European studies blog

13 posts from March 2014

31 March 2014

English proverbs that don’t exist

How English is an English proverb?

Paremiologists generally agree that the same proverbs occur in many languages. It’s often assumed that popular proverbs, like folktales, in Max Müller’s phrase, migrate.  And migration is assumed to be by word of mouth.  All of which is probably true.

But some popular proverbs were written down in the manuscript period (see Morawski for French examples), sometimes with Latin translations:

Qui bien boit dieu voit.

Si bona quis bibat, is – conspector fit deitatis

Qui bona potat, ei – prompta visio dei (Morawski, p. 46)

Some proverb books were printed in the incunable period. But the watershed was the appearance of Erasmus’s Adagia, which he issued in ever more expanded editions between 1500 and 1536.

The Adagia were very much focused on the classical tradition.  Though an athlete of Latinity – he never published anything in the vernacular – Erasmus did sparingly admit Dutch proverbs (suitably rendered into Latin) into the Adagia, as parallels for Greek and Roman examples. His role in proverb studies, as in many other fields, was crucial. In Catholic countries like Spain his influence was far-reaching but his name was mud. The Humanist Pedro Vallés in the prologue of his Libro de refranes (Zaragoza, 1549; British Library C.63.b.25) pays homage to Erasmus:

Entre los latinos ordeno refranes y muy doctamente Erasmo … Con los Adagios de Erasmo, por cuya obra alcanço fama perpetua.

[Among the Latins, Erasmus ordered proverbs, and most learnedly … With the Adages of Erasmus, for which work he won everlasting fame]

In the copy which was used for a 1917 facsimile edition (12304.h.36.), the emphasised words are struck through.  The British Library copy of the original has not fallen into the hands of the censor, and there they can be read clearly.

Around the 1540s collections began to appear which juxtaposed not vernacular with Latin but vernacular with vernacular.  For some minority languages this was their first appearance in print: students of Galician are indebted to Hernán Núñez, professor of Greek at Salamanca, who in his Refranes o proverbios en romance (published posthumously in 1555) paralleled Castilian proverbs with Galician.

So, what of the authenticity of English proverbs? 

The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (ODEP) from 1935 onwards includes a good number of English proverbs that were never said by any Englishman.  These are garnered from bilingual and multilingual collections, or vocabularies and phrasebooks in which the English is merely a translation from French, Spanish or Italian.  The Introduction claims: ‘many proverbs of foreign origin were quickly absorbed into English life and these have a rightful place in an English dictionary’.  (For dictionaries, phrasebooks etc. a useful source is Alston.)

One example among many of an interloper is ‘Honour and profit lie not in one sack’.  ODEP (p. 382) cites:

1599.  John Minsheu, A Spanish Grammar, 84: Honour and profit are not contained together in one sacke.

1640.  George Herbert, Outlandish [=foreign] Proverbs, 232.

1659.  James Howell, Paroimiographia.  Proverbs … in … English, … Italian, French and Spanish … British, 17 (bag)

1706.  Captain John Stevens, A New Spanish and English Dictionary, s.v. Honra (as 1659)

Cited only in bilingual or multilingual sources, this is the Spanish ‘Honra y provecho no caben en un saco’.

A page of proverbs in Spanish and EnglishExamples from A Spanish Grammar, first collected ... by R. Percivale ... now augmented ... by J. Minsheu ... Hereunto ... are annexed Speeches, Phrases, and Proverbes ... (London, 1599). British Library 434.c.15.(2, 3.)

So, proverbs do probably migrate, but a lot of English proverbs in the reference books are foreigners in disguise.  Remember: All that glitters is not gold – No es oro todo lo que reluce.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


R. C. Alston, A Bibliography of the English Language from the Invention of Printing to the Year 1800  (Leeds, etc., 1965-). Vol. 12  Romance languages, vol. 13 Germanic,  vol. 14 Slavonic. X.985/532.

Max Müller, ‘The Migration of Tales’, The Contemporary Review, 14  (1 April 1870). P.P.5939.b.

Józef Morawski, Proverbes français antérieurs au XVe siècle (Paris, 1925).

The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, ed. William George Smith (1935; 12305.l.29.); revised Sir Paul Harvey (1948; X.981/2103.); revised F. P. Wilson (1970; X.981/1907.).


28 March 2014

Suffering from boredom? Get a raccoon – or read Hrabal!

Mystery surrounds both the beginning of Bohumil Hrabal’s life on 28 March 1914 and its end on 3 February 1997. Although he was always known by the surname Hrabal, this actually belonged to his stepfather František Hrabal, who married Marie Božena Kiliánová in February 1916, and was a friend of his putative biological father Bohumil Blecha, according to the latter’s daughter Drahomíra. The family, including Bretislav, born eight months after the wedding, moved in 1919 to Nymburk, a small town on the Labe (Elbe), where František Hrabal managed the local brewery. The atmosphere of the place is lovingly evoked in Hrabal’s novels Postřižiny (‘Cutting It Short’) and Městečko, kde se zastavil čas (‘The Little Town Where Time Stood Still’), both published in 1974 by Edice Petlice, the secret anti-Communist publishing house.  Postřižiny was filmed in 1980 by Jiří Menzel, and recaptures the period charm of the original without sentimentality. The characters are closely based on members of Hrabal’s family (his mother Maryška and the garrulous Uncle Pepin, who comes for a short visit and stays for forty years), and the eccentricities of the town’s residents are portrayed with freshness and humour.

Carved bench with the figure of Hrabal at one end and an cat at the other
A  bench commemorating Hrabal in Nymburk (Photo by Jan Polák from Wikimedia commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Despite an undistinguished school career, Hrabal enrolled at Charles University in Prague to read law, but as the universities closed during the Nazi occupation he did not complete his degree until 1946 after working as a railway labourer and dispatcher in Kostomlaty. He was later employed as an insurance agent, commercial traveller, steel-worker and, after a serious industrial accident, as a paper-worker and stage-hand. These experiences provided him with plentiful material for his writings; his best-known novel,  Ostře sledované vlaky (‘Closely Observed Trains’) was based on his experiences on the railways and was also filmed by Jiří Menzel, while  Příliš hlučná samota (‘Too Loud a Solitude’: [Prague], 1976; Cup.410.f.104) draws on his time in the paper-recycling mill.

Hrabal’s first efforts as a writer were poems, published in 1948 as Ztracená ulička  (‘The Lost Lane’), but the Communist coup that year  forced him underground to join a group run by the artist and critic Jiří Kolář, and his prose works of the 1950s and 1960s appeared in samizdat editions. After the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he was banned from publishing, and in 1975 an interview in which he made ‘self-critical’ remarks allowing limited publication of his writings attracted fierce criticism from dissidents who felt that he had compromised his integrity. Nor, unlike Václav Havel and other prominent authors, did he sign Charter 77

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss him as a hopelessly apolitical writer more skilled in creating larger-than-life characters and nostalgic pictures of Czech small-town life than in criticizing a repressive regime. The idyllic atmosphere of the little country station which forms the setting of Ostře sledované vlaky is literally exploded by an attack on a German ammunition train which costs the young narrator Miloš Hrma his life. Even the solitude of the plant where the narrator of Příliš hlučná samota  works on destroying and compressing books provides merciless comments on the danger and ultimate futility of censorship. The absurd and farcical blends with the tragic in comments on the human condition which give Hrabal’s work its universal appeal and validity.

These qualities naturally led not only to film versions but to Polish samizdat editions (Przerwy w zabudowie,  a translation of Proluky (‘Vacant Lots’/‘Gaps’; Sol.137.r) was published in 1988 by Niezależna Oficyna Wydawnicza  Warszawa), and translations into French, Hungarian, German, Ukrainian and English, despite the challenges of rendering Hrabal’s inimitable hrabalština  (Hrabalese) and Uncle Pepin’s broad Moravian dialect, cleverly conveyed by broad Scots in James Naughton’s  translation of Cutting It Short (London, 1993; H.93/2258).

Montage of book covers
A selection of works by and about Hrabal in various languages (clockwise from top left: Czech, French, Ukrainian, English, Welsh, Polish)

The partnership with Menzel produced a final cinematic triumph, Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále  (‘I served the King of England’, 2006), based on Hrabal’s picaresque story of the same title (1973; 1993 edition YA.1994.a.14374) chronicling the adventures of an opportunistic waiter under the Nazi regime and Communism. Once again, this belies any notion that Hrabal was a mere raconteur with its penetrating juxtaposition of black humour and acid observation of the follies and compromises to which human beings are driven by totalitarianism.

In later years Hrabal was often to be seen at his favourite Prague pub, U zlatého tygra (‘The Golden Tiger’), imbibing generous quantities of beer and regaling fellow-drinkers with tales to rival Uncle Pepin’s account of childless relatives who emigrated to the USA and responded to a newspaper advertisement, ‘Suffering from boredom? Why not get yourself a raccoon?’, only to acquire a creature who wreaks havoc in their home. The circumstances of his end might have been the stuff of such a story; apparently trying to feed pigeons from a fifth-floor window in the Bulovka hospital in Prague, he toppled out and fell to his death, prompting speculation which he might well have relished.

Suffering from boredom? Get yourself a raccoon – or alternatively, read Bohumil Hrabal. At least your watch will be safe…

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech & Slovak


Bohumil Hrabal, Postřižiny (Prague, 1976) X.989/37869

Bohumil Hrabal, Městečko, kde se zastavil čas (Innsbruck, 1978)  X.989/83712

Bohumil Hrabal, Ostře sledované vlaky (Prague, 1965)  X.989/9422

Bohumil Hrabal, Příliš hlučná samota ([Prague], 1976) Cup.410.f.104

26 March 2014

Theodora Grahn, language teacher

Among the many extraordinary Germans living in London in the Georgian period, few can have been more extraordinary than Theodora Grahn (1744-1802). Grahn, the only child of an architect, was born in Leipzig and, following her parents’ early demise, was brought up by an aunt in Berlin. She is said to have developed language skills at an early age. During the Seven Years War she started a business as an exchange broker, a rather precocious step one might think, as she was only 19 when the war ended in 1763. If not her age, then maybe her gender proved a disadvantage in this profession: it was around this time she began to dress as a man and adopted an aristocratic, masculine pseudonym, “Baron de Verdion”.

After exposure as an impostor, she moved to London around 1770, where, having demoted herself from “Baron” to “Dr. John” de Verdion, she worked as a language teacher and translator and also  dealt in antiquarian books and coins and medals. The British Library holds a trade card printed for Grahn as a language teacher and translator: “Mr. de Verdion, at Mr. Hare’s, No. 17. Greville Street, Hatton Garden, teaches German, French, and English, in the most expeditious manner, and upon the most reasonable terms. He also translates into either [sic] of these languages”. 

Verdion trade card
Theodora Grahn’s trade card using the name “Mr. de Verdion”. C.191.c.16.[vol.1(1)] (31).

 Although she is said to have had persons of quality among her pupils, her reputation was somewhat disreputable. Never leaving her house except dressed as a man, she became known for her prodigious consumption of food and drink in coffee-houses and taverns. Her true gender seems to have been known if not openly acknowledged. With her “grotesque” appearance and her famous umbrella she became a well-known London eccentric and a subject for satire.

Caricature of Theodora Grahn in men's clothing carrying a walking-stick and umbrella
Portrait of Theodora Grahn, from the account of her life in Kirby’s wonderful and scientific museum: or, magazine of remarkable characters, vol. 2, London 1804 (pp. 47-53). G.13550

Grahn died of cancer in 1802, having made a will as “John de Verdion otherwise Theodoria [sic] de Verdion, Master of Languages of Upper Charles Street Hatton Garden” and was buried in the cemetery of St Andrew’s, Holborn, under her assumed masculine identity. After her death, a number of accounts of her life appeared in books featuring bizarre individuals and occurrences.

More recently, Grahn has come to the attention of those working in the field of gender studies, who have sometimes assumed she was a transsexual as well as a transvestite. I’m not so sure, however, that we can draw firm conclusions about her gender identity or sexual orientation from the information we have. Her assumption of a masculine identity and dress could simply be seen as an effective strategy for a determined young woman in a world that provided so few opportunities for talented and independent women. We shall never know what she really was behind the masculine mask.

Graham Jefcoate, Nijmegen/Chiang Mai

25 March 2014

Mistral blows in: Provence’s own Nobel laureate

It may seem perverse to celebrate the centenary of a poet’s death, but for those who would prefer to mark a more joyful event in the life of Frédéric Mistral, Provence’s greatest poet, 2014 offers two: 110 years since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1904 and  on 21st May,  the 160th anniversary of the establishment in 1854 of the literary and cultural association Félibrige.

  Portrait of MistralPortrait of Frédéric Mistral from Moun espelido: Memòri e raconte = Mes origins: Memoirs et récits (Paris, 1906) 10659.pp.7.

Frédéric Mistral was born on 8 September 1830 at Maillane in the département  of Bouches-du-Rhône into an old landowning family deeply rooted in the soil of Provence. A reluctant pupil, his frequent truancies caused his exasperated parents to pack him off to boarding school, but neither this nor his legal studies at Aix-en-Provence weakened his profound love of his native region, or of the Occitan language. With the encouragement of his teacher Joseph Roumanille, he joined five other poets, Teodor Aubanel, Ansèume Matiéu, Jan Brunet, Anfos Tavan and Paul Giera, to found an organization devoted to the promotion of the ancient Occitan language at a time when the growth of railways and modern communications threatened its very existence as standard French was imposed throughout the country.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Félibrige was its publication of Lou Tresor dóu Félibrige (1878–1886), which remains the most comprehensive and exact dictionary of the Occitan language, and one of the most reliable for the precision of its definitions. The British Library holds the first edition of Mistral’s two-volume work (12952.h.7), an Occitan-French dictionary covering all the dialects of oc, including mistralienne.

Mistral, however, was no dry pedant. Although he was notable for spending years on the writing and revision of his poems, the finished works possess a vivid freshness and sense of place which rapidly brought them to the eyes of a wider European public. His most famous poem Mirèio (Mireille), published in 1859 after eight years of effort and dedicated to Alphonse de Lamartine, achieved immense popularity; it was made into an opera by Charles Gounod (1863), and in 1867 ‘an English version, the original crowned by the French Academy’ by C. H. Grant was published by  Joseph Roumanille at Avignon (11498.c.46). The story of the young heroine’s thwarted love for Vincent, a poor basket-maker, whom her parents force her to reject in favour of a wealthy suitor, takes place amid the picturesque landscape of the Camargue, with colourful evocations of its landscape, people and customs, reaching a climax when Mireille makes a pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to implore their assistance and, having set out without a hat, dies of sunstroke in Victor’s arms under the eyes of her remorseful parents. Its emotional directness and wealth of exotic detail gave this moving tale an appeal which quickly caused it to be translated into many other languages, including Esperanto.

  Illustration of a young woman and a young man sitting on the grassIllustration by Eugène Burnand from Mistral’s Mireille: poème provençal (Paris, 1891) 11498.k.15.

For many English readers their first encounter with Mistral may have come through reading Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon moulin (1869), in which the chapter ‘Le poète Mistral’ describes a visit to his old friend on the occasion of the local fête. Against a background of the celebrations, with the traditional bull-running, music and sports culminating in the dancing of the farandole by night under the lanterns to the strains of fife and drum, Daudet describes Mistral reading from the exercise book which contained the manuscript of Calendal, the picaresque poem which he had just completed after seven years’ labour. The account ends with the tribute of one great author to another as a poet and as the man who had saved a rich and ancient language from decay. Daudet likens Mistral to a peasant’s son who discovers one of the great houses of Provence in disrepair, and, like Christ in the Temple, drives the grazing donkey and pecking hens out of the cour d’honneur and sets about restoring the glass and panelling, re-gilding the throne, ‘and put on its feet the vast palace of former times, where popes and empresses lodged.

‘That restored palace is the Provençal language.

‘That peasant’s son is Mistral.’

In 1904 Mistral shared the Nobel Prize for Literature with the Spanish playwright José Echegaray. Fittingly, as he had received it in recognition of his efforts to revive and restore the Provençal language, Mistral used his portion to set up the Museon Arlaten (Musée d’Arles), which remains the most considerable collection of Provençal folk art, including costumes, farming tools and musical instruments, pottery, textiles and furniture reminiscent of the world of his poetry.

Living in an unpretentious style, refusing to use the prize which he received for Mireille from the Académie Française  to decorate his simple plastered bedroom as his mother suggested, Mistral died on 25th March 1914 in Maillane where he was born. Although he had no children by his marriage to Marie-Louise Rivière, he gave his native Provence some of its best-loved literary characters, and a priceless legacy in the renewal of its historic language.

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech and Slovak Studies

21 March 2014

Aesop’s fables are not kids’ stuff

Woodcut illustration of Aesop surrounded by images and symbols from his fablesAesop, Fables ([Augsburg, ca. 1480])  G.7805.

The sight of this 1480 edition of Aesop’s fables in the ‘Printing’ section of the newly revamped Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library here at St Pancras leads me to ponder some long-standing conceptions or misconceptions regarding Aesop as a book for children.

Nowadays we tend to assume that Aesop is for children on the basis of two received ideas: that animals appeal to the infant mind and that illustrated books are for a juvenile audience. Both these ideas do indeed have historical precedent (what I once heard a museum curator refer to as ‘time-depth’): in the prologue to John of Capua’s Directorium humanae vitae (ultimately derived from the Panchatantra) we are told that ‘the sages met together and decided to make a book and adapt it to the language of birds and beasts, for three reasons. First, to discover the sources of wisdom. Second, this book is for knowledge and play: the wise man will learn because of its wisdom and the fool will derive entertainment. Third, because children, and those who delight  in hearing parables and childish words, will take pleasure in learning and their learning will be made easier by the sweetness of the words and the sight of figures and images.’ (The original Latin text is here.)

Animal fable was also associated with humour, and on occasion this is linked with the stigma of being lightweight: Seneca recommended that his friend Polybius should gather ‘the tales and fables of Aesop’ [fabellas quoque et Aesopeos logos] as an exercise in ‘the lighter kind of literature’ [haec hilariora studia] to distract him from his grief [Ad Polybium 8.3]. When the French Jesuit François Vavasseur dignified fable with critical attention in the 17th century it was in the significantly named De ludicra dictione (Paris, 1658; British Library 88.k.11.(1.)).

If we look inside the edition of Aesop displayed in the gallery, with the aid of the online facsimile made from a copy in the Bavarian State Library we will find tales which are of the earth earthy: did you hear the one about the new wife who complained about her husband because he didn’t measure up to the donkeys she was used to seeing on her parents’ farm? Or see the pictures of bodily functions such as this one:

Woodcut of a man vomiting and defecating

The message of other fables is one of Realpolitik: the animals take revenge on the lion once he is old and weak:

Woodcut of a lion being attacked by other animals

Young readers might also be disappointed to find the fables couched in Latin elegiac verse.

Fables in one sense are the most naked of fictions, telling of the plain absurdity of talking animals.  But this impossibility alerts us to the fact that pleasant (and sometimes unpleasant) fictions can enclose a hard truth for the alert and adult reader.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic studies


Fabula docet: illustrierte Fabelbücher aus sechs Jahrhunderten (Wolfenbüttel, 1983)  2708.h.57

Barry Taylor, ‘Aesop’, in Encyclopedia of literary translation, ed. Olive Classe (London, 2001)  HLR 418.02 or YC.2001.b.170

19 March 2014

’Orrible crimes and ghastly murders

The popular literature that flourished in Spain from the first days of printing until the early 20th century was known as literatura de cordel, because the material for sale was displayed hung on cord or twine.  One of the most widespread formats of this literature was the pliego suelto, the equivalent of the English chapbook. The texts were in verse, later in prose, usually illustrated with simple woodcuts.  The visual element was hugely important among a semi-literate population, even though the illustrations were often recycled and so did not always fit the story exactly. The paper was of the cheapest quality and the printing similarly poor.  Relatively few pliegos have therefore survived from among the many thousands printed.

The British Library and Cambridge University Library hold between them more than 4,700 pliegos dating from the 18th to the early 20th centuries. These have now been digitized and are being fully catalogued as part of an AHRC-funded research project on the representation and perception of wrongdoing in 19th-century Spain. Many recount tales of crime and violence, banditry, elopements, adultery and bloody revenge, generally ending in arrest, repentance, execution and, occasionally, salvation. These works take the form of romances (ballads), jácaras (ballads of low life) and relaciones (accounts of events).

Although more learned literary works were among the earliest pliegos, the format is largely associated with popular literature, and increasingly so from the 17th century onwards. The subject matter was not restricted to crime and violence, but embraced the lives of saints and Biblical figures, miracles, monstrous creatures, natural disasters and historical and current events. Non-narrative works, such as highlights of plays, satirical and burlesque verse, and love poems were also offered for sale.

However, there was an enormous appetite for sensational accounts of crimes and acts of violence, and certain popular ballads were reprinted over and over again. They told of both real and fictional events at a time when the ability to distinguish fact from fiction was underdeveloped among a population of whom barely 20% were literate. The pliegos thus served as a source of both entertainment and information. The latter role increased in importance as the century advanced and equally sensational accounts of actual crimes circulated. Much the same phenomenon occurred in Britain in the same period even though literacy levels were higher.

A best seller

Tales of women assaulted and abandoned in wild places were frequent subjects of the pliegos. Among the most frequently printed was the tale of wretched Rosaura of Trujillo. She elopes with her lover, accompanied unexpectedly by his evil male cousin. The pair ride off with her into the Sierra Morena where Rosaura is abandoned after being stripped, tied up and (we assume) raped. After three days she is discovered by a huntsman who takes her back to civilization. The lover and cousin are duly caught, tried and executed, and Rosaura withdraws to a convent. The British Library and Cambridge UL hold between them 16 editions, while yet more exist in other libraries, printed in different years and in various places, although many bear no date or place of publication. 

Page from a chapbook with woodcuts of a woman tied to a tree and a man with a gun and dogRosaura of Trujillo, from an undated edition printed in Barcelona by the heirs of Juan Jolis. British Library G.11303(36)

A story in similar mould is told of Doña Fénix Alba, who was also abandoned and left for dead by her lover, and also eventually rescued by a huntsman. Doña Fénix, however, had first been saved by a lion which, after killing the lover, cared for her for six years in its cave. Unfortunately, the huntsman shoots the beast dead to save his own skin.

The ‘Ripper Streets’ of Madrid

The tale entitled ‘El Maltés en Madrid’ tells how this gallant gentleman from Malta cheated death at the hands of a skilled femme fatale and her three male heavies. The woman dupes him into entering her house where the gang proposes to rob and kill him. However, the Maltese outwits them with the aid of his resourceful servant who summons a soldier friend and three grenadiers. The gang is overpowered and three bodies are then discovered preserved in salt, plus six more desiccated corpses. The second part reveals that they had already robbed and murdered twenty-six men and a child. Arrested, they confess under torture. Repentance is followed by swift exemplary punishment: all four are hung, drawn and quartered, and their unfortunate servant girl is tarred and feathered. 

  Illustration of a woman inviting a man to enter a room where three shadowy figures awaitThe victim is lured to his planned fate, from El Maltés en Madrid  (Madrid: José M. Marés, 1857) 11450.f.24(73)

True crimes

One volume of pliegos in our collection contains a number of what appear to be actual events, as they refer to specific dates and places. One ‘horroroso caso’ tells (shelfmark 11450.f.27(11)) how the shepherd Lorenzo Malmierca murdered his wife and child in a fit of seeming madness. We are told the date of Malmierca’s execution, 14 November 1842, and the name of the judge, Juan Pablo Trigueros. The account of a failed robbery at the house of the mayor of Almoster (near Reus, Tarragona) contains a similar level of specific detail: the place, the month (but not the year – in fact 1854), the names of both the mayor and the five aggressors. Two people died and three were injured. All five perpetrators were captured and sentenced to death. However, the conclusion focuses on their repentance prior to execution and consequent salvation. The text and engraving specifically recall the repentance of the Good Thief in the story of Christ’s crucifixion.

Illustration of a murderous attack on a house in AlmosterMurder in Almoster,  from Horrorosos asesinatos cometidos en el pueblo de Almostér  (Barcelona, 1854).  11450.f.27(40)

Another pliego, the work of the same printer, Ignacio Estivill, in the same year, tells how one Juan Valmajor attacked his wife and two stepdaughters with an axe. Precise details are again given: the incident took place in Figueras, at night, on 4 March 1854. Valmajor, a sawyer, had been drinking and cut down his wife and badly injured one stepdaughter, after declaring that he was sick and tired of them, ‘Me canso ya de aguantaros’. The girls are saved by the intervention of a security guard (a guarda-terra), who stabs Valmajor with a bayonet. On this occasion, the criminal has no time for repentance and the narrator can only ask the audience to pray for his soul.

Illustration of a guard stabbing a kirderer whose victims lie nearbyThe murderous Valmajor from Relacion ... de la catástrofe sangrienta ocurrida en la villa de Figueras (Barcelona, 1854).  11450.f.27(44) 

In 2013 Cambridge University Library organized an exhibition around a display of a number of the pliegos and of similar material in English.  See

Geoff West, Lead Curator Hispanic Studies

17 March 2014

Parishes, Printing and Pietism – the Pietist Mission and German Publishing in London

Some Germans came to London as a workforce skilled in required, specialist trades; others came to try their luck and find work, often with hopes to make their fortune in the British capital, which bustled with life, diversity, and activity during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Germans would settle to live and put down roots in London near to where they worked and also to where their compatriots had already settled. In the east end of London in the late 17th and 18th centuries the sugar trade flourished, and many of the Germans settling there were confectionery bakers, with a skill which was in high demand. Generally, they were well-off, respectable tradesmen. Some of the parishioners at St George’s Lutheran Church were sugar factory owners, working in a trade where men earned good wages. 

Such wealth and status are reflected in the parish life of St George’s. With its school attached, St George’s Church in the East End of London is a good-sized building, its interior very reminiscent of protestant churches from the same period in north-eastern Germany. The parish was funded by parishioners who would have to buy or rent their seats and pews in the church. In contrast to the customary, spartan design of Lutheran churches, the comfortable family box pews of the factory owners and well-to-do families clearly reflected their wealth.

St George’s parish archives, which are held at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives reveal much about parish life and parishioners’ backgrounds. The archives are often a first port of call for genealogists researching German ancestry.

That places of worship could be built, parishes could be founded was only possible thanks to the Toleration Act  passed under William III in 1689.

Whilst German parish life was beginning to thrive in the east end of London, in Germany the Franckesche Stiftungen in Halle, and their missionary activity worldwide, were enjoying their heydays. August Hermann Francke founded the Franckesche Stiftungen in 1698 as a school for orphans and the poor. Rapidly the institution grew and expanded into a city within a city, with schools for all age groups, workshops where the orphans first trained as apprentices and then continued in employment, gardens, kitchens, a library, a pharmacy – and a publishing house. It was a whole independently-functioning microcosm, often referred to as ‘the New Jerusalem’. In the print shop, Francke and his pupils were able to have their Pietist, devotional literature published, which they then promoted as part of their missionary activities across the world.

  Ground-plan and external view of the Waisenhaus in HalleDrawing and ground-plan of the Waisenhaus in Halle, from August Hermann Francke, Segens-volle Fussstapfen des noch lebenden und waltenden liebreichen und getreuen Gottes ... (Halle, 1709) RB.23.a.16349 (copy from the Library of St George's Church).

One of the first buildings added to the original orphanage was the ‘English House’, where visiting students from Britain lodged.  Francke’s pupils also travelled to England – and then across the globe, promoting Christian knowledge as missionaries.  Gustav Anton Wachsel, the first pastor of St George’s Lutheran Church, had a background steeped in August Hermann Francke and German Pietism. His library, the foundation of St George’s Church Library, reflects that. Many titles are German Pietist works, published by the Waisenhaus in Halle, notably: August Hermann Franckens Oeffentliche Reden über die Passions-Historie, wie dieselbe vom Evangelisten Johanne im 18. und 19. Cap. beschrieben ist, gehalten von Esto mihi bis Ostern 1716 in dem Wäysenhause zu Glaucha an Halle. (Halle, [1733]; RB.23.a.16404).

Perhaps the most renowned pupil of Francke who came to Britain in the 18th century was Friedrich Michael Ziegenhagen (1694-1776), court preacher to King George I. Whilst as a court preacher he was based at the Royal Chapel at St James’s, it is likely that he would occasionally have preached at St George’s too. His titles are certainly present in the St George’s collection, including the commentary on the Lord’s Prayer shown below.

Title page of Ziegenhagen's 'Kurtze Erklärung des Gebets des Herrn'Friedrich Michael Ziegenhagen, Kurtze Erklärung des Gebets des Herrn, oder des Vater Unsers, nebst einigen Anmerckungen über dasselbe. (London, 1750.) RB.23.a.16338(1). (copy from the Library of St George's Church)

This work was printed by Johann Christoph Haberkorn and Johann Nicodemus Gussen, who ran the first German printing press in London. The printing and publishing trade was one which Germans adopted and helped to flourish in 18th-century London. Publishing religious and devotional texts provided good, solid work for the printing shops, and the publications were an important medium to promote Christian knowledge, all in the tradition of August Hermann Francke and the Stiftungen in Halle.

Dorothea Miehe, Curator German Studies

14 March 2014

A Marvel in the British Library Bulgarian Collections

  First page of the Gospel of Mark showing St Mark copying the Gospel surrounded by images of the young Christ, John the Baptist and Isaiah on a decorative background.Headpiece of the Gospel of St Mark from the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander. In the red roundel a portrait of St Mark shown copying the Gospel surrounded by the young Christ (above), John the Baptist (left) and Isaiah (right). The design of all headpieces in the Gospels follows a circular pattern on a decorative floriated background.

A famous Bulgarian manuscript, the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (British Library Additional. MS. 39627) will be celebrated once again at a forthcoming seminar in the British Library. The manuscript will be discussed in the context of our shared European cultural heritage and as the cornerstone of literary and cultural developments in the Balkans. The Balkan Day seminar is at the British Library on 13 June 2014.

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander – in Bulgarian Четвероевангелието на Цар Иван Александър, and also known in Bulgaria as the ‘London Gospel’ (Лондоското Евангелие на Цар Иван Александър) – is a manuscript of great importance and generally referred to as a masterpiece of Bulgarian, Slavonic and Byzantine medieval art. In Bulgaria the Gospels are celebrated as a national treasure and often seen as an important cultural link between Britain and Bulgaria.

During the rule of Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-71), the Bulgarian medieval state was already past its height, but this period was marked by cultural revival before the country was finally subdued by the Ottoman Turks in 1396. The Gospels were made for the Tsar in 1355/56 at Tŭrnovo, the centre of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185–1396).

After the Ottoman conquest of Bulgaria, the manuscript was taken to safety first to Moldavia and afterwards to the monastery of St Paul on Mount Athos in Greece. Here the manuscript was presented to the Hon. Robert Curzon, fourteenth Baron Zouche of Harringworth (1810–1873), a traveller and collector of manuscripts. The manuscript was bequeathed to the British Museum Library (now the British Library) in 1917.

St Mark presenting his Gospel to the Tsar, with an image of the Ascension At the beginning or the end of each Gospel in this codex is an image of the Evangelist presenting his manuscript to Tsar Ivan Alexander. Here is image of from the Gospel of Mark, with a a scene from the Ascension of Christ depicted above. (Add.MS.39627 f.134v)

The Gospels were displayed and celebrated as an outstanding artistic treasure in at least nine major national and international exhibitions in five cities (Sofia in 1977 and 1996; London in 1977/78, 1994, 2007 and 2008/09; Liverpool 1989; Athens 2002 and New York 2004). They have also exhibited in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery  several times, most recently in 2007 to celebrate the entry of Bulgaria into the EU and in 2012/13 to promote the publication of a full digital version of the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander, which is available on the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website.  

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander are written in Bulgarian Church Slavonic and were the work of a single scribe. The first pages of each Gospel display his calligraphic skills in ornamented initials, titles in gold and formal uncial letters in black:

Opening of the Gospel of Luke with images of St Luke, Christ and Zachariah on a decorative background
Headpiece of the Gospel of Luke. In the vertical arrangement a roundel portrait of St Luke is in the centre. A bearded Christ (above) and Zachariah (below) are depicted in two smaller roundels. Add.MS.39627 f.137r

The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander have been a subject of scholarly interest ever since they were deposited on permanent loan to the British Museum Library in 1876.  Since then a number of studies and catalogue entries have been written about the manuscript. In the 2000s Bulgarian scholars from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the University of Sofia and The St. Cyril and Methodius National Library in Sofia thoroughly researched the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander with the aim of providing a detailed codicological description of the codex.

The British Library holds over 70 Slavonic and East European Cyrillic medieval and early modern manuscripts (Russian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Macedonian, and Bosnian); some of them are of very fine workmanship. The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander constitute the first digitised manuscript in this collection.

  Opening of the Gospel of John with images of St John the Evangelist and the Holy Trinity on a decorative backgroundHeadpiece of the Gospel of  John with a portrait of St John minutely  executed in a red roundel and three smaller roundels below depicting the Holy Trinity. Add.MS.39627 f.213r

For more images and description of the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander see the British Library Medieval manuscripts blog post  of 17 September 2012.

Milan Grba, Lead Curator South-East European Collections


Ralph A. Cleminson, Union catalogue of Cyrillic manuscripts in British and Irish collections. The Anne Pennington catalogue. (London, 1988) 2725.e.600

Ekaterina Dimitrova, The Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander. (London, 1994) YC.1995.b.3420

Exhibition catalogues:

Slavianski rŭkopisi ot Britanskiia muzeĭ i biblioteka = Slavonic manuscripts from the British Museum and Library. (Sofia, [1977]) 2719.e.11

Byzantium: treasures of Byzantine art and culture from British collections. (London, 1994) YC.1995.b.5285

Byzantium: faith and power (1261-1557). Edited by Helen C. Evans. (New York, 2004) LC.31.b.1397

Sacred: books of the three faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. (London, 2007) YC.2008.a.6318

Byzantium, 330-1453. (London, 2008) LC.31.b.5843



12 March 2014

‘The Tin Book’

The British Library has over 70 books written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) as well as a number of his manuscripts and sound recordings. Several of these were included in the Library’s 2007-2008 exhibition Breaking the Rules: the Art of the European Avant-Garde, 1900-1937, of which Marinetti, the creator of Futurism and its indefatigable promoter until his death in 1944, was one of the protagonists.

Cover of 'Zang Tumb Tumb' with experimental typographyThe cover of Marinetti’s poem Zang Tumb Tumb (Milan, 1914). British Library 12331.f.57

The rarest and most unusual item in the Library’s Marinetti collection was, however, acquired in 2009, the centenary year of the founding of Futurism, with generous support from The Art Fund and the Friends of the British Library. It can currently be seen in the newly-refurbished Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library as part of a display of books bought with the help of the Friends to mark their 25th anniversary. 

Cover of 'Parole in Libertà' with an abstract design  and pointed letteringCover of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti/Tullio d’Albisola Parole In Libertà Futuriste Olfattive Tattili Termiche (Rome, 1932). HS.74/2143

Known as ‘The Tin Book’, its proper title is Parole In Libertà Futuriste Olfattive Tattili Termiche (‘Futurist Words in Freedom - Olfactory, Tactile, Thermal’). It is the most radical example of experimentation in futurist book production, the culmination of earlier experiments in the use of metal in such publications as Depero futurista (1927) – also called the ‘bolted book’ as its pages are held together by two aluminium bolts – and the aluminium cover of the menu for the first Futurist banquet in 1931.

Cover of 'Depero futuristo' showing the two metal bolts that hold the book togetherFortunato Depero, Depero futurista, 1913-1927. (Milan, [1927]) RB.23.b.6897

Parole In Libertà Futuriste was the first of only two Futurist ‘lithotin’ books ever produced and a prime example of a ‘book-object’. It was created in 1932 by Marinetti and Tullio D’Albisola (pseudonym of Tullio Spartaco Mazzotti, 1899-1971), a second generation futurist poet, sculptor and ceramicist. The second tin book, L’ Anguria lirica (‘The lyrical watermelon’), was published in 1934 with poems by Tullio d’Albisola, drawings by Bruno Munari and Nicolai Diulgheroff, and a preface by Marinetti. Both books were printed in Savona by Lito-Latta, a tin products factory owned by Vincenzo Nosenzo, a former sea captain and a friend and patron of the Futurists who hoped that this publishing venture would earn him extra publicity as several copies of the book were intended for distribution to the political and cultural elite (of the 101 copies printed only 50 were offered for sale). Its publication was shared by Nosenzo's firm, which was responsible for the book's production and Marinetti's Futurist publishing house ‘Poesia’ in Rome.

Page from 'Parole in Libertà' with the abstract red-and-black logo of the Lito Latta tin companyParole In Libertà Futuriste Olfattive Tattili Termiche, p.[27] showing the Lito-Latta logo.

The book is made entirely of tin with the text and colour designs lithographically reproduced on its 30 pages. It contains a selection of texts by Marinetti, written in the style of ‘words-in-freedom’, each accompanied, on the verso, by a design by Tullio d’Albisola highlighting a line or phrase from the poem. This arrangement means that simultaneous visual comparison of the text and its artistic interpretation is impossible. Some of the texts have a retrospective character, like the ‘Bombardamento di Adrianopoli’ which is a variant of the poem originally included in Zang Tumb Tumb in 1914; its illustration is likewise a variation on the cover of the earlier book.

Text of 'Bombrdamento di Adrianapoli' and illustration using words and typography to create an imageMarinetti’s ‘Bombardamento di Adrianopoli’ and Tullio d’Albisola’s accompanying illustration, Parole In Libertà Futuriste Olfattive Tattili Termiche, p.[17-18]

A third tin book was produced some 50 years later in conjunction with the exhibition Futurismo & Futurismi in Venice in 1986. Issued in an edition of 200 copies, Farfa: Il Miliardario della fantasia, was a homage to the Futurist spirit of innovation and experimentation, and its production involved the same techniques used in the two earlier books. It had seven previously unpublished illustrations by Bruno Munari (who had also illustrated L’Anguria lirica), was also printed in Savona (albeit by a different publisher), and had the same number of pages as Marinetti’s Tin Book. It was also a tribute to Farfa (real name Vittorio Osvaldo Tommasini), the Futurist poet, painter, ceramicist, photographer and printmaker who, irony of ironies, in 1964 was run over and killed by a car, the archetypal futurist symbol of modernity.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Italian and modern Greek Section


Breaking the Rules: the Printed Face of the European Avant Garde, 1900-1937 (London, 2007)  YC.2008.b.251.

Mirella Bentivoglio ‘Innovative Artist’s Books of Italian Futurism’ in International Futurism in Arts and Literature edited by Günter Berghaus (Berlin, 2000), pp. 473-486. YA.2002.a.8247.

Futurismo & Futurismi (Milan, 1986) YV.1986.b.694. [English edition (London, 1986) at YV.1987.b.2043.]

Silvia Bottaro, Vincenzo Nosenzo: prestidigitatore e re della latta (Turin, 2009).


10 March 2014

Politics, polemics and prostitutes: Josef Svatopluk Machar, 1864-1942.

2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Czech poet Josef Svatopluk Machar – or possibly, using another method of reckoning, his 37½th birthday, as he was born on 29 February 1864.

Portrait of Machar with a facsimile of his signaturePortrait of Machar from Tristium Vindobona (Prague, 1908), BL shelfmark X.989/7380(1)

The son of a mill-hand, Machar was born in Kolin and educated in Prague (1878-86) before beginning a career as a clerk in Vienna in 1889, where he stayed for the next thirty years. With the establishment in 1918 of an independent Czechoslovak state, he became an inspector-general in the Czechoslovak Army (1919-24). However, his poetic career developed in parallel throughout these years, and his experiences in Vienna provided him with material for a steady stream of satirical works, including dramas and novels in verse, which expressed his disillusionment with the corrupt and inefficient administration of the Habsburg Empire, its clerical conservatism, and its hypocrisy relating to women’s place in society.  

At a time when the Symbolist movement was gaining ground among Czech artists and writers, Machar supported the Realist movement, choosing themes for his poetry from everyday life. He attacked the monarchist feudal state with irony and sarcasm, and criticized the double standards of bourgeois morality in the collections Confiteor 1-3 and  Zde by měly kvést (‘Here should roses bloom’), the verse novel Magdalena , and collections of political verse such as Tristium Vindobona 1-20, Golgotha and Satiricon. Believing that the Christian epoch marked a decline in human culture, Machar turned to antiquity in his search for an ideal in the cycle of poems Svědomím věků (‘Through the Conscience of the Ages’) published in 9 parts between 1906 and 1926. Like Swinburne and Ibsen, he was fascinated by the figure of the Emperor Julian the Apostate, to whom he addressed one of his finest poems, in keeping with the spirit of many of his polemical writings such as his collection of feuilletons  Řím (‘Rome’; Prague, 1911, 10151.c.38.).

Illustration of Julian the Apostate trampling a cross beneath his feetJulian the Apostate, illustration from Tristium Vindobona

Machar was a truly European writer in his awareness of social concerns which preoccupied many of his contemporaries in the Realist movement. His Magdalena is a close relative of Zola’s Nana (1880) and the Norwegian Christian Krohg’s Albertine (1886), and his depiction of the social forces which drive a woman into prostitution is equally skilled and merciless, as is his portrayal of the connivance of church and secular authorities in trapping women in subjection to a system whose strictures are similar to those which hampered the emerging Czech nationalist movement. Although in some respects Machar abandoned progressive literary tendencies once independence was achieved, it is fitting that, since we cannot commemorate him on his actual birth-date, we should do so close to International Women’s Day.

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech and Slovak Studies


Josef Svatopluk Machar, Confiteor 1-3 (Prague, 1887-92) 1568/1782
Josef Svatopluk Machar, Zde by měly kvést (Prague, 1894) 1606/1085
Josef Svatopluk Machar, Magdalena (Prague, 1893)  X.908/18271
Josef Svatopluk Machar, Golgotha. 1895-1901. Třetí vydání  (Prague, 1908) X.989/7380.(2.)
Josef Svatopluk Machar,  Satiricon (Prague, 1904) 011586.b.17..