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25 July 2017

A rediscovered incunable

Books in the iconic King’s Library Tower offer the most publicly visible representation of early printed books in the British Library. Specialist, in-depth catalogue descriptions  help us know and use what is there, but one vellum-bound copy of a popular 15th-century work has somehow sat neglected on its shelves for a couple of hundred years. How can this be?

The copy of Modus legendi abbreviaturas has a shelfmark 166.i.21 but has no British Library catalogue record; this effectively means nobody has been in a position to know about its existence.

Modus legendi f.1
The first printed page of Modus legendi abbreviaturas (166.i.21). The stamp used to identify King George III’s books is pressed over its first line of type.

Lists of books must be arranged meaningfully to be useful. Historically, many fashions and rules for description have been followed but key components are expected: authors and titles; the places and dates of printing and the name of the printer. A book’s title page is easily taken for granted – but how do you describe a book without the quickly accessible information contained on a title page or in a book’s colophon?

Modus legendi abbreviaturas is a reference book for studying Roman and Canon law, a glossary for unpicking the thousands of abbreviations, contractions and symbols used in Latin legal manuscripts and texts. It is, perhaps, the first manual of palaeography. More than 40 editions were printed in the 15th century alone; the first is thought to date from 1476.

Our copy that has lurked at 166.i.21 presents a problem because it is ‘Absque ulla nota’, i.e. it has no identifying marks such as printer, location or date. This may be one of the reasons why it was neglected. Past librarians could identify the work from the text but crucially could not specify where, when and by whom the book was printed.

Modus legendi KL cat Entry for 166.i.21 in the Bibliothecae Regiae Catalogus

 The Bibliothecae Regiae Catalogus compiled after George III’s death by F.A. Barnard and privately printed between 1820 and 1829, lists the book under the subject heading, ‘Jurisprudentia’ (its author was unknown at the time). Details about its 34 lines (of type) and 48 pages are given as distinguishing features. The shelfmark 166.i.21 is written in pencil but this information was apparently never carried over into the Library’s main catalogue.

Over the centuries, librarians and bibliographers have collated close studies of printers’ type to help identify where early hand-press printed works may have originated. Our copy here has a note in pencil, ‘Not in Panzer’, a reference to its absence from what was the first comprehensive attempt to catalogue incunabula, Georg Wolfgang Panzer’s Annales Typographici  (1793-1797).

 As closer bibliographic study of print type and other evidence has progressed it has been possible to identify or estimate the people, places and dates associated with elusive ‘unsigned’ works.

Modus legendi GK1

The beginning of the entry for the numerous editions of Modus legendi abbreviaturas in , ‘GK1’ - the first general printed catalogue of books in the British Museum, published in the 1890s. The attribution to the ‘R-Printer’ (now believed to be Adolf Rusch) is an example of how print types are used to identify or describe unsigned editions. The ‘161.i.21’ edition, in the collection for 70 years by this time, is missing from the record.

Research into books printed in the Low Countries suggest that the edition represented in the copy at 161.i.21 is the work of Gerardus de Leempt (active 1473-1488) and that it was probably printed in Utrecht, Nijmegen or even Cologne. De Leempt was a journeyman printer – first and foremost a skilled type-cutter – who collaborated with others to produce books. Few of his books were signed.

Modus legendi Historia colophon

Gerardus de Leempt’s name at the end of his printing of Petrus Comestor’s Historia scholastica (1473) IB.4 7031 – if only he had signed his name at the end of his other imprints, like 161.i.21!

The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue  states that there are ten known surviving copies of this particular de Leempt imprint; the rediscovery of this book happily adds another.

Fittingly for a work dedicated to deciphering texts, further research on the text of Modus legendi abbreviaturas suggests that the author’s identity – Werner von Schussenried, a jurist from Speyer – is concealed/revealed in an acrostic formed by taking the first letters of each line in a section of the book’s text (it doesn’t exactly jump out of the page though!).

The rediscovery of this copy provides opportunity to examine the particular edition more closely and it is quite exciting to see that the watermark on the paper used for de Leempt’s edition suggests that it may actually be the earliest of the 40 or so editions of von Schussenried’s legal glossary.

Modus legendi watermark

Watermark from a page in the 161.i.21 copy of Modus legend abbreviaturas – a bull’s head, curved muzzle, and cross – used on paper in the Low Countries in 1473, perhaps dating Leempt’s book to three years before what is thought to be the first edition from 1476.

 So how was this copy saved from obscurity? Many might think it reprehensible that the book has been missed for so many years, but arguably its rediscovery is also a sign of the Library’s good custodianship. It was found by the Library’s dedicated Collections Audit Officer undertaking systematic checks of shelf ranges against catalogue holdings.

It’s not unusual for ‘unrecorded’ copies of incunabula to be discovered sitting shyly on shelves in other national libraries. A comment in a review of a new catalogue of incunabula in the Summer 2014 issue of  The Book Collector (P.1901/86.), nails it somewhat, “If one wonders how it can be that so many generations have missed incunabula sitting on the shelves ... at the same time one must be grateful that a thorough search is now being made.”

 Christian Algar, Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 Further reading:

Wytze Gerbens Hellinga and Lotte Hellinga, The Fifteenth-Century Printing Types of the Low Countries. Translated from the Dutch by D. A. S. Reid. (Amsterdam, 1966) L.R.412.d.6

Incunabula printed in the Low Countries: a census edited by Gerard van Thienen & John Goldfinch. (Nieuwkoop, 1999). 2745.a.3/36

Victor Scholderer,  ‘The Author of the Modus legendi abbreviaturas,’ The Library, third ser., II, 1911, pp. 181-182. Ac.9670/24.

22 July 2017

Esperanto as an Asian language

Linguists are undecided about Esperanto: is it closer to the Asian or the European languages? Its vocabulary is certainly more European, but its structure is similar to that of some Asian languages. In any case, Esperanto started to be known in Asia at almost the same time that it appeared in Europe.

The first mention of Esperanto in Japan was in the late 1880s in relation to a brief flurry of interest in another artificial language, Volapük. It really arrived in 1906 in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War. A body of learners, advocates, and users emerged which was notably diverse right from the outset. A sample of some of the early participants serves to illustrate this: Futabatei Shimei, the Russophile and novelist, encountered Esperanto in Vladivostok. His textbook, translated from Russian, was one of the most popular of the early ways to learn. Osugi Sakae, one of the most significant Japanese anarchists, was in prison in 1906 when the first Esperanto meetings were being held, but while there he began to study the language and on release was a very active participant, writing the first Japanese to Esperanto translation, setting up an Esperanto night school, and introducing the language to a number of expatriate Chinese students who went on to form the foundation of the Esperanto (and Anarchist) movement in China.


 Cover of: Victor Garcia. Three Japanese Anarchists: Kotoku, Osugi and Yamaga (London. 2000). YC.2000.a.4780

In 1907 a Chinese-language magazine was published in Paris with the title Hinshi-gi (New Century), in which anarchist Chinese students called for Esperanto to come into general use in China. The first Esperanto courses in China began in 1906 in Shanghai.

EsperantoAzioOrientaAzioDSC_5227 Five issues of Orienta Azio in the British Library's collection. Hand written, hand-bound, printed on Washi paper. (Tokyo, 1913-1914). YF.2016.a.7793

And then there was Ho Chi Minh, a young revolutionary who was travelling the world. In 1915 he was living in Crouch End, London, and he learned Esperanto at around this time. He would go on to make use of it in 1945 when the Vietnamese radio service informed the world of the state’s declaration of independence.


Title page of the collection of poems of Ho Chi Min Tagkajero en prizono (Prison Diary) in Esperanto translation (Hanoi, 1966). YF.2016a.7793.

Esperanto was introduced into Korea by students who had learnt it in Japan. However, it would take too long to describe Esperanto’s fortunes in every country in Asia.

Just after the First World War, one of Esperanto’s early heroes was the Japanese Nitobe Inazo. When the League of Nations was established in 1920, Nitobe became one of the Under-Secretaries General of the League. He became a founding director of the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (which later became UNESCO).

EsperantoAzioNitobeInazoDSC_5229Title page of:  Nitobe Inazo. From Bushido to the League of Nations. Edited by Teruhika Nagao (Sapporo, 2006) YD.2006.a.3871

In August 1921, Nitobe took part in the 13th World Congress of Esperanto in Prague as the official delegate of the League of Nations. His report to the General Assembly of the League was the first objective report on Esperanto by a high-ranking official representative of an intergovernmental organization. Although the proposal for the League to accept Esperanto as their working language was accepted by ten delegates, mainly from Asian countries, the French delegate used his power of veto to block the issue.

In honour of Nitobe, a regular feature of World Esperanto Congresses over the last twenty years has been the Nitobe Symposium, in which well-known linguists discuss global language problems.

EsperantoAzioNitobeSimpozioDSC_5230Cover page of: Al justa lingvopolitiko en Azio. Towards Equitable Language policy in Asia. (Tokyo, 2008). YF.2009.b.2191

Esperanto also prospered in China during the same period. Among its supporters was the famous writer Lu Xun. The Chinese Esperanto movement soon became linked to other progressive cultural movements, and the language was learned by numerous intellectuals and revolutionaries.

EsperantoAzioLuSinCover of: Lu Sin, Elektitaj noveloj. (Hong Kong, 1939). YF.2010.a.24509

Esperanto speakers accompanied Mao Zedong on the Long March, and after visiting an exhibition about Esperanto, Mao wrote, “If Esperanto is used as a means for presenting ideas which are truly internationalist and truly revolutionary, then Esperanto can and should be studied.” Mao’s comment opened the way for Esperanto in China.


 Covers of: Prezidanto Mau Zedong. Pri popola milito (Pekino, 1968) YF.2014.a.16361 and Vortoj de Prezidanto Mau Zedong (Pekino, 1967) YP.2011.a.378

In the meantime Esperanto had found adepts in most other Asian countries. Some phenomena are difficult to explain. Iran is one of the Asian countries where the movement has done well from the early 20th century onwards throughout all political upheavals and revolutions. Both the Shah and the Ayatollahs approved its use, and the national movement celebrated its centenary in 2016. And what about Pakistan? The national Esperanto association formally joined the World Esperanto Association in 1978, and continues to hold conferences and publish textbooks in Urdu. For more detailed information about the movement in other Asian countries the best source is Gvidlibro pri Esperanto-movado en Azio (Guidbook to the Esperanto movement in Asia) by Chieko Doi (Yokohama, 1995; YF.2009.a.6158; Cover below).


There is no country in Asia without its Esperanto speakers, from Mongolia to Myanmar, including Kazakhstan, Indonesia, the Philippines and others. An Asian congress of Esperanto takes place every three years. The 8th Asian Congress took place in the Chinese city of Quanzhou in November 2016 with participants from 20 countries. The 9th Congress will be in the Vietnamese city of Da-Nang in 2019. In addition, the Chinese and Japanese are the most prolific publishers of books in Esperanto. The Chinese Esperanto magazine El Popola Ĉinio (From People’s China;  ZF.9.a.6337)  is produced by the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing which has also published almost 200 books in Esperanto. China Radio International  broadcasts regularly in Esperanto and recently has also started producing films for distribution on the Internet.

EsperantoAzioInfanajlibrojDSC_5234Books for children published in China and South Korea, from Esperanto Collections of the British Library.

Considering the strength of the Esperanto movement in Asia, on the day when the 102nd World Esperanto Congress is opening in Seoul we can certainly claim that Esperanto is as much an Asian as a European language.

Renato Corsetti, Professor Emeritus of Psycholinguistics at La Sapienza University in Rome, former president of the World Esperanto Association.
Inumaru Fumio, Vice President of the Commission for the Asian Esperanto Movement of the World Esperanto Association.

19 July 2017

A French Revolution Primer for Bastille Day!

01 Order de Marche

Ordre de marche pour la Confédération. Qui aura lieu le 14 juillet, & dispositions dans le Champ-de-Mars. ([Paris], 1790). R.659.(32.)

Last Friday, 14 July, the Library’s French Collections curators attended the annual celebrations of the “Fête nationale” at the French Embassy in London. While a current exhibition at the British Library is commemorating the anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution the national celebration of 14 July in France gives us the opportunity to provide a sweeping summary of the events surrounding the 1789 French revolution, highlighting the presence of a major collection of c. 50,000 French revolutionary books, pamphlets and periodicals in the library collections, along with primary sources originating from the library of King George III, and a collection of items (manuscripts and prints, as well as engravings and paintings) relating to the doctor, journalist and revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, donated by his bibliographer, François Chèvremont, at the end of the 19th century.

08 Te Deum

A political parody, Le nouveau Te Deum français (Paris, 1790) F.R.82.(4.)

In May 1789, in the context of increasing financial difficulties in the kingdom of France, King Louis XVI summoned the Estates General (les états généraux), who met according to their ancient structure of Clergy, Nobility and Commons. An immediate, defining and most contentious issue was how the voting system was to be decided – by head or by Estate. In June, fearing that military manoeuvres around Versailles were intended to disband the Estates General, the Third Estate, together with members of the other two Estates declared itself to be the Assemblée Nationale and vowed, by means of the Tennis Court Oath, not to separate until a constitution had been written for France. By this act, the Assemblée Nationale declared itself to be the supreme legislative authority for a unified Nation-State called France (instead of a collection of provinces with different laws and customs) owing loyalty to the same monarch.

03 Prospectus

 Prospectus d’une souscription civique, proposée aux Amis de la Constitution, pour l’exécution d’un Tableau... représentant le serment fait à Versailles dans un jeu de Paume, par les Députés des Communes, le 20 juin 1789 (Paris, 1790) R.68.(4.)

After the Paris insurrection, which involved the emblematic storming of the Bastille prison, on 14 July 1789, the National Constituent Assembly took a series of measures establishing major legal and administrative changes, promoting liberty, equality and fraternity, abolishing privileges and feudalism, and adopting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. A first Constitution written by the National Assembly was accepted by the king in September 1791, sealing the end of the absolute monarchy; it was a period of governmental crisis and political discord and upheaval.

04 Adresse

 Pierre Athanase Nicolas Pépin Dégrouhette, Adresse aux Français de la Société fraternelle des deux sexes, défenseurs de la Constitution séante aux Jacobins S. Honoré (Paris, 1791) F.R.82.(17.)

In the summer of 1792, after the invasion of the Tuileries Palace by the Parisian people, Louis XVI and his family were imprisoned in the Temple prison. The monarchy was overthrown and a new constitution and government were needed. Elections led to the creation of the National Convention, which declared France a republic on 22 September 1792. About a year later, a new revolutionary calendar, replacing religious references with seasonal one, was adopted, using this date as its starting point. While France was at war with Austria and Prussia, Louis XVI, who may have hoped a foreign victory against the French army would restore the absolute monarchy, was tried for high treason by the Convention and beheaded on 21 January 1793.

05 Sentinelle

 Revolutionary periodical: no. 73. 21 Novembre. L’An 1er de la République Française. La Sentinelle, sur Louis le Dernier (Paris, 1792) F.902.(15.) ‘Dieu a calculé ton reigne, et l’a mis a fin, tu as été mis dans la balance et tu as été trouvé trop leger…’

A new Constitution was proclaimed on 24 June 1793, the Constitution of the Year I, but it was not enacted: while counter-revolutionary movements spread, especially in the West of France, Maximilien Robespierre and members of the radical Moutain (Montagnards) party, after having ousted the moderate ‘Girondin’ members of the Convention, started a dictatorial reign of Terror led through the Committee of Public Safety.

06 Constitution

Constitution de la République française, starting with the Déclaration des droits et des devoirs de l’homme et du citoyen (Lons-Le-Saunier, [1795/96]). [new acquisition, awaiting shelfmark]

In autumn 1795, about a year after the fall and execution of Robespierre on 9 thermidor an II (26 July 1794), the new Constitution of the Year III established a new regime, the Directory. It was governed by five individuals, and established two chambers of Parliament (le Conseil des Cinq-Cents and le Conseil des Anciens). It dealt with wars inside and outside of France and lasted until Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’Etat in 1799, which was followed by the Consulate and Empire.

07 Robespierre

 L. Duperron, Vie secrette, politique et curieuse de M. I. M. Robespierre... (Paris [1793/94]) R.112.(17.)

The collection of French Revolutionary tracts now in the British Library, the second largest in the world after that of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, was acquired from the politician and writer John Wilson Croker in three stages in 1817, 1831 and 1856: each set starts with a different shelfmark F, FR and R, and is bound in a different colour, brown, red and blue. Croker was a devoted collector and bibliophile, who enabled the first large scale purchase of revolutionary tracts from a bookseller in Paris. The British Museum later acquired some of Croker’s own collection.

02 Basement

The world of print changed dramatically during and after the French Revolution: the intense political debates leading to the birth of the French republic, and the abolition of the ancien régime corporations removed restrictions on setting up presses. Both in Paris and in different cities, towns and regions of France, small presses were used by groups and individuals eager to share their views in the increasingly public debate, thus contributing to the emergence of a public opinion.

09 Nous mourons

 Alphonse Louis Dieudonné Martainville. Nous mourons de faim, le peuple est las, il faut que ça finisse (Paris, 1794) F.357.(1.)

Pamphlets of various sizes could be printed cheaply and quickly in a standard format and disseminated in relation with current concerns and events. The British Library’s French revolutionary tracts, usually short pieces but occasionally involving longer texts (including the first French translation of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790, FR.327(5)), cover a variety of subjects, and in our collection are bound thematically, grouping political ideas and reports on the activities of public bodies such as the états généraux or the Assemblée nationale, economic thought and discussion of financial issues, the death penalty, military events, religious matters, revolutionary festivals...

10 Discours

 Louis Claude de Cressy, Discours sur l’abolition de la peine de mort (Paris, 1791) F.R.223.(6.)

They bear witness to the development of new legislation, social change, power transfer and use of violence in this turbulent period. Under the Terror, many tracts were printed in defence of accused citizens trying to reach the committees in charge of their fate. The collection also includes many newspaper issues, such as L’Ami du Peuple (1789-93), written by Jean-Paul Marat, or the Journal des Amis de la Constitution (1790-91).

The three series of Revolutionary tracts are currently undergoing conservation to repair volumes whose bindings have been damaged by time and use. These books, periodicals and pamphlets, which tell the history of French constitutional government at the time it was formed, are a printed testimony to the growth, evolution and activity of a newly created Nation-State which owes its existence to a seminal event of the modern world.

11 Chanson civique

 Derante, Chanson civique au sujet de la Fédération du 14 juillet... dédiée à tous les bons patriotes. [Paris, 1790]) F.296.(4.)

Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, Curator, Romance Collections

References/further reading:

British Library Collection guides, “French Revolutionary Tracts”. 

Audrey C. Brodhurst ‘The French Revolution Collections in the British Library’, Electronic British Library Journal (1976) 

Jacques de Cock, ‘The ‘collection of Marat's bibliographer’ at the British Library’, Electronic British Library Journal (1993) 

French Revolution Digital Archive (Stanford University Libraries and the Bibliothèque nationale de France) 

French Revolutionary Collections in the British Library: list of contents of the three special collections of pamphlets, journals and other works in the British Library, relating chiefly to the French Revolution. Compiled by G. K. Fortescue; revised and augmented by A. C. Brodhurst. (London, 1979) X.800/31072.

France Diplomatie, ‘The 14th of July : Bastille Day’ (01/07/2017)

L’Elysée, ‘La fête nationale du 14-juillet’ (01/07/2017)

Des McTernan, ‘The printed French Revolution collections in the British Library’, FSLG Annual Review, 6 (2009-10), 31-44

The Newberry Library's French Revolution Collection digitised on the Internet Archive 

The Oxford handbook of the French Revolution, ed. David Andress (Oxford, 2015) YC.2016.b.1415