History of the Czech lands in the Middle Ages

History of the Czech lands in the Middle Ages

This article describes the history of the Czech lands in the Middle Ages.

Early Middle Ages

Czech tribes in present-day central Bohemia started to build a unified state under the influence of the neighboring Great Moravia in the 880s under Prince Borivoj from the Přemyslid house, who was baptised by the Great Moravian bishop Methodius in 874. In the 880s he moved his seat to Prague and started to subjugate the Vltava Basin. The emerging Bohemian Principality (often incorrectly called a kingdom already for this time period) was conquered by Great Moravia 888/890. In 895, the Prince of Bohemia becomes a vassal of the East Frankish king Arnulf of Carinthia. The Bohemian Principality definitively emerged in 995 when the Premyslid chiefs--members of the tribe called Czechs (one of the tribes in Bohemia, from which the Czechs derive their name) --unified neighboring Czech tribes and established a form of centralized rule.

Cut off from Byzantium by the Hungarian presence, the Bohemian Principality existed in the shadow of the Holy Roman Empire. In 950 the powerful emperor Otto I, a Saxon, led an expedition to Bohemia demanding tribute; the Bohemian Principality thus became a fief of the Holy Roman Empire and its king one of the seven electors of the emperor. The German emperors continued the practice of using the Roman Catholic clergy to extend German influence into Czech territory. Significantly, the bishopric of Prague, founded in 973 during the reign of Boleslav II (967-99), was subordinated to the German archbishopric of Mainz. Thus, at the same time that Premyslid rulers utilized the German alliance to consolidate their rule against a perpetually rebellious regional nobility, they struggled to retain their autonomy in relation to the empire.

After a struggle with Poland and Hungary, the Bohemian Kingdom acquired Moravia in early 11th century (see Great Moravia). Moravia, however, continued to be a separate margravate, usually ruled by a younger son of the Bohemian king. Because of complex dynastic arrangements, Moravia's link with the Bohemian Kingdom between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries was occasionally severed; during such interludes Moravia was subordinated directly to the Holy Roman Empire. Although Moravia's fate was intertwined with Bohemia's, in general it did not participate in Bohemia's civil and religious struggles. The main course of Czech history evolved in Bohemia proper.

Thirteenth century (growth)

The thirteenth century was the most dynamic period of Premyslid reign over Bohemia. German Emperor Frederick II's preoccupation with Mediterranean affairs and the dynastic struggles known as the Great Interregnum (1254-1273) weakened imperial authority in Central Europe, thus providing opportunities for Premyslid assertiveness. At the same time, the Mongol invasions (1220-1242) absorbed the attention of the Bohemian Kingdom's eastern neighbors, the Hungarians and the Poles.

In 1212 King Premysl Otakar I (1198-1230), bearing the title “king“ already since 1198, extracted a Golden Bull of Sicily (a formal edict) from the emperor confirming the royal title for Otakar and his descendants. The imperial prerogative to ratify each Bohemian ruler and to appoint the bishop of Prague was revoked. The king's successor, Premysl Otakar II (1253-1278), married a German princess, Margaret of Babenberg, and became duke of Austria, thereby acquiring upper and lower Austria and part of Styria. He conquered the rest of Styria, most of Carinthia, and parts of Carniola. From 1273, however, Habsburg emperor Rudolf began to reassert imperial authority. All of Premysl Otakar's German possessions were lost in 1276, and in 1278 Premysl Otakar II died in battle against Rudolf.

The thirteenth century was also a period of large-scale German immigration, often encouraged by Premyslid kings hoping to weaken the influence of their own Czech nobility. The Germans populated towns and mining districts on the Bohemian periphery and in some cases formed German colonies in the interior of the Czech lands. Stribro, Kutná Hora, Nemecky Brod (present-day Havlíčkuv Brod) and Jihlava were important German settlements. The Germans brought their own code of law--the "ius teutonicum"- -which formed the basis of the later commercial law of Bohemia and Moravia. Marriages between Germans and Czech nobles soon became commonplace.

King Vaclav II. managed to get the crown of Poland and for his son also the crown of Hungary.

14th century ("Golden Age")

The fourteenth century (particularly the reign of Charles IV (1342-1378)) is considered the Golden Age of Czech history.

In 1306, the Přemyslid line had died out, and, after a series of dynastic wars, a new Luxemburg dynasty captured the Bohemian crown. Charles IV, the second Luxemburg king, was raised at the French court and was cosmopolitan in attitude. He strengthened the power and prestige of the Bohemian Kingdom. In 1344 Charles elevated the bishopric of Prague, making it an archbishopric and freeing it from the jurisdiction of Mainz and the Holy Roman Empire. The archbishop was given the right to crown Czech kings. Charles curbed the Czech nobility, rationalized the provincial administration of Bohemia and Moravia, and made Brandenburg (until 1415), Lusatia (until 1635), and Silesia (until 1742) into fiefs of the Czech crown. In 1355 Charles was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. In 1356 he issued a Golden Bull defining and systematizing the process of election to the imperial throne and making the Czech king foremost among the seven electors. The Bohemian Kingdom ceased to be a fief of the emperor. Charles also made Prague into an imperial city. Extensive building projects undertaken by the king included the founding of the New Town southeast of the old city. The royal castle, Hradcany, was rebuilt. Of particular significance was the founding of Charles University in Prague in 1348. Charles's intention was to make Prague into an international center of learning, and the university was divided into Czech, Polish, Saxon, and Bavarian "nations," each with one controlling vote. Charles University, however, would become the nucleus of intense Czech particularism. Charles died in 1378, and the Czech crown went to his son, Wenceslas IV.

15th century (Hussite Movement)

The Hussite movement (1402 – 1485) was a national, as well as a religious, manifestation. As a religious reform movement, it represented a challenge to papal authority and an assertion of national autonomy in ecclesiastical affairs. As a Czech national movement, it acquired anti-imperial and anti-German implications and thus can be considered a manifestation of a long-term Czech-German conflict. The Hussite movement is also viewed by many Czechs as a part of the (worldwide) Protestant reformation.

Hussitism began during the long reign of Wenceslas IV (1378-1419), a period of papal schism and concomitant anarchy in the Holy Roman Empire, and was precipitated by a controversy at Charles University. In 1403 Jan Hus became rector of the university. A reformist preacher, Hus espoused the antipapal and antihierarchical teachings of John Wyclif of England, often referred to as the "Morning Star of the Reformation." Hussitism--as Hus's teaching became known--was distinguished by its rejection of the wealth, corruption, and hierarchical tendencies of the Roman Catholic Church. It advocated the Wycliffite doctrine of clerical purity and poverty and insisted on communion under both kinds, bread and wine, for the laity. (The Roman Catholic Church reserved the cup--wine--for the clergy.) The more moderate followers of Hus, the Utraquists, took their name from the Latin sub utraque specie, meaning "under each kind." A more radical sect soon formed--the Taborite sect. The Taborites, who took their name from the city of Tábor, their stronghold in southern Bohemia, rejected church doctrine and upheld the Bible as the sole authority in all matters of belief.

Soon after Hus assumed office, German professors of theology demanded the condemnation of Wyclif's writings. Hus protested and received the support of the Czech element at the university. Having only one vote in policy decisions against three for the Germans, the Czechs were outvoted, and the orthodox position was maintained. In subsequent years the Czechs demanded a revision of the university charter, granting more adequate representation to the native, i.e., Czech, faculty.

The university controversy was intensified by the vacillating position of the Bohemian king Wenceslas. His insistence at first on favoring Germans in appointments to councillor and other administrative positions had aroused the national sentiments of the Czech nobility and rallied them to Hus's defense. The German faculties had the support of Archbishop Zbynek of Prague and the German clergy. Wenceslas, for political reasons, switched his support from the Germans to Hus and allied with the reformers. On January 18, 1409, Wenceslas issued the Kutna Hora Decree: (as was the case at other major universities in Europe) the Czechs would have three votes; the foreigners, a single vote. In consequence, German faculty and students left Charles University en masse in the thousands and many ended up founding the University of Leipzig.

Hus's victory was short lived, however. He preached against the sale of indulgences, which lost him the support of the king, who received a percentage of the sales. In 1412 Hus and his followers were suspended from the university and expelled from Prague. For two years the reformers served as itinerant preachers throughout Bohemia. In 1414 Hus was summoned to the Council of Constance to defend his views. The council condemned him as a heretic and burned him at the stake in 1415.

Hus's death sparked decades of religious warfare, the Hussite Wars. Sigismund, the pro-papal king of Hungary and successor to the Bohemian throne after the death of Wenceslas in 1419, failed repeatedly in attempts to gain control of the kingdom despite aid by Hungarian and German armies. Riots broke out in Prague. Led by a Czech yeoman, Jan Zizka, the Taborites streamed into the capital. Religious strife pervaded the entire kingdom and was particularly intense in the German-dominated towns. Czech burghers and Roman Catholic Germans turned on each other; many were massacred, and most German survivors fled or were exiled to the Holy Roman Empire. The fighting changed the face of Bohemia to this day, for Bohemia would have a much larger German populace had they not been forced out due to the war. Sigismund led or instigated various crusades against Bohemia with the support of Bohemian Catholics. The Hussite Wars followed a pattern. When a crusade was launched at Bohemia, moderate and radical Hussites would unite and defeat it. Once the threat was over, the Hussite armies would focus on ridding the land of Catholic sympathizers. While many historians have painted the Hussites as religious fanatics, one must not forget that they fought to protect their land from a King and Pope who did not recognize the right of the Hussites to exist. Under Zizka's leadership, his armies stormed castles, monasteries, churches, and villages, expelling the Catholic clergy, expropriating ecclesiastical lands or accepting conversions.

During the struggle against Sigismund, Taborite armies penetrated into Slovakia as well. Czech refugees from the religious wars in Czechia settled there, and from 1438 to 1453 a Czech noble, Jan Jiskra of Brandys, controlled most of southern Slovakia from the centers of Zvolen and Kosice. Thus Hussite doctrines and the Czech Bible were disseminated among the Slovaks, providing the basis for a future link between the Czechs and their Slovak neighbors.

When Sigismund died in 1437, the Bohemian estates elected Albert of Austria as his successor. Albert died, however, and his son, Ladislaus the Posthumous--so called because he was born after his father's death--was acknowledged as king. During Ladislaus's minority, Bohemia was ruled by a regency composed of moderate reform nobles who were Utraquists. Internal dissension among the Czechs provided the primary challenge to the regency. A part of the Czech nobility remained Catholic and loyal to the pope. A Utraquist delegation to the Council of Basel in 1433 had negotiated a seeming reconciliation with the Catholic Church. The Council's Compact of Basel accepted the basic tenets of Hussitism expressed in the Four Articles of Prague: communion under both kinds; free preaching of the Gospels; expropriation of church land; and exposure and punishment of public sinners. The pope, however, rejected the compact, thus preventing the reconciliation of Czech Catholics with the Utraquists.

George of Podebrady, later to become the "national" king of Bohemia, emerged as leader of the Utraquist regency. George installed an Utraquist, John of Rokycan, as archbishop of Prague and succeeded in uniting the more radical Taborites with the Czech Reformed Church. The Catholic party was driven out of Prague. Ladislaus died of the plague in 1457, and in 1458 the Bohemian estates elected George of Podebrady king of Bohemia. The pope, however, refused to recognize the election. Czech Catholic nobles, joined in the League of Zelena Hora, continued to challenge the authority of George of Podebrady until his death in 1471.

1471 – 1526 (Jagiellonian rule)

Upon the death of the Hussite king, the Bohemian estates elected a Polish prince Ladislaus Jagiellon as king. In 1490 Vladislav also became king of Hungary, and the Polish Jagellonian line ruled both Bohemia and Hungary. The Jagellonians governed Bohemia as absentee monarchs; their influence in the kingdom was minimal, and effective government fell to the regional nobility. Czech Catholics accepted the Compact of Basel in 1485 and were reconciled with the Utraquists.

In 1526 Vladislav's son, King Louis, was decisively defeated by the Ottomans (Turks) at the Battle of Mohács and subsequently died. As a result, the Turks conquered part of the Kingdom of Hungary; the rest (mainly Slovakia) came under Habsburg rule under the terms of King Louis' marriage contract. The Bohemian estates elected Archduke Ferdinand, younger brother of Emperor Charles V, to succeed Louis as king of Bohemia. Thus began almost four centuries of Habsburg rule for both Bohemia and Slovakia.

ee also

* Holy Roman Empire


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