Nepomuk and environs - some facts and lots of fiction

If there were a capital city of legendry in the Czech Republic, the town of Nepomuk would be a hot contestant for the honour. There are said to be graves that glow when someone’s about to die, a landscape littered with the petrified cattle of a greedy pagan and the ghost of an evil musketeer who walks the earth with the still-ferocious spectre of his dog. The official population of Nepomuk may be 3,700, but that’s only if you count the living.

For all the legends, historical events and other things of interest surrounding the south-west Bohemian town, the first question I had when I came to Nepomuk was how it got its – for me rather odd – name; a question to which Jana Benediktová of the municipal museum had an immediate, if rather prosaic, answer.

“There were originally two settlements near where the town stands today: Pomuk and Přesanice, both of which were historically tied to the nearby Cistercian Monastery that was founded in 1144. In order to differentiate the settlement around the monastery from the village of Pomuk, people started to call it ‘Ne-pomuk’, or ‘Not Pomuk’, and in 1413 these three settlements were chartered as the town of Nepomuk by Charles IV”

Saint John of Nepomuk statue on Charles Bridge
Most of the people around the world who of know of Nepomuk, know it from the name of its most famous son, Saint John of Nepomuk, and there is no small number of such people. From Australia to Latin America there are schools, people and towns named after the man, called by some “the most famous Czech”. So what is he so famous for? Well should you find yourself drowning you should know: he is the patron saint of water calamities, among other things. And the town of Nepomuk was where he began life as Jan Velflín, the son of a local bailiff. The parish priest Father Vítězslav Holý told me the story.

“St. John was born here in Nepomuk in 1340 or around that year, and was schooled in the nearby monastery. He then left to go to Charles University where he began studying law and held his first job as a local notary. He proved to be a very good student and he was able to go to study in the Italian city of Padua. When he returned as a young doctor of law he became the right hand man, the vicar-general, of Archbishop Jan of Jenštejn.”

In spite of his auspicious start, John’s promotion found him in the middle of a vicious dispute between the archbishop and the emperor, Václav IV. It was a classic case of greedy king versus god-fearing clergyman, in which, as usual, there was no small role played by international affairs and local power struggles. Václav it seems was anxiously awaiting the death of a sickly old abbot so as to gain the riches of his particularly wealthy abbey, and he was foiled by none other than John, who promptly replaced the dead abbot with the archbishop’s nominee.

“So the king was furious. He went after the archbishop in Prague’s Lesser Quarter, but since it’s easier to arrest a vicar than an archbishop, that’s what the he did. John was tortured and – perhaps because he was of a weaker constitution – it killed him. The legends say that the king himself took part in the torture. He had the body thrown from Charles Bridge, hoping the episode would end as the water engulfed him. But the opposite happened: John’s body stayed atop the water for maybe a week, with five stars or an aura of light around him.”

And such was the end John Velflín, but merely the beginning of Saint John of Nepomuk, whose image adorns many a bridge around the world, including the one he was thrown from. His was the first statue on Charles Bridge, and its bronze plaques are rubbed clean thanks to a tradition that touching them brings good luck.

Were it not for Saint John though, the town of Nepomuk would still be well known for the seemingly endless source of legend and historical interest that is the chateau on Zelená Hora. The name of Zelená Hora, or “Green Mountain”, predates Saint John by hundreds of years, beginning with a legend that even he surely knew regarding another Czech saint. In the Church of St. Vojtěch at the top of the mountain, I met the local chronicler Božena Rotová.

“St. Vojtěch left this country due to disagreements with the church here, and he lived with the Benedictine monks in Rome. He returned in 992 with a group of Benedictines and passed this hill, which was then a bare rock. According to the legend, a nobleman turned hermit called Břímota lived here on the bare rock, and St. Vojtěch stayed here with him for a while. It was a time of terrible drought. And standing at that hollowed out stone there to the right of the altar, St Vojtěch blessed the land. He asked heaven for rain, and rain came so heavily that the whole mountain and region turned green, which is why it is called Green Mountain”

Another explanation would be that the hill is covered in evergreens and hence the name, but believe what you like. On the site there was a watchtower, around the tower was built a fort, and from the fort was built a castle. And so on and so on until the present day and the hundred-room chateau that’s seen from far away on top of its very green pedestal.

Volumes have been written about Green Mountain. It stood against the fearsome Hussites and the terrible one-eyed military genius Žižka who burnt the cloister to the ground. A group of catholic lords met here to overthrow the great Czech king George of Poděbrady. Emperors were housed here, Saint Václav’s crown was hidden here, and the Red Bridge in Nepomuk saw so much blood and battle that it’s said the cries and shrieks of the soldiers still hang in the air in the evenings.

Zelená Hora,  photo: CzechTourism
Naturally just about everything in the area of Nepomuk relates to Green Mountain in some way or another. Take the popular local surname “Netušil”, which loosely translates as “Had No Idea”. Before you take pity on Mr or Mrs Had No Idea, listen to the tale of how they got the name, and the legend of the first upwards water duct in Europe:

“Once a miller named Jakub came here from some faraway place and wanted to put the old cloister mill back in order. He was a very talented miller but for all his good qualities he had one great vice, and that was that he was an incorrigible poacher. Time and time again he was punished for shooting the master’s animals, but in the end there was nothing left but to hang him. So Jakub asked to show that he was worth more alive than dead, and he made a promise that within one year he would bring the water from the mill to the castle, which until then had to be hauled up the hill. He managed to do it using wooden pipes that through some clever process brought the water to the castle cistern. And the lord of the castle said he ‘had no idea’ that he had such clever people amongst his subjects.”

Zelená Hora
Of all the historical events in which Green Mountain features, arguably the most important was the finding of the Green Mountain Manuscripts in the early 19th century, which also began the most intense debate in the history of Czech literature. The manuscript appeared at the start of the National Revival, when Czech nationalists were struggling to save their identity from the Germanisation policies of the Austrian monarchy. Jiří Urban of the Czech Society of Manuscripts has been studying the Green Mountain Manuscript all his life.

“The manuscript essentially deals with a dispute between two brothers, but it illustrates a democratic system that it says existed in our nation at the time. The princess Libuše is featured in it as well. An important aspect of it was that it showed a high literary quality for the period, and at an important time; it helped when nationalists were looking for such things, and it played a huge role in their efforts, becoming a source of inspiration for many Czech artists. Everyone knows Smetana’s opera “Libuše”, for example, which was inspired by the Green Mountain Manuscript.”

Written on pieces of 9th century parchment, the manuscript would be the oldest testament of Czech writing – that is, if it were real. Popular consensus however is that it is not. The 19th century Slavic philologist and nationalist Václav Hanka it seems had the skill and the motive to make the manuscript. If he did though, he did it so well that the debate is still raging today.

“I personally consider the manuscript to be authentic, as do my colleagues. We base that opinion on chemical and other analyses that have been backed up by modern studies made by criminologists and philologists. Those who contest the manuscript’s authenticity largely base their criticism on the original 19th century arguments against it. But there is one thing that people on both sides of the debate agree on: that the manuscript’s impact on the National Revival was enormous, there is no question about that.”

If Hanka did forge the manuscripts, he certainly chose the right place to ascribe its finding to; it’s entirely fitting that such a remarkable document would be discovered at Green Mountain, with all its wondrous legend and fantasy. A good time to enjoy that special atmosphere is right now, while the chateau is being gradually renovated and its ancient nooks and crannies are open to wandering about and wondering at history.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 9, 2009.