European studies blog

11 posts categorized "Slovenia"

11 January 2018

An Arthurian castle in Slovenia: the history, legends and future of Castle Borl

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“I rode at my best pace into the broad Gandine, after which your grandfather Gandin is named. The place lies where the Grajena flows into the Drau, a river that bears gold.”

Thus Parzifal/Sir Perceval learns of his family roots in the province of Styria, according to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version of his story. The town identified as his father’s namesake is today named Hajdina, a suburb of the city of Ptuj in eastern Slovenia.

20 kilometres to the east, a castle stands on a headland overlooking the Drava/Drau river, commanding a sweeping view of the valley and of the wine-growing Haloze hills around. Its Slovenian name is Borl, derived from the Hungarian word for a river crossing, and it is also known in German as Ankenstein. Its heraldic crest is an inverted anchor, the symbol in the legend of Parzifal’s Grail family.

Borl_KolaricDarko1View of Grad Borl today (Photo by by Darko Kolarič)

Borl’s true origins are poorly documented, and the Grail legend is just one of the many evocative tales associated with it. It dates from at least the 11th century and probably occupies the site of an older settlement. Reflecting its situation close to the old border between the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary/Croatia, it changed hands many times before becoming an established part of the Habsburg Duchy of Styria, with a series of different aristocratic owners who lived well on the vineyards and farmlands surrounding it.

In 1681, Georg Matthäus Vischer (1628-1696) recorded Grad Borl in three images as part of his Topographia Ducatus Stiriae. Visher was one of the pre-eminent cartographers and engravers of his day. His work documenting the castles and towns of the core Habsburg lands is still widely used as a reference source, and has been reprinted frequently. It is the sole known source for the 17th-century appearance of many of the castles. For some of them, it is the only source we have at all. That Borl appeared in three illustrations marks it as one of the more important castles: less significant ones had a single image apiece.

Borl Vischer 1

Above and below: Views of Grad Borl (here called “Ankchenstein”) from  Georg Matthäus Vischer, Topographia Ducatus Stiriae (Graz, 1681) Maps C.22.a.17.

Borl Vischer 2

In 1918, Lower Styria and Borl became part of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, subject to land reforms that proved controversial in the Habsburg successor states. Its disgruntled owner sold it to a local stock company. During the Second World War, the Nazis occupied the area, incorporating it into the Reich and issuing an arrest warrant for Borl’s Jewish owner, Zora Weiss, who fled, as did her co-owner, Vuk von Vuchetich. Borl became an internment camp for Slovenes who were being deported from Styria for resisting Germanization, and the occupiers looted any of the contents that were not nailed down.

This grim war-time story makes what happened next the more remarkable to me. In 1946, the new socialist government of Yugoslavia nationalised the castle, using it consecutively as a children’s convalescent home, a refugee centre for people fleeing the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and finally a successful hotel. During the latter period, it acquired a swimming pool high on the ledge above the river, and furnished many people with very happy memories.

Sadly, this happy phase did not last. The hotel closed down, and although the castle was still used for events some of the remaining treasures were stolen during the 1990s. Since 2010, for safety reasons, the gate has been locked and a poignant notice forbids entry without the permission of the Republic of Slovenia. On a recent visit, even the Prime Minister was obliged to respect this no-entry rule. But Borl still captures the imagination. There are re-enactments of events in its past and films of its history made every year. A voluntary society, the Društvo za oživitev gradu Borl, composed of local historians and other enthusiasts, campaigns to raise funds and awareness, and maintains the grounds during summer. Random hikers, cyclists and other explorers post their videos on Youtube. Miha Pogačnik, violinist, inspirational speaker and Slovenian cultural ambassador, has a protective interest in the Castle, where he held arts and business conferences for several years before 2010. Inspired by the Parzifal connection, he believes it could become a centre for the formation of a pan-European identity and European spiritual revival.

In 2018, work is due to take place to restore the main courtyard of the castle and shore up the hillside below it. What happens beyond that is sadly unclear, but it is not through shortage of ideas or enthusiasm about this beloved and dramatic building and a surrounding landscape full of cultural monuments.

BorlAshtonPhoto by Janet Ashton. 

 Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager (With particular thanks to Sonja Golc, Mira Petrovič and Branko Vnuk)

References/Further reading:

Ivan Stopar, Razvoj srednjevške grajske arhitekture na Slovenskem Štajerskem (Ljubljana, 1977) X.421/9913

Vnuk, Branko and two others. Grad Borl : gradbenozgodovinski oris in prispevek k zgodovini rodbine Sauer. (Ptuj, 2010).

Wolfram, von Eschenbach, Parzifal, translated by A.T. Hatto. (Harmondsworth, 1980) X.909/45081


09 May 2016

Our May Acronym Heaven: EU, EL, EUPL, ELIT, ELF, ELN, ACE & BL

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As European Literature Festival 2016 begins, we welcome back journalist and broadcaster Rosie Goldsmith to our blog as she introduces the events and gives a hint of what to look forward to at the Writers’ Showcase event on Wednesday 11th

For European Literature (EL) lovers, the month of May is the equivalent of Christmas, Hanukkah or Eid – it’s the festive highlight of our year when we celebrate our year-round efforts to publish and promote our beloved EL. Time to polish the champagne glasses (Boyd Tonkin), buy a new T-shirt (Daniel Hahn) and get out those red shoes (Rosie Goldsmith). This May we have an embarrassment of international literary riches: our first ever European Literature Festival and the first ever annual Man Booker International Prize (MBI)  in conjunction with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP: RIP) .

Eight years ago we had a dream, that we could gather together the best writers from the rest of Europe to London for a one-night-only special event. It had never been done before. Thanks to the mass collaboration of sponsors and partners, our dream became reality. The event became European Literature Night (ELN), initiated by EUNIC London, the Czech Centre and the British Library, and taking place in London and cities all over the continent. Over these eight years our ELN evening has become a week, then a month and this May it is the showcase event in our first European Literature Festival (ELF), embracing more than 30 countries, 60 writers and including poetry, graphic novels, literary fiction, non-fiction, crime thrillers and translation workshops. This year we also have some real British celebrities to boost the brand – Kate Mosse, Mark Lawson and Ian McMillan – and not just cut-price slebs like me and Danny Hahn. EL in the UK has itself become a celebrity. Next year maybe the cover of Vogue? Although we’ll have to do something about our acronyms.

  ELN 2015 Rosie Goldsmith
Rosie Goldsmith at the podium on European Literature Night 2015 (photo (c) MELA)

Here’s the full, fabulous programme: and congratulations to ELF’s Artistic Director Jon Slack for making it happen.

As chair of the judges, Director of European Literature Network (ELNet) and host of ELN (keep up!), May is my personal merriest, busiest month. And I can guarantee that we have pulled it off again: the best of contemporary European literature (ok, EL!) is coming your way. British Library (BL – of course!), Wednesday 11th May.

Our six ‘winning’ writers are all literary celebrities ‘back home,’ magnificently translated and selected by us, the judges, from a pool of 65 European writers submitted by publishers and cultural organisations last November. Joining me on stage will be: Burhan Sönmez (Turkey), Dorthe Nors (Denmark), Gabriela Babnik (Slovenia), Peter Verhelst (Belgium), Jaap Robben (Netherlands) and Alek Popov (Bulgaria). They are all outstanding - unique, original, mind-expanding and fun. I love ELN and my two hours on stage, vicariously bathing in the reflected glory of our stars, conducting the equivalent of a BBC Live broadcast. (British Broadcasting Corporation!)

As our ELF Publicity promises: “The discussion will travel from the Turkish prison cells of Burhan Sönmez’s Istanbul, Istanbul to the turned upside-down-lives in Dorthe Nors’  twisted and imaginatively-realised streets of Copenhagen; to Slovenian writer Gabriela Babnik’s  seductive tale of forbidden love on the dusty plains of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; via Peter Verhelst’s deadpan Belgian humour in his Gorilla-narrated fable about the story of human civilisation (and its collapse). There is a tormented relationship unfolding between widow and son on Dutch-writer Jaap Robben’s remote and stormy island (located somewhere between Scotland and Norway); and we finish in Alek Popov’s strange and comic novel that moves between Bulgaria and New York, where two brothers question whether their long-deceased father is, in fact, dead.”

This year's ELN line-up

As our ELF superstar-host Kate Mosse says: “At a time when the countless shared histories and stories from our many friends and strangers in Europe are danger of being lost in the politics of the EU debate, an initiative like the European Literature Festival is more important than ever.” Who needs supermodel Kate Moss on a Vogue cover when you have superstar novelist Kate Mosse?

On behalf of ELNet & EUPL & with thanks 2 ACE & ELIT I’ll c u 4 ELN @BL! LoL RGx

11 August 2015

A Scotsman abroad: Walter Leslie in the Habsburg lands

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I am always interested in the connections between different people, places, things - so my trips abroad can be like a game of “Six Degrees of Separation” in history!  Very boring for travelling companions, possibly, but it helps me place and understand the things I see. Recently, a friend’s Facebook posts on the fabulous Czech castle Nove Mesto nad Metuji  got me excited. It wasn’t just the beautiful interiors with painted ceilings and art deco bathrooms, or the circular tower room with windows on all sides and views for miles around. It wasn’t just the covered walkway in the perfectly-kept gardens. What caught my interest was the fact that the castle had once belonged to a Scot named Walter Leslie. 

Walter Leslie 1048.b22  Walter Leslie, towards the end of his life, from Paul Tafferner, Caesarea legatio ... Walterus S.R.I. Comes De Leslie ... Succincta narratione exposita ...  (Vienna, 1672) British Library 1048.b.22

I have “met” Walter Leslie before. He was a Scottish aristocrat who crossed the Channel as a young man to become a mercenary in assorted continental armies. This was a popular choice of career for younger sons with few expectations of inheritance, and the rewards, as far as young Walter was concerned, were phenomenal.  By 1630, he was in the entourage of the Habsburg generalissimo, Albrecht von Wallenstein, fighting the Thirty Years’ War across Bohemia.  There was no chance of Leslie feeling isolated: entire regiments of Scots and Irishmen surrounded Wallenstein, and when his motivation and loyalty became suspect to the Emperor Ferdinand II, they decided to prove their own loyalty by murdering their boss. Walter Leslie did not issue the fatal blow, but he admitted to killing the bogyguard, allowing an Irishman named Devereux to kill the now-defenceless Wallenstein. The dramatic event gave rise to countless rumours and speculation about what exactly had happened and about the motives of the foreign killers. It is possibly best known as the subject of a play by Schiller, which, ironically, fails to name Leslie, alone among the ringleaders.

Death of Wallenstein 1853.e.5.(34.)
The murder of Wallenstein, from a contemporary broadside (ca. 1634)  1853.e.5.(34)

Leslie set off for Vienna to report, and was richly rewarded for his efforts. He became an imperial chamberlain and subsequently a count (Reichsgraf), receiving the estate at Nove Mesto (then Neustadt an der Mettau) and other lands around Hradec Kralove (Koeniggratz).  He engaged in much diplomatic work involving his native Britain, with a particular interest in promoting Stuart interests on the continent (he was involved with the so-called “Winter King”, Friedrich of Bohemia, and his wife Elizabeth Stuart, as well as with their famous son Rupert of the Rhine), and continued to work as a Habsburg commander, eventually taking charge of troops on the Military Frontier  against the Ottoman Empire. Leslie bought himself new lands convenient to his posting, in the Styrian cities of Graz and Ptuj (Pettau), and married Anna Franziska von Dietrichstein, a daughter of one of the Holy Roman Empire’s most powerful families.

It was at Ptuj castle in present-day Slovenia that I first encountered Walter Leslie’s name. Built on and around a hill overlooking the wide sweep of the Drava/Drau river and its plain, Ptuj occupies a prime defensive and trading position, and it was there in Roman times. The Romans left some interesting archaeological remains, including several Mithras shrines, and one particular legacy of continuing economic importance: miles and miles of vines, covering the rolling green hills all around the city and across eastern Slovenia. Later, Ptuj belonged to the Archbishops of Salzburg, and was as important in the Emperor’s internal power struggles with them as with the Ottoman invaders to the east. Leslie’s family would live there for two centuries, and are today the castle’s most “visible” owners, for they remodelled it extensively and left an art gallery full of their portraits of Habsburgs and Stuarts. The building is now part of Ptuj's regional museum. They continued to intermarry with the highest Habsburg nobility, and acquired several more castles in the Ptuj area (there were certainly plenty to go around, and all of them are highly evocative).

Ptuj Castle (photo, Janet Ashton)

I’ve also encountered Leslie family history in Moravia, at Mikulov, his wife’s family seat, for the Dietrichsteins eventually inherited the Leslie lands and titles as collateral descendants. This is yet another small, charming central European town built around a castle, and the terrain here is remarkably similar to Ptuj: rolling green hills covered in vines. What this says about the family’s tastes I am not quite sure!

Mikulov Castle (photo, Janet Ashton)

Walter Leslie was not particularly popular with contemporaries, who derided him as a boastful foreigner, but his story appeals to me as an instance of Britons’ cosmopolitan connections to Europe several hundred years ago. His castles aren’t too bad, either. Nor, it must be said, is the wine.

Janet Ashton, West European Cataloguing Team Manager


David Worthington, Scots in Habsburg service, 1618-1648 (Leiden, 2004). ZA.9.a.9590

Polona Vidmar, ‘Under the Habsburgs and the Stuarts: the Leslies’ portrait gallery in Ptuj Castle, Slovenia’, in British and Irish emigrants and exiles in Europe, edited by David Worthington (Leiden, 2010). 6151.340000


27 May 2015

Looking back at European Literature Night

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In out last post marking European Literature Night 2015, Slovenian author Evald Flisar, who took part in this year’s event, looks back at the evening. 

I had been chosen (apparently there were 55 nominees) to appear at the widely publicised event European Literature Night at the British Library on 13 May as one of the six best European writers. I felt honoured, of course, as well as mildly surprised and modestly pleased. It just wouldn’t be right to jump up and down, shouting,  “Look at me, look at me!” Certainly not at the age of 70, when one is supposed to have put away childish things. Besides (let’s indulge in a little arithmetic), in the next ten years 60 more  “best European writers” will appear at this grand event (presuming that authors cannot be recalled for a repeat performance). And so, with the passing of years, the importance of my attendance will gradually be diluted to the point of astonishment at the fact that the continent of Europe, however small, can boast such a great number of “best writers”.

That may well be true, and we (inside and outside EU) may be unforgivably ignorant of the quality   Front-my-fathers-dreams-3_53fc653aca024_250x800r
of our neighbours’ writing (publishers please note!), but surely ... the best? Well, never mind. Perhaps this year’s  “six of the best” are justified in believing that their writing warrants the inclusion in this exclusive club (after all, 49 authors among the 55 nominees didn’t make it), and most certainly I should be grateful for the invitation to attend the event that has brought one of my books to the attention of many (generating, among other things, a glowing review in The Irish Times). 

Evald Flisar’s novel My Father's Dreams, published in the author’s own translation by Istros books and presented at European Literature Night 2015

I am grateful, of course. Not only grateful but also glad that the event is over and that (by some miracle) I have avoided making a fool of myself. I have even (not intentionally, of course) succeeded in amusing the audience. All in all, my impressions (of the event and even, to a lesser degree, my performance) are considerably better than good, and I am delighted to have been invited (delighted in spite of 144 translations into 36 languages, or the fact that I have so far attended over 50 similar events round the world). I have read from my work in Washington, New York, Milwaukee, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Sao Paolo, Frankfurt, Prague, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Wrocław, Brno, Cairo, Alexandria Library, New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Tokyo, Taipei ... that’ll do, the line between facts and self-praise is perilously blurred.

Rosie Goldsmith and Evald Flisar (ELN2015)
ELN host Rosie Goldsmith interviewing Ewald Flisar at European Literature Night 2015. (Photo © Metaphoto. 
There are other photos - and drawings - of the event at:

However, not one of these guest appearances (with the possible exception of Mumbai’s Literature Live Festival)  can compare with the faultless organisation of the European Literature Night in London. Not to mention the publicity it has generated. It may well be that I am slightly biased. Having lived in London for almost 20 years, being (even after a 20-year absence) still English at heart (not to say in the mind), I may be tempted to give any literary event in London some extra (subjective) points. But that is not so. Appearing at the British Library really was one of the highlights of my long literary career. And all thanks to my publishers, the ambitious Istros Books, for whom quality, far from being a mere promotional phrase, is in fact their raison d'être. Long may they prosper!

Evald Flisar

24 May 2015

The War Poet who wasn’t: Simon Gregorčič and the Soča Front

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May 24th marks the centenary of Italy’s entry into the Great War. In previous blog entries related to this event, I have focussed on the Isonzo/Soča Front, which bore the brunt of the first Italian military operations.  For today’s entry, I return there again, to write about a character who played a significant role in that action, but who had died almost a decade before war broke out.

Simon Gregorcic (X989-6888)Portrait of Simon Gregorčič from Anton Burgar, Simon Gregorčič: življenjepis (Ljubljana, 1907) British Library X.989/6888.

Simon Gregorčič is one of Slovenia’s best-loved poets, and a significant figure in the 19th-century struggle for national rights. He was born in 1844 in the village of Vrsno, nestling beneath Mount Krn very close to the then Austro-Italian border, and the local landscape and lifestyle imprinted itself profoundly on his work. His family were peasant farmers who raised sheep in the pastures of the Soča valley, but young Simon had been born at a time of fast-rising literacy. He went to the grammar school in the regional capital Görz/Gorica (now Gorizia, in Italy), and then studied to become a priest; yet, apart from a brief period at the University of Vienna, he never really went far from his beloved Valley.

He worked as a chaplain in Kobarid, not far from his birthplace, where he had a formative love affair with a young teacher and promoted the cultural life of the little town. During subsequent appointments, Gregorčič began to publish poetry, each of his four books called “Poezije”, with its number. For these, which he promoted in public readings, he became a local celebrity in his own lifetime. His style was profoundly musical, full of feeling and even sensuality – for this Catholic priest had quite a number of intense relationships with women.  He wrote about social injustice, Slovene rights, the landscape that surrounded him. Among his best-known poems – and one of the few which have been translated into English - was  ‘Ash Wednesday Eve’, in which he warned the rich and proud among his congregation of their mortality while inviting the poor and dispossessed, including his relatives, to take their place in the Church and celebrate “Resurrection morn.” Its theme may sound gloomy and didactic, but the poem is so beautifully written that it evokes the twilight falling over his native Valley, its little churches lit up amid the dark peaks, spilling smells of incense into the night air as the people hurry in from near and far.

Gregorčič’s most famous poem of all is ‘Soči’ – ‘To the Soča’- describing the river’s progress from its mountain source to the plains of Trieste. At the beginning the turquoise water (it really is!) is fast and vigorous, “like the walk of the highland girls”, and its refrain runs, “You are splendid, daughter of the heights!” (“Krasnà si, hči planin!”). But when the river reaches the exposed plain it grows sluggish, sensing its vulnerability. Gregorčič foresaw a day when it would be filled with blood, surrounded by a “hail of lead”, and would need to burst its own banks to “draw the foreigners ravenous for lands to the bottom of your foaming waves.”  

SocaPostcard, reproduced in Mihael Glavan, Simon Gregorčič na Soški fronti (Nova Gorica, 2012) YF.2014.a.12826

Simon Gregorčič suffered lifelong ill-health (probably tuberculosis) and died in Gorizia in 1906. His funeral procession from the city to his grave in the village Smast was a huge public event. Nine years later, Gorizia, along with Trieste and the whole Soča Valley, would be among Italy’s chief targets in its attack on the Austrian Empire. Simon Gregorčič  was summoned from the grave to spur on the Slovene troops in defence of their homeland: he was shown on postcards greeting the Emperors Franz Joseph or Karl when they visited the battle-torn region, or looking protectively down upon the river with the military commanders Archduke Eugen or Svetozar Boroević von Bojna alongside him in the sky (pictures above). Sadly prophetic, the words of ‘Soči’ featured widely, particularly the verse urging the river to drown the foreign invader.


Funeral of  Simon Gregorčič un 1906 (From Wikimedia Commons)

Austria’s one major victory in the awful stalemate was 1917’s infamous Caporetto (the Italian name for Kobarid). The town which lay so close to the poet’s heart was symbolically the site of a total rout of the Italian invaders. A bust of his friend, the composer Hraboslav Volarić, symbolically watched from a corner of the square.

They would, however, return victorious a year later, and Kobarid stayed under Italian rule until 1945. Volarić’s bust, along with other symbols of Slovene culture, was badly damaged by fascists, but in 1945 the town became part of Yugoslavia. The bust was replaced, and a full-length statue to Gregorčič  erected in 1959 on the opposite side of the main square.

Naturally, Simon Gregorčič’s birthplace is now a tourist site, and hikers can follow his route and inspiration through the villages and meadows around.

With particular thanks to Jože Šerbec of the Kobarid Museum.


Mihail Glavan. Simon Gregorčič na Soški fronti. (Nova Gorica , 2012). YF.2014.a.12826

Simon Gregorčič. Poezije. (Ljubljana, 1885-1908). 11530.a.26

W.A. Morison (translator). “Ash Wednesday Eve”, in The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 23, No. 62 (Jan., 1945), pp. 23-25, Ac.2669.e.  (also available online via  JSTOR).  

Translation of Soči by an unknown author at

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager


Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager


20 March 2015

Visions in the sky: a 17th-century eclipse

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Today people in some parts of northern Europe will see a total solar eclipse. Others, including those here in London, will see the sun partially obscured.

Eclipses are a source of excitement in our age. Hotels in the regions where today’s eclipse is total were no doubt booked up months ago by keen eclipse-hunters, as happened in 1999 when a total eclipse was visible in many parts of Europe. But although the science behind eclipses has been understood since ancient times, in the pre-modern age knowledge could be tempered with superstition even among scholars. For the less learned, eclipses, like other celestial phenomena, were sources of amazement and terror, interpreted as portents or omens of disaster. Perhaps this is why early witnesses claimed to see in such phenomena exaggerated images of mythical, divine or demonic figures.

The seven Capuchin monks who set out walk from Ober-Laibach (modern-day Vrhnika in Slovenia) to Loitsch (Logatec) on 28 January 1664 would not have been uneducated men, but when they witnessed that day’s partial solar eclipse, they saw in it a series of bizarre visions. They left an account of these, which the British Library holds in two different broadside versions.

Eclipse 1875.d.4(26)
1) Aigentliche Beschreibung der erschröcklichen Wunderzeichen, so seyn gesehen worden ... über ... Laibach ... den 28. Januarij 1664. Jahrs. (s.l., [1664]) British Library 1875.d.4.(26)

 Eclipse 1875.d.4(29)
2) Warhaffter und glaubwürdiger Bericht, eines erschrecklichen Wunderzeichen, so sich ... bey Ober-Laybach ... ist gesehen worden ... (Nuremberg, [1664]) 1875.d.4.(29)

On their journey the monks were alerted by a traveller coming towards them to the fact that the sun looked strange. Looking up, they saw on the sun’s face a tall, thin man followed by three smaller figures. Next a troop of infantry appeared, which gave way to two church towers. These were replaced by “two mighty black men on horseback” and a host of other riders, all shooting. At this the monks “began to sigh, pray and cry fervently to God for help” until the riders disappeared. Finally another rider appeared, this one “all white and light”, stronger and more terrifying than the first two, also leading a host of riders who almost covered the sun. These fought for a quarter of an hour, while the monks redoubled their prayers. After they vanished the sun “was blue in the centre and bloody all around the edges” and did not shine for some two hours.

Eclipse 1875.d.4(29) detail 2
Detail of 1875.c.4.(29) showing the sequence of visions described

After his dramatic account, we might expect the writer to offer some kind of interpretation of these fearsome visions, but he simply says “This was the moon which became lost in the sun” and ends his account. Clearly he understood the basic nature of the event the party had seen, yet he is no more interested in giving a scientific explanation than an allegorical one. The account thus seems caught between the worlds of belief in signs and wonders and of rational scientific knowledge.

But there is perhaps a rational explanation for the visions which the monks saw. Today we are always issued with firm instructions about how to view an eclipse safely, but our 17th-century travellers would have been looking directly at the sun, risking serious damage to their eyes, and certainly causing them to see spots which imagination could turn into visions.

  Eclipse 1875.d.4(29) detail
Don’t try this at home: the monks’ highly dangerous eclipse-viewing technique. Detail from 1875.d.4.(29)

So if you are watching today’s eclipse, watch safely, and enjoy the reality of one of the sky’s most fascinating sights without the terrifying and harmful visions.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies


06 February 2015

Love it or hate it!

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Across much of Europe it is carnival time.  Another year of sheer fun and exuberance.  Although its exact timing varies from place to place, the main events usually take place during February. The old, pagan tradition was for evil spirits to be shooed away in anticipation of the new spring cycle.  In later times these rituals were frowned upon by the Christian Church but tolerated when they took place in the period before the beginning of Lent.  A central feature has always been masks and masquerading.  They provided a way for people to try to understand and exert influence on their natural surroundings.  Some also believed that masks had magical powers allowing wearers to connect with their ancestors and with the spirit world. 

Carnival Čoroje Image 1802
Čoroje, a carnival character from the Dubrovnik region in the early 19th century From Notizie istorico-critiche sulle antichità, storia e letteratura de' Ragusei (Ragusa, 1802) British Library

Slovenia and Croatia are two countries where the traditions are preserved and interest remains strong.  Slovenia’s major event is the festival Kurentovanje, held in Ptuj, its oldest city.  Here the central carnival figure in the parades is the Kurent, a high-spirited demon, dressed in sheepskin.  The leather masks of Kurents from different villages will have their own individual features but most are decorated with colourful flowers and ribbons, and with prominent long red tongues.   Attached to the costumes are cow bells and as the Kurents pass through the streets they shake their bodies to sound the bells.

  Carnival Kurentovanje Ptuj 2014
Kurents at the 2014 Kurentovanje in Ptuj.

They also carry sticks with hedgehog skins attached to the tips.  The origin of the Kurent is not completely understood but its purpose appears to have been to chase away winter and bring good fortune to the countryside for the season ahead.  As well as participating in the parades, groups of Kurents visit houses and farms in the area.  Where they are welcomed they will bring good luck, where they are not, they roll themselves on the ground and this means bad luck will follow.  The Kurent has inspired authors and artists alike. 

Carnival France Mihelič Book cover
France Mihelič’s painting of a Kurent. From Milček Komelj, Miheličev Kurent : zgodba o živem mitu. (Ljubljana, 2002.) LF.31.b.6232

For those who cannot attend the carnival itself, the museum in Ptuj castle has an excellent permanent display of masks and costumes. 

In Croatia in more recent times the festive season of carnival has become punctuated by masked balls and parades like the one in the city of Rijeka.  Of its older customs, the best preserved are the Zvončari, the bell men, now included in UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Croatian town of Kastav and its surrounding area are home to the Zvončari.  The rich ethnographic history of this area is somewhat comically described in Ivo Jardas’s Kastavština, written in Chakavian dialect.  The Zvončari are best known as performers of pagan carnival magic. 

Carnival Zvončari from village of Veli Brgud2
Zvončari from village of Veli Brgud. © Larisa Afrić

On their visits to neighbouring villages they move in rows of two or three, merging towards each other, sounding their huge bells.  The sound is overwhelming and leaves one with a mixture of feelings, from excitement and fear, to curiosity and thrills.  On their backs they wear long sheep fur while their hats, klobuk or krabujosnica, are the real sign of the spring to come.  Abundantly colourful displays of hand-made, paper flowers are interspersed with fir tree or asparagus branches, and ribbons.  The hats were first introduced after the First World War, when one half of the Kastav region fell under Italian rule and animal-like masks were banned.  This explains why today Zvončari from the west wear hats and Zvončari from the east wear the masks.  Although over the years the nuances of costume went through many a transformation, the custom itself looks like it’s here to stay.   

  Carnival Petar Kurschner Photography
Carnival. © Petar Kürschner Photography, reproduced with permission

Lora Afric, Cataloguer Southern Slavonic Langauges, and Barbara Hawes, Curator Scandinavian Studies

Further Reading:

Niko Kuret, Maske slovenskih pokrajin. (Ljubljana, 1984.)  X.421/27014

O pustu, maskah in maskiranju: razprave in gradiva. (Ljubljana, 2003.)  YF.2011.a.21529

Ivo Jardas, Kastavština: građa o narodnom životu i običajima u kastavskom govoru, in Zbornik za narodni život i običaje, knj. 39. (Zagreb, 1957.) Ac.741/15

Lidija Nikočević, Zvončari i njihovi odjeci. (Novi Vinodolski, Zagreb, Pazin, 2014.) YF.2015.a.2654

Gary Edson, Masks and masking: faces of tradition and belief worldwide. (London, 2005.)  YC.2006.b.904

Masque et carnaval dans la litterature europeenne,  ed. Edward Welch. (Paris, 2002.)  YA.2003.a.11995. 

21 November 2014

The Death of a Countess and the Draw of Local History

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Some time ago, in my blog post about the Austro-Italian Front of the First World War, I mentioned the accidental death of Lucy Christalnigg, which occurred in the tense months before war broke out, and rather presaged it.

Shortly after my post was published, I was contacted by the author of a new book about Lucy, who then kindly donated a copy to the Library (The Last Summer: the story of Lucy Christalnigg and the end of a world, by Nello Cristianini, now at YK.2014.a.19718).

Dr Cristianini gave us the English version, since we’re the British national library, but it is also available in Italian, German and Slovene, reflecting the complicated history of the borderland area in which Lucy’s story took place. My colleagues tell me that mine is the first European Studies blog entry which has led to a donation, and, to me, this illustrates the symbiotic relationship between the Library and authors. The BL is eligible to receive a copy of all books published annually in the UK and Ireland, and uses many acquisition processes for tracing and claiming these books. Overseas publications come to staff attention through publisher catalogues, approval plans and other means, but there are always books which slip through the net, whether they be UK or overseas publications. These are often items from small publishers, whose output is not listed as systematically as that of the big ones. We are still reliant on authors to contact us and let us know about these books. Even in this day and age, the computer cannot completely replace interpersonal contact, in-depth collection knowledge, or the ability to acquire it.

I had assumed, finding her story in newspapers on the centenary of her death, that Lucy Christalnigg’s story was quite well-known. In fact, although known along the Italian-Slovenian border where she died, it had never been fully researched until Dr. Cristianini, who was born in Gorizia himself, went to search the archives of three countries for this piece of his local history. Lucy’s story is a snapshot of her time and place. As an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat, she represented a class which did not survive the War, yet she was also a thoroughly modern woman, a racing driver who won many prizes and had apparently taken her own car at great speed around the hairpin bends of pitch-black mountain passes the night she died.  Ironically, it was on the straight valley road where she was shot that she probably least expected to die.

Lucy Christalnigg at the wheel of her car. (Photo courtesy of Dr Nello Cristianini)

Lucy’s husband, Oskar Christalnigg von und zu Gillenstein, was a scion of a Carinthian family who were apparently of Slovene blood. Count Christalnigg was active in the Slovenian publishing society, the Slovenska Matica, and encouraged education in the Slovene language. His close political contacts included Ivan Hribar the Liberal mayor of Ljubljana and a renowned pan-Slav.  Count Christalnigg is likely to have been of a less radical inclination than Hribar, like the many other Austro-Hungarian aristocrats who sponsored “national revivals” in their local areas, expecting these to reinforce the empire. However, the awakening of local patriotism had unintended consequences, and after 1918 the old, trans-national Habsburg aristocracy found itself living in a variety of brand new states, some of which suspected their loyalty. The best-known case is that of the Bohemian nobility, which had to learn to be Czech, with mixed results (a substantial number later aligned with the Sudeten German cause and then became Nazis), but others faced similar dilemmas.

Oskar Christalnigg’s family seat lay in a part of north-east Carinthia that in 1919 was substantially Slovene-speaking. As the empire split apart and reformed as new states, it was claimed by both German Austria and Yugoslavia, to which the majority of Slovene lands had already been assigned (though the western-most lands were occupied by Italy as a consequence of the War). The resulting plebiscite left his main home just inside Austria, but his properties to the south were now in Yugoslavia and Italy, and Yugoslavia quickly embarked on land reforms which aimed to break up the old Austro-Hungarian landed estates, with compensation to landowners as long as they were not members of the Habsburg dynasty. Oskar Christalnigg quietly retired to his Austrian castle   with his second wife, no doubt relieved that the Austrian Republic had stripped him of only his title.

Schloss Erverstein, Oskar Christalnigg’s Austrian Castle (picture from Wikimedia Commons)

Local history books seem to me to be rooted in the same enthusiasm for particular places that motivated “national revivals” and their patrons. It is this enthusiasm and sense of place which brings the past to life through hunting down information on obscure or forgotten tales, and gives it a human face.

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

27 August 2014

Remembering the Isonzo Front

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On August 10th, while looking at the daily headlines online, I spotted one commemorating the centenary of the first death on the “forgotten” Austro-Italian Front.

This was the strange death by “friendly fire” of Countess Lucy Christalnigg, a Red Cross volunteer and amateur racing driver who was shot by nervous border guards when she apparently ignored a request to stop. She was driving along the winding valley road which still runs the length of the river Soča in what was southern Austria and is now western Slovenia, very close to the Italian border. It was 13 days since the Austro-Hungarian Empire had declared war on Serbia; just a week since Italy had announced its intention to remain neutral.

Road by Soca
The valley road where Lucy Christalnigg was killed (photo: Janet Ashton) 

The Countess’s death is still something of a mystery: which enemy, on the border with a neutral country far from the action, might she have been mistaken for? 

If the sentries wrongly took her for an Italian insurgent, they were prescient at least in their suspicions of their neighbour. In April 1915, Italy entered the war on the side of the Allied powers, who promised large swathes of Austrian territory from the Alps to the Adriatic ports in return. This led to the opening a long mountain front that ran the length of their mutual border, and saw some of the most terrible battles of the First World War, a bloodbath of ice and fire.

Map of the Italian Front, 1915-1917, from the History Department of the US Military Academy West Point (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

In the UK, this has been called the “forgotten” front, perhaps known only as the backdrop to Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, but it is far from forgotten in the countries affected. The most infamous battle was 1917’s Caporetto, whose name entered Italian idiom as a byword for disaster. Caporetto is the Italian name for the tiny town of Kobarid in Slovenia, very few miles down the same valley road from the spot where Lucy Christalnigg was killed. It was then also known by the German name Karfreit, underscoring the complexity of the area’s history. In Austria, Karfreit was the “miracle” battle.

This war cost the mainly Slovene-speaking civilian population of the area very dearly. Many were displaced to refugee camps, or fell victim to hunger, cold and disease. Once praised by the Austrian Emperor as “the most loyal subjects”, Slovene-speakers were regarded with suspicion as Slavs and subject to heavy censorship from 1914 onwards, even as they fought alongside their German-speaking compatriots to preserve the Habsburg Empire. 

Italians in turn soon learned the cost of the expansionist ambitions of their government. Military discipline was homicidally brutal, and the ill-equipped invading troops suffered constant military setbacks at the hands of Austria-Hungary and its German Allies, including one young commander named Erwin Rommel. Ultimately, Italy was on the victorious side, but did not receive everything it expected at the Peace Conference, which remained a source of great bitterness to nationalists and the bereaved.

Italy did take possession of the Soča Valley (Isonzo in Italian) between the wars, subjecting the area to a relentless policy of Italianization. In Kobarid, Mussolini ordered construction of a charnel house (photo above, by Janet Ashton) for the remains of the innumerable Italian victims of their 1917 defeat, the awful price of a few miles of mountain valley. After 1945 the area went to Yugoslavia and from 1991 has been part of the newly-independent Slovenia. It is now known as a peaceful destination for outdoor sports, popular for hiking or for kayaking the turquoise rapids of the Soča. Where there were gun placements there are campsites today, but amid the wild flower meadows and snowy peaks lie numerous reminders of the War. Kobarid is home to an excellent, non-partisan museum devoted to the victims of the battles of the Soča/Isonzo Front. From it, the Kobarid Historical Trail runs up into the mountains, taking in the charnel house and the remains of war-time fortifications. This is part of a longer way-marked trail called the Pot Miru, the Walk of Peace, which has been receiving a lot of attention in tourist publications this year, and follows the route of the Front down to the Adriatic near Trieste. It passes the open air museums of trenches and dugouts which punctuate the landscape, and the graveyards for troops on both sides.  Many of the graves have no names, as the remains of the man or boy inside could not be identified. In the village of Srpenica, a stone cross marks the spot where Lucy Christalnigg was shot.

 Soca Valley fortifications
The remains of First World War fortifications in the Soča Valley (photo: Janet Ashton)

Slovenia, Austria and Italy are all participating in the Europeana 1914-1918 project, digitising objects from library collections and from the families of ordinary participants in the war to record its impact for posterity.

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

References/further reading:

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. (London, 1929). C.131.c.2.

Koren, Tadej. The First World War Outdoor Museums: the Isonzo Front, 1915-1917. (Kobarid, 2009.)

Krauss, Alfred. Das “Wunder von Karfreit,” im besonderen der Durchbruch bei Flitsch und die Bezwingung des Tagliamento. (Munchen, 1926). 09084.c.30.

Monticone, Alberto. La Battaglia di Caporetto. (Udine, 1999). YA.2001.a.34735

Thompson, Mark. The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919. (London, 2009). YC.2010.a.6941

War Cemetery
 An Austro Hungarian war cemetery for the dead of the Italian Front (photo: Janet Ashton)

30 May 2014

A collection of Primož Trubar Slovenian and Croatian Protestant books in the British Library

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Woodcut portrait of Primož Trubar by Jacob Lederlein printed in Trubar’s translation of the New Testament, (Tübingen, 1582; 2nd edition, British Library C.110.b.7.).

Primož Trubar (or Primus Truber, 1508-1586) was the founder of the Slovenian literary language, a Protestant priest and a leader of the Protestant Reformation in the Slovenian lands. Trubar was the author of the first printed book in the Slovenian language, a Catechism and Primer (Tübingen, 1550) intended for the education of all Slovenians.

Trubar’s literary and cultural legacy will be celebrated at the forthcoming Balkan Day seminar at the British Library on 13 June 2014.

As a Protestant priest Trubar believed that religious books should be written in a language that people could read and understand. He based the Slovenian literary language on the central Slovenian dialect spoken in his birthplace near Ljubljana, the provincial capital of Carniola. Trubar’s literary engagement becomes all the more important knowing that before him the Slovenian literary tradition was virtually non-existent and the German language was progressively introduced in administration and in church services in place of Latin. Trubar’s literary and educational activities aimed at the Slovenian people had achieved a long-term impact on the Slovenian national written heritage and cultural tradition during and long after the suppression of Protestant church activities in the Slovenian lands.  

New Testament_1557
Title page of Trubar’s New Testament (Tübingen, 1557-77; C.110.e.6.), featuring the emblem of Trubar’s Tübingen printer Morchart: a lamb standing on a defeated dragon, holding a ‘Victoria’ banner.

The image above is a title page of Trubar’s main work, a translation of the New Testament, which he accomplished over a period of 20 years from 1557 to 1577. Trubar used Latin for the Slovenian alphabet which most people could read and write. The only differences between Latin and Slovenian scripts were the new characters in the Slovenian Latin script for Slovenian sounds which did not exist in Latin and German languages. On the title page above, sh represents Slovenian sounds š and ž.

Trubar’s total output as an author, translator and editor consists of 26 Slovenian books; his last work was printed posthumously in 1595. His heterogeneous work included catechisms, primers, poems, prayers, devotional books, parts of the Old and New Testaments, theological interpretations, and a book of Protestant regulations. His opus is nearly a half of the total Slovenian Protestant book production of about 56 books. The Slovenian and Croatian Protestant books which survived the Counter-Reformation period are very rare today,  preserved in  only a small number of copies.

The British Library holds 13 of Trubar’s most important books, including the complete New Testament and the Catechism (Tübingen, 1575; C.110.b.6.) in Slovenian Latin, and in the Croatian Cyrillic and Glagolitic  alphabets. Some of Trubar’s books (C.110.a.15.(1- 4)) came to the Library in 1753 as part of the foundation collection of Sir Hans Sloane, but the majority were acquired in the 1840s and the last acquisition of an original edition by Trubar, a complete New Testament in Cyrillic (Urach, 1563, C.51.e.8.), a valuable and extremely rare book, was in 1953.

The Library’s collection of Trubar’s books is also very important for the study of Croatian Protestant literature and culture in the 16th century. Baron Hans von Ungnad, Freiherr von Sonnegg (1493-1564), a former provincial governor of Styria (Štajerska in Slovene), established a Bible Institute with a printing press in Urach near Tübingen (1560-1564). Trubar was appointed as a director of the Institute which employed nine people. Its  main aim was to produce Protestant books and to spread the Gospel to people of all faiths in Croatia, Dalmatia, Slavonia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and as far as Constantinople. To achieve this goal Trubar employed two Croatian Protestants, Stjepan Konzul Istranin (1521-1579) and Antun Dalmatin (d.1579), who translated his religious works into Croatian in the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets. To complement this South-Slavonic enterprise, two Serbian Orthodox monks from Serbia and Bosnia, Matija Popović and Jovan Maleševac, were employed to proofread the Cyrillic script of Konzul’s and Dalmatin’s translations.

 A Glagolitic alphabet presented in four slightly different forms for study and spelling of the alphabet (Urach, 1561, C.110.a.15.(3.))

A Cyrillic alphabet presented in four slightly different forms for study and spelling of the alphabet (Urach, 1561, C.110.a.15.(2.))

The British Library holds nine items from the Urach press in Glagolitic and Cyrillic scripts, all the Konzul and Dalmatin translations of Trubar’s works: Catechism and Primer (1561, C.110.a.15(1-4)), translations of Liturgical Epistles and Gospels (1562, C.65.l.9.), a compilation from the Augsburg Confession (1562, C.27.e.8. and C.27.e.10.), and the translation of the New Testament (1563, C.24.a.18. and C.51.e.8.). The books of the Urach press which bear the Tübingen imprint are of great bibliographic rarity and, although printed in about 25,000 copies, only about 250 are known to have survived to the present day in some 50 European collections.

Tabla za dicu
 The title page of Trubar’s Primer which included a small catechism, Tabla za dicu, in Dalmatin’s translation and transcription into Cyrillic in the Ikavian (ikavica) variant of the Čakavian dialect of the Croatian language in Cyrillic script, considered also as Western Cyrillic.

Istranin and Dalmatin
Trubar’s collaborators ‘STEPHAN, CONSUL, ISTRIANUS : 41:’ and ‘ANTONIUS, DALMATA, EXUL’; images from from the binding of of the 1563 Urach New Testament (1563, C.24.a.18.).

The Library also holds a significant collection works about Trubar and Slovenian Protestant books and culture in the 16th century, acquired over a period of 170 years from 1844 to the present day. The collection includes works about Trubar in Slovenian, German and other languages; reprints and facsimile and bibliophile editions of Trubar’s works; and other primary source materials such as correspondence; there are transcriptions into modern languages and translations, collections and anthologies, fiction and poetry, biographies and bibliographies, exhibition catalogues,and anniversary books including the most recent celebration of the 500th anniversary of Trubar’s birth in 2008.

Milan Grba, Lead Curator of Southeast European Studies


Bibliography of Trubar’s works in German and Slovenian.

Digital versions of Trubar’s books and further references from the Memmingen city archive.

Digital version of Trubar’s posthumous book published by his son in 1595 from the Slovenian Digital Library.

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