Glimpses of Bohemia/The Bohemians and their Past

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In deepest need, in anguish sighing,
I cry to Thee, to Thee alone;
Were I to other help applying,
Vain were each prayer, each suppliant groan.
My plaints, O Lord, ascend to Thee,
Oh graciously give ear to me.”




BOHEMIA, as shown on the modern maps, usually includes only the territory forming the present Austrian province of that name, but I take the name as including the Austrian provinces of Moravia and Silesia, which also belonged to the Bohemian Crown. Lusatia and Prussian Silesia having now been fully Germanised, need not longer be kept in view, although they too were Bohemian 250 years ago. The Bohemians, or Czechs, are, as is well known, a Slavonic race, although perhaps not without an admixture of the Celtic blood. Their language is so closely allied to Russian and Polish, that educated Bohemians have no difficulty in making themselves understood in these tongues. Bounded as Bohemia is on the north by Saxony, on the west by Bavaria, and on the south by the Duchy of Austria, all German countries, and governed by the House of Hapsburg for more than three centuries and a-half, it is not surprising to find a large German element in the population. In the north-west and in the south German is generally spoken, but in many districts you will have difficulty in finding anyone who can understand that language. The towns are, however, all bilingual.

Bohemia (the province), with an area about three-fourths of that of Scotland, has a population of over 5,000,000, while Moravia and Silesia, with an area of one-third of Scotland, have a population of 2,500,000.

The Bohemians are said to have settled in Bohemia in the fifth century, but their authentic history begins in the ninth century, when they embraced Christianity under the preaching of Cyril and Methodius, priests of the Greek Church, and true evangelists. Although Methodius was afterwards recognised by the Roman Pontiff as Archbishop of Moravia, the Church which he and his brother founded was never completely Romanised. Even in Methodius’s own life the struggle with Rome commenced, and it was with difficulty that he maintained the right of the people to have worship conducted in the vernacular tongue; but it was only after centuries, and by the sword, that the use of Latin was ultimately enforced on the Bohemian Church.

The native line of kings became extinct early in the fourteenth century, and about the date of Bannockburn the Bohemian Crown was given to a German, John of Luxemberg, the blind king of Bohemia, who was killed at Cressy by Edward the Black Prince, and whose crest, the three ostrich feathers, has since been worn by our Princes of Wales. John’s son, Charles I. of Bohemia, afterwards fourth Emperor of Germany of that name, founded the University of Prague, drew many learned and excellent men to the country, including what we would call revival preachers, and at his death left Bohemia in a state of prosperity, and in the vanguard of European civilisation and culture.

Charles’s daughter Anne married Richard II. of England.[1] Through the connection thus established, it came about that the writings of Wycliffe went to Bohemia, and that Jerome of Prague was for a time a student at Oxford. And in a very few years, by the preaching and martyrdom of Huss, a reformation of religion spread over Bohemia, the influence of which has been permanent throughout Christendom. The Bohemian Church soon evinced signs of true Christian life, and we should all remember that within fifteen years of Huss’s martyrdom, the Bohemians sent a medical missionary, Paul Craw, to Scotland, who suffered death by fire at the market-cross of St. Andrews in 1431.

I cannot enter here into the details of the Hussite and Taborite wars. The Hussites fought against Rome and against Germany, they fought for the Bohemian nationality and Bohemian constitutional rights, the assertion of these rights being incidental to the assertion of their right to worship God according to their conscience. The aim of Huss was to win the people to true religion, and if religion is what it is intended to be, a guide and rule of life to men, it must affect their conduct in social and political affairs, or it is a very colourless thing. Consider how Knox and his coadjutors affected for good our social and national position, and how they are admired even by men who scout their religious views, and you can understand how the name of Huss is cherished by all Bohemians, although, to their own loss, not two out of the hundred now profess to follow the truths he died to maintain. With us it was the saintly Samuel Rutherford, best known, perhaps, for his letters of spiritual counsel to his friends, who first formulated the true doctrines of constitutional government, showing that the king existed for the people, and not the people for the king. So in Bohemia it was the pious Taborites who first asserted the same principle, and made a stand on democratic grounds against the unreasonable demands of the feudal system.

Men who, like Huss and Knox, preach the responsibility of the individual, necessarily spread a desire for instruction among the people they address, and whether they so willed or not would have been forced to be educationalists in a wider sense than that in which every preacher is or should be an educator. But Huss and his friends were fully as alive to the necessity of education for all as were our Reformers, and enjoyed an important advantage over Knox; for, while Knox had to devise and work out a national system of education, we find that by the time Huss came into public life every market town in Bohemia had its grammar school, and at least one-third of the parishes their parochial school, and this over and above the schools attached to the monasteries and convents. Huss himself, we are told, did almost as much for his native tongue as Luther for German. He corrected the translation of the Bible partially made in the tenth century, re-arranged the Bohemian alphabet, and fixed the orthography. Bohemians, by the way, claim that their orthography is the best in Europe. With thirty-six letters in their alphabet, and several forms of modification, they say their written language reflects their speech with absolute scientific accuracy. These facts, which are probably new to many, will prepare our readers to hear that the Bohemian literature of the fourteenth century—although almost destroyed by the Jesuits, who, for 150 years, hunted for, and burned Bohemian books; and, until thirty years ago, almost lost out of sight, even in Bohemia is as rich, if not the richest of all, produced in that century, by any country of Europe. Fortunately, some of its treasures have now been opened to English readers. The Rev. Mr. Wratislaw, Bury St. Edmonds, descended from a noble Bohemian family, who were obliged to fly from their country during the persecutions of the seventeenth century, has re-acquired the language of his ancestors, and published several volumes throwing light on the history and literature of their fatherland. His researches have been followed by an able writer in the Westminster Review, whose papers, published in October, 1879, and October, 1881, contain much of the information on which I have drawn. Ballads and rhyming chronicles, romances and legends, showing mostly a traceable connection with the similar productions of other countries, but all in Bohemian colours, and some distinctly and only Slavonic, were as industriously penned by Bohemians as by Chaucer and his contemporaries. The most striking evidence, however, of the advanced condition of Bohemian literature at that early date is found in the writings of Thomas of Stitny, a man of noble birth, whose life was chiefly spent in producing theological and philosophical writings, the style and scope of which almost carry us down, in the search for a British counterpart, to the Puritan divines. The writer of the articles in the Westminster Review refers to the style of Stitny as “easy and flowing; and we can see from his writings that Bohemian prose was developed at a time when our own was in a rudimentary condition.”

The hymns of this period also attest the high attainment of their authors, many of them being still popular, and at the same time worthy of a place in the classic literature of the country. Some of the best are ascribed to Huss.

The civil and religious commotions which followed the tragic death of Huss in 1415, and his friend Jerome in the following year, were not ended by the battle of Lipany. The Taborites maintained an existence for fully twenty years later, and it was by stratagem in negotiation, as well as in warfare, that the Calixtines at length succeeded in dispersing them. Their place was taken by the Unitas fratrum, or Church of the United Brethren, who, anxiously studying to return to the simplicity of the early Church, formulated, in their quiet retreat at Litiz, in the Silesian Mountains, the first constitution of a Presbyterian Church.[2]

For years the persecution against the United Brethren or Picards raged without intermission, and it was only with great difficulty, and at the peril of their lives, that the Brethren continued to hold meetings. There is an impressive simplicity in the bare records that survive of their proceedings. Thus, in 1464, we are told they held an assembly in the forest of Rychnov, when they “agreed to continue submissive, humble, patient, and pure, to obey and to pray for those in authority, and to labour honestly, so as to become able to afford help to suffering brethren,”—this forest assembly is a picture, I think, deserving to be placed beside the pictures of the Pilgrim Fathers, embarking on board the Mayflower, or landing at Plymouth Rock, or our own Covenanters in Greyfriars Churchyard. Indeed, it almost excels them.

It may be noted that this pious community were strong in the assertion of two points on which they differed from both Calixtines and Taborites (1) The determination not to resort to arms; and (2) the disapproval of any connection between Church and State.

Notwithstanding persecutions, the Church of the Brethren increased. The influence of Luther in Germany gave them a great impetus; and when the persecution was stayed for a time, in 1562, by the death of Ferdinand I., a period of prosperity dawned on the Protestant Churches, which, although slightly interrupted by the occasional successful efforts of the Jesuits to obtain renewed permission to persecute from such mild emperors as Maximilian and Rudolf, continued down to the fatal battle of the White Mountain in 1620. The Unitas, the Lutherans, and the Calvinists, who had formed their own presbyteries, united in 1609 in one Church, Evangelical Church of Bohemia, protected by the Letters of Majesty granted by Rudolf. During this period of sixty years Protestantism was in the ascendancy, and was professed by the great majority of the Bohemian people. But peace did not last long.

In the sixteenth century, Austrian sovereigns and politicians had their most urgent difficulties in Hungary in the wars with the Turks; but early in the seventeenth century the centre of interest was again transferred to Bohemia. The emperor, Rudolf II., generally resided in Prague. His character is one of which it is at present very difficult for an English student to judge, as the accounts given by different historians are directly at variance, while many of the most important documents which may throw light on his life are still locked up in the Czech language. Whether Rudolf was, as some say, an incapable puppet, or whether he was too liberal for the Romish party, then backed by the whole power of Spain, and was misrepresented and set aside by Jesuitical influence, there can be no doubt that he treated the Protestants with consideration, and if left to himself would have conceded great liberty to them. By the usurpation of his brother Matthias, however, he was deprived of crown after crown, until at last he was a mere pensionary, kept in seclusion from the world. He died in 1612. In 1617 the Emperor Matthias, after inflicting various petty annoyances, at last roused the Bohemian nobles by announcing his intention of adopting his cousin, Ferdinand of Styria, as his heir, and commanding them to receive him as king. The States of Bohemia, craftily summoned at a time when it was known many of the nobles could not attend, were able to offer only a feeble resistance to the emperor’s project. They, however, asserted the right of Bohemia to elect, and protested that they did not accept a king chosen by others. Ferdinand, moreover, had to pledge himself to non-interference in religious matters before he received the crown. Immediately thereafter, the Jesuitical Ferdinand showed his real character: oppression and persecutions were again set in operation.

The States, enraged at this treatment, held a full meeting in the Hradschin in 1618. It was at this meeting that the deputies or regents of the emperor, Slawata and Martinitz, with the secretary, Fabricius, were flung out from a window of the castle,—the event which is generally taken as the occasion of the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War.

The Bohemian States now elected a provisional government, and prepared for war. Matthias proposed to refer the differences between his Bohemian subjects and himself to the arbitration of two Protestant and two Catholic princes. The negotiations came to nothing; and before matters had time to develop further Matthias died in March, 1619. It then transpired that in his will he had presumed, failing Ferdinand, to bequeath the Bohemian crown to Spain. Actual hostilities could now no longer be avoided. “Rebellion was hallowed.” Ferdinand had been elected to the imperial throne at Frankfort; but both in Bohemia and Hungary the arms of the national parties had so far been successful, and thus encouraged, they resolved to throw off his yoke. The Bohemian Council, along with the states of Silesia, Moravia, and Lusatia, met in August and solemnly deposed Ferdinand, on the ground of his having violated his coronation oath, and unanimously elected Frederick V., the Elector Palatine, as their king. They declared that their new monarchy should be based upon religious toleration, and should be independent of priestly control. Frederick, as you are aware, was the son-in-law of our James the Sixth and First. His wife, Elizabeth, was the last personage of royal quality born in Scotland; but she is not, I fear, so well remembered by her countrymen as she deserves to be. The grand-daughter of Queen Mary, the grandmother of George the First, she is a main link in the line of connection by which Queen Victoria now represents the Tudor and Stuart dynasties. As the Protestant heroine of the Thirty Years’ War, she exercised an influence in the seventeenth century which it is now difficult for us fully to appreciate. Born in Fife on 16th August, 1596, she was baptised at Holyrood on 28th November of the same year—the English ambassador, on behalf of the godmother, Queen Elizabeth, holding the child in his arms, and the herald afterwards quaintly proclaiming her style and title as “Lady Elizabeth, first daughter of Scotland.” Her marriage took place in London in 1613, and was celebrated with the most extravagant outlay and display. The six following years were spent happily at Heidelberg in comparative seclusion; but thereafter her husband and herself were thrown forward among the most prominent actors in the exciting events of this unsettled period. Frederick, although not without good qualities, was extremely irresolute, and but for Elizabeth, who urged him on, would probably have declined the offered crown. The new king and queen were received in Prague with great enthusiasm, and were crowned early in November, 1619.

Among the Bohemian nobility there were some turbulent feudal barons. With such men surrounding him, and with the anxious negotiations with his Protestant allies and Catholic opponents, Frederick must have been burdened to no ordinary extent during the whole period of his short reign in Prague. He is said, notwithstanding, to have borne himself with cheerfulness, and for this he was doubtless indebted to the courage and hopefulness of his wife. It is well known that his father-in-law James, eager to obtain for his son Charles the hand of the Spanish Infanta, deserted the Protestant cause, and became mere tool in the hands of Spanish politicians. Frederick’s expectation of help from France was also cut off, while Austrian and Bavarian armies entered Bohemia, and a Spanish army threatened the Palatinate. To make matters worse, Frederick, with great want of tact, gave the chief commands in his army to German Generals, who were viewed with jealousy by the Bohemian nobles, many of whom had gained military distinction in the wars with the Turks. Rapidly events rolled on, Frederick’s prospects gradually darkening until the 8th of November, 1620, when the Bohemian army was defeated on the White Hill within sight of Prague by the Bavarians and Austrians.
Frederick with his family fled, and ultimately found an asylum in Holland, where he principally lived until his death in 1632. We need not follow further at present, the eventful career of Elizabeth, beyond mentioning that it was mainly owing to the stake which she had in the Thirty Years’ War, that so many Scotsmen volunteered into the service of Christian of Brunswick and Gustavus Adolphus.

For some months after the battle of the White Hill, Ferdinand left the Bohemians undisturbed, but on the night of 21st January, 1621, forty of the principal leaders were arrested, and it soon became evident that the respite had merely been intended to lull them into false security. The nobles were summoned to appear at Prague, but now knowing what would likely befall them, many wisely went into voluntary exile. Those who had been arrested were condemned to death, but the sentence was not at once carried out. On the 21st of July, 1621, however, twenty-seven of the leading nobles and citizens were beheaded in the Grosse Ring of Prague, in some instances the hand or tongue being first cut off. These men were nominally executed for insurgence against their lawful sovereign, but as they were offered pardon on condition of renouncing their Protestant faith, they were really martyrs for conscience’ sake. On the day of their execution, it is said Ferdinand was on a pilgrimage to Maria Zell in Styria to expiate the cruelty of his conduct. Then followed the most terrible persecutions of modern times, rendered more terrible than the authors perhaps contemplated by the officers to whom they were entrusted, who sought the spoil of the vanquished Bohemians, as well as the extirpation of Protestantism. Ferdinand had declared that he would rather have a wilderness, than a country peopled by heretics, and the figures which I now quote show how he carried out his terrible resolution. In 1617 Bohemia had 732 cities, 34,700 villages, and a population of over three millions. When Ferdinand died in 1637, there remained 130 cities, and 600 villages, and the population was reduced to under 800,000. In 1620 the great bulk of the population were Protestant. In 1627 an avowed Protestant could only be found within the walls of prisons. 30,000 families had preferred exile to a change of religion. These emigrants included the noblest and best in the land, and many of them became most useful citizens in the countries. in which they settled. Some writers account for the meaning which has now become attached to the name Bohemian by the great number of Bohemians thus sent forth, all over Europe, as homeless wanderers. Every effort was made by the Jesuits to destroy the Bohemian language and literature, and to Germanise the country. One Jesuit boasted that he had burned 60,000 volumes with his own hands. A Bohemian pastor showed me a volume of directions issued by the Jesuits for the guidance of the lower clergy in the destruction of Bohemian books. These instructions proceed on the assumption that many of those to whom it fell to carry them into effect, would be unable to read. They were therefore to be taught to identify heretical books by the bindings, title pages and illustrations. Throughout this period the cost of burning Bibles appears as an annual charge in the Bohemian Budget!

From 1620 until 1781 Protestantism was entirely suppressed. “But,” as Mr. Dusék writes, “it had so tenacious a hold of the mind of the nation, that it required most excruciating measures and repeated stabs ere its influence fainted and the nation fell into a deathlike swoon. In 1650 Protestantism was stamped a crime like murder and high treason; then the doors of jails opened again, and new emigrations followed each other. As late as 1735 thousands of Protestants from Bohemia perished in the mines of Transylvania, and countless Protestant youths, sentenced to perpetual military service, fell struck by the bullets of the Jannisaries on the banks of the Danube.” During this period of 160 years, the Bohemian nation, crippled and enchained, make no appearance in European affairs, although many of the battles of the Thirty Years’ and Seven Years’ Wars were fought upon Bohemia’s fertile plains.

In 1781, the Emperor Joseph II., son of Maria Theresa, who had previously expelled the Jesuits from the Austrian dominions, issued his famous edict of toleration, under which a certain measure of liberty was again accorded to Protestantism; and this was the dawning of a better day. He, however, continued the attempt of his predecessors to Germanise the Bohemians, a policy which Austria has ever since pursued, blind to the fact that, if she succeeded, the inevitable result would be that Bohemia would fall to Germany, as Saxony did in the war of 1866. This effort to cast all Austria in a German mould was Joseph’s fatal mistake, and stifled his well-meaning but crudely attempted reforms.

The immediate occasion of the edict was a striking incident. In the heights of the Carpathians, in Moravia, two Jesuit missionaries promulgated a forged edict by Maria Theresa, which promised religious liberty, their object being to ascertain how many heretics still existed. They outwitted themselves, however, for sixty towns and villages started like one man, and proclaimed themselves Protestants. Neither soldiers, gallows, nor prison could stop such a movement. Some of the peasants sought a personal audience with Joseph, and placed a petition in his hands. The true edict was published shortly after.

  1. It is curious to note, in passing, that our ladies are indebted to her for the introduction of the side-saddle into this country.
  2. Although the old Unitas divided the ministry into three grades or orders—viz. bishops (seniors), presbyters, and deacons, as the Moravian Brethren still do, Synods formed legislative, and Boards of Elders the executive, powers of the Church. The bishops’ special function is merely to ordain, and they do not appear to have had any jurisdiction or authority over the other ministers.