17.01.06, Grant, For the Common Good

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Marcela Perett

The Medieval Review 17.01.06

Grant, Jeanne E. For the Common Good: The Bohemian Land Law and the Beginning of the Hussite Revolution. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450, 28. Leiden: Brill, 2015. pp. ix, 432. ISBN: 978-90-04-28289-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Marcela Perett
North Dakota State University

Jeanne Grant's For the Common Good: The Bohemian Land Law and the Beginning of the Hussite Revolution opens by posing the question central to the study, "how did the Hussite Bohemian nobles justify their rejection of the hereditary heir to the Bohemian throne, King Sigismund of Hungary" (vii)? A little context is needed here: although most narratives of the Hussite Revolution in Bohemia focus on events in the religious sphere, these events also had political implications. One such implication was the decision on the part of the realm's nobles not to elect Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary, to the Bohemian throne emptied by the death of his brother Václav in 1419. Whereas Václav seemed a lukewarm though fitful supporter of religious reform in the capital (allowing, for example, for communion to be administered under both kinds in a handful of Prague's churches), Sigismund detested the reform efforts. Instead of supporting them like his late brother, he partnered with the councilmen in session in Constance and the pope to threaten Bohemia with a crusade. After a furtive coronation, Sigismund attempted to take the throne by force and invaded Prague later that year. A joint action by the moderate and radical reform parties repelled the attack, rejected Sigismund's claim to the throne, ushering in a period of without a king that lasted almost twenty years, until 1436 when the moderate Utraquists in Prague won a grudging toleration for their ritual practice from the Council of Basel.

The question to be answered, then, is this: in rejecting Sigismund's claim to the throne of Bohemia, did the Bohemian nobles overstep the roles granted to them by their contemporary legal and political framework? And if not, in what way did their decision conform to legal precedent? Grant does not see the nobles' rejection of Sigismund as outside of all acceptable actions available to them under the law. In fact, she insists--and this is the book's thesis--that when understood in the context of the political and legal ideas current in their time and milieu, the nobles' actions did not constitute a transgression of any contemporary legal norm.

In the first chapter, the author considers the larger context, that is to say medieval conceptions of insurrection and of authority especially as they pertain to ideas and expectations about kingship. Grant immerses herself in works by well-known medieval political theorists, such as Giles of Rome and Aquinas, concluding that "people rejected their king when he failed to live up to their expectations" (11). People rejected their king when he failed, in his role as God's representative on earth, to be honest, merciful, just, and--this would become key to Grant's argument about Sigismund--protective of his community. Grant also finds that kings could be rejected on the basis of religion, in cases of heresy or accusations thereof. But Grant prioritizes the political and legal background of the fateful decision, focusing her study almost exclusively on higher nobility, "the only group who had a long history of interactions with the king and who had continued to wield great influence over events" (21).

In chapter 2, the author turns her focus to European and Bohemian legal history, and discusses various types of law. She opens the chapter with a discussion of Sigismund. Just after his coronation on July 28, 1420, Sigismund absconded with all land records, rendering the land court unable to function. His intention, according to Grant, was not to overturn the law but to preserve it, to protect the law from the reforming rabble-rousers, including members of high nobility. But in doing so, were Sigismund's actions contrary to law in Bohemia, in which case the nobles might have been justified in repudiating him, or did the nobles' rejection of Sigismund constitute a breach of the law? This is an important question to Grant. Her answer is set amidst a discussion of revolutions and other kinds of legal disruptions, which are assumed to undermine law. But the author asks, what if the revolutionaries are not the ones to interrupt the law, what if the law provided the reason for the revolt (27)? She concludes by absolving the nobles from any accusation of illegal conduct, saying that "nobles did not do anything revolutionary," acting only in defense of the land. This argument only works in the localized context of Bohemia, a kingdom, where the source of law was the community, not the lawmaker, that is to say, the king, and where the noble class saw themselves as duty-bound to serve the common good, which meant upholding the law. The king was unnecessary to this operation; his absence--though perhaps regrettable--changed nothing about the nobility's understanding of the law and of their duties.

In chapter 3, the author turns to the Bohemian Land Law (Práva zemská česká), which would serve as the legal basis for the nobility's rejection of Sigismund. Written between 1394 and 1412, the Bohemian Land Law was codified during an especially tumultuous period in late 1400s, a time when a group of high nobility united themselves against the then king, Václav IV, in an effort to increase their political power. In many regards, they succeeded in increasing their authority at the expense of the king, which struggle, Grant suggests, pre-figured the power dynamic and its upheavals during the Hussite revolution. The law book was a reaction to the unrest and lack of order, meant to provide a legal basis for establishing and maintaining peace and order in the realm. Grant analyzes it not for instances of individual law norms but seeks to uncover its "mentality," its code in order to understand "the Czech nobility's understanding of what was within the realm of the possible for their position of power and their expectations about their position(s)" (63). Its author, Ondřej of Dubá, professed that his intention to compile a lawbook was to ensure "the preservation of the good of the land, that is the common good" (63). Grant finds this sentiment to be confirmed in the provisions of the different legal articles. What is more, she finds that the author had equated Czech land (země) with Czech crown (koruna). In this scenario, the highest court of the land (as well as the land's law) were then seen as "the preserver of the land" and "the voice for the kingdom" (69). In placing the king at the top of the chain of authority, Ondřej of Dubá does not deviate from medieval custom but, in an attempt to create a system of checks and balances, he also specified that all royal authority flowed from the noble estates. This analysis supports Grant's central contention that the Bohemian nobles acted within the realm of their legal possibilities when they repudiated Sigismund.

In chapter 4, Grant turns to the documents composed by the nobles in rejection of Sigismund. She first looks at the document produced at a meeting (that some, including Grant, describe as a Diet) convened after Václav's death in August 1419, analyzing the demands that it placed on the new king-to-be. They included freedom of the chalice as well as demands regarding governance and preference for Czech-speaking inhabitants of the realm. Grant's discussion is at its most interesting when she shows the ways in which the noble authors manipulated the actual provisions of the land book in order to get what they wanted. Some of the demands seem to have been entirely manufactured, but Grant argues that their "demands do not breach the roles of governance found in the lawbook and thus demonstrate continuity" (81). Minimizing the extent of the nobility's break with tradition serves Grant's argument about essential continuity of what the nobles requested and is, therefore, not always entirely persuasive. The Hussite manifestos as well as other non-legal compositions written between 1419 and 1421 especially cast a shadow of doubt on Grant's argumentation. These compositions criticize Sigismund, which makes sense, but many also satirize him mercilessly. Grant does not address the role of satire in these compositions, which is a pity. To this reviewer, the satirical treatment that Sigismund receives suggests that the nobles knew full well that their decision at the Diet at Čáslav had stretched the legal precedent. To put it differently, had the nobles acted entirely within their legal brief, it seems that there would have been little need for satire.

In chapter 5, Grant explores the rejection of Sigismund in greater detail, specifically the nobles' "complaints" against Sigismund. They are not dissimilar to what she finds in the manifestos and other compositions, listed on page 123. Each of the articles bespeaks some kind of an injury done to the Czechs and to the kingdom. "The perceived harm done to the Czechs is described interchangeably "to the entire Czech people," or only "the Czech people [language]," "to the Czech kingdom," or simply "the Czech shame." The crown is doing the complaining both in the compositions and in the articles, rebuking Sigismund and describing him as unworthy. This, in turn, suggests that it is seen as having special authority with the king and the law accountable to it. However, there is a catch, Grant argues. This authority is only valid if exercised "in the name of common good of the land" (126) and in accordance with "freedoms and laws" (129). And so for the sake of that same common good, Sigismund was disinherited from the throne. Grant assures her readers that the "intent behind the documents is to re-institute or preserve tradition..." (130). In other words, the nobles do not wish to propose a new way of thinking about authority in the kingdom, or, in the very least, do not want to seem as proposing a new way of thinking about authority in the kingdom. This seems to be a potentially important distinction, between what the nobles wanted us to think they were doing (acting well within the legal precedent) and what they were actually doing (re-inventing the legal precedent to suit a chosen course of action), and one that Grant does not address leaving the nobles seem somewhat one dimensional.

Grant, however, limits herself to understanding whether or not the Bohemian nobles broke with their legal precedent. This is a very specific question, to be sure, but not one without larger interpretative repercussions. If we understand the nobles' rejection of Sigismund as outside of all acceptable actions, we tend to consider it and what followed as different and separate from the fifteenth century norm. Such an understanding leads us directly to František Šmahel, an eminent Czech historian of the Hussite movement, who influentially described the Hussite revolution as an "aberration" in late medieval history. Having surveyed the context, Grant concludes that the nobles' decision to reject Sigismund to be their king was well within their rights. By understanding the action of the nobles not in any extraordinary light but within the parameters of late medieval law, she demolishes Šmahel's "aberration" thesis. This is very important. As the author puts it, "seeing the Hussite Revolution as a crisis can lead to seeing its causes or its foundations as in crisis too" (18). And that in turn helps support a gloomy picture of the late medieval period, filled with decline, crises, and extraordinary events, a long-standing narrative that is sorely in need of more nuance.

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