European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library


Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

01 August 2014

The unvanquished city: Warsaw Uprising 1944

Add comment Comments (0)

Hundreds of books have been published in Poland about the Warsaw Uprising. However, 70 years later the Poles are still divided whether it was the right or wrong decision to launch it.

In July 1944, after almost five years of German occupation, Poland was a theatre of heavy fighting between the Red Army advancing from the east and the German forces retreating to the west.  At the order of the leadership of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK)  the uprising, which aimed to liberate the capital from the departing Germans, began on 1st  August at 5 pm (called W-hour). The AK was the largest underground resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe numbering at its peak around 400,000. The timing coincided with the Red Army approaching Warsaw.  Intended to last a few days (there was ammunition in hand for three to five days), the uprising came eventually to a bitter end on 2nd October.  This was due to the unimaginable bravery of the insurgents and civilians alike. 


A network of street barricades (picture above from Wikimedia Commons) constructed by civilians, home-made grenades and guns as well as arms captured from the enemy were the insurgents’ weapon against the overwhelming German forces armed with tanks, planes and artillery.  The Red Army was idly standing on the eastern bank of the river Vistula watching the burning city from a distance. Airdrops of supplies by Allied planes were not allowed by the Soviets to reach Warsaw until mid-September. Inevitably, there were shortages of food, water, medicine and ammunition in the city. Although the living conditions were appalling, the people of Warsaw were in high spirits fighting for the freedom of their country. Life went on as much as the circumstances permitted with theatres, cinemas, post offices open and 130 newspapers and periodicals published overall. The Scout Postal Service was in operation throughout the rising.  Mail, newspapers and messages were delivered around the fighting city by 10 to 15 year-old scouts of the Gray Ranks (picture below from Wikimedia Commons).


Tragically, 63 days of heroic and lonely struggle resulted in the death of some 200,000 inhabitants and 18,000 insurgents with additional 6,000 wounded, not to mention the physical and cultural destruction of the city, as described in Władysław Bartoszewski and Adam Bujak’s book Abandoned heroes of the Warsaw Uprising (Kraków, 2008) [British Library LD.31.b.1915]. Moreover, Polish society was deprived of a large portion of its intellectual elite.  Following the surrender of Polish forces 700,000 civilians were expelled from the city and 15,000 insurgents sent to POW camps. Before the demolition began Warsaw had been plundered. Trains laden with goods including works of art, books, manuscripts, maps, furniture dismantled factories etc. were leaving Warsaw for the Reich. Nothing of value was left. Then in the course of a few months Germans razed the rest of the city to the ground. Street after street, house after house the city of Warsaw ceased to exist.  As the result of all the fighting in the capital during the Second World War 85% of the buildings were levelled including schools, hospitals, libraries, museums and historical monuments.


Grave of Polish soldiers in Warsaw in 1945  (from Wikimedia Commons)

The tragic fate of the city was a combination of political and military miscalculations by the Polish leaders of the underground resistance and global politics played by the “Big Three” – Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 is considered one of the greatest tragedies of the Second World War.

Magda Szkuta, Curator Polish Studies

Further reading

Norman Davies, Rising ’44: ‘the battle for Warsaw’ (London, 2004) YC.2006.a.1738.


30 July 2014

FIETS (n): Origins Unknown

Add comment Comments (0)

Following on from a previous post related to the Tour de France, this piece talks about the Dutch word ‘Fiets’. At first glance the word doesn’t seem to bear any resemblance to its equivalents in English (bicycle), French (vélo) or German (Fahrrad) and it was this realisation that prompted a spat of research on its etymology.

First port of call was the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, or Dictionary of the Dutch Language (WNT). The WNT is the largest etymological dictionary in the world, in any language. It is available online, but the British Library holds a copy on the open shelves in the Humanities 1 reading room (BL HLR 439.313).

Despite its erudition the WNT doesn’t provide a satisfactory etymology for the word ‘fiets’. It offers two possible sources, neither are conclusive.  Not much fun there, then.

 FIETS Image1 11145389364_48c26222c0_m
Image taken from page 211 of The Z.Z.G. or the Zig Zag Guide round and about the beautiful Kentish coast (London, 1897) 10352.g.28. (Source: Flickr Commons BL page

Some more digging around in the catalogue brought up a title that proved to be just the ticket. Ewoud Sanders’ Fiets! (The Hague, 1996; YA.2002.a.1177), brings together columns previously published in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. The little book is beautifully bound in a hard grey cover, and printed in the best of Dutch printing traditions. In eight chapters, or ‘étappes’ (stages) Sanders discusses the various theories on the origins of the word ‘fiets’, as offered by etymologists, journalists and cycle fanatics alike. Apparently, no other word has kept the Dutch and Flemish so pre-occupied as ‘fiets’. When the bicycle was introduced to the Low Countries from France, it was knows as a ‘vélocipède. At the Language and Literary Congress in Leuven in 1869 heated discussions were held over the question whether a Dutch language variant should be found and if so, which one. Shortly after this congress cycling took off in The Netherlands, which had to have consequences for the vocabulary associated with it.

Fiets! gives a fascinating account of the history of cycling in the Low Countries as well as of the development of the word ‘fiets’. The WNT is mentioned several times, because its editors were heavily involved in the discussions around it. The bibliography reflects the fascination people had with ‘fiets’ and includes over 50 titles, ranging from the WNT to letters from the archives of the ANWB, the Dutch equivalent of The AA.

In the end Sanders supports the theory that ‘fiets’ originates in the vernacular as spoken by Dutch school boys, back in the 1870s. That is probably why the word was considered to be a sort of ‘F’ word by the educated classes. How different things are these days.

The Dutch language abounds in expressions around ‘fiets’ or ‘fietsen’, (to cycle), which proves just how much ‘fiets’ has become firmly settled in the Dutch language, just like the article itself has become an icon of Dutch culture. Sanders doesn’t go into this, but cycling (whipping) through the Van Dale’ dictionary (Van Dale groot woordenboek / door W. Martin en G.A.J. Tops. (Utrecht, 1984-1986) HLR 439.313) will clarify how it is you can have a ‘bicycle rack’ in your mouth, as in when you have ‘gappy teeth’. If you suddenly see where I’m coming from, you may exclaim: ‘Oh, op die fiets!’ (‘Oh, on that bike!’).

Thieves’ slang gives a clue on how much a stolen bike would sell for one hundred years ago. A ‘Fiets’ to them is two ‘thalers’, or five guilders. Thieves also may have used bicycles to get away on; hence the use of ‘fiets’ for ‘arms and legs’. When by now you’ve had enough of me, you’re probably telling me to get on my bike, just like the Dutch say: ‘Ga toch fietsen!’  

Marja Kingma, Curator Low Countries Studies

28 July 2014

Chess is good, dice are bad: but what about backgammon?

Add comment Comments (0)

The Galway Museum  displays a city ordinance of 1528 setting a fine of 20 shillings for the playing of ‘cards, dyce, tabulls, nor no other unlawfull gamys, by young men, and specialle by prentisys nor Irishmen’;  ‘Tabulls’, ‘tables’, is backgammon.

Medieval and early modern fun-spoilers were unanimous in their condemnation of dicing and (later) cards, but less commonly, it seems to me, did they include backgammon in their sights.  


A King and lady playing a board game resembling backgammon, from the Luttrell Psalter (ca.1325-35), British Library MS Add. 42130

Two ideas informed much discussion of leisure activities. Both saw there was a role for entertainment, but such entertainment had to be limited. One such was the scholastic idea  of eutrapelia, virtuous leisure, invoked by fray Juan Bautista Capataz in his censor’s assessment of Cervantes’s Novelas ejemplares in 1612:

supuesto que es sentencia llana del angélico doctor Santo Tomás, que la eutropelia [sic] es virtud, la que consiste en un entretenimiento honesto, juzgo que la verdadera eutropelia está en estas Novelas porque entretienen con su novedad, enseñan con sus ejemplos a huir vicios y seguir virtudes, y el autor cumple con su intento...

[since it is a clear opinion of the angelic doctor St Thomas of Aquinas that eutrapelia is a virtue which consists in a virtuous entertainment, I judge that true eutrapelia is in these Stories because they entertain with their novelty, teach with their examples to flee vices and follow virtues and the author fulfils this intention].

The other was the distinction between games of chance and games of skill.

The condemnation of dicing was unremitting, but backgammon was not always included in such criticism.

A clue lies with the prologue of the Libro de los juegos de ajedrez dados e tablas of Alfonso X of Castile-Leon (1282).  

Segunt cuenta en las historias antiguas, en India la mayor hobo un rey que amaba mucho los sabios e tenielos siempre consigo e facieles mucho a menudo  razonar sobre los fechos que nascien de las cosas. […] El uno dicie que mas valie seso que ventura […]  Ell otro dicie que mas valie ventura que seso […] El tercero dicie que era maior qui pudiese vivir tomando de lo uno e de lo al, e esto era cordura […]
E desque hobieron dichas sus razones much afincadas mandoles el Rey que le aduxiese ende cada uno muestra de prueba de aquello que dicien, e dioles plazo cual le demandaron.   E ellos fueronse e cataron sus libros, cada uno segunt su razon. El cuando llego el plazo, vinieron cada unos antel Rey con su muestra.
E el que tenie razon del seso, troxo el acedrex con sos juegos, mostrando que el que mayor seso hobiese e estudiese apercibudo podrie vencer all otro.
E el segundo que tenie la razon de la ventura troxo los dados mostrando que no valie nada el seso si no la ventura, segunt parescie por la suerte, llegando el homne por ella a pro o danno.
El tercero que dicie que era meior tomar de lo uno e de lo al, troxo el tablero con sus tablas contadas e puestas en sus casa ordenadameintre e con sos dados, que moviesen pora iugar, segunt se muestra en este libro […] en que face entender que por el iuego de ellas que el qui las sopiere bien iogar, que aunque la suerte de los dados le sea contraria, que por la cordura podra iogar con las tablas que esquivara el danno quel puede venir por la aventura de los dados.

[As is told in the ancient histories, in greater India there was a king who greatly loved wise men and kept them always with him and very often made them discuss facts which arose from things. […] One of them said that intelligence was stronger than chance […] The other said that chance was stronger than intelligence […] The third said that the greatest man was he who could live by taking from both one and the other, and this was wisdom. […]
And when they had said their piece most vehemently, the king ordered each to bring before him an example proving what they said, and set them a time-limit, as they asked him.  And they went away and looked in their books, each according to his argument.  And when the time was ended, they came before the king with their example.
And he who spoke for intelligence, brought chess with its games, showing that he who had the most intelligence and was alert could defeat the other.
And he who spoke for fate, brought dice, showing that intelligence was powerless against fate, as was shown by luck, by which man came to advantage or harm.
The third, who said that it was best to take from one and the other, brought the backgammon board with its counters counted and placed in their places in order, so that they could be moved in play, as is shown in this book which speaks separately of this, in which it is made clear that he who knows how to play it well, even if the luck of the dice is against him, will by his wisdom be able to play with
backgammon so that he will avoid the harm that can come to him from the fate of the dice.]

The Alfonsine book, MS T.i.6 of the Escorial Library,  is profusely illuminated with scenes of men, ladies Christian and Moorish, and nuns playing peaceably a variety of games; the games themselves are displayed from above, like the problems that they are.  

Alfonso’s introductory fable is of unknown origin, but like many a fable it encapsulates much in little.

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


El Ajedrez de D. Alfonso el Sabio [Chess problems from the work on the game of chess by Alphonso the Wise, solved by J. B. S. P.] (Madrid, 1929).  7916.b.11

Dwayne E. Carpenter, ‘Alea jacta est: At the Gaming Tables with Alfonso the Learned’, Journal of Medieval History, 24 (1998), 333-45.  ZC.9.a.7652

Alexandra Walsham, ‘Godly Recreation: The Problem of Leisure in late Elizabethan and Early Stuart Society’, in Grounds of Controversy: Three Studies in Late 16th and Early 17th Century English Polemics, ed. D E. Kennedy (University of Melbourne History Department, 1989), pp. 7-48.   5536.825000 no 9