THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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177 posts categorized "Slavonic"

11 October 2019

The 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature

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Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and Austrian writer Peter Handke have been awarded the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature after the award was suspended last year due to a sexual assault scandal

Born in Poland in 1962, Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the 2018 Prize, is one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary Polish writers. Noted for the mythical tone of her writing, she is adored by her readers and highly praised by critics. Tokarczuk has won many prestigious literary awards for her works both in her native country and abroad. In 2018 she won the Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, translated into English by Jennifer Croft (London, 2017; ELD.DS.228759). The book was first published in Poland in 2007 as Bieguni (). The Polish title refers to runaways, a sect of Old Believers, who believe that being in constant motion is a trick to avoid evil. Flights is a fragmentary novel consisting of over 100 episodes, each exploring what it means to be a traveller through space as well as time. Set between the 17th and 21st centuries, the novel includes some fictional stories and some fact-based, narrated from the perspective of an anonymous female traveller.

Cover of Bieguni ('Flights')

Cover of Bieguni (Krakow, 2007) YF.2008.a.36755

A trained psychologist, Tokarczuk spent a few years practising as a therapist before devoting her working life to her literary career. She is the author of nine novels and a few short stories and essays, and her books have been published into 30 languages including English, Chinese and Japanese. The main translator of her books into English is Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose most recent translation is Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (London, 2018; ELD.DS.325469), shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. The novel, regarded as an eco-crime story, explores the issues of the animal rights and vegan movements unveiling the hypocrisy of traditional beliefs and religion. The book and the film Spoor by Agnieszka Holland based on this novel caused a political uproar in Poland.

Cover of Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych ('Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead')

Cover of Prowadź swój pług przez kości umarłych (Krakow, 2009) YF.2010.a.22348

Olga Tokarczuk was a speaker at two recent British Library events: “A life of Crime? Crime writing from Poland”, in 2017, and “Olga Tokarczuk: An evening with Poland’s best”, in 2018. Recordings of both events are available to listen in our Reading Rooms via the online catalogue.

Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

The 2019 prize has been awarded to the Austrian writer Peter Handke. The Nobel Foundation cites his “influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” He has won many of Austria’s and Germany’s major literary prizes over the course of a long career.

Born in 1942, Handke began to write while studying at the University of Graz. He became involved with the ‘Grazer Gruppe’, a group of writers (including another future Austrian Nobel Laureate, Elfriede Jelinek) associated with the literary magazine manuskripte (P.903/797). 

Alfred Kolleritsch und Peter Handke

Peter Handke (left) and magazine editor Alfred Kolleritsch at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of manuskripte, 2013. (Photograph by Dnalor_01 from Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Handke became known in the 1960s for his experimental plays such as Publikumsbeschimpfung (Frankfurt am Main, 1967; X.907/8495. English translation by Michael Roloff, Insulting the Audience (London, 1971) 11663.l.2/42.). This begins with the words, “You will not see a play” and has the uncostumed actors address the audience from what is usually a bare stage. He has also written novels, poetry and essays. English-speaking audiences, although they may not realise it, are perhaps most likely to have come across his work as the screenwriter for Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). Handke has also won awards as a film director.

From the start of his career Handke attracted controversy, although not necessarily for the experimental nature of his work. In an early public appearance at an event organised by the influential post-war writers group Gruppe 47, he gave an angry speech attacking the Group and the work of its members. More recently he has been criticised for his stance and his writing on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. This has led to protests at the award of other literary prizes to Handke in recent years, and the Nobel award has attracted similar criticisms.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

01 October 2019

Defending a Nazi – a barrister’s path from opponent of Nazism to advocatus diaboli

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“If you appoint me to defend this man, I will stand on the river bank naked, wearing only a white sheet, and scream that I am Jesus Christ” – that’s how we can summarize the reaction of Jaroslav Mellan, a lawyer, at the idea of him being asked to defend Karl Hermann Frank.

Cover of Noc pred popravou with a photograph of Karl Hermann Frank

Cover of Ladislav Tunys, Noc před popravou (Prague, 1995), YA.1999.a.737

The Czechoslovak Bar Association was in a tricky position. It was March 1946. Karl Hermann Frank, one of the most prominent Nazi leaders, had just been transferred from an American prison to Czechoslovakia, where he was to be tried and convicted of war crimes. The Bar Association, closely watched by the international community, had the difficult task of finding an advocatus diaboli for Frank, a job which no one wanted. The choice fell on Kamill Resler, a member of the anti-Nazi resistance movement and a defender of Jewish clients during the war, who was threatened with the withdrawal of his professional qualifications if he refused to defend the accused. Resler tried to challenge the decision a number of times, but to no avail. The situation was made even more dramatic by the fact that some of Resler’s relatives and friends were killed during the war as a result of Frank’s orders.

Photograph of Frank in front of his shop

Frank in front of his bookshop in Karlovy Vary, reproduced in Emil Hruška, Pán protektorátu: K.H. Frank známý a neznámý (Prague, 2015), YF.2016.a.15829

And yet, despite his hatred for Frank, Resler believed that every criminal deserves a fair trial. In his opinion, a barrister’s duty was to disregard his feelings about the accused and to defend him to the best of his abilities. And that’s precisely what he did. Resler argued that Nazism was a disease and Frank, as its follower, must have suffered from a psychiatric disorder. He claimed that Frank lacked the ability to judge the consequences of his actions during the war and, on top of that, was unaware of what was happening in the concentration camps, even though he visited them several times.

Caricature of Resler

Caricature of Resler, reproduced in Jakub Drápal, Defending Nazis in postwar Czechoslovakia: the life of K. Resler, defence counsel ex officio of K.H. Frank (Prague, 2018), awaiting shelfmark.

Before the war Frank worked as a bookseller and clerk. He enrolled in the German National-Socialist Workers Party in 1919, and when it was dissolved by the state, in the Sudeten German Party. Gradually he managed to reach the highest-ranking position in occupied Czechoslovakia, that of Secretary of State of the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and chief of police. But now, with the war being over and he himself incarcerated in a Czechoslovak prison, isolated from family members and fully aware of the general hatred towards him, he became extremely depressed and struggled to find the emotional stamina to defend himself. That meant that Resler not only had to defend Frank, but that he actually found himself forced to console the Nazi prisoner and motivate him to fight for his life till the very end. The idea of Frank’s having hope of avoiding the death sentence would contribute to the image of a fair court trial that could not be questioned by international opinion.

Photograph of Resler during Frank’s trial

Resler during Frank’s trial, reproduced in Defending Nazis in postwar Czechoslovakia

Frank was at first very displeased with the fact that he would be defended by a Czech barrister. Resler upset him a number of times, as he didn’t hide his criticism of Nazi ideology and actions. Yet Frank had his softer side too. One day prison guards found him crying in his cell because two Czech prisoners had given him a loaf of bread as a Christmas gift. Frank was emotionally prepared to deal with hatred, but he wasn’t prepared for kindness.

Throughout the trial Resler was careful to keep a distance from him. Only when Frank heard the pronouncement of the death sentence did Resler shake his hand for the first time. He stayed with him in the prison cell for the three hours between the announcement of the verdict and the execution. When Frank was being taken to the gallows, he bade him farewell by saying: “Die like a man!”

Photograph of Frank sitting on a chair in a prison cell

Frank in prison cell, reproduced in Pán protektorátu

And thus Frank had a fair trial and the Czechoslovak justice system could not be criticized by the international public. The only detail that spoiled the whole picture was the hangman, who after the execution took the noose with which Frank was hanged and drank it away in a bar. Other than that, the moral standards of the Czechoslovaks successfully passed the test.

Zuzanna Krzemien, Slavonic and East European Collections Cataloguer

References/further reading

Jakub Drápal, Defending Nazis in postwar Czechoslovakia : the life of K. Resler, defence counsel ex officio of K.H. Frank (Prague, 2018), awaiting shelfmark.

Emil Hruška, Pán protektorátu : K.H. Frank známý a neznámý (Praha, 2015), YF.2016.a.15829

Ladislav Tunys, Noc před popravou : K.H. Frank a jeho obhájce : archivy promluvily (Praha, 1995), YA.1999.a.737

28 September 2019

A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow, or a story of Imperial glory, radical ideas and rare books

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Banned Books Week (22–28 Sept 2019) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to the number of challenges to books in schools, bookshops and libraries. The theme for 2019 urges readers to ‘keep the light on’ to ensure censorship doesn’t leave us in the dark.

For over six months, from the beginning of January 1787, Empress of Russia Catherine the Great conducted an inspection of her newly-acquired lands in the south. The journey, known as the Taurida Voyage, was documented in an account kept by the Tsarina’s secretary Alexander Khrapovitskii (now digitised), but the itinerary with short descriptions of the places that she had intended to visit or pass by was published prior the trip.

Title page of Puteshestvie Ee Imperatorskogo Velishectva v poludennyi krai Rossii, predpriemlemoe v 1787 godu

Title page of Puteshestvie Ee Imperatorskogo Velishectva v poludennyi krai Rossii, predpriemlemoe v 1787 godu. (St. Petersburg, 1786) 1426.h.1

Map from Puteshestvie Ee Imperatorskogo Velishectva v poludennyi krai Rossii, predpriemlemoe v 1787 godu

Map from Puteshestvie Ee Imperatorskogo Velishectva v poludennyi krai Rossii, 

The purpose of the voyage was to celebrate the Empire, the Empress, and her victorious policies of expansion. Accounts of travels were a popular genre in 18th-century literature, but of course, Khrapovitskii’s ‘journal’ was also a distinguished piece of state propaganda.

We might speculate that the journal of Catherine’s travels ‘inspired’ Alexander Radishchev, a graduate of the University of Leipzig and therefore somewhat radical thinker, and a civil servant of the ninth rank (out of 14, first being the highest), to write his book A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow and publish it in 1790.

Title page of the facsimile edition of Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu

Title page of the facsimile edition of Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu (Moscow; Leningrad, 1935) 010291.f.36

The last pages of the facsimile edition of Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu

The last pages of the facsimile edition of Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu 

An account of a routine journey from the capital city to the second most important city in the country and its ex-capital does not sound like an exciting new adventure that could capture readers’ imagination. And indeed, it meant to do the complete opposite – to show the dire state of social conditions in Russia where serfdom was as routine as a trip from St Petersburg to Moscow. If Catherine’s trip was a symbol of glory and victory of the ruling classes, Radishchev’s book presented an account of the misery and defeat of the people of Russia.

Map of the journey from Moscow to St Petersburg

Map of the journey (Materialy k izucheniiu “Puteshestviia”)

As one can see, there is no author’s name on the title page. In addition, the statement that the work had received approval from a censor – a mandatory condition for any print publication at that time in the Russian Empire – is put on the last page. It becomes obvious that Radishchev is playing some kind of trick here. The version he deposited for censorship was much lighter on criticism of the state than the version he eventually printed. Having received approval for printing, he reinstated the pages that contained his most radical, critical views.

Radishchev made use of Catherine’s decree on free printing, which from 1783 allowed individuals to set up private printing presses, and had a printing press in his own house. Between January and May 1790, he, his subordinate from the civil service, and domestics (mainly his own serfs) managed to produce 650 copies of his book. The first 50 copies were sent to the bookseller Zotov, and 30 of them sold. Quite unfortunately, one copy landed on Catherine’s desk. The Empress was infuriated, as she interpreted Radishchev's calls for reform as the most dangerous radicalism, and therefore all the remaining copies were confiscated and destroyed. Zotov was arrested and revealed the author’s name while being interrogated. Subsequently, Radishchev was also arrested and condemned to death, though the sentence was later softened and he was exiled to Siberia.

Out of the 650 copies originally printed, only just over a dozen survived. For decades, this book became the rarest and most desirable for any Russian bibliophile. Alexander Pushkin paid 200 Rubles for his copy. In 1858, Alexander Herzen published the book in his Free Russian Press in London. However, the Russian edition of 1872 was again banned by the authorities.

Title page of Herzen’s edition

Title page of Herzen’s edition. 9455c.11

In 1888, Aleskei Suvorin, one of the most prominent publishers of that time, managed to get permission to reprint 100 copies of Radishchev’s book. He borrowed a copy of the 1790 edition from a Moscow bibliophile, Pavel Shchapov, but his careless employees damaged and then disposed of this rare copy. To replace it, Suvorin first quietly tried to obtain a copy from antiquarian booksellers for around 300 Rubles, but did not get very far. He then published an advert in the newspaper Russkie vedomosti (No. 56, 1888) where he offered 1,500 Rubles for a fine copy. Eventually, he managed to get a copy for two thirds of this price and Shchapov was satisfied, although he died shortly after having received a new copy of Radishchev’s journey back into his collection. His friends and relatives were sure that the stress of losing the rarity contributed significantly to his premature death.

Newspaper advert in Russkiie vedomosti

Newspaper advert in Russkie vedomosti (N 56, 1888)

Thus, ironically, this criticism of social injustice became one of the most expensive collectors’ items on the market. The British Library does not hold the 1790 edition of Radishchev’s book.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The Library will be holding a number of events to mark Banned Books Week, and for more related posts, see our English and Drama and Americas blogs

10 September 2019

A European Autumn at the British Library

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This autumn, as part of our ‘European Literature Focus’, the British Library will be hosting a number of events featuring writers and writing from across the continent. So we thought we’d give you a quick taster here to whet your appetites.

Cover of Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen

Lars Saabye Christensen, Echoes of the Citytranslated by Don Bartlett (London, 2019). Awaiting shelfmark. Norwegian edition: Byens spor - Ewald og Maj (Oslo, 2017), YF.2018.a.9337 

First up, on Monday 7 October, you can hear Norwegian Lars Saabye Christensen in conversation with Georgina Godwin. In a rare UK appearance, he will be talking about his latest novel to appear in English translation, Echoes of the City, which traces an Oslo community’s slow recovery from a period of crippling austerity after the Second World War. Christensen is one of Norway’s most popular and critically-acclaimed writers; he has been awarded the country’s top literary prizes and his breakthrough novel Beatles (1984), a coming-of-age story about four teenage Beatles fans in 1960s Oslo, remains a bestseller in Norway over 30 years after its publication.

Photograph of Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak © Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch

On Tuesday 8 October Rosie Goldsmith, director of the European Literature Network and a familiar and welcome face at British Library events on European literature, chairs ‘Future Library: Art, Ideas and Time’, a discussion with artist Katie Paterson, novelist Elif Shafak and philosopher Roman Krznaric about Paterson’s ‘Future Library’ project. This is a public artwork in Oslo, begun in 2014 and designed to unfold over a century. A forest has been planted just outside the city to supply paper for an anthology to be published in 2114. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unread and unpublished, until the anthology appears. Elif Shafak contributed a text in 2017; other contributors so far have included Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and the Icelandic author Sjón.

Cover of The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl (London, 2018). ELD.DS.290811

Fans of Dutch literature are in for a treat on Saturday 12 October, when Bart van Es, author of Costa Prize-winning The Cut Out Girl, joins bestselling novelist Herman Koch, rising literary stars Esther Gerritsen and Jeroen Olyslaegers, and historian Simon Schama at a special day of talks on new Dutch writing presented by the Dutch Foundation for Literature in association with Modern Culture. And if you’re not (yet) a fan of Dutch literature, a day exploring the complex history and current politics of the Netherlands, and the chance to discover the latest Dutch books in English translation will surely make you one!

Covers of recently published works by Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová

Recently published works by Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová

Two further events take the revolutionary changes in Europe in 1989 as a starting point. On Friday 25 October there is a rare chance to meet a new generation of Slovak authors at ‘Raising the Velvet Curtain’, part of a series of events under the same name presenting contemporary Slovak writers and artists to English audiences, organised with the support of Fond na podporu umenia (the Slovak Arts Council) and the Embassy of the Republic of Slovakia. Three leading contemporary writers – Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová – will present their recently published works (translated into English by Julia and Peter Sherwood) and discuss with host Lucy Popescu how Slovakia has changed over the past 30 years.

Photograph of Rosie Goldsmith next to the Berlin Wall

Rosie Goldsmith, November 1989, Berlin Wall

On Tuesday 26 November Rosie Goldsmith returns for ‘Riveting Germans: After the Wall’, chairing a discussion of German literature and its translation into English since 1989. Prize-winning authors Durs Grünbein, Julia Franck and Nino Haratischvili, and translators Charlotte Collins, Karen Leeder and Ruth Martin will consider what what has or hasn’t worked for UK readers of German literature, and what the the impact of the East-West divide has been on German authors. The event is organised in collaboration with the European Literature Network, the British Council, Goethe-Institut London, Frankfurt Book Fair and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany London, and marks the publication of a German-themed issue of The Riveter, the magazine founded by Rosie with the aim of making European literature popular and accessible across the UK.

Self portrait, Leonid Pasternak

Self portrait, Leonid Pasternak

Finally, on Thursday 29 November, Doctor Zhivago: A Pasternak Family Affair’ looks at a much-loved Russian classic in a new light. Translator Nicolas Pasternak Slater and picture editor Maya Slater present their recent work on a new translation of Doctor Zhivago illustrated with 70 pictures by Boris Pasternak’s father, the Impressionist painter Leonid Pasternak, and just published by the Folio Society. They will also reveal how members of the Pasternak family living in England experienced the writing and publication of the novel.

Booking is now open for all these events and you can find full details and purchase tickets via the links above. We hope you’ll be able to join us to celebrate and discover some of the literatures of Europe this autumn.

30 August 2019

Women in Translation Month: top picks from the European Studies team (Part 2)

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Collage of book covers featured in the blog post

In this two-part blog post, the European Studies team have selected books by women authors in translation from across the continent. Ranging from 20th-century classics to contemporary fiction, the majority of these works were also translated by women, and several have won or been shortlisted for literary and translation awards.

Cover of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017), ELD.DS.228759
Chosen by Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, is one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful Polish writers of her generation, particularly noted for the hallmark mythical tone of her writing. The Polish title Bieguni refers to runaways, a sect of Old Believers, who believe that being in constant motion is a trick to avoid evil. Flights is a fragmentary novel consisting of over 100 episodes, each exploring what it means to be a traveller through space as well as time. Set between the 17th and 21st centuries, the novel includes some fictional stories and some fact-based, narrated from a perspective of an anonymous female traveller. It was translated by Jennifer Croft, an American author and critic who works from Polish, Ukrainian and Spanish. She is a founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review.

Cover of The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff

Lina Wolff, The Polyglot Lovers, translated by Saskia Vogel (And other stories, 2019), ELD.DS.410017
Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Referred to as ‘feminism for the Fleabag generation’ (Spectator), Lina Wolff’s second novel takes down ‘myths of male authorship’ (FT) in this absurb book about love and loss. Both this and Wolff’s first novel, Brett Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, were awarded PEN Translates awards by English PEN, thanks to the translations of Saskia Vogel, prolific translator of Swedish fiction, who recently wrote about how she has mainly translated women authors, who ‘question the shape of society and the assumptions we make, with a particular interest in sex and gender, language, economics, and power.’

Covers of Parts I and II of The time is out of joint: Shakespeare as philosopher of history by Ágnes Heller, featuring an owl

Ágnes Heller, The time is out of joint: Shakespeare as philosopher of history (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), translated by Magda Módos (Osiris, 2000), YC.2003.a.4129 (English) YF.2010.a.20242 (Hungarian)
Chosen by Andrea Déri, Cataloguer

‘The time is a sphinx in Shakespeare’s plays, but a sphinx whose secret will never be known, whose riddle will never be solved.’ ‘[…] for the secret of time is the meaning of life. A life has no meaning except for the question concerning meaning itself.’

Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller (1929–2019) interrogates time and temporality in Shakespeare’s plays in this book and engages her readers in doing the same in their life as well; challenges foreshadowed by Hamlet’s words in the title. An obituary in the Financial Times described Heller as ‘one of the most respected European philosophers of her generation’, ‘a life-long fighter for freedom’. Magda Módos, known for her interest in philosophy, translated the book from the English original into Hungarian.

Cover of Bad Roads by Natal'ya Vorozhbit

Natal'ia Vorozhbit, Bad Roads, translated by Sasha Dugdale (Nick Hern Books, 2017), ELD.DS.228387
Chosen by Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

First performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London in 2017, Natal'ia Vorozhbit’s powerful and sometimes bitterly comic play focuses on the impact of the conflicts in Ukraine on women from different generations and backgrounds. A leading contemporary Ukrainian playwright, Vorozhbit is the co-founder of the Theatre of the Displaced in Kyiv and curator of the Class Act project in Ukraine. Bad Roads was translated from the Russian by the prolific poet, translator and editor Sasha Dugdale, who reflected on her experience of translating the play and its harrowing subject matter in an article for the Guardian.

Cover of Bitter Herbs by Marga Minco, featuring a drawing of a woman

Marga Minco, Bitter Herbs, translated by Roy Edwards (Oxford University Press, 1960)
Chosen by Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

This autobiographical novella or chronicle about a Dutch Jewish family during the Second World War was published as Minco’s debut in 1957. Bitter Herbs was given a literary award in 1958 and has been translated into several languages. Minco became the Dutch voice in European war literature. The book’s sober, clear, direct style belies its deeper meanings. Minco’s themes are loss, loneliness, fear, guilt, and a longing for security. She and her uncle were the only members of her family to survive the war. Minco received the highest Dutch literary award, the PC Hooftprijs, for her complete oeuvre in 2019, at the age of 98.

Cover of The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern, featuring a figure sitting on a bench
 

Hélène Gestern, The People in the Photo, translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz (Gallic Book 2014), Nov.2018/1771
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

Hélène Gestern (born 1971) is a French writer and academic. One of her favourite themes is photography, and the power it exercises over memory. In The People in the Photo, Hélène is an archivist living in Paris. Her mother died when she was a baby, so she posts a newspaper ad requesting information about a mysterious photograph of her mother alongside two unknown men. This provokes a response from Stéphane, a Swiss scientist living in Ashford, who recognises his father. The People in the Photo revolves around the exchange of letters, emails and text messages between the two, and explores themes of memory, loss and the power of photography and images as the pair shares discoveries and speculate about their parents’ secrets. Published in 2011, the original French Eux sur la photo received the “Prix Coup de cœur des lycéens” de la Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco and the Prix René Fallet in 2012.

27 August 2019

Women in Translation Month: top picks from the European Studies team (Part 1)

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Collage of book covers featured in the blog post

Founded in August 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski, Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) aims to celebrate and promote women writers in translation, as well as their translators and publishers. So why do we need WITMonth? As the organisers of the upcoming ‘Translating Women’ conference in London highlight, ‘translated literature notoriously accounts for only 3.5% of published literature in the English-language book market, and less than one-third of this is women-authored.’

In addition to WITMonth, initiatives such as the Translating Women project and associated conferences and events all help to redress the gender imbalance in the publishing industry. And there does appear to have been a shift in recent years, with the 2019 Man Booker International Prize shortlist featuring five women authors and six women translators.

In this two-part blog post, the European Studies team have selected books by women authors in translation from across the continent. Ranging from 20th-century classics to contemporary fiction, the majority of these works were also translated by women, and several have won or been shortlisted for literary and translation awards.

 

Cover of The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza

Goliarda Sapienza, The Art of Joy, translated by Anne Milano Appel (Penguin Books, 2013), Nov.2015/2304
Chosen by Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

Written between 1966 and 1976, rejected by many publishers and issued posthumously in Italian, The Art of Joy only sparked interest after its French and English (by award-winning translator Anne Milano Appel) translations appeared, in 2008 and 2013. The Art of Joy is, above all, a novel of instruction and liberation, feminist, socialist, anti-Fascist. Goliarda Sapienza, its provocative and nonconformist Sicilian author, has just recently been rediscovered, being the subject of an international conference organised by UCL in 2013.

Cover of The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann

Marion Poschmann, The Pine Islands, translated by Jen Calleja (Serpent’s Tail, 2019), awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019, The Pine Islands follows a lecturer with a specialism in beards, as he decides to take off to Japan on a Bashō-inspired journey to the pine islands of Matsushima. It is a poetic exploration of nature and man, and of the potential for resisting conventional existence. This light but profound text is seamlessly reflected in the translation of Jen Calleja, the British Library’s first Translator-in-Residence and writer of fiction and poetry.

Cover of Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes by Guzel Yakhina,

Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, translated by Lisa C. Hayden (Oneworld Publications, 2019), awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Russian author and filmmaker Guzel Yakhina’s debut novel explores one of the most tragic periods in Russian and Soviet history – the large-scale repression of wealthier peasants, kulaks, who were stripped of their property and forcefully relocated to distant and uninhabited parts of the Soviet Union together with other groups of citizens, such as intellectuals, ethnic groups and peoples and ‘enemies of the state’. At the same time, this is a very personal story that relates to the experience of the author’s grandmother – a Muslim Tatar woman in the 1930s Soviet Union. This multi-award winning book is beautifully translated by Lisa Hayden, who described the process as an ‘enjoyable challenge’ due to the novel’s vivid characters and rich cultural and historical elements.

Cover of Sphinx by Anne Garreta

Anne Garréta, Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan, (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2015), YA.1987.a.16171 (French), English translation awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

Born in 1962 in Paris, Anne Garréta currently teaches at Duke University as a Research Professor of Literature and Romance Studies. In 2000, she joined Oulipo (short for French: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or workshop of potential literature), a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques. Garréta’s first novel, Sphinx (Grasset, 1986) is a work of literary ingenuity: a love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and A***, written without any gender markers referring to the main characters, all the more difficult with the strict gender requirements of the French language. Sphinx is the first novel by a woman member of Oulipo to be translated into English. Emma Ramadan’s translation was nominated for the 2016 PEN Translation Prize and the Best Translated Book Award.

Cover of Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

Nora Ikstena, Soviet Milk, translated by Margita Gailitis (Peirene Press, 2018), ELD.DS.269711
Chosen by Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections

Nora Ikstena’s bestselling and widely translated novel is set in Soviet Latvia and tells a story of three generations of women. The mother, a doctor, is banished for political reasons to rural Latvia and takes her daughter with her. Uprooted and separated from her loving grandparents, in a reversal of roles, the daughter cares for her psychologically damaged and suicidal mother. This novel by one of the most prominent and influential prose writers in Latvia not only explores the mother-daughter relationship (under-represented in literature, according to Ikstena) but also gives a powerful voice to women living under - and coping with - an oppressive regime. It is seamlessly translated from Latvian by translator and poet Margita Gailitis.

Cover of Nada by Carmen Laforet, featuring a woman walking down an alleyway

Carmen Laforet, Nada, translated by Edith Grossman (Harvill Secker, 2007), Nov.2007/1429
Chosen by Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies

Published in 1945, Carmen Laforet’s first novel tells how 18-year old Andrea comes to Barcelona to live with her grandmother’s family while studying at university. The Spanish Civil War has greatly impoverished her relatives and created a nightmarish household of conflict, domestic abuse and religious bigotry. This world contrasts with the better-off milieu of her university friend, Ena, who also becomes embroiled in the family’s personal hell. The novel was translated into English in 2007 by Edith Grossman, whose credits already included works by Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

20 August 2019

Learning to read Cyrillic from 13th century Novgorod to the USSR

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We do not know much about how children learned to read and write Slavonic languages in Cyrillic script in the 11th-15th centuries. The most popular teaching method was learning Psalms and copying manuscripts. Near the Russian city of Novgorod, among birch bark manuscripts, archaeologists found a tablet with a wax surface for writing on the right and the Cyrillic alphabet carved on the left.

Novgorod tablet, 13th - early 14th century

Novgorod tablet, 13th - early 14th century. Reproduced in A.F Medvedev, Drevnerusskie pisala X-XV vv., in Sovetskaia arkheologiia, 1960, issue 2

It definitely looks like a school exercise book, but who keeps their jotters? Children learning to read Cyrillic did not, and nor did they even care much about their textbooks, passing them from one to another until the books disintegrated. That is why only two copies of the first Eastern Slavonic printed primer, published in Lviv by Ivan Fedorov in 1574, are known. The copy held at the British Library has been digitised and is freely available. 

The first page of the 1574 Azbuka

The first page of Ivan Fedorov’s primer (Lviv, 1574). C.104.dd.11(1)

It starts with listing Cyrillic letters three times: in the direct and reverse order, and in columns rather than lines. Then the book suggests that learners could put together consonants and vowels. As Russian is primarily a phonetic language, where written symbols directly correspond to spoken sounds, it is quite an easy exercise. Try it yourself: M+A=MA, B+A=BA, etc. Elementary grammar and texts for reading were also included.

Such books were called Azbuka, for the first two letters of the Cyrillic alphabet: A – was called Az and B – Buki. Another name for them was Bukvar’, from the word ‘bukva’ – letter. Soon, educators started separating such alphabet books from more advanced grammars. Also, the power of images in teaching and learning was recognised and more educators started to include pictures in their textbooks.

The most remarkable example of an illustrated primer was created by Karion Istomin, one of the first Muscovite enlighteners, who was editor of the Moscow Printing House, court poet and tutor to the royal children. The book was published in Moscow in 1694, but previously two manuscript copies had been presented to the royals for Peter the Great’s son and two young nieces.

The book opens with a short introduction illustrated by an engraving showing Christ teaching schoolchildren. Each page is devoted to one letter, which is drawn symbolically as a picture, and then in various other ways – print and shorthand. Istomin also wrote short poems that would help learners remember the letter, and included images of objects and animals whose names started with that letter. The book was too complex to be printed with moveable type and therefore was engraved by Leontii Bunin. He seems to have worked on it for about two years, between 1692 and 1694.

First page of Karion Istomin's Bukvar

Letter A from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter A.

Letter Zh from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter Zh.

Letter O from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter O.

Letter S from Karion Istomin's Bukvar. Includes drawings of animals and objects beginning with the letter S.

First page, letter A, Zh, O, S. Images from the facsimile edition: Bukvar’ sostavlen Kariononm Istominym; gravirovan Leontiem Buinym; otpechatan v 1694 godu v Moskve. Leningrad: Avrora, 1981. X.955/980.

Although most scholars agree that so many variations in the letter shapes could confuse rather than help learners, this primer set up a tradition of illustrated textbooks for learners.

By the beginning of the 19th century, textbooks and learning materials were in demand by a network of various educational establishments and private tutors. Not only royal children could get books with pictures (although of course not so lavishly printed!). An Azbuka published in 1818 for public schools, was called Dragotsennyi podarok detiam (‘A Precious Present for Children’). It also introduced the alphabet in various types and shorthand, illustrating it with pictures, elementary reading exercises and texts for further reading, such as moral instructions and prayers.

As part of our Google Books project the British Library’s copy of the fourth edition of Dragotsennyi podarok detiam published without changes from the 1818 edition was digitised

Title-page of 1830 Azbuka

Title-page of the fourth edition of Dragotsennyi podarok detiam, ili novaia i polnaia rossiiskaia azbuka (Moscow, 1830) RB.23.a.23374

The cheap popular editions that mushroomed at the end of the 19th century could not afford many pictures, but at least tried to include some under colourful and attractive paper covers.

Collage of late 19th century Azbuka covers

Collage of late 19th century Azbuka covers

Most of the reading materials were still prayers, adaptations from the Gospels, and some simple statements and proverbs. Leo Tolstoy, who established a school for village children, was also concerned with education. He wrote his own Azbuka, where he aimed to offer exercises suitable for any learning method, including the ‘word method’ (reading not syllable by syllable, but memorising whole words), which, as he wrote in the introduction, was popular in England and America. It is interesting to note that Tolstoy thought pictures to be a luxury feature that could only distract pupils.

Cover of L. Tolstoy's Novaia Azbuka

L. Tolstoy. Novaia Azbuka . 25th edition (Moscow, 1908) 12975.m.33

In the new Soviet state this idea of Tolstoy’s was definitely not accepted. Primers illustrated with new communist propaganda became quite popular and were issued for adult learners. In 1921 Dmitrii Moor illustrated an Alphabet for a Red Army Soldier where he applied the same principle as in standard textbooks – introducing letters with a two-line verse and a picture. For example, letter ‘B’ showed a miserable bourgeois, begging for mercy.

Letter B from Dmitrii Moor's Red Army Alphabet. The illustration shows a worker, a peasant and a Red Army soldier standing over a 'bourgeois capitalist'.

Dmitrii Moor, Azbuka krasnoarmeitsa, (Moscow, 1921) Cup.401.g.25.

The campaign “Down with illiteracy!”, which started almost immediately after the October revolution in 1917, also required new textbooks, where learners’ first texts would be citations from Lenin and Trotsky instead of prayers.

Cover of a textbook for adults with an image of adults learning

Doloi negramotnost’. Bukvar’ dlia vzroslykh, (Moscow, 1920). 12975.n.15.

The Soviet primary school textbook had Lenin and a map of the USSR as the first pictures that children would see when they started learning to read and write. This is what the last Soviet edition of primer looked like; it was reproduced in more or less the same way for decades, so I also recognise the cover as my first schoolbook.

Last Soviet bukvar' with an image of Lenin and map of the USSR

Bukvar’. 9th edition (Moscow, 1989). YA.1996.a.6783.

Meanwhile, Russian-speaking children abroad also needed primers. Their parents, who had fled the Soviet regime, wanted them to keep their heritage language. It is interesting to see how old fashioned the YMCA-Press edition of 1957 looks. Children born in the early 1950s were introduced to reading through pictures of a 10 kopeks coin of 1911, a samovar, a horse-drawn carriage, and birch-bark shoes. As well as modern Russian, émigré children were also supposed to learn Church Slavonic so that they could read Christian Orthodox books.

Double-page spread from the 1957 reading book for Russian émigré children

V.P.Vakhterov. Russkii Bukvar’ dlia obucheniia pis’mu I chteniiu russkomu i tserkovno-slavianskomu. (Paris, 1957). 12993.w.1

To learn more about reading and writing in various countries, languages, alphabets, and societies, visit our exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark which is still open until 27th August.

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

References/further reading:

Christine Thomas, ‘The East Slavonic Primers: Lvov, 1574 and Moscow 1637,’ The British Library Journal, 10 (1984), 32-47.

E. Rogatchevskaia, ‘“A Beautiful, Tremendous Russian Book, and Other Things Too”: An Overview of Rare Russian Books from the Diaghilev-Lifar Collection in the British Library’, Canadian-American Slavic Studies, Volume 51 (2017) Issue 2-3, 376-397.

Ivan the Terrible, primers, ballet and the joys of curatorship

06 August 2019

The three lives of the Georgian alphabet

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The Georgian alphabet is very old and is used only by the Georgian language. Its origins lie hidden in the depths of the past and are the subject of several theories.

According to the Georgian chronicles, King Parnavaz I was recognised as the creator of the Georgian alphabet. Among scholars, some suggest that the Georgian alphabet derived from Phoenician, while others propose Semitic and Aramaic origins. However, the majority of researchers consider that the Greek alphabet served as the basis for the Georgian one. In strictly structural terms, Georgian alphabetical order largely corresponds to the Greek alphabet with the exception of letters representing uniquely Georgian sounds, which are grouped at the end.

The oldest Georgian inscriptions date back to the fifth century AD. However, it is unlikely that the Georgian alphabet first appeared then as the written culture was by then long established and highly developed. According to the Georgian historian Ivane Javakhishvili, the Georgian writing system had been in use since the 7th century BC.

Inscription from Bolnisi Sioni Cathedral, dated to 494 AD

Inscription from Bolnisi Sioni Cathedral, dated to 494 AD, Simon Janashia Museum of Georgia (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The evolution of Georgia’s written language has produced three scripts: Asomtavruli (5th-9th centuries), Nuskhuri (9th-11th centuries) and Mkhedruli (11th century onwards). The appearance of the letters at each stage is very different. Despite their obvious visual differences, all three scripts are closely interrelated and show a gradual evolution. Their letters share the same names and alphabetical order and are written horizontally from left to right. Originally consisting of 38 letters, Georgian today is written using a 33-letter alphabet, as five letters were dropped as a result of reforms proposed by Ilia Chavchavadze in the 1860s. All three Georgian writing systems are phonemic; every sound is represented by its corresponding letter and almost every written letter is pronounced in speech.

The three Georgian scripts

The three Georgian scripts: Asomtavruli, Nuskhuri, and Mkhedruli (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Asomtavruli (‘capital letters’) is a monumental script, and represents the oldest form of the Georgian alphabet. It is also known as Mrgvlovani (‘rounded’). The geometry of the Asomtavruli script is simple and plain. The first examples date back to the 5th century. From the 9th century, Asomtavruli was mainly employed for capital letters in religious manuscripts. Despite its name, this script is unicameral, i.e. it does not distinguish between upper and lower case, like the two later scripts, Nuskhuri and Mkhedruli.

Letter მ (M) in Asomtavruli script, 12th century New Testament MS

Letter მ (M) in Asomtavruli script, 12th century New Testament MS (Gelati Gospel) (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Book of prayers, 17th century (Sloane MS 1338). The manuscript is written in Nuskhuri, with Asomtavruli letter ‘M’ as a capital

Book of prayers, 17th century (Sloane MS 1338). The manuscript is written in Nuskhuri, with Asomtavruli letter ‘M’ as a capital

The second Georgian writing system, which derived from Asomtavruli, was Nuskhuri (‘minuscule’). Nuskhuri was soon combined with Asomtavruli illuminated capitals in religious manuscripts. The combination was called Khutsuri (‘clerical’) and was largely used in religious writings.

Lives of Holy Fathers, 11th century (Add. MS 11281). The manuscript is written in Khutsuri

Lives of Holy Fathers, 11th century (Add. MS 11281). The manuscript is written in Khutsuri

From the 10th century, Nuskhuri was employed in many texts. Nuskhuri developed as a written style because of the need to write faster and the increased demand for books. Nuskhuri letters have an angular shape, vary in height and slant to the right. They could be written without lifting the writing tool from the page. The oldest known inscription in Nuskhuri is the collection of sermons known as Sinuri mravaltvavi (‘Sinai Homiliary’) dated 864 AD.

These two scripts were followed by Mkhedruli, the modern Georgian script. It first appeared in the 10th century. The name Mkhedruli comes from the word mkhedari which means ‘knightly’. Mkhedruli can be seen as the product of the complex development of previous writing systems. It maintained the rounded design of Asomtavruli and, like Nuskhuri, facilitated faster writing. Letters, as in Nuskhuri script, can also be joined up. Due to its style and flexibility, it is also used for headlines and titles.

Mkhedruli has changed very little since its arrival in the 10th century and has become the standard script of modern Georgian and related Kartvelian languages. Mkhedruli first appeared in print in two books published in Rome in 1629.

Title page and opening of Sefano Paolini’s Dittionario giorgiano e italiano

Title page and opening of Sefano Paolini’s Dittionario giorgiano e italiano (Rome, 1629) 622.e.34.(2.)

The three writing systems co-existed for several centuries and all remain in use today. They were originally used for both religious and secular literature. Gradually, however, Mkhedruli came to be used only for state and secular purposes while Nuskhuri and Asomtavruli were limited to ecclesiastical use.

Georgian scripts were granted the national status of intangible cultural heritage in Georgia in 2015 and inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016. The decision recognised the value of the three writing systems that live together in harmony and mark out the Georgian language.

Anna Chelidze, Curator, Georgian Collections

Further reading

Tʿamaz Gamqreliże, Alphabetic writing and the Old Georgian script: a typology and provenience of alphabetic writing systems (Delmar, N.Y., 1994). ORW.1995.a.283

Michael Kurdiani, Georgian language and script (Tbilisi, 2008). YD.2011.a.5239

Elene Mačavariani, The Old Georgian Script (Tbilisi, 2015). YD.2016.a.2180

Georgian scripts & typography (Tbilisi, 2016). YF.2019.b.1408

The British Library Exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark continues until 27 August 2019. 

01 August 2019

Pérák, the only Czech superhero

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During the Second World War, a strange rumour spread among the residents of Prague. A mysterious masked character dressed in black was said to be seen jumping at great heights over the rooftops and streets of the occupied city. He would suddenly leap out of a dark corner to attack Czech collaborators, or to save Czech civilians from the hands of the Gestapo.

An image of Pérák. He has springs on his feat and is holding a gun. In his other hand is a torn Nazi flag.

Jiří Gruss, Projekt Pérák (2003) reproduced in Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi. Městská legenda mezi folklorem a populární kulturou (Prague, 2017), awaiting shelfmark.

According to the urban legend, Pérák, the Spring Man (from Czech péro, 'spring'), was an inventor turned superhero. Thanks to springs attached to his shoes, he was able to startle and escape Nazi soldiers who tried in vain to capture him. That’s how popular belief has it. However, in his Mýtus o pérákovi. Městská legenda mezi folklorem a populární kulturou, Petr Janeček shows that, in fact, the myth of the Spring Man did not start with the Second World War, but that for a century before it had been part of Czech and international folklore, and its origins could be traced back to Spring-heeled Jack, a spectre popular in Victorian England, who was believed to torment the inhabitants of London, Sheffield, and Liverpool. He had claws and red eyes and, just like Pérák, he was able to make enormous leaps.

Cover of Spring-heel'd Jack: the Terror of London. The image shows Jack jumping from a window with a woman in his arms.

Cover of Spring-heel'd Jack: the Terror of London. Issue 1 (London, 1867) 12620.h.26

In fact, the early oral tradition also presented the Spring Man as a sinister figure who posed a threat to common Czech people, as he would murder or rape defenceless civilians. As a result, many Czechs refused to work night shifts, which had a detrimental effect on the production of weapons in Nazi factories. During the peak of the Pérák myth, almost every incident would be attributed to the Spring Man. Gradually, Pérák evolved from a terrifying phantom into a positive hero who fought the Nazi army by blowing up military vehicles and who would defend the innocent residents of Prague, as well as writing anti-Nazi graffiti on walls to raise the morale of Czech civilians. And that’s how he became the only superhero in Czech history.

Cover of Petr Stančík’s Pérák. Pérák is crouching in the top left-hand corner of the cover.

Cover of Petr Stančík’s Pérák (Brno, 2008), YF.2008.a.33809

Being a symbol of Czech resistance against Nazi Germany, Pérák was an important part of Czech wartime culture. While he was almost certainly an imaginary character rather than a real person, he provided Czech civilians with hope and a feeling that someone out there was protecting them against the Nazi occupiers. Although his activity ceased completely with the end of the war, the career of Pérák as an urban legend was not over, and since then he has evolved from a hero of gossip stories into part of Czech popular culture, including cartoon animations, comic books and novels.

Cover of magazine Pionýr. Cover of magazine Pionýr is depicted here as a boy with springs on his feat jumping through the night sky.

Cover of magazine Pionýr (May 1980) reproduced in Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi

Being a symbol of resistance against the oppressor, the character of the Spring Man has been adopted by various political movements, including Czech nationalists, anti-globalists and anti-fascists - and in this way, the same spectre turned superhero has fought different enemies for the past eighty years.

An antifascist sticker with Pérák reproduced in Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi

An antifascist sticker with Pérák reproduced in Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi

Zuzanna Krzemien, SEE Cataloguer

References/Further reading

Petr Janeček, Mýtus o pérákovi. Městská legenda mezi folklorem a populární kulturou (Prague, 2017). Awaiting shelfmark.

Petr Stančík, Pérák (Brno 2008). YF.2008.a.33809

 

30 July 2019

When moderation went out of the window: the First Defenestration of Prague

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Last year saw commemorations of the turbulent events of 1618, when the abrupt ejection of the Imperial councillors Martinitz and Slawata and their secretary from the windows of Prague Castle led to the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. However, in Britain it is not so widely known that this was not the first incident of this kind, although the First Defenestration of Prague had much closer links with England. Despite the fact that Elizabeth, the ‘Winter Queen’ of Bohemia, and her husband Frederick, the former Elector Palatine, were his own daughter and son-in-law, the timorous James I of England refrained from sending help when they and their growing family were driven out of Prague following the 1618 Defenestration. Afraid of jeopardizing relations with both Catholic and Protestant powers in Europe, he remained aloof, and the only Englishmen to become directly involved in the conflict were those who enlisted on either side as mercenaries.

Just under two centuries before, though, the equally fateful occurrences of 30 July 1419 stemmed directly from an English source which decisively influenced Bohemian politics. On the death of the King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1378, his territories were divided between his sons. The new king, Václav IV, had to cope not only with the rivalry of his younger brothers Jošt, Margrave of Moravia, and Zikmund, who would succeed him, but with discontent among the nobility and increasing urban poverty and social unrest. This led to the eruption of civil strife in which minor nobility and Hussite preachers, intent on reform, opposed Zikmund and his Catholic supporters. As Prague’s status as a centre of culture and learning declined, the city’s German students decamped in 1409 to found a new university at Leipzig as Zikmund and the Council of Constance urged the young king to extirpate heretical elements within Prague’s university and churches.

Portrait of Jan Hus
Portrait of Jan Hus from Johann Agricola of Eisleben, Tragedia Johannis Huss ([Wittemberg], [1550?]) 11748.aa.1.

The followers of Jan Hus were notable for demanding that Holy Communion should be administered to the congregation sub utraque specie – allowing both people and clergy to partake of the chalice as well as consecrated bread. In other respects, too, they swerved dangerously from Catholic doctrine, not least in their zeal to make the Holy Scriptures available in the vernacular so that the laity could read them. Here they were drawing on the ideas of the English theologian John Wycliffe who attacked the Papacy, monastic orders and transubstantiation, and inspired the translation of the Bible into English. He shared a patron, John of Gaunt, with Chaucer at the time when Charles IV’s daughter Anne of Bohemia was queen of England, having married Richard II in 1381. Bohemian scholars who sympathized with Wycliffe and his Lollard followers came to Oxford, where Wycliffe had been a doctor of divinity, to copy his texts and take them back to Bohemia.

It was not only male academics who seized eagerly on these writings. An anonymous poem entitled Viklefice (‘The Wycliffite Woman’), dating from the early 15th century, describes in satirical tones how a female follower of Wycliffe lures an innocent young squire to her home as night approaches, ostensibly to teach him the true faith, but in fact plotting to seduce him. Despite its misogynistic character, the poem indicates a genuine sense of alarm about the capacity of women to read and interpret the Bible without the intervention of the clergy – not least because certain Lollards had already suggested that women too might become priests.

The execution of Jan Hus in Constance following a show trial in 1415 unleashed a revolt which the troops of the Emperor Zikmund failed to suppress, leading to the establishment of an independent Hussite church in the centre of Catholic Europe. In a desperate attempt at appeasement, Václav handed over St. Stephen’s Church, an important centre of the Hussite movement, to the Catholics.

Cover of Miloš Václav Kratochvíl, Jan Želivský

Cover of Miloš Václav Kratochvíl, Jan Želivský (Prague, 1953: 10798.e.13), part of a series of books devoted to ‘heroes of wars and revolution’

Churches were scrubbed, choirboys made to repent if they had served the Hussites, and dying Hussites were deprived of extreme unction unless they recanted. In retaliation a mob headed by the radical preacher Jan Želivský burst into the New Town Hall on 30 July 1419. They had just heard Želivský preach a rousing sermon on a text from the Book of Revelation demanding the punishment of the unjust. Raising the monstrance containing the Host high in his hands, he led the procession along what is now Wenceslas Square to rout the Catholic priest celebrating mass in St. Stephen’s. After a brief service of their own, they called for the release of prisoners arrested during the recent street fighting. One report claims that while they were parleying with the councillors, the latter threw stones, one of which hit Želivský’s monstrance. Among those present in the crowd was Jan Žižka, who would later command the Hussite army. The furious attackers stormed the tower and hurled seven members of the town council, including the burgomaster and the judge, to their deaths. A force of 300 cavalry despatched from Hradčany retreated, outnumbered by the Hussites, who rapidly elected four magistrates and invested them with the insignia taken from the bodies of the councillors.

Illustration of the First Defenestration of Prague

The First Defenestration of Prague as depicted by Hugo Schüllinger. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The king’s immediate reaction was to threaten to kill all the Hussites, despite his councillors’ urging him to forgive them. However, just over two weeks later he suffered symptoms suggesting a stroke or heart attack, and died on 16 August. The next day mobs were roaming the streets, breaking into churches and monasteries and destroying their treasure before burning down the brothels in the Jewish quarter. As violence escalated during the autumn, much of Malá Strana was destroyed in a battle between royalists and radicals on 4-6 November 1419.

Illustration showing Jan Žizka at the head of the Hussite army. He is riding a horse.

Jan Žizka at the head of the Hussite army, from the Jenský codex (late 15th century) in the National Library, Prague (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The Hussite Wars raged until 1436. By this time the Hussites had split into the Utraquists and the more puritanical Táborites, while much of Bohemia had been ravaged in a way presaging the devastation of the Thirty Years War. Although on a lesser scale, these events left permanent scars on the country and eerily foreshadowed those which followed almost two centuries later.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services