This post was written by Manuela Pallotto Strickland and Friederike Wolpert, Graduate Library Trainees at the Warburg Institute. It is part of a series of posts on the theme of Women’s History to tie in with History Day 2018.
“Behind every great library, there is a great woman.”
Isn’t that what they say?
Sometimes – very often, in fact – there is more than one. The three women featured in this post helped shape the Warburg Library as we know it today, ensuring the library’s survival in turbulent times, supplying impetus to future generations of scholars for new, pioneering research, and – last, though certainly not least – forming the collection’s character by bequeathing their private collections.
Gertrud Bing (1892-1964)
It is impossible to read the obituaries commemorating Gertrud Bing upon her sudden death in 1964 without feeling sad. Bing’s colleagues unanimously praised her deep humanity, intellectual generosity, curiosity, and determination. A close collaborator of Aby Warburg, whose own private collection forms the core of the library, and later of Fritz Saxl, “Kollegin Bing” became director of the Warburg Institute in 1955 after Henri Frankfort’s death.
Bing played an important role in the successful emigration of the original Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (KWB) from Hamburg to London in 1933. It was thanks to her resourcefulness during the Third Reich that the Institute was able to come to the aid of many refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.
However, Bing’s colleagues also realised how little they knew about her personal life, her likes and dislikes. The books she surrounded herself with, acquired over a lifetime, speak volumes about these private interests. While combing through the second floor shelves – dedicated to the transmission of classical texts and ideas in language and literature – to reconstruct her collection, we were surprised to uncover one of her passions: illustrated children’s books.
These beautiful, colourful volumes are unconnected to the scholarly research Bing conducted at the institute, which examined (for example) the seventeenth-century German philosophical tradition and medieval apocalyptic manuscripts. These children’s books conjure up a dreamy landscape that contrasts with the darker tone of her Faustian bookplate.
Frances Yates (1899-1981)
When we took some of the volumes that had belonged to Frances Yates off the shelves, we were – at first – surprised. Yates is renowned for her pioneering scholarship on medieval and early modern cultural history, an area of enquiry that had been considered marginal – if considered at all – by traditional historiographers. The art of memory, the thought of Giordano Bruno, dynastic iconography, astrology, hermeticism, Renaissance magic, and the occult: it would be fair to expect to find among Yates’s books some specimens of a more esoteric nature.
Instead, we were confronted by a very consistent collection of seventeenth-and-eighteenth-century encyclopaedias, works on pictorial symbolism and emblems, compilations by mythographers and Latin lexicographers, and even a 1724 illustrated edition of Curtius’s biographical account of Alexander the Great. What we found was a bibliotheca formed in a most ‘orthodox’ Warburgian spirit.
However, we should not have been surprised at all. Because if it is true that – after Yates had arrived as a scholar at the Warburg Institute during the early 1940s – she did not simply pick up with her research where others had left off, it is equally true that the Institute and its library were an important inspiration and introduced Yates to exciting new (and, at that time, also unheard of) ideas, which she promptly made her own.
The Warburg library showed Yates a new, ‘encyclopaedic’ approach to history that neither recognised strict ‘departmental partitions’ in historical cultures, nor in academic research. In her own words: “The Institute’s library is designed to present the history of culture as a whole – the history of thought, science, religion, art – and to include in this history the history of imagery and symbolism”.
Elizabeth David (1913-1992)
Cookery writer Elizabeth David is perhaps best known for having revolutionised British eating habits. After extensive travels around Greece, France, and Egypt during the 1940s, David introduced post-war Britain to continental European and Mediterranean cuisine and revitalised home cooking as self-expressive, creative, and fun. It is largely thanks to her efforts – at first in a regular column for Harper’s Bazaar and, later, in several influential publications that included A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) and French Provincial Cooking (1960) – that we season with basil, cook with olive oil and garlic, and eat as much pasta and pizza as we do.
As part of her research into the social history of food, David collected cookery books and left her private collection of historical material – in total, 234 volumes – to the Warburg Institute Library.
A fascinating resource of incredible breadth – documenting sweet and savoury drinks and dishes, cooking tools, food stuffs, and even sanitary concerns from the seventeenth century onwards – David also owned a number of cookery books by women who, despite enjoying comparable fame during their lifetimes, have since been largely forgotten.
All the books we have referred to in this blog are available for our readers to browse. You can find out more about the Warburg Institute Library admission rules at https://warburg.libguides.com/library. If you have an inquiry, please email Warburg.Library@sas.ac.uk.