History of Czech Literature

The beginning of Czech literature is closely related to the first state formations in the lands of the Bohemian crown, and, above all, to the adoption of Christianity; however, traces of pre-existing oral literature do appear in the emerging written literature and accompany it throughout its subsequent existence.

The first written texts from the era of the Great Moravian Empire were written in an artificially created Old Church Slavonic language, which the missionaries Cyril (Constantine) and Methodius (Method) chose for the purpose of religious services. At the same time, a script was developed that allowed these works to survive, not only until the beginning of the Přemyslid state, but also, as copies, to later eras. With the rise of Přemyslid Bohemia, literature written in Latin also began to emerge, which was connected with disputes between the promoters of the Slavic and Latin liturgies.

In both these languages, the first hagiographies were written, referred to as legends, which gradually led to the development of a historical genre called chronicles. An exceptional work is the Bohemian Chronicle written in Latin in the first quarter of the twelfth century by the Dean of the Prague Chapter, Kosmas. The spiritual song 'Svatý Václave' (St. Wenceslas), whose origins date to the turn of the thirteenth century, received new verses in the fifteenth century and was sung in chorale form on all of the major historical occasions, and similarly to the Old Church Slavonic song 'Hospodine pomiluj ny' (Lord, Have Mercy on Us), it is still considered to be a national symbol.

The First Chronicle Written in Czech

In the thirteenth century, the number of works written in Czech began to rise, and in the fourteenth century, Czech texts surpassed Latin texts, both in terms of quality and quantity. Out of fear to preserve the integrity of the Bohemian state at that time, the Chronicle of the so-called Dalimil arose, which was not only written in Czech, but also emphasised and praised the good traits of the Czech nation.

During the reign of Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, Bohemia became the centre of Central European culture and education. This ruler established the oldest university north of the Alps – Universitas Carolina (Charles University), witten standard German originated from the environment of his court office, and the king himself wrote his autobiography in Latin – Vita Caroli – as well as legends about St. Wenceslas.

The Czech literature of that era was brilliantly represented by the highly educated yeoman Tomáš Štítný of Štítné, whose tracts on religious as well as general social themes reached a significant acclaim and are noteworthy also from a linguistic point of view. Fourteenth-century literature extended to most genres, from lyrical love poems to didactical works.

That, however, changed radically during the subsequent era of the Hussite reformation, when literary expression grew stricter and more serious, certain genres disappeared altogether and works reflected religious and power struggles. The vast majority of literary work came out of the detailed study of biblical texts. The most significant figure, after whom the entire reform movement in Bohemia is named, was the Catholic priest John Huss (Jan Hus). He wrote some of his theological works in Czech, some in Latin, and in them he strove for a moral reformation of the Church, and through it the reformation of the entire society. He also had a lasting impact on Czech spelling, having greatly contributed to its simplification. His letters to his friends from the prison in Konstanz (Constance) are noteworthy, both in terms of their contents and formally. In the era after Huss’ immolation in 1415, the military songs of Huss’ followers had a special position. The chorale “Ktož sú Boží bojovníci” (Ye, Warriors of God) was especially famous; the enemy army started running away having merely heard the song.

An Attempt at Uniting Europe

After years of wars and political changes, peace was brought about by the enthronement of the non-dynastic ruler George of Poděbrady as the King of Bohemia in 1458, who is famous for his extraordinary, albeit unsuccessful attempt at a peaceful organisation of Europe. His manifesto “Message to the Christian Rulers of Europe” is the first true proposal for a European alliance, which is only taking place now, a half a millennium later.

The influence of the Renaissance and humanism started to be felt with a certain delay in the fifteenth century. Its distribution was aided by the invention of the printing press, which spread in Bohemia at the end of the fifteenth century. By the sixteenth century, a number of printing houses were in operation, which significantly simplified the distribution of literature among readers. Influenced by humanism, works of poetry and prose alike were being written, as well as travel books and specialised books, such as the legal writing of Viktorin Kornel of Všehrdy. The Unity of the Brethren (also known as the Bohemian Brethren), a purely Czech reform church, which through its clergymen achieved significance importance in the post-White Mountain era, gave rise to a number of important works emphasising the value of education and of the elevation of the cultural level of the nation.

A unique figure of the Unity of the Brethren, who was truly of international importance, was Jan Amos Komenský (Comenius), who became known as the Teacher of Nations. Although he himself was severely affected by the political turn of events in Bohemia and the subsequent Thirty Years’ War, and spent most of his life in exile, he is still an unquestionable authority in many respects. Of importance are primarily his pedagogical and didactical works, such as the Latin language textbook Ianua Linguarum Reserata (The Gate of Languages Unlocked), Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The World in Pictures), and Didactica Magna (The Great Didactics). His verses as well as theoretical essays and major works of fiction, such as his most widely known Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart, can be classified as artistic literature.

Baroque and Emigration

The Baroque era, associated in Bohemia with the first mass wave of emigration of the protestant nobility and educated burghers, meant another narrowing of genres for Czech literature. This was related to the fact that the primary authoritative figures were Catholic clergymen. However, poetry and religious songs were rich, as documented by the numerous hymns that have survived since the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The major musicians of that era included the composer Adam Michna of Otradovice and the educated Jesuit Fridrich Bridel.

The origins of Czech scientific literature date from this era, first developing in the field of history, and then in its full breadth in the nineteenth century. Scientific literature was written in Latin or German, with the authors of the works being primarily educated Jesuits. Many of them, however, also attempted to preserve the Czech language and a national awareness. As representative of all, we can name Bohuslav Balbín and his ‘Treatise in Defence of the Slavic, and Especially Czech Language’.

Revival of the Czech Language

At the end of the eighteenth century, Czech was on the defensive against German. A cultural and later also a political movement responded to this situation, striving again to elevate Czech language, culture and art. Hence, the first half of the nineteenth century is called the national revival. At that time, literature in Czech confirmed its viability, producing works which undoubtedly belong among the heights of European literature. We can name, for example, the romantic poetic composition “Máj” by Karel Hynek Mácha, the ballads of Karel Jaromír Erben, and as for prose, “The Grandmother” by Božena Němcová.

Czech poetry and prose of the second half of the nineteenth century were strongly influenced by artistic styles coming to the forefront in other European countries. Czech prose, for instance, built upon the initiatives of realism (Alois Jirásek, Karel Václav Rais, Karel Klostermann), naturalism (Josef Karel Šlejhar, the Mrštík brothers), symbolism (Otokar Březina), impressionism (Antonín Sova, Fráňa Šrámek), decadence or anarchism (S. K. Neumann). Of the major poets of that era, we must not omit Jan Neruda, Svatopluk Čech and Jaroslav Vrchlický.

The turn of the twentieth century is referred to as the Belle Époque. The best works of Prague German-language literature were being written in the lands of the Bohemian crown (the still inspiring Franz Kafka and Max Brod), and as a response to the First World War, for example, the world-famous prose ‘The Good Soldier Švejk’ by Jaroslav Hašek was published. A major author of the first half of the twentieth century was Karel Čapek, who wrote much philosophical prose and many dramas that have been staged all over the world. The Czech literary avant-garde (Jaroslav Seifert, Vítězslav Nezval, Karel Teige, Konstantin Biebl and Vladislav Vančura) created not only a specifically Czech literary stream called poetism, but in the 1930s also elaborated on, in its own particular way, the inspiration given by surrealism. During the Second World War, the civil style of poetry of eternity arose (Ivan Blatný, Jiří Kolář and Josef Kainar).

Socialist Realism, Exile Works, and the Present

After the Second World War, Czech art came under the dictate of Marxist ideology and so-called socialist realism. In spite of that, many authors sought room for free creation – some of them emigrated, others had their works published abroad, and yet others looked for alternatives to official communication. To name but a few, the works of Milada Součková and Egon Hostovský were written in exile. A significant stage came during the political détente in the 1960s, when the prose of Milan Kundera, Josef Škvorecký, Bohumil Hrabal, Arnošt Lustig and Ladislav Fuks was written in confrontation with the recent past. In the genre of absurd drama, Václav Havel earned international acclaim. In poetry, aside from the style of factuality, avant-garde approaches were also applied – the height of Czech poetry in this era, however, comes primarily from original poets not working within any stream (Vladimír Holan, Oldřich Mikulášek, Jan Skácel).

Following the Russian occupation, during the so-called normalisation, literature was named one of the causes of the events of 1968, to which corresponded the level of the restrictions placed upon the writers who were not willing to serve the regime. Literature thus split into three streams: exile, samizdat (self-published literature spread through type-written copies) and official. The poet Jaroslav Seifert won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1984 and Milan Kundera achieved world-wide significance as a writer.

The three branches of Czech literature again merged after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, when a number of formerly banned or entirely denied works and authors started to be published in their first official editions. Next to them, new personalities also started to emerge, such as authors of prose influenced by the poeticism of post-modernism (Jáchym Topol, Michal Viewegh and Miloš Urban).

Last update: 16.8.2011 16:01

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