The Chods – the king’s frontiersmen

Domazlice, foto: CzechTourism

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.

Domažlice, photo: CzechTourism
“In the olden days, our Kingdom of Bohemia had a natural and mighty wall of deep forest that stretched out for many miles, from the mountain ranges of the borders into the country’s interior. The crossings that ran through the thick wood of the frontier, like gateways into the country, were guarded by designated ‘sentries’… and the most important of them had always been defended by the Chods, a hearty, tough people, stout in build and gallant in spirit.”

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.

“Psohlavci” (The Dog-Heads), book illustration by Mikoláš Aleš
“Chods are inhabitants of the Czech-Bavarian frontier who were charged in the past with guarding and securing the trade routes and signalling any encroaching dangers into the interior. There were many Chodish clans, but they were all German, only the Domažlice Chods were Czechs, and they were all loyal to their Czech sovereign, that is, the Czech king”.

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.

Lammingens of Albernreuth
“There were a lot of social changes taking place in the Czech lands at that time, and suffice to say that the whole region was bought by Lammingen of Albenreuth, a German nobleman from Cheb who came and laid down his own rules. Now the Chods, being very conservative and headstrong as they are even today, refused to respect this new situation and they appealed to the courts. The problem however was that their privileges had never been in written form, they used common law, or the law of customs, while the Lammingens of Albernreuth acknowledged only written edicts.”

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.

Josef Nejdl
“The rebellion of course ended up as you would expect, the leader was executed, and there was peace, but the Chods were completely forgotten. It was only in the 19th century, during this surge of patriotic feeling when they were looking for the source of Czech nationhood that someone remembered the Chods, and the first researchers began coming to try and clarify, among other things, where the Chods had come from in the first place. There are four theories: either we came from eastern Slovakia, or from Poland, or from Lusatia, or that we are simply the westernmost outpost of Slavic civilisation. There’s no reliable evidence for any of these theories, so our true origin will remain somewhere in the hazy past.”

Regardless of origin, Chods are very much figures of the present in Domažlice and environs, where their history and culture is proudly celebrated.

“Tonight is the Chodish Ball, which is a traditional event we renewed 14 years ago. All of the folk groups in the area meet here in Domažlice, which we kind of imagine to be the Chodish metropolis, they sing and play, and of course, dance. I think you can say that tradition is alive and well here. If you look around, you see that there are not only small children running around in their costumes, but also the performers, and even the visitors are here in their local dress.”

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.

Costumes from Mrákov
“The Chod region has two parts: Upper and Lower Chodsko. Upper Chodsko was poorer, and so their costumes are less decorative. The costumes from Mrákov though are embroidered and decorated. So when you look around you can tell who is from where. There are a couple of old people who teach the young ones how to make the costumes, it’s handed down, or there are people like my friend here who is learning to make them now. There is a lot more interest than there once was. In the 1930’s most people started wearing the black suits that were in fashion and began wearing the costumes only at weddings. Then, during communism, here was no interest in it; the costumes weren’t worn at all.”

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.