THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

10 posts from June 2018

29 June 2018

Gӧrz, Gorizia, Gorica: digital scholarship brings a city’s history to life again

How to turn 47,000 pages of old newspapers into meaningful information?

For a research group at the University of Bristol, the answer is: big computers and historical context.

Led by Nello Cristianini,  Professor of Artificial Intelligence, the group digitised 47,000 pages of two Italian-speaking local newspapers from the city of Gorizia, using the facilities of FindMyPast, based at British Library in Boston Spa. Then they used optical character recognition (OCR) software to extract digital text, and finally compared it with the digital text of three Slovenian newspapers from the same place and time, to provide context.

Gorizia Corriere Corriere de Gorizia, an Italian newspaper from the city.

Gorizia lies at the crossroads of the Latin, Germanic and Slavic-speaking worlds, and its population reflects this. Until 1918, it was known as Görz, and was part of the Habsburg Empire, though latterly coveted by the young Kingdom of Italy. These last years before World War One were particularly notable, as the political and ethnic tensions within the empire and over its borders played out in the city itself. The two main linguistic communities, Italian and Slovenian, published their own newspapers, and the latter have been digitised by the Slovenian Digital Library. But until the Bristol University group started work, the Italian ones were preserved on microform alone in the Biblioteca Statale Isontina,  which first collected the paper versions.

Gorizia postcard YF.2007.a.13615The Corso Giuseppe Verdi in Gorizia, early 20th-century postcard, reproduced in Srečko Gombač, Brata Edvard in Josip Rusjan iz Gorice: začetki motornega letenja med Slovenci (Ljubljana, 2004) YF.2007.a.13615

The team, including computer scientists and a historian, carried out statistical analysis on the newspapers, looking at the frequency of different words or phrases. This process revealed the individual stories of thousands of people, but also the collective trends of a population in the years leading up to the War and the final days of Empire. As the city lies in a quiet corner of central Europe, now divided between Italy and Slovenia, many of these stories and trends had been forgotten until now.

Gorizia Cathedral (JA) Gorizia cathedral today (Photograph: Janet Ashton)

Professor Cristianini says: “In the space of a few decades, the town embraced new ways to communicate, such as the cinema and the telephone, along with new modes of transportation, like the car, the airplane, the bicycle and the train. Far from being a backwater in a decaying empire, this was a city with an eye on the future and an interest in new ideas – including political ones. It was, however, also a time in which new tensions emerged along ethnic lines and a time of rapid change, with problems and anxieties that sound very familiar to the modern ear. It is incredibly fortunate that the collection of newspapers in the Biblioteca Isontina library survived so many threats. We get a glimpse of the last years of a world heading towards a new chapter in its history during a period that transformed it beyond recognition. We see new technologies, new ideas, new economic opportunities, new cultural challenges and problems.”

Among the patterns the team extracted are timelines that pinpoint such significant events as the arrival of Halley’s Comet, the visits of the Emperor Franz Joseph, or the devastating 1895 earthquake in Ljubljana (then Laibach, capital of the Habsburg county of Carniola). Fascinatingly, they found that the earthquake was more noted in the Slovenian-speaking community than the Italian, since Ljubljana was already predominantly Slovenian-speaking itself and had less significance to the Empire’s Italians as a regional centre.

Gorizia bridge The Solkan Bridge, carrying the railway over the Soča river at Gorizia – revolutionary in its day as the largest stone arch ever used for a railway bridge (Photograph: Janet Ashton)

Other ground-breaking events in the city at the time included the construction of the new Transalpina/Bohinj railway, which carried tourists from Vienna to Lake Bled and further, but was also to be used for more prosaic reasons. Then, most glamorous of all, two local brothers named Edvard and Josip Rusjan  were among the first aviators in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

  Gorizia Rusjans
Edvard and Josip Rusjan adjusting the propeller on their aeroplane. Reproduced in Srečko Gombač, Brata Edvard in Josip Rusjan iz Gorice.

The team’s findings also highlight how the war transformed the city and its surrounding county into something entirely different. During the war the front lines crossed through Gorizia itself and the urban population was largely relocated. In 1918, Italy annexed it, and twenty years of fascism and then another war followed. After 1947, the border between Italy and Yugoslavia ran right through the former county, partly separating the city centre from some of its neighbourhoods. Until Slovenia joined Schengen in 2007, this border had real impact, leading to the growth of a “replacement” city, Nova Gorica, on the Yugoslav/Slovenian side, while historic Gorizia became something of a backwater, isolated from its hinterland and feeling neglected by Rome.

Gorizia 1917 9084.aaa.10

Above: View of the Castle in Gorizia in 1917, showing First World War bomb damage, from Enrico Galante, Gorizia e i campi di battaglia dell'Isonzo et del Carso (Gorizia, [1929]) 9084.aaa.10. Below: Gorizia Castle today (Photograph Janet Ashton)

Gorizia Castle (JA)

The project, from scanning and indexing to in-depth analysis, combined methodologies from both library science and historical research, as well as employing mathematical expertise, and illustrates how digital humanities is bridging the traditional boundaries between disciplines. A full study of the project’s methods and its findings, “Large scale content analysis of historical newspapers in the town of Gorizia, 1873-1914”, by N. Cristianini et al., has recently been published in the journal Historical Methods.

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

27 June 2018

Georg Forster: from ‘Resolution’ to Revolution

When the naturalist Joseph Banks withdrew at short notice from James Cook’s second expedition to the South Seas in 1772 on HMS Resolution, the expedition’s sponsors needed to find a replacement quickly. The post was offered to the linguist, scientist and philosopher Johann Reinhold Forster, who accepted on condition that he could take his 17-year-old son Georg with him as an assistant.

Forsters portrait Allgemeine geographische Ephemeriden
Double portrait of Johann Reinhold and Georg Forster, from Allgemeine geographische Ephemeriden Bd. 12 (Weimar, 1803) PP.3950.

Despite his comparative youth, Georg Forster was already an experienced traveller. Born into a German-speaking family in what is now Poland, he had first accompanied his father on an expedition at the age of ten when Johann Reinhold accepted an invitation from the Russian government to visit and report on new settlements in the Volga region. The trip did not have its desired effect of boosting the Forster family’s fortunes – instead, in a pattern to be repeated, Johann Reinhold fell out with his sponsors – but it did teach Georg how to conduct scientific research and left him fluent enough in Russian to publish a translation of Mikhail Lomonosov’s history of Russia in 1767 when he was just 13.

More impressive still, the translation was not into the boy’s native German but into English. By this time the family was living in England, Forster senior having taken a teaching post at the Dissenting Academy in Warrington. When, once again, his short temper led to his dismissal he moved to London where he and Georg made a living teaching and translating until offered their place on the Resolution. Georg’s primary role on the expedition was as an artist, and the British Libray’s current exhibition, James Cook: The Voyages, displays four of his pictures: one (on loan from the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales) shows the phenomenon of the ‘ice blink’, and the others (on loan from the British Museum) are of seabirds.

Forster Ice Blink
Forster’s painting of the ‘ice blink’ effect (Image © Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales)

As well as making drawings, Georg soon began to assist with his father’s scientific studies, and to study in his own right the cultures, arts and languages of the peoples they encountered. His observations show a nuanced understanding for a man of his times of cultural differences and similarities, and he would later argue against the philosopher Kant that ‘race’ could not be defined merely by skin colour but had to take into account linguistic and cultural aspects of different peoples.

Forster Plants IOL.1947.c.103
One of Georg Forster’s botanical drawings, from Characteres generum plantarum, quas in itinere ad insulas maris Australis, collegerunt, descripserunt, delinearunt … Joannes Reinoldus Forster ... et Georgius Forster (London, 1776) IOL.1947.c.103

When the Resolution return to London, the plan for Johann Reinhold (who had, inevitably, fallen out with Cook) to publish the official account of the voyage became mired in argument when he refused to have his text edited, and in the end it was Cook’s own account that was published. However, Georg felt unobliged by any formal agreements made between his father and the Admiralty, and published his own description of the voyage, based on the journals kept by both Forsters.

Forster artefacts 981.e.1-2.
Māori artefacts from Georg Forster, Dr. Johann Reinhold Forster’s und seines Sohnes Georg Forster’s Reise um die Welt ... während den Jahren 1772 bis 1775. in dem vom Capitain J. Cook commandirten Schiffe the Resolution ausgeführt. (Berlin, 1778) 981.e.1-2.

Georg’s work was a success, especially in Germany where it made his name in both popular and academic circles. He went on to hold teaching posts in Kassel and Vilnius, was made a member of several prestigious Academies, corresponded with the major intellectuals of the time, and continued to publish on exploration, including an account of Cook’s last voyage (on which, after his difficulties with Banks and the Forsters, Cook had refused to take a scientist).

In 1785 Georg married Therese Heyne, later one of Germany’s first professional female writers. The marriage was not a success and two years later, unhappy with both domestic and academic life in Vilnius, Georg agreed to join a planned Russian expedition to the Pacific. When the expediton was abandoned he accepted the position of Librarian at the University of Mainz. Therese joined him there, and began an affair with Ludwig Ferdinand Huber, a mutual friend of the couple whom she would marry after Georg’s death. Georg seems to have accepted this relationship and continued his friendship with Huber.

Forster portrait 10705.c.12.
Portrait of Georg Forster from Jacob Moleschott, Georg Forster der Naturforscher des Volks (Frankfurt a. M., 1854) 10705.c.12.

A journey through parts of Germany, the Low Countries, England and France gave rise to Georg’s most famous book after the account of Cook’s voyage. Ansichten vom Niederrhein, von Brabant, Flandern, Holland, England und Frankreich... describes the culture and history and policitcal and socuial conditions of the countries and regions in question. In the aftermath of the Storming of the Bastille, these were matters of great concern.

Forster Ansichten
Ansichten vom Niederrhein, von Brabant, Flandern, Holland, England und Frankreich, im April, Mai und Junius 1790 (Berlin, 1791) 1049.e.9.

Like many German intellectuals, Georg welcomed the French Revolution. When French troops occupied Mainz in 1792 he joined the newly-founded Jacobin Club along with Huber, and was among the founders of the short-lived Mainz Republic and an editor of the revolutionary newspaper Die neue Mainzer Zeitung.


Forster Neue Mainzer Zeitung
First issue of Die neue Mainzer Zeitung, 1 January 1793. (Facsimile edition; Nendeln, 1976) P.901/1551

By the time the Mainz Republic fell in July 1793, Forster was in Paris where he witnessed the early months of the Terror but, unlike many early supporters of the Revolution, refused to denounce the violent turn that it had taken. He remained in Paris until his death in January 1794, a victim not of the Terror but of a sudden illness.

Forster’s unwavering support for the Revolution affected his posthumous reputation. Later commentators tended to be more interested in his political views – whether to praise or condemn them – than his scientific work. Nonetheless, his account of Cook’s voyage remained popular, and today he is recognised for the whole spectrum of his scientific, literary and political activities as a significant figure in late 18th-century scholarship.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

On Monday 2 July author and biographer A. N. Wilson will be discussing his 2016 novel Resolution, based on Forster’s life and his travels with Cook, at an event in the British Library Knowledge Centre. For further information and how to book, see https://www.bl.uk/events/a-n-wilson-resolution 

25 June 2018

Proto-internet trolls’: Johann Friedrich Struensee and freedom of expression in 18th century Denmark

Ever-present in the cultural imagination of Danish history, the story of Johann Friedrich Struensee — beyond the soap-opera of his rise to power — was a turning point in the history of publishing. The legacy of this Danish episode has been invigorated by the likes of Per Olov Enquist, in his 1999 novel Livläkarens Besök (The Visit of the Royal Physician), and Mads Mikkelsen, who portrayed the once de facto ruler in Nikolaj Arcel’s 2012 film En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair).

Engraving - before and in jailEngravings showing Struensee in charge and then in prison, from a collection of broadsides on Struensee and his downfall. (1881.b.46)

Struensee had accompanied King Christian VII as royal physician on a foreign tour in 1768 and had gained the trust of a regent prone to serious psychiatric episodes. Soon, not only had the doctor risen to become the King’s most trusted advisor in the Danish court, he had also become Queen Caroline Matilda’s lover – which fast became common knowledge. With the ear of the King, Struensee first appointed himself to the Privy Council before dismantling it in favour of a Cabinet in his control, supported by his ally Enevold Brandt. The increasing incapacity of the King gave Struensee the authority to pursue an Enlightenment agenda, which he did by issuing nearly 2000 decrees in his 16 months in power. This ground-breaking transformation in politics ruptured the link between King and people, and in its place offered the liberalizing but authoritarian rule of a non-Danish-speaking upstart. No matter how forward-thinking the legislation, Struensee would always be a German usurper, who had corrupted the royal court.

The very first of Struensee’s reforms was to declare the freedom of the press on 14 September 1770. Immediately, this freedom led to the creation of many new periodicals and newspapers, while also encouraging provincial printing beyond Copenhagen. 1771 saw pamphlets shift ‘in character from a debate on socio-political issues to direct criticism of those in power’ and often ‘the criticisms took the form of lampoons on the themes of sex and power’ (Horstbøll). Struensee took the brunt and so his introduction of the freedom of the press resulted in the use of the press against him.

Struensee's grave

A defaced memorial for Struensee but a memorial all the same, which might go some way to depicting his divided legacy.

As Jesper Mølby puts it in Robert Ferguson’s Scandinavians:

In some ways the most depressing part of it all is that Struensee gave people freedom of expression, and for the most part all anyone did with it was compose endless vulgar and offensive verses directed at Struensee himself and his affair with Caroline. In his bright and visionary Denmark people had been set free to express exactly what they felt and thought, to educate one another, criticize one another constructively, to fearlessly challenge the high and mighty. What he got instead was a society of proto-internet trolls. Shit. Piss. Fart. Willy. The king’s a nutcase. (Ferguson, pp. 153-154)

On 17 January 1772, Struensee and Brandt were arrested for usurping royal authority – the birth of Struensee’s and Caroline Matilda’s daughter, Louise Augusta, couldn’t have helped his case. In the three months during his imprisonment, illustrated broadsheets quickly distributed the popular criticism and hatred of the Counts Struensee and Brandt. The British Library has a collection of these broadsides, along with some leaflets and smaller single-sheet engravings.

Struensee's power grabThe Almighty steps in to reclaim Denmark from the power-grabbing Struensee and Brandt.

Eventually charged and sentenced to execution on 28 April 1772, Struensee and Brandt had their right hands cut off, then their heads and even genitals, before being drawn and quartered, each body part displayed for the audience, as is shown in the broadsheet below. Horstbøll confirms that the ‘theatrical execution of the count and the exhibition of his corpse’ was ‘the greatest sales success of all’ for its printer, Johan Rudolph Thiele, whose woodblocks were copied by many others.

Struensee's execution‘An accurate view of the execution of the Counts Struensee and Brandt’. The fourth quarter of Struensee’s body is being carried up to its display wheel.

Many of Struensee’s decrees were reversed following his execution and post-publication censorship returned on 20 October 1773. However, the floods of empowered publishers and voices could not be held back. A new publishing energy had been unleashed and the landscape was unalterably changed. As Henrik Horstbøll writes, ‘The period of the unlimited freedom of the press broke the bonds linking printed media to the institutions of the state and a new print culture arose in relation to the traditional literary market, which could not be reversed once freedom of the press became limited again.’

Struensee’s legacy remains therefore divided, as Michael Brengsbo suggests, between those who view him as ‘a cynic usurper, seducer, and fortune hunter’ those who remember ‘a tragic hero who really tried to enlighten the people and improve their lot […]’.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further Reading

Per Olov Enquist, Livläkarens besök  (Stockholm, 1999) YA.2001.a.7907 (English translation by Tiina Nunally, The Visit of the Royal Physician (London, 2002) Nov.2002/1089)

Michael Brengsbo, ‘Struensee and the Political Culture of Absolutism’ and Henrik Horstbøll, ‘The Politics of Publishing: Freedom of the Press in Denmark, 1770-1773, in Scandinavia in the Age of Revolution: Nordic Political Cultures, 1740-1820 (Farnham; Burlington, 2011) YC.2011.a.12626

Robert Ferguson, Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North (London, 2016) YC.2017.a.13228

21 June 2018

Put on your sky-blue hat for a day at the races with Adèle Hugo

As the eyes of the racing world turn towards Royal Ascot this week, we may reflect that the British fascination with horse-racing is far from new. ‘Every year, the people of Jersey and the English feel the need to organize races,’ remarked Adèle Hugo in 1855. The circumstances in which she witnessed this phenomenon were not, perhaps, those which she might have wished, but her observations remain sharp and witty.

Life is not always easy for the children of famous writers, especially girls. We may recall the daughters of John Milton, diligently copying out their father’s work as his sight faded, or the tribulations of Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, described by Katie Waldegrave in The Poets’ Daughters (London, 2013; DRT ELD.DS.199292). Subjected to their fathers’ eccentricities, overbearing authority or intermittent neglect, they also suffered from the restrictions imposed on women of talent and spirit by the conventions and expectations of 19th-century society. When these were compounded by the disruption to family life resulting from a father’s political views, the outlook could be grim indeed.

Adele Hugo 3
Portrait of Adèle Hugo, reproduced in Leslie Smith Dow, Adèle Hugo: La misérable  Journal d’Adèle Hugo (Fredericton, N.B., 1993) YA.1995.a.4832

Such was the situation of Adèle Hugo. She was born on 28 July 1830, at the time of the fateful events leading to the overthrow of Charles X, and political turbulence was to mark her passage through life. Her early life was comfortably affluent; the youngest of the family, she grew up with her sister Léopoldine and brothers Charles and François-Victor in a cultured home where her talent for music was fostered. However, she never ceased to be aware that Léopoldine was her father’s favourite, and the feeling of inferiority was deepened when in 1843 the newly-married Léopoldine and her young husband drowned in a boating accident. Victor Hugo never recovered from the loss, which he explored in some of his most impassioned poetry.

His emotional suffering, however, did not prevent him from engaging in political activity as a pair de France and Member of Parliament, and penning outspoken pamphlets in which he opposed the death penalty and attacked Louis Napoleon’s seizure of power. In protest at the anti-parliamentarian constitution of 1851 Hugo left France, first for Brussels, then for Jersey, and finally for Guernsey.

Marine Terrace
Marine Terrace, where Victor Hugo and his family lived on Jersey from 1852-1855. Reproduced in Le Journal d’Adèle Hugo vol. 1 (Paris, 1968). X.906/288

At the time of her father’s decision to leave France Adèle was 21, and the relocation occurred at a point when she might reasonably have been expecting to marry and establish a position in Parisian society. Instead, she found herself living on a remote island whose social life did not provide the diversions and company to rival that of the City of Light. Nevertheless, in her diary she proved an apt and observant chronicler and critic of the circles in which she was obliged to move.

Adele MS facsimile
Manuscript pages from Adèle Hugo’s, journal reproduced in Le Journal d’Adèle Hugo vol. 1 

Among the amusements on offer were the races which she describes in her journal for June 1855 under the heading ‘Les Courses de Jersey’. Three months in advance posters could be seen advertising ‘Jersey Races: Cup de la Reine’, giving the local belles plenty of time to prepare their outfits: ‘delicious sky-blue hats’ worn with ‘superb green dresses (a ‘fashionable’ style only for the countryside)’ she remarks tartly, going on to describe ladies whose costumes of red, green, and yellow gave them the appearance of splendid parrots, topped off with ‘provincial marabou and diadems in artificial velvet, worthy of adorning the brow of a princess of the blood royal, and consequently in poor taste. It is not a steeple-chase for horses; it is a steeple-chase for women’. She gleefully notes the subterfuges of an Englishwoman who affects extra-long skirts to conceal her big feet, while another goes to the other extreme to display a skinny leg which she mistakenly believes slender.

Jersey Races 1862
An advertisement for the Jersey Races of 1862, a few years after Adèle’s visit, from the Jersey Independent and Daily Telegraph, 23 June 1862 (MFM.M86750-51)

As for the jockeys, she mocks them as ‘awful cretins, which provides the somewhat curious spectacle of donkeys on horseback’. Watching them from the grandstand are the young men belonging to the clubs: ‘beaux, English dandies, cretins, collectors of cretinous cravats, surmounted by side-whiskers (usually red). Here is the menagerie: geese, turkeys, ducks and donkeys assuming the names of lions, tigers and jackals’, braying and neighing in a cloud of malodorous breath as they place their bets:

“Look – a shilling (26 sous) if so-and so comes in with so-and-so,” says a lion, squeezed into an implacable suit.
“No,” replies a tiger, his neighbour, with an insurmountable stove-pipe of a hat on his head, and afraid of losing his 26 sous, “I’m not betting.”

Below the grandstand is an area where the visitors’ carriages are stabled; ‘from time to time starving horses try to gobble up a spectator, taking him for hay’; while above, Hugo’s fellow-exiles parade and an English officer, ‘the rossable Major Ross’, jockeys for position with the Hungarian General Perczel and comes off the worse. Alarmed at the prospect of a duel and possibly fighting for the first time in his life, the ‘false major’ apologizes profusely to the ‘genuine general’ and creeps away.

Adele Hugo Horse race 012627.m.19
A 19th-century horse-race, from G. Finch Mason, The Tame Fox, and other stories (London, [1897]) 012627.m.19.

Those who know Adèle Hugo chiefly through Isabelle Adjani’s portrayal of her in François Truffaut’s film The Story of Adèle H. (1975), crossing the Atlantic in desperate pursuit of yet another officer, the perfidious Lieutenant Pinson, may be agreeably surprised by the Jane Austen-like acuity of her diaries. She outlived her father, dying in 1915 in the asylum where she had been under treatment for schizophrenia. Painfully frustrating as her life may have been, it could not extinguish her capacity to express herself with piquancy and perception.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services.

18 June 2018

Flag Day celebrates the new ‘Maatjes’.

The famous ‘Maatjesharing’ is here again! Like the Scandinavians the Dutch celebrate the arrival of the first ‘Nieuwe’, or ‘virgin’ herring, in the month of June.

Herring2 RB.31.c.551
The herring. Illustration by Ebenezer Albin from Roger North, A treatise on fish and fish-ponds (London, [1825?]) RB.31.c.551

It all started last week with the traditional auction of the first barrel of ‘Nieuwe’ brought ashore. The auction raised a whopping €78,000 for charity

Over to London where on Friday the very first ‘London Haring Party’ (deliberately ‘haring’ , not ‘herring’) was held at the Dutch Church in Austin Friars in support of the Dutch Centre . The auction of a barrel of herring there did not quite make €78,000, but the £525 it did raise wasn’t at all bad. Congratulations to the Dutch Centre!

Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for. Sure, the bitterballen were very nice, don’t get me wrong, but everyone was gagging to get their teeth into some herring!

You may get an idea about just how desperate we had all become from the photos below, taken about half a minute apart from each other, if that. The beer flowed freely and the live band sang Dutch hits. What’s not to like. I look forward to next year already.

Herring2 herringIMG_8673

Herring2 goneIMG_8679

Such a shame I couldn’t be in Scheveningen on Saturday to celebrate the 71st ‘Vlaggetjesdag’, which
opens the season for ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’. Fishing boats are decked out in colourful bunting, or flags (hence the name ‘Flag Day’) and the Dutch colours are everywhere, as is herring and other fish.

It is a real ‘street food festival’, with that very Dutch way of eating a herring that you won’t see anywhere else in the world. The way to do it is to take the whole herring by the tail, bend your head backwards and let the salty fish, well coated in a thick layer of chopped raw onions, slither down your throat. Yummy!

Herring2 eatingherring
The proper way to eat Dutch herring. (Photo from Flickr by wht-rotterdam.nl (no copyright indicated))

If this sounds like a bit too much, just ask for a ‘broodje haring’ (a herring roll) and you’ll be fine. That’s your weekly ration of Omega 3 and 6 sorted.

During the festival local women stroll around in their traditional finery, golden pins in their white caps, necklaces of red coral held by a golden clasp and a pastel green shawl.

Herring2 Scheveningencostume
Women in traditional Scheveningen costume, from Elsa Valeton, Dutch costumes (Amsterdam, 1959). 7745.bb.42

Herring has been a staple food for the Dutch for centuries. In the early days of the Dutch Golden Age herring was the bread and butter of the Dutch economy, in more than one sense. Due to wars, in particular the Anglo-Dutch wars of the mid-17th century, herring fishery declined in the Netherlands. It was not until the 19th century that it picked up again.

In his Overzicht der geschiedenis van de Nederlandsche Zeevisscherijen, Anthony Beaujon describes the ebb and flow of the Dutch sea fisheries over time. He wrote it first in English as ‘History of Dutch Sea-fisheries’, and submitted it as an entry to the competition launched on the occasion of the International Exhibition on Fisheries held in London in 1883, one of the largest exhibitions held at that time. Beaujon won the competition and later translated his book into Dutch. Strangely enough we hold the Dutch edition, but our catalogue does not show a record for the English edition. It may well be included in one of the many other titles published on the occasion of this exhibition

Herring2BeaujonTtlp
Title page of Anthony Beaujon, Overzicht der geschiedenis van de Nederlandsche Zeevisscherijen (Leiden, 1885.) 7290.e.11

Donald. S. Murray’s book ‘Herring Tales’ is a more recent history of herring and probably a bit more readable than Beaujon. His is a fascinating story of herring that connects Dutch, Scandinavian and British culture, perhaps more than anything else.

HerringtalesMurrayP1100623
Cover of Donald S. Murray’s Herring Tales: how the silver darling shaped human taste and history. London, 2015. (DRT ELD.DS.80434)

There is a third celebration that involves herring, white bread and butter which takes place in October, so I’ll be back with more about herring then.

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Studies, Dutch Language Collections.

15 June 2018

From Sokol to Symbolism: the short life of Karel Hlaváček

The tragic figure of the frail poet dying prematurely of consumption is one which haunts European literature from Keats to Jiří Wolker. Yet there can be few less likely candidates for this role than the Czech poet Karel Hlaváček. He was born into a solidly working-class family in Prague on 29 August 1874, the son of Josef Hlaváček and his wife Antonie. Bright and talented, the young Karel was educated at the high school in the Karlín district of Prague, where he became a keen member of the Sokol movement, founded in 1862 by Miroslav Tyrš and Jindřich Fügner. Ostensibly an organization aiming to promote physical fitness through gymnastics, this actually served as a cover for patriotic activities and provided a focus for national feeling among young Czechs under the oppressive regime of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Such was his enthusiasm that he was one of the founding members of a new branch of Sokol in his home district of Libeň and was chosen as its president.

Hlaváček’s parents could not afford to send him to university full-time, but he was able to attend lectures as an external student, and spent two years studying modern languages in this way. French held a particular attraction for him, and he soon became acquainted with the work of French Symbolist and Decadent writers including Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé. At the same time his gifts as an artist were rapidly developing. His drawings and prints revealed his fascination with the morbid and demonic, including studies of devils, malevolent fauns and other supernatural beings. This made him a natural illustrator of works by authors who were in tune with the spirit of Decadence, including Arnošt Procházka, Otokar Březina, Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic and Stanisław Przybyszewski, as well as of his own poems. He had applied to the School of Applied Art (Uměleckoprůmyslova škola) in Prague, but predictably failed to gain admittance, and in fact never settled to any fixed occupation.

A fine physical specimen thanks to his Sokol training, Hlaváček was called up for his compulsory military service and despatched to serve in Trento in northern Italy in 1895. For the last two years he had been writing for the official Sokol magazine and in 1895 had acted as an organizer and publicist for the third pan-Sokol assembly in Prague. Although his departure for Trento interrupted this, it brought him into a new environment which confirmed his belief in the value of international contacts and active cooperation with writers of other nations on equal terms. It was also where he contracted the tuberculosis which was to kill him.

Hlaváček crystallized his ideas on this subject on an essay entitled ‘Nacionalism a internacionalism’, published in Moderní revue V (1896). He considered that Czech authors could only benefit from the spirit of internationalism, which would not dilute their Czech identity but would strengthen it. He had been contributing to this periodical (Prague, 1895-; P.P.4835.ub.) from its inception, and in doing so worked closely with some of the leading Czech literary figures of the fin-de-siècle, among them Antonín Sova, producing portraits and vignettes as well as illustrations.

His own first collection of verses, Sokolské sonety, came out in 1895, although he was later to repudiate it as his efforts to express Tyrš’s ideals in verse gave way to more daring experiments. Inspired by a collection of modern French poetry in translation published by Jaroslav Vrchlický (Prague, 1893; 1608/3839), he began to adapt the spirit of Symbolism and Decadence into Czech. In Pozdě k ránu (‘Late towards morning’; 1896), he created melancholy verses aiming to suggest the deep musical tones of the drum or viola, accompanied by his own illustrations in the spirit of Félicien Rops  and Edvard Munch.

Hlavacek Pozde k Ranu X.907-10067 Frontispiece from Pozdě k ránu (Prague, 1896) X.907/10067

The book subsequently inspired illustrations by other artists, including a series of lithographs by Karel Štik for a limited edition published to mark the 50th anniversary of Hlaváček’s death. The British Library’s copy, signed by the artist, includes a powerful portrait of the poet himself.

Hlavacek Pozde k Ranu LR.410.k.18 frontis Portrait of Hlaváček by Karel Štik from Pozdě k ránu (Prague,1948) L.R. 410.k.18.

In 1898, the year of his death, Hlaváček published one of his most famous works, Mstivá kantiléna (‘Vindictive cantilena’), widely regarded as the most significant verse work of Czech Decadent literature. Though comparatively short, it encompasses a wide range of European cultural references, including the Abbé Prevost’s Manon Lescaut and the Dutch Anabaptist rebels known as the Geuzen or Gueux, conjuring up a synaesthetic world of failed rebellion, bells which cannot ring, and legends of ‘the sin of the yellow roses’, ‘the moon which went blind through long weeping’ and ‘the beautiful dolphin’. Like his earlier poem ‘Upír’ which portrays an aristocratic vampire flitting through Prague and sorrowing as he plunges down on his pure victims, it captures the resonances of Decadence in a uniquely Czech fashion by exploiting the rhythms and resonances of the language.

Hlavacek Mstiva Kantilena X989-8471Frontispiece to Mstivá kantilena (V Praze, 1916) X.989/8471; a copperplate engraving by the author.

In that same year Hlaváček’s condition worsened and he died on 15 June 1898, just two months short of his 24th birthday. His contribution to Czech literature far exceeds the modest compass of his published work in the inspiration which it gave to those who would go on to build up links between the rest of Europe, especially France, and a country which just 20 years later would achieve not only cultural but national independence.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

 

11 June 2018

The Reign of Terror ends

The bright dawn of the 1789 French Revolution did not last. By 1790 the Jacobin club (meeting in the Rue St Jacques) led by Maximilien Robespierre was the dominant political club in the country. It was more influential than the club of the Cordeliers (which met in the convent of the Cordeliers) led by Georges Jacques Danton, Jean-Paul Marat, Camille Desmoulins and Jacques Hébert.

Discours par Robespierre R.112
Cover page of a selection of works by and about Robespierre (Paris, 1791-4) R.112

The Legislative Assembly of 1791-2 consisted of the Plain – moderate republicans or monarchists who were influenced by the Girondists (from Gironde) – and the Mountain – those seated in the highest part of the hall, who were the most radical and included members of the Jacobin and Cordelier clubs.

In April 1792 the French declared war on Austria. That August the Tuileries palace was stormed by the Paris mob. The Provisional Government, with Danton as Minister of Justice, did nothing to prevent the September massacre of prisoners. In the same month the monarchy was abolished and 22 September became the first day of Year 1. On 21 January, 1793, Louis XVI was executed. In prison he had frequently read accounts of the execution of King Charles I of England in January 1649.

Louis XVI 10658.b.27
Louis XVI’s last meeting with his family on the eve of his execution, from Jean-Baptiste Cléry, Journal de ce qui s'est passé à la tour du Temple, pendant la captivité de Louis XVI., roi de France (Paris, 1816) 10658.b.27.

In April 1793 the Committee of Public Safety was formed. It included Danton, Robespierre and Saint-Just. In the years 1793-4 Robespierre came to dominate the government and massacres occurred in the regions. The Reign of Terror had begun. Philippe Égalité, formerly the Duc d’Orléans, the former King’s cousin, was executed on 6 October 1793. Marie Antoinette was executed on 16 October. Olympe de Gouges, a lively dramatist and writer in favour of women’s emancipation, was enthusiastic for the Revolution but denounced the Terror. She was tried on 4 November and executed the same day. Madame Roland was executed on 9 November, pausing before a statue of Liberty to cry out “Oh Liberty, how many crimes are committed in your name.” She had said farewell to her best female friend at a pre-arranged spot on her route to the scaffold to spare her the sight of her execution. Louis XVI had similarly spared his valet and friend Cléry this last painful duty. Monsieur Roland, also condemned, had escaped to Rouen, but on hearing of his wife’s death, committed suicide. Olympe de Gouges had written that women were not allowed the vote yet were considered responsible enough for their actions to be executed. There were many more humble victims than aristocratic ones, as people paid off old scores by denouncing people they disliked.

IMG_9630 F.856
Baron Honoré Riouffe, Mémoires d'un détenu, pour servir à l'histoire de la tyrannie de Robespierre. 2nd ed. (Paris, an III [1795]) F.857.(1.). The book recounts the  author’s experience of unjust 
imprisonment during the Terror

In November the worship of God was abolished and replaced by the Cult of Reason. Churches were closed. Danton and Desmoulins were executed on 5 April. In July a conspiracy against Robespierre lead to his and those of his younger brother, and his supporters Georges Couthon and Antoine Saint-Just, who was only 26. They were arrested on 27 July (9 Thermidor). They were released by friends but surprised at the Hôtel de Ville and executed the next day (10 Thermidor). Other colleagues followed them to the scaffold. The plotters were forced by public opinion to moderate their policies and the Reign of Terror was ended.

Robespierre Vie secrette F.R.64.(17.)
Title-page and frontispiece of Vie secrette, politique et curieuse de M. I. Maximilien Robespierre ... (Paris, an. II [1793 or 1794]) R.112(127)

The anonymous tract Portraits exécrables du traître Robespierre et ses complices begins with a description of Robespierre. He is 5 pieds (feet) 3 or 4 pouces (literally thumbs or inches) tall, smart, with a lively step, a brisk manner, wringing his hands nervously, his hair and clothes elegant, his face ordinary but fresh in colour and a naturally harsh voice. His discourse was sharp, and he argued clearly. (He had trained as a lawyer.) He was proud and sought glory; often bold he was sometimes vindictive. He was chaste by temperament. He liked to attract women and sometimes had them imprisoned so he could free them. He also liked to instil fear into part of the Convention. He had a would-be assassin killed.

IMG_9628 F.856
Portraits exécrables du traître Robespierre et ses complices ([Paris, 1794])  F.856 (2)

After his arrest, when he saw himself abandoned by his allies, and Couthon badly injured, he shot himself and was seriously but not fatally injured in the jaw. He was found on the floor. Couthon was dead but Robespierre was just about alive. He was mocked by those around him. Saint-Just, and two of his supporters (Claude) Payan and (René - François ) Dumas were brought in. Dumas was distracted, Saint-Just humiliated and Payan defiant and then fearful. Dumas asked for water which was given to him. A surgeon bandaged Robespierre’s injuries. The execution is not described except to say that after the execution the clothes of the victims were hardly disturbed although blood-stained.

Morna Daniels, Former Curator French Collections

References/Further reading

Audrey C. Brodhurst, ‘The French Revolution Collections in the British Library’,  British Library Journal (1976), 138-158.

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

 

 

08 June 2018

The Zagreb magazine ‘Nova Evropa’

The magazine Nova Evropa (New Europe) was published in Zagreb from 1920 until 1941. Initially it was a weekly periodical, then for 10 years Nova Evropa was issued as a 10-day and bimonthly magazine, and from 1930 as a monthly publication. The founder and editor of Nova Evropa over the whole period was Milan Ćurčin

Exceptionally and almost uniquely in interwar Yugoslavia, Nova Evropa was printed in the two scripts of the Serbo-Croatian language, Roman and Cyrillic. Contributions were either published in the original script or were transliterated into the other at the editor’s discretion, regardless of the contributor’s manuscript, nationality or background. This was done not only for commercial reasons but also with the aim of bringing together different literatures in the newly-created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later renamed Yugoslavia).

I Mestrovicev Hrist

Christ (detail) by Ivan Meštrović. Nova Evropa, 23 December 1920. P.P.4839.fid.

The Yugoslav Nova Evropa was modelled on a British political and current affairs journal, Robert William Seton-Watson’s weekly review The New Europe (1916-20; P.P.3611.abk.). Ćurčin was equally inspired by Seton-Watson’s engaged, informed and critical journalism as by the British press and journalism in general, whose traditions and values he adopted while working in London during the First World War. The liberal, open and progressive political journalism that Nova Evropa had as its high ideal was subsequently promoted in a multicultural society whose traditions, however, were different to British ones.

Like its London predecessor, the Zagreb Nova Evropa advocated the revival of a new Europe in accordance with the League of Nations’ proposals for international cooperation and collective security; reduction of armaments and open diplomacy; an international court and economic, social and cultural cooperation between nations. Nova Evropa was against isolation and provincialism in Yugoslavia and argued for close cooperation with the neighbouring countries as well as for constructive and peaceful international policy, for national self-determination, and the equality of nations in a post-war Europe.

II Marko Marulic Splicanin

 Marko Marulić by Meštrović. Nova Evropa of 1 July 1924.

While following Seton-Watson’s advice on political journalism, Nova Evropa diversified its editorial concept by welcoming contributions on social, economic and cultural life in the country, neighbouring countries and the rest of Europe. Nova Evropa developed the complex structure of a journal that was open to various topics in any discipline of social sciences, arts, humanities and sciences, and that scrutinized society, economy and politics in high-quality contributions. For example, special thematic issues were dedicated to various domestic topics from the geography and anthropology of the country to the life of immigrants inside and outside the country, and to broader international and current affairs topics such as the Ukrainian question, conditions in Russia, national minorities, prominent public figures, etc.

III Njegoseva grobnicaNjegoš’s mausoleum on Mount Lovćen by Meštrović, Nova Evropa, 1 January 1925

 The central political and cultural concept discussed in Nova Evropa was the Yugoslav question. This political concept was seen in Nova Evropa as an agreement of peoples united by their own will, equal and free in a common national state. Some researchers argue, not quite rightly, that Nova Evropa advocated integral Yugoslav pan-nationalism (Yugoslavness) despite the different ethnic groups and minorities in the country. For Nova Evropa the creation of the Yugoslav state was the irreversible final achievement of all Yugoslavs, but in the cultural sense, however, Yugoslavness was presented as a mosaic of colours and variations, as a celebration of diversity. Nova Evropa of 26 February 1927 pronounces:

Therefore: Yugoslav civilization is one and properly bound together; and Yugoslav culture - mosaic, contrast, diversity. Civilization is a unification and equivalence of segments, culture is a federation of untouched and free elements, according to their programme and their will.

Nova Evropa argued for a concept of ‘Open Yugoslavness’ which was closely related to the idea of social justice, equality, tolerance and ethics. This vision of Yugoslavia and a new Europe bore a close resemblance to the vision of Tomáš Masaryk whose ideas Nova Evropa promoted and celebrated.

IV Goethe
Goethe by Meštrović, Nova Evropa, double issue of 22 March 1932 dedicated to Goethe’s centenary 

This ideology of open Yugoslavness was also advanced through the visual arts and the works of the leading Yugoslav artist Ivan Meštrović, a Croatian sculptor and one of the founders of Nova Evropa. Other prominent Yugoslavs and founders of Nova Evropa were Ćurčin’s magazine co-editors Laza Popović and Marko Kostrenčić, and well-known Yugoslav scholars and writers such as Jovan Cvijić, Josip Smodlaka, Milan Rešetar, Ivan Prijatelj, Tihomir Ostojić, Julije Benešić, Miodrag Ibrovac and Milan Grol among others. In 22 years about 1000 authors published over 3450 contributions in the magazine.

V Mestrovic autoportretMeštrović’s self-portrait. Nova Evropa, 15 August 1933 dedicated to Meštrović’s 50th birthday.

In addition to the magazine, special editions of Nova Evropa were published as offprints or separate publications;  in total 19 such editions were produced and at least two editions remained unpublished.

VI Izdanja NE Advertisement for Nova Evropa books, Nova Evropa, 26 January 1939..

The British Library holds a full set of Nova Evropa: 426 issues, in total about 10,000 pages, bound in 34 volumes.

VII Nova Evropa
The British Library collection of Nova Evropa acquired in 1951

In the interwar period Nova Evropa fostered constructive criticism of the dominant political culture and made an important contribution to the growth of critical and independent thought in Yugoslav society. It worked tirelessly in bringing peoples and communities closer together by understanding and celebrating their cultural differences. It had a distinctive mission to inform the public about events at home and abroad and to collect information and sources about the recent past for future historians. Nova Evropa is not only a useful source for a student of Yugoslav history and culture today; it is a critically important archive for the understanding of the fundamental cultural and political questions of interwar Yugoslavia.

Milan Grba, Lead Curator South-East European Collections

References:

Ljubomir Petrović, Jugoslovenska država i društvo u periodici 1920-1941 (Belgrade, 2000) YF.2010.a.24536.

Jovo Bakić, Ideologije jugoslovenstva između srpskog i hrvatskog nacionalizma: 1914-1941 (Zrenjanin, 2004) YF.2006.a.37642.

Marija Cindori-Šinković, Nova Evropa:1920-1941: bibliografija (Belgrade, 2010) YF.2012.a.15665

Marko Nedić, Vesna Matović (editors), Nova Evropa 1920-1941: zbornik radova (Belgrade, 2010) YF.2012.a.18758.

 

05 June 2018

Ernst Friedrich and his War against War

In 1924 the German pacifist Ernst Friedrich published the first edition of one of the most powerful anti-war books of the 20th century. Krieg dem Kriege! = Guerre à la guerre! = War against war! = Oorlog an den oorlog! consisted mainly of photographs depicting the destruction wrought by the First World War, with captions in German, French, English and Dutch.

Krieg dem Kriege cover
Cover of Krieg dem Kriege ... (Berlin, 1930) Cup.719/390

Friedrich came from a large working-class family – one of 13 children. He trained as an actor, making his stage debut in his native Breslau (now Wrocław) in 1914, but his career was cut short by the outbreak of war. As a conscientious objector he spent most of the war first in an asylum and later in prison. In the 1920s he became active in both socialist and anti-militarist groups, and Krieg dem Kriege reflects both tendencies.

The book opens with an address – again in all four languages – to ‘Human beings of all lands,’ in which Friedrich sets out his purpose: to ‘paint correctly this butchery of human beings’ in ‘records obtained by the inexorable, incorruptible photographic lens.’ While he blames capitalism for war, he also states that ‘it is … proletarians that make the conduct of war possible’ by agreeing to fight on behalf of their oppressors. He calls on men to refuse to serve and parents to bring up their children without military toys, games and songs, which ‘mobilise the child for the war idea.’

Krieg dem Kriege vol 1 toys
A collection of war toys with an appeal to parents not to give them to children 

The pictures that follow are accompanied by sometimes ironic captions:a photograph of a burnt and mutilated corpse is captioned, ‘A “meritorious” achievement’, while two rotting skulls are set against a quotation from Kaiser Wilhelm II, ‘I lead you towards glorious times.’ Sometimes images are juxtaposed, for example a posed studio portrait of a uniformed soldier aiming his gun (‘The pride of the family’) with the bloody corpse of a shot infantryman. Other juxtapositions place the comforts enjoyed by officers and royalty against the suffering of ordinary soldiers, or show how the higher ranks are commemorated with taller or grander memorials than the lower, maintaining class distinctions even in death. The devastation wrought on landscapes and towns is also shown.

Krieg dem Kriege Vol 1 woods
Devastated forests

But most images stand alone with straightforward captions, showing the terrible reality of mass slaughter on a scale never before seen. Some of the most famous show severely mutilated soldiers – most notably a man with the whole lower half of his face destroyed – and maimed veterans back at menial work or begging for money. Friedrich seldom defines the wounded or dead in these pictures by nationality, forcing the reader to see them all as fellow-humans rather than compatriots, allies or enemies.

Krieg dem Kriege vol 2 workman
A wounded ex-soldier at workThe opposite page shows an aristocrat enjoying a post-war yachting holiday. 

The book ends with an appeal for contributions to an ‘International Anti-War Museum’ which Friedrich opened in Berlin in 1925. Like the book, the museum sought to illustrate the true horrors of war and to encourage pacifist and antimilitarist education.

Krieg dem Kriege vol 2 Appeal
Above: The appeal for contributions to an Anti-War museum, from Krieg dem Kriege. Below: A display at the museum, from Vom Friedens-Museum - zur Hitler-Kaserne : ein Tatsachenbericht über das Wirken von Ernst Friedrich und Adolf Hitler (Geneva, 1935) YA.1990.a.20970

Friedensmuseum zur Hitlerkaserne display

Friedrich continued to campaign against war and for greater social justice, but even in the supposedly tolerant era of the Weimar Republic his publications were frequently banned and he was jailed for his political activities in 1930. He and the museum were early targets for the burgeoning Nazi movement; once the Nazi were in power, Friedrich was swiftly arrested, the museum was destroyed and the building was turned into an SA clubhouse.

Friedensmuseum zur Hitlerkaserne nespaper facsim
An article from the Nazi newspaper Der Angriff celebrating the Anti-War Museum’s change of use, reproduced in Vom Friedens-Museum - zur Hitler-Kaserne 

On his release, Friedrich left Germany. In 1935 he published an account of the museum and its fate, Vom Friedens-Museum – zur Hitler-Kaserne, in the name of the ‘Interational Committee for the Re-establishment of the Peace Museum’. In 1936 he was able to reopen the museum in Brussels, but it was once again destroyed when Belgium fell to the Germans in 1940. After some months of internment in France, Friedrich escaped and joined the French resistance. He was involved in saving a group of Jewish children from deportation and, despite his pacifism, took part in the battles to liberate Nîmes and Alès and was twice wounded.

Friedrich remained in France after the Second World War. Attempts to re-create the museum were unsuccessful, but compensation payments for his suffering under the Nazis enabled him to buy first a ‘peace barge’ and later a small island in the River Seine, which he named the ‘Ile de la Paix’ and where he established an international youth centre for peace and reconciliation.

Friedensmuseum zur Hitlerkaserne cover
Cover of Vom Friedens-Museum - zur Hitler-Kaserne 

After Friedrich’s death in 1967 the island was sold and the centre pulled down. However, his work lives on. In 1982 a new Anti-War Museum opened in Berlin. The museum continues to highlight the brutality of war, and has also reissued both Krieg dem Kriege and Vom Friedens-Museum – zur Hitler-Kaserne. Both museum and books remain as a worthy tribute to a man who devoted his life to the cause of peace.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

The British Library’s copy of Krieg dem Kriege is currently on display in the exhibition Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One  at Tate Britain, which runs from 5 June to 23 September 2018.

01 June 2018

Silver Darlings, Icelandic Gold: Herring in the Northern Imagination

It’s been food season for the last 2 months at the British Library and sweeping through the Nordic collections with a gastronomic lens, there is of course only one thing on the menu: herring. The herring has formed the backbone of societies over the ages and, as Jonathan Meades says in his jaunt across the Baltic coast of continental Europe, Magnetic North, the herring’s own backbone has formed an even more literal foundation:

When excavations are made in Flanders for roads and railways, the bones of men slaughtered in the First World War constitute the first stratum that the diggers encounter. Further down are multitudinous herring skeletons. The people of Arras ate between two and three million herrings per year. That’s two to three hundred per every person.

From the material ubiquity of herring springs the idea or symbol of herring; it is not only the most important driver of socio-historical and political in the story of Northern Europe but it also stands for the cultural identity of the North.

Clupea Harengus - Skandinaviens Fiskar
The Herring — Clupea Harengus — in Bengt Fredrik Fries et al. A History of Scandinavian Fishes vol. 2 (Stockholm, 1895), J/7290.k.29
.

Herring has really always been fished, well, ‘since the Mesolithic era but commercial fisheries for these species developed only in the Middle Ages’ (Holm, p. 19). Its abundance in the marine area stretching from the Baltic across the North Sea and to the Atlantic around Iceland made it a vital commodity traded and controlled by various powers across the centuries. Abundance may be an understatement if we take Saxo Grammaticus’s words at face value in the Gesta Danorum, first written around 1204. Writing of the sound between Zealand and Scania, he notes: ‘the whole sound contains such plentiful shoals that sometimes boats striking them have difficulty in rowing clear and no fishing-gear but the hands is needed to take them.’ In fact, one possible etymological root for the word herring is from the Germanic Heer (army, troops) but the etymology of the common name for Clupea harengus is full of red herr… I won’t go there.

Olaus Magnus 152.e.9.
Herring-fishing in Scania, woodcut from Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, (Rome, 1555) 152.e.9.

It goes without saying then that with such a central presence in Northern life the herring is equally abundant in the Northern literary and artistic imagination. A scan of the British Library catalogue reveals a huge number of historical surveys, reports on methods of preservation, regional studies of the impact of fishing, but also such oddities (or not) as an announcement in 1785 by the Swedish Academy pertaining to, in the gloss provided by the BL’s Scandinavian Short-Title Catalogue of works published before 1801, ‘roof slates and herring fisheries’ (British Library, Ac.1070/20), or even the very recent (anti-)comic book by Antti and Esa Hakala, Sven’s Herring, or their graphic novel Lord of Herrings (2017).

Hakala combined
Exhaustive and exhausting jokes about herring in Anti and Esa Hakala, Sven’s Herring ([Great Britain], 2014) YKL.2016.b.5527

Douglas S. Murray’s comprehensive Herring Tales: how the silver darlings shaped human taste and history (London, 2015; DRT ELD.DS.80434) points us in the direction of a museum on the topic, “one of the finest of its kind”, namely the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður on the Northern coast of Iceland, once the bustling centre of herring fishing and processing in the country, the ‘Atlantic Klondike’ of the early 20th century. Murray sees in this unique museum a reminder of “the fact that without herring, Iceland – like so many other places on the edge of Norway, Scotland and elsewhere – would not have possessed a modern society.” The museum itself is fully aware of the historical, literary, artistic, film and musical impact of herring, listing numerous sources that show the expanse of work that sparkles herring-silver.

Gunnlaugur Blöndal - The Herring Worker
The lyrical beauty of ‘Icelandic gold’ in paintings by Gunnlaugur Blöndal. Above: ‘The Herring Worker’ (1934); below: ‘Herring Packers’ (1935-1940), reproduced in Gunnlaugur Blöndal (Reykjavik, 1963), Cup.20.w.13

Gunnlaugur Blöndal - Herring Packers

A three-volume history of herring in Iceland, Silfur hafsins: gull ĺslands: síldarsaga ĺslendiga (‘Silver of the sea: Iceland’s gold: the history of herring in Iceland’; Reykjavik, 2007; YF.2014.b.1514) has appeared in the last decade, adorned with epigraphs by the great Nobel Prize winner and herring champion Halldór Laxness. All three epigraphs are from Laxness’s 1972 Guðsgjafaþula (Reykjavik, 1972; X.989/30910.), which loosely translates as ‘The Song of God’s Gifts’—the book has not been translated into English. “God’s gifts” is another euphemism for the now not-so-humble herring and Laxness does not shy away from elevating them to an object of the aesthetic sublime:

‘Norðurlandssíldin er aðalborin skepna bæði að fegurð og vitsmunum, kanski það dásamlegasta sem guð hefur skapað.’
[The Scandinavian herring is a creature noble-born to beauty and wisdom, perhaps the most wonderful thing God has created]

And,

‘… þá munu margir men tala að þessi fagri fiskur hafi verið sannkölluð dýrðargjöf, já ein sú mesta sem himnafaðirinn hefur gefið þessari þjóð.’
[… then many will say that this beautiful fish has been the true glory, yes, one of the greatest things the Heavenly Father has given this nation.]

Guðsgjafaþula, about the fate of a fishing community who have entrusted their lot to a brilliant herring speculator, took as its source material the first history of herring in Iceland written by Matthías Þórdarson from Móar in 1934. The latter was the great-grandfather of contemporary Icelandic great, Sjón, who in turn used his ancestor as a model for the protagonist of the novel Argóarflísin (‘The Whispering Muse’; Reykjavik, 2005;YF.2007.a.24658). In Sjón’s novel we are introduced to Valdimar Haraldsson, who in 1933 published Memoirs of a Herring Inspector, immediately evoking Laxness and Þórdarson before him. One of Haraldsson’s early articles from his journal Fisk og Kultur, to which he refers at length at the beginning, espouses the link between fish consumption and Nordic racial superiority:

It is our belief that the Nordic race, which has fished off the maritime coast for countless generations and thus enjoyed a staple diet of seafood, owes its physical and intellectual prowess above all to this type of nutrition, and that the Nordic race is for this reason superior in vigour and attainments to other races that have not enjoyed such ease of access to the riches of the ocean.

The triumphal racialist rhetoric is antiquated and self-undermining in the context of the novel but the year of publication of Haraldsson’s memoirs is not lost on the reader. God’s gifts make for a chosen people it seems. At the same time, the maritime Nordic people is deliberately drawn in stark contrast to the ‘blood and soil’ rhetoric of continental fascism. Sjón’s novel is not the only place where fish and racial politics are brought into conversation. For the other notable example, we need to travel back to the Baltic and the shores of Danzig as imagined and lived by Günter Grass. But that is for another post…

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator, Germanic Collections

References and further reading:

Saxo Grammaticus, The History of the Danes (vol. 1) [translated from the Latin by Peter Fisher] (Cambridge; New Jersey, 1979) X.800/28439

 Halldór Laxness, Brekkukotsannáll (Reykavik, 1957/1973) X.909/37610. (English translation by Magnus Magnusson, The Fish can Sing (London, 2000) H.2000/2872)

Sjón, The Whispering Muse [translated by Victoria Cribb] (London, 2012) H.2013/.5955

James H. Barrett and David C. Orton (eds.), Cod and Herring: The archaeology and history of medieval seas fishing (Oxford; Philadelphia, 2016), YC.2017.b.2914; especially the essay by Paul Holm, ‘Commercial Sea Fisheries in the Baltic Region c. AD 1000-1600’