Well, friends, we’re picking up the Real-Time Reading again…. right at about the point where life (and Shadow of Night) defeated me in 2019. In 2020, returning to the RTR provides a bit of distraction and interest in a world gone decidedly pear-shaped. I hope you’re all safe, sound, and taking care of one another — we’re all in this thing together.
So let’s get to it. We return to find Matthew and Diana in Prague, playing a dangerous game with the slimy, suspicious Emperor Rudolf and exploring the wonders of the sixteenth century.
“Master Habermel stopped by. Your compendium is on the table.” Matthew didn’t look up from the plans to Prague Castle that he’d somehow procured from the emperor’s architects.
Astronomical compendia like the one Master Habermel were prized scientific and artistic objects in the sixteenth century. Assuming one had a working knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, astrology, and geography, the owner of a compendium could “plan journeys, predict the time of the sunset . . . make astrological predictions, [and] measure the heights of the stars and constellations.” The one pictured here, made by Christopher Shissler in 1561, belongs to the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Aside from their practical use, compendia like Diana’s were made for display by wealthy scientific patrons and leaders to show their mastery of the natural world and their high social status.
On Deb’s Pinterest board, she links to this specimen (made by Habermel, himself!) housed at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. The Habermel model is fashioned more like a book and has space for leaves of paper or other tablets to be stored or carried inside. This example has a highly-decorated drum on the exterior and a lovely inscribed sundial on top. I always imagined Diana’s compendium to be of the round, highly-decorated type with swinging arms, but I like the idea of the notebook style, too.
“These particular salamanders were a gift from the king when I returned to France late in 1541. King Francis chose the salamander in flames for his emblem, and his motto was, ‘I nourish and extinguish.'”
Francis I ruled from 1515 until his death in 1547. As a patron of the arts, he’s the reason the Louvre houses the painting Mona Lisa — he invited Leonardo da Vinci to his court and the artist brought the painting along. This period at the court of Francis I appears to the the inspiration for the 1998 film Ever After, a modern adaptation of the Cinderella story starring Drew Barrymore, Anjelica Houston, Dougray Scott (where did he go, anyway?), and Jeanne Moreau.
Anyways. Francis I did, in fact, choose the salamander, a fabulous animal in the medieval bestiary, as his personal emblem. Francis’s salamander, pictured below, sported a large crown and is often depicted either “spitting out water to extinguish flames” or “swallowing flames to feed itself with good fire.”
According to Wired.com, Pliny the Elder perpetuated the myth that salamanders could survive flames (they can’t). St. Augustine believed that the salamander was a symbol of the soul’s resistance to the fires of Hell. The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy notes that, in alchemy, the salamander was a symbol of the prima materia and provides the following verse about our slippery little lizard friends:
[The Salamander] is caught and pierced
So that it dies and yields up its life with its blood.
But this, too, happens for its good;
For from its blood it wins immortal life.
And then death has no more power over it.
“In spite of her name, Diana doesn’t like hunting. But it’s no matter. I will fly the merlin,” Matthew said.
The merlin is a member of the family Falconidae sometimes called a “pigeon hawk.” They’re small — their average wingspan is 2′-2’3″ as opposed to say, a peregrine falcon, which has an average wingspan of 3’3″-3’6″. Just as Emperor Rudolf notes, the merlin was a ladies’ bird in medieval falconry; Catherine the Great of Russia and Mary, Queen of Scots, reportedly flew merlins as their hunting birds of choice. There are merlins in the wild in Europe, Asia, and North America — you can learn about how to identify them (and tell them apart from kestrels) here.
There’s a very informative video of hunting using merlins below:
The bird pictured in the video is a mature female, very similar to our Šárka in Shadow of Night.
“Her name is Šárka,” the gamekeeper whispered with a smile.
“Is she as clever as her namesake?” Matthew asked him.
“More so,” the old man answered with a grin.
The legend of Šárka comes from “The Maidens War,” a tale from Bohemia about the uprising of a group of female warriors against men. According to Wikipedia, it first appears in the twelfth century Chronica Boëmorum. In the legend, Šárka tricks an army of men guarding the tomb of the great queen Libuše by tempting them to drink mead laced with a sleeping potion. Šárka calls her female warriors to the tomb once the men have fallen asleep and together, they slaughter the leader Ctirad and his troops. There are several versions of the myth, including an operatic version where Šárka falls in love with Ctirad, goes through with killing him, then throws herself off a cliff out of remorse. While you contemplate this tale, please enjoy Czech composer Bedřich Smetana‘s symphonic poem, Šárka:
We’ll pick up the Real-Time Reading of Shadow of Night again on April 10, when Matthew and Diana stage the legend of Diana and Endymion and retrieve Ashmole 782 from Rudolf’s palace.
Jen and Cait