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The Circulation of Knowledge in Humanist Europe

The Example of Christian Hebraicists

At the beginning of the 16th century Christian hellenists and hebraicists moved throughout Europe, from Cambridge to Paris, or from Rome to Frankfort, as did their writings. Within a half century, a knowledge-based European unity took shape. Sophie Kessler-Mesguich of the research unit Histoire des Théories Linguistiques (CNRS / University of Paris VII / ENS Lettres) has explored in particular the mobility of the hebraicists.

The period between the end of the 15th century and 1530 witnessed the rise of an important change in outlook. Another vision of the world (with Europeans discovering and colonising new territories), a transformation of economic exchanges, and the development of techniques like the printing press are some of the factors which framed this renewal of the intellectual universe.

As part of a general return-to-the-source longing for all things of Antiquity, seen as the Golden Age, the humanists turned to a renewed investigation of biblical texts, but with a desire to read them in the original Hebrew and Greek.  They needed therefore to learn these languages but also to establish a grammatical tradition by applying to Hebrew the Greco-Latin grammatical tools they possessed already. This new tradition, which sprang up in the first third of the 16th century, was the work of travelling scholars who crisscrossed Europe to enrich their training and to offer courses in Hebrew.

From the 12th to the 14th centuries the Christian scholars who learned Greek or Hebrew were still isolated individuals. By the Renaissance the teaching of biblical languages was institutionalised with the establishment of university chairs and of trilingual colleges, which triggered in turn a recruiting effort for professors in these languages. This was the reason, for example, that Erasmus brought Matthieu Adrianus, born around 1465 to Spanish Jewish parents, to Louvain1. Similarly, the first two or three “lecteurs royaux” (royal lecturers) in Hebrew appointed in Paris were Italian. The author of the first Hebrew grammar and the first work in Greek characters to appear (towards 1507) in France, François Tissard of Amboise, was the student of Italian scholars.

Hebraicists moved about in order to learn from this or that particular master, but also at times because of religious discord. Accordingly, Elie Levita was obliged to leave Nuremberg for Italy, where he contributed significantly to the spread of Hebrew learning among Christians. In the same vein, Ralph Baynes was a Catholic hebraicist who held a chair as "lecteur royal" in Paris (1549-1554) during the reign of Edward VI, who looked favorably on the Reformation, and then went back to England upon Mary Tudor's accession to the throne.

Books, like scholars, also circulated widely. At the Renaissance they were considered “the travelling commodity par excellence”2. It is not unusual to find a biblical grammar printed in Louvain reappear later in Paris or Cologne. Nicolas Clénard's grammar, published at Louvain in 1529, went through 23 editions (of which 14 at Paris, six at Cologne, one at Solingen and one at Leyden). It is less frequent to see a grammer first published in France reprinted elsewhere, although this was the case with the Hebrew and Aramaic grammar by Petrus Martinius which was published at La Rochelle in 1590 and inspired the first Hebrew grammar in English.

From Cambridge to Paris and from Leyden to Geneva, or from Venice and Rome to Tübingen and Frankfort, hebraicists and hellenists put into place in a half-century the necessary foundations for the pursuit of their new disciplines. Scholars and books circulated freely in an integrated Europe of learning. If at times this mobility was the result of harsh conflict, it also bore witness to the deep humanist desire to go as far as possible in the knowledge of biblical tongues and the construction of new fields of inquiry.



à lire

• S. Kessler-Mesguich. Les études hébraïques en France, de F. Tissard à R. Simon (1508-1680). Doctoral thesis. Paris, 1994.
• S. Kessler-Mesguich. "L'hébreu chez les hébraïsants chrétiens des XVIe et XVIIe siècles". In La linguistique de l'hébreu et des langues juives.
Histoire épistémologie Langage
t. XVIII/1, 1996.


Sophie Kessler-Mesguich
Senior lecturer at University Paris VIII
Histoire des Théories Linguistiques

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