The history of Bohemian medieval monasteries and libraries
A cursory review of the literary culture of Bohemia (now in modern Czech Republic) from its earliest days to Christianization would cover a period from the end of the ninth century, though greater attention may be given to the period only after the foundation of the independent Prague bishopric (ca. 975). In the 1060’s, the reestablished Olomouc bishopric in Moravia became associated with it on some level, though their exact relationship is not clear. Beginning in the eleventh century, the foundations are laid – at first tentative – of church administration and organization. This was in the form of castle churches and related large parish churches.
Alongside these, the chapter churches and their clergy also gained importance, and of these the two cathedral chapters became most prominent. According to what we know today, the collegiate chapters were of marginal importance with the exception of the Vyšehrad chapter (founded in the 1080’s), and to a certain extent also those in Litoměřice (founded in 1057) and Stará Boleslav (founded c. 1045). This is also suggested by the fact that, unlike in neighboring lands, there were only a few such institutions. The development of Czech monasteries, however, can be followed more clearly.
Before the foundation of the Prague bishopric, the Czech lands had been Christianized from two directions. One form of Christianity came from the area of ‘Old’ Moravia, sometimes also called ‘Great’ – which was primarily in the form of Slavic liturgy and literary culture. This influence has been often overemphasized, and its written legacy was almost completely assimilated into Czech ‘culture’ or ‘institutions’. The other form was due to Czechs belonging to the Regensburg diocese, but Latin Christianity did not leave any traces of their book culture either.
Individual codices must have appeared, perhaps in conjunction with the arrival of the first Prague bishops. The first and third bishops of Prague came from important German monasteries: the first bishop, Thietmar, and the third, Theddag, had both originally been monks in the famous monastery at Corvey. The second Prague bishop, St. Adalbert, was Czech, and one of the leading European intellectuals of his time. He also had literary inclinations. Finally, we know that in the first half of the eleventh century a monk from the St. Emmeran monastery in Regensburg copied several liturgical books for friends in the Czech territories.
At first, liturgical codices were in use but soon, however, books of other kinds were also in circulation. Liturgical books sometimes contained various non-liturgical texts. These were primarily of a memorial nature (whether annalistic or necrological), or were homiletic or hagiographic works.
Monastic communities represented the most important users of these manuscripts, in particularly of the Benedictine order. The oldest Czech monastery was that of the Benedictines at St. George’s at Prague Castle (founded c. 972 followed by the foundation of a series of monasteries: Břevnov (993), Ostrov (999), Sázava (1034) and Opatovice (c. 1086-7) in Bohemia; Rajhrad (1054) and Hradisko (c. 1078) in Moravia. Later Třebíč was founded in Moravia in 1101, followed by Vilémov (c. 1121) and Želiv, in eastern Bohemia (c. 1145, but which became a Premonstratensian monastery as early as 1149). Shortly thereafter, in the north a female convent was also established in Teplice (1160-7).
Between the mid-twelfth century and the early thirteenth century, a series of reform monasteries were founded from Germany. These were the Cistercian monasteries of Sedlec (c. 1142), Plasy (1144), Pomuk (c. 1145), Hradiště nad Jizerou (sometime between 1175-1200) and Osek (c. 1197-9). The Premonstratensian monasteries included Litomyšl (1141), Strahov (c. 1142) (with a parallel female convent in Doksany, founded c. 1142), the aforementioned Želiv (with a parallel female convent in Louňovice, founded sometime shortly after 1150), Milevsko (c. 1184) and Teplá (1193), which had a parallel female monastery in Chotěšov (founded in the early thirteenth century).
In Moravia there were the Cistercians at Velehrad (1205) and in Žďár nad Sázavou (1252). At Hradisko in 1151 Premonstratensians replaced Benedictines who had been expelled and took refuge in Opatovice in eastern Bohemia. There were also the monasteries at Louka (shortly after 1190) and Zábrdovice (just after 1209), and, finally, the female convent in Dolní Kounice (1181). Monasteries of other orders, particularly the knightly ones, will not be considered here because of their divergent aims.
Sometime after the mid-twelfth century, another Benedictine monastery was founded – the monastery in Podlažice, in eastern Bohemia, however, there were few allusion to it in the surviving records. Thus, in contrast to most of the monasteries listed above, neither the date nor the location of its foundation is known. The monastery first appears in 1160 when its abbot, Hugo, along with many other Czech monastic figures, witnessed a document issued in Prague by the Bohemian king (and previously duke) Vladislav II confirming the holdings of the Moravian monastery at Hradisko. The Podlažice monastery abbot Hugo is eighth in the witness list of ten names.
While large parish churches apparently limited their books to basic liturgical texts, the situation was different in chapters and monasteries. All these institutions required multiple copies of liturgical texts, but from the beginning they also strove to promote scholarly literature as well. This was because efforts to foster intellectual life were intensifying, whether from the establishment of monastery schools or by other means. Of course, every situation was unique, and it is impossible to determine the specifics of each one.
Nevertheless, it is possible to say that as far as the higher cultural milieu was concerned, only a few institutions distinguished themselves. In the eleventh century, these were both of the cathedral chapters – in Prague and Olomouc; the Benedictine monasteries, at Břevnov and Sázava (originally founded as a monastery of the Slav rite), and Rajhrad. In the following century, these were joined by the reformed monastery at Strahov, the Premonstratensian Milevsko and Teplá, and the Cistercian monasteries Sedlec and Pomuk. As the result of severe losses, however, even fewer written documents survived from those monasteries.
We are able to describe only two or three of those institutions mentioned above. These exceptions are to a lesser extent Břevnov in the eleventh century. From 1125-50 another exception was the Olomouc chapter –thanks to its bishop Jindřich Zdík (1126-50), for whom the idea of the emancipated church was very important. Finally, there was also the Strahov monastery, which was closely associated with Zdík.
Although all the institutions above existed more or less without interruption, their cultural heritage has not survived intact. This is particularly true of manuscripts, since various catastrophes have meant that only a few fragments have survived, if any at all.
Concerning the Břevnov monastery, we have several disparate documents that are in part related to literary references and in part to the monastery’s own codices. Based on various indications and information about the school there, which enjoyed a good reputation abroad, the monastery probably had a relatively extensive and varied library and indeed also scriptoria, though its contents can only be reconstructed in a very fragmentary way. (Even though the relevant documents about its reputation abroad are from a somewhat later period, it is undoubtedly possible to suppose an analogous situation held true from at least the late eleventh century.) As early as the late eleventh century, this monastery’s written production already met not only that institution’s own needs, but it also supplied the Sázava monastery with books after it switched from the Slavic to Latin rite.
Finally, it is possible that this library also provided Cosmas, the Prague deacon, with resources in the 1120s for his chronicle of the Czechs. Cosmas, in the dedication of his second book of this important literary and historical work, recalls the accomplishments of the Břevnov abbot in this regard. Moreover, some of the monastery’s manuscripts dating back to this period contain a series of special works by authors from Charles the Great’s Schola palatina. This leads us to believe that the Břevnov library’s collection must have been quite broad – both in terms of the number of its volumes and subject matter.
The cultural significance of Břevnov should also be considered in the context of the Podlažice monastery and the Codex Gigas itself, whose contents must have been based on local exemplars. There is no doubt that the order’s most important monastery in Bohemia was in Břevnov. Finally, the close tie between the two institutions in Podlažice and Břevnov is also indicated by the aforementioned document of duke Vladislav II, in which in the lists of witnesses from the abbeys follow one another.
There were cultural activities at Prague after the establishment of a chapter there. The chapter’s deacon, Cosmas, was, as an author, just ‘the tip of the iceberg’. At the Olomouc chapter, cultural and in particular literary activities were taking place from about 1125-50 under the leadership of the aforementioned bishop, Jindřich Zdík.
In addition to a number of high quality manuscripts of a theological and legal nature, there exist various fragments whose scribes had also contributed to other of the surviving manuscripts. In terms of quantity, these relicts remain unrivalled in the Czech context until the late thirteenth century. In terms of quality and variety of subject matter, this remains true until the fourteenth century – in other words, until the Luxemburg dynasty came to the throne. The Codex Gigas is the only exception. It not only astonishes in terms of its size, but also by the breadth of its subject matter: this single volume manages to contain literally an entire library of extremely varied and exceptionally important material.
It must be assumed, however, that important centers of learning also existed in the other monasteries mentioned above. In particular, documents clearly exist for the Strahov monastery, which closely cooperated with the Olomouc chapter. This is also demonstrated by the monasteries of the Premonstratensian order that was subsequently established at Želiv and particularly at the Milevsko monastery, in southern Bohemia. A manuscript from Milevsko containing the annals of abbot Jarloch (Gerlach) has survived completely by chance in a volume which also includes the only surviving copy of annals by the chaplain of the Prague bishop, Daniel I (1148-67) Vincencia. This document provides us with unique, historical information, and is also one of two manuscripts that contain a report by someone named Ansbert about Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa’s expedition during the Third Crusade.
During later periods - the Přemyslid dynasty, including kings Otakar I (1197-1230), Václav I (1230-53), Přemysl Otakar II (1253-78) and Václav II (1283-1305) and his son Václav III (1305-6), and the Luxemburg period - cultural ties develop further, and with it, the book culture. This was in part the case in the traditional areas of literary output, as the number of monasteries increased. The new mendicant orders, i.e., the Dominicans and Minorites (Franciscans) were particularly important, especially in terms of their impact on urban life. Over a short period of just a few decades, the number of monasteries in Bohemia and Moravia grew to almost fifty. In the second half of the thirteenth century, three more Cistercian monasteries were added – two in southern Bohemia (Vyšší Brod and Zlatá Koruna) and the centrally important Zbraslav monastery, founded by Václav II in 1290.
The Augustinian Eremite monastery, also founded by the king (1285) in Prague’s New Town, as it was called then, was just as important, and soon became an important intellectual center. (Later, when Charles IV founded the right-bank New Town in 1348, this town was renamed Prague’s Menší Město -- or Malá Straná, as it is still known today.) Since Václav II intended to ereect a university in Prague, this monastery, along with that in Zbraslav, could have been its main sources of support. In the end, however, the university was never founded due to opposition from the Czech nobility.
It was not until the thirteenth century that the affects of the penetration of secular influences into the world of books is known. This is primarily connected with the Prague court, since during the reign of Václav I and even more so during those of his successors, the Prague court became a significant center of German Minnesang. The Prague court hosted some of its most prominent representatives, such as Walter von der Vogelweide, Reinmar von der Zweter, Ulrich von dem Türlin and others.
Ultimately, the first Czech literary efforts took place at the Prague court as well. On the one hand, these were clearly linked with the oldest Czech monastery, the Benedictines at the Prague castle’s church of St. George. The earliest Czech passion plays were performed there, which dealt with knightly themes, such as an epic about Alexander the Great, who clearly was meant to represent the Přemyslid king Otakar II.
The Luxemburg dynasty in the Czech lands (1310-1419) marked a new era in Czech written culture, particularly the rule of Charles IV (1346-78). Not only did Charles bring about the elevation of the Prague bishopric to an archbishopric (1344), he also founded a university (1348), which played an exceptional role in the cultural life of central Europe as a whole. This was especially the case in the second half of the fourteenth century, when it contributed greatly to the development of intellectual life in the Czech state, which was clearly becoming increasingly secularised.
The need for books grew exponentially, making it possible to consider thousands of manuscripts during this period that were not only in the possession of churches and universities, but also in the hands of lay people, and especially when the library of Václav IV became one of the leading smaller collections, at least in central Europe. There still exists a number of book inventories from this period. As education becomes more secularised, the number of books of a utilitarian nature also increased.