THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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23 January 2017

Scratching the Surface: the Runic Imaginary

A picture is worth a thousand words but a word, too, might conjure up a thousand images. One-to-one correspondences between words and objects are exceedingly rare, if not non-existent. Beyond that, however, the power of alphabets, syllabaries and ideographs is well-documented; such was the motivation for orthographic reform during the 20th century from Norway to North Korea. The Latin alphabet can provide a sense of false familiarity, making it seem as if Somali is easier for an English learner to pick up than would be Persian, despite the fact that the latter shares far more structural similarities to English than the former. However, it is not just Latin characters that are imbued with a magical power to draw close and imbue a sense of solidarity. The systems colloquially referred to as runes, too, have often been instrumentalised with much the same goal in mind.

Technically, the word rune is applied exclusively to the writing systems of Germanic languages prior to the adoption of the Latin alphabet. There are various different versions of Germanic runes. While there are various different types of runes, all are derived from the Old Italic scripts. They were largely replaced by the Latin alphabet after Christianisation in 700CE, but their usage persisted in highly specialised contexts until the 19th century. The study of runes, known as runology, began in Scandinavia as early as the 16th century, albeit more within the realm of theology, the occult and mysticism than what we would conceive of as linguistics. The study took a more scientific turn throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as a number of collection items at the British Library demonstrate. These include Johan Göransson’s Bautil (143.g.19) or his Is Atlinga (4408.g.6) which seek to locate runes within the history of writing systems, including the Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets.

As with so many other terms, runes have undergone a popular semantic widening. The word is also applied to other writing systems that bear a visual similarity to Germanic runes. One such system is Old Turkic writing, employed by communities in Siberia and eastern Eurasia in the first millennium CE. Also known as the Orkhon Script (after the Orkhon Valley  where Old Turkic stelae were found near the Yenisei River by Nikolai Yadrintsev in 1889), it has been claimed to be a descendent of Aramaic, Tamgas and Chinese ideographs. The oldest inscriptions in old Turkic script date from the 8th century CE. It was later used by Uighur scribes, prior to its replacement by the Old Uighur script (which is directly related to Sogdian and Aramaic).

OIF909049 Runic Turkic Alphabet

Runic Turkic alphabet from Hüseyin Namık Orkun, Eski Türk Yazıtları (Ankara, 1986) OIF 909.049

Old Turkic is unique for the manner in which some letters have various sounds, determined according to the rule of vowel harmony, a feature of Turkic, Mongolic and Finno-Ugric languages. In Turkey, the old Turkic alphabet found particular resonance with secularist nationalists interested in emphasizing the pre-Islamic culture of the Turks. Examples abound from the writer Hüseyin Namık Orkun, who wrote a number of nationalist-tinted histories of the Turks. His Eski Türk Yazıtları  provides extensive information on the origin and study of the inscriptions, as well as their transcription and contents. Not only does he call the alphabet in which these texts are written the Rünik Türk Alfabesi, the “Runic Turkish Alphabet”, but he also connected these to the “Pecheneg” inscriptions of Nagy Szent Miklos, establishing a pre-historic link between the Hungarians and the Turks.


OIF909049 Runic Kül Tegin Transcription

Runic Kül Tegin transcription from Eski Türk Yazıtları

Indeed, Hungarian studies of runes have proven to be the most durable and profitable. Commonly referred to as rovásírás in Hungarian, they are occasionally linked to the Szekler  communities in Transylvania, an ethnic sub-group of Hungarians. In recent years, rovásírás has experienced a resurgence, both popular and scholarly. On the one hand, academics have taken a new interest in the old Hungarian script, occasionally called runes as well. It is sometimes linked to the late Khazars, a Caucasian Turkic group of the 8th to 11th centuries, as explored in Gábor Hosszú’s Heritage of Scribes: The Relation of Rovas Scripts to Eurasian Writing Systems (Budapest, 2012; YD.2015.a.2560).

YF2016a4452 Cover Page
A Hungarian New Testament printed in runic script (Szolnok, 2012) YF.2016.a.4452

The old Hungarian script has also captured the imagination of many Hungarian nationalists, and has given rise to new publishing and typography ventures, such as the New Testament pictured above or of Géza Gárdonyi’s Egri Csillágok (Szolnok, 2011; YF.2015.a.25655), pictured below, a fictional account of Hungarian resistance to Ottoman rule.

YF2015a25655 Cover Page                     

The term rune has proven to be highly versatile in both popular and scholarly imaginations. From the study of northern Europe’s intellectual history, the term has been adopted and adapted to a myriad of other contexts and needs. Today, it fills a political as well as academic role, adding yet another building block to the construction of a Eurasian identity that refocuses the mythical origins of various modern nations in the heart of the Eurasian landmass.

Wreath

Above: A wreath at Szeged University in the colours of the Hungarian flag with a banner in rovásírás; below: A handmade sign above an entrance in Miskolc, Hungary, with an inscription against the Treaty of Trianon (1919) in Hungarian in both Latin characters and rovásírás (Photos by Michael Erdman). 

Runic sign

Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections

19 January 2017

The art of ruining a friendship: Zola, Cézanne and L’Œuvre

Once again Christmas is over, and many of us will have been fortunate enough to receive a book among our presents. Some may be a delight, others a disappointment, as in the case of the gift which Stephen Leacock’s young Hoodoo McFiggin found in his Christmas stocking:

‘It’s a book,’ he said, as he unwrapped it. ‘I wonder if it is fairy stories or adventures. Oh, I hope it’s adventures! I’ll read it all morning.' No, Hoodoo, it was not precisely adventures. It was a small family Bible. […] After that he took his book and read some adventures called ‘Genesis’ till breakfast-time. (Literary Lapses: Montreal, 1910; British Library 012331.e.44)

Unlike Hoodoo, most of us have the option of returning and exchanging a book which might not have been quite what we had hoped for. Although this may require tact, it is rare for an unwelcome gift to produce such drastic consequences as the one which Paul Cézanne received from his friend Émile Zola in 1886.

As part of his Rougon-Macquart cycle, a series of twenty novels chronicling the ‘natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire’, Zola had begun work earlier that year on a story entitled L’Œuvre (translated into English as His Masterpiece: London, 1902; 1094.k.8). Although he was initially inspired by Balzac’s cycle La Comédie humaine, Zola planned not merely to depict contemporary society but the workings of environment and heredity among the many members of a single family.

Zola Oeuvre 12517.e.33
Émile Zola, L’Œuvre (Paris, 1886) 12517.e.33.

In earlier books Zola had portrayed life in Paris and the provinces and the fortunes of market traders, miners, prostitutes, absinthe addicts and the staff of a department store. Here, though, he turned his attention to the world of art, with which he was well acquainted through his friendship with Cézanne. The two had known each other since their boyhood in Aix-en-Provence, the model for Zola’s Plassans, home to Adélaïde Fouque, founder of the three branches of the Rougon-Macquart dynasty and great-grandmother of Claude Lantier, the protagonist of L’Œuvre.

Zola Cézanne letter
An illustrated letter from Cézanne to Zola written in 1866. Reproduced in John Rewald, Cézanne: sa vie - son œuvre - son amitié pour Zola (Paris, 1939) 010655.i.24.

Unlike other members of the Macquart family who become labourers, soldiers or farmers, Claude Lantier shows artistic talent and settles in Paris to pursue his career as a painter. He has less in common with his murderous engine-driver brother Jacques (La Bête humaine) and half-sister, the notorious prostitute Nana, than with his second brother, the activist miner Étienne (Germinal); however, Claude’s revolutionary spirit manifests itself not in the struggle against corrupt industrialists but against another kind of conservatism – the stifling influence of academicism on art.

Zola suggested titles 1
A list of titles which Zola considered for L’Œuvre. Reproduced in Émile Zola and the Arts, ed. Jean-Max Guieu and Alison Hilton (Washington D.C, 1988)

We are given a glimpse of Claude’s revolt against convention when, in the novel’s opening pages, he takes in a young woman, Christine Hallegrain, stranded late at night in Paris on her way to a post in Passy:

What especially frightened her were some sketches in oils that hung frameless from the walls, a serried array of sketches reaching to the floor […] She had never seen such terrible painting, so coarse, so glaring, showing a violence of colour that jarred upon her nerves like a carter’s oath heard on the doorstep of an inn.

Clearly this is something very different from the staid historical, mythological and Biblical subjects favoured by the establishment, and it is not surprising that Claude’s work fails to find acceptance into the annual Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. When a group of rejected artists sets up a Salon des Refusés to display their paintings, his Plein Air creates a sensation, recalling Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe in its juxtaposition of clothed male and nude female figures, the latter modelled on Christine, who becomes his mistress, the mother of his son Jacques, and finally his wife. They move to the country in an attempt to draw inspiration from the rural surroundings, but this proves a failure, and at Christine’s instigation he returns to Paris. After repeated rejections he embarks on a gigantic painting of the Île de la Cité which becomes an obsession as he constantly revises and repaints it even as his neglected young son lies dying. It is not this painting but a study of the dead boy, ‘a masterpiece of limpidity and power to which was added a note of boundless melancholy’, which is accepted for the Salon, though arousing such controversy that Claude is driven back to his ‘masterpiece’, the huge landscape which is never completed and ultimately costs him his marriage, his friendships and his life as he hangs himself in his studio.

Zola Ouevre KTC.35.b.5.
Cartoon of Zola, representing L’Œuvre, from: H. Lebourgeois, L'Œuvre de Zola : 16 simili aquarelles (Paris, 1898) KTC.35.b.5.

The one friend who attends his funeral is Pierre Sandoz, a novelist who, like Zola, is engaged on a cycle of Naturalist novels charting the fortunes of an extended family. Zola himself had written many articles on painting as a young journalist and had promoted the work of Manet in particular, and when Cézanne received his copy of L’Œuvre it was not difficult for him to interpret Sandoz as a self-portrait of the author and Lantier as a study of Cézanne himself. Another Claude, Monet, felt impelled to write an open letter shortly after the novel’s publication declaring that he did not recognize himself or any of his fellow Impressionists in it. However, the damage was done; with impeccable politeness Cézanne penned a thank-you letter to Zola, parcelled up the book, returned it to the author, and broke off all contact with him.

As she sits for the nude in the ill-fated ‘masterpiece’, Christine reflects bitterly on Claude’s first painting of her which had been the source of all her misfortunes: ‘It had come to life again, it rose from the dead, endowed with greater vitality than herself, to finish killing her…’ It may not be fanciful to see here a foreshadowing of another ominous portrait in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which appeared four years later (London, 1890; Eccles 395). Sadly, in human terms L’Œuvre possessed a far greater destructive power than Zola had ever imagined.

Susan Halstead,Content Specialist (Humanities & Social Sciences) Research Services

13 January 2017

Science, Art and Insects: Maria Sibylla Merian

Maria Sibylla Merian, who died 300 years ago today is justly remembered both as a pioneering naturalist and an entomological and botanical artist, and as a woman who made her mark in both art and science at a time when these fields were dominated by men.

Maria was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1647 into an artistic family. Her father was the engraver and publisher Matthäus Merian, but his death when Maria was just three years old meant that her own talent was mainly fostered by her stepfather Jacob Marrel. As well as being encouraged to draw and paint, the young Maria developed a fascination with insects and began collecting, studying and drawing them.

In 1675 Maria published a book of botanical illustrations, the Neues Blumenbuch. Four years later, the first part of a new work appeared. Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung und sonderbare Blumennahrung (‘The Wonderful Transformation and Strange Floral Food of Caterpillars’ – a second part followed in 1683) drew on Maria’s interest in and close observation of caterpillars and butterflies, illustrating and describing the stages of the different species’ lives and also the specific plants that they fed on.

Maria Sibylla Raupen tp
Title-page of Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung... (Nuremberg, 1679) Britsh Library 445.c.15. 

It was not until 1705 that Maria published another book, but for lovers of both science and art it was worth the wait. In 1699 she had travelled  from her home in Amsterdam to Suriname with her daughter Dorothea to record the insect life of the country, then a Dutch colony. The resulting work Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium appeared in 1705 and combines careful observation and detailed recording of the insects’ habitats, lives and behaviour with aesthetic skill in depicting the different stages of the life-cycles and their favoured plants. The British Library holds a splendidly hand-coloured copy of the 1726 edition (649.c.20) from which the pictures below are taken.

In Suriname, as in Frankfurt, Maria’s primary interest was in butterflies:

Maria Sibylla 2
Plate 2 from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium

Maria Sibylla 15Plate 15 (The rather plump larva about to feast on a watermelon here might remind the modern reader somewhat of Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar)

 Details of individual butterflies show Maria’s talents:

Maria Sibylla 20 detail  Maria Sibylla 44 detail

Maria Sibylla 34 detail
Details (clockwise from top left) from plates 20, 44 and 34

But as well as butterflies, Maria also depicted and described other insects as in these images.

Maria Sibylla 24
Plate 24

Maria Sibylla 50
Plate 50. The painter here has used gold to capture the iridescence of the fly in the bottom right-hand corner

She also portrayed spiders (for the sake of sensitive arachnophobes I merely add a link), snakes and lizards:

Maria Sibylla 14
Plate 14

Maria Sibylla 69
Plate 69, the famous image of a caiman attacking a snake which is trying to steal its eggs as the young hatch

In one image she even shows a mammal, a tree-rat carrying its young on its back, although her hand seems a little less sure here than with the insects: 

  Maria Sybilla 66
Plate 66

Like many fine-printed books of its day, our 1626 edition of Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium has a fine engraved frontispiece which has also been hand coloured. It shows a woman instructing an eager group of botanising putti, with a Surinamese landscape in the background.

Maria Sibylla frontis

The artist of the frontispiece clearly knew the work he was illustrating. The open book in the bottom left-hand corner of the picture shows one of Maria’s plates, in a nice tribute to the original creator of the work. 

Maria Sibylla frontis detail

Detail from the frontispiece (above) and plate 29 (below)

Maria Sibylla 29

I hope the gallery above will likewise act as a tribute to a woman who is justly celebrated  today for her achievements as both artist and natural historian.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies