John Considine. Dictionaries in Early Modern Europe: Lexicography and the Making of Heritage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xiv + 393 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-88674-1.
Reviewed by Asaph Ben-Tov (Yad Hanadiv / Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel)
Published on H-German (July, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Words and Heritage in Early Modern Europe
One temptation a reviewer of this book might feel, at the outset, would be to start with a litany of colorful anecdotes offered by early modern lexicography. One could, for instance, start with Johannes Goropius's (1519-72) assertion that Dutch was the language spoken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden--Goropius was Dutch--or with the more respectable case of the scholarly diplomat Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1521-92) interviewing a Gothic-speaking informant in Constantinople. To some extent this approach would be warranted, as John Considine's instructive study amply testifies to the role of oddities in lexicographical endeavors. Moreover, it might also serve as a rhetorical means to capture the attention of readers who, like myself, are neither lexicographers nor professional linguists. As tempting as it may be to dwell on the exotic and anecdotal, however, it would do injustice to Considine's study, which makes several highly interesting and thoroughly researched arguments about this branch of learning that bear relevance to much broader aspects of early modern intellectual history. While historians are well aware of the importance of early modern linguistic phenomena in their social and political contexts, apart from the important subject of literacy, and Umberto Eco's fascinating account of the search for the perfect language, which has reached a broad readership, a study of early modern dictionaries or, more correctly, of lexicography, may seem overtly technical or remote to many students of early modern intellectual history. This fine book, however, shows why students of early modern intellectual history in general, and late Renaissance and Baroque historiography, as well as those interested in learned constructions of collective identity and heritage and the question of method from the sixteenth to the late seventeenth centuries in particular, can benefit from attention to the subject.
Despite its title, this book is not about dictionaries, but rather lexicography in a much broader sense. It is a careful and richly documented account of the study of words from the sixteenth to the late seventeenth century. While dictionaries play a prominent role in this early modern pursuit, lexicography denotes the broader (more or less) systematic study of words. Furthermore, in contrast to the manner of common daily use by those of us who spend our time reading texts in foreign languages, the dictionaries and lexical studies discussed in this book were not primarily written or consulted to translate a given word, but rather emerged as part of a learned study of past civilizations--in the conviction that lexical usage sheds light on their various institutions and some of their deepest convictions. Furthermore, as Considine argues throughout the book, these works were also self-conscious attempts at forging various national and pan-European heritages.
Considine's choice of heritage as the leitmotif of his study is of course legitimate, and it seems amply demonstrated as an immanent concern and motivation of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century lexicographers. Though my reservation may be a reflection of my own interests and inclinations, this interpretive choice is, to my mind, not always the most profitable vantage point from which to view the matter. Identity clearly played a significant role, but some of the cases studied here would have perhaps been better served by a different interpretative focal point; for example, linguistic and antiquarian-historical method, especially since the author's treatment of these aspects is rewarding.
Following an introduction that elaborates early modern lexicographers' conception of their herculean labors and achievements--the author is himself a lexicographer--the following seven chapters deal with the classical lexicographical heritages (chapters 2 and 3), vernacular heritages (chapters 4-6), post-classical heritages (chapter 7), and finally polyglot and universal dictionaries (chapter 8).
Considine terms classical lexicography--the starting point for this section and indeed for the whole discussion of early modern lexicography--the development of dictionaries from rhetorical handbooks, which offered word lists as a means to achieve stylistic variety and verbal copiousness (copia), to receptacles of historical philology. He thus documents the emergence of an interest in ancient languages as a means to study the past as a complex system in its entirety. Considine sees such antiquarianism as the child of the sixteenth century and a departure from earlier humanist traditions. Erasmus's Adagia (first edition, 1500, with many later expanded versions), which relied on sayings and single words for its lemmata, is one of the pioneering works of its kind. It coincided roughly with Guillaume Budé and his (non-alphabetical) attempts to explicate lexical evidence in ancient texts as part of antiquarian studies, most famously in his De Asse et partibus eius (1514). The chapter concludes with the first great lexicographer of this new brand, Robert Estienne (1503-59), and his Latin Thesaurus (1531), with its alphabetized, though not strictly alphabetical, ordering of lemmata. In comparison to the earlier definitive Latin dictionary by Ambrogio Calepino (1435-1511), Estienne offered more numerous and systematic references to ancient authors and fuller quotation of the various meanings of a given word. Its alphabetized and etymologically linked ordering reflects the non-arbitrary character of the language, sketching the conformity of etymologically clustered sets of signifiers to species of signified.
Chapter 3 offers a highly interesting account of the lexicographical career of Robert Estienne's great son, Henri (1528-98). Various aspects of Henri Estienne's career are examined, including his early interest in the supposed conformity of French with Greek--a view he was to change, in later life, for a correspondence and hence genealogical descent from non-classical Latin at the base of French. The younger Estienne's Thesaurus graecae linguae (1572) remains his greatest and most often consulted achievement. As Considine points out, it coincided with the closing age of humanist discoveries and first editions of new texts. Estienne's lexicographic labors were closely related to his prolific editorial output as one of the sixteenth century's greatest scholarly printers--one thinks, for example, of Stephanus pagination (Estienne's Latinized name) in modern editions of Plato. Considine discusses the formal lexicographical characteristics of the Thesaurus graecae linguae in its differentiation of senses and the work's etymological macrostructure, which links diverse lemmata: for example, the case of ethnos (race, nation), ethos (custom), ēthikos (ethical), and kallietheira (having beautiful hair), thus linking these diverse words to a single idea and tracing lexical (and cultural) development--a pattern that nonetheless did not lead Estienne to arrange his quotations chronologically. By the time the Thesaurus graecae linguae came into being, Estienne was less concerned with French conformity to Greek, and had shifted toward a view of Greek as a common heritage of western Europe--the monumental work was dedicated, appropriately, to the King of France, the Queen of England, the Holy Roman Emperor, the Electors of the Palatinate, Saxony, and Brandenburg, and nine universities in their realms, in tune with his irenicist contacts in the 1570s. This lexicographical achievement, justly celebrated as it is, was, however, a financial disaster.
Concentrating on England, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, the section on vernacular heritages (chapters 4-6) deals with the discovery of Germanic linguistic heritages. This type of lexicographical interest in the linguistic past was most evident in the cases of languages that were undergoing a process of standardization at the time and would become objects of historical study for scholars in search of the post-classical and non-classical histories of Europe. The earliest extant texts of a given language and the ancient linguistic forms they documented were seen as sources of cultural history.
Early in the sixteenth century, the abbot Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516) showed an interest in ancient Teutonic languages; he recognized that the textual monuments of Germanic antiquity were written in an inaccessible, obsolete language--a dictionary was therefore needed. One such textual remnant available to early modern scholars was the Codex Argenteus, a sixth-century silver lettered vellum manuscript of a fourth-century Gothic translation of the Gospels. Gothic was the only ancient Germanic language that could be studied in a substantial text. The recognition of old texts and old languages as a heritage, Considine argues, was the precondition for the lexicographical work of the later sixteenth century, as in the works of Conrad Gesner (1516-65) and Georg Henisch (1549-1618). As Considine reminds us through the case of the relative lack of interest in Frisian, it was standardized languages with a high-culture status that attracted interest, that is, the standardized languages of public affairs, rather than those of domestic use.
In England, lexicographical interest in Old English was linked to the Reformation, for several reasons. First, it was after the dissolution of the monasteries that manuscripts of Old English were gathered and studied. Furthermore, Reformation rhetoric about a return to Anglo-Saxon traditions of Christianity also encouraged a learned interest in the language. Some scholars considered Old English pure, lacking, as it did, the plethora of foreign loan words with which sixteenth-century English abounded. To some extent this position is analogous to seventeenth-century Lutheran "purist" aversion to the introduction of French loan words into German. One early champion of recording and glossing Old English was John Leland (1506-52), whose interest in linguistic archaeology of the British Isles was linked, as with others, to his passion for typography. Another interesting instance dealt with in this book is the case of Lawrence Nowell (1515-71), an antiquary and pioneer of Old English dictionaries. Nowell's attempted explanation of the Old English beor is instructive: "It was a drinke made w[ith] hony, wherby it hath the name of the bee, for our kinde of beere was not knowen in those dayes" (cited on p. 166). While this derivation is incorrect, as Considine points out, since beor means ale, not mead, "it is Nowell's desire to reconstruct the past through language that matters" (p. 166). Interestingly, Nowell attempts to establish words' meaning from their textual contexts. A different style of glossing was cultivated by William Camden's (1551-1623) Britannia (1586), which offered a model of British heritage on the one hand, while on the other suggesting a broader European context, establishing a British heritage within the context of European nations with roots in the Roman past. A glimpse at the political context of learned lexicography is offered by the fact that Old English was construed as a joint British rather than English heritage--common to England and Scotland--a claim of political relevance championed by scholars of either side of the Civil War. Interest in Old English, and the several dictionaries published in England, was closely related to continental scholarship, especially Dutch, that was concerned with other Germanic languages. Franciscus Junius, Jr. (1591-1677) attempted to trace Old English, Norse, and Dutch words to their Greek origins--a counter-argument against the view of Germanic languages as independent of Greek and Latin, a view Junius shared with classical scholar Meric Casaubon (1599-1671), though, by 1664, Junius had come to reject the theory of Greek origin, seeing Germanic languages and Greek as cognate rather than filially derived.
Chapter 7 presents a study of the lexicography of Charles du Fresne, sieur du Cange (1610-88) in its contemporary scholarly context. Du Cange is known today for his studies of Byzantine history and medieval Latin. The distance between du Cange and the medieval writers allowed him to see their post-classical Latin as an object of serious investigation, rather than a "mistake" to be spurned. Were the post-classical changes in Greek and Latin degenerations, or linguistic rebirths? Du Cange does not seem to have been sure. At least not in regard to Latin--as he had no vested interest in modern Greek, du Cange could freely see it as a chronicle of degeneration. As to Latin and French the preface to the glossarium latinitatis "presents a vivid self-portrait of a lexicographer trying to understand, on the basis of the magnificently extensive reading distilled in his dictionary, whether or not he has the right to be proud of his cultural heritage" (p. 281).
After dwelling on the vernacular, essentially local lexicographical projects of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (though those were by no means insular), Considine concludes his study with a chapter on lexicographical endeavors of a universal, or at the very least multiple, orientation: polyglot dictionaries and universal dictionaries, such as Hieronymus Megiser's (1554-1619) Dictionarium quatuor linguarum (1592) with its 4,700 German headwords and their Latin, Italian, and Slovene equivalents--a work of Habsburg linguistic orientation--as well as Megiser's Turko-Latin/Latin-Turko glossary and his Malagasy-German glossary, translated from Dutch. In 1603, Megiser published his voluminous polyglot dictionary, Thesaurus polyglottus vel dictionarium multilingue, offering a long list of equivalents to the Latin headwords in as many languages as he could muster. Apart from his polyglot wish to overcome the confusion of Babel, it was also, to some extent, related to a missionary zeal, as Megiser expressed in the preface to the German-Malagasy dictionary the pious hope that the people of Madagascar would embrace Christianity. The chapter continues with an account of a lexicographical endeavor of a very different nature--that of creating universal languages, such as that of George Dalgarno (1626-87) and the more successful, better connected founder and secretary of the Royal Society, John Wilkins (1614-72) in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to forge a philosophical language to overcome the confusion of languages inflicted on mankind since Babel. The chapter ends with the "Scythian hypothesis" called into existence by the recognition of similarities between Germanic languages, other European languages, and some languages spoken further to the east, such as Persian. The search for Scythian was not a quest to locate a concrete, existing language, but to find the ancient, lost idiom once used in southwestern Asia, yet distinct from Hebrew, from which modern European languages descended--adumbrating the modern concept of the proto-Indo-European language.
All this makes the merits of this instructive study and its relevance to students of intellectual history patently clear. My reservation as to whether some portions of this book are best served by heritage as the focal point of the study notwithstanding, this book will be read by students of early modern thought with both pleasure and profit.
. See, e.g., Peter Burke, Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
. Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, tr. J. Fentress (London: Fontana Press, 1995).
. A 1927 facsimile edition of the Codex Argenteus, now at the University of Uppsala, is available online at: http://www.ub.uu.se/arv/codex/faksimiledition/contents.html.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Asaph Ben-Tov. Review of Considine, John, Dictionaries in Early Modern Europe: Lexicography and the Making of Heritage.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|