Perchta of Rozmberk - the White Lady of Bohemia


Welcome to another edition of Czechs in History. Today we take you back to the 15th century: we'll be looking at the life of one of most famous and tragic figures of Czech nobility Perchta of Rozmberk, the most powerful of Czech aristocratic families in their day, the owners of castles and estates in southern Bohemian towns from Cesky Krumlov and Rozmberk, to the towns of Jindrichuv Hradec and Telc in the Czech-Moravian highlands. Whose father was Oldrich II, a shrewd politician married her off against her will; she, who suffered an intolerable marriage to Jan of Lichtenstein. And who, according to legend, survived death to become the most famous of White Ladies - a ghost haunting her family estates. We'll be talking to well-known Czech author Eda Kriseova who worked on a book about Perchta of Rozmberk for almost thirty years. Her insights and Perchta's story - all ahead.

Anyone mildly acquainted with Czech history will know that the noble family known as the Rozmberks belonged to the most affluent and influential of their day - Perchta's father Oldrich II was a clever strategist, above moral compunction, who resorted to a myriad of techniques - including forging documents - to maintain or increase his power. At times he juggled support both for and against the Hussites, both for or against King Zikmund of Luxembourg, in order for his estates and position to survive. His family had largely Oldrich II to thank for endlessly building up his family's might in southern Bohemia, and impressing his influence on the Czech kingdom.

Oldrich II
However, it was because of Oldrich's decision to marry off his third daughter Perchta of Rozmberk - just twenty at the time - to Jan of Lichtenstein, that he features in our story today. The marriage would be a luckless one - that would provoke the young noblewoman to write letters of despair and pleading to her father and her brothers to ease her bondage - pleas that for the most part would go ignored. Czech writer Eda Kriseova, who first encountered Perchta's legend in the 1970s, was so inspired by Perchta's story she decided to use the historic figure as the main character in a novel. Delving into archives in the town of Trebon, she read 92 remarkable letters - some of them written in Perchta's own hand, others by the hands of servants. They had survived documenting Perchta's life at the hands of a tyrant.

"Such a big collection of letters is a very rare example of medieval women's literature, because of course women at that time didn't write. I went to Trebon and read the letters, seen all the letters in original, which was something amazing. She was well-educated. The letters are mainly written in Czech, from Mikulov and sent to Krumlov, to her brothers and her father. A voice so lonely...and so desperate."

Eda Kriseova
The letters describe much of Perchta's unhappiness. And, there were many reasons. In marrying Jan of Lichtenstein in 1449 she had been forced to leave behind her beloved Cesky Krumlov, for the town of Mikulov. Far worse though, was the fact her marriage had arranged on "false pretences" - Jan Lichtenstein marrying Perchta solely because he believed she would bring a large dowry. Her father meanwhile had not realised her future husband had unresolved debts. In the end a handsome dowry was negotiated, but, when Oldrich failed to pay it, he condemned his daughter to the wrath of her new husband, her new mother-in-law and her husband's sister. Trapped in Mikulov she was treated so poorly by her new family it was scandalous. Though her family made motions of understanding, her father did little more than send soothing words.

In the meantime the abuse at the hands of her husband left Perchta practically without funds, so that she even had to beg her brothers to send her money. Her situation eventually grew so scandalous that at one point even King George of Podebrady had to intervene, though that did little more than save her for a short time. She had written to her brothers: "Take me away from these evil people and you will merit praise, as if you released a soul from Purgatory."

The mind boggles that Jan of Lichtenstein could be so cruel. Still, Eda Kriseova points out that 28 years of working on her novel on Perchta's life taught her that no characters are black and white. Not even Perchta herself.

"At the beginning I was thinking, according to the legend, that she was like an angel and he was like a devil. I think he was sadistic probably and he was a pathological character. But, on the other hand, she was also guilty - to an extent. She was very proud, she had sort of a big ego. But she also had a terrible measure of bad luck: her children died and everybody, all her brothers died before her: she was always looking in someone's grave. Also, in the last few years I found out that she died from Plague, which I didn't know before, and in fact, that she died 'voluntarily', that she wanted to die."

Petr Vok
Despite the hardships she endured - or perhaps because of them, writer Eda Kriseova says Perchta did find some kind of meaning, transcendence, almost unexpected.

"After all, I think she still managed to reach great spiritual development in her life. That is what her story is about."

The writer's approach to historic figure of Perchta of Rozmberk stands in sharp relief to the legends and the folktales that most commonly known, with origins in Germany that predated her own tragic story - the legend of the White Lady. A legend which has appeared in many forms in different European settings, of an overwhelmingly good spirit, often a deceased grandmother who watches over her surviving kin. In Bohemia Perchta became the most famous of White Ladies, cursed by her husband on his death bed for not forgiving him for his crimes, cursed to haunt the family's many abodes, most famously Rozmberk Castle in southern Bohemia. There, it was said Perchta appeared in white, wearing white gloves meaning good tidings, while black signified a death in the family. Still, the symbolism applied was most certainly an added touch of the Jesuits.

In the end perhaps the most charming legend of all surrounding Perchta as White Lady is the story of how she cared for Petr Vok - the last Rozmberk - when he was still a baby, looking over him after his nurse had fallen asleep. It is said the nurse awoke in a start to be surprised and chastened the woman in white. Her reaction caused Perchta to disappear into a wall and, it is said, never to appear again, though different sources cite different sightings even in modern times. Though more impressed by the real figure of Perchta of Rozmberk than the stuff of legends, even writer Eda Kriseova admits, tongue-in-cheek, that working on her novel there were times she felt she was not quite alone.

"Sometimes I was writing during the night because the children were small. And sometimes I thought to myself 'Well, she's here, she's standing behind me'. And I didn't turn. It's a very strange feeling to write about somebody who really existed. I was so much involved in her destiny."

The presence of a unique woman's past - and the incredible burden of giving her story justice. Perchta of Rozmberk may have died at the disappointing age of 49 more than 500 years ago, but the survival of her letters is unique and they continue to inspire today.