Cosmas of Prague and the Chronicle of the Bohemians

Cosmas of Prague

Much of the tapestry of old Czech history and the fundamental legendry of this country is known to us today thanks to the labours of one wise old man. His name was Cosmas of Prague, he died almost 900 years ago, but today his name is known as well or even better than some of the kings who he immortalised in writing. Cosmas of Prague set the foundation on which Czech historiography was built when he recorded all he knew about his nation in its first annals, the Chronicle of the Bohemians.

What we know of Cosmas, we know entirely from his work. The voice that you hear in his chronicle today (originally in Latin and translated through two languages and paraphrased for you here) is that of an impeccably educated, roughly 75-year-old clergyman, who took up his task with the conscientiousness of a modern historian, as you see in his opening words:

Cosmas of Prague
“…My narration begins with the first inhabitants of the Czech lands, and it merely tells what little I have learned from the legendary tales of elders, not out of a desire on my part for earthly acclaim, but so that these stories may not fall into oblivion… This first book contains the deeds of the Czechs, insofar as I have gathered them, up until our times. But I have dated them only from the days of Duke Bořivoj, as have found no chronicle before that time from which I could date the deeds of which you will now read, and I did not want to fabricate them.”

The man known so well as the Czech Herodotus is largely unknown to us in biographical detail. As the first chronicler I suppose you could say he had the luxury of telling only those facts about himself that he wanted to be remembered. They were few, but they were insightful, as medieval historian Eva Doležalová told me.

“He was a canon in the chapter of Prague, we do not know exactly what degree of ordination he had; he could have been a deacon or sub-deacon. We know that he was married – it’s unusual for us but it was normal and tolerated in the 12th century – his wife was called Božetěcha, and then we know he had a son whose name was Henry – Jindřich in Czech. So marriages of clergymen were not allowed, in fact they were prohibited for priests, but they were tolerated.”

Tolerated to such an extent that he could write publicly that he was married?

“It was criticised by popes and other authorities, but it was normal and usual that priests were married and had children, and their children would then become priests like their fathers.”

Eva Doležalová
Cosmas studied in Liege, in modern Belgium, and returned to Prague in his mid-30s, a learned man of the literary arts, positioned to become an important church official in the burgeoning age of the Church. If there were still pagans at Prague Castle when he was born, there were certainly none there when he died. The Cathedral of Saint Vitus, which you know today as the Gothic peak atop Prague Castle, was only a Romanesque rotunda in his boyhood and was steadily being enlarged when he became its deacon in 1120.

By that time he was old, and the deaconry probably a comfortable post, because it was then that he began his life’s work, in the five years or so before his death, putting down the stories that would remain central to his culture for another thousand years.

“One day the lady Libuše, captivated with a spirit of prophesy, foretold the following before her husband Přemysl and the elders: “I see a grand castle that touches the heavens with its glory. In the thick of the forest lies a place – distant from this village thirty miles, its borders marked by the waves of the Vltava… and the rocky face of a broad hill called Petřín high above it… Once you get there, in the middle of the forest you will find a man hewing the threshold of his home. And since even great men bow when they cross a low threshold, you will call the castle that you build there Praha, threshold, in accordance with this event.”

The story of the founding of Prague, like the finding of the uninhabited land of milk and honey, and the tale of the commoner king, all told in the annals for posterity, are also told with ulterior motives. In fact, they are told with the same intent as they were retold 700 years later, when 19th century Czech patriots used them to kindle a National Revival. Cosmas’ patriotic work lent legendary credence to the Czech claim to the land, and to the ruling, native dynasty, at a time when Bohemia was beset with Poles and Germans playing havoc with its affairs of state.

Břetislav I
“He prefers Czechs to other nations on many occasions. We can say he hated Germans and Poles, he often wrote of Poles as rude people, simple people, and Germans too. But he distinguishes between Czech Germans and foreigners; it’s a really interesting thing. In his time, there were a lot of conflicts with Polish people, so for example the Bohemian Duke Břetislav I fought with the Poles, and that could be the reason for his animosity.”

The Chronicle is structured in three books, the first being legend, the second reliable fact, and the third the personal knowledge of the writer. But with his attitudes and biases throughout, what Cosmas left was not strictly a chronicle, and not strictly a history, but the chronological testimony of an excellent storyteller. He was a clever and sophisticated writer for his day, and he was able to put together important facts and traditional stories with entertaining insights into the attitudes and customs of his day.

“Cosmas’ Chronicle contains many anecdotal stories, many humorous stories that could be based on fact and we say that Cosmas was right in these cases. For example, we can mention the story of the election of the bishop, Šebíř…”

"Šebíř was always the first on hand if a wild boar was slain; he was skilled in removing the tail, preparing it in just the way the duke liked it most, and in serving it up just as he arrived. It was for this that Duke Oldřich would tell him often: "Šebíř, I will tell it to you candidly: for this scrumptious pig’s tail you deserve to be a bishop." It was for this and other zeal that Šebíř won the duke’s goodwill and popularity in general."

Budyšínský copy of the Cosmas’ Chronicle
The original manuscripts that bore these words are lost, in all likelihood forever. After a millennium of carnage and disasters, fifteen copies remain. The oldest of these is the Budyšínský copy of the Chronicles, only several decades younger than the original, and today is in the custody of the National Museum Library and its curator Dr. Richard Šipek:

“It is one of the ten most important manuscripts the museum has, actually, because it is the oldest copy of the oldest Czech chronicle, so its impact is hard to appreciate; it is the most important resource for Czech historians and the oldest part of Czech history. We don’t have any older resources, so, I think it speaks for itself.”