In his book The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague, Peter Marshall explores the life and times of one of the Hapsburg family’s most misunderstood members, Rudolf II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 1576 to 1612. Marshall examines Rudolf, not from a 21st century context, but in the very midst of the time in which he lived; the era of the Renaissance. Through an intense examination of the arts and sciences of the time, and the practitioners that made their way through Rudolf’s court, Marshall shows how “by encouraging religious tolerance and the freedom of enquiry, [Rudolf] helped lay the foundations of the Rosicrucian Enlightenment, as well as the Age of Reason…” (Marshall 5). Marshall does not ignore Rudolf’s political short comings, namely the complete lack of any real political decisions throughout his entire tenure as Emperor, but actually lauds them, pointing to them as strengths and not weaknesses in his character. “While destroying himself and his empire,” Marshal argues, “Rudolf played a key role in the transition from the medieval world view to the modern outlook in the Western world” (Marshall 5).
At the end of his reign, Rudolf was bereft of friends, family, funds, and very nearly his sanity. The world was teetering on the brink of the Thirty Years War. To many historians, Rudolf II passed away a failed emperor with very little impact on history. This, however, runs directly contrary to Marshall’s main, overarching argument. Through this exploration of his life and reign, Marshall seeks to prove that “the Holy Roman Emperor died a broken, lonely, and dispirited man, but…in the pursuit of truth he helped create a cultural revolution in Renaissance Prague which is still reverberating today” (Marshall 243).
Marshall’s work is both engaging and informative. He respects history’s facts and figures, but is not afraid to speculate beyond them, providing the reader with a relatively complete picture of a time and people so far removed from themselves. Of course, with this more ‘mockumentary’ style, the works real contributions to the historical knowledge of this subject is somewhat shaky. Marshall’s use of primary sources, translations out of their original languages, creates a sort of ‘connect the dots’ version of history, and the picture he comes up with by the end is engaging, but cannot, for the most part, be historically proven. However, some of his speculations are logical and rooted in fact and these more than make-up for the unsubstantiated ones, making for an enlightening interpretation of the life of Rudolf II.
Marshall would approve of the point that in German, a language highly favored by Rudolf himself, the word for story and history are the same – Geschichte. That is what Marshall has faithfully reproduced in this book – a story of history worth remembering. He accomplishes this mainly through his tone and diction. Reading Marshall’s history of Rudolf II and the Renaissance in Prague is more akin to reading one’s favorite dramatic novel. The book is meant to inform, but beyond that it is also meant to entertain and engage. In Marshall’s history, the Prague of the Renaissance comes to life with breathtaking clarity, and the amazing scientists and charlatans that moved within Rudolf’s circle are resurrected. For Marshall, the reader is an active participant in the story of Rudolf, not simply a passive consumer of information. The reader is invited to feel what Rudolf felt, not stand away and examine it.
This is not to say that Marshall gives his readers all the information they require all the time. One of the main weaknesses of Marshall’s work is the lack of background information pertaining to the rest of the world outside of Prague and Rudolf II. Several times throughout the work, Marshall seems to become so engrossed in the inner workings of Rudolf’s court, or a particular branch of Renaissance exploration, that he neglects to provide the reader with the broader detail necessary to understand the event or person in the context of the times. We are told in bits and pieces that “the world around [Rudolf] threatened to descend into the chaos of religious discord…” (Marshall 108), but we are never given a concrete example of these threats. What is going on outside the walls of Prague? How do the events within the city coincide or clash with the great events of the time? The reader is left to wonder.
Peter Marshall’s book The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague is an evocative slice of a time and place immortalized in the pages of history. Marshall presents an engaging and thought-provoking piece of work, one that is easy to consume and a pleasure to discuss. Despite Marshall’s sometimes groundless speculations and lack of background information, The Magic Circle of Rudolf II is a well-rounded historical account of the life of a most misunderstood monarch. It should be remembered that if we do not learn history, we will be doomed to repeat it. Sometimes this is true in a less literal sense; simply that if we do not learn from the mistakes of individuals, we, as individuals, will make those some mistakes. Historical figures were all people, real and not so different from us. Their stories can inspire and teach us, if only we let them.
Marshall, Peter. The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague. New York: Walker and Company, 2006. Print.
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