The medieval history of Bohemia and Moravia



Czech lands during the migration period (cca 400-550). The Roman period in Moravia ends around 400 AD. Old Svebian population (the Quadi) with typical cremation burial rite disappears and is substituted by skeletal graves bearing traces of the Čerňjachovo culture. It is supposed that the Quadi left their old homeland, because they were driven out by the Heruli and Rugii. The Rugians occupy Lower Austria, while Heruls probably lived in the region of south-west Slovakia and south Moravia. As for Bohemia, the composition of its population is uncertain, because remains of this age are situated very low below the ground and many of them were destroyed by tillage. Pottery after 400 is made up of the so-called Zlechov type that is considered as Germanic. It is a hand-made, very gross ceramics. The settlements are characterized by Germanic earth-houses. In any case, it is clear that the Marcomanni (or the majority of them, respectively) left Bohemia around 400 and settled in Pannonia as foederati under Generidus. About 450 the population in Bohemia was influenced by the Langobardi, who had come from the north and stayed here for several decades, until they moved to south Moravia and Lower Austria (ca. 490). After their departure, there still existed some Germanic elements, but they disappeared sometimes between 530-540, when they were invited by Franks to fill up a sparsely inhabited area around the lower Danube. According to the country of their origin they called theirselves Bavarians, Baiwari (from *Bajawarjóz "coming from Bohemia").

  • Perhaps the most important remain of the migration period in Czech lands is the burial-mound of Žuráň (south Moravia), maybe a grave of some Herulian nobleman. The mound had been built as early as during the iron age, but the Germans reused it again in the 5th century. The grave was encircled by a low stone wall and contained a wooden construction. The findings include iron candlesticks, golden objects and an ivory box.

The Slavic presence in Czech lands. The first Slavic colonizers are archeologically attested in the 6th century. Their migration wave is characterized by a hand-made, plain pottery (the type Prague) with analogies in Ukraine (therefore, the early Slavic pottery of middle Europe and Ukraine is called the type Prague-Korčak). The early Slavic settlements are composed of quadratic earth-houses with stone hearths in the corner. The Slavic burial-rite is crematory.


The contemporary view supposes a gradual penetration of Slavs from several directions. The oldest waves came from the north through the Moravian gate and from Slovakia (the archeological remains near Žilina are the oldest traces of the Prague type in Slovakia). Around 600 (but rather between 610-620, according to written sources) a new big wave from the Carpathian basin occurs and is characterized by a more advanced pottery (the Danubian type or the Middle Danubian cultural tradition). Scientists suppose that this wave was the most important and was probably caused by the unrest in Pannonia preceding the Slavic revolt against the Avars around 620 (So far I haven't studied this topic in a more detailed way.). Bearers of the Danubian type were Czechs, Croatians, Serbs, Dudlebs, Obodrites and several other tribes formerly living in the Carpathian basin. Many of these tribes splitted up before this expansion and this is the reason why we know Croatians, Serbs or Obodrites both from the Carpathian basin and Bohemia or eastern Germany. The common origin of Czechs and modern Serbocroatians betray very similar legends (see below).


But what are the first literary records of Slavs in Bohemia and Moravia? The well-known passage of Prokopios (De bello gothico 2,15) says that after the Heruli had been defeated by the Langobards (between 505-510), one part of them returned to the old Herulian homeland in Sweden. "They had many leaders of the royal blood, passed gradually through all Slavic tribes, then overcame a large deserted area and came to the so-called Varni..."  Since the Heruls must have gone through the Moravian Gate, Prokopios' record is a testimony that in the beginning of the 6th century the Slavic tribes settled in north Moravia and Silesia. We can suppose that when the Langobards had left Moravia for Pannonia and then for Italy (546/547 and 568), the Slavs occupied their territory and penetrated to Bohemia.


The names of the first tribes probably didn't survive, because the names of the Czechs, (Black) Croatians, Obodrites, Serbs (Sorbians) and other tribes in the north-east all have analogies in the Carpathian basin, which means that they are connected with the second "Danubian" migration and absorbed the oldest Slavic layer. The name of the Czechs is not recorded anywhere in the Slavic world. Possible connections are not excluded in the case of a Greek village called Tzechoi. Thus it is possible that a little part of the tribe penetrated to Greece with a big Slavic wave during the 7th century.


The oldest Czech legends. The oldest legends about the origin of the Czech tribe were recorded by medieval chronicler Cosmas in the beginning of the 12th century. Cosmas begins his Chronica bohemica (Czech chronicle) with the traditional biblical fiction - the building of the Babylonian tower and the big flood - and continues to the moment, when the first people inhabited Bohemia. As he says, his information is based on the "old narrations of old men". According to them, the first Czechs settled around the hill Říp and laid their gods (penates) on the ground. Then their leader (senior) proclaimed that this is the land that had been promised to them and asked his men, how they will call it. The men exclaimed: "Since your name, father, is Boemus (=Čech, Czech), where will we find a better and more suitable name for this land than Bohemia (Čechy)?"


A proof that this legend may not be invented is a record of a later Czech chronicler, who is traditionally called Dalimil (the beginning of the 14th century). Dalimil's chronicle relates about a man called Čech, who lived in the land of the Croatians. Here he commited a murder and was forced to go away. So he took his six brothers and all his people and after some time they went through a large forest and came under a hill. Here Čech ordered to take a rest and climbed on the hill. When he saw that the land was good, he said: "We have our own land full of animals, birds, fishes and bees, without enemies." And the hill was called Říp.


And there even exists a third version contained in the Bavarian Chronicle Of Emperors And Popes written sometimes after 1290. According to this document "Čech (Boemus) the Slav" had to leave his country in Hungary because of the attack of the Byzantine emperor Justinianus II. (???; he ruled 685-695; logicly, it should be Herakleios; I must check the source) and came to Germania that was empty (because the Germans had been annihilated by the Huns), and subsequently the land got its name after him.


Another support for this story can be found in the work of the Byzantine emperor Konstantinos Porfyrogenetos. In his writing called About the administration of the empire (around 950) he relates about a Croatian legend from the time of the reign of Konstantinos' predecessor Heraklios (610-641). It deals with a man called Charvát (Croat), who was forced to leave "the land behind Bavaria, where now the White Croatians settle" (Bohemia) together with his four brothers (Klukas, Lovelos, Kosentis, Muchlo) and two sisters (Tuga and Buga). They came to Dalmatia and found here the "Slavs called Avars" as the holders of this land. After several years the Avars were defeated and the Croatians seized the territory. By the way, Tuga and Buga are male Turkish (Avaric?) names, so the emperor must have been wrong and the story is thus almost identical with the Czech version that also relates about 7 brothers. By the way, according to other legend, modern Serbs came from White (Lusitan) Serbia. I can also list another important record from a Russian chronicle, the so-called Nestor's chronicle (Povesť vremennych let, around 1118). Here the author claims that after the fall of the Babylonian tower the Slavs settled around the Danube. Later they left this region and settled in Moravia, Bohemia, Carantania, White Croatia and Serbia. Later the document is more complicated and very probably confused. The author namely mentions an attack of the Byzantinians ("Vlachs") and the flight of the Danubian Slavs to Poland (where they got names Lachs, Polans, Luticians etc.) and to Russia, which is wrong. The Carpathian basin was not the original homeland of all the Slavs, but only a secondary migration center of the ancestors of modern Western and Southern Slavs.


So what did modern historians deduce from this? These legends independently confirm archeological data about the second Slavic wave from the Carpathian basin after 600. However, it is clear that the kernel of the story was contaminated and in both versions the original homeland (Middle Danube) is confused with the later seats of their tribal relatives. The seven brothers in both legends must be taken symbolicly. It is well known that in the Slavs the word "seven" was a symbolic substitute for "all the people" (see "Seven tribes" in Bulgaria). The hill Říp was then a geometric center of the inhabited territory in Bohemia and it was also a place with a symbolic sense. So far it is not clear to me, what was actually the reason of the migration from the Danube. Often it is supposed that it had something to do with the massive attacks of the Byzantinians in 601 and later, when the Avars and their Slavic allies were defeated and had to move in the north. However, in other passage of the Byzantine text Konstantinos speaks about the Croatians and Serbians like about "refugees", who got a land from the emperor Herakleios (610-641).


Now we will continue about the Czech legends. When Čech died, he was followed by Krok. Krok had three daughters: Teta, Kazi and Libuše. All three sisters had their own place of residence. Libuše lived in Vyšehrad (an old fortification in today's Prague). She was a fortune-teller and very wise woman. When Czechs forced her that she should marry some man, because they don't like that a woman rules them, she said that they should go to a certain place, where a man called Přemysl ploughs soil. They went there and when they found him, they brought him to her and she married him. Přemysl then became a leader of the Czechs. When Libuše died, women led by Vlasta revolted against men. After cruel clashes women were defeated. It is quite a mystery, where Cosmas found this strange story. Perhaps it was inspired by ancient legends about the Amazon women. Since they are known as inhabitants of the steppes, I also don't exclude that the revolt has something to do with the Avars, but this is only my very courageous postulate.


After this episode Cosmas names a row of alleged Přemysl's descendants from the family of the Přemyslids: Nezamysl, Mnata, Vojen, Vnislav, Křesomysl, Neklan and Hostivít, Bořivoj's father. The only important event from this era that he mentions is the "Lučan war" (Lucká válka) between the Czechs and the Lučans, a group living in the north-west Bohemia. The Lučans led by Vladislav attacked Czechs and their chickenhearted leader Neklan, but Neklan sent a young hero called Tyr, who deceived the warriors, because he was dressed in Neklan's armour. Under his leadership the Lučans were defeated and subdued, but Tyr was killed (A note: Old Czech Legends written by Alois Jirásek in the 19th century substituted Tyr's unusual name by a more frequent Čestmír. This Jirásek's innovation caused that Tyr's name is usually used only rarely).


Samo and his rule (623-659 or 626-662). Samo is the first historical figure in the Czech region. He is documented by Frankish chronicler Fredegar writing in the second half of the 7th century. According to him, Samo was of Frankish origin, came from the area of Sens in Gaul and arrived to Slavs because of trade in 623/624, when they began to revolt against the Avars. Samo joined them, gave them useful advice and the Avars were defeated (It is quite probable that the revolt broke out after the disastrous defeat of the Avars near Constantinople in 626). Since the Slavs saw his usefulness, they vote him a leader. Then Samo ruled for 36 years. The center of his tribal union (the first Slavic state?) was very probably somewhere in the basin of the Morava river, perhaps in the region where later the center of the Great Moravia was situated.


In 631 the Frankish king Dagobert attacked Samo's Slavs, because Samo didn't want to subdue to the Franks. Although Dagobert's allies, Langobards and Alamans attacking along the Danube, won a victory, the main Frankish army suffered a defeat near a place called Wogastisburg (Wogast's bourgh). The place of the battle is one of the biggest mysteries of the early Czech history. However, it is quite obvious that it was situated in the direction from the valley of the Main river, where the Franks headed for Bohemia. The latest opinion supposes that Wogastisburg may be identical with a hill called Rubín in the valley of the Ohře river.


After the successful battle, another Slavic tribes (the Lusitan Serbs led by Dervan) joined Samo and his "empire" extended as far as to modern eastern Germany. According to Fredegar, Samo ruled for 35 years and had 12 wives, 22 sons and 15 daughters. Unfortunately, from the end of the 7th century to the beginning of the 9th century there exist no detailed written sources dealing with Czech lands. Therefore, the history of Bohemia and Moravia during this time remains a mystery. We can only hypothesize that there persisted some tradition of Samo's descendants that eventually led to the emergence of the Great Moravia.


(To be continued...)





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