European studies blog

198 posts categorized "Germanic"

30 December 2022

An A to Z of the European Studies Blog 2022

A is for Alexander the Great, subject of the Library’s current exhibition

B is for Birds and Bull fighting.

C is for Czechoslovak Independence Day, which marks the foundation of the independent Czechoslovak State in 1918.

D is for Digitisation, including the 3D digitisation of Marinetti’s Tin Book.

E is for Annie Ernaux, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October.

Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger  Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg  1533) C.142.cc.12.

Examples of Fraktur letter-forms from Wolfgang Fugger, Ein nützlich und wolgegründt Formular manncherley schöner Schriefften ... (Nuremberg, 1533) C.142.cc.12.

F is for Festive Traditions, from songs to fortune telling.

G is for Guest bloggers, whose contributions we love to receive! 

H is for Hryhorii Skovoroda, the Ukrainian philosopher and poet whose anniversary we marked in December.

I is for our series on Iceland and the Library’s Icelandic collections.

J is for Jubilees.

Cover of Abetka, a Ukrainian alphabet book for children

Abetka (Kyïv, 2005). YF.2010.a.18369.

K is for Knowledge systems and the work of Snowchange Cooperative, a Finnish environmental organisation devoted to protecting and restoring the boreal forests and ecosystems through ‘the advancement of indigenous traditions and culture’.

L is for Limburgish, spoken in the South of the Netherlands.

M is for Mystery – some bibliographical sleuthing.

N is for Nordic acquisitions, from Finnish avant-garde poetry to Swedish art books.

O is for Online resources from East View, which are now available remotely.

Pages from Giovanni Bodoni and Giovanni Mardersteig, Manuale tipografico showing letters M and N

Giovanni Bodoni and Giovanni Mardersteig, Manuale tipografico, 1788. Facsimile a cura di Giovanni Mardersteig. (Verona, 1968) L.R.413.h.17.

P is for our wonderful PhD researchers, current and future.

Q is for Quebec with a guest appearance by the Americas blog featuring the work of retired French collections curator Des McTernan. 

R is for Rare editions of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar.

S is for Samizdat and the Library’s Polish Solidarity collection.

T is for Translation and our regular posts to mark Women in Translation Month.

Page from Alphabet Anglois

Alphabet Anglois, contenant la prononciation des lettres avec les declinaisons et conjugaisons (Rouen, 1639). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)

U is for Ukrainian collections and our work with Ukrainian partners.

V is for Victory – a contemporary Italian newspaper report of the Battle of Trafalgar. 

W is for Richard Wagner who wrote about a fictional meeting with Beethoven.

X is for... (no, we couldn’t think of anything either!)

Y is for You, our readers. Thank you for following us!

Z is for our former colleague Zuzanna, whom we remembered in February.

Church Slavonic alphabet from Azbuka, considered the first dated book printed in Ukraine.

Azbuka ōt knigi osmochastnye̡, sirěchʹ grammatikii (Lviv, 1574). Digital Store 1568/3641.(1.)

08 December 2022

Propaganda or Protest? Hans Baumann’s ‘Alexander’

A few months ago one of the curators of our current exhibition ‘Alexander the Great: the Making of a Myth’ asked me for some information about a book they were thinking of including (but eventually did not). This was a German play of 1941, Alexander, by Hans Baumann, a writer whose career had flourished in the Third Reich, especially through the many songs he wrote for the Nazi youth movements.

Book cover with a vignette of a Greek warrior

Cover of Hans Baumann, Alexander (Jena, 1941)  X.950/2122.

Baumann’s play is set after Alexander’s conquests in India and depicts the conflict between Alexander’s desire to advance further and that of his army to return home. Generals Cleitus and Craterus, sons of Admiral Nearchus, plot with relatives of the former Persian king Darius to encourage mutiny in the army, hoping that this will force Alexander to return to Macedon and place Persia back in the hands of Darius’s family. They initially succeed in rousing the army, but Alexander kills Cleitus to avenge an insult, and Craterus is executed for killing Alexander’s friend Hephaestion. Although the mutiny is crushed, the last scenes hint at Alexander’s own death, and it is left to Nearchus, still loyal to Alexander despite his sons’ deaths, to lead the Macedonian fleet onwards, inspired by Alexander’s example.

The plot plays fast and loose with history: Cleitus and Craterus were neither brothers nor Nearchus’s sons, Hephaestion died some time later and was not murdered by Craterus, who outlived Alexander. Baumann was clearly more concerned with symbolism than history. The play is reminiscent of a ‘Thingspiel’, a form of stylised drama designed for outdoor performance, often using historical events as allegories of the present. Baumann himself had written a Thingspiel, Rüdiger von Bechelaren, in 1939 and elements of the genre, particularly a rather static presentation and the use of choruses, remain in Alexander.

The play was widely praised on publication and won two literary prizes. It caught the attention of the actor Gustaf Gründgens, then Artistic Director of the Berlin State Theatre, who asked Baumann for permission to stage Alexander. The premiere on 19 June 1941, with Gründgens in the title role, was well received, but the play, according to different accounts, ran for only two, six or seven performances.

Gustav Gründgens in the role of Alexander

Gustaf Gründgens in the role of Alexander in Baumann’s play

These different accounts have much to do with Baumann’s later claim that Alexander was an expression of his growing unease at Germany’s aggression, and a plea for Hitler to treat his conquered peoples with clemency and respect as Alexander is shown to treat the Persians. In 1985 Baumann told the scholar Jay W. Baird that Goebbels had been offended by this message and ordered the play’s closure after its second performance (Baird, p. 168). Peter Jammerthal, however, in his dissertation on the Berlin State Theatre in the Third Reich, states that the play ran for seven nights, the last being a private performance for Hitler Youth members. He does agree that the play’s message was uncomfortable for the regime, but more because the depiction of mutinous generals and discord in the army sat ill with the planned attack on the Soviet Union which began on 22 June 1941 (Jammerthal, p. 211).

Most other writers agree that the invasion of the USSR was the primary reason for the play’s short run, with Gründgens worried that unwanted parallels might be drawn. (Alfred Mühr also suggests that Gründgens was increasingly disenchanted with the play and unhappy in the role (Mühr, p. 195)). However, there is disagreement as to how much Baumann’s alleged dramatization of his growing doubts about the regime affected the decision to close Alexander, and indeed how much the play truly does reflect such doubts. For all the praise of clemency there is plenty of talk of great men, great deeds, and the need to strive onwards which would not be out of place in standard Nazi propaganda rhetoric.

After the war Baumann forged a new and highly successful career primarily as a children’s writer, although his former role as the ‘bard of the Hitler Youth’ and the promotion and awards given to his work by the Nazi regime returned to haunt him in various literary scandals. His claims about Alexander and its cancellation were important in his attempts to distance himself from the past. But although he described himself as having increasingly withdrawn from glorifying the Nazis, his record suggests somewhat otherwise. In 1942 he edited and contributed to a volume of laudatory essays, Der Retter Europas (‘The Saviour of Europe’), marking Hitler’s birthday, and as late as April 1944 he addressed Hitler Youth members in Passau, using typical Nazi rhetoric about ‘Bolshevik hordes’ and treacherous neighbours, and warning against accepting ‘a dishonourable and deadly “peace”’ from their enemies (Rosmus, p. 280).

Baird suggests that Baumann had continued to toe the propaganda line out of reluctant necessity, and that his post-war children’s books reflected an ‘intellectual transformation’ (Baird, p. 171). Others, however, such as the literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki and the children’s writer Gudrun Pausewang took a more critical view, arguing that the post-war Baumann had never truly admitted the extent of his complicity with the Nazis and of his role in turning a generation of young people into willing fighters for Hitler and his regime through the propaganda in his songs.

Cover of 'Der Grosse Alexanderzug'

Cover of Hans Baumann, Der große Alexanderzug (Munich, 1967) X21/6285

Baumann returned to the theme of Alexander the Great in one of his historical novels for children, Der große Alexanderzug, published in English by Stella Humphries as Alexander’s Great March (London, 1968; X.709/6502). The story is narrated by one of Alexander’s couriers, who concludes that ‘Alexander did not inspire my love’ but that he did have admirable qualities, especially in the way ‘he removed the distinctions between the conquerors and the conquered, [and] reconciled the nations in spite of the opposition of his own people’. This was what the older Baumann described as the key message of his Alexander play, and it is significant that he ended his children’s novel on the same note. Was it perhaps a message to his critics, and a reinforcement of his argument that Alexander was a veiled critique of aggressive Nazi expansionism? We will probably never know, but the history of this play and its author tell a fascinating if inconclusive story.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further Reading

Jay W. Baird, To Die for Germany: Heroes in the Nazi Pantheon (Bloomington, 1990) YA.1991.b.6310

Peter Jammerthal, Ein zuchtvolles Theater: Bühnenästhetik des Dritten Reiches. Das Berliner Staatstheater von der Machtergreifung bis zur Ära Gründgens. Dissertation, Freie Universität Berlin, 2007 https://refubium.fu-berlin.de/handle/fub188/4017

Alfred Mühr, Mephisto ohne Maske: Gustaf Gründgens, Legende und Wahrheit (Munich, 1981) X.950/15850

Anna Rosmus, Hitlers Nibelungen: Niederbayern im Aufbruch zu Krieg und Untergang (Grafenau, 2015) YF.2016.b.1305

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, ‘Hans Baumann’ Die Zeit, 9 March 1962 https://web.archive.org/web/20140202135736/https://www.zeit.de/1962/10/hans-baumann/komplettansicht

Karl H. Ruppel, Berliner Schauspiel: dramaturgische Betrachtungen 1936 bis 1942 (Berlin, 1943) 11868.aaa.19.

Hans Baumann’ Regensburg europäisch: Jahresgabe 2016. 

Wilhelm Haefs, ‘Hans Baumann. Die Karriere eines Schriftstellers im Nationalsozialismus’, Das Bücherschloss: Mitteilungen aus der Internationalen Jugendbibliothek, 2016-2017 (‘Themenheft Hans-Baumann-Tagung’), pp. 20-39. ZF.9.a.7322

Hans Baumann’, Literaturportal Bayern 

10 November 2022

The Curious Woodcuts in Hartlieb’s Late-Medieval Adventures of Alexander the Great

There are countless adaptations of the Alexander Romance, a collection of fantastical stories about Alexander the Great originally brought together in Greek, probably in the third century AD. Among the earliest adaptations to appear in print was Hartlieb’s Alexanderbuch. Nine editions of this German translation are known to have appeared from 1473 to 1514 at Augsburg and then Strasbourg. Each is enriched with woodcuts that depict, for example, Alexander’s first encounter with his man-eating horse Bucephalus, his meetings with naked philosophers, and his discussions with talking trees. By comparing the editions, it’s easy to see how the illustrations fall into three distinct categories and to begin to understand something of their development over time.

Johann Hartlieb (c.1410-1468) was a physician who wrote the Alexanderbuch around 1444 for his patron, Duke Albrecht III of Bavaria. His principal source appears to have been the popular Historia de preliis, which in turn was a Latin-language translation of a long lost Greek text made in the 10th century by Leo of Naples. That said, Hartlieb’s text begins with the phrase ‘Hereafter followeth the story of the Great Alexander, which was written by Eusebius’, and Hartlieb’s German adaptation is as a result often indexed under Eusebius of Caesarea in many reference works and catalogues.

Hartlieb’s text circulated in manuscript for three decades until Johann Bämler issued the first printed edition at Augsburg in 1473. His publication is illustrated with nearly 30 woodcuts, many seemingly inspired by the miniatures in a manuscript now at the Pierpont Library in New York (MS M.782). With the exception of the frontispiece portrait (see below), the same woodcuts then appear in three subsequent Augsburg editions (1478, 1480 and 1483) printed by Anton Sorg. Among them is the image of Alexander in a diving bell.

Woodcut showing Alexander in a diving bell

Alexander’s diving bell in the Sorg edition of 1483, IB.5949

The Greek Alexander Romance (Stoneman, Book II, Chapter 38) talks of a descent of 464 feet to the bottom the sea, but here the impression is of a rather cramped-looking Alexander being lowered into a fish pond.

The next group of early editions are all published in Strasbourg. (Unfortunately no copies can be traced of a further Augsburg edition of 1478 reported in the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue). These Strasbourg editions (1488, 1493 and 1503), whether issued by Martin Schott or Bartholomäus Kistler, are curious because they contain broadly the same woodcuts as seen in the Augsburg volumes, but they have been redrawn and printed in reverse.

Woodcut showing Alexander in a diving bell

Alexander’s diving bell in the Schott edition of 1488, IB.1178

The most obvious explanation is that they were created by copying or tracing the illustrations in one of the earlier Augsburg editions.

The last of these early Hartlieb editions also appeared in Strasbourg, but this time from the press of Matthias Hupfuff. Visually, this work is very different, with the text printed in two columns for the first time. The woodcut illustrations are also different, although the subjects are much the same. In the new woodcut of the diving bell, Alexander is still in an impossibly cramped vessel, but there is only one person on the shoreline instead of the usual three.

Woodcut of Alexander’s diving bell in the Hupfuff edition

Alexander’s diving bell in the Hupfuff edition of 1514, C.39.h.14

In common with other illustrations in this 1514 edition, the woodcut appears to have been extended, unsatisfactorily, by the addition of a piece from a different illustration. This opens up the possibility that the woodcuts were not made specifically for this edition, and were in fact being re-used.

Returning to Bämler’s first edition of 1473, several surviving copies contain a curious frontispiece portrait of Alexander with boars’ tusks rising from his lower jaw.

Alexander with boars’ tusks

Alexander with boars’ tusks in the Bämler edition of 1473. © National Library of Scotland

The source for this strange feature may ultimately lie in the Greek Alexander Romance, which tells us that ‘his teeth were as sharp as nails’ (Stoneman, Book I, Chapter 13). In Hartlieb’s German, this has become ‘Sein zen waren garscharpff als eines ebers schwein’ (‘his teeth were as sharp as those of a wild boar’). The portrait has the same features as one seen in a Hartlieb manuscript now at the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt (Hs. 4256), and the two may have had a common model. It is replaced in other editions up to 1503 by a full-length portrait of a seated Alexander without tusks.

The British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth covers 2,300 years of storytelling about Alexander, and runs until 19 February 2023. Four editions of Hartlieb’s Alexanderbuch are on display, including a copy generously lent by the National Library of Scotland that shows Alexander with the mysterious boars’ tusks.

Adrian S. Edwards, Head of Printed Heritage Collections

Further Reading

Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, ‘Book Illustration in Augsburg in the Fifteenth Century’. Metropolitan Museums Studies, 4.1 (1932), 3-17. Ac.4713.b.

Richard Stoneman (editor), Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth [exhibition catalogue] (London, 2022). Awaiting shelfmark

Richard Stoneman (translator), The Greek Alexander Romance (London, 1991). H.91/1160

23 September 2022

‘As if some long-since inhabited country had been fished up out of the bottom of the sea’: Travel Literature on Iceland

As the National and University Library of Iceland commemorate the 250th anniversary of Joseph Banks’s expedition to Iceland with an exhibition, we are publishing a series of blogs on all things Icelandic in the British Library collections.

For those who want to know more about Joseph Banks’s expedition to Iceland, check out our guest blog from 2017 by the foremost expert, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Iceland, Anna Agnarsdóttir, who also curated the current exhibition.

In the second blog of this series, we look at writing from the past 250 years of British travel to Iceland.

Ever since Joseph Banks paved the way and established friendly relations between Britain and Iceland in 1772, a steady stream of travellers have been inspired to venture to Europe’s far North-West. Natural scientists, geologists, saga enthusiasts, explorers and anyone with enough money and ‘spirit of adventure’ saw the appeal of the always seemingly mysterious country, producing along the way a raft of accounts, published journals, translations, maps and drawings.

Painting of the Cathedral in Skálholt

John Cleveley Jr., Cathedral at Skálholt, Add MS 15511, f. 29r 

For those interested in getting to grips with the full range of writings over the last two-and-a-half centuries, look no further than Haraldur Sigurðsson’s bibliography Writings of Foreigners Relating to the Nature and People of Iceland. If something a little less bibliographic is required, you could do worse than consult the list of references at the end of ‘Sheaves of Sagaland’, chapter 6 of W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland, an alternative take on the travel account formed of irreverent poems, anecdotal advice, letters and other short pieces. The chapter in question compiles quotations from those that went before them, which might give more of an insight into the attitudes of the average Victorian traveller, than of Icelandic life itself. Deliberately out of context, and compiled supposedly for the benefit of John Betjeman, they speak to every aspect of Icelandic life:

‘Concerning their food
“It cannot afford any great pleasure to examine the manner in which the Icelanders prepare their food.” (Von Troil)

Concerning their habits
“If I attempted to describe their nauseous habits, I might fill volumes.” (Pfeiffer)

Concerning their dress
“The dress of a woman is not calculated to show the person to advantage” (Mackenzie)’

Drawing 'Great Jet of Steam, on the Sulphur Mountains' by George Stuart Mackenzie

George Stuart Mackenzie, Great Jet of Steam, on the Sulphur Mountains, from Travels in the Island of Iceland, during the summer of the year 1810 (Edinburgh: 1811) 983.e.23 

More recently, H. Arnold Barton’s Northern Arcadia gives a fantastic overview of the first wave of travel from Banks to the missionary Ebenezer Henderson’s trip in 1814-15. And, for a more visual introduction to the topic, the University of Nottingham’s online exhibition, ‘Ice, Fire and Northern Myths’, takes us through the richly illustrated material contained in their comprehensive Icelandic special collections. And, with the current exhibition in Iceland, it’s safe to say interest in the history of travel writing on the region has not waned.

Illustration of erupting geysers

Ebenezer Henderson, The Geysers, as seen on July 30th 1814, from Iceland; or the journal of a residence in that Island during the years 1814 and 1815 (Edinburgh, 1818) 979.i.3 

The British Library is uniquely placed to navigate the copious literature that emerged from such journeys. Not only can we find the vast majority of accounts published before 1882 digitised courtesy of Google Books, but the Library also holds the four volumes of original drawings from the Banks expedition to the Hebrides, Orkney and Iceland by the artists John Cleveley Jr., James Miller and his brother John Frederick Miller (all drawings available online: vol.1, vol. 2, vol. 3, vol. 4), as well as William Morris’s travel diaries from his two trips in 1871 and 1873 (digitised here).

Drawing 'Basaltic cave at Stappen' by John Barrow Jr.

John Barrow Jr., Basaltic cave at Stappen, from A Visit to Iceland, by way of Tronyem, in the “Flower of Yarrow” Yacht, in the Summer of 1834 (London, 1835) 791.e.3 

Why Iceland loomed ever larger in the imagination of travellers has to do with a blend of scientific interest in the Age of Exploration in the ‘land of ice and fire’ and the search for cultural and racial self-understanding, which saw Englishness increasingly linked to an Anglo-Saxon heritage, its purest vestige supposedly residing in Iceland (Kassis). That association with ‘Viking’ culture grew through the Victorian era with the interest in sagas, which could be flexibly interpreted for any cause, from the imperial to the social democratic. That Icelanders were in some way exemplary did not preclude visitors from understanding that singularity as ‘primitive simplicity’, as Uno von Troil’s reflections have it. Given that some 19th-century journeys went via the Sápmi as well, like John Barrow Jr’s A Visit to Iceland by Way of Tronyem, accounts often give the unpleasant impression that travelling North equalled a trip back in time and ‘backwards’ in the ‘civilisation’ process.

Drawing 'Descent of Arnardals-Skarth' by W. G. Collingwood

W. G. Collingwood, Descent of Arnardals-Skarth, from W. G. Collingwood and Jón Stefánsson, A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland (Ulverston, 1899) 10281.i.11

In Banks’s wake and lifetime, several journeys were made, often with Banks facilitating, all with a published output, which is more than can be said for the Banks expedition itself. The Swede von Troil’s Letters on Iceland was the only text that came from that, which did however set the standard for future writing, itself including a bibliography of 120 texts on Iceland to date. John Thomas Stanley’s expedition is captured in the diaries kept by the wealthy Englishman and his companions, James Wright, Isaac Benners and John Baine, eventually published only 50 years ago. Following Stanley, came William Jackson Hooker, the first director of Kew Gardens, whose Journal of a tour in Iceland in the Summer of 1809 contains some of the illustrations from the Banks voyage engraved for the first time.

Drawing 'Gill at Gilsbakki' by W. G. Collingwood

W. G. Collingwood, Gill at Gilsbakki

Encouraged by Banks to go and collect specimens, Hooker’s specimens and notes were destroyed on his way back, leaving him to rely on memory and samples collected by the Stanley party for his 600-page journal. The mineralogist George Mackenzie followed in the company of Richard Bright and Henry Holland, whose diaries have also been published. The last of this first wave of travellers was Ebenezer Henderson, who spent by far the longest on the island, there as a representative of the British and Foreign Bible Service. Barton calls his account ‘the fullest and most sympathetic’ of the early texts, no doubt in part due to his great knowledge of Scandinavia and his proficiency in multiple languages.

Drawing 'First view of Iceland' by Ethel Brilliana

Ethel Brilliana, First view of Iceland, from A Girl’s Ride in Iceland (London, 1894) 10281.c.6. 

John Barrow Jr, later known for his heroic efforts in coordinating the search expeditions in vain for John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to the Northwest Passage, was the next traveller to Iceland, noting that ‘twenty years have expired since a fresh word has been uttered respecting Iceland’. And while several journeys were made by others through the 1840s and early 1850s, including notably by Ida Laura Pfeiffer, it was not until 1856 and the introduction of scheduled steamship sailings to and from Iceland that travel became regular and affordable, and with that came a flurry of travel journals. Frederick Dufferin’s Letters from High Latitudes was hugely popular, inaugurating a new register for travel writing, less forensic and more comic, perhaps the ease of travel reducing the pressure to note every encounter in meticulous detail.

Drawing 'Hlidarende' by Samuel Edmund Waller

Samuel Edmund Waller, Hlidarende, from Six Weeks in the Saddle: A Painter’s Journal in Iceland (London, 1874) 10281.bb.42

So, for Dufferin, the Faxaflói bay, where Reykjavík lies, is magnificent while also ‘mouldy green, as if some long-since inhabited country had been fished up out of the bottom of the sea.’ For Frederick Metcalfe four years later, ‘the prospect was […] by no means cheering’: ‘as if to mock the foreigner for his infatuation, his way is beset, not only by dangerous rivers, appalling lava streams, hidden pits of fire, and chasms of ice, but his imagination is tortured by chimeras dire, phantom gorillas, or by whatever name he may please to call the shapes in stone and slag, that grin and frown on his solitary journey.’ Anthony Trollope’s also very popular account is perhaps so light on meaningful engagement with local culture that it becomes ‘mainly a reproduction of Englishness in the peripheral world rather than a study of Icelandic physiognomy’ (Kassis).

Painting of the Öxnadals-Heithi mountain

Sabine Baring-Gould, Öxnadals-Heithi, from Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (London, 1863) W48/4817 

Iceland’s epic beauty was ripe for drawing and painting, and most travellers in this period seem to be accomplished artists, so these books were also a platform for their pictures. The Banks expedition’s artistic output is important for its documentary and almost genre quality but later visitors perhaps allowed themselves to heighten the drama of landscapes, often inflected by a knowledge of the sagas that unfolded there. Sabine Baring-Gould’s Iceland: its Scenes and Sagas is notable for its fine watercolours. Henderson’s geysers and jets shoot out like shafts of light to the heavens.

Drawing of cod drying in front of a cabin

Ethel Brillliana, Cod-Fish drying

W. G. Collingwood and Jón Stefánsson published an epic picture book with coloured plates depicting the scenes of the sagas, while Ethel Brilliana Tweedie’s emotive sketches, often ‘from pony’s back’, give over something of the ephemerality of the traveller’s experience. What the use of illustration has in common, beyond their obvious appeal to the reader, is its necessity in helping to describe the indescribable, encapsulated in Simon Armitage’s final poem, ‘Listen Here’, in his and Glyn Maxwell’s homage to Auden and MacNeice, Moon Country:

It will not be had,
or fixed. Made of finer stuff,
to find it is to let it come to mind, then bluff,
or lie, or think, or wish.
Now hear this.

Drawing of an erupting geyser

George Stuart Mackenzie, New geysers

Another way of thinking about the inability to put Iceland into words, or, in Baring-Gould’s phrase, the ‘fail[ure] in rendering the wild beauty of colouring’, is that Iceland exceeds expectations and exceeds the journal format. This is common to many accounts all the way up to Damon Albarn’s latest solo album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, which began life as an ‘orchestral interpretation of the view outside of his [Reykjavik] living room window’ before ending up abstracted, ‘a stream-of-consciousness meditation on earth’s natural forces’. And, similarly, even while William Morris’s journals are precise, anecdotal day-to-day accounts, for Lavinia Greenlaw, ‘it is a document of a journey that becomes a description of all journeys’. Greenlaw is able to use passages from the celebrated journal as jumping off points for her own poetic reflections on travel, strangeness, the nature of experience.

Drawing 'Melstad and Reykir' by W. G. Collingwood

W. G. Collingwood, Melstad and Reykir

William Morris’s Iceland journals have a strong claim to be the best of the genre and ‘amongst the best prose Morris ever wrote’ (McCarthy). Written for his confidante, Georgiana Burne-Jones, he worked up his manuscript into a fair copy but the journals weren’t published in his lifetime at his request. Amongst Morris’s travel companions was Eiríkr Magnússon, a theologian and linguist who got to know Morris in London, before becoming a close friend and collaborator on saga translations and on the edited volume of the journals. Morris was without doubt the most important Icelandophile of his day, translating numerous sagas, further introducing audiences to their themes through his own poetry, and creating epic works, such as Sigurd the Volsung, so steeped in saga influence, they would go onto inspire the next century’s fantasy genre.

Drawing 'Eruption of a geyser at Geysir' by John Cleveley Jr.

John Cleveley Jr., Eruption of a geyser at Geysir, Add MS 15511, f. 43r 

Arriving at the already much-visited Geysir, Morris, the purist and knowledgeable Iceland scholar, ‘bewailed it for the possible Englishman whom I thought we should find there’. Clearly not in the best mood, he continues:

the evening is wretched and rainy now; a south wind is drifting the stinking steam of the southward-lying hot springs full in our faces: the turf is the only bit of camping-ground we have had yet, all bestrewn with feathers and wings of birds, polished mutton-bones, and above all pieces of paper: […] understand I was quite ready to break my neck in my quality of pilgrim to the holy places of Iceland: to be drowned in Markfleet, or squelched in climbing up Drangey seemed to come quite in the day’s work; but to wake up boiled while one was acting the part of accomplice to Mangnall’s Questions was too disgusting.

Allergies to tourists aside, Morris was enamoured by the place and the people, who never fail to be depicted as exceptionally hospitable, which is also the case in the accounts across the centuries. As the last entry in his 1871 journal says, Iceland ‘is a marvellous, beautiful and solemn place, and where I had been in fact very happy’.

The references below include the most notable (mainly) English-language travel books and manuscripts on Iceland in the Library’s collections with a link to a digital copy where available.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections 

References

‘Drawings illustrative of Sir Joseph Banks's voyage to the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Iceland in 1772’, Add MS 15509-12

Uno von Troil, Letters on Iceland (London, 1780) 152.c.44

William Jackson Hooker, Journal of a tour in Iceland in the summer of 1809 (Yarmouth, 1811) 791.e.2, digital copy 

William Morris, ‘Diaries (in the form of octavo ruled note-books and all written in pencil) kept by Morris on his two visits to Iceland in the summers of 1871 and 1873’, Add MS 45319 A-C, digital copy 

George Stuart Mackenzie, Travels in the Island of Iceland, during the summer of the year 1810 (Edinburgh: 1811) 983.e.23, digital copy 

Ebenezer Henderson, Iceland; or the journal of a residence in that Island during the years 1814 and 1815 (Edinburgh, 1818) 979.i.3, digital copy 

John Barrow Junior, A Visit to Iceland, by way of Tronyem, in the “Flower of Yarrow” Yacht, in the Summer of 1834 (London, 1835) 791.e.3, digital copy 

Ida Laura Pfeiffer, Journey to Iceland: and travels to Sweden and Norway … From the German by C. F. Cooper (London, 1852) 10280.d.32, digital copy 

Frederick Dufferin, Letters from High Latitudes; being some account of a voyage in the schooner yacht “Foam” ... to Iceland, Jan Mayen, & Spitzbergen, in 1856 (London, 1857) 10281.c.28, digital copy 

Frederick Metcalfe, The Oxonian in Iceland: or, notes of travel in that island in the summer of 1860, with glances at Icelandic Folk-lore and Sagas (London, 1861) 10281.b.22, digital copy 

Sabine Baring-Gould, Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (London, 1863) W48/4817, digital copy 

Samuel Edmund Waller, Six Weeks in the Saddle: A Painter’s Journal in Iceland (London, 1874) 10281.bb.42

William Lord Watts, Snioland: or, Iceland, its jökulls and fjälls (London, 1875) 10281.aaa.22

Richard Francis Burton, Ultima Thule; or, a Summer in Iceland (London, 1875) 2364.f.1.

Anthony Trollope, How the “Mastiffs” went to Iceland (London, 1878) C.124.g.1

Elizabeth Oswald, By Fell and Fjord; or, scenes and studies in Iceland (Edinburgh, 1882) 10281.bbb.4, digital copy 

John Coles, Summer Travelling in Iceland; being the narrative of two journeys across the island (London, 1882) 10280.g.4., digital copy 

William George Lock, Guide to Iceland, a handbook for travellers and sportsmen (Charlton, 1882) 10280.bb.22., digital copy 

Ethel Brilliana, A Girl’s Ride in Iceland (London, 1894) 10281.c.6., digital copy 

W. G. Collingwood and Jón Stefánsson, A Pilgrimage to the Saga-Steads of Iceland (Ulverston, 1899) 10281.i.11

Mrs Disney Leith, Iceland (Peeps at Many Lands) (London, 1908) W10/1133

W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland (London, 1937) W4/2845

William Morris, Icelandic Journals (Fontwell, 1969) 72/5914

The journals of the Stanley Expedition to the Faroe Islands and Iceland in 1789 (Tórshavn, 1970) 84/02018 – 84/02019

Henry Holland, The Iceland Journal of Henry Holland, 1810 (Works issued by the Hakluyt Society. Second series; no.168) (London, 1987) Ac. 6172/188

Haraldur Sigurðsson, Ísland í skrifum erlendra manna um þjóðlíf og náttúru landsins : ritaskrá = Writings of foreigners relating to the nature and people of Iceland: a bibliography (Reykjavik, 1991) YA.1995.b.8642

Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for our Time (London, 1994) YC.1995.b.276

Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell, Moon country: further reports from Iceland (London, 1996) YK.1996.a.22671

H. Arnold Barton, Northern Arcadia: Foreign Travelers in Scandinavia, 1765-1815 (Carbondale, 1998) 99/20599

Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians: inventing the old north in nineteenth-century Britain (Cambridge: 2000) YC.2000.a.6087

Dimitros Kassis, Icelandic Utopia in Victorian Travel Literature (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2016) ELD.DS.93013

Lavinia Greenlaw, Questions of travel: William Morris in Iceland (London, 2016) ELD.DS.203595

Martin Stott, Iceland Journals Introduction (2020), on William Morris Archive website 

11 August 2022

Graham Nattrass Lecture 2022 - ‘Wittenberg 1522’

Under the auspices of the German Studies Library Group in association with the British Library, the fourth Graham Nattrass lecture, Wittenberg 1522: Print Culture and Soundscape of the German Reformation, will be delivered on Tuesday 20 September 2022 at the British Library by Professor Henrike Lähnemann.

Her lecture will take us back five centuries to September 1522, when the Wittenberg printers had a bestseller on their hands: the German New Testament translated by Martin Luther over the summer. It sold so quickly that in December they produced a second edition.

Title page of Luther's 'Septembertestament'

Title-pages from the editions of Luther’s New Testament translation published in Wittenberg in September (above, C.36.g.7.) and Deccember (below, 1562/285) 1522

Title page of Luther's 'Dezembertestament'

The lecture will contextualise this publication in the print culture and soundscape of its time. A particular focus will be on Reformation pamphlets from 1522 in the British Library and contemporary hymn production to spread the biblical message. The British Library and British Museum Singers will provide practical examples.

Title-page with a woodcut illustration of a monk

Title-page of Martin Luther, Das Huptstuck des ewigen und newen testaments, [(Wittenberg, 1522?]) 3905.c.68., one of the pamphlets that will be discussed in the lecture.

Before the lecture there will be a performance of music in the Library’s main entrance hall by the British Library and British Museum singers, conducted by Peter Hellyer, including pieces by Bach, Brahms, and Mendelssohn.

The timetable for the event is as follows:

17.00: Music in the main entrance hall

17.30: Refreshments served in the Foyle Suite

18.00: Lecture in the Foyle Suite

Graham Nattrass (1940–2012) enjoyed a long and distinguished career at the British Library and its antecedents, starting at the National Central Library at Boston Spa in 1971. He became Head of the British Library’s Germanic Collections in 1996 and retired from the Library in 2005, as Head of West European Collections. He was Chair of the German Studies Library Group from 2003 to 2007, and a founding member of the group, which in 2016 instituted an annual lecture in his memory.

Henrike Lähnemann is Professor of Medieval German Literature and Linguistics at the University of Oxford and Professorial Fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford. Her research interests include medieval manuscripts, the relationship of text and images, and how vernacular and Latin literature are connected, currently mainly in late medieval Northern German convents.

Both concert and lecture are free to attend and open to all, but places for the lecture are limited, so if you wish to attend please contact the Chair of the German Studies Library Group, Dorothea Miehe (dorothea.miehe@bl.uk).

05 August 2022

A Bibliographical Mystery Solved

A while ago I was alerted by a colleague to a German item in our collections that appeared to have no catalogue record. It was bound with a list of books censored by the Austrian Empire in the late 18th century, so when I ordered the volume up, I assumed that the uncatalogued item would be something similar, perhaps even a continuation of the previous list.

However, when it arrived, it was obvious that, although only a fragment of a larger work, it was not at all similar, let alone related, to the other work in the volume. It began with a half-title page bearing the title ‘Zusätze, Verbesserungen und Druckfehler’ (‘Additions, improvements and printing errors’), so it was obviously an appendix to a larger work, and from the first two pages of text it was clear that the larger work was a guide to a spa town.

Two pages of text from an unidentified fragment

Opening of the mysterious fragment (818.d.9.(2))

Since the town was not named anywhere in the few pages of text, it might have been impossible to identify the place and therefore the book. However, a long-ago cataloguer had obviously had a better knowledge of spa culture than I did as there was a pencil note reading ‘K Carlsbad’. The letter K was used in the British Museum Library to indicate that an item had been catalogued, and the word after it denoted the heading used for it in the catalogue. So this was presumably a guide to the famous spa at what was then known as Karlsbad (anglicised as Carlsbad), and is today Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. From the look of the typeface and the style of writing – and based on the date of the other item in the volume – it seemed likely that it dated from the late 18th or early 19th century.

Half-title page with a cataloguer's note

I knew from the pencil note that there had been a catalogue record made for the fragment, so went to the version of the printed catalogue published between 1979 and 1987 (known as BLC) to check it out. Perhaps it had been one of those odd records that had somehow fallen off the radar when the printed records were converted to an online format. But there was no heading in the catalogue for ‘Carlsbad’. There was one for the German spelling ‘Karlsbad’, which was a cross-reference to ‘Karlovy Vary’, but there was nothing there that could conceivably match the item in question.

So I had to go further back in time, to the first general catalogue of the British Museum Library, published in the 1890s and known as GK1. Here there was a heading ‘Carlsbad’ with a number of mainly anonymous works listed, including the item in hand. However, the record didn’t get me much further in identifying the book the fragment came from, describing it simply as ‘a fragment of some work on the mineral waters of Carlsbad’ with a speculative date of 1803.

Catalogue entry for an unidentified fragment

At this point I had two options. I could either create something similar to the GK1 record on our current catalogue, giving approximate details and date, or I could see whether I could find an item that would match our fragment by searching online and create a fuller record. I thought I would try the latter and turned to one of my all-time favourite websites, the Karlsruhe Virtual Catalogue, which can be used to search a wide range of German and other library catalogues. By typing in ‘Carlsbad’ along with other keywords that might conceivably appear in the title of a German travel guide I found various possibilities, and the increasing availability of digitised editions enabled me to check for matches in most cases.

I was on almost my last attempt when I finally found what looked like a match in the collections of the Austrian National Library. Ironically, this copy didn’t have the ‘Zusätze, Verbesserungen und Druckfehler’ to make a direct comparison, but by cross-checking the corrections and additions with the page references from the original given in our fragment I was able to confirm that I had indeed found the right book, and to create a full catalogue record for it with a note explaining that we only hold a small part of the whole.

Engraved title-page of 'Ansicht oder neueste Beschreibung von Carlsbaad wie es jetzt ist'

Engraved title-page of the complete work, from a copy in the Austrian National Library

Although I’m rather proud of myself for having solved this little bibliographical mystery, I doubt anyone will ever know why two such different items ended up bound together. But at least the fragment that we have is now identifiable.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

14 July 2022

Christian Boltanski’s ‘Les Habitants de Malmö’ (1994)

One of the most influential artists of the last century, Christian Boltanksi, died one year ago today. Although, he would have had you believe he actually died many times before: ‘When you are asked to make a retrospective, it basically means you’re dead’ (from an interview with Alexis Dahan for the Brooklyn Rail). The son of Holocaust survivors, Boltanski was born in 1944 in Paris, where he continued to be active throughout his life. His work was often preoccupied with memory, memorialisation and the archive, using everyday objects, personal or administrative material, and the concepts of listing and cataloguing to evoke the profundity of what is lost by displaying the infinity of what we know, have and record.

For an exhibition at Malmö Konsthall in 1994, Boltanski made the artist’s book Les Habitants de Malmö, a copy of which has recently entered the British Library’s collections. It comprises the city’s real telephone directory from 1993 only with a new cover displaying its new title and a four-page insert of errata that Boltanski introduces with the line: ‘You can’t reach these inhabitants of Malmö on the phone anymore. They died in 1993.’

Cover of Les Habitants de Malmö

Cover of Christian Boltanski, Les Habitants de Malmö (Malmö, 1994) YF.2022.b.994

Looking at it now, this directory (if not all phone directories) has lost its functionality in the internet age, as its function is more aesthetic and metaphorical. However, Boltanski’s point was that its pragmatic function was already in question in 1994 when he issued a bunch of them with his front cover. As Ernst van Alphen has suggested, ‘the finiteness of pragmatic listing is illusionary’, the directory is merely ‘the temporary fixation of an ongoing process’, which soon ‘over time […] becomes a memorial of all the former inhabitants of Malmö’. Besides, when removed from its original context, the 90s Malmö phone box say, the hundreds of pages of names and numbers lose any referentiality. We simply take stock of a long list of people who may now have joined the ranks of the errata list of deceased. This is what van Alphen terms the ‘Holocaust effect’, an experience of a certain aspect of the Holocaust, here evoked somewhere between the sheer mass of names (like public memorials that list the names of the deceased in full) and the memorialisation of these former inhabitants.

Boltanski - auction list

Title Page of an 18th-century Danish auction catalogue for the possessions of …, 821.b.11.(4.)

As Boltanski’s work stages the archival, making once functional lists into memorials, we might ask ourselves at the library about the endless lists and catalogues housed in our collections. For example, some 17th- and 18th-century catalogues for auctions of the estates of deceased persons have recently come to light via our collection audit colleagues. Cataloguing these lists of personal effects, whose title pages list every single category of item for sale, you can’t help imagining them in a Boltanski exhibition. With their referential function lost in time and space, we might see these lists more symbolically as the things that represented someone’s life as opposed to items for sale. At the very least, Boltanski’s lists allow us to dwell on the natural imperfection of our own archives, lists and catalogues, reminding us of the ongoing process of describing our items for new times and new readers.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References

Ernst van Alphen, Staging the Archive: Art and Photography in the Age of New Media (Chicago: 2014) YC.2016.a.1489

10 June 2022

Meet the Curators: A News-themed Session – 23 June 2022

Exploring five centuries of UK news through broadsheets, blogs and objects, the British Library’s current exhibition, Breaking the News, challenges and seeks to change the way we think about news.

Poster with a drawing of a person sitting on a TV and reading a newspaper

A poster advertising the University of Poznań Solidarity journal Serwis Informacyjny Komisji Zakładowej NSZZ «Solidarność» przy UAM w Poznaniu. BL shelf mark Sol. 764

Looking beyond the UK focus of Breaking the News, on Thursday 23 June curators from the European, Americas and Oceania collections will be in conversation about items from their collection areas that speak to the themes of the exhibition and that they think deserve a spotlight. Join us for a friendly look behind the curating scenes as we discover unique collection items that illuminate news and the role it plays in our lives.

This free, online event will take place on Thursday 23 June 2022, 12.30 – 1.30pm. To register, please visit the Library’s event page. Bookers will be sent a Zoom link in advance giving access.

This session is run in partnership with the Library’s Asia and Africa department, whose parallel event takes place on Thursday 16th June 2022.

Breaking The News exhibition advert

05 May 2022

John Cruso of Norwich: a man of many parts

John Cruso (b. 1592/3) of Norwich, the eldest son of Flemish migrants, was a man of many parts: author, virtuoso networker, successful merchant and hosier, Dutch church elder and militia captain. His literary oeuvre is marked by its polyvocality. He wrote verse in English and Dutch, often sprinkled with Latin and French. He was also a noted military author, publishing five military works, which made a significant contribution to military science before and during the English Civil Wars. These works display Cruso’s knowledge of the canon of classical and Renaissance literature, allowing him to fashion himself as a miles doctus, a learned soldier, and to contribute to military science in Stuart England. Cruso’s great nephew, Timothy, studied with Daniel Defoe at the Dissenters’ Academy in Newington Green, London, and thus inspired the name of Defoe’s great literary creation, Robinson Crusoe.

Cruso’s parents, Jan and Jane, left Flanders in the years after the Iconoclastic Fury and Alva’s Council of Troubles. They arrived in Norwich, which already had a thriving Stranger community and Jan worked as a textile merchant.

The Strangers’ Hall in Norwich

The Strangers’ Hall in Norwich, the merchants’ house of the Flemish Strangers (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

Their eldest son, John, received a classical humanist education at Norwich free grammar school, which he would draw on in his published verse and prose. He became a freeman and took over running the family hosiery and cloth business from his father. In 1622, he published his first verse, a Dutch elegy. This appeared in a collection of Latin and Dutch elegies to the late minister of the London Dutch church, Simeon Ruytinck. It included verses by Constantijn Huygens and Jacob Cats and is arguably the most important Anglo-Dutch literary moment in the seventeenth century. In the late 1620s, Cruso wrote three English elegies, including one sonnet, on the late minister of St. Andrew’s Church, Lawrence Howlett. He was also the subject of an English verse by the Norfolk prelate and poet, Ralph Knevet.

Between 1632 and 1644, Cruso published several military works. In 1632, he published Militarie Instructions for the Cavallrie, which was the first book published in England devoted solely to the cavalry. This was republished in 1644. In 1639 and 1640, Cruso published his English translations of two French military works, one of which was re-published in 1642. In the same year, as the opening shots in the First English Civil War were being fired, he published two military handbooks on the construction of military camps and the order of watches. He also had time, it seems, to publish two Dutch verses, an elegy to Johannes Elison, the late minister of the Dutch church in Norwich and an amplificatio on Psalm 8. His final publication, in 1655, was a collection of 221 Dutch epigrams, printed in quarto by Arnold Bon in Delft.

Title page of John Cruso, Militarie Instructions for the Cavallrie

John Cruso, Militarie Instructions for the Cavallrie (Cambridge, 1632) 717.m.18

Title page of John Cruso, Castrametation

John Cruso, Castrametation, or the Measuring out of the quarters for the encamping of an army (London, 1642) 1398.b.7.

Most of Cruso’s works are in the British Library. A copy of the epigram collection, EPIGRAMMATA Ofte Winter-Avondts Tyt-korting (‘Epigrams or Pastimes for a Winter’s Evening’), shelfmark 11555.e.42.(4.), is the only known copy of this work.

Title page of I. C., Epigrammata, ofte Winter Avondts Tyt-korting

Title page of I. C., Epigrammata, ofte Winter Avondts Tyt-korting (Delft, 1655) 11555.e.442 (4).

On the title page, Cruso uses his initials, I.C. In this copy someone has made C into O with a pen. Beneath the title are two lines from the Roman epigrammatist, Martial, which hint at the scabrous nature of some of the verses: ‘Non intret Cato theatrum meum: aut si intraverit, spectet’ (‘Do not let Cato enter my theatre: or if he does enter, let him look’), and ‘Innocuos permitte sales: cur ludere nobis non liceat?’ (‘Allow harmless jests: why should we not be allowed to joke?’). Many of Cruso’s Dutch epigrams are like Latin epigrams written by Sir Thomas More, and Cruso may have been inspired by some of these. One example is Epigram 94:

In Nasutissimum
Vergeefs ghy voor u Huys een Sonne-wijser stelt;
Want gaapt maar, en men stracx aan uwe Tanden telt
De Uyren van den Dach. De Son dat wijst gewis
End uwen langen Neus den besten Gnomon is.

(On someone with an extremely large nose.
In vain, you place a sundial in front of your house;
For just open your mouth and people will be able to
Count the hours of the day by your teeth. And the sun shows
That for sure your long nose is the best style (gnomon) for the sundial.)

We know little about the reception of this collection, but the fact that the British Library has the only extant copy is one example of the importance of the Library to modern scholarship.

Christopher Joby, Adam Mickiewicz University

Christopher Joby is Professor in Dutch Studies at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland, and Visiting Scholar at the Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan. His research focusses on the intersection of the Dutch language and culture and other languages and cultures in a historical context. His latest book is John Cruso of Norwich and Anglo-Dutch literary identity in the seventeenth century (Cambridge: D S Brewer, 2022) DRT ELD.DS.659151 (non-print legal deposit)

15 March 2022

Swedish Bird Books

Many of us would have taken part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, the much-loved annual mass participation birdwatch at the end of January. At the Library, we were delighted to catch a rare sighting ourselves. Colleagues in our Collection Audit team rediscovered a volume of collected booklets of bird illustrations, shelf-marked but hitherto unavailable in the catalogue. Magnus and Wilhelm von Wright’s Svenska foglar (Stockholm, 1828-38; 74/781.k.31) is one of the finest examples of bird illustration in a long history of Scandinavian ornithological literature.

A great tit by Wilhelm von Wright

A great tit by Wilhelm von Wright

The brothers Magnus, Wilhelm and Ferdinand von Wright were pioneers of Finnish painting, who early on developed a passion for depicting birds on their hunting trips with their father Henrik Magnus von Wright. While Magnus would go on to develop a reputation as a landscape painter as well, the brothers are well known for their work on birdlife in service of both art and science. Having moved to Stockholm to begin his artistic training, Magnus was given the opportunity by Count Nils Bonde, the master of Hörningsholm manor on the island of Mörkö, to illustrate an ambitious work on Swedish birds, Svenska foglar. Efter naturen och på sten ritade af M. och W. von Wright. So overwhelming was the commission, Magnus brought in the help of his brother Wilhelm, and by the end of the project, Ferdinand, who later painted the iconic The Fighting Capercaillies, would also be involved, despite his young age. Svenska foglar became a hugely popular series.

A song thrush drawn by Magnus and lithographed by Wilhelm von Wright

A song thrush drawn by Magnus and lithographed by Wilhelm von Wright

Between 1828 and 1838, 30 booklets were published, each containing up to six plates of hand-coloured lithograph birds, with 137 species represented across the 186 birds. In the early 19th century, one of the ways to catch a good enough look at a bird was to shoot it, a skill the von Wright brothers regularly deployed, as well as buying specimens and studying others in the natural science museums in Helsinki, St Petersburg and Stockholm (Lehtola, Lokki and Stjernberg).

Wilhelm would go on to concentrate his artistic efforts on scientific illustration, taking on another commission from Count Bonde to illustrate a guide to butterflies, Svenska fjäriler, before eventually undertaking his greatest achievement, Skandianviens fiskar (Scandinavian Fish), with Bengt Fries, also in the library (BL 727.l.26.).

The brothers made substantial contributions to zoology beyond offering these precise and captivating illustrations. They travelled extensively, making trips to the far North to places such as Tromsø in the Norwegian Arctic and Aavasaksa in Finnish Lapland, where they kept journals and made drawings that furthered ornithological knowledge. They were at the heart of what Björn Dal has called the Swedish ‘Zoological Golden Age’. Of course, the von Wrights, while figuring prominently in Swedish zoology, were Finnish, and Magnus’s unfinished work on his homeland’s avifauna was issued posthumously as Finlands foglar in 1873 (BL Ac.1094.4.).

A Eurasian Jay from Olof Rudbeck’s Book of Birds

A Eurasian Jay from Olof Rudbeck’s Book of Birds

The brothers entered the ornithological picture when the discipline was burgeoning, a few decades after Linnaeus had pioneered zoological nomenclature and at a time when global exploration proliferated knowledge, interest and possession of the natural world. This handy list of Swedish bird books is comprehensive, locating the first mention of birds in Olaus Magnus’ Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus, the classic work on the history and culture of Scandinavia originally published in Rome in 1555 (152.e.9 and two other copies). Illustrated copiously with woodcuts, it contains plenty of insights into our relationship with birds, including a not-so-faithful image of two men hauling a net full of swallows out of a muddy lake.

The next major contribution we might mention is Olof Rudbeck the Younger’s bird book, a set of astonishing illustrations that some say were unrivalled until the age of Audubon. Rudbeck’s work helped him deliver lectures on ornithology and his images and classifications form the basis of some of the species listed in the tenth edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae (956.e.6.7), the accepted starting point of zoological nomenclature. Rudbeck was Linnaeus’s mentor and patron. The watercolour birds, which were the artistic work of Rudbeck himself, Andreas Holtzbom and potentially others, were accomplished around 1693-1710 but were not published until 1985, with a monumental English edition appearing in 1986 (HS.74/99). The editor’s introduction suggests that had the planned book materialised in its own time, then ‘eighteenth century ornithology, at least as far as Sweden is concerned, would have received an impetus towards unprecedented achievements.’

A golden eagle from Wilhelm von Wright

A golden eagle from Wilhelm von Wright

One of Linnaeus’s disciples, Anders Sparrman, would produce the ‘earliest monumental pictorial work on ornithology published in the North’ (Anker), known as the Museum Carlsonianum (Stockholm, 1786-89; 32.g.8), a bird book based on the collection of Johan Gustav von Carlson. It is the first large illustrated work to use the Linnaean naming system and the birds are from around the world, making it of significant scientific interest. Some of these plates, the work of Jonas Carl Linnerhielm, would make it into Sparrman’s subsequent ambitious compilation Svensk Ornitologi (1806), published the same year as another important work, Johan Wilhelm Palmstruch’s Svensk Zoologi (Stockholm, 1806; 454.b.20.).

With vast pictorial works on birds and fauna abounding across Europe and America in the early 19th century, Sweden was no different. Soon the von Wrights’ booklets would appear followed two decades later by Carl Sundevall’s impressive Svenska foglarna (Stockholm, 1856-1886; Cup.1256.aa.18) with illustrations by Peter Åkerlund and Paulina Sjöholm. Sweden’s contribution to zoology and botany in the 18th and 19th centuries is often confined to the (albeit immense) influence of Carl Linnaeus and his disciples. However, through its ornithologist-artists, whose work is distributed in a host of epic illustrated bird books, we get a sense of its wider contribution to our understanding of birds, not least through the plates of the von Wright brothers.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic collections 

Further reading

Björn Dal, Sveriges zoologiska litteratur : en berättande översikt om svenska zoologer och deras tryckta verk 1483-1920 (Kjuge, 1996), YA.2003.b.2445

Erkki Anttonen and Anne-Maria Pennonen, The von Wright Brothers: Art, Science and Life (Helsinki 2017), YD.2018.b.404

Anto Leikola, Juhani Lokki and Torsten Stjernberg, ‘The von Wright brothers and bird research’, in Anttonen and Pennonen (above)

Olof Rudbeck, Olof Rudbeck’s Book of Birds: A Facsimile of the Original Watercolours [c.1693-1710] of Olof Rudbeck the Younger in the Leufsta Collection in Uppsala University Library (Stockholm, 1986)

Jean Anker, Bird Books and Bird Art: An Outline of the Literary history and Iconography of descriptive Ornithology (Copenhagen, 1938), LR.106.a.8

Claus Nissen, Die illustrierten Vogelbücher: ihre Geschichte und Bibliographie (Stuttgart, 1953), 2731.y.1

European studies blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs