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02 March 2015

Allegories with labels

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A minor by-product of the Charlie Hebdo controversy has been the realisation that even in their less controversial cartoons the cartoonists made sure the figures they were lampooning were recognised because they were clearly identified in a caption.

7-headed Luther
A labelled caricature of a seven-headed Martin Luther, detail from the title-page of J. Cochlaeus, Sieben Köpffe M. Luthers vom Hochwirdigen Sacrament des Altars (Leipzig, 1529) British Library 3905.f.81.(1.)

Classical and medieval rhetoricians distinguished simile (which makes clear what is being likened to what) and metaphor (which doesn’t).  Quintilian says:

In general terms, Metaphor is a shortened form of Simile; the difference is that in Simile something is [overtly] compared with the thing we wish to describe, while in metaphor one thing is substituted for the other.—Institutio Oratoria, 8.6, 8–9.

The same distinction obtained at a higher level between “full allegory” and “mixed” (Quintilian 8.6.44-53): full allegory doesn’t tell you what it means (El espíritu de la colmena or The Prisoner being modern examples which have perplexed me over the years) while mixed prefers labels and personifications (like Pilgrim’s Progress, with Mr Worldly Wiseman and the Slough of Despond).  Calderón wrote two versions of La vida es sueño: a comedia with characters called Segismundo, Clotaldo et al., and an allegorical auto sacramental, where these become Man and Wisdom.

My granny had a hat which my mother used to say made her look like the poster “Keep death off the roads” (I have to point out in filial piety that the resemblance was limited to the hat.) The relationship between image and word here is a subtle one:  we understand easily that the spooky lady is Death with a capital D, but we also need the prompt from the text.

In modern (and early modern) times it’s seen as bad form to use words to explain an image: as Cervantes has it:

“Thou art right, Sancho,” said Don Quixote, “for this painter is like Orbaneja, a painter there was at Ubeda, who when they asked him what he was painting, used to say, ‘Whatever it may turn out’; and if he chanced to paint a cock he would write under it, ‘This is a cock,’ for fear they might think it was a fox.” (Don Quixote, II, lxxi).

A common exchange from my childhood was:

“What are YOU looking at?”
Dunno: the label’s dropped off.”

Doubtless an allusion to Quintilian.


Cervantes, Miguel de, The ingenious gentleman : Don Quixote of La Mancha : a translation with introduction and notes by John Ormsby. (London, 1885). 12489.k.4. (Available online at:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Pedro Calderón de la Barca, La vida es sueño: edición crítica de las dos versiones del auto y de la loa, ed. Fernando Plata Parga (Pamplona, 2012)  YF.2014.a.11638

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies

27 February 2015

Florio’s Montaigne – and Shakespeare’s?

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Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was born on 28th February 1533, and by the time of his death 59 years later had enriched French literature with a new genre – the essay. Brought up by his father to speak Latin as his first language, he rapidly lost his mastery of it when at the age of six he was despatched to the Collège de Guyenne  in Bordeaux so that, by the time that he left, he claimed that he knew less than when he arrived. However, throughout his life he retained a love and reverence for classical authors including Cicero, Plutarch and Seneca, which shaped not only his philosophy but his chosen form of literary expression, and ultimately made him one of the most beloved and accessible authors to readers outside his native land.

Montaigne 1st editionThe title-page of the first edition of Montaigne’s Essais (Paris, 1580) British Library G.2344.

Witty and aphoristic, the collection of essays, first published in 1580, comprises three books divided into one hundred and seven chapters on topics ranging from coaches, cruelty and cannibalism to thumbs and smells. Their discursive nature reveals many details about their author and his milieu, drawn from his experiences as a Gascon landowner and official who rose to become mayor of Bordeaux, his travels through Italy, Germany and Switzerland, the turbulent years of the Wars of Religion, and his family life, in which we catch glimpses of his masterful mother, his wife Françoise, and his only surviving child Léonor – a household of women from which, at times, he would retreat to the peace and solitude of his tower, fitted with curving shelves to accommodate his library, to enjoy the company of his cat – another female – who has achieved immortality through his observations of her at play.

Montaigne catMarginal picture of a man with a cat, drawn by Pieter van Veen in his copy of Montaigne’s Essais (Paris, 1602) British Library C.28.g.7.

The Essais rapidly achieved wide popularity, and not only in France. They ran into five editions in eight years, and in 1603 an English translation appeared, the work of John Florio. Florio, born in 1533 as the son of an Italian father and an English mother, had left England as a small child when the accession of Mary Tudor to the throne had sent his family into exile, and as they wandered around Europe he acquired a knowledge of languages which equipped him to earn his living on returning to England as a teacher of French and Italian and the author of an English-Italian dictionary (London, 1578; 627.d.36).

It was at the behest of his patroness, the Countess of Bedford, that he set about translating the Essais, assisted by a multitude of collaborators who, through the Countess’s offices, tracked down quotations and publicized his work, earning fulsome dedications by doing so. His lively and spirited version contains colourful turns of phrase which sometimes expand the original, as when, in Book 1, chapter xviii, ‘des Loups-garous, des Lutins et des chimeres’ emerge as  ‘Larves, Hobgoblins, Robbin-good-fellowes, and other such Bug-bears and Chimeraes’ – a catalogue which, as Sarah Bakewell points out in her How to Live: a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer  (Bath, 2011; LT.2011.x.3266) is  ‘a piece of pure Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

Shakespeare did in fact know Florio, and Bakewell speculates that he may have been one of the first readers of the Essaies, possibly even in manuscript form. Scholars have taken pains to detect echoes of Montaigne in Hamlet, which was written before the published translation appeared, and frequently cite a passage from his last play, The Tempest, which, as Gonzalo evokes a vision of civilization in a perfect state of nature, is strikingly close to Montaigne’s account of the Tupinambá, an indigenous people from South America whom he encountered when a group of them visited Rouen.

Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all.

Montaigne remarks of the Tupinambá that they have ‘no kind of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politike superioritie; no use of service, of riches or of povertie; no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupation but idle; no respect of kindred, but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn or mettle’.

Such passages were eagerly seized upon in the controversy in the 18th and 19th centuries about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, and in 1901 Francis P. Gervais published his Shakespeare not Bacon: some arguments from Shakespeare’s copy of Florio’s Montaigne in the British Museum (London, 1901; 11765.i.18.). However, Edward Maunde Thompson countered with Two pretended autographs of Shakespeare (London, 1917; 11763.i.37), which argued that not only the signature ‘William Shakespere’ in an edition of the Essaies in the British Museum Library (but also that in a volume of Ovid in the Bodleian Library) was false, subjecting both to rigorous calligraphic analysis.

Shakespeare signatureAlleged signature of William Shakespeare on the flyleaf of The Essayes, or Morall, Politike, and Millitarie Discourses of Lo: Michaell de Montaigne ... Now done into English by ... John Florio. (London, 1603) C.21.e.17

Whatever the truth of the matter may be, we can make an educated guess at Montaigne’s response. An even-handed and balanced man who needed all his reserves of philosophy and Stoicism to confront the horrors of a century which saw the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and decades of conflict springing from religious extremism, he would no doubt have advocated a similar perspective on the resurgence of similar dangers in the 21st. And to those who argued about the authenticity or otherwise of these notorious signatures, he would certainly have recommended the phrase from the Greek philosopher Pyrrho which became his motto, engraved on his medallion:  ‘Epekhō – I suspend judgement’.

Susan Halstead Curator Czech & Slovak

25 February 2015

Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaia (26 February 1869 – 27 February 1939): London Adventures and An Unlikely Friendship

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Nadezhda Krupskaia, the Russian Bolshevik activist and politician, is perhaps best known as the wife of Vladimir Lenin from 1898 until his death in 1924. In 1902, the young couple moved to London to publish Iskra (‘The Spark’), the newspaper of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).

Krupskaia wrote about their time in London in her memoirs Vospominania o Lenine (‘Reminiscences of Lenin’). As this week sees the anniversary of not only Krupskaia’s birth but also her death, it seems a perfect opportunity to re-visit her time in London and, in particular, her connections to the British Library. 

Nadezhda Krupskaia, photograph dated before 1910. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Arriving in London in April 1902, Krupskaia and Lenin were immediately overwhelmed by the city, or, in her own words, “citadel of capitalism”. She later described their first impressions and struggles as they battled with the “filthy” weather, incomprehensible language and “indigestible” British food:

When we arrived in London we found we could not understand a thing, nor could anybody understand us. It got us into comical situations at first.

While Krupskaia unfortunately doesn’t expand on the “situations” she and Lenin found themselves in, she does give a fascinating and detailed account of the year they spent in London between 1902 and 1903. In between attending meetings and revolutionary activities, Lenin and Krupskaia found time to explore London, with Primrose Hill being their spot of choice. The pair were also regular visitors to the British Museum, where, Krupskaia notes, Lenin spent half his time in the library.

Lenin letter (Add.54579)
Lenin’s application (under the pseudonym Jacob Richter) for a reader’s ticket for the British Museum Library. British Library MS Add 54579

While there is no record of Krupskaia holding a reader’s ticket during her time in London, the British Library does hold a rare pamphlet autographed by Krupskaia in 1923. Written for the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic publication Put’ prosveshchenia (‘The Path of Education’, P.P.1213.ce.), the pamphlet discusses the Faculty of Social Education at the Kharkiv Institute of Continuing Education.  Although the exact details are unknown, Krupskaia appears to recommend the pamphlet to a fellow comrade, most likely in her capacity as head of the government’s Adult Education Division.

Krupskaia Put' prosveshchenia
Offprint from Put’ prosveshchenia (Kharkiv, 1922) with Krupskaia’s autograph inscription. RB.23.a.36382.

Another thread linking Krupskaia to the British Library is her early friendship with Ariadna Tyrkova-Williams, a Russian politician and journalist who was active in the anti-Bolshevik campaign during the Civil War. The British Library holds a unique collection of letters and papers of Tyrkova-Williams and her husband Harold Williams relating to the activities of the Russian Liberation Committee in London.

Tyrkova-Williams and Krupskaia studied together at the gymnasiia in St Petersburg as girls and remained friends throughout their teenage years. Tyrkova-Williams describes her friendship with Krupskaia, as well as Krupskaia’s early life, in her memoirs and letters, noting that it was Krupskaia who first introduced her to Marx’s work at the age of seventeen. The two women went on to choose politically opposing paths, with Tyrkova-Williams joining the Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets), a liberal Russian political party, and Krupskaia becoming a Bolshevik revolutionary.

In a letter dated May 1931, Tyrkova-Williams refers to her friendship with Krupskaia. Responding to a flattering description of Krupskaia’s appearance, Tyrkova-Williams somewhat unkindly writes that she “did not have a single beautiful feature”, instead resembling a “piglet”. Krupskaia is believed to have suffered from Graves’ disease, which caused her eyes to bulge. Despite her somewhat cruel response to Krupskaia’s looks, Tyrkova-Williams declares in her letter that she loved her and, to a certain extent, still does.


Krupskaya, Nadezhda, Vospominania o Lenine, Parts 1 and 2, (Moscow, 1932).

Krupskaya, Nadezhda, Reminiscences of Lenin. Translated by Bernard Isaacs. (Moscow, 1959). 010600.c.43.

Tyrkova-Williams, Ariadna, Nasledie Ariadny Vladimirovny Tyrkovoi: dnevniki, pisʹma, ed. N. I. Kanishcheva, (Moscow, 2012). YF.2014.a.894.

Tyrkova-Williams, Ariadna, To chego bol’she ne budet: vospominaniia izvestnoi pisatel’nitsy i obshchestvennoi deiatel’nitsy A.V. Tyrkovoi-Vil’iams, 1869-1962 (Moscow, 1998). YF.2006.a.5200.

Katie McElvanney, CDA PhD student