In the early 17th century, the Holy Roman Empire was a brutal and unforgiving place. Ruled by the strange Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II, yet under the strong control of the Catholic Church, the lives of commoners were often poor, short and joyless. In the Bohemian village of Cesky Krumlov live Marketa Pichlerova and her family. Her mother runs the village bathhouse. Her father is the village’s barber-surgeon. Assisting her father, Marketa learn the art and science of blood-letting. Unlike most girls of her time, Marketa has also learned to read and write. She yearns for more scientific knowledge and to become a doctor herself.
All of this is at odds with her work in the bathhouse. Her mother hopes that Marketa’s youthful beauty will attract a patron, whose fees to the bathhouse will help support the family. Marketa does acquire a patron, and a vulgar nickname by which the villagers taunt her unceasingly.
Meanwhile Don Julius, the bastard eldest son of Emperor Rudolf, is imprisoned in the castle that dominates the town. Rudolf has imprisoned Julius because his youthful outrageous behavior has gotten out of hand. He eats, drinks, and womanizes to excess. He is frequently involved in street brawls, and has become a danger to himself and others. Rudolf arranges for Julius to be in the care of a Jesuit priest, as well as physicians. This includes a court physician, as well as the local blood-letter, Marketa’s father.
When Marketa accompanies her father to the blood-lettings, Julius falls in love with her. Of course he is quite insane and not to be trusted. In order to allow the blood-lettings, Julius negotiates with his captors to eventually be left alone with Marketa, and dire consequences ensue.
Despite the dreary world that this novel depicts, I found myself liking it quite a bit. The characters are interesting, and the story is engaging. The most amazing part is that this book is based on true events and people. Most of what I’ve previously read about Rudolf II and his time concerned his obsession with mythology and scientific advances, as well as his numerous and bizarre collections. I liked that this book tells about the lives of the common people of the time.
Published in paperback and Kindle edition-Amazon-2012