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.

1 comment:

Pond Kits said...

I wish I had a small pond but since we have recently moved to the desert which is not too likely to happen! Interesting article though.