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Prague Castle

Prague Castle offers a unique example of continuous settlement and uninterrupted human activity for more than thousand years. It became the seat of the profane as well as the church authority of the Přemyslid princedom and all later Central European states with Prague as their capital.

  • AD 850 – 1050

AD 850 – 1050

History

In written sources, Prague and Prague Castle do not appear explicitly before the end of the 9th century. However, we are convinced that we have to deal with one of the central seats of the Bohemians mentioned in earlier Frankish chronicles. The first such note in the Annals of Fulda, dated January 845, refers to the adoption of Christianity. At that time 14 Bohemian nobles arrived with their retinues in Regensburg, where they asked Louis the German to be baptised. The next known mention refers to the christening of Duke Bořivoj sometime before 885 by Bishop Methodius in Moravia. Fig. 5 Both these acts can be understood in the context of their time as political.8

Fig. 5: Baptism of Duke Bořivoj of Bohemia, historical event at the end of the 9th century, illustration in the so-called Bible of Velislav from the second quarter of the 14th century. Credit: National Library of the Czech Republic

Fig. 5: Baptism of Duke Bořivoj of Bohemia, historical event at the end of the 9th century, illustration in the so-called Bible of Velislav from the second quarter of the 14th century. Credit: National Library of the Czech Republic

Apart from Prague, two other sites played a major role in the early history of the duchy, namely Levý Hradec and Budeč.9 Fig. 6 In the second half of the 9th century, Prague Castle was supposedly a seat of the Bohemians that fulfilled administrative as well as symbolic functions. After his baptism in Moravia, Bořivoj intended to return to his seat at Levý Hradec, but ended up in a battle for Prague and had the Church of the Virgin Mary, the first church built in the area of Prague Castle, founded near its future acropolis.10

Fig. 6: Fortified settlements in Central Bohemia at the end of the 9th and beginning of the 10th centuries. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle, after Jiří Sláma (1988)

Fig. 6: Fortified settlements in Central Bohemia at the end of the 9th and beginning of the 10th centuries. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle, after Jiří Sláma (1988)

Bořivoj’s heirs started to settle down in the area of Prague Castle. Fig. 7 Contacts with Moravia broke off in 895 and the Bohemians sought for help at King Arnulf’s in Regensburg. His elder son Spytihněv contributed to the establishment of an archpresbyteriate, which fell under the bishopric of Regensburg.8 His younger brother Vratislav was already considering establishing an independent bishopric in Prague. The construction of the St George Basilica may be linked to this intention.11

Fig. 7: The Přemyslids in the wall paintings of the Rotunda of St Catherine in Znojmo, 12th century. Credit: Aleš Flídr

Fig. 7: The Přemyslids in the wall paintings of the Rotunda of St Catherine in Znojmo, 12th century. Credit: Aleš Flídr

In connection with the political developments within the Frankish Empire the political orientation changed and St Wenceslas was forced to subjugate himself to the East Frankish King Henry. Evidence of this can be seen as well in the consecration of another church in the area of Prague Castle, to Vitus, the Saxon patron saint.12 Power consolidated, the duchy grew, and finally in 973 13, under the rule of Boleslav II, a bishopric was established. By that time, the Přemyslids had become an important political factor of Central Europe. Fig. 8

Fig. 8: Duke Wenceslas murdered by his brother Boleslav, Gumpold’s Legend of St Wenceslas, illumination 21r from a copy of the legend in the codex kept in the library of Wolfenbüttel, created before 1006. Credit: Auskunft der Herzog August Bibliothek, Lessingplatz 1, D-38304 Wölfenbüttel

Fig. 8: Duke Wenceslas murdered by his brother Boleslav, Gumpold’s Legend of St Wenceslas, illumination 21r from a copy of the legend in the codex kept in the library of Wolfenbüttel, created before 1006. Credit: Auskunft der Herzog August Bibliothek, Lessingplatz 1, D-38304 Wölfenbüttel

However, after the death of Duke Boleslav II in 999, a major crisis emerged.9 Even Boleslav’s widow, the former Frankish queen Emma tried to contribute to its solution.14 Fig. 8 The issue was only definitively solved by the presence of a strong and self-confident ruler, such as Břetislav I after 1034.

Archaeology

Conclusive archaeological evidence of a stable settlement during the whole 9th century is still missing. However, a dense settlement is attested in the neighbouring area of today’s Hradčany and the Lesser Town. 15 Fig. 9 We have to deal not only with settled areas but with important production and trade centres that were dispersed over the dominant hill of today’s Prague Castle. 16 By that time, it apparently played a symbolic role, which is indicated by the find of the warrior’s grave with sword, dated to the mid-9th century. The mythical ‘Žiži’ mound and the stone throne at the top of the castle’s promontory, where the dukes were installed, give an idea of its primarily spiritual aspect. The remains of the Church of the Virgin Mary from the 9th century, the first church at this site, support this theory. Fig. 10 The church was situated on a small projection of the northern slope of the promontory, and we can assume that a still undiscovered settlement complex was situated in its neighbourhood.17

Fig. 9: Extent of the Přemyslid Prague Castle in the 10th century; mighty walls of the fortification of the suburbium in the south (today’s Lesser Town – Malá Strana). Figure pulished in: Havrda, Jan – Tryml, Michal, Nebovidy. Středověká osada v pražském podhradí, Praha, 2013. Credit: Jan Havrda, Michal Tryml

Fig. 9: Extent of the Přemyslid Prague Castle in the 10th century; mighty walls of the fortification of the suburbium in the south (today’s Lesser Town – Malá Strana). Figure pulished in: Havrda, Jan – Tryml, Michal, Nebovidy. Středověká osada v pražském podhradí, Praha, 2013. Credit: Jan Havrda, Michal Tryml

Fig. 10: Extent of the uncovered parts of the cemetery around the Church of the Virgin Mary at Prague Castle, 10th–13th centuries. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle

Fig. 10: Extent of the uncovered parts of the cemetery around the Church of the Virgin Mary at Prague Castle, 10th–13th centuries. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle

Other architectural remains of Church architecture stem from the first half of the 10th century. Vast building projects were the construction of the St George Basilica and the foundation of the St Vitus Rotunda. Fig. 11 Both churches defined the central part of the castle’s promontory, part of which was to become the duke’s seat. The first building phase of the ducal palace is assumed in the area between both churches. Supposedly, the whole area was protected by a simple fortification at that time which was gradually renovated and improved. 18 Fig. 12 The archaeological finds have changed the interpretation of Prague Castle profoundly. Apart from a spiritual level, we must count as well with the worldly power. During the 10th century, the site became a representative seat of the profane as well as ecclesiastical power within in the Přemyslid domain. A bishopric was installed, a bishop’s palace erected, the chapter founded. 19 All these events shaped the complex of Church buildings and pushed the duke’s palace to the southern edge of the promontory.

Fig. 11: Map with reconstruction of the physical geography of Prague Castle. 1 – Church of the Virgin Mary; 2 – St Vitus Rotunda; 3 – St George Basilica; 4 – so-called St Wenceslas Well; 5 – course of the Romanesque wall (after 1135); 6 – ravine in the 3rd courtyard. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle

Fig. 11: Map with reconstruction of the physical geography of Prague Castle. 1 – Church of the Virgin Mary; 2 – St Vitus Rotunda; 3 – St George Basilica; 4 – so-called St Wenceslas Well; 5 – course of the Romanesque wall (after 1135); 6 – ravine in the 3rd courtyard. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle

Fig. 12: Archaeological preserve beneath the 3rd courtyard, view of the remains of the fortification of Prague Castle from the 10th century, wooden structures and rampart. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle, photo by Martin Frouz

Fig. 12: Archaeological preserve beneath the 3rd courtyard, view of the remains of the fortification of Prague Castle from the 10th century, wooden structures and rampart. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle, photo by Martin Frouz

Art and Architecture

Ecclesiastical and secular institutions, installed at the castle, turned it into a major centre of the arts in Central Europe.

Urbanism
The development of the castle’s settlement structure was essentially influenced by its rugged terrain. We may consider the eastern part of the ridge as the urban seed of the Přemyslid castle, which from the first half of the 10th century contained the stone churches of St George and St Vitus and most probably the first ducal palace as well. Since the 9th century a wood and clay wall with a number of gates encircled the whole area, in 12th century it was replaced by a stone wall. 20 Fig. 13

Fig. 13: Former conception of Prague Castle around AD 1000. Credit: Petr Chotěbor

Fig. 13: Former conception of Prague Castle around AD 1000. Credit: Petr Chotěbor

Architecture
The first known churches belong to the basic architectural types of the period. The Church of the Virgin Mary had one nave and a rectangular apse, St George is being reconstructed as a three-nave basilica and St Vitus was originally built as a rotunda with single apse. The original churches can be studied from the fragmentary remains of their floor plans only.21 Fig. 11

Arts and Crafts were inspired by the import goods, needed by Church institutions, only later on, did works of art for the decorating altars, liturgy, and vestments begin to be made at the site itself. The level of local arts and crafts, whose products were intended mainly for the lay inhabitants of the castle, can be estimated from the jewellery found during the excavation of the cemetery in the Lumbe Garden.22 Fig. 14 Fig. 15 Fig. 16

Fig. 14: Golden earring, decorated with schematic mouse heads, found in a grave at the 10th-century cemetery in Lumbe Garden. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle, photo by Jan Gloc

Fig. 14: Golden earring, decorated with schematic mouse heads, found in a grave at the 10th-century cemetery in Lumbe Garden. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle, photo by Jan Gloc

Fig. 15: Bronze Cross with the figure of a beardless Christ wearing a dalmatic from the time around AD 1000, found on the cemetery surrounding the Church of the Virgin Mary in the 1950s. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle, photo by Jan Gloc

Fig. 15: Bronze Cross with the figure of a beardless Christ wearing a dalmatic from the time around AD 1000, found on the cemetery surrounding the Church of the Virgin Mary in the 1950s. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle, photo by Jan Gloc

Fig. 16: Helmet, originally without the iron rim, was owned by the Přemyslids, perhaps Duke Wenceslas himself. At least since the time of Duke Boleslav II, it has been attributed to this saint and provided with a rim and ‘nose guard’ to commemorate the saint. Afterwards it became part of the treasury of St Vitus Cathedral and was exhibited sometimes. Prague, Metropolitan Chapter of St Vitus, treasury. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle, photo by Jan Gloc

Fig. 16: Helmet, originally without the iron rim, was owned by the Přemyslids, perhaps Duke Wenceslas himself. At least since the time of Duke Boleslav II, it has been attributed to this saint and provided with a rim and ‘nose guard’ to commemorate the saint. Afterwards it became part of the treasury of St Vitus Cathedral and was exhibited sometimes. Prague, Metropolitan Chapter of St Vitus, treasury. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle, photo by Jan Gloc

Written Documents
At least by the time of the foundation of the chapter (972/973) we may reckon with a modest scriptorium. The first liturgical books that came to Prague were imported from the realm of Francia, namely e.g. from Regensburg. In the 10th century Strachkvas-Christianus, a scion of the Přemyslid family and author of a famous legend of St Wenceslas, was educated there. The first known liturgical work of the Prague scriptorium is the St Wenceslas Mass from the first half of the 11th century.23 Most interesting is a copy of Gumpold’s legend of the life of St Wenceslas, written by the bishop of Mantua in 980s. We have to deal with an illuminated luxury edition commissioned by former Frankish Queen and Bohemian duchess Emma, now kept in the library of Wolfenbüttel.24 Fig. 8 Fig. 37

International Connections

Bohemia was part of a continuous band of Slavic settlement on the eastern and southern edges of the Frankish empire. Since Prehistoric times, Central Europe represented a natural crossroad of long distance trade routes, directed from north to south, from the Baltic to the Adriatic Sea (the so-called Amber Road) and from east to west, from north-eastern and eastern Europe to the Caliphate of Córdoba. Fig. 17 After the fall of the Avar Khaganate at the end of the 9th century, Central Europe opened up to Christian missionaries as well as political, cultural and economic contacts. Bohemia was annexed to the Empire in 805 and despite political changes has since then been a natural constituent of the Western European cultural sphere.25

Fig. 17: Map of trade routes in the Early Middle Ages (9th–10th centuries), main ways marked with a thick line. North-South: Volhynia–Northern Italy; East-West: Kiev–Cordoba. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle

Fig. 17: Map of trade routes in the Early Middle Ages (9th–10th centuries), main ways marked with a thick line. North-South: Volhynia–Northern Italy; East-West: Kiev–Cordoba. Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle

The records of Ibrahim ibn Yaqub and al-Bakri, Arabic travellers to Prague, mention trade in salt and furs, but mainly focus on slaves, who were traded all over Europe at the time, such as in Marseilles.26 Fig. 18 In addition, amber, rock crystal, textiles, talc, and jewellery were imported from the East. Contacts in the sphere of culture and education were bound to the Church realm. Priests and friars arrived from the west and helped to build up Church institutions. The first Bohemian bishop was the Saxon friar Thietmar. On the other hand Bohemian intellectuals went to study in the empire, such as Christian-Strachkvas (Regensburg) or Cosmas (Liège). Moreover, international contact can be seen by imports of objects of art, craft and construction techniques.27 Fig. 19

Fig. 18: Bishop Adalbert calls on Jewish merchants to buy the freedom of Christian slaves. Bronze doors of the Gniezno Cathedral, around 1175. Credit: Jaroslav Prokop

Fig. 18: Bishop Adalbert calls on Jewish merchants to buy the freedom of Christian slaves. Bronze doors of the Gniezno Cathedral, around 1175. Credit: Jaroslav Prokop

Fig. 19: Map of early medieval Western Europe. The numbers mark the years of the annexation to the empire, the black line marks the borders after the division into Western, Mid and Eastern Francia (Francia Occidentalis, Media, Orientalis). Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle

Fig. 19: Map of early medieval Western Europe. The numbers mark the years of the annexation to the empire, the black line marks the borders after the division into Western, Mid and Eastern Francia (Francia Occidentalis, Media, Orientalis). Credit: Institute of Archaeology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague Castle

Sites within the realm of the Frankish empire reflect numerous connections with Prague. Prague Castle was a royal residence, just like Nijmegen, Ingelheim or Ename. As Biskupija Crkvina it served as the burial ground for the elite, in the continuity of settlement it can be compared to Velzeke. It was the seat of the first Benedictine convent in Bohemia, and this makes a link to Montmajour and Ename. It was inspired by Northern Italian architecture, especially that of Ravenna, motifs from the central palace chapels can be found indirectly at St Vitus rotunda as well.

Further relations with Italy can be derived from the creation of Bishop Gumpold’s Legend of St Wenceslas. A coin of the Bohemian Duke Oldřich († 1034) found in Kostoľany proves trade and commercial connections to the East. Fig. 20

Fig. 20: Coin of Duke Oldřich from the Přemyslid family (c. 975–1034), found in a grave at the cemetery at St George Church at Kostol’any pod Tribečom. Credit: Jan Gloc

Fig. 20: Coin of Duke Oldřich from the Přemyslid family (c. 975–1034), found in a grave at the cemetery at St George Church at Kostol’any pod Tribečom. Credit: Jan Gloc

References

8 Třeštík, Dušan, ‘Čechy. Čechové’. in Střed Evropy okolo roku 1000, Prague, 2002, pp. 126-130

9 Žemlička, Josef, ‘Čechy. Centra a organizace vlády’, in Střed Evropy okolo roku 1000, Prague, 2002, pp. 130-132

10 Frolík, Jan, ‘Duke Bořivoj and the Church of the Virgin Mary’, in The Story of Prague Castle, Prague, 2003, pp. 52-55

11 Frolík, Jan, ‘The basilica and convent of the St. George – the oldest extant church building’, in The Story of Prague Castle, Prague, 2003, pp. 60-63

12 Frolík, Jan, ‘Three stops in the Church of st. Vitus’, in The Story of Prague Castle, Prague, 2003, pp. 64-67

13 Třeštík, Dušan, ‘Čechy. Založení pražského a moravského biskupství’, in Střed Evropy okolo roku 1000, Prague, 2002, pp. 144-145.

14 Kilián, Jan, Polanský, Luboš, et al., Emma Regina – Civitas Melnic: sborník příspěvků z konference u příležitosti 1000. výročí úmrtí kněžny Emmy Reginy a 80. jubilea narození Pavla Radoměrského konané 9. listopadu 2006 v Regionálním muzeu Mělník, Mělník – Prague, 2008

15 Boháčová, Ivana, ‘The Archaeology of the dawn of Prague’, in Boháčová, Ivana and Poláček, Lumír (Hrsg.), Burg – Vorburg – Suburbium. Zur Problematik der Neben areale frühmittelalterlicher Zentren, Internationale Tagungen in Mikulčice VII, Brno, 2008, pp. 103-119

16 Čiháková, Jarmila, Dragoun Zdeněk and Podliska, Jaroslav, ‘Pražská sídelní aglomerace v 10.-11. století’, in Polanský, Lumír, Sláma, Jiří and Třeštík, Dušan (eds), Přemyslovský stát kolem roku 1000, Prague, 2000, pp. 127-146

17 Maříková-Kubková, Jana and Herichová, Iva, ‘Geologický a topograficko-urbanistický vývoj areálu’, in Archeologický atlas Pražského hradu, Díl I., Castrum Pragense 10, Prague, 2009, pp. 59-66
Frolík, Jan, ‘The ducal throne and the mysterious Žiži, Duke Bořivoj and the Church of the Virgin Mary ‘, in The Story of Prague Castle, Prague, 2003, pp. 48-55

18 Frolík, Jan, ‘The half-forgotten Founder’ (pp. 56-59), ‘ The Basilica and Convent of St. George: The oldest extant Church Buildings’ (pp. 60-63), ‘Three stops in the Church of St. Vitus’ (pp. 64-67), ‘Did Ibrahim Ibn jakub visit Prague Castle?’ (pp. 68-70), all in The Story of Prague Castle, Prague, 2003

19 Frolik, Jan, ‘The old Town Provostship at the Prague Castle until the end of the 13th Century according to the excavation in 1984′, Castrum Pragense 2, Prague, 1999, pp. 169-484

20 Maříková-Kubková, Jana and Herichová, Iva, Archeologický atlas Pražského hradu, Díl I., Castrum Pragense 10, Prague, 2006

21 Frolík, Jan, Maříková-Kubková, Jana, Růžičková, Eliška and Zeman, Antonín, Nejstarší sakrální architektura Pražského hradu. Výpověď archeologických pramenů, Prague, 2000

22 Frolík, Jan and Smetánka, Zdeněk, Archeologie na Pražském hradě, Prague, 1997, pp. 67-71

23 Katedrála viditelná a neviditelná, in press (Prague, 2013)
Bartlová, Milena (ed.), Svatý Vojtěch ve středověkých iluminovaných rukopisech, in Svatý Vojtěch. Tisíc let svatovojtěšské tradice v Čechách, katalog výstavy, Prague, 1997

24 Zachová, Jana, ‘Legendy Wolfenbüttelského rukopisu’, Filosofia, 2010, pp. 207

25 Třeštík, Dušan, ‘Die Tschechen’, in Wieczorek, Alfried and Hinz, Hans-Martin (eds), Europas Mitte, Band 1, Stuttgart, 2000, pp. 356-366

26 Frolík, Jan, ‘Did Ibrahim Ibn Jakub visit Prague Castle?’, in The Story of Prague Castle, Prague, 2003, pp. 68-70

27 Třeštík, Dušan, Vznik Velké Moravy. Moravané, Čechové a střední Evropa v letech 791–871, Prague, 2001

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