The Western Slavs



HERETOFORE the Slavs had been human flotsam, surging westward at times to the Elbe, southward to the Mediterranean, eastward to the Urals, north even to the Arctic Sea; then, in the thirteenth century, repulsed in the west by the Livonian and Teutonic knights, and subjected to Mongol and Tatar domination in the east. In the fourteenth century Bohemia led the Holy Roman Empire and the pre-Lutheran Reformation; and Poland, united with a vast Lithuania, became a major power, with a highly cultured upper class. In the fifteenth century Russia freed herself from the Tatars, and unified her far-flung principalities into a massive state. Like a tidal wave, the Slavs entered history.

In 1306 the death of Wenceslaus III ended the ancient Przemyslid line in Bohemia. After an interlude of minor kings the baronial and ecclesiastical electors brought in John of Luxembourg to found a new dynasty (1310). His gallant adventures made Bohemia for a generation an unwilling citadel of chivalry. He could hardly live without tournaments, and when these proved too innocuous he sallied forth to war in almost every realm of Europe. It became a bon mot of the times that “nothing can be done without the help of God and the King of Bohemia.”1 Brescia, besieged by Verona, begged his aid; he promised to come; at the news thereof the Veronese raised the siege. Brescia, Bergamo, Cremona, Parma, Modena, even Milan voluntarily acknowledged him as their feudal sovereign in return for his protection; what Frederick I Barbarossa and Frederick II Wonder of the World had been unable to secure by arms, this King obtained almost by the magic of his name. His dashing wars added terrain to Bohemia but forfeited the affection of the people, who could not forgive him for being so often absent from their country that he neglected its administration and never learned its speech. In 1336, on a crusade in Lithuania, he contracted a disease that left him blind. Nevertheless, when he learned that Edward III of England had landed in Normandy and was moving toward Paris, John and his son Charles, with 500 Bohemian knights, rode across Europe to succor the king of France. Father and son fought in the van at Crécy. When the French retreated, the blind King bade two knights bind their horses on either side to his and lead him against the victorious English, saying, “So will it God, it shall not be said that a king of Bohemia flies from the battlefield.” Fifty of his knights were killed around him; he was mortally wounded, and was taken, dying, to the tent of the English King. Edward sent the corpse to Charles with a courtly message: “This day has fallen the crown of chivalry.” 2

Charles IV was a less heroic but much wiser king. He preferred negotiation to war, and was not too cowardly to compromise; yet he extended the boundaries of his kingdom. In the thirty-two years of his reign he kept the Slavs and the Germans in unwonted peace. He reorganized the government, reformed the judiciary, and made Prague one of the handsomest cities in Europe. He built there a royal residence on the style of the Louvre, and the famous castle of Karlstein (Charles’s Stone) as a repository for the archives of the state and the jewels of the crown—which were treasured not for vanity and display but as a reserve fund conveniently mobile and immune to debasements of the currency. He brought in Matthew of Arras to design St. Vitus’ Cathedral, and Tommaso da Modena to paint frescoes in churches and palaces. He protected the peasantry from oppression, and promoted commerce and industry. He founded the University of Prague (1347), transmitted to his countrymen the cultural interest that he had acquired in France and Italy, and provided the intellectual stimulus that exploded in the Hussite revolt. His court became the center of the Bohemian humanists, led by Bishop John of Stresa, Petrarch’s friend. The Italian poet admired Charles beyond any other monarch of the time, visited him in Prague, and begged him to conquer Italy; but Charles had better sense. His reign, despite his Golden Bull, was Bohemia’s Golden Age. He survives smiling, in a splendid limestone bust, in the cathedral of Prague.

Wenceslaus IV was a youth of eighteen when his father died (1378). His good nature, his affection for his people, his lenience in taxing them, his skill in administration, won him great favor with all but the nobles, who thought their privileges imperiled by his popularity. His occasional hot temper, and his addiction to drink, gave them a leverage for displacing him. They surprised him at his country seat, threw him into prison (1394), and restored him only on his promise to do nothing of moment without the consent of a council of nobles and bishops. New disputes arose; Sigismund of Hungary was called in; he arrested Wenceslaus, his brother, and took him prisoner to Vienna (1402). Wenceslaus escaped a few years later, made his way back to Bohemia, was received with joy by the people, and regained his throne and powers. The rest of his story mingles with the tragedy of Huss.

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