were turned loose in the land burned not only all historical and theological works, but every form of literary composition that might suggest to the Bohemian people their glorious past. One book-destroyer, an Austrian priest, boasted with pride that he had burned 60,000 Bohemian books. Many works were carried by the Bohemian exiles to Saxony, Slovakland, and other countries, and preserved; and these, together with others that escaped the fury of pillaging soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War, constitute the fragments out of which the literary history before the seventeenth century must be constructed. But these fragments are little more than the planks of a ship that was wrecked on the ocean of national vicissitude.

The modern Bohemian literary movement dates back only one hundred years. Joseph Dobrovský (1753–1829), the patriarch of Slavic philology, initiated the literary movement at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The few other Bohemian scholars of the day—Jungmann, Palacký, Kollár, Šafařík, and the incomparable publicist Charles Havlíček—lent their services to the rehabilitation of a national language that was long supposed to be dead. The letters of Jungmann give us our most intimate accounts of the struggles of himself and his co-patriots during the early day of the modern Bohemian literary renascence.[2]

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Austrian Government had penalized the publication of books in the Bohemian language and the teaching of the vernacular in the schools of the kingdom. But in spite of prohibitions of the Hapsburg rulers, the vernacular continued to be spoken in the country districts. This fact facilitated the extraordinary progress made in the fields of poetry, drama, fiction, criticism, and historical works during the last fourscore years. The satirical writings of Jan Neruda, the historical dramas of Alois Jirásek, the rich lyrical poetry of Jaroslav Vrchlický (Frida), the bold imaginative compositions of Julius Zeyer, the modernist poetry of J. S. Machar, the great national epics of Svatopluk Čech, the historical works of Francis Palacký, and the political and sociological writings of Thomas G. Masaryk have made notable contributions to the literary history of modern Bohemia. When one recalls the dearth of literature from Teutonic writers in Austria during the same period, the contrast is marked indeed.

In matters of art also Bohemia was early in the field. The Prague school of painting that came into prominence during the reign of Charles IV. (1316–1378) took favorable rank with similar early art movements in Italy. Painters, sculptors, and architects trained in Bohemia are represented to-day at most of the great cities in Europe where art treasures are preserved. The zealous and promising artistic movement inaugurated in the country by the followers of the Prague school, like most of the other culture movements in the kingdom, was well-nigh extinguished by the attempted Teutonization of the country by the Hapsburg rulers after the fatal Bílá Hora.

The political and literary activity in Bohemia during the opening years of the last century reacted favorably on the art life of the nation. A society of the fine arts, that was distinctly Bohemian and national in character, was organized at Prague in 1848; and this was followed by annual expositions of the chief productions of Bohemian and foreign artists. As an immediate result of these activities, Bohemia produced an astonishingly large number of painters who took high rank in their art, artists of the rare talent of Hellich, Manes, Čermák, Schwaiger, Aleš, Brožík, Mucha, Úprka. In sculpture, too, modern Bohemia has taken a place of distinction in the works of Myslbek, Šimek, Seidan, Sucharda, and Šaloun.

Bohemia’s music is probably better known throughout the civilized world than any other branch of her creative art. This is largely due to the universal character of the language of music and to the eminence of her great tone poets, Smetana and Dvořák. Not that the history of music in the country begins with these two modern composers, but because they spoke in such musical forms and with such musical force that they arrested the attention of the world.

We read in the chronicles of the mediæval historians of the rôle played by music in the life of the Bohemian people, and we know that during the Hussite period the Bohemian hymnology attained a degree of excellence that has not been surpassed by later ages. The Bohemian school of music of to-day takes foremost rank among the music schools of modern Europe.

Bohemia’s position in the matter of education is likewise distinctive. Education of an elementary and secondary character was general in Bohemia several centuries in advance of Austria and Germany. The University of Prague antedated similar institutions in Germany by more than half a century. John Amos Komenský (known in America and England by the Latinized form of his name, Comenius) was a Bohemian, and in the judgment of competent historians of education he was the real evangelist of modern pedagogy. Most of the school systems of progressive and cultivated European peoples are based directly upon ideas that he formulated.

In the domain of religion and ethics, Bohemia has given the greatest moral reformer of the past five hundred years in Jan Hus, the forerunner of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and William E. Channing. And in Jerome of Prague, the contemporary of Hus, she produced another spiritual leader of great power.

  1. Professor Monroe has made numerous pilgrimages to Bohemia and his knowledge of Bohemians is intimate and thorough. He is a “Bohemian by adoption.”
  2. The story is too long to be told in this connection, and the interested reader is referred to “History of Bohemian Literature,” by Count Lützow (London and New York, 1899), and “Bohemia and the Čechs,” by Will S. Monroe (Boston and London, 1910).

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1939, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 84 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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