Monday, September 28, 2020

Boleslaus I the Cruel, a brilliant Czech ruler

Picture: the cruel brother Boleslaus

Today, Czechia celebrates its Statehood Day, a national holiday. On September 28th, 929 or 935 (not quite clear), Duke Wenceslaus I was murdered by his younger brother and/or his aides. St Wenceslaus is known as the "Good King Wenceslaus" in the Victorian carol but he is the Czech Catholics' patron saint.

Czechia's most well-known statue is arguably the St Wenceslaus statue at the large Wenceslaus Square which is named after the same duke. The space "under the tail of the horse" may also be the #1 place where the Czechs often meet with their friends. Celebrations and pilgrimages are held in Stará Boleslav, the place of Wenceslaus' death. An extremely old chorale worshiping Wenceslaus exists. I think that this melody is too old and music still sucked when it was written down.

Now, Wenceslaus I was almost certainly an extremely good man and a compassionate conservative. I do believe that he was materially modest and was making sure that the homeless guy from the English carol wouldn't freeze. He became a duke in 921 or so and his reign was connected with the transfer of the "heart of Germany" from Bavaria to Saxony, both are the two modern Bundesländer that are adjacent to Bohemia. Wenceslaus got beaten by Henry the Fowler, a Saxon ruler who was named the East Frankish emperor, and agreed with paying all sorts of taxes to Saxony – and to be humiliated on top of that.

I may oversimplify a little bit I think it's just right to say that this servility towards Germany was heavily correlated with his being pious – and it was true in much of the Czech history. The more pro-Catholic a Czech was, the more obedient to Germany he wanted to be, too. (Our current Archbishop of Prague, Dominik Duka, loves Virgin Mary but not so much the current Germany; this Czech Catholic Head may be the first major counterexample ever LOL.) We had alternatives, of course: a more combative approach to sovereignty energized by our Pagan heritage. The oscillation between the pro-German and anti-German sentiments and epochs is the main process underlying the whole Czech history.

As you might predict, this rather obvious submissiveness of this good man towards Germany has been considered a great virtue by "ambitious" German rulers. That was particularly the case during the Nazi occupation when Wenceslaus I became a welcome symbol of the Czechs' inferiority and obedience towards Germany. The aforementioned chorale was often played along with the Czech anthem.

Fine. On September 28th, 929 or 935, who really cares ;-), Wenceslaus was killed. The ultimate legend would say that the brother did it himself. More recently, Czech historians decided that it was a little bit less clearcut and less romantic. The two brothers had some argument and Boleslaus drew his sword. Wenceslaus was capable of neutralizing this attack, however. Nevertheless, Boleslaus' assistants saw Boleslaus in trouble and Wenceslaus seemed like an apparent attacker now, and that is why they killed him.

Of course Boleslaus I the Cruel could have been much less cruel than believed for more than 1000 years. We won't ever be certain, I am afraid. Both guys are gone and the discussion is pretty much academic by now. We may be arguing "which legend we should better believe". But does it really matter much for us whether Boleslaus killed his brother by his own hands and whether it was a planned fratricide or a somewhat unlucky accident?

Now, the apparent fratricide didn't prevent Boleslaus I from becoming a duke and things changed a lot. We had a much more self-confident policy that had some room for the Pagan traditions. Boleslaus refused to pay the extortion money to the Saxon folks and he has beaten both Saxons and Thurings (two East German Bundesländer now). On top of that, he organized a successful expansionist campaign towards Silesia, Poland, and Ukraine, if I can use the modern terms. Boleslaus also defeated the Hungarians who started to give up their permanent raids (note that decades earlier, in 900-910, they were aggressive enough to help to destroy Great Moravia, take Slovakia, and reorganize it as Upper Hungary for 1000 years). Hungarians should worship Boleslaus I as the guy who transformed their nation from unstable nomadic savages to a peaceful and civilized nation of settlers in Central Europe. ;-)

It doesn't mean that Boleslaus was anti-Christian. In particular, he had a daughter named Dobrava who was a fundamentalist Christian. She married the Polish ruler Mieszko I in 965, persuaded him to embrace Jesus Christ, and this conversion resulted in the Baptism of Poland in 966. In the early 21st century, it sounds surreal that the heavily Catholic Poland was turned into a Christian country under the influence of (currently the world's most atheist country) Czechia but in 10th century, some things were different. ;-) Poles are grateful to Czechs for their beloved religion. Of course, despite the limited interactions, the influence continues and in some decades, Poles will be equally grateful to us for their new atheism.

Boleslaus also started with the negotiations to establish a bishop in Prague (we were subordinate to Regensburg, Pilsen's twin city, before that; and we have an Archbishop in Prague now). It succeeded during the realm of his son Boleslaus II.

But successful military excursions and placing Bohemia on the map of Christian Europe weren't the only achievements. He also reorganized the system of castles and fortresses and made the power much more centralized. While Wenceslaus I used to be OK with the "promises of loyalty" by the defeated regional princes, Boleslaus I installed his own people to the castles. Last but not least, Boleslaus I started to mint small silver coins, Denars of Prague, which were about as good as some other best coins that were minted in Europe of that time. Also, the construction of buildings in Prague was upgraded to a whole new level. Abraham ben Jacob visited Prague in 965-966 and concluded that Prague was the wealthiest city in the Northern Europe (meaning North of the Alps), with tons of cheap food and fancy materials (stone and lime) used to construct the buildings.

It's cute to worship the legends in which Wenceslaus I was the ultimate hero (who also did lots of miracles, aside from other things that helped him to earn sainthood) while his younger brother was the ultimate villain. But the real history is often sufficiently different from the legend and the lives of these two brothers may be a good example of that, too. It's almost tragicomic (because it's true) that this day, September 28th, is called the Czech Statehood Day. It's because St Wenceslaus, the good man killed by (or with, in analogy with Covid) his brother, is so important. The name Czech Statehood Day is OK but it might be because the assumed killer, Boleslaus I, was the actual founder of the Czech statehood! Note that it wasn't the first time when a killer started the Czech statehood. According to the Chronicle of Dalimil, Forefather Czech escaped to Bohemia from the old Slavic homeland, Serbia-and-Croatia somewhere in Ukraine-and-Belarus, to avoid a punishment for murder, too. ;-)

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