THE BOHEMIAN LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE.
John Huss, Jerome of Prague, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Comenius, and others.
The Bohemian is one of the principal Slavic languages. It is spoken in Bohemia and in Moravia, and is used by the Slovaks of Hungary in their literary productions. Of all the modern Slavic dialects, the Bohemian was the first cultivated; it early adopted the Latin characters, and was developed under the influence of the German language. In its free construction, the Bohemian approaches the Latin, and is capable of imitating the Greek in all its lighter shades.
The first written documents of the Bohemians are not older than the introduction of Christianity into their country; but there exists a collection of national songs celebrating battles and victories, which probably belongs to the eighth or ninth century. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries the influence of German customs and habits is apparent in Bohemian literature; and in the thirteenth and fourteenth this influence increased, and was manifest in the lyric poetry, which echoed the lays of the German Minnesingers. Of these popular songs, however, very few are left.
In 1348 the first Slavic university was founded in Prague, on the plan of those of Paris and Bologna, by the Emperor Charles IV., who united the crowns of Germany and Bohemia. The influence of this institution was felt, not merely in the two countries, but throughout Europe.
The name of John Huss (1373-1415) stands at the head of a new period in Bohemian literature. He was professor at the university of Prague, and early became acquainted with the writings of Wickliffe, whose doctrines he defended in his lectures and sermons. The care and attention he bestowed on his compositions exerted a decided and lasting influence on the language. The old Bohemian alphabet he arranged anew, and first settled the Bohemian orthography according to fixed principles. Summoned to appear before the council of Constance to answer to the charges of heresy, he obeyed the call under a safe-conduct from the Emperor Sigismund. But he was soon arrested by order of the council, condemned, and burned alive.
Among the coadjutors of Huss was Jerome of Prague, a professor in the same university, who in his erudition and eloquence surpassed his friend, whose doctrinal views he adopted, but he had not the mildness of disposition nor the moderation of conduct which distinguished Huss. He wrote several works for the instruction of the people, and translated some of the writings of Wickliffe into the Bohemian language. On hearing of the dangerous situation of his friend he hastened to Constance to assist and support him. He, too, was arrested, and even terrified into temporary submission; but at the next audience of the council he reaffirmed his faith, and declared that of all his sins he repented of none more than his apostasy from the doctrines he had maintained. In consequence of this avowal he was condemned to the same fate as his friend.
These illustrious martyrs were, with the exception of Wickliffe, the first advocates of truth a century before the Reformation. Since then, in no language has the Bible been studied with more zeal and devotion than in the Bohemian. The long contest for freedom of conscience which desolated the country until the extinction of the nation is one of the great tragedies of human history.
The period from 1520 to 1620 is considered the golden age of Bohemian literature. Nearly two hundred writers distinguished the reign of Rudolph I. (1526-1611), and among them were many ladies and gentlemen of the court, of which Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and other scientific men, from foreign countries, were the chief ornaments. Numerous historical works were published, theology was cultivated with talent and zeal, the eloquence of the pulpit and the bar acquired a high degree of cultivation, and in religious hymns all sects were equally productive.
The triumph of the Catholic party, which followed the battle of the White Mountain, near Prague (1620), gave a fatal blow to Bohemia. The leading men of the country were executed, exiled, or imprisoned; the Protestant religion was abolished, and the country was declared a hereditary Catholic monarchy. The Bohemian language ceased to be used in public transactions; and every book written in it was condemned to the flames as necessarily heretical. Great numbers of monks came from southern Europe, and seized whatever native books they could find; and this destruction continued to go on until the close of the last century.
Among the Bohemian emigrants who continued to write in their foreign homes, Comenius (1592-1691) surpassed all others. When the great persecution of the Protestants broke out he fled to Poland, and in his exile he published several works in Latin and in Bohemian, distinguished for the classical perfection of their style.
In the latter part of the eighteenth century the efforts to introduce into Bohemia the German as the official language of the country awoke the national feeling of the people, and produced a strong reaction in favor of their native tongue. When the tolerant views of Joseph II. were known, more than a hundred thousand Protestants returned to their country; books long hidden were brought to light, and many works were reprinted. During the reign of his two successors, the Bohemians received still more encouragement; the use of the language was ordained in all the schools, and a knowledge of it was made a necessary qualification for office. Among the writers who exerted a favorable influence in this movement may be mentioned Kramerius (1753-1808), the editor of the first Bohemian newspaper, and the author of many original works; Dobrovsky (1753-1829), the patriarch of modern Slavic literature, and one of the profoundest scholars of the age; and Kollar (b. 1763), the leading poet of modern times in the Bohemian language. Schaffarik (b. 1795), a Slovak, is the author of a “History of the Slavic Language and Literature,” in German, which has, perhaps, contributed more than any other work to a knowledge of Slavic literature. Palacky, a Moravian by birth, was the faithful fellow-laborer of Schaffarik; his most important work is a “History of Bohemia.”
Since 1848 there has arisen a school of poets whose writings are more in accordance with those of the western nations. Among them are Halek (d. 1874) and Cech, the most celebrated of living Bohemian poets. Caroline Soetla (b. 1830) is the originator of the modern Bohemian novel. Since 1879 many poems have appeared, epic in their character, taking their materials both from the past and the present. In various branches of literature able writers are found, too numerous even to name.