How many contrasting meanings can a single word be allowed to have? A kingdom, a lifestyle, an ethnicity, and an artistic movement, the word Bohemia has been interpreted and misinterpreted throughout history. But which of the many meanings of Bohemia actually came first, and who are the true bohemians of our time? 

The word “Bohemian” derives from the Proto-Germanic “Boiohaemum,” “the home of Boii.” The Boii were a Gallic tribe that inhabited the territories of Northern Italy, Hungary, Bavaria, and, of course, Bohemia, during the Iron Age. The name “Boii” itself is most commonly thought to have meant “the warrior people.” The Boii struggled against the Roman and Germanic tribes throughout  the 3rd century BC and were eventually forced to leave Bohemia. They migrated to modern Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and some closer regions in Slovakia and Hungary. As for the Boii homeland of Bohemia… well, at that point, it was just a forest: the Bohemian Forest.

The Bohemian Forest is a mountain range on the border of modern Germany and the Czech Republic, which, in the 6th century, would become a home to a Western Slavic tribe under the rule of Samo’s Empire. Bohemian lands would then become a part of a yet another empire, The Great Moravia, and be known as the Duchy of Bohemia. In the 9th century, the descendants of that same Slavic tribe would establish the first Czech royal dynasty, the Přemyslid dynasty, and rule over a small territory around modern day Prague. Three more centuries later, in 1198, Přemysl Ottokar I would promote Bohemia, now a more sizable and diverse state, to the status of a kingdom and become its first official king, acknowledged by the Roman and German monarchs as well as Pope Innocent III. Bohemia would spend its Golden Age under the rule of Charles IV, the first Bohemian king turned a Holy Roman Emperor; it would remain a part of the Roman Empire until the Empire’s fall in the early 19th century. 

Meanwhile in France, the number of Romani immigrants was increasing dramatically. Many of them are believed to have arrived on the French territory via Bohemia, prompting the French to call the new settlers simply “bohemian.” It was  later proven that the association of the French Romani people with the Kingdom of Bohemia was a mistake (they arrived in Bohemia during approximately the same time period as in France), but the term stuck around and became a regular title for the Romani population of France, who by that time had their own neighborhoods in major cities all over the country. 

Everything changed in the 19th century when young aspiring artists from all over Europe began moving to Paris to seek low-cost accommodation in the city’s Romani neighborhoods. “Bohemian” now meant artistic, creative and free-spirited, and although Romani people were often known to lead similarly “unconventional” lives, the meaning of bohemian swiftly shifted to the artists. That, however, didn’t exactly give Bohemia a better name. Thought of as a dirty, poor, and dishonest type of existence, the artistic side of Bohemia had been treated like dirt for years by the time the next big change occurred. 

In 1845, a struggling Parisian artist in his early 20s, who called himself Henri Murger and identified as bohemian, started writing a series of stories describing the true canons of bohemian existence. His stories were published in a local magazine which was primarily popular among bohemians like himself, earning Henri no recognition of the profitable type. Fortunately, in 1849, a promising young playwright, Théodore Barrière, heard of the concept and approached Murger about a stage adaptation. Together, Murger and Barrière edited the plot, piecing together some of the fan-favorite storylines. The end result, titled La vie de Bohème, was certainly the beginning of something great. In 1851, following the closing of the play, Murger’s whole bohemian series was published as a novel, Scènes de la vie de Bohème, giving birth to a whole new Bohemia. The novel was fairly well-received in Paris but failed to resonate with wider audiences at the time. When Henri Murger died in 1861, he was little-known, indigent, ill, and desperate; he must have thought his novel would die with him, but that story was far from finished. Over the next several decades, Scènes de la vie de Bohème would gain popularity with young bohemians in many parts of Europe, legitimize Bohemian lifestyle forever, and, of course, inspire many future renditions.

Every generation of bohemians since Murger has had voices that speak out about the signature artistic lifestyle, but no one has done as much to carry Bohemia through centuries as the famed Italian composer Giacomo Puccini and the American composer-playwright Jonathan Larson. Puccini’s 1896 opera La Boheme was the first alternative rendition of Scènes de la vie de Bohème; its international acclaim would quickly surpass that of its own basis. La Boheme is now arguably the most beloved opera in the history of music. Exactly a century later, Jonathan Larson would modernize La Boheme, honoring Scènes de la vie de Bohème in process by bringing some of the forgotten storylines back to life and making Bohemia young again, igniting the bohemian fire in the hearts of youth all over the world. 

“Now, what does the European History lesson have to do with the History of Arts lesson?” you ask. Maybe nothing. It seems like the two common definitions of Bohemia currently have no relation to one another. Of course, the term “Bohemianism” originated from a Bohemia-related French-Romani mistake; and, sure enough, a cultural capital like Prague had its own bohemian idols during the rise of European Bohemianism. Still, the two terms seem to have parted like ships at sea about 200 years ago. There’s nothing but quiet, casual confusion of the two left for us to connect Bohemia the place to Bohemia the lifestyle. 

In one of the songs from his hit musical, Rent, Jonathan Larson discussed whether or not Bohemia is or can ever be dead. Let’s see, shall we? 

The crown of the Kingdom of Bohemia would be worn by dynasties such as the Jagillonian dynasty, the House of Luxembourg, the House of Habsburg, and their successors, the Habsbourg-Lorraine. Bohemia would exist for centuries as a kingdom in the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, then turn into a region of Czechoslovakia in 1918, before finally becoming a part of the independent Czech Republic in 1993 and joining the European Union in 2004. 

The world’s first bohemian tale, Scènes de la vie de Bohème, would be revised, rebooted, modernized, continued, and translated at least three dozen times over the next 150 years. In the new millennium, Bohemia stands as tall as ever. It has already had three movies, a rock band, a book, and of course the prolonged Broadway run of Rent dedicated to it in the new century. 

The French-Romani people are occasionally referred to as “bohemian” to this day. The early bohemians’ romantic and excessively poetic literary style is still used in most of the Bohemia-related writings of our time, which remain a frequent occurrence. 

There’s no question; “Bohemia” is alive and kicking, even if many of its meanings parted ways centuries ago, never to be reunited again…

Then again, Jonathan Larson did reference Vaclav Havel, the Czech president at the time, in his famous composition, La Vie Boheme, alongside many other inspiring “bohemian” figures. 

Therefore, who knows if the contact between the two famous Bohemias is really lost forever or simply blurred into the centuries of grand European history and excellent, unforgettable art. 
Picture credits:

  1. “At the cafe”, 1874, Paris, by Édouard Manet 
  2. Map of Bohemia, 1756, author unknown 
  3. Charles the 4th of Bohemia (Wikipedia) 
  4. Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Bohemia (Wikipedia) 
  5. Romani woman (Wikipedia) 
  6. Bohemian man (Wikipedia) 
  7. Henri Murger in 1857, aged 35 (Wikipedia/public domain) 
  8. A page from the 1913 publication of Murger’s Scenes De La Vie De Boheme, illustrated by A. Robaudi 
  9. Act I of La Boheme, scenic design (by Reginald Grey, 2010) 
  10.  Loket, Czech Republic (Wikipedia)  
  11. Official Romani flag (since 1971) 
  12. The title page of the 1913 Scenes De La Vie De Boheme, illustrated by A. Robaudi
  13. La Vie Boheme in the 1996 original production of Rent on Broadway (Wikipedia)