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15.10.47, Wolverton, Cosmas of Prague: Narrative, Classicism, Politics

The Medieval Review

15.10.47, Wolverton, Cosmas of Prague: Narrative, Classicism, Politics

The early twelfth-century Chronica Boemorum by Cosmas of Prague has languished for decades on the periphery of studies of medieval central Europe. Although mentioned and commonly cited, as a complete text it has received surprisingly little attention. Cosmas's work is the earliest Bohemian chronicle that provided a history for the Czech people, and its pages provide the earliest and sometimes only source for Bohemian legends and the political actions of the ruling Přemyslid dukes. Lisa Wolverton's work shines a fresh and revealing light on the chronicle. As part of her continuing scholarship on medieval Bohemia, she has produced an analysis that not only changes how we view the nature of this text and its significance to Czech history, but highlights the text as a unique source for demonstrating analyzing one author's interpretation of the nature of power and identity. Most refreshingly, this text argues against traditional interpretations of the text as pro-Přemyslid propaganda, and effectively reveals Cosmas's work as a critique of the burden the dukes had laid upon the Czech people. Wolverton has admirably dedicated significant time to this text, utilizing it extensively in her monograph Hastening towards Prague (2001); producing an English translation, The Chronicle of the Czechs (2009); and now this thorough analysis, which reveals the wealth of insight and disgust Cosmas had with eleventh and twelfth-century politics.

Wolverton begins her analysis through an opening chapter on Cosmas's craft as historian. Cosmas's process, in particular, remains enigmatic, as many of his possible inspirations and sources are simply unknown. He claims to have researched his topic and seems to have utilized oral tradition, charters, letters and also his own experience in assembling his chronical. He also references people and events that, at the time, may have had earlier documents or stood as common knowledge. He utilized a variety of recognizable models including Scripture, classical works, and the Carolingian chronicle of Regino. Although similarities abound, his work is highly original and significant on its own terms. As noteworthy as the texts he chose to utilize are the well-known hagiographic sources he chose to ignore, especially the vitae of Saints Wenceslas, Cyril, and Methodius that predate his own work. Wolverton argues that these choices were consciously made to support and construct the particular story Cosmas was telling. To address Saint Wenceslas in particular would have meant discussing the Dukes in conjunction with God's favor, whereas Cosmas's focus on Wenceslas's fratricidal brother highlights the brutality of the regime. In particular, his self-conscious choices as to which people and events get retold, highlights Cosmas's agenda as opposed to a mere retelling of facts (72-73).

Chapter 2 analyzes Cosmas's pessimism concerning political power which is a driving theme throughout the text. Cosmas's first book in the Chronicle offers myths and fables that not only creates a prehistoric tie between the Czech people and Bohemia, but also offers an idealistic and innocent past that is foolishly given up by the Czechs in favor of a powerful and masculine ruler. The Bohemian people, according to Cosmas, lived happily and freely relying solely on female judges to settle differences. They abandoned this system of matriarchy, despite clear warnings from the judge Libuše that they would be helpless against their male chosen ruler, the founder of the Přemyslid dynasty. Wolverton demonstrates how Cosmas based this origin for the Přemyslid dynasty in a way that combines both classical and biblical viewpoints on the decline of man and the nature of power. Cosmas borrowed from the classical themes of Ovid and Boethius, in showing the changing of the ages from the Golden Age of innocence to an age of iron and violence. The story also draws from Christian imagery of the Garden of Eden and the abandonment of the Judges of the Old Testament in favor of Samuel as King of the Israelites. Cosmas's fables clearly warn that the elevation of the plowman Přemysl to the role of leader has cost the Czechs their freedom, and initiated an age of iron, violence, and inequality.

Cosmas's description of the shift of power between female judges and male princes was not an arbitrary decision, but as Wolverton points out, this change reflects Cosmas's own view of politics as a primarily masculine and negative pastime. It is in fact the women of the Chronicle that offer the most straightforward criticism of the ruling dynasty, either through prophecy, supplication, shaming or even blatant insult and mockery (148-149). Wolverton argues in the third chapter that it is through the voice non-political of women that Cosmas not only interjects his own views but also serves as the voice and allegory of the church in Bohemia. For Cosmas, the often violent politics of the dynasty had a negative and damaging effect on the church of Bohemia. Wolverton in particular points out that Cosmas links the founding of the diocese to Bohemia's first nun Mlada rather than any action of the dynasty. Describing the formation of the diocese through the actions of a nun, rather than the ruler in particular cements Bohemia's church to Rome and ignores any dynastic patronage (153). Wolverton points out that women within the Chronicle cannot be considered an accurate reflection of the role of women in Bohemia, as their actions and voices are solely the creation of Cosmas in service to his ends.

It is within the fourth chapter that Wolverton discusses the high level of complexity within the Chronicle, as the narration is not always consistent for the reader. Rather than minimizing Cosmas's own inconsistencies, Wolverton admirably engages with segments of the Chronicle that in isolation appear to contradict her assertion of Cosmas's pessimism towards the dynasty. Within the text, Cosmas portrays the Přemyslids as both conquerors and conquered, defenders of the land and betrayers of its unity, tyrants and benevolent rulers. In particular, Wolverton works to consider singular events as part of Cosmas's larger purpose in writing, invoking the metaphor of a braid with multiple strands, she demonstrates how Cosmas assembles the broader narrative through individual events and personalities (172). Which when examined individually often give a significantly different appearance than when considered as part of the broader whole. Although the narrative is filled with complex people who choose both good and evil, Wolverton demonstrates how strands of foreign interference, internal foes, and civil strife all contribute to a corrupt and decrepit society (214).

Chapter five, "the Birth of a National History," examines the Chronicle's often taken-for-granted label as a "national history," and examines how Cosmas individually conceived of the Czech people, rather taking the text as a statement of national conscience. Throughout, Wolverton's text provides a careful textual analysis of how Cosmas constructed his view of the shared identity of the Czech people, pointing out Cosmas's emphasis on the integrity of the land of Bohemia itself. Cosmas gives his subjects no identity or history prior to their arrival in Bohemia, nor does he give them any communal name for the majority of early pages of the Chronicle. The residents of Bohemia have no defining features except the land they inhabit, thus uniting them solely to the land itself. Wolverton argues that creating the Bohemians as an almost blank slate allows Cosmas to isolate the history of the Czechs as separate from outsiders (233). Cosmas frequently ignores outside events and contacts that occur in the context of his chronicle and of which he was almost certainly aware. Well-known outside influences such as the existence of Moravia as a separate entity, the campaigns of Charlemagne and the submission of Bohemia to the German Empire--or even the arrival of Cyril and Methodius--are critical moments generally ignored at their proper chronological place in the narrative. Wolverton argues that Cosmas isolated the Czech history to tell a story of a people united and independent within their homeland, though the reality was certainly far different and obvious cracks in that narrative appear throughout (251). One of the cracks in the narrative of unity derives from the inescapable presence of Jews and Germanic peoples within Bohemia. Cosmas expresses displeasure within the Chronicle at the presence of both within Bohemia. Wolverton's view is that Cosmas saw both Bohemians and Moravians as united through a shared history that excluded Germans and Jews (264). It is quite clear to Wolverton that Cosmas's creation of a national history is his own expression of what constitutes the peoples of Bohemia. Historians should see the chronicle as an act of creation of identity, rather than applying Cosmas's ideals as evidence of real medieval Czech identity. This identity dates to the initial settling of Bohemia, but also predates and supersedes the destructive rule of the Přemyslids.

Working with a text of such length as the three separate books of the Chronicle of the Czechs poses remarkable challenges. In maintaining her focus on the thematic whole of the text, Wolverton is by nature forced to pick and choose the examples which best express her argument. This is especially challenging in the absence of the text in translation. She dedicates substantial space to excerpts from the text that help situate her reader, but due to the thematic nature of the text, the reader unfamiliar with the chronicle itself may find the dramatic shifts forwards and backwards in the chronology jarring. In particular, segments that revisit the prophecies of Libuše or the destruction of the Vršovici family become rather repetitive despite the necessity of revisiting the example in different contexts. Wolverton provides a genealogy to help track the often similar Přemyslid names, but maintaining chronological awareness within the text is challenge unto itself. Many readers may find it especially beneficial to familiarize themselves with the Chronicle of the Czechs prior to reading Wolverton's analysis.

In conclusion, Lisa Wolverton has made a much needed contribution to medieval central European studies, with a text that should find a significant spot in the wider historiographic discussion concerning the creation of identity in the Middle Ages. This text should also find a place among courses for upper level and graduate students, as Wolverton's examination of the Chronicle serves as an outstanding example and case study for how scholars can approach issues such as politics, gender, and identity within medieval texts.