THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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Exploring Europe at the British Library

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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 April 2015

Every Day is Fools’ Day

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Today being the first of April someone is probably going to try and make a fool of you, whether by making you act foolishly (trying to pick up the coin glued to the floor, bending to tie your perfectly-fastened shoelace) or by playing on your credulity with spoof news stories like the BBC’s famous spaghetti harvest – or the BL’s own unicorn cookbook.

A successful April Fool’s Day trick makes both joker and victims laugh; the victims are only temporarily fooled and appreciate the joker’s skill in catching them out. But in the late mediaeval literary genre of ‘Narrenliteratur’ (fool literature) the authors depict folly not as a brief moment but as a part of the human condition, identifying many different kinds of fools and folly in contemporary society.

One of the best known works of this kind, and an early modern European bestseller, is  Das Narrenschiff (‘The Ship of Fools’) by the German humanist Sebastian Brant. Originally published in Basel in 1494, by 1500 it had already gone through 13 German editions. A Latin translation formed the basis for French, Dutch and English editions in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

Narrenschiff 1499 Ad Narragonia
Fools sailing to Narragonia, from a 1499 Basel edition of Sebastian Brandt’s Narrenschiff  (British Library IA.37957)

Brant describes various kinds of fools who fill the eponymous ship on its journey to ‘Narragonia’, a land of fools. First among them is the pseudo-scholar who surrounds himself with books that he can neither read nor understand. His picture is one of the most famous in the book, and very popular with bibliographers (one hopes with a degree of self-deprecation!). Others include slavish followers of fashion, those consumed by self-love or pride, believers in astrology, and those who eat, drink or pursue sports and games to excess.

Narrenschiff 1499 Unnutzen Bücher
The book collector with his useless library

Some of the book’s instances of folly are still the subject of complaints (just or unjust) today: students who should be working hard but who spend their time in dissolute pursuits, parents who set their children an bad example, those who waste time pursuing long and complex legal cases. I always think that the fool who takes all the world’s troubles on his shoulders and falls under the weight [below] is a salutary example for todays’s overstretched workers.

  Narrenschiff 1499 Zu viel Sorg

Other examples are more firmly of Brant’s own time. He castigates those who mock God, fail to observe holy days or bring their hounds and falcons to church. He classes all non-Christians (and Christian ‘heretics’) as fools. And one of his earliest examples of a fool is the parent or teacher who spares the rod and spoils the child; the woodcut shows his children turning on each other as he sits blindly by:

  Narrenschiff 1499 Teacher

If Brant’s book has a moral and didactic purpose, the pill is sweetened by his lively rhymes in ‘knittelvers’ form and the woodcut illustrations. Many readers no doubt simply enjoyed the book as an entertainment and, rather than seeing themselves in Brant’s ‘mirror of fools’  and mending their ways, identified the follies of their neighbours and felt smug.

Narrenschiff 1499 Bad parents
The foolish parents who set their child a bad example

But like the successful April Fool’s joke, Brant’s examples can make us wise by making us appreciate our own gullibility. As he states his introduction, “Wer sich für eyn narren acht / Der ist bald zů eym wisen gemacht” (“He who recognises himself as a fool will soon become a wise man”).

So  if anyone catches you out today, just accept that it’s made you a little bit wiser.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

  Narrenschiff 1499 border

30 March 2015

The Goddess of Air at The Stray Dog Café

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On 28 March 1914 Tamara Karsavina, a legend of the Russian ballet, celebrated her birthday by dancing at The Stray Dog Café  at Number 5, Mikhailovskaia Square (today Ploshchad’ iskusstv,  ‘Square of the Arts’)  in St Petersburg. Also called an art-cellar, the café was in operation between  31 December  1911 and 3 March 1915. Its name was drawn from the romantic and at the same time ironic image of a poet or artist as a stray dog, created by one of the founders of the enterprise Mstislav  Dobuzhinzky.

Image 1-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi6
The logo of the Stray Dog Café, from the cover of a tribute volume to Tamara Karsavina

The idea of a cabaret-club came from the actor and theatre director Boris Pronin (1875-1946), one of the noteworthy figures of the Russian Silver Age in art and literature. The founders of the Stray Dog Café (including writer Alexey Tolstoy, artists Nikolay Sapunov (1880-1912) and Sergey Sudeikin (1882-1946), and  theatre director and dramatist Nikolai Evreinov) aimed to synthesise visual and performing arts with literature and create a playful  atmosphere for participants and the audience.

The programme of the Stray Dog Café included poetry readings by such famous Russian authors as  Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilev, Mikhail Kuzmin and Vladimir Mayakovsky as well as foreign guests like Paul Fort. The founder of the Futurist movement Filippo Tommaso Marinetti gave a lecture there.  The audience was divided into two categories:  “artists” and “pharmacists” (those who didn’t belong to the bohemian world of creativity) and the price for an entrance ticket for the latter category was several times higher than for “artists-bohemians”.

The celebration of Tamara Karsavina’s birthday was documented in a number of memoirs. For example, Sergey Sudeikin recollected how this “goddess of air” moved around the stage in the middle of the hall between authentic  18th-century wooden sculptures of Eros placed on a wonderful blue carpet. Carefully selected musicians played old musical instruments. The intimacy of the performance was shared by fifty dance-lovers who paid 50 roubles per ticket.  At the end of evening, the heroine was presented with a memorable book made for her that included drawings, poems and dedications to the admired ballerina. Beautifully designed, this gentle book (held by the British Library at shelfmark Cup.410.f.519) is a unique artefact of the time, as the images below illustrate.

Image 2-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi2
The title page of the book

Image 3-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi4
Sargent’s portrait of Karsavina

Image 4-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi5
Poem by Mikhail Kuzmin

Image 5-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi3
Drawing by Sergey Sudeikin

Image 6-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi
A letter of congratulation from Nikolai Evreinov

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead East European Curator (Russian)

27 March 2015

The Growth of the Beard

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All the media assure us we are living in a new age of the beard.

A landmark in pogonology is the pioneer study A Barba em Portugal. Estudo de etnografia comparativa [The Beard in Portugal.  A Study in Comparative Ethnography] (Lisbon, 1925; British Library 10009.t.29) by  José Leite de Vasconcellos  (1858-1941).

Beards - Leite de Vasconcelos                                    José Leite de Vasconcellos (with beard). Image from Wikimedia Commons

Beards - Barba em Portugal tp                                                    Title-page of Leite’s A barba em Portugal.

Leite (1858-1941) was a distinguished professor of Latin and Medieval French at the University of Lisbon and editor of the journal Revista Lusitana, but the bulk of his publications are ethnographic studies of topics such as the “figa” gesture: in this respect his work prefigured much 20th and 21st-century research on the body.  The figa’s opposite number in British culture is the V-sign, now sadly depleted to the single finger.

Beards - Figa tp José Leite de Vasconcellos,  A Figa : estudo de etnografia comparativa, precedido de algumas palavras a respeito do ”sobrenatural” na medicina popular portuguesa. (Porto, 1925). Ac.3709.d.

Like many Portuguese men of letters (Júlio Dinis and Trindade Coelho  among them), Leite studied medicine although he practised for  only a year on account of his own ill health.

The chapters of A Barba em Portugal cover: The beard anthropologically, the making of the beard, beard forms and cuts, the beard through the centuries, the symbolism of the beard, and the beard in vocabulary and literature; in an appendix Leite edits the ordenances of the guild of barbers from the 16th century.

Beards - Effigies
A selection of historical Portuguese beards from A Barba em Portugal

A habit which 21st-century hipsters seem not to have adopted is swearing on the beard.  The Cid did it, and Leite was told by an old man of A Beira that he had heard in his youth that in olden times the oath was “Juro por estas minhas barbas” [I swear by these my beards], accompanied by the appropiate gesture.  

Perhaps its time has come again, by my beard!

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


Beards - Herod                                  Beards - Ancient
Ancient beard ideas for the hipsters of today? King Herod (left) and an Bronze Age figurine (right) from A barba em Portugal