From Borderland to Backcountry
I have recently returned from spending 10 days in Scotland, where I attended a conference in Dundee (Ok, so this was actually a combined conference trip and holiday – I spent 4 days in Dundee and then enjoyed a brief Scottish mini-break, visiting Edinburgh and Loch Lomond!), and presented a paper about my research into the history of the Chodsko region, on the Czech-German border. The conference, entitled ‘From Borderland to Backcountry: Frontier Communities in Comparative Perspective’ was organised by Matthew Ward at the University of Dundee.
I really enjoyed the conference, and it was a great opportunity for me to present some of my findings and initial thoughts on the history of the fascinating, but relatively little known Chodsko region. However, perhaps rather fittingly, in a conference focused on the topic of frontiers, I found myself ‘on the frontier’ in a couple of respects. Firstly, because out of approximately 42 presentations given, just 4 focused on European frontiers/borderlands, with a single panel devoted to ‘The Frontier in Europe’ (consisting of my own paper on the Chods and 2 other papers discussing the Habsburg Military Frontier, and twentieth century Vilnius) and an excellent plenary session by William O’Reilly (Cambridge University) discussing ‘The Biology of Borders in Early Modern Europe’ – with the majority of the other presentations focusing on various aspects of the American frontier, or ‘backcountry’. Secondly, I found myself ‘on the frontier’ because as a modern historian, my work on the Chodove, spanning the late middle ages to the seventeenth century, pushes the boundaries of my own research far beyond my usual chronological scope. However, I initially became fascinated by the history of this small border community when I first stumbled across some papers about them in a small collection archived at Keele University in 2007, and have since established contacts with other researchers interested in Chod history in the USA and Canada, visiting the region twice to conduct more detailed research and successfully unearthing Czech and German source materials, in a process that has been both challenging and rewarding in equal mesaure. My next article on this topic will see me on somewhat more familiar ground, as I focus on modern interpretations and representations of Chod history as a symbol of Czech nationalism in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
For those who may be interested, a copy of the paper I gave in Dundee can be found below:
A History of the Chodove People
Dr Kelly Hignett
Paper originally presented at the conference ‘From Borderland to Backcountry: Frontier Communities in Comparative Perspective’ at the University of Dundee, 5-7 July 2009.
The Chodové (or Chods) were a small community of peasant farmers who played a significant role along the south-western stretch of the Bohemian-Bavarian borderland between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Acting as pre-modern ‘border guards’ the Chods regulated trade and travel through the border region and engaged in the military defence of the frontier. Their loyalty was assured by a series of royal documents granting them a significant degree of political autonomy, economic prosperity and social stature. This privileged status, coupled with the relatively isolated nature of their existence, combined to facilitate the development of a distinct borderland identity among the Chodové.
The dominance of the nation state as the foremost historiographical frame of reference in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe spawned histories which often tended to ignore or sideline the existence of frontier societies. In recent years there has been increased interest in writing history ‘from the periphery’, analysing the experiences of frontier societies in Europe from a local rather than a centrist perspective. Today, a growing literature about early modern frontiers exists, but remains unevenly developed, in terms of both the range of regions studied and in terms of making broader transnational comparisons between individual areas. While the Chodové provide a fascinating ‘case study’ in their own right, their existence on one of the principal fault lines between Germanic and Slavic Europe and their role as a frontier force of real military and economic importance also combine to provide some intriguing general insights into the precarious lives of established border communities in early modern Europe.
Borderlands in Early Modern Europe
A number of criteria can generally be applied to border regions in early modern Europe. Hobsbawm perhaps said it best when he stated that ‘hardly any state could pretend to control its borders, or tried to, or indeed had clearly demarcated frontier lines’. Precise territorial boundaries were often ill-defined – prior to the seventeenth century the word ‘border’ generally applied to ‘a rather vague permeable zone’ rather than to fixed, visible lines drawn between sovereign territories. This is reinforced by the fact that while mountains, rivers and individual place names were marked on cartographic representations of Europe, and of territories within Europe during this period, national borders were generally not. Rulers often lacked either the material means or the political authority to directly exert firm control over their outer-lying territorial regions, and borderlands tended to be perceived as politically, economically, socially and culturally peripheral, meaning they were generally sparsely populated and economically underdeveloped. Many border regions were also militarised as the first line of defence against external invaders and this, combined with the precarious conditions of life ‘on the margins’ were often conducive to high levels of violence, frequent warfare and crime – smuggling, banditry, raiding and pillaging were often endemic among inhabitants of border regions.
While the precarious conditions of life on the borderland often bred instability, there was also the opportunity for inhabitants to enjoy a significant degree of independence and autonomy, and in the early modern period central authorities often pursued a policy of negotiation with rather than coercion over peoples in their border regions. There are numerous examples of European rulers co-opting existing border communities, or deliberately re-settling communities to defend and police their borderlands. This kind of arrangement was mutually beneficial: for the central authorities it removed the cost of maintaining a permanent border guard, while providing a force to police the frontier and act as the first line of defence during military invasion, and in return the ruling authorities recognised the independent status of these communities, granting them political, economic and social advantages in return for defending lands that they often viewed as ‘theirs’ anyway.
The south-western stretch of border between Bohemia and Bavaria exhibited a number of features ‘typical’ of other borderlands in Early Modern Europe. The frontier between Bohemia and Bavaria was dominated by a thickly-forested mountain range, a natural feature which made rough territorial demarcation possible, but the exact coordinates of the border were not formally defined until 1765. Prior to the seventeenth century, this region was sparsely populated and economically underdeveloped and while the growth in cross-border trade meant that some isolated customs posts were founded dating from the ninth century onwards, only a few scattered settlements existed, while increasing levels of cross-border trade attracted numerous ‘robber-gangs’ operating in the borderland forests. The alpine terrain meant that ‘traditional’ defences were few and far between and as the region increased in strategic importance the Bohemian authorities had to consider alternative means of fortifying their frontier. This brings us to the Chodové.
Who were the Chodové?
The Chodové were the occupants of eleven villages on the south-west Bohemian-Bavarian border region, collectively known as the ‘Chodsko’ region (the historical legacy of the Chodové is such that the name is still used to refer to the region today). In the period under consideration these were small settlements with an estimated total population of around 3000 inhabitants. The Chod villages were clustered around the town of Domažlice (which was originally founded as a customs town in the ninth century and from 1242 was also fortified to protect the passes through the border) and were strategically located around the key routes through the border region:
The origins of the first Chod settlers are disputed and numerous theories have been suggested, however it appears most likely that the villages were established sometime in the latter half of the thirteenth century during the reign of King Premysl Ottokar II (1253-1278), and that the original settlers were Hungarian Slovaks, mercenaries who had impressed Ottokar II in battle and were subsequently deliberately settled in strategic locations to protect this stretch of borderland. The name ‘Chod’ comes from the Czech verb ‘Chodit’ meaning ‘to go’, in a direct reference to their borderland patrols, and some of their village names also reflect their role: Stráž (‘Guard’ or ‘Guardpost’), Postřekov (‘Lookout’) and Újezd (‘an area under patrol’). These eleven villages formed a distinct, cohesive community, with their own seal, flag, administrative authority and collective rights. The Chodové were thus viewed as a distinct and homogenous group and were described as a ‘little republic within the kingdom of Bohemia’
The Chods’ Role along the Borderland
The Chodové performed a number of duties on the borderland with mobile ‘patrol groups’ roaming throughout the forested area under their protection. The limits of the Chodsko patrol area were clearly marked by a series of crosses cut into the bark of trees. Adult males would train their sons to know the limits of their territory from an early age, in a ritual where they would walk around the territorial limits, pointing out the various markers and then the sons would be asked to repeat the route, receiving a beating each time they got it wrong. In addition to orienteering however, these markings also sent a warning to outsiders that this area was under protection.
Their day to day duties included general inspection and maintenance: ensuring the relevant border symbols were clearly marked and positioned and that tracks through the forest were passable, so fallen trees were cleared and track surfaces repaired when necessary; and the provision of assistance and protection for legitimate travellers passing through the border region – such as merchants, traders, diplomats, clergymen and even the King himself. On occasions when the King of Bohemia travelled through their region the Chods provided him with a full ceremonial guard of honour, and for a fee of 2 groschen the Chod would provide an armed escort for other travellers, escorting them from the limits of their territory to Domažlice and vice versa. The Chodové also defended their territory against gangs of smugglers and poachers, attracted both by the possibility of profiting from illegal hunting, fishing or logging in the border forests (all activities which the Chodové were charged with preventing) and robbers and bandits tempted by the possibility of lucrative spoils due to the increasing volume of cross border trade.
At times where Bohemia came under attack, the Chodové also had a military role. Chod patrol groups would observe and report any signs of unusual military activity in the border region and signal a warning of impending invasion using a beacon system, located on high ground near each village. At times of military invasion the Chodové would also obstruct the enemy by covering the main routes of passage with felled trees, a process known as ‘Zaseky’ , and there are a handful of occasions where they fought in large-scale military operations, most notably participating in the defeat of the army of the Fifth Crusade at the Battle of Domažlice in August 1431 during the Hussite Wars; fighting at Bílá Hora (the Battle of the White Mountain) in 1620, and in Bohemian attempts to oppose the invasion by the Swedish army under General Baner in 1639, during the Thirty Years’ War.
The Bohemian monarchs’ reliance on the Chodové to patrol and protect the border region required assurances of their loyalty and this was encouraged by granting the Chodsko region a ‘privileged status’ within the Kingdom of Bohemia. In 1325 these rights or ‘privileges’ were verified in writing by King Jan (John) Luxembourg, and were subsequently re-confirmed, and occasionally expanded, by a series of Bohemian rulers. In total, twenty four official documents of privilege were granted to the Chodové between 1325 and 1620, each document signed and sealed by the reigning monarch.
These documents of privilege officially recognised the importance of the Chodové as ‘guardians of the borderland’ and effectively granted them a significant degree of political autonomy, social stature and economic advantages. The Chods were proclaimed free from traditional peasant labour obligations and were not bound in servitude to any noble ‘master’ but were only subject to the authority of a regional court in Domažlice which met once a month. The Chods were also exempt from the usual feudal dues, only required to pay an annual tax of 24 silver coins to the Royal Treasury, and were granted permission to log in the borderland forests (as a time when this was generally prohibited) for their own use, though not for trade.
The Chodové also enjoyed a range of unwritten or ‘customary’ rights. These were not specifically included in the royal documents but were generally accepted or tolerated by the ruling authorities. These included freedom of movement throughout the entire borderland region under their protection, the right to hunt fish and graze their livestock in the borderland forests, the right to trade any surplus crops and livestock at the market in Domažlice without paying the necessary customs tolls, and the right to brew their own beer. The Chods were also granted the right to bear arms, although this was really an essential pre-requisite if they were to function as an effective border force. They fashioned their own rather distinctive weapons, known as Cakans, which were essentially hatchets on five foot long shafts, studded with nails and ending in a sharp iron point. The Cakan was a multi-functional tool, and could be used for felling trees, slaughtering bears, fighting off raiders and poachers and in the military defence of the frontier.
Life on the Borderland
Norman Housley has proposed an interesting hypothesis: that on frontiers where arable farming was practised and/or large scale cross-border trade took place, we should expect relations to generally be more peaceful than in the case of frontiers where communities lived chiefly by pastoral farming, with ready opportunities for raiding and rustling. This theory appears to hold some weight in the case of the Chodové who were, first and foremost a community of farmers, subject to the usual seasonal fluctuations of rural life. Even taking into account their roaming border patrols, they were a sedentary rather than a nomadic community, with permanently established farmsteads growing a range of crops, fruit orchards, breeding livestock and even keeping bees for honey. While small-scale skirmishes with robber gangs occurred on a regular basis, generally speaking levels of violence and warfare on the south-western Bohemian borderline between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries were relatively low, and although there were a few occasions where the Chodové participated in large-scale military battles, they clearly saw their role as purely defensive. In 1546, when Peter Svamberg, a local noble, tried to coerce the Chods into taking part in military raids on Bavarian territory, they complained to the Emperor that such activities would counteract the nature of their role, and received a written agreement that they were not required to fight beyond the Bohemian borders. Unlike the experiences of many other frontier societies in this period, in the Chod psyche warfare seems to have been viewed as an occasional necessity of their role defending the borderland, war ‘pro patria’ (in defence of the homeland) rather than forming part of a discernable pattern of frontier life.
The Chodové were far from a ‘typical’ community of peasant farmers however, and their role along the borderland had a defining influence on many areas of Chod life. The Chodové were officially classed as a ‘free people’ however although their privileges may have exempted them from the ‘robota’ (free labour) associated with serfdom, the obligations they undertook to patrol and protect the borderland were onerous, time consuming and physically demanding, meaning that in effect they were still subject to a degree of hard labour, and the frequent absence of groups of men out patrolling the border would have required the women to take on a significant role in the day to day agricultural labour and village life, in addition to running the household.
Their privileged also position allowed them significantly more freedom and independence than other peasant communities however. The Chods were given a great deal of autonomy over their domestic affairs, and a semi-democratic method of local government emerged where the adult males in each of the eleven villages elected a ‘rychtar’ (communal magistrate or judge) to represent their interests in the local court. In addition, while their well-being was subject to the same seasonal economic vagaries as elsewhere, many of their privileges (such as the right to hunt and fish throughout the borderland and sell any surplus crops for profit) ensured them a higher standard of living than other peasant communities.
The importance of the Chodové role on the borderland is also reflected in the atypical design and construction of their villages. Designed for collective resistance, the Chod villages were carefully constructed in a compact block. Their wooden farmhouses and barns were built back to back at right angles around an open central square, which contained a pond (ensuring a fresh water supply if the Chodové were besieged) and a two-story stone building which functioned as a granary for storing crops in peacetime but also doubled as the last refuge for the Chod at times when they came under attack. Only a single road ran in and out of each village and at times of attack the roads and the gaps between the barns could be blocked with wooden barricades. There were thus three lines of defence protecting the Chod villages: an outer wall or fence around the orchards which ran continuously around the outer perimeters of each village, the strategic alignment of farm buildings reinforced with barricades, and finally the great stone granary. The defensive design of the eleven Chod villages distinguished them structurally from other villages in the locality, so that they ‘stood clearly apart from the other forest settlements formed to the north and south.
Their role on the border meant that the Chod villages were sometimes targets for attack, and there were occasions where it is recorded that their villages were burnt to the ground. Chodsko was particularly devastated during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) when the Chod villages were destroyed and only around 400 of the estimated pre-war population of 3,000 survived, living wild in the borderland forests.
Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries the Chodové performed a valuable role on the Bohemian borderland. At a time when the Bohemian leaders lacked either the material means or the political authority to impose a permanent army to patrol their border regions, the Chodové provided a hardy, armed force which could be maintained relatively inexpensively and mobilised quickly as the first line of defence against invasion. In turn the Chods were allowed to retain a significant degree of autonomy and freedom, developing a closed sense of community and cultivating a distinct independent borderland identity. By the close of the seventeenth century however, the Chodové had ceased to hold any significant presence on the borderland. Once the Chods’ usefulness on the frontier began to diminish, their independent status was increasingly contested and during the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries they lost their royal protection and were subjected to increasing levels of control by a succession of regional authorities. Sadly I don’t have time to discuss the decline of the Chodové in detail today, as it is a fascinating story, especially as the Chodove mounted a sustained challenge to the attempts to modify or erode their independence, and in a spirited fight lasting over one hundred years this small band of illiterate forest dwellers petitioned courts in Prague and Vienna, sent delegations to various court hearings, successfully raised money in an attempt to emancipate themselves from direct control by any regional authority and eventually resorted to armed insurrection in a rising that came to be known as the ‘Farmers Revolt’ (1693).
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Chod struggle was subsequently presented by Czech authors and artists in a romantic light: as a struggle of simple peasants against feudal authority and hailed as an example of Bohemians fighting for freedom against encroaching German domination after the Thirty Years’ War. In truth however, the Chodové were the victims of a number of interconnected developments in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the general tightening of feudal controls over peasant communities as a result of the ‘second serfdom’ in central and eastern Europe; increasing centralisation of state authority and the growth of autocracy – the creeping Habsburg authority over Bohemia evident from the mid-sixteenth century was compounded after Bohemian losses at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620 and from 1650 the Habsburgs established their own professional border guard to patrol the Bohemian-Bavarian borderland; the demarcation of more precise territorial boundaries following the Peace of Westphalia (1648); increased economic development and colonisation throughout the Bohemian border regions and finally, the development of new styles of warfare, particularly the introduction of firepower and the increasing use of muskets and cannons. The Thirty Years’ War not only decimated the border region but also demonstrated the powerlessness of the Chodové – a small band who fought with a clan-warrior mentality and were armed with essentially home-made weapons – in the face of more modern and professional armies. The birth of larger, more professional standing armies also enabled ruling authorities to enforce control over outer-lying territories that may previously have enjoyed significant levels of independence, and the experience of the Chodové was mirrored elsewhere across Europe in this period, as borderland territories and their peoples were bought under increasingly firm state control.
 Steven G Ellis and Raingard Esser (eds), Frontiers and the Writing of History, 1500 – 1850, (Wehrhahn Verlag, 2006) p.20
 Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1969), p.15
 Steven G Ellis and Raingard Esser (eds), Op Cit, p.13
 Gunter Vogler, ‘Borders and Boundaries in Early Modern Europe: Problems and Possibilities’ in Steven G Ellis and Raingard Esser (eds), Ibid, p.29
 For a more detailed discussion on this topic see Kelly Hignett, ‘Co-option or Criminalisation? The State, Border Communities and Organised Crime in Early Modern Europe’ in Mark Galeotti (ed), Organised Crime in History, (Routledge, 2008), pp. 35 – 51
 For example the Russian Cossacks, the Croatian Uskoks, Hungarian Hajduks and the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers.
 The eleven Chod villages are Postřekov, Klenčí, Chodov, Újezd, Stráž, Tlumačov, Mrákov, Klíčov, Chodská Lhota and Pocinovice.
 No precise figures exist for the population of the Chodsko region until after the Thirty Years’ War which had decimated the region, however there were an average of 35-40 farmhouses in each of the eleven villages, so multiplying these by the average peasant family size in this period gives us a total population estimate of around 3000.
 These theories include suggestions that the original Chodove may have been descendents of early Celtic settlers, an ancient Cech tribe of forest dwellers, criminals who ‘from being the scourge of the forest’ were co-opted into settlements to act as border guards, or mercenaries of Hungarian or Polish origin who chose to settle permanently in Bohemia.
 Eduard Maur, ‘Der Streit uber den Sinn der Chodengeschichte’, Zapadoceskey Historicky Sbornik, vol 3, (Plžen, 1997), p.183, and ‘The History of the Chod’, Report from the LePlay Collection on Bohemia, archived at Keele University, UK (1929), p.1
 ‘The History of the Chod’, Ibid, p.2
 Jiři Jánský, Kronika Česko-Bavorské Hranice, Vol. 1, 1400-1426, (Domažlice, 2001), p.204
 Josef Haas, Die Choden und ihra Fahn (Museen und Archive, 1992), p.377 and ‘History of the Chod’, Op Cit, p.3
 Jiři Jánský, Op Cit, pp.222-223
 ‘The Country of the Chod’, Report from the LePlay Collection on Bohemia, (1929), archived at Keele University, UK
 The 24 Royal documents of privilege were originally written in Latin, the lingua franca of early modern Europe, but have been translated into modern Czech in Frantisek Roubik, Chodské Majestáty [Chod Privileges] (Prague, 1945),
 Norman Housley, ‘Frontier Societies and Crusading in the Late Middle Ages’, Mediterranean History Review, Vol. 10 (1995), p. 107
 I have explored this issue in slightly more detail in Kelly Hignett, ‘Co-option or Criminalisation?’ Op Cit.
 Czech Historian Eduard Maur refers to the Chodove as ‘settled walkers’, ‘protection farmers’ and as ‘the farming guards of the Bohemian border’, ( Eduard Maur, ‘Chodove – Psohlavci, Jejich Prezdivka Prapor a ‘Znak’’, Acta Universitatis Carolinae – Philosophica et Histoica, Vol 2 (1987), p.381 and again, this can be compared with other border communities such as the Cossacks, Hajduks and Uskoks who saw the establishment of permanent farmsteads as impracticable due to the violent and unpredictable conditions of borderland life.
 Jana Koutna, Chod History (Domažlice, 2001 – Translated into English by Eva Tochor, 2002), 3
 ‘History of the Chod’, Op Cit, p.2
 ‘The Country of the Chods’, Op Cit, pp.1-2, 5 and ‘A Chod Farm’, Report from the LePlay Collection on Bohemia, (1929), archived at Keele University, UK
 ‘History of the Chod’, Op Cit, p.5
 A detailed account of the Chodové fight against the nobility and royal authority can be found in Jana Koutna, Chod History, Op Cit.
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