09.09.15, Wolverton, trans., Chronicle of the Czechs

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David Mengel

The Medieval Review 09.09.15

Cosmas of Prague. Translated and introduction by Lisa Wolverton. The Chronicle of the Czechs. Medieval Texts in Translation Series. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009. Pp. xvii, 274.
Reviewed by:
David Mengel
Xavier University

Like Bede for the English, Cosmas of Prague (c. 1045-1125) offered Czechs the story of their own origins. He tells of Bohemus (or Čech, in the vernacular), who first brought the Czechs into their own land, called Bohemia (Čechy) after him. Later came the legendary prophetess Libuše, foundress of Prague, whose misogynist subjects convinced her to select a husband as duke. Her choice fell on the peasant Přemysl, founder of the Přemyslid dynasty that ruled the duchy (later kingdom) of Bohemia into the fourteenth century. Yet Cosmas, an elderly cleric by the time he began to write (c. 1120), offered these ancient tales along with a measure of skepticism: "since these things are said to have occurred in ancient times, we leave it to the reader to judge whether they are fact or fiction" (63). Cosmas preferred to rely on his own experience and on the testimony of eyewitnesses, so he devoted two of his chronicle's three books to the time in which he lived. He recognized the personal risk--"it seems to us much safer to narrate a dream, to which no one bears witness, than to write the deeds of present-day men"--and yet did not shy away from offering judgments on the personalities and political leaders of his own day (183). As the dean of Prague cathedral and an octogenarian widower, Cosmas enjoyed the free-speaking boldness that old age and high rank could provide. The result is a rich and important twelfth-century text that deserves to be known better by students of medieval Europe.

Outside today's Central Europe, historians of medieval Bohemia are not so numerous. Partly for that reason, I (who also study medieval Bohemia) have agreed to write this review for TMR in spite of my long friendship with its translator, Lisa Wolverton. This review's readers should know that I was not involved in any stage of the translation's preparation but that I did offer the publisher a brief evaluation of the text once it was in press; a quotation from that evaluation appears on the book's back cover. With full knowledge of this, TMR's editors still asked for my review. My agreement reflects my high opinion of the precise and accessible translation of a very important text, a translation accompanied by an impressive scholarly apparatus that includes an introduction, bibliography, index, maps, genealogical charts and extensive notes. I hope and expect that many scholars and other students of the Middle Ages will read it.

As Wolverton explains in her introduction, the Chronicle of the Czechs is what historians have called a "national history." It tells, and by telling creates, the story of a medieval people. Whereas the contemporary Normans, for example, benefited from several chroniclers, Cosmas stands alone for the Czechs. His chronicle provides the only narrative source, and often the only extant source of any kind, for most of the events and people he describes. Cosmas thus remains the fountainhead of the history of early and high medieval Bohemia.

The locations and characters that populate Cosmas's chronicle--in distinction to those described by his contemporaries Eadmer and Orderic Vitalis--will be unfamiliar to most readers of this translation, the first one into English. Instead of Canterbury, Hereford and London, here we encounter Stará Boleslav, Mělník and especially Prague. Instead of a succession of Williams and Roberts, here we meet multiple Břetislavs and Bořivojs. Some of their names will test the Anglophone tongue--try Dětříšek, for example (219). Even good old saintly Wenceslas (a tenth-century duke, not a king) appears here not in his Latinate guise, but as the Czech Václav (as Wolverton explains in a footnote).

Great profit awaits those willing to overcome this unfamiliarity, however, and Wolverton has provided all the necessary tools. Genealogies, lists of dukes and bishops, and well-drawn maps will allow even undergraduate readers to follow along without getting hopelessly lost. Even better, rich footnotes--yes, footnotes instead of endnotes--identify countless allusions and explain many things that Cosmas assumed his (mostly) clerical readers would know. What is a mitre? A suffragan? Prime and the other liturgical hours? Wolverton's notes offer succinct, clear answers that make this text particularly accessible to undergraduates.

Once readers get past the unfamiliar names, they will find much that is less exceptional than characteristic of twelfth-century Europe, especially Central Europe. For example, Cosmas tells of Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem who passed through Bohemia in 1096, attacking and forcibly baptizing Jews, and of the Prague bishop who both failed to prevent these violent christenings and later quietly overlooked the same Jews' return to the practice of Judaism. (Cosmas clearly disapproved of both the forced conversions and the bishops' later "negligence" in allowing Bohemian Jews to relapse.) Students of the Gregorian reform movement will note that the twelfth-century prelate Cosmas makes no secret of his wife or his son, but that he also praises the virginity of bishops such as St. Adalbert (d. 997). Those familiar with the events at Canossa in 1077 will be struck by the several accounts here of the election of bishops of Prague--in short, Bohemia's dukes nearly always managed to appoint their own choices, so long as the other Bohemian nobles didn't object. Rich gifts then invariably secured the approval of the Mainz archbishop and especially the emperor, who personally invested each new bishop with ring and staff, all with hardly a nod towards Rome. Those interested in questions of ethnic identity or even the development of medieval "nationalism" should consider Cosmas's warm approval of a newly elected duke's 1055 expulsion of all Germans from Bohemia--an expulsion that included the duke's own mother!

Cosmas's chronicle also tells tales of saints, of miracles, and even of thefts of relics. It takes a keen interest in Bohemia's ecclesiastical politics, and especially of the periodic division of the realm into two bishoprics. But fundamentally, as Wolverton notes, Cosmas offers a political tale. The majority of the text relates rollicking stories of war and political intrigue, of brotherly strife and ruthless rivalries between noble families. Readers will find sufficient orientation in this translation's introduction, which provides a clear, brief guide to Cosmas and his world. For the larger picture and its detailed analysis, Wolverton's own monograph is essential: Hastening Toward Prague: Power and Society in the Medieval Czech Lands (Philadelphia, 2001).

Even on their own, Cosmas's many evocative anecdotes provide the reader an excellent sense of the exercise of political power in high medieval Bohemia. Brothers and other rivals are tonsured by force, blinded and castrated, or simply assassinated. Cosmas himself seems to have witnessed the aftermath of one failed plot, by which the nobleman Mutina evidently sought to overthrow Duke Svatopluk (r. 1107-9) in favor of Bořivoj II (r. 1100-7; 1117-20)--the latter both preceded and eventually succeeded his cousin Svatopluk. Raging mad, Duke Svatopluk ordered the death of Mutina and all his kin. Here and elsewhere, Cosmas does not shrink from offering his own opinion.

What should I say about the death of Mutina's sons, whose death seemed crueler than any death? They were little boys of good disposition, with faces worth looking at, lovable in appearance, of the like that no skilled craftsman would be able to express in white ivory, nor a painter on a wall. We saw them pitifully dragged into the market, frequently crying out: "Mother! Mother!" when the bloody butcher killed them both under his arm with a small knife, like piglets. Everyone scattered, striking their breasts, in order not to see the butcher performing such a cruel misdeed" (212).

A Prague official, suspected by a subsequent duke of favoring a rival, was later subjected to a more creative punishment. Before being sent away to exile in Poland, he was dragged around the market square by his beard with "a huge, mangy dog, drunk on yesterday's broth...tied to his shoulders,...barking and shitting on [him]." Public humiliation, indeed.

Cosmas's important chronicle survives in more than a dozen manuscripts, and Bertold Bretholz long ago published an excellent critical edition: Die Chronik der Böhmen des Cosmas von Prag , Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores, n.s. II (Berlin, 1923). Yet the quality and precision of Wolverton's translation--and especially the inclusion of its extensive footnotes--will now make her text the best starting point even for most Anglophone scholars. Cosmas, educated at Liège, infuses his text with biblical, Christian and classical quotations and allusions. Bretholz's edition painstakingly identified many of these, and Wolverton (and the series editors) wisely included them in the translation's footnotes. When Cosmas is echoing the Psalms or the Aeneid , Lucan's Civil War or Regino of Prüm's Chronicle , the notes keep the reader informed without breaking the flow of the text itself.

Heavily laden with authoritative citations and self-conscious in its rhetoric, at times even slipping into rhymed prose or verse, the Latin of Cosmas's chronicle offer a challenge to any translator. Here again both the scholar and the student are well served. Wolverton's translation is meticulous and consistent. The introduction dedicates several pages to her carefully considered translation of particular words, such as regnum , urbs , civitas , metropolis , and miles --and of her decision not to translate other words, such as comes , "as the term does not carry the same hierarchical or vassalic connotations in the Czech Lands that it does elsewhere in Europe" (23). The result is precise and reliable, even (occasionally) at the partial expense of fluidity. The Latin original retains its primacy. The reader not only grasps the meaning, but also quite often becomes acquainted with the idiomatic expression. Swords are not just worn, they "hang on the thigh," for example (e.g., 116, 127). When the translation simply cannot convey the Latin wordplay of the original, Wolverton indicates this in a footnote (e.g., the "hostile lances" in the phrase, "Non nos hostilia portamus hastilia , p. 224).

Wolverton's careful and precise method of translation keeps her text remarkably close to the meaning and even the syntax of the Latin, word-for-word and phrase-for-phrase. This tendency towards a literal rather than a more flowing but less accurate translation will benefit the same readers who will appreciate the liberal notes: scholars and advanced undergraduates working, perhaps, on research essays. Every translator must make her own decisions, and of course there are places where I might have chosen a different word or phrase than Wolverton has. Only very rarely does her translation risk misunderstanding. Some North American readers, for example, might be tempted to think of yellow maize instead of wheat or barley grain when they read "ears of tender corn" (spicas tenere segetis ), though British readers will have no such trouble (226, cf. 188). One particularly difficult passage involving the study of logic in France leads Wolverton to suggest that Cosmas may be alluding specifically to Abelard, who was active in Paris around that time (250 n. 293). I read the Latin passage a bit differently and find unconvincing the (admittedly tantalizing) suggestion that Cosmas had Abelard in particular in mind.

But this is, quite literally, to quibble with one speculative footnote of the translation's nearly one thousand notes. Wolverton has indeed produced a remarkable piece of scholarship, and not just a handy translation of an important high-medieval chronicle. The introduction, footnotes and other elements of the scholarly apparatus greatly enhance the book's value for historians and other scholars of the Middle Ages, readers who might not otherwise take the time to read the Latin edition. To them I highly recommend it. Nor will I hesitate to recommend or assign it to my own students, for whom it offers unprecedented access to the world of central Europe in the twelfth century.

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David Mengel

Xavier University