18.01.04, Antonín, The Ideal Ruler in Medieval Bohemia

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Marian Coman

The Medieval Review 18.01.04

Antonín, Robert. The Ideal Ruler in Medieval Bohemia. East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450, 44. Leiden:Beill, 2017. pp. xiii, 400. ISBN: 978-90-04-27928-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Marian Coman
University of Bucharest

Dignitas non moritur is the underlying concept of Robert Antonín's analysis of the ideal ruler in medieval Bohemia, as Ernst Kantorowicz's ideas of political transcendence loom largely in the background of this book. The ideal ruler that Antonín tries to uncover, drawing on several theoretical approaches and scrutinizing an impressive array of sources, is a phoenix-like creature. Its substance is made of the Augustinian, Isidorian and Thomist ideas of kingship, which took on a new life in medieval Bohemia. Placed in the realm of the imaginary, the ideal prince had a direct influence on actual Bohemian society, as he set up a model for each duke or king to fulfil or to be measured against. Antonín's analytical scope is highly ambitious, as it encompasses five centuries, from the tenth to the early fifteenth century, and it includes all written and visual sources relevant to the study of kingship in the Czech lands. The aim, as defined by the author himself, is to reconstruct "the ideal of sovereign power as a cultural-anthropological category" through "a systematic comparison of various types of sources pertaining to the Middle Ages in the Czech lands" (65).

The book is structured in nine chapters, combining several case studies with broader analyses. Instead of a systematic chronological narrative, Robert Antonín prefers a thematic approach. The first chapter is an overview of the concept of the ideal prince in Latin medieval West, from Late Antiquity to the fifteenth century. At the core of this concept Antonín identifies the unchanging principles of an Augustinian-Thomist tradition. Not even the major changes driven by the transpersonal notion of an immortal kingship seem to have altered this model significantly. In the everlasting debate between the historians of change and those of continuity, Robert Antonín unambiguously sides with the latter. Inevitably, he tends to emphasise similarity and to neglect difference. His key idea of a common Augustinian-Thomist conception of kingship is liable to criticism, as most twentieth-century interpreters rather stressed the difference between the darker political theology of the bishop of Hippo and the more positive, Aristotelian one of the Dominican father. [1] Antonín's approach, while sometimes oversimplified, does not affect his overall analysis, as he carefully emphasises that his aim is not to provide a clear-cut interpretation, but rather "to approach the ideal ruler as both a cultural and a literary archetype, within a network of meanings" (40).

The second chapter lays the ground for the book, familiarizing the reader with the different genres of the Bohemian medieval sources. Antonín's over-encompassing project, a truly imposing one, takes into account princely mirrors, treatises on virtues, moralizing allegories, court-advice literature, chronicles, hagiographic sources, chivalric romances and the arengas of Bohemian charters. The visual sources, such as princely iconography on coins, seals, votive panels, tombstones or illuminations, are also considered, and the 71 figures that lavishly illustrate this volume exemplify the richness of this material. Antonín's book is an impressive tour de force by any standard, and all historians of medieval kingship will find something of interest. By introducing English-reading scholars to the lesser known Bohemian case study, Robert Antonín fulfils the aim of this Brill series, of expanding the academic frontiers of medieval Europe. Scholars of Carolingian, Ottonian, Capetian or Plantagenet kingship, to name just a few of Antonín's comparative references, will find themselves at home in medieval Bohemia, coming across familiar authorities, well-known examples and easily recognizable quotations. For Antonín, the medieval Bohemian ideal ruler is a local variant of a widespread European model.

The chapter on legitimacy, the third of the book, examines the idea of the directly divine origin of the ducal and royal power and its various expressions in medieval Bohemia. Once again, the accent falls on continuity, as the same political-theological ideas come up in the different versions of the life of St. Wenceslas, in Cosmas of Prague's chronicle, in the coronation books, in the dukes' and kings' intitulatio, in the Czech Alexander romance or in the texts written at Charles IV's court. Robert Antonín's choice of examples is highly persuasive, as he convincingly argues that neither the transformation of the ducal power into a royal one, nor the change of dynasty from the Přemyslids to the Luxembourgs, significantly changed the legitimizing strategies of the Bohemian rulers. Throughout his analysis, he carefully dissects the intricate blending of the two apparently contradictory principles of dynastic blood and of election. He concludes that only Charles IV's court chroniclers, such as Přibík Pulkava, began to emphasize the dynastic right and to play down the elective principle. However, while focusing on the primary sources, Antonín tends to neglect other scholars' contributions to the same debate, even those published in the same series. One might have expected a more engaging discussion with David Kalhous' revisionist interpretation on the early Přemyslid Bohemia, which receives only a neutral mention in a footnote. [2] Likewise, Kalhous' book on the historiographical controversies over Legenda Christiani is ignored, as Antonín refuses, rather conveniently, to engage in the debate on its dating. [3]

In other words, Antonín's reading of the primary sources is compelling, but unfortunately is not supplemented by a comprehensive and comprehensible self-positioning in the scholarly field. For instance, his interpretation of the successive rewritings of the life of St. Wenceslas as a gradual transformation from "Wenceslas-the-defender into Wenceslas-the-perpetual-ruler" (115), illustrated by the symbolism of the Bohemian crown, is carefully constructed. On the other hand, his analysis of Charles's official veneration of St. Wenceslas should have considered Iva Rosario's book on art and propaganda, especially as she examines some of the same works of art (e.g. Karlštein castle, St. Wenceslas chapel), looking for the same representations of the ideal ruler (e.g. the legitimate monarch, the priestly monarch or the just ruler). [4] Moreover, Rosario's suggestion that Charles placed a greater emphasis on St. Vitus rather than on St. Wenceslas seems to contradict Antonín's own interpretation. [5]

The chapter on the ancient and biblical models of kingship is one of the most insightful in the book. Not incidentally, this is the only one in which Antonín highlights change rather than continuity. Cosmas of Prague's recurrent association with ancient Greek characters contrasts starkly with his continuators' approach, which favoured exclusively Biblical parallels. Antonín's suggestion that some models seem to have been more appropriate for chronicles, while others were more suitable to annals (150), is worth further consideration. Similarly, his astute comments on the restriction of biblical and ancient models to specific genres during Charles IV's reign reveal an intimate knowledge of the sources. On the downside, his bibliography is slightly outdated, as he fails to take into account Marie Bláhová's 2014 article when discussing the genealogies of the Luxembourg kings. [6]

The thematic analysis and the diachronic perspective are best balanced in the chapter on the Bohemian rulers and the seven virtues. By focusing on four case studies, Saint Wenceslas, Břetislav I, Vratislav II and Přemysl Otakar II, Antonín pinpoints the successive metamorphoses of each ruler. The template of the seven virtues is surprisingly loose and, by mixing them in a different way, the Bohemian chroniclers are able to constantly rewrite the past, even to the point of turning the portrait of a certain ruler upside down. Thus, just by leaving out wisdom, Přibík Pulkava ruins the harmony of Přemysl Otakar II's cardinal and theological virtues. The close scrutiny of the moral portraits of the Bohemian princes is complemented by a discussion on virtue in the Fürstenspiegel texts, mostly based on two fourteenth-century treatises, the Czech translation of John of Wales's Breviloquium de virtutibus antiquorum principum and Michael the Carthusian of Prague's De quatuor virtutibus cardinalibus pro eruditione principum. The connection between the two texts and the influence they exerted over the Bohemian royal court are convincingly argued. However, Antonín fails to clarify if the Czech version of John of Wales's treatise is different in intent and purpose to the thirteenth-century Latin original. [7]

The seventh chapter focuses on the transformation of the Bohemian ideal prince under the influence of the chivalric ideal. Once again Antonín highlights continuity--"one needs to bear in mind that was essentially nothing new" (211)--even suggesting a rather convoluted causal chain: "along with chivalric culture, then, the nobility also accepted the ideal of sovereign power, whose essence was contained already in the ideal of chivalry" (210). [8] The analysis of the miles rex image in the sources is gripping, as Robert Antonín certainly has a skill in finding the most suggestive episodes, taken from Cosmas's chronicle or from the Czech Alexandreis.

The core of the volume is to be found in the last two chapters, "Sovereign and Society: Several Faces of Cultural Archetype," and "Ideal, Norm, Reality," which make up nearly one third of the whole book. Antonín brings together all previous analytical lines to support his main thesis: the king was a cultural archetype, serving a social function. By means of the royal rituals, the king brought stability to his realm, while his absence resulted in social anarchy. In the controversy between rituals-in-text and rituals-in-practice, Antonín supports Gerd Althoff against Philippe Buc, stating categorically that "rituals work effectively within the realm of political action" (248), even to the point of arguing that ritual actions "are absolutely unequivocal, in that they are interpreted in the same way by those who carry them out and by spectators" (314). Antonín's functionalist approach leads him to minimize the textual influences that might have explained the similarities between the French hagiographic descriptions of Saint Louis and the potential sainthood of Wenceslas II in the Bohemian chronicles. He argues instead that both royal portraits mirrored the same notions of the ideal sovereign embodied in the same cultural archetype. According to Antonín, piety was a prerequisite for the fulfilment of the king's fundamental social functions: to administer justice, to provide laws, and to restore peace. [9] All these social roles are different facets of a single cultural archetype, that of the ideal monarch. This cultural archetype is typified in Charles IV's own writings, while its anti-model is epitomized in the image of the tyrant.

Antonín's key concept of "cultural archetype" is, in my view, the book's greatest methodological weakness. Antonín's ideal ruler is, simultaneously, a Jungian cultural archetype, a mental construct, a personification of the subconscious, a Bourdieuan habitus, a literary cliché, an expression of collective memory, and a cultural code. Antonín's methodological eclecticism is disconcerting, as he ignores the incongruity between some of his analytical concepts. Although he fully commands the reader's attention by his in-depth knowledge of the Bohemian sources, Antonín reveals a few surprising bibliographical shortcomings. In placing the Bohemian case-study in a wider European context Antonín is looking almost exclusively westward, while the eastern and northern examples, such as Hungary, Poland or Lithuania, are largely ignored. [10] The book seems to have been readjusted at some point, as the Hussite ideas on the ideal monarch are repeatedly referred to, but never discussed. The chapter on the Hussites is even announced at the beginning of the book in a footnote (36), but seems to have been left out in the final version. This editorial lapse and some of the numerous printing errors could have been amended by a more careful proofreading. [11]

Despite these weaknesses, Robert Antonín's The Ideal Ruler in Medieval Bohemia is a compelling book that invites the readers to question their understanding of the medieval kingship. The author's knowledge of the Bohemian medieval sources is remarkable and the myriad of examples he carefully has chosen cover virtually all aspects of ducal and royal power. Most importantly, reading this thought-provoking book, one gains an enhanced understanding of the medieval "ideal ruler," even if s/he accepts or rejects the author's main thesis.

-------- Notes:

1. Robert Antonín might have benefited from the recent attempt to draw closer together Augustin's and Aquinas's political theologies made by Eric Gregory and Joseph Clair, "Augustinianisms and Thomisms" in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Political Theology, ed. Craig Hovey and Elizabeth Philips (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 176-196.

2. David Kalhous, Anatomy of a Duchy: The Political and Ecclesiastical Structures of Early Přemyslid Bohemia (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

3. David Kalhous. Legenda Christiani and Modern Historiography (Leiden: Brill, 2015).

4. Iva Rosario, Art and propaganda: Charles IV of Bohemia, 1346-1378 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2000).

5. "The triumph of the emperor in establishing Luxembourg continuity upon the Czech throne was also symbolized by placing greater emphasis on St. Vitus, rather than St. Wenceslas, as the patron saint of the new dynasty," in Iva Rosario, Art and propaganda: Charles IV of Bohemia, 1346-1378, 84.

6. Marie Bláhová, "The Genealogy of the Czech Luxembourgs in Contemporary Historiography and Political Propaganda," The Medieval Chronicle 9 (2014): 1-32. For John of Marignolli's genealogical construction at Charles IV's court see also Václav Žůrek, "Godfrey of Viterbo and His Readers at the Court of Emperor Charles IV," in Godfrey of Viterbo and His Readers: Imperial Tradition and Universal History in Late Medieval Europe, ed. Thomas Foerster (Aldershot: Ashgate 2015), 89-104.

7. Antonín would have greatly benefited from Jenny Swanson's analysis of John of Wales's treatises, especially from her debate whether to consider Breviloquium de Virtutibus a Fürstenspiegel text, see Jenny Swanson, John of Wales: A Study of the Works and Ideas of a Thirteenth-Century Friar (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 41-62.

8. For a nuanced discussion on the ambivalent role of the chivalric culture on late medieval state making see, Richard Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (Oxford University Press, 2001).

9. When discussing the tension between the king as a law-giver and the idea of the Bohemian land law Antonín ignores Jean Grant's book For the Common Good. The Bohemian Land Law and the Beginning of the Hussite Revolution (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

10. The Arpadians, the Angevins and the Piasts are referred only once, while the Lithuanian dukes are never mentioned, although Giedrė Mickūnaitė's book on Vytautas might have offered an excellent comparative viewpoint. See Making a Great Ruler: Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania (Budapest, Central European University Press, 2006).

11. In the PDF version I had received, the printing errors are quite numerous, especially in the second part of the book. See, for instance: "extract revebgem ti ket cruelty" (288).

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