This text was contributed by Jiří Škoda
Translation by Borek Lupoměský
Postmodern, wanna-be artistic, literary science today puts May on the edge of sentimental romance and brutal, bit sweetened chocolate-box art. The masterpiece of the Czech romantism slowly sinks down to a nameless pit of the average others. It is becoming what it was shortly after Mácha's death—ununderstood. To help this understanding, let us shed light on the historical background of events depicted in May. Very few of the remaining enthusiasts today have an inkling that May is more or less true narrative of real event. Set slightly differently from reality but still into a real landscape.
Even in his own time Mácha was attacked that he took May's plot from works of Byron, Bulwer or Krasiński. He was even humilitated as a thief of contemporary highwaymen-literature. But nothing is more distant from the truth. Mácha could doubtlessly let himself inspire by Byron, but why would he do it? Against the point of Mácha's inspiration by Byron speak facts. These are mainly in his own hand written Mácha's comments in the so-called “Interpretation of May”, where there's explicitly written: “The tale, it is the story of this poem … takes place by city of Hirsberg (today Doksy) between mountains on which castles Bezděz, Pernštejn (today Berštejn), Houska and in distance Roll (today Ralsko) point towards east, west, noon and midnight.”
Mácha really didn't need to make up the patricide character after some inferior highwaymen novel because in the land under Bezděz castle, 60 years before Mácha's arrival to the place, the patricide really lived, the patricide really took place and it even was commited because of love reasons. And—what's especially symptomatic—it happened in month of May. For the character of Vilém Mácha did not need to look for a literary prototype. There is North Bohemian highwayman Václav Kumr depicted in it, with whom Mácha could, provided he wanted to, meet in person since at time of Mácha's visits to Doksy was this “veteran highwayman” still alive. But let's return to the leitmotif of May itself, to the patricide.
The patricide we shall speak of was called Hynek Shiffner and came from Dubá (not from Dubí!), a little town about 6 km towards Prague. His mother was called Marie Alžběta Tietzová and was from Doksy. She married Hynek's father in 1740. Schiffners were a well-off family that was engaged in hop farming and trading. The only surviving child of Schiffners, Hynek, was born on 23rd November 1753. When he grew adult he fell in love with daughter of a smith in Dubá. Because of reasons that remain uknown the father did not favor the relationship of his son and refused to give his permission to marriage of his son and a girl from a smithy. What happened between the son and the father in the first days of May of year 1774 can only be guessed. Probably the already longer smouldering conflict had escalated. The idea of getting rid of his father even violently got ripe in Hynek's mind.
On morning of Saturday 7th May old Schiffner went to work to hop-field lying southern from Dubá at place called Saugrund (Swinedale). Nobody at the farm knew where he went to. Nobody, except Hynek. The son came to the hop-field furtively so that his father occupied with his work did not notice him at all. He attacked his unsuspecting father from rear and bashing him with hop-pole cutting he struck him down to ground where he—when he still showed signs of life—beat him to death. He threw the corpse to a rocky ravine and covered it. He was confident that the crime will go undisclosed. When the farmer did not return even on the next morning his neighbours started to search for him all over the place. After longer searching forests and fields they found the corpse of the murdered one. At the hop-field indubitable signs of the crime were discovered. In such a small town like Dubá was there they likely knew about arguments between the father and his son and therefore Hynek was called to a magistrate and jury session. He was charged with the murder of his father to which he confessed shortly. After the interrogation he was put into jail immediately and district criminal court in Mladá Boleslav sent investigation comitee to Dubá on 11th May 1174. Subsequently, the prisoner was escorted to Mladá Boleslav, where he was kept in jail for over two months in a cellar under a round tower of then criminal court. This building is—after smaller adptations—preserved until today—Mácha only “moved” it to a shore in his poem.
Senate of the criminal court sentenced Hynek to death by breaking in wheel. The convict asked for pardon several times, but was never heard out. Public execution took place near Mladá Boleslav at place till today called “Na spravedlnosti” (“At Justice”) on 19th July 1774. The execution was supposed to be gruesome and it was the last of its kind carried out in Bohemian lands.
Mácha could acquaint himself with this story not only in Dubá which he walked through during his Giant Mountains pilgrimage, but more likely directly in Doksy. As we said, patricide's mother was from Doksy and at the time of Mácha's stay there lived her relatives there. Cousin of the executed Hynek even was a tapster in Doksy and it is likely he and Mácha met. It is therefore possible, that the poet spoke with old people in Doksy, who remembered the Schiffner family and is even possible that witnesses of the cruel show of the execution at Mladá Boleslav were among them. Harsh family and love drama certainly had strong effect on Mácha's unsettled mind and so the first draft of May was born.
But let's return to the character of the “Dreaded Forest King” from May. He was, as we already said, north bohemian highwayman Václav Kumr. He was born on 7th October 1767 at Víska, a little settlement about one and half hour away to south of Bezděz. He was illegitimate child and that's why he earned himself a defamative nickname Weber's Vašek (after his real father who was a musketeer of a lord). Soon he became a rogue, villain, thief and a poacher. By the end of 18th century he became a leader of a feared highwaymen gang. In 1792 a warrant of arrest was issued for Václav by Criminal Court of Mladá Boleslav, but he was arrested as late as in 1798 in Doksy in the “Na šancích” pub. He was subsequently escorted to Prague to further interrogation and after that he spent 20 years in jail in Brno at Špilberk. Only rather old he returned to his home district in which he meanwhile became a legend. After cheerless and grievous end of life he died on 6th March 1843 in his home village of Víska on a rustic stove in farmer Šafránek's farm house no. 3. Thus he died 7 years after the death of Mácha… Because Kumr's highwayman activity was widely discussed and local folks had known the former highwayman leader in person, the forming tell-tale could not escape attention of Eduard Hindle—an apprentice in Doksy and Mácha's friend—and therefore also not attention of Mácha.
The locale of May is concentrated to a single place—despite this was not really true. The centre of the scenery became the lake of Doksy with light and colour atmosphere of July of August summer-time. To this lake scenery there was added the Criminal's Court of Mladá Boleslav “white tower” and “execution hillock” on which lower top was located stake and execuction wheel and on the higher one there was the white chapel. The execution hillock exists till today, about 3 km from nowadays Mácha's Lake and despite of its shape was changed by building of railway, the higher top with chapel was virtually untouched and whoever wants can walk to it through so-called “Alley Of Sighs” and at the place where once stood the white chapel can contemplate the fate of Hynek, Vilém and Jarmila.