In 1990, on my first visit back to a newly free Prague, my cousin Pavla asked me what I wanted most to see.
“All the Gothic stuff,” I replied enthusiastically.
My cousin, an architecture student too well-mannered to laugh at me, just wrinkled her nose slightly.
“There isn’t actually much Gothic to see,” she said meditatively, “Prague has mostly lots of great Baroque and Rococo.”
It wasn’t till much later, when I delved into the history of my homeland, that I understood her statement.
Prague had indeed been a Gothic architectural jewel — in the 14th century. But in the early 1400s, a university don, Jan Hus, began to preach to the Czech people. He railed against the Catholic system of indulgences for sins, and the corrupt priests who collected the income from hundreds of parishes without ever visiting or providing any services for their charges. He conducted the mass in the vernacular, and gave communion of both kinds, bread and wine. He translated the Bible into Czech.
For his trouble, he was burned at the stake by the Council of Constance in 1418.
His death fanned the flames of rebellion. The preachers that followed Hus incited their followers to tear everything down — the priests, the nuns and monks, the abbeys, the churches, finally the palaces. What resulted was a true folk uprising, one that only fully ended 200 years later with the takeover of all the Czech lands by the Austrian empire. They rebuilt Prague — hence the Baroque.
Why is this story relevant now?
I’ve been listening to the Tea party, and thinking about its tight-lipped, fiery-eyed supporters.
Last April, several of us professionals in our skirts and heels met with an activist. With short gray hair and no trace of makeup, she wore a navy windbreaker and carried a worn, overstuffed purse. After the meeting, she would drive her husband to work, then shop for groceries.
She was there to advocate for her granddaughter, and she was not to be denied; we caved to even her less-reasonable demands purely because of the force of her personality. She knew her rights, and, like a character in a Bertold Brecht play, she would show us who now was the master.
Later I thought about the contrast between this plain, outspoken woman and the senators I’d seen on TV that morning. Their faces were buffed to a polish, their suits were expensive, and their words were meaningless.
The people of this country are right to be angry at the elite political class. Like the corrupt priests of central Europe in the 14th century, they have done little for their middle-class charges. They only visit the lives of ordinary people.
Just as the Catholic Church provided little evidence of service in return for the people’s tithes, we see little of the benefit of our taxation. And, yes, just as our government spends untold billions on a fruitless war in a place whose fate doesn’t seem to affect our lives directly at all, the church, nobility and royalty of the middle ages engaged in fruitless wars that resulted only in stolen harvests and raped women.
Every week brings more news of wealthy bankers’ debts redeemed, and more loans issued, while the shrinking middle class scrimps to pay for groceries. Even Obama’s vaunted health reform seems to have resulted only in greater guaranteed income for the insurance companies, with little visible effect, now or in the near future, for the average, bill-paying citizen.
People are angry. These days we don’t tear down buildings and burn furniture — in this country, we agitate, and we vote. And we line up behind the candidates who speak to our hearts — not behind those who present careful arguments for the status quo.
But we common folks need to be careful: although that rebellion in Central Europe still resounds in glory, and Hus’s statue stands in Old Town Square in Prague, the motto of his followers, “truth conquers,” inscribed underneath, resulted in 300 years of Habsburg domination over the Czech lands.
The culture of the country was devastated, and Prague descended from a glorious capital of an empire to a dusty cultural backwater. And if you don’t think the threat of domination by a foreign power is relevant to us, consider how little power our nation seems to exert over the ever-increasing imports from Asia, or the amount of carbon the Far East plans to spew into the atmosphere.
It’s a big risk, rebellion.
Syrovy is a teacher in Colorado Springs’ District 11. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.