Author Archives: hubere

Kafka notebook

Kafka’s Languages

The Taylorian could not be left out of the Kafka24 celebrations taking place this year! We organised a range of activities on the theme of language learning, taking inspiration from Kafka’s own language learning practice.

Kafka was multilingual, reading French, Greek, Czech and learning Hebrew and Italian. He recorded some of his language learning techniques in notebooks. Kafka’s notebooks demonstrate both regular study and routine (lists of vocabulary laboriously copied out) and eclectic combinations of phrases. His writing frequently breaks out of the ordered rows of terms, with undisciplined-appearing scrawl. What was he learning, why, and how did he go about it?

language learning strategies, games

The Taylorian curated an exhibition with a facsimile of one of Kafka’s language-learning notebooks at the centre.  The exhibition highlights Kafka’s language learning techniques, presents some first editions of his work, and also shows language-learning strategies through the ages, from an 18th century guide and conversation book to gramophone records recorded in 1929.

Kafka first editions

First editions of some of Kafka’s works

Screenshot of TikTok videoThe exhibition then moves to a wider examination of different strategies that current students and staff are using to learn languages – some more successfully than others! Throughout Trinity Term readers were invited to submit suggestions of good language learning strategies.  The exhibition presents material examples – games, songs, flash cards, toys, stationery and lots of good intentions – along with short videos explaining how some of them have been used in practice.

Some of the language-learning tips were put into practice by monolingual Master’s student Cassidy Serhienko as she tried to learn German from scratch!    She documented her progress on TikTok and wrote a blog post about her experiences.

We also invited readers to have fun with languages by labelling our dolls house and the Sylvanian family living in it. We have put the inhabitants in a display case for the exhibition but do continue to label the house in any languages you choose!

Sylvanian family house of rabbits, labelled in several languages

Sylvanian family house of rabbits, labelled in several languages

Finally, we are hoping to start a conversation on why we choose to learn languages.

“a more comparative study of European literature in our schools and universities […] would be a pledge for the peace of the world and would make war more and more impossible”
Professor H.G. Fiedler ‘World Literature’, Oxford Cosmopolitan, 1 (1) (1908), 3–4.

Or maybe we just learn languages because it is fun! What motivates you? Please add your thoughts to our noticeboard, or post them on  TikTokInstagram or Twitter/X. Don’t forget to tag @TAYOxford and use the hashtag #KafkasLanguages24.

We’ve loved playing with languages and hope our Kafka-inspired enthusiasm will come across to anyone thinking of studying languages at any level.

Writing Norwegian Literary Histories. The Marie Wells Collection in the Bodleian Libraries

By Marie Martine, on behalf of the TORCH critical thinking community for Scandinavian Studies (in collaboration with Leif Bjarne Hammer and Sarah Fengler)

A Transformative Donation

exhibition posterIn 2023, the Taylor Institution received a generous donation from Dr Marie Wells, comprising a substantial selection of Norwegian books (along with some Danish titles), significantly enriching the institution’s collection. As part of our TORCH critical thinking community for Scandinavian Studies, we organised this exhibition ‘Writing Norwegian Literary Histories’ to showcase the best holdings of this recent acquisition.

This donation will undoubtedly support the work of current and future scholars in Scandinavian Studies, including the work of Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, expert in Ibsen’s theatre and Professor Dan Grimley, expert in Scandinavian music and the Head of Oxford’s Humanities Division. Numerous DPhil students currently research Scandinavian cultural history, among them the four co-convenors of the TORCH critical thinking community: Leif Bjarne (History) who analyses in his thesis eighteenth-century university culture in Oxford and Copenhagen; Marie Martine (MML) who researches women’s writing at the end of the nineteenth century, including the Norwegian feminist writer, Amalie Skram;  Sarah Fengler (MML) whose thesis in German and Norwegian literature explores European Old Testament tragedies in the Age of Enlightenment; and Tzen Sam (English) who uncovers in her research Ibsen’s women translators into English. We sincerely hope that this donation and this exhibition will encourage an even more active engagement with Scandinavian Studies at the University of Oxford.

Plural Literary Histories

The exhibition title ‘Writing Norwegian Literary Histories’ not only refers to the various literature histories included in the collection, but also pays homage to the diverse range of voices, styles, and genres that characterises modern Norwegian literature.

The exhibition starts from the 1800s which marks Norway’s entry into the European cultural scene and its trajectory towards modernity. It thus does not include Old Norse texts, considered as part of a wider pan-Scandinavian literary tradition. It also does not delve into the fascinating evolution of Norwegian literature from Christian writing, the baroque, classicism and enlightenment eras. Instead, the exhibition starts from the date 1814, when Norway gained its independence from Denmark and entered a political union with Sweden. From this pivotal cultural and political moment, Norwegian authors and intellectuals concentrated their efforts to carve out a distinctly ‘Norwegian’ identity, through language, literature, and culture. It is also at that time that Norwegian became distinct from Danish, by creating two written languages, Bokmål and Nynorsk. Concurrently, many writers gained critical acclaim abroad, notably through their creative appropriation of European literary movements, ranging from Realism to Modernism.  The authors featured in this exhibition showcase a diverse spectrum of writing styles, spanning from Norway’s quest for independence to the present day.

Norwegian Realism

As Norway achieved political and cultural independence, it emerged onto the European cultural stage, engaging with and contributing to its literary trends. While Norwegian authors at the beginning of the nineteenth century embraced national romanticism to convey Norwegian identity and rediscover folktales, starting in the 1850s, many shifted their focus towards realism.

The transition from a romantic style to a realistic one is evident in the trajectory of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson’s career (1832-1910). He started his literary journey with Synnøve Solbakken (1857), which aligns with the ideals of national romanticism, but then took on a realistic approach in his prose. His dramas and novels provide a critical examination of Norwegian society in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Bjørnson is also celebrated for his poetry, particularly ‘Ja, vi elsker dette landet’ (Yes, we love this country), which became the Norwegian national anthem, set to music by his cousin, Rikard Nordraak.

The first Norwegian novel adopting a realistic style is Camilla Collett’s (1813-1895) Amtmandens Døtre (The District Governor’s Daughters, 1855-6) which tells the story of Sophie Ramm who is prevented from marrying the man she loves by the social conventions of the time. This novel set a precedent for the realistic representation of life typical of that period. While many women authors featured in this exhibition have only recently been rediscovered by scholars, their success during their lifetime was significant. An author like Collett had a great influence, setting a precedent for the realistic representation of life typical of that period.

Women’s Voices

photo of Amalie Skram

Ovesen, R., Portrett av Amalie Skram, Nasjonalbiblioteket Oslo (1877)

Another major woman author within the Norwegian literary tradition is Amalie Skram (1846-1905). Born in Bergen, she moved to Denmark in 1884 when she married the Danish author, Erik Skram. She was an influential member of the Danish literary circles and at the end of her life she declared that she was a ‘Danish writer’ because she found her country of adoption more accepting of her writing than Norway. Nevertheless, Skram’s works focus on Norwegian society. Her saga Hellemyrsfolket (The People of Hellemyr, 1887-1898) is considered a masterpiece of the naturalist canon. Feminist scholars have recently refocused attention on what they term Skram’s ‘marriage novels’, depicting unhappy marriages, ruined by double standards and women’s lack of freedom.

In Skram’s footsteps, we find Cora Sandel, pseudonym of Sara Fabricius (1880-1974), painter and writer who grew up in Tromsø. Sandel tried to pursue a career as a painter while living in Paris between 1908 and 1911, where she was also active as a journalist, before moving to Sweden and becoming an author. In her most famous work, the Alberte trilogy (composed of Alberta and Jacob, Alberta and Freedom, and Alberta Alone, 1962-1965), she describes the trajectory of Alberte, who grows up in Norway and later comes to Paris, a journey which draws on Sandel’s own life. The trilogy offers a poignant portrayal of a woman grappling with finding her voice in a patriarchal society, emerging as a writer—a powerful symbol of emancipation.

A prominent figure in 20th-century Norway, Torborg Nedreaas (1906-1987) was a communist and feminist and played a pivotal role in shaping Norway’s post-war literary landscape. Her debut novel, Av måneskinn gror det ingenting (Nothing Grows by Moonlight, 1947), fearlessly confronts the topic of abortion and women’s reproductive rights at a time when abortion was still punishable by imprisonment in Norway. Following a similar narrative trajectory as Sandel, Nedreaas’ ‘Herdis trilogy’ (1950-1971) chronicles the journey of its heroine from childhood to womanhood.

Modern Norway’s most famous feminist writer is Gerd Brantenberg (born in 1941) who earned critical acclaim with her novel Egalias døtre (1977) which was translated into English as Egalia’s daughters. In this utopia (which reveals itself to be a dystopia), Brantenberg imagines a society where women hold power over men, a gender hierarchy justified by men’s inability to bear children. It is a difficult novel to translate as Brantenberg highlights how language is gendered by making everything feminine: the hero, Petronius, indeed dreams of becoming a ‘seawoman’, a job forbidden to him as a man. Because it inverses gender norms to better unveil women’s oppression, this novel quickly became a classic of feminist literature.

Norwegian Literature and Politics


Krohg, Christian, Albertine i politilægens venteværelse, oil on canvas, Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design, Oslo (1887)

Norwegian literature counts numerous other politically engaged authors. An author who made history was the realist painter and novelist, Christian Krohg (1852-1925). His novel Albertine (1886) was forbidden as soon as it came out. It portrays the fall of a young seamstress into prostitution and her abuse at the hands of a patriarchal system supported by doctors and the police. One of Krohg’s best-known paintings depicts a scene from the novel in which Albertine goes to the police station to undergo a medical examination. This novel and Krohg’s painting sparked wider debate on prostitution in Scandinavia, culminating in the abolition of public prostitution in 1887.

Jens Bjørneboe (1920-1976), was a renowned poet, playwright, and novelist. He is also celebrated for his radical political views, notably expressed in his polemical essays. His novel Jonas (1955) presents a harsh critique of the public school system and 1950s Norwegian society and is considered one of the most significant Norwegian literary works of the post-war era. In Under en hårdere himmel (Under a Harsher Sky, 1957), Bjørneboe describes his contemporary society and criticises its practice of imposing death penalties with retroactive effect, leading to intense debates upon its publication.

A Country of Prize-Winners

Norwegian literary history also features a lineage of Nobel Prize laureates in literature.

The first Norwegian laureate was Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson who was awarded the third Nobel prize in literature in 1903 for his poetry, although he is now mostly remembered for his realist prose.

Knut Hamsun won the prize in 1920 for his monumental novel, Growth of the Soil (1917), set in rural Norway. This neorealist novel uses the stream of consciousness technique to convey the characters’ inner lives and criticises modernity, advocating for a return to nature. Hamsun’s most renowned novel today is arguably Sult (Hunger, 1890), chronicling the wanderings of a failed artist through the streets of Kristiania (the former name of Oslo), tormented by hunger. Hamsun’s legacy is however tarnished by his support for the Nazi regime towards the end of his life, sparking debates among scholars regarding the influence of his political beliefs on his literary works.

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 1928, principally for her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter (published between 1920 and 1922) which chronicles the experiences of Kristin in medieval Norway. While Undset’s fictional works may be set in the Nordic Middle Ages or in contemporary Norway, they consistently centre around women.  Beyond her literary writing, Undset actively participated in the public debate on women’s emancipation.

The latest Nobel Prize winner in literature is Jon Fosse (born 1959), honoured with the prestigious award in 2023. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Fosse tells how he was overcome by fear when asked by his teachers to read aloud and how writing became a way to reclaim a voice: ‘In a way it was as if the fear took my language from me, and that I had to take it back, so to speak. And if I were to do that, it couldn’t be on other people’s terms, but on my own. I started to write my own texts, short poems, short stories. And I discovered that doing so, gave me a sense of safety, gave me the opposite of fear. In a way I found a place inside myself that was just mine, and from that place I could write what was just mine’. Language and the struggle to articulate one’s emotions and perspectives through it are central themes in Fosse’s plays and prose.

Nynorsk Voices

Fosse’s writing also exemplifies another significant facet of Norwegian literature through his use of Nynorsk, a written Norwegian variant that emerged in the nineteenth century.

Norwegian indeed counts a high number of dialects which follow either one of the two written variants: Bokmål (literally: ‘the language of the book’) and Nynorsk (‘New Norwegian’). In the nineteenth century, the political and cultural elite used Danish for both oral and written communication, but Norwegian dialects were spoken by around 95% of the population. After declaring its independence from Danish rule in 1814, Norwegian intellectuals sought to build a unique and unified Norwegian culture and language. There were three central positions defended by nationalists: keep speaking and writing in Danish (a solution which was ultimately rejected), developing a new written language based on Norwegian dialects, or ‘norwegianise’ Danish.

Knud Knudsen (1812-1895), a grammarian, had the goal of altering Danish orthography until it reflected the informal speech of the educated classes in Norway. It was established as a norm (Bokmål) with a spelling reform in 1907. Bokmål is used as a written form by 85% to 90% of the Norwegian population, but the spoken dialects can differ greatly.

Ivar Aasen (1813-1896) was a linguist and poet from rural Norway. Drawing from rural dialects in the western and central regions of southern Norway, he pioneered the language standard known as Landsmål, culminating in the publication of a grammar book in 1848. It was renamed Nynorsk in 1929.

A pioneer of adopting Nynorsk as a literary language was Arne Garborg (1851-1924). His literary and journalistic works provided an example for Nynorsk authors after him. His enthusiasm for and defence of rural dialects led to the official recognition of Landsmål (later Nynorsk) in 1885, even though his work was dismissed by some of his contemporaries. Garborg even translated The Odyssey into Nynorsk.

In the same vein, Olav H. Hauge (1908-1994) was a Nynorsk poet and translator. In 2016, his poem ‘Det er den draumen’ (‘It is that dream’, 1966), was chosen as the best Norwegian poem of all time by the national TV channel NRK. Hauge is praised for the expression of deep human concerns in his poetry, as well as his descriptions of nature, often in concrete language and in humorous ways.

A major figure of Norwegian modernism and Nynorsk is Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970). His 1957 novel Fuglane (The Birds), written in Nynorsk, tells the story of Mattis, who has a cognitive disability and lives with his sister in rural Norway. Vesaas described this novel as a self-portrait, a description of an artist longing to attain the ineffable as symbolised by the language of birds. He is also known for his symbolic novel Is-slottet from 1963 (The Ice Palace), and today he lends his name to a high-profile literary award for debutants.

Despite Bokmål being the majority written language, Nynorsk can pride itself of having a long and exceptional literary history.

Henrik Ibsen

portrait of Ibsen

Peterssen, Eilif, Henrik Ibsen, oil on canvas, Private collection, Oslo (1895)

Among all these extraordinary books (and this article has not even brushed on the collection’s holdings of the works by great authors like Alexander Kielland, Jonas Lie, Liv Køltzow, Aksel Sandemose, Tove Nilsen etc.), the Taylorian now holds many works by Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906). Ibsen is indisputably Norway’s most renowned playwright, appreciated for his nuanced character portrayals, often giving female protagonists the central role within his work. His play Et dukkehjem (A Doll’s House, 1879) scandalised European audiences by foregrounding the perspective of Nora, a young housewife, who leaves her husband and children when she realises that her marriage stilted her self-discovery.

In the exhibition, we made a deliberate choice not to place Ibsen at the centre, despite his renown. Instead, we aimed to present him alongside a diverse array of authors and networks that collectively define Norwegian literature. Ibsen, while undoubtedly significant, is just one captivating facet of the multifaceted and distinctive Norwegian literary heritage.

‘Writing Norwegian Literary Histories’ is an exploration of Norwegian literature, its linguistic richness, diverse voices, and varied thematic explorations. This exhibition represents only a part of the Marie Wells Collection and we do hope it will encourage students and readers to further explore Scandinavian literatures and histories.

With many thanks to Nick Hearn (Subject Librarian for French) and Emma Huber (Subject Librarian for German), the Taylor Institution Library, and TORCH for their support.

More information on the TORCH Critical-Thinking Community for Scandinavian Studies here:

Seeing Dante’s Commedia in Print from the Renaissance to Today: The Taylorian Collections

Together with the artist and printmaker Wuon Gean-Ho, two researchers from the sub-faculty of Italian, Rebecca Bowen and Simon Gilson, have been exploring the Taylorian collections of Renaissance print editions of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. This blog post highlights key aspects of those collections ahead of an exhibition of new artworks created by Wuon-Gean which will be displayed alongside these historical editions. The exhibition will run in the Voltaire Room from 14th June – 11th July 2024. A catalogue will be available through Taylor Editions.

The Taylor holds an astonishing collection of early print editions of Dante’s Commedia, published before 1600. These books, both beautiful and rare, represent an experimental and exciting era in the development of print as a medium and as a technology. With at least 27 different editions of or about the poem, studying the Taylor’s historical collections of Dante amounts to studying the history of the Commedia in early modern print more broadly. As well as striking illustrations and interesting paratexts, these volumes hold the histories of their former owners and readers, offering a journey that moves from Dante’s Florence, to sixteenth-century Venice, and on to Oxford in the nineteenth-century, as the examples examined in the following paragraphs show.

Title Pages. (Aldus, 1515: MOORE.1.G.1; Giolito, 1555: Moore 1.A.3)

Almost all of the early printed Dante’s in the Taylorian collections were published in Venice. This reflects a very real phenomenon in the early print history of the Commedia as the Venetian city state dominated production. The earliest printed copy of the Commedia in the Taylorian collections was produced by the German craftsman Windelin von Speyer, whose brother, although not himself born a Venetian, was the first printer to be granted a licence to print in the city (ARCH.FOL.IT.1477). This book was produced in 1477 and reflects the fact that print technology was still very experimental at that time. As scholars have noted, the body of the text is interrupted by several blank spaces. Looking back at older manuscripts we can see that, where this printed edition has blank spaces, earlier copies have hand-drawn diagrams. These scientific images did not accompany Dante’s poem but were part of the commentary by Iacomo della Lana, which is printed for the first time in this edition. These blanks remind us of the technological difficulty of reproducing images alongside text in the early era of printing.

Blank space. (Speyer, 1477: ARCH.FOL.IT.1477)

The first fully illustrated edition of the Commedia was also printed in Venice, nearly fifteenth years after the last edition, in 1491. The Taylorian has a copy of this book, published by Bernardo Benali and Matteo Capcasa di Parma (or Codecà), which contains an illustration for every canto of the poem (ARCH.FOL.IT.1491(1)). The Taylorian also has copies of several of the books that were produced after this edition, using the same or similar images and even replicating its setting of the text, including an edition printed by Pietro Quarengi in 1497 also in Venice. Quarengi’s edition uses some of same woodcuts made for Codecà’s earlier book, but also uses another set of blocks made for a rival edition, printed by Pietro di Piasi months after Codecà’s book in 1491 (ARCH.FOL.IT.1497(1)).


Inferno 1. (Codecà, 1491: ARCH.FOL.IT.1491(1))


Inferno 1. (Quarengi, 1497: ARCH.FOL.IT.1497(1))

Of the 25 editions of the Commedia published before 1600 and held in the Taylorian collections, only 7 were not printed in Venice. Two of these editions were printed in Florence, Dante’s hometown. They both reflect a strand of interest in Dante’s poem that was particularly popular in Florence in the 16th century when publishers and readers of Dante were increasingly excited about exploring the poem as a source of inspiration for scientific and mathematical hypotheses on locating and measuring hell. The earliest of these editions was printed by Filippo Giunta in 1506 and presents Dante’s poem along with a new treatise on the ‘Site, Shape, and Size of Hell’ (101.C.15).

The Taylor’s copy of this edition is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is missing Dante’s poem and only contains the treatise. Secondly, the final 8 leaves of the treatise are also missing and they have been replaced with very careful handwritten replicas, including a diagram that accurately reproduces the image in the print edition on a deliberately yellowed surface. Although this approach to conversation clashes with contemporary practices—now we would understand pages as an important part of the life of the object and not a deficit to be filled—it is common to find very accurate, hand-drawn inclusions of missing parts of text in manuscripts and early printed books.

Hand drawn replacement of missing pages. (Giunta, 1506: 101.C.15)

The second Florentine edition in the Taylorian collections was released by the Manzani printshop in 1595 and edited by the newly founded Accademia della Crusca, a scholarly society still operating today that opened its doors in 1593 (MOORE.1.B1). As well as a detailed map of the Inferno printed with the expensive technique of engraving, this edition offers specialized linguistic notes for readers interested in the poem’s textual variants. The edition is plagued with typographical errors, partly because many Academicians were invited to contribute to its creation.

As well as books printed in Venice and Florence, the Taylorian holds four editions of the Commedia printed in the French city of Lyon. These are evidence of the prolific trade between Northern Italy and South-Eastern France in the early modern period (101.C.2; VET.ITAL.I.A.158; 51.E.6.B; MOORE.1.A.7). These editions present Dante’s text in Italian and include new paratextual materials to help the reader navigate the text. They also experiment with small format publication, beginning with an octavo edition printed in 1502 that is an exact copy of a book first produced by the very popular Venetian printshop of Aldus Manutius (101.C.2); a smaller edition in 12mo which was printed by Jean de Tournes in 1547 (VET.ITAL.I.A.158); and an even smaller 16mo edition printed four different times by Guglielmo Rouillio (the Taylorian edition is from 1552: 51.E.6.B).

Title page, ‘La Divina Comedia di Dante’. (Giolito, 1555: MOORE.1.A.3)

Despite their small size, these editions offer the reader a detailed visual experience that includes woodcut illustrations and the use of ‘page ornaments’ to signal the start of different sections of text. Rather than staying in France, this aesthetic crossed back into Italy and influenced the page design in publications like Gabriele Giolito’s edition printed in Venice in 1555 (Moore 1.A.3). Instead of using the same paratextual materials as the ones printed in Lyon, Giolito’s book presents new summaries and interpretations alongside a new edition of the text produced by the scholar Ludovico Dolce. Dolce was engaged in deeply politicised discussions about Dante’s poem that raged between Venice, Florence, and Rome in the mid sixteenth-century and went so far as to implicate Dante in debates about the religious orthodoxy of his text. Defending Dante in this context, Dolce’s edition is the first to refer to the Commedia as ‘divina’ (divine), highlighting the word through prominent placing and framing at the top of the title page.

Title page. (Aldus, 1515: MOORE.1.G.1)

These small books were very much inspired by an edition esteemed for its elegance and simplicity, produced by the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. Although the Taylorian does not hold a copy of the first edition printed by Aldus in 1502, it does hold a copy of the second edition printed by Aldus in 1515 and claimed by the printer with his recognisable dolphin motif.

These collections are available for consultation and for study. As well as being of interest to students of Book History and Italian Studies, they present an opportunity for creative reflection on the history of poetry in print. For further information on the collections related to Dante and, in particular, more modern materials, consult the existing blog posts on images of the poet and audio files as well as the handbook for the 2021 exhibition ‘Illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy’, curated by Gervase Rosser and Claire Hills-Nova.

Far from forgotten fragments in the long print history of Dante’s Commedia, these rare books are testaments to the duration of interest in this medieval poem as an object of study and as a story that transcends national and regional boundaries, offering a poetic geography that to this day invites readers to imagine ‘otherworldly’ spaces in relation to their own worldly experiences.

Some of these books will be on display from 14th June – 11th July 2024 in the Voltaire Room alongside new artworks by Wuon Gean-Ho. This is the result of a TORCH Knowledge Exchange Innovation Fund. You can read more about the project at this link.

Old Frisian Summer School 2023: a student’s perspective

This summer, Oxford hosted the third edition of the Old Frisian Summer School. After a successful first edition, which was held in 2019, and an online edition in 2021, the OFSS saw its return to Oxford. The OFSS is a collaboration between the University of Oxford and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and is held once every two years in one of these historical university cities. Although this connection might not seem logical right away, both the Bodleian library in Oxford and the University Library in Groningen hold a considerable collection of Old Frisian manuscripts and both universities include departments in the field of Old Germanic and philology. This translates to the background of the participants of the OFSS: some being more advanced within the Old Germanic field, some new to the      field, yet      all being interested in what Old Frisian has to offer. A total of 35 participants travelled to Oxford, with English, Dutch, Czech, Danish, American and Chinese students (among others) being present. Meanwhile, for the first time, a handful of participants (14) attended the summer school online, following this edition from their homes elsewhere in the world, including Australia and the U.S.

OFSS: The programme

Dr Alex Kerkhof giving the second of three lectures on Old Frisian grammar

Dr Alex Kerkhof giving the second of three lectures on Old Frisian grammar

The summer school was structured with a couple of lectures taking place in the mornings and translation seminars in the afternoons. After the summer school was officially opened by organisers dr Johanneke Sytsema (Oxford) and mr. Anne Popkema MA (Groningen), dr Alex Kerkhof (Fryske Akademy, Leeuwarden) started the first of three lectures on Old Frisian grammar and its place within Old Germanic languages.  Old Frisian, an Ingveonic or North Sea Germanic language, bears close resemblance to Old English. Old Frisian used to be spoken in large areas along the current Dutch and German coasts, from the river Sincfal in the south to the river Weser in the east. All surviving manuscripts and text fragments originate from the Frisian lands east of the river Vlie and west of the river Weser. This includes nowadays East Frisia in Germany, the Dutch provinces of Groningen and, finally, Fryslân. The oldest manuscripts date back to the 12th century.

Historical range of Frisian-speaking areas. Note that there are still three Frisian-speaking areas; the province of Fryslân in the Netherlands, North Frisia in Germany and Saterland, also in Germany.

Historical range of Frisian-speaking areas. Note that there are still three Frisian-speaking areas; the province of Fryslân in the Netherlands, North Frisia in Germany and Saterland, also in Germany. URL link:

Hilbert Vinkenoog in the Old Dining Hall of St. Edmund Hall on early medieval Anglo-Frisian connections

Hilbert Vinkenoog in the Old Dining Hall of St. Edmund Hall on early medieval Anglo-Frisian connections

The grammar lectures and translation seminars were alternated with lectures focusing on the sociohistorical background. Historian Hilbert Vinkenoog (known for his YouTube channel History with Hilbert) enlightened the audience on the Anglo-Frisian connections and Frisian settlements in early medieval England, explaining how the Frisians might even have had settlements on the Faroe Islands, taking part in a local feud. Local Faroese nursery rhymes still bear Frisian aspects in them! Prof. Andreas Deutsch (Heidelberg) delved into the place of Old Frisian law within the Old Germanic legal landscape, elaborating on the widely recorded Frisian fine registers. These fine registers entail large sets of different crimes and the fines that needed to be paid in order to compensate for these crimes. For example, if one were to cut off his neighbour’s ear, he or she would need to pay the neighbour a certain amount of money. The extensiveness and details of the Old Frisian fine registers makes them truly unique within the Old Germanic legal landscape.

Dr Rafael Pascual in the Taylorian Library on Germanic Philology

Dr Rafael Pascual in the Taylorian Library on Germanic Philology

On Wednesday, Dr Rafael Pascual (Oxford) gave a practical introduction into Germanic philology in the Taylorian Library, discussing various view on the Indo-European language tree and on related linguistic theories. Prof. Arjen Versloot (Amsterdam and Groningen) joined the summer school online, highlighting innovative research methods on determining the age of Old Frisian texts in Codex Unia, one example of a typical Old Frisian compilation between Old Frisian texts and manuscripts. Since the texts are mainly legal in nature, on Friday, Prof. Simon Horobin (Oxford) delved deeper into Old English and Old Frisian studies by Franciscus Junius (1591-1677), whose collection of various Old Frisian manuscripts is kept in the Bodleian Library.

Participants during the translation workshops in the Old Library of St. Edmund Hall

Participants during the translation workshops in the Old Library of St. Edmund Hall

The translation workshops increased in difficulty during the week: at the start, texts such as the Ten Commandments were translated, along with grammar assignments to familiarise participants with Old Frisian morphology and syntax. Although translating was the main focus during these seminars, other aspects of working with medieval texts and manuscripts were also highlighted. Making a critical edition out of a diplomatic edition from part of the early printing of the Freeska Londriucht, for example, proved not to be as easy as one would have thought.


Codex Aysma (ms. Junius 78) on display in the Weston Library

Codex Aysma (ms. Junius 78) on display in the Weston Library

While most of the OFSS took place in St. Edmund Hall, which accommodated most of the participants, the participants were also welcomed wholeheartedly in the Taylorian and Weston libraries for lectures, manuscript viewings and tours. In the Weston Library, two Old Frisian manuscripts were viewed (Codex Aysma and Codex Unia), which were originally brought to England in the 17th century by philologist Franciscus Junius. In addition, two copies of the incunabulum Freeska Londriucht also known as ‘Druk’ were also shown. Physically viewing these manuscripts was, perhaps, the highlight of the summer school, as it gave most participants a clearer view and example of what they had previously learned: how are manuscripts written and produced, why certain texts featured in it, how the manuscripts survived, who were their owners, and, most importantly, what exactly do the texts in the manuscript entail? In short, the manuscript viewing brought the content of the Old Frisian Summer School to life.

Old Frisian and Old English cognates

Old Frisian was taught in the context of other Old Germanic languages, especially Old English which with Old Frisian forms the Anglo-Frisian branch of West Germanic.  The tables below show some of the similarities. In the verb conjugation, the personal pronouns are very similar and the present tense endings are near-identical (far/faran).  The verb ‘to be’ had two stems in Old English. The Old Frisian paradigm shows stems correlating both to OE stems wessan and beon. Learning Old Frisian was an interesting experience for those who already knew some Old English.

Example of the present tense of some key verbs in Old Frisian and Old English

pronouns OFR/OE Wessa (to be) OFR wesan – beon (to be) OE Fara

(to go) OFR


(to go) OE

1st singular ic – ic bin eom – beo fare fare
2nd singular thu – þu bist eart – bist ferest færest
3rd singular hi – he is is – biþ fereth færeþ
1st plural wi – we sind sind – beoþ farath faraþ
2nd plural ji / jemman – ge/ye sind sind – beoþ farath faraþ
3rd plural hia – hie sind sind – beoþ farath faraþ

Example of  some Modern Frisian-English cognate nouns

Old Frisian Modern Frisian Modern English
Ku / ko Ko Cow
Jeft(e) Jefte Gift
Gren(e) Grien Green
Morn Moarn Morning
Hors Hynder Horse

A mix of academia, culture & leisure

The OFSS did not only provide its participants with the opportunity to delve deeper into this gem among Old Germanic languages, it also allowed for a unique glimpse into Oxford university life for those who had not experienced that before. In addition to the formal programme, tours of the Taylorian & Bodleian & St. Edmund Hall Libraries were hosted, to give participants an insight into the enormous variety of books and knowledge that are held there. Furthermore, a pub quiz on Monday, a Conference Dinner on Wednesday and punting on Saturday were the ‘icing on the cake’ of a week that was not only informative, insightful and fascinating, but also much fun. All kinds of participants, older and younger, with diverse backgrounds, interests and research fields met during this week in Oxford, paving the way for a very vibrant, valuable atmosphere, for interesting conversations and for new networks.

The 2023 Old Frisian Summer School participants before the Conference Dinner in St. Edmund Hall

The 2023 Old Frisian Summer School participants before the Conference Dinner in St. Edmund Hall


As the past editions of the OFSS have proven to be successful, each with their own programme, content and with their own activities, the 2025 edition is the first one that will be held in Groningen in person. This new décor will make for a totally new experience, as Groningen is in the middle of the area that used to be Old Frisian speaking centuries ago. Manuscripts, both in Groningen and Leeuwarden, will be viewed and historically significant sites such as the Upstalsbam in Aurich (Germany), the Frisian and Groninger terpen (dwelling mounds) and the Frisian eleven cities will be within reach when the OFSS will take place at Groningen.

Further reading

To get a glimpse of what the OFSS2023 looked like, take a look at the after movie on our Instagram account:

For more information on the 2019 edition of the OFSS, Old Frisian in general, and the connection between the University of Oxford and the University of Groningen, see Dr Johanneke Sytsema’s Taylorian Blog of September 2019 (

A link to the video about Frisians on the Faroe Islands on the History with Hilbert YouTube channel:

References to the handbooks used in the OFSS

Hofmann, D. & A.T, Popkema (2008) : Altfriesisches Handwörtebuch. Heidelberg: Winter Verlag.

Bremmer, R.H. (2009) Introduction to Old Frisian: history, grammar, reader, glossary. Amsterdam/Philadelphia : John Benjamins.


Sierd Prins,
OFSS Conference assistant,
Groningen University

An exhibition of the Taylor Institution’s collection of Georges de Peyrebrune’s Works

Marie Martine, DPhil in Modern Languages (German and French)

Georges de Peyrebrune, Woman. Writer. Feminist is an exhibition currently on display at the Taylor Institution (Voltaire Room) from 12th October until 26th October. It showcases the Taylor’s unique collection of Georges de Peyrebrune’s works.

Georges de Peyrebrune was born Mathilde Marie Georgina Elisabeth de Peyrebrune Judicis on the 18th of April 1841 in the Dordogne as an illegitimate child. She marries at the age of 18 a man ten years older than her, and their marriage is an unhappy one. She starts publishing in regional journals soon after and goes to Paris after the 1870 war, at 30 years old. Despite her literary success, Georges de Peyrebrune will struggle all her life with money and will die in poverty, in 1917. This exhibition is a tribute to her work and feminist engagement.

Because of Peyrebrune having been forgotten and erased from the French literary canon, her works are difficult to access. The Taylor Institution’s collection of her works is therefore unique in the United Kingdom as it holds several first editions of Peyrebrune’s works, as well as a wide range of digitalized ones. In the exhibition, visitors can find first editions of her novels Gatienne (1882), Au Pied du mât (1899), and of the short story ‘Giselle’ (1892). It also shows the new editions of her most successful novel, Victoire la Rouge (1883, republished in 2020), De Fouillis-les-Oies à Paris. Odyssée burlesque (1878) and Jupiter et les bas-bleu (1894). The exhibition also showcases Sarah Bernhardt’s autobiography Ma Double vie (1907) and several texts by the decadent writer Rachilde, both contemporaries of Peyrebrune.

Why rediscover Georges de Peyrebrune today?

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Firstly, Georges de Peyrebrune’s trajectory tells us about what it means to be a woman and a writer in nineteenth-century France. Writers like George Sand and Madame de Staël, among others, have certainly paved the way for the next generation of women wanting to make a career out of writing; but men still reproach women to be too fragile and sentimental. Additionally, writing is seen as a distraction from women’s sole duty: motherhood. It is well-known that women of the time used different strategies to access the literary market: writing under a male pseudonym or using their husbands’ or fathers’ names, under initials, or anonymously. Peyrebrune chose the unisex name of ‘Georges’ that is derived from her birth name, Georgina, but which we can see as a tribute to many other women writers who chose the name George as well. These strategies, however, are limited: the Decadent writer, Barbey d’Aurevilly, claims he can ‘smell’ a woman writer from a book, because the feminine smell always betrays itself, even if the author used a male pseudonym. He uses the qualifier ‘bas-bleu’ to negatively designate women with literary ambitions, a name derived directly from the English ‘blue stockings’. For him and numerous of his contemporaries, women are physically incapable to write books comparable to those by men and are to be labelled as ‘hysterical’. This sexist discourse reveals male anxieties in fin-de-siècle France: not only did men worry about women getting out of their dedicated sphere, the household and motherhood, but they also worried about women writers becoming serious competitors on the literary market.

title page of RomanGeorges de Peyrebrune is aware of those discourses and she proudly reappropriates the term ‘bas-bleu’ to designate herself and her peers. She directly responds to those male anxieties in her play Jupiter et les Bas-bleu published in 1894, which has been republished by Jean-Paul Socard and Lydia de Haro Hernandez (displayed in the exhibition). In this comic play, she stages Emile Zola, one of the main literary figures of the time,  under the traits of Jupiter, posing as a judge putting her contemporaries on trial. Well-known women writers defend themselves in front of an ruthless judge who reject women’s ability to write on principle. The text ends with his definitive judgement: ‘elles n’enteront jamais à l’Académie !’. This is unfortunately true: the French Academy will only admit women as their members in 1980. Ironically, Zola himself will never get admitted either! What is interesting with this recently republished text is that Georges de Peyrebrune smartly mocks the anxieties of men writers fearing the competition from women. She debunks their pseudo-scientific arguments to justify women’s exclusion from public life and shows that the women of her generation have proven their ability to write.

It is also worth noting that Georges de Peyrebrune herself was awarded the prize of the Académie Française twice in her life, once in 1896 for Vers l’amour and another time in 1899 for Au pied du mât (displayed in the exhibition). This institutional recognition shows that she was read and appreciated by her contemporaries. Even if many best-sellers of any period have been forgotten and might not be interesting for us as contemporary readers, it is important to recognize that the erasure of women writers from our canon is complex and cannot be justified by saying that women’s writing was less qualitative and interesting than their male contemporaries’. Rediscovering Georges de Peyrebrune thus means rediscovering an author who was deeply aware of the contemporary discourses on femininity and authorship and who used literature to counter sexist ideas.

Secondly, Peyrebrune’s literary career gives us a glimpse of feminine and feminist literary networks of the Belle Epoque. Peyrebrune’s correspondence show that she stood in solidarity with other women writers and tried to build a literary network made of women. We unfortunately have few archives left from Georges de Peyrebrune, but some letters she received enable us to see how her contemporaries considered her as a generous mentor figure. For instance, in a letter from September 1912, Julia Daudet (the wife of the well-known writer Alphonse Daudet) asks Peyrebrune to support the publication of another woman writer. She writes: ‘Pourquoi favoriser toujours le travail masculin qui a toutes les chances, toutes les facilités ? […] Enfin je m’adresse à vous dont l’œuvre est toute généreuse et remarquable à tant de titres, dans un élan de justice féminine ou féministe, si vous aimez mieux’ (Why always favour men’s work which has all the chances, all the opportunities? […] I address you whose work is so generous and remarkable in so many ways, in a spirit of feminine or feminist justice, if you prefer). Here, Daudet reflects on the numerous opportunities given to men to get their works published and publicized, compared to the few women get. I also find her conscious choice of the word ‘feminist’ very telling: Peyrebrune’s ambition to have the value of women’s writing recognized as a feminist project. Daudet’s letter also demonstrates her confidence in Peyrebrune’s influence, highlighting that we are dealing with a respected and influential player on the literary market. Other letters from Georges de Peyrebrune’s correspondence show her as ready to help young writers by sharing her contacts within the publishing world and by giving them advice. One could think that in a society so hostile to women’s writing, the few who dared to publish would jealously protect their secret, but Georges de Peyrebrune was clearly a woman who valued other talents and strived to help other writers.

This work towards promoting women’s writing led Georges de Peyrebrune to be part of the first jury of the Prix de la Vie Heureuse. In 1904, several feminist and women intellectuals were tired to see that the prestigious Prix Goncourt was again given to a man despite the talent of a potential female candidate Myriam Harry with her novel La Conquête de Jérusalem. They thus decided to build their own literary prize to finally recognize and reward women’s talents, as well as encourage contacts among women writers. Among Georges de Peyrebrune, we find in the jury Anna de Noailles, Julia Daudet, Daniel Lesueur, Marcelle Tinayre, Gabrielle Réval, Séverine and Lucie Delarue-Maldrus all brilliant and influential writers of the time and well-established on the Parisian literary scene. This prize will become the Femina prize in 1917 and is still awarded today.

Her friendship with her contemporary, Rachilde, is also fascinating. Both women had opposite worldviews and ways to respond to literary trends of their time, but their literary ambitions brought them together. Both come from the Périgord and tried their luck as writers in Paris. At first, Georges de Peyrebrune appears as a mentor for the young Rachilde who tries to navigate the capital city and its literary circles. As she marries Alfred Valette, director of the influential journal Mercure de France, Rachilde gains more influence. It was now Georges de Peyrebrune’s turn to ask for Rachilde’s support through her literary critiques to publicize Peyrebrune’s new publications.

title page of "Une Décadente"Rachilde is known for being ‘the queen of the Decadents’ in fin-de-siècle France. She scandalized French audiences with her bold portraits of independent and sadistic heroines in her novels Monsieur Vénus (1889) and La Marquise de Sade (1887). Interestingly, she claimed loud and clear that she was not a feminist and often refused to be associated with other women writers, instead calling herself ‘homme de lettres’ (man of letters). Her pamphlet Pourquoi je ne suis pas féministe (1908 – a signed first edition is displayed in the exhibition) illustrates her anti-feminist stance, but this text could also be interpreted as a marketing move to make herself relevant. Georges de Peyrebrune, on the contrary, clearly revendicated to be a feminist, but her female characters can seem rather tame compared to the ones of Rachilde. Rachilde published several critiques of Georges de Peyrebrune’s novels in the Mercure de France and underlined her moralising tone. Georges de Peyrebrune makes Rachilde appear under fictional traits in the novel Une Décadente (The Decadent Woman – displayed in the exhibition) in which she criticizes the morbid values of the Decadents. A friendship between the two can thus seem quite surprising, but their letters (see Nelly Sanchez’s edition of Georges de Peyrebrune’s correspondence, Correspondance. De La Société des gens de lettres au jury du prix Vie heureuse from 2016) show that they shared worries and advice on how to navigate the Parisian literary circles, making for a true literary friendship.

Finally, Peyrebrune’s concern with sexual violence in her fiction makes her works strikingly relevant for readers today. In a letter from June 1886, addressed to Georges de Peyrebrune, Rachilde mentions the way sexual harassment is a banal occurrence for young women writers: ‘En bonne franchise, quand une femme de lettres n’est pas une catin il faut au moins qu’elle puisse avoir l’air de l’être et au fond vous ne pouvez pas trop me donner tort, vous qui connaissez notre siècle’ (To be perfectly frank, when a woman of letters is not a whore, she at least needs to look like one and you cannot really disagree with me, you know our century all too well). All have to deal with unwanted sexual advances from publishers and journalists and sometimes have to compromise to get published. Georges de Peyrebrune deals with this issue in Le Roman d’un bas-bleu (The novel of a Blue-Stockings, 1892) which tells the destiny of a young writer who falls into despair as she refuses to compromise her self-worth for literary success. This novel poignantly reflects the debates started by the #MeToo movement which unveiled the harassment and abuse faced by women, particularly in their professional lives. Already in the nineteenth century, Georges de Peyrebrune denounced this harassment and how it kept women from accessing the public sphere as equals to men. Her message strongly resonates with contemporary debates.

This is not the only aspect which makes Peyrebrune’s works worth rediscovering today: as you will see in the exhibition, Georges de Peyrebrune wrote across genres, always finding new styles to reflect sometimes with humor, other times with pathos, on issues of class, sexuality, and modernity. We hope this exhibition will encourage more readers to discover this fascinating figure of French literature whose versatile style and political messages deserve to be rediscovered today.

You can listen to the episode from the French History Podcast on Georges de Peyrebrune to learn more information on her trajectory as a woman writer in fin-de-siècle France:

With many thanks to Nick Hearn, French Subject Librarian, Taylor Institution Library.

An example of Vytynanka, an ornamental decoration of a dwelling, which is cut out of paper (both white and coloured) .

Pioneering women in Ukraine

Text: Clara McGrane
Images: Olena Marchyshyna

Pioneering Women in Ukraine is an exhibition currently on display at the Taylor Institution Library from 25th January until 19th May 2023. It showcases the stories of fourteen women from Ukraine’s past and present.

Seven women, who were historically pioneers in their fields, are paired with seven contemporary trailblazers. Each pair is linked by a shared background such as activism, military service, medicine or education. All are connected by the important role they played in Ukrainian women’s history. The seven figures, with their different professions, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, and sexual identities, provide a snapshot of Ukrainian society. However, the exhibition aims to be neither representative nor canon-shaping. Rather, it is positioned as just one amongst a range of projects promoting women’s achievements.

The exhibition is an outcome of a collaborative project, funded by the UKRI Global Challenges Research Fund, the University of St Andrews and Heinrich Boell Foundation, Ukraine.  Starting in 2020, this project was led by Dr Margarita Vaysman (School of Modern Languages, St Andrews) and her Ukraine-based collaborators: Dr Tamara Zlobina and Anna Dovgopol at Gender in Detail, a media platform that aims to promote the understanding of gender issues in Ukraine, and Dasha Nepochatova at Creative Women Space, a collective that provides a platform for projects that empower women.

This exhibition draws attention to the stereotypical ways in which women are portrayed in national histories and to general preconceptions that form as a result of this limited representation. Dasha Nepochatova, co-founder of Creative Women Space and the co-curator, along with Dr Vaysman, of the exhibition, emphasises that the team wanted to showcase the ‘complexity of these women’s lives’: their relationships, duties and achievements. The exhibition aims to make these women’s stories more widely known whilst championing different perspectives. According to Nepochatova, the power of this visible female representation is particularly important: ‘What can inspire women in Ukraine? Particularly those from very rural and poor villages. How can they believe in themselves? What can help them? I strongly believe that such stories, true stories, of women in the past who achieved great things and did so in spite of the challenges they faced are so important. It shows that if they did it, you can too.’

Each woman’s story is brought to life by the Ukrainian artist and graphic designer Olena Marchyshyna. Using the traditional paper-cutting method of vytynanka, Marchyshyna created individual portraits of the fourteen women to accompany their short biographies, also on display alongside the striking images. As Marchyshyna explains, she chose the vytynanka technique to reflect the project’s goal:

An example of Vytynanka, an ornamental decoration of a dwelling, which is cut out of paper (both white and coloured) . ‘Vytynanka is one of the traditional decorative arts in Ukraine. It first appeared in China, where people started to cut patterns from the moment when paper was invented. However, this idea came to us in the west in the mid-nineteenth century. Vytynanka is an ornamental decoration of a dwelling, which is cut out of paper (both white and coloured) using a knife or scissors. Vytynanka in Ukraine was used to decorate various corners of a home, such as windows, walls, shelves, etc. The idea of using vytynanka as a technique for working on the project was a team decision. I believe that this technique best emphasises the fact that women are sometimes “invisible”, and “unrepresented” in social life. It can be as difficult for women who “carved” new paths for themselves as it is to see a vytynanka on a blank sheet of paper. It requires illumination, manifestation, and highlighting of the silhouette to make it visible. The goal of this project was to highlight the important role of women in Ukraine by illuminating, highlighting, and displaying their stories.’

The use of vytynanka links each portrait, providing a sense of cohesion and connection. Yet, with their varied backgrounds and striking headshots that capture the spirit of their subjects, the portraits are noticeably individual, at the same time. This reflects Marchyshyna’s creative process: ‘It was an intriguing exploration for me, particularly when dealing with historical figures. I conducted extensive research in the archives, studied biographies of these women, and photographs (if available), to envision where the heroines lived, how they dressed, and what they might have liked. Afterwards, I selected the patterns that, I believed, would best accentuate their individual identities. With the contemporary heroines, I made sure that the images I chose personally appealed to them and accurately reflected their characters.’

The exhibition contains another, fifteenth portrait, titled ‘The Unknown Ukrainian Woman’. This image represents the exclusion of women’s experiences from Ukrainian history and emphasises the need to champion female voices. For Marchyshyna, creating this image

‘was the most difficult task, as I needed to reflect everyone in one image: my own generation of Ukrainian women, as well as our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. I wanted the heroine to have a direct, strong gaze, so that she would not forget her roots, that she is Ukrainian, proud of it, and that she can achieve her goals by walking her path with dignity and relying on the experience of many generations of Ukrainian women.’

Portrait, titled ‘The Unknown Ukrainian Woman’According to the curators, ‘Pioneering Women in Ukraine’ showcases women’s innovative contribution to Ukrainian history: ‘I’ve always connected this project with my story and my experience. I often wonder if somebody will remember us in one hundred years. I believe that it is our duty to find the story of women who came before us. We are a kind of pyramid. We are standing on the shoulders of each other. What we have right now – it is only because they worked so hard to get it for us. It is our duty to find their names, to dig them up and talk about them. Even if there is very little information. It’s very important. Without this, we can’t expect that future generations will remember us’, says Nepochatova.

After the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022, Dasha Nepochatova, Olena Marchyshyna, as well as many other Ukrainian women, were forced to leave their homes and have found refuge abroad. This exhibition is a small token of respect for these women’s continuous fortitude in the face of war, death, and destruction.

The Pioneering Women in Ukraine Exhibition has been produced with the financial and organisational support from St Catherine’s College, Oxford, and Barbara Costa, St Catherine’s college librarian, in 2022. We would also like to acknowledge the help of Elisabet Almunia (Bodleian Libraries Finance and Administration Officer), Matthew Smith (Taylor Institution Library Premises Supervisor) who put up the portraits so expertly and Dr Johanneke Sytsema (Linguistics and Dutch and Frisian subject specialist) who coordinates the Taylorian blog.  The exhibition is currently on loan to the Taylor Institution Library before it transfers to Scotland in autumn 2023. The digital version of this exhibition can be found here in Ukrainian and in English (translated by Dr Sasha Dovzhyk).

screenshot of digital edition

Digitising the European Cult of Saint Margarete of Antioch

Reposted from the History of the Book blog.

“Launch” of the completed edition at the Weston Library Coffee Morning on 11 November 2022 (Lucian Shepherd presenting from the Bibelsaal of the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel)

One Wednesday afternoon, Week 1 of Trinity term 2022, I was perusing through the Digital Bodleian database. Having finally set aside the time for Emma Huber’s Taylor Edition course, I was in search of a text to edit. When I first came across Douce MM 493, my interest was instantly piqued with its printed illustrations and hagiographical content, namely a Middle French ‘Life of Saint Margarete of Antioch’. However, as soon as I started scanning through the other folios, I very quickly found much more than Middle French. It contained folios in Middle English, Dutch, Latin and even some woodcuts cut out of an Early Modern Spanish text, and what ties them all together is their joint focus on St Margarete of Antioch. It was at that moment that I knew — this was the text for me.

Figure 1: MS Douce MM 493, Upper flyleaf verso and fol. A2r

Digital Humanities is an area of research which I have only recently discovered. In Oxford, we are quite fortunate to be in the company of many researchers who do use and lecture on digital techniques such as textual encoding, quantitative analysis, and stemmatics. Last year, I attended a ‘History of the Book’ digital launch which showcased the work of graduate students who had digitised their own selected texts, such as Philippe de Thaon’s Bestiary encoded in TEI P5 XML by Sebastian Dows-Miller (Oxford, Merton College Library, MS 249). (For more on this text, see Sebastian Dow-Miller’s post.) This was a truly eye-opening experience for me as Digital Humanities represented a way to merge my passion for language and literature with the mathematical side of me which I had left behind at A-level. After a discussion with Emma Huber, I knew this was an area I wanted to explore.

As two Oxford terms flew by, I felt the growing sense of urgency to start the course this Trinity term before the stress of fourth year, and now that I had finally found a suitable text, I felt more enthused than ever. To summarise briefly the main contents of the miscellany, I have laid them out as bullet points below:

  • Front and rear endleaves: Two woodcuts of the life of St Margaret taken from Pedro de la Vega’s ‘Flos sanctorum’, Medina del Campo, 1578.
  • ff. A2r – B8v: A printed Middle French ‘La Vie de sainte Marguerite’ from c.1495? with woodcuts throughout.  It, however, is missing folio A8.
  • ff. 2r – 5v: Folios 2 and 5 of a fragmentary printed Middle English ‘Life of Saint Margarete’, suggested to be from 1493.
  • pp. 369 – 372: Two folios from a Dutch book ‘Den Roomschen Uylen-Spiegel’, ed. J. Lydius (Dordrecht, 1671), containing a hymn for St Margaret in Latin and in Dutch.
Figure 2: MS Douce MM 493, Lower flyleaf recto

The main reason for the eclectic nature of this miscellany is its collector, Francis Douce (1757–1834). Well known by archivists for perfecting the “cut-and-paste” technique, he often disassembled volumes and cut out woodcuts to be glued down in other copies or held in guard books for fragments. This can best be seen here with the front and rear woodcuts bound into the volume and on the lower flyleaf recto where you can see an image, the size of a stamp, glued on to the page. For more on Douce, see his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

When looking for a suitable text, I learned that there are a number of points which you should consider: Firstly, it should be of a suitable length to transcribe and encode over the time period of the project, in this case the eight weeks of an Oxford term. Secondly, it should be a manageable project with a clear plan from the start. You might think about whether you are going to transcribe the whole text or only an extract from it and which codicological features you are going to include, such as marginalia, shifting hands (i.e. scribes), and ownership inscriptions. Thirdly, you of course must consider any ethical and legal issues which may arise. For example, you should always doublecheck the copyright license of any text or photo you plan on using, as any derivative work, such as a digital critical edition, would still fall under the license’s jurisdiction. For this reason, I chose to work with a text held by the Bodleian libraries, which was out of copyright and already digitised so I did not need to worry about taking images of the volume myself either.

Figure 3: MS Douce MM 493, fol. A6r in Digital Bodleian

The second hurdle to overcome was how to transcribe the text. Transcription is when you record whatever is on the pages of a text, either very literally or with some leniency. I ended up choosing to make two transcriptions: one diplomatic which corresponded strongly with the text, and one standardised which I edited to make more readable and accessible. Thus, my edition could be used by an audience with a broader range of experience with Middle French. One particular advantage that this twofold approach had was that it highlighted common contemporary writing and printing practices, such as a lack of distinction between i’s and j’s, and u’s and v’s, and the frequent mixing up of u’s and n’s by the typesetter. For example, I struggled over the word ‘duue’ on fol. A6r (see the image above the title) which could be read as either ‘duve’ or ‘dune’, before realising that it was meant to be ‘d’une’. Whilst I did start transcribing entirely by “eye”, I discovered mid-way through Week 2 a platform called ‘Transkribus’ which uses Artificial Intelligence to recognise text and transcribe it. While a free version is accessible to anyone, you can also use pre-paid credits to train the software yourself to recognise a particular typeface or hand for a large corpus of texts, thus making it an effective time-saving tool for quantitative research. For MS Douce MM 493, its free AI models were very effective for the Middle English and Dutch parts, producing very few errors. Hence, I found the best approach to be a combination of the latest technology and a trained eye glancing from folio back to Word document.

Figure 4: MS Douce MM 493, p.372.

Having completed both versions of my transcription and painstakingly perfected them under the guidance of Professor Daron Burrows and my dear friend, Michael Angerer, it was time to encode. Whilst I was certainly hesitant at first, I would say to any prospective course participants, “Don’t be so scared!” Following the TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) guidelines is not as complicated as you might think. TEI is a type of XML (Extensible Markup Language) used to describe our data (here: an early printed text transcription) which can then be read and interpreted by a computer. Through a set of guidelines agreed upon by the TEI community, a consistent standard can be adhered to with fixed meanings, as defined in the online guidelines. For example, the following line describes the catchword ‘Dat’ on p. 372 of MS Douce MM 493:

<fw type=”catch” place=”bottom-right”>Dat</fw>

<fw> is an element which stands for ‘forme work’ and describes headers, footers, catchwords, etc. The type attribute specifies the type of ‘forme work’ (here: a catchword) and the place attribute describes the location of the ‘forme work’ on the page. The marked-up XML document can then be transformed via XSLT (Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations) into various other formats such as HTML for a webpage, PDF, or EPUB for a publication. For my project, TEI enabled the text to become a searchable critical edition as opposed to mere online facsimiles. Looking to the future, both the Middle French and Middle English verse narratives can now be used for linguistic analysis to compare with other versions of the ‘Life of Saint Margarete of Antioch’. In addition, this could further lead to stemmatological research where you examine the codicological relationships between the various versions in terms of time, language, and degree of influence, etc. Hence, textual encoding is just as important as transcription as it opens up new methodologies for research in the humanities.

Figure 5: MS Douce C subt. 249, fol. clxl

Once the encoding was complete and I had checked through everything again, my digital edition was ready for publication. What at first seemed to be a challenging project was now a complete critical edition, free for anyone to access and use. Over the course of these eight weeks, I have even been fortunate enough to be able to examine my volume up close, see its beauty in real life and then try to highlight its most interesting features through digitisation. At times, this project has almost become like a detective game, questioning how accurate the catalogue entry is and hunting down other copies in Oxford for comparison (metadata can be found both in the entry for La vie de sainte Marguerite [French] and for The Life of St. Margaret [English verse]). For example, whilst the catalogue entry claims that the Spanish woodcuts are connected to MS Douce adds. 125, I can say with near absolute certainty that this is not true. Out of the three editions of Pedro de la Vega’s ‘Flos sanctorum’ held in the Bodleian Libraries (MS Douce C subt. 249, MS Douce adds. 125, and MS Balliol College Library, St Cross, 0550 e 05), only MS Douce C subt. 249 contains a printed illustration of St Margarete of Antioch which corresponds exactly with the rear endleaf woodcut (see above and the rear woodcut), thus proving that the woodcut was cut out from this version of ‘Flos sanctorum’. Through the Taylor Edition course, I have learnt a lot about the history of this miscellany: compiled in the 19th century, yet stretching from the late 15thcentury Middle French verses to the 19th century note on the upper flyleaf, and now available for all future students to read and admire for its eclectic nature.

To see my digital edition of MS Douce MM 493, click this link.

Figure 6: MS Douce MM 493, p. 372 on the Taylor Editions website

For more on the numerous ‘Vies de sainte Marguerite’, see their entry on ARLIMA (Archives de littérature du Moyen Âge)

For more on the Middle English ‘Life of Saint Margaret’, see the catalogue entry and this entry in the Digital Index of Middle English Verse. I also later found a transcription from the University of Otago with some interesting metadata.

Lucian Shepherd is a 2nd year undergraduate student at Oriel College, University of Oxford . He studies Modern Languages (French and German) and is hoping to pursue a career in academia in the future.

Exhibition launch poster

Violent Victorian Medievalism

Taylor Institution Library, 21st Nov-2 Dec 2022 and online

medievalism, n.

‘the reception, interpretation or recreation of the European Middle Ages in post-medieval cultures’

Louise D’Arcens, 2016

‘Violent Victorian Medievalism’ was an exhibition which took place at the Taylor Institution Library (21st November-2nd December 2022) and continues online. It tells part of the story of how ‘medieval’ often becomes synonymous with ‘violent’ in later responses to the Middle Ages by bringing together some of the Bodleian’s collection of Victorian and Edwardian English-language adaptations of the Nibelungenlied and related material. These publications are accompanied by eye-catching images, often focusing on some of the more violent aspects of the narrative.

The Nibelungenlied is the most famous medieval German version of a collection of heroic legends known also in various Scandinavian incarnations. It tells of the hero Siegfried, his courtship of the Burgundian princess, Kriemhild, and his involvement in facilitating the marriage between Kriemhild’s brother, King Gunther, and the warrior queen, Brünhild. Siegfried is subsequently betrayed and murdered by Gunther and Hagen, the king’s vassal. The widowed Kriemhild subsequently marries Etzel, King of the Huns, and engineers a catastrophic revenge, resulting in the complete annihilation of the Burgundian men.

Rediscovered in the eighteenth century, the Nibelungenlied was quickly acclaimed the German national epic, but over the course of the nineteenth century, various anglophone writers also identified it as their own cultural inheritance, based on a belief in a shared so-called Germanic ancestry. Particularly after the premiere of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, English-language adaptations proliferated, often illustrated, and many aimed at children. While – given the Nibelungenlied’s plot – references to violence are unavoidable in adaptations, it is striking how often editors or adapters chose to highlight these events in illustration.


Panel 1: Doomed Heroes

Here we see heroes who will not go on to triumph, whether they are to meet their deaths in a blaze of glory, or as a result of betrayal. Two images show Hagen’s cowardly murder of the great hero, Siegfried, whose strength and invulnerability mean that he can only be destroyed through deception. One image shows Hagen’s desperate and violent attempt to disprove a dreadful prophecy that all but one of the Burgundians are doomed, should they continue with their journey. The other images depict the Burgundian warriors, fighting unrelentingly in the face of certain death. This panel shows courage and pathos, bravery and treachery, and it tells a complex tale: Hagen is the aggressor in several of the images, yet one of the valiant warriors fighting against the odds in the others.

The Nibelungenlied was viewed as the German national epic, but anglophone writers often also staked their own claims to it. The underdog’s struggle against immeasurable odds is a frequent feature of national narratives, including in this country, and we see here warriors depicted at their defining moment, characterised not necessarily by their virtues or achievements, but by their most desperate experiences.

Panel 2: Women and Violence

The chief architect of much of the violence in the Nibelungenlied is the beautiful Queen Kriemhild, seeking revenge for Siegfried’s death. This was a source of difficulty for many nineteenth-century adapters, who sought variously to make an example of her, to make excuses for her, or to rehabilitate her entirely. But even where there was an attempt to explain her actions, the temptation to depict her at her most transgressive – brandishing the decapitated head of her brother – was almost irresistible. And the scale of that transgression also gave illustrators licence to depict Kriemhild’s own violent death, with her final victim, Hagen, lying at her feet.

Kriemhild is not the only violent woman in the Nibelungen material. Her sister-in-law, Brünhild, who is a valkyrie in both Norse legend and Wagner’s Ring, was possessed of immense physical strength before her marriage, and children’s books in particular often include images of her with her spear. In contrast to Kriemhild, there is ultimately no direct victim of Brünhild’s violence, but the illustrators commonly show the fear of the male heroes, as they cower behind a shield, emphasising the threat offered by a physically strong woman.

Panel 3: Fantasy Violence

In this panel, we see the continuities between nineteenth-century medievalism and more recent medievalist fantasy material, particularly onscreen (e.g. Game of ThronesThe HobbitMerlinHarry Potter). Siegfried’s fight with the dragon takes place entirely off-stage in the Nibelungenlied, and it is only mentioned once or twice in passing. It is, though, far more prominent in other traditions, and its appeal to illustrators, especially of children’s adaptations, needs no explanation.

These versions for younger readers frequently avoid adapting, or fully adapting, the second half of the narrative, with its focus on brutal vengeance. This has the effect of rebalancing the story into one focused entirely on Siegfried’s heroics, with Kriemhild simply functioning as a mild and beautiful love interest. Such adaptations also tend to bring in material which is omitted from, or played down in, the Nibelungenlied itself. While Siegfried’s violent death prevents such adaptations from culminating in a traditionally child-friendly happy ending, their emphasis on fantasy elements like the dragon give them a fairy-tale quality which we recognise today.

Visit the digital exhibition

Amazing inventions : printing from the 15th – 21st Century

Exhibition for Oxford Open Doors 10 September 2022

The Taylor Library opened its doors to the public on 10th September 2022, including an exhibition on the history of printing designed to fit in with the general theme of Oxford Open Doors: ‘Amazing inventions’.

Johannes Gutenberg started printing with moveable type in the early 1450s. The oldest printed books kept in the Taylor Library date back to 1470 and 1472.

Books printed before 1501 were called incunabula, literally meaning prints in swaddling clothes, i.e. in their infancy. They still imitated manuscripts in their layout and in the variety of letter forms used. Also, initials and other forms of rubrication were added later by hand, just like in manuscripts.

The Taylor Institution Library is fortunate enough to have enough early printings to be able to show some features of the manufacturing process from books in its collections.

The two oldest incunabuls in the Taylor collection are two copies of the Liber de vita ac moribus philosophorum poetarumque veterum . These were printed by different printers, close to each other in time, not in location (Nuremberg and Cologne). The printing was done with black ink only, so anything in a different colour needed to be added later manually, e.g. initials and highlighting of letters.

In this Spanish incunable (1491) (below) the printing and colouring process is clearly visible: the black text was printed first, the red heading separately in a second pull of the press; space for a large initial was left blank except for the so-called “guard letter”, a letter indicating which initial to fill in by hand. It would have been left to the person buying the printed book to decide how costly and ornate a decoration they would want. Sadly, he (or she! women owned books and illustrated them) did not bother to have the guard letter expanded to a fully fledged initial and never found the time (or the materials?) to do so.

Page from La primera parte de Plutarcho. Publisher e ambos volumines se imprimierō en seuilla : cō[n] industria de Paulo de Colonia: e Johannes de Nurenberg e de Magno: e de Thomas Alemanes e todos son quadernos. ARCH.FOL.Sp.1491

La primera parte de Plutarcho.
Publisher: e ambos volumines se imprimierō en seuilla : cō[n] industria de Paulo de Colonia: e Johannes de Nurenberg e de Magno: e de Thomas Alemanes e todos son quadernos. ARCH.FOL.Sp.1491

The Taylorian also holds two copies (shown below) of a commentary on Dante’s Commedia.

Both editions of the same text were printed in Venice, though by different printers. Bernardino Benali & Matthio di Parma printed the book in 1491 and Piero de zuanne di quarengii in 1497.  Marginal woodcuts were added around the text in the 1497 edition.

The same woodblock was used for the main image in both copies. Woodblocks were harder wearing than type, so they would often be passed on or sold to other workshops. When printer Piero di Quarengii reused it in 1497, he had God the Father cut out from the semi-circle near the top, possibly to allow for the insertion of hand-painted coat of arms – there is already a blank shield ready for personalisation at the bottom but book owners liked to splash their identity all over the page. The second printer obviously had to typeset the text, so he could add woodcut borders. He had to use a smaller initial N to make the text fit.

Page from DANTE, La Commedia, commento di Cristophoro Landino. Publisher: Venice: Bernardino Benali & Matthio di Parma [B. Benalius & Mathaeus [Capcasa] de Parma], 3 Mar. 1491. Folio. ARCH.FOL.IT.1491.

DANTE, La Commedia, commento di Cristophoro Landino.
Publisher: Venice: Bernardino Benali & Matthio di Parma [B. Benalius & Mathaeus [Capcasa] de Parma], 3 Mar. 1491. Folio. ARCH.FOL.IT.1491.

Page from DANTE, La Commedia, commento di Cristophoro Landino. Publisher: Venice: Piero de zuanne di quarengii da palazago bergamasco. [Petrus de Quarengiis], 11 Oct. 1497. Folio. ARCH.FOL.IT.1497.

DANTE, La Commedia, commento di Cristophoro Landino.
Publisher: Venice: Piero de zuanne di quarengii da palazago bergamasco. [Petrus de Quarengiis], 11 Oct. 1497. Folio. ARCH.FOL.IT.1497.

Early 16th Century

Below are two editions of Le Rommant de la Rose printed in Paris in 1505 and 1538 by different Parisian printers, N. Desprez (1505) and Arnoul et Charles L’Angelier (1538), the first printed in folio format and the second in octavo.

Written between 1225 and 1280, the Roman de la Rose enjoyed an immense success first in manuscript form and then in print, so it is not surprising that two printers have produced an edition.  The 1538 edition in octavo is much smaller than the 1505 in folio edition.

In the 16th century, Luther used printing to spread Reformation ideas, cooperating closely with the Wittenberg workshops. Thin pamphlets and the hefty Bible translations which Luther wrote, could easily be printed in multiple copies and spread over the country and beyond. The pamphlets often only consisted of one or two broadsheets folded into quires. The volume below, which contains 19 Luther pamphlets printed between 1519-1521, was bound together in one 16th century leather binding by a collector and thus survived. Each of the ‘tabs’ indicates another pamphlet.

LUTHER, Martin, 1483-1546 Doctoris Martini Luther Appellation odder beruffung an eyn Christlich frey Cōciliū von dem Bapst Leo vnd seynem vnrechtem freuell vornerveret vnd repetiret.. ARCH.8o.G.1519(11)

LUTHER, Martin, 1483-1546
Doctoris Martini Luther Appellation odder beruffung an eyn Christlich frey Cōciliū von dem Bapst Leo vnd seynem vnrechtem freuell vornerveret vnd repetiret..

The two anti-papist pamphlets below use woodcut illustrations for greater impact; the Taylorian owns two copies of the 1527 pamphlet, one of them coloured in with stencils.

Page from CRANACH, Lucas, 1472-1553; LUTHER, Martin, 1483-1546; MELANCHTHON, Philipp, 1497-1560; SCHWERTFEGER, Johann, active 1521; CRANACH, Hans, -1537, Passional Christi vnnd Antichristi. Publisher: Erfurt: Matthaeus Maler, 1521. ARCH.8o.G.1521(19)

CRANACH, Lucas, 1472-1553; LUTHER, Martin, 1483-1546; MELANCHTHON, Philipp, 1497-1560; SCHWERTFEGER, Johann, active 1521; CRANACH, Hans, -1537,
Passional Christi vnnd Antichristi.
Publisher: Erfurt: Matthaeus Maler, 1521. ARCH.8o.G.1521(19)

A polemic in the form of thirteen pairs of woodcuts (with captions) depicting scenes from the life of Christ contrasted with scenes from the life of the Pope.

The Passional Christi vnnd Antichristi, a translation of the Antithesis figurata vitae Christi et Antichristi was published in 1521 shortly after the Diet of Worms in Wittenberg. The work features 26 woodcuts designed by Lucas Cranach in which scenes from the life of Christ are contrasted with those of the Antichrist, identified as the Pope. The Taylorian copy was published later that year in Erfurt.

Page from OSIANDER, Andreas, 1498-1552; SACHS, Hans, 1494-1576, Eyn wunderliche Weyssagung, von dem Bapstum, wie es yhm bisz an das endt der welt gehen sol: in Figuren,ode/ gemäl begriffen, gefunden zu Nürmberg ym Cartheuser Closter, vnd ist seher alt. Publisher: Nürmberg: Gedrückt durch Hans Güldenmundt, 1525. ARCH.8o.G.1527(7) f.3v-4r

OSIANDER, Andreas, 1498-1552; SACHS, Hans, 1494-1576,
Eyn wunderliche Weyssagung, von dem Bapstum, wie es yhm bisz an das endt der welt gehen sol: in Figuren,ode/ gemäl begriffen, gefunden zu Nürmberg ym Cartheuser Closter, vnd ist seher alt.
Publisher: Nürmberg: Gedrückt durch Hans Güldenmundt, 1525. ARCH.8o.G.1527(7) f.3v-4r

A Pamphlet with allegorical woodcuts illustrating the history and ultimate defeat of the papacy, each accompanied by an explanation by Andreas Osiander and two rhyming couplets by Hans Sachs. The wood cuts by Erhard Schön have been printed first and then coloured in by hand. Staying within the lines with a brush was difficult, see the Pope’s cross (3v) and the Pope’s banner (4r).

For more information about early printing and incunabula, explore these two blogs: and

17th Century

The art of printing had developed further again and it was now possible to print in two colours. There are still many differences between the title pages of these two English-Dutch dictionaries whereas the 1721 publication looks much more regular.

Three books printed by father, wife and (heirs of) son Leers in 1658/60, 1675 and 1721 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. It seems that the printer’s workshop was continued by the widow and later the son of Arnold Leers. The author of the dictionaries was Henry Hexham who was bilingual, having spent many years in the Dutch army. Hexham’s dictionary was the first bilingual English-Dutch dictionary. It comprises an English-Dutch and a Dutch-English part, as well as a grammar ‘for the instruction of the learner’.

Printing in different alphabets required whole new sets of type. It is remarkable that Cyrillic matrices were available in Oxford. The University Press had bought them from an Amsterdam printer to publish the first ever printed Russian grammar. In the basement of the Sheldonian Theatre, the first home of Oxford University Press, Ludolf‘s grammar rolled off the press.

Page from LUDOLF, Heinrich Wilhelm, 1655-1712, Grammatica russica. Publisher: Oxford: e Theatro Sheldoniano, 1696. ARCH.MORF.G268.696

LUDOLF, Heinrich Wilhelm, 1655-1712, Grammatica russica.
Publisher: Oxford: e Theatro Sheldoniano, 1696. ARCH.MORF.G268.696

20th Century: printing as art

The art of printing was perfected over time, until there was a return to manual printing in the 20th century for small sections of the printing spectrum: art or samizdat literature or a combination of the two. In South America art was used in cordel literature, cheaply produced folk tales. Manual or small-scale printing allowed for artistic expression and for the use of cheap materials. Small print runs also allowed for distribution away from the public eye, e.g. by post.

East-German samizdat publications have used various creative ways of printing in small print runs. The Taylor Institution Library is fortunate to have some of these items in their collections.

Page from HAVEMEISTER, Heinz; SCHLEYER, Susanne. (hrsg.). Liane. 8 : Berlin, 1989/94 Manufactured by: Berlin : SILKeScreen Tacheles

HAVEMEISTER, Heinz; SCHLEYER, Susanne. (hrsg.). Liane. 8 : Berlin, 1989/94
Manufactured by: Berlin : SILKeScreen Tacheles

The avantgarde publication Liane started in 1989 before the end of communism and continued afterwards. Jacket illustration: “Gewalt” by Moritz Götze, signed, 1989. The Taylorian is proud to own one of the of the 30 copies of this limited edition, a kind donation from the editors Susanne Schleyer and Heinz Havemeister who presented the book with original drawings and graphics in various techniques in person.  It started as samizdat literature, using printing as art.

Uni/vers(;) was an East German illegally published journal, so called ‘samizdat’ literature.

Guillermo Deisler was a visual poet who had been imprisoned under the Pinochet regime in Chile in 1973 and went into exile, settling in Halle, East-Germany in 1986. He produced mail art (sent by mail to subscribers) and visual poetry between 1987 and 1995 in 35 issues.

Printing was used as art and as poetry.

Cordel literature

From Brazil, cordel (string) literature is a popular and affordable means of publishing, in which small pamphlets are sold from strings, often in local markets. These include ballads, folktales, and educational works. Most have brightly coloured covers and include an eye-catching woodcut design. Woodcuts (same technique as in the 15th/16th Century!) were used to illustrate the cordel books, as the materials required were relatively inexpensive. Although the cordel form is usually associated with cheap, throwaway works, we find books on socially important themes made available to a wider audience. Cordel literature is an important tool for literacy and literary culture in the Brazilian northeast, an area with a rich folkloric tradition but high levels of poverty. Originally, the ballads of cordel literature came to Brazil from Portugal in the late 18th century and were passed down in the oral tradition, sung to audiences who could often neither read nor write. Now, cordel literature has spread in popularity across Brazil and a new generation of cordelistas even disseminate their work online.

Several items of rare cordel books, published by the Academia Brasileira de literatura de Cordel. featured in the exhibition.


Printing has been an amazing invention, many technical hurdles had to be overcome which took some time. As an early form of mass communication, it has changed society. It has become the precursor of modern electronic forms of communication, whilst the art of printing has become art itself on the one hand and child’s play on the other.

Children’s printing set, 1950s

Children’s printing set, 1950s

Johanneke Sytsema
Taylor Institution Library