12.10.11, Klápštĕ, The Czech Lands in Medieval Transformation

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Marcela K. Perett

The Medieval Review 12.10.11

Klápštĕ, Jan. Miller, Sean Mark and Kateřina Millerová, trans.. The Czech Lands in Medieval Transformation. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill nv, 2012. Pp. 640. ISBN: 978-90-04-20347-1.

Reviewed by:
Marcela K. Perett
European College of Liberal Arts

Jan Klápštĕ's The Czech Lands in Medieval Transformation makes a fine contribution to our understanding of how Europe was made. It takes on the question of the Ostsiedlung--the migration and settlement from what is now western and central Germany to areas east of the Elbe and Saale rivers in the thirteenth century--and reinterprets it by setting it into a larger framework, both geographically and chronologically. Drawing on archeological and written sources, the author argues that, at least in the Czech lands, the thirteenth-century settlement was neither a violent colonization wave nor the conquest of a frontier society, but a gradual transfer of Western organizational and material know-how to the societies in the east.

After a brief foreword and introduction, Chapter 1, "The Middle Ages--Distant and Close," contextualizes the argument by identifying the main concerns of Czech historiography, which remain, as the author suggests, persistently nationalistic in their goals and disposition. Because of this, the reader is made to understand that the stakes are high. Any discussion of the events of the thirteenth century inevitably raises the question of the "German element," and of its introduction and presence alongside ethnic Czechs, which directly affects the Czech understanding of their history.

The charged nature of any discussion of ethnicity may be why Klápštĕ's narrative does not at any point portray ethnicity as important or decisive in any aspect of thirteenth-century colonization practices, and his examples downplay questions of ethnic and linguistic identity. The author does not see hatred or ill-will between local settlers and newcomers, but rather a competition that is blind to ethnic and linguistic differences. What emerges from Klápštĕ's study of the situation on the ground is a picture of multicultural co-existence driven by self-interest, a picture that seems perhaps too close to our modern understanding of united Europe.

Klápštĕ opens his discussion with a vignette illustrating this peaceful co-existence: a depiction of St. Hedwig (Hedwig of Andechs) in the Codex Ostroviensis on the occasion of her marriage to Duke Henry the Bearded, circa 1186. Drawn sometime in the fourteenth century, the picture shows two groups of wedding guests each wearing strikingly different attire: Henry's entourage is somber, lacking all the fashionable elements typical of the fourteenth century, simple tunics and simple haircuts, whereas Hedwig's entourage sports bright-colored clothing and elaborate head coverings and hairstyles. Klápštĕ sees this as a visual manifestation of "Ostis and Westis," a meeting of two worlds. Recognizing that cultural and economic differences existed, the author insists that such meetings did not necessarily cause offense or prejudice.

Chapter 2, "Transforming the Might of the Mighty," traces three transformations: of the nobility, of noble residences and of villages. This is where Klápštĕ's analysis begins in earnest. He takes the long view, freely crossing the traditional boundaries represented by the years 1197 and 1306, to show that all the changes that had previously been seen as the fruit of the thirteenth century colonization had older roots and did not lack native precedents. This is evident in his discussion of the rise of the nobility in the eighth century based on an extensive analysis of burials. The social stratification of the society continued, producing a hereditary nobility at the turn of the twelfth century and a landed aristocracy in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The author demonstrates that it was the efforts of noble families to protect, consolidate and increase their wealth that drove the transformation of their residences (from curia or curtis to castle), which in turn changed the layout and settlement of villages.

In Chapter 3, "The Frail Certainties of the Rural Milieu," the author turns to the question of the thirteenth-century colonization. It started, according to the author, as early as the sixth and seventh centuries with the settlement of the most fertile areas. He points to the efforts of the Přemyslid family and argues that they consciously conducted both external and internal colonization, seeing the potential of the land to support more people than currently lived there.

The Czech lands were not the only area under colonization, however: Klápštĕ opens with an example of a group of Hollandi (as they introduced themselves) led by the priest Henry, who, having traveled three hundred kilometers to the east, requested that Friedrich, archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, grant them permission to cultivate and make profitable the waterlogged soil in the area. In exchange for a small fee to be paid to the archbishop per unit of colonized land, the colonists were granted the land and also a degree of judicial autonomy. The priest Henry was responsible for putting the agreement into practice in exchange for a lifelong ownership of the newly founded churches. This was the model that came to be applied in the Czech lands as well. It was built around self-interest and profit, and involved several parties: a middleman, who vouched for the act of colonization in exchange for a clearly defined reward, and settlers, who received clearly outlined allotments of land in exchange for a set of prescribed obligations (usually hereditary holding of the land and a level of autonomy). The third party, the organizer (typically the sovereign, noble lord, monastery or group of burghers) benefited as well in exchange for their initiative and forward thinking. This system was referred to as the ius Teutonicum, and emerged from the mixing of the legal tradition brought by the colonists from the North Sea coast and local customs modified to suit the new environment. Klápštĕ argues, however, that the application of the ius Teutonicum was no proof of ethnicity, as it has traditionally been understood, and that it was limited, serving only "in a fraction of the number of villages located in the old settlement areas or in the areas being newly colonized" (270).

Klápštĕ's examples portray these colonization efforts as tightly controlled and highly managed enterprises, encapsulated by a book of legal regulations called Spegel der Sassen or Sachsenspiegel. Written between 1295 and 1365 in the German vernacular and applied to territories between the Netherlands and Ukraine, this legal text regulated various aspects of the everyday reality of colonization by offering rules for conflict prevention and resolution, including the quality of fences; the location of ovens, toilets and sheds; the prevention of water run-off; and even the orientation of windows (not facing in the direction of neighbors). The Sachsenspiegel "protected the property holding of the individual settlers and balanced them with the demands of the operation of the village community as a whole," (224-5) creating a new kind of organized community (224-5). Colonization brought about numerous changes in the law, technology and settlement patterns, decisively transforming village life. However, Klápštĕ argues that the seeds of this transformation were already present prior to the arrival of external colonists. The change came from within the native village structures.

Chapter 4, "The Long Journey to the Town," addresses the complicated path leading to the rise of urban centers. The author begins by discussing what he calls "rural specialists," that is, centers that had gradually over the course of the eighth and ninth centuries become independent of agriculture. The founding of towns, which intensified in the thirteenth century, was key to the region's development, comprising "a particularly distinctive component of the cultural Europeanization of this part of Europe" (324). Towns, Klápštĕ argues, did not arise in a vacuum, but brought with them a host of social, economic and cultural transformations: towns depended on vigorous market-exchange and production surplus in the countryside. They catered to the needs of the elite to display power and redistribute wealth.

In order to develop into towns, settlements needed to possess a measure of "centrality". Klápštĕ numbers eighteen such places, which he deems castle centers, in the early Přemyslid Bohemia. Some turned into bustling thirteenth century towns (such as Prague, Olomouc, Brno, Litomĕřice, Żatec and Hradec Králové) but other centers did not attain "national" importance. By 1300, all regions had become urbanized.

In chapter 5, "Change in Change," Klápštĕ synthesizes the discussions of the core three chapters (2, 3 and 4), and it is here that some of his interpretations are finally made explicit. He calls the thirteenth century the "century of changes" but insists that the Czech milieu did not passively receive inventions from the outside. Instead he offers a picture of dynamic exchange, a picture focusing on the situation on the ground, insisting that the colonization did not abruptly change domestic development, and thus had not been imposed arbitrarily from the outside. In many cases, the seeds of these transformations had been present, if only inchoate, long before the arrival of external settlers. Klápštĕ sees the thirteenth century as an "encounter of culturally different systems," which resulted in an "extensive acculturation mastery of a 'foreign' system of innovations" (463). But in the final verdict, the changes of the thirteenth century were "built on domestic pre-requisites" and were driven by the property interests of the landed aristocracy (466).

In spite of its many important contributions, this book is not for the faint of heart, or those easily tired by archeological minutiae. It is a long and difficult book, a mosaic of examples and details whose meaning the reader must labor to put together and decipher. The fact that this is a translation from the Czech original does not help. As this reviewer is well aware, every translator must straddle the line between staying close to the original text and offering high-quality idiom in the target language. Here the translators, Sean Mark Miller and Kateřina Millerová, chose to hew very closely to the original text, on many occasions following the Czech original almost verbatim, resulting in long, complicated sentences that stretch the possibilities of English and try the patience of the reader.

Nevertheless, the book is a very welcome addition to the growing body of medieval scholarship on the Czech lands in English. It is an impressive study that draws on written sources, archaeological findings and architectural monuments, and offers an important corrective to the prevailing view of Europe and Europeanization.

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Author Biography

Marcela K. Perett

European College of Liberal Arts