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The Hanging Baskets of a Medieval German Prague: English Travel Literature from 1815 to 1848

By Jana Hunter @janakhunter

At the heart of Europe lies Prague: a city centred around the River Moldau, embodying antiquity, mysticism and the sublime. Its imposing and grandiose scenes received little attention from travel writers up until the Napoleonic Wars. Through travel literature, Prague emerged as a fantastical city providing escapism, both physically and mentally, for travellers. Mapped like a medieval German city, and located in Central Europe, Prague was home to a dynamic cultural milieu. Yet, it was also deemed to be uncivilised, possessing an Oriental grandeur. This contentious portrayal epitomises the difficulty travellers had – and continue to have – in defining the city and challenges the powerful concept of a binary Europe.

In the eye of the traveller, Prague was revered as a German city but located conceptually outside of Germany. Subject to a strong current of Germanisation by Emperor Joseph II, Prague was imbued with ‘Germanness’. Charles Sealsfield, writing in 1828, extolled Prague as ‘one of the most picturesque and noble cities on the Continent; far more interesting than Berlin, or any other capital of Germany’.[1] Sites of interest and monuments were also contextualised as German, with John Strang depicting Charles Bridge as a ‘magnificent stone structure [..] the longest in Germany’.[2] Conceptually, however, Prague fell into the sphere of ‘non-European Othering’, illuminated by travel writers when they were faced with an unknown element. John Aiton wrote that ‘Sclavonic was entirely an unknown tongue’, associating it with the lowest strata of society.[3] The presence of Bohemian(s), both as a language and people, dislocated the conceptual ‘Germanness’ of the city and as such, an Oriental depiction of the city emerged.[4] Located on the threshold of the East and the West, Prague was distanced from the idea of a modern German state, while its Bohemian expressions fostered a Euro-Orientalist perception.

The description of Prague as an ‘Asiatic splendour’ was circulated by travel writers. The panoramic view of Prague inspired a sense of the Oriental; George Gleig and Aiton comment on the ‘hanging gardens’ alluding to the ancient tale of the ‘Hanging Baskets of Babylon’, an infamous Oriental motif.[5] Prague’s  Orientalism is curious: arguably, the Oriental demeanour these writers imposed was an emblem for Bohemia’s ‘non-European otherness’.[6] Ezequiel Adamovsky suggests that Romanticism had an ‘admiration for the Orient and its alleged ancient wisdom and social harmony’.[7] This splendour became associated with the ‘exotic and sublime’ transforming into a ‘metaphor for the beauty of Prague’.[8] It was a way of regenerating an old and decadent Europe; the city was depicted as a cultural bastion, while also fitting it into the travellers’ wider civilising mission.

Travel writers were determined to illustrate its ‘wild and ungovernable’ appearance.[9]   Women and the poor were subject to cumbersome examinations by travellers, in an effort to civilise them and allow for the cultural rebirth of the city. Strang labels the ‘lower classes’ as a ‘band of hungry tatterdemalions’ nearly tearing him to pieces, before claiming that in comparison ‘Swift’s Yahoos might be said to have been well-behaved, civilised beings’.[10] The eroticisation of women can be encountered in the writers’ dialogue and is a tradition rooted in the Grand Tour.[11] Gleig and Strang are enamoured by the women, describing them as ‘Bohemia’s fairest and noblest daughters’, boasting ‘all the elegance of contour which distinguishes the finest of female forms’.[12] This sexualisation pervades travel literature, with women’s permissiveness anticipated. Strang illuminates their ‘youth, beauty, and grace’ making them ‘irresistible’ to the male gaze.[13] He then, however, intertwines their beauty with the immorality of Prague, ‘their morality, indeed, if we are to pay any attention to the statistics of the town, is really at a very low ebb’.[14] These barren illustrations were entwined with the travel writers’ Oriental representations, reinforcing their civilising mission and giving them a sense of authority in Prague.

Prague was – and still is – a timeless city of the past, allowing for a fantastical escape. There was a medieval spirit in the capital, embodied by its architecture and streets. Aiton’s description of the city captures the impression it left on the travellers, ‘But wherever the eye is turned, you see objects which carry your recollections far back into the past’.[15] A city characterised both as German and Oriental, the simplistic notion of a binary Europe is challenged. Prague – on the edge of the Slavic Orient – emerged as a target for the travel writers’ wider civilising mission, but also presented an escape from the advances of the modernising West.

References:

[1] Charles Sealsfield, Austria as it is: or, Sketches of continental courts, by an eye witness, (Hurst, Chance, and Co., 1828), p. 87.

[2] John Strang, Germany in 1831, Volume 2, (Macrone, 1836), p. 278; John Murray, A handbook for travellers in southern Germany, Salzburg, Styria & the Austrian and Bavarian Alps and The Danube from Ulm to the Black Sea, including description of the most frequented baths and watering places; the principal cities, their museums, picture galleries, etc, the great high roads, and the most interesting and picturesque districts, also directions for travellers; and hints for tours, (John Murray and Son, 1837), p. 324.

[3] John Aiton, Eight Weeks in Germany: Comprising Narratives, Descriptions and Directions for Economical Tourists, (William Whyte and Company, 1842), p. 276; George. R. Gleig, Germany, Bohemia, and Hungary, Visited in 1837, Vol 2, (John W. Parker, 1839).

[4] Peter Bugge, ‘Something in the View Which Makes You Linger’: Bohemia and Bohemians in British Travel Writing, 1836–1857’, Central Europe 7, (2009), p. 16.

[5] Gleig, Germany, Bohemia, and Hungary, p. 287; Aiton, Eight Weeks in Germany, pp. 273 – 274.

[6] The idea of ‘non-European Otherness’ pertains to the notion that anything that was not of Western European tradition was ‘Othered’.

[7] Ezequiel Adamovsky, ‘Euro-Orientalism and the Making of the Concept of Eastern Europe in France, 1810 – 1880’, The Journal of Modern History 77, (2005), p. 605.

[8] Bugge, ‘Something in the View Which Makes You Linger’, p. 16.

[9] Johan Georg Kohl, Austria. Vienna, Prague, Hungary, Bohemia, and the Danube, and the Military Frontier, (Chapman and Hall, 1843), p. 51.

[10] Strang, Germany in 1831, p. 189.

[11] Kay Dian Kriz, ‘Introduction: The Grand Tour’, Eighteenth-Century Studies 31, (1997), p. 88.

[12] Gleig, Germany, Bohemia, and Hungary, p. 289; Strang, Germany in 1831, p. 191.

[13] Strang, Germany in 1831, p. 191.

[14] Ibid., p. 191.

[15] Aiton, Eight Weeks in Germany, p. 274.

Image: Prague Castle Courtyard circa 1830,  http://www.fotohistorie.cz/FullFoto.aspx?photoID=38762

 

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Really interesting topic and a brilliant read, thank you!

    June 2, 2020

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