Charles IV: legendary ruler or pragmatist and spin doctor?
Charles IV, the 14th-century Holy Roman emperor and King of Bohemia, is without doubt one of the greatest figures of Czech history and with the upcoming anniversary of his birth, a great many events are taking place to mark his legacy. But recently, there have also been an increasing number of voices questioning the picture of Charles IV as the greatest Czech of all time, suggesting that there are also some darker aspects to his rule.
“It was typical for medieval rulers that they tried to build their image and memory as good kings. For this purpose, they especially used narrative texts, such as chronicles. Many authors of chronicles wrote them on the direct order of their rulers. Charles IV was no exception. He wrote an autobiography called Vita Caroli himself. It was intended not only as curriculum vitae. He also wanted it to serve as a lesson of morals for his sons and successors.”
While in the Czech Republic, Charles IV earned the title of the greatest Czech of all time, German television program Die Deutschen pronounced him one of the greatest Germans. So was the “father of the Nation”, as he is often called, a Czech at all? Historian Eva Doležalová says it is impossible to label him as one or the other, and argues that he was, in a sense, both Czech and German:
“He considered himself to be the Bohemian king and the Roman king. There were both Czechs and Germans living in Bohemia and he was the king of all of them, the king of the land, not a particular ethnic group. He can also be seen as the universal ruler of the Czechs, Germans, Italian, Poles and others who lived in the Holy Roman Empire during his reign.”
Jews in medieval European society were regarded as a source of income for the king. They were usually protected by the ruler in return for paying him a special tax. According to Eva Doležalová, Charles IV was no exception among the rulers of his time, although he never took Jewish property by force. On the other hand, she admits his share of responsibility for the pogrom in Nuremberg in 1349.
“Charles IV did not give explicit consent to any anti-Jewish pogroms, but his negotiations with the city council in Nuremberg in 1348 to 1349 were not far from this. Charles IV was willing to accept the expulsion or even extermination of the Jewish community in this town in exchange for the acceptance by the city of his being a Roman king. But I would say his stand was pragmatic, rather than anti-Jewish.”
As for his weaknesses and failures, Mrs Doležalová also highlights Charles’s failed attempt to introduce a Code of Law for the Lands of the Bohemian Crown, caused by the resistance of the Bohemian nobility, as well as overprotection of his son Wenceslas IB, who was not able to manage the difficult situation after Charles’s death.
“Charles IV created the concept of the Bohemian Crown Lands. He confirmed all privileges issued up to his time for the Bohemian kings. Charles IV himself issued many other privileges to stabilize relations between the Czech crown lands, the adjacent lands of the Bohemian crown, and the Holy Roman Empire. And he made Prague into a European center of policy, culture, Church and education.”