European studies blog

4 posts from May 2013

29 May 2013

LOL! Tragic Queen Christina of Sweden liked a funny book

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

22 May 2013

Opera crimes

Today is the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth. Our Music Blog is marking this with news of a digitisation project, but I make no excuse for blogging on the same topic on the same day. After all the many items in the media last week  have not only covered Wagner's music but also his cultural, political and literary influence. On 8-9 June the British Library will be hosting a "Wagner Weekend" featuring a seminar on Wagner as a writer and a dramatic reading of his tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen - both events with a literary rather than musical focus. Few other composers’ work would be examined (or performed) in this way!

In fact, there are few aspects of Wagner’s work which have gone unexplored over the years. One particularly strange little corner of Wagner studies is the legal analysis of the Ring Cycle. The writer Paul Lindau, in a review of the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876 [BL: 11794.c.17.], was perhaps the first to mention how many criminal offences are committed in the work, ranging from petty (unauthorised bathing by the Rhinemaidens) to severe (various murders).

Lindau had his tongue firmly in his cheek, but some writers have taken a more serious look at the legal side of the Ring Cycle. After all, the plot of Das Rheingold turns on a theft and a breach of contract, while oath-breaking and perjury loom large in Götterdämmerung. As critics from Bernard Shaw  onwards have recognised, Wagner was concerned in the Ring with power and its abuses, and the making, breaking and defying of laws form part of that theme. So trying to establish, to use the title of one essay, “Whose Gold? Whose Ring? Whose Helmet?” can be more than a mere parlour game for bored lawyers when analysing the complex political and moral world of the tetralogy.

Still, it’s the parlour game aspect that really catches the imagination, and its finest flowering is a work entitled Richard Wagners 'Ring des Nibelungen' im Lichte des deutschen Strafrechts (Richard Wagner’s 'Ring of the Nibelung' in the Light of German Criminal Law) [BL: YA.1994.a.10378]. Allegedly written in the 1930s by Ernst von Pidde, a provincial lawyer sacked by the Nazis for writing anti-Wagner polemics, this is in fact an anonymous spoof, first published in 1968 and occasionally reissued with updates taking into account changes in German law.

“Pidde” painstakingly analyses text (and sometimes music) to establish, for example, whether the hero Siegfried’s killing of giant-turned-dragon Fafner should be classed as homicide or cruelty to animals. At the end of the book he lists the relevant punishments for the guilty characters: I’ve always thought it unfair that the goddess Fricka gets life for incitement to murder while her husband Wotan, as accessory to the same murder (and killer, thief and arsonist), could be out in five years!Final scene of Götterdämmerung by Arthur Rackham

But for a truly obscure crime, we have to go back to Lindau. At the end of Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde rides her horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre, and is thus guilty of “burning the carcase of an animal in close proximity to inhabited buildings”. As they might have said on The Sweeney, “Get yer breastplate on, you’re nicked!”. 

Susan Reed, Lead Curator, Germanic Studies

Brünnhilde rides into Siegfried's funeral pyre: technically illegal. 

15 May 2013

A Catalan classic rediscovered

Tirant lo Blanc, the chivalric adventures of Sir Tirant the White, by Joanot Martorell and Joan Galba, was first printed in Valencia by Nicolaus Spindeler in 1490.

The works with which it is most often compared are Amadis of Gaul and Don Quixote. Both were best-sellers in their time: Tirant, in contrast, has grown from early obscurity to the status of a twenty-first-century classic.

Although it attained a broader significance, Don Quixote began life as a satire on Alonso Quijano, a naïve and gullible reader of chivalric romances such as Amadis. As moralists and aesthetes of advanced tastes agreed, the Amadis stories were full of blood and guts and easy sex, and so vitiated by a lack of verisimilitude that no sophisticated reader could stomach them. Cervantes, if we can take the priest and barber who scrutinise Quijano’s library as spokesmen for their creator, praised Tirant for its realism: ‘Here knights eat and sleep, and die in their beds’. 

Had Huizinga known the Tirant, he might well have taken it as symptomatic of the ‘Autumn of the Middle Ages’. Tirant perpetuates the battle scenes, long speeches and courtly display typical of the romances of chivalry since the days of Chrétien de Troyes; but other elements take it beyond its genre to a more modern spirit.  Critics often point to its humour (in contrast to the poker-faced musclemen of romance), and its sexually forward female characters of all ages.

Academic readers of Tirant have paid special attention to its intertextuality: Martorell quotes from pretty well all the Catalan prose writers who preceded him. More down-to-earth readers find him a good read: a former student of mine told me she read Tirant to her children.

The initial chapters of Tirant are modelled on the legend of knight-turned-hermit Guy of Warwick,  a French text of which Martorell could have encountered when he participated in a tournament at the English court of Henry VI.

There is a manuscript fragment of Tirant, but the earliest complete witness is the Spindeler edition.  Only three copies are known, one of them in the Grenville library in the BL. All three were brought together for the first time at an exhibition in Valencia in 2010, and collations made there have led to provisional assessments of the relationship between them.

Tirant was not however a best-seller. There were Spanish and Italian translations in 1511 and 1538 respectively.  The Catalan original was published only in academic editions up to 1920.  Capdevila’s paperback edition of 1924 opened up the work to a much broader audience. Vicente Aranda filmed it in 2006. Rosenthal’s English version came out in 1984 to great acclaim. In the age of survey courses on Great Novels in History or television series such as 'Game of Thrones' Tirant’s time has come again.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies

Tirant IB52043
The first page of the 1490 edition of Tirant lo Blanc, British Library G.11383.

11 May 2013

Mácha and Máj

Byl pozdní večer – první máj –
večerní máj – byl lásky čas…

It was late eve – the first of May
Evening in May – it was love’s hour…

These words, the opening lines of Karel Hynek Mácha’s  Máj (May) are as familiar to Czechs as Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud…” to English readers. Every year on 1 May visitors to Petřín Hill  in the heart of Prague may observe a ritual which has persisted for many years: young couples approach the statue of the poet, solemnly kiss, and lay a flower at its feet. This touchingly sentimental gesture, though, has little in common with the spirit of the poem itself or of its author, both of which are far darker and more complex than it would suggest.

Above: Statue of Karel Hynek Mácha in Petřín Park, Prague. Photo by Daniel Hulme (ZuluOne) from Wikimedia Commons

Like many of the Romantic poets, Mácha’s life was short. Born in 1810 in Prague of comparatively humble origins (his father was a foreman in a mill),  he was a bright student whose talents earned him a place at Prague’s Charles University  to read law. However, his enthusiasm for literature, especially Byron and Schiller, led him to take part in amateur theatricals, to explore the countryside on long walks, including a tour on foot to Italy, and to plan a literary career. A practical obstacle came in the form of his relationship with Eleonora Šomková, an apothecary’s daughter, which resulted in the birth of a son and the necessity to support his offspring. Withdrawing to the small country town of Litoměřice, he took up a post as a lawyer’s clerk.  A few weeks later, he lent his aid to a group of townsfolk extinguishing a burning building; according to one account he caught a chill which turned to pneumonia, though another  claims that he quenched his thirst by drinking from one of the fire-buckets with less romantic consequences. Whatever the cause of his death, it occurred on 6 November 1836, the day before the wedding was to have taken place.

Máj, which appeared shortly before his death, mystified prospective publishers, and in the end the poet had to publish it at his own expense. It consists of four cantos and two intermezzi, and its idyllic opening soon gives way to a more sinister note. Jarmila, awaiting her lover Vilém on the shores of a lake, sees a boat approaching and joyfully hails it, only to find that the boatman is not her beloved but one of his band of brigands, who tells her that the “terrible lord of the forests” is to die the next day and curses her for her part in his death. The scene changes to the dungeon where Vilém is spending his last night in chains, about to be executed for the murder of his father, who, it transpires, was Jarmila’s seducer. In a ghoulish intermezzo the forces of nature anticipate the coming of a new ghost, and on the morrow the condemned man, surrounded by the beauty of a spring morning, dies by the sword, his head and limbs displayed on a wheel as a warning to the crowds who have gathered to see justice done. The narrative is framed by the traveller Hynek’s description of visiting the place on New Year’s Eve many years later, seeing the bleached skull still on its spike, and learning its story from a local innkeeper, and ends with a return to the peaceful evening landscape of the beginning, but with the lake troubled by ripples which suggest that Jarmila may have plunged into its depths.

Mácha was buried in a pauper’s grave in Litoměřice, but in 1938, the year of the German occupation, his remains were exhumed and reinterred in the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague, the resting-place of many of the greatest Czech writers and composers. Today, neatly planted with begonias, his grave strikes an incongruously tidy note despite the epitaph, taken from his own poem: “Dalekáť cesta má, marné volání!” (Far leads my journey, and vain ’tis to call).

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech/Slovak Studies