Eva Dolezalova

title.none: Klassen, Warring Maidens, Captive Wives, and Hussite Queens (Eva Dolezalova )

identifier.other: baj9928.0203.005 02.03.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Eva Dolezalova , Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Klassen, John. Warring Maidens, Captive Wives, and Hussite Queens: Women and Men at War and at Peace in Fifteenth Century Bohemia. East European Monographs, Vol. DXXVII. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Pp. 3, 290. ISBN: 0-880-33425-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.03.05

Klassen, John. Warring Maidens, Captive Wives, and Hussite Queens: Women and Men at War and at Peace in Fifteenth Century Bohemia. East European Monographs, Vol. DXXVII. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Pp. 3, 290. ISBN: 0-880-33425-8.

Reviewed by:

Eva Dolezalova
Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic

John M. Klassen is a renowned author of The Nobility and the Making of the Hussite Revolution (1978). He now brings out another seminal book on late medieval Bohemia, a theme in which he has specialized. The book summarizes, develops and synthesizes his previous shorter accounts of various aspects of the position and life of women in fifteenth-century Bohemia. The long title of the book reflects in some way the complexity of the problem itself. The author, although focused on the 15th century, has to provide a short account of the earlier tradition (the warring maidens) and, for the 15th century itself, has to go through the scarce, diverse, and not very well preserved evidence, referring to women of various social classes and in various circumstances (far more than the "captive wives" and "Hussite queens"). While the subject of the book is Bohemian (or Czech) women, some references are also made (especially in chapters 3 and 6) to the situation in other countries. However, in view of the incomplete evidence, the author correctly avoids explicit comparisons and does not state whether or not, when and in what respect, the position of women in Bohemia was better or worse than that of women in other parts of Europe.

Apart from the Epilogue, the book consists of four parts as described below. This structure is arbitrary to some extent and, as a whole, resembles a kaleidoscope through which the various partial subjects are made one whole. Part I (Background) starts with an introduction that briefly introduces the author's intentions, presents Bohemia and its history to the reader and states that it is the ". . .dissident women, and the men who recognized their dignity" which "are the focus of this book" (p. 3). This sentence can be regarded as a leitmotiv of the whole treatise. In Chapter 1, "Bohemia, Europe and Gender," the author recounts a story of two mythical women figures, the princess Libuse and the rebellious leader Vlasta. Libuse ruled over the Czech tribe as a supreme leader and her government was based on consultation and collective action. Later she was forced to marry and transfer her power to her husband, Premysl. Even later, she continued to be highly esteemed by both men and women and cooperated with her husband in governing. As long as she was alive, all other women were also respected and honored. When she died, however, women lost their privileged position. Men started to suppress and ridicule them. Then the women rebelled against the male rule. Led by Vlasta, they defeated the men's army and tried to restore women's rule. These were the warring maidens referred to in the title of Klassen's book. These women claimed their right to choose their husbands freely and to rule over men in general. However, their rebellion was defeated and the male rule reestablished. The author pays special attention to the account of the story which is given in the so called "Dalimil" chronicle, written in the Czech language in the beginning of 14th century. He cites representative passages from the chronicle (in English translation) and demonstrates how the old narrative, still alive among the Czech people in the 15th century, could become a source of inspiration and encouragement for women fighting for their rights and dignity, as well as for men who were prepared to recognize them.

Part II (Domestic Structures) is the most extensive part of the book. It analyses customary, judicial and economic conditions in which women had to live. Chapter 2, "Gender, Law and the Judicial System," cites some old Czech law books stipulating that a wife had power to protect her husband against prosecution or condemnation. This right of asylum added to women's authority and power, even though there is no written record of this law being applied in practice. Other legal texts made it possible for raped women to reestablish their prestige and seek revenge through an ordeal-like judicial combat. Here again, the rights and the protection given to women by the law were more theoretical than real, but they were "part of the matrix which made it easier for fifteenth century women to act in their daily lives with a degree of autonomy and assertiveness" (p. 47). The author then analyses the records of the Land Court from 1389 to 1495 and the Chamber Court from 1472 to 1482, in an effort to investigate the cases in which women were involved as either plaintiffs or defendants or as witnesses. Male witnesses were in some cases preferred over female ones. A married woman was rarely allowed to bear a testimony. However, there were cases in which independent women appeared before court and reached justice. The author, however, underestimates the social status of some of these women (e.g., the anonymous bathkeeper from the New Town of Prague in 1412), referring to them as coming "from the margins of the society" (p. 53). As a matter of fact, any legal case was a costly affair and, therefore, this way of seeking justice was inaccessible to the truly poor.

Chapter 3, "Family, Law and Property," mainly deals with the rights of inheritance and the ways in which the material well- being of married women and widows was secured through the institute of dowry. As a rule, it was only male heirs who were entitled to inherit the family property. "A daughter could hope for the family inheritance only if there were no male heirs" (p. 62). However, any unmarried female member of the family had to be given a portion of the property which would become a part of her dowry if she got married. In comparison with an analogous German law, "in Bohemia the groom's family obligation" to make a contribution to the dowry "was larger and the wife expected greater control over the dowry during marriage" (p. 65). The law was made for the sake of propertied classes but was adhered to, or imitated, by the rest of the society as well. An important concept of contemporary law was that of a married woman being looked upon as a captive (or a prisoner) of her husband. Surprisingly, it was also to protect the wife. She, as a captive who had to do what her husband had ordered her to do, was not allowed to enter anything into judicial records, e.g., was not allowed to dispose of her dowry. In all other respects, however, the concept of captive wives reflected the powerlessness of married women. The situation of a widow was often even worse, because she "was always faced with the threat that the kin of her deceased spouse would take back his property, deprive her of her children, and evict her" (p. 74). The author nevertheless states that the situation was gradually improving, with husbands, "motivated by love, ...making their wives more secure by adding to their dowries in the course of the marriages" (p. 74) and the daughters and sisters, caught in unhappy marriages, demanding that their fathers and brothers provide them with material assets with which they could protect themselves (p. 75). The author also believes that "the laws that protected" married women "reflect the voices of daughters whose sense of self was sharpened by the memories of great women, such as Libuse and Vlasta" (p. 75). One must add that the status of captive wives pertained in its fullest sense only to married women in noble families. The status of women in urban families seemed to be better, as it becomes evident in Chapter 6 (see below).

Chapter 4, "Amazons and Captive Wives: Anezka and Perchta of Rozmberk," gives examples of two noble sisters from the Rozmberk family who, each in her own way, fought for their dignity and well-being. Fortunately, their preserved correspondence gives us deep insight into their situation and their way of thinking. Anezka did not marry at all and did not choose a monastic career either. Instead, she lived on the income from one of her family's estates which was given her as an equivalent of dowry. She remained a lay autonomous woman who enjoyed riding, hunting and even the company of male friends. Her case, however, was rather exceptional. Her younger sister Perchta, known in today's Czechia as a spectral White Lady, had to marry a nobleman who did not love her. When her family was not able to pay her dowry in time, she found herself virtually deprived of the means of living and detained in the middle of a hostile family. However, she did not resign herself to her hardship. Her way of fighting was writing letters, addressed mainly to her father and brother, in which she complained about her situation and asked for help. Over the years of her marriage her conditions did not improve substantially and "her financial security was not fully resolved until the end of her life, after much of central Europe had learned about her situation" (p. 102). Perchta's case illustrates the darker side of the status of captive wifes. Klassen's original interpretation of Perchta's story, otherwise viewed as notorious, lies in his recognition of heroism in her struggle. Before him, most authors rather pitied or even ridiculed her.

Chapter 5 is called "Marriage Formation and Spousal Attraction" in the Table of Contents but "Women's Passivity and Initiative in Marriage Formations" in the chapter heading itself. The author investigates the ways in which marriages were arranged. Among the aristocracy, "marriage was a matter of the lineage and extended beyond the interests of the two partners" (p. 111). The negotiations usually went between the bride's father and the potential husband, while "the bride was an inactive bystander" (p. 112). Much attention is then paid to the so- called "informal" or "clandestine" marriages, not sanctioned at all or only sanctioned a posteriori by the Church. Such marriages were common among lower social classes. Complete supervision of the Church over marriages did not take place until after the Council of Trent. Evidence exists that women were, in these cases, quite active in finding, accepting, or refusing their mates. Women even acted in officiating at these marriages. Klassen's opinion is that "these women acted in the spirit of those in the legendary Vlasta's kingdom" (p. 123). Women's activity is even more evident from preserved reports on pre-marital flirtations and courting, which Klassen includes under the "informal marriages" heading.

Chapter 6, "Wives, Husbands and Mothers," is mainly about urban families, with few examples referring to the nobility. The author analyzes (both in the text and in the tables attached at the end of the book) proprietary arrangements as evidenced by surviving dowry agreements, bequests and similar documents from three fifteenth-century Bohemian towns, namely the Catholic towns of Plzen and Ceska Kamenice and the Hussite town of Bydzov. It is illustrated how, over the 15th century, the status of wives was improving, how they were gradually becoming co-owners and heirs of their husband's property rather than captive wives. The trend seems to have reverted in Ceska Kamenice by the end of 15th century, allegedly under the influence of German law. A separate paragraph is devoted to the household size (or family size). The author states that "the typical Bohemian household consisted of parents and their own children, of which rarely more than two survived into adulthood. . . .In this respect, Bohemia did not differ from the rest of Europe" (pp. 140 and 142). This meant that "the male kin was absent and could not remove wives from the stage of household decision-making" (p. 143). Several examples are given of the authority which women of the bourgeoisie enjoyed over their husbands and children. "The maternal authority held by fifteenth-century urban women echoed that of the protective wife found in early Czech law codes" (p. 149). It is also documented that women in urban households "had considerable administrative and organizational capabilities" (p. 150) and some widows even continued in their late husbands' craft. Eventhough the author does not fail to mention that his observations pertain primarily to urban households, he, in my view, does not put enough emphasis on this fact. It should be, I think, stated explicitly that the urban society was more advanced in principle than the society of nobility, gentry and villagers. In addition to the memories of Libuse, Vlasta and protective wives of the early times, it was also the scent of freedom, ubiquitous in towns, which made the urban wives more emancipated than the others.

Next the author's focus changes from material things to ideas. In Part III, "Revolution," he shows how the Hussite revolution enhanced the space of freedom for women and "subverted the prevalent image of women's inferiority" (p. 159) and, vice versa, how women themselves contributed to the proliferation of reform ideas, to the outburst of revolution, and to the national resistance against attacks from abroad. In Chapter 7, "Gender and Hussite Religious Ideals," we learn that, in contrast to the Lollard movement in England, the Czech women supported the oncoming Church reform and the revolution, possibly even more than the men. "In the late fourteenth century, Prague was the setting for a popular religious movement marked by women and men seeking a personal and vigorous piety" (p. 160) and "the female lay communities known as the Beguines were early participants in the Czech reform movement" (p. 161). The "pressure from fourteenth century Czech nuns. . .resulted in parts of the Bible being translated into their language. . . .Because of great demand the whole Czech bible was published around 1414" (p. 162). The author then analyzes the teachings of three local reform thinkers, Thomas of Stitny, John Hus and Peter Chelcicky with respect to women and their status. They, especially the latter two, saw both men and women as "equally prone to sin and as equally capable of divine dignity" (p. 164). Hus and his followers explicitly recognized that women were created in God's image. Chelcicky, in accordance with the radical practice of the Tabor community, "accepts women's right to preach, attacking the official clergy's monopoly" (p. 169). Klassen gives examples of outstanding women, both known by name and anonymous, who put the reform ideals into practice.

Chapter 8, "Women, Revolution and Political Order," continues along the same line, mentioning active participation of women during the first stage of the revolution: in destruction of churches and monasteries, in building fortifications and in the defense of Prague against crusaders in 1420. A sort of climax in terms of women's freedom and activity may have been reached in the middle of radical religious groups. In Tabor, women were allowed to separate from their husbands and (not unconditionally) remarry. The priests were allowed to marry. Women were allowed to preach and to administer the holy communion. Then, however, women's freedom became a point of division between the radicals and the moderate Hussites. An ideologist of the moderate, Jakoubek of Stribro, criticized women's participation in armed fighting. Prague women themselves in 1421 acted "with political common sense, bravery and maturity" (words of F. Heymann, cited on p. 200) by issuing a petition against women's serving the Eucharist. After all, it was women who particularly suffered when the ongoing "revolution aggravated social disorder and made property transactions more difficult" (p. 202). The author concludes that "the Hussite ideas on gender were unfulfilled. It was as though they peered over the brink of the horizon into a world of gender equality, but then pulled back" (p. 206).

Part IV, "Women in Government," investigates the cases when women of fifteenth-century Bohemia acted as rulers and decision-makers. "Judging from the rhetoric of the period, one would not expect to find women in government at all" (p. 213). "Anecdotal evidence suggests that women in Bohemia had similar opportunities and obstructions as did women in the rest of Europe" (p. 216). Sometimes, however, women had to manage the affairs because there were no men to do so. Chapter 9, "Heirs and Guardians," investigates the surviving evidence of urban women in Plzen who inherited the office of the town judge ("rychtar") because there was no male heir. The public office was actually carried out by their husbands but the women remained the office-bearers and participated in record-keeping. A village bailiff's office was shared by the whole family, including the wife and the children. More is known about noble women rulers. The author gives two examples: Perchta of Sternberk, who, when her husband (an opponent of the Hussitism) died, supported moderate Hussites for three years, placing her castles and material resources at their disposal, until her late husband's relatives forced her to withdraw; the other, Eliska of Vartenberk, known as a delicate administrator who "ruled with scrupulous care to avoid exceeding her rights" (p. 220). She sent her son to the townhall in order to settle a dispute, not feeling "comfortable entering the council chambers" (p. 221). In any case, there is enough evidence to demonstrate that women in fifteenth century Bohemia knew how to rule if they were given an opportunity.

Finally, Chapter 10 -- called "Kings, Queens and Hussites" in the Table of Contents, but "Queens, Kings and Hussites" in the chapter heading -- investigates the cases of three fifteenth- century queens of Bohemia who, each in her own way, took the rule in their own hands when their husbands, kings of Bohemia, died. These queens were Sofia, the wife of Wenceslas of Luxembourg; Barbara, the wife of Sigismund of Luxembourg; and Johanna, the wife of George of Podebrady. Because of their royal status, their lives and deeds are relatively well documented. While only Johanna could be justly called a Hussite Queen, all three had to shortly manage the kingdom during three consecutive stages of the Hussite revolution. The case of Sofia (1376-1428) is accompanied by black and white reproductions of illuminations from the Wenceslas Bible, commissioned by King Wenceslas and Queen Sofia and depicting, in a metaphoric way, the royal couple as intimate friends and lovers. "The artists. . .show a royal husband and wife who saw their bodies. . .as something. . .to be enjoyed. The male is shown vulnerable before the female. . . " (p. 228). "The images. . .represent women as powerful, directive and protective" (p. 229-230). Klassen reiterates that "such images. . .resonated with Czech tradition", evoking "the image of the protective wife" (p. 230). Queen Sofia supported and defended John Hus, the reformer who gave the movement its name, and his followers, until she was forced by the pope to return to the catholic orthodoxy. When Wenceslas died in 1419, she "had a brief opportunity to govern" (p. 234) but her re- submission to papal authority "undermined any trust she might have among Hussites" (ibid.). When the revolution started, she had to run away. The insurgent Bohemia refused to obey her as well as her brother-in-law and the king-to-be, Sigismund. Nevertheless, in principle, neither Sigismund nor Czech nobles "saw anything out of order when a woman ruled and when subjects obeyed her" (p. 235). Barbara, much more ambitious than Sofia, supported her husband, Sigismund, in regaining the Bohemian throne. By the time of his death (in 1437), she got deeply involved in intrigues and negotiations concerning the royal succession and had even to spend some time in detention. "Her ambitions. . .were too big for her to live out her life in peace" (p. 241). Johanna of Rozmital, the only native Czech among the three, was an efficient helper of her husband George, capable even of commanding an army. When George died in 1471, she ruled over the kingdom for several years, showing a mature and unselfish statesmanship. "In her politics of succession, she abandoned maternal loyalties towards her offspring and supported that candidate who she felt could best govern. . ." (p. 258). The stories of the three queens demonstrate that "men from the ruling class did not believe their own rhetoric. When it suited their political purposes, they were eager to open the doors of public power to women" (p. 258).

The Epilogue neither synthesizes nor generalizes the matter presented in previous chapters. It rather plays the role of an extended abstract of the book. The attached tables display a numerical analysis of the surviving property contracts and wills from three fifteenth-century Bohemian towns. The book is equipped with an extensive bibliography and a short, mixed-type index. The notes, sometimes very interesting, are given at the end of each chapter.

In fact, the matter is almost impossible to generalize and synthesize. Throughout the book, the author simply glances through many aspects of life and events in fifteenth-century Bohemia, with the intention to find "dissident", brave and capable women, and to map the cases when these women had room to assert themselves. An impartial account of the same historical period in the same country would possibly find many more examples of women who were passive or intimidated and who had no room to develop. It is a question of perspective. Some see the cheese itself, others only see the holes in the cheese. John Klassen approaches his work with an original and highly innovative insight, of which, I guess, none of the native Czech historians would be capable, simply because a view from outside is different from a view from within. Klassen's work is a substantial contribution to the history of women in Bohemia and in Europe in the late Middle Ages and early modern times. This topic has not yet been much attended by Czech historians (as exceptions, one should mention, in particular, Anna Cisarova- Kolarova, Bozena Kopickova, Anna Skybova and Pavla Horska), partly because the surviving sources are rare. It should also be appreciated that John Klassen introduces Bohemian history (not only women's history, but history as such) to English readers. His knowledge of the Czech language, literature and sources is admirable.

Drawbacks of the book are only few and of minor importance. I already mentioned some of them. The editors might have paid more attention to correct orthography (especially diacriticals) of Czech names and words. Czech historians would be eager to assist, I assume. One language question perhaps deserves an explicit discussion. Czech predicates of nobility, gentry and city patricians had a genitive form (e.g., "Viktorin ze Vsehrd", "Jan z Michalovic", where "z" is a preposition meaning "from" and "Vsehrd" or "Michalovic" is a genitive form of the name of location, "Vsehrdy" or "Michalovice"). The same people were, however, also called by their predicates used as a sort of surname. This surname may have resembled a genitive of the name of a location, but was in fact a nominative of the name of a person (e. g., "Vsehrd", "Michalovic"). Klassen's use of these forms is inconsistent. I suggest that, since the English preposition "of" expresses the meaning of the genitive, Czech predicates in an English text are always cited in the nominative if they are used together with Christian names, e.g., "Viktorin of Vsehrdy", "Jan (or John) of Michalovice", while the short, surname forms of the same predicates should follow their nominative Czech from, i.e., "Vsehrd" or "Michalovic".