24 January 2019

‘When the snow lay round about,
deep and crisp and even’ … in Prague

The statue of Saint Wenceslas or Vaclav the Good in Wenceslas Square in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The weather is so cold in Prague this week – it has been around –2 these days, but it feels like –9, and there was a light dusting of snow last night – that I can be forgiven for thinking about snow and Christmas carols, and especially the one carol that we all associate with Prague.

But first let me address some of the myths: Good King Wenceslas was not written in the Czech capital; he never was a king; his name was not Wenceslas; and there is no mention of Christmas or the Nativity – its setting is Saint Stephen’s Day (26 December), the day after Christmas Day.

Wenceslas was a tenth century Duke of Bohemia, and his real name was Vaclav, or Vaclav the Good. I am not alone in wondering why a king might feel the need to take his retinue with him and trudge snow to bring pine logs to a peasant who already lives in a forest.

Indeed, the verse that sets this story in the day after Christmas was invented by the English Victorian hymn-writer, John Mason Neale (1818-1866), when he published his translation in 1853, to extol the custom of employers giving their workers a present on what was also known as Boxing Day.

Nor is the original song in Czech or set at Christmas-time: the tune selected by Neale, Tempus Adest Floridum, was a spring hymn in a Scandinavian collection Piae Cantiones, published in 1582, and dating back to the 14th century.

In the Oxford Book of Carols (1928), the editors, Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw , were critical of this carol, describing it as one of Neale’s ‘less happy pieces.’ It has been dismissed as ‘ponderous moral doggerel’ and as “poor and commonplace to the last degree,’ and these three editors hoped that ‘Good King Wenceslas’ would ‘gradually pass into disuse.’

This carol is not included in either the New English Hymnal or the Irish Church Hymnal, partly, perhaps, because the editors agreed with Dearmer, Smith, Vaughan Williams and other critics; and partly, I imagine, because this carol makes no mention of Christ, despite the fact that in provides an exemplary model of discipleship.

The man we know as ‘Good King Wenceslas’ was actually Vaclav I or Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia. He was also known as Vaclav the Good, or Svatý Václav in Czech, and was born about 907.

His grandfather was converted to Christianity by Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, the missionaries to the Slavs. His mother was the daughter of a pagan tribal chief – although she was baptised before she was married.

When young Vaclav’s father died there was a power vacuum: the young boy’s mother was banished and his grandmother was murdered by assassins – it is said she was strangled with her own veil.

Vaclav’s mother ruled Bohemia as regent until Wenceslas reached the age of 18. When he came of age, he banished his mother, and divided the country in two with his younger brother, Boleslaus ‘the Cruel.’

However, Boleslaus was not happy with the arrangement, and in September 935 he plotted with a group of noblemen to kill his brother. The three nobles – Tira, Česta, and Hněvsa – stabbed Wenceslas, before his own brother ran him through with a lance.

Wenceslas was regarded as a martyr and saint almost immediately after his death. Immediately after his death, he was considered a martyr and a saint, and within a few decades four biographies of him were in circulation. These biographies influenced mediaeval concepts of the rex justus or righteous king, so that he was revered as ‘the father of all the wretched.’

Many years later, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I gave him the title posthumously promoted him from being a duke to the title of king. Several centuries later, following his example, Pope Pius II walked 10 miles barefoot in the ice and snow as an act of pious thanksgiving.

A 12th-century preacher said: ‘His deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his passion, no one doubts that, rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty.’

His saint’s day is 28 September. He is buried in Saint Vitus’s cathedral in Prague, and was recently made the patron saint of the Czech Republic.

The statue of Saint Wenceslas on Wenceslas Square in Prague, surrounded by the four patrons of Bohemia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

An equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas, surrounded by the other patron saints of Bohemia – Saint Adalbert, Saint Ludmila, Saint Prokop and Saint Agnes – looks down the full-length of Wenceslas Square in Prague. This is a popular meeting place in Prague, and was the venue for demonstrations against the Communist regime 50 years ago in 1969 and 30 years ago in 1989.

It is said in Prague that if the Czech Republic is in danger this statue in Wenceslas Square will come to life, Good King Wenceslas will raise a sleeping army and he will reveal a legendary sword to bring peace to the land.

I prefer John Mason Neale’s ending to the carol:

Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

‘Good King Wenceslas’ … an image on a ceiling in the Old Town Hall in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

‘Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?’
‘Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain’.

‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine When we bear them thither.’
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

‘Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.’
‘Mark my footsteps, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.’

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

King Wenceslas depicted on a façade in the Old Town Square in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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