Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Elephant and Castle

I've been to London a number of times, and I've heard the phrase "Elephant and Castle" on many of these trips: for me, it's always been a tube stop, although one I haven't often used, if ever. I should have realized, though, that the phrase has a particular medieval resonance, and that it derives from numerous medieval depictions of war-elephants with fighting platforms or pavilions on their backs, as usefully summarized on this blog post I ran across recently.

I ran across that blog, of course, because of the image I've used above, and some online searching I attempted in trying to trace it. As may (or may not) be clear from the heading, this woodcut is used at the top of a broadside Calendar for the year 1603, and the  image is a complex and fascinating one. In the center, we have, indeed, an elephant with a kind of fighting castle perched upon its back. Before it and behind it are some marching figures, apparently carrying an army of spears. In the upper right background, three cannon are pointing into the air; though it may not be especially clear, one of them has just fired, and (in a portion of the image that is not shown), the cannon ball is heading directly for a ship sitting just offshore. It seems doubtful that an actual historical battle is being depicted.

The language of the heading, of course, is German, and the calendar certainly comes from a German speaking area, perhaps Austria in particular (possibly Vienna), though no printer's name is now preserved with it.

As best I can tell, the red component of the image above is printed along with the red-printed heading; the other colors (green, magenta, and mustard yellow) seem to have been applied by hand.

As one might guess, such broadside calendars are scarce today: they were ephemeral at best, and they very quickly went out of date. This one is preserved as part of an old book-binding, which seems to have been put together around 1604--immediately after this calendar went out of date. But it's a fascinating example of an old genre of text (and image) that still is part of our world today, whenever we hang a calendar on our wall for ready consultation.

Table of symbols and the beginning of the calendar for January (Jenner)
In 1603, apparently, calendars like this also served some of the function of almanacs; between the Elephant and Castle and the January section, we see both a coat of arms (perhaps for Vienna?) and a list of symbols and their meanings, including some that relate to phases of the moon and some that are more about prognostication. The lack of numbers for the days seems strange, but apparently marking the Sundays with red triangles was enough. And so, although the calendar has some surface damage, we can still see by consulting the table that snow ("Schnee") was predicted for Tuesday, January 14. 

I haven't yet figured out a way to find out if that prediction was true, though there may be a record somewhere. But I do know that I'll remember this image when next I am in London, and I see the words "Elephant and Castle" on the Underground map.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Bicycle Season

Not everything I buy at auction is destined for resale--at least not right away. I am still a collector, in my way, and one of the things I often find myself attracted to is vintage folk art. And if there's some component to it that has to do with books or writing, I find it doubly hard to resist. 

Last week, at the one auction I regularly attend, I was able to get a small box of folky items, including a small, crudely carved wooden chain, and some other wooden items, but the real gems, as far as I was concerned, were a pair of folk-art bicycles.

They are made, as I expect the images show, from recycled old office supplies: the wheels are made from typewriter erasers (with the brushes removed); the bicycle frames (and the cyclist's head) are made from old brass binding rivets; and the limbs of the cyclist are bent paperclips. The corks that make the hats, I suppose, aren't really office supplies at all.

The bicycle with the black wheels, I think, is the older of the two; probably it was the model that the later example was based on. It seems to me to be a bit more handily made and attractive.

I can't really picture either of these being made any more recently than the 1950s or 1960s. I probably last used a typewriter eraser in the 1980s, and I don't think I ever really had a ready supply of brass binding rivets. I suppose both are obsolete technologies, now, but I think that's part of these bicyclists' charm.