Thomas A. Fudge

title.none: Thomas, Anne's Bohemia (Fudge)

identifier.other: baj9928.9902.009 99.02.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Thomas A. Fudge, University of Canterbury,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Thomas, Alfred. Anne's Bohemia: Czech Literature and Society, 1310-1420. Medieval Studies, Vol 13. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. Pp. xix, 194. (HB) $49.95 ISBN: 0-816-63053-4. ISBN: (PB) $19.95 ISBN: 0-816-63054-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.02.09

Thomas, Alfred. Anne's Bohemia: Czech Literature and Society, 1310-1420. Medieval Studies, Vol 13. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. Pp. xix, 194. (HB) $49.95 ISBN: 0-816-63053-4. ISBN: (PB) $19.95 ISBN: 0-816-63054-2.

Reviewed by:

Thomas A. Fudge
University of Canterbury

He retical women seduce gullible young men, a Jew puts a statue of the Virgin Mary in his privy and defecates on her repeatedly, King Vaclav IV cavorts with half-naked bathhouse girls, an idle merchant's servant grabs "a hairy bitch by the arse," and the Roman governor who condemned Jesus, Pontius Pilate, gives anal birth to the Germans. What might appear as arresting but unrelated fragments of dubious slander are in fact different dimensions of late medieval popular culture reflected in Czech literature.

Alfred Thomas is no stranger to Czech literature. Several studies have preceded this book. Anne's Bohemia is of particular value as a synthetic analysis of this fourteenth and early fifteenth-century literature. Apart from the publications of William Harkins, Alfred French, Jarmila Veltrusky and Roman Jakobson, knowledge of medieval Czech literature among non-Czech readers is rather limited. The exposition of those texts is far from jejune.

Building a context around the teenage Anne of Bohemia, who in 1382 married Richard II and became queen of England, Thomas seeks to shed light on the Czech cultural situation at the end of the Middle Ages. He undertakes this challenge by eschewing the parochial tendency of focusing on Bohemia and the Hussite milieu as a basis for discovering "the meaning of Czech history" (8). Instead, the marriage of Anne and Richard provides an historic raison d'etre for comparing England and Bohemia in terms of intellectual contact, diplomatic relations, lay literacy, vernacular ascendancy, conflict between monarchy and nobility, popular uprisings and cultural xenophobia. The results provide progress on seeing Bohemia in a European cultural setting (8).

The social context in which medieval Czech literature arose include factors of religion, ethnicity, class and gender. These "interrelated constituents" are equally important (15) and close reading of these texts reveal the close relationship shared by gender, ethnicity and language in European history in general and in historical representation specifically (62). This is reinforced by the Old Czech term 'jazyk' which carries the dual meaning of 'language' and 'people'.

After an overview of Old Church Slavonic, Latin and Czech literature before 1310, Thomas looks specifically at The Dalimil Chronicle (1308-11), The Ointment Seller (c. 1340s), The Legend of St. Procopius (c. 1350s), the Czech Life of St. Catherine (c. 1350s), The New Council (c. 1394), The Weaver (1407-9), The Wycliffite Women (1415-1420), The Dispute Between Prague and Kutna Hora (c. 1420), Vaclav, Havel and Tabor (1424) and several other minor texts. Much is learned about plot, discourse and ideology in these texts, but more importantly Thomas underscores not simply what story is conveyed but how that story is told. This carries the reader well beyond narrative to a rich and suggestive analysis including a careful consideration of the historical context. Though Thomas advances several provocative ideas about his tripartite thesis -- gender, class and ethnicity -- he warns that rhetoric is not always commensurate with reality (110). Ideology reflected in texts and reflective of social realities is acculturated by both influences. Notwithstanding this, Thomas insists that ideological preconceptions can best be discerned not by focusing on the German models of Czech epics and verse romances but instead by examining Czech adaptations of those models (110-11, 124). One of the abiding strengths of this study is the foundation it provides for the tumultuous years of the Hussite Revolution. While reformist emphases are presented Thomas appeals for consideration of traditional religion. This raises the importance of developments in the pre-Hussite era (10). Several areas of insight invite comment.

Heresy remains one of the key cognitive constructs for understanding later medieval history. Czech literature provides several subtexts for pondering. First, the deployment of the vernacular rather than Latin as an immediate tool of heresy coming to fruition in the age of the Hussites (11). By the time the Hussites reached maturity they had, for better or worse, transformed Czech culture. One of the ways heretical Hussites influenced culture and society (as well as literature) emerged through communication insofar as Czech became the dominant language (45). Literature in the Czech lands both promoted heresy and served to combat heretical tendencies (12).

Rumored racy lives of religious deviants caused the symbiosis of women and heresy to advance a beguiling phenomenon, one arguably overrated in the past but now under severe and sustained challenge. Thomas argues that literacy among women at court and in households of the nobility percolated down to lower levels of society contributing to female involvement in the popular heresies which characterized the fifteenth century. The thesis is attractive but neither proven nor demonstrated satisfactorily. The place of women in Czech literature nonetheless remains prominent. While claiming hyperbole for the much vaunted literacy among Hussite women (7) he underscores their important role in the drama of medieval Bohemia. Among major themes fleshed out is persistent anxiety about the female body and sexuality which becomes inseparable from the late medieval crises found ubiquitously in literature and society. The strength of Thomas' comparative approach shows an equation between text and feminine bodies from Chaucer to Boccaccio to Jean de Meun where female genitalia are perceived as "a horrific void, a maze of disgusting passageways, a labyrinth at the center of which is concealed a monster or a fiend" (140). This suggests the sexual politics of Czech literature reinforce certain commonplaces of medieval misogyny. Women are afforded intrinsic places in society but are viewed negatively or used as pedagogical examples of distortion, disorder, inversion, perversion or representative of general maladies afflicting society.

Characteristic motifs of Hussite history are foreshadowed in Czech literature. Severe conflict between Czechs and Germans, a phenomenon forming much of the background to social unrest in Central Europe, is underscored from the earliest legends. For example, when King Wenceslas III, last of the Premyslid dynasty, was murdered in Olomouc by an unidentifiable assassin, the "Legend of Judas" (c.1300) charged the treacherous Teutonic tribe without assuming any burden of proof (30). The author of the Dalimil Chronicle writes as though claustrophobically besieged by menacing Germans (52). Elsewhere the German language functions as a medium of mockery and exclusion (72). Anti-German sentiment pervaded the Hussite milieu so much that the term German-Hussite appeared oxymoronic. The ineptitude of Vaclav's reign is framed by allegations of misrule, alcohol abuse, frequent visits to public baths, undignified behavior, shabby dress, injustice, and general incompetence. He reached his nadir in confrontation with Hussites. Nationalistic and exclusivist tendencies of reformed religion after 1415 are mirrored in this earlier corpus of literature. Polarized society exacerbated by economic and religious vicissitudes widened the gap between insiders and those driven to the margins. Women, Jews and Germans bore the brunt of demonizing tendencies and were subjected to sexual and scatological abuse in ritual consignment to the medieval concept of hell, a giant anal orifice into which outsiders and the damned were sucked. While hell does not form a major theme in this Czech literature, it remained a significant medieval construct and relates here in the proverbial Dutch wisdom that "hell is the Devil's ass hole." Close reading of Czech literature forms an essential entre to the Hussite age and helps explain certain aspects of that fascinating history.

Religious themes happily are not ignored by Thomas. Much of medieval Czech literature was shaped by religious impulses. The oldest surviving song in Czech, 'Hospodine, pomiluj ny' (Lord, have mercy on us) derived from the liturgy of the Mass and ostensibly composed by S. Vojtech (10th century), found consistent usage in the Slavonic liturgy at the Sazava Monastery in the High Middle Ages. The song likewise functioned in state ceremonial occasions and references are not uncommon in Czech literature (116). The vital distinction between medieval ecclesiastical institutions and popular forms of religion are suggested by the uses of this song. As aspects of society and culture religion and literature could not avoid each other. Six plates included in the text, each possessing an explicit religious content, in addition to the woodcut on the book's cover showing Jan Hus preaching to laypeople, reinforces the assumption.

Numerous aspects of a study such as this might be criticized, especially concerning choice of material. I raise one query about content. Though he established his terminus ad quem as 1420, Thomas did consider "Vaclav, Havel and Tabor". It seems a shame he did not comment on the verse compositions comprising the Budysinsky manuscript (1425-30): "The Verse Accusation of the Czech Crown" and "The Prophet of the Czech Crown to the Czech Lords on the Coronation of the Hungarian King". Motifs therein connect well to the nominated themes of religion, ethnicity, class and gender. There are several minor criticisms. "Roman Catholic Church" is hardly apropos for the eighth century (21) while the dismissive comment regarding the work of Cyril and Methodius as "only an episode in the development of Czech medieval culture" is surely injudicious (22). The reference to "Protestant vision' (47) is out of place and fits awkwardly with the context. Hussites were not Protestant in any sense of the term and sixteenth-century values are irrelevant hegemonic impositions. "Antifeminist satires" (121) smack of anachronism. S. John of Pomuck is more familiar as Jan of Nepomuck (128) and it is quibbling to say that "Viklefice" is misleadingly translated as "the Lollard Lady" (170). I disagree with Thomas' dating of the song, though he leaves ambiguity about what exactly the 'beginning of the fifteenth century' is (143). The text should be dated to the late second decade. Lollards were followers of John Wyclif and the terms 'Lollard' and 'Wyclifite' are synonyms. The woman in the text is a Hussite bearing the opprobrious, religiously vacuous but historically accurate, 'Wyclifite' label which was the designation for Hussites until c.1421. Though a small point, there is a serious compression of history from 1409 to 1419 (142). While Thomas is not attempting to explicate historical process the margin for misunderstanding the complexity of events is sufficient to direct the reader elsewhere.

The book is adequately referenced, with a helpful index and good bibliography. Several publications in English might usefully be appended: Frantisek Svejkovsky, 'The Conception of the "Vernacular" in Czech Literature and Culture of the Fifteenth Century', in Riccardo Picchio and Harvey Goldblatt, eds., Aspects of the Slavic Language, volume 1 (New Haven: Yale Concilium on International and Area Studies, 1984), pp. 321-36; Robert B. Pynsent, 'The Devil's Stench and Living Water: A Study of Demons and Adultery in Czech Vernacular Literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance', Slavonic and East European Review 71 (Oct. 1993), pp. 601-30; Ibid., 'Evil Spirits and Demon Women in Early Czech Popular Literature', Oxford Slavonic Papers 28 (1995), pp. 20-34; and Karel Brusak, 'Reflections of Heresy in Czech Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-Century Rhymed Compositions', Slavonic and East European Review 76 (No.2, 1998), pp. 241-65.

Anne's Bohemia reflects and defines the intellectual and social ideology of the Middle Ages. Anne's international fluency and her cosmopolitan pedigree is reflected not in the several languages she spoke and read or in her famous polyglot New Testament, but in the cultural and intellectual climate which burgeoned in Bohemia between the end of the Premyslid dynasty and the fury of the Hussite wars. Anne's Bohemia is a splendid portrait of diversity in religion, ethnicity, class and gender which serves to illuminate, rather than obfuscate, the concomitant change and continuity giving birth to a unique phenomenon in Central Europe at the end of the Middle Ages.