The great floods of August 2002 may have been the worst for a century, but they certainly were not the first to hit the Czech capital. Here is a poetic description of a similar disaster way back in 1596.
The sky's inclemency stirs up the angry winds;
the watery clouds are soaking with ceaseless rain.
The turbulent Vltava, swollen with rainy waves,
Bursting, impetuous, breaks through its river-banks...
If you remember 2002 this sounds very familiar, but for a number of reasons, these verses, going back over four hundred years, are unusual. To start with, the poet who witnessed this Central European catastrophe was English, secondly she was a woman, at a time when education for women was more often than not completely neglected, and thirdly, she was still only in her teens and writing in perfect and beautifully crafted Latin verse.
The poet's name was Elizabeth Jane Weston, the English maiden in the court of King and Emperor Rudolph II, and known by many at the time simply as 'Westonia'. To find out more about her story, we start in the British Library in London, where Susan Reynolds is curator of Czech and Slovak literature. Her interest in Westonia began when she found out that the library housed an original edition of a collection of her writings:
"In this she inscribed her own name in 1610, describing herself as 'Elizabeth Jane, wife of Johannes Leo, Agent in the Imperial Court and Englishwoman of the Weston family' - so she never lost her English identity. I was able to see and handle this book for myself. I'd found out about her in my general studies of this period in Czech literature and literature at Rudolph's court, and when I knew that we actually had a book signed by the author herself in our collections, I was moved to go and seek it out. When I read how extensive and how varied and diverting her works were, I simply couldn't resist finding out more about her, especially because in my time I have written Latin verse myself - I know how challenging it is - and I felt a great sense of comradeship, you might say. I wish I could have met her."
The Prague of Rudolph II, at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, must have been an intriguing place to be. The King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor was a man of culture and of eclectic tastes. His court was a Babel of different languages and a place of rich cultural cross-fertilization. But how did a teenage girl from rural Oxfordshire come to find herself in the midst of all this opulence?
According to the records of the parish of Chipping Norton, Elizabeth Jane Weston was born in 1582. The records confirm that her father died when she was less than a year old, and it was her mother's second husband, the Irishman Edward Kelley, who provided the link with Prague. Kelley was known for his education and his knowledge of alchemy and the occult. This drew the attention of the Emperor Rudolph:
"He was fascinated by alchemy and the supernatural. He was a highly superstitious man by today's standards. As well as wanting to find out the origins of the philosopher's stone, the elixir of life and so on, he was also very keen on surrounding himself with those who could foretell the future. Kelley was appointed as 'scryer', that is a man who divines the future by looking into a crystal ball or similar services. Susan Reynolds picks up the story.
"Shortly after his marriage, which Edward Kelley claimed to have been instigated by the Archangel Michael himself, he and his wife went off, leaving the two young children in the care of their grandmothers in Oxfordshire. But when these grandmothers both died, they collected young John Francis and Elizabeth and took them out to Prague.
"Now, in view of the bad press that so many step-fathers have nowadays, it's worth remarking that one could not fault Edward Kelley as a family man. In fact Elizabeth says that she loved him and he loved her as a second father, and he went to the trouble of engaging a tutor from Cambridge, who gave the two children a marvellous education. Elizabeth - so many contemporaries assert - was fluent in Czech, English, German, Italian and Latin, and this by her mid-teens, comparable, for example, to the young Elizabeth I, and this at a time when contemporary sources state that for a girl to be educated at this level was not just useless but actually shameful! So clearly he was far ahead of his times."
Elizabeth, as an obviously very bright and receptive child, was growing up in a richly stimulating cultural environment. This was not to last. In 1591 Edward Kelley fell out of favour with the Emperor. It is said that Kelley had rather rashly killed one of Rudolph's courtiers.
"Not surprisingly the Emperor was not too pleased and had him imprisoned, first of all in the fortress of Krivoklat and later on he was brought to Prague. Exactly when and how he died is rather obscure. One account - and this sounds suspiciously familiar - says he was killed trying to escape. Another is that the Emperor experimented with the elixir of life, Kelley was told to try it on himself and did not survive the attempt. All we know is that he died sometime towards the end of the 16th century, and this was a disaster for his wife and step-children.
"The son was now studying in Ingolstadt, at the university. He was in poor health and died in 1600, and this left just two of the family - Elizabeth and her mother. The bailiffs were distraining on the family's property, including her mother's dowry to which she had no right, and in despair Elizabeth, who was extremely resourceful, set about writing impassioned appeals in Latin verse to influential patrons, and appealing for their help. She even addressed one to the Emperor himself. This appears to have been successful. One of the points she made was that she was exiled, she was a desolate English maiden in a foreign country. If her property were seized the chances of making any marriage at all would be almost nil, because she would have no dowry. And yet in spite of that she seems to have saved the family fortunes and kept them above water in a way remarkable for a girl not yet out of her teens."
So how did she manage that?
"For one thing she was brought into the circle of the Silesian poet Georg Martinius von Baldhoven, who was three years older than she was, and he encouraged her to publish her verses. He also interceded tirelessly on her behalf and in 1602 he brought out the first collection of her 'Poemata' in two volumes. Six years later this was followed by a second, known as the 'Parthenicon Libri III' (three volumes of a maiden's writings)."
She spoke all these different languages, but why was she writing in Latin?
"Quite simply Latin was the easiest way of reaching a wide international audience, because to have written in Czech at that time would have limited her prospects of increasing her readership. Latin was not only the language of religion and learning, but also of international diplomacy, and when we look at the people to whom she wrote these Latin poems, they include not only English, French, Czechs, but also Dutchmen. So it is a 'lingua franca' and as such enabled her to increase her appeal to many different readers."
In you, O Christ, rests the hope vouchsafed to me;
But give me your aid lest these evils should swamp my soul;
I put my trust in no images, no human art;
The sure salvation I hope for no man provides.
You are my hope, my concern, you are Mine; through the rocks,
Through the fire and rough seas I will follow if you command,
If you wish; I will triumph through trust, my petitions assured,
Either here or above in the house of your Father supreme.
One of the people to whom Elizabeth had turned during her attempts to save the family's fortunes was the imperial lawyer, Johannes Leo. It seems that the two felt more than just feelings of mutual respect, and in 1603 they were married, a wedding that was accompanied by a string of Latin poetic tributes from their friends - one of which heaps praise on 'Leo and his Lioness'.
In the next few years Elizabeth combined work and family - one tribute says that she was 'equally apt in producing books and babies'. Indeed she had a total of seven children - four boys, all of whom died in infancy, and three girls. But childbearing took its toll, and Elizabeth died in 1612 at the early age of 31.
Her poetry lives on, and Susan Reynolds feels there is much to appeal to a modern reader:
"She's extremely readable nowadays, not least because of the sheer scope and compass of her work. For one thing, Latin was used not just for stilted proclamations on official occasions, but within the family. She writes some charming letters to her brother when he is a student, all in Latin, teasing him and telling him not to be too fond of playing his lute instead of getting on with his studies, and so on. This lightness and playfulness is carried over into much of her occasional verse; she writes for birthdays and other celebrations, and some lovely versions of Aesop's fables. She also writes devout, intense religious meditations and moving tributes to her mother and her step-father. So she shows how flexible and powerful a language Latin can be for every kind of usage, from the ceremonial to the intimate and domestic."
For what is a mother, what is our parents' loss
That the ceaseless tears of children teach us to know?
And now, as I join them, I mourn my mother's sad fate,
Torn far away, alas, from my native land.
Never again will she guide me with motherly words,
No more be there when I say, `Mother, give me advice!'
Never again will she bless all my children and me,
Making the sign of the cross on each forehead and breast.
But God by his valour will save all my friends who remain,
And, Death, my enemy, he will constrain your power.
I pray that my children be safe, and my husband may live;
With courage I'll bear all fate brings, whatever it be;
And if I should follow my mother, when that hour should come,
Then with my death a new, better life will begin.
So. mother of mine, truly honoured for ever, farewell;
And take these tears of mine as your final gift.
"Possibly the reason why she is less well known than she should be is because Latin itself has gone into decline in so many schools, and yet she is, in so many ways, a very modern figure. She was able to earn her living, or at least support herself and her mother, by her initiative and her pen.
"She's buried here in Prague, just down the road in Saint Thomas's Church [just off the Lesser Town Square], where you can go and admire her tomb. So she certainly deserves to be much better known. If she hasn't yet been the subject of a historical novel, I think she certainly ought to be."
If you would like to read some more of Elizabeth Jane Weston's poetry in English, the Collected Writings, edited and translated by Donald Cheney and Brenda M. Hosington were published by the University of Toronto Press in the year 2000. Special thanks to Susan Reynolds, who provided so much information about Elizabeth Jane Weston for this programme and also made the excellent translations used here.
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