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Mediaeval knowledge of Oriental languages
Christian Schools and Scholars, Mother Francis Raphael, O.S.D. (A.T. Drane), New Edition edited by Walter Gumbley, O.P., Burns, Oates, and Washbourne, London, 1824, pp. 434-439, Ch. 14, The Dominicans and the Universities.
[An extract showing both the origin and inaccuracy of the notion that the Oriental languages were unknown to scholars in the Middle Ages, which ignorant prejudice of Protestant scholars provided the background to the generalised notion amongst modern, university-instructed men, that St. Thomas Aquinas probably did not know Greek himself.]
But to complete our idea of the work achieved by the Dominicans, we must add that they largely encouraged the cultivation of Biblical studies, and of the Greek and Oriental tongues. The Cardinal Hugh de St Cher claims the gratitude of students as the author of the first Biblical Concordance, a work which he commenced in the year 1236. The Chapter-General of the order, which was that year held in Paris, entered with large liberality into so useful a design, and appointed a great number of the brethren to labour at it under his direction. The General Chapter1 directed that all copies of the Sacred Scriptures used in the order should be revised, corrected, and punctuated according to the correction of the body of religious thus employed. This great work was begun under the generalship, and with the hearty concurrence, of Blessed Jordan of Saxony; his successor St Raymund of Pennafort, whose election had been mainly brought about through the exertions of Hugh de St Cher, made yet more important provision for the encouragement of the Scriptural sciences. With a view of promoting the critical study of the Scriptures, and arming his brethren with weapons of controversy against the Jews and Mohammedans, whose influence in this century was far more powerfully felt among Christians than it now is, he established Arabic and Hebrew studies in all the convents of Spain. Not content with this, he founded two colleges, more expressly intended for the same purpose, attached to convents of the order, one at Murcia, and the other at Tunis, filling them with religious whom he selected as best qualified to devote themselves to these pursuits. One of these was his celebrated namesake, Raymund Martin, the author of the Pugio Fidei, whom a learned French academician, M. Houtteville, has, by a singular blunder, numbered among the literary stars of the sixteenth century, unable, as it would seem, to credit the fact that so erudite a scholar could have flourished before the age of Francis the First. He was, however, a contemporary of St Raymund, and is declared to have been as familiar with the Arabic, Hebrew, and Chaldaic tongues as he was with Latin. The two last parts of his book are written in Hebrew, and he employed his last years in teaching the same language to a number of disciples, as well secular as religious.2 The value of St Raymund’s labours in founding these schools, which won him the title of the Restorer of Oriental Studies, is publicly acknowledged in a bull of Clement VIII, who declares that the revival of the Eastern languages in the Dominican schools has contributed to the glory both of Spain and of the entire Church, and has been the proximate cause of a vast number of conversions.3 Ten thousand Saracens had already been won to the faith before the year 1236.
Nevertheless, no charge is more commonly brought against the scholars of the Middle Ages, than that of neglecting the study of the Greek and Oriental languages. Hallam, in his Literary History, with a great show of candour and painstaking research, notices certain examples of authors belonging to the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, who, he says, appear to have known a few words of Greek. Greek books, he admits, were to be found in the libraries of the eleventh century, and Greek lexicons were compiled by Benedictine abbots, which seems an odd waste of labour if no one ever dreamed of using them. In the Philobiblon of Richard de Bury, written in the fourteenth century, he gravely informs us that he has counted five words of Greek. As to the statement made in the same book to the effect that the learned author had caused Greek and Hebrew grammars to be drawn up for the use of students, he dismisses the passage with the comment that no other record of such grammars is to be found. Nor does the decree of the Council of Vienne, passed in 1311, ordering the establishment of Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Chaldaic professorships in the universities of Paris, Oxford, Bologna, and Salamanca, strike him as offering any evidence that these languages were really cultivated. The decree, he says (though he brings no authority in support of his words), “remained a dead letter.” He accounts for the occasional phenomenon which is to be met with, of a scholar acquainted with five words of Greek, by attributing it to the assistance of Greek priests who found their way into Europe; and observes, that after all, supposing anybody did really know the language, he only used it to read “some petty treatise of the Fathers, or apocryphal legend.” One is tempted to criticise the accuracy of a writer who begins by denying that any mediaeval scholars in the West were acquainted with Greek, and then goes on to tell us what they did, and what they did not, read in that language. But there is a more serious fault in these statements than their bad logic. Having made an assertion of this nature on a subject which is certainly of no mean importance in the history of literature, he was bound to take some pains in investigating it. And it is difficult to understand how he can really have examined the literary history of the thirteenth century, without coming across some incidental proof of the ardour with which the Greek and Oriental languages were being at that time pursued in the Dominican schools. It was a fact of such world-wide notoriety that the motive which induced the university of Oxford to assign the Jews’ quarter of the town to the Friars Preachers, was their known familiarity with the learned tongues, by means of which it was hoped they might become efficient instruments for the conversion of their Jewish neighbours. General after General added to the ordinances made by his predecessors for keeping up these studies. Humbert de Romanis, the fifth General of the order, to whom St Raymund had communicated the success of his own efforts in Spain, at once determined to extend the ordinance, which had hitherto been partial in its operation, to all the convents of the order; and in 1256 he addressed a circular letter to the brethren, in which he invites all who feel themselves inspired by the grace of God to devote themselves to the study of Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, to communicate with him, because the knowledge of these languages is most necessary in order to extend the light of the Gospel among the Greek schismatics and Moorish infidels.4 F. Penna, auditor of the Rota to Clement VIII, assures us that it was the success of the colleges established by the Friars Preachers, and specially in Spain, that moved the Council of Vienne to issue the decree already quoted, and the same is repeated by other writers. The acts of that Council are, however, by others attributed to the influence of the celebrated Franciscan Raymund Lully, the Illuminated Doctor, as he was called, who devoted many years and much labour to the endeavour to obtain the foundation of colleges for the study of these languages, in order to provide missionaries qualified to labour among the infidels. He himself was a profound Orientalist, and the legendary tales which multiplied in connection with his extraordinary life, represent the tree under which he constructed his mountain hut as bearing on its very leaves the Greek, Arabic, and Chaldaic characters. At last he persuaded King James of Arragon to found a college in the island of Miraman for thirteen Franciscans who were to be given up to the study of the learned tongues. Pope Honorius IV entered warmly into his views, but died before he was able to forward them; Philip le Bel acceded so far as to endow a college at Paris, and the Council of Vienne passed its decree confirming the erection of that college, and directing that similar establishments should be formed in the other chief European universities. Hallam, as we have seen, boldly asserts that the decree remained “a dead letter.” How generally it was carried out, or how long its provisions remained in force, may not be easy to determine; but there are precise documents to prove that it was at least put in force at Paris and Oxford. A letter is preserved, written in 1325, by Pope John XXII, to his legate in Paris, recommending him to watch the holders of the new professorships very closely, lest, under colour of the study of the Oriental tongues, they introduce any of the pernicious philosophical doctrines already condemned, and gathered out of the Gentile books.5 The historic evidence of the bona fide existence of the professorships at Oxford is yet more circumstantial, and is thus referred to by Ayliffe in his history of that university. “I pass on,” he says, “to speak of the lectures founded by Pope Clement V for the teaching of the Hebrew, Chaldaic, Arabic, and Greek languages, among which lectures John de Bristol, a converted Jew, read the Hebrew for many years at Oxford with great applause; and this year (1318), received a stipend settled on him by Walter Reynolds, Archbishop of Canterbury, and a tax of an halfpenny per mark from every ecclesiastical benefice throughout his province. This money was collected at the beginning of every Lent, and was lodged with the prior of the Holy Trinity.” 6 He goes on to notice some frauds committed in the collection of this tax in 1327, which, he says, is the last notice he finds concerning it. It is very probable that the professorships afterwards fell into abeyance, but the assertion that they were never founded is manifestly one of those made by a writer who draws his bow at a venture, and never cares to inquire into the fact.
Aymeric of Piacenza, twelfth General of the Order of Preachers, in 1310 established a house of studies in every Province for the Greek and Oriental languages, requiring the Provincials to provide very learned teachers of the same, and if none such were to be found among the brethren, they were to engage the services of secular professors, to be paid out of the revenues of the Province,7 a provision which certainly seems to imply that such professors were there to be found. This Aymeric, whom the chronicle of the Masters-General calls “a learned man, and a great lover of letters,” did much also to promote the study of the Scriptures at other chapters of his order. Echard tells us of the magnificent present bestowed by him on the convent of Bologna, in the shape of a Hebrew Pentateuch, which Bernard of Montfaucon describes as having himself seen. It contained an inscription, declaring the book to be the identical copy written by Esdras the scribe after the return from Babylon, and which he read in the ears of the people. After being preserved in various Jewish synagogues with the utmost veneration, Aymeric had obtained possession of it, and its authenticity was attested by several learned Jews. Though Echard hesitates to yield full credit to the tradition, he admits that the antiquity of the copy was not to be doubted.
The culture of Greek in the order is no less distinctly proved than that of the Oriental tongues. William de Moerbeke made a number of translations from Plato, Galen, and Proclus of Tyre; and his translation of Aristotle was made directly from the original, at the request of St Thomas, who himself understood the language well enough to criticise his friend’s version. Moerbeke was appointed Archbishop of Corinth in 1278, after being several times despatched as apostolic missionary to the East. Another fellow-student, and intimate friend of St Thomas, the Cardinal Annibale Annibaldi,8 is declared to have been learned both in Greek and Arabic philosophy. These examples of the linguistic erudition of the friars are but few out of many that might be given, and it is clear that their Greek reading was not limited to apocryphal legends and petty treatises of the Fathers. It certainly included the Greek philosophy, both Plato and Aristotle having found translators among the Friars Preachers of the thirteenth century. But it is more than probable that the poets and historians of Greece were little known or cultivated, for the object of these studies was less literary than practical. The Friars had to contend with a false philosophy, drawn out of the books of the Gentiles, and to maintain controversies with Greek schismatics and Jewish and Moorish unbelievers; and they studied to arm themselves for the work in which they were engaged. Practical views predominated very generally in that wonderful thirteenth century, which we are so disposed to contemplate through a poetic medium; and so we may safely admit the likelihood that the Greek poetry was not much studied before the period of classic renaissance.
1. Acta Cap. Gen., I, 9.
2. See Touron, Vies des Hommes Illustres, tom. i, 489-504; where are also to be found notices of F. Paul Christiani, and other Hebrew scholars of the order.
3. These foundations were thought worthy of being named among his greatest works in the former Breviary lessons for the Octave day of his feast: “Hebraicae et Arabicae linguae publicas scholas in Ordine Praedicatorum impensis instituit.”
4. The letter is printed at length in Marténe’s Collection, Tom. iv, col. 1527.
5. Crevier, Hist. de l’Univ. de Paris, vol. ii, p. 227. There is incidental evidence that the Greek and Oriental tongues were occasionally studied even by members of the secular colleges of Paris, during this and the following century. Stephen Pasquier speaks of a certain youth of twenty, who in the year 1445 spoke very subtle Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldaic, and Arabic, besides many other tongues; and winds up his account by saying that if an ordinary man had lived a hundred years without eating and sleeping he could not have learnt as much as this young prodigy. His learning, however, was evidently something rather uncommon, for, says the historian, it put all his fellow-students in fear lest he knew more than human nature ought to know, and might possibly be “a young Antichrist.”
6. Ayliffe, State of the University of Oxford, vol. i, p. 106.
7. Fontana, Const. De studio Linguarum, g. p. 467; also Jasinsky, Stadium Linguarum, lit. B.
8. Annibaldi was a pupil of Albert the Great, and took his Doctor’s degree in Paris, where he enjoyed a very brilliant reputation. Innocent IV created him Master of the Sacred Palace. But being promoted to the purple in 1263, he solicited Urban IV to name as his successor in that office a certain learned English Friar, F. William Bonderinensis, as he is called in the Catalogue of the Masters, who belonged to the Convent of London, and was the only one of our countrymen who ever filled that important post.
[What follows was added by a later editor of Mother Drane’s book, Walter Gumbley, O.P.] William Boderinensis or Boderisham must either be omitted from the list or inserted in the following century, as he is probably identical with William Boderisham, or Bottlesham, a Cambridge Dominican who died as Bishop of Rochester in 1399. In 1379 another English Dominican, William Andrews of the Convent of Guildford and Bishop of Achonry, was appointed Master of the Sacred Palace by Urban VI Taurisano, O.P., Hierarchia O. Praed., ed. Rom, 1916, p. 39 [ED.].