Bohemia under Hapsburg misrule/The Bohemians and the Slavic Regeneration

3616507Bohemia under Hapsburg misrule — The Bohemians and the Slavic Regeneration1915Leo Wiener



By Leo Wiener, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University[1]

BOHEMIA is the westernmost Slavic country and its fortunate geographical position between the West and the East of Europe and half-way between the Slavs of the Balkans and those of the North has in past ages determined its cultural mission, which has been that of mediating between the Latin civilization and the Poles on the one hand and the Byzantine culture and the Russians on the other. Bohemia is the keystone in the Slavic arch. Without it the proto-history of the Eastern nations in Europe has no meaning and no coherency. Unfortunately even the most profound scholars have as yet overlooked the important role which Bohemia has played in forwarding that Carolingian civilization which the Visigoths, expelled by the Arabs from Spain and settled by Charlemagne in southern and central France, caused to radiate to the whole Germanic world and, through Bavaria, grafted on the neighboring Čechs.

It is well known that the first Christian activity in Bohemia proceeded from German missionaries, but it is only a recent discovery on the origin of the so-called Gothic Bible which has revealed to me the extraordinary extent of the Visigothic literary and cultural influences upon the Bavarians and the Čechs. In the light of this discovery, which I am now subjecting to a close scrutiny, it appears that a tremendous proportion of the Slavic vocabularies, from Russia to Dalmatia, from Poland to Bulgaria, has been borrowed from the religious works of the Bohemians, of the early period, now entirely lost to science. Bohemia was the intellectual mistress of what may be called the proto-Slavic world. Without Bohemia, the greater part of the Slavic vocabularies renains irreducible as regards origins and distribution, while with the proper appreciation of this country’s geographical factor it appears at once that far from standing aloof from the Roman civilization of the early Middle Ages, the Slavs have been equal participants with the Teutons in the benefits of the Visigothic culture, which shows hardly any traces of Teutonisın, but a curious mixture of Western Roman, Southern French, and Arabic elements. The linguistically strongest of these is the Arabic, for my discovery goes to show that the so-called Gothic Bible was written only about the year 800 and in Southern France.

It was only in 813 that Charlemagne introduced the Germanic languages to the knowledge of the educated, by ordering that homilies should be written in the native dialects. There does not exist the slightest evidence that, with the possible exception of some Gothic tracts, which Bishop Ulphilas is said to have written in the fourth century, the Germans used their native dialects for any literary purposes. There is nothing which we possess in the way of literary documents that dates back of the ninth century, and there is precious little that can with certainty be ascribed to a period previous to the tenth century. Hence it appears that the literary Teutonic activity is very little, if at all, ahead of the distinctively Slavic literary activity, which, so far as we know, begins, at the end of the ninth century, with the translation of the Bible by the proto-apostles of the Slavs, Cyril and Methodius, for the Čechs of Bohemia.

In the present stage of philological science it is impossible to ascertain the precise dialect in which these Bulgarian monks wrote, though the reasonable assumption is that it was that of their native Thessalonica. But the existence of a distinct Slavic alphabet, the Glagolica, of which Cyril’s alphabet is but a simplification, and the existence of the Freisingen fragments which, although not older than from the eleventh century, are written in a variant dialect and obviously are based on documents preceding the activity of the proto-apostles, make it certain that Cyril and Methodius drew on an older literary stock or composed in a language which was already permeated by the Christian conceptions which were the common possession of the Čechs in Carolingian times. This is proved by the precious Kiev fragments, of the eleventh century, which contain the most primitive form of the Old-Slavic language and, at the same time, use distinctively Čech words of the Roman Catholic liturgy. It is, therefore, plausible that whatever dialect was later chosen by Cyril and Methodius in their religious activity in Moravia and Bohemia, it was based on the vocabulary which was already familiar to the Čechs from their previous relations with the German missionaries.

The Slavic liturgy did not survive long in Bohemia. After the death of Methodius in 885 the Slavic priests were banished and Moravia and Bohemia became Roman Catholic once more. Only the Abbey of Sázava continued to use the Slavic liturgy until the year 1096, after which nothing more is heard of the Slavic Church. Cyril and Methodius, who had come to Moravia at the request of Prince Rostislav, had in 867 been accused by the German missionaries of heresy, which accusation, however, Pope Hadrian found to be groundless. But the Slavic activity could not be maintained against German arrogance, and, as it was Bishop Wiching who soon after the death of Methodius banished the Slavic liturgy from Bohemia, so it was in the eleventh century again German priests who destroyed the last vestige of the incipient Slavic culture. The Slavic liturgy left the country to become permanently associated with the Greek Catholic Church in Russia, Serbia, and Bulgaria. What might have formed a bond between the various Slavic nations had been senselessly destroyed in Bohemia by the machinations of the German clergy.

Again it was Bohemia which was the first country, not only among the Slavs, but in the whole of Europe, to carry high the banner of religious freedom. The Germans boast of the contribution to freedom of thought by their Luther, and they constantly forget that a century before him Hus had prepared the ground for that religious dissent which was voiced by Luther and his contemporaries. In the fourteenth century Bohemians were fond of attending foreign universities, especially those of Paris and Oxford. In the latter place they became acquainted with Wiclif and, returning home, they translated his works and laid the foundation for that remarkable activity which is known as Husitism. Matěj of Janov, who had studied at Paris, had even before Hus put himself in opposition to Popery, but it was Hus’s particular desert to have roused the Čech national feeling. Hus was opposed not only to the corruptions that had crept into the Church, but also to the anti-nationalistic activities of the Germans, and so headed the movement which had for its purpose Čech regeneration. Čech became the language of intercourse, and a large number of translations of the Bible into Čech was made between 1400 and 1430, the most remarkable being that written by a Taborite miller’s wife.

Hus became the first rector of the Čech Prague University, after the German students had withdrawn to the newly formed University of Leipsic. Bohemia was rent by disorder, not only from without, but also within the Husitic movement itself. Husitist stood not only for religious freedom, but also for democracy, and for a time the Husites got along without a king. The most advanced of these democratic protagonists of that time was Chelčický, who dreamed of a millennium, not unlike the one represented in literature at the present time by Tolstoy. His chief desert lies in having, by his writings, promoted the formation of the Church of Bohemian Brethren. The idea of Slavic nationality was not confined to Bohemia alone. The growth of a similar national feeling in Poland may be discerned as the result of this Čech renascence, and the Southern Slavs, too, were directly and indirectly influenced by the nationalism in the North. Indeed, the golden age of Polish and Serbian literature is but a century older than the rebirth of the Slavic idea in Bohemia.

Again it was a Bohemian who, at the end of the eighteenth and in the beginning of the nineteenth century, became the founder of Slavic philology and the new Slavic literary movements throughout Europe. Jagić begins his stupendous “Encyclopedia of Slavic Philology” with a definition of Slavic philology, after which he says: “Only at the end of the eighteenth century did the whole volume of Slavic philology, as an independent science, assume shape. The chief desert in this matter belongs to Joseph Dobrovský. He laid the foundation for a scientific grammar of the Slavic languages, centering it on its most ancient type, the Church-Slavic. He was the first to attempt a determination of the degree of relationship between the separate Slavic dialects by means oi a scientific classification. It was he who introduced into the circle of scientific interests the questions from the literary and cultural history of the Slavs, for example, the question of the educational activity of Cyril and Methodius, and finally also from social history, such as archeological and ethnographical questions. . . . The critical spirit of Dobrovský with his broad views has created Slavic philology. He is the father of this science.”

In the second half of the eighteenth century it looked as though the Slavic languages were doomed to perdition. Poland lost its independence and was parceled out among three nations; Bohemia had become a mere dependency of the Hapsburg Empire; Serbia and Bulgaria were under the Turkish yoke and did not even dream of a separate political existence. Nor did matters stand better in the national literatures. The Polish and Bohemian literatures led a vegetative existence; the Serbians and Croatians had forgotten of their literary past; the Bulgarians had not yet discovered the fact that they spoke an intelligible language worthy of literary refinement. Russia was still struggling with the establishment of a linguistic norm out of the ecclesiastic Slavic and the spoken idiom, while its literature was but a feeble reflex of French pseudo-classicism. Nowhere was there the slightest conviction that the homely native dialects had a right to exist by the side of the more fortunate German, while of the past of the Slavic languages but the faintest surmises had been uttered by men untutored in historical and philological lore. But if it was the preponderant influence of German culture that put the Slavic into the shade, it was also the result of German philosophy which gave the Slavic national idea a new lease of life.

German literature had itself been decadent for some time, and was obliged to yield to the more universal French culture which ruled even at the Prussian court. The revolt against French pseudoclassicism and encyclopedism was, however, voiced by a few German writers who began to look in the native elements of the intellectual life for a basis for a native poetry and belles lettres in general. Thus arose the German Romanticism, which believed that in the creations of the popular mind could be found truer, more natural sentiments for literary expression than in the artificial productions of a select upper class. Possibly the chief activity in the direction of a simpler literature was developed by the brothers Grimm, who, by their collections of fairy tales and mythological lore, laid the foundation for a nationalistic movement which was soon to sweep over Europe. Not only did German literature successfully establish itself against the French fashion, but all the smaller nations, who had almost forgotten of their historical existence, began to discover themselves. If the popular creation was truer and more important than the traditional literatures of the Græco-Roman type, then Serbia and Bohemia and Russia, which had preserved an enormous mass of oral literature in out-of-the-way places, harked back to important pasts and should develop from within. The nationalistic idea began to grow out of proportion to the folklore which could conveniently be mustered in proof of native superiority, and where there was such a disproportion it became necessary, so unscrupulous nationalists thought, to manufacture such material. Everybody knows the huge literary forgery of Macpherson, whose Ossianic poetry none the less had a great influence upon susceptible minds, even in the East. Another such forgery was that of the Bohemian Hanka, whose Queen’s Court Manuscript still finds overzealous defenders among a certain class of unwise nationalists. It is not the forgery of Hanka which has had most widespread influences upon the dissemination of the nationalistic idea among the Slavs, but the legitimate and scholarly activity of the father of Slavic philology, Joseph Dobrovský.

Having studied Eastern languages at the University of Prague, he had hoped to become a missionary in India, but he soon abandoned this intention and devoted himself to the study of Slavic antiquity. In 1779 he made his appearance in criticism with a periodical which set itself the task of telling “the truth, the naked, unvarnished truth” without regard for persons. He at once attracted attention by his sharp, critical acumen. His main interest lay in the purification of the Čech language and the forination of a literary norm. In 1792 his desire to reconstruct the Slavic past took him on a long journey to the libraries of Sweden and Russia, and even to the Caucasus, where he had expected to find some indications of a Čech origin. In the same year appeared his “History of the Bohemian Language and Literature,” in which he described the struggles of the Čech language against the German and Latin from the time of Hus until his day, and showed what relation it bore to the other Slavic languages. The effect of this work upon the nationalistic feeling was very great. Especially his grammar of the Čech language which he published in 1808 formed the basis for all Slavic grammars written in the first half of the nineteenth century. Dobrovský was a voluminous writer, and his scientific correspondence, lately edited by Jagić, contains an immense amount of material which throws a light upon the history of the Slavic renascence. Dobrovský soon gained many disciples in the Slavic world. The Russians Vostokov, Kalaydovich, Stroev, and many others, the Slovenes Kopitar and Vodnik were his followers, and the great Slavists Šafařík and Miklosich carried on the work of philology after him. He enjoyed the friendship of German scholars and poets, Goethe, Jacob Grimm, Pertz, and others. Goethe wrote of him: “Abbé Joseph Dobrovský, the past master of critical historical science in Bohemia, this rare man who long before had followed the general study of the Slavic languages and histories with genial industry and Herodotic travels, rejoiced in reducing his gains to the study of the Bohemian people and country, and thus united with the greatest glory in science the rare reputation of a popular name. The master is visible in whatever he attempts. He everywhere grasps his subject and deftly unites the fragments into one whole.”

It cannot be said that the strong nationalistic movement which developed in Bohemia was entirely beneficial, for it not only led to unhealthy, ecstatic moods in the Bohemian literature of the first part of the nineteenth century, but even to a series of literary falsifications which still form the subject of discussion among laymen. But it must not be forgotten that the Bohemian nationalism was a reflex of the nascent German nationalism and was fanned to exaggerated manifestations by the obscurant absolutism of Emperor Francis I. Indeed, the Čech nationalism was to a great extent encouraged by the Austrian Government, as a protective measure against Napoleonic sympathies. The work begun by Dobrovský was carried into the field of literature by Jungmann, who was not satisfied with creating a native literary language for the lower classes only, which seemed sufficient to Dobrovský, but set about to create a literary norm for the whole of the Bohemian people. Jungmann was especially successful in translating from foreign languages, and the Slovaks Šafařík and Kollár, and the Moravian Palacký, not only imitated the activity of their teacher Jungmann, but became even more important in the dissernination of the Slavic idea, both at home and abroad.

In the twenties of the nineteenth century the fame of these ardent Slavists had spread to all the Slavic countries, and in Russia the question of founding a chair of Slavic philology, to be occupied by some Bohemian scholar, was seriously considered. In 1830 the Russian Government offered a chair of Slavic philology to Šafařík, but nothing came of it, chiefly through the machinations of the forger Hanka, who sided with the Russian autocracy, while Šafařík publicly expressed himself in favor of the Poles in the revolution which had just broken out in Russia. But Šafařík continued to exert a great influence on Slavic science in Russia through his friend Pogodin, who never gave up the hope that Šafařík might be called to a chair in Petrograd. When this hope could not be materialized, the young Slavists then studying in Russia, Bodyanski, Sreznevski and others, made it their business to study for a time in Austria, more especially, to meet Šafařík and learn something from personal contact with him. Indeed, the main activity of Bodyanski consisted in translating into Russian the works of Šafařík and other Bohemian Slavists. Similarly Sreznevski, in his inaugural lecture at the university, pointed out the fact that there had existed no interest in Slavic studies in Russia until such had been created by the Bohemian and Serbian scholars. As Bodyanski stood in relation to the Russian Slavophiles, it is certain that the Slavophile movement in Russia received some of its ideas directly or indirectly from the Bohemian nationalists.

From the humble beginnings in the first part of the nineteenth century Bohemian literature has developed in a remarkable manner, borrowing what is best in all literatures, and to a considerable extent falling under the influence of the great Russian writers. It is eminently cosmopolitan in compass and subject-matter, but at the same time has preserved many national characteristics, which would well repay the interest of an English reading public, if it could be induced to read translations of this almost unknown literature. Its poetry is especially attractive and varied, and the poets have reveled in the discussion of those social problems which elsewhere have been relegated to the field of prose.

Whatever the interest of the outsider may be in Bohemian literature, it deserves the highest attention on the part of the Slavs, who owe their very regeneration to the labors of the Bohemian scholars a century ago. If, in addilion, we consider what Bohemia did for freedom of religious thought a hundred years before the days of Luther, and still more, the great obligation under which the Greek Catholic Church is to Bohemia for its very ecclesiastic language and national alphabets, the sympathies of the world should particularly be enlisted for this country in the possible future reconstruction of the Austrian Empire. Slavs and non-Slavs should unite on this point without discussion, and even the Germans should look favorably on the restoration of Bohemia to its former freedom and glory, if they are not blinded by selfishness and useless conceit. Bohemia has in the Middle Ages been the mediator between the West and the East, the South and the North, and it will for a long time remain the mediator between the best German thought and the growing Slavic civilization, if the Germans do not, as in the past, rouse the Slavic antipathies. Of all the Slavs, the Bohemians understood the German ideas best, and Dobrovský and other Bohemian Slavists promoted the Slavic idea by means of the German language. That, of course, can never happen again, for the nationalist life is there permanently established. But there is no reason for racial antagonism in a country where Germans and Slavs have lived together for centuries.

  1. Professor Wiener is a distinguished Slavic scholar whose latest work, “An Interpretation of the Russian People,” has just been published.

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

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