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13.10.28, Van Dussen, From England to Bohemia

13.10.28, Van Dussen, From England to Bohemia

After decades of separation during the Cold War, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 opened anew the lines of communication between Anglophone and Slavic scholars. The ability to consult archives that had previously been very difficult for outsiders to access made it possible to investigate the history of extraordinarily rich cultural exchange between English and Czech communities in the Later Middle Ages. Michael Van Dussen's study, From England to Bohemia: Heresy and Communication in the Later Middle Ages, represents the first book-length work to examine cultural and religious exchange between these two regions after 1382. At the heart of Van Dussen's book, he argues that political alliances between the Ricardians and the early Lancastrians, on the one hand, and Bohemian forces (which at the time, represented the core of the Holy Roman Empire), on the other, brought a wide array of English texts into broader circulation on the continent. As a result, English responses to domestic heresy, in the form of Wycliffism or Lollardy, were drawn into the realm of international politics. Van Dussen shows that although the cultural exchange between the two regions was not limited to heterodox forms of communication, the transmission of such texts from England to Bohemia in the Later Middle Ages was the most important and vibrant part of this exchange.

The title of the book indicates the predominant thrust of the communication Van Dussen details in his study. Transmission seemed to occur mainly from England to Bohemia. This fact is particularly interesting when paired with the author's assessment of England's lack of prominence as a center of manuscript production in the Later Middle Ages. Indeed, Van Dussen explains that book production in the Holy Roman Empire between 1411 and 1415 was nearly six times as great as that within England (2). England might not have been a vibrant center for manuscript production, but it was a center for ideas that had cultural currency within Bohemia. Although such communication was not restricted to heterodox modes alone, that cultural currency existed particularly among Bohemian reformists.

Van Dussen's book is brief yet dense: five chapters and an afterword in 128 pages. The ground he covers is substantial. Van Dussen asserts that scholars need a new model for understanding cultural transmissions in the Later Middle Ages before the development of print, and points to some of the challenges facing scholars in this field: communication through ad hoc means, unstable documentary forms, and seemingly random compilation of texts (6). After the great church councils of the fifteenth century, however, these factors no longer played such an instrumental role, and the transmission of texts became more centralized. Van Dussen's assessment of the modes of cultural transmission in play between England and Bohemia will aid scholars in the field of medieval textual transmission to develop such a model for cultural exchange before the advent of print technologies, just as it will be of interest more generally to a wide range of other scholars of the medieval and early modern eras.

In Chapter 1, "'The Occasion of Queene Anne,'" Van Dussen sets the stage for the cultural exchange that would develop as a result of the marriage of Anne of Bohemia with King Richard II of England in 1382 by examining the symbolic availability of the queen after her death in 1394 to demonstrate how the figure of the queen aided the development of communication between the two countries. Here, Van Dussen seeks to refine or complicate, rather than counter, the standard narrative regarding Queen Anne's role in fostering communication between her native country and her adopted one. The traditional narrative explains that Wycliffites came into contact with Hussites as a result of Anne's presence in England, a view that seriously underestimates and limits the scope of communication between England and Bohemia (13). Cultural exchange between Wycliffites and Hussites did not happen at once, and although it formed an important part of communication between England and Bohemia, it did not form its entirety. Van Dussen sorts through sixteenth-century Protestant narratives in which Anne became the link between the 'true Church' in England and in Bohemia, but he has found no direct evidence for a link between the English queen and heterodox communities in either location. Nevertheless, Queen Anne's symbolic availability meant that she could be appropriated by both reformists and orthodox Catholics alike. The most fascinating part of this chapter is Van Dussen's analysis of a newly-discovered travel itinerary composed by a Bohemian visitor to England about a decade after the queen's death. In his private notebook, the Bohemian traveler recorded his observations during his journey, including a detailed description of the city of London. Within the notebook, the traveler recorded a number of English verse eulogies composed in honor of Queen Anne, none of which survive in England today. The manuscript bears witness to the ad hoc manner in which texts traveled between regions in this period, dependent in part upon the personal interest of those recording or carrying manuscripts from place to place.

In Chapter 2, "Common Ground: Richard Rolle at the edges of orthodoxy in England and Bohemia," Van Dussen uses information from the Bohemian traveler's manuscript to open up the discussion of Anglo-Bohemian cultural exchange to subjects beyond heterodox communication. Here, the author first traces the earliest, pre-Hussite, non-Wycliffite transmission of the writings of the English hermit, Richard Rolle, from England to Bohemia in order to show how important Rome and curial connections were in facilitating such textual transmission. Then he accounts for the diversity of Rolle's readers in Bohemia: what drew readers from disparate backgrounds to Rolle's work? Van Dussen demonstrates that "there was more common ground than we often recognize between otherwise antagonistic groups when it came to certain elements of devotion" (39). In other words, both reformists and orthodox Catholics found something compelling in Rolle's writings. Although English Lollards, with their rejection of the secluded life of monks, might seem unlikely to have been interested in Rolle's work, the English hermit combined emphases on contemplation and pastoral care in his writings, making the connection more understandable. Likewise, Lollard versions of the Ancrene Riwle bear witness not to the devotion of Lollards to the anchoritic life, but instead speak to their interest in anchoritic forms of religious devotion. Influence went the other way, too: some Lollard texts were read in orthodox circles; such authorship did not mean that a text was, in itself, heretical. In a sense, the distinction between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, or as Van Dussen puts it, "the use of such terms in any unequivocal sense," was fluid in nature (54). This blurred distinction would have facilitated the transmission of texts such as the writings of Richard Rolle. The examples in this chapter reinforce the critical point that the actors involved in the transmission of texts should not necessarily be associated as sympathetic to a heretical cause.

How did Wycliffite texts and objects arrive in Bohemia, and how were they received once they did arrive? In Chapter 3, perhaps the most engaging chapter of the book, "Conveying Heresy: texts, tidings, and the formation of a Lollard-Hussite fellowship," Van Dussen reveals the way Jan Hus and his associates fostered a warm reception for Wycliffite cultural exchange in Prague. Such communication became linked to the idea of Wyclif himself, so that even posthumously, contact with accessible materials, such as sermons, translations, and even physical objects, nurtured a popular Wycliffite following outside of England. The well-documented travels and actions of one Bohemian student, Mikuláš Faulfiš, provide insight into the Lollard-Hussite connection. Van Dussen demonstrates that couriers--who were often students--traveled between England and Bohemia regularly in the Later Middle Ages. Faulfiš carried materials from England back to Prague on more than one occasion. On one of these journeys, Faulfiš transported three of Wyclif's works, making him an important figure in the cultural exchange between the two regions in the early fifteenth century. But the Lollard-Hussite connection involved more than the mere transmission of texts; the correspondence between Lollards and Hussites fostered a sense of community that made Wyclif's doctrines accessible to a wider Bohemian audience and created a welcoming environment where these doctrines were nurtured in the period before the Council of Constance. As a result, when Wyclif's books were burned in 1410, as Van Dussen describes at the beginning of the chapter, the wider community felt connected not just to Wyclif's doctrine, but also to the deceased man himself as well as to his living followers in England (65).

In Chapter 4, "'Ad regna et loca extranea': diplomacy against heresy, 1411-1416," Van Dussen argues that efforts to police communication networks before the Council of Constance focused as much on controlling authenticating signs and textual forms as it did on combatting heretical doctrines and sedition (87). Before Constance, heresy was not a major concern for Anglo-Imperial missions, although heresy and diplomacy were woven throughout those interactions. By the time of Constance however, Wycliffite heresy had become a source of embarrassment and concern because it threatened the English reputation for orthodoxy. The Council of Constance became the primary venue for the defense of this reputation. The decentralized nature of Late Medieval communication networks made it difficult for England to mount an effective defense against the exchange of Wycliffite texts until the Council of Constance, at which the English were able to "[gain] narrative control over Lollard-Hussite communication channels by gathering information and circulating official reports of English anti-heresy efforts" (87). With this fact in mind, Chapter 4 examines a letter purportedly written and circulated about Wyclif that contained the assertion that he should be recognized as a saint. The letter appeared to carry the approval of the chancellor of Oxford, because it bore his seal--a contemporary means of authenticating a document and the ideas it contained. To counter the purported authenticity of this letter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, attempted to characterize the document as a rumor, as something unreliable. Another source claimed that the Oxford seal had been stolen. Whether or not the document was a forgery, studying this letter reveals something important about the documentary culture of the time, namely the critical role played by the seal as a sign of authority. Jan Hus was familiar with the letter about Wyclif's sanctity, because two students had conveyed it to him in Prague. Because authenticating signs could be falsely appended to documents, in order to battle against Wyclif, the English had to develop tighter control over the channels of communication (102). The English response abroad to the case of the Oxford letter did not represent an isolated phenomenon; Van Dussen provides another example to build his case. Diplomatic relations between England and the Holy Roman Empire in the years before the Council of Constance eventually led the English to respond at the Council of Constance to Anglo-Bohemian heterodox communications by developing policies against heresy and heretical communication that extended beyond England's borders. Diplomatic missions were another means for the English to convey their efforts at controlling heresy and limit the passage of documents and rumors regarding persecution of heresy within the country (111).

During the Great Schism, communication and cultural exchange developed between England and Bohemia. As Van Dussen explains in Chapter 5, "The Aftermath: Bohemia in English religious polemic before Foxe," concerns over heresy quickly led to restrictions on such communication channels. Although the majority of texts in this period moved from England to Bohemia, the results of such open communication had a profound influence on England. Before the Council of Constance in 1414-1418, English interest in Bohemia was largely confined to Anne of Bohemia and her court. There were some concerns about the spread of Wycliffite thought damaging England's reputation for orthodoxy, but not until the Council of Constance did English attention really shift to events within Bohemia that seemed to have resulted from heterodox cultural transmissions from England. Van Dussen writes, "By the sixteenth century, 'Bohemia' had become synonymous with sedition and unchecked revolt in the context of English religious polemic" (113). Secular and ecclesiastical leaders became concerned about the potential for revolution in England when they heard of ongoing revolution in Bohemia. And yet by the end of the sixteenth century, after the creation of a national church in England by King Henry VIII, some English commentators examined the Bohemian situation with a new goal in mind: legitimization of the new national church. In this chapter, then, Van Dussen argues for the continued, although evolving, use of Bohemia within English religious polemic.

With this book, Michael Van Dussen tells the story of the development of complex communication networks between England and Bohemia during the time of the Western Schism. That story, as Van Dussen has demonstrated, did not originate with Wycliffite communication with Bohemian Hussites, although eventually that channel of communication would become the most important part of cultural exchange between the two regions. His assessment of the development of communication channels after 1382 shows how decentralized English communication with Bohemia really was before the Council of Constance. After the Council, however, England developed a centralized response to heterodox texts and sought to police their transmission more effectively.

Van Dussen's study is a fascinating examination of the transmission of texts and cultural exchange between England and Bohemia in the Later Middle Ages, with each chapter presenting a different piece of the picture outlined in the introduction. In the afterword, the author brings the pieces together once again, something that drives home his main points and helps to bring together the multiple strands of his argument, since the book's argument does not flow in a single narrative, but rather in multiple narratives that examine multiple examples of cultural exchange between England and Bohemia. In two useful appendices to the book, Van Dussen provides editions and translations of several key texts, some of which Van Dussen has been the first to study. Since so few scholars have worked on Bohemian history in recent years, and since such study posed a serious challenge until the late twentieth century for linguistic as well as political reasons, many of Van Dussen's readers would likely appreciate additional background in the details of Bohemian history, the knowledge of which the author assumes his audience will have. Be that as it may, Van Dussen has written an engaging and useful book that illuminates much about later medieval networks of communication.