European studies blog

12 posts from May 2015

29 May 2015

How the spy John Peyton put Poland on the map (to keep King James on the throne)

Scholarship will always be indebted to George II, one of Britain’s least scholarly kings. In 1757 George boosted the reputation of the fledgling British Museum by donating some of the most precious books owned by his predecessors – 2,000 manuscripts and some 9,000 printed books. This donation, known as the Old Royal Library, has since passed to the British Library, where the manuscript portion is now known as the Royal Collection.

Among these manuscripts is an inconspicuous paper volume, written in a beautiful  late 16th-century Secretary hand. It contains the (then) only known, yet unfinished copy of the elaborately titled A Relation of the State of Polonia and the Provinces United with that Crowne, Anno 1598, familiar to historians as the most detailed English account of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Peyton MS_18_B_I-002The title-page of A Relation of the State of Polonia and the Provinces United with that Crowne, British Library Royal MS 18 B. i.

Because 16th-century Poland-Lithuania stretched into what is now Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, and Estonia, A Relation of the State of Polonia has become an important source for many Central and Eastern European historians. But  the work  also marks a milestone in the history of English travel writing: it is a highly sophisticated account of Poland-Lithuania’s politics, law, administration, culture, and diplomatic relations, together with risk assessment – not unlike the country profiles contained in the CIA’s World Factbook.

Poland-Lithuania 10660i6(2)
Poland-Lithuania in the late 16th century, from Giovanni Botero, Eynkommen, Reichthumb, vnd Schätz aller Keyser, Könige, vnd vornembster Fürsten der gantzer weiten Welt ... (Cologne, 1599) 10660.i.6.(2.)

Such a wealth of knowledge called for a well-connected author, and scholars were quick to suggest George Carew, a career diplomat who was sent in 1598 to negotiate with Poland’s Sigismund III Vasa. Others put forward the Scot William Bruce (c.1560–after 1613), a professor of the civil law at the Zamojski Academy. Whereas Bruce’s authorship can be firmly excluded on the grounds of language and religion, Carew’s involvement is largely speculative.

In 2013 I decided to re-examine  the British Library manuscript, in the hope of finding evidence – any evidence – that would point towards the work’s author. It turned out that the text and the notes in the margin were written at different times: the events mentioned took place in 1598, but the marginal notes were added between 1602 and 1603. I also discovered that the paper came from Poland: I traced the watermark to the Olkusz paper-mill near Cracow, and it appears in two books printed in 1596 and 1597 by the court printer Jan Januszowski. With these new clues, I started to look for an Englishman who was in Poland between spring and autumn 1598, passed through Cracow, and had reason to update the text between 1602 and 1603.

That’s when I found John Peyton (1579–1635), son of Sir John Peyton (1544–1630), Lieutenant of the Tower. Peyton was in Cracow in the spring of 1598, and wrote a letter to his father detailing troop movements (I have since been able to prove that the younger Peyton was a spy in the employ of Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Robert Cecil). Peyton’s trail led to a manuscript (Kk v. 2) in Cambridge University Library. This gathers Peyton’s travel accounts, including one on Bohemia with an eerily familiar title: A Relation of Bohemia and the United Provinces of That Crowne. Anno 1598. What’s more, the collection contains the copy of a letter, sent to King James’s secretary, in which Peyton explains that his ‘discourse of Polonia’ is missing because he had ‘presented [it] to the king at his Majestyes first comming to London’ (fol. 6r.). I realised that the British Library manuscript must have been presented to James I during his coronation in the summer of 1603.

The discovery of Peyton’s authorship of this important text meant that the existing entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  needed radical expanding: at this time, John Peyton only figured as a paragraph in the entry for his more prominent father. The Dictionary’s editors responded enthusiastically to this find, and invited me to prepare a new, standalone entry for the younger John Peyton,  for publication in one of the ODNB’s regular online updates.

I started looking for other copies of the text, trawling through countless 18th- and 19th-century auction catalogues. The quest proved rewarding: a copy entitled A Relation of the Kingdom of Polonia, and the United Provinces of the Crowne, by Sir John Peyton changed hands at least five times between 1751 and 1898, when the trail went cold after a Sotheby’s action. Anthony Payne,  a former Director of Bernard Quaritch booksellers, located an annotated copy of the 1898 catalogue, which revealed that the book had been acquired by one of the Munich-based Rosenthal brothers – I later discovered that the buyer was Jacques Rosenthal. The ‘lost’ manuscript has since been acquired from an anonymous seller from Prague by St Andrews University Library  (I discuss this new manuscript, ms 38902, in the journal The Library).

But why would Peyton go through the expense of producing a lavishly written and gilded copy, which is then left unfinished? I found out that Peyton was among those waiting at Elizabeth’s deathbed in March 1603, on his father’s orders. When the queen died, Peyton raced to Edinburgh to break the news to James VI. He arrived second, but the king bestowed estates on Peyton and knighted him, publicly referring to Peyton as his ‘first knight’. The British Library copy was a well-timed coronation gift for James, its completion was interrupted by Elizabeth’s death. But the marginal notes and the change in the title from ‘Kingdom’ to ‘State’ (as an afterthought as is visible in the image), reveal that Peyton’s marginal notes furnished James with details about the then 200-year-old union of Poland and Lithuania – the only existing parliamentary union at the time. Unsurprisingly, James kept bringing up this type of union between England and Scotland over the next few years, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was frequently discussed in British constitutional debates.  

Sebastian Sobecki, Professor of Medieval English Literature and Culture, University of Groningen

This post is based on the author’s research on medieval and early modern travel writing and on his identification of John Peyton’s authorship, first published as ‘John Peyton’s A Relation of the State of Polonia and the Accession of King James I, 1598–1603’ in the English Historical Review.   

27 May 2015

Looking back at European Literature Night

In out last post marking European Literature Night 2015, Slovenian author Evald Flisar, who took part in this year’s event, looks back at the evening. 

I had been chosen (apparently there were 55 nominees) to appear at the widely publicised event European Literature Night at the British Library on 13 May as one of the six best European writers. I felt honoured, of course, as well as mildly surprised and modestly pleased. It just wouldn’t be right to jump up and down, shouting,  “Look at me, look at me!” Certainly not at the age of 70, when one is supposed to have put away childish things. Besides (let’s indulge in a little arithmetic), in the next ten years 60 more  “best European writers” will appear at this grand event (presuming that authors cannot be recalled for a repeat performance). And so, with the passing of years, the importance of my attendance will gradually be diluted to the point of astonishment at the fact that the continent of Europe, however small, can boast such a great number of “best writers”.

That may well be true, and we (inside and outside EU) may be unforgivably ignorant of the quality   Front-my-fathers-dreams-3_53fc653aca024_250x800r
of our neighbours’ writing (publishers please note!), but surely ... the best? Well, never mind. Perhaps this year’s  “six of the best” are justified in believing that their writing warrants the inclusion in this exclusive club (after all, 49 authors among the 55 nominees didn’t make it), and most certainly I should be grateful for the invitation to attend the event that has brought one of my books to the attention of many (generating, among other things, a glowing review in The Irish Times). 

Evald Flisar’s novel My Father's Dreams, published in the author’s own translation by Istros books and presented at European Literature Night 2015

I am grateful, of course. Not only grateful but also glad that the event is over and that (by some miracle) I have avoided making a fool of myself. I have even (not intentionally, of course) succeeded in amusing the audience. All in all, my impressions (of the event and even, to a lesser degree, my performance) are considerably better than good, and I am delighted to have been invited (delighted in spite of 144 translations into 36 languages, or the fact that I have so far attended over 50 similar events round the world). I have read from my work in Washington, New York, Milwaukee, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Sao Paolo, Frankfurt, Prague, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Wrocław, Brno, Cairo, Alexandria Library, New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Tokyo, Taipei ... that’ll do, the line between facts and self-praise is perilously blurred.

Rosie Goldsmith and Evald Flisar (ELN2015)
ELN host Rosie Goldsmith interviewing Ewald Flisar at European Literature Night 2015. (Photo © Metaphoto. 
There are other photos - and drawings - of the event at:

However, not one of these guest appearances (with the possible exception of Mumbai’s Literature Live Festival)  can compare with the faultless organisation of the European Literature Night in London. Not to mention the publicity it has generated. It may well be that I am slightly biased. Having lived in London for almost 20 years, being (even after a 20-year absence) still English at heart (not to say in the mind), I may be tempted to give any literary event in London some extra (subjective) points. But that is not so. Appearing at the British Library really was one of the highlights of my long literary career. And all thanks to my publishers, the ambitious Istros Books, for whom quality, far from being a mere promotional phrase, is in fact their raison d'être. Long may they prosper!

Evald Flisar

24 May 2015

The War Poet who wasn’t: Simon Gregorčič and the Soča Front

May 24th marks the centenary of Italy’s entry into the Great War. In previous blog entries related to this event, I have focussed on the Isonzo/Soča Front, which bore the brunt of the first Italian military operations.  For today’s entry, I return there again, to write about a character who played a significant role in that action, but who had died almost a decade before war broke out.

Simon Gregorcic (X989-6888)Portrait of Simon Gregorčič from Anton Burgar, Simon Gregorčič: življenjepis (Ljubljana, 1907) British Library X.989/6888.

Simon Gregorčič is one of Slovenia’s best-loved poets, and a significant figure in the 19th-century struggle for national rights. He was born in 1844 in the village of Vrsno, nestling beneath Mount Krn very close to the then Austro-Italian border, and the local landscape and lifestyle imprinted itself profoundly on his work. His family were peasant farmers who raised sheep in the pastures of the Soča valley, but young Simon had been born at a time of fast-rising literacy. He went to the grammar school in the regional capital Görz/Gorica (now Gorizia, in Italy), and then studied to become a priest; yet, apart from a brief period at the University of Vienna, he never really went far from his beloved Valley.

He worked as a chaplain in Kobarid, not far from his birthplace, where he had a formative love affair with a young teacher and promoted the cultural life of the little town. During subsequent appointments, Gregorčič began to publish poetry, each of his four books called “Poezije”, with its number. For these, which he promoted in public readings, he became a local celebrity in his own lifetime. His style was profoundly musical, full of feeling and even sensuality – for this Catholic priest had quite a number of intense relationships with women.  He wrote about social injustice, Slovene rights, the landscape that surrounded him. Among his best-known poems – and one of the few which have been translated into English - was  ‘Ash Wednesday Eve’, in which he warned the rich and proud among his congregation of their mortality while inviting the poor and dispossessed, including his relatives, to take their place in the Church and celebrate “Resurrection morn.” Its theme may sound gloomy and didactic, but the poem is so beautifully written that it evokes the twilight falling over his native Valley, its little churches lit up amid the dark peaks, spilling smells of incense into the night air as the people hurry in from near and far.

Gregorčič’s most famous poem of all is ‘Soči’ – ‘To the Soča’- describing the river’s progress from its mountain source to the plains of Trieste. At the beginning the turquoise water (it really is!) is fast and vigorous, “like the walk of the highland girls”, and its refrain runs, “You are splendid, daughter of the heights!” (“Krasnà si, hči planin!”). But when the river reaches the exposed plain it grows sluggish, sensing its vulnerability. Gregorčič foresaw a day when it would be filled with blood, surrounded by a “hail of lead”, and would need to burst its own banks to “draw the foreigners ravenous for lands to the bottom of your foaming waves.”  

SocaPostcard, reproduced in Mihael Glavan, Simon Gregorčič na Soški fronti (Nova Gorica, 2012) YF.2014.a.12826

Simon Gregorčič suffered lifelong ill-health (probably tuberculosis) and died in Gorizia in 1906. His funeral procession from the city to his grave in the village Smast was a huge public event. Nine years later, Gorizia, along with Trieste and the whole Soča Valley, would be among Italy’s chief targets in its attack on the Austrian Empire. Simon Gregorčič  was summoned from the grave to spur on the Slovene troops in defence of their homeland: he was shown on postcards greeting the Emperors Franz Joseph or Karl when they visited the battle-torn region, or looking protectively down upon the river with the military commanders Archduke Eugen or Svetozar Boroević von Bojna alongside him in the sky (pictures above). Sadly prophetic, the words of ‘Soči’ featured widely, particularly the verse urging the river to drown the foreign invader.


Funeral of  Simon Gregorčič un 1906 (From Wikimedia Commons)

Austria’s one major victory in the awful stalemate was 1917’s infamous Caporetto (the Italian name for Kobarid). The town which lay so close to the poet’s heart was symbolically the site of a total rout of the Italian invaders. A bust of his friend, the composer Hraboslav Volarić, symbolically watched from a corner of the square.

They would, however, return victorious a year later, and Kobarid stayed under Italian rule until 1945. Volarić’s bust, along with other symbols of Slovene culture, was badly damaged by fascists, but in 1945 the town became part of Yugoslavia. The bust was replaced, and a full-length statue to Gregorčič  erected in 1959 on the opposite side of the main square.

Naturally, Simon Gregorčič’s birthplace is now a tourist site, and hikers can follow his route and inspiration through the villages and meadows around.

With particular thanks to Jože Šerbec of the Kobarid Museum.


Mihail Glavan. Simon Gregorčič na Soški fronti. (Nova Gorica , 2012). YF.2014.a.12826

Simon Gregorčič. Poezije. (Ljubljana, 1885-1908). 11530.a.26

W.A. Morison (translator). “Ash Wednesday Eve”, in The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 23, No. 62 (Jan., 1945), pp. 23-25, Ac.2669.e.  (also available online via  JSTOR).  

Translation of Soči by an unknown author at

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager


Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager


22 May 2015

Sequins, songs and sociopolitical change - 60 years of Eurovision

With the Eurovision Song Contest celebrating its 60th anniversary, and still regularly attracting around 200 million viewers, this year presents a great opportunity to look beyond the glitz of modern Eurovision and consider the changes in European culture, society and politics which it reflects.

We must thank the Italian members of the European Broadcasting Union  for the idea of the contest, originally conceived to help promote peace and harmony in a Europe still recovering from the Second World War. Since that first contest in 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland between seven participating countries, it has expanded to include as many as 43 entries in the record year of 2008;  now qualifying rounds are required before the grand finals.

 Eurovision map
Map of countries participating in the context and the years they first took part (picture from Wikimedia Commons)

How amazed those Italian broadcasters, whose stated mission was to “stimulate the output of original high- quality songs in the field of popular music by encouraging competition between authors and composers through the international comparison of their works,” would be to see the power of YouTube, enabling viewers to compare in seconds the first ever winner, Switzerland’s Lys Assia singing Refrain, with Conchita Wurst’s winning Rise like a Phoenix for Austria in 2014.

 Eurovision Song Contest 1958 - Lys Assia.pngAbove: 1956 Eurovision winner Lys Assia (image from Beeld en Geluidwiki via Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0). Below: 2014 winner Conchita Wurst (Photo: Albin Olsson, via Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA-3.0)

File:ESC2014 - Austria 07.jpg

As a child of mixed heritage growing up in a small, monocultural English city, I loved the reporting of votes from the national juries even more than the songs – seeing the glamorous multilingual presenters, usually framed by an iconic national landmark first gave me a sense that I fitted in somewhere as a European and really inspired me to study foreign languages. Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the closed doors of those national juries? Wonder no more! Via the EU Screen portal you can now see the terribly solemn 1976 Belgian jury deliberating at length over a nice cup of tea and contributing to one of the highest scores ever for a winning entry – the UK’s Brotherhood of Man’s inimitable Save Your Kisses for Me

Everyone will have their favourite Eurovision moments and associations, but there is far more to this event than sequins, folk-costumes and cheesy songs. On one level, Eurovision can be viewed as consolidating nationalistic stereotypes, but by encouraging viewers to encounter Europe in their living rooms it can also be seen as contributing to a sense of a common European identity. It is family viewing for today’s European family in all its diversity – gay and straight, old and young – all sharing the same experience but bringing their own readings to it. This European identity is then projected further afield with many enthusiastic viewers around the world – the contest is so popular in Australia that in this  anniversary year Australia’s Guy Sebastian will be a guest participant.

Performers and audiences waving flags at the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest
Winners of the 2015 second semi-final, with a range of national flags on stage and in the audience (photo from  EUROVISION/EBU, © Andres Putting (EBU))

Through the prism of Eurovision we can also see the changing shape of Europe. In the 1990s there was a rapid expansion of participants from Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.  The socialist countries had previously held separate song contests, with only Yugoslavia breaking the mould by joining Eurovision in 1961. Viewers behind the Iron Curtain watched the annual Sopot Music Festival from Poland or its short-lived offshoot, the Intervision Song Contest. The Sopot Festival was the brainchild of Władysław Szpilman, the Polish Jewish musician immortalised in Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist, bringing singers from around the world to perform, initially at the Gdańsk shipyards, then moving along the coast to Sopot. Intervision/Sopot also attracted huge audiences not least because guest artistes such as Boney M were invited to play in the intervals. 

By the 1990s participating in Eurovision was often a way for the new entrants to assert sovereignty, contribute to nation-building and project a particular national image around the world. Take for example Ukraine’s 2004 winning entry Wild Dances, performed by Ruslana  and featuring a version of the dances, costumes and rituals of the Hutsul people from western Ukraine, which then came to represent universal Ukrainian folk traditions for international viewers.

Eurovision also brings its viewers face to face with key political issues facing contemporary Europe. One can learn much about regional and cultural alliances by observing voting patterns, or about  linguistic politics within Europe, such as the rapid rise of English as a lingua franca, demonstrated by the fact that so many entries are now sung in English in order to reach the widest possible audience. 

But perhaps one of the key reasons for Eurovision’s enduring success is the way in which it has come to symbolise diversity and tolerance, far exceeding the original hopes of the EBU. It can be seen to represent a certain stability and unity in the face of an increasingly fragmented Europe.  To quote Conchita Wurst, who was welcomed in November 2014 by UN Secretary General  Ban Ki-Moon as an ambassador for human rights, “The Eurovision Song Contest is about love and respect for different languages, cultures and people, who in the end have more in common than differences” 

Covers of books about the Eurovision Song Contest
Two of the many books about the Eurovision Song Contest in the British Library's collections

The British Library catalogue lists a huge range of resources relating to the Eurovision song contest – from books and academic articles, to audio and video recordings and archived websites. Some appear in unexpected places such as the article “ How does Europe Make Its Mind Up? Connections, cliques, and compatibility between countries in the Eurovision Song Contest” published in the scientific publisher Elsevier’s serial Physica A. (Vol. 360, No. 2, 2006, 576-598; British Library 6475.010000). However, not every author feels the love which Conchita Wurst refers to, as shown by S. Coleman’s article “ Why is the Eurovision Song Contest Ridiculous? Exploring a Spectacle of Embarrassment, Irony and Identity” in Popular communication (Vol 6, No. 3, 2008, 127-140; 6550.310000)

But whether they come to love or to mock, millions across the continent will be  sitting down this Saturday evening to watch the contest once again.

Janet Zmroczek, Head of European and Americas Collections

Further reading:  

Media, nationalism and European identities / edited by Miklós Sükösd, Karol Jakubowicz, (Budapest, 2011) YD.2011.a.8708

A song for Europe: popular music and politics in the Eurovision Song Contest / edited by Ivan Rakoff and Robert Deam Tobin (Aldershot, 2007) YC.2007.a.15111

John Kennedy O’Connor, The Eurovision Song Contest: the official history. (London, 2007) YK.2008.b.3530

Jan Feddersen, Merci, Jury: die Geschichte des Grand Prix Eurovision de la chanson. (Vienna, 2000) YA.2002.a.7182

K. Sieg , “Cosmopolitan empire: Central and Eastern Europeans at the Eurovision Song Contest” European journal of cultural studies. (Vol 16, No. 2, 2013), 244-226.  ZC.9.a.5325

Eurovision Song Contest 60th Anniversary Conference – webcast

SQS 2/2007 : Queer Eurovision/ Guest Editors: Mikko Tuhkanen & Annamari Vänskä


19 May 2015

The Basque Language

Basque, or Euskera, as the Basques call it, is a pre-Indo-European language now spoken in four provinces of northern Spain and three in France, on either side of the Western Pyrenees. It once extended over a much wider area, but how much wider is a matter of conjecture, as indeed is the prehistory of the language and people. In spite of perceived similarities and lexical coincidences between Basque and an extraordinary number of languages, living and dead, from across the world, only surviving fragments of Aquitanian, a language once spoken in South-Western Gaul, have been shown to have meaningful coincidences with Basque. Aquitanian can thus reasonably be regarded as an ancestor or close relative. Today Basque is an isolate, and the only surviving pre-Indo-European language in Western Europe.

Basque is a difficult language for speakers of other Western European languages. For example, the relationship of subject and object is quite different from what we are familiar with in English, or Spanish, and from what we may recall from Latin with its nominative (subject) and accusative (object) cases. Wikipedia  tells us that:

Basque is an ergative-absolutive language. The subject of an intransitive verb is in the absolutive case (which is unmarked), and the same case is used for the direct object of a transitive verb. The subject of the transitive verb is marked differently, with the ergative case (shown by the suffix -k).

Here are two contrasted, basic examples: ‘nire anaia etorri da’ (‘my brother has come’); ‘nire aitak emakumea ikusi du’ (‘my father saw the woman’).

The Basque verb is especially complex. Wikipedia again:

The auxiliary verb accompanies most main verbs, agrees not only with the subject, but with any direct object and the indirect object present. Among European languages, this polypersonal agreement is only found in Basque, some languages of the Caucasus, and Hungarian (all non-Indo-European).

So in Basque we have the sentence ‘nire aitak Mireni liburu eman zion’ (‘my father gave the book to Miren’) where the auxiliary (zion) recapitulates the relationship between ergative, direct and indirect objects.
     LarramendiThe first Basque grammar, Manuel de Larramendi’s El impossible vencido (‘The Impossible Overcome’), printed in Salamanca in 1729 (British Library G.16752).

The present-day Basque Country, or Euskal Herria, straddles France and Spain and within Spain it is divided between the Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco and the Comunidad Foral de Navarra.  The three French provinces (Labourd, Basse Navarre and Soule), together with Béarn, make up the department of the Pyrénées Atlantiques.  The Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco comprises the three provinces of Alava, Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia. In Spain the language is spoken most widely in Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia and the northern parts of Navarra. The number of Basque speakers in France is declining and the majority of speakers are elderly. However, usage among young people has increased according to figures from 2011.

Basque_country-resized-600The  Basque Country (highlighted).  Source: UCLA Language Materials Project

The Basque Country is also divided linguistically: according to Louis-Lucien Bonaparte’s dialect map (London, 1869; Maps 18649.(4.)), the language can be classified into eight dialects. The situation in the late 20th century has been described by Koldo Zuazo as consisting of five dialects.
Since the late 1960s concerted efforts have been made to create a standardized form of Basque, known as batua (= unified; < bat = one).

In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, the use of Basque was forbidden in education and public life as part of General Franco’s quest to impose national unity. At its most harsh, his regime forbade even the speaking of Basque in public. By the late 1960s the situation had eased somewhat and private schools, ikastolak, which had been functioning in secret, were now tolerated. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 gave Basque co-official status in the Comunidad Autónoma del País Vasco and in some areas of Navarra. The introduction of the teaching of Basque in state schools by the autonomous Basque Government has saved the language from what would almost certainly have been total extinction. Basque imaginative literature has re-emerged and the works of prominent writers such as Bernardo Atxaga and Kirmen Uribe  have been widely translated.

The most recent survey of the state of the language (V Encuesta Sociolingúística, 2011) has permitted broadly positive conclusions. Nearly 60% of people in the Comunidad Autónoma del P.V. now have some knowledge of Basque, an increase of 14.5% over the past 30 years. The percentage of fairly competent speakers now stands at 36.4% of the population, a roughly similar increase. Strangely, one worrying aspect of the survey is that the use of Basque in the home has dropped very slightly.  However, the broad conclusion of the survey is that the future of Basque – in Spain – lies with the Basques themselves.

Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies

Further reading

Roger Collins, The Basques, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1990). YC.1990.a.10183 and 90/20865

Alan R. King, The Basque Language: a Practical Introduction (Reno, 1994). YA.1999.b.3105

R.L.  Trask, A History of the Basque Language (London, 1997).  YC.1997.b.547 and 97/06294

15 May 2015

Seminar on Textual Bibliography for Modern Foreign Languages

The 2015 Seminar on Textual Bibliography for Modern Foreign Languages will take place on Monday 1 June in the Eliot Room of the British Library Conference Centre. This year’s programme covers a wide range of topics,  languages and places, from early modern Constantinople to 1960s France. The programme for the day is as follows:

10.30       Registration and Coffee

11.00    Anke Timmermann (London), Page Layout in Scientific Codices: A Perspective on                          Manuscripts and Printed Books in the Long Fifteenth Century

11.45    John L. Flood (London), The English Sweating-Sickness and the Sixteenth-                         Century German Book Trade

12.30      Lunch (Own arrangements).

1.45     Ian H. Magedera (Liverpool), French Books on India: Book List, Online Library and Data             Visualization

2.30    Sophie Heywood (Reading), Censorship and Children’s Book Publishing: The             Subversive ’60s in France

3.15        Tea

3.45     Nil Pektas (London), The Beginnings of Printing in the Ottoman Capital: Book             Production and Circulation in Early Modern Constantinople

4.30    Joseph Ross (Notre Dame), Cyrillic Alphabetic Quire Signatures

The Seminar will end at 5.15 pm.

The seminar is free, but please notify Barry Taylor ( or Susan Reed ( if you wish to attend.

  Assemblage Nouveau Buchbinderin (1266.i.15) Assemblage Nouveau Buchbinder cropped (1266.i.15)
Bookbinders, from Assemblage nouveau des manouvries habilles = Samlung der mit ihren eigenen Arbeiten und Werckzeugen eingekleideten Künstlern, Handwerckern und Professionen ([Augsburg, 1735) British Library 1266.i.15.

13 May 2015

Grimms’ tales in Translation (and in the British Library)

Perhaps one of the British Museum Library’s worst 19th-century acquisition decisions was not to  buy the first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm when it appeared in 1812. Probably the title put the selectors off, fooling them into thinking that these ‘Children’s and Household Tales’ were intended purely as a domestic entertainment, a ‘mere’ children’s book, a genre we don’t generally buy from overseas. Even the second edition, the earliest that we hold, was not acquired on first publication in 1819 but later in the century; the first volume has a brief manuscript  dedication from Wilhelm Grimm to a previous owner.

While the Grimms did not necessarily want to exclude children from their audience, their primary goal was to collect and record German folklore for an academic readership, and both the first and second editions include a volume of scholarly notes on the stories and their origins. 
Grimm Frontispiece
Frontispiece and engraved title-page by from the second edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Berlin, 1819) British Library

However, as more and more editions were published, the tales were made more child- or family-friendly. Already in this second edition Wilhelm Grimm had started the process of sanitising and Christianising the stories. The frontispiece to the first volume hints at this process with its rather sentimental illustration of the story ‘Brüderchen und Schwesterchen’, which shows an angel watching over the eponymous brother (transformed into a deer) and sister as they sleep. (Like the portrait in the second volume of Dorothea Viehmann, the tailor’s wife named by the Grimms as a source of a number of stories, the picture is by a third Grimm brother, Ludwig.)

Grimm Cruickshank
Title-page of the first English translation, by Edgar Taylor, illustrated by George Cruickshank (London, 1823) Cup.402.b.18.

The Grimms’ tales were soon translated into many languages, and the British Library’s holdings of the tales are overwhelmingly English translations published in Britain, the majority aimed at a young audience. These range from more or less direct translations, through re-tellings as picture books or ‘easy readers’, to reimaginings or ‘subversions’ of the tales. Some in this last category are in fact aimed at adults, like the stories in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. And plenty of works of modern German literature which we hold also play on the Grimms’ stories for an adult audience, for example Elfriede Jelinek’s Prinzessindramen and Günter Grass’s Der Butt – ‘translations’ of the stories in a different sense.

Another form of translation –in the sense of interpreting the stories in a different medium – is illustration. Again, most of our illustrated versions of the stories are English translations for children, featuring a roll-call of fine artists including George Cruickshank (the Grimms’ first English illustrator), Walter Crane, Arthur Rackham, Mervyn Peake and Maurice Sendak.

Grimm Rackham
‘The Goose Girl’, illustration by Arthur Rackham to the Grimms’ story from Fairy Tales ... A new translation by Mrs. Edgar Lucas (London, 1900) 12411.eee.27.

To return to actual translations, despite our general policy of not buying foreign children’s literature, a search in our catalogue reveals children’s editions of the Grimms’ tales in many languages, acquired in various ways. Among European languages we have versions in Czech, Dutch, French, Russian, Spanish and Ukrainian, as well as the auxiliary languages Esperanto and (more unusually) Volapük, all testifying to the international influence and reach of a collection intended to highlight and preserve a national tradition.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

This piece is based on the author’s contribution to a lunchtime talk given in the John Ritblat - Treasures of the British Library Gallery on 13 May, the second in a series organised with the British Academy as part of their Literature Week 2015 and to coincide with European Literature Night. The Library’s copy of the 1819 Kinder- und Hausmärchen is currently on display in the gallery with items related to the other talks. The final talk, on African Folklore and the Tales of Anansi, will take place on Friday 15 May.

11 May 2015

Yasmina Khadra: A Writer of the World

In another guest post for this year’s European Literature Night, Gallic Books translator Emily Boyce introduces the French-based Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra

Yasmina Khadra, who will appear at European Literature Night at the British Library on Wednesday 13 May, is a novelist who has often been drawn to tackle controversial and current topics such as global conflict and extremism in his fiction.

Yasmina Khadra (photo © E. Robert-Espalieu from Gallic Books website)

Khadra began writing under his wife's name to avoid censorship while serving in the Algerian army, and revealed his identity after moving to France in 2001. Informed by his experience as a Muslim of North African origin living in the West, he is a leading voice on many of the defining issues of our time. He recently appeared on Al Jazeera to discuss his thoughts on literature and freedom of speech in light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, while his contribution to BBC Radio 4’s Letters from Europe series warned of the growing threat of racism and intolerance in the continent.

Khadra confronted the rise of the Taliban in 2002’s Les hirondelles de Kaboul (The Swallows of Kabul, to be discussed in this month’s BBC World Book Club), and explored the motivations of suicide bombers in his Tel Aviv-set L’Attentat (The Attack). This book was adapted into a 2012 film which will be screened at the Institut Français on Tuesday 12 May, followed by a Q and A session with the author.

Yasmina Khadra, African EquationKhadra's latest novel, L’équation africaine, published in English as The African Equation by Gallic Books in February this year, takes the problem of East African piracy as its starting point, and goes on to portray one man’s ordeal as a hostage and his life-altering encounter with a fellow captive who holds a very different view of the continent and its people.

In all his fiction, Khadra brings empathy to characters in desperate situations. As The Literary Review put it, ‘Khadra is a passionately moral writer but he rarely sits in judgment.’

 To mark his forthcoming appearance at European Literature Night, Khadra has written a moving piece in reaction to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, published on the Culturethèque blog of the Institut français UK.

 Emily Boyce, Gallic Books

Selected works by Yasmina Khadra in the British Library (for full holdings see our catalogue)

Les anges meurent de nos blessures: roman (Paris, 2013) YF.2014.a.12993

L’équation africaine: roman (Paris, 2011) YF.2013.a.25944; English translation by Howard Curtis, The African Equation (London, 2015) awaiting shelfmark.

Ce que le jour doit à la nuit : roman (Paris, 2008) YF.2009.a.3841; English translation by Frank Wynne, What the Day owes the Night (London, 2010) Nov.2011/207.

Les sirènes de Bagdad: roman (Paris, 2006) YF.2007.a.1939; English translation by John Cullen, The Sirens of Baghdad (London, 2007) Nov.2007/2364.

L’Attentat: roman (Paris, 2005) YF.2006.a.7205; English translation by John Cullen, The Attack (London, 2006) Nov.2006/2043.

Les hirondelles de Kaboul: roman (Paris, 2002) YA.2003.a.14765; English translation by John Cullen, The Swallows of Kabul (London, 2004)

A quoi rêvent les loups: roman (Paris, 1999) YA.2003.a.6391; Engish translation by Linda Black, Wolf Dreams (New Haven, Conn., 2003) Nov.2007/33.

08 May 2015

‘World Literature’ and ‘World Languages’

Today’s guest post for European Literature Night 2015 considers how the original language of a work can influence its international success

In his 2007 New Yorker essay, ‘Die Weltliteratur: European novelists and modernism’, Milan Kundera poses the question - would anyone today know the work of Kafka if he had written his works in Czech and not German? For anyone writing in, or translating from, what is considered a ‘small’ or ‘lesser known’ language, this is the kind of question which could keep one awake at night and could easily induce a bitter sense of being neglected by history. For it does seem that nations such as the Czech Republic, not to mention the even smaller Macedonia or Montenegro, are left at the footnotes of history books; their writers excluded from the canon of European Literature. How many books written by Macedonian writers can you name?

Milan Kundera (photo by Elisa Cabot from Wikimedia Commons)

Arguing for a ‘World Literature’ instead of a number of juxtaposed ‘literatures’, Kundera considers cultural diversity to be the greatest European value. His essay is a plea against ‘provincialism’ – either from the larger nations by ignoring the literary output or smaller nations, or from the writers of smaller nations themselves, who hide behind their obscurity, not daring to add their voice to the international dialogue. Brandishing the now infamous ‘4%’ statistic, publishers of literature in translation in the UK can often feel very frustrated by the constant reminder that the massive geographical reach of the English language makes many readers feel as if the world is writing in English. Insular as we are, the job of discovering writers from other nations, and then going through the lengthy process of having them translated, might seem to be pointless. But then we are reminded of how many works in translation have had so much influence in terms of literature as a whole – from Herta Müller  to Murakami, and even Kundera himself – and we have to admit that we would all be the poorer without it (with the added relevance that Herta Müller, like Kafka, lived in Romania – a ‘lesser-known’ country and a smaller language group, but wrote in the much ‘bigger’ language of German).

So if Herta Müller and Franz Kafka had written in the lesser-known languages of their native countries it is very possible – given the low rate of translated fiction here in the English-speaking world – that they would never have been able to achieve the international reputation they now enjoy. This in itself should be argument enough for the benefit and relevance of translated literature. It is why a number of dedicated publishers continue to seek out new writers – however small the nation they come from – and why cultural institutions like the EU Culture Fund and the Arts Council continue to encourage and finance literary translation. Like Kundera, we feel that cultural diversity is Europe’s greatest value, and one worth preserving.

Susan Curtis-Kojakovic 

Susan Curtis-Kojakovic is publisher of Istros Books, an independent publishing house dedicated to promoting the literature of South-East Europe. For this year’s European Literature Night she nominated and is supporting Slovenian author Evald Flisar

06 May 2015

Woman in Green

In another guest post for European Literature Night 2015, the Danish author Naja Marie Aidt, appearing at the writers’ event, reflects on grief  and literature.

Naja Marie AidtNaja Marie Aidt

In late February I walked the streets of Manhattan and came across a small shop. A beautiful green jacket hanging in the window caught my eye. I went straight in and bought it even though the sleeves were way too long. Perfect for spring, I thought, and jumped on the subway, feeling uplifted and very happy. In March I suffered a terrible loss in my immediate family. Everything turned dark inside me and on the outside, the world seemed to disappear. In April the trees turned green, the cherry trees started blooming with a rich intensity, an almost vulgar pink prettiness. Nature had once again dug its way out of the long, cold, winter and transformed itself into a tempting scene of life: the sun was out, almost too bright, too clear, revealing my grief as a disgrace against the beauty of everything else. But grief is not a disgrace and it is not ugly. It’s heavy and it pulls the body towards the ground as if to bring you closer to the beloved missing person, burried deep in the wet cold soil. I walked the streets, blinded by the light, I dragged my mourning body onward even though it did not want to move. I tried to find my way back to the simplest activities: making coffee, showering, heating up a bowl of soup. I had forgotten about the before because this was the after and nothing would ever be the same again. I knew it when I looked up at the cherry trees and I know it now. Fortuna has played her sick game, just for the fun of it. The tragic coincidence that changed my life over night had no meaning, no purpose. I could almost hear the goddess laughing, and I hated her – hated the chaos of life, the unpreditable chaotic life that we usually believe we are in control of. But we are not. When we move through our lives, mostly uplifted and happy, we walk on invisible cracks and sometimes those cracks expand and make us stumble, sometimes they open up wide and swallow us. Simply by coincidence. I’ve written about those cracks in Baboon and in my forthcoming novel Rock, Paper, Scissors, but the difference between writing about getting hit by a car and actually getting hit by a car is obviously huger than huge.

One day in early May, grabbing a shirt from my closet, I came across the green jacket. I looked at it as if I had never seen it before and I realized that the pattern was almost identical to the image on Jordan Stump’s English translation of Marie NDiaye’s novel Self-Portrait in Green. There I stood, looking at the jacket,  thinking about Self-Portrait in Green, a remarkable mysterious story about repression and obsession where the dead mingle with the living and vice versa, and a certain type of woman – a victim, always unhappy, ghostly – is always dressed in green. I reached for the jacket and put it on. Perfect for spring, thanks to the too-long sleeves, as if in mourning seeking the ground.  I told Ms. Fortuna I didn’t give a shit for her spoiled, cruel games and went to the park with Self-Portrait in Green in my hand.

Naja book coverMaria NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green and the green jacket.

Naja Marie Aidt

Works by Naja Marie Aidt in the British Library

Vandmærket : noveller (Copenhagen, 1993) YA.2002.a.1404

Trilogi : digte (Copenhagen, 1995) YA.2003.a.30299

Huset overfor : digte (Copenhagen, 1996.) YA.2000.a.4948

Rejse for en fremmed (Copenhagen, 1999.) YA.2001.a.7331

Balladen om Bianca (Copenhagen, 2002). LF.31.a.1685

Rundt på gulvet (Gråsten, 2004.) YF.2006.a.7677

Bavian : noveller (Copenhagen, 2006.)

Åsted (Gråsten, 2008.) YF.2012.a.16708

Alting blinker : digte (Copenhagen, 2009.) YF.2011.a.14098

Sten saks papir (Copenhagen, 2012.) YF.2013.a.5872