The Queen's Court Manuscript with Other Ancient Bohemian Poems/Introduction


The value and significance of the ties and feelings of different nationalities acquired new prominence and importance in and through the wasting wars which resulted from the French Revolution of 1792. All men of higher education and deeper insight appeared after the pacification of the continent of Europe by the Congress of Vienna, to feel a new and lively zeal for the interests of their country awakened within them. The Austrian empire was not devoid of this common patriotic feeling, and it was with especial vivacity that it thrilled through every vein in a country ever susceptible of the impulses of an active intellectual life, the country of Bohemia. Hence arose one of Bohemia’s noblest Institutions, the National Museum, which, after long preparation, was in 1818 founded through the instrumentality of Count Franz Anton Kolowrat-Liebsteinsky, then Oberstburg-graf of Bohemia, and provisionally organized by Counts Caspar and Francis Sternberg and Francis Klebelsberg, and which shortly afterwards, obtaining the imperial approbation (1820–1822), entered into an active and vigorous existence. This grand Institution comprehended, in the intention of its first founders, all the intellectual interests of Bohemia in the largest sense of the word; antiquities, aids to the historian, documents and other memorials were to be collected there; the language, the customs, the peculiarities of the people were to be investigated and ascertained; the natural features of the country mapped and brought together; and every successful effort in Science and Literature, Art and Manufacture, but above all things true patriotic feeling to be fostered and elevated. Thus there arose among the patriots of every condition in life the most laudable rivalry in seeking out and bringing together manuscripts and documents, which had almost marvellously escaped destruction in the wasting wars and troubles, by which Bohemia had so repeatedly and often for half-a-century at a time been devastated, and which were thus unexpectedly rescued from oblivion or concealment and incorporated in the National Museum. Among these I shall only make mention of the distinguished treasure of more than two hundred manuscripts, some of them of the tenth and eleventh centuries, which, unknown to the world, had escaped the storms of the Hussite, and thirty years’ wars, and the other troubles of the country in the quiet vaults of Brzeznice (Brzeznitzer Schloss), and were presented to the Museum by Count John Kolowrat-Krakowsky.

Among the men, who in those days of universal rivalry, busied themselves with restless zeal and rare good fortune in discovering and publishing ancient, hitherto unknown or neglected memorials of Bohemian Literature, one of the first and most honourable places is unquestionably held by the present Librarian of the National Museum, Pan[1] Vaceslaw Hanka. This gentleman, after completing his studies and working for some time at Vienna j as co-editor of a Bohemian newspaper and magazine, was settled at Prague just at the time when the preliminaries to founding the Museum were in progress; and at that time enjoyed the especial favour of the accomplished Counts Caspar and Francis Sternberg, as well as the friendly and almost fatherly conversation and instruction of the great Philologer, the Abbé Joseph Dobrowsky, the three men who had the greatest and most beneficial influence, not only upon the foundation and formation of the Bohemian Museum, but also upon the course and progress of science and literature in the country. Inspired by the spirit of such men, and in imitation of their great examples, he formed the resolution to devote, proportionably to his attainments and powers, all his energies to the service of the Bohemian literature, and with excellent tact directed his especial attention to the hitherto neglected monuments of the oldest poëtical literature of the Bohemians, which eventually, being actively supported by Dobrowsky, he gradually published in all their manifold branches with the greatest fulness and completeness. At the beginning of the year 1817 he had already thoroughly searched all the libraries at Prague and the surrounding country, examined the oldest Bohemian Manuscripts, and copied out the pieces suitable for his collection, and in that year appeared the first volume of his collection under the title Starobylá Skládanie, i.e. Ancient Bohemian Poetry. This work he afterwards continued and closed with the fifth volume in the year 1823. He has also amongst other things composed and published a volume of poems of considerable merit, which has now reached the fifth edition. It was P. Hanka’s good fortune, a reward as it were for his patriotic exertions in the cause of his country’s literature, almost by accident to discover the very best thing that has escaped the ravages of time, not merely in the old Bohemian literature, but in that of all the Slavonic races, the Queen’s Court Manuscript, of the discovery of which I shall now proceed to give an account.

After publishing the first volume of the above-mentioned collection of ancient poems, P. Hanka made an excursion in September, 1817, to Králové dvur or (Königinhof (Queen’s Court) in the circle of Königgratz to visit a former friend, P. Skleniczka, and was introduced by him to the then Capellan of the place, P. Pancratius Borcz. At table, on the 16th of September, conversation turned upon the destruction of the town in the Hussite wars, and particularly upon the great conflagration in 1450, and P. Borcz remarked that in a chamber in the town church under a mass of papers and useless furniture, there were to be found some old weapons, particularly arrows, from the Hussite times. This caused a search, and among other manuscripts of less value in the Latin language was discovered the above-named manuscript, unfortunately only a fragment of the entire manuscript, which upon closer examination appeared to be written in the Bohemian language, to be of a poëtical nature and of the highest value. Such chambers placed in the lower part of church towers and united with the choir by a door, which are commonly used for the preservation of old useless church furniture and sometimes papers also, are by no means rare in Bohemia. Other manuscripts and leaves of parchment, among which the fragment in question lay, particularly a parchment Psalter and fragments of a parchment Astronomical manuscript, were also preserved by P. Hanka, and afterwards deposited in the Museum.

After the fortunate discoverer, who at first could scarcely have imagined the value and importance of his treasure, had decyphered the contents of the manuscript, and ascertained that only a small portion of the whole was before him, he spared no trouble either to discover the missing part, or at any rate to learn something about the previous fate of the manuscript from the inhabitants of Kralové dvur; but all his pains led only to the afflicting result, that the missing part had in all probability come to an untimely end by fire, through a sexton, who was also a locksmith, and frequently visited the chamber on account of the iron utensils lying there, and who was also by no means sparing in the use of the manuscripts.

Two years afterwards appeared the first oomplete edition of the manuscript, (which had been presented to P. Hanka by the authorities of the Church, and which he afterwards presented to the Museum) under the title, Rukopis Kralodvorsky a. t.d. “the Queen’s Court Manuscript, a collection of lyrico-epic national lays, a special part of the ancient Bohemian poems” (Prague, 1819), containing the original text in the original orthography but divided into verses, and on the opposite pages a modern Bohemian paraphrase by P. Hanka the editor,[2] and at the end a metrical German translation by P. Professor Vaceslaw Aloys Svoboda. Other editions followed, and in 1843 appeared the fourth edition with the original text both in its old and in the modern orthography, the German translation of P. Svoboda, a complete Polish translation by P. Lucian Siemienski, now editor of the excellent Polish Journal, the Czas or Times at Krakow, and finally specimens of translations in the Little-russian, Illyrian, Carniolan, Upper-lusatian and English languages, by different hands, the last by the well-known Dr. Bowring. In 1845 appeared another edition and German translation under the following title, “Gedichte aus Böhmen’s Vorzeit verdeutscht von Joseph Mathias Grafen von Thun mit einer Einleitung von P. J. Szafarzik und Anmerkungen von F. Palacky.”[3] A new Polyglott edition is now in course of publication with the German translation of Svoboda, the Polish of Siemienski, a Russian translation by P. N. Berg, an Italian by Professor F. Francesconi, &c., and the English translation now respectfully offered to the English public.

It is scarcely possible to appreciate the important and beneficial influence which the publication of these relics of former literary glories has exerted upon the intellectual growth and cultivation of Bohemia. Not only has a generation of poets arisen worthy of any age and any nation, but a historical school has also begun to place Slavonic prose in a position to rival that of hitherto more cultivated and polished literatures. It is needless to multiply names; suffice it to mention, that the great Bohemian history of Palacky, which was begun in German and translated by the Author into Bohemian, is now being continued originally in Bohemian, and the German translation is made by another hand. Could there be a greater proof of the progress of Slavonic literature, than that so large a work should find a sufficient circle of readers in the Bohemian language? I now proceed to consider the external form and internal contents of the important manuscript itself, which has proved and is proving so valuable to the land that gave it birth.

The fragment that remains consists in the first place of two narrow strips, and secondly of twelve complete leaves of parchment. The two narrow strips, on which only single syllables and words are still to be read, are connected in contents and sense with the leaves immediately following. Two such strips were found in the place of feathers on arrows, and came with the arrows into the possession of the late Prince Rudolph Kinsky. The manuscript belongs in shape to the class which is usually, though improperly, called 12mo. or small 8vo. manuscripts. The hand writing is still in good preservation, though pale from lapse of time, and is unusually good and legible. The superscriptions of the chapters and some of the poems, as well as the initial letters of several larger paragraphs, are written with red ink, and the ornamented initial letters of the poems with blue and green, and the latter are also richly gilt. In the whole manuscript there is no division of verses to be seen, and even single words are not regularly divided, but all proceeds straight forwards in uninterrupted continuity and without punctuation. Contrary to the usage in Latin and Greek Manuscripts, which are often hopelessly overloaded with abbreviations, in this, as in other Bohemian Manuscripts of that time, there appear but few, and those universally known and current abbreviations; the text is written with evident diligence and extreme correctness, and the hand of contemporary emendation shews itself in but few and those by no means questionable places; it is therefore easily legible to those acquainted with ancient handwriting, and happily little or no room is left for conjectural criticism. The specific character of the writing, or the peculiar mode of forming particular letters, of uniting two in one, and introducing abbreviations, is entirely Bohemian, and the manuscript was unquestionably written in Bohemia and by a Bohemian. The discoverer of the fragment expressed immediately in the first edition, and P. Palacky has supported, both in periodical publications and in his history of Bohemia, with various weighty reasons, the conjecture that the collection of poems was made or caused to be made by Zavisz of Rosenberg, the husband of Przemysl Otakar the Second’s widow, Queen Kunigunda, a man most distinguished for intellect and accomplishments, and at the end of his life for misfortune, and who was celebrated in Bohemia by both contemporaries and posterity as a poet, though none of his works are now extant; and that the beautiful manuscript was prepared for Queen Kunigunda herself. From palæographical tokens the Abbé Dobrowsky placed the collection between the years 1290 and 1310; the historian Palacky, taking other considerations also into account, regards the manuscript as written between 1280 and 1290, but not earlier.

Out of the whole collection fortune has preserved but a small portion, namely part of the 25th, the whole of the 26th and 27th, and part of the 28th chapters. It is thus easy to calculate the greatness of the loss that Slavonic literature has sustained in the destruction of the greater part of the collection. It may be that this was not the only collection of the kind in Bohemia, and in fact other discoveries of a similar kind, though of less extent, give indications to this effect. An incomplete leaf of parchment, discovered in 1823 by P. J. Zimmermann, and taken off the cover of another old manuscript, contains, besides “King Vaceslaw I.’s Song of Love,” “the Stag,” which appears also in the Queen’s Court Manuscript. This fragment Dobrowsky places before 1250, Palacky between 1230 and 1250. Unfortunately several similar scraps were carried away by the wind as the discoverer was carelessly drying them by an open window.

Historical notices of each of the poems will be found attached to them as foot notes below, I shall therefore add but a few prefatory observations upon them. With respect to the sixth poem in the collection, “Zaboi, Slavoi and Ludiek,” Szafarzik remarks, that the lay has probably scarcely come down to us in its original form, and that before it was reduced to writing a good many phrases may have passed from the particular to the general, and a good many marks of time and place have perished. Moreover in those early times the empire of the Bohemian language was much more extensive than it is at present, viz. on the one side deep into Austria and Bavaria, on the other into Thuringia, Meissen, Lusatia, and Silesia; and that the event celebrated in the poem may have happened in a country, where the Czeskish language was spoken, though not in the immediate dominions of the dukes of Prague or Bohemia. I may add that an instance of such a transplantation occurs in our own literature. The Welsh poem translated by Gray, “The Death of Hoel,” records the destruction of the British inhabitants of Edinburgh by the Saxons of Deiria or Northumberland.

The contrast between the poems of the Queen’s Court Manuscript, and the artificial compositions of the learned poëts contained in P. Hanka’s and other collections, is so strong, and their similarity to both the ancient and modern effusions of the kindred Servians, Bulgarians and Little-russians, so great, that no one can hesitate to refer them to the class of natural or popular, in contradistinction to that of scholastic or artificial poetry. The rhymed epic fragments, the Alexandreis, and other ancient Bohemian poems differ from them as much as night from day, though some of them are contemporary with, or even older than, the latest of those contained in the Queen’s Court Manuscript.

As regards the historical value of these poems, there is but little to remark. Who would learn the real history of the Trojan war from the Iliad, or of the Servian war of freedom from poems about George Petrovicz and Milosz Obrenovicz? Nay, the honest Russian Chronicler Nestor confesses that he found the most contradictory legends about his hero Kyj. What such poems (like the novels of later times) can and do furnish, is an exact picture of the life and feelings of the days in which they were written, a mirror in which our dead ancestors yet live and move before us.

It would be useless to treat of the rhythm and versification of these poems without publishing the originals. I shall therefore only remark that “Libussa’s Judgment,” the oldest of the three poems not contained in the Queen’s Court Manuscript, is translated line for line into the original metre, which is the same as that which more or less prevails both in the epic poetry in this collection and in that of other Slavonic nations.

The genuineness of the Queen’s Court Manuscript has been called in question, but as no reasons have ever been given for the doubt, we may pass it over as unfounded and unjust.

These translations are offered to the English public in the hope that the countrymen of Wickliffe will vouchsafe to turn their eyes for a moment to wards the intellectual productions of the countrymen of Huss and Jerome. To cite the stirring words of Boleslaw Jablonsky with regard to the resistance of the Bohemians both to the aggressions of the See of Rome and the invasions of the Tatars:

“Bohemia ’twas, amongst the neighb’ring lands
“That lighted erst the torch of wisdom free;
“Bohemia’s sons it was, whose valiant hands
“Won for the whole of Europe liberty.

“Here is that battle-field for ever famed,
“Here are the tombs of the Tataric bands,
“Here were the fetters they for Europe framed
“For ever shatter’d by Slavonic hands.

“E’en as the ocean waves towards the shore,
“The wild ones westwards hurl’d themselves apace,
“Yet did they dash and break for evermore
“Against the rocks of the Bohemian race!”

Nor does it seem at all improbable, that the Slavonic races in general are destined to play a far more important part, than they have hitherto been supposed to do, in the grand arena of this world of struggle and vicissitude.

A few words as to the orthography of Slavonic names here adopted.

Final v or w sounds as ff.

Finalcz as ch in English.

Finalsz as sh.

Final c as tz.

Finalrz as rsh.

Some readers might perhaps not be sorry to find a few works here mentioned, which would be useful in beginning the study of Slavonic literature. I will therefore mention the following:

Talvi’s Historical View of the Language and Literature of the Slavic Nations. New York, G. P. Putnam, 1850.

Krasinski’s Sketch of the Religious History of the Slavonic Nations. Edinburgh, Johnstone and Hunter, 1851.

Eichhoff’s Histoire de la langue et de la literature des Slaves. Paris, 1839.

Of Dr. Bowring’s Translations I can only recommend the first volume of his Russian Translations, which has not undeservedly reached a second edition.

I have myself also published a little volume of Bohemian poems, Ancient and Modern, translated from the original Slavonic with an Introductory Essay. London, J. W. Parker, 1849.
  1. Pan in Slavonic corresponds to Mr. in English.
  2. It is principally by aid of this paraphrase, that I have made my own translation.
  3. This Einleitung forms the basis of the present introduction, and Palacky’s Anmerkungen that of the historical emarks attached to each poem of the collection.