Today’s selection — from Prague Winter by Madeline Albright. The origin of the terms Bohemia and Czech — along with the story of Good King Wenceslas:
“The earliest settlers of the lands that lie within the heart of Europe between the Carpathian Mountains and the Danube were the Boii, a Celtic tribe on the run from northern floods. Those pioneers were gradually pushed out by Germanic warriors, who were then suppressed by the legions of imperial Rome. The Romans called the land ‘Bohemia’ after the Boii, which means that the territory was named by Italians in honor of the Irish, demonstrating — if nothing else — that globalization is not new.
“When Rome crumbled, the Germans returned, joined in the eighth century AD by Slavs who migrated from the Central Asian steppes. According to legend, the patriarch Cech led his people on the arduous journey west across three great rivers until they came to a hill of a most peculiar shape: round at the top with inordinately steep sides. From the summit, Cech announced to his weary companions that they had reached at last the ‘Promised Land … [of] vast forests and sparkling rivers, green meadows and blue lakes, a land filled with game and birds and wet with sweet milk and honey.’
“A daughter of Cech’s successor, the prophetess Libuse, is described in the odd way of ancient chroniclers as ‘the pride and glory of the female sex, doing wise and manly deeds.’ It was she who envisioned the creation of a city — Prague — ‘whose glory shale touch the stars.’ The story may be fantastic, but there was nothing fictional about the city and its fame. By the end of the tenth century it had been consolidated by the Premyslids, an indigenous clan whose dynasty brought the nation into being. During their reign, grand cathedrals, monasteries. and synagogues were built; the castle district was fortified; and commerce flourished on both sides of the river.
“Among the nation’s early rulers was Václav (in English, Wenceslas), a devout Christian who incurred resentment among the pagan nobility due to his kindness toward the poor. In search of allies, Václav made peace with German Saxony and, in return for protection, paid an annual tribute of silver and oxen. The king was beloved by his people but envied by his treacherous brother Boleslav, whose minions murdered the young monarch while he was on his way to mass. Every nation needs its martyrs, and Wenceslas became Bohemia’s first.”
Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948
Author: Madeleine Albright
Publisher Harper Perennial
Copyright 2012 by Madeline Albright
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