On 2 January, 1840, Dickens wrote to his printers, Bradbury and Evans, to thank them for their annual Christmas gift of a turkey.
Four years later, Dickens had written something that possessed still more “astonishing capabilities.” A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas was first published just before Christmas in 1843, and since then it has never been out of print.
Originally written as a tract for the times, this cautionary tale about the ongoing tussle between greed and goodness has been thought of as timely whenever it has been read.
Enjoyed by its first readers as a modern expression of the spirit of Christmas—as modern as Christmas cards, which were sent for the first time in the same year as the Carol’s publication—it has since become popular for quite different reasons: the sense of tradition it is thought to embody, a reminder of the simple pleasures that seem to have been lost sight of in the seasonal scrum of shoppers, an annual invitation to the pleasures of nostalgia.
Reproduced so often, and in so many different forms, it has become as much a part of Christmas as mince pies or turkey, with the key difference that, as Martin Heidegger argued was true of all classic works, it has never been “used up.”
There have been dozens of films, starring everyone from Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson to Mr. Magoo and Mickey Mouse, operas and ballets, an all-black musical (Comin’ Uptown, which opened on Broadway in 1979), Benjamin Britten’s 1947 Men of Goodwill: Variations on ‘A Christmas Carol,’ even a BBC mime version in 1973 starring Marcel Marceau.
So regular are the annual returns of the Carol to our stages and screens, in fact, that it has become something like a secular ritual, an alternative Christmas story to its more obviously religious rival, in which the three wise men are replaced by three instructive spirits, and the pilgrimage to a child in a manger is replaced by a visit to the house of Tiny Tim.
Even people who have never read the Carol know the story of Scrooge, the miserable old skinflint who repents after being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
So widely and deeply has this story entered the popular imagination that phrases such as Bah! Humbug! have floated free of their original context and acquired the force of common proverbs, while Scrooge himself has entered the language as a piece of cultural shorthand “used allusively to designate a miserly, tight-fisted person or killjoy” (OED, “Scrooge”).
Bugger, rooted, bloody oath…What is it about Australians and swearing?
We’ve got an international reputation for using bad language (Where the bloody hell are ya?) and letting rip with a choice swear word or two has long been a very Aussie thing to do.
From the defiant curses of the convicts and bullock drivers to the humour of Kath and Kim, Amanda Laugesen, director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, takes us on a fascinating journey through the history of Australia’s bad language to reveal our preoccupations and our concerns.
Bad language has been used in all sort of ways in our history: to defy authority, as a form of liberation and subversion, and as a source of humour and creativity.
Bad language has also been used to oppress and punish those who have been denied a claim to using it, notably Indigenous Australians and women. It has also long been subject to various forms of censorship.
‘If you’ve ever wondered why to use bad language in Australia is to ‘swear like a bullocky’, Amanda Laugesen’s Rooted will give you the answer.
Taking us on a colourful tour of more than two centuries of bad language that extends from the mildly offensive to the completely filthy, Laugesen tells the story of Australia through those words and phrases that have often been seen as unfit to print.
This is an engrossing social history – a bloody beauty – from one of our leading experts on Australian English.’ — Frank Bongiorno, Professor of History, The Australian National University Price $32.99(AUD.
In a monastery in the mountains of northern Spain, 700 years after the Book of Revelations was written, a monk set down to illustrate a collection of writings he had compiled about this most vivid and apocalyptic of the New Testament books.
Throughout the next few centuries his depictions of multi-headed beasts, decapitated sinners, and trumpet blowing angels, would be copied over and over again in various versions of the manuscript.
John Williams, author of The Illustrated Beatus, introduces Beatus of Liébana and his Commentary on the Apocalypse.
The Vision of the Lamb (Apoc. 4: 6 – V: 6-8), in Maius’ Morgana Beatus, Pierpont Morgan Library M644, fol. 87r
Towards the end of the eighth century Beatus, a monk in the monastery of San Martin de Turieno, near present day Santander, compiled a Commentary on the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, from the writings dedicated to the topic by such patristic authors as Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose and Irenaeus.
Recognition of Beatus of Liébana has survived to our time thanks to his decision to illustrate the sixty-eight sections into which he divided the text of the Book of Revelation.
It was a decision that could not easily have been anticipated, for it is not at all clear that Beatus had ever seen an illustrated book, and it is almost certain these illustrations were invented by him or an assistant.
The pictures would remain integral to the many – some twenty-six – copies of the Commentary that have survived.
And the fifth Angel sounded the trumpet: and I saw a star fall from heaven upon the earth, and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit (Apoc:9 – V:1-11) – in the Beatus de Facunda.
A Valentine’s gift to top all Valentine’s gifts – the Petit Livre d’Amour (Little Book of Love) was an ornate bespoke book given by the 16th-century Lyon-born poet Pierre Salas to his then lover and future wife Marguerite Bullioud.
It measures just 5 by 3.7 inches, hand-written by Salas with gold ink and beautifully illuminated by an artist identified as the “Master of the Chronique scandaleuseas”.
The work begins with a few pages of prose describing the relationship between the author and the woman he loves before then presenting the rest of the book, 12 “iconologues”, a combination of prose and poetry on the left-hand page – including the initials M, for Marguerite and P, for Pierre, scattered about in various forms – and on the right-hand page a corresponding picture.
Five of these relate to love, the others to more moral topics, but all turning away from a sickly-sweet tone, instead portraying a more realistic picture of love.
“The locomotive industry emerged in mid-nineteenth-century America with the development and rapid expansion of the railroad network.
As the number of locomotive manufacturers increased, the industry became intensely competitive, and builders vied with one another to capture the attention of railroad companies, officials, and agents.
The first locomotive builders’ prints were created in the late 1830s and ‘40s in response to this industry competition. These lithographic portraits of locomotives were soon considered to be essential to the manufacturers’ promotion of their machines.
Locomotive builders’ prints differed from ordinary advertising prints or landscape views with picturesque trains.
Instead, they were a unique type of print, a hybrid designed both to attract potential customers and to provide accurate technical information about locomotive engines and cars.
With the introduction of chromolithography in the 1840s and ‘50s, locomotive manufacturers began commissioning color prints of their engines.
Early American locomotives were often painted and colorfully decorated; chromolithographic locomotive builders’ prints offer a rare insight into the decorative designs, finishes, and materials favored by manufacturers.
The use of color in the 1850s ushered in what has been called the golden age of the locomotive builders’ prints.
In 1872 two men began work on a lexicon of words of Asian origin used by the British in India. Since its publication the 1,000-page dictionary has never been out of print.
Hobson-Jobson is the dictionary’s short and mysterious title.
The subtitle reveals more: “A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms etymological, historical, geographical and discursive. By Colonel Henry Yule and AC Burnell.”
I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for Hobson-Jobson ever since I picked up a cheap facsimile reprint edition more than a decade ago.
As a young dictionary buff with an interest in the languages of South and Southeast Asia, I was enthralled by this sweeping work of colonial scholarship on the “Anglo-Indian tongue.”
Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell catalogued not just words from the Indian subcontinent that had worked their way into English but also colonial-era introductions from Malay, Persian, Arabic, Chinese, and other Eastern languages. Its two editions (in 1886 and 1903) were influential on other dictionaries, especially the Oxford English Dictionary, which borrowed heavily from Hobson-Jobson for etymological information and historical examples of Asian loanwords.
So what’s up with that name? In the preface, Yule explains how he and Burnell hit upon the title:
If the reader will turn to Hobson-Jobson in the Glossary itself, he will find that phrase, though now rare and moribund, to be a typical and delightful example of that class of Anglo-Indian argot which consists of Oriental words highly assimilated, perhaps by vulgar lips, to the English vernacular; whilst it is the more fitted to our book, conveying, as it may, a veiled intimation of dual authorship.
And in the dictionary itself, Hobson-Jobson is described as an Anglicization of “Ya Hasan, ya Husain!” — the wail of Shi’i (and sometimes Sunni) Muslims during Muharram, the procession commemorating the martyrdom of Ali’s two sons Hasan and Husain.
A distinct black shape, tumbling in the updrafts of a mountain crag – a raven at play.
The ‘gronking’ call of a raven is one of the most evocative sounds of Britain’s uplands. The raven is probably the world’s most intelligent and playful bird. In the world of myth, it is a bird of paradox, and something of a dark clown.
Its association with playful intelligence is perhaps exceeded by its image as a bird of death. Its harsh call, and its presence in remote wild places and at scenes of death, has earned it a reputation as a bird of ill-omen.
After all, the old collective noun for a group of ravens is an ‘unkindness’. Yet there is so much more to the raven.
An old Scottish name for the raven is ‘corbie’, which is thought to have been derived from the Latin ‘corvus’. One Scottish legend reflects the dark beliefs about this bird. It tells of an evil hag called Cailleach who appeared in the form of a number of birds, including the raven, and feasted on men’s bodies.
This large crow appears again and again in Celtic lore. In Welsh folklore, Bran the Blessed (Bran is Welsh for raven) is a kind of primordial deity and guardian of Britain whose totem is a raven.
Bran ordered for his own head to be cut off, after which it could still speak words of prophecy. Eventually it was said to have been buried beneath Tower Hill, at the Tower of London.
The presence of ravens at the Tower is an echo of this legend and the prophecy says that if the ravens ever leave the tower, Britain will fall (hence their wings are clipped, just in case!).
Interestingly this Welsh word appears in Scotland, and Strath Bran, in the north of the Trees for Life Target Area translates as ‘Strath’ or Valley of the Raven. They are still present there today.
Arthur, another legendary guardian of Britain, is also associated with ravens. In Cornwall, which is also steeped in Celtic lore, it was believed that Arthur didn’t really die, but was magically transformed into this bird.
The Celts were a warlike people, and the presence of ravens on the battlefield would have been very familiar to them. The Irish goddess, Morrighan, had a number of different guises. In her aspect as bloodthirsty goddess of war, she was thought to be present on the battlefield in the form of a raven.
Odin, the chief of the Norse gods, was accompanied by a pair of ravens, Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory), who would fly far and wide to bring news to Odin. One of Odin’s names, Hrafnagud, means the ‘Raven God’.
In the Old Testament, the raven is the first bird Noah sent to look for land, and Elijah is described as being provided for by ravens. They are used as a symbol of God’s providence in both the New Testament and in Christian art.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have observed the keen intelligence of this bird.
It has a well-documented habit of deliberately revealing the whereabouts of deer, so that wolves can find their quarry, and leave spoils, which the ravens could eat.
Even some modern deer-stalkers report that ravens will help them to locate deer, as the birds know that they will receive the ‘gralloch’ or guts after the deer is killed. However, there was apparently a belief among some stalkers that three ravens was a bad omen.
The indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest of North America were well aware of the raven’s multifaceted nature, and Raven was revered as a major deity and something of a trickster. He features frequently in the distinctive artwork of these people.
There is probably more folklore concerning the raven than any other bird in Britain.
While some of this is somewhat sinister, the more we get to know this playful and intelligent bird, the more respect we might realise it deserves.
John Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus (or The World of Things Obvious to the Senses drawn in Pictures) is, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “the first children’s picture book.”
Originally published in 1658 in Latin and German, the Orbis — with its 150 pictures showing everyday activities like brewing beer, tending gardens, and slaughtering animals — is immediately familiar as an ancestor of today’s children’s literature.
This approach centered on the visual was a breakthrough in education for the young, as was the decision to teach the vernacular in addition to Latin. Unlike treatises on education and grammatical handbooks, it is aimed directly at the young and attempts to engage on their level.
The Orbis was hugely popular. At one point it was the most used textbook in Europe for elementary education, and according to one account it was translated into “most European and some of the Oriental languages.”
Its author John Comenius, a Czech by birth, was also well-known throughout Europe and worked in several countries as a school reformer.
His portrait was painted by Rembrandt, and according to an 1887 edition of the Orbis, Comenius was even “once solicited to become President of Harvard College.” (Although he never came to Harvard, one can still find his name engraved on the western frieze of Teachers College at Columbia University.)
Even if he is less celebrated today by name, his innovative ideas about education are still influential. In his Didactica Magna, for example, he advocates for equal educational opportunities for all: boys and girls, rich and poor, urban and rural.
Despite his progressive aims and lasting educational influence, Comenius does not come off as a thoroughly modern schoolmaster.
When we turn to the first page of the Orbis, we find an opening sentence that would seem peculiar in today’s children’s books: “Come, boy, learn to be wise.”
We see above the text a teacher and student in dialogue, the former holding up his finger and sporting a cane and large hat, the latter listening in an emotional state somewhere between awe and anxiety.
The student asks, “What doth this mean, to be wise?” His teacher answers, “To understand rightly, to do rightly, and to speak out rightly all that are necessary.”
One summer a few years ago I stayed in student rooms in Trinity College. Although the accommodation was rather spartan with the traditional blue tack scars on the walls, it was so atmospheric to be able to wander around the old buildings of the Dublin university long after all the tourists had gone.
Best of all was the chance to visit the Book of Kells as many times as I wanted. (The Library displays a different page each day.) These illuminated manuscripts are one of the wonders of medieval Europe.
Imagine the monks in their stone huts, battered by sea winds, bent over their painstaking work. Strictly speaking, rather than The Book of Kells, named after a town in County Meath, it should be called the Book of Iona, as it’s thought that it was monks on that remote Scottish island who were the original artists.
They were inhabitants of a monastery founded there in the 6th Century by the Irish monk Columba, or Colm Cille as he’s known in Irish. In fact, for many centuries the manuscript was believed to be the great Gospel of Columba.
But scholars now place the book in a later period and think it was completed by 800 AD. I find it extraordinary that in such a wild place with limited materials that these men were able to create a work of art that is so delicate and ornate.
You can imagine the monks inside their beehive-shaped stone huts, battered by sea winds with squawking gulls outside, bent over their painstaking work.
I’ve visited another early settlement on Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry in the Atlantic and it is hard to express how bleak and remote those lives were.
The library at Trinity College, Dublin displays a different page from The Book of Kells each day (Image Credit: Photograph by Alamy).
But it wasn’t just forces of nature with which the monks had to contend. The monastery, like many early Christian communities, came under the threat of Viking raids. In 806, following a raid that left 68 of the community dead, the Columban monks took refuge in a newly-founded monastery at Kells in County Meath in Ireland to keep them safe.
The most likely theory is that the monks took the manuscript with them. Amazingly since they were written, the majority of the pages have been passed down through the generations with just 60 pages missing. But medieval sources do record that an illuminated manuscript was stolen from the stone church of Kells in 1006 which is likely to have been the Book of Kells.
According to the Annals of Ulster it was found “two months and twenty days” later “under a sod.” After fighting in the Cromwellian period, the church at Kells lay in ruins, and in 1653 the book was sent to Dublin by the governor of Kells for safekeeping.
A few years later it reached Trinity College where it remains today. Light of the dark ages
The scale and ambition of The Book of Kells is incredible. Written on vellum, it is estimated that the skins of 185 calves were needed for the project. Practically all of the 680 pages are decorated in some way or another. On some pages every corner is filled with the most detailed and beautiful Celtic designs.
This is a description thought by many to be of the Book of Kells by the 12th Century writer Gerald of Wales: You might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man – Gerald of Wales.
“This book contains the harmony of the Four Evangelists according to Jerome, where for almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by varied colours.
Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists, each with wings, now six, now four, now two; here the eagle, there the calf, here the man and there the lion, and other forms almost infinite.
Look at them superficially with the ordinary glance, and you would think it is an erasure, and not tracery.
Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it.
Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man.”
The title page of St John’s Gospel shows the thoughtful-looking saint, along with a less respectable figure swigging from a goblet of wine (Credit: The Book of Kells)
Russian fairy tales from the Russian of Polevoi, by R. Nisbet Bain, illustrated by Noel L. Nisbet; 1915; Frederick A. Stokes Co., New York.
A collection of Russian fairytales translated from the Russian of Nikolai Polevoy, a notable editor, writer, translator in the early 19th century.
The translations were made by Robert Nisbet Bain, a British historian who worked for the British Museum, and a polyglot who could reportedly speak over twenty languages fluently.
He famously taught himself Hungarian in order that he could read the works of Mór Jókai in the original after first reading him in German, going on to become the most prolific translator into English from Hungarian in the nineteenth century.