Speculative techno-geographies: Hussites & Heliographs

(Excerpt from a piece published in The State, the UAE’s premier themed critical-spec-lit-cultural journal-thing. There may be another to follow, and this one might turn up again sometime in the future as an RPG campaign book, or the setting for some short fiction. Be warned.)

Hory Kutné, Commonwealth of God, 1519

Kuneticka Hora

(image by Marek Prokop, CC-A-NC)

Messianic Christianity, mine-ready steam pumps, and an early modern internet-of-lighthouses.

In 1270, a Bohemian merchant travelling in the Mongol Ilkhanate secures access to a collection of works by Al-Razi, a 10th-century Persian physician. Alongside treatises on medical ethics, pharmacy, and metaphysics, the documents include a method for creating mirrored surfaces by coating glass with a thin layer of molten silver. Upon the trader’s return home to Prague, copies of Al-Razi’s writings are appropriated by the ruling Premsylid dynasty. While the texts’ anatomical insights are studied by court healers and apothecaries, decorative mirrors are embraced by a fashion-hungry ruling class, who see the reflective baubles as a means of flaunting wealth and status.

Silver deposits are discovered in the monastery town of Hory Kutné in 1298. With the recent outbreak of ‘mirror madness’ still fresh in the minds of its rulers, the King of Bohemia takes control of the mine; silver is declared a royal monopoly. This will prove to be one of the richest silver operations in Europe. It produces—at its peak—as much as twenty tonnes of silver a year, pulling in labour from across central Europe, and stoking the fires of the Bohemian economy. As the combination of commodity and silvering technology spreads through the various strata of society, it reaches the newly-established Charles University in Prague.

Within the university’s gates, Al-Razi’s work is adopted—and adapted—by the Knights of Judith Bridge, a secretive group of scholars and natural philosophers. Over the next few years, they dedicate their energies to perfecting the technology, juggling an ever-shifting assemblage of candles, shutters and silvered lenses. Riddled with flaws, the cast-offs and aborted failures nonetheless colonise the walls and towers of the university. They provide a sprawling communication infrastructure: a localised network of signalling lanterns, embraced by students and professors alike.

These mighty strides in the science of optics coincide with a period of significant religious turmoil. Elsewhere in Europe, as many as three competing popes lay claim to the religious authority of the Western church; the Bohemian king continues to espouse a policy of strict neutrality. However, Jan Hus—a reformist priest and rector of Prague’s university—finds the space to condemn the strict structural hierarchies and temporal excess of the church. Hus and his confederates issue a manifesto calling for the provision of worship in the local vernacular, rather than Latin, and an end to clerical authority. While attracting accusations of heresy from the religious elite, these calls prove popular among the independent-minded Bohemian peasantry, who have come to bristle at the barefaced corruption of Rome.

With Bohemia’s ruling dynasty keen to find a conclusion to the spiritual strife, in 1415 Hus finally accedes to his lords’ request to help negotiate peace and church reform. He feels secure in their guarantee of his liberty. Upon his arrival in the imperial city of Konstanz, however, he is promptly accused of heresy and imprisoned. Refusing to recant his complaints, a conclave of attendees condemn Hus to execution by burning.

News of this betrayal sparks a popular insurrection against an already ill-regarded church authority, along with the Bohemian monarchy and the imperialism of the Holy Roman Empire. Priests are driven from their parishes, towns and villages are put to the torch, and in Prague, the burgomaster and governing council are thrown from the windows of the town hall by a crowd of self-declared ‘Hussites.’ With the support of sympathetic students and professors expelled from Charles University, Hussite forces erect and fortify a series of mirrored signalling towers. Hussite-controlled towns and cities across Bohemia—and later, Poland and Hungary—are brought into constant contact.

The combination of swift communication, highly-mobile fortifications and widespread popular support proves decisive. Agile and networked, Hussites forces rout two, then three crusades launched by the anti-Christ in Rome. At the same time, they are able to successfully suppress domestic resistance from papists and royalists, outbreaks of disease, and the malign influence of smugglers and war profiteers. In 1432, Hussite knights execute the remaining members of the Bohemian royal family during their flight across the Alps; in 1447, the flag of the red chalice is raised over Prague. This symbol signals the formal declaration of a Commonwealth of God. It will be a decentralised empire bound by messianic and mystical Christianity, an elective monarchy, and an increasingly sophisticated trunk network.

By 1519, Inner Bohemia has become the economic heartland of an empire which covers a third of Europe: it stretches from the wind-battered Baltic port of Králove to the rocky shores of the Adriatic. Hory Kutné, the Silver City, is among its most important settlements. As a centre of mines and markets, production and consumption unfold cheek-by-jowl. The city is rife with catacombs and exhausted mine shafts. Subsidence and landslides become accepted as an inevitable cost of doing business, with neither the means nor the political will to ensure the safety of workers and inhabitants.

Once every few years, at the discretion of a good-tempered pit-boss, there may be a large enough gap for a technological quick-fix. Born of a need to keep the silver mines free from flooding by groundwater, Hory Kutné becomes the birthplace of the first functional steam pumps. As a key element in the race to exploit ever-less-accessible silver deposits, these pumps kick start a secondary market for coal. By 1519, the coal-burning revolution is at a dizzying peak of overinflated expectations, with mine bosses using the new pumps to support complexes of ever-greater capacity. The full impact of coal smoke on the health and livelihood of the city’s inhabitants will not be felt for a decade yet. By the time the environmental crisis hits the cities, some of the worst smogs will require those venturing out to wear scarves soaked in vinegar across the face, while cities keep their signal towers lit as landmarks for wayward travellers.

Hory Kutné is also home to the Commonwealth ossuaries, a vast necropolis of churches, crypts and catacombs given over to the bones—primarily, the skulls—of the those martyred to the Hussite cause. At the interface of these ghoulish remains and the flashing gleams of the signalling towers, a singular bureaucracy has arisen; a teetering machinery of cowled clerks and officials spend their days chasing genealogical memoranda, heraldic records, and chits governing the movement of bodies—living and dead.

*dramatic chord*

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