Cosmas of Prague, his Chronica Bohemorum, and its quest for identity

Pavlína Rychterová

February 1, 2021 | Pavlína Rychterová  HI Research Blog  |

The chronicle of the Bohemi, or the Czechs, as it is usually called by contemporary Czech historians, is one of the most interesting historiographical works written in Eastern Central Europe in the High Middle Ages. Together with the chronicle of the so-called Gallus Anonymus and the Hungarian Annales, which are also anonymous, the Chronica Bohemorum represents the textual basis for the narrative on the region’s early and high medieval history, including the respective origin stories of the people in question – the Czechs, the Poles and the Hungarians. Each of these narratives stood at the center of huge scholarly and public interest – especially during the early phases of modern historiography, when nationalistic scholarly elites of the respective polities, Bohemian, Hungarian and Polish kingdoms (at that time constituting individual parts of the multinational Habsburg monarchy) started to write the histories of their people These high medieval narratives dominated in the histories for many reasons, with other written sources from the period of interest, the 9th-11th centuries, being extremely scarce, and archeological evidence, collected at first by antiquarians searching for treasures of the past, is difficult to interpret. Czech historiography of the 19th century was distinctive in one specific respect: The narrative of Cosmas provided the source for the collection of forged manuscripts that were fabricated in the second decade of the 19th century and containing a collection of romantic epics allegedly originating in the early medieval Bohemia. These romantic epics reported on persons and events that Cosmas had introduced as mythical issues into the discourse of the pre-Christian past of the region. Debate on the historicity of these events and figures, and on the authenticity of the forged poems, accompanied the first century of modern Czech historiography, linguistics, philology, archeology and literary studies. At the end of the 19th century the newly-developed positivistic historiography and philology won this controversy with the help of newly-established methods in source criticism. This victory was followed by many exemplary research outputs from the new professional historiography which, in the decades to come, brought suspicion onto those hypotheses or narratives which did not stand up to fierce, critical scrutiny. On the other side, the focus of historiography remained on nation’s own past, leading to the dominance of Cosmas’s narrative being further strengthened during this time, and also because of the emotional gap that the abandoning of the forged poems had left in the Czech discourse about the past of their own nation. The chronicle was translated in the 1920s into Czech by the philologist Karel Hrdina who produced an extremely accurate text which was also of high literary quality – a rather exceptional combination in the case of translations from medieval Latin. This translation became the text which not only the generations of Czech speaking people know by heart but also Czech historians were accustomed to use when drawing an overall picture of the early and high medieval history of Bohemia. This was very probably the reason for an opinion, which has never been discussed thoroughly but which slipped into the historiographic discourse of the second half of the 20th century – as a good command of Latin could not be taken for granted even among professional historians – that the chronicle was written in rather simple Latin. Of course, from the point of view of classical philologists, who dealt with the primary text analyzing its classical background, Cosmas’s Latin was indeed not comparable to that of his acknowledged paragons, Vergil and Horace. But it is by no means a simple Latin, and the text of the chronicle is by no means a simple account of the past events targeting a single (if not simple) addressee. The immense importance of Cosmas’s narrative for the medieval, as well as modern, identity of the people inhabiting the Bohemian basin who called and call themselves Czechs has led many historians to assume the chronicle was written at the request of Bohemian dukes who ordered a (hi)story glorifying their rule and narrating the origins of the people they ruled. There is no doubt about the high importance of the chronicle for the self-understanding of Bohemian ruling elites, not only in the decades during which the chronicle was written, i.e. in the two first decades of the 12th century, but also during the two subsequent centuries: It was only in the second decade of the 14th century that a new chronicle written in Czech emerged, using Cosmas as a template but significantly re-interpreting his narratives, in order to stress the importance of a “genuine Czech” identity based on the shared language, ancestry, past, and land, with which the indigenous ruling family bonded in the person of their mythical ancestor, Přemysl the Ploughman. Without Cosmas, this powerful identity narrative would not have been possible. But the aim or aims which Cosmas himself pursued with his work were multilayered but also were, very probably, self-contradictory to some degree. He lived and worked in a rather unstable polity where urban cultures that were not yet developed, in which higher Latin education and intellectual life were maintained in a handful of Benedictine abbeys and the bishopric canonry, of which he was a member. The erratic ruling family was in a latent feud with – equally erratic – Roman kings who sometimes more, sometimes less successfully exercised control over the newly Christianized territories on the eastern border of the Frankish principalities. This ruling family, the Přemyslids, was scarcely the only addressee of the complex work in which Cosmas had tried, to the best of his ability, to emulate the texts he had read and admired during his stay at the cathedral school in Liège, one of the most distinguished centers of Latin literacy in Central Europe. Irony and sarcasm chronically breach Cosmas’s heroic attempts to furnish the gesta of Bohemian dukes with Suetonian-like grandeur, with the result that individual narratives unpredictably oscillate between stories of exemplary care for common good and those of bleak tyranny accompanied by the disturbing snoots of a learned man trapped in a world where the agenda was settled by wayward and armed to-the-teeth nobles.

Only a few kindred spirits were chosen by Cosmas to share his ingenious book of consolation with him. He named them in prefaces to individual books of his chronicle, prefaces which represent the most elaborate rhetorical pieces extant till today from the time and area. We may only imagine the responses of those readers: Did Severus, provost of the church in Mělník, and Gervase, master of the cathedral school of St Vitus in Prague, laugh? 


The Chronica Bohemorum of Cosmas of Prague, its Latin edition by Berthold Bretholz accompanied by a new English translation is now available:

Cosmas Pragensis Chronica Bohemorum – Cosmas of Prague, The Chronicle of the Czechs, edited by Janos M. Bak and Pavlína Rychterová, Budapest – New York: CEU Press 2020, ISBN:978-963-386-300-8


Comments (1)

  1. at 11.02.2021
    thanks, very interesting
    1. at 11.02.2021
      and yes, he probably did laugh