guest post: the past isn’t even past

A few weeks back I sent out a tweet asking for post suggestions. The best was a request for “the larger context of sixteenth century Prague.” I loved the idea but found it beyond my expertise. Fortunately, I found an extremely qualified guest blogger to address this snarly topic.

Lucy Kemnitzer has been working on a vast interconnected tangle of low-fantasy historical-flavored stories and novels set in a secondary world informed by Central/Eastern Europe but not analogous to it. A few of her early stories can be found at Fictionpress. She became entangled with this region while visiting her first-born who lived in Prague for seven years while studying at Charles University. This came after realizing her family’s heritage was four ways not-quite-Polish and four ways not-quite-German (including the Jewish and Sinto parts).

You can find her two published science fiction novels at Less Than Three Press and a sprinkling of short stories, mostly fantasy.

Lucy’s personal blog on Livejournal

Lucy’s author blog is a bit behind the times for actual reasons but is expected to liven up this year.

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I set out to write about the deep history of ethnicity in the city of Prague, and I will, but let me frame it by talking a bit about some of the public spaces tourists often miss, because these are beautiful places where you can witness both the myth and the history. Also I promised Alison this would relate to Rudolfine Prague, and it will, but not till the end.

In Prague you take the city bus to the forest, you hike past farms and abandoned military installations to get to the mountains–and then you buy beer and sausages to listen to the national opera(1) while perching on a steep hillside peering around the narrow trunks of tenth-growth trees. Along the way are feral fruit trees descended, they say, from the ones planted on decree of a long-ago empress, so that soldiers would have nourishment as they traveled. Like most of the stories I’m going to tell here, this is not quite how it really went(2). This city park is called Divoká Šárka. Šárka was the lieutenant of Vlasta, women who according to legend waged war against the men after the death of Queen Libuše, who with her ploughman husband Přemysl founded Prague where they found a man making a threshold (“prah,” in Czech).

If you count back from historically documented Přemyslid rulers, this legend is clearly impossible. There was no such thing as a Czech at the time any of this could have happened: the undifferentiated Western Slavs didn’t arrive in the region until the seventh century. The first slavic ruler in Bohemia was in the ninth century. By that time there were already several different kinds of people living there.

In order to tell you who was living in the Czech lands before the Czechs, I’m first going to tell you about a modern park in Prague 13. It’s called Centrální park (yes, it is named after New York’s Central Park), and it’s endowed with all the things an extremely large park needs, including lawns, giant chaise longues for sunbathing, bicycle paths, children’s playgrounds, fishing ponds, a beer garden, an archaeological site, and a Celtic tree calendar with a big rock in it(3). This is homage to the Celts who are the first documented inhabitants of Prague. The earliest archaeological finds you can see displayed in replica with some reconstructions and interpretation at the Prague City Museum(4).

These were not just any Celts! In Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, we learn that the Boii (who gave their name to Bohemia), picked up and left to throw in their stakes with the Helvetii who had a grand plan to relocate to Western Gaul and establish a hegemonic regime to rival the Romans. They lost, but while the Helvetii were sent back to their homeland which they unfortunately scorched, the Boii were absorbed into other Celtic tribes in Western Gaul and northern Italy, leaving behind no other record of themselves than a small handful of coins stamped with their name(5).

You’ll notice this leaves Bohemia rather depleted of people. Not for long! It fills up with several tribes of Swabians (Germans) who live quite nicely there. Naturally, Celts and Italians were coming and going through all this time as well. The central location of the Bohemian plateau and its navigable rivers meant that people were coming in from all over during the Roman and post-Roman times.

The Slavs arrived as a band of marauders in the sixth and seventh centuries, just ahead of the Magyars, behind many other waves of marauding tribes who came into Europe and settled in there. It’s kind of hard to characterize the early Slavs because there isn’t a cohesive and distinct archaeological record for them: the reconstructed language history doesn’t seem to match up with what we do know about the cultural history: and early records are scarce and confusing and often refer to places no longer known(6). None of this stopped Alfons Mucha, who you probably know from his Art Nouveau posters of voluptuous underclad women with nasturtiums and calla lilies and also Sarah Bernhardt in drag as Hamlet, from painting his immense Slav Epic (Slovanská epopej), in which he tells a story in 20 immense canvases which is by turns glorious and bitter and almost completely false(7).

The Slavs arrived to find the Germans already brewing the beer and wine for which Bohemia and Moravia respectively became famous. Agricultural methods that (barely) sustained the inhabitants of the plains through which the Vltava River flows were already in place. By the time Bohemia became a player in the Holy Roman Empire the place was still more German than Czech.

The Jews arrived in Prague in the ninth century, took up residence near Prague Castle and Vyšehrad (also a castle). We have a lot of records about Jewish history in Prague(8). Jews have been, in  Prague as elsewhere, far more important than mere numbers would indicate, for their contribution to culture, technology, and politics.

The beloved Charles IV (the Holy Roman Emperor whose 700th birthday is being celebrated this year), though descended from the Czech Přemyslids on his mother’s side, was Luxembourgian on his father’s side and given a French education and Italian war experience before becoming King of Bohemia and a lot of other places.By the time he was building CHarles University and the Hunger Wall and generally advancing his subjects, he felt it important to learn Czech along with the usual Latin, French, German, and Italian. As in the rest of the Holy Roman Empire, in Prague there was a cosmopolitan community filled with polyglots.

So a couple of centuries later when Rudolf II comes along, he’s ruling–among other things, remember he’s a Holy Roman Emperor(9) a Prague with a fully diverse population. This fully diverse population is actively restructuring itself (as it is in the rest of Europe), in at least three different dimensions: class, religion, and nationality. Rudolf’s Prague was a turmoil of landed aristocracy versus bourgeoisie versus the guilds, Protestant versus Catholic, Czech versus German versus Italian (still lots of Italians in those days, and Rudolf imported some new ones for their craftsmanship) and all versus Jews. Rudolf found some of this to be useful. He wasn’t a Protestant himself, but he didn’t consistently persecute them because they could be a wielded in struggles with the Pope.  Likewise with class and nationality: Rudolf found allies and enemies in every corner, and he was happy to trade one for another if it would advance his projects.

There is one book I recommend to everyone who would like to understand these aspects of Prague’s history better: Prague in Black and Gold, by Peter Demetz (You can currently get a copy from Powell’s). Peter Demetz’s perspective on the rich tapestry of life and the complicated forces of history is refreshing and enlightening.

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(1)On the first Saturday of September. (here’s a description of the most recent one)

(2)According to Structure and management of the urban forest in Prague Maria Theresa decreed that trees in general should be planted along all the roads to aid in orientation in bad weather, provide firewood, and improve the landscape. The fact remains that roads in Prague and elsewhere in the region do tend to have a lot of feral fruit trees on them.

(3)Here’s a picture of it taken by some Ingress player. I know, that’s odd, but the only descriptive links I can find are in Czech.

(4)Off-topic: this year would be a good time to hit up all the many historical museums in Prague because it’s the 700th anniversary of the birth of Charles IV, who was as good a king as a king can be, and I am not being sarcastic here.

(5)There has to be a better translation of this book than I can find online. Cicero thought Caesar was an excellent literary stylist. I remember it read quite nicely in second-year Latin. But this translation is all kludge and sludge and it’s all I can find right now.

(6)Seriously, read this Wikipedia article for a look at how baffling early Slavic history is.

(7)Here’s a kind of blurry panorama [YouTube] a visitor made of the exhibit at the National Gallery, which is worth visiting not just for the amazing and beautiful monster of propaganda which is the Slav Epic, but also for the other exhibitions, which cover a lot of territory, artistically and historically, in a pleasant building which was once a department store. It’s across the river from Staré Město (Old Town), and while you are over there you can check out the Agricultural Museum, the Technical Museum, and the Modern Art Museum, if you have strong enough feet. Also there is another huge park, the Letenské sady (Letna Park) nearby, which has great views of the Vltava River and Staré Město, and in spring is redolent of lilacs that grow on big! Old! Trees!

(8)For more Jewish history in Prague you could start at the The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe or the Jewish Virtual Library. Also, the Golem is a Prague story, so if you look up Golem stories you’ll get some Prague local color. Be aware that all of the surviving synagogues in the Jewish Quarter of Prague are also museums (as well as being working synagogues, so time your visits appropriately).

(9)Another cool thing about Charles IV is that he set up a method for succession that didn’t depend on the personalities of his children. Consequently the Holy Roman Empire that Rudolf inherited was almost the same size and shape as the one Charles IV left behind.

biweekly links 6-15-2016

biweekly links 3-23-2016

black and white photo of candles, talismans, ritual knives, a crystal ball, and a book with a pentagram inscribed in the cover
An altar with some of Doreen Valiente’s ritual objects. Courtesy the Doreen Valiente Foundation/Culture24

Early modern English Muslims, 20th century occult collections, and fin-de-siècle French Satanists for you:

Trebon and back again – an ugly American’s tale

I made one trip out of Prague for the book. It went…ok. If nothing else I learned what not to do next time.

When Emperor Rudolf kicked Dee and Kelley out of Prague his second in command William of Rozmberk gave them refuge in the southern town of Trebon. Most of Kelley’s alchemical successes and the infamous wife-swapping took place while they lived in Trebon Castle and a lot of the 16th century building remains. Of course I had to see it. I’d heard great things about the Czech Republic’s train system and it was only a 2 hour ride – what could go wrong?

Heh heh heh…

First off I severely overestimated my understanding of the train schedule. Prague to Trebon looks easy until I discovered I had to change trains: I had to know both my destination and my terminus, and ideally be able to pronounce both.

Which was my second mistake: I can’t speak Czech. It’s my own damn fault; save a few important words (Praha = Prague, knihy = book) I relied on everyone to speak English (ugly American, me).

My third bad assumption tied into the second: I was under the impression Trebon was a sizeable town and, therefore, full of English speakers. We got off the train to discover it was a one-taxi town – and the taxi driver spoke German.

The upshot was that we missed our first train and while we caught our second we were rushed and highly dependent on our phones’ ham-fisted Google translations.

So, yeah, not my finest travel moment.

I went on the only tour available in our short time-frame – Czech, with English handout. Though they didn’t permit interior photography (the Czech site has a nice photogallery) I got a handle on the smaller scale of a country palace. To my surprise the tour mentioned Dee and Kelley – there’s even a room set up as a makeshift alchemical lab.

Evidently there’s also a medieval-themed tavern named for Kelley on-site, but we didn’t have time to stop in. A mile sprint got us back to the station just in time to catch our ride back to Prague.

In lieu of Trebon Castle pix, have this one of the Rozmberk Palace in the Prague Castle complex. The Rozmberks scaled this one for grand city living.

Interior courtyard of Rozmberk Palace, Prague
The interior courtyard of Rozmberk Palace in Prague. It’s been a noble’s palace, school for unmarried noblewomen, and is currently the home of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Prague’s pretty libraries

The first library I remember was the small local branch in the town where I grew up. Housed in a narrow storefront, my memories are vivid despite its small size and lack of air conditioning. The high ceiling, with paint peeling off its old-fashioned tiles, made it seem huge and grand – almost like a holy place, a temple of learning.

Thus started my lifelong love of beautiful libraries, and my desire to see more of them.

Strahov Monastery’s library was among the first places I visited, and I wouldn’t have known about it had my friend Charlotte not suggested it. Big oversight on my part! The collection dates to the twelfth century and endured its share of burning and plundering over the centuries. The current theological hall dates to the seventeenth century and is mouthwateringly beautiful: the globes, the lower shelves jutting out to form benches, the gilded book covers, and of course the high, vaulted ceilings – I want it all. You can’t go in but there’s a small doorway with a big view:

theological hall at Strahov Monastery
Pretty globes all in a row!
Baroque writing desk
We all need a desk like this, right?

The philosophical hall was completed in the late eighteenth century and is a gorgeous two floor Baroque blow-out with sliding ladders:

Strahov Monastery's Philosophical Hall
Again you can only peek in, but this angle catches a lot of what makes it great. Photo by Charlotte Dries.

The collection is open to the public via a separate, modern reading room. I didn’t visit but I’m pleased that the monastery makes this treasure trove available.

About a week and much walking and blistered feet later, we went to the Klementinum, home of Prague’s National Library. Originally founded by the Jesuits in 1556, it’s possible Edward Kelley confessed to one of the priests here so this was another “setting” visit. Turns out most of the original Dominican monastery has been built over, but the existing structure houses a beautiful Baroque library. They didn’t permit photography of the room itself (do check out the site), but the attached astronomical tower had plenty to see:

Room sized camera obscura with measuring tools
In the 19th century Meridian Hall, a room-sized camera obscura, was used to determine noon with the use of human-sized quadrants.
clockwork mechanism of the astronomical tower's carillon
Clockwork mechanism of the astronomical tower’s carillon
Prague's skyline
Fantastic view from the top of the tower

The library shelves were curiously empty, with paper “place marks” filling multiple empty slots. Turns out many of the rarer volumes are currently being digitized through Google Books.

I’m always looking for more beautiful libraries. Please feel free to share your favorites in the comments!

a tale of two alchemy museums part 2: Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague

If Speculum Alchemiae provides an example of a real alchemy lab, the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague reflects the fantasy. And that’s not a bad thing.

This former residence of Edward Kelley’s in the Donkey in the Cradle house (many of Prague’s older buildings have names based on their “signs”) placed him conveniently near the royal court in Hradčany (Castle Town). The tower and its spiral staircase date from the sixteenth century but I’m not sure about the rest of the house.

spiral staircase
I ran into a lot of spiral staircases in Prague, but this was the tightest, steepest, and oldest

My chief interest was the top floor of the tower where Kelley allegedly had his alchemical lab. Though the reproduction of his study seemed plausible I doubt any of the items were original.

reconstruction of Edward Kelley's study near a window with candle, desk, velvet upholstered chair and sideboard with goblet
Dee’s diaries suggest Kelley enjoyed the finer things – velvet chair and wine goblet fit right in

Explanatory text describes Kelley’s life and sticks to the known facts – mostly. The writer, Vincent Bridges, suggested an association between Kelley, Shakespeare as a spy (?) and the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He’s one of only two scholars I’ve found that espouse this notion so I don’t know what to make of it, but there you are.

Included are wax models of historical figures, most notably a flying Rudolf II (?) and one of Kelley himself, complete with (alleged) wooden leg:

Back of Kelley wax mannequin, showing wooden leg

The “lab” got still more theatrical as I went along, including artfully arranged broken glass representing a lab accident, a homunculus, planets on strings, and a 6 foot long bellows.

6 foot long bellows
Not sure these existed but it’s awfully impressive, isn’t it?

I can’t finish without mentioning Kellyxir, the alchemy-themed bar attached to the museum. Winding glassware adorns the ceiling and “Mrs. Kelley’s” menu includes alcoholic and non- “elixirs” with names that translate loosely to “wonder medicine of the mountains”, “the key to awakening” and the like. I had something called “bear milk” with rum which was quite pleasant. It was a fun afternoon.

ceiling of Kellyxir alchemical pub with glassware and tubing
Alchemical ceiling of Kellyxir, courtesy Charlotte Dries

With its fanciful (?) stories and funhouse trappings the Museum of Magicians and Alchemists of Old Prague has as much to do with real alchemy as Hollywood does with real life. But it works. The historical Edward Kelley was something of a showman so I think he’d approve of black-lit magical circles and flying emperors in his old home!

 

a tale of two alchemy museums part 1: Speculum Alchemiae

I took this trip hoping to get a stronger sense of place for my characters and settings. How do cobblestones feel underfoot? Are the winding streets cramped or pleasantly busy? How high are ceilings?

Though many of the sites in my book still exist their use has changed dramatically: the Charles Bridge is full of vendors and performers; a former house is now a pizza joint, etc. So I itched to visit Speculum Alchemiae, an extant sixteenth century alchemical lab open to the public.

The museum is a short walk north of Old Town Square in the old Jewish quarter. From the signage and oddly-shaped bottles you’d think it’s a quaint novelty shop.

Speculum Alchemaie entrance, with signage and plants and bottles on display

Given alchemy’s sketchy reputation (rife with charlatans but with high possible payoffs) practitioners had good incentive to hide their activities. In this case an apothecary’s shop served as the “front”:

Cabinet of curiosities and bookcase
Books and curiosities. “We’re just humble apothecaries, not doing anything weird, I swear”

When the docent said Tadeáš Hájek owned the original shop my ears perked up. He served as Rudolf II’s personal physician and he vetted all alchemists bidding for royal patronage…including Dee and Kelley.

At this point I was so busy having an “OMG they could have been here!” squee that I almost missed the explanations of the frescoes and the very strange chandelier.

Chandelier featuring multiple horned heads of Moses
All of these are Moses’ head; horns are due to erroneous translation of “halo”.

Spikes in the earth, air, fire, and water frescoes directed “energy” (go with it) to the central spire on the chandelier that points to the labs below.

The stairs to said labs are hidden behind the bookcase and accessed Batcave-style with a twist and pull of a small statue:

brick-lined stairway underground

The ceilings are low and the rooms compact. I imagine that when in use it must have been hell: the stink of experiments and bodies, lots of burning/breakable material in close quarters, and the constant threat of explosive accidents or prying eyes.

terraced furnace with lots of alchemical glassware. Stuffed crocodile suspended from ceiling
Most of the equipment is reproduction with a few extant pieces. Note stuffed crocodile at upper left – these show up in paintings of alchemical labs with ridiculous frequency

Whoever built this took the need for quick escape into account. Three tunnels lead out of the lab: one to Old Town Square, one to the barracks (the quickest way out of town) and one that goes under the Vltava River (!) and up the hill (!!) to Prague Castle.

Heavy metal door to tunnel
Door to Old Town Square tunnel. Appears to be bricked up – I don’t know if that’s before or after excavation

This last put my jaw on the floor. The difficulty and expense of construction plus the need to keep it secret illustrates how important alchemy was to Rudolf II and his court. If I weren’t so focused on my book I’d be tempted to research Renaissance mining and earthworks to figure out just how difficult…but I digress.

Archeologists found a recipe book during excavation, and a monastery in Brno distills the elixirs for sale in the museum store based on the old formulas (minus illegal/dangerous ingredients). The docents didn’t know what became of the original recipe book or, strangely, who did the original excavation of the labs.

This jarred me enough to follow up with the owner and the Museum of the City of Prague, neither of whom had answers. I find it difficult to believe there aren’t any records of a ten-year excavation! I don’t need the information for my book but I’d love to see the original field notes and discover who holds surviving artifacts. Anyone have any suggestions?

Even with these unanswered questions Speculum Alchemiae is a fantastic example of what a real alchemical lab would looked like and how alchemists hid their experiments. If Dee and Kelley diddn’t walk those very corridors they will in my book – it’s just too good not to include in overheated, sulfurous glory!

Next time: Kelley’s old house at the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague.

chasing Edward Kelley – Prague

I’ve been away.

Prague's astronomical clock
The famous astronomical clock

Two years and one first draft later, I finally made my long-coveted research trip to Prague.

I’d wanted to go since I started researching the book 2 years ago. Turns out many of Dee and Kelley’s old Bohemian haunts still exist and, as they say, there’s nothing like the real thing. Besides, any excuse to travel!

I did so much that the past 2 weeks feel like a month, but in a good way. Despite my efforts to not to do ALL THE THINGS at once I couldn’t resist the Prague Castle after dark walking tour my second night.

For three hours our guide took us through the huge castle complex and regaled us with stories of weird Prague: the golem, the imprisoned violinist, Tycho Brahe and his metal nose. Normally crowded with tourists, at night it’s fairly empty, and the cold and rain made it even more evocative.

Golden Lane at night
The Golden Lane at night, by Charlotte Dries. Imagine an astronomer on the roof, an alchemist toiling away underground…

And the view:

Prague skyline
Prague from the Castle, by Charlotte Dries

Historic Prague is geographically small – most of it is visible in the picture above – but so much is packed into those endlessly winding little streets!

More in the coming weeks: two very different alchemical labs, a gorgeous library, Renaissance science bros. But to keep this book related:

White Tower, Golden Lane
The White Tower in Golden Lane, one of the many places Edward Kelley was imprisoned.

Special thanks to my friend Charlotte Dries, who had the good sense to have a quality camera with her at all times!