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21.06.05 Schmidt, John of Moravia between the Czech Lands and the Patriarchate of Aquileia

The Medieval Review

21.06.05 Schmidt, John of Moravia between the Czech Lands and the Patriarchate of Aquileia


John of Moravia is a kind of nightmarish character for a biographer. As a Luxembourg of the Moravian branch that became patriarch of Aquileia, his traces are to be found in a wide variety of sources, of different nature and origin. For a start, his biographer needs to have an intimate knowledge of the Moravian ecclesiastical archives, of the northern Italian urban chronicles, and of the imperial and papal documents. Obviously, a good acquaintance with Czech, German, and Italian historical scholarships is also a prerequisite. To make things worse, John of Moravia is also in the mists of some identity confusion. As Emperor Charles IV's nephew and the Margrave of Moravia John Henry's son, one would expect an easy identification. But there were two individuals that shared the same name and fit the same genealogical profile: a second-born legitimate son and his illegitimate half-brother. Naturally, the two had rather different life stories. Considering all these difficulties, one must say from the start that Ondřej Schmidt's biography is impressively successful. Painstakingly documented, methodically structured, skilfully written, and competently translated, Schmidt's John of Moravia makes for a pleasant and instructive reading for a medievalist, even for one with only a vague interest in Moravian and Aquileian history.

Prior to this book, John of Moravia's biography was traditionally split into two parts, each circumscribed to a nationally-defined historiography. The narrative of the Moravian Luxembourg that had a successful ecclesiastical career as provost of Vyšehrad (1368), bishop of Litomyšl (1380), and, later, bishop of Olomuc (1387) was investigated mainly by Czech historians. In contrast, the story of the patriarch of Aquileia (1387) that became involved in a blood feud and ended up assassinated (1394) was primarily explored by Italian scholars. Ondřej Schmidt convincingly reconnects the two halves, but, due to the abundance of Italian sources, the latter outweighs the former. The last seven years of John of Moravia's life, as patriarch of Aquileia, are far more extensively documented than the first forty-two. Accordingly, chapter 5 entitled "Patriarch"in Ondřej Schmidt's book takes over a hundred pages, in comparison with the previous two chapters, chapter 3 "Bastard" and chapter 4 "Bishop", which cover merely thirty pages together. In order to supplement the lack of sources for John of Moravia's early life, Schmidt introduces a whole chapter, chapter 2, on the status of bastards, especially of royal bastards, titled"Illegitimate Children in the Late Middle Ages". The result is a compelling attempt to fill in the biographical gaps with the use of some educated guesses based on a broader analysis of Luxembourg bastards' status and career options. The last chapter, chapter 6, in spite of its promising title, "Historical Memory", is rather less persuasive. These five chapters are confined by some "Introductory Remarks" (chapter 1) and by the "Final Reflections" (chapter 7), to which the author also added three excursus that prove to be essential for his overall argument. Despite some early references to Jacques Le Goff's and Pierre Bourdieu's thoughts on biographical writing, Ondřej Schmidt offers a rather traditional approach to the genre, but nonetheless a solid one. His strengths are the meticulous archival research and his comprehensive knowledge of the scholarly literature. His weaknesses derive from a narrowing view of history as mainly political history. [1]

Right at the beginning of his book Ondřej Schmidt needed to make a difficult choice. On the one hand it was essential to establish the identity of his character and to set apart the two half-brothers that shared the same name of Johannes: the margrave, who allegedly died around 1380, and the bishop/patriarch whose ecclesiastical career took off around the same years. Previous scholars considered them one and the same person and assumed that the margrave John Sobieslaw embarked upon a religious career. In contrast, Schmidt contends that John the high-cleric was not the Moravian margrave, but his illegitimate brother. In order to avoid starting his biography with a tedious scholarly debate that risked confusing the reader, Schmidt took the smart decision to develop his arguments separately, in the first excursus of the book. His interpretation is quite convincing, although not as categorical as he would like. The chronology seems to support his thesis, but one is still left wondering why John the patriarch of Aquileia occasionally self-styled himself as “Margrave of Moravia”. According to Schmidt this was a fictitious title, a declaration of the patriarch's social status as a Luxembourg Moravian, which is a rather unsatisfactory explanation, as the author himself acknowledges. [2] Aside from this intriguing point, identifying the bishop/patriarch John of Moravia with the margrave John Henry's illegitimate son makes better sense overall than the traditional scholarly interpretation.

As Ondřej Schmidt convincingly argues, the Luxembourg bastards were predetermined for ecclesiastical careers. Actually, as patriarch of Aquileia, John of Moravia followed in the footsteps of his bastard uncle, Nicolas, Charles IV's half-brother, who held the same strategically located see, the "gateway" to Italy, from 1350 to 1358. John proved valuable for the dynasty already from his birth, as he cleansed his father's name, who had been accused of impotence by his former wife, Margaret of Tyrol. After briefly sketching this story, Schmidt hypothetically reconstructs John's early life, making educated assumptions and elegantly dismissing older scholarly speculations. The first extant sources with regard to John of Moravia are a few supplications presented to the pope in order to secure the dispensations necessary for a bastard to hold ecclesiastical benefices. As provost of Vyšehrad, John seems to have been completely subordinated to his imperial uncle, Charles IV. Following John of Moravia's accession as bishop, Schmidt's primary focus is to situate him in the wider picture of the Luxembourgs' high politics, paying special attention to the tensions between the Bohemian and the Moravian branches of the dynasty. Sporadically, he also refers to John's administrative and clerical undertakings, but his emphasis is certainly on the church-politics within the Empire.

With John of Moravia's appointment as patriarch of Aquileia, his scholarly biographer has to adjust his analysis to a different category of sources and, equally challenging, to a whole new subject. From this moment on the intricacies of the Aquileian conflicts between the different local actors are taking centre-stage, as the new patriarch seems to have been caught in the bitter rivalry between the cities of Udine and Cividale. John of Moravia's tempestuous actions, which Schmidt characterizes as a "deliberate and unscrupulous political manoeuvre" (107), fuelled the dispute. The murder of one of the patriarch's most prominent adversaries, Federico di Savorgnano, in an Udine church, aggravated the feud. Schmidt admits that the assassination had John's consent, if not his direct support. The biography goes on as a fast-paced political thriller and the intrigue thickens as new north-Italian actors are getting involved such as the Venetians or the Viscontis. A fast succession of murders, pardons and reconciliations, sometimes sealed by oath-taking ceremonies, led to a rather predictable outcome. On the 13th of October 1394 John of Moravia was killed by a group of Udine-linked conspirators. Local chronicles framed the assassination as a vendetta, but Ondřej Schmidt convincingly adds a longer-term power-political conflict to the blood feud.

John of Moravia's afterlife began abruptly with a clash for his earthly remains, between Udine and Cividale. The former viewed the murdered patriarch as a tyrant, while the latter considered him a martyr. The Cividale chapter's attempts to get hold of the body were prevented by the Udinese, who interred him secretly and at night. Schmidt carefully dissects the making of John of Moravia's memory, contrasting the Udinese damnatio memoriae with the Cividalese short-lived cult and with the Luxembourgs' pragmatic stance. Of all the oral and written traditions that shaped memory production, the most fascinating one is Capitula contra patriarcham Johannem de Moravia. Ondřej Schmidt deserves full praise for editing this document in the second excursus of his book and for providing a persuasive analysis of its initial purpose. Written during the patriarch's life, but extensively used after his death, the document is a disparaging inventory of John of Moravia's vices and depravities. The result is an injurious portrait of a worse-than-Nero figure, which nonetheless includes historically accurate references to specific events and individuals. This scornful, but vivid portrayal, of John of Moravia highlights the main shortcoming of Ondřej Schmidt's biography. Despite its scholarly acumen and tremendous archival research, Schmidt's John of Moravia remains an elusive, hard-to-pin-down, figure. Throughout the book John of Moravia is deprived of agency, being depicted as a pawn in others' plans. Used by his father to prove his fertility, sacrificed to his uncle's church politics, manipulated in his brothers' dynastic games, exploited by Cividale in the rivalry with Udine or influenced by an eminence grise counsellor, John of Moravia seems a blunt instrument. His final portrait, which the biographer himself labels as rather banal, that of "a figure full of contradictions," [3] does not seem to do full justice to the historical character. Surely, someone that played the high game of church politics for more than two decades, someone who knew how to take advantage of the tensions within the Luxembourg dynasty and also of the Rome-Avignon rivalry, someone who built himself a successful ecclesiastical career, despite being three times excommunicated, had a more active role in the shaping his own life.

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Notes:

1. Schmidt acknowledges that his approach is politically-focused: "it must be said that even this book does not contribute very much on this issue [John of Moravia's ecclesiastical activity], as it is necessarily restricted mainly to the power-political dimension of his rule" (11).

2. "Although we may never have a completely satisfactory explanation of why John referred to himself several times as margrave of Moravia, there is no reason to think that this makes it impossible to identify the bastard son John of Moravia with John, Patriarch of Aquileia" (91).

3. "As banal as it may sound, we must content ourselves with the conclusion that John of Moravia was simply an unscrupulous prince of his time, a bastard who was forced by circumstances into becoming a priest, and a figure full of contradictions, as were the majority of the members of the last generation of the house of Luxembourg" (212).