Biblical Humanism in Bohemia and Moravia in the 16th Century

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Robert Dittmann, J. Just
Europa Humanistica: Bohemia and Moravia
  • Bristol, CT: 
    Brepols Publishers
    , February
     329 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Bible belongs to the literary canon of Western civilization and is an essential text for basic cultural literacy. European society experienced massive seismic shifts around 1500 through events historians call Renaissance and Reformation. The rise of humanism transformed learning. Erasmus produced the Greek New Testament, Lorenzo da Valla conclusively demonstrated that crucial documents such as the “donation of Constantine” were fraudulent inventions, the pseudo-Isidorian decretals were discredited, while the emphasis upon returning to the sources brought classical Greek and Latin texts to bear upon the vernacularisation of learned culture. Biblical scholarship made dramatic strides in an age of shifting and contested confessional allegiances. Hitherto, the history of biblical translation in Bohemia and Moravia has been overlooked in the West, but Robert Dittmann and Jiří Just have now established that the Czech milieu occupies an outstanding place in the history of the Bible. 

The immediate context for the topic emerges from the religious reforms of the 15th century that not only toppled the medieval hegemony of the church but opened new frontiers for religious practice and scholarship. While the Hussites are hardly mentioned, it is clear that both radical Táborite theology and the teachings of the Unity of Brethren contributed to the orientation of some of the translators. Many of these early pioneers acknowledged limitations that included fear of ridicule, refusal of more capable scholars to engage with the task, as well as the occasional inadequacy of the Czech language for precise translation. A debate over language emerged. For example, some involved in biblical translation believed the text should be accessible and idiomatic. Others opposed this initiative arguing that biblical language should be special and exclusive reflecting a sacred rhetoric and as such fundamentally different from the ordinary vernacular in aesthetic value featuring the alternate use of the auxiliary in the third person preterite, the enclitic particles, and the use of reflexive pronouns. Mutual recriminations led to renewed strife and some efforts resulted in heresy accusations. Following the resurgence of Catholicism during the Thirty Years’ War, some of the heretical books were hunted down and tens of thousands were destroyed. Those influenced by Luther, Calvin, and the Swiss reformation were especially targeted. Others that survived the savaging of the heresy hunters had passages blacked out to protect the vulnerable and ignorant faithful.

The history of biblical humanism and translation in Bohemia and Moravia reflects a remarkable affinity with biblical criticism and we find debates over methodology, linguistics, and guiding authorities. Should the text be rendered “word for word” in the vernacular or would “sense for sense” be adequate? Some scholars believed the words of scripture took precedence whilst others thought the uniqueness and peculiarity of every language more important than words. Some committed to principles of scholarship current at the time admitted it was not easy to turn Greek or Latin into Czech or to do it well. This did not deter those committed to the task. The Czech printer, publisher, and translator, Jiří Melantrich (1511-1580), remains one of the most prominent figures and the Melantrich name has been associated with Czech book publishing into the 21st century. His Bible became the official Czech biblical text, dominating the Czech Bible trade. He and others had to come to terms with resolutions codified by the Council of Trent that ruled against vernacular translations based on texts other than the traditional Latin Vulgate. Hence, many of the results of 16th-century biblical humanism, like the famous Kralice Bible, were illegal. In the end, measures like Tridentine doctrine were spectacularly unsuccessful. 

Influenced by Philip Melanchthon and reformation humanism, Jan Blahoslav (1523-1571) took no note of Trent. His commitment to humanism and brilliancy in Czech formed the foundations of Czech biblical style that remains valid after half a millennium. It must also be noted that the cause of biblical humanism in the Czech lands was spurred not only by Christian devotion but equally by patriotic commitment. After all, the Czechs regarded themselves as the epitome of European or even world culture. The Czech of the Kralice Bible became a liturgical language and the work of the Kralice scholars, along with Melantrich and Blahoslav, coalesced to create the standard for literary Czech. The first half of the book achieves its important goal of explicating the sources for the various translations and its aim to identify concisely the biographical details of those involved.

The detailed linguistic analysis that makes up the second half of the book reveals several important findings. The Latin text prepared by Erasmus found greater currency among Czech translators than the Erasmian Greek text. Beyond this, issues of orthography, phonology, and morphology were contested and evolving. The second Severin Bible (1537) is the first complete Czech Bible to reflect the current state of biblical humanism. Some of the scholars were exceptional. Jan Vartovský of Varta (c.1500-1559) mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and in consequence was a homo trilinguis. That said, the analysis suggests the development of the Czech language awaits a detailed study.

Despite the tremendous energy and enthusiasm for applying the principles of humanism to biblical translation, some of the projects were unsuccessful. Dittmann’s linguistic analysis indicates that these failures were predicated upon insensitivity to different layers of the Czech vocabulary, lexical eccentricities, indifference to word formation, and syntax, utilizing at times imprecise language in terms of phonological and morphological forms, while at other times being too literal. This book also corrects earlier scholarship by noting the role played by the pre-16th-century tradition.

The six volume Kralice Bible (1579-94) marks the summit of biblical scholarship emerging from the religious reforms in the Czech lands. It can be compared with the influence of Luther’s Bible in Germany and the King James Bible in the Anglophone world. The authors set out to delineate 16th-century Czech-language biblical scholarship. They have succeeded admirably. The analytic quality is both impressive and unprecedented. The study is encyclopaedic, dense and technical. It is not an easy book to read but forms an indispensable catalogue for scholars interested in the topic. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas A. Fudge is Professor of History at the University of New England in Australia.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.