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A Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare.

A Blessed Shore: England and Bohemia from Chaucer to Shakespeare

By Alfred Thomas

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007

Alfred Thomas is a leading scholar of the cultural relations between Bohemia and England during the medieval and early modern periods. His expertise in the Czech language and its literature puts him in the enviable position of being able to offer unusually rich and detailed perspectives. An earlier book, Anne's Bohemia, focused on the cosmopolitan nature of the Prague court under the Holy Roman emperor Charles IV and its impact on the English court through the marriage of his daughter, Anne, to Richard II in 1382 until her death in 1394. Blessed Shore enlarges the scope of the earlier monograph by considering perceptions of Bohemia through English eyes, and of England through Bohemian eyes, from the mid-1300s to the mid-1600s. The spheres covered include diplomacy, the visual arts, travel, literature, politics, and, above all, religion.

Readers of The Winter's Tale will be familiar with Shakespeare's solecism, for which Ben Jonson took him to task, when he represents the verdant, landlocked Bohemia as a country with a seacoast and deserts. But he was doing no more than what Robert Greene, his immediate source, and others had previously done: imagined Bohemia as a projection of their needs, desires, and aspirations rather than describing it as it was. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Bohemia was a place of religious tolerance that contrasted with the persecution of Catholic recusants in the later years of Elizabeth's reign. The example of Shakespeare's play is emblematic of English responses to Bohemia, and vice versa, in the period covered by Thomas's book. They reveal as much, if not more, of the cultural moment of the perceiver as they do about the place under scrutiny. But Thomas has done much more than orchestrate a series of readings by two countries of each other. He has carefully situated each reading in its own historical context so that we might understand a writer's prejudices and the distortions thereby produced.

While Anne of Bohemia was a real presence as queen of England, interceding on at least two occasions between Richard II and his disaffected subjects, Chaucer responded more to what she represented: patronage, linguistic ability, an international court culture. Her influence is felt in the Parliament of Fowls and Legend of Good Women (where Chaucer imagines her as his patron). Associated with pearls and other gems linked to the image of her namesake, St. Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, the Gawain-poet's Pearl may also be indebted to the presence of a Bohemian queen at the English court. Richard n, for his part, found in the Bohemian court a source of ambition. He planned to succeed his father-in-law as Holy Roman emperor, thereby becoming a rival of Anne's half brother, Wenceslas IV. The Wilton Diptych, which features the imperial eagle on the king's robes, and other telltale signs, formed part of Richard's campaign. Further evidence of artistic imitation of the imperial style comes from Westminster Hall, modeled on Karlstein Castle in Prague, and the twin tomb of Richard and Anne in Westminster Abbey. Richard's interests as a collector of relics, and as a commissioner of opulent regal images of himself, also link his practices with those in Prague. Praise of Richard's magnificence occurs in Roger Dymmok's refutation of the Twelve Conclusions, fixed by Lollards to the doors of Westminster Hall and St. Paul's in 1395. Dymmok's treatise may have been intended to reassure the imperial electors that Richard was a worthy emperor as well as a stalwart defender of orthodoxy.

In the religious sphere, the traffic was the other way: scholars traveling between Prague and Oxford spread the reformist ideas of John Wycliffe to Jan Hus. When the full impact of his work hit Czech university life, it had a polarizing effect along ethnic and philosophical fault lines: the Czech-speaking scholars were pro-Wycliffe realists; the German-speaking scholars anti-Wycliffe nominalists. As in England, Wycliffe galvanized political differences, too. The archbishop of Prague condemned the English theologian as heretical; the king and queen supported Hus. At the root of their differences was Wycliffe's view that the Church should cede control of its vast wealth. Hus's disciple, Peter Chelcicky, was more attracted by Wycliffe's pacifism and his ideas on the separation of church and state, though he drew conclusions more radical than Wycliffe envisaged. Bohemian activists looked to England for support and found it in the person of Sir John Oldcastle, leader of the Lollard uprising of 1414. While Lollardy was suppressed, the Hussite movement flourished as an "imagined community" of the Czechs, with strong support from clerics and gentry alike. The salacious religious parody, "The Wycliffite Woman" (translated in the volume in full), in which a prostitute-heretic seduces a young lad, illustrates orthodox anxiety about heresy and the role of literate laywomen within it. It reflects the Hussites' interest in encouraging women to participate in their program of reform. The success of that program was in part due to the wide availability of a Czech translation of the Bible.

In post-1401 England, the possession of a Wycliffite translation of the Bible was itself an indicator of heresy. Under the Lancastrian regime, Lollards were persecuted and burned, Oldcastle's rebellion put down. Such firmness and success in the face of heresy attracted the interest of the Holy Roman emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg, who visited England in 1414. An architect of the Council of Constance, he was a devout Catholic dedicated to the extirpation of heresy in Bohemia. Henry V accorded him a warm welcome, conferring on him the Order of the Garter, among other honors. From an English angle Bohemia, throughout the fifteenth century, looked dangerously tolerant and seditious, as the writings of Barclay and Skelton testify. Conversely, to strife-ridden Bohemians, England seemed to possess the very qualities they had lost: stability, prosperity, and a unified religion. So much is clear from a mission to England in 1465-67, led by Baron Leo of Rozmital and chronicled by Vaclav Sasek. It dwells on England's coastal landscape and seafaring capabilities, the marvels of Canterbury Cathedral and especially the shrine of St. Thomas, and the prosperity of London.

A century later, the shoe was on the other foot. Bohemia had become, as in The Winter's Tale, a place of refuge and tolerance to which English Catholics escaped and where they found a utopian, ecumenical society and, under the emperor Rudolph, a place of artistic excellence and intellectual excitement. As special ambassador to Prague in 1575, the Protestant Sir Philip Sidney recognized the city as a site of learning, especially in the arcane science of alchemy. For five years from 1574, the Jesuit scholar Edmund Campion found Prague no less congenial, a "blessed shore." The recusant polyglot Elizabeth Jane Watson made Bohemia her home, as did, for a shorter period, her stepfather, Edward Kelley, and his associate, Dr. John Dee, the queen's astrologer. Both Kelley and Dee found patronage for their angelic seances and alchemical experiments. The marriage of the Protestants Frederick and Elizabeth, daughter of King James and the mother of Prince Rupert of Civil War fame, as king and queen of Bohemia in 1619, was the subject of a laudatory pamphlet by John Harrison, who also wrote the first English history of Bohemia. For Harrison, like Shakespeare, pagan Bohemia was a utopian "desert," a place free of the disfiguring features of religious division and persecution and one synonymous with political liberty. John Taylor, the "Water Poet," also wrote two short accounts about his travels in Bohemia, lauding the country's bounty, freedom, and religious tolerance among Catholics, Protestants, and Jews alike. Similarly, The Winter's Tale embodies hopes for an accommodation between rival religions.

The Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, in which the forces of Frederick and Elizabeth were routed by Catholic troops serving the emperor Ferdinand, brought an end to religious laissez-faire. Protestants were given the option of converting to Catholicism or going into exile. Bohemia's loss was England's gain. In 1636 Lord Arundel brought to England the artist Wenceslas Hollar, who settled in his adoptive country. Hollar's detailed and accurate etchings of London views are still admired for their artistry and documentary value. The Czech thinker Comenius, author of The Labyrinth (1631), in which he set out his influential system of universal knowledge, the Pansophia, visited England in 1641, invited by a group of disciples. The likely apocryphal story of his connection with the founding of Harvard College dates from around this time. Before the Protestant diaspora in 1600, Baron Waldstein had kept a diary of his visit to England that is humanist and antiquarian in tone. It sees the country as a "vast library of undiscovered knowledge" in which the monuments and fragments of a vanished religion are part of the appeal.

Thomas's narrative deepens our appreciation of the long-standing reciprocity of English and Czech culture. As an exercise in mapping the presumptions generated by one culture in its interpretation of another, it is fascinating. To those unfamiliar with Czech history in its medieval and early modern phases, it underlines the importance of Bohemia in fomenting the Reformation, and in demonstrating possibilities for religious and ethnic tolerance. Thereby, the country became a powerhouse of creative endeavor in the arts and sciences. But Prague, as we also know from events in the twentieth century, could be the flashpoint of religious and ethnic hatred. The cultural history of Bohemia, real and imagined, has much to teach us, and Thomas is an excellent guide: lively, erudite, and full of thought-provoking insights.
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Author:Brown, Peter
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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