European studies blog

13 posts from September 2013

30 September 2013

Six lyrics and Kalashnikov

The choice is unusual at a first glance. What do they have in common, these two poets, except the same year of birth - 1814?

One, Mikhail Lermontov, the famous Russian romantic poet, was born in a noble family, which, accordingly to family legends, goes back  to the Scottish Earls of Learmont; the other, Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian national poet, was  born in a serf peasant family  in  a Ukrainian village, and in 1838 was  made a free man thanks to “the Great Karl” - the painter Karl Bryullov  - and other Ukrainian and Russian friends in St. Petersburg.

But the producer of a small book, entitled Six lyrics from the Ruthenian of Taras Shevchenko also The Song of the merchant Mikhail Kalashnikov from the Russian of Mikhail Lermontov, published in London in 1911 (BL shelfmark 12205.w.3/86.), knew what she was doing. Ethel Lilian Voynich (1864-1960), a translator and already established Irish writer, felt instinctively that the most unifying factor in publishing them together was as simple as this:  both were true poets.

The author of the popular novel The Gadfly  loved poetry herself but was very modest about her own abilities as a translator. Her burning desire to make Shevchenko known to English speakers is explained in her “preface”: “But if a man leaves immortal lyrics hidden away from Western Europe in a minor Slavonic idiom between Russian, Servian and Polish, it seems hard that he should go untranslated while waiting for the perfect rendering which may never come. Inadequate as are these few specimens, they show some dim shadow of the mind of a poet who has done for the Dnieper country what Burns did for Scotland”. And she goes on translating this “peasant poet of the Ukraїna” and adds an extensive essay about his life and work.

The  six lyrics selected are among the most popular in Ukraine; Ukrainians know them by heart. “I care not…” is one of the most quoted poems in Ukrainian poetry and one of my favourites by Shevchenko (his self-portrait from 1840 below - from Wikimedia Commons). The poem was written in 1847 in the Fortress of Sts Peter and Paul in St Petersburg  after poet's  arrest:


I care not,  shall I see my dear
Own land before I die, or no,
Nor who forgets me, buried here
In desert wastes of alien snow;
Though all forget me, - better so.


  And the final stanza:

  I care no longer if the child 
  Shall pray for me, or pass me by.
 One only  thing I cannot bear: 
 To know my land, that was beguiled
 Into a death-trap with  a lie,
 Trampled and ruined and defiled…
Ah, but I care, dear God; I care!

In 2008 in the new edition of Taras Shevchenko's poems in English translations Vera Rich translated the same title as "It does not touch me, not a whit..."

449px-Mikhail_lermontov.OK“As for Lermontov and his masterpiece”, writes Voynich, “they are both too well known to need any help from me”. In my own observations, people in the 21st century know mainly about Mikhail Kalashnikov, the creator of AK-47.  So who was he,  Lermontov’s Kalashnikov? The hero of Lermontov’s epic poem was a wealthy and bold merchant in the time of the tsar Ivan Vasilyevich, known as Ivan the Terrible. He had the misfortune that his beloved wife Alyona Dmitrevna became the object of desire of a lusty young oprichnik Kiribyeyevich.  Lermontov [portrait right, from Wikimedia Commons] tells the story of Stepan Paramonovich Kalashnikov, who fights the Tsar’s favourite oprichnik at a boxing-match in Moscow in the presence of the Tsar himself. He kills the oprichnik and in consequence loses his life by order of the Tsar. “I include this version of the famous “Song of Kalashnikov” because making it has given me so much pleasure that I hope others may find pleasure in reading it”, Voynich writes.

As the 200th anniversary of the birth of two great poets (in March and October 2014)  approaches I wonder what new pleasures and surprises the translators of today will offer us.

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies

27 September 2013

The three great K’s: Kaffee, Kuchen and Kultur

Friday 27th September is the official date of the 2013 World’s Biggest Coffee Morning, an event held annually since 1990 in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support. In February 2012 Macmillan announced that 2011’s World’s Biggest Coffee Morning raised a record £10m to help people affected by cancer.

We are proud and grateful to announce that last year the event raised over £100 from colleagues in European Studies at the British Library and the Taylor Institution Library (Slavonic and Greek), Oxford. Just how important a part coffee plays in our lives can be seen every day around 11 a.m. when, rain or shine, a faithful group can be seen partaking on the piazza.

This, of course, is entirely in keeping with the prominent role of coffee and coffee-houses in European culture, both East and West. Indeed,  the Ukrainian city of Lviv hosts an annual coffee festival which coincides with the event this year (26-29 September), celebrating coffee in all its glorious variety. The mere half-dozen variations available in the average British café pale by comparison with what Lviv has to offer – and what more appropriate memorial could there be than  the statue in Vienna honouring the founder of the city’s first coffee-house, Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki? (Image below by Buchhändler from Wikimedia Commons)

Kolschitzky memorial Vienna
Whatever the truth that a stash of coffee-beans captured from the Turks after the siege of Vienna was the basis of the Habsburg capital’s love affair with the ‘Turkentrank’, it is certainly an enduring one. The Kaffeehaus,  where one could sip an Einspänner  or Wiener Mélange in good company, foment an intrigue (political or otherwise), leaf through the newspapers and pen a poem, a sketch or a manifesto, is a locus classicus  in the works of Arthur Schnitzler, Carl Nestroy and other writers of the Viennese golden age. 

Further afield, one recalls Václav Havel and his fellow-dissidents gathering in Prague’s Café Slavia, Sartre and Camus discussing Existentialism at the Café Flore, and Bohemians of a different kind – Henry Murger’s Parisian poets and painters in his Scènes de la vie de Bohème (with watercolour illustrations by A. Robaudi – the British Library’s copy is at shelfmark C.104.i.21), Puccini’s Rodolfo, Marcello and their friends – taking themselves off to enjoy life at the Café Momus whenever they could afford it, living on black coffee and hope. Victor Hugo’s young hotheads, plotting the Paris uprising of 1832, recently reached the cinema screen in the film of Les Misérables, with a poignant postlude as Marius surveys the ‘empty chairs and empty tables’ of the café where his friends will meet no more.

Back in Vienna, it was widely held that the best cooks came from Bohemia, and dishes such as Palatschinken and Kolatsch witness to the enthusiastic reception of Czech palačinky and koláč by the Viennese as the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee. The doyenne of Czech cookery writers was Magdalena Rettigová, who during the National Revival  of the early 19th century became famous not so much for her improving dramas and moral tales as for her recipe books, including, inevitably, one entitled A Cup of Coffee and Something Sweet.  She no doubt served the delicacies described there at her coffee circle in Ústí nad Orlicí, frequented by Bohemian patriots who included František Palacký, Josef Jungmann, Pavel Josef Šafařík and others. While the Austrian authorities regarded gatherings of such characters in cafés as suspicious revolutionary cells, an apparently innocent gathering of friends to drink coffee in a private home provided effective camouflage for their activities. The British Library holds the 1850 edition of her Domácí kuchářka (Household Cookbook) at RB.23.a.24179.

Magdalena Dobromila Rettigová

Portrait of Magdalena Dobromila Rettigová by Jan Vilímek (from ookaboo)

Those who are interested in learning more about the great tradition of café society can do so, for example, from Joseph Roth’s Kaffeehaus-Frühling: ein Wien-Lesebuch (Cologne, 2005) [YF.2006.a.24825]. For a less tolerant view, we may listen to Herr Schlendrian, in J. S. Bach’s Coffee Cantata (BWV 211) fulminating against his daughter Lieschen’s addiction to the noxious brew – a discord happily resolved when she consents to accept her father’s choice of husband as long as the marriage contract permits her to consume her favourite beverage, ‘sweeter than a thousand kisses’, whenever she pleases.

We sincerely hope that, unlike Lieschen, you will not feel that lack of coffee will cause you to ‘shrivel up like a piece of roast goat’ - but that, whatever accompaniment you choose if you attend our World’s Biggest Coffee Morning event, you will be encouraged by the knowledge that you are not only helping a good cause but raising a cup in memory of our late colleague  and former German curator Graham Nattrass, in whose memory this year’s event is being held.

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech and Slovak Studies

25 September 2013

Marcel Reich-Ranicki (1920-2013)

Germany’s renowned literary critic, the “Pope of Literature”, Marcel Reich-Ranicki died on 18 September 2013. Reich-Ranicki was an institution in Germany. His programme Literarisches Quartett (“Literary Quartet”) was a fixed point of the weekly schedule on German TV channel ZDF from 1998 until 2001. The programme’s passionate discussions attracted even those otherwise not so interested in literature to the screen to watch. Yet he mainly had built his reputation through newspaper essays, his reviews featured in the “Feuilleton” (culture section) of the heavyweight Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (British Library shelfmark MF522NPL).

Reich-Ranicki was of Polish-Jewish origin and survived the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust. From 1948-49 he worked as a diplomat in the Polish Consulate-General in London; in 1958 he settled in the Federal Republic of Germany.  Within a short time he grew to be an established figure in West German literary life and became associated with the literary association “Gruppe 47”.

He wrote more than fifty books, including works on Goethe, Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht. The British Library Catalogue has over a hundred entries for works by him, edited by him, or about him, including Sieben Wegbereiter: Schriftsteller des 20. Jahrhunderts: Arthur Schnitzler, Thomas Mann, Alfred Döblin, Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Kurt Tucholsky, Bertolt Brecht. (Stuttgart, 2002) [YA.2002.a.38364]. His autobiography Mein Leben (Stuttgart, 1999) [YA.2000.a.4908] was top of the German bestseller list for several years running, and has been translated into English by Ewald Osers as Marcel Reich-Ranicki: the author of himself (London 2001). [YC.2001.a.21184].

Reich-Ranicki graffiti
Marcel Reich-Ranicki portrayed in a graffiti mural outside a bookshop in Menden, Germany - a demonstration of his huge public impact and high popular profile. (Image by Mbdortmund from Wikimedia Commons)

Marcel Reich-Ranicki was a friend of literature, freedom and democracy. His death marks the end of an era – not least because it so happens that two of his great contemporaries and friends – Hans Werner Richter, the founder of Gruppe 47, and Walter Jens – also died during the last year.

Dorothea Miehe, Curator German Studies

23 September 2013

Elisabeth of Austria - the Hapsburg Princess Diana?

With a new film about Princess Diana  in cinemas, I am reminded of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, consort of Emperor Franz Josef. Elisabeth can in many ways be seen as a 19th-century Diana: both were beautiful and charismatic women, who made unhappy royal marriages and met violent deaths. Both inspired devotion and controversy in equal measure in life, and a romantic mythology has developed around both of them since their deaths.

Films have fed the mythology in both cases. Among many films featuring  Elisabeth the classic, if romanticised, 1950s “Sissi”  trilogy starring Romy Schneider are the best known. A fictionalised Diana reached the screen almost as soon as she appeared in the public eye: two TV movies about her ‘royal romance’ with Prince Charles appeared in 1981. Her marital problems, divorce and death have all been subjected to the same treatment in the 32 years since.

So how alike were Diana and Elisabeth? Both married very young (Elisabeth was only 16) after what were seen as fairytale romances. Both marriages were unhappy and both couples’ affections unequally matched, although Elisabeth’s marriage to a man whose adoration she could never fully reciprocate was the opposite of Diana’s experience. Both felt ill at ease in their husband’s families – especially Elisabeth who found the rigid protocol of the Austrian court difficult after her informal upbringing – and disliked many of the royal duties expected of them.

Another thing both women shared was a love of fashion and beauty. Many people who become fascinated by Elisabeth are initially captivated by one of Winterhalter’s  famous portraits of her, while the media interest in the sale of Diana’s dresses earlier this year shows how central her role as fashion icon remains. Elisabeth’s extreme cult of beauty, however, had a darker side: her obsession with keeping her slim figure led to an extreme diet regime which some modern commentators have interpreted as a form of eating disorder, something of course which also affected  Diana.

Empress Elisabeth by Winterhalter
Winterhalter's most famous portrait of Elisabeth, in the Hofburg Palace, Vienna. (Image from Wikimedia Commons). You can see Romy Schneider recreating the picture in the 1956 film here

On a more positive note, both were passionate about the causes they espoused.  Elisabeth was a powerful advocate for the rights of her Hungarian subjects, and was influential in making Hungary, where she remains a much-loved figure, an equal partner with Austria in the Hapsburg empire. Diana’s name is still strongly associated with the charities she supported, particularly the campaign to ban landmines.

Of course there are many differences between the two, due not least to the very different times they lived in. Elisabeth had a largely distant relationship with her children, in contrast to Diana’s closeness to her sons, and it was easier for her to escape the public eye in a world without paparazzi. Elisabeth’s life was marked by greater extremes of obsession and unhappiness. She also lived much longer than Diana, although her death was equally senseless: at the age of 60 she was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist who was determined to kill some representative of royalty without much caring who. Elisabeth was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Perhaps what really links the two women, more than any true likeness in character, is a public perception of them as tragic beauties and the idea of a royal fairytale gone wrong. Whatever the real similarities and differences, Elisabeth and Diana will no doubt continue to fascinate us – and their stories will continue to be told on film.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

Further reading:

Hamann, Brigitte. Elisabeth : Kaiserin wider Willen (Wien, 1982) X.809/54755. (English translation The Reluctant Empress (New York, 1986) 87/20136.)

Daimler, Renate Diana & Sisi : zwei Frauen - ein Schicksal (Wien, 1998) YA.2002.a.6564.

Sinclair, Andrew Death by fame : a life of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria (London, 1999) YC.2001.a.4952

20 September 2013

Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes

Like Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who is chiefly known for Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), his only novel, Alain-Fournier’s reputation rests almost exclusively on Le Grand Meaulnes, his elegiac, and partly autobiographical, novel of adolescence, adventure and lost love set in a rural setting (the region of  Sologne) evoked with great sensitivity. It first appeared in the Nouvelle Revue Française, from July to November 1913 and was published in book form by Émile-Paul at the end of 1913.[BL shelfmark: 12548.ppp.20]. A few months later, on 22 September 1914, Alain-Fournier was killed in battle on the Meuse, aged 27.

CM Alain-Fournier                                        Alain-Fournier in 1904. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Le Grand Meaulnes is one of the classics of French literature. Most French people first come across it at school, and in England it was for years a favourite A-level text. Its popularity with Anglo-American readers can be gauged by the number of different translations of the title – Big Meaulnes, The Great Meaulnes, The Magnificent Meaulnes, The Wanderer, The Lost Estate, and The Lost Domain – and its influence on writers like Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald (especially The Great Gatsby), and John Fowles. Julian Barnes, who, surprisingly, first read it only in his late 30s, has recently written about the novel’s enduring appeal.

Since 1975 the Association des Amis de Jacques Rivière et d’Alain-Fournier, founded by Alain Rivière, the son of Jacques Rivière (Alain-Fournier’s closest friend) and Isabelle Fournier (his sister and the dedicatee of the novel), has been promoting the work of these two writers, through the publication of a six-monthly Bulletin (BL shelfmark: P.901/1770). The Association’s website
is a mine of information: as well as an index of the Bulletin it also lists all illustrated editions of Le Grand Meaulnes (reproducing examples of the illustrations), and all cover illustrations of the novel. 

Highlights include John Minton’s illustrations  for the 1947 English translation  of the work. The cover of the 1966 Penguin Modern Classics translation with  Alfred Sisley’s painting Les Petits Prés au printemps (The Small Meadows in Spring)  will bring back fond memories to many a reader of the book. The painting itself, so redolent of the atmosphere of the novel, can currently be seen at the National Gallery (on loan from the Tate).

Despite the popularity of Le Grand Meaulnes and its status as a classic, Alain-Fournier, has so far not entered the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade,  the ultimate sign of literary recognition in France.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Italian and Modern Greek Studies

18 September 2013

A Lisbon earthquake pamphlet of 1757: but not the Lisbon earthquake; and the last gasp of heliocentrism

Every day we learn new names for ever-more finely honed genres. ‘Biography’ has given way to ‘life-writing’, but what about Pestschriften (accounts of plagues), or the genre-defining Historia tragico-maritima (a collection of accounts of shipwrecks, published in Lisbon, 1735-37),  ethopoeia (character delineation), epyllion (a miniature epic), psychomachia (battles of the virtues and vices), epithalamia (wedding-songs), or topothesia (the description of an imaginary place)?

As yet there seems to be no name for writings on earthquakes, but the genre definitely exists. For example:

Noticia certa de hum fatal successo, acontecido na cidade de Constantinopla, e o espantoso fenomeno, que nella se vio no dia vinte e seis de Novembro proximo de 1756. (Lisboa: Domingos Rodrigues, 1757) RB.23.a.18023

This eight-page pamphlet describes tremors which struck the Ottoman capital in November 1756. 

The Phenomena website lists 131 weird weather events from 1741 to 1760 (two in Constantinople, 1752 and 1754), but hasn’t caught this one.

The Portuguese, still traumatised by their own earthquake of 21 December 1755, were naturally hungry for news of similar phenomena.

1556_comet_and_earthquake_in_Constantinople Cropped (BT)
An image of an earlier Constantinopolitan disaster from 1556: the comet being the harbinger of the quake (illlustration from a German broadside, image from Wikimedia Commons)

The anonymous author starts by saying that these exceptional movements of the earth should not be taken as proof of the theories of Copernicus, “in whose system can be seen equally the wit of that great mathematician, and the intrinsic incredibility of what he claims to demonstrate”.  “We have the certainty that the earth does not move, as Scripture so often teaches us”.

In this, he was simply following Catholic doctrine, but this doctrine was on its last legs: “In 1758 the Catholic Church dropped the general prohibition of books advocating heliocentrism from the Index of Forbidden Books” (Heilbron).

He recognises that we might experience partial movements of the earth: the causes can be either “merely natural, or the instruments of Divine Omnipotence, for the punishment of our faults”. 

The pamphlet related two consecutive events.

Most harm was done by fires, which destroyed over 25,000 households, and almost all the Seraglio; over 1000 people perished. One victim was the fire-starter herself, one of the wives in the Seraglio who wished to avenge herself on another who had replaced her in the Sultan’s affections.

The earthquake began around 11.45 a.m. on 26 November and lasted seven minutes and forty seconds. People were to be seen bathed in blood and tears and covered in dust. The fires made Constantinople like Troy.  By the time the inhabitants managed to halt the fire, 8000 had died. Water only started to flow into the fountains again after 24 hours, but its colour and smell showed it was undrinkable. 

At 10 p.m. a fiery stag with a sword in its antlers was seen in the sky, over forty palms in size.  It emerged that it had been sighted on the 20th, an omen. (Incidentally, the author does not find omens unChristian.)

The author is not an eyewitness: he acknowledges that he has extracted this information from “a letter”. This I imagine was a printed newsbook, and probably written in Italian, the lingua franca ofthe Ottoman Empire.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


John L.Heilbron, 'Censorship of Astronomy in Italy after Galileo', in McMullin, Ernan ed., The Church and Galileo, (Notre Dame, 2005), p. 307.  YC.2007.a.1076; m05/.25311

John Laidlar, Lisbon, World Bibliographical Series (Oxford, 1997), items 135-59.  9352.949100 vol 199

16 September 2013

St. Ludmila, patroness of Bohemia

A recent survey indicated that increasing numbers of grandparents are, in these cash-strapped times, the major care-providers enabling mothers to return to work. Those grandmothers who may feel aggrieved, exploited or in conflict with a daughter-in-law about their grandchildren’s upbringing might do well to think of St. Ludmila. Things could be very much worse.

The daughter of a prince named Slavibor, Ludmila was born around 860 in Mělník  and married at an early age to Bořivoj I, Duke of Bohemia. It was probably through the efforts of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the 'apostles of the Slavs’ that the couple were converted to Christianity in 874, becoming the first Christian rulers of the dukedom. However, their attempts to convert their subjects were greeted with such hostility that for a time they were driven out of the land, but after a while they were able to return and ruled in peace for several years before retiring to Tetín, near Beroun, leaving their son Spytihněv to rule in his father’s place.


Mělník Castle, St Ludmila's birthplace  (picture from Wikimedia Commons)

However, after only two years Spytihněv died, and his brother Vratislav succeeded to the dukedom. Vratislav’s wife Drahomíra had remained a pagan, and grew increasingly resentful of the influence of Ludmila over their son Václav. She had been largely responsible for the upbringing of her grandson, and when Vratislav died in 921, Ludmila, now a widow, acted as regent for the young Václav.  Drahomíra’s jealousy became so intense that on 15 September 921 she despatched two assassins to murder Ludmila in her castle at Tetín; tradition has it that they strangled her with her own veil. Her body was initially buried in the castle church of St. Michael, but at some date before 1100 it was reinterred in the basilica of St. George in Prague.

The Murder of Saint Ludmila from the Chronicle of so-called Dalimil (from Wikimedia Commons)

Veneration of the saint, who was canonized shortly after her death, grew rapidly, and she was honoured (together with her grandson Václav, subsequently murdered by his half-brother Boleslav the Cruel) as one of the patrons of Bohemia, as well as of widows, converts, duchesses and (not surprisingly) those experiencing difficulties with in-laws. Her fame spread far beyond Bohemia throughout the entire Slavonic world, where her name is still highly popular among both Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics.

In addition, Ludmila’s story has at least two points of special interest for British readers. Her grandson St. Václav is better known to them as the Good King Wenceslas of the carol, though very unlike the white-bearded figure of tradition. Then, over 900 years after the saint’s death, the publisher Littleton commissioned Antonín Dvořák to write an oratorio for the Leeds Festival during his first visit to England in 1886. Svatá Ludmila received its first performance, conducted by the composer, on October 16 that year. It was an expression not only of his personal Christian faith but of strong national feeling at a time when the Austrian police had banned the singing of Czech songs following political disturbances in 1884, and of his conviction that 'an artist also has a country for which he must have firm faith and a fervent heart’, as he wrote to his publisher Simrock.

Although the oratorio received a mixed reception and was regarded by some critics as over-long and derivative, Dvořák revised and adapted it for its Prague premiere in 1901. Like his early opera Vanda, it dramatized the conflict between paganism and Christianity, and provided material not only for moving love duets between Ludmila and Bořivoj but stirring choruses, culminating in a majestic version at their coronation of the old Czech hymn Hospodine, pomiluj ny (Lord, have mercy upon us).  In 2004, one hundred years after Dvořák’s death, it received its first 21st-century performance by the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, one of a long series testifying to the popularity of this work and the Saint whom it commemorates.

The British Library holds a copy, dating from 1767, of a life of Saints Ludmila and Václav by Kristián (929-996?), a monk of the Benedictine order: Vita S. Ludmilae et S. Wenceslai Bohemiae ducum et martyrum authore Christiano Monacho ordinis S. Benedicti, descripta ex antiquo ms. codice membranaceo ...cui praefigitur Dissertatio historico- critica .. labore et studio P. Athanasii a S. Josepho .. (RB.23.a.25306).

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech Studies

13 September 2013

One Conference - Two Views

The regular WESLINE Conference took place at the beginning of this month, attended by a number of staff working with the British Library's West European collections. Here two of them give their impressions of the event.

Wesline header
1. The Cataloguer's Tale

The WESLINE Conferences are that rare opportunity to hear from and mix with other librarians working with Western European languages and the September 2013 two-day event at Balliol College, Oxford was no exception.

The packed programme of events (full details can be found on WESLINE’s website) lived up to its promise. On the first day we heard about the future of modern language collection management and different initiatives being driven forward, such as the use of COPAC CCM, which can be used to identify and compare the holdings of major UK research libraries in particular subject areas. This topic led smoothly into the future of librarians working within modern languages, raising the familiar issue of restructuring, and gave the results of a questionnaire sent to Wesline members earlier this year to examine the extent of their language expertise and how their responsibilities lie within their own institutions.

Blogging, a now indispensable tool on library websites, was discussed in detail, particularly interesting for those of us who read blogs but have not yet ventured into this world as bloggers! Talks on contemporary Brazilian film and on Franz Kafka and his manuscripts completed the very full day.

Day two began with a section entitled ‘Lost voices’ which encompassed librarians working in little-known or background fields. We had two very interesting talks on the small but thriving area of Celtic Studies, and another on the role of the science librarian –  all of which emphasised the need for linguistic expertise in their daily work.

The discussion then moved to a topic dear to my own heart, as for the first time at a Wesline conference, cataloguers were featured. Speakers from the foreign language cataloguing teams at the British Library, Cambridge University Library and the London Library certainly gave a voice to a group of librarians who often feel hidden yet who also require a great deal of linguistic expertise when coping with the intellectual rigours of subject work, deriving records, RDA, and Authority Control.

Further talks coverd the ways in which the work of subject specialists is changing, often to take on extra linguistic areas in which they actually do not have expertise, as budget cuts bite. A very informative talk on the thorny issue of open access followed, and the last session featured speakers introducing Europeana, a digital European cultural heritage library bringing together resources from museums, archives and galleries, and The European Library, which was established in 1997 as a joint web portal of 48 European national libraries. The Director of Oxford’s Electronic Enlightenment Project then described the project’s work  to collate scholarly correspondence of the Enlightenment era and create an electronic biographical dictionary.

The conference ended with a presentation on western manuscripts and rare books held in the Bodleian Library followed by various tours; mine was to the fascinating Taylor Institution Library to see the western European language collections.

To finish - the conference dinner in a Spanish restaurant should not be ignored as it provided another opportunity to socialise with colleagues from other institutions as part of an extremely well-run conference. For this we have to thank Nick Hearn, French and Russian Subject Specialist, and Joanne Edwards, Subject Consultant, Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, Taylor Institution Library, Oxford, who organized the conference with such dedication and efficiency.

Patricia Tiney, Western European Languages Cataloguing Team

2. The Curator's Tale

Having heard my colleagues speak reverently about the Wesline conference I felt a great sense of anticipation and excitement going there myself for the first time and I must say I wasn’t disappointed!

For me the best thing about conferences is the people I meet and hearing their stories about life and work. I made some very good new contacts with whom I hope to stay in touch for a long time. Funnily enough, the most surprising conversations I had were with some of my own British Library colleagues! Shows you what a change of environment can do for internal relations, as well as for external ones.

  Another perk of going to conferences is that you get to visit places you would otherwise never have a chance to explore. Balliol College is such a place. Not only could we wander in and out without having to pay, but we stayed in rooms around the quads (I learned a new word!) and had our meals in the dining hall, surrounded by portraits of former Masters of the College such as Edward Heath, Harold Macmillan and the British Library’s own former Chairman Sir Colin Lucas.

BalliolColldininghall-Wsl13It almost felt like being on holiday, but this was definitely not the case. Nick Hearn and Joanne Edwards had put together a busy programme jam-packed with talks, presentations and panel discussions. Talking of jam, another BL colleague had gone way beyond the call of duty by getting up at dawn and baking the most delicious little pastries to go with the tea and coffee. The only slightly darker aspect was the weather:  it was far too nice and sunny to be sitting indoors! Lucky for us the speakers quickly diverted our attention from the weather outside to their fascinating talks and presentations.

Delegates in Balliol's dining hall (Photograph by Marja Kingma)

It was interesting to hear how other libraries approach issues like collection development and approval plans. Things that I found particularly useful to hear about were the shifts in collection development in many academic libraries from actively selecting new titles to using automated techniques in clever ways.  A lot needs to be done still before we reach the point where most selection can be left to robots, and luckily the tried-and-tested partnership between librarian and scholar is still going strong, augmented by input from students via tools such as Demand-Driven Acquisitions.

An interesting point was made about the need for subject librarians to know more about existing collections, in order to be better able to identify items for digitization. The COPAC Collection Management Tools project, funded by JISC, seeks to help academic libraries in finding out what is unique in their collections, in setting priorities and in making decisions on what to digitise.  Approval plans, if set up and managed properly, can also help us to make the most of our resources when selecting. In Oxford they seem to work well, and  by no means imply shifting responsibility from the librarian to the supplier.

I have great admiration for the Bodleian's History Librarian Isabel Holowaty, who has made blogging into a truly multi-media and interactive art. She inspired me to think more about how best to blog, so hopefully we will reach more people with our posts!

Marja Kingma, Curator Low Countries Studies

Garden Quad, Balliol College; the conference was in the building to the right.  (Photograph by Tom Page, from Wikimedia Commons


11 September 2013

A very brief encounter: Jesuits in Japan

The British Library has lent two early Spanish books to the exhibition ‘Japonismo. La fascinación por el arte japonés’ at the CaixaForum in Barcelona and Madrid.  

The theme of the exhibition is the influence of Japanese art in Spain in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The introduction, however, outlines the cultural exchanges that took place between European missionaries and the Japanese in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The first Europeans to reach Japan were three Portuguese traders who landed off Kyushu in 1543.  They were followed in 1549 by Jesuit missionaries.  In 1587 a Japanese edict was issued prohibiting missionary work, although it was not effectively observed.  The official banning of Catholicism followed in 1614 and the number of persecutions of Christians consequently increased. Virtually all contact ceased when Japan entered the period of isolationism in 1641 which was to last until 1853.

The annual reports that the Jesuit missionaries sent to their superiors were a major source of information reaching Europe about Japan.  They gained a wider readership when they were gathered together and subsequently printed and published.  One of our books in the exhibition is an example of such a volume:  

Cartas… de Iapon (Alacalá, 1575), title page.  The book is from the Old Royal Library (given to the British Museum in 1757) and belonged previously to the London bibliophile John Morris.

In addition to an account of St Francis Xavier’s arrival in Japan, a letter by Baltasar Gago includes the earliest description in the West of Japanese script:

Japanese characters from Cartas… de Iapon, fol. 72v.

He illustrates how there existed two scripts, commenting that the top one (Kanji) was employed by the ruling class, while the lower (Hiragana)  was in more common use.  This was the script adopted by the Jesuits.  It would be more accurate however to say that Kanji was used for formal documents and Hiragana for less formal.

Our other work in the exhibition is an account of the first Japanese embassy to Europe which arrived  in 1584: 

Breue relacion del recibimiento… hecho a tres embaxadores (Seville, 1586), title page.

The Japanese ‘ambassadors’ of the three daimyos (‘warlords’) were Jesuit novices, for the expedition was organized by Alessando Valignano, Jesuit Visitor to Asia, in order to demonstrate that the Japanese, unlike the indigenous peoples of South and Central America, were worthy of being ordained.  The young men travelled to Lisbon, Madrid and Rome.  While in Spain they were presented to Philip II and also visited the Escoria lpalace and the universities of Salamanca and Alcalá.  During their stay in Rome they witnessed the installation in 1585 of Pope Sixtus V. A later, more high-powered delegation travelled from Japan to Europe (1613-20) but by then the period of cultural exchange had all but come to an end.

The setting up of a press to facilitate both the missionaries’ work and also cultural exchange between Europe and Japan was another of Valignano’s initiatives. The Library’s collections include notable examples of Jesuit printing in Japan,  including a translation of Luis de Granada’s Guía de pecadores, printed in Japanese characters in Nagasaki in 1599 (G.11929*, 11929). 

Geoff West, Lead Curator Hispanic Studies

Cartas que los padres y hermanos de la Compañía de Iesus, que andan en los Reynos de Iapon escriuieron a los de la misma Compañía… (Alcalá: Juan Iñíguez de Lequerica, 1575). C.73.b.9

Breue relacion del recibimiento que en toda ytalia, y España fue hecho a tres embaxadores  de los Reynos de Bungo, y Arima, y Omura… (Seville: Fernando Maldonado, 1586). C.32.a.24(2).

09 September 2013

Spanish film and the British Library

We’re always interested in how people use our collections in their research. The Library recently launched a series of films which tell the stories of people who have been inspired by the Library: Made with the British Library. One of these researchers, Shelagh Rowan-Legg, gives a great example of some of the unexpected things that you can do with our collections.

Shelagh is a PhD student at King’s College London, researching contemporary Spanish fantasy cinema. She is also a writer and film critic. Her research explores common threads that run through Spanish fantasy films; how have they been influenced by cinema from around the world, and what makes them uniquely Spanish? You might not expect the British Library to be her first port-of-call, but in the video she explains the crucial role it has played in her research.

Research into contemporary film requires access to a wide range of sources in a number of languages. We collect published scripts and monographs in Spanish on directors, film festivals and genres, as well as works on the broader cultural background. These are complemented by publications, monographs and serials, on film in other European languages and by the English-language material. It might save you a trip to Spain! Search our Spanish collections, using the ‘language’ option to refine your search results, in Explore the British Library.

We’d love to hear about how the Library has inspired you, or about your discoveries in our collections. Write a comment below, or send us an email:

Melissa Byrd, Marketing Manager Arts and Humanities