24 September 2021
To coincide with the British Library's exhibition Paddington: The Story of a Bear, we've put together a series of blog posts about a few other bears (fictional and real) from the collections.
Eleanor O’Kane in her collection of medieval Spanish proverbs musters 21 dogs, 19 wolves, nine lions and one lonely bear.
Felipe Maldonado in his compilation of printed Spanish proverb books of the early modern period has captured 23 dogs, 14 wolves, two lions and no bears
The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs has tamed 176 dogs, 40 wolves, nine lions and a magnificent 23 bears.
Now, I’ve not been very careful with my sums, and the actual data can be misleading, but it’s very interesting to me that the order of the beasts is the same in all three sources.
Bear with bees and bee hives, Harley 3448, f.10v
You might recognize some English bears:
Like a bear to an honey-pot
As cross as a bear with a sore head
To sell the bear’s skin before one has caught the bear
Call the bear ‘uncle’ till you are safe across the bridge (‘an excellent Turkish proverb’, according to the Times Weekly of 1912)
But what of their solitary Spanish cousin?
The proverb occurs in the Poema de Alfonso Onceno (Epic of Alfonso XI). He reigned 1312-50, and the Poema was probably written by some tame court poet for propaganda purposes. It was never finished, which suggests that the poet wrote until the patronage was cut off at the king’s death.
First page of ‘Poema de Alfonso Onceno’. Source: Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes
Picture the scene: the year is 1350. Alfonso (Castile) is fighting Yusuf I (Granada) allied with Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman (Morocco) for Gibraltar. The siege was dragging on, and the Granadan and Moroccan leaders were considering a settlement involving the surrender of castles and tribute. We are at their council of war:
Este rey luego provemos
Que dexe aquesta guerra
Mensageros le enbiemos,
Que salga de nuestra tierra.
E diga que le daremos
Buenos castillos fronteros.
La costa la pagaremos
En doblas e en dineros …
E de fanbre muy cuytados
Ayna se bençeran
E nos seremos honrrados.
Fablo el rey de Granada
E dixo: ‘Mal rasca el oso’ (Janer stanzas 2372-77)
Let us test this king immediately
To abandon this war;
Let us send him messengers
That he leave our land;
And tell him we will give him
Good frontier castles.
We will pay him tribute
In doubloons and dinars.
They are impoverished
And stricken with hunger;
They will be soon defeated
And we will be honoured.
The king of Granada spoke
And said: ‘Ill scratches the bear’.
Translated by Barry Taylor
He continues at length, and Yusuf I and Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman change tack.
I’m sure ‘Ill scratches the bear’ refers to a bear scratching his back on a tree. I suppose it means something like ‘You’re barking up the wrong tree’.
As I say, it’s unique in Old Spanish. It could conceivably reflect an Arabic proverb. And it needn’t be an existing proverb but a newly minted coinage.
But all bears are precious, especially to the paremiologist.
Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Collections
Eleanor S. O’Kane, Refranes y frases proverbiales españolas de la Edad Media (Madrid, 1959) X.900/4431.
Felipe C. R. Maldonado, Refranero clásico español (Madrid, 1970) X19/7679
F. P. Wilson, Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (Oxford 1970) X.981/1907.
‘Poema de Alfonso Onceno’, ed. F. Janer in Poetas castellanos anteriores al s. XV (Madrid, 1864) 12232.f.1/57. Available online
More bear-themed posts from the European Studies blog:
03 March 2020
On 13 March, the British Library are hosting two events under the banner of Nordic Comics Today. In the afternoon, we will welcome Kaisa Leka and Karoline Stjernfelt to showcase their work. Kaisa will speak about the life of a disabled woman in the world today, and how comic art responds to disability, while Karoline transports us to the 18th-century Danish royal court through her prize-winning graphic history I Morgen Bliver Bedre (‘Tomorrow will be better’). The event will be introduced by Dr Nina Mickwitz from the University of the Arts, who’ll ground us in contemporary comics cultures in the Nordic region.
‘Votes for Women’ from Marta Breen and Jenny Jordahl, Women in Battle: 150 Years of Fighting for Freedom, Equality and Sisterhood (London, 2018) ELD.DS.339036
In the evening we turn to feminism and welcome best-selling author Marta Breen to talk about Women in Battle, the story of fearless females in the continuing journey towards rights for women today (created in collaboration with illustrator Jenny Jordahl and translated into English by Sian Mackie). Marta will be in conversation with Kaisa Leka and UK Comics Laureate Hannah Berry, as they discuss the power of comics and graphic literature to engage people around social justice.
A photo of Kaisa Leka from her trip around the U.S.A. reproduced in Imperfect (Porvoo, 2017), awaiting shelfmark
There are some tickets remaining for both events. The afternoon is free to attend but still requires a ticket. We are also delighted to be able to display parts of the Hero(ine)s exhibition, first shown at the University of Cumbria and the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in 2018, which features iconic comic heroes re-interpreted and reimagined in their female form. This can be seen all day at the Knowledge Centre.
from Kaisa’s Place of Death (Porvoo, 2015), YD.2019.a.6235
Comics and graphic novels certainly have a place amongst the Library’s universal and international collections, especially given the emergence of Comics Studies as an academic discipline in recent years. That’s not to say comics needed rehabilitating through academic approaches. It might be best to say, with Douglas Wolk, that comics are not a genre but a medium, and that graphic art cuts across genres. Also, the ubiquity of images in the internet age and the implications on reading habits go hand in hand with the fairly recent rise of graphic literature. So, if you want to understand the world today, a task which the BL’s collections are surely there to serve, then you need to read some comics!
also from Place of Death
Let’s take a look at the work of our featured authors. Kaisa Leka, a Puupäähattu prize-winning Finnish artist and adventurer, has created numerous innovative books with her partner and ‘faithful sherpa’ Christoffer Leka. Imperfect (awaiting shelfmark) is a beautiful travel diary about their trip across the U.S.A. made up of the postcards they sent to Christoffer’s nephews and niece every day. Place of Death is a sort of parable about ‘fear and the kindness of strangers’, the characters being the authors’ (plus families’) alter egos.
Cover of Karoline Stjernfelt’s I Morgen Bliver Bedre (Copenhagen, 2016) YF.2020.b.319
Karoline Stjernfelt’s I Morgen Bliver Bedre won the best debut category of both major Danish comics awards, the Ping Award and the Claus Delauran Award. To be published in three parts, ‘The King’, ‘The Queen’ and ‘The Doctor’, the exquisitely illustrated books take us to the late 18th century and the reign of Christian VII. The German royal physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee, wielded increasing influence in the court, having an affair with the Queen Caroline Matilda, and eventually becoming de facto regent in 1770. I Morgen Bliver Bedre captures that political chaos and the splendour of the court.
A ball scene from I Morgen Bliver Bedre
Marta Breen and Jenny Jordahl’s Women in Battle tells the story of women’s rights and we’re fortunate to hear about it just after International Women’s Day and just before the British Library opens its Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights exhibition. It sketches 150 years of struggle through figures such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Malala Yousafzai. Marta and Jenny Jordahl have previously collaborated on the books 60 Women you should know about and The F Word, while Marta has also just published Hvordan bli (en skandinavisk) feminist (‘How to be (a Scandinavian) feminist’) (awaiting shelfmark).
Cover of Women in Battle
Last but not least, we should definitely also say a word about our wonderful chairs for the events, Nina Mickwitz and Hannah Berry. Nina’s monograph Documentary Comics: Graphic Truth-telling in a Skeptical Age (awaiting shelfmark) shows the documentary potential of comics through early 21st century non-fiction examples. She has recently co-edited the collections (with Dr Ian Hague and Dr Ian Norton) Contexts of Violence in Comics and Representing Acts of Violence in Comics, and is currently interested in mobilities and negotiations of social norms and identities in comics, as well as the transnational mobilities of comics themselves.
Depicting women’s struggle against slavery in Women in Battle
Hannah Berry is the UK Comics Laureate and her graphic novel Livestock won the Broken Frontier Award for Best Writer. Check that out as well as her two previous graphic novels Britten and Brülightly and Adamtine here at the Library.
We look forward to introducing you to these exciting creative voices and stay tuned for more Nordic events at the library over the coming year!
Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections
Douglas Wolk, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels work and what they mean (Cambridge, MA, 2007) YK.2007.a.19819
Marta Breen, Hvordan bli (en skandinavisk) feminist (Oslo, 2020) awaiting shelfmark
Marta Breen and Jenny Jordahl, Kvinner I kamp: 150 års kamp for frihet, likhet, sösterskap! (Oslo, 2018), awaiting shelfmark
Nina Mickwitz, Documentary Comics: Graphic Truth-telling in a Skeptical Age (Basingstoke, 2015) awaiting shelfmark
Nina Mickwitz, Ian Hague, and Ian Norton, Contexts of Violence in Comics (London, 2019) ELD.DS.445377
——, Representing Acts of Violence in Comics (London, 2019) ELD.DS.445165
Hannah Berry, Britten and Brülightly (London, 2008) YK.2011.b.11102
——, Adamtine (London, 2012) YK.2012.a.19765
——, Livestock (London, 2017) YKL.2018.b.3075
29 January 2019
Visitors to the British Library’s current exhibition Cats on the Page may have caught sight of a curious creature who first saw the light in Prussia 200 years ago – Kater Murr, the famous tomcat created by E. T. A. Hoffmann and based on his own much-loved pet, a handsome striped tabby. While British audiences may be more familiar with works by Hoffmann which provided the inspiration for the ballets The Nutcracker and Coppélia and for Offenbach’s opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Murr himself is no mean performer – a worthy companion for his master, the gifted but reclusive musician Johannes Kreisler, who inspired Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana.
An early edition of Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr (Berlin, 1820) 12548.bbb.17
Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler in zufälligen Makulaturblättern was first published in two volumes in 1819-21 (a third volume was promised but never completed). The author claims that Murr taught himself to read by perusing books and papers in the study of his original owner, Master Abraham, and went on to learn calligraphy from the manual compiled by Hilmar Curas. This enabled him to compose such masterpieces as a political treatise entitled Mousetraps and their Influence on the Character and Achievement of the Feline Race, the tragedy Cawdallor, King of Rats, and the ‘philosophical and didactic novel of sentiment’ Thought and Intuition, or, Cat and Dog. By a publisher’s error Murr’s ‘life and opinions’ (not for nothing was Hoffmann influenced by Laurence Sterne) were interleaved with a biography of Kreisler himself and bound into a single volume.
The resulting narrative is an inspired parody of the Bildungsroman, charting Murr’s development from a kitten rescued from drowning by the kind-hearted Master Abraham to a cat of letters and high culture – at least in his own eyes. In the tradition of Wilhelm Meister and his like, Murr encounters a wide variety of characters and falls into some highly dubious company. He joins a cats’ Burschenschaft, a fraternity of the kind so popular among German students in the era of ‘Turnvater’ Jahn (whom Hoffmann defended in court), engaging not only in gymnastics but in rowdier pursuits such as drinking, duelling and caterwauling songs.
Naturally, his sentimental education is also chronicled; he has an emotional encounter with his long-lost mother, (though he absent-mindedly devours the fish-head which he had intended to offer her), and enjoys an ‘instructive’ friendship with Ponto, a poodle (irresistibly evoking thoughts of Mephistopheles’s disguise as a black poodle in Goethe’s Faust). He then embarks on a ‘personality-forming’ love affair with the charming Miesmies which comes to an abrupt end when she falls for the blandishments of a war veteran, a swaggering striped tabby cat sporting the Order of the Burnt Bacon for valour in ridding a larder of mice. Murr’s friend, the black cat Muzius, opens his eyes to the betrayal, but Murr comes off worst in the duel which ensues, and escapes with bleeding ears and minus a considerable quantity of fur.
In a lively and graceful fashion Hoffmann makes fun of the conventions of polite society and its members’ cultural pretensions; Murr scans the pages of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria for ploys to capture the heart of Miesmies or free himself from his obsession, and invites her to sing. This succeeds: ‘Ah! Am I still upon this earth?’ he cried ‘Am I still sitting on the roof? […] Am I still Murr the cat, and not the man in the moon?’ To his request for a song, Miesmies responds with the aria ‘Di tanti palpiti’ from Rossini’s Tancredi. Murr, a veritable homme des lettres très renommé (as he terms himself), is conversant with all the notable authors of the day, quoting freely from Schiller’s Don Carlos and Die Jungfrau von Orleans, Adalbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl, and, of course, Ludwig Tieck – not only his translations of Shakespeare but also his play Der gestiefelte Kater (Puss in Boots). This story runs parallel to the unhappy tale of Kreisler’s failure to achieve social success and romantic happiness in a petty principality, recounted on pages torn from the printed biography which Murr uses as blotting-paper and which are inadvertently included in the book.
Not only social but also literary conventions fall victim to Hoffmann’s pen; Murr’s directions about ‘how to become a great cat’ satirize the contemporary trivialization of the ideals of the Bildungsroman, and his Biedermeier-like complacency and liking for comfort contrast sharply with the uncompromising attitude of the tormented genius Kreisler. In a postscript, the ‘editor’ notes that ‘that clever, well-educated, philosophical, poetical tomcat Murr was snatched away by bitter Death […] after a short but severe illness’ without completing his memoirs: ‘A genius maturing early can never prosper long: either he declines, in anticlimax, to become a mediocrity without character or intellect […] or he does not live to a great age’.
Picture of Kater Murr by Christian Friedrich Schiele from the first edition of the novel, reproduced on the cover of Anthea Bell’s translation, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (London. 1999) H.2001/426.
Whatever the reader may feel about the self-congratulatory comments of the egregious Murr, he can hardly be accused of mediocrity. A near kinsman of Tybalt, the cat of mediaeval beast fables, and Perrault’s White Cat and Puss in Boots, he would become the ancestor of a whole line of talking cats, many of whom feature in the exhibition – Gottfried Keller’s Spiegel das Kätzchen, Christa Wolf’s Max in Neue Lebensansichten eines Katers, and perhaps even Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat. Hoffmann, the ‘editor’, assures the reader that he has met Murr personally and found him ‘a man of mild and amiable manners’, and by her accomplished translation Anthea Bell has enabled English-speaking readers to make the acquaintance of ‘the drollest creature in the world, a true Pulcinella’.
Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services.
The British Library’s free exhibition Cats on the Page continues until 17 March 2019, with a series of accompanying events for all ages and interests.
27 November 2018
These cats didn’t make it in a tough competition to be displayed at and contextualised within the British Library exhibition Cats on the Page, but they still deserve a couple of nice words.
One of the first cats on the page that any Russian child would see, is an arrogant and conceited fashionista cat who did not allow her young orphaned relatives into her nice luxury house, preferring to entertain a company of servile ‘friends’. Guess what? The house is burnt to the ground the next night and, homeless and miserable, she finds that none of her former companions would want to provide shelter and share food with her. Of course, the kind kittens, who have very little food and live in a tiny cold hut, are generous and happy to help. This teaches the cat to be kind and she becomes a responsible and respectful auntie who takes good care of the kittens and they will take care of her when she is old.
Fairy-tale cats don’t always act as characters. Some of them are enigmatic story-tellers themselves. Like other most popular cat in Russian literature, created by Alexander Pushkin. He lives in the mysterious land called Lukomor’e, walks up and down the chains fixed on a huge oak tree and mews his stories. One of them, a love story of Ruslan and Liudmila, he mewed to Pushkin himself.
Actually, some cats are really strange. I would say that all cats are strange, but some cats are stranger than others. Because they are actually dogs. Or they are dogs, who are actually cats. This strange phenomenon was discovered and described by Tim Sobakin (‘sobaka’ is ‘a dog’ in Russian, so he might be a little bit of a cat himself), a contemporary children’s author. His character Shar lives with his master Auntie Solveig, somewhere in Glasgow, but actually in Oslo. You see, they all are quite eccentric, so why should the dog/cat or cat/dog be different? So, the story goes that Shar once climbed a tree as a cat, but while climbing, forgot how to get down, because on the tree he felt like dog. Only a passing fisherman could save Shar, because Shar suddenly felt like a hungry cat chasing fish and remembered how to climb down trees.
It all is getting too confusing, isn’t it, especially if you don’t read Russian? But if you do, it is actually more confusing. These cats can confuse anyone. So, I’ll leave you with this for the time being and come back with more confusing stories about cats on the page with lots of confusing Russian words.
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections
02 August 2018
When it comes to iconic buildings, the Atomium in Brussels surely takes top spot.
Towering over Brussels, it is the city’s most popular tourist attraction and never more so than this year, when it celebrates its 60th anniversary. Back in 1958 not many thought it would make it past its first year, let alone to 60.
It had been built as focus point for the Expo 58, the first World Exhibition after the Second World War. Designer-engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak wanted to send a positive message about nuclear power, one in which nuclear power would be used for the benefit of all mankind. To that end they created three exhibition spaces inside the Atomium, as well as a restaurant in the top sphere for the public to visit. Which they did in their droves. The Atomium attracted over 40,000 visitors per year at one point.
The German magazine Nachrichten aus der Chemie of May 2008, looks at the Atomium from a technical point of view. It would certainly interest chemists to know that the Atomium in fact does not represent an iron atom, but one unit cell of pure iron, as kept under room temperature and under atmospheric pressure, 165 billion times enlarged. The design of the structure deviates from the actual chemical structure of this unit cell of pure iron. The proportions of the spheres and connecting tubes are different as is its position in space. This has everything to do with the practicalities of available space, accessibility (the need for staircases and lifts inside the connecting tubes) and the way in which the building had to be fixed to the ground.
Due to its popularity with the public the Atomium was not demolished, as had been the plan. Unfortunately, the aluminium coating was not meant to last for ever and over time it started to deteriorate. The Atomium literally and figuratively lost its shine and there was again talk of demolishing it. When more damage was discovered in 2003, the Atomium was closed. However, the people of Brussels did not want to lose their beloved Atomium, so renovation started in 2004. The aluminium was replaced by stainless steel; new elevators were fitted and other adjustments were made to make it fit for the 21st Century. In 2006 it re-opened, once more standing in all its shining glory, hopefully for at least another 60 years.
The British Library has a variety of material about the Expo 58. Apart from Nachrichten aus der Chemie, from which I took the technical information for this post, there is the novel Expo 58, by Jonathan Coe, from which I pinched the title of this blog.
Cover of Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 (London, 2014) H.2015/.7833
Coe’s novel is a story about love and betrayal, with some espionage thrown in. It is set in the Expo grounds and wider Brussels, as well as Britain. When the protagonist Tom arrives at the Expo his guide drives him around the various pavilions. See if you can track his route on this plan of the Expo 58, held in our Maps collection.
Tom’s main task is to look after the pub ‘Britannia’, which was part of the British pavilion, simply because his mother is Belgian and his father ran a pub for 20 years. This is not entirely fiction – there really was a pub called ‘Britannia’ set within the rural, green and pleasant UK pavilion. The panoramic plan of Expo 58 doesn’t show where it was located, but what is clear is the green setting.
I also looked at the British Newspaper Archive, available in our reading rooms. The Birmingham Daily Post of Friday 18 April 1958 writes glowingly about the flying start the British made, being the only country that finished its displays on time for the official opening!
Poster for the Expo 58 in Brussels, from Serulus and Gimeno-Matinez, Panorama
Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections.
04 May 2018
This year sees the 200th birthday of political philosopher Karl Marx, who was born in the German town of Trier on 5 May 1818.
In connection with the anniversary, the British Library opened a new display in its Treasures Gallery earlier this week. ‘Karl and Eleanor – Life in the Reading Room’ (free entry, until 5 August) explores the special relationship that Karl Marx and his youngest daughter, political activist Eleanor Marx, had with the Reading Room of the British Museum, one of the predecessor institutions of the British Library.
The Round Reading Room of the British Museum, completed in 1857, where Marx spent much of his time as a reader. From Thomas Greenwood, Free Public Libraries, their organisation, uses and management (London, 1886) 11902.b.52.
From the first edition of the Communist Manifesto to letters written by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and others in their circle, items from the Library’s collection provide an unique insight into the life and work of one of history’s most significant and controversial thinkers.
Marx made London his permanent home after being forced into exile after taking part in the German revolution of 1848. He famously spent long hours in the British Museum, researching and writing his works that would go on to shape world history.
One highlight of the exhibition, displayed for the first time, is an original edition of the French translation of Das Kapital (1872-75), which Karl Marx himself had donated to the British Museum Library. Crucially, it contains some annotations in the margins that are believed to be in Marx’s own hand. There is a chance to learn more about this book and its significance in a talk by the exhibition curators on 18 June (book tickets here).
The run-up to the bicentenary has seen lots of new artistic, academic and wider public engagement with Marx’s life. Last year, a new play Young Marx was performed at London’s Bridge Theatre to great acclaim, while Oscar-nominee Raoul Peck directed a film on the topic. Members of both production teams, as well as novelist Jason Barker, are coming to the British Library on the afternoon of 5 May to discuss these recent re-imaginings of Marx. The panel discussion is followed by a rare UK screening of Peck’s The Young Karl Marx (last minute tickets are available here).
Also, on 16 May, recent biographers of Karl and Eleanor Marx, Gareth Stedman Jones and Rachel Holmes, will be speaking at the Library about these two fascinating characters, their lives in London, and their wider legacy.
The British Library is of course not alone in marking Marx’s birthday. From a large exhibition in Marx’s native Trier, to a variety of events in the UK and a display in Nanjing in eastern China – the Marx anniversary is a truly global affair.
Diana Siclovan, exhibition curator for ‘Karl and Eleanor Marx’
Find out more about the ‘Karl and Eleanor Marx’ display in The Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery and the accompanying series of events at the British Library here.
29 December 2017
As the year draws to an end, we thought we’d take a look back over our blogging activity in 2017. If you’re an established reader of our blog, you might be reminded of some favourites or spot something you missed, and if you’re new to it, we hope this will give you an idea of the range of countries and topics that we cover, and of the different voices – both staff members and guest bloggers – who contribute. And if you think all this nostalgia is a bad thing, we hope you will at least enjoy the pictures, which we’ve not used before, of Christmas and New Year greetings cards from our collection of Russian postcards (HS.74/2027).
Russia loomed large this year as European Collections were involved in one of the Library’s major exhibitions, ‘Russian Revolution – Hope, Tragedy, Myths’, marking the centenary of the Revolution. Many blog posts in the year picked up on the exhibition’s themes, focused on particular exhibits, or mentioned items that sadly didn’t make the final exhibition shortlist. You can find all of them here.
The Revolution wasn’t the only anniversary we commemorated with an exhibition this year. In February we put on a display of manuscripts from the Stefan Zweig Collection in the Library’s Treasures Gallery to mark both the 75th anniversary of Zweig’s death and the publication of the catalogue of the literary and historical manuscripts in the BL Zweig collection. The exhibition was complemented by a study day and a wonderful evening of readings and music from the collection and from Zweig’s own works.
The current Treasures Gallery display marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and can be seen until 4 February 2018. And next year items from our collections will feature in a display marking the bicentenary of Karl Marx’s birth.
Even when we weren’t directly involved with the Library’s exhibitions we complemented them with blog posts. During a display commemorating the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death we published posts on early French and German translations of her work. We also took a look at French material in the Evanion Collection to coincide with an exhibition about Victorian popular entertainment. And we have been on the trail of magical swords and other magical artefacts to coincide with the ongoing Harry Potter exhibition.
Of course we marked plenty of other anniversaries on the blog: the Chatham Raid of June 1667 and the 500th anniversary of printing in Belarus to name just two. There were also anniversaries of births and deaths, some of fairly familiar figures such as the writer Mme de Stäel, or the creator of Esperanto L.L. Zamenhof, but others perhaps less well known outside their own countries such as Greek poet Takis Sinopolous.
One of the themes our department is interested in exploring and promoting is translation. Blog posts on this topic covered everything from the first Basque New Testament to Orwell’s Animal Farm. We have also been excited this year to welcome the British Library’s first ever Translator in Residence, Jen Calleja.
But not all our posts mark anniversaries or complement BL exhibitions and themes. We’ve also told more general stories about our collections, such as this tale of a lost and found incunable or an overview of our Romanian collections.
Finally, with New Year’s Eve festivities approaching, we leave you with a recent post about Esperanto literary anthologies. If you learn the translation at the end, you can amaze your friends by singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in Esperanto at midnight!
European Studies Blog Team
23 November 2017
Our current Treasures Gallery display focuses on Martin Luther to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But this is not the first time that our holdings have been showcased for a Luther-related anniversary.
In 1883, George Bullen, Keeper of the Department of Printed Books in the then British Museum Library, organised an exhibition to mark the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth. In his introduction to the short accompanying catalogue (‘price twopence’), he notes that the anniversary celebrations in Germany had ‘attracted … much notice and sympathy in this country’ and says that a suggestion for an exhibition ‘formed of the numerous books, pamphlets and broadsides contained in the Museum’ had been ‘cordially adopted’ by senior staff there.
Looking at the catalogue, it’s gratifying to know that, 134 years later, the team behind our display selected many of the same items to exhibit as Bullen and his colleagues did. Of course it’s also inevitable since some items were such obvious choices: the 95 theses, the Indulgence that triggered them, the Papal Bull condemning Luther, the ‘September Testament’, and Luther’s first complete German Bible. A surprising omission in 1883 was Luther’s response to criticisms of his Bible translation, the Sendbrief von Dolmetschen – perhaps the more so since Bullen did show Hieronymus Emser’s attack on Luther’s translation (pictured below).
Two other choices we shared were an edition of Henry VIII’s Assertio septem sacramentorum and a book-binding stamped with portraits of Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, but those currently on display are definitely not the same as the ones shown in 1883: we have a Rome edition of the Assertio while Bullen chose a London one, and the binding we are displaying comes from the collection of Henry Davis which was bequeathed to the British Library in 1977.
Bullen had more space than our modest four cases: his exhibition was mounted in the Grenville Library, to the right of the Museum’s entrance hall (now a gift shop), where he was able to show a wider range of items. In some cases these helped add context to other exhibits. For example there were copies of other writings against indulgences alongside the 95 theses, including German-language pamphlets which took Luther’s arguments to a wider audience. Likewise the Assertio septem sacramentorum was accompanied by the pamphlet De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae which inspired Henry’s response, and by Luther’s own reply to the Assertio.
The 1883 exhibition also had space for more Bibles, including some of some of the first sections of Luther’s Old Testament to be printed, and the splendid Bible of 1541 with manuscript inscriptions by Luther, Philipp Melanchthon and other reformers.
Other exhibits from 1883 touch on areas we couldn’t accommodate, including pamphlets by Luther on theological topics, works of scriptural exegesis, and copies of his services for baptism and the mass. Bullen also found room for some manuscript letters, including one from Luther to Thomas Cromwell (MS Harley 6989, f.56) which had in fact been on my initial longlist but missed the final cut.
Examples of items shown in 1883 but not in 2017. Above: Martin Luther, Auslegung Deutsch des Vatter Unser ... (Leipzig, 1519) 3905.bbb.22, an exegiesis of the Lord’s prayer for German-speaking lay people. Below: Martin Luther, Vom Eelichen Leben (Wittenberg, 1522) 3905.dd.76, Luther’s treatise on marriage.
One theme which we chose to feature and Bullen did not was pro-and anti-Lutheran visual propaganda, such as the Passional Christi und Antichristi ([Wittenberg, 1521]; C.53.c.3.) which compares the perceived corruption of the papacy with the life of Jesus, or Thomas Murner’s attack on Luther, Von dem grossen Lutherischen Narren. Perhaps these were seen as too frivolous or too crude for contemporary tastes. A number of pictures from the Department of Prints and Drawings were shown, but these were nearly all straightforward portraits rather than propaganda prints or caricatures.
Too crude for Victorian visitors? An image of Luther being stuffed into a privy, from Thomas Murner, Von dem grossen Lutherischen Narren (Strassburg, 1522) 11517.c.33. Shown in 2017 but not in 1883
I suspect that our final exhibit of a Playmobil Luther figure and a Luther rubber duck (below) would certainly have raised eyebrows in 1883, but the display then also included commemorative souvenirs, albeit in the less frivolous form of items from the Department of Coins and Medals. And placed on a table in the gallery was ‘a statuette of Luther modelled in terra-cotta by Mr Charles Martin, after Lucas Cranach’s portrait, lent for exhibition by Mr Martin.’ No doubt a more realistic and sober representation than our souvenirs, but that in itself shows how attitudes to the culture of commemoration have changed since Bullen’s day.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections
The Treasures Gallery display continues until 4 February 2018.
31 October 2017
On 31 October 1517 the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg containing 95 theses for academic debate. The topic was the sale of indulgences – certificates granting believers time free from purgatory – in order to fund the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther was angry that the money of ordinary Christians was being taken to help a wealthy church establishment pay for a lavish building project, and he condemned the idea that divine forgiveness could be bought and sold rather than coming from the believer’s true spiritual repentance.
This has come to be seen as the start of the Protestant Reformation that fractured the religious unity of Western Europe and changed the way many Christians viewed and practised their faith. Although many historians today doubt that Luther actually did nail his theses to the church door on this or any other date, let alone in the dramatic public gesture often depicted in later images, 31 October has been celebrated for centuries as the birthday of the Reformation and in this fifth centenary year commemorations have been held all over the world.
The British Library is playing its modest part with a display in our Treasures Gallery looking at Luther and his impact, which opened by happy coincidence on 31 October and runs until 4 February 2018. Exhibits include an original printing of the 95 theses (C.18.d.12.) and a copy of the indulgence that triggered Luther to write them (C.18.b.18.).
The huge debate and controversy stirred by the Reformation is illustrated by some of the polemical pamphlets of the time both for and against Luther. One of the most famous is Passional Christi und Antichristi, with woodcuts by Lucas Cranach the elder. The book compares the life of Christ and the perceived corruption of the Papacy, showing for example Christ’s explulsion of moneylenders from the temple contrasted with the Pope raking in money from the sale of indulgences. But Luther’s opponents could attack him with equal force. In keeping with the scatalogical humour of the age, Thomas Murner’s attack on Luther, Von dem grossen Lutherischen Narren (Strassburg, 1522; 11517.c.33) includes a caricature of Luther being pushed into a privy.
In Germany, Luther is as celebrated for his contribution to the language through his Bible translation as for his influence on religious life. We show copies of his first translations of the New Testament and of the whole Bible, the latter in a copy with beautifully hand-coloured woodcuts.
When his translations came under attack, Luther defended them in an open letter, the Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, where he famously stated the need to listen to the everyday speech of ordinary people – ‘the man in the marketplace, the mother in the house, the children in the street’ – to create a vernacular Bible that would truly speak to them. His translation influenced William Tyndale who wanted to create an English Bible that ‘the boy that driveth the plough’ could read and understand. However, the copy of Tyndale’s New Testament which we are displaying to represent that influence belonged to someone much at the other end of the social scale: Queen Anne Boleyn.
This Bible is not the only English connection on display. We also show a copy of Henry VIII’s 1521 attack on Luther, Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Rome, 1521; G.1210). This earned him the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ from Pope Leo X – a title he kept for himself as head of the English Church when he broke away from Rome over a decade later. We also show a later and happier example of Luther in England: a history of St George’s German Lutheran Church in the East End of London, established for the many German immigrants who came to London in the 18th and 19th centuries. The copy on display belonged to the Church’s own library which the British Library acquired in 1997.
Title-page of Johann Gottlieb Burckhardt, Kirchen-Geschichte der deutschen Gemeinden in London (Tübingen, 1798) RB.23.a.16354. This copy, from the church’s library was originally presented to the Pastor of St George’s Lutheran church in Whitechapel by the church organist.
The language of Luther’s Bible and the spread of Lutheran churches around the world are only a part of his legacy. Luther’s belief in the importance of music in Christian worship helped to create traditions of congregational hymn-singing and of church music which have influenced church music of many denominations and enriched the canon of Western classical music, in particular through the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Luther’s most famous hymn ‘Ein Feste Burg’ is shown in an early edition along with the manuscript of one of Bach’s cantatas written for the Lutheran church of St Thomas in Leipzig.
To mark ‘Reformation 500’ many souvenirs of all kinds have been marketed, and we show two examples, including the Luther figure created by the toy company Playmobil, which became its best-selling figure ever. But Luther memorabilia is nothing new: in the decades immediately after his death in 1546 Luther’s image began to appear on coins, medals, ceramics and bookbindings. Our contemporary souvenirs, like this year’s Luther commemorations, are part of a long tradition.
The British Library will also be holding a Study Day on Monday 27 November looking at the 16th-Century Reformation outside Germany. Details and booking information can be found here. On the same day the British Museum and Library Singers will be performing a free lunchtime concert of music from and inspired by the Reformation in the Library’s entrance hall.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies
29 August 2017
As our exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths closes, the curatorial team involved share some memories, favourite items and ones that got away.
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator
My research on the exhibition brought me to the State Russian Library in Moscow. I’m extremely grateful to all the Russian colleagues who work there. They allowed me into their storage rooms and brought piles of folders with Soviet and Russian posters, postcards and other visual ephemera. I wanted to get on loan and show here, in London, everything: colourful candy wrappers with a picture of the brave Cossack Kozma Kriuchkov (eventually we decided to honour him in the exhibition with a poster from the British Library holdings), letter-templatess addressed to relatives from the front lines so that illiterate soldiers could send greetings home, photographs of the devastation in the Moscow Kremlin in November 1917, and many more.
But, of course, the one poster that would have been so appropriate was this one – Veriu, sotuiu vstretim godovshchinu! – I believe, we will celebrate the centenary!
Image from http://www.sovposters.ru/view/347
The artist, who created this optimistic image in a pretty avant-garde style was Iurii Bondi (1889-1926). Curiously, his works for the Kostroma ROSTA (the Russian news agency) survived and today can be seen online, although he was best known among his contemporaries as a theatre artist and set designer, whose works often inspired the great Meyerhold, whom Bondi was working with. Bondi’s book illustrations were loved and praised by another big Russian celebrity of the early 20th century – poet Alexander Blok. We did not bring this poster to the British Library and did not ‘celebrate’ the centenary, but here is our one more chance to learn about people who lived through this extraordinary time.
Susan Reed, Co-Curator
Working on the Russian Revolution exhibition has been a wonderful experience, but also a steep learning curve since I am – full disclosure time! – not a Russian specialist. I found myself learning lots of things I didn’t know about Russia and the Revolution of 1917, and discovering that some things I thought I knew were not as I had believed. I even discovered an unfamiliar bit of my own national history, the intervention of British troops in Northern Russia during the Russian Civil War.
In fact it was researching British involvement in Revolutionary Russia that led to one of my more exciting moments: finding a map in the National Archives drawn by Arthur Ransome for a report advocating intervention, which showed where food supplies were most plentiful. I almost jumped out of my seat! As a child I loved Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books with his hand-drawn maps on the end-papers, and here was a map with the same neat handwriting and detailed annotations, only this time in a deadly serious cause.
I was also able to advise on material from my actual area of expertise, Germany, where revolutions broke out in November 1918 and short-lived soviet-style governments were established in several cities. One of my favourite images in the exhibition is a cartoon from early 1918 showing a ‘Trojan Horse’ full of Bolsheviks being towed into Berlin, an example of how fears of revolution spread through Europe following events in Russia. Of course we had less space to deal with the revolutions outside Russia, but if there’s one exhibit I’d have liked to be able to show in this context, it’s Käthe Kollwitz’s picture of the murdered revolutionary Karl Liebknecht. Sadly we don’t have a copy ourselves, and decided not to borrow one, but like so much of Kollwitz’s work, it’s a powerful and moving image.
Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial for Karl Liebknecht, 1919. (Image from WikiArt)
Mike Carey, Collaborative Doctoral Student Nottingham University and BL
One thing we didn't get a chance to say much about was the impact of the Russian Revolution on the Chinese Revolution. A favourite item of mine which didn't make the final exhibit list is H.T. Tsiang's 'China Red' . The British Library has a copy signed by the author. He was a Communist, worked for Sun Yat-Sen's secretary up to 1925 during the first United Front, then emigrated to the USA when the KMT-Communist alliance split.
Cover (above) and author's signature (below) from H.S. Tsiang, China Red (New York, 1932) YD.2008.a.9385.
It's a series of letters between an émigré Chinese revolutionary in the USA and his partner who stayed behind, chronicling the split in 1926-7. It opens with a poem about Lenin which is quite eccentric:
Who is that guy?"
"He is not big
Neither is he high;
He has two hands,
And a pair of eyes;
Just as human
As you and I. ..."
H.T. Tsiang ended up working as an extra in Hollywood films – there’s a show-reel of him on Vimeo playing various caricatures and stereotypes. According to one account he became known in Hollywood for an ‘R-rated, one-man, one-hour adaptation of Hamlet’ which he performed every Friday night for ‘a dozen years’ (this Slate article has more about Tsiang).
Katie McElvanney, Collaborative Doctoral Student QMUL and BL
Over the past two and a half years, my involvement in the exhibition has included selecting and translating materials, developing storylines and concepts, meeting with curators in Moscow to discus loans, writing object labels and articles on women and journalism for the British Library website, and producing the timeline for both the website and the book published to accompanying the exhibition. Some of my favourite items on display include a beautiful hand-drawn wall newspaper issued by a local women’s collective in Yalta (complete with a sketch of the ultimate multi-tasking woman!) and an early Soviet propaganda poster promoting literacy.
One of the most valuable and rewarding aspects of working on an exhibition as part of a CDP is the chance to see how it takes shape over the three year period, from the early research and brainstorming stages through to the opening. As one of two CDP students working on the Russian Revolution exhibition project, I have benefited immensely from the knowledge, experience and support of a wider academic and exhibition team, as well as the wide range of British Library and CDP training and events on offer. While juggling the different aspects of a CDP is not without its challenges, I feel extremely fortunate and proud to have worked on the exhibition and to have gained such a range of experiences outside the immediate academic sphere of the PhD.
We'd like to thank all the many colleagues within the BL who also put so much work into the exhibition, our external lenders and advisers, and the many people who have come to visit. We hope you have enjoyed seeing the exhibition as much as we enjoyed working on it!
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