Being and Becoming — Glimpses of Milka Havel’s Childhood


Looking into past centuries is like trying to find knotholes in a wooden wall through which some accidental details of an unknown world beyond reveal themselves. How did Milka Havel grow up in a time and place often described as a cauld-ron of ideas and skills, bringing together many of the greatest and most daring minds Europe knew at the time ? How could the daughter of humble people like Jakub and Katerina Havel break into their circles ? What enabled her to defy the expecta-tions and norms set out for women of her standing and receive excellent education ? You might think of her dressing up as a boy sneaking into Latin school or being the bastard child of a Prague nobleman who took the child in and gave her the same education as his legitimate children. Those things happened, but they did not happen to Havel. While serendipity did play its role like it does in all our lives, she was not catapulted out of the world she was born into nor did she pretend to be a boy. She became the great craftswoman, scientist and thinker we admire because she grew up in the extremely busy cabinet makers’ household, where skilled hands and a fast mind were needed in many ways.
Her father’s business with the Prague court, but also his connections and activities within the guild and the reformist Unity of Brethren church, played a role in his change of mind regarding the future of his daughter. Newcomers to the city settled increasingly on the way up to the Prague castle district called Hradčany. They were working for the new emperor Rudolf II who came to live in Prague and would change
it into Europe’s unrivalled centre of science and culture. The fortune that would pay for Milka Havels’s education sprang from the hunger of the Hradčany inhabitants for modern things, scientific and artistic endeavours. Education had become a competitive field in which Catholic and protestant churches used education as a tool to compete for their respective belief systems. The Havel family was part of the pacifist Unity of the Brethren, which promoted better quality humanist education for broader groups in society and provided the Karls University with many students.
Jakub had the reputation to be one of the finest cabinet makers in Prague. He was summoned to the castle or other elegant houses around it quite often to make them furniture and holders for their instruments. It all began with the order for a giant walnut table. To his surprise the table was meant to carry globes and clocks and vases from the castle collection so that the emperor and his guests could walk around it and see them from nearby. It had to be quite high and it was ordered to be covered with dark green leather which came from Spain. Unusually, the legs had to be spiralled and rest on spheres. Jakub was happy with the result and it was the starting point for many orders, eventually leading to his appointment as supplier to the court.
His daughter Milka was the only surviving child of three. Two older brothers died, aged only six and eight, from the pox. The boys were their ambitious father’s hope. He wanted to make them not more or less than the best cabinetmakers in Prague. Their death changed him. While he worked as hard as ever, for nearly a year he stopped experimenting with new techniques. He shouted at the apprentices more often and the sparkle in his eyes had faded. He loved Milka, and saw her future as wife of a gifted and kind craftsman whom she could help in the same way as his wife Katerina helped him. One of his own apprentices whose character and skill he would know well, would be best. They decided that their daughter should become her mother’s right hand in the business until she was old enough to marry. For that she needed to be taught well in reading, writing and calculating sums.
Milka’s mother Katerina Havel was as important to the cabinet making business as her husband. She did the books, wrote down the details of commissions, ordered wood and tools, and kept debtors on their toes. Tradesmen were scared of her ; she made sure the workshop got the best wood at reasonable prices – there was no deceiving her. When the purchasers from the castle district pressured them to deliver faster, she simply pointed out that fashionable designs and superior quality required time and the best craftsmen. If they wanted something of lesser quality they should go somewhere else. At the time they were stretched to the limit in the old small workshop and she had to secure the commission and negotiate extra time for them. They had never made quite so elaborate designs before. But neither had anyone else in Prague as far as she knew. Dealing with castle people was an art in itself she found. Being forceful with them during the day was accompanied with long prayers at night that all would work out. It did, and Milka would eventually play an important role in their success.
Since the boys died she kept little Milka close and didn’t often allow her to join the neighbours’ children in the streets, so she would not fall ill like her brothers. Katerina badly needed another trustworthy pair of hands to help. It was important that Milka got used to a woman’s tasks as soon as possible. Milka learned from watching her mother spin, embroider and sew, as well as do household tasks from a very young age. She was understanding fast, eager to use her hands and asked lots of questions. Katerina loved the winter evenings when the whole household would sit together and play cards, sing or tell stories. Milka could never get enough of stories and sometimes she told her own, holding her wooden doll tight.
Milka’s childhood wouldn’t have been the same without Halka, their trusted housekeeper who was the good soul of the house. She was a Bohemian cook of sorts, had a sharp tongue, and when in a good mood would sing all day. Halka was an inspiration for Milka since she taught her the mysteries of the herbs, where and when to find them and how to use them against ailments. Years later people in the neighbourhood suspected her to be a witch because she did not come that regularly to church and on the stove there was nearly always some brew of herbs and roots giving out the most peculiar smells. This suspicion was balanced by the need for her advice, medicines and tinctures which saved people the money for the doctor. However, neither the doctor nor she had been able to save Milka’s brothers and Halka found it hard to accept God’s will to take them. She loved Milka as if she was her own. She wanted to protect this girl and thought the best way to achieve it would be to teach her all she knew about the secrets living in plants.
Such an environment was not that exceptional in pros-perous and relatively tolerant Prague at the time. Therefore the question stays how Milka could develop such a creative and inquisitive mind. The answer must lie in the mixture of an open mind, everyday magic and some extraordinary events. They could have looked like this :

The summer garden

“People talk too much” she said in a long not used voice. Her shrivelled face and crooked hands did not chime with Milka’s memory of the nimbly moving housekeeper with the warm voice. But there it was, her way of frowning – the left eyebrow went up while the right one was pulled down – two faces at once. When she was little, Milka had learned to expect and eagerly observe this metamorphosis of Halka from a busy housekeeper into a companion in adventure if and only if nobody was watching. When, despite her caution someone saw them, she started to tell Milka off, muttering something about stopping to do useless things. Milka knew this telling off that wasn’t quite real and let go of the leaves and flower-heads in her hands as if they were nothing of importance, only to recover them later and bind them neatly together to dry next to the open stove in the kitchen. Halka squinted at the young woman and her outward brashness gave way to a weary smile. There was the girl of Master Havel who could find the best young comfrey leaves before anyone else would spot them in early spring, the best helper she ever had. She could tell the good from the lookalike herbs after one time of showing her. “I come to say good bye and thank you for all you taught me” said Milka. “There was nothing to teach, you knew with your ears and eyes and hands like you were born to heal. I would never have forgiven myself if you had got in the same trouble as I, but thanks to the angels you didn’t” answered Halka.
“Master Bartusek from next door was telling that you saved his son when the doctor had given him up”. “Oh yes, it was the same as always Milka, when there is trouble they know how to find me – witch or not. Little Janek was barely breathing so weak he had gotten. I gave him the same mixture that was saving you when your parents were crying with fear to loose you. It seems not that long ago – and now you are almost a young lady. Why do you come to say good bye” ? “I will go on a long journey to Italy. Master Hoefnagel, the painter for whom father made a special desk, wants me to come as his assistant. I would rather keep helping in the workshop and carve more leaves and angels wings and grapes. Who will do it when I’m not there ? And who will help mother with the books ? But father doesn’t want to hear it – he said that I must go because that man from Flanders is right”. ”You are everything to your father – he will know what he is doing. As long as you don’t forget where you are coming from, all will work out”. “But there is nothing special about me, Halka”! “Oh yes, there is – you can see what others can’t and hear what others don’t since you were barely taller than a goat. I got almost frightened seeing you talking to the bumblebees or just sitting for ages without moving, staring at the pond as if you could turn it into gold. You had your own world in which you were the mistress. Sometimes you were so absorbed that you would not hear us call. At first your mother was afraid that something might be wrong with you”.
Milka’s thoughts wandered back to the garden behind the small house in which she spent so much time alone or helping Halka. Despite her short and stout figure, Halka could move with the speed of a cat when catching a fly in her palm. Then she was holding her cupped hands to Milka’s ear : “Listen to the fly’s song”. Milka remembers the frantic melodies of the flies and how she tried to understand what they were singing. Sitting at the river later, she would play a game with herself. She closed her eyes and listened to the tiny flying creatures trying to picture them and then opening her eyes to see if she was right. The steady sounds of bees were so different from the frantic to and fro of midges. Hover flies were buzzing similar steady to the bees but at a higher and thinner pitch. The sounds of beetles made her laugh, and the slightest hint of the nervous hiss of a horse fly let her jump up since she feared their bites. Crickets were different, they sang like the tiniest of birds. Milka remembered the royal family of dragonflies who had taken over the pond employing striders as servants. She could marvel at the intense blue or green of their bodies, their shiny eyes and delicate wings. What a life it must be to look so magnificent and see things from above – sometimes just standing still in the air and then all of a sudden shooting in any direction – up, down, backwards or even sideways. The only creatures that could match the wonder of the dragonflies were butterflies. They seemed happy and were dressed like the noble women she got a glimpse of at the Easter service.

The new house

When Jakub had become an official supplier of the Emperor’s Court, they moved into the big house at the old town square. Milka had turned five and it felt to her like an entirely new life. The workshop behind the house was as big as the house they had lived in before. Cooking and eating now happened upstairs at the bigger table with drawers her father had made. It was here that she was first allowed to share bread and plate with her father. In the past only her oldest brother Jan could share with father when he started to help in the workshop. The apprentices looked surprised and grinned at each other. Milka knew that they found it odd, since she was a girl, but she too was helping in the workshop and would show them.
Also for the first time, Halka did send her alone to fetch beer from the tavern just across the square. That first time she had to return empty-handed. The big jug she took broke because she was staring at the skeleton with the hour glass above the dial of the town hall clock and did not see the boy’s hoop which had escaped him rolling towards her, hitting the jug in her hand. She cried not so much because of the jug but because she was afraid that they would not trust her anymore to fetch the beer. It was her chance to look as long as she wanted at the town hall’s mechanical wonder. When there were people gathering around it you were in luck and could probably watch the holy figures move. All the figures fascina-ted her, but after the incident with the broken jug she did not often look straight at the skeleton since it seemed to bring her bad luck. This clock was the most interesting thing she knew. Her father had shown her the moon on the dial and how its colour changed like the moon in the sky. Later he also taught her to read the time. But there were so many other things that changed in miraculous ways which he said only the learned people did know. She wondered who the learned people were and how they knew.

The workshop

Since Milka could remember she loved to sit in the workshop and watch how unruly cuts of trees slowly morphed into orderly shapes, which then became parts of chairs or drawers or desks or cabinets. And, as if apologising to the tree, her father was chiselling out flowers and leaves that would never wilt. Milka was convinced that her father had made every wooden thing she knew at home and in town. She was dreaming of doing this herself. She wanted to make the shapes of the herbs and flowers she had collected with Halka, and chisel out a bird in an everlasting flight. But for long she wasn’t allowed to even touch the tools or wood that was worked on. This was for men, not for little girls her father had said, and gently pushed her towards the door. Since her father was very busy it was not difficult to sneak back in and watch. Pavel, the new apprentice, worked with the plane all day and the floor became covered with wood chips. She was searching for the most perfectly curled ones and collected them in order to sort them by colour, width, how they curled and how they smelled. Then she would use a stool as market stall to sell them and imagined to heckle with the buyers like the fishmonger or the woman with the eggs did. However, her favourite use of the woodchips was to create flowerlike shapes which would grow bigger and bigger. The rhythmic sound of the lathe was guiding her movements and it only ended when she had nothing left to add to the pattern.
One year later, during the winter, Milka sat as usual under the not-used workbench and watched. Whenever she was not needed upstairs she went to the workshop, even though the kitchen fire upstairs was much warmer. On a cold and dark afternoon, when the apprentices were off, Jakub worked further on a writing desk that needed to be delivered in the morning. It had many small draws for instruments and specimens. When he reached out for the small chisel in order to add a pattern, it wasn’t where he thought. Milka jumped up and brought him the chisel he needed – she simply knew what he was looking for, probably because he had finished one of the drawers just before. Since he was curious and could do with some help, he asked her to lay out the pieces for the next drawer. Again, she knew where which piece belonged and with her small fingers could help to guide the heavy drawers into the cabinets so he could fit them into place without damaging the surface. She knew all the tools and where he had put them down. But most astonishing to him was that she seemed to know his next move and often had the right piece of wood or tool in hands before he asked. She must have picked up on it when she was sitting for hours under that old workbench watching them work. Neither of the two apprentices had her keenness of the senses. He looked at his daughter as if he saw her for the first time. God had sent him this child for a reason. But why a girl ? There was so much work to do that he did not need to think long about the rights or wrongs of having Milka help in the workshop. If she could handle a knife in the kitchen, why not a chisel here in the workshop ? With the new fashion there was a growing need for very fine carving of decorations. He could not trust his apprentices with that and was doing this time-consuming work all by himself. Also it did not involve heavy lifting or bigger tools. His mind was made up, he would teach Milka. Jakub made handles for the tools that would fit in her small hands. Milka’s cheeks burned with pride and excitement. Finally she was allowed to shape wood by herself. It was harder than she had expected, but her father, who lost his temper with the apprentices quite often, encouraged and guided her carefully and patiently. When she was eight she could carve the leaves she dreamed of for so long. The first one she was allowed to make in walnut, the wood that was used for the cabinets at Hradčany, was a leaf of her favourite herb – Angelica. She kept this leaf carved into a small block of walnut as a bringer of good fortune for the rest of her life. Many of her later carvings would entail Angelica leaves. From then on Milka helped her father not only with the preparation of deco-rations but later on also was in charge of designing and making all natural patterns. They were so intricate and beautiful that they became a hallmark of the workshop. Jakub was proud of his daughter and was wondering now if it was because she was a girl that she was so good at inventing and making the decorations. Certainly her small hands were a perfect asset for this fashionable décor. However, despite all the recognition she got for her work, as a woman it would be impossible for her to follow him as master of the workshop.

A humanist education

When she was eight years old, Jakub decided that his daughter, as the first child in his family, should be educated by a private teacher. Katerina had taught her to read and write in Czech and also the beginnings of arithmetic. Milka could cite and read the psalter when she was five and she knew many Bible stories. Katerina had put much effort in teaching her to write numbers and do sums since she wanted her to help with the books. However, she soon felt that she could not do her daughter justice and increasingly wasn’t able to answer her questions. The vicar did get them into contact with Matous Zelenka, a rather shy young man who was a graduate of the alma mater Pragensis. He was teaching at the Latin school in the old town and looked to increase his income by private teaching. Since he had good references and seemed kind enough, they took Matous in service to teach Milka on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Milka learned Latin, geometry, history and a bit of Greek. Teaching Milka became more and more something he was looking forward to. In contrast to the unruly and mainly oblivious boys he had to deal with in Latin school, Milka was brimming with curiosity and learned very quickly. Soon she could read and understand Bible texts in Latin just as well as in Czech. She surprised him with her take on some of the Latin phrases he gave her to translate. One of them was : “Look at things from all sides – and look at the whole thing!” She said that their housekeeper had taught her to do that when searching for herbs for healing to be sure it was the right one and not a poisonous lookalike. Sometimes the roots would tell you or the way the leaves were jagged, and sometimes to be sure you needed to look at the outline of the whole plant and what grew next to them. Matous had never understood it this way but could not fault her. Another example was this : “Urge sharply into the exact meaning of what you hear.” She was saying that listening to the humming of insects would tell you how they looked. He didn’t quite know how to react. Was she simply naive or did this girl take everything she was hearing and seeing as if it was a book she was reading ? Her explanations though made sense he had to admit. Matous himself had a keen interest in botany and in insects. After asking Jakub for permission, he started to make herbariums with Milka and taught her all he knew about plants. She was a great help to him, since she knew better than him where and when to find certain herbs. His own collection became much bigger during the two years he was her teacher. However, the most interesting time they had was with the insects. Together they collected bees and wasps ; beetles, butterflies, moths and dragonflies. Just like the herbs and flowers, they would sort them in ever and ever smaller groups. It was Milka’s idea to pair insects with the plants where they mostly could be found.
At the end of two years of teaching Matous told her parents that Milka was the most gifted pupil he had ever known despite her being a girl. Would she be a boy, he would recommend her to go to university as she was well prepared to do so.
Katerina worried that Milka, through her lessons, had acquired a really wrong idea about a woman’s life in her head. What good could all this be to her ? She was needed in the business more than ever and for that she knew more than enough. What man would want a wife with such strange ideas ? She hoped that Matous was just full of himself as a teacher and with him gone, Milka would soon return to her senses. Jakub however was taken with her teacher’s words since it reminded him of observing her learning to carve wood. There was something in his daughter that seemed to reach out to a world that had more to do with the astrono mical clock than with his workshop which was her home. He did not say a word of this to Milka, who was humble and should stay unaware of her giftedness. Matous Zelenka later became a well-respected zoologist and botanist who never stopped admiring Milka for her daring mind and strongly recommended her to the group of court scientists who quarrelled about her suitability as a woman to join the court.

The painting desk

Her mother trusted Milka to check all the orders and bills before they went out. When this was done, she would help her father with the difficult orders from the castle district. He devoted more time to experiment with different types of wood and with making holders for celestial globes of different sizes. Milka took care of the decorations on cabinets, chairs and beds which were prepared by the apprentices. When delivering to the castle, sometimes Jakub took his daughter to assist him with the assembly of their furniture since he knew that she would work with the precision and insight needed to prevent damage on the delicate surfaces.
In spring 1585 they delivered a special painting desk to Master Hoefnagel, a painter and scientist from Flanders. The emperor had commissioned him to add miniature illustrations to an already existing book in his collection. In order to work with the utmost precision he had asked for a desk in which the book could be sunken far enough so as to allow him to comfortably see and paint. He also required shallow drawers in which he could keep and look at the specimens while he painted them. His quills, brushes, ink and paint had to beat his left side and not on the desk, so nothing could spill accidentally on the precious book. He insisted that Jakub would wait till he had tried out working at the desk. Milka’s eyes got very wide when she saw on a stack beside the desk a half finished sheet with the finest drawings of a dragonfly, a mouse, a butterfly, a moth and what she thought was meant to be a water strider. She was so excited that she forgot her role and in Latin remarked that it was the middle legs of the water strider that were very long, not the front legs. Her father gave her a stern look. The painter, who had not really noticed her before, was rather surprised by the Latin she spoke and asked her to repeat what she had said. Milka’s face burned red, but she did repeat it. Master Hoefnagel got up and looked at his drawing. “Are you sure” he asked ? “Yes”, Milka replied – “it would not be possible to stay balanced when skating over the water if the front legs were the long ones”. “I guess you are right” he said and added “it is also very difficult to classify the water strider. It seems half belonging to the air and half to the water”. She answered that she had never looked at it in this way since she always classified by the shape of the wings. The painter asked Jakub if he would introduce him to this very well educated young lady since he had never met anybody who did know this insect so well. “It is the smallest detail our eyes can see that reveal God’s divine plan. Science is made by the keenness of the eye to observe the very smallest detail we can distinguish and understand it in its surroundings”. After a long conversation with Milka he asked her father if he would allow her to work as his assistant for the next two months while he was working on the illustrations. Jakub was about to politely decline the offer for his daughter. She was too impor-tant for the business. When he met her expectant eyes, he was reminded of Matous’ words. Two months was not that long. He agreed hesitantly and added that it would be possible if his daughter also agreed. Two months would be the maximum time. This was the moment that changed Milka’s future. Joris Hoefnagel became her mentor in entomology, botany and in painting for more than three years. He introduced her to his circle of artists and scientists at Rudolf II’s court. He also took her to Bologna where she, through his intervention, was welcomed to study at the Carraci brothers’ academy of art. When he returned to his home in Frankfurt, he entrusted her to the philosopher John Dee who would recognize her genius mind and shield her from those who didn’t respect her because she was a woman. Milka was now eighteen years old.
Seeing how little information has been preserved about Milka Havel’s childhood, we have no way to exactly verify what happened. The good fortune of her parents as well as some serendipitous events supported her, as did the tolerant humanist climate of Rudolfine Prague. Without those, Milka’s mind would have been put in the prison of convention. However, without her determination and ability to learn making as a way of thinking, and learn thinking as a way of making, she would not have become the intriguing baroque artist and scientist who’s work we still greatly admire today.


Historical details concerning Prague artists and scientists have been freely adapted to the needs of this story. While many details of everyday life are likely to be correct, they will not stand up to historic scrutiny.

Lieselotte Van Leeuwen

Research psychologist with a PhD in developmental psychology.
She works as a senior lecturer at the HDK Academy of Design and crafts, University of Gothenburg. She specializes in the application of psychological concepts to the field of child culture design. Her research focuses on design for play and constructive rebellion.