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5 posts categorized "Sweden"

30 November 2017

‘The Gospels are as good in Danish or German as in Latin…’: the earliest Nordic vernacular Bibles

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Many factors contributed to the spread of the Reformation in the Nordic region from the 16th century onwards. The developing ‘national’ monarchies, with ever more centralized rule, gradually saw the Catholic Church as the main obstacle to the consolidation of wealth and power. This disillusionment with the Catholic Church was also of course a result of the dissemination of new Lutheran teachings, by German preachers who had moved north, by Scandinavian preachers who had been taught in Lutheran contexts, or often by Hansa merchants spreading the faith.

In the process of reforming the North, as elsewhere, vernacular translations of scripture were significant. As Bent Noack writes, ‘it is not sufficiently emphasized that the printing of vernacular texts long preceded the Reformation in many countries’ (The Cambridge History of the Bible, p. 423): there are mediaeval Danish and Swedish biblical manuscripts based on the Vulgate and, as early as 1514, Christiern Pedersen (c.1480-1554) had translated parts of the New Testament. In a preface to his 1515 translated Book of Homilies, Pedersen makes plain the richness of vernacular translations: ‘Nobody ought to think that the Gospels are more sacred in one tongue than in another: they are as good in Danish or in German as they are in Latin, if only they are rightly interpreted’. Soon after Luther’s 1522 translation of the New Testament there followed Danish (1524) and Swedish (1526) versions. So, Noack writes, these New Testaments ‘were called forth by the Reformation in Germany and served to prepare the soil for it in Scandinavia’, showing how vernacular translations preceded and then pushed forward the Reformation in the North, which was only made official by the establishment of a Lutheran State Church from 1536 (in Denmark and Sweden).

With state-sponsored Lutheranism came the means for producing complete Bible translations. The British Library holds examples of most of the earliest printed Bibles from the Nordic region. The earliest complete one was produced in Sweden. The ‘Gustav Vasa Bible’ (1541), named after the king who commissioned it, was translated by the brothers Laurentius and Olaus Petri and was heavily based on Luther’s translations. The German influence spread to the book’s production, style and typography, as the printer Georg Richolff of Lübeck was invited to Uppsala to print it. Richolff brought with him new type material and a range of woodblocks, including some by Lucas Cranach. In the image below, we see an elaborate architectural title frame for the New Testament and the German Fraktur type used for the title itself.

Swedish Bible title page
Title-page for the New Testament from Biblia, thet är, All then Helgha Scrifft, på Swensko (Uppsala, 1541) 1109.kk.5, the ‘Gustav Vasa Bible’

The British Library has another copy of this 1541 New Testament (1.b.3.), bound separately, which contains copious  manuscript annotations, some dated 1639, about which we know very little (below).

Swedish Bible annotated Epistles

What scholars consistently emphasise with this, and every other, early vernacular Bible is how the language and style of the translation influenced the standard modern languages and, in the case of Swedish, ‘the orthography and use of accents made its difference from Danish more distinctive’ (A History of the Book in 100 Books, p. 125). The first complete Danish Bible, known as the ‘Christian III Bible’, after the King of Denmark-Norway, was printed in 1550. The publisher of the Low German Luther edition, Ludwig Dietz, printed it in Copenhagen and the translation is generally ascribed to Christiern Pedersen, though it remains uncertain.  

Danish Bible title page

Danish Bible Christian III portrait

Danish Bible armourial bearings

Top to bottom: title page, King Christian III’s portrait and armorial bearings, from the ‘Christian III Bible’, Biblia, Det er den gantske Hellige Scrifft, vdsæt paa Danske (Copenhagen, 1550) 2.e.11

In Iceland, under the rule of Denmark at the time, book production begun with a press established by the last Roman Catholic bishop, Jón Arason, at Hólar. Noack describes the Reformation Bible as ‘its most outstanding specimen’ (Cambridge History, p. 140). It is known as the Guðbrandsbiblía (Gudbrand’s Bible), after Guðbrandur Þorláksson, the Bishop of Hólar at the time of its publication in 1584, who executed the translation and designed and engraved most of the woodcuts. A laborious project, it took 2 years to print 500 copies. Our copy is one of the 121 printed books donated to the British Museum by Joseph Banks in 1773, following an exploratory trip to south-eastern Iceland in the previous September.

Icelandic Bible title page
Titlepage (above) and note of  presentation by Joseph Banks (below) from the ‘Guðbrandsbiblía’, Biblia, þad er, Øll Heilög Ritning, vtlögd a Norrænu (Hólar, 1584), 692.i.1

Icelandic Bible presentation note Joseph Banks

Like the Swedish and Danish translations before it, the Icelandic Bible is said to have contributed enormously to the development of the modern standard language. Yet, even more emphatic is the influence of the vernacular Bible translation on the Finnish language, as it represents the first ever appearance of the language in print. Mikael Agricola (c.1510-1557) began translating Scripture following a period of study in Wittenberg and we hold a 1931 facsimile edition of his 1548 New Testament (Se Wsi Testamenti, Helsinki, 1931; The first complete Finnish Bible dates back to 1642 and was printed in Stockholm in an edition of 1200 copies. The task of the printer, Henrik Keyser, was made more difficult by the fact that none of the compositors knew any Finnish! The BL also holds the first Finnish Bible printed in Finland itself (Turku, 1685, BL 219.h.13).

Finnish Bible Genesis
Genesis, chapter 1 (above) and an illustration of David and Goliath (below) from the first complete Bible in Finnish, Biblia, se on: Coco Pyhä Ramattu, Suomexi (Stockholm, 1642),

Finnish Bible David and Goliath

The first New Testaments in the Greenlandic Inuit language, Testamente Nutak, (Copenhagen, 1766; 217.e.23) and in Saami , Ådde Testament, (Stockholm, 1755; 3040.a.29) can also be found in our collections.

To bring this brief survey of the earliest vernacular Bibles to a close, then, we should emphasize that these Bibles are not only the literary foundations of the Reformation but also the foundations of standard modern languages in the Nordic region. Thanks in part to the (mostly) consistent presence of a Lutheran State Church over the last four centuries, in the words of T.K. Derry, ‘the view of religion which was shaped in Germany still receives an ampler recognition in Scandinavia than in its homeland’ (A History of Scandinavia, p. 95).

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further Reading

T.K. Derry, A History of Scandinavia (London, 1979), X.800/29298

S.L. Greenslade (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Bible. The West from the Reformation to the Present Day (Cambridge, 1963/1987), YC.1988.a.9888

James L. Larson, Reforming the North: the Kingdoms and Churches of Scandinavia, 1520-1545 (Cambridge, 2010), YC.2011.a.5047

Ole Peter Grell (ed.), The Scandinavian Reformation: from evangelical movement to institutionalisation of reform (Cambridge, 1995), YC.1995.b.214

Charlotte Appel & Morten Fink-Jensen (eds.), Religious Reading in the Lutheran North: Studies in Early Modern Scandinavian Book Culture (Cambridge, 2011), YC.2011.a.14186

Roderick Cave & Sara Ayad, A History of the Book in 100 Books (London, 2014),  YC.2016.b.1783


21 September 2017

Candide or Candidus? A Swedish translation of the English translation of the French ‘translation from the German’

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The British Library has recently acquired the first Swedish translation of Voltaire’s Candide, ou l’Optimisme, translated as Candidus, eller alt til det bästa (1783). Voltaire’s 1759 philosophical picaresque novel about its eponymous hero’s gradual disillusionment from an unfettered optimism in the world has been called the ‘the most clandestine work of the century’. So clandestine, in fact, that scholars continue to debate the first place of publication and the first version of the text. The critique of the religious and political establishment ever-present in Voltaire’s works made them too dangerous to publish openly and Voltaire and his publishers honed the art of clandestine publication and circulation.

Candidus title page
Voltaire, Candidus eller Alt til det bästa. öfwersättning af engelskan (Västerås, 1783)  RB.23.a.37745

Ira O. Wade, in his article on the first edition of Candide, explains the methods developed by Voltaire and his publishers to avoid the censors of Paris and Geneva, where he had moved by this point:

Clandestinity was practiced in many ways: a book could be published, for instance, in Paris and place-marked Amsterdam; in London and Amsterdam and smuggled to Paris; or in some provincial French city (Lyons, Avignon, Rouen) and circulated through a Parisian colporteur. Voltaire had used all these methods. In every one of these places there were printers, or at least a printer, eager and willing to serve him. […] In the case of a very clandestine work, Voltaire would use multiple printers and simultaneous editions.

Wade’s forensic analysis of no less than 17 editions, all published in 1759, allows him to create a schema that identifies which was logically the first edition, from which the others originated. Multiple printers in different countries meant that the English-speaking world did not have to wait long for their Candid or Candidus, published the same year, while new and variant editions of the French were simultaneously being produced. The British Library has eight 1759 Candides in English, six published in London and one each in Edinburgh and Dublin.

Our Swedish edition, was printed in Västerås in 1783 by Johan Laurentius Horrn and is one of only three known copies, the other two belonging to the Kungliga Biblioteket in Stockholm and the Universität Greifswald. The text is however a translation from an English edition rather than the original French, whichever the original might be. This then poses the question, which English edition did the 1783 Swedish translation derive from? Thankfully, Wade can help us here too. He tells us that there are two groups of 1759 English editions; one group which translated Wade’s bet on the first edition – with the English title, Candidus – and another group descending from a variant of that first edition – with the English title, Candid. Wade delineates the differences between the variant and the original and it suffices to look at just one example for us to decide on the origins of the Swedish translation.

In chapter V, ‘Tempête, naufrage, tremvlement de terre, & ce qui advent du docteur Pangloss, de Candide, & de l’anabatiste Jacques’, Doctor Pangloss is attempting to console some victims of the Lisbon earthquake by explaining how things could not have been otherwise in the best of all possible worlds. Pangloss utters the lines: ‘Car […] tout ceci est ce qu’il y a de mieux’, in other words, ‘all this is for the best’. Except, in the original French edition, we find the words ‘car […] c’est une nécessité que si un Univers existe’, or, ‘it is necessary for such a universe to exist’. Wade shows how those 1759 English editions entitled Candid, rather than Candidus, correspond to the variant rather than the original, and contain the translation of Pangloss’s clause, ‘because, said he, all this is fittest and best’, corresponding to ‘tout ceci…’ It is this version of the line that we find in the Swedish translation, which it renders, ‘alt detta är tjenligast och bäst’. Thus, we at least know that our Swedish first edition has come from this particular strand of Candide translations into English.

In the anonymous Swedish translator’s preface, addressed to the also unknown ‘Herr J. L.’, the translator points to the lack of masterpieces of translation. They are all too often produced by those without and intimate enough understanding of the original or translation languages or both, he says. Assurances are given that the text has been written ‘by a man who understands the language from which the translation has been made’. The preface ends with the self-effacing respect of the translator:

If my essay has only been able to entertain You in Your moments of leisure, I assure You that it would be my greatest delight. My purpose would then have been fully achieved and with the great Westphalian philosopher Doctor Pangloss I could with complete certainty say: All is for the best.

But our small investigation has inspired more questions than answers. Why does the Swedish first edition translate from the English and not the French? For a country so clearly under the influence of French ideas in the 18th century, the answer is not obvious. Is there a connection between translator and the very anglophile city of Gothenburg? Is the idea of a ‘Öfwersättning af Engelskan’ (‘Translation from English’) actually an ironic addition to complement Voltaire’s own misleading subtitle, ‘Traduit de l’allemand de Mr. le docteur Ralph. Avec les additions qu’on a trouvés dans la poche du docteur lorsqu’il mourut à Minden l’an de grace 1759’ (‘translated from the German of Dr. Ralph with additions found in the doctor’s pocket when he died, at Minden, in the year of our Lord 1759’)? Why did it take until 1783 for Candide to be translated into Swedish and why then? Who might the anonymous translator be and to whom is his preface dedicated, the mysterious Herr J. L?

With so many questions left, it is hard not to feel more like Candide, l’Optimiste, at the end of the novel rather than at the beginning, when faced with the challenge of understanding the story behind this translation!

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections (translation of the translator’s preface by Peter Hogg, former Curator Scandinavian Studies)

References/further Reading

Ira O. Wade, Voltaire and Candide: A Study in the Fusion of History, Art, and Philosophy (Princeton, 1959) W.P.8969/10.

Ira O. Wade, ‘The First Edition of Candide: A Problem of Identification’, The Princeton University Library Chronicle, 22 (2), 1959, pp. 63-88. Ac.1833.h/2.

Candid: or, All for the best. Translated from the French. The second edition, carefully revised and corrected (London, 1759), Cup.406.i.5.(1.) 

03 April 2015

Hope, humanity and humour: Strindberg’s Easter message for a new century

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The autumn of 1900 was a productive season for the 51-year-old August Strindberg, returning to his native Sweden and to the theatre after a long absence. Within the space of three weeks he had written two full-length plays: Påsk (Easter) and Dödsdansen (The Dance of Death). The second, a pitiless study of a couple trapped in a poisonous marriage, is in accord with the popular image of Strindberg as a nihilistic woman-hater, and the contrast with the message of redemption and reconciliation conveyed by Easter is thus all the more striking. The British Library holds a copy of the first edition (Stockholm, 1901) at 011755.ff.12 (picture below).

Strindberg Pask Cover

Strindberg set the play in Lund, a university town in southern Sweden where he had lived while recovering from a protracted nervous breakdown. Born and brought up in Stockholm, he found the atmosphere of Lund deeply uncongenial, provincial and suffocating, and constricting for one used to the fresh sea air of the archipelago and Lake Mälaren. Worse still, he was not the only member of his family undergoing mental suffering at that time; his sister Elisabeth was committed to an asylum during his period in Lund. Brother and sister had been especially close, and it was with Elisabeth in mind that he created the figure of the ‘Easter girl’ Eleanora at the centre of his play, and gave her the name of his mother.

200px-Harriet_Bosse_Strindberg_To_Damascus_1900There was a third woman in Strindberg’s life who can be glimpsed in this character – his future wife, the young Norwegian actress Harriet Bosse, for whom he visualised the role. She had moved to Stockholm and been engaged to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Dramaten in 1899, and the other-worldly quality which she possessed led her to be cast as the Lady in the premiere of Strindberg’s To Damascus (picture left from Wikimedia Commons). Strindberg’s diary account of the dress rehearsal in November 1900 describes his growing infatuation with Harriet after a dream in which she was married to him and appeared dressed as Puck, and on 6 May 1901 the couple, aged 52 and 22, embarked on a marriage (his third) which would prove as ill-fated and tempestuous as any that he could have dreamed up.

There is no trace of foreboding in Easter, however; although the Heyst family has grave problems of its own, Eleanora’s freshness, honesty and spirituality have survived a spell in a mental asylum from which she has escaped to the home inhabited by her mother, her schoolmaster brother Elis, and their lodger Benjamin, a grammar-school pupil who is preparing for his examinations. Elis – touchy, bitter, suspicious and morbidly possessive of his fiancée Kristina – is a self-portrait, and the dark shadow which hangs over the household, like the sense of guilt and shame surrounding Strindberg’s father’s irregular union with the servant whom he belatedly married and his subsequent bankruptcy, is a result of Heyst senior’s actions. His dubious financial dealings have landed him in prison, and the family lives in dread of Lindkvist, the most threatening of their creditors.

The action, which spans the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter Eve and is accompanied by Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, sees the tension increasing when Eleanora innocently takes a daffodil from a closed flower-shop and falls under suspicion of theft despite leaving payment for it. Yet in spite of the ominous atmosphere which grows stronger and stronger throughout the three acts, the play unfolds in a landscape full of signs of the approach of spring after a harsh Swedish winter – the removal of the double windows, the putting aside of heavy garments, the song of chaffinches, and the repainting of steamers in readiness for the new season. When the (literally) shadowy Lindkvist finally appears, the ogre actually reveals himself as a kindly figure prepared to renounce his claim.

There is no easy resolution; as Lindkvist says, he cannot help Heyst to escape his punishment or Benjamin to pass his Latin examination: ‘Life won’t give us everything – and nothing gratis’. But the play ends in the sunlight of Easter Day as the family gathers with a new sense of forgiveness and hope, which, although there are constant Scriptural references, is equally applicable in humanist terms as a comment on the transformations which can be achieved through reconciliation and generosity of spirit. Appropriately, the British Library holds a translation by Stellan Engholm (Stockholm, 1935; YF.2012.a.23780) into Esperanto, a language conceived to promote international unity and mutual understanding.

Following its premiere at Stockholm’s Intima Teatern the play received many more performances, including a production in 2013 in New York, transposing the action to 1950s Harlem with an Afro-American cast.

And so, let us look forward with Elis, to ‘the Easter Holiday – five glorious days to make the most of!’

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech & Slovak studies      

09 April 2014

Who or what were ‘the Vikings’?

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Interest in ‘the Vikings’ seems boundless, and the current Viking exhibition at the British Museum  makes the subject particularly topical. Googling ‘Viking’ produces forty-seven million hits –  though most of them may be for computer games or brand names  –  and a search on our catalogue under vernacular forms of the term produces over 250 titles in Scandinavian languages and thousands more in English, with dozens of the latter published this year already in the BL catalogue. Beyond that narrow focus, however, the holdings of the British Library are very rich in printed materials, from the 16th century to date, relating to pre-Christian Scandinavia.

A recent article in the Evening Standard by the great medievalist David Dumville aimed to counter the ‘revisionist’ and ‘politically correct’ views that have “covered up the crimes of a bloody era” during the past half-century. He admitted that “Vikings are in general not coterminous with Scandinavians” yet capitalised the word as if it were an ethnic label – as misleading as using ‘Cowboy’ or ‘Cossack’ to describe the entire cultures of the USA or Russia, from their art forms and technology to their political systems and modes of warfare. The ancient Scandinavians’ name for themselves was ‘Northmen’ and for their language and culture ‘Norse’ (norrœn).  

Of the two Old Norse nouns víkingr (m.) and víking (f.), the first meant ‘pirate or sea-rover’ (OED),  the second an overseas plundering expedition. Their etymology is contested but related to the noun vík, ‘bay’, or the verb víkja, ‘to turn away’ etc., referring either to people from a bay area  –  such as the Vik region around the Oslofjord (though its inhabitants were called víkverjar, not víkingar)  –  or to those who ‘set out’ on raiding voyages. But such ‘vikings’ formed only a fraction of the Norse peoples.  Overseas trading voyages had been undertaken long before then, for instance by the peaceful  ‘farbönder’ of Gotland, while the fact that travel by boat was so much faster than overland was the basic reason why so many Norse groups lived near and moved around on water. Will scholars ever agree to stop using the over-worked term ‘viking’?   

Carelian raiders. Illustration from Olaus Magnus, Historia de gentibus  Septentrionalibus, bk 11, ch. 7 (Rome, 1555)  British Library 152.e.9.

The causes of the increase in overseas raiding around 800 were both external and internal. The main external one was the expansion of the Carolingian empire, its threatening proximity provoking aggressive reactions. The major internal factor was technological, the rapid development of open-sea sailing ships at that time.  (The best surviving examples are the beautiful Gokstad and Oseberg vessels  –  displayed in the Viking Ship Museum  in Oslo.)  Another was the breakdown of a centuries-old social system in increasingly violent power struggles among the elites that eventually reduced the number of kingdoms in Scandinavia from dozens to the three still existing ones.  

Oseberg ship, built around 820, buried 834, now in the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo (Picture by Daderot from  Wikimedia Commons)

An aggressive warrior ethos – already vividly described in the Old English Beowulf  poem, preserved in the British Library – saw raiding and pillaging as a perfectly honourable pursuit, enriching the participants. Change came only with the adoption of continental Christianity and feudalism, which no longer permitted unprovoked attacks on co-religionists. When the neighbouring Slavic, Finno-Ugrian and Baltic peoples likewise converted, the now christianised Norse elites  –  after a short period of ‘crusading’ around the Baltic  –  simply ran out of legitimate targets.  

Peter Hogg, former Head of Scandinavian Collections

Recommended reading:

Stefan Brink and Neil Price (eds), The Viking world (London, 2008) YC.2009.b.524
Gareth Williams, Vikings: life and legend (London, 2014) Catalogue of the British Museum exhibition
Saga  book of the Viking Society for Northern Research (London,  1892-  )  Ac.9939; volumes to 2011 are also available online at
Proceedings of the Viking Congresses (quadrennial since 1950). Volumes catalogued separately. See also:
Viking and Medieval Scandinavia  (Turnhout,  2005-  )  9236.374400

29 May 2013

LOL! Tragic Queen Christina of Sweden liked a funny book

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Madrid Court diarist Jerónimo Barrionuevo reported on 11 November 1654 (44v):

Su Magestad envía a la reina de Suecia 24 caballos, cosa valiente, y un grandísimo número y copia de todos los libros jocosos y de buen gusto, así en prosa como en verso, que hay en España, encuadernados y dorados lisa y curiosamente, que ella lo es mucho, y se dice que los preciará más que si fueran joyas de diamantes, según lo estudiosa y leída que es.

[His Majesty [Philip IV] is sending the Queen of Sweden 24 horses, a remarkable thing, and a very great number and quantity of all the humorous books and in good taste, both in prose and verse, that there are in Spain, bound with gold foredges in smooth and artistic bindings, as she is very much of an enquiring mind, and it is said that she will appreciate them more than if they were diamond jewels, so studious and well read is she.]

Christina of Sweden was born in 1626 and came to the throne in 1650, but abdicated on 5 June 1654, arrived in Rome on 20 December and converted to Catholicism on 24 December 1654; she died there in 1689. She was, as Barrionuevo appreciated, formidably well educated.  She spoke German, French, Italian, Spanish and Swedish, and read Latin.

Queen Christina of Sweden, by David Beck (1621-1656). Image from Wikimedia Commons

We can easily appreciate that Queen Christina might have feel the need for the consolation of laughter, but what funny books (the Spanish ‘jocosos’ is unambiguous) could Philip have meant?  Although he enjoyed theatre-going, he also launched a campaign of moral rearmament, promulgating sumptuary laws and banning the printing of novels and plays from 1625 to 1635.  We might note that like many of the orthodox, he approved of fun provided it was in good taste.  And we might recall that Don Quixote (1605-15) was first consumed as a funny book.  Sexual humour was less tolerated by this time: the Index of Prohibited Books, which in its early years had raised no objection to smut provided it respected churchmen, in the edition of 1640 now also took offence at all sexual humour.  One suspects that many of these funny books could have been chapbooks.  Section XL of Philip’s own library catalogue of 1637, ‘Libros varios de diversas lenguas’ has 245 entries, including such works as La Celestina and Lazarillo de Tormes (Bouza, pp. 139-44, 467-96)

Christina’s manuscripts were bought for the Vatican library by Alexander VIII in 1690 but not the printed books.

References: Barrionuevo, Avisos del Madrid de las Austrias, ed. J. M. Díez Borque (Madrid, 1996) p. 66; Fernando Bouza, El libro y el cetro: la biblioteca de Felipe IV en la Torre Alta del Alcázar de Madrid (Salamanca, 2005).

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies