THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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Exploring Europe at the British Library

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19 January 2018

Mapping the Christmas Flood of 1717

This Christmas saw some pretty wet and windy weather, both in the UK and across the North Sea in the Netherlands, where I spent my Christmas holidays. Foul it may have been, but it was nothing compared to the storm that battered vast swathes of the Northern Netherlands, Northern Germany and Denmark for four days over Christmas in 1717. 

I must say, that I, like most of my fellow Dutchmen had never heard of this storm. Yet, it caused more casualties than the big flood of 1953. It was the biggest natural disaster in 400 years.  The Northern Maritime Museum,  located in two beautiful Medieval buildings in the centre of Groningen, is runnning an exhibition on this ‘Midwinterflood’, in collaboration with the Groninger Archieven. They are organising a conference about the flood on 20 January.

A prominent place in the exhibition is taken up by images of a map, which is by no means ‘only’ a topographical map, but tells the story of the flood in both cartographic and pictorial images and text. It is beautifully made, but that should not come as a surprise, since it was none other than the master cartographer Johann Baptist Homann who engraved it.

PHOTO1MapHomannMaps27095J.B. Homann, Geographische Vorstellung der jämerlichen Wasser-Flutt in Nieder-Teutschland, welche den 25 Dec. Aº 1717 ... einen grossen Theil derer Hertzogth Holstein und Bremen, die Grafsch. Oldenburg, Frislandt, Gröningen und Nort-Holland überschwemet hat. (Nuremberg, [1718?]) Maps * 27095.(6.)

Homann addresses us as ‘reader’ (‘Hochgeneigter Leser!’) instead of ‘viewer’, seemingly emphasising that the map is not just a topographical tool but a text to be read. 

PHOTO2MapHomannHochgLeser

 Detail from Homann’s map, with his address to the reader.

The most striking thing about the map is the green colouring which indicates the extent of the reach of the water. It immediately brings home the scale and seriousness of the disaster. At one point the water reached the gates of the city of Groningen, which lies 34 km inland from the coastal town Pieterburen. Estimates are that 14,000 people lost their lives across the whole of the northern Netherlands, Germany (10,000!) and Denmark. Homann gives a figure of 18,140 for casualties in Germany. Let’s hope that modern science is more accurate than he was.

PHOTO3MapHomanndetBericht

Homann’s account (above) and depiction (below) of the flood

PHOTO4MapHomannGronEmb 

The illustrations within the map, such as the water scoop, sluice and inundated village support the story. The putti holding up the banner with the quote from Ovid’s Metamorphoses are crying, as a sign of the scale of the human tragedy and may-be the feelings of Homann himself. 

PHOTO5MapHomannwaterscoops

Water-scoop and sluice (above) and weeping putti (below) from Homann’s map 

PHOTO7MapHomannPutti

My first thought when I saw this extraordinary map in the exhibition was: “Is there a copy in the British Library?” As soon as I could I went online to check our catalogue and indeed, I found it at the first attempt. I reserved it immediately to be ready for me to study it as soon as I was back at work. I almost could not wait. Fortunately I had the exhibition to keep me entertained. It gives a fascinating account of what happened, how it could happen, the human, material and financial costs and it also highlights the hero of the story Thomas van Seeratt, who had been appointed provincial commissioner only the year before. At first ridiculed when sounding the alarm on the sorry state of the dikes, he was tragically proven right on Christmas night 1717.

Soon after the event pamphlets such as that by Adriaan Spinneker started to appear, telling of horrible ordeals suffered by people trying to save their lives by clinging on to trees, or roof tops, barely clothed, without any drinking water or food, exposed to bitterly cold and wet weather for hours and sometimes days on end, all the while carrying loved ones on their backs or in their arms. In the end some became so exhausted and stiffened by cold that they had to let go of their children. 

Spinniker
Adriaan Spinneker, Gods Gerichten op den aarde vertoond in den ... storm en hoogen waterfloed ... in't 1717de Jaar voorgevallen, aandachtig beschouwd …(Groningen, 1718) 11557.bbb.64

Authorities did initiate a large programme of dike building, based on van Seeratt’s designs, which involved making dikes less steep, so they can absorb the shocks of the waves much better. These days Dutch national authorities and the 22 water boards are responsible for dike maintenance, rather than private landowners.  This is just as well, because without dikes to protect it, the Netherlands would look a bit more like this.  

Netherlands compared to sea level
The Netherlands compared to sea level. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)


Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections.

Further reading

Gerhardus Outhof, Verhaal van alle hooge watervloeden in ... Europa, van Noachs tydt af, tot op den tegenwoordigen tydt toe ... Met eene breede beschryvinge van den zwaaren kersvloedt van 1717 ... (Embden, 1720) 1607/5565.

Johannes Velsen, De hand Gods uitgestrekt tot tugtinge over zommige provintien der vereenigde Nederlanden, bestaende in zes gedigten van de watervloed, in Kersnagt, van 't jaer 1717. (Groningen, 1718), in: Dutch pamphlets 1542-1853 : the Van Alphen collection (Groningen, 1999) Mic.F.977

 

17 January 2018

Władysław Reymont’s Revolt of the Animals

A recent Europen Studies blog post by Masha Karp examined the publication history of George Orwell’s Animal Farm  in the languages of Eastern Europe. That the book has maintained its canonical status worldwide for over 70 years is proof of its universal truth. But as Orwell sat down to write his tale – a warning against the creeping advance of Soviet Communism based on his growing awareness of its brutal reality – was he aware he was not the first modern writer to use the allegory of an animals’ revolt to capture the mad logic of revolution?

ReymontBunt2004

Cover of a recent edition Władysław Reymont’s Bunt (Warsaw, 2004) 

The question has been bugging me since I discovered Władysław Reymont’s Bunt (‘Revolt’) when it came out in Poland in 2004. While growing up in communist Poland in the 1970s I read Orwell’s Animal Farm in a samizdat edition, and while well acquainted with the rest of Reymont’s oeuvre, which was compulsory reading at school as well as being widely popular through TV and film adaptations, I never heard – and I’m sure very few in Poland at the time did – of Bunt. The similarity to Animal Farm was obvious. And another striking thing was that both stories are told as cautionary tales. I was very surprised it took the book so long to resurface, especially when its lesson seemed past its sell-by date. But apparently that’s how things are with truths and lessons.

ReymontPortrait

Władysław Reymont. Portrait by by Jacek Malczewski, painted in 1905 when Reymont was acknowledged as Poland’s foremost novelist, author of The Peasants and The Promised Land, both sweeping panoramas of late 19th-century rural and industrial Poland. (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Bunt is a story of a revolt among farm animals who work for their master and often love him but are spurned, ruthlessly exploited and cruelly beaten in return. The revolt is initially stirred up by the dog Rex who calls on animals to rise against the landlord and follow him to the land of justice and plenty for everyone, a land that lies somewhere in the east. Sadly, the poor beasts, worn out by the never-ending quest, eventually turn against their leader and plead with a gorilla, the nearest they can find to a human, to rule over them.

Of course the two stories are different, both in detail and in tone – one is bleakly tragic the other tragically funny, but the basic idea and the narrative mechanism that delivers the moral point is essentially the same – a parable of human ideals falling victim to animal instincts, a lesson revealing the inherent fault laying at the heart of a revolution, or indeed at the heart of all power and authority, which may change hands even from the oppressors to the oppressed but nevertheless remain the same mechanism of oppression, and there is no escape from it.

ReymontBuntBLcopyTitle-page of Bunt (Warsaw, 1924). YF.2018.a.342

Originally Bunt appeared in the Polish weekly Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Mic.A.4839-4844) in 1922, and then in book form in 1924, the year of Reymont’s Nobel Prize for Literature, and just before his untimely death at 58. Despite being one of the first literary echoes of the Russian Revolution, it barely registered on the critical circuit. Reymont’s great champion, his German translator Jan Kaczkowski, a Polish diplomat hiding under the pen-name Jean Paul d’Ardeschah, felt the book, being topical as well as universal, deserved a better fate. He managed to place Bunt with a Swiss publisher in 1926 as Die Empörung: eine Geschichte vom Aufstand der Tiere. Later, after being transferred by the Polish Foreign Office to Holland, Kaczkowski instigated and oversaw a Dutch publication in 1928 as De Rebellie. That was the last the world heard of Reymont’s Bunt.

Reymont BuntGermanedition

 Cover of a modern edition of Die Empörung (Frankfurt am Main, 2017). Awaiting shelfmark

For a long while I was combing through Orwell’s biographies looking for ways he might have come into contact with Reymont’s story. Was he familiar with Reymont as a Nobel Prize winner? Could translations of Bunt have passed through his hands while he was working at Booklover’s Corner? Orwell did not speak German or Dutch, and the story was not translated into French, a foreign language Orwell knew – after all he read Zamyatin’s We  in French translation.

Another possibility were his friends who did read German – or Dutch or Polish – who were also interested in Eastern European literature and Russian Revolution. They may have discussed Reymont and brought up the story as part of the revolutionary lore and connected it with Orwell’s interest in fairy tales, which he had apparently developed during his time at BBC, just before he started working on Animal Farm. Could it be his publisher friends, Victor Gollancz or Fredric Warburg? The German-born Tysco Fyvel or the Swiss-born Jon Kimche with whom he worked at the Booklover’s Corner? Or was it Arthur Koestler with whom he discussed extensively how revolutionary logic worked? Perhaps someone – a Pole? – he had met in Spain? Perhaps, but I haven’t found a direct link yet.

And then my detective work suffered an unexpected twist. Discussing it with my friends at the BL one of them told me of another tale about an animals’ revolt, this time Russian, and written years before Bunt – in 1880 in fact! Following the new lead I discovered that Nikolai Kostomarov’s Skotskoi Bunt (‘The Revolt of Farm Animals’) was indeed written in 1880 but published only posthumously in 1917, in the popular magazine Niva, just a few issues before October Revolution consigned it forever to history. How come nobody knew of this story for so long? Could Reymont possibly have known of it and how? Could it be it was in fact Kostomarov’s story that seeped into revolutionary lore and inspired both Reymont and Orwell? It could be. But that’s another story. Or is it? Watch this space.

Wiesiek Powaga, Polish translator.
Wiesek’s most recent translation ‘Inside Red Spain’ by Ksawery Pruszynski, appeared in Pete Ayrton's anthology No pasaran! Writings from the Spanish Civil War (London, 2016; YC.2016.a.6057)

 

14 January 2018

‘Do the Finnish people have a history?’ Zachris Topelius’s 200th birthday

Last month the Finlandia Prize, Finland’s most prestigious literary prize, was awarded to Juha Hurme for his novel Niemi [‘Headland’]. In praising the work, the jury said that it ‘treats the myth of Finland and the Finns with all the knowledge that our culture contains. A scope of this breadth can only be explored with the magnificently dilettante literary style in which Hurme boldly challenges both the legendary Egon Friedell and Zachris Topelius’ (translation by Helsinki Literary Agency).

The last of these comparisons is inevitable for any writer who attempts a history of the Finnish peninsula. The reference to Zacharius (Zachris) Topelius draws our attention to a great author perhaps not so well-known outside of the Nordic region, and on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth (14 January 1818).

Born in Kuddnäs in Ostrobothnia, Topelius wrote mainly in Swedish but was focal in Finland’s growing self-consciousness as a distinct nation. Since 1809, Finland had been a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire yet Finland managed to gain more freedom to develop a national movement in the 19th century, than it had been allowed to do under Swedish rule previously. First as editor of the Swedish-language Helsinki daily, Helsingfors Tidningar, and later as a writer of historical novels and as Professor of History at the Imperial Alexander University in Helsinki (1854-1879), Topelius crafted exceptionally popular, romanticized and patriotic national histories and thereby heavily shaped the future identity of the burgeoning nation.

Helsinki
A view of Helsinki from the North-West, steel engraving by Magnus von Wright in Topelius’s Finland framställdt i teckningar (Helsinki,1845-52) 1264.d.15

His first published book, Finland framställdt i teckningar, was the earliest book of steel engravings of the Finnish landscape, for which he wrote a commentary. In later works, such as En resa i Finland (1872-74) and Boken om vårt land (1875), he continued to offer comprehensive overviews of his country, bringing the whole of Finland to readers with the help of masterful engravings by the likes of, among others, Magnus von Wright (1805-1868), Johan Knutson (1816-1899), and perhaps Finland’s most famous landscape painter, Bernt Adolf Lindholm (1841-1914).

Åbo Castle
Åbo Castle, steel engraving by Johan Knutson in Finland framställdt i teckningar

Recently, the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland has created a digital portal for Topelius’s works, Zacharias Topelius Skrifter, which has so far published eight digital critical editions. This year, has released a digital critical edition of Boken om vårt Land (‘The Book of our Land’), which was and is still one of the most important history books in Finland, not least because it was, in the words of critic Pertti Haapala, ‘the foremost history textbook used in elementary schools between the 1870s and the 1940s, and it was read and commented on a great deal after the Second World War as well’ (Haapala, p. 26). The British Library has an 1886 copy of the Finnish translation, Maame kirja (first published 1876), which shows signs of being well-used by a young Finnish student, presumably the ‘Yrjä Hagelberg’ named on the inside cover. On the fly-leaf, you can make out a pencil drawing of a male figure coloured in red, lifting what apper to be weights. Later, we see several of the woodcuts coloured in (very capably) by young Yrjä. All in all, this Maamme kirja, a near 500-page textbook for young learners, full of lengthy verse quotations from the Kalevala and the Kanteletar, has however been treated with the respect that the seminal history text deserves.

Doodle
Above: Doodle on the first page of Maamme kirja (Helsinki, 1886), YA.1990.a.1111); Below: The Imatra river coloured in by a student

Imatra

Not only did Topelius frame his Finnish history from the perspective of a child’s experience, but he wrote a great many successful and enormously influential children’s books, which gave him the name ‘Mr Fairy Tale’. As Haapala notes, ‘it is easy to see that the child’s experience in reading The Book of Our Land is a metaphor for the emerging historical consciousness of a nation’ (p. 38). The children’s tales too are important in the development of the nation, as folk tales, myths, songs have always been in the foundation of national identities. Topelius’s Läsning för barn series (1864-1896, BL 12837.m.11) contains stories that continue to be translated into many languages. Each of the eight volumes contain around two hundred illustrations, some subtle and others of a more epic imagination.

Book Cover
Above: Cover of the first book of Läsning för barn (Stockholm, 1902), 12837.m.11. Below: ‘When you sleep amongst roses’, illustration by Carl Larsson, from Läsning för barn

Sleep amongst roses

For the centenary of Topelius’s birth in 1918, the Swedish Academy asked the eminent Nobel Laureate Selma Lagerlöf to write something on him. Topelius was a clear influence on the Swedish author of Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (The Wonderful Adventure of Nils), which takes much from Topelius’s Boken om vårt Land, not least the idea to explain national geography from a child’s and bird’s eye view. Lagerlöf’s paean is to a writer of both Finland and Sweden, and ultimately ‘the North’ – its life and landscape. Zachris Topelius asks ‘Can you love a country, so hard, so cold, so full of neglect?’ His answer follows, ‘We love it because it is our roots, the essence of our being, and we are the ones our country has made – a hard, frosty, fierce people […]’ (En resa I Finland). The country that ‘made’ its people was itself created in the words of Topelius and fellow patriotic writers. And so, by extension, we might even say Topelius made a nation.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/further reading:

 Zacharias Topelius, The Sea King’s Gift and other Tales from Finland (Retold by Irma Kaplan; illustrated by Anne Knight) (London, 1973), X.990/4615.

Ibid., Sammy and the Mountain King (illustrated by Veronica Leo) (London, 1984), X.995/461

Selma Lagerlöf, Zachris Topelius. Utveckling och mognad (Stockholm, 1920), 011851.aa.54.

Pertti Haapala, ‘Writing our History: The History of the ‘Finnish People’ (As Written) by Zacharias Topelius and Välnö Linna’, in Pertti Haapala, Marja Jalava, and Simon Larsson (eds.), Making Nordic Historiography: Connections, Tensions and Methodology, 1850-1970 (New York, 2017), 5353.922500

Maija Lehtonen, ‘Un Finlandais du XIXème siècle face à l’Europe. Les récits de voyage de Zachris Topelius’, in On the Borderlines of Semiosis. Acta Semiotica Fennica 2 (Imatra, 1993) YA.2003.a.18418.  pp. 401-412