The Great Depths of Space: Cataloguing the Papers of Zdeněk Kopal


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Jane Speller writes:

With generous support from the American Institute of Physics, work has started on cataloguing the papers of the Czech-born astronomer, Zdeněk Kopal (1914-1993).


Zdeněk Kopal in front of an image of the moon, circa 1972, unknown photographer.

One of the largest archives of its kind for a modern British astronomer, it provides significant information about the development of the international astronomical community, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, a period of ground-breaking research and unprecedented public interest in the ‘Space Race’.

Described in his time as ‘one of the world’s leading astronomers’ (S. Fred Singer, 1972), Kopal is little known today.  As the Chair of Astronomy at Manchester University (1951-81), Kopal’s research on the transfer of mass between separate stars in a binary system remains the key to understanding many modern observations of violently eruptive behaviour in the stellar system.  In the mid-1950s, Kopal’s work mapping the surface of the moon paved the way for the Apollo 11 mission which landed the first humans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on the moon in 1969.


Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, 20 July 1969. By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Kopal began his academic career at Prague, where he studied under the German astronomer Erwin Finlay-Freundlich (1885-1964), a working associate of Albert Einstein. Kopal subsequently moved to the USA where he taught at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during and after the Second World War.

At the University of Manchester, Kopal built up an international reputation for the department. In the mid-1950s he developed a great interest in lunar studies. He assembled a team to take over 100,000 photos of the moon’s surface, using the 2-foot diameter refracting telescope of L’Observatoire du Pic du Midi in the French Pyrenees. The telescope had a sufficiently long focal length of 60 feet to produce high quality images for lunar mapping.  Funded by the United States Air Force, the project gave considerable prestige and funds to the Manchester department.

Pic du Midi

The futuristic looking Pic du Midi Observatory, located at 2877 metres on top of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre mountain. By Serge Ottaviani [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons.

Described by colleagues as likeable, friendly and eccentric, Kopal made many other contributions to astrophysics: he established a lively school of disciples in Manchester where he taught students from all over the world.  In 1962, he became the founder and first editor of Icarus, a scientific journal dedicated to the field of planetary science, and in 1966, while on leave from Manchester, Kopal acted as consultant to Moon-exploring programs of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In 1968, he founded an independent journal, Astrophysics and Space Science, challenging the monopoly of more established publications such as the Astrophysical Journal. Later he founded the Moon journal, now expanded into Earth, Moon and Planets.

The Kopal Papers, along with the papers of scientists John Dalton and James Joule, the National Archive for the History of Computing, and the archives of physicist and radio astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell and the Jodrell Bank Radio-Telescope Observatory, constitute a major research resource for the history of science and technology. Cataloguing the archive at this time coincides with growing academic and public interest in the history of the ‘Space Race’ as we approach significant anniversaries of the era’s achievements, for example the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on 20 July 2019. The Zdeněk Kopal collection will be used to support the Library’s public engagement programme around this important anniversary.

Forthcoming blogs in this series will look at Kopal’s fascinating work in more detail.

Rediscovered: the Bible in Basic English Collection


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James Peters has created another in our occasional series describing work being undertaken on some of our less well-known collections.

Basic English is a simplified form of English, devised by the linguist Charles Kay Ogden in the 1920s. It has a basic vocabulary of 850 words and 16 verbs. Its primary purpose was to be a quick and effective means of teaching English to non-speakers, but its advocates believed Basic English could also promote greater international co-operation and friendship.

Basic English enjoyed a vogue during the Second World War, winning approval from figures as eminent as Churchill and Roosevelt.  However, others criticised Basic English’s radical simplifications, and George Orwell is said to have used it as a model for Newspeak in his novel 1984. By the 1950s its influence had waned, although Basic English has continued to be used for teaching English as a foreign language.

One of the most important Basic English projects was a translation of the Bible, completed in 1949. A small archive of papers relating to this project was purchased by the Library in 1981, and has recently been catalogued by Alison Hall, a Liverpool University archives student.

Alison writes:

“A newly catalogued collection explores the development of a linguistic system called Basic English. The Bible in Basic English archive consists of over 600 letters, notes, cuttings and typescripts relating to this project run by Ogden’s Orthological Institute. The collection reflects an interesting if largely forgotten chapter in the publication history of the Bible in English.


Portrait of Charles Kay Ogden (1889-1957) by an unknown artist. Wikipedia image.

Charles Kay Ogden (1889-1957) invented Basic English during the 1920s, setting out its main features in Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar (1930). In the succeeding decade, Basic English was used for a number of everyday texts, notably the Bible.

Christian Churches were very interested in Basic English as they believed it would facilitate international missionary work. Ogden recruited eminent Biblical scholars such as Samuel Hooke and Theodore H. Robinson to work on the translation, and the archive reveals the often difficult process they faced in using the Basic English vocabulary to capture both the meaning and the poetry of the Biblical text.  Ogden did most of the work on the New Testament, which was published in 1941, followed by the complete Bible in 1949 (both published by Cambridge University Press).


Publisher’s flier for the Bible in Basic English (ref. BBE/1/19/7).

Highlights of the collection include a copy of the original project proposal and correspondence with Professor Hooke relating to his brief. There is an amusing note by Ogden (1939) on the vices of adultery and drunkenness in the Bible and the difficulty of rendering them into Basic English. There are also a number of letters from both enthusiasts and critics of Basic English about various translation controversies, in particular relating to the attack by C.S. Lewis published in the Times Literary Supplement in December 1944.

The collection will be of particular interest to those interested in linguistics, the teaching of English as a second language, Biblical scholarship, and missionary history.

The collection catalogue is now available on ELGAR.”

Ephemera in the dsh (dom sylvester houédard) archive


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Fran Horner, a postgraduate student studying for an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies, in her third blog post, tells us more about her internship at The John Rylands Library.

As I have been handling and cataloguing the dsh archive (see my previous blog posts on Typestracts and the Delights of dsh), I have come across a considerable amount of ephemeral material. From torn pieces of paper marking the pages where dsh’s typestracts have been printed, to concrete poetry exhibition posters, to handwritten poems on envelopes: this ephemeral material provides insight into dsh’s writing process, the development of his career and evidence of his social activities, which may not have otherwise been seen.


Poster for an avant-garde and concrete poetry exhibition at la Galerie Riquelme in Paris, 14th December 1964 until 3rd January 1965. Some of dsh’s poetry was featured in the exhibition. Found inside issue number 17 of French poetry little magazine Cinquième Saison, 1962, which was dedicated to evolutive poetry. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

Ephemera is usually mass-produced printed material with the purpose of transmitting a specific message or body of information, and is transient or flimsy in nature, such as: advertisements, posters, leaflets, newspapers, tickets or receipts (detritus of everyday life). Ephemera can also be non-printed material, for example: movie memorabilia, coins and tokens. Ephemera typically has an intended short lifespan and is most likely be discarded or destroyed due to its ‘little value’.


Hand-written note to dsh, possibly from fellow British concrete poet and artist John Furnival. Found inside a first edition of Directory of Little Magazines, 1964. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

However, ephemera isn’t always considered disposable material, and can, in fact, inform a deeper understanding of an archive by providing evidence, further information and historical context. This highlights the archival value of ephemeral material and should, therefore, be treated as an integral part of the archive. Ephemera is more difficult to catalogue and describe than other printed materials, as it is difficult to define the author and when or where it was printed.


Oxford Motor Services bus ticket. Found inside issue 9 of Broadsheet, an Irish poetry broadsheet. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.


Back of an envelope in which dsh has written notes on Chinese poets Tu Fu and Li Po. Found in volume 2, number 2 of Chapman, a Scottish literary review. This issue is a special issue on Chinese poetry and literature. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

By allowing us a further insight into the life of dsh, the ephemeral materials act as a legitimate part of the archive and give us a more complete view of dsh’s universe of wider ecumenism and concrete poetry.

Curating Culture: A Student’s Perspective


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UCIL banner

‘Curating Culture’ is a module available to undergraduates at the University of Manchester via the University College of Interdisciplinary Learning (UCIL).  It is taught by the University of Manchester Library’s Special Collections in conjunction with the Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Museum.  Besides offering an insight into the type of work done by curators, archivists, librarians, conservators and other professionals, it enhances student employability by teaching transferable skills. One of our students, Rebecca Selby, writes:

Before studying on the Curating Culture programme, I was a self-conscious mature student trying my best to blend into the background. I wanted to share with you how the course helped me to break free of my own anxieties and begin to embrace what I had to offer.

For the first assessment on the course, we were tasked with curating an exhibition case that told the story of an individual through 4 objects.  Mine was called: ‘Juggling, balancing acts and other associated circus skills required for modern day multi-tasking!’. The four objects in my display case were: ‘A book of coincidence’,Feed, Pump, Work, Repeat’, ‘The education enabler, the future facilitator, the humble laptop’ and ‘The metaphorical spoon’. The objects were chosen to represent the roles that I fulfil in my life. As wife: a book about my wedding venue; as a mother: breast pump; as a student: a laptop; and a metaphorical spoon which is symbolic of my life as a ‘spoonie’ or a sufferer of chronic illness.

We wrote introductory panels for our exhibitions as well as labels for the individual objects. Condensing your thoughts into such a small word limit is more difficult than you may think!

My exhibition case:

Exhibition caption

Panel 1

Panel 2

Although the exhibition project was only a theoretical one, it still provided me with the opportunity to explore themes and surprising connections between objects. I enjoyed experimenting with ideas and the accompanying reflective essay gave me the opportunity to analyse my thought process – something I had not done previously. The Curating Culture unit provides a fabulous opportunity which should not be passed up! Studying at university is about more than merely attending lectures and taking notes. Curating Culture offers a fully immersive experience including presentations from experts, opportunities to explore some of the most beautiful buildings in the city and to get a real insight into the career opportunities in the arts and heritage sector.

Most of the sessions take place at the John Rylands Library which is an impressive building.  What better classroom could you possibly ask for? The opportunity to spend any amount of time in the building was enough for me –  with the behind the scenes tours and learning from members of the curatorial team the icing on the cake – just brilliant. We also got to explore a range of materials from special collections. One of my favourite groups of objects was a selection of books relating to the history of midwifery, ranging from an Elizabethan text, if I recall correctly, through to a text from the nineteenth century which was written by a ‘man-midwife’. These books document the medicalisation of childbirth through history, which is an area of personal interest to me and something which I hope to explore further in the future. The stories told through the objects of the collections at the John Rylands library are mind-blowing, and the passion and enthusiasm demonstrated by the curators, archivists and conservators are genuinely inspiring.

Another memorable sessions was an introduction to handling the books where we were told about things that never would have occurred to me before.  How we should be looking after and handling our books, how we should (and should not!) remove books from a shelf.  We were even fortunate enough to visit the conservation studio to learn about restoration techniques.

The course pushes you out of your comfort zone with assessments involving blog posts and curatorial projects. It is an entirely different experience to the more conventional units that I have taken at university, and all the better for it! As a student on the Biology with Science and Society programme, I take both science and history units.  Curating Culture complemented both aspects, and I believe that students on either of these pathways can benefit from the course.  The course is delivered within a genuinely supportive environment. Donna  Sherman and Janette Martin are the course leaders, and both are equally passionate about their area of expertise and sharing it with the students and the public.

For more information on the Curating Culture course, watch this YouTube video:

Rediscovered: The Tobias Theodores Papers


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Another in our occasional series describing work being undertaken on some of our less well-known collections.

Miriam Wildermuth, an Erasmus student from the Humboldt University, Berlin, has recently been working on several projects in Special Collections, including a catalogue of the Tobias Theodores papers. The Theodores papers are almost entirely in German, and thanks to Miriam’s translating and interpretation skills, we now have a catalogue of this collection available on ELGAR.

Miriam describes some of the challenges involved in cataloguing this collection:

“Tobias Theodores (1808-1886) was born in Prussia. He moved to England when he was sixteen and soon began teaching languages. He was a prominent member of the Jewish Reform movement and a founding member of the Reform Synagogue in Manchester. Theodores was closely involved with many charitable causes, especially with the Manchester Jews’ School. He was a professor of modern and oriental languages at Owens College for thirty-three years.


Tobias Theodores (1808-1886)

For the past two months, I have slowly been cataloguing the correspondence from Tobias Theodores to Gustav Gottheil. Theodores started writing to Gottheil after the latter moved from Manchester to New York to take up a position as a preacher in a Reform synagogue there. In the first letter, Theodores writes characteristically: he congratulates Gottheil on having survived his journey “trotz Wirbelsturm u. Wogendrang” (“despite whirlwind and wild seas”: letter of 23 Sep. 1873) and wryly describes the chaos and strife into which the Reform Synagogue in Manchester has been plunged in the search for Gottheil’s replacement.

At first, reading the letters was a real challenge, because they are written in the German Kurrent script (an old form of German handwriting based on late medieval cursive writing), which I had never had to read before. Initially, I decoded the writing letter by letter, then word by word, and finally I was able to read whole sentences fluently. It was especially frustrating to discover a letter in which Theodores had included a short missive to Gottheil’s daughter Dora (26 Aug. 1874), written in English cursive, and that was beautifully readable! [see illustration] But the content was well worth the work I put into deciphering the handwriting. Theodores not only writes about his friends and about his work; he also frequently comments on current events, and so opens up a window into a time now long gone.


Letter  showing Theodores’ handwriting in German and English (TTP/1/8).

As a native German, Theodores remained interested in the affairs of his motherland, even though he was proud to be English as well (he had naturalised in 1845). There is a series of letters in which he writes about two assassination attempts against the German Emperor in 1878 with great concern. He writes: “Im J. 1870 lasen wir, daß der 75-jährige Mann 9 Stunden lang zu Pferde auf dem Schlachtfelde sein Leben den feindlichen Kugeln ausgesetzte, unversehrt kehrte er in die Heimat zurück; u. jetzt mitten in Berlin von Landeskindern meuchlings überfallen zu werden!” (“In the year 1870 we read that the 75-year-old man sat astride his horse for 9 hours on the battlefield, exposing his life to enemy bullets, and returned unharmed to the homeland; and now, in the middle of Berlin, he is treacherously set upon by citizens!”: letter of 5 June 1878).  

Theodores was ever vigilant about the situation of the Jewish community in Germany, and in the course of the fourteen years covered by these letters he comments on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Theodores constantly criticises the government of Germany for encouraging, or at least not discouraging, spreading anti-Semitism. This is made most clear in the case of Adolf Stoecker, who was the court chaplain to Emperor Wilhelm I, and the founder of the extremely anti-Semitic Christian Social Party. Theodores felt that Stoecker was dangerous because he had succeeded in making hatred of Jews respectable in society (letter of 17 Mar. 1881: “den Herren Stöcker […] ist es gelungen die Meinung zu accreditieren, daß die Juden jetzt überall gehaßt werden.” Nor was Theodores blind to the faults in his adopted English society: In a letter written on 28 November 1881, he mentions recent anti-Semitic agitation in Manchester, with accusations of blood libel being made.

The letters are also informative about contemporary discussions within Reform Judaism;  Theodores’ discusses theological issues, both  directly by outlining his own views and indirectly through criticism of texts with which he disagrees. Theodores was familiar with the work of the most prominent theologians in England and abroad, Jewish and Christian, and is quick to criticise them when he does not agree with them.

Theodores was also very involved in Manchester society, and writes about local elections and charitable events, sprinkling his descriptions with gossip about prominent citizens. Alongside the more weighty topics of theology and international politics, Theodores also takes an interest in the normal life events happening around him: births, marriages, illnesses, and deaths. Even though Theodores often writes about the pleasure of a retired life, spent sitting alone in his cosy room, he was an enthusiastic contributor, through his correspondence, in important political and theological debates.

This correspondence is a treasure trove for those who are interested in Manchester in the late nineteenth century, its German and Jewish communities, relations between Christians and Jews in Britain and Germany, as well as Jewish, especially Reform, theology.”



DAFFODILS Service Update

1 April marks the first anniversary of the launch of our Drone Airborne Fast, Frequent Order and Delivery Inter-Library Service (DAFFODILS). In these days of fake news and social media manipulation, it is refreshing to report a genuine success story.


The service has proved a real hit with time-challenged students and academics, for whom the 20-minute journey to the John Rylands Library can prove an insuperable barrier. Instead, we fly the books to them.

Inevitably, the system has experienced a few teething troubles, especially during the recent storms. However, this particular cloud certainly did have a silver lining. Following a slight mishap with a crate of Greek ostraka (pot sherds), our collection has doubled in quantity, even if they are now a little more challenging to read. Only one consignment has gone astray during the year; staff at Chetham’s Library have strenuously denied rumours that “radio inteference” caused a batch of rare seventeenth-century tracts to be diverted into the precincts of the oldest public library in the English speaking world.

In a further exciting development, we can now report that, as part of the Library’s Books Right Here Right Now initiative, we will delivery incunables (books printed before 1501) direct to academics’ offices or to students’ halls of residence. Using the Inc-Readable app, registered members of the University of Manchester will be able to order an incunable for same-day delivery. If you don’t have a garden, drive or other convenient outdoor landing spot, the app will issue a five-minute warning of delivery, enabling you to open a window or door for the drone to enter your premises and deposit the book right at your desk.*

GB on stand

Gutenberg Bible, c.1455.

Watch this space for further exciting developments from the cutting-edge of library technology.

* Please check your insurance cover: the University of Manchester shall not be liable for any broken windows or other damage to your premises.



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Fran Horner, a postgraduate student studying the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies, in her second blog post, tells us more about her internship at The John Rylands Library.

dsh Linga Chakra

dsh typestract ‘Linga Chakra’ in Artes Hispanicas, p.211. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

Dom sylvester houédard (dsh) was a British Benedictine monk who spent the majority of his life at Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire, England. dsh is known for his theological writing, particularly his translation and editing work of the Jerusalem Bible in 1961, and his concrete poetry.

dsh was involved in many post-war avant-garde movements but he made considerable contributions to concrete poetry. Like other avant-garde movements Dada, Futurism and Surrealism, concrete poetry rejected the norm. It was a hybrid between poetry and typographical design, as the form and visual effect of the poem took precedence over conveying meaning through the syntax.

Concrete poetry had its origins in Sweden in 1953. However, it was the work of a group of Brazilian artists who really explored and evolved the movement. Artists such as Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos and Décio Pignatari inspired poets and artists in Europe, particularly Ian Hamilton Finlay, John Furnival, Edwin Morgan and, of course, dsh in Britain.

dsh Chicago Review 2

dsh typestract in And little magazine edited by poet Bob Cobbing. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

dsh Chicago Review 1

dsh typestract in And little magazine edited by poet Bob Cobbing. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

In the 1960s, dsh created experimental concrete poetry on his Olivetti Lettera 22 Italian typewriter. The typewriter enabled him to experiment with the colour of the carbon and the placement of letters or symbols on paper, physically moving the paper around and rejecting typical straight lines of text. These experiments were named ‘typestracts’ by Edwin Morgan and dsh describes them as ‘typestracts- rhythm of typing- action poetry- as words grow on paper to see language grow- dictionary (convention as language-coffin- this word/poem means the WAY we use it- we (not them) convene its meaning-’. The typestracts have blurred the boundaries between poetry and abstract art, as the careful but sometimes chaotic composition and architecture of the poems are what transmits its meaning. dsh’s typestracts fully utilise the space in which they occupy, encouraging the viewer to read the poems more dynamically and with more movement over the whole page. dsh rightfully labelled himself a ‘kinetic’ poet.

dsh And 1

dsh typestract in And little magazine edited by poet Bob Cobbing. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

dsh And 2

dsh typestract in And little magazine edited by poet Bob Cobbing. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

I am really interested in the objectness of the typestracts, and I personally see them more as works of art than poems, almost like painting with typed forms. The typestracts have made me question what I believe poetry to be: the boundaries and functions of art, literature and typography all dissolve into one another. I think the typestracts perfectly embody the eccentric, intellectual and artistic personality of dsh, whilst also showing his many roles as poet, as designer, as artist, as monk.

To read more about dsh, I recommend Notes from The Cosmic Typewriter: The Life and Work of Dom Sylvester Houédard edited by Nicola Simpson. Available in the University of Manchester Special Collections at the John Rylands Library.

Anne Askew: Author, Martyr and proto-Feminist


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Guest post from Elisa Tersigni, John Rylands Research Institute Digital Humanities Fellow. Elisa recently completed her Phd on the role of women in the English Reformation.


Woodcut depicting the burning of Anne Askew from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1596 edition). JRL R33900

This week marks both the closing of our Reformation exhibition and International Women’s Day, so we thought it would be a perfect opportunity to highlight the ways in which women participated in the English Reformation by drawing attention to one woman who was particularly important: Anne Askew.

Almost everything we know about Askew’s life comes from her own writing and from the men who edited it for publication – she was one of the first published English women writers. Her autobiographical work has been widely read for the past 500 years and she is arguably the most famous Protestant woman martyr as a result.

Anne Askew was born in 1521 in Lincolnshire, England. Her father, William Askew, arranged a marriage between Thomas Kyme and Anne’s older sister, who, before being married, suddenly died. William offered Anne in her place. That Anne was a devout Protestant and her husband a Catholic made for an unhappy match. Anne’s editors report that, after having two children, her husband “violently drove her out of his house”. Anne went to London to seek a divorce – one of first English women to attempt to do so.

At the time that Askew came to London, tensions between Catholics and Protestants were high. While Henry VIII had broken from Rome a decade earlier, his Church of England prescribed beliefs that walked a fine line between traditional (Catholic) and radical (Protestant). Denying transubstantiation (the belief that bread and wine blessed by a priest is really and wholly Christ’s body and blood) was a felony punishable by death, and many Protestants died under this law. But denying that Henry VIII was head of the church was treason, also punishable by death. Many Catholics died under this law.

In London, Askew caught the attention of the authorities, who arrested her and interrogated her at least twice for her Protestant beliefs. Askew records her accounts of these interrogations – each of which takes place over several weeks – in The First Examination and The Latter Examination. In her accounts, she details the ways in which her interrogators intimidate her and attempt to trap her into confessing to heretical beliefs. She explains the ways in which she evades their questions, using her womanhood to her advantage. For instance, when one of her interlocutors, Doctor Standish, asks her to “say [her] mind, concerning the same text of Saint Paul” she responds with, “it [is] against Saint Paul’s learning, that I being a woman, should interpret the scriptures, specially where so many wise learned men [are]”. When another of her interrogators asks her why she has so few words, she replies, “God hath given me the gift of knowledge, but not of utterance. And Salomon sayth, that a woman of few words is a gift of God.” Askew’s various tactics are clever and reveal her nuanced understanding of theology and how to navigate the legal system as a woman.

In her recording of her second interrogation, Askew tells us that she decides to confess to her beliefs, which she knows will result in her death. Her interlocutors illegally torture her on the rack to try to obtain information about other gentlewoman who they are convinced have financially supported Askew; because she does not give any woman’s name, Askew says that her interrogators personally rack her in their frustration.

Askew was burned at the stake on 16 July 1546 at Smithfield with three Protestant men. Contemporary reports mention that her body was so broken from the torture that she had to be carried to the stake on a chair. She managed to record her story in spite of her pain.

Her accounts of examinations were reported to be smuggled out of England, printed in Germany, and smuggled back into England, where they were well received and re-printed at least six times in the sixteenth century alone. Her proto-feminist work continues to be read today.

The Delights of dsh (dom sylvester houédard)


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Hello! My name is Fran Horner and I am a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester studying the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. I am currently doing a placement at the John Rylands Library, which involves working with the archive of British Benedictine monk and poet dom sylvester houédard (dsh – he always referred to himself in lower case!). I am going to be regularly updating the John Rylands Library blog with my experiences and interesting discoveries!

dsh portrait

Photograph of dom sylvester houédard. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

My placement will consist of researching dsh’s importance in the fields of literature and art. He was one of Britain’s pioneers of concrete poetry: a type of experimental visual poetry which had its origins in Brazil, then Europe and was concerned with rebelling against conventional forms of poetry by focussing on the architectural form of letters. dsh’s most celebrated poem is Frog-pond-plop, 1965, and he is famous for his experimental use of his Olivetti typewriter to create ‘typestracts’.


dsh, Frog-pond-plop, 1965. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

The John Rylands Library holds dsh’s book collection, which is vast, but I will be concentrating on his collection of little poetry and art magazines from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. 

Before I could properly get stuck in with the items in the archive, I was preoccupied with creating a suitable method of cataloguing – something I have never done before! Thanks to Janette Martin (Archivist and Curator) and Julie Ramwell (Rare Books Librarian), I successfully created a spreadsheet with various categories of information that were to be recorded. It has been interesting learning about what categories of information are essential for the catalogue, for example: publisher, year published, volume and editor are all extremely important; whether I liked or disliked the poems… not so important. I have also discovered things about the appropriate type of language and structure I must use within the catalogue: the language must be succinct and consistent to ensure its reliability and usefulness as a finding aid. In the future, researchers may be using my catalogue!

Luckily for me, some wonderful library fairies had already alphabetised the collection of little magazines, saving me a big job, so I began cataloguing the ‘A’s. I must now get back to cataloguing in the Reading Room, where I am sat in five jumpers, but I’m eager to learn more about dsh and his wonderful world of concrete poetry.

sylvester houedart

Two typestracts by dsh published in Approches, 1966, no. 1, p.86. By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

Here are two typestracts by dsh that I found in French literary magazine Approches from 1966. Check back to this blog in the next couple of weeks where I will explore the conception and style of dsh’s typestracts in more detail.


Loose insert giving the title of the typestracts above.  By kind permission of Prinknash Abbey Trustees.

Commend me to your prayers




From Icones virorum illustrium (Images of famous men) Robert Boissard, Frankfurt, 1597

Martin Luther died on 18 February 1546 at the age of 62 in Eisleben, Saxony, the city where he was born. Luther’s actions had sparked a revolution that divided Europe and changed the course of history. Modern European identities were fundamentally shaped by the religious changes that he set in motion. The years of struggle, against the Catholic Church and amongst his fellow reformers, took their toll and Luther suffered from periods of depression and illness. One of the more poignant items in our Reformation exhibition is a letter written by Luther on 1 January 1528.

The letter is addressed to Gerhard Vilskamp, Rector of the community of Brethren of the Common Life at Herford in Westphalia. It is one of a number to survive from correspondence between the two men dating from 1527 to 1534.  Luther’s contact with the community began with Jacob Montanus, a friend of the German Lutheran reformer Philipp Melanchthon, who had moved there in 1522 to assist in their teaching activities. Vilskamp, along with his prorector, had been arrested in 1525 ‘as Lutherans and heretics’ by Bishop Eric of Paderborn and Osnabrück. After the city adopted the new faith in 1530, Luther supported the community in their appeals to the city authorities to maintain their communal life. The subject matter of the letter is particularly personal as Luther reflects on his recent struggles with depression and illness.


Ref. English MS 347/198

Grace and peace in Christ. I have received your most recent letter of consolation, my Gerard, with much pleasure and gratitude. May Christ reward you in eternity. In truth, this temptation was by far the most severe ever, and although it was not unknown to me from my youth, still so troublesome attack as this I had not expected. Nevertheless Christ triumphed, though my life was hanging by a most slender thread. I commend me to your prayers and [those] of your brothers. I have saved others, but I cannot save myself.  My blessed Christ, who passed through the depth of despair, death and blasphemy, will enable us to meet in his kingdom. In the meantime we must make sure that we serve Him in word and deed, but it is not in this that we are justified  – we are truly useless as servants , but our glory is to live in the world for Christ, forgetting our former evil life. What remains is that Christ is our life and our justification (ah, how hard and unknown to the flesh!), although hidden in God . Now I rejoice that I understand Peter  (with you as witness) that we must fulfill the experience of suffering that strikes our brethren in this world, however severe, until the end of this world.

Greetings to my Montanus and all the brothers. [Day] of the Circumcision, 1528.

Yours Martin Luther

Luther letter transcription and translation (with thanks especially to Professor Ulrich Bubenheimer and Dr Irene O’Daly).

Unfortunately we do not know the circumstances for the acquisition of the letter. However it does appear in a ‘List of Purchased Books 1893’, an alphabetical listing written by Mrs Rylands herself. It is one of two items under the heading ‘Luther’, the other being our copy of the 95 theses. You can see both of these treasures on display in our Reformation exhibition until Sunday 4 March.