The archaic definition of rhapsody is “a miscellaneous collection”. This describes the history of Bohemia perfectly. The modern definition, “a highly emotional literary work or utterance”, I will have to leave to Queen!
In my Czechquest for this blog, I will explore the rhapsody of the Bohemian history and culture in what is now known as Czechoslovakia.
What is Bohemia? Where is Bohemia and how has this become such a catch phrase for modernity today?
Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start according to Maria in her Bohemian paradise called Austria!
The early settlers of Bohemia, modern day Czechoslovakia, lived in the heart of Europe between the Carpathian Mountains and the Danube. Pliny and Strabo would refer to this land as Boiohaemum, and would later be called “Boii” by the Romans. The great Byzantine Emperor Constantine would also refer to this land as “Boiki: A prime example of globalization in the 1st century!
When Rome crumbled, the Germans invaded along with the Slavs from Central Asia. Their leader, Cech, would call this the “Promised Land” and it is easy to see why: vast forests, beautiful rivers, green meadows, azure lakes and rolling hills.
This land became known as “Bohemia”. In the early tenth century, Bohemia was ruled by Václav, Good King Wenceslas, who was beloved by his people. He would become Czechoslovakia’s first martyr.
A few centuries later, Bohemia would be ruled by Charles IV (1316-1378), who also ruled in Germany and became the sovereign of the Holy Roman Empire. King Charles would bring many advancements to the Bohemian academic world including a university in Prague which attracted students from England, Scandinavia and the Balkans. This was in a time BEFORE printed books, which we are about to come full circle. He also declared that Czech, German and Latin would be the official languages within the Holy Roman Empire.
King Charles would also build a massive bridge across the Vltava to link the two banks of Prague. This bridge had an interesting ingredient-eggs-which was to help strengthen the mortar. Seven hundred years later, this great bridge still stands!
Bohemia would later become an independent principality as part of the Habsburg Monarchy and the Austrian Empire after the Archduke Ferdinand I of Austria became the new King of Bohemia. After the Great WWI, the total of Bohemia would become a part of Czechoslovakia. During WWII, these regions would be referred to as the Sudetenland and be under the control of Nazi Germany.
Interestingly, today we use the term “Bohemia” for various artistic and academic communities, people, environs, situations—think of “Boho”! The use of the word bohemian for this purpose, however, goes back to the 19th century when it first appeared in the English language describing impoverished artists, writers, journalists, and musicians in major European cities.
The term bohemianism is actually a French term from this same time period when many artists were from Romani, or Bohemia, the western part of modern Czech Republic. This was used as a pejorative term by the bourgeoisie. Some literary and musical references to Bohemia: Carmen, a French opera set in Seville, a bohemienne libretto; Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème; Puccini’s opera La bohème; and in one of my favorite songs by the late Charles Aznavour La Bohème which reflects the lifestyle in Montmartre during the Belle Epoque. Many of the Impressionists used the Bohemian theme in their paintings.
Bohemia remains a historical region whose administration is divided between: Prague, Central Bohemia, Plzen, Karlovy Vary, Liberec and Hradec Králové Regions. The distinction between these Bohemian lands is preserved in local dialects and cuisine!
Anyway the wind blows…
Copyright 2019 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)