Wednesday, 9 June 2010

A history book in your wallet

Czech history may seem obtuse to travellers when they first arrive from abroad, but a shortcut to understanding it may be as close as your hip pocket. The beautifully designed series of Czech banknotes depict prominent figures from the country's history in a neat progression from the 12th to 20th centuries.

20Kč Přemysl Otakar I (1166-1230)
The old 20Kč notes have largely been replaced by coins now, which is a pity because it's one of the nicest designs. The diplomatic skills of Přemysl Otakar I brought about an era of relative peace within the volatile ruling classes of the Czech lands. Under his reign, the Bohemian crown became recognised as hereditary by the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor and other European powers and 20Kč note therefore represents the beginnings of the Bohemian kingdom as a stable political entity. Přemysl Otakar I is buried in Prague's St Vitus' cathedral.

50Kč Saint Agnes of Bohemia (1211-1282)
As youngest daughter of Přemysl Otakar I, Agnes was born into a life of wealth, comfort and influence. After several arranged and broken engagements, one of which led to a war, (English King Henry III and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II were among her suitors) Agnes retreated from aristocratic life, took vows of poverty and chastity and spent her adult life performing religious works. The convent she founded on the right bank of the Vltava river is one of Bohemia's earliest Gothic buildings and the rear of the banknote shows a view towards the ribs and arches of its ceiling. Her canonization by Pope John Paul II preceded by five days the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

100Kč King Charles IV (1316-1378)
Charles IV is considered by many to have been the greatest King of Bohemian history. Charles's mother was Saint Agnes' niece Eliška Přemyslovna and his father was King John of Luxembourg. The benefits and perspective of Charles' education at the French court combined with his deep faith and affection for Bohemia to bring a golden age of development to Prague. Rather than moving to take up his post when crowned Holy Roman Emperor, Charles made the empire come to him and declared Prague the new capital. Surviving monuments of the time include the Přemyslid tomb in St Vitus' cathedral, the celebrated Charles' Bridge and Karlštejn castle. Elements of Gothic architecture decorate both sides of the 100Kč banknote.

200Kč Jan Amoš Komenský (1592-1670)
Born in on near Uherský Brod in 1592, Jan Amoš Komenský attended the Latin school in Přerov and became a pastor as central Europe lurched towards the Thirty Year's War. During his studies Komenský adopted protestant ideals and was forced into exile by the persecution that followed Catholic victory in 1620. Komenský's writings on universal practical education brought widespread renown and he was invited to work in the great countries of Europe including Hungary, Sweden, England and the Netherlands. He was also the last bishop of the exiled Unity of Brethren which fragmented and reformed as the Moravian Church, popular in parts of the United States. Komenský is better known abroad under his Latin name Comenius and is widely considered to be the father of modern education. He's buried in Naarden in the Netherlands.

500Kč Božena Němcová (1820-1862)
The period from the thirty years war to the mid-19th century was a dark time in Czech history. Ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty from Vienna, Czech language and culture were at best neglected, at worst actively suppressed. The revolutionary events of 1848 encouraged the Hapsburg court to flee Vienna for Olomouc, where Emperor Ferdinand was persuaded to abdicate in favour of his nephew, the liberal and far-sighted Franz Joseph. The resulting easing of restrictions on ethnic minorities within the empire brought about a period of freedom that Czechs know as the National Revival. Božena Němcová became one of the leading writers of the period and is most closely associated with the 'Grandmother's valley' area around Ratibořice and České Skalice in North-East Bohemia, where her best known semi-autobiographical works are set.

1000Kč František Palacký (1798-1876)
Also active at the time of the Czech National Revival after 300 years of Austrian Imperial rule, Frantisek Palacký was a historian and politician whose 5-volumed 'History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia' offered modern Czechs the first account of their own history from their own perspective in their own language. Alongside Charles IV and Masaryk, Palacký is considered one of the fathers of the Czech Nation (Otec narodů) and many city squares, boulevards and even the country's second university are named in his honour. He was born and grew up in Hodslavice in North Moravia and is buried at Lobkovice which is now part of Neratovice near Mělník.

2000Kč Emmy Destinn (1878-1930)
Emmy Destinn was a Prague-born opera singer who earned international fame for her roles in Strauss, Puccini and Wagner operas. She appeared frequently opposite Enrico Caruso in the opera houses of New York, London and Berlin, but her career declined with the coming of WWI. She was publicly linked with the patriotic Czech resistance and confined to the chateau at Stráž nad Nežarkou in South Bohemia until the war ended. The banknote design suggests the art nouveau movement popular during Emmy Destinn's life and is my favourite of the series.

5000Kč Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937)
Most visitors to the Czech Republic won't see many 5000Kč notes featuring TGM in daily circulation, but that's OK because in every Czech town or city there's at least one statue or a square, avenue, embankment, college or university named in his memory. Masaryk served in the Austrian Parliament as a member of the Young Czech Party but when WWI broke out he went into exile and began agitating for an independent Czech and Slovak state. When the Austrian Empire fell, the Allies recognized Masaryk as leader of a caretaker government. In the first elections he was voted President of Czechoslovakia and served until 1935. Born in Hodonín on the border of Moravia and Slovakia, Masaryk passed away at the age of 87 and rests now in the grounds of the presidential chateau at Lány in Central Bohemia.

The 20Kč note is rare and there's now a 50Kč coin so perhaps Agnes' days are numbered too. The rest of the gang seem safe until at least 2014, which is the earliest realistic date for the adoption of the common European currency.

Related posts: When Czech Republic adopts the Euro...


Knedlikova said...

Very illuminating! Don't think I could even identify half the people on my native British notes / coinage (except, perhaps, the Queen).

Hello Xu Xu said...

Czech banknotes are indeed well designed and beautiful, and have been since the first Czechoslovak republic. Even during the years of communism the notes were very attractive.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Here's a link to XuXu's post about the 50Kč coin.