THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

6 posts from January 2020

31 January 2020

‘Foreign Language Printing in London’ online

In May 2000 the British Library held a one-day conference on the theme of foreign-language printing in London from 1500 to 1900, specifically printing by and for immigrants in London. The focus was on the languages of continental Europe, with papers on German, Dutch, Scandinavian languages, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, Greek, Russian, Polish, and Hungarian printers and printing, which were collected into a book, published in 2002 as Foreign Language Printing in London. Long out of print, this volume has now been made freely available via the British Library’s research repository. Some of its articles offer a general overview of printing activity while others concentrate on particular periods, printers or publications.

Cover of  'Foreign Language Printing in London', with a picture of Christopher Wren's architectural works by C. R.Cockerell
Cover of Foreign Language Printing in London, edited by Barry Taylor (Boston Spa, 2002) 

One thing we discover is that, apart from the special case of Latin, the foreign vernacular language most frequently printed in London was French, also the only one to appear in the 15th century. Italian, Spanish and Dutch material all first appeared in the 16th century while German, Portuguese and modern Greek made their debuts in the 17th century. Most languages show an upward trend over time, although the number of Dutch publications gradually declined from the 16th to the 18th centuries. However, none of the numbers are particularly large: only for French do figures reach into the thousands rather than hundreds or fewer.

Most printing in foreign languages in London began with language-learning aids: dictionaries, grammars, textbooks and phrase-books. The earliest such work was a French-English vocabulary printed in 1480 by William Caxton (who had himself started out as a foreign-language printer in Flanders where he produced his first book in English, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye). These works might be aimed equally at English learners of another language or at native speakers looking to learn English in their new home. Likewise the printing of foreign-language literature in London could appeal to an audience of language learners as well as native speakers, although as a rule literature remained more likely to be imported than printed in London. Nonetheless, there were printers and publishers who also had a role as ‘foreign booksellers’ in promoting foreign-language literature to Anglophone audiences and some, like the 18th-century German bookseller Carl Heydinger, also translated works into English.

Parallel German and English title pages of the farce 'Die Drei Freier'
A bilingual German and English edition of the farce Die drei Freier / The Three Suitors (London, 1805; 1343.d.10), published by the London German firm of J. B. G. Vogel 

Other foreign-language printing was aimed more specifically at foreign communities. A number of these were initially formed by those fleeing persecution. In earlier centuries this tended to be religious persecution, with Protestants from Catholic Europe in particular finding refuge in England (paralleled, of course, by English Catholics seeking similar refuge abroad). Printing religious texts was an understandable preoccupation for these groups, but was also typical of foreign communities in general since places of worship were usually among the first community meeting-places to be established by immigrant groups. Most of the examples in the book come from Christian denominations, but there was also printing by Jews arriving in England from the continent, notably the Sephardim from Spain and Portugal who established a synagogue in London in the mid-17th century and printed sermons, calendars and polemical works, mostly in Spanish. Later, especially in the 19th century, the refugees were more often fleeing political than religious persecution. Liberal and socialist exiles took advantage of Britain’s relatively tolerant climate and, in particular, its free press.

These persecuted groups often printed books, pamphlets and newspapers to be exported – sometimes smuggled – back home. Their efforts met with varying degrees of success, perhaps the greatest being that of the Russian-language newspaper Kolokol (‘The Bell’), published in London between 1857 and 1867, which circulated widely and was much read in Russia. Less influential when first published was the Communist Manifesto (Manifest der kommunistischen Partei), printed in London in February 1848; it was not until the 1870s that it began to be widely reprinted.

Masthead of 'Kolokol' issue 1, with title and imprint details
Masthead of the first issue of Kolokol (London, 1857) C.127.k.84

Not all immigrants, of course, were fleeing persecution. Many were scholars, tradesmen or workers of all kinds and classes, and many soon became assimilated into English life and society – one of the reasons why a career in foreign-language book trades in London was often precarious. The short lives of many foreign-language newspapers which were founded in 19th-century London offer one of the clearest pieces of evidence for the difficulty of maintaining an audience for foreign-language material. Nonetheless, foreign-language printing and publishing have continued in London through the 20th century and into the 21st, with the addition now of internet resources by and for the many communities from Europe – and of course beyond – in Britain. A more recent British Library project, the ‘Russia in the UK’ Web Archive Collection, showcases examples of this.

When Foreign Language Printing in London was published, the Internet was still far from the ubiquitous tool it has become today, and all forms of online publishing still in their relative infancy. It is gratifying that, nearly two decades later, the book can be freely accessed online, for it remains a valuable introduction to the topic and of potential interest to specialists and lay readers alike.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

28 January 2020

‘Suffering and sweat and tears’: Stratis Tsirkas

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the death of the Greek author Stratis Tsirkas, who commemorated the struggles of his country during and after the Second World War.

Woodcut portrait of Stratis Tsirkas, ca 1970

Woodcut portrait of Stratis Tsirkas, ca 1970. Frontispiece from Stratis Tsirkas, To Eikosiena stē neoellēnikē pezographia: Solōmos kai Makrygiannēs (Athens, 2011) YA.2011.a.4072

Born Yiannis Hatziandreas in Cairo, then a city with a substantial Greek community, on 23 July 1911, he received a commercial education but was an avid reader from an early age and began publishing both translations and original texts in journals while working as a factory manager in Upper Egypt. His time in the region inspired his first published collection of poems, Fellahin, which appeared in 1937. The following year he moved to Alexandria, where he became involved in literary and communist circles, and published more volumes of verse. His first collection of short stories appeared in 1944.

Tsirkas was actively involved in the Communist Party’s anti-fascist initiative and edited its journal, Hellēn (‘The Greek’). The 1944 mutiny of the Greek fleet and army and its brutal suppression became a major theme in his writing in the decades that followed. In 1958 his study of Cavafy, Ho Kavafis kai hē epokhē tou (‘Cavafy and his Era’) won the State Award for biography, and was followed by a work on another poet, George Seferis. His friendship with Cavafy was also the inspiration for Ho politikos Kavafis (‘Cavafy the politician’ (Athens, 1971) X.709/15555).

Title page of Ho Kavafis kai hē epokhē tou

Title page of Ho Kavafis kai hē epokhē tou (Athens, 1958) 11866.f.18.)

In 1961 he published Hē leskhē (‘The Club’) the first volume in his most famous work, the trilogy Akyvernētes politeies (‘Drifting Cities’), as a result of which he was expelled from the Communist Party. The second volume, Ariagnē (‘Ariadne’) followed in 1962, and the third, Hē nikhterida (‘The Bat’) in 1965, by which time Tsirkas had settled in Athens. The three novels take place in Jerusalem, Cairo, and Alexandria respectively, with an epilogue in mainland Greece, after the end of the Civil War. The historical thread linking them is the efforts of the Greek left-wing movement to resist both external and internal reactionary forces and to aid resistance within mainland Greece, culminating in the destruction of the Greek navy in the harbour of Alexandria, when the commanders declared their intention of joining the mainland resistance. At that time a speedy German withdrawal was not in the interests of the British, who were afraid of the increasing power of the left-wing resistance government, and they treated their Greek allies, who had fought alongside them against Rommel, as enemies.

The tragedy is seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Manos Simonidis, a communist intellectual divided between loyalty to the left-wing cause (though he cannot accept blind obedience to its rigid Stalinist precepts) and the lure of ‘decadent’ cosmopolitan values with their aura of existential meaninglessness. In the end, as a committed Greek, Manos can only choose action, although he despises his leaders and the cause itself is hopeless.

Chapter opening from Hē leskhē with decorated initial 'T' and a drawing of a typewriter

Chapter opening with decorated initial from Hē leskhē, 4th ed. (Athens, 1973) X.909/84060

In Hē leskhē, Manos, hiding in a Jerusalem pension run by a German-Jewish refugee, falls in love with Emmy, the wife of an Austrian minister-in-exile, but loses her to another man and is recalled to action by his party's ideological leader, ‘The Little Man’, who unscrupulously uses others for his own ends under the pretext of ideology. In Ariagnē, wounded in a bomber attack, he is sheltered by Ariagne Saridis, head of a working-class family in a poor district of Cairo, and continues to write pamphlets. Ariagne’s family is a microcosm of the turbulence outside; some of its members belong to the right, others to the left, some are black marketeers, and some fight in the regular army or the resistance. She gives Manos the strength he requires to carry on with his mission, and in Hē nikhterida, after surviving a forced march through the desert, he arrives in Alexandria, and encounters Nancy Campbell, a Scottish noblewoman who becomes active in the resistance, before participating in the naval uprising. The story ends with the crushing of the revolt and the realization of the movement’s members that civil war is now inevitable.

In the coda, the survivors gather in Thessaloniki to hold a wake for their comrades who were tortured, executed or killed during the Civil War and the subsequent right-wing reign of terror. All the best men are dead; the women are left to mourn, struggling to survive and raise their children alone.

Tsirkas actively opposed the dictatorship, and during the rule of the colonels he devoted himself to translation. When censorship was lifted he played a leading part in producing the anti-junta 18 Texts and New Texts, and contributed to the anti-dictatorship journal Synechia.

Hē chamenē anoixē (‘The Lost Spring’), published in 1976 and set in Athens, was intended to be the first part of a new trilogy which Tsirkas never completed. Its hero is a left-wing refugee returning to the city after the tumultuous events of 1965, and it is fascinating to consider how Tsirkas would have developed the theme – and indeed, had he lived, how he would have described the collapse of the Greek economy in the next century. No doubt he would have continued to sum up his country’s future in the words, ‘Wherever there’s suffering and sweat and tears, there’s humanity, isn’t there?’

Susan Halstead Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

References/Further reading

Stratis Tsirkas, Akyvernētes politeies.
1: Hē leschē. 4th ed. (Athens, 1973) X.909/84060.
2. Ariagnē. 6th ed. (Athens, 1974) YA.1995.a.11045.
3. Hē nychterida. 6th ed. (Athens, 1974) X.950/46877
English translation of the complete trilogy by Kay Cicellis, Drifting Cities (New York, 1974) X.981/11651

Stratis Tsirkas, Hē chamenē anoixē: mythistorēma. (Athens, 1976) X.909/37874

Stratis Tsirkas, Ta poiēmata (Athens, 1981) X.950/34436

Eleni Papargyriou, ‘The Poetics of Transit: Exile, Diaspora and Repatriation in Stratis Tzirkas’s Novels’, in Greek diaspora and migration since 1700: society, politics and culture, edited by Dimitris Tziovas (Farnham, 2007) pp. 193-204. YC.2009.a.14560.

24 January 2020

‘Humble books’: B. U. Kashkin’s wooden artist books at the British Library

The nonconformist artist and poet Evgenii Mikhailovich Malakhin, better known as B. U. Kashkin or later Starik Bukashkin (‘Old Man Bukashkin’), is a legendary figure in Ekaterinburg, the Russian city where he spent most of his adult life. Sporting a large bushy beard, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘I am a great Russian poet’, and carrying a balalaika, B. U. Kashkin could be found walking the streets and creating art for much of the 1980s and 90s. In recent years, the so-called ‘Bukashkin Trail’, a walk through the area where a small number of his murals remain intact, has even appeared on alternative English-language travel guides to the city. Yet, B. U. Kashkin remains relatively unknown outside of Russia or even Ekaterinburg.

Cover of B.U. Kashkin (1938-2005): zhiznʹ i tvorchestvo uralʹskogo pank-skomorokha (Ekaterinburg, 2015) featuring a photograph of the artist

Cover of B.U. Kashkin (1938-2005): zhiznʹ i tvorchestvo uralʹskogo pank-skomorokha (Ekaterinburg, 2015) featuring a photograph of the artist. YF.2017.a.4031

Born in Irkutsk in 1938, B. U. Kashkin studied engineering before moving to Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg) in the early 1960s to take up a post as a senior engineer for an electricity company. Although he was interested in philosophy and the arts, it wasn’t until the 1970s that he began exploring a more creative path. As well as experimental photography, he also wrote and self-published poetry, and painted and worked with wood (including chopping boards). He initially adopted the pseudonym K. Kashkin, which sounds similar to the Russian word kakashka (meaning a little piece of shit). In the late 80s, this morphed into B. U. Kashkin – from the word bukashka (meaning a little bug or, metaphorically, an inconspicuous person).

The first exhibition of his work was held in the mid-1980s and he later founded an art collective, ‘Kartinnik’, which took its name from the Russian word for painting or picture – kartina (and likely also kvartirnik, the word used to describe musical concerts or performance art held in private apartments in the Soviet Union in the 1960s-1980s). The group’s philosophy was based on the idea of art as a form of communication and not a commodity to be sold. In fact, B. U. Kashkin gave most of his art away for free to passers-by in the street. 

Photographs of three of B. U. Kashkin's murals

Photographs of B. U. Kashkin's murals taken by E. Polens, A. Shaburov, and V. Shakhrin, 1993-2000. From B.U. Kashkin (1938-2005): zhiznʹ i tvorchestvo uralʹskogo pank-skomorokha.

In the early 1990s, B. U. Kashkin expanded his canvas further, painting garages, rubbish bins, and fences around the city. Calling himself ‘the People’s Street Sweeper of Russia’ in a tongue-in-cheek jibe at the official People’s Artist title awarded by the State, his murals called for people to live harmoniously together and to take care of the city and nature. In this way, he was able to communicate his poetry and ideas with a wide, public audience. The performative aspect of B. U. Kashkin’s art has been likened to that of the skomorokhs, medieval East Slavic travelling street performers who sang, played musical instruments and entertained people with comic plays and acrobatic tricks. 

Inside of B. U. Kashkin’s wooden artist book, DRrrrr, featuring a painting of him cutting down a fir tree

Inside of Bukashkin’s wooden artist book, DRrrrr… ([Sverdlovsk?], [1993?]). RF.2000.a.48

B. U. Kashkin also made wonderfully playful and naïve wooden books, two of which are now held in the British Library. In the smaller of the two books, he juxtaposes the wooden canvas with the act of chopping down a fir tree, an important symbol in Russian culture. He himself is the woodcutter, bearded and dressed in a red tunic and red, white and blue hat – an ensemble he wore in real life and which can be found throughout his art. Measuring just 6.5cm x 5.5cm, the book is entitled DRrrrr… (evoking the sound of the saw) and features the name of the ‘publisher’, skromnaia kniga (‘humble book’), on its cover.

Cover of Kora featuring a dog, a cow, a bird and a fish

Cover of Kora: av-ai ([Ekaterinburg?], [1993?]). RF.2000.a.47

The second of B. U. Kashkin’s wooden books held by the Library is marginally bigger in size (9cm x 7cm!). Aptly titled Kora (tree bark), the cover features a dog, a cow, a bird and a fish, along with animal sounds. Once again B. U. Kashkin makes an appearance, this time with his infamous balalaika and an assortment of music-playing friends and animals. The books are part of a series B. U. Kashkin made using birch (also a symbol of Russian culture and beauty) and other types of bark in the early 1990s.

Inside of Kora featuring B. U. Kashkin and an assortment of music-playing friends and animals

Inside of Kora: av-ai

Following his death in 2005, staff and students of Ural State University worked to build the B. U. Kashkin Museum in the university. As well as holding rare artefacts and archival material related to B. U. Kashkin, the museum also serves to promote cultural projects and interdisciplinary research. The Ekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts similarly collected artworks from different periods of B. U. Kashkin’s life and held an exhibition to mark what would have been his 80th birthday in 2018.

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

21 January 2020

Difficult truths - recent literature on the Holocaust in Poland

Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27) marks this year the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. On this occasion we present four noteworthy books, published in recent years, which address different aspects of the Holocaust in German-occupied Poland.

Cover of Renia Spiegel's published diary featuring her photograph

Renia Spiegel, Dziennik: 1939-1942. (Rzeszów, 2016). Awaiting shelfmark.

Renia Spiegel was fourteen years old when she started writing a diary in January 1939. Living in wartime Przemyśl, a city in Eastern Poland, she described her school and social life, everyday existence under both Soviet and Nazi occupation, separation from her parents, and transfer to the local ghetto. Knowing that the ghetto was about to be liquidated, she escaped in summer 1942 and was shot a few days later, when her place of hiding was disclosed to the Nazi police. Her diary was saved by Zygmunt Schwarzer, with whom she was in a romantic relationship, and then passed on to her family in 1950 and published in English only last year. Renia Spiegel’s diary is the subject of a forthcoming British Library event.

Cover of Ariel znaczy lew depicting Ariel and the German soldier

Andrzej Selerowicz, Ariel znaczy lew (Gdynia, 2018). YF.2019.a.19905

Ariel znaczy lew (‘Ariel means lion’) by Andrzej Selerowicz is a novel about a love story between a fifteen-year old Jewish boy, Ariel, and a German soldier. The couple meet in wartime Cracow and their relationship continues with the outbreak of the war. After Cracow’s Jews are enclosed in a ghetto, the Wehrmacht soldier helps Ariel find a hiding place on the Aryan side, thus saving his life. The novel is loosely based on true events, which, according to the author, were told to him by a Polish man on whom the character of Ariel was based.

Cover of Lekarze getta warszawskiego featuring a drawing from the Warsaw ghetto

Maria Ciesielska, Lekarze getta warszawskiego (Warsaw, 2017). Awaiting shelfmark.

Lekarze getta warszawskiego (‘Doctors of the Warsaw ghetto’) by Maria Ciesielska is devoted to the history of doctors who performed their work in the Warsaw ghetto. Despite difficult conditions, they managed to create a professional healthcare system and establish hospitals and clinics, as well as organising the underground teaching of medicine and carrying out scientific research. This in-depth study is based on personal narratives and diaries and shows the emotional and ethical struggle that the doctors had to face in their work in the ghetto.

Cover of volume 1 of Dalej jest noc featuring a photograph of a Jewish child in hiding

Cover of volume 2 of Dalej jest noc featuring a photograph of a Jewish woman in hiding

Covers of two volumes of Dalej jest noc : Losy Żydów w wybranych powiatach okupowanej Polski (Warsaw, 2018). YF.2019.a.19212

The fate of Jews who were transferred to big ghettos, such as the ones in Warsaw or Cracow, has been documented in several books. However, the majority of Polish Jews perished in small provincial villages. The two volumes of Dalej jest noc: Losy Żydów w wybranych powiatach okupowanej Polski (‘Night without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland’) contribute to filling in this gap. This is a collection of studies of the fate of Jews who tried to save their lives in rural areas of Poland with the help of their Polish neighbours. Their chances of survival depended to a great extent on the local population’s willingness to help, which was often negatively affected by anti-semitism and social norms. Consequently, two-thirds of Jews seeking help perished. According to the authors of the study, the role of the local population in the annihilation of Polish Jewry was significant and often underestimated by scholars.

Zuzanna Krzemien, SEE Cataloguer

17 January 2020

‘How delightful to be a governess’ [not]: Anne Brontë in Translation

‘Parson’s lass ’ant nowt, an’ she weänt ’a nowt when ’e’s deäd,
Mun be a guvness, lad, or summut, and addle her breäd.’

Those hard-headed words of Tennyson’s ‘Northern Farmer: New Style’ rang bitterly true in a family where ‘parson’s lass’ was the youngest of four surviving children out of six. The Rev. Patrick Brontë’s daughter Anne, born on 17 January 1820, had no choice but to earn her own living, and a teaching position, whether as a governess or in a school, offered respectability and an income, albeit a modest one. In her first post Anne earned £25 per year. Meagre as the material rewards were, though, her months with the Ingham and Robinson families provided her with others – a fund of experience and a determination to expose the humiliation and exploitation suffered by other women in her situation.

Pencil portrait of Anne Bronte
Anne Brontë, drawn by her sister Charlotte

As the youngest of three sisters, plus a scapegrace elder brother, Anne might have been expected to be accustomed to deferring to others and displaying the submissiveness required by her employers. If we are to believe her sister Charlotte’s account of her, she had all these qualities; the picture which Charlotte paints of her in the most delicate pastel tones suggests a muted meekness and piety which nowadays seems dangerously close to mawkishness. Samantha Ellis, in Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life (London, 2017; DRT ELD.DS.181944), describes how the taxi driver taking her to Thorp Green, the site of Anne’s second post, was unaware that there was another sister besides Charlotte and Emily.

This state of affairs is reflected to some degree in the British Library’s holdings of translations of Anne Brontë’s two novels and her poetry. Their scantiness contrasts strongly with the numerous versions of Jane Eyre or Emily’s single novel Wuthering Heights, and the fact that the majority of them are 20th-century publications suggests the slow growth of international awareness of her significance. The earliest in the collections is a French translation of Agnes Grey dating from 1859 in which Anne is not even accorded the dignity of a book to herself but shares it with a translation of her elder sister’s Shirley – both novels being attributed to ‘Currer Bell’, Charlotte’s pen-name, while poor ‘Acton Bell’ is completely obscured.

Title-page of a French translation of 'Shirley' and 'Agnes Grey'
Title-page of the translations of Shirley and Agnes Grey by Ch. Romey and A Rolet (Paris, 1859) 12602.d.3.

Another French translation, Agnès Grey, was published in 1949. It is easy to see the appeal of this work in a society where the governess was also a familiar figure in middle- and upper-class families, and where, indeed, French was, like music and drawing, one of the obligatory subjects in a curriculum designed to fit eligible young ladies for the marriage market. However, superficial accomplishments did little to enable them to choose wisely, as Agnes’ former pupil Rosalie Murray laments after becoming Lady Ashby, deploring her husband’s ‘carnet de paris, sa table de jeu, ses filles de l’Opéra, sa lady une telle, sa mistress une telle, ses bouteilles de vin et ses verres d’eau-de-vie et de gin!’ In contrast, Agnes, after two miserable experiences as a governess to charges who are spoilt, odious or uncontrollable, returns home to run a successful school with her widowed mother, and makes a happy marriage when independence has rendered her able to make a free choice.

Anne’s other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, similarly highlights the importance of education in enabling a woman to make a life for herself, escape an abusive marriage and support herself and her children. Helen, its heroine, is at first dazzled by the handsome and wealthy Arthur Huntingdon, and convinces herself that the flaws in his character are due to neglect by his unsatisfactory mother. The marriage rapidly deteriorates through his drinking and mental and physical cruelty, and Helen finally leaves him, taking their child, and adopts a new identity under her late mother’s maiden name. She is able to make a living from painting because she treats it as a serious pursuit, taking lessons to develop her talent (one of the most painful scenes in the novel is that where Arthur burns her work), and becomes a well-regarded (and saleable) artist. Likewise, Agnes Grey’s elder sister Mary develops her artistic gifts and by doing so not only earns a decent living but lifts herself out of the depression which envelops her after the family’s decline into poverty. Nor does this preclude a happy marriage, as we learn when Agnes goes home to help with the preparations for Mary’s wedding to a young clergyman.

The title of this second novel provides some interesting challenges for the translator. In a French translation by Maurice Rancès (Paris, 1937; 12643.a.41) Helen becomes La Dame du Château de Wildfell, suggesting the banks of the Loire rather than rugged Yorkshire, while a 1985 Hungarian translation (YF.2006.a.11670) makes her simply Wildfell asszonya (‘The Lady of Wildfell’). A Russian translation which also includes Agnes Grey makes her Neznakomka iz Uaĭldfell-Kholla (‘The Unknown Lady of Wildfell Hall; wisely, translators have avoided attempts to tackle the name of her residence which produced some bizarre results in the case of Wuthering Heights). This translation appeared in 1990, and also contains her poetry.

Cover of a Russian translation of Anne Bronte's works
Cover of a Russian translation of Anne Brontë’s novels and poems (Moscow, 1990); YA. 1995.a.15633.

The strangest ‘translation’, though, is one purporting to be a Spanish version of a joint production by Charlotte and Anne Brontë from a German translation of a text never published in English. Adversidad (Barcelona, [1946]; 012643.tt.74.) is the work of one Ricardo Boadella, who in his preface claims that the novel, set during the Napoleonic wars, bears the unmistakeable stamp of the sisters’ admiration for Nelson, their interest in education and their devotion to duty as illustrated by the hero, ‘Rockhingham’ [sic], who becomes a martyr to it. One would like to think that Anne – a far more courageous and spirited character than she is conventionally perceived – would have relished this preposterous pastiche.

Susan Halstead Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services

08 January 2020

Mysterious, Fierce and Fragrant: a 15th-Century Encounter with a Civet

What would you do if you saw an animal in your garden which you’d never seen before? You might say, ‘It had the head like a cat’s and the body of a dog …’

This was the method used by European travellers and writers who had to describe the new fauna of the Indies.

Amongst the most remarkable things at the Indies of Peru, be the vicugnes, and sheepe of the countrie, as they call them, which are tractable beasts and of great profit. … Some thinke that the vicugnes are those which Aristotle, Plinie and others call capreas, which are wilde goats, and in truth they have some resemblance, for the lightnesse they have in the woods and mountaines, but yet they are no goates, for the vicugnes have no horns … These vicugnes are greater than goates and lesser than calves. Their haire is of the colour of dried roses, somewhat clearer (Purchas’s Pilgrims, cited Phipson 120).

Four animals of the Llama family, described as Guemul, Chillihueque, Vicogne and Huanaco
The vicuña and other goat- or sheep-like creatures, from Compendio della storia geografica, naturale e civile del regno de Chile (Bologna, 1776) 9773.aaa.28

Nuremberg physician Dr Hieronymus Münzer, writing in Latin and calling himself Monetarius, described his travels in Spain in 1494-95, including a visit to the palace of Prince Henry (cousin of King Ferdinand the Catholic) in Valencia.

The prince, more given to leisure and enjoyment [otio et voluptate] than to war, has built by St Francis’s Church a house so proud and noble that there is nothing superior. All the rooms are hung with tapestries with coloured figures and the cloths are embroidered with gold.

And there he saw

a ‘gazella’, an animal larger than a fox; its head, mouth and ears are like an ermine’s; it is grey with whitish and dark patches; it has the tail and feet of a dog: a bad-tempered and fierce beast [animal colericum et furiosum est].

We understand what made it colericum et furiosum when we read on:

It was in a wooden cage, on a chain. Its keeper ordered it to be dragged by the head to the cage door, and pulling its hind legs lifted its tail and showed us its ‘priapus’ (for it was a male), and taking its testes, which were large, turned them inside out as one would turn a money bag.

Woodcut of a civet cat with some lines of Latin text describing the animal
A civet, from Icones animalium quadrupedum ... quæ in Historiæ Animalium Conradi Gesneri, lib. I. et II., describuntur ... Editio tertia ... auctior (Heidelberg, 1606)  1505/137.(1.)

(Münzer’s three travelling companions were merchants, so they knew a thing or two about money bags.)

Thus there appeared two cavities, one on each testicle. Into one of them he introduced a small spoon of smooth glass, and three times extracted a quantity of sweet-smelling humour of civet about two drams [duarum dragmarum] in weight and anointed my hand with it, which continued to smell for a number of days.

The prince also showed them a number of birds, including

A starling of the colour of lasuri [lapis lazuli?] and blue, which he said could imitate various sounds, although I never heard it speak the hour we were there.

Münzer doesn’t say where the Prince got his civet from (they’re natives of Africa and Asia), but exotic animals were often used as diplomatic gifts: that was how Alfonso X of Castile-Leon came by a giraffe, a gift from the Sultan of Egypt (Crónica de Alfonso X, p. 28). So perhaps this was such a gift.

A woodcut of a civet, showing a slimmer and less clumsy beast than above
An alternative version of the civet from Icones animalium quadrupedum 

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections

References/Further reading:

Emma Phipson, The Animal-Lore of Shakespeare’s Time (London, 1883) 2252.c.1

Hieronymus  Münzer, Itinerarium hispanicum, ed. Pfandl, Revue Hispanique, 48 (1920 ) PP.4331.aea; Spanish translation by Julio Pujol, Boletín de la Real Academia de la Historia, 84 (1924) Ac.6630.

Crónica de Alfonso X, ed. M. González Jiménez (Murcia, 1999) YA.2001.a.20194