The Medieval Review 11.11.15

Charvát, Petr. The Emergence of the Bohemian State. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages 450-1450. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2010. Pp. xviii, 239. $154. ISBN 978-90-04-18009-3. . .

Reviewed by:

David Stewart Bachrach
University of New Hampshire

From its origins in the early nineteenth century, the modern study of medieval history has been dominated by a focus on narrative sources. These texts, often written by contemporaries or near contemporaries, appeared to offer the promise of eye-witness accounts and true insights into political and military affairs that were subject of much early historical inquiry. However, as scholars became increasingly concerned regarding the truth-value of these narrative sources, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, additional genres of texts were brought to bear, particularly as the great editing work of various European societies began to bear fruit. These newly cultivated sources of information included most prominently charters, but also a range of legal texts and manuals of various types, including classical works on agronomy, warfare, and other practical skills that had been copied during the Middle Ages.

Beginning in the interwar period, and accelerating after the Second World War, additional kinds of textual evidence were brought to bear to answer new kinds of questions regarding religious life and devotion, on the one hand, and economic and social questions on the other. Historians of religion from the 1950s onward have drawn a wide range of monastic writings, saints' lives, and sermons along with collections of exempla (edifying stories that were intended to provide models for the audiences of sermons) in addition to more traditional narrative works. Breakthroughs in economic and social history were sought in merchants' contracts, notarial records, and cadastral surveys, particularly from Italian cities.

Parallel to but rarely in conjunction with this growth in the number and range of written sources used by historians, since the late nineteenth century, specialists in archaeology have developed ever more sophisticated methods for analyzing an ever greater corpus of information related to the material culture of medieval Europe. Beginning in the post-war period a number of archaeologists, and a few historians, began to integrate the discoveries made by specialists in the two disciplines. This coordination, which has grown substantially over the past several decades, has been particularly fruitful with regard to early medieval history, where a relative dearth of surviving texts has led scholars to utilize all available sources of information. Indeed, information about medieval military culture, developed through excavations, has proven exceptionally important in enhancing scholarly research into a wide range of questions, particularly economic and military history, but also religious, social, and cultural history as well. Among the leading proponents of this kind of inter-disciplinary cooperation today is Florin Curta, general editor of the Brill series East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450, in which the Petr Charvát's The Emergence of the Bohemian State was published. It is not surprising, therefore, that Charvát's work is a product of this very welcome cooperation.

Charvát's study focuses largely on the question of how a group of people identified by some of their contemporaries from the sixth through the eighth century as Bohemi (in Latin) came by the tenth century to have a sense of themselves as a people with a common history and national identity as Czechs living in the lands of Bohemia and Moravia. Charvát draws heavily on the model of ethnogenesis pioneered by Reinhard Wenskus, and popularized by Herwig Wolfram and the latter's students, including Walter Pohl. This model postulates a four stage development in which a charismatic leader, who often demonstrated considerable military skill, emerged among his own people, and then gained recognition and support from the Roman imperial government. The charismatic leader then used this imperial support to establish himself as a king among his people. Finally, the newly minted king, along with his advisors, created a national myth centered on his own rule that drew upon elements of the stories already common among his people.

Charvát's thesis is that the Bohemi, originally composed of a people who spoke a Germanic language, began to develop as a new nation in this manner in the Bohemian region of the modern Czech Republic. As new waves of Slavic-speaking immigrants moved west during the course of the seventh and eighth centuries and settled in the lands inhabited by the Bohemi, the latter gradually were absorbed by the presumably more numerous Slavic speakers. In the describing the final stages of the ethnogenesis of what would become the Bohemian people, Chárvat departs from the Wenskus-Wolfram model, and argues for a second wave of migration of peoples heavily influenced by Turko- Iranian culture during the course of the eighth and ninth century. It is the absorption of these immigrants, according to Chárvat, that created a synthesis of Slavic and Iranian culture that brought about the final stage of Bohemian national identity. The leader of the Bohemian, their dux, was imbued with the power of the Iranian god Mithra, and became responsible for maintaining peace (Czech mir, Latin pax) within his kingdom. In this context, Chárvat implicitly rejects a western, i.e. Roman, Merovingian, Carolingian, or Ottonian role in the development by the Bohemians of a national state.

To sustain this thesis Chárvat organizes his study in four chapters, which arranged chronologically covering the seventh to a long tenth century. Each chapter is sub-divided into numerous thematic sections that cover a wide range of topics, including trade, pre-Christian religion, the introduction of Christianity, the identity and role of the well-known merchant Samo in establishing the Bohemian identity, and the political structure of Bohemia. Chárvat also goes rather farther afield in the first two chapters. Thus, for example, the first chapter includes a panoramic view of pan-Turkish/Chinese politics from the fifth through seventh century. In the second chapter, Chárvat devotes a lengthy section to Zoroastrianism. It is only in the fourth chapter, entitled The Long Tenth Century that the author offers a traditional political narrative organized around the reigns of the Bohemian dukes between 895-1055. The text concludes with a very brief post-script that serves as an apologia for the volume. Chárvat concludes by observing, "I am only too aware of the fact that I cannot provide firm proof for what I was mine to provoke, to ask questions, to propose."

The volume is equipped with an extensive apparatus of almost sixty black and white, as well as color illustrations. These depict Bohemian as well as Frankish, Polish, and Turko-Iranian artifacts. A bibliography and index round out the volume. Overall, the text is only lightly annotated with footnotes. Chárvat does not engage in, nor demonstrate his familiarity with, the extensive scholarly disputes regarding the central contention of his study, namely the nature and functioning of ethnogenesis. It is particularly surprising, for example, to find no discussion of the sustained criticism of the Wenskus-Wolfram school by such prominent scholars as Walter Goffart and Alexander Murray, whose arguments and works do not appear in Chárvat's text, notes, or bibliography. In addition, Chárvat's general practice of citing scholarly works rather than sources when discussing these sources in the body of his text, is problematic, particularly when the scholarly work in question is published only in Czech. Finally, Chárvat very frequently has chosen not to provide any citation at all to identify the source of a particular account.

In evaluating this study, it is necessary to begin by agreeing with Chárvat that there is virtually no information available from written sources about the development of a Czech national identity before the ninth century. Even then, it is to western sources, largely Frankish or Ottonian texts, that we must look until the Cosmas of Prague's early twelfth-century Chronica Boemorum. What then of the archaeological materials? Here there is a wealth of information, albeit far more for the eighth and ninth centuries than for the seventh. But to what kinds of questions can these material remains be made to answer? Chárvat correctly observes (2) that material remains cannot tell us what language the user of those items spoke. But in the pursuit of the Czech national identity Chárvat ignores his own admonition, repeatedly claiming knowledge of the language of a population based on material finds (10, 18, 22, 77). A second problem is Chárvat's effort to demonstrate on the basis of archaeological finds that the inhabitants of Bohemia and Moravia traded extensively with the regions to the south and east, as far as Persia, but then to use these same finds as evidence of indigenous culture in Bohemia and Moravia. Crucial to Chárvat's argument regarding the final stage of Czech ethnogenesis, i.e. the adoption by the cultural elite of an Iranian-based Mithra cult during the eighth century, is a single belt buckle that he identifies as possessing important eastern religious motifs (83-90).

In the absence of either written sources of information or material finds developed through archaeological research, Chárvat casts his net ever more broadly to find support for his various theses in regions and periods far removed from early medieval Bohemia. Thus the use of public spaces in Scotland for non-Christian rituals is presented, without notes, to provide an analogy for the putative Iranian- influenced religious ceremonies in the Czech lands (122). Going even further afield, Chárvat proposes that gift giving in Homer might provide a model for interpreting the relationship of honor and gift giving in Bohemian society.

In pursuing these highly imaginative but thoroughly flawed methods for interpreting a small part of the corpus of material finds now available for Bohemia, Chárvat missed an opportunity to analyze the political, cultural, economic, and social roles of the central places of Czech life in both Bohemia and Moravia, that is major fortifications such as Stare Meso, which have benefited from quite extensive excavations. Stare Meso was a massive fortress protected during the ninth century by a circuit of walls measuring more than 2,100 meters, making it equivalent in size to the Roman fortress cities of the west. By estimating the construction costs of such a fortress, identifying the size of the garrison that it required for defense, and analyzing the support systems that were in place to maintain Stare Meso and its many contemporary fortresses, Chárvat would have gone a long way toward identifying the practical reality of the Czech-speaking political, economic, and military life in Moravia.

In sum, Chárvat deserves considerable credit for attempting to write the history of early medieval Bohemia on the basis of archaeological materials, supplemented where possible by a limited corpus of information that is available in surviving written works. However, as Chárvat, himself, observes in his "postscript," he has pushed his model much farther than the available sources will permit. This text is not suitable for undergraduate audiences, and likely will be of little use to graduate students or to scholars other than as an introduction to some of the Czech-language literature dealing with the history of early medieval Bohemia and Moravia.