European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

13 posts from May 2014

30 May 2014

A collection of Primož Trubar Slovenian and Croatian Protestant books in the British Library

Woodcut portrait of Primož Trubar in a decorative border
Woodcut portrait of Primož Trubar by Jacob Lederlein printed in the second edition of Trubar’s translation of the New Testament, (Tübingen, 1582) C.110.b.7.

Primož Trubar (or Primus Truber, 1508-1586) was the founder of the Slovenian literary language, a Protestant priest and a leader of the Protestant Reformation in the Slovenian lands. Trubar was the author of the first printed book in the Slovenian language, a Catechism and Primer (Tübingen, 1550) intended for the education of all Slovenians.

Trubar’s literary and cultural legacy will be celebrated at the forthcoming Balkan Day seminar at the British Library on 13 June 2014.

As a Protestant priest Trubar believed that religious books should be written in a language that people could read and understand. He based the Slovenian literary language on the central Slovenian dialect spoken in his birthplace near Ljubljana, the provincial capital of Carniola. Trubar’s literary engagement becomes all the more important knowing that before him the Slovenian literary tradition was virtually non-existent and the German language was progressively introduced in administration and in church services in place of Latin. Trubar’s literary and educational activities aimed at the Slovenian people had achieved a long-term impact on the Slovenian national written heritage and cultural tradition during and long after the suppression of Protestant church activities in the Slovenian lands.  

Title page of Trubar's New Testament with a woodcut printer's device of a lamb defeating a dragon
Title page of Trubar’s New Testament (Tübingen, 1557-77; C.110.e.6.), featuring the emblem of Trubar’s Tübingen printer Morchart: a lamb standing on a defeated dragon, holding a ‘Victoria’ banner.

The image above is a title page of Trubar’s main work, a translation of the New Testament, which he accomplished over a period of 20 years from 1557 to 1577. Trubar used Latin for the Slovenian alphabet which most people could read and write. The only differences between Latin and Slovenian scripts were the new characters in the Slovenian Latin script for Slovenian sounds which did not exist in Latin and German languages. On the title page above, sh represents Slovenian sounds š and ž.

Trubar’s total output as an author, translator and editor consists of 26 Slovenian books; his last work was printed posthumously in 1595. His heterogeneous work included catechisms, primers, poems, prayers, devotional books, parts of the Old and New Testaments, theological interpretations, and a book of Protestant regulations. His opus is nearly a half of the total Slovenian Protestant book production of about 56 books. The Slovenian and Croatian Protestant books which survived the Counter-Reformation period are very rare today,  preserved in  only a small number of copies.

The British Library holds 13 of Trubar’s most important books, including the complete New Testament and the Catechism (Tübingen, 1575; C.110.b.6.) in Slovenian Latin, and in the Croatian Cyrillic and Glagolitic  alphabets. Some of Trubar’s books (C.110.a.15.(1- 4)) came to the Library in 1753 as part of the foundation collection of Sir Hans Sloane, but the majority were acquired in the 1840s and the last acquisition of an original edition by Trubar, a complete New Testament in Cyrillic (Urach, 1563, C.51.e.8.), a valuable and extremely rare book, was in 1953.

The Library’s collection of Trubar’s books is also very important for the study of Croatian Protestant literature and culture in the 16th century. Baron Hans von Ungnad, Freiherr von Sonnegg (1493-1564), a former provincial governor of Styria (Štajerska in Slovene), established a Bible Institute with a printing press in Urach near Tübingen (1560-1564). Trubar was appointed as a director of the Institute which employed nine people. Its  main aim was to produce Protestant books and to spread the Gospel to people of all faiths in Croatia, Dalmatia, Slavonia, Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and as far as Constantinople. To achieve this goal Trubar employed two Croatian Protestants, Stjepan Konzul Istranin (1521-1579) and Antun Dalmatin (d.1579), who translated his religious works into Croatian in the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets. To complement this South-Slavonic enterprise, two Serbian Orthodox monks from Serbia and Bosnia, Matija Popović and Jovan Maleševac, were employed to proofread the Cyrillic script of Konzul’s and Dalmatin’s translations.

Page showing four forms of the Glagolitic alphabet A Glagolitic alphabet presented in four slightly different forms for study and spelling  (Urach, 1561)  C.110.a.15.(3.))

A printed page with four forms of the Cyrillic alphabetA Cyrillic alphabet presented in four slightly different forms for study and spelling (Urach, 1561, C.110.a.15.(2.))

The British Library holds nine items from the Urach press in Glagolitic and Cyrillic scripts, all the Konzul and Dalmatin translations of Trubar’s works: Catechism and Primer (1561, C.110.a.15(1-4)), translations of Liturgical Epistles and Gospels (1562, C.65.l.9.), a compilation from the Augsburg Confession (1562, C.27.e.8. and C.27.e.10.), and the translation of the New Testament (1563, C.24.a.18. and C.51.e.8.). The books of the Urach press which bear the Tübingen imprint are of great bibliographic rarity and, although printed in about 25,000 copies, only about 250 are known to have survived to the present day in some 50 European collections.

Title-page of 'Tabla za dicu' The title page of Trubar’s Primer which included a small catechism, Tabla za dicu, in Dalmatin’s translation and transcription into Cyrillic in the Ikavian (ikavica) variant of the Čakavian dialect of the Croatian language in Cyrillic script, considered also as Western Cyrillic.

The Library also holds a significant collection works about Trubar and Slovenian Protestant books and culture in the 16th century, acquired over a period of 170 years from 1844 to the present day. The collection includes works about Trubar in Slovenian, German and other languages; reprints and facsimile and bibliophile editions of Trubar’s works; and other primary source materials such as correspondence; there are transcriptions into modern languages and translations, collections and anthologies, fiction and poetry, biographies and bibliographies, exhibition catalogues,and anniversary books including the most recent celebration of the 500th anniversary of Trubar’s birth in 2008.

Milan Grba, Lead Curator of Southeast European Studies


Digital versions of Trubar’s books and further references from the Memmingen city archive.

Digital version of Trubar’s posthumous book published by his son in 1595 from the Slovenian Digital Library.


28 May 2014

"Tremendous in sublimity" or "Plunging into whirlpools": Coleridge's German books

In an earlier ‘Anglo-German’ post I wrote about the German Romantic author Ludwig Tieck as a mediator of English literature in Germany, and mentioned his meeting with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who sought to play a similar role for German literature in Britain. Long before he met Tieck, Coleridge had been fascinated by German literature and thought: a late-night reading of Schiller’s play Die Räuber (in translation) as a student inspired a rather overwrought sonnet to the “Bard tremendous in sublimity!”.

But Coleridge still spoke hardly any German when in September 1798 he set out for Germany with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, hoping to improve his knowledge. Unlike the Wordsworths, who ended up spending an isolated and miserable winter in Goslar, Coleridge made the most of his time, travelling, observing, making contacts and eventually enrolling as a student at Göttingen University. By the end of his ten-month stay he claimed, with a hearty dose of self-deprecation, that he could “speak [German] so fluently that it must be torture for a German to be in my company … my pronunciation is hideous.”

Back home, although many of Coleridge’s plans for published works which would bring German writers and philosophy to a wider public never came to fruition, he continued to read and engage with German literature and philosophy, as is evident from his discussions and correspondence with Tieck almost two decades later and from the notes he made in his German books. 
Nine books in glod-tooled leather bindings on a shelfA selection of Coleridge’s German books in the British Library’s collections

Just as the British Museum Library bought many books from Tieck’s library, so it acquired many from Coleridge’s collection. Unlike Tieck’s books, these were listed in the Library’s printed catalogue under Coleridge’s name (“Books containing MS notes by S.T. Coleridge”). Of 198 titles with this heading, some 83 are in German, with an additional handful of translations of German works or Latin works by German authors. The idealist philosophers Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel are best represented, but there are also works of German literature, theology and natural history.

Like Tieck, Coleridge liked to annotate his books, and was not afraid to take issue with what he read. Unlike Tieck, however, he seems to have preferred writing on fly-leaves or inserting separate sheets of comments rather than writing in the margins themselves. Reflecting on Herder’s Kalligone he criticises the German idealists for making their philosophy of nature “supersede the logical discipline”.

  Title-page of Herder's 'Kalligone' with Coleridge's notes on the fly-leafJohann Gottfried Herder, Kalligone (Leipzig, 1800) C.43.a.11.

In his copy of Fichte’s Die Bestimmung des Menschen he gets more personal, arguing that Fichte “plunges head over heels into the … whirlpool of pseudosophy.”

Title-page of Fichte's 'Bestimmung des Menschen' with Coleridge's notes on the fly-leaf
Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Die Bestimmung des Menschen (Berlin, 1800) C.43.a.12.

These comments show Coleridge to have been an enaged and critical reader, but there’s at least one example of more frustrated and frankly baffling marginalia. In his copy of Novalis’s writings (C.43.a.18) he notes in the bottom margin of one page: “Strangely out of place. Why in a cavern? And by a ghostly old hermit?”. This does not seem to relate to anything on the page in question: perhaps it was something that occurred to Coleridge from another context or another book he had open. Or perhaps a person from Porlock interrupted his note-taking…

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies


Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London, 1989) YH.1989.b.977.

26 May 2014

Alexander and the Elephant

A body of legendary material grew up around the historical figure of Alexander the Great and his teacher Aristotle. The Old Spanish Libro de los buenos proverbios (a 13th-century translation from the Arabic Kitab abad al-falasifa) includes this scientific anecdote:

Oyo de su maestro Aristotiles que de la tristicia  se desfaze el coraçon e que lo faze muy chico.  Pues quisolo provar e mando tomar un animalia el que es mas cerca de la natura del omne.  E mandolo prender e prisol muchos dias e mandol meter en un logar muy apartado (147.5)  
[Alexander heard from his master Aristotle that sadness destroys the heart and shrinks it.  So he wanted to prove this and took an animal which is closest to the nature of man.  And he ordered it to be taken and he kept it for many days and ordered it to be put in a remote place]

After a time he had it cut open, and its heart had indeed shrunk.

What was this ‘animal which is closest to the nature of man’? The story is not picked up in Cary’s classic study.  The most obvious candidate is an ape.  But …

When Alfonso X of Castile and Leon around 1270 ordered this snippet to be incorporated into his General estoria (Universal History), his editorial team turned to a favourite text of theirs, the Natural History of Pliny the Elder:

… mando tomar una animalia la que es mas acerca de la natura del omne, e esta tenemos que es ell elefant, segund cuenta Plinio, e cuando fue preso, mandol meter en un lugar mucho oscuro (426)  
[… and this animal we believe to be the elephant, as Pliny relates]

And Pliny does indeed give the elephant very good press:

Let us now pass on to the other animals, and first of all to the land animals. The elephant is the largest of them all, and in intelligence approaches the nearest to man. It understands the language of its country, it obeys commands, and it remembers all the duties which it has been taught. It is sensible alike of the pleasures of love and glory, and, to a degree that is rare among men even, possesses notions of honesty, prudence, and equity; it has a religious respect also for the stars, and a veneration for the sun and the moon.  (8.1.1)

The noble beast, we may be sure, would never have performed on Alexander the experiment which Alexander performed on him.

Mediaeval illustration of elephants being presented to Alexander who sits in a tent
Elephants being presented to Alexander the Great; miniature from a mediaeval French prose ‘Roman d’Alexandre’ (Southern Netherlands, early 14th century). British Library MS Harley 4979, f.74.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic studies


Libro de los buenos proverbios : estudio y edición crítica de las versiones castellana y árabe, ed. Christy Bandak (Zaragoza, 2007)  YF.2011.a.5330

Alfonso X, El Sabio,  General estoria, ed. Pedro Sánchez-Prieto Borja et al. (Madrid, 2009), IV parte, Tom. 1.  YF.2010.a.6089

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, eds. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A.

George Cary, The Medieval Alexander (Cambridge,  1956)


23 May 2014

Seminar on Textual Bibliography for Modern Foreign Languages

The annual Seminar on Textual Bibliography for Modern Foreign Languages will take place at the British Library on Monday 2 June in the Eliot Room of the Library’s Conference Centre.

Despite its rather specific title, the seminar always covers a range of topics in the fields of bibliography, printing, book history and publishing history, and this year we have a typically varied and interesting programme:

11.00     Registration and Coffee

11.45    ELIZABETH UPPER (Warburg Institute, University of London), Reconstructing Early Modern Workshop Practice for Colour Printing, c.1490-1630

12.30 Lunch (Own arrangements).

1.45   JOHN DUNKLEY, The Marriage of Gradgrind and Marple: Editing Eighteenth-Century French plays

2.30  GRAHAM WHITAKER  (University of Glasgow), The ‘Science of Antiquity’ and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical in Germany.

3.15  Tea

3.45  NEIL HARRIS (University of Udine), Press Variants and Cancellantia in the First Edition of Alessandro Manzoni’s Promessi sposi (1825-26)

4.30 AENGUS WARD  (University of Birmingham), Editing Alfonso X’s Estoria de Espanna

The Seminar will end at 5.15 pm.

The seminar is open to all and attendance is free, but please let Susan Reed ([email protected]) know if you would like to attend.

Illustration showing various stages of the printing process in the 17th centuryPrinters at work; detail from the titlepage of Bernardus Mallinckrodt, De ortu ac progressu artis typographicæ dissertatio historica ... (Cologne, 1640)  C.75.b.17.(1.)


20 May 2014

You plowed my blooming orchards, you did!

On 18 May this year Crimean Tatars worldwide commemorated a sad anniversary in their history: 70 years since their deportation from their homeland Crimea in May 1944. The planned commemorations in Crimea itself did not go as planned by the Crimean Tatars: all mass gatherings were banned in the annexed Crimea until June 6 2014.

“In a single night, approximately 191,000 had the dehumanizing experience of being taken from their homes, stripped of their possessions, and exiled from their homeland”, writes Greta Lynn Uehling in her thoroughly-researched book Beyond memory: the Crimean Tatars’ deportation and return. The Deportation, which claimed the lives of at least 30% of the entire Crimean Tatar population,  started on the early morning of 18 May by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD. The Tatars were given about 30 minutes to pack. The whole operation of the deportation ordered by Stalin lasted three days. By 20 May at 16.00  it was finished (cattle cars were loaded and sent to places of deportation). A telegram was duly sent to Lavrentiy Beria by I. Serov, the Deputy National Commissar of Internal Affairs of USSR, and A. Kobulov, National Commissar of Internal Affairs of the Uzbek SSR, about the end of the special operation. The texts of telegrams and other documents related to the Deportation are available to our readers in the Russian original in the book Stalinskii genotsid i etnotsid krymskotatarskogo naroda (Stalinist genocide and ethnocide of Crimean Tatar people).

Painting of an old woman with her head in her hands and an old man leaning on a stickPainting by the Crimean Tatar artist Rustem Eminov

For decades the Crimean Tatars were resettled in Central Asia and Siberia and prohibited from returning to their homeland. The Exile – called in Crimean Tatar “Sürgün” - left a profound wound in the soul of the nation and gave birth to many poems. The famous Crimean Tatar poet Fazil Eskender expressed this anger against the Soviet authorities in his poem Mayis 18 de (On May 18):   

You dragged my innocent childhood years,
On the tip of your bayonets!
On May 18 without fear of God,
You plowed my blooming orchards, you did!

Photograph of Monument to the Deported Crimean Tatars in SudakMonument to the Deported Crimean Tatars in Sudak ( image from Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

The British Library’s excellent Maps Collection holds many ancient maps showing the Crimean Peninsula (under the title Tartaria or Tartaria Minor) as well as memoirs of travellers to the Crimean Khanate before and after it became a part of the Russian empire.  

An 18th-century coloured map showing the Crimean peninsula, Black Sea and surrounding lands
Tabula Geographica qua pars Russiae. Pontus Euxinus ... et Tartaria Minor ... exhibentur
. 1720. 

The secret documents about the Deportation and memoirs of deported people were published in Ukraine in last decades and are part of our collections. The British Library Oral History collections hold two Russian-language interviews with deported Crimean Tatars made in the 1990s (C515/06). In 2008 British writer Lily Hyde published the first English-language novel about the return of a Crimean Tatar family to Crimea entitled Dream Land (London, 2008; YK.2009.a.30188). The book has been recently translated into Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian, adding to the growing literature about the Crimean Tatars and the forced deportations in the 20th century (picture below by Rimma Lough).  

Covers of three books about the deportation of the Crimean Tartars

This year the Crimean Tatars could not mark the 70th anniversary of the Deportation in Crimea itself in an appropriate way. The commemorative meeting took place not in the main square in Simferopol, as in previous decades, but on the outskirts of Simferopol near a mosque, with helicopters flying low above the heads of thousands of mourners. Yet Crimean Tatars will continue to remember and honour their dead. As the Crimean Tatar poet Cemil Kermencikli  wrote in his poem Tatarim (I am a Tatar): “I will insist on justice for a thousand years”.

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies

References/further reading:

Stalinskii genotsid i etnotsid krymskotatarskogo naroda. Dokumenty, fakty, kommentarii. (Simferopol, 2008). YF.2009.a.34028

Lily Hyde, Dream Land (London, 2008) YK.2009.a.30188

Deportatsiia krymskikh tatar 18 maia 1944 goda. Kak eto bylo. (Simferopol, 2004). YF.2006.a.17643

Greta Lynn Uehling, Beyond memory: the Crimean Tatars’ Deportation and Return (Basingstoke, 2004) YC.2006.a.8885

Krymski studii. Spetsialnyi vypusk "Krymskie tatary v "Khronike tekushchikh sobytii". 2000, issue 5-6. ZA.9.b.2491

Neal Ascherson, Black Sea: the Birthplace of Civilization and Barbarism (London, 1995) YC.1995.b.54

Alan Fisher, The Crimean Tatars (Stanford, 1978) X:800/28210

19 May 2014

Christian Doctrine for Slavonic People: an early Bosnian and Herzegovinian printed book

Title-page of 'Nauk krstjanski za narod slovinski' with a woodcut of the resurrection of JesusNauk krstjanski za narod slovinski (Venice 1611)  C.38.e.40.

Nauk krstjanski za narod slovinski (‘Christian Doctrine for Slavonic People’) is an early Bosnian and Herzegovinian printed book, printed in Venice in 1611 by the Bosnian Franciscan Matija Divković (1563-1631). The book is a compilation from the catechisms published by Jacobus Ledisma (1519-1575) and Roberto Bellarmino, translated from Latin into Bosnian, arranged and interpreted by Divković. Divković’s typographical achievements and his Christian Doctrine will be discussed at the forthcoming Balkan Day seminar at the British Library on 13 June 2014.

On the title leaf above Divković explains that he wrote his book to be useful for both clerics and lay people. Under the image of the resurrected Christ, the imprint gives the place and the year of printing, the name and address of the printer, “Pietro-Maria Bertano by the church called Santa Maria Formosa”. The title leaf bears the ownership stamp of the British Museum Library, now the British Library, dated 10 January 1849, the date of purchase from the London bookselling firm of Rodd. This is the only known copy in Britain and the only edition from Bertano’s press in the British Library.  

Page of 'Nauk krstjanski za narod slovinski' with a woodcut of Jesus preaching to the Apostles
The image above shows Jesus preaching to his apostles. The text on this leaf and the rest of the Christian Doctrine identifies Divković’s book as a typical work of the Counter-Reformation aimed at the revival of the Roman Catholic Church.

Here Divković explains that he translated the sacred texts into a “real and true Bosnian language” and further on he mentions “Slavonic language as in Bosnia Slavonic is spoken”. For Divković Bosnian, Slavonic and “our language”, the term he uses throughout the book, are synonyms for one language which is spoken by the people in Bosnia.

The Cyrillic alphabet in the book  is printed, in Divković’s words, using “Serbian characters” but Divković’s Cyrillic has at least ten specific characters of this minuscule Cyrillic alphabet, sometimes referred to as Bosnian Cyrillic (Bosančica); for example Divković uses a vertical rectangle symbol for the Cyrillic character ‘в’ (v).  

Divković writes mainly in the Jekavian (jekavica) variant of the Štokavian dialect with some Ikavian (ikavica) words added to it. In the Italian imprimatur printed in the Christian Doctrine the language and the alphabet are referred to as Illyric: “in lingua Illirica, & carattere Illirico di Fra Mattheo de Bossna”.

Divković’s Štokavian dialect was widely spoken in the lands which are today Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia, representing one linguistic entity between Slovenian in the west and the Bulgarian  in the east.

Title-page of 'Sto cudesa'
The above image shows Divković’s other work Sto čudesa (‘One Hundred Miracles’) bound together with the Christian Doctrine but foliated separately. The British Library has an intact copy in octavo format (Venice, 1611; C.38.e.40.). Both parts of the book have numerous misprints, which is understandable since Divković had his Cyrillic letters moulded in Venice by printers who didn’t know the language or the alphabet. A list of corrections is given at the end of the volume.

The One Hundred Miracles is Divković’s free translation of Johann Herolt’s  Sermones Discipuli de tempore et de sanctis, cum exemplorum promptuario, ac miraculis Beatae Mariae Virginis.

Woodcut illustration of the Annunciation
Divković’s book contains 12 woodcuts, 10 in Christian Doctrine and two in One Hundred Miracles. The  image of the Annunciation shown here is printed on the verso of One Hundred Miracles’s title leaf which has the motif of a stork feeding with the inscription “Pietas homini tutissima virtus” (Piety is the surest virtue of man).

Divković’s significance lies in the fact that his works have been widely researched and studied as part of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian, Croatian and Serbian written heritage to the present day. Most recently, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first imprint, the Bosna Srebrena Cultural and Historical Institute in Sarajevo published a critical edition of Christian Doctrine and One Hundred Miracles transcribed into Croatian as Nauk kristijanski za narod slovinski and Sto čudesa aliti zlamen'ja Blažene i slavne Bogorodice, Divice Marije. This critical edition was published together with a facsimile of the edition of Divković’s book printed by Pietro-Maria Bertano in Venice in 1611.

The language of his book, the Štokavian dialect, became the basis of the literary languages developed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia in the 19th century.  In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Divković’s importance goes beyond the religious doctrine and church teachings that he spread in his homeland. His main legacy is his reputation as the first Bosnian typographer who printed the first Bosnian book in the language spoken by the people in Bosnia and in an alphabet that anyone in Bosnia could read.  

Title page of Divkovic's 'Little Christian Doctrine'

Divković is the author of four books; all are compilations from Christian literature popular in his time. The above image is a title-leaf of Christian Doctrine known as a “little Christian doctrine” (mali Nauk) printed in Venice 1616. The current research has identified 25 editions of this hugely popular small (16°) format of the work.

The British Library holds a copy printed by Marco Ginami (Venice, 1640-41; C.52.a.7.). It consists of 15 different religious works in prose and verse collected in one volume; one of them is Christian Doctrine, shown here as a constituent part of the work that bears the same title. This copy is one of two copies known to be in existence in Britain. It was acquired in 1889 from Nikola Batistić, a theology scholar and professor from Zadar, Croatia.

Milan Grba, Lead Curator South-East European Collections


Đorđe Đorđević, „Matija Divković: prilog istoriji srpske književnosti XVII veka“. Glas Srpske kraljevske akademije LII (1896), LIII (1898), pp. [30]-139 and [1]-135. Ac.1131/3.

Ralph Cleminson. Cyrillic books printed before 1701 in British and Irish collections :a union catalogue. (London, 2000). 2708.h.903.

Matija Divković. Nauk kristijanski za narod slovinski : Sto čudesa aliti zlamen'ja Blažene i slavne Bogorodice, Divice Marije. Uvodna studija, rječnik i tumač imena Nauka kristijanskoga Darija Gabrić-Bagarić, Dolores Grmača, Maja Banožić. Uvodna studija, transkripcija, rječnik i tumač imena Sto čudesa Marijana Horvat. (Sarajevo, 2013) YF.2014.a.10503.

Matija Divković. Naūk karstianski za narodʹ slovinski /ovi naūkʹ Izdiačkoga iezika ispisa, privede i složi ū iezikʹ Slovinski Bogoćliūbni Bogoslovat︠s︡ʹ P.O. fra Matie Divkovićʹ.  (Sarajevo, 2013) YF.2014.a.10504  [Facsimile of the 1611 edition printed in Venice]


Milan Grba, Lead Curator South-East European Collections - See more at:

16 May 2014

“May its birthday always be celebrated…”

Every year on their National Day, the 17th of May, Norwegians remember the signing of the Norwegian constitution in 1814.  This year the festivities are particularly special as they will mark the 200th anniversary. 

Cover of an 1837 edition of Norway's Constitution with decorative typefaceCover of an 1837 edition of the Norwegian Constitution.  Kongeriget Norges Grundlov, tilligemed en Samling af de Lovbestemmelser der nærmest omfatte Norges constitutionelle og unionelle Stilling. 1378.a.5.

1814 was a key year in Norway’s history. Until then, Norway had been part of the Danish kingdom but under the Treaty of Kiel, Denmark had been forced to cede Norway to Sweden.  This unilateral ‘transfer’ of their country was met with resistance by many Norwegians and, led by Prince Christian Frederik of Denmark, a number of prominent Norwegians convened an assembly at Eidsvoll.  112 representatives were sent from all over the country and a constitution formulated in just over a month.   Independence was declared and Christian Frederik elected King. 

Painting 'Riksforsamlingen på Eidsvoll' showing an assembly of men listening to a speaker‘Riksforsamlingen på Eidsvoll 1814’ by Oscar Wergeland.  Image from Wikimedia Commons

Oscar Wergeland’s painting of the Eidsvoll assembly now hangs in the Storting (the Norwegian Parliament), behind the speaker’s chair.  This image is one of the best known historical paintings in Norway, having been reproduced on stamps, bank notes and commemorative memorabilia.  It is often accompanied by the words ‘Enig og tro til Dovre Falder’.  Meaning ‘United and true until Dovre falls’, it was an oath taken by those men who formulated the constitution, swearing that they would remain as constant as the Dovre mountain range. 

The events of the rest of the year were no less momentous. Following a Swedish attack on Norway in July, Christian Frederik was forced to step down but not without securing a promise for the constitution to remain. In November 1814 Norway entered a union with Sweden which lasted until 1905. The constitution was amended to reflect the union but remained more or less unchanged.  

In today’s Norway, 17 May is a public holiday, a day of parades and parties. In town centres up and down the country children process through the streets to marching bands. Participants are often colourfully dressed in their bunad (local costumes). In Oslo the parade takes place on Karl Johan’s gate, and culminates at the Palace, where, members of the Norwegian Royal Family wave to the children from the balcony.

Photograph of a crowd of children in national costume waving Norwegian flagsChildren celebrating 17 May. Picture by Evelina Gustafsson from Wikimedia Commons

Although Norway doesn’t officially have a single national anthem, the one that is in practice regarded as such, Ja vi elsker dette landet (‘Yes we love this country’), features prominently in the celebrations.  The words were written by the Norwegian Nobel Prize-winning writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson  and the music composed by his cousin, Rikard Nordraak. It was first performed in 1864 during the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the constitution. 

Cover of  'Ja vi elsker dette landet' with an image of a standing stone draped in a Norwegian flag againsrt a background of a fjord, mountains and rural landscapeCover of  ‘Ja, vi elsker dette landet’ (Oslo,1888)  g.352.zz.(18.)

The British Library’s Norwegian collections include many interesting items relating to the 1814 constitution. Not least the works of Henrik Wergeland, the writer and early human rights activist, who perhaps more than any other single person is associated with 17 May in the minds of Norwegian people. The son of one of the original members of the Eidsvoll assembly, he championed the right of Norwegians to celebrate the day at a time when it was seen as act of rebellion against the Swedish union. He also wrote a history of the Norwegian constitution. Before he died, he left behind a silver cup with instructions that it should be used in future celebrations of the day at Eidsvoll:

“Long live freedom! May its birthday always be celebrated at the place where it was born!”

Barbara Hawes, Curator Scandinavian Studies

  Title-page of 'Norges Konstitutions Historie'Title page of Henrik Wergeland,  Norges Konstitutions Historie  (Oslo, 1841-43)  1437.d.9.

14 May 2014

Polish reportage - reality versus fiction

Reportage as a literary genre is a product of the 20th century mass society. Mass communication, the ease of travel, cultural diversity and the impact of global media have strongly contributed to the development of this genre. However, some elements of reportage were present in the works of writers of the previous centuries. The word ‘reportage’ came to some languages, including Polish, via French. The Polish school of reportage has a long tradition in Poland’s cultural and political heritage. 

Melchior Wańkowicz (1892-1974) is considered the father of Polish reportage, and his contemporaries included Ksawery Pruszyński (1907-1950) and Arkady Fiedler (1894-1985). His first book, a result of his journey to Mexico, was published in 1927. However, Wańkowicz, a war correspondent for the Polish Armed Forces, only rose to fame after his eye-witness account of the battle of Monte Cassino was published in 1945, Bitwa o Monte Cassino (Rzym, 1945-47; 9101.dd.43).

An ace of Polish reportage was Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), a reporter and writer of international prestige. He started his literary career as a poet and then turned to journalism in the darkest period of the communist era.  For many years he was the only foreign correspondent of the Polish Press Agency.  In 1955 he had to hide from the authorities for publishing a critical article about working conditions in one of the largest industrial sites in Poland.  Ironically, the totalitarian system paved the way for the success of Polish reportage.  Due to the lack of freedom of expression, writers had to use Aesopian language to convey the hidden meaning of their intentions.  Reportage seemed an ideal genre for this purpose.  Kapuściński’s The Emperor (London, 1983; X.809/67171), written in 1978, is about the collapse of the absolutist regime of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia.  All autocratic systems have many things in common, and thus, unsurprisingly, the book has been regarded as an allegory of communist power in Poland. 

Ryszard_Kapuscinski_by_Kubik_17_05_1997_-_croppedRyszard Kapuściński (Photograph by Mariusz Kubik from Wikimedia Commons CC-BY 2.5)

When asked about the definition of reportage, Kapuściński used to emphasize two elements:  a writer has to travel with the aim of describing a particular event, and the event must be thoroughly documented by him.  Moreover, good reportage is a synthesis of private experience and wider historical context. The writer not only describes the events he has seen with his own eyes but is expected to provide a comprehensive explanation for them.  His narrative journalism often assumed the shape of literary fiction where facts were mixed with imagination. Before starting his own writing, Kapuściński avidly engaged himself in reading a large number of works related to the topic of his subsequent book.  Amusingly, he used to travel with a suitcase predominantly containing books, and on one occasion they were accompanied by a pair of jeans and a frying pan, which aroused the astonishment of a customs officer.

Kapuściński favoured personal perception over objectivity, and therefore his books are full of his reflections on life. Focused on the situation of man, entangled in the complexities of modern life, Kapuściński felt that his moral duty was to report on wars, conflicts and poverty.  He observed and experienced them over a period of forty years of extensive travel in the Third World. Advocating the equality of cultures, he hoped that his writing, even if marginally, might contribute to reducing tensions and hostility between peoples.

Kapuściński has many followers in Poland.  A large group of young Polish reportage writers, such as Jacek Hugo-Bader, Wojciech Tochman, Mariusz Szczygieł, Beata Pawlak, Wojciech Jagielski and others, adopted a similar style focusing on personal experience rather than on factual description.  Witold Szabłowski, a journalist and writer, also belongs to the school of literary reportage shaped by Kapuściński.  He studied political science in both Warsaw and Istanbul, and specialises in Turkish affairs.  Zabójca z miasta moreli (Wołowiec, 2010; YF.2012.a.9212) is a collection of stories from Turkey. The book provides an in-depth picture of social, cultural and political life in modern Turkey and touches upon shocking incidents that tear Turkish society apart.  This reportage, translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones under the title The Assassin from Apricot City (London, 2013) will represent Poland’s literary output at this year’s European Literature Night at the British Library on 14 May.

Magda Szkuta, Curator Polish Studies

Photograph of Witold Szabłowski
Witold Szabłowski

12 May 2014

Maria Geisweiler, translator

On 22 October 1816 Maria Geisweiler (1763-1840) wrote to the Home Secretary, Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth (1757-1844), about her husband and (more particularly) about the couple’s financial plight: ‘My Lord, the cruel anxiety, and distress of mind, under which I labour, is such I cannot again refrain from making an effort to interest your Lordships [sic] feelings, for my poor deranged husband’. (British Library Add. MS. 38263, f.304.)

Geisweiler and her Swiss-born husband Constantine (originally a printseller) had in the years 1799-1801 set up what can only be described as an extraordinarily ambitious programme to promote German literature in England. This comprised a bookshop (latterly in Parliament Street) selling imported German books, a short-lived literary magazine called The German Museum, and a series of translations of contemporary German authors for which both Maria and Constantine were responsible. In 1801 they travelled to Germany to promote their programme at the Leipzig Easter Book Fair and to solicit support from Goethe, Schiller and Wieland at Weimar.

Title-page of 'The German Museum' with an engraved frontispiece portrait of C.M. WielandThe first volume of The German Museum (London, 1800) 

The Geisweilers’ literary efforts received what one might politely call ‘mixed’ reviews. The visit to Germany was also a failure and the business folded in 1801 or early 1802. About this time Constantine began to show signs of mental illness (described by one contemporary as a ‘Paroxysmus’). Although he tried other trades (dealing in wines), within a few years he was entirely unable to work. In April 1805 Maria, now over 40 years old, appears to have given birth to a son named Constantine who died very shortly after.

Clearly Maria needed great personal resources (and the help of others) to manage this situation. She had born in London into a typically bilingual Anglo-German family. Her father was a merchant called Frederick Heinzelmann, her mother an Englishwoman called Elizabeth. Maria’s background was therefore well-to-do. When she married the much younger Constantine in 1799 she was 36 years old and had already lost one, aristocratic husband (an unidentified Count von Schulenberg – Maria continued to style herself, and even her new husband, ‘de Geisweiler’).

By 1816 Maria’s situation must have been desperate. Nevertheless she tried to do her best for herself and her husband in possibly the only way she knew how, not merely by lobbying the government for financial support but also but by translating. In the same year as the letter to Addington she published the translation of an obscure German novel under the title Angelion, or the wizard of Elis. This received no better reviews than her earlier productions, the Monthly Review observing acidly: ‘We are sorry to describe this work as a singular and wearisome medley, displaying much of the sickly sentiment and strained antithesis of most German novelists’ (vol 83, 1817, p.100; 267.f.1-31). But the book was not necessarily a flop in the financial sense: no fewer than 175 persons are listed among the subscribers, including Baron Best, the head of the Hanoverian Legation in London, numerous other ‘persons of quality’, and leading English and Scottish booksellers. One suspects that the subscriptions were a discreet way of extending charity to the Geisweilers.

Maria Geisweiler died in 1840. Her husband survived her by nine years. Her attempts to secure his future may have been successful. At the time of the 1841 census he was living in a private ‘madhouse’ in Kensington. After his death in 1849 readers of the Morning Chronicle (19 June 1850) learnt that he may have died alone, but was not entirely without means: ‘Geisweiler, deceased. – If the next of kin of Constantine de Geisweiler, late of Kensington, deceased, will apply to Messrs. H. and O. Webb, 22 Sackville Street, they will hear something to their advantage’.

Graham Jefcoate, Nijmegen and Chiang Mai


The German Museum, or Monthly Repository of the Literature of Germany, the North and the Continent in general. 3 vols. (London, 1800-1801). 266.l.24-26.

Angelion, or, the Wizard in Elis. A romance. Taken from the German (London, 1816) 12554.bbb.17.


09 May 2014

Talking about translation

In another guest post for next week’s  European Literature Night, the German author Julia Franck  describes the  stimulating and rewarding experience of attending a symposium with some of her many translators.

In the spring of 2008 I had the special pleasure of being invited as an author to Straelen for a translators’ symposium. The European College of Translators in Straelen has for many years offered residencies and bursaries for translators working in different genres and and languages; they have at their disposal an impressive library which extends over every area of the building – specialist dictionaries and literature can be found even in the guest-rooms. Working here must be splendid for translators. True, the deeply Catholic Lower Rhine region offers no cultural inspiration or distraction of any kind; even in culinary matters the people here are of a positively protestant modesty, but the wealth of literature and the opportunity to work without interruption is magnificent.

Exterior photograph of the Europäische Übersetzer-Kollegium building in StraelenEuropäisches Übersetzer-Kollegium in Straelen (Picture from Wikimedia Commons)

Our symposium was devoted to the first of my novels, which has been translated into just under 40 languages to date, Die Mittagsfrau (‘The Blind Side of the Heart’/’Blindness of the Heart’). All the translators were invited to the plenary discussion, and as many as 18 of them were able to come to Straelen for our symposium. We were supported by the literary critic Dennis Scheck, acting as moderator, and by a linguist who took minutes throughout the entire week, so that a compendium of our work was available even to those translators who had been unable to make the journey.  Among us, as well as the illustrious British translator Anthea Bell and the young and equally experienced Brazilian Marcelo Backes, were such rare languages as Georgian and such strange-sounding ones as Finnish – and even the Hebrew translator came from Israel.

Photograph of Julia Franck Julia Franck

Throughout the week, the great cultural differences and the processes of detection and discovery were exciting, as was the realisation of how often translation involves a combination of knowledge, humility, inner freedom and creativity – and how important the awareness of the most subtle social distinctions is when these take root in semantics or grammar. For example, even the Romance languages were far from unanimous about whether the term of address ‘mother’ and its direct translation was appropriate to the period and class in which the novel was set. While in France many parents are still addressed today  as ‘vous’ (although ‘maman’ is nevertheless preferred to ‘mère’), it seemed completely unthinkable to the Romanian and Italian translators that an eight-year-old would called his mother ‘mother’ and not ‘mamma’ – unless this signified a cool relationship between mother and child. In German it was quite customary into the 1950s, and in some areas into the 1960s and 1970s, for children to address their mothers as ‘Mutter’, not in all families, but it was not unusual in cultured families with a regard for courtesy and etiquette – and without a cool relationship being the reason. Clearing up this question was a simple and at the same time fascinating example of what traps can lurk in texts and translations; it was, in addition, amusing and instructive for all the translators. At this point too we were also compelled to admit that every translator bears an absolutely sole and exclusive responsibility for his or her seismographic feeling for a language. How certain can a single individual be in such decisions? And how intuitively do we often have to set our own linguistic sensitivity above research which has overstepped its limits?

During the week some extremely stimulating conversations arose, full of information, explanations and enjoyable confrontations, which taught each of us about the nature of the different languages,. The discovery of contradictions and the development of solutions – yes, even the process of infecting one another with our deliberate breaches of linguistic correctness and their beauty and even, at times, something like elegance constituted an intensive course of study for us.

Cover of 'The Blind Side of the Heart' with a picture of a woman on a station platformAnother extremely fine example occurred on our last evening, which we rounded off with a small public presentation of our work. For the local audience,  who had appeared in great numbers, and mostly spoke only German, though some spoke some Dutch, as Straelen lies only a few kilometres from the Netherlands, we provided spontaneously improvised tasters from our symposium by all gathering on the little stage and asking one another questions. In the novel there is an intense scene in which Helene goes into the woods with her son, in the middle of the war, to look for mushrooms. Hunger and misery accompany them on their quest, and as Helene repeatedly runs away from her clingy and hungry child and disappears from his sight, they come upon a train with cattle-trucks waiting on the line, apparently lost. A whistle can be heard; obviously a search is going on for a fugitive. Helene stumbles over the emaciated man; almost delusional but perhaps lucid, she believes that she recognizes in his eyes the eyes of her sister. Here she realises the immediate danger to which not only her sister must be exposed but she too would be if she had not falsified her identity and gone hunting hungrily through the woods for mushrooms with a son who does not and must not know her true identity. In this scene her state of extreme tension and anxiety is clear as apparently innocent sequences of nursery rhymes fall into the stream her of thoughts. These are two typical German nursery rhymes with innocent hares as heroes – in one the hare gets shot. No matter how well a translator may have studied and learnt German, without experiencing these in childhood he or she will hardly recognize these nursery rhymes as such. Every German, however, knows these rhymes by heart. ‘Really?’ asked the French translator. ‘Of course!’ a lady in the audience announced delightedly, and rose to her feet to strike up the song as proof. With no need for further invitation, all the people in the room joined in; they sang both songs from the first to the last verse, happily and joyfully – for the virus of that transmission, in which speech reflects not only syntax and grammar but cultural content, and makes whole worlds accessible, had leapt over to them too.

Translation: Susan Halstead

Julia Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart is published in English by Harvill Secker ( Nov.2009/1636). It was originally published in German by S. Fischer Verlag as Die Mittagsfrau (YF.2007.a.30990). Her second novel to be translated into English is ‘Back to Back’, also published by Harvill Secker (German original  Rücken an Rücken, YF.2014.a.7255)