Charles IV: legendary ruler or pragmatist and spin doctor?

Anti-Jewish pogrom in 1349

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.

Karel IV,  photo: Kristýna Maková
In the Czech version of the BBC’s “Great Britons” poll broadcast on Czech Television more than ten years ago, nearly 70,000 Czechs cast their votes for Emperor Charles IV, electing him the Greatest Czech of all time. But does the picture of the great monarch really correspond with reality? And to what extent did Charles IV try to shape his “public image”? Historian Eva Doležalová says that while this might be true, it certainly applies to other rulers as well.

“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.”

Anti-Jewish pogrom in 1349
The program broadcast on German television ZDF some years ago has also described Charles IV as the first desk-murderer of Jews, suggesting that he was responsible for one of the first and worst pogroms in pre-modern history, the Black Death persecutions and massacres. The series of violent attacks on Jewish communities blamed for an outbreak of the Black Death in Europe from 1348 to 1350 resulted in the death of hundreds of Jews.

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.

Karel IV
Despite the criticism, Eva Doležalová says that the image of Charles IV as the greatest Czech is not a fabrication. He was indeed a very successful ruler who did many great things for our country, and can certainly be marked as one of the greatest Bohemian kings. And the image of Charles IV of Luxembourg as one of the most important and successful rulers of all times emerged immediately after his 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.”