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13.11.10, Wihoda, Die Sizilischen Goldenen Bullen von 1212

13.11.10, Wihoda, Die Sizilischen Goldenen Bullen von 1212

This book was originally published in Czech in 2005. Because of its topic and the debates it sparked among Czech historians, it soon came to the attention of scholars working in Germany, one of whom proposed translating it into German. The Regesta Imperii research group, following up on this suggestion, agreed to publish this revised and translated version in its monograph series of medieval imperial and papal history. If medieval Czech history and the history of the Staufen empire were popular topics among Anglophone medievalists, I would be tempted to suggest an English translation as well, for this is an excellent piece of scholarship. Unfortunately, I fear it would find a limited audience in these days when the Mediterranean, not Central Europe, is considered the font of medieval multi-culturalism.

What Wihoda does in this book is deceptively simple. His starting point is a group of three charters issued by Frederick II in Basel (modern Switzerland) in the year 1212, when the young Staufen ruler was traveling from Sicily to the German kingdom for the first time. Wihoda attempts to unpack the significance of these privileges by applying a broad range of historical techniques to their analysis. He has chosen these three charters for a specific reason. Czech scholars of the twentieth century identified these privileges--two issued for King Přemysl Ottokar I of Bohemia and the third for Margrave Vladislav Henry of Moravia--as crucial pieces of evidence for the medieval origins of the Czech "State." Heightening their presumed significance is the fact that all three were sealed with golden bulls. Thus, already in the mid-nineteenth century, some patriotic Czech authors saw the issuing of these charters as the moment when Bohemia became independent from the German Empire. Wihoda observes very early in this book that there is a fundamental problem with this theory--namely the fact that these three charters seem to have been completely forgotten by everyone involved soon after they were issued! Almost 150 years later in 1348, they resurfaced briefly during the reign of the Bohemian king and future Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. However, they then vanish almost completely from the historical record again. In other words, nineteenth- and twentieth-century Czech nationalists considered these privileges to be much more significant than previous generations ever did. It is this gulf between medieval reception and modern remembrance that Wihoda seeks to understand in this book.

Over the course of seven chapters, Wihoda analyzes these three charters within their historical context and also explores their historiographical afterlife. In an appendix, he helpfully includes editions of the charters as well. The first chapter sets the scene by providing an excellent overview of King Přemysl Ottokar I of Bohemia's role in imperial politics during the tumultuous years between 1197 and 1212. In Chapter 2, Wihoda summarizes the modern historiography concerning the charters, highlighting the role these documents played in nationalist historical narratives. Here, Wihoda demonstrates his familiarity with both Czech and German scholarship as he carefully reconstructs the debates about these charters, which stretch back into the nineteenth century. While this chapter is somewhat dense in places, Wihoda keeps the discussion flowing at a good pace and punctuates his overview with the occasional eyebrow-raising observation--such as his laconic statement, "The second half of the 1930s was not the most opportune time for a level-headed exchange of opinions" between Czech and German scholars (56). Wihoda closes this chapter by explaining that, despite the decades-old debates surrounding these texts, there have been remarkably few attempts to analyze them within the framework of the history of the early thirteenth century.

Chapter 3 opens with a diplomatic analysis of the three charters. The problems interpreting these texts quickly become clear from such an approach. For example, the otherwise unknown scribe identifies himself in all three as Henry "de Parisius," but it is impossible to know if he means Paris, or someplace else, and if he traveled with Frederick II from Sicily or was living near Basel at the time. For Wihoda, these are significant issues, because they raise the question of whether or not the scribe had any familiarity with Bohemian affairs and Bohemian geography when he wrote these texts. All three privileges were presumably based on drafts, but where these drafts originated is unknown. Indeed, as Wihoda goes on to explain as he reconstructs the events of 1212, it is not clear if anyone present understood the content! Frederick II was a teenager crossing the Alps for the first time and probably knew little if anything about Bohemia and Moravia's connections to the empire--or about the various castles and other places named in the charters. Nor did any of the witnesses, who were all from Italy or the neighborhood of Basel, have any obvious links to Bohemia. Thus, Wihoda shows here that asking a series of basic historical questions about the scribe and the witnesses complicates any interpretation of these charters. Considering the backgrounds of the people present in Basel in 1212, it is hard to imagine that anyone at the time expected these texts to have long-term constitutional significance for the Holy Roman Empire or the Czech lands.

In the next two chapters, Wihoda essentially works through the three privileges sentence by sentence in order to understand what each passage meant within its original 1212 context. Chapter 4 focuses on the two charters for King Přemysl Ottokar I and considers, for example, how they fit within the broader trajectory of Bohemian-imperial relations from the eleventh century onwards. Thus, one of the central themes of this chapter is Bohemian kingship and the complicated question of what roles the emperors and the Czech magnates played in its establishment prior to 1212. Chapter 5 concerns the charter for Margrave Vladislav Henry of Moravia. This chapter is entitled "Mocran et Mocran" after the most cryptic phrase in any of the three privileges. Regardless of whether this phrase is meant to be Latin, German or Czech, it is unintelligible today and has therefore vexed scholars. While Wihoda is unable to offer a definitive solution to this problem, he nevertheless carefully analyzes the text as a whole within the context of the relationship between Margrave Vladislav Henry and his brother King Přemysl Ottokar I. In the process, he gives his readers a broad range of insights into the intertwined histories of Bohemia, Moravia and the Empire.

In Chapter 6, Wihoda once again extends the story forward and explores the reception of these privileges during the later medieval period, after the year 1212. The almost complete lack of references to the texts in later medieval sources is truly remarkable. Even during Frederick II’s later reign as German king and emperor, there is no evidence that these charters impacted his relationship with the Přemyslids in any way. In Chapter 7, which functions as a brief conclusion, Wihoda returns to the modern period in order to tie his story together and remind his readers how significant the privileges have been in more recent Czech historiography.

As Wihoda concedes in this closing chapter, his book does not offer definitive conclusions about the three privileges of 1212; there are too many difficulties in interpreting these sources to explain everything about them with certainty (258). As a result, this book is best described as a masterful piece of deconstruction. It casts doubt on every previous interpretation of these privileges by reading the texts carefully in their historical context. But in the process, Wihoda is unable in most places to offer anything more than a new set of theories and interpretations. Indeed, at times this process of deconstruction is frustrating for the reader, because Wihoda dedicates significant space to attacking other Czech scholars and their theories. Some sections of this book were clearly not written with a broader audience in mind, and I suspect many readers will not be interested in the infighting of Czech historians. Nevertheless, this book is an excellent piece of scholarship and an important reminder of how historians should work with their sources. For historians interested more specifically in the history of the Holy Roman Empire and the Czech lands in the central Middle Ages, Wihoda’s work also offers a broad range of nuanced observations about court politics and political culture. In short, scholars who cannot read Czech should be grateful that this important work is now available in German.