5) The Přemyslid dynasty and the forming of the Czech state

Libice acropolis - church floorplan

The Czech state began to form around the 9th century AD. This process was crucially influenced by the Přemyslids, Bohemia’s ruling dynasty which had control over Czech territory for more than 400 years. But what do we actually know about this period? How can archaeology help us understand it? And what were the key moments in the Přemyslid quest for power?   

The Central Bohemian Přemyslid heartland

The iconic image of Prague Castle, perched atop a dominant hill overlooking the Vltava River, is not just a postcard favourite, but perhaps also a national symbol for many a Czech who looks up at it. It is, after all, almost as old as the nation itself.

Jan Mařík | Photo: Loreta Vašková,  Radio Prague International

Those who have visited Prague Castle may recall the Plečnik Obelisk on the third courtyard, which stands around the spot that was once called Žiži, where Přemyslid rulers would be sworn in and sat upon a crowning stone. It is also around this area that the oldest church in Prague, the Church of Saint Mary, was built shortly after the first Přemyslid duke converted to Christianity.

If one turns around, on the other side of the Vltava river stands the Vyšehrad hill, a place that is steeped even more in national legend. Around the Czech capital lie further mythical and historical centres that are tied to the beginnings of the Czech state – Libušín, Levý Hradec and Budeč, which houses the oldest preserved church in the country.

All of these places have one thing in common – they seem to have been part of the early domain of the Přemyslid dynasty at least by the 9th century when the historical Czech state began forming under this family’s leadership.

Dr Jan Mařík, the head of the Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, explains why this is important to both historians as well as people of his profession.

“We build upon information that is rigid and told from the perspective of the victorious Přemyslid dynasty.”

“This is a time when we know that some sort of power was being formed here and that it was able to represent the Czech lands as a single entity. We can start talking about a state administration that the Přemyslids applied here. It was this dynasty that was in charge during this crucial formative period for the Czech state. Great advances were made, but there were also errors and great tragedies.

“This is very interesting for us, because it gives us the chance to compare. We can also gather material that may give us a better understanding of how other state structures may have formed during similar periods.”

The area of Central Bohemia surrounding Prague has therefore interested many generations of archaeologists, with excavations taking place already since the 19th century.

The two languages of history and archaeology

Church of Saint Mary at Prague Castle  (painting by V. Kubašta) | Photo: Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

According to Dr Jan Mařík, the most valuable pieces of information about this key formation period in Czech history can be found in what were then fortified population centres – places exactly like Prague Castle or Levý Hradec.

“These are the most important, monumental pieces of architecture that were built here at that time and that have been preserved in some form or another.

“When it comes to how we can interpret the findings we make here, we basically operate on the basis that both history and archaeology talk about the same period, but through a different language and with different materials.

“From the 1950s to the 1980s, archaeologists got themselves a bit caught in a trap, because they were digging to find confirmation of historical events. They tried to prove concrete events by specific excavations, but that is not how it works. Archaeology tells us more about ordinary life and the economic realities of the time. It can help us form an idea of the place itself, but it can’t identify specific episodes in history.”

Dr Mařík says that not realising this difference between history and archaeology led to a lot of misunderstandings, manipulations and disappointments in the past. What has also changed is the way that archaeology is conducted.

“There were a lot of raids against the pagans at that time, so the baptism request may have served to protect the Czech lands.”

As we saw in our previous episode, where we delved into archaeological analysis techniques, the application of natural sciences is becoming increasingly important in the discipline. Digging up ordinary artefacts, ceramics and animal bones is gradually becoming insufficient. Methods such as isotopic and genetic analysis can tell us previously unimaginable details about the people who lived in the past, the tools that they used and the supply networks that would have existed during their time.

Nevertheless, Dr Mařík says that modern day archaeologists still have one debt to the past.

“That is to go back and critically analyse the material that we dug up during the early- to mid-20th century. There is a lot of unpublished and unevaluated material from that time, which was found in areas such as Prague Castle, Budeč, Libice nad Cidlinou, or Libušín. A lot of excavations took place there but much of the material is still waiting to be evaluated.”

Baptism of Ludmila and Bořivoj | Source:  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

But what does the archaeologist make of the other part of our sources, the written details that have survived about this period?

“Everything that we know about the earliest history of the Přemyslids, about the history of the family that is so closely tied to the Czech nation, is based on legends and medieval chronicles. These were often written long after the event in question took place and we only know of those that the chronicler wanted to write down, in other words the ones that he wanted to keep.

When it comes to hagiographies things get a bit more complicated, says Dr Mařík, because they were written according to certain rules regarding the depiction of saints and their lives. Writers would often incorporate tales from other legends into them.

“We cannot be sure about what events had a fundamental influence on the formation of the Přemyslid duchy, later kingdom and state. Many of these events took place without us being able to gauge their actual importance. We build upon information that is rigid and told from the perspective of the victorious Přemyslid dynasty.

“All that said, we do have some moments that we could perhaps describe as turning points. One of them is the baptism of Duke Bořivoj in Moravia. This is a fundamental event because it brought Bořivoj and his descendants into the community of Christian rulers.”

Libice nad Cidlinou - Acropolis of the hillfort from the east | Photo: Jan Mařík,  Institute of Archaeology of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Key moments in Přemyslid state building

The baptism of the first historically verifiable Přemyslid duke seems to have taken place sometime during the turn of the 870s to 880s. The sources that we have about Bořivoj, two chronicles (one Bohemian and one Frankish) and two hagiographies (focusing on the life of Bořivoj’s wife Ludmila), are precisely the types of documents that Jan Mařík says need to be taken with a grain of salt.

“There was a whole array of other fortified settlements which evidently seem to have been under the control of these other non-Přemyslid Bohemian princes.”

However, it should be noted that one of these sources, the Frankish Annals of Fulda, provide an even earlier mention relevant to Bohemia. In January 845, it says, 14 Bohemian princes were baptised at the court of Louis the German, the king of East Francia, in Regensburg. Virtually no more detail is provided in what is just a sentence-long note, but Czech historians have theorised what may have happened, says Dr Mařík.

“It is an event that tells us that there is an effort in the Czech lands to get closer to the Christian world and become a part of it, which would likely have in turn led to a lesser likelihood of military conflict between the two power entities. There were a lot of raids against the pagans at that time, so the baptism request may have served to protect the Czech lands.

“Yet at the same time it tells us that the Přemyslids were certainly not alone. They were the local leaders and they do seem to have ruled the Czech lands, but they were also relying on a certain group of 14 or 15 other tribal rulers who controlled certain regions within the Czech territory.

“Aside from the Přemyslid centres of power in Central Bohemia there was a whole array of other fortified settlements which evidently seem to have been under the control of these other non-Přemyslid Bohemian princes.”

Czech tribes  (6th - 10th century AD) | Source: Daemon2010,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0 CZ

Historians such as Dušan Třeštík have hypothesised the names and locations of the fiefdoms that these “princes” (knížata) would have ruled. These include the Doudlebové tribe to the south of Prague. There were also the Lučané to the north, who were made famous by the legendary Lučan War (Lucká válka), mentioned by the 12th century Bohemian chronicler Kosmas, in which Bořivoj’s mythical grandfather, Neklan, is said to have waged war with the Lucian Prince Vlastislav. Finally, there were also the Croats (possibly White Croats) in the east of Bohemia, who some historians believe were ruled by the Slavníkid family – the great rivals of the Přemyslid dynasty.

The Slavníkid family was famously murdered almost to a man in what can be roughly described as a Czech equivalent of the Red Wedding, except that it took place while the family was in prayer. This at least according to the Chronicle of Kosmas.

Dr Jan Mařík says that the Slavníkids would have been just one of many families that the Přemyslids would have been in rivalry with, but how significant was its demise for the evolution of the Czech state?

“We can work as a sort of bridge between the West and the East. I think that the Czech Republic still retains that role today.”

“The wiping out of the rival Slavníkid dynasty may have been very important. This date, September 28, 995, is presented as a key moment for unifying the state under Přemyslid rule.

“We can’t be certain about that. It may have just been an altogether unremarkable bout of violence, or it could have been the moment when the Přemyslids became the dominant power.

“Personally, I think they had already achieved dominant power and the whole action was more important for the Slavníkid family, rather than for Bohemia itself.”

In general, Dr Mařík says that the key moments in the formation of the Bohemian state during this period related to dynastic and marriage politics. At the same time, Přemyslid dukes would have had to carefully navigate the network of alliances in their region, balancing these with relations towards the Holy Roman Emperor and fellow imperial dukes. This became increasingly important after the year 895, when the Přemyslids managed to wean themselves out of the influence of Great Moravia and reorient towards the west.

Budeč | Photo: Miaow Miaow,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC0 1.0 DEED

However, some historians have speculated that there may have been a conflict of opinion within the Přemyslid dynasty during this time about whether to focus more on the east and the still pagan Slavic tribes that lived there, or towards the Kingdom of East Francia, their powerful neighbour to the west.

In fact, this is one of the hypothetical reasons for the murder of Saint Wenceslas by his brother Boleslav I in the early 10th century. Ironically, this event would later serve as a major prestige boost for the Přemyslid dynasty, as they would be able to claim descent from a saint. At the same time, the significance of marriage politics would also be shown during Boleslav I’s reign. He would marry his daughter Doubravka to the founder of the independent Polish state, Mieszko I, and shortly after the marriage Mieszko would adopt Christianity.

Libušín - St George church with a wooden bell tower located on the acropolis | Photo: Z. Kačerová,  Archeologický atlas ČR

Dr Mařík says that while the Přemyslid dynasty was not unique for its time in Central Europe. Indeed, similar national dynasties with semi-mythical founders that ruled for hundreds of years can also be found in Poland and Hungary. However, their efforts did have an influence on the establishment of the region of East-Central Europe as we have known it since then.

“One more aspect where I would say that the Přemsylids played an important, indeed crucial, role for us was that they formed some basic regional ties within Europe. And we have been more or less following those ties up until today.

“We are a country that has close ties to the Western world (medieval western Christendom), yet at the same time we are on its periphery and we can work as a sort of bridge between the West and the East. I think that the Czech Republic still retains that role today.”