European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

Introduction

Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

15 January 2021

How to trick a lion

Do you ever look at a three-pin power socket and see a face in a place

Lions do too, according to Ramon Llull.

Scene of a lion attacking a man from The Queen Mary Psalter

Scene of a lion attacking a man from The Queen Mary Psalter (England, 1310-1320), Royal 2 B. VII, f.87

Llull wrote his Rhetorica nova (‘New rhetoric’) in Catalan in Cyprus in 1301. Only the Latin translation, made in Genoa in 1333, has come down to us.

Llull gave his personal twist to everything he wrote, and his Rhetoric is more like his philosophical works (with chapters on Order, Beauty, Science, the Lullian Art and Charity) than the works of Cicero and his followers.

Cover of Ramon Llull's New Rhetoric

Cover of Ramon Llull's New Rhetoric (London, 2020), ELD.DS.525609

His chapter on Beauty has a section ‘De pulchris exemplis’ (‘on beautiful examples’), i.e. illustrative stories or similitudes. Which is where we find the following:

Leo propter suam fortitudinem est tantae audaciae, ut neminem contra se venientem cum lanceis, ensibus vel cum quibuslicet iaculis timeat. Si quis vero contra eum ierit cum una corda longa, ipsam trahendo per terram, nimio terrore perterritus velocius fugiet quod ideo accidit quia per instinctum naturalem una victoria non timet aliam, sed victoria timet artem et magisterium unde leo timet ne forte per hominis magisterium cum corda capiatur captusque ligetur.

Istud exemplum reddet verba pulchra si pugne verbis et sententiis applicetur (ed. Batalla et al., p. 130).

The lion, because of his strength, is so daring that he does not fear anyone who comes against him with lances, swords or any kind of spear. But if someone confronts him with a long rope which he drags along the ground, he will be afraid of it and will take flight. This happens because by natural instinct one victory [I think he means ‘strength’] does not fear another victory [strength] but craft and skill. Thus the lion fears that perhaps man, with the device of a rope, will capture him, and once captured bind him.

This example, applied to words and thoughts of war, will beautify the words.

So, if I understand him right, Llull says that the lion knows he is strong enough to defeat man physically, but recognises that man’s dexterity with a rope shows man can’t be outsmarted. Brains beat brawn.

Lion and snake vignette

Lion and snake vignette, 12620.bb.28

Llull doesn’t mention snakes, but then Llull rarely makes his sources explicit. However, I think he had been reading his bestiary, which says:

The lion, although he is the king of beasts, gets harassed by the tiny sting of a scorpion, and snake poison kills him (trans. White, p. 11).

So I think man’s victory over the lion consists in exploiting his natural fear of snakes by dragging a rope along the ground to imitate the action of the serpent and exploiting the lion’s ability or weakness to see a snake in a moving rope.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

References

Ramon Llull, Rhetorica nova, ed. Josep Batalla, Lluís Cabré and Marcel Ortín (Turnhout, 2006) YF.2008.a.29279

T. H. White, The Bestiary, a Book of Beasts, being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century (London, 1954) W57/2400

31 December 2020

That was the year that was…

So 2020, the strangest and saddest year most of us have ever known, draws to a close, and it’s time to take our more or less annual look back at the year in our Blog. And for those who are going to miss their new year fireworks tonight, we’ve added some firework pictures from our collections for you to enjoy instead.

A 17th-century firework display outside the Hotel de Ville in Paris
Fireworks outside the Hôtel de Ville in Paris to celebrate the birth of Louis, Duke of Burgundy, in 1682. From Jehan de la Cité, L’Hôtel de Ville de Paris et la Grève à travers les âges (Paris, 1895) 10712.dd.1.

Back in January, the threat of a new coronavirus was still a fairly small news story, and we had no idea of the impact the disease would have. However, two of our January blog posts now seem somehow prescient of this year. We celebrated the fact that a collection of essays based on a 2000 BL symposium, featuring colleagues past and present, about European-language printing in Britain had been made available online , in a year when access to online content was to become ever more important for researchers unable to visit libraries. And a guest post from a Sheffield University student exploring the literature of Dutch colonialism in Suriname highlighted a topic which has become ever more resonant in 2020, as the growing influence of the Black Lives Matter movement has caused many cultural institutions, including the BL, to revisit and rethink their history and to discuss more openly the legacies of colonialism and slavery.

In some ways our blogging year continued with business as usual, celebrating the anniversaries of literary greats such as Anne Brontë and Friedrich Hölderlin as well as figures less well known in the UK such as Italian children’s author Gianni Rodari . We also marked the anniversaries of General de Gaulle’s ‘Appel du 18 juin’ and German reunification, while a series of posts on the Polish Solidarity movement, founded in 1980, drew on our fascinating collections of ephemera from the period. 

An 18th-century firework display in The Hague with allegorical and mythological figures
 Afbeeldinge van de vuur wercken = Representation du feu d’artifice
, a firework display in The Hague to celebrate a Dutch victory over French and Spanish forces at Vigo in 1702.  Print by Daniel Marot, ca. 1702.  Maps K.Top.107.45.ff.1.

Before lockdown changed all our lives, European Collections colleagues were involved with two public events: a celebration of the Serbian poet Miloš Crnjanski, and a day devoted to contemporary Nordic comics – one of the last live events the Library was able to hold on-site.

One of lockdown’s smaller problematic side-effects was of course we could not go into the office and order up collection items to write about and photograph for our blog posts. However, our wonderful team made the most of the BL’s digitised collections, of photos from our own files, of Creative Commons material online, and of links to digitised content from other institutions. A short series of posts looked at the pandemic from the perspective of partner institutions in South-Eastern Europe, including a link to a growing collection of online ephemera from the region.

An 18th-century firework display in Soluthurn
A firework display in the town of Solothurn in 1777 to mark the renewal  of a treaty between France and Switzerland. Print by L. Midart, 1777. Maps K.Top.85.84.d.

This was also a year when we posted a number of collaborative posts, where colleagues wrote small pieces on a range of subjects: children’s books, poetry in minority and endangered languages, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller writers, and, as a festive offering in December, Christmas carols.

Stealing an idea from Radio 4’s ‘Saturday Live’ programme, we also began a series of ‘Inheritance Books’ posts where colleagues chose a book they had ‘inherited’ when they joined the BL and one they had acquired or catalogued to ‘pass on’ to future generations. It was rather gratifying that our first two posts came respectively from one of our newest and one of our longest serving colleagues.

It’s been a different and difficult year, but as blog editors we are hugely grateful to our colleagues and guest contributors for continuing to write for us, and to all who read, enjoy and share our posts. We can’t wait to share more with you in 2021!

European Studies Blog editors

 

Figures in 18th-century dress in a Venetian gondola with fireworks in the background
Venetian fireworks, illustration by Georges Barbier from Paul Verlaine, Fêtes galantes (Paris, 1928) L.45/2847

18 December 2020

A musical festive feast from around Europe

With Christmas approaching, European Collections curators introduce some festive songs from the countries they cover.

‘O Tannenbaum’ (‘O Christmas Tree’)
Chosen by Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

Illustration of a Christmas Tree

Title page of The Christmas Tree, a present from Germany (London, 1844). 12803.ff.3.

Which Christmas Carol links a student drinking song, a lover’s lament and a socialist anthem? None other than ‘O Tannenbaum’, one of the German-language carols that have gained worldwide popularity.

Originally the song had nothing to do with Christmas. The evergreen fir tree as a symbol of constancy was a familiar poetic motif when, in 1819, August Zarnack used it in a poem about a man betrayed in love, contrasting the tree’s ‘faithful’ branches with the woman’s faithlessness. A few years later, the musician and composer Ernst Anschütz altered Zarnack’s poem, replacing the verses that told the tragic love story with musings on the tree teaching a lesson in constancy, with mention of its bringing pleasure at Christmas. The song was first published in 1824, and its spread around the world probably owed something to the growing popularity of Christmas trees in various countries during the 19th century. Although the German original only briefly references Christmas, metrical necessity caused English translators to use ‘O Christmas Tree’,  thus firmly establishing the song’s festive credentials for English-speakers.

The simple yet catchy tune no doubt also contributed to the success of ‘O Tannenbaum’. Originally a folk melody, it became popular in the 18th century as a student drinking song, ‘Lauriger Horatius’ (‘Laurel-crowned Horace’). It has also been used in many other contexts, perhaps most famously for the socialist anthem ‘The Red Flag’. For such a short and simple carol, ‘O Tannenbaum’ certainly has a wide-ranging cultural background and influence!

‘Shchedryk’ and ‘Carol of the Bells’
Chosen by Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

Illustration of a swallow

Illustration of a swallow from BL Flickr. BL shelfmark 10201.e.12

Chances are you’ve heard of ‘Carol of the Bells’, a Christmas favourite that has appeared in films, TV shows and adverts from Home Alone to The Muppets. What many don’t know, however, is that the music was written by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych and is based on the Ukrainian folk chant ‘Shchedryk’. Dating back to pagan times, the original song tells the story of a swallow flying into a household to predict a prosperous New Year for the family. In pre-Christian Ukraine, the coming of the New Year and spring were celebrated in March but with the move to the Julian calendar, it shifted to 13 January (New Year’s Eve), which is known in Ukrainian as Shchedry Vechir (Bountiful Evening).

Leontovych’s song premiered in Kyiv in December 1916 and was performed as part of the Ukrainian National Chorus’s US tour in the early 1920s. The American composer Peter J. Wilhousky subsequently rearranged the melody and wrote new lyrics around the theme of bells, which is the version we know today as ‘Carol of the Bells’.

You can listen to a recording of Leontovych’s ‘Shchedryk’ here.

Pastorałki (‘Pastorals’) by Tytus Czyżewski
Chosen by Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

A baby Jesus jumping on his legs in a crib while wearing a highlander’s hat. A shepherd, standing next to him, playing the bagpipes. A stork sitting on top of a nativity stable. That’s the kind of images you will find in Pastorałki by Tytus Czyżewski.

Woodcut of the baby Jesus with angels and cattle

Cover of Pastorałki by Tytus Czyżewski, design by Tadeusz Makowski (Paris, 1925) Ac.9664 Source: Polona 

Czyżewski (1880–1945) was a futurist poet, painter and co-founder of the Polish avant-garde “Formist” group, whose aim was to create a new national style in art and literature by combining Futurism, Expressionism and Cubism with traditional folk art. Czyżewski’s volume of Pastorałki [Pastorals], named after the genre of Polish Christmas carols with pastoral motifs, is an intersection of Polish folklore, medieval miracle plays and European avant-garde.

You can listen to a recording of one of these carols, ‘Kolęda w olbrzymim mieście’ (‘A Christmas Carol in a Big City) here.

The book is illustrated by Tadeusz Makowski (1882-1932), a Paris-based Polish artist. His primitivist woodcuts, inspired by folk iconography, reflect the atmosphere of friskiness and humour of Czyżewski’s pastorals.

Woodcut of baby Jesus jumping on his legs in a crib while wearing a highlander’s hat. Shepherds, standing next to him, are playing instruments.

Illustration from Pastorałki by Tadeusz Makowski, showing shepherds playing highlander instruments to amuse the baby Jesus. Source: Polona 

References:

Alicja Baluch, “Wizualność poezji Tytusa Czyżewskiego”, Rocznik naukowo-dydaktyczny 101 (1986), 199-137. Ac.9234.eb.

Czeslaw Milosz, The History of Polish Literature (Berkeley, 1983), 400-401. X.950/37574

Kazimierz Wyka, Rzecz wyobraźni (Warsaw, 1977)

‘De herdertjes lagen bij nachte’ (‘The Shepherds lay by Night’)
Chosen by Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

‘De herdertjes lagen bij nachte’ (‘The Shepherds lay by Night’) is a popular Dutch Christmas song. It is thought that it originated in the 17th century when children would sing it in the streets of Utrecht, but it was first written down in its current form by Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm and features in his collection of ‘Old and New Christmas Songs’ of 1852.

Lyrics and musical notation for ‘De herdertjes lagen bij nachte’

‘De herdertjes lagen bij nachte’ from Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm, Oude en nieuwere kerstliederen … (Amsterdam, 1852). B.893.

The song has four verses, but usually only the first one, and sometimes the second one, are sung. Children stick to the first verse, and I cannot remember singing the others. The first verse tells how the shepherds were in the fields, having counted their sheep and then heard the angels sing, ‘clearly and fluently’ of the birth of Jesus upon which they went to Bethlehem to find him. In the second verse they see three beams of light shooting from above and from the crib – they ‘see the light’ and, in the third verse they decide to stay with the Holy Family until the New Year and leave their flock to the angels to look after. The final verse ends with a prayer for salvation.

Illustration of shepherds from Egerton MS 1070 f032v

The Angel appearing to the Shepherds,  from a 15th-century Book of Hours Egerton MS 1070, f32v

Alberdingk Thijm was a devout Catholic and an influential figure in the 19th-century Catholic revival in the Netherlands (and also a supporter of the Flemish movement). His faith is reflected particularly in the third verse of the song with its emphasis on Mary and Joseph’s responses, which I don't think would have been found so much in Protestant circles. The last line of the verse differs in Protestant and Catholic versions. The Protestant one has ‘and found the little child there’, and the catholic one ‘it was nearing the new year’, also suggesting that for some this was more of a New Year’s rather than a Christmas song.

‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

Although it might sound like a very old English Christmas Carol, Ding Dong Merrily on High is the product of several nations – and centuries!

The tune first appeared in the 16th century as a French secular dance tune known under the title Branle de l'Official (the branle or brawl was a type of French dance danced by couples in either a line or a circle, and popular throughout Europe). It was recorded in Orchésographie, first published in 1589, and written by the French cleric, composer and writer Thoinot Arbeau, the anagrammatic pen name of French cleric Jehan Tabourot (1519–1593).

Illustration of a drum and drummer from Orchésographie

Page from Thoinot Arbeau, Orchésographie (Lengres, 1589). C.31.b.3. Image source: Library of Congress

The illustrated Orchésographie provides information on social ballroom behaviour and on the interaction of musicians and dancers. It contains woodcuts of dancers and musicians and includes instructions for the steps lined up next to the musical notes, an innovation in dance notation. The lyrics however are from English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848–1934), and the carol was first published in 1924 in his The Cambridge Carol-Book: Being Fifty-two Songs for Christmas, Easter, And Other Seasons (E.1485.f.).

Vignette of Bells from the Cover of 'A Christmas Carol', BL 012622.g.37