Between Life and Death. Testaments of the Czech Nobility from 1550 to 1650


The book introduces noble last wills from 1550 to 1650 as one of "newly discovered" type of historical sources. Altogether five chapters deals with description of these documents, with noble testamentary praxis, with the contentual analysis of testaments, with possible usage of these documents in historical research and with life cycles of noble families in the light of testaments. The other part of the book brings an edition of 101 noble testaments.

Research on nobility has always been an integral part of the Czech historiography. Historians have used various sources from noble family archives, manor collections and other archive sets (diplomatic materials, narrative sources, correspondence, accounts, inventories) for their research. Recently attention has been paid to other sources which had been known to historians, however had not been used for the research because of many reasons, respectively had been used only for one-way oriented research. Those sources are mostly represented by ego-sources (the Czech historiography has paid most attention to diaries).

One of the types of documents which need to be seen from a new point of view are testaments. They are present in every family archive but have been only used for genealogically, economically and legally oriented research. The present book attempts to introduce last wills of Bohemian noblemen and noblewomen in four aspects. At first it concentrates on testamentary praxis in Bohemia in the second half of the 16th and the first half of the 17th century. Special attention has been then placed on contentual analysis of the testaments. One of the crucial objectives of the book has been to summarise possible ways how testaments could be used for historical research on nobility. The fourth chapter then attempts to describe life cycles of noble families in the light of information which can be obtained from the testaments of Czech nobles.

Men and women testaments from the period of 1550 to 1650 have been analysed. It has been author's purpose to overstep the year 1620 which is traditionally considered a milestone in the Czech historiography. The largest set of testaments can be found among the documents produced by the Office of Land Registers (Úřad desek zemských) which are deposited in Státní ústřední archiv (State Central Archive) in Prague (mostly testaments entered in the Registers or originals of last wills which were deposited in the Office by their authors). Many last wills are also present in individual noble archives (mostly originals, drafts or copies of intabulated testaments).

Last wills of the Czech nobility were among the most important written materials securing noble property. The process of drawing up a testament followed a traditional ritual which was influenced by rooted tradition, legal norms as well as deeds of everyday life. A new land law-book (Obnovené zřízení zemské) brought a significant change into noble testamentary praxis at the beginning of the 17th century. While until 1627 nobles in Bohemia had had to ask for a king's powerful charter (mocný list královský) to draw up a will, the new land order gave them possibility to do so without such a permission. Under ideal circumstances noblemen and noblewomen wrote their testaments in advance as they considered last will integral part of the preparation for a "good death". However, not a small number of nobles left their dealing the worldly matters for the last moments of their lives. Testaments were most often drawn up in the testators' residences. Also the kingdoms' capital belonged among usual places where last will were drawn up, mostly because the land offices were located there. Nobles wrote their testaments with their own hand or they could ask a friend or some of the land officials to give them a hand. Both traditional and obligatory step was confirming the testament by testamentary witnesses. Last wills did not become valid until they had been read and entered into the Land registers (desky zemské), which should happen within twelve weeks after testator's death. However, the intabulation might appear an insuperable obstacle, as - similarly to other documents - it was necessary to pay for the entry into the Registers. This is one of the reasons why many of noble wills from the studied period never became valid in law.

Last wills of Bohemian noblemen and noblewomen in the period from 1550 to 1650 showed a tradition constancy in content. The whole text of wills was usually opened with invocation, which made the documents drawn up in the presence of God. It was followed by self-identification of the testator. Mostly in the cases of women-testators who identified themselves in the mediation of their male relatives these parts of testaments reveal how the role of women in the society was understood. The following arengas of the last wills are unique sources for understanding noble mentality in the early modern period. The authors of wills contemplated over the questions connected with rules of life and death, revealed their imaginations about afterlife. They saw their lives as short and dangerous; the stay in the world was considered a mere preparation for eternal life. However, their words also reveal the fear of death. It sprang out from the unexpectability and inevitability of death or from the unwillingness to say good-bye to close relatives and worldly property. Most of all, testators feared the sole moment of death when they were expected to undergo their last and crucial fight for their souls. Noblemen and noblewomen also named out the motives which led them to the decision to draw up a last will. In most cases they considered writing a will part of the preparation for a "good death" and in such a way they thought it their duty. From the beginning of the 17th century on the testators more and more often showed their firm conviction that it is necessary to draw up a will during the healthy life to be able to concentrate on a quiet leaving from worldly life in a deathbed. Also attempts to assure future harmony among relatives were among traditional motives of testators. Progressing old age, sudden diseases or injuries which tied testators down to a deathbed, or other immediate dangers like plague epidemics and war conflicts were also among usual reasons why testaments were drawn up. As mental faculty was one of the conditions for validity of the testament, testators reminded to emphasise that they write their last will being mentally fit.

Securing family property was the crucial objective of last wills. Appointment of guardians to children and property was a usual and often possibility how to manage it. Men-testators most often appointed their wives to be "power father-like guardians" (mocná otcovská poručnice). The land orders gave such guardians similar competencies as to fathers. In such positions wives were expected to take care of entrusted property and of education of children. Wives' fellow-guardians usually come from three groups of noble society - together with closest relatives and neighbours testators also addressed their requests to some of influential magnates, respectively to a member of the ruling Habsburg family who were expected to ensure sufficient protection to the property.

Undoubtedly, the main motive for drawing up testaments was distribution of family property. Family property was almost automatically bequeathed to male descendants in men's wills. From the beginning of the 17th century on also statutes about family fideicommissions were incorporated into the texts of testaments. Only if there were no sons alive other relatives would divide the inherited property. Widows were among traditional heirs. Husbands bequeathed them dowry and "obvěnění" (e. g. the money given by husbands to their wives after wedding, usually stated in wedding contracts). Widows were usually gives also a couch with horses and movable property - mostly clothes, linens and jewels - which belonged to wife's personal property. Men-testators determined in their testaments dowry which should be paid to their daughter after their wedding. In such point of view testaments were prefigurations for future wedding contracts. Oppositely, wedding contracts found their reflection in texts of women testaments. Smaller legata were also given to other family members, officials and servants. Noblewomen often willed their modest property to husbands and daughters. Bequests to daughters can be considered an act of women's solidarity in the early modern period.

The distributive parts of the testaments also included various pious and charity bequests. They were expected to help testators to ensure salvation to their souls. They were most often contributions to religious institutions of hospitals foundations. Although they were not unusual in the second half of the 16th century, their increase can be observed with the coming of the Baroque piety in the 1620s.

One of the crucial objectives of the book was to analyse noble testaments as historical sources and explore its possible utilisation in the historical research. As mentioned above, in the Czech historiography noble testaments have been used for one-sided research of economic and legal history. However, when the testaments are seen from a "different point of view" they can give answers to much broader set of questions. Frequent bequests to individual family members make testaments one of the crucial sources for genealogical research, historical demography or family structure research. Undoubtedly, last wills are important sources for biographies of some individualities. Last wills can also be considered as additional sources for the research of life cycles of noblemen. They reveal most information about education of noble children, grand tours, choice of husband or wife, coexistence of two generations of noble family or funeral rites. Above mentioned arengas of last wills are invaluable sources for penetrating the contours of thinking of nobles in the early modern period. Together with traditional legal history testaments can be also used for study of development of landed property and financial economy of both noble families and individualities. References about castle rooms, furniture or object of everyday use make testaments - together with inventories of inheritance - one of the crucial source of information about material culture and topography of noble residences. Thanks to frequent bequests to individual officials and servants it is possible to use testaments together with other sources for personal reconstruction of noble courts. Analysis of people who appeared in the texts of testaments in roles of guardians or testamentary witnesses can reveal the net of unofficial structures based on personal contacts of individuals or groups. last but not least, testaments bring information about foundations of religious and charity institutions.

The last part of the opening study attempts to use last will for one of the above mentioned topics - for life cycles of noble families. Childhood appears in testaments thanks to worries of fathers and mothers about their children. Parents often clearly expressed their never dying hope for male descendants who would carry on the family tradition. Oppositely girls and women stepped out from men's shadow only when their marriage was mentioned. In their testaments caring fathers usually expressed their wishes about future education of descendants, including the choice of tutor, the course of grand tours or university studies. According to the land law the period of childhood and adolescence ended at the age of twenty when youths become major. However, this life milestone was recognised only by some testators. Others expressed their conviction the limit of their sons' majority needed to be hinder for a few years. Similar examples show that there were contradictions between legal norms and everyday reality in lives of Bohemia noblemen.

According to the texts of testaments noble daughters were expected to stay after father's with their mothers or the closest relatives until they get married. "Fraucimor" (e.g. the woman part of the noble court) had to be present at the seats where daughters were to stay. Among the most important moments of the lives of nobles was marriage. The texts of last wills discloses that parents asserted their claim to choose a future partner for their children. Fathers regularly insisted on their daughters to get married "with advice" of the widow and fellow-guardians. If such condition was not fulfilled daughter lost her rights for bequeathed property. Another important objective of testaments was ensuring dowry for left daughters. It consisted of financial amount, which depended on the social and possessive background, and trousseau part of which often was a golden necklace.

Parents who wanted to disinherit their "disobedient" children were obliged to listed reasons which led them to such decision. This makes last wills unique sources for information about conflict relations between parents and grown-up children. Testaments mention cases of violence, law suits and other acts which somehow exceeded tolerable limits of expected norms of children's behaviour to their parents. Last wills are also one of the crucial sources for the topic of widowhood in noble society. Testators regularly mentioned the place where widow should stay after their death. Sometimes they also warn of the tension which could appear between the widow and children or other members of the family.

Testators spent most words to circumstances connecting to their own death and funeral rituals which accompanied it. Clauses arranging own death began to appear regularly in the opening parts of testaments in the 1620s. Authors of last wills determined the places where their bodies should be buried; most often they wished to rest near their closest relatives. Some testators also described their future sepulture. Progressing confessionalization caused that at the beginning of the 17th century testators beg their relatives to desist from spectacular funerals. They wanted them to give money which would be saved in such a way to the church where they were to be buried or to the charity. Testators also insisted on requiems; their number depended on the social and possessive background of the deceased. At the beginning of the 17th century another request appeared in the text of the last wills - testators ordered to bring and feed as many as possible of poor people at their funerals. They were expected to pray for the soul of the deceased and in this way make the way of testators' souls to heaven easier.

The other part of the book brings a selective edition of 101 last will from 1550 to 1650. It means that each year of the mentioned period of time is represented by one testament (however, sometimes it is more than one document because codicils and inventories which were part of the last will were also edited). Although the selection of the edited testaments is subjective in a way, the documents try to introduce last wills of different social. possessive and professional groups of the noble society. The whole collection brings 43 testaments of members of upper noble estate (30 men and 13 women) and 58 testaments of knights (36 men and 22 women). At least few wills always represent all regions of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Special focus was placed on women's last will (altogether 35 testaments). Wills of ruling aristocrats with ample land property on one hand and testaments of politically inactive knights with almost no property on the other hand were included in the set. Also those members of the noble society who were forced to exile after 1628 were not omitted.

Also content was one of the determinants which decided whether to select a specific testament. One of the objectives of the edition is to support theses given in the opening study of the present book. The set includes wills which document the possibilities how to used testaments as sources for research on family structures, on material culture of noble seats, on life cycles of noble families or on church and spiritual history.

The testaments were also chosen with the respect to their formal structure and the time when they were drawn up. The collection include both few pages long wills and testaments consisting of few paragraphs, last wills with a codicil, with an inventory or with a letter explaining why a son was disinherited, reports about oral entail, wills cancelling previous testaments, cancelled testaments, as well as last wills containing clauses about family fideicommission. Also testaments drawn up in advance, last wills written facing fear of specific danger, wills of ill testators or testaments dictated in the deathbed are edited. The set also contains copies of testaments given from the Land Registers and a concept of last wills.

The testaments are placed in chronological order. Each document has been edited in extenso and is opened with a head abstract which contains the content of the edited testament, place of deposit, type of execution and language. Conventional rules for transcription of early modern sources were followed. Each last will is completed with footnote references which contain both archeographic and factual information and tries to identify people and locations mentioned in the texts of the testaments.