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Czech Literature

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Czech Literature. — The Czech or Bohemian language is spoken by that branch of the Indo-European Slays who settled in Moravia and Bohemia about the fifth century after Christ. It is closely allied to the Russian, Polish, Bulgarian, and other Slav languages having a common origin. The evolution of Czech literature dates back to 863, when Moravia and Bohemia, through the efforts of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the apostles of these two countries, were converted to Christianity and thus became participants in the great work of civilization. Of all Slav literature, with the exception of the Bulgarian, the Czech is the oldest and, until the seventeenth century, was also the richest. It may be divided into four periods.

First Period.—T his era extended from the Christianization of Bohemia to the appearance in public of John Hus, in the year 1404. It may be called the childhood of Czech literature and is characterized by fruitfulness in poetry. From pagan times we have no literary relics, though it is certain that the Bohemians used certain crude characters or letters commonly called the runic. St. Cyril, using the Greek characters as a basis, devised a special Slav alphabet with new marks indicating soft sounds. At the same time he introduced a Slavonic Liturgy and translated part of the Bible. The liturgy, however, was soon superseded by the Latin, written in the Latin language with Roman letters. This was brought about chiefly by the German bishops, who, it is said, feared that this Slavonic Liturgy might finally lead to schism. The Slavonic Liturgy survived longest (until 1055) in the Abbey of Sazava. To reestablish it Emperor Charles I founded an abbey at Prague commonly called “Na Slovanech”, or at the present time Emmaus, inducing Slav Benedictine monks from Croatia to settle there. The monks, however, were scattered during the Hussite wars in 1419 and did not return. The older part of the famous “Reims Gospel”, it is claimed, dates from the eleventh or twelfth century. The newer part was written at Emmaus in 1395, and is the only relic of Old Slavonic extant. This Gospel was carried away by the Hussites, was taken as far as Turkey, and thence to Reims, where it was used by the French kings when pronouncing the coronation oath. Of the oldest period, that is from the tenth to the twelfth century, only a few manuscripts have been preserved, among them two fragments of liturgical translations written in the Glagolitic or Old Slavonic alphabet. The most precious relic of this period is the hymn “Hospodine, pomiluj ny”, a paraphrase of the Kyrie Eleison, which, with its deep choral melody, is very impressive. It is surpassed only by the beautiful song in honor of St. Wenceslaus.

A marked improvement in Czech literature began in the year 1250. The Western lands gave birth to new watchwords, new ideas, and new life. The splendor of tournaments, the pomp of feasts, and the grandeur of knighthood took the fancy of the age, while the Crusades widened the people’s knowledge of other countries and customs. The troubadours of France and the minnesingers of Germany went from castle to castle, glorifying heroic deeds of knighthood. Tendencies of this kind found favor also in Bohemia, and because of their origin in Latin or Roman lands, literature of this period is commonly called romance. The deeds and adventures of the knights were extolled in song and poem after foreign models; the best of these was “Alexandreis”, written by an unknown author. This piece of literature is remarkable for its almost faultless form and elegant diction. Another effect of the Crusades was the extraordinary revival of religious faith among the people, which gave rise to a new class of literature, to legends and to mystery or spiritual plays. In prose were written spiritual romances, legends, and passionals depicting the passion of Our Lord and of the martyrs. The Crusades further enkindled in the hearts of many a desire to see and know new lands and new peoples. This led to works on travel, geography, etc. in great numbers.

The veneration of the Blessed Mother developed rapidly and fostered a deeper respect for women and children. The founding of the University of Prague, in 1348, by Emperor Charles I was a mighty factor in the improvement of Bohemian literature in all branches. The moral condition of the Church at that time cannot be called exemplary. There existed certain disorders which called forth reformers, who honestly and sincerely worked for their elimination. Numbers of devotional and moral tracts is were written, the best of which were by Tomas Stitny, who fearlessly assailed the abuses wherever he found them. Stitny’s literary activity also made its influence felt in another line. Up to this time the Czech language had been regarded as unfit for scientific writing, the Latin being almost exclusively used here, as in many other countries, for treatises on theological and philosophical subjects. The treatises however, dispelled this illusion, by using the Czech language even in his scientific writings, and thus created a rich scientific vocabulary. The last of these literary reformers was John Hus. He, however, allowed himself to be led astray by the heresies of John Wyclif and thus become the cause of unhappy dissensions and bloody war in his native country.

Second Period.—The appearance of John Hus in 1404 marks the second period of Czech literature. During this the Czech language passed from its old form to the medieval stage, and this epoch may be called the golden age of Bohemian literature. Devotional prose was in preponderance. The literary merit of John Hus consists in his establishing a diacritical orthography, making the written language more simple and stable; but, on the other hand, his activity caused dissensions in the Church, which brought on bloody wars and the ruin of literature. These sad conditions improved only during the reign of George of Podiebrad (1458-71). The sect known as the Bohemian Brethren, founded in 1457, imparted a new character to Czech literature and produced many eminent writers. In religious meetings held in the fashion of the early Christians, spiritual reading, meditation, and religious songs formed the greater part of the services. The practice led to the publishing of a great number of devotional songs and hymn-books, and to the founding of printing establishments. Eight leading members of the Brethren translated from the original Hebrew and Greek the whole of the Bible, which is generally known as the Kralickk. Bible, from the town of Kralice in which it was printed. This translation is excellent and from a literary standpoint it must be called classical. The greatest writer of the Brethren was their last bishop, Jan Amos Komensk? (Johann Amos, called Comenius), a pedagogue of renown, who, in his masterpiece, “The Labyrinth of the World and the Heart’s Paradise “—the best devotional and philosophical work in medieval Bohemian literature—proves that all worldly glory, riches, and pleasures are vanities and that true happiness consists only in the possession of God and the fulfilling of His Commandments.

Another important factor in Czech literature was Humanism. As early as the reign of George of Podiebrad (1458-71) many writers turned their attention to the old Roman and Greek literatures. They studied the classics, copied the elegancies of form, and drew upon the verbal riches, many even going so far as to write their works in Latin. But two powerful obstacles stood in the way from the beginning. An article of Hussite dogma condemned the fostering of worldly sciences, and the members of the Bohemian Brethren subscribed to this opinion. For this reason Humanism was cultivated at first only by Catholics. Foremost in this movement must be mentioned the talented poet Bohuslav z Lobkovic and John Hodejovsky from Hodejov, who, though not a writer, was a generous patron of literature. When Protestantism superseded Hussitism, John Blahoslav, a member of the Bohemian Brethren, wrote an elaborate defense of Humanism, and three religious bodies then began to emulate one another in fostering Humanism: the Catholics, who had suffered greatly during the Hussite wars, the Bohemian Brethren, who at this time were at the zenith of their literary development, and the Protestants, who were growing in force. New schools were founded, of which those conducted by the Brethren were foremost. These, however, were gradually superseded by the Jesuit schools. Humanism indeed revived classic models of poetry, but it was destructive of home, that is Czech, literature, in that Humanistic poetry was exclusively Latin. At the same time it must be acknowledged that through the influence of Humanism Bohemian prose vastly improved, culminating in the works of Daniel Adam of Veleslavfn, who rightly wrote: “The Bohemian language, in its present high development, is elegant, rich, graceful, and sublime, and perfectly adapted to the setting forth of any topic, whether in theology or philosophy.” This splendid development terminated suddenly in 1620, at the beginning of the era of decline.

Third Period.—The Protestant nobility, refusing to recognize Emperor Ferdinand II, chose the Calvinist Elector Frederick V as their king (1619). This rebellion was overthrown at the battle of the White Mountain, November 8, 1620, and the Bohemian nation by the fool-hardiness and stubbornness of its nobles was shorn of its independence. The victorious Ferdinand began to enforce the existing motto of the Reformation: Cuius regio illius religio. Some of the leaders of rebellion were executed and their property confiscated, and others were warned either to adopt the Catholic religion or to leave the land. Many left Bohemia and their property was sold or given to German, Spanish, French, or Italian nobles. After the battle of the White Mountain we meet but few writers. Most prominent amongst the Catholic writers of this day was Vilem Slavata of Chlum, who wrote a large history in refutation of that of Skala of Zhoi which unduly favored Protestantism. After the Thirty Years War, however, all literary activity ceased. During the whole of the seventeenth century there was not published a single original work of merit. In the eighteenth century works were written in Latin and German. The German language gradually took the place of the Bohemian, and when, in 1774, Emperor Joseph II excluded it from the schools and from all public offices, it looked as if the Bohemian language was condemned to a gradual but sure death. But just here came a sudden change for the better, and 1780 marks the beginning of the modern period of Bohemian literature.

Fourth Period.—A handful of patriotic priests and teachers took up the heroic task of awakening the nation and succeeded. During the course of one century Bohemian literature grew to such proportions in all its branches that today it may well compare with the literature of other nations. Foremost among the pioneers of this era of resurrection must be mentioned Josef Dobrovsky, a Jesuit, and Prof. Josef Jungman.

BOHEMIAN WRITERS IN VARIOUS FIELDS.—Poetry :—Fr. Lad. elakovsky (1799-1852); Boleslav Jablonsky, Catholic priest (1813-1881); Jan Kollar (1793-1852); Viterslav Halek (1835-1874); Adolf Heyduk (1835); Svatopluk tech (1846-1908); Josef Sladek (1854), translated nearly all of the plays of Shakespeare and the principal works of Longfellow, Byron, Burns, Bret Harte, etc. Jaroslav Vrchlicky (1853) is the most prolific Bohemian poet. He wrote sixty-seven volumes of original poems. Besides this he wrote a number of dramas and translated from nearly all the languages of Europe. He translated “Divina Commedia” of Dante, Ariosto’s “Orlando Furioso”, and a great part of Goethe, Carducci, Andersen, De Amicis, Byron, Hugo, de Lisle, Camoens, Ibsen, Moliere, Hamerling, Shelley, etc. Julius Zeyer (1841-1901). Bech, Vrchlicky, and Zeyer are the greatest Bohemian poets. The most prominent of the younger generation are:—Otakar Brezina, Jaroslav Kvapil, Jan Machar, Fr. Svoboda; and the following Catholic priests:—Sigismund Bougka, O.S.B.; Xaver Dvorak; Adam Chlumecky and the Bohemian-American poet, Jan Vranek of Omaha, Nebraska.

Novels and Romances:—Josef Ehrenberger, Catholic priest (1815-1882); Prokop Chocholougek (1819-1864); Frantigek Pravda, Catholic priest (1817-1904); Fr. Rubes (1814-1852); Karolina Svetla (1830-1899); Jan Neruda (1834-1891); Bozena Nemcova (1820-1862); Vaclav Vlcek (1839); Jakub Arbes (1840); Vaclav Beneg Tiebfzsky, Catholic priest (1849-1884); Servac Heller (1845); Ignat Herman (1854); Alois Jirasek (1851); Karel Klostermann (1848); Vaclav Kosmak, Catholic priest (1843-1898); Vaclav Eeznfeek, Ph.D. (1861); Antal Stagek (1843); Alois Smilovsky (1837-1883). Tiebfzsky and Jirasek are the most famous novelists. The most prominent of the rising generation are:—Bohumil Brodsky, Catholic priest (1862); J v Havlasa (1883); Karel Rais (1859); Mate] Simaeek (1860); Alois Dostal, Catholic priest (1858). Drama:—Vaclav Klicpera (1792-1859); Josef Tyl (1808-1856); Fr. Jeiabek (1836-1893); Josef Kolar (1812-1896); Emanuel Bozdch (1841-1889); Fr. Stroupeinicky (1850-1892); Jos. Stolba, LL.D. (1846). The best dramatists are Bozdech and Stroupeinicky.

Of all the branches of scientific Bohemian literature the theological is the richest. The leading writers are:

Exegesis:—Fr. Sugil, Ph.D. (1804-1868), translated and wrote a very extensive commentary to the New Testament. This is the only work of its kind in all Slav literature. Innocent Frencl, S.T.D. (1818-1862); Jaroslav Sedlacek, S.T.D.

Pastoral Theology:—Antonin Skocdopole, Ph.D. (1828); Xaver Blanda, S.T.D. (1838).

Apologetics:—Bishops Jan Valerian Jirsik (1798-1883), Eduard Brynych (1846-1902), and Antonin Lenz, S.T.D. (1829-1901), a master of dogmatic theology, apologetics, Mariology, sociology, and Catholic anthropology. He pointed out with unusual clearness the errors of Wyclif, Hus, Cheleicky, and Comenius.

Catholic Phisophy:—Jan Kaderabek, S.T.D. (1840); Vaclav Simanko, S.T.D. (1844-1897); Pavel Vychodil, O.S.B., Ph.D. (1862); Frantigek Konecny; Vaclav Hlavaty, S.T.D., and Josef Pospfgil, S.T.D.

Canon Law:—Klement Borovy, S.T.D. (1838-1897); Alois Jirak, S.T.D. (1848-1906).

Moral Theology:—Matej Prochazka, S.T.D. (1811-1889); Karel I ,ehak, S.T.D. (1843).

Christian Sociology:—Rudolf Horsky, S.T.D., and Rudolf Vrba.

Oriental Languages:—Fr. Ryzlink, S.T.D.

Biblical Archeology:—Melichar Mleoch, S.T.D. (1833), and Alois Musil, S.T.D., of wide repute.

Hagiography:—Frantigek Eckert; Hugo Karlfk.

Church History:—Fr. Krasl, S.T.D. (1844); Fr. Krygtufek, S.T.D.; Josef Svoboda, S.J. (1826-1896).—The leading theological writers (1908) are:

Jan Sykora, S.T.D.; Josef Tumpach, S.T.D.; Antonfn Podlaha, S.T.D.

Law:—Albin Braf, LL.D.; Antonin Randa, LL.D.

Philosophy and ./Esthetics:—Josef Durdfk, Ph.D.; Ottokar Hostinsky, Ph.D.; Tomas Masaik, Ph.D.

Higher Mathematics:—Dr. Fr. Studnicka; Vaclav §imerka; Brothers Emil and Eduard Weyr.

Medicine:—Jan Purkyne, M.D. (1784-1869); Boh. Eiselt, M.D.; Emerich Maixner, M.D.; Josef Thomayer, M.D.

Natural Science:—Karel Amerling, M.D. (1807-1884); Jan Pressl, M.D. (1791-1849); Jan Krejci, M.D.; Vladislav Sir, M.D.

Astronomy:—Karel Zenger (1830-1908). Travel:—Emil Holub, M.D. (1807-1884); Stanislav Vraz (1859).

History:—Frantigek Palackk (1798-1876), who wrote a history of the Bohemian people in eleven volumes from the earliest times down to the year 1526; Vaclav Vladivoj Tomek (1818-1905); Antonin Rezek Ph.D. (1853).

Archeology :Jan Erazim Vocel (1802-1871); Pavel afarik (1795-1861).



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