European studies blog

11 posts from December 2015

31 December 2015

‘On the hay in horses’ stable’: a Kalevala nativity

As 2015 comes to an end, the year in which the 150th anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius was celebrated with concerts of his music throughout the world, it is also appropriate to recall that it also marked the 180th anniversary of the publication of the first printed version of the Finnish national epic which inspired so many of his works – the Kalevala.

Kalevala 1835
The first  printed edition of the Kalevala (Helsinki, 1835) British Library Ac.9080 [no. 2]

The edition was composed of material gathered by Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884), a physician whose work  as district doctor of Kajaani in Eastern Finland took him deep into the countryside, as the 4,000 people for whom he was responsible lived in scattered communities. He arrived in the area at a time when it had been ravaged by disease and crop failure, causing his predecessor to resign in despair. However, Lönnrot was ahead of his time in many ways, recognizing the importance of preventive measures such as hygiene and vaccination and also the value of traditional remedies, many of which he employed himself rather than dismissing them as primitive nonsense, and thus won the trust of his patients.

Kalevala Elias Lönnrot
Portrait and facsimile signature of Elias Lönnrot, frontispiece from O.A. Kallio, Elias Lönnrot (Helsinki, 1902) 10760.aa.12

Along with these folk remedies Lönnrot, a passionate advocate of the Finnish language against the enforcement of Swedish and Russian by successive governments, began to collect fragments of ancient lays taken down from local singers. These told of the feud between the people of Kaleva and those of Pohjola, the quest for the Sampo, a powerful talisman, and the exploits of the legendary heroes Lemminkäinen, Kullervo and Väinämöinen, a smith, musician and adventurer who devised the Finnish national instrument, the kantele. Like the Homeric epics, the Kalevala also includes many fascinating details of crafts, warfare and household management, as well as enshrining the values by which the people of Kaleva lived.

Not only Sibelius, in his Kullervo symphony and cycle of Lemminkäinen legends including The Swan of Tuonela, was inspired by the Kalevala. Composers, poets, painters and sculptors in Finland and abroad seized upon the magic and mystery of its verses to explore its many layers of symbolism and potential for expression in a wide variety of media. It has also been translated into many languages since its first appearance. In Finland 28 February is celebrated annually as  ‘Kalevala Day’ to commemorate the publication of Lönnrot’s first version of the epic in 1835.

One  of the less familiar episodes, though, is especially suited to the Christmas season. In the 50th and final Runo (canto), the narrator tells of Marjatta, a cherished and protected young girl so pure that she will not drive in a sleigh pulled by mares who have been running with a stallion, or drink milk from cows who have been kept with a bull. Sent to the upland pastures to guard the flocks, she eats a magical lingonberry and shortly afterwards finds that she is expecting a child. Her parents cast her out, and she seeks refuge in vain with neighbours who drive her away with harsh words. In a stable deep in the forest she gives birth to a son, warmed by the breath of the horses:

And a sinless child was given,
On the hay in horses’ stable,
On the hay in horses’ manger.

Then she wrapped the little infant
And in swaddling-clothes she wrapped him,
On her knees she took the infant,
And she wrapped her garments round him.

Kalevala Runo 50
The opening of Marjatta’s story, vignette and design by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, from Kalevala (Porvoo, 1949) o11586.ppp.1.

Shortly afterwards the baby mysteriously vanishes and Marjatta goes in search of him, asking the stars, moon and sun for guidance until she finds him in the marshes and carries him off to be baptized. The old man asked to do so demurs, asking Väinämöinen for his judgment. When the latter calls for the destruction of the child, the infant speaks out and denounces him, and Väinämöinen, realizing that his power is at an end, sings for the last time before stepping into his copper boat and sailing away, leaving his kantele as a final gift to ‘Suomi’s children’.  

Drawing together the threads of Christian and pagan tradition like Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, the closing lines of the Kalevala sum up its enduring significance for the Finnish people and for poets throughout the world:

Here the path lies newly opened,
Widely open for the singers,
And for greater ballad singers,
For the young, who now are growing,
For the rising generation.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement.

Kalevala Runo 50 End
The last lines of the Kalevala, with vignette by Akseli Gallen-Kallela of a child playing the kantele, from o11586.ppp.1.

29 December 2015

The Big Dictation: the Excitement of Spelling.

On Saturday 19 December, two teams of 30 Dutch and Flemish spelling aficionados went head to head in the 26th edition of Het Groot Dictee, or The Big Dictation. This spelling contest is broadcast live on television in the Netherlands and Belgium, from the chamber of the Dutch Senate in The Hague, no less. In its 26 years the Big Dictation has become an institution, with its own website, Twitter feed,  and a version for children. 

So, what is it about? Now you’re asking. Is it simply about spelling, or competition, or national identity, with a (friendly!) rivalry between the Dutch and the Flemish?

Who knows? It’s probably a bit of all three. One of the attractions is probably that everyone can participate, albeit unofficially, from their own living rooms. It probably also helps that  weeks before the contest the organizing newspapers, the Dutch De Volkskrant (The People’s Paper) and the Flemish De Morgen (The Morning) as well as language organizations offer practice exercises to get people in the mood. Schools participate, too, since children can do the children’s version. Isn’t this a fun way of learning how to spell? Words you’ve always struggled with will stick for ever in your mind, once it featured in the Groot Dictee.

Dutch spelling is formalised in the standard dictionary of the Dutch language: The ‘Dikke’ (Fat) Van Dale, a commercial title and in the Woordenlijst der Nederlandse Taal (Word list of the Dutch Language), or Het Groene Boekje (The Little Green Book) as it is better known. The latest edition of the Little Green Book was published in October this year, for the first time also by Van Dale.  It is compiled by De Taalunie the body that oversees policies in the area of the Dutch language, and there is a free online edition.  

Woordenlijst 1872
Second edition (1872) of Matthias de Vries and L.A. te Winkel Woordenlijst voor de spelling der Nederlandsche taal, the predecessor of today’s Groene Boekje  (British Library 1608/2709.)

This formalised approach to the Dutch language is similar to that of the French. It should therefore come as no surprise that the French were the first to come up with the idea for a Big Dictation.  There it is held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which is where Philip Freriks, Paris correspondent for De Volkskrant in the 1980s and 90s, first saw it and subsequently brought it over to the Netherlands.

Philip Freriks . Photo by Maurice Vink from Wikimedia Commons

Freriks has presented the Big Dictation for many years and other journalists have contributed by writing the text, such as this year’s author Lieve Joris, journalist and travel writer. Originally from Flanders, she now lives in Amsterdam, when she is not travelling the world. She is known for her award-winning travel writing about the Middle East, for example The Gates of Damascus (London, 1996; YC.1997.a.94)

Lieve Joris at the 2015 Big Dictation. Photo by Ruud Hendrickx from

Although it was the Dutch team that won this year, overall the Flemish contestants made the least mistakes. 31 Dutch participants made 747 mistakes, against 620 by the 29 Flemish.
This year saw a few ‘firsts’:

  1. The contest was between the Dutch and the Flemish teams, whilst before the participants selected from the readers of De Volkskrant and De Morgen were pitted against the Dutch and Flemish celebrities. 
  2. There was a final. After writing the Dictation the best Dutch reader and celebrity and best Flemish reader and celebrity battled it out over ten very difficult words. 
  3. There was a Polish participant; a ‘wild card’ added to the Dutch team. 

Needless to say any use of electronic spellcheckers is strictly forbidden, although the words for these devices pop up in the Dictation; such as ‘spellingchecker’. Now there’s a fine example of how the Dutch incorporate English words into Dutch. That aside, it doesn’t look as if spelling checkers have taken the fun out of spelling, so it is to be hoped that ‘The Big Dictation’ will see many more episodes. It is a true celebration of the richness of the Dutch language.

Marja Kingma, Curator Dutch Language Collections

Further reading
(This is a small selection of the many titles about Dutch spelling which can be found in the British Library catalogue.)

Henriëtte Houët, Grammatica Nederlands : woorden, zinnen, spelling. (Houten, 2011). YF.2012.a.14746.

F.J.A. Mostert, ‘Dutch Spelling Reform’,  Language International, vol. 8, no 2, 1996, pp. 18-20. 5155.709680

G.C. Molewijk & Vic de Donder, De citroen van de gynaecoloog : de sitroen van de ginekoloog : de nieuwe spelling: pro of contra (Amsterdam, 1994) YA.1995.a.7045.

G.C. Molewijk, Spellingverandering van zin naar onzin (1200-heden). (The Hague, 1992) YA.1993.b.9041.

25 December 2015

The Stories of ‘Silent Night’

Few Christmas carols are better known and loved than ‘Stille Nacht’ / ‘Silent Night’, and probably none has such a familiar romantic tale attached to its origins. Most people know the story of how the church organ in the small town of Oberndorf near Salzburg was found to be broken on Christmas Eve 1818, and how the priest, Joseph Mohr, and organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, hastily wrote the words and melody of a song which could be performed to a guitar accompaniment instead.

Stille Nacht MS 1836
Facsimile of a manuscript of ‘Stille Nacht’ made by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1836, from Alois Leeb, ‘Bibliographie des Weihnachtsliedes “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”.’ Oberösterreichische Heimatblätter, Jg, 23 (1969). British Library

This is partly true. The song was indeed written by Mohr and Gruber and first performed, to a guitar accompaniment, at Christmas 1818, but Mohr had in fact written the words two years earlier and the story of the damaged organ is speculation (besides, presumably there were existing carols which could have been sung to a guitar…).

Stille Nacht 1832
The first published version of ‘Stille Nacht’, in three-verse form, from Vier ächte Tyroler-Lieder ... Gesungen von den Geschwistern Strasser aus dem Zillerthale.(Dresden, [1832?]) Hirsch M.1291.(18.)

Although the song quickly gained local popularity around Oberndorf, it was taken to a wider audience by two families of singers, the Strassers and the Rainers, who both came from another part of Austria, the Tyrolean Zillertal. The Strassers were glove-makers who started singing as a group to attract custom to their stall at the Leipzig Christmas fair. They were subsequently invited to perform at Christmas services and concerts in the city, and for a few years in the early 1830s they devoted themselves to a singing career, travelling around Germany with ‘Stille Nacht’ as a popular part of their repertoire. They cut Mohr’s original six verses down to three, and this is the form of the song that is known today and was first published in a collection of ‘authentic Tyrolean melodies’ as performed by the Strassers.

 Stiller Nacht StrassersTitle-page of Vier ächte Tyroler-Lieder...  with a (probably fanciful) picture of the Strassers

Incidentally, the Strassers apparently first heard of ‘Stille Nacht’ from Carl Mauracher, an organ-builder who rebuilt the church organ at Oberndorf in 1825. Could his role in the transmission of the song have inspired the story of a broken organ forcing Mohr and Gruber to improvise?

The Rainers were a more professional and longer-lived group. They travelled beyond Germany, taking  ‘Stille Nacht’ to international audiences, including America, where they toured from 1839 to 1843, and where the first English translation of the song appeared in 1849. Ten years later the most familiar English version was published by an American Episcopal priest, John Freeman Young

Stille Nacht Rainers
Fascimile signatures of the Rainer Family Singers, from an edition of ‘Tyrolese melodies’ published in London (R.M.13.f.22.). The signatures guaranteed that this was an authentic and approved edition, evidence of the Rainers’ more professional and businesslike approach to their singing career.

Like the Strassers, the Rainers were advertised as singing traditional Tyrolean songs, and ‘Stille Nacht’ was not attributed to either Mohr or Gruber in its earliest publications. The melody was generally thought to be either a Tyrolean folk-tune or the work of Michael Haydn. In 1854 the Prussian Court Chapel in Berlin wrote to St Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg asking for clarification; the letter found its way to Gruber who wrote an account of the song’s origins, identifying Mohr as author and himself as composer, although a  printed score in the British Library ( attributes the tune to Michael Haydn as late as 1921. 

Stille Nacht authentischer BerichtA facsimile of Gruber’s report of 1854, explaining the origins of ‘Stille Nacht’, from  Max Gehmacher, Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht! Das Weihnachtslied, wie es entstand, und wie es wirklich ist (Salzburg, 1937) 11858.c.95

Despite Grubers efforts, legends and misinformation continued to accumulate around the song. A completely untrue claim that Mohr translated the words from Latin dates from 1899 and was still being quoted nearly a century later. The story has been fictionalised several times and there have been film and theatre adaptations, all adding various romantic subplots and embellishments to the original tale, many of which can be found today presented as truth on the Internet and elsewhere.

But none of this mythology would have accumulated without the song’s genuine popularity and power to move. For British audiences in particular it has gained in emotional impact by becoming linked with the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce (another true story around which many legends have been built), when British and German soldiers sang it together across the lines. It has been translated into over 300 languages and dialects, and in countries all round the world Christmas would not be Christmas without it. No wonder we love the story of its rise from humble origins to worldwide fame.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies


23 December 2015

Vodka - a panacea for all illnesses?

The lack of physicians and apothecaries throughout 16th century Poland on one hand and of medical guidebooks in the Polish language on the other  were Stefan Falimirz’s motives for undertaking the compilation of a book on herbal medicine O ziołach y o moczy gich. The herbal is a compilation of texts from Latin sources with the author’s added information on plants native to Poland.  It is the first book to use Polish botanical and medical terminology.  For this reason the book is also considered important for the development of Polish medical lexicography. Very little is known about the author. He was a friend of the publisher Florian Ungler and courtier to a Polish voivode. It is not clear whether he was a physician or botanist by training, but he obviously had a great interest in natural science.

Falimirz Image 1
Title page of Stefan Falimirz’s O ziołach y o moczy gich (Kraków, 1534) British Library C.185.a.1

The herbal is regarded as a treatise on pharmacology, medicine and botany as well as a practical medical guide, which was meant to help save lives in the context of the inadequate healthcare provision of the time. The book consists of five chapters, of which the first one provides the title for the whole work: On herbs and their potency.  Other subjects covered include the medicinal properties of birds, animals and fishes, blood-letting, obstetrics and infants’ ailments, surgery, etc.  

In the second chapter Falimirz describes some seventy brands of vodka and their health benefits.  He initially gives  instructions on the process of distilling vodka and then lists the different kinds alphabetically.  The chapter concludes with a list of illnesses cured by them.  Thus a well-supplied home apothecary was the guarantee for curing each illness. We learn that violet vodka is good for tuberculosis while the sage one is linked to curing headaches, but the honey vodka is supposed to clear the blood. On the other hand, hetmans and captains were given  wormwood-infused vodka but only when they were heading for war. The author recommends grass vodka for the sufferer from jaundice as well as for alleviating wrist pain. Disorders of the head can be cured by ten different brands of vodka such as marjoram, lavender, sage and peony. Against memory loss, fennel vodka is supposed to help. Heart disease can be treated with  lavender, borage or St. John Wort infusions. 

Falimirz image 2Frontispiece to chapter 2 of O ziołach y o moczy gich, on herb-infused vodkas

Some of Falimirz’s recommendations seem universal and timeless. He has, for example, a remedy for the citizens of a modern city exposed to noxious air either in air-conditioned offices or in the polluted streets. His advice would be a shot of oak-tree vodka. With the festive season just a few days away, Falimirz would recommend a small glass of peppermint or sage vodka to treat stomach disorders as it is reputed to aid digestion.

It is not surprising that it proved the most popular book of its time. 12 copies which are recorded in Poland are imperfect, but   the British Library copy is faultless. The herbal is lavishly illustrated and contains over 600 woodcuts.

Sage 1     WORMWOOD 3
Entries on sage (left) and wormwood (right)  from O ziołach y o moczy gich

Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

21 December 2015

World proverbs in speech, text and image

All the world over, wise people say “Nobody knows his own defects” and “What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over”. 

You may find this an inspiring indication of the oneness of mankind, or alternatively depressing proof of the lack of originality of the human mind.

The current BL exhibition “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song” includes some small figures which are thought to refer to popular proverbs.

  African proverbs weightAs described in the exhibition catalogue, “The gold-weight [above, from the collections of the British Museum] depicting two crocodiles with one stomach embodies the Asante proverb Funtufunefu, denkyemfunefu, won efuru bom, nso woredidi a na woreko, meaning that even though they have one stomach, they fight over food when eating.” (p. 123).

It’s from Ghana, and dated somewhere in the 18th to 20th centuries.

I’m reminded of European  misericords, carvings under the seats in the choir stalls of medieval churches. These often show motifs which can  be matched to popular tales or sayings. The examples below from the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam show a man banging his head against a brick wall and another falling between two stools.  (These two images also occur in Bruegel).  

  Proverbs misericords 1            Proverbs misericords 2

 European popular proverbs are written down, in the context of Latin literature, as early as the 13th century. The most common contexts are sermons and grammar books.

Arabic proverbs (more properly learned than popular) made their entrance in the West in 13th-century Spain, and were printed in erudite bilingual Arabic-Latin collections from the early 17th century on.

African proverbs, at least in those parts which were occupied by Britain and France, were not printed until the 19th century (see Moll’s bibliography).

The BL recently acquired a book which I think is typical of the first printing of African proverbs:

Elementos Grammaticaes tp
Elementos grammaticaes da lingua Nbundu  offerecidos a S.M.F.O. Senhor D. Luis I por Dr. Saturnino de Sousa e Oliveira e Manuel Alves de Castro Francina (Loanda, 1864) YF.2015.a.25009

The context is a grammar of the Nbundu (Kimbundu) language, spoken in Angola. Early printed grammars of French (etc.)  for English (etc.)  speakers regularly included an anthology of proverbs.  And so it is in this book of 1864.

Here the Nbundu original is given followed by the literal Portuguese translation, and then the Portuguese equivalent.

  Elementos Grammaticaes proverbs
Elementos Grammaticaes proverbs

The monkey doesn’t look at his tail

Often the ant dominates the elephant

What the eyes see, causes envy

The rat is an expert in his hole

One who makes water often cannot lie down in a wet place

The witchdoctor starts with his own house and ends up outside


 Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References/further reading:

Walter S. Gibson, Figures of speech : picturing proverbs in renaissance Netherlands (London, 2010) YC.2010.a.7023

Otto E. Moll, Sprichwörterbibliographie (Frankfurt am Main, [1958]) Humanities 1 Reading Room HLR 398.9

Barry Taylor, ‘Los Libros de proverbios bilingües: disposición e intención’, in Corpus, genres, théories et méthodes: construction d’une base de données, ed. Marie-Christine Bornes-Varol and Marie-Sol Ortola (Nancy, 2010), pp. 119-29. YF.2012.a.22372

Barry Taylor, ‘Éditions bilingues de textes espagnols’, K výzkumu zámeckých, měšťanských a cirkevnich knihoven, ‘Jazyk a  řeč knihy’, Opera romanica, 11 (2009), 385-94. ZF.9.a.4837

West Africa : word, symbol, song / general editors, Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace. 2015.


17 December 2015

“In true heroic mould”: witnessing the retreat of Serbia, 1915

A century ago, in December 1915, the first complete calendar year of the First World War was drawing to a close.

A number of new countries had entered the fray during the preceding 12 months, adding pressure to those states which had been fighting one another since 1914. Among the most vulnerable nations of all was Serbia, a small country ravaged by typhus and other diseases, and fighting its third war in as many years. Because of its government’s alleged role in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it was the main target for annihilation by the Austro-Hungarian high command.

Serbia had emerged as chief victor from the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, but assimilating its new territories was a huge challenge without the added burden of another war, and fallings-out among former allies left wounds which reopened in 1915. In September, Bulgaria joined the War on the side of the Central Powers, hoping to win Macedonian territory taken by Serbia in 1913.

Thus, in autumn 1915, Serbia faced a double onslaught. Austrian and German troops renewed their assault on Belgrade from across the Danube, while Bulgaria joined the attack from the east. This was finally too much for the beleaguered country. To avoid surrender, Serbia’s leaders instructed the army to make for the Albanian coast, and so it set out, led by the elderly King Petar and Field Marshal Radomir Putnik, both borne on stretchers before the busy pencils of war artists. Periodically, the stretcher-bearers were forced to halt so they could swap with other colleagues, and the entire convoy of refugees, several miles long, had to halt behind them, standing exposed in wind and rain until the leaders were ready to move on again.

Serbia 1 (2)
The convoy of refugees, picture from Jan and Cora Gordon, The Luck of Thirteen: Wanderings and Flight through Serbia and Montenegro (London, 1916). British Library 12208.a.1/223.

Along the narrow mountain passes and through knee-deep muddy valleys they went, sleeping in makeshift bivouacs or in the open air, leaning on their animals for warmth: the Serbian army, hundreds of Austrian prisoners-of-war, hordes of camp-followers, foreign journalists and medical staff (whose own governments had also instructed them to leave the occupied country) and finally thousands of civilians, encouraged by the government to evacuate rather than fall into enemy hands.

“Quantities of carts passed us filled with furniture, baths, and luggage,” wrote two intrepid British artists who were there. “A smartly dressed family was picnicking by the roadside, sitting on deck-chairs.….Crowds were congregated round a man who was carrying over his shoulder a whole sheep on a spit and chopping bits off for buyers. On a hillside a woman was handing out rakia ….The Crown Prince passed, touching his hat to fifty kilometres of his people.”

Serbia Women resting
Women with an ox-cart resting on the journey.  Picture from The Luck of Thirteen. 12208.a.1/223.

These authors are resourceful and jaunty through all their privations, but some foreign witnesses captured the human pathos with greater sensitivity, noting children who were full of bravado by day but wept quietly in their rough camps at night, when they thought no-one could hear. Tens of thousands of the party of soldiers and refugees died of hunger or disease en route, or in mountain ambushes by Albanian tribesmen avenging incidents from the Balkan Wars.

Serbia Ipek pass (2)
The refugees crossing the Ipek pass, from The Luck of Thirteen, drawn by the authors. 12208.a.1/223.

Ultimately, up to 200,000 desperate survivors were evacuated at the coast by those Entente ships which got through the bombardment by the Austrian navy and air force. They went on to exile in France, North Africa or Greece, where many more would die of flu or of the effects of their journey.

Over the months that followed, a series of books appeared in Britain and the United States, describing the valour and agony of the retreating nation through the eyes of the foreigners who had taken part in the exodus. Many bore a dedication to “Alexander, Crown Prince of Serbia”, for the young man became a symbol of hope for the future of his country, “an apostle of progress as well as a knight Paladin”. After their appalling ordeal, both he and stoic, defeated Serbia seemed “a curious blending of the medieval and the modern,” imbued with “a fine glamour…[and] cast in the true heroic mould.”

Regrouped Serbian troops under the Crown Prince’s command went on to fight on the Salonika Front, which delivered fatal blows to Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire and hence to the Central Powers. Returning home in 1918, the Crown Prince (and Regent for his venerable father) found his ambitions for the future well-supported by his western Allies, greatly bolstered the body of sympathetic literature produced in the aftermath of 1915’s extraordinary journey.

Janet Ashton, Western European Languages Cataloguing Team Manager

References/further reading:

Alice and Claude Askew, The stricken land: Serbia as we saw it. (London, 1916) Copies at W15/8483 and

Fortier Jones, With Serbia into exile: an American’s adventures with the army that cannot die  (New York, 1916). Three copies at W82/6627, 9083.ff.25., and 9081.e.7.

Mabel Stobart, The flaming sword in Serbia and elsewhere. (London, 1916) .

Peter Gatrell , ‘Europe on the move: refugees and World War One’. British Library Website:

15 December 2015

The Man who Hoped: Celebrating Esperanto Book Day

 Type the name “L.L. Zamenhof” into the British Library’s online catalogue and dozens of results will appear: books, articles, journals and scores. As time passes and the centenary of Zamenhof’s death (14 April 1917) approaches, more and items will be added to our collections, as the fascinating personality of the creator of Esperanto and his language keeps attracting the attention of more scholars worldwide.

Portrait of L.L. Zamenhof (from The Life of Zamenhof by Edmond Privat, London, 1931). 010795.a.77

The most recent academic study in the catalogue is Esperanto and its Rivals (Philadelphia, 2015; m15/.11262). Its author, Roberto Garvía, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, starts with the story of George Orwell’s not-so-happy stay in Paris with his aunt Nellie Limouzin and her partner, radical Esperantist Eugene Adam, known as Eugeno Lanti. The second, and longest part of the book is dedicated to Esperanto and the third to its very diverse users worldwide. Part I is dedicated to Volapük  and Part IV to “Ido and its Satellites”.

Another book by Esther H. Schor, Bridge of words: Esperanto and the dream of a universal language (New York, 2015) will join the collection soon. The classic work by Umberto Eco La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea (Rome, 1993; YF.2005.a.22144), which dedicates some pages to Esperanto, is also available to readers in English translation by James Fentress as The search for the perfect language (Oxford, 1995; YC.1996.b.4086) and, of course, in Esperanto too, translated by Daniele Mistretta: La serĉado de la perfekta lingvo: en la Eŭropa kulturo (Pisa, 1994;  YA.2001.a.15737).

Many people worldwide have found and keep finding their “perfect language”. For them it is Esperanto. They use it often or even on a daily basis, as Zamenhof intended:  for international communication.  Some Esperantists share their experiences with wider public in blogs and books. The fervent Irish Esperantist, educationalist and environmentalist, Maire Mullarney published Esperanto for hope in 1989; it was republished in 1999 as Everyone’s own language (YK.2002.a.6844), followed by another book, Maire Mullarney argues about language (Galway, 2004). Some authors are seeking a special mission for Esperanto in the modern world. The German Esperantist Ulrich Matthias published a book Esperanto - das neue Latein der Kirche [Esperanto: the new Latin for the Church] (Messkirch, 1999; Esperanto version, Esperanto: la nova latino de la eklezio, Antwerp, 2001. YF.2009.a.26086).

And, of course, we have quite a few biographies of Zamenhof himself. Some of them were translated into English, such as The Life of Zamenhof by Edmont Privat  translated by Ralph Eliott. Others were written in English first, e.g. Zamenhof, Creator of Esperanto by Marjorie Boulton. (London,1960; 10667.m.13). No lack of “secrets revealed” either! La kâsita vivo de Zamenhof [The Hidden life of Zamenhof] (Tokyo, 1978; YF.2007.a.19318) by N.Z. Maimon looks as the ideology of Homaranismo  developed by Zamenhof. 

Original works and translations by Zamenhof are part of our collections, as well as La Unua Libro  and his correspondence (Leteroj de L.L.Zamenhof, Paris, 1948; ZF.9.a.6229). More than 900 photos related to Zamenhof, his works and his family, are collected in the Granda Galerio Zamenhofa published by Adolf Holzhaus (1892–1982) at his own expense (Helsinki, 1973; YA.2001.b.4401).

Selection of biographies of L.L.Zamenhof from our collections (Photo by Olga Kerziouk)

Our Esperanto Collections are also rich in material about the whole Zamenhof family. Two of Zamenhof’s younger brothers became ardent Esperantists themselves and tried their hand at poetry and translations. Leono Zamenhof (1875-1934) translated Aleksander Świętochowski’s  drama Aspazja into Esperanto as Aspazio (Paris, 1908; also available as an e-book in Project Gutenberg, where more than 50 books in Esperanto are digitised). Feliks Zamenhof, known as Fez, wrote poetry in Esperanto and translated too. A collection of his works Verkoj de Fez: plena Verkaro de Dro Felikso Zamenhof, edited by Edvardo Wiesenfeld,was published in Budapest in 1935. Recently the Polish researcher Marian Kostecki collected and published the poetical works of both brothers in one book, Esperanta verkaro de fratoj Zamenhof (Czeladź, 2006?; YF.2008.a.25231).

Photograph  of Felix Zamenhof  from Verkoj de Fez. Budapest, 1931. YF.2014.a.2787

L.L. Zamenhof and his wife Klara had three children, Adam, Sofia and Lidia, all of whom perished in the Holocaust. The best known is Lidia, who was a keen teacher of Esperanto and traveller. Lidia became a dedicated follower of the Bahai Faith after meeting the American journalist Martha Root. The tragic life of Lidia Zamenhof, who died in Treblinka, is the subject of the American writer Wendy Heller’s book Lidia: the life of Lidia Zamenhof, daughter of Esperanto (Oxford, c1985; X.950/44270)

Photo of Lidia Zamenhof (From Wikimedia Commons)

Recently Zamenhof himself became the hero of a novel by the American writer Joseph Skibell, A Curable Romantic (London, 2010; Nov.2013/1041) – together with Sigmund Freud! Esther Shor published an interesting review in The New Republic.

December 15, the birthday of L.L. Zamenhof, is also known  as Esperanto Book Day. Keen reader Maire Mullarney wrote in her book Everyone’s own language: “Welcomed at first, later detested by dictators, undermined by the jealous, Esperanto grew steadily, and now is in excellent health”. Use the opportunity to visit the British Library and to find more about Lingvo Internacia and its creator.

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Esperanto studies

References/Further reading

Zofia Banet-Fornalowa, La familio Zamenhof.(La Chaux-de-Fonds, 2000). YF.2008.a.17135

Aleksander Korĵenkov, “Homarano”: la vivo, verkoj kaj ideoj de d-ro L.L. Zamenhof. La 2a eldono, korektita kaj ampleksigita. (Kaliningrad, 2011). YF.2011.a.23688

Zbigniew Romaniuk and Tomasz Wiśniewski. Ĉio komenciĝis ce la Verda : pri Ludoviko Zamenhof, lia familio kaj la komenco de Esperanto = Zaczęło sie na Zielonej. (Łódż, 2009).YF.2010.a.417

Henk Thien. La vivo de L.L. Zamenhof en bildoj. (s.l., 1970) YA.2001.b.4400

Halina dokumento pri la studentaj jaroj de L.L.Zamenhof.  (Osaka, 1977). YF.2008.a.17335

La lastaj Tagoj de d-ro L.L.Zamenhof kaj la Funebra Ceremonio. (Kolonjo-Horrem, 1921). YF.2008.a.12302


10 December 2015

The Russian Refugee Crisis of the 1920s

‘Never in the history of Europe has a political cataclysm torn such huge numbers of people from their mother country and from their homes’.

These words, written by Russian émigré journalist and politician Ariadna Tyrkova-Williams in December 1921 (British Library Add MS 54466, ff. 93-96), refer to the revolution and civil war that tore Russia apart from 1917 until the early 1920s. The war led to the displacement of over one million people, including countless children. The majority of the refugees sympathised with the Whites, the group of forces who fought the Bolsheviks on a number of fronts across the country, and were from Russia’s educated classes. Due to their political affiliation and the effects of war and famine, people chose, or were forced, to flee their homes as the Whites suffered heavier defeats. Those who could left Russia for Europe or the Far East. Tens of thousands initially fled to Constantinople before settling in the newly independent Baltic countries or cities such as London, Belgrade, Paris, and Berlin.

Photograph of Russian refugees on board a train, 1919
Russian refugees during the Civil War, 1919. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The British Library’s Tyrkova-Williams Collection contains a number of English, French and Russian-language documents concerning the international response to the refugee crisis and the activities of Russian émigré organisations, such as the London-based Russian Refugees Relief Association (RRRA). The RRRA was established in late 1920, immediately after the White Army General Wrangel’s forces were evacuated from the Crimea and ‘200,000 refugees were added to the hundreds of thousands of the Russian émigrés whom civil war had driven out of Russia [sic]’ (Add MS 54466, ff. 74-78).

Chaired by Tyrkova-Williams, the organisation counted both Russian and British figures among its members. Alongside printing and distributing appeals for clothing and money (see for example Add MS 54466, f. 88), the RRRA organised fundraising events, such as a June 1922 dance held at Chesham House, the former Russian Embassy in London. Patronesses of the dance included several members of the British aristocracy, such as Lady Maud Hoare, wife of British Conservative politician Sir Samuel Hoare, highlighting the RRRA’s standing in British society.  

Poster advertising a 1922 charity dance held by the RRRA
Poster advertising the charity dance in aid of the Russian Refugee Relief Association in June 1922. Cup.410.f.1187

While the RRRA’s primary aim was to aid those fleeing the war, its political agenda must not be forgotten. A number of the organisation’s key members, including its chair Tyrkova-Williams, were actively involved in supporting the White movement’s propaganda activities against the Bolsheviks. Appeals to the British public to assist Russia’s refugees therefore had a second purpose: to direct public opinion firmly away from the Bolsheviks by drawing attention to the suffering experienced by Russians living under their rule. 

In 1921, formal international efforts to aid the Russian refugees began when the International Committee of the Red Cross appealed to the League of Nations to assist them. The British Library’s manuscript collection includes reports by the Russian Red Cross (RRC) relating to the issue of wider international assistance. One document summarises a 1921 report made by Dr Ladyzhenski, the RRC delegate in Geneva, on the ‘most urgent needs of the Russian refugees’, particularly those in Constantinople (Add MS 54466, f. 91). Discussing issues such as the provision of food, legal status and the fair distribution of the refugees across Europe, the report provides an insight into international attitudes towards the refugee crisis and the challenges facing organisations attempting to assist them.

These documents are particularly poignant in the context of the current refugee crisis in Europe and the increased charity appeals for aid in the run up to Christmas and the onset of winter. Nearly one hundred years later we still see the same devastating consequences of civil war. Yet we also witness the same compassionate responses from ordinary citizens and charity organisations trying to help those in need.

Katie McElvanney


H. W. Williams Papers, Add MS 54436-54476

Tyrkova-Williams Collection, Cup.410.f.1185 - Cup.410.g.702

Katie McElvanney is a collaborative PhD student at the British Library and Queen Mary University of London. She is currently cataloguing the BL’s H. W. Williams Papers (part of the Tyrkova-Williams Collection).

07 December 2015

Spanish books in the library of Mary Queen of Scots

You’ll not be surprised to learn that Mary Queen of Scots had a good range of books in Latin, Greek, French (from five to eighteen she lived at the French court) and Italian (the most prestigious of the vernaculars) in her library, studied by Julian Sharman in 1889.

My eye was caught by two books in Spanish which appear in the inventory made at Edinburgh Castle in 1578:

Sharman’s note reads: ‘A collection of Spanish chronicles printed at Antwerp in 1571, under the title of “Los xe [=xl] libros d’el compendio historial de las chronicas de todos los  reynos de España.”  The author was Estevan de Garibay, who was librarian to Philip II.’

Title page of Los xl. libros d’el compendio historial

The British Library’s copy of Los xl. libros d’el compendio historial … (Antwerp, 1571) C.75.e.4.

Sharman comments: ‘The title proved somewhat puzzling to the Scotsman engaged in deciphering the various labels upon the backs or frontispieces of this polyglot collection of books.  It is, however, clearly intended for the “Cancionero de Romances,” a very popular Spanish ballad-book, printed about the year 1550 at Antwerp, and afterwards very frequently re-issued in different parts of Spain.’

Title page of Cancionero de Romances
The British Library’s copy of the Cancionero de Romances (Antwerp, 1550). C.20.a.36.

Mary also had some translations from the Spanish: Amadis de Gaule in French (p. 37), Marcus Aurelius (or rather Antonio de Guevara) in Italian (p. 88), the Epistle of Ignatius [Loyola] in French (p. 114), the History of Palmerine probably in French (p. 136), the Horologe of Princis (Guevara again) in French (p. 141), and the Descriptioun of the Province of the Yndianis (Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo?).

This looks to me a familiar tale: like many British readers, Mary owned in Spanish only books which had not yet been translated.

And quite often the Spanish books in British libraries were histories: in Mary’s case, one book of chronicles proper and one book of ballads on historical themes.

It may also be significant that Mary’s two books are believed to be Antwerp editions.  Although Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands was no freer than any town in Spain, it was a major centre for the printing and export of Catholic books.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References/further reading:

Julian Sharman, The Library of Mary, Queen of Scots ... (London, 1889).  011902.h.18.

Cancionero de romances, ed. A. Rodríguez Moñino (Valencia, 1967).  YF.2008.a.7783

J. Peeters-Fontainas, Bibliographie des impressions espagnoles des Pays-Bas Méridionaux (Nieuwkoop, 1965)  Rare Books and Music Reading Room RAR 090.9493


02 December 2015

The Emperor’s Big Nose: Frederic Justen and Napoleon III

This year marks the bicentennial of Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo and of the dramatic 100 days which preceded it. One of the many events organized to commemorate the historic event was put together by the British Museum, featuring its extensive collection of British satirical prints from the Napoleonic Era (1799 to 1815).

But we should not forget his nephew, the equally ambitious Louis-Napoleon, who was also a favourite object of mockery in satirical papers across Europe. Indeed, the large nose and moustache of Napoleon III (as he would anoint himself in December 1852) were internationally recognizable. The British Library houses a rich collection of Napoleon caricatures, including many German and French ones from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), located at shelfmarks Cup.648.b.2, Cup.648.b.8, and 14001.g.41, and these collections have been the object of some very interesting research.

The British Library is also home to another collection of Napoleon caricatures that has yet to receive the scholarly attention it deserves. Napoléon III et la Caricature Anglaise [1761.a.12 and LR.22.b.20] is one of three collections of newspaper cuttings donated by Frederic Justen to the British Museum in the late 19th century. Justen, it has been surmised, was a German-born bookseller residing in Soho, probably of French Protestant origin. This collection, comprises three leather-bound volumes, complete with an official-looking title page that simply says ‘Londres, 1873’ and is adorned with the Napoleonic Seal. It is probable that Justen bound these volumes himself, because there is no British Museum stamp on the covers, and because the acquisition stamps are dated 1874, the year after the given date of publication.

As the title suggests, the collection is composed of clippings from various British satirical newspapers, mostly Punch [P.P.5270.ah], which feature reports, poems, caricatures and other humoristic ways of representing Napoleon III’s rise and fall from power between 1848 and 1871. For the purposes of concision, I have focused only on the first volume, which covers 1848 to 1860. First elected president in December 1848; gradually tightening his control over both government and the press; staging a coup d’état in December 1851; and finally declaring himself Emperor one year later; Napoleon’s power grab took place in such a piecemeal manner that the average Frenchman going about his daily life may not have realized the significance of what was happening.  

It is unlikely that Justen, just 16 years old in 1848, was collecting these news items as they appeared. Instead, he probably began looking through back issues of satirical magazines in or around 1871, perhaps searching for a narrative to explain the extraordinary events of the end of the Empire, such as the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. By selecting only certain items, and leaving out the many other important events reported in the news during that period, Justen altered the temporality of the narrative. This sort of reorganization of events in time in order to give them coherence and direction is what Paul Ricoeur has famously termed “emplotment.”

Louis-Napoleon Ups and Downs
‘Ups and downs of Political Life’, Punch vol. 16, p. 118

For example, near the beginning of the volume, the reader finds a fairly mirthful 1848 sketch of Louis-Philippe and Louis-Napoleon titled ‘Ups and Downs of Political Life’ (above); but the imagery and the language of the cuttings suddenly become much darker just a few pages later. ‘The Modern Damocles’ (below), a caricature from December 1851, depicts the newly appointed ‘President for Life,’ perched miserably on his throne, a menacing sword hanging over his head. By placing the two events nearly side-by-side, Justen establishes an almost teleological account of Louis-Napoleon’s rise and fall from power.

Louis-Napoleon Modern Damocles
‘The Modern Damocles’, Punch vol. 21, p. 260

A desire for a narrative of the Empire is also evident in the way that the collector assembled his book, although it is often hard to figure out just exactly what he was trying to convey with his choices. For instance, Volume I begins with a cutting from 1864 (below) featuring Mr. Punch acting as a peep-show animator, with a line of foreign dignitaries queuing up to see the show.

Louis-Napoleon Peep-Show

While Napoleon is among the audience, he is neither more nor less important than the other guests, which include Otto von Bismarck, Abraham Lincoln, and the Pope. This frontispiece serves as an introduction to the entire collection, so why choose an image where Napoleon features so vaguely? I am tempted to guess that Justen is making a statement about himself, calling attention to the similarities between his own act of constructing a narrative – presenting history as a spectacle – and the voyeuristic art-form of the peep-show.

As is often the case, this collection provides as much information about the collector as the collected objects, and it brings up more questions than answers. The figure of Frederic Justen is intriguing. Who was this German-born bookseller living in London, and why did he take the time to put together these volumes? Why did he carefully cut out and paste his texts and images in this particular way? Why did he choose the items he did (a quick perusal of Punch shows some blatant omissions)? While some of these mysteries are unsolvable, there is a great deal of cultural insight to be found in these volumes, which clearly deserve more attention than they have thus-far received.

Rebecca Powers, University of Warwick

References/Further Reading

Morna Daniels, ‘Caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Paris Commune’ Electronic British Library Journal (2005)

W. Jack Rhoden, ‘French caricatures of the Franco-Prussian War and Commune at the British Library’ FSLG Annual Review issue 6 (2009-2010), pp.22-24

Richard Scully, ‘The Cartoon Emperor: The Impact of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte on European Comic Art, 1848–1870’ European Comic Art (2011), pp. 147-180. ZC.9.a.8279

Teresa Vernon, ‘Napoleon III meets his nemesis: caricatures from the Franco-Prussian War’ British Library European Studies Blog (24 June 2014)