The Ungelt, and a thousand years of multicultural Prague


In the jumble of alleyways that is Prague’s Old Town, if you look carefully, you’ll make out the form of the ancient fortress of Ungelt, built over with baroque and renaissance facades, but still standing after 1000 years. This is the customs house of Ungelt, where foreign merchants came to store their wares, and a reminder that Prague has always been a cosmopolitan, multinational city ever since its earliest days.

If you don’t have your eyes peeled as you leave Old Town Square to the east, going behind the massive Gothic church of Our Lady before Týn, then you will just see a conglomeration of 18 beautiful old buildings – look from above on a map though and the clear ring of what was once a fortress appears. This is the actual ‘Týn’ of the famous church’s name, a fortification, clearly related to the English ‘town’. And each of the buildings within has many an ancient story to tell, as Dr. Jaroslava Nováková of the Prague Information Service told me.

“This is a very interesting restaurant where we’re sitting right now. Today it’s a pizzeria, but it has a very long tradition. It was originally an inn where all kinds of merchants and traders came in the 15th century, and from that this became something of an infamous part of the Ungelt. But later, in the 19th century, it became the café, ‘U Komárků’ [At the Gnats] it was called, attracting prominent Czech writers, poets and great men of the National Revival…”

It takes some imagination today to look through the pricy restaurants and tourist shops of the Ungelt back to a lost age of Prague as an ancient trading city where merchants from all over the nearby world coalesced to partake in that most human of activities, buying and selling, looking to make as much money as possible and the state looking to get as much of a share of that new wealth as possible.

Photo: Daniel Baránek, CC 3.0 licensePhoto: Daniel Baránek, CC 3.0 license “The Ungelt is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and also one of the most interesting places in Prague – a very unique fortification in the middle of the town, subordinate to the king, where foreign merchants travelling with goods had a place where they were accommodated, they received medical care, their horses were stabled and the merchants and their goods were safe and protected. But on the other hand of course, they had to pay for it.”

This was what was called the “Law of Mandatory Storage”. Every merchant passing through Prague was kindly sheltered and catered to and – since nothing is free nor has ever been – forcibly taxed. This system soon gave rise to the custom of ‘customs’ on goods, and perhaps thus to the sentiment written above the entrance to the Ungelt and visible today, “Futility upon futility and ages of futility”, or as we’d say today “there’s nothing sure in life but death and taxes”.

“At the turn of the 12th century the Czech king Bořivoj granted privileges for the collection of custom taxes – or ‘ungelt’ in Old German – for weighing goods brought to Prague and assessing the tax, and for fortifying, or making a ‘týn’ around the area. Hence the names ‘Týn Court’, ‘Ungelt’ and also the Latin name for the fortress, ‘Laeta curia’, which means ‘the merry court’. When the merchants had finished their day’s work they would have boisterous gatherings, but also there to meet the merchants were, let’s say, merry girls. So there was all kinds of revelry here, and hence the name ‘the merry court’.”

Among the nationalities trading at the Ungelt were recorded Germans, Poles, Russians, Hungarians, Venetians, Dutch, French, Greeks, Armenians, Turks and Arabs, often with luxury goods like expensive and sought-after spices, cloth, animals, and items of intangible value as well:

“What is unimaginable for people today, is that people did not have fresh news back then. The only news that got here was brought by the church, and by the merchants – people who were terribly interesting for the locals then because they brought news from the places they had travelled through. So on the one hand people were very curious about them, but I can also imagine how they were very jealous of them as well, as competitors for the local businessmen.”

It may be overwhelming, sometimes disappointing to get caught in a sea of tourists when walking around Prague’s Old Town, in search of some “real Czech culture”. But as the Ungelt reminds you, this city has always been a centre of multi-nationalism, it was in part the cosmopolitan nature of Prague that made it a thriving metropolis or world renown, and foreigners were treading its streets in hoards a millennium ago.

Photo: Matěj Baťha, CC 3.0 licensePhoto: Matěj Baťha, CC 3.0 license “The international, cosmopolitan environment of Prague was certainly very noticeable. We know that around the so-called Small Square there was a concentration of French merchants who traded in fruit and vegetables and brought then-unknown foods to Central Europe. There was a very strong Italian community, and they were not just merchants, but also a number of artists settled here who were of great value to Prague for their wealth of experience.”

The rights to the proceeds from the Ungelt originally went to the Cathedral of Saint Vitus, an extremely important income for the church that it had confirmed by each successive monarch. It retained these privileges until the Hussite wars, at which time they reverted to the noblemen, who gave them to various townsmen. Among those was one Jakub Granovský, who gave his name to the most noticeable of the Ungelt’s buildings, the Granovský Palace, a strikingly rare example of Italian renaissance architecture with an open arcade and beautiful chiaroscuro embellishments with mythological motifs of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. There are very few Gothic remains in the Ungelt, for at least one simple reason – one that we would call today an act of state-sponsored terrorism.

“Prague suffered a terrible fire called the French Fire, because it was known to have been started by French arsonists. It was the result of a territory dispute between Louis XIV and the Hapsburgs. We know that one of the French ministers of government thought up the idea of getting the better of the Hapsburgs by setting fires in their cities, and they hired and trained a group of soldiers to do so in 1689. The result was truly very drastic, and it damaged the Ungelt badly. So the baroque facades you see today were created after that fire.”

The Church of Our Lady before TýnThe Church of Our Lady before Týn The only remains of the earliest structure at the Ungelt are the cellars, the original storage rooms, which though once at street level are now more than two metres beneath the surface of the cobbled square. But lots of those baroque and renaissance facades belie some deeper clues of the 11th century fortress that was once here.

“The Ungelt was here before the Old Town was walled in, and so therefore it had its own fortifications, and there was a moat around it. The moat wasn’t particularly deep, and was destroyed when other structures were built on to the Ungelt, but the alleyways around the Ungelt follow the original fortifications. You also must have noticed that it has two entry gates, on the east and west. Both could – and still can – be closed if needed. Also if you look at the thickness of the walls of the buildings that line the Ungelt you can see their defensive nature. And some of those buildings even still have arrow slits.”

There are many great things to take away from the Ungelt today – not just the history and the lovely architecture of a small Prague square, but maybe some designer soap, overpriced art and a pizza. But as we said, this place always was about luxury goods and trade. Ironically, when you hear the motley noise of foreign tourists in the streets here, you’re hearing almost exactly what you would have heard a thousand years ago.