European studies blog

4 posts from December 2017

15 December 2017

Treasures of all nations in Esperanto

The new international language Esperanto had not yet reached  its 20th birthday when the first anthology of national literature in it was published in 1905. Not surprisingly it was a Polish anthology (Pola antologio). The British Library holds the second edition of it, published in 1909 in Paris by the famous Librarie Hachette.

AntologioPola1909 Cover of Pola Antologio (Paris, 1909). F5/3997]

The choice of items and translations themselves were made by Polish Esperanto pioneer Kazimierz Bein, known amongst Esperantists worldwide under his pseudonym Kabe. This edition consisted from prose works of 14 prominent Polish writers (Henryk Sienkiewicz, Władysław Reymont, Eliza Orzeszko, Maria Konopnicka and others). Some of his translations from Polish, Russian and German were republished in later years while the translator himself lost interest in Esperanto and left the movement, leaving after himself the verb kabei (meaning “to disappear suddenly after being active”).


Kazimierz Bein (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The compilation, translation and publication of treasures of native culture became a task of honour for Esperantists of all countries. Other anthologies followed after the First World War: Catalan (YF.2005.a.5977) and Bulgarian ( in 1925, Belgian (Belga antologio) in 1928, Estonian (YF.2006.b.2354) in 1932, Hungarian (Hungara antologio; on order) in 1933, Swedish in 2 volumes (ZF.9.a.6406) in 1934, Czechoslovak (YF.2017.a.1323) in 1935, Swiss (YF.2006.a.30968) in 1939.

AntologiojEstonaNewCover of Estona Antologio (Tallinn, 1932). YF.2006.b.2354

The best Esperanto poets and writers contributed to the translations of many of them. A very good example is the volume of Hungara Antologio, the first edition of which appeared in 1933. It has 473 pages and features 50 Hungarian authors. Famous Esperantists, well-known for their own original works, engaged in the programme of translation: Kálmán Kalocsay), Julio Baghy, Lajos Tárkony and others. Another edition, with some new authors added, was published 50 years later, in 1983 (YF.2008.a.21429), by Vilmos Benczik.

Persecution of Esperantists by Nazi and Stalinist regimes and the Second World War stopped activities and publishing once again. Only in 1950s the publishing restarted: an English anthology (Angla antologio 1000-1800; X22/0305) was published in 1957 (but the second volume Angla antologio II: 1800-1960 appeared 30 years later, in 1987; YC.1990.a.4395). More anthologies followed in the 1980s: Macedonian (YF.2010.a.21783) in 1981, German (YF.2006.a.31533) in 1985, Italian ( YF.2006.a.9512) in 1987, Australian (YF.2008.a.19828) in 1988.

 Covers of Itala Antologio (1987) and Germana antologio (1985)

Some anthologies have lovely illustrations, made especially for Esperanto editions, as for example Ĉina Antologio (1919-1949).

AntologioCinaImage From: Ĉina Antologio (Pekino, 1986). YF.2017.a.1307

In the 1990s more anthologies were published: Romanian (YF.2006.a.31163) in 1990, French (Franca antologio) and Occitan (Okcitana antologio) in 1998. There are now almost 100 anthologies, some of them limited to certain period or genre (as Antologio de portugalaj rakontoj; X25/4091 or Nederlanda antologio. Antologio de Nederlanda poezio post la mezepoko; YF.2008.a.29548) or language (Latina antologio; ZF.9.a.6591) or even region (Podlaĥia Antologio; 2009; YF.2010.a.1053)

When some journalists still wonder about the survival of Esperanto teams of Esperanto translators are working compiling and translating new anthologies or planning new editions of old ones. The British Library holds many of the anthologies which can show to unprejudiced researcher the richness of the so-called “artificial language” in which all treasures of humankind can be rendered by gifted translators.


Title-page and frontispiece from Skota antologio (Glasgow, 1978). X.909/43134

As Burns – and New Year’s Eve – festivities are approaching, I leave you with a famous poem by the Scottish bard translated by Reto Rossetti (from Skota antologio):

La prakonatojn ĉu ni lasu
Velki el memor'?
Ĉu ni ne pensu kare pri
La iamo longe for?


Iamo longe for, karul',
Iamo longe for, karul'!
Ni trinku en konkordo pro
La iamo longe for!

La kruĉojn do ni levu kaj
Salutu el la kor',
Kaj trinku simpatie pro
La iamo longe for!

Montete iam kuris ni
Kaj ĉerpis el la flor'
Sed penan vojon spuris ni
Post iamo longe for.

Geknabe ni en fluo vadis
Ĝis vespera hor'
Sed maroj muĝis inter ni
Post iamo longe for.

Do jen la mano, kamarad'!
Ni premu kun fervor',
Kaj trinku ni profunde pro
La iamo longe for!

You can listen to it performed by a Chinese youth choir here:

Olga Kerziouk, Curator,  Esperanto studies

12 December 2017

Christmas with the Luthers

There is an enduring story that Martin Luther invented the Christmas tree. The usual version is something along the following lines: Luther was walking home close to Christmas and, inspired by the starry sky, brought a small fir tree into the house and decorated it with candles to remind his children of the stars shining over Bethlehem when Christ was born.

Luther's Christmas Tree
A 19th-century American Lutheran tract, T. Stork, Luther’s Christmas Tree (Philadelphia, 1855) 4887.aa.61

In fact it’s pretty certain that Luther had nothing to do with Christmas trees. There’s no mention of such a thing in his letters or Table Talk, or in biographical accounts by his contemporaries. The popular association seems to go back to an engraving of 1843 by Carl August Schwerdgeburth (below) showing the Luther family gathered round a tree. As described in an earlier post, 19th-century pictures of Luther’s family life often reflected their own times as much as his, and a tree was a definite fixture of a German Christmas by the 1840s – although not in the 16th century.

Luther Schwerdgeburth

Schwerdgeburth’s picture was widely reproduced and much imitated, and no doubt the growing visual association of Luther with an anachronistic Christmas tree led to the story that he invented the tradition.

Luther at Christmas 4885.f.14.
Another anachronistic Christmas Tree, picture by Gustav König from Heinrich Gelzer, Martin Luther, der deutsche Reformator (Hamburg, 1847-51) 4885.f.13. 

However, Luther did have a hand in another German Christmas tradition: the giving of gifts on Christmas Eve. Although there is some evidence that he and his family continued the established custom of giving small presents on the feast of St Nicholas (6 December), Luther wanted to make the nativity and the infant Jesus the focus of Christmas celebrations. Thus he encouraged making Christmas Eve the principal day for gift-giving and identified the Christkind (Christ-Child) as the gift bearer. Father Christmas (Der Weihnachtsmann) has taken over the role in some German households today, but in others the Christkind still brings the children their presents. (And German children still get gifts from St Nicholas on 6 December as well.)

Vom Hhimmel hoch 2
‘Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her’, from  Gesangbuch, darinn begriffen sind, die aller fürnemisten und besten Psalmen, Geistliche Lieder und Chorgeseng ... [A facsimile of the ‘Grosses Strassburger Gesangbuch’ of 1541] (Stuttgart, 1953). 3438.p.1.

It is said that Luther wrote his Christmas hymn, ‘Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her’ (‘From heaven above to earth I come’) for a family Christmas Eve celebration in 1535. The song reflects the angel’s message to the shepherds from the nativity story, and according to at least one 19th-century account, it was first performed to the family by a singer dressed as an angel. In the accompanying picture (below) Luther looks oddly fierce and the children rather frightened; I assume this is unintentional, as the text praises Luther as family man, poet and musician. Interestingly, there’s no tree in sight here.

Luther at Christmas 4887.g.3
‘Christmas Eve 1535 at Luther’s house’. Picture by Eduard Kaempffer from Franz Fauth, Dr. Martin Luthers Leben, dem deutschen Volke erzählt (Leipzig, 1897) 4887.g.3.

Unlike many German hymns and carols, ‘Vom Himmel hoch…’ has never really caught on in Britain, but Luther may have contributed to a German carol that is still popular here. The macaronic ‘In dulci jubilo’ dates back to the 14th century, but an additional verse about God’s grace to sinners was added in the 16th century and is often ascribed to Luther.

Christmas with the Luthers probably wasn’t quite as 19th-century artists and biographers liked to imagine it, but was clearly a happy time: one of Luther’s students once described him as being ‘very jocund’ on Christmas Eve. We hope that you all will be too, and throughout the season.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

07 December 2017

Magic in the inventories

The medieval archives of the Crown of Aragon are generally said to be richer than those of neighbouring Castile. They’re an invaluable source for scholars of all aspects of cultural history, including the history of the book.

And of weird stuff.

In the inventory of the goods of Martin I (1356-1410) we find the following treasures: the arm of St George (p. 461); ditto St Barbara (461); and he must have had over 100 pieces of church vestments.

He had the Cid’s sword:

item una spasa ab son pom de jaspi apellada ne tisona sens fouro bo (p. 524)
[Item a sword with a jasper pommel called The Tizona without a good scabbard]

He had a piece of cloth decorated with the magical sign or seal or knot of Solomon:

primo una tovallola de lens prim brodada de fil d aur e de sede de diverses colors ab .IIII. baboyns de fil d or e de sede en mig VII. senyals salamons squinsada (p. 507)
[first, a fine linen cloth embroidered with gold thread and silk in various colours with four baboons in gold thread in the middle of seven signs of Solomon, torn]

Seal of Solomon

A version of the seal of Solomon from Pertus de Abano, Claviculae Salomonis, seu Philosophia pneumatica … (Bifingen, 1974). X.529/17795

Even these apparently harmless references to items showing the Armed Man turn out, as explained by Joan Evans, in her study, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance particularly in England, to be amulets: “in many instances those [stones] that include figures of armed men confer courage and victory in battle” (p. 49), “for alectorias, for instance, the sigil of an armed knight and consecration by nine masses is prescribed” (p. 71):

item una bossa de vellut carmesi dins la qual ha Ia empremte o ymatge pocha de I. hom qui te una spasa en la ma e un cap tellat en l altre ab un cordo de seda vermeya (p. 491)
[item a bag of carmine velvet in which is a small impression or image of a man with a sword in one hand and a detached head in the other with a red cord]

Ebermayer Gems

 Carved gems for use as amulets, from, Johann Martin von Ebermayer, Capita Deorum et illustrium hominum ... nec non Hieroglyphica, Abraxea et Amuleta quædam, in gemmis antiqua partim, partim recenti manu, affabre incisa (Frankfurt, 1721). 139.g.11.

There are nine or so references to “serpents’ teeth”. These were actually prehistoric arrow heads or fossils, and were used to test food for poison. Martin had some mounted on a branching piece of coral, to form what in English we call by the French name of languier:

item diversos trosos de branchas d coral ab algunes lengues de serps encastades en argent (p. 528)
[item various pieces of coral branches with some serpent’s teeth set in silver]

Coral was used as a teething ring, because it too was thought to have protective powers:

item una brancha de coral ab una virolla d argent per a portar a infants (p. 490)
[item a coral branch with a golden ring for children to wear]

And how could he fail to have:

item .I. tros de unicorn encastat en .I.a virolla d aur ab son cordo vermey (p. 541)
[item a piece of unicorn set in a gold ring with its red cord]

As Roca tells us, citing a letter of 1379, unicorn horn too was proof against poison : “la qual val contra verí” (p. 54).

Unicorns Pomet

 Unicorns, from Pierre Pomet, Histoire générale des Drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux et des mineraux (Paris, 1694) 37.h.7.

Martin wasn’t some dark-age wizard who crammed his palace with superstitious rubbish, although he might have been unduly afraid of poisoning. He was also a patron of medical schools in the modern sense, and it’s likely many of these gewgaws were family heirlooms, as they also appear in the inventory of James II (1267-1327), his great grandfather. And these old beliefs died hard and in the 1720s the existence of the unicorn was still a matter of debate.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies


J. Massó Torrents, ‘Inventari del bens del rey Martí d’Aragó’, Revue Hispanique, 12 (1905), 413-590. PP.4331.aea

J. M. Roca, La medicina catalana en temps del Rey Martí (Barcelona, 1919) YA.1990.a 16394

Joan Evans, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance particularly in England (Oxford, 1922) W2/7263

You can discover many more magical artefacts in our current exhibition Harry Potter: a History of Magicwhich runs until 28 February 2018

04 December 2017

Martin Luther, family man

In 1525 the Protestant reformer Martin Luther married a former nun, Katharina von Bora. The couple had six children, four of whom survived into adulthood. Their household was a hospitable one: they also took in the orphaned children of relatives,  and regularly offered a home to Luther’s friends, colleagues and students.

It became increasingly common, especially in the 19th century, to depict the Luthers and their family as an ideal of clerical marriage and the Christian home. Illustrations to popular biographies show Luther in the bosom of his family, often at the same time reflecting contemporary mores, as in the examples below. In the first, the furnishings of the house and the dress and attitudes of the figures owe as much to early 19th century ‘Biedermeier’ period as to the reality of the 15th century, while in the second, from an 1905 publication, a positively Dickensian Luther beams over his brood.

Luther paterfamilias 1372.k.5
Luther and his family. Above, from Christian Franz Gottlieb Stang, Martin Luther. Sein Leben und Wirken (Stuttgart, 1839) 1372.k.5; Below from M. Wartburger, Martin Luther: Lebensgeschichte des Reformators (Berlin, 1905) 4887.f.17.

Luther and family 4887.f.17

However idealised – or occasionally saccharine – such pictures might be, they do reflect a certain reality. Luther took much pleasure from family life and his letters show that he was an observant, affectionate and proud father. There are touching descriptions of his grief over the deaths of his daughters Elisabeth (in infancy) and Magdalena (aged 13). He was, of course, a man of his times, who believed in the necessity of firm discipline and corporal punishment in child-rearing, but he recognised that the kind of exaggerated beatings he had received as a child for small transgressions, both at home and at school, were counter-productive, and that punishment should be tempered with rewards.

A often-quoted example of Luther’s paternal affection is a letter that he wrote to his eldest son Hans (‘Hänschen’) in 1530 from Coburg. Hans had recently started lessons at home and Luther was pleased to hear that he was working hard. He goes on to describe:

… a pretty and cheerful garden, where there are many children. They wear little golden coats, and gather beautiful apples and pears, cherries and plums under the trees; they sing and run about and are happy. They have lovely ponies, with golden bridles and silver saddles. I asked the owner of the garden whose the children were. And he said, “They are the children who love to pray and to learn and are good.” Then I said, “My dear sir, I also have a son, called Hänschen Luther: could he come into the garden too …?” The man said, “If he loves to pray and to learn and is good, then he too may come into the garden, and Lippus and Jost ; and if they all come together, they can play on fifes, drums and lutes, and all kinds of instruments, and dance, and shoot with little crossbows.” He then showed me a beautiful lawn in the garden, prepared for dancing, where a great many golden fifes and drums and silver crossbows were hanging.

(You can read the original here. ‘Lippus and Jost’ were the sons of Luther’s fellow-reformers Philipp Melanchthon and Justus Jonas.)

The letter’s vision of a ‘children’s paradise’ shows that Luther had a good idea of what might appeal to a little boy, and that he wanted to encourage Hans with kindness rather threats. However, Hans was only four years old, and I can’t help thinking that he would have been too young to understand this delightful vision as a metaphor for the heavenly rewards of learning and piety and that Luther’s good intentions may have backfired. Did the little boy sit down to his lessons every day hoping for the actual reward of a visit to the enchanted garden described in the letter, only to be disappointed by the realities of early modern education and disillusioned by his father’s apparent deception?

Luther goes to school 4885.f.14
The realities of early modern education? This 19th-century picture by Gustav König imagines Martin Luther being taken to school for the first tine by his own father. The teacher holds a switch and a boy who has just been beaten sobs behind the chair. From Heinrich Gelzer and Gustav König, Dr Martin Luther der deutsche Reformator (Hamburg, 1847-51) 4885.f.13.

As Hans grew older he tended to show a lack of application in his studies and lapses in his behaviour that concerned and sometimes angered his father. I wouldn’t for a moment argue that this was all the result of childhood trauma caused by a lack of ponies and golden fifes but perhaps a little bit of iron had entered into his soul when he realised that these things were not literally going to come his way. (In fairness to Luther, however, I should point out that he did bring Hans the very real gift of sweetmeats back from Coburg, which may have made a greater impression than the letter.)

Hans made good in the end; he settled to his studies and went on to become a lawyer – appropriately enough the career that his paternal grandfather and namesake had originally intended for Luther himself. He never had a son of his own, so we don’t know how if he would have used his father’s method of encouraging a little boy to study, pray and be good.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

Our free display, Martin Luther: 500 Years of Reformation, continues in the British Library Treasures Gallery until 4 February 2018.