Key Czech nationalist text marks 600th anniversary

In 1409, Wenceslas IV, King of Bohemia, was in a tight spot. He had already been imprisoned several times by his own advisors, and was being undermined by those in his kingdom with different religious views. So what did he do? Well, he commissioned a document which gave his opponents less of a say. The Kutná Hora or Kuttenberg Decree is seen by some historians as the first ever Czech nationalist document. Six hundred years ago on Sunday, it gave Czechs sitting on the council of Charles University in Prague more votes than their Saxon, Polish and Bavarian counterparts combined. I spoke to historian Marek Ďurčanský from Charles University to find out more:

The Kuttenberg DecreeThe Kuttenberg Decree “The Kuttenberg Decree was the charter that assured three out of four votes for the so-called Czech nation at Charles University. That means that members of the so-called Czech nation had more ability to influence the fate of the university overall.”

And what was its concrete effect upon Charles University here in Prague? Can we see the results of this decree straight away?

“Well, let’s say that we can look at this in two ways. On the one hand it had some good consequences for the Czech members of the university council, but on the other hand, it pushed the university into some kind of provincialism, because it caused an exodus of foreign scholars. In the end, it led to the founding of the University in Leipzig.”

Wenceslas IVWenceslas IV So why was the decree written in the first place? Was it in some way to do with fortifying King Wenceslas IV’s rule?

“In releasing this decree, the king affiliated his interests with the interests of the Czech university council members. The king wanted to regain the title of ‘King of Rome’ and he wanted it to be said that in his lands, there is no heresy. And in Charles University, the foreign nations didn’t want to confirm that this was the case.

“But we can see this also as part of a broader development. We can talk about this in terms of nationalism in medieval universities. We can also see at universities in other European countries similar developments in later years.”

The document is currently on display in Prague. Is it still important to know about today? Does it still have any significance 600 years on?

“It had a big influence during the Czech National Revival in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, when the Czech character of the university was being stressed by political speakers and so on. It was especially important, in the 19th century, when the university was being divided into Czech and German parts.”

You can go and see the original document, alongside other paraphernalia from Charles University at the Clam-Gallas Palace on Prague’s Husova Street. The decree is on display as part of the ‘Prague Student’ exhibition, which runs until February 1.