Thursday, 28 October 2010

Pond building history 2 - Jakub Krčín

The personality of Jakub Krčín is so legendary that it is sometimes hard to make out what is true and what has been embroidered in peoples' imagination. Perhaps it is because this brilliant builder and engineer, estate manager and regent over the vast Rozmberk empire, himself a gentleman landowner with several own fortresses and châteaux and a great number of own farms and villages, was so spread out - both in the astounding amount of work accomplished and in distances he must have travelled - that it's hard to imagine a single human being capable of such an achievement. We have the facts that are indisputable, and then we have the mysteries: the greatest mystery is connected to his grave. The grave is inside the church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Obdenice, but the curious thing is that although the gravestone bears Krčín's birth date of July 1535, there is no date of death. And when in 1944 the church underwent a thorough reconstruction, the Krčín grave was found empty. Curious, given that he himself oversaw the building of his sepulchre and the making of his gravestone, and curious given that there were plenty of family around him, so they should have had the date carved into the stone. He wrote his will on the 19th January 1604 but there is no record of his death or burial. And although guesses abound as to other places where he might have been buried, to this date no academic researchers or archeologists have found his remains.
Krčín studied at Prague University and then was employed as a land manager at a monastery in Borovany where he learnt his first pond-building skills from the experienced monks. But his main career started in 1562 when he entered into the service of the Rozmberks, where apart from ponds he designed and built more efficient sheep-farms, breweries, glass-works, mills, even silver mines. And he managed the running of the Krumlov castle - we still have his hand-written accounts in the Krumlov archive. He was obviously much valued as at the age of 35 he was made Regent of the whole Rozmberk 'empire'. But, as much as he was valued by his bosses, he was hated by the people who worked under him; he had a reputation of a cruel and impatient master – apparently, for example, he employed the local executioner as workforce supervisor at the building of the Rozmberk pond! No wonder then, that legends started to burgeon in people's minds. Often his brilliant calculations and engineering ideas seemed impossible to his workforce - they believed the only way that some of his more daring designs stood the tests of reality was because Krčín had a pact with Hell. They whispered that he walks the banks of his canals with black cats on his shoulder of a night, and when he built his own Krepenice fortress in a record time, people were convinced the speed was due to devils working for him in exchange for his soul. This especially as they observed noxious smoke issuing out of Krčín's chimneys on dark nights. This was the smoke from his alchemical laboratory. Whether he wanted to make philosopher's stone or just plain gold, or an elixir that would help him father a son and heir (he produced 6 daughters) we shall never know.
 But this was a time when Alchemy was a pursuit very much in vogue – especially here in Bohemia where the Emperor Rudolf himself, a man of burning interest in Nature, philosophy, and the arts and sciences of the time, was also passionate about alchemy, gathering around him in Prague not only top natural scientists, astronomers and artists of his time, but also alchemists and magicians. And Vilem Rozmberk – a man perhaps even richer than the Crown, wasn't going to be left behind, and his South Bohemian dominion became a meeting place for alchemists: Vilem even sheltered the English alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelly when they escaped Emperor Rudolf's wrath. But that's another story. Suffice to say that Krčín did labour on his own Opus. Well, who knows, perhaps he really managed to achieve the ultimate Elixir: perhaps he is still alive somewhere, hence the mystery of his empty tomb :-)
But what does make him truly immortal is his engineering genius, as all the ponds, and most of his other works have not only survived but are still in working order now.
Well, that's, in brief, the story of Krčín. I will do one more (and more sobre) blog just to finish the general history of the pond building.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Some history of pond building in Bohemia - I

Now, I am not a historian so I am sure I can't write with the kind of precision jargon others would, but I like stories, so here goes:
If you look at the map of Bohemia, especially using satellite imaging, you can see that it looks like a bowl with mountains for a rim. Legend has it that the bowl was formed by a meteorite – and indeed even in the Renaissance, the astronomers and alchemists believed this, calling Bohemia a sacred receptacle of the Hieros Gamos, where this 'Marriage of heaven and earth' left its passionately destructive mark. But this destruction was also a blessing because it formed an almost ideal environment for human habitation: moderate climate with defined seasons and little wind, and waters running from the surrounding mountains into wide, shallow valleys. The mountains were ideal for forestry and wine growing, while the broad valleys offered rich soil for arable farming. And then there were large areas of lakes and marshes: almost the whole of the Southern Bohemia lowlands – the Budejovice, Trebon and Vodnany regions, were one vast lake during the Tertiary period of pre-history, which slowly changed into marshlands over the following thousands of years.
Like I said in my previous posts, it was these marshlands that provided the basis for the wholesale landscape works that took place between (mostly) the 14th and the early 17th centuries.

In the last millennium the Bohemian lands were the home of Celtic tribes to start with, but it wasn't until the Slavs arrived, sometime in the 6th century, that the water-rich region began to be deliberately used for fishing: the Slavs made dykes and small dams to provide good environment for fish to breed, but also to ensure enough water for the hot, dry Bohemian Summers. Then, around 10AD colonising Christians made inroads into this territory, and started building ponds as the monks needed a good supply of fish for their monasteries. They kept themselves, and the fish, to themselves for the following 400 years or so, until Bohemia caught up as a civilised Kingdom and part of the Holy Roman Empire. A significant Royal dynasty of the Luxemburgs brought much order and prosperity to Czech lands, especially King Charles IV (to many Czechs the beloved and respected father of Bohemia). Charles IV (14thC) was a fascinating, erudite, truly visionary ruler and a mystic of whom tomes could be written – but I must try to stick to pond building (alas). He actually ordered his subjects by a decree to build ponds in and near their villages, so as to provide food 'and freshen the air'! - so a proto-ecologist as well :-)

From then on ponds were busily being instituted all over Bohemia, and it almost seems (to me) as a period of huge competition for prestige too – which aristocrat's pond is bigger than the other's. For example William of Pernstejn (Hluboka castle) had over 300 ponds built on his estate in the 15th century. But of course this boom was also due to the realization that ponds were a more profitable business than farming on wetlands. Because ponds supported not only fish growing but also – as I mentioned in my previous post - their supporting networks of canals, so clever that (somehow – I can't quite work out how) they could even run uphill, and gave cheap and plentiful energy to run flour mills, saw-mills, glass and metal workshops, iron foundries and 'hammer mills'. The ponds themselves were reservoirs for water, supplied breweries, prevented floods, served for filling moats for defence purposes, and quenched fires. Some of this was true also for the smallest of ponds - in fact even now if you travel around South Bohemia you will find that most villages are built around a green with a pictoresque central pond which inevitably has a little fire station right by it. And so by the end of the 16th century Bohemia had over 150 000 ponds. That was the peak – now there are only around 50 000. But more of all that later.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

More on carp harvest(s)

As I have already mentioned, the carp harvest is a kind of ceremony - a marking of passage from Autumn to Winter, eagerly participated in by the Czechs at the many ponds that criss-cross the South Bohemian countryside. Why? Because it is a wonderful spectacle, and because the Czechs are particularly partial to carp, the fish that will grace their Christmas Eve tables; a fish that has over the years become one of the most enduring symbols of Christmas. To give you an idea of the harvests' popularity, on the 10th October this year 37 000 spectators came to witness the harvest at Svet - the 214 hectare carp pond at the town of Trebon. The largest pond, Rozmberk (yet to be harvested), measures 647 hectares, and there are many more ponds where Trebon comes from!

Our pond, Olsina, is at some 170 hectares smaller by comparison, but still many people come, including schools and large parties of people from a wide surrounding area. There are blow by blow accounts of the Olsina 2008 harvest in my earlier blogs , also an account of why and how Carp at Christmas, and Potok's blog where she describes yesterday' s harvest in great and lovely detail - so this time I shall instead give a little more factual information for those who might be interested:

Fish farming in artificial ponds in South Bohemia goes back to the Middle Ages. The first ponds were built in the 14th century, when large parts of otherwise useless boggy landscape were transformed into a prosperous region by retaining walls to hold water in the valleys, and a complex web of channels and canals that connected these ponds. By default, these channels also powered mills and water-driven 'hammers', and they were used to transport wood from the surrounding forested mountains, as well as provided water to farms during hot dry Summers, even drinking water for the towns along their banks. The 'golden period' for the ponds and their canals was the Renaissance: the reign of the Rozmberk family who owned large swathes of Southern Bohemia. The Czechs have much respect for the feats of engineering that went into these massive works.Why, just the Rozmberk pond has a wall 2430 meters long, that is capable of holding 50 million cubic meters of water. And the 'Golden sluice', a 47,8 km long channel built in 1505-1520 to connect, oxygenate and protect several carp-ponds, is still fully functioning now, five hundred years later.

Every Czech child when asked to name a famous pond builder will immediately give you two: Štěpánek Netolický (1460-1539) and Jakub Krčín z Jelčan (*1535). It was Netolicky who built the Golden Sluice and started on the big works around Trebon that were continued equally brilliantly by his successor, Krcin. These two personalities - knights, inventors, alchemists, true Renaissance men - are the stuff of story and legend (which I shall blog about later).
The largesse with which the Rozmberks oversaw these enormous landscape works has come to an end with the Thirty Year War (17thC) after which the whole country went into a general decline for a long time. But the ponds remained. And so did their tradition.  In fact, as I have been researching into the subject  I am smitten by so much of the material, that I am determined to blog more about it - would be nice to have some feedback to see if anyone's interested :-)

Friday, 15 October 2010

preparing for the big day at the Lake house

Great excitement, it's only a few days till the next carp-harvest at the Olsina lake. As you can see, the 'lake', really a centuries old man-made pond, has been slowly draining out over the past three weeks and now it's only mud-flats with a small amount of water in the middle. The reason for this is to force the multitude of fish that have been growing there for the last two years into the smallest amount of water possible. On Wednesday next week, men with boats and nets will come and take all the carp away, ready for the Christmas markets.
This is a method that has been in use since the Middle Ages, when the monasteries and the nobles had the bright idea of using valley bogs that would have been of no use otherwise as handy receptacles for fish-farming. All you needed was a stream running through a boggy valley that was naturally formed like a bowl, and a retaining wall at one end, with a sluice to let the water out. This ensured a constant replenishment of fresh water for the fish. In a land-locked country, that meant that there was always a plentiful supply of carp - and if you look at the map of Southern Bohemia, you will see it woven through with blue, a true tapestry of lakes; especially around the town of Trebon - an amazing feat of mediaeval engineering where the massive ponds are interconnected with channels that act as conduits between them.
Olsina lake is not part of such a complex web, it is a pond on its own. But at 167 hectares, there is a lot of room for fish, and if the last harvest is anything to go by, we have much to look forward to: on Wednesday at dawn, we shall watch the fishermen use the same methods that their counterparts have been using since the 14th century - apart from the lorries that will carry the tanks with live fish away. But one can imagine the heavy carts of old, the strong horses, the large wooden tubs ... after all the fish need to be kept alive and well till Christmas!  Because the main reason for the big harvest is that carp are THE Christmas fare for the Czechs, as they have been as long as memory can reach.

Well, I shall be there to watch the spectacle, and take some photos to share the day with you.