The Chods – the king’s frontiersmen
In the Late Middle Ages, a group of Czech frontiersmen were charged with guarding the kingdom’s western borders. In today’s Czech History we travel to Domažlice to visit the descendants of the Chods.
Thus begins the epic romance “Psohlavci” (The Dog-Heads) by Alois Jirásek, which during the 19th century National Revival re-awoke pride in a forgotten group of Bohemian frontiersmen who had once held a special place in Czech society. Every Czech child today learns about the Chods – literally “walkers” – in Jirásek’s work of early historical fiction, but they are not just spectres of Czech history as you find when you visit the western Bohemian town of Domažlice. Ethnologist – and Chod – Josef Nejdl is the director of the Museum of Chodsko, located in Domažlice’s 13th century Chod Castle.
Interestingly, it was of no significance to the king what language his sentries spoke or what culture they observed; their loyalty was ensured with unheard-of privileges. And while they were no doubt chosen for the job because they were rough-and-tumble highlanders, the function and image they were allotted by the 19th century romantics was somewhat mystified:
“The work they did was something like that of finance officers. They supervised the collection of tolls and customs taxes, and insofar as they could, they kept the trade roads clear of highwaymen, bandits and thieves. And for that service, they received a long list of benefits from the Czech king. They never had to serve the aristocracy; they answered directly to the king. They could wear a weapon, hunt and chop trees in the king’s forests. They had their own seal and their own ensign, and they had their own court, which was in this building.”
A total of 24 privileges, bestowed upon 11 villages selected by the king, and superior even to those enjoyed by townsmen in the larger settlement of Domažlice. Among other things, they were allowed to breed dogs, Bohemian Shepherds to be precise, which legend says accompanied them on in their duties and lent their image to their shields, from which the name “Dog-Heads” comes (what is certain is that some 700 years later the communist border guards would use the same image as their emblem).
Another deceiving perception imparted by Jirásek is that the Chods were a large fighting force. In fact there was nothing like an army that could deter an invasion, but only about 320 “sentries” selected according to conditions set by King John of Bohemia in 1325 and handsomely rewarded. The position that the Chods enjoyed was a singularly unique one, so it was no surprise they were rather unhappy when it started to unravel before and after the Thirty Years’ War, in the early 1600s.
The Chods tried every method of retrieving their traditional rights available to them, from what we’d call today ‘civil disobedience’ to armed revolt, but, to abbreviate a long story, every step forward that they tried to take, they were forced to make two back in punishment, culminating in the two-year Chodish Rebellion in 1693.
Regardless of origin, Chods are very much figures of the present in Domažlice and environs, where their history and culture is proudly celebrated.
The truly surprising thing about the affiliation with traditional dress and song at the Chodish Ball is not even that almost everyone partakes in it, or that there are hundreds of attendees, but that even the teenagers seem to feel comfortable walking around the square in their blue and yellow Napoleonesque uniforms and dancing with their peers. One of the red and white clad revellers told me about the traditional dress.
Today though, cultural pride in the Chod region is built from an early age, as you can see in 10-year-old Patrik Hradecký:
“I’ve done a lot of dancing tonight, I danced with my mom, my aunt, my cousin, and my brother. And then with my mother again. Then we performed and sang ‘Play Me a Song from Klatovy’ and ‘The Pretty Village of Domažlice”, and it was nice, I’ve enjoyed the ball. I definitely feel like a Chod, I was even born in the Chod region. And what does it mean to be a Chod? It means you sing in Chodish and play Chodish instruments, like the clarinet and the tuba.”
And not only the clarinet and tuba but also the Chodish bagpipes, a brow-raising combination of ox horns, bladders and some other, surprising ingredients, as this player told me.
“The bagpipes are an indigenous instrument that’s played here in the Chod region. It’s an old instrument, said to come from Mesopotamia. The difference between Chodish bagpipes and the Irish or Scottish variants is that we use these bellows, instead of blowing into it, so that we can sing while playing. They’ve disappeared elsewhere in the Czech Republic, but we continue to use them here. The skin of the bag itself is made of dog, because it’s oily and holds air well. It’s a refinement; in Moravia they use goat skins and the air escapes.”
The Chodish Ball is actually the smaller event of the year in the region of Chodsko; come August some 70,000 visitors will descend on Domažlice for one of the largest local festivals in the Czech Republic – more of the same, but times ten, with Chodish culinary specialties to boot, and surely one of the only places where you too can try on a traditional costume and not free out of place.