03.07.09, Wolverton, Hastening Toward Prague

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Maciej Michalski

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.009


Wolverton, Lisa. Hastening Toward Prague: Power and Society in the Medieval Czech Lands. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 406. ISBN: 0-8122-3613-0.

Reviewed by:
Maciej Michalski
Adam Mickiewicz Uniwersity at Poznan

Studies on the medieval history of Central Europe are almost absent from contemporary historiography written in English, which makes the work of Lisa Wolverton on Power and Society in the Medieval Czech Land even more interesting. The book has been written very carefully, even to the point of preserving Czech orthography and diacritical characters (which may be difficult to pronounce for people who are not familiar with the Czech language).

The book covers 150 years of Bohemian history, between the last years of ruling duke Bretislav I (1037-1055) until the beginning of the reign of the duke and next king Premysl Otakar I (1193-1232, king after 1198). Its aims are, first, "to study society and politics in the Czech Land between roughly 1050 and 1200", and secondly to "reexamine the nature of power in the High Middle Ages generally" (1).

The title, Hastening Toward Prague, refers to the aspiration of dukes to control the central castle in Prague which functioned in the awareness of the Czechs as the capital of Bohemia and "was understood to constitute the locus of authority" (83). On the other hand, the "hastening toward Prague" also means the endeavors of the freemen to support one or another duke in his aspirations to achieve the Prague throne.

In reading Wolverton's book, one has the impression of a continuous condensation of the problems analyzed. The author starts with the presentation of the components of society and power in medieval Bohemia and then analyzes their mutual relations. In the first part of her book, Wolverton guides us into the denser and denser network of the constituents of Bohemian society and power structures in order to show us a few landscapes of the complicated relations between those elements in the second part.

Consequently, in the first part the author presents "the structure of power," which means the basis of ducal lordship. She incorporates in it land possession, the control of fiscal incomes from tolls, taxes, sales taxes, etc., as well as the juridical supervision and control of castles and army. The second element of this social mosaic is freemen, defined as "free, land-owning warriors of all ranks" (44). Magnates linked through family bonds were divided according to their wealth and their closeness to the duke. Wolverton describes interconnections among the ducal offices and the dynamic of changes among the freemen occupying them. The next phase of the condensation of the problems presented leads to the characterization of the process of achieving independence by magnate families, mainly in the process of lands concentration. Somewhere on the margin of Wolverton's considerations is the Bohemian Church, which, according to the author, was not a real actor on the political scene, but only sometimes assisted in major events. Wolverton claims that the Church was "marginal to the structure and dynamics of power in the Czech Lands" (111).

The main fact which influenced the Bohemian history throughout the second half of the tenth and the eleventh century was the so-called will of Bretislav's I. It established the rule of succession to the Prague throne by a senior member of the Premyslid dynasty and gave to the youngest sons the rule over Moravia at Olomouc, Brno and Znojmo. It induced the division of the dynasty into the senior and junior group and also the division among the freemen supporting them. Such interdynastic tensions characterized internal Bohemian politics till the moment when Premysl Otakar I took the royal crown. Those tensions are the subject of the third and sixth chapters of Wolverton's book. She presents the methods used by the dukes in order to extract obedience from their subjects, such as forcing to exile, either confiscating and bestowing properties, removing and nominating certain individuals for offices, and in external policy, creating alliances, for example with the German Emperor or with Hungarian and Polish rulers.

The second part of the book, which is significantly more interesting, presents the strategies and variations of the structures of power. This part is a kind of a portrait, focused on three issues. The first presents the political use by the Bohemian dukes of the divine authority of two martyrs, St. Vaclav and St. Adalbert. The first was a member of Premyslid dynasty, the duke of Bohemia, and was murdered by his brother, Boleslav I, at the beginning of the tenth century. After his death, Vaclav quickly became an object of Christian cult of saints and was recognized as the patron-saint of Bohemia. The next Premislid dukes willingly referred to the authority of the martyr and used it for political propaganda and to strengthen their position among other members of the dynasty. The person of the other martyr, the bishop of Prague, St. Adalbert, was not so easy to use for such purposes. He was a member of Slavnikid (Slavnikovici) gens and his family was murdered by duke Boleslav II (in 995) in the same way as the Vrsovici gens by duke Svatopluk in 1108. St. Adalbert, after his death in Prussia, became the patron-saint of the Polish metropolis of Gniezno and in 1039-40 his relics were stolen from it and taken to Prague by Bretislav. St. Adalbert, like st. Vaclav, became the patron-saint of Bohemia and the Bohemian Church and was also called noster patronus by the Czechs. Both saints were actively used by Bohemian dukes to strengthen their power and authority against other candidates to the Prague throne and against the freemen supporting them.

In a second consideration of the mechanisms of power, Wolverton describes relations between Prague and the Moravian line of the Premislids (and the freemen who supported them). The marginalization of younger sons by duke Bretislav I led to the situation in which they raised their claims to taking power in Prague. This Achilles heel, as Wolverton calls it, was often prompted by rebellions and revolts of iuniores and freemen. The autonomy of Moravia in the Bohemian state was not strongly marked and this caused frequent tensions to "hasten toward Prague" among young Premislids. Also inside Moravia, the rivalry between centers at Olomouc, Brno, and Znojmo was very strong.

The third aspect of power politics described by Wolverton concerns the relations of Bohemian dukes and German Emperors. The author presents these as an opportunity for the dukes to deepen their independence from the emperors and to mark their position among other actors of the political game in Bohemia. It is especially visible at the occasion of three coronations of dukes, Vratislav in 1086, Vladislav II in 1158 and finally, when the duchy of Bohemia became the kingdom, in 1198 after the coronation of Premysl Otakar I.

This account of the book under review certainly overlooks many aspects and interesting points of interpretation in which Wolverton's work is rich. I hope that this short introduction will encourage medievalists to reach for it. Every book, however, contains a few faults and defects and it is the duty of the reviewer to indicate them. One of the problems of Wolverton's book is its construction. The condensed presentation which the author uses, for instance, fails in the narratives of chapters 3 and 6 which seem to concern the same subjects but from two different points of view: many facts are related twice.

However, the main defect of Hastening Toward Prague is the lack of any comparative perspective. The author is aware of it and in many places declares that Bohemian situation is similar to or different from other medieval states, but the lack of comparison with neighbouring countries of Central Europe is clearly visible. This seems to have prevented the fulfillment of the second aim of Wolverton's book, which was to "reexamine the nature of power in the High Middle Ages generally." For example the analysis of the interdynastic relations would gain much if the author compared the situation in Bohemia after the death of Bretislav I with the political state of affairs in Kievian Rus or Poland. In the first case, the duke Yaroslav the Wise in 1054 also introduced senioral inheritance of the throne. In 1138 in Poland, duke Boleslaw III Krzywousty did the same thing. The comparison of the situation at the moment of overcoming the principle of ruling by the oldest members of the dynasty by the youngest sons and magnates would be especially interesting. Similar points of comparison exist in the relations of Bohemia with German Empire and could have been drawn out more thoroughly. As matters stand, they are presented without the links with internal history of the Empire, where for example the change of the ruling dynasty caused many shifts in external politics.

These critical remarks do not lessen the merits of Lisa Wolverton's work in introducing the medieval history of the Czech Lands into Anglophone historiography.

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Author Biography

Maciej Michalski

Adam Mickiewicz Uniwersity at Poznan