How travel introduces us to historical figures

Convent of St. Agnes (all photos: DY)

When it comes to being a tourist, I am the opposite of those who manage to squeeze every bit of sightseeing out of each day. In fact, if I can connect with one or two memorable places during a given visit to a popular travel destination, I’m pretty happy with that. I’m especially pleased when I’m able to learn more about special historical figures. For my just-concluded visit to Prague for the International Congress on Law and Mental Health, my nomination for most meaningful tourist stop is the Convent of St. Agnes, which I visited during my last day in the city. The main reason is the convent’s namesake, Saint Agnes of Bohemia, who lived during the 13th century.

The daughter of a king, Agnes grew up with considerable advantages, including a formal education rarely extended to other girls. Among the social expectations imposed upon her was that she would be promised in marriage very early in life, presumably to a suitor who would help to buttress her father’s political and diplomatic stature. Agnes was indeed engaged at the age of three(!), but her intended husband died. Future attempted marriage arrangements also did not transpire, apparently to Agnes’s satisfaction. She had other things in mind for her life.

After Agnes’s father died, her brother was next in succession to the throne. He would grant her wish to never marry, enabling her to devote her life to faith and service to others. The informational flyer that I picked up at the convent shop calls Agnes “an exceptional figure both spiritually and culturally; the first emancipated woman in Bohemia, she not only helped the sick and the poor, but also contributed greatly to the welfare of the Czech people.” Among other things, she started Prague’s first hospital, which also served as a place of shelter and sustenance for the city’s poor. She also continually supported improvements in women’s social status and is considered one of the most significant women in Czech history.

By contemporary standards, it might sound odd to call St. Agnes a pioneer for women, much less an early version of a feminist. But within the confines of the age and circumstances she lived in, those labels could well apply. She sacrificed considerable privilege — an act still in rare supply today — in order to care for others and to advance the status of women, during a time when notions of social services were scarcely developed and men overwhelmingly dominated society.

The sponsor of these biennial law and mental health conferences, the International Academy on Law and Mental Health, has a knack for selecting compelling sites for our gatherings. In keeping with the theme of this post, the last two Congresses have allowed me to visit the Anne Frank House (Amsterdam, 2013) and the Sigmund Freud residence and museum (Vienna, 2015). There is something about walking the same streets and being in the same rooms as these very special historical figures that sends a good chill up my spine. I am very fortunate for these opportunities to make such connections over time.

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