Petr Charvát

The life and work of St. Adalbert

As far as we are aware, Adalbert, the son of Slavník, scholar, Bishop of Prague, monk, missionary, martyr and saint (956? - 23 April 997) was born in Libice, the seat of his father Slavník. There have been long debates over which estates the Slavník's sons held. Today, it is generally believed that they had a small estate in the eastern part of Central Bohemia, approximately in between the Poděbrady and Čáslav districts. We do not know the reasons for the prominent social position of the Slavník's family, but what we do know is that they were culturally oriented towards the north-west and north of Europe. We are not able to clearly interpret a note that Adalbert was somehow related to the Saxon imperial family. That note can be found in a legend about two saints (St. Wenceslas and St. Ludmila), which probably originated at the turn of the 10th and 11th centuries and was recounted by Christian.

Both the Roman legend recounted by Canaparius (or perhaps Bishop Notker of Liège) and the legend of Bruno of Querfurt suggest that Adalbert was stricken with a serious illness in his childhood and his parents, anxious for his life, promised him to God. The boy fortunately recovered from his illness. Adalbert was first educated in his father's house by a tutor named Radla, who seems to have been an educated man knowledgeable about Latin culture. In the early 960s, Libice was visited by Adalbert, an itinerary missionary bishop, originally a monk from Trier, who confirmed the little boy and gave him the name Adalbert on that occasion.

Probably in the early 970s, Adalbert left for the cathedral school in Magdeburg, Saxony, whose headmaster was the renowned scholar Odericus. Odericus achieved fame at the imperial court for his disputation with Gerbert of Aurillac, the scholar who later became Pope Sylvester II (999-1002). In this religious disputation, Odericus adopted an orthodox position, and we can assume that he instilled that uncompromising attitude towards the fundamentals of Christian doctrine in the young Adalbert too.

In 981, Adalbert's father died and at the same time Thietmar, the first Bishop of Prague, passed away. This is probably why Adalbert left Magdeburg for Prague. In the winter of 982, at the gathering of prominent Bohemians at Levý Hradec near Prague, he was elected the second Bishop of Prague. In 983, he received the insignia of his office from Emperor Otto II in Verona, Italy. It is believed that the young Adalbert was impressed by the level of culture of the Latin West and resolved to do his best to raise his diocese to the spiritual level of the neighbouring Christian regions.

As a bishop, Adalbert was known for his unrelenting criticism of all that he considered to be evils affecting the life of his flock. Above all, he criticised the family conditions of the laity and the clergy. He defended the purity of Christian doctrine and harshly criticised the selling of slaves of the Christian faith to heterodox slave traders. However, at the princely court, the Bishop's Christian zeal seems to have produced an attitude that can at best be described as "cold". Having realised that his attempt failed, Adalbert decided to leave his diocese for Rome, probably with the intention of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. When he arrived at the Eternal City sometime in 989, dowager empress Theophano who received him at her court gave him a considerable sum of money for his journey. The Canaparius' Roman legend has it that Adalbert gave everything to the poor and needy before reaching the port of Naples. After a period of hesitation and wandering, he followed the advice of hermit St. Nilus of Rossano and took refuge in the monastery known as Santi Bonifacio e Alessio on the Aventine Hill in Rome, where he lived as a monk for two years (990-992).

In 992, an envoy from Bohemia arrived at Rome and urged Adalbert to return to his diocese. Adalbert did so, but decided to reinforce his return with consolidation of Christian life in Bohemia. First of all, he set out on his journey accompanied by a group of monks who - in line with the Bishop's wish - were to establish the first male monastery in Bohemia. Most likely, he brought to Bohemia a considerable amount of church furnishings, including books, paraments (liturgical fabrics) and probably also holy relics. In Bohemia, upon his request, Prince Boleslav II (972-999) authorised him to dissolve improperly solemnised "marriages", establish churches in princely castles and collect episcopal tithe. In collaboration with the Prince, the Bishop founded a monastery in Břevnov in 993 to serve as a monastic institute, but also as a "training facility" for future Christian missionaries. He also strived to mitigate excesses in public life. He forbade the inhabitants of Prague to brew beer for sale. It should be noted that this ban was observed by Bohemians until 1244, when Adalbert's order was officially revoked by the Pope at the request of King Wenceslas I.

Adalbert spent two years in his homeland (992-994), but then he left again, this time under very dramatic circumstances, when the right of asylum in temples was violently broken. On his way to Rome, Adalbert possibly spent some time as a Christian missionary in Hungary, but there is no credible evidence for his stay in any authentic sources. However, it is believed that he baptised the future King Stephen I of Hungary (The longer version of the Life of Saint Stephen, King of Hungary).

Bishop Adalbert spent the next two years (994-996) in his monastery in Rome, but in May 996, the word about his stay reached the ears of the Emperor Otto III, who had just arrived in the Eternal City. He was accompanied by Adalbert's superior, Archbishop Willigis of Mainz. He encouraged the Bishop-turned-monk to return to his diocese. Adalbert agreed on two conditions: he would send a messenger to Bohemia to see if Bohemians would accept him as bishop, and if not, he would be allowed to set out on a Christian mission to pagan tribes.

Probably in the late summer of 996, Adalbert left Rome and travelled to the Rhineland accompanied by Bishop Notker of Liège (the city of Luik in today's Belgium). Awaiting the return of a messenger from Bohemia, he spent his time on a pious pilgrimage to the tombs of the saints who symbolised his episcopal office and his monastic inclinations, Saint Martin at Tours and Saint Benedict at Fleury (Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire), as well as the tomb of one of St. Benedict's first disciples, St. Maurus of Glanfeuil (Saint-Maur-sur-Loire) on the Loire River in present-day France. He then returned to the imperial court in Aachen, where the messenger from Bohemia told him that his return was considered undesirable.

Adalbert spent the turn of 996 and 997 in Aachen, at the court of Emperor Otto III, whom he allegedly charmed with his eloquence and Christian zeal. In early 997, he left for the court of the Polish ruler Bolesław the Brave (992-1025) to set out on a mission to one of the Prussian-speaking tribes of the Baltics. However, they rejected the Christian doctrine, the group of missionaries was attacked by a mob of angry and armed opponents, and on 23 April 997, missionary and Bishop Adalbert died a martyr's death.

Adalbert's remains were ransomed by the Polish ruler Bolesław the Brave who translated them into the Cathedral Basilica in Gniezno. From there, during his attack on Poland in 1039 or 1040, the Bohemian Prince Břetislav I had the remains collected and buried in St. Vitus Basilica in Prague, where Adalbert's body has been resting until these days.

Today, St. Adalbert is often referred to as "the first Czech European". This means that he is perceived as the first Bohemian scholar and philosopher who realised how important it was for the early medieval Bohemian society - and not only that one - to become part of the world of Latin Christianity. He exerted all his efforts to that end, and this is why he did not hesitate to sacrifice his own life.

St. Adalbert also plays a paramount role in the history of the Czech Church. He managed to secure its rights by procuring a decree from Prince Boleslav II. He founded the first male monastery in this country, where from Christianity was to be preached to the peoples in this part of Europe. He endowed the Prague Basilica with books, liturgical paraments and probably also holy relics. He is considered the first known Czech literary author. A sermon on the feast of St. Alexius, inspired by one of the homilies of Saint Bede the Venerable, is attributed to him. He is said to write a brief legend about Saint Gorgonius including a cover letter for Milon, the Bishop of the Minden diocese in Westphalia. However, the author of the legend has not been fully confirmed yet.

Adalbert's greatest significance, however, lies on the symbolic level. Along with St. Wenceslas, he became the heavenly guard of the early medieval Bohemian community. They both created a foundation for Bohemians to be used at that time to enter medieval Europe as an independent and distinct Christian community, while maintaining its independence. An unknown illuminator who placed the Bohemian saints headed by Adalbert in the heavenly Jerusalem, as seen on the title page of the Czech version of Augustine's De civitate Dei from the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries, was therefore absolutely right.

Figuratively speaking, with Saint Wenceslas and Saint Adalbert, the Czechs were given the seats of honour in the Arthur's circle of saints of the Christian Church, and thus a full-fledged position in the profane structure of medieval Europe.