In the old world traditions, February is a month given over to purification, atonement, and fertility. All of these rites are to be seen as prerequisite to the coming fecundity of Spring. February, thus, is a month of anticipation and preparation of the way forward. According to Ovid, in one of his perhaps fanciful yet telling etymologies, he notes that
Our Roman forefathers called the means of absolution “februa” Even today much evidence attests to this meaning.
Ovid. Fasti. II.19-20.
Similarly he attests to a pine bough, perhaps used to beat away sinfulness and dirt from the body as being called a “februa” when given to the flamen’s wife. It is an act similar in form to the beatings of the Lupercalia, the naked runners devoted to Pan, or in Latin Faunus, who use strips of leather to whip young women in passing, that they might become fertile in the coming year.
For the north of Europe, in a different pagan tradition we have Imbolc, which corresponds loosely with our own Groundhog’s Day. During the season of Imbolc one is required to make offerings, of course, but also to seek blessings upon fields and livestock that they might be fruitful, whilst also engaging in ritualized spring cleaning. A clearing the way for the influence of the new year to be activated by sweeping out the old. It is also noted that the festival, which by the Christian calendar is associated with the feast day of Saint Brigid, is timed to coincide with lambing season. It is perhaps notable then, that in the Lupercalia, it is with a whip of goat’s hide with which the young virgins are struck, as it is on the first of the month a sheep that is offered up to Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Ovid. Fasti: II. 444-45; & 70).
The 15th is the traditional date of the Lupercalia, which occurs on the third morning after the ides (which is not, as we can see, always on the 15th of the month) and a day after our own Valentine’s. The Lupercalia it seems is a much more rustic tradition, however, and involved crowds of naked young runners vaunting through the ancient city, armed with strips of goat hide as we have already mentioned, and beating, symbolically anyway, the fecundity back into the women of the realm. Ovid attributes the rite to an ancient prophecy where in the matrons were ordered to be mounted by a randy billy-goat, for which act the beating by the hide was substituted by the appalled citizens. (Ovid. Fasti: II. 441ff).
In another origin story Ovid tells us that the runners are given to nakedness both because it is fitting to run unbound by clothes, like the ancient Arcadians, but also because Pan harbors a grudge against them. This distaste for the obscuring properties of habiliments is said to derive from an unhappy encounter with Hercules and his wife Omphale. Having become enamored with the demi-god’s spouse the rustic forest god decided upon a strategy of rapine. Unfortunately for the Great God, when he came quietly unto their bed chamber the duo had exchanged clothes in order to worship Dionysius on the morrow, so, instead of seizing the beautiful Omphale he squoze close to dread Hercules instead. Interesting by omission is the fact that Ovid tells us nothing about the wine-god’s festival, which is left, I suppose, to be told by Greeks and not Romans. (Ovid. Fasti: II. 303ff).
In short, February is a month for frisky sport, and love, and preparation, a truth we all know, perhaps, without being told explicitly. Yet it is informative to see that no matter how things change, some truths remain the same from time to time, and that we still follow in some sense the ancient customs, whether it is in cozying up at home to wait out winter storms, or in cleaning out the dust from off the pantry shelves, or else prepare for warmer days, by nosing through seed catalogs and starting out young shoots in window boxes in anticipation of coming spring.
Today I have been engaged in a little freeform research, the kind of thing that keeps me engaged with history even when I don’t have much in the way of professional opportunities to practice it. The real problem over the last year has obviously been the pandemic, and I am excited about opportunities that may be forthcoming to get back into the physical archive space as opposed to the very limited virtual one. Nonetheless, online is the place to start so that you don’t waste time at the repository.
One of these personalities, who I have investigated at a bit in detail, was an artist, photographer, and amateur architect named Rembrandt T. Steele, son of well-known Indiana painter T. C. Steele. It turns out that when the Art Association of Indianapolis, which was organized in 1883, decided to form a school with the monies left to it by local businessman John Herron, they looked to the Steele family for inspiration. The organization purchased the artist’s former house and studio property, known as the Tinker-house, just northeast of the intersection of Pennsylvania and 16th streets, and transformed it into an art school. This was in 1902.
They also made ‘Brandt’ Steele, one of the first faculty members of the new school to be opened in the former residence. A galley was to be opened as well, and the property was much renovated to accommodate it’s new functions. It probably didn’t hurt his career that Brandt’s father was the vice president of the Art Association.
The standard curriculum was to practice art intensively, “six hours daily, six days in a week.” Steele was assigned to teach design daily in a class listed as, “Modern ornament. The study of nature and its application to design.”
A note on the back of the circular notes that “the annual membership fee to the art association is five dollars,” and that when “both parents are members” it entitles children to attend all lectures and receptions given by the Association.
There were other items of interest about Steele the younger in the archives as well, along with his immediate family. Not only was Brandy a successful ceramicist, but he also designed his own home from scratch, one of the more distinctive properties in the city dating to the turn of the century, still standing on East Drive, in Woodruff place. Steele was an avid photographer, so there are large collections of his photographs in the archive. With none of them digitized, however, their contents only hinted at by the available finding aids.
In addition to Brandt’s drawings and papers, the archives also contain many writings and drawings attributed to his wife, Helen McKay Steele, including essays, letters, and most intriguing of all diaries. Helen was the daughter of a local newspaper magnate, and an accomplished writer, making her letters a pleasure to peruse.
Taken together the archival collection of the two personalities offers insightful and personal first hand views into Midwestern urban life during the Victorian Era. Early letters between them reference the Spanish-American War, and photos show that Brandt joined the Indiana Militia later, during the First World War.
Hellen Elizabeth died in 1947, while Brandt died in 1965 at the generously old age of 95. Both are buried together in the famous local landmark, Crown Hill Cemetery. Together they lived through two world wars, a pandemic, and a great depression, while Brandt survived his wife well into the Cold War. I am looking forward to looking deeper into their joint histories, as well as those of the Art School and Association, with a view to recreating some of the elements of upper class life in downtown Indianapolis during the turn of the last century. Wish me luck!
One way in which a book can be termed a cultural icon is if its impact spreads out wide beyond its own particular context and the circumstances behind it’s authorship, continuing on to cast its influence down long corridors of time and into unexpected and even unimagined domains of thought and expression. A book might be relevant for its historical impact within the narrow confined of its own time and place, possibly even having wide influence within that sphere, still without transmitting its aura to other times and cultures beyond those in which it arose. But when we consider such works as the epic poems of Greece, the plays of Shakespeare, or political screeds such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, what marks them out as standing alone among the general tide of literature is their long term impact and the multivalence of their expressions in cultures markedly different from those in which they originated. Edgar Allen Poe, for example, likely never imagined his work on The Raven as the basis of a Simpsons episode, and yet such unlikely transformation is what separates it as a cultural icon from popular works of the day that are soon forgotten and which disappear into dimly remembered history.
There is a phenomena in the study of linguistics where it is well known that the more commonly a verb is used in everyday discourse the more subject it is to dramatic change, accumulation of new, often contradictory, meanings, and variability in form — by such means are irregular conjugations formed. The etymology of simple everyday words such as to go, to bear, to speak are sometimes so convoluted and so strewn with synonyms as to make their study a labyrinthine sort of exercise. Analogously, when a literary work attains a ubiquitous aspect in terms of its cultural influence, it too often becomes difficult to assess, not just in its impact and influence on other works – in some sense that is the easy part, if one can find an explicit reference – but even, in some cases, in defining what that work is in itself.
The Bible, for example, has so many and multifarious expressions as to make it difficult to circumscribe a universally acceptable definition of what the Bible as title actually refers to. The works of Shakespeare provide another example of a corpus for which a myriad of variant expressions exist, often in a multiplication of media as well. In classical works, such problems can be exacerbated by difficulties in varying manuscripts, idiomatic language changes over time, and shifting cultural contexts that confuse the meanings of words and expressions.
Another work which can be characterized by the expansiveness of both its cultural relevance as well as its difficulty in definition is the Bhagavad Gita. Not even in itself a distinct work, being a part of a much longer national epic, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita in English, has had an outsized and multifarious impact compared to its actual text, which is quite concise, and its relatively recent genesis, having only first been translated and published into English in 1785. Of course, we must ask, is it even possible to speak of a work in translation as a separate entity from its source material? In this case, it seems appropriate, since at the time, the English speaking world, outside of the relatively insular community of East Indian Company employees and officials, was almost wholly ignorant of Indian cultural forms and religious expressions, their primary exposure to such being from what popular accounts might have existed in elaborated travelers’ tales, secondhand accounts from the Islamic world, which had dominated trade and commerce with India up until the Renaissance, and those provided by antique and classical Greek and Latin sources, out of date by centuries, at least.
Before the worldwide expansion of European power, for medieval Christian Europe, India was the edge of the earth, a distant horizon, a strange land where things were very different. The strangeness of India for Europeans could take monstrous or pleasant forms virtually without limit, because they were unchecked by experience.
(Trautmann. 2011: 169-70).
During the medieval period, European access to the cultural artifacts, intellectual products, and trade goods of India was greatly curtailed in comparison to the old Greco-Roman world order, and even in that earlier time, India was a distant and poorly understood land, despite Roman pretensions to domination. In the medieval era, access to India was almost entirely mediated through Islamic sources, and not until the Renaissance and the great European expansion that it engendered, was the full and constant contact or commerce established between the subcontinent and the now rising Western European powers.
In his landmark study Orientalism, Edward Said says of Sanskrit and other Indian cultural studies that they “did not acquire the status of scientific knowledge until after Sir Willam Jones’s efforts in the late eighteenth century” (75) But even so, the confluence of this intellectual stream with those sources engendered by Wilkins and Hastings, all of whom were working under the aegis of the Royal Asiatik Society, must have watered the same fields, coming together as they did in such close proximity and with such similarity of purpose, that the net cultural results of one are for all practical purposes indistinguishable for those of the other. All were promoting the use of Sanskrit to aid EIC rule though cultural understanding, whatever their other motives and whatever other side effects might result. Wilkins, along with Jones, was credited with the Society’s foundation, and, if Jones produced academic work that was influential in the origination of the new discipline of Indology, it was a discipline within which Wilkins had already been working independently, and doing so in an arena which would have public as well as academic impact, his proposed translation of the Mahabharata.
His translation of the Bhagavad Gita, only a part of his proposed endeavor,would be published in the year following the foundation of the Society, and was written simultaneously with its foundation. The work would prove wildly influential, even well beyond the academy, and within two years was translated again from his version into both Russian and French. His 1808 Grammar of the Sanskrit Language would cement his reputation in the academic world as well, being the first known Grammar of that language in English that was widely available. And if there were still any question as to his reputation, they must have been silenced by his later reception of knighthood, conferred by George IV in 1833. Unfortunately, many of Wilkins’ personal papers were destroyed in a house fire in 1796. It is to be noted that Wilkins did not produce his translation alone but worked in tandem with an uncredited Indian Pandit Kasinatha Bhattacharya who was eventually made “head preceptor” of the Benares Sanskrit College. More on both of these men and their histories with respect to Sanskrit and the Gita can be found in the works of Richard H. Davis (2015).
The list of eminent Europeans who were influenced by the translation of the Gita into English and other modern European languages is almost too long to attempt to list. Even Mahatmas Gandhi, it is believed, came to the Indian classical tradition through the transmissive medium of the English language. According to Michael Bergunder, “there is strong textual evidence to suggest that M. K. Gandhi’s notion of Hinduism, his specific view of Christianity, and his general belief that all religions refer to the same truth were shaped by esotericism, namely the Theosophical Society and the Esoteric Christian Union” (Bergunder. 2014: 398). Elsewhere, and in other incarnations, the Gita had demonstrable influence on a range of diverse luminaries such as Thoreau, William Blake, Herman Hesse, J. Robert Oppenheimer (who understood Sanskrit), T. S. Eliot, Phillip Glass, C. G. Jung, Philip K. Dick, and the Beatles, among countless others.
When Oppenheimer witnessed the first detonation of an atomic device at Los Alamos he famously (or infamously) cited the 11th discourse from the Gita, in which Krishna reveals himself in cosmic form as Visnu to Arjuna: a vast multi-armed god bearing a myriad of weapons of war. Laurie Patton (2008: 126 & 126 n. 3) translates the verse:
If a thousand suns had risen in the sky all at once, such brilliance would be the brilliance of that great self.
Bhagavad Gita 11.12
For a translation of an at the time obscure work in a more or less unknown language, Wilkins work has held up remarkably well, considering its more than two century old vintage. It begins with an advertisement crediting the EIC board of directors for its publication, noting the antiquity and veneration of the original. This is followed by an insightful letter of recommendation for the work written by Wilkins patron within the EIC, Warren Hastings, first Governor General of Bengal, who, despite his reputation for even handedness with respect to the native culture, was famously impeached on ground of corruption in 1787 (cf. Edmund Burke). Nonetheless, Hastings’ introduction to the Gita is a call for tolerance and appreciation towards the Indian natives, their religious practices, and the cultural value of their intellectual history.
Hastings calls any accumulation of knowledge with respect to conquered non-European cultures as a gain in humanity that “lessens the weight of the chain by which the natives are held in subjection” and which “imprints on the hearts of our own countrymen the sense and obligation of benevolence.” He goes on to say that through observation of the native character the British would acquire a “more generous sense of feeling for their natural rights,” learning to account them as equitable to their own, as human beings. He notes, presciently, that these influences which are to be found in writing such as the Gita will be felt and will survive “when the British dominion in India shall have long ceased to exist” ( Wilkins, 1785, 13).
If there were an award for cultural icon, I would nominate the English translation of the Bhagavad Gita as a worthy recipient, while at the same time respecting the source material from which it cannot be divorced. It is perhaps enough to say that it is possibly the one translation that came home again, through the person of Gandhi, and forged a nation from the admiration of its own oppressors. But it also caused a flourishing of ideas in England, in Europe, and in the Americas, as readers found a new handle on ancient metaphysics, and struggled to intermix their own ideas with those of another culture, creating a new synthesis that found new expressions in the American Transcendentalist movement, German Romanticism, the mystic poetry of William Blake, and the flourishing of new religious ideas that followed the first World Congress of Religions held in Chicago in 1983. The Gita is truly a remarkable book with ramifications that spread out from its center like ripples on a placid pool. With over three hundred translations into English alone, it is one of the most popular and important ancient works available to us.
App, Urs. (2010). The Birth of Orientalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Bryant, Edwin. (2007). Krishna: A sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bergunder, M. (2014). Experiments with Theosophical Truth: Gandhi, Esotericism, and Global Religious History. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 82(2), 398-426. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24488158
Dalrymple, William. (2019). The Anarchy: The relentless rise of the East India Company. London: Bloomsbury.
Davis, Richard. (2014). The Bhagavad Gita : a biography. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Davis, Richard. (2015) Wilkins, Kasinatha, Hastings, and the first English “Bhagavad Gita.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, 19(1/2), 39-57. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24631792.
Erle, Sibylle. (2005, Spring) Review. [Review of the book Brahma in the West: William Blake and the Oriental renaissance, by David Weir] Blake: An illustrated quarterly. 8(4), 157-159. http://bq.blakearchive.org/38.4.erle.
Eliade, Micrea. (1992). Essential sacred writings from around the world. New York: Harper & Row.
Hanson, J. W., et al. The World’s Congress of Religions: The Addresses and Papers Delivered before the Parliament, and an Abstract of the Congresses Held in the Art Institute
Telang, K. T. & F. Max Muller editor. (1970). The sacred books of the East: Volume VIII: The Bhagavadgita with the Sanatsugatiya and the Anguita. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Timpe, E. (1970). Hesse’s Siddhartha and the Bhagavad Gita. Comparative Literature, 22(4), 346-357. doi:10.2307/1769580
Tull, H. (2015). Whence Sanskrit? (kutaḥ saṃskṛtamiti): A Brief History of Sanskrit Pedagogy in the West. International Journal of Hindu Studies, 19(1/2), 213-256. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24631799
Trautmann, Thomas R.. (2011). India: Brief history of a civilization. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
A brief look his career and his seminal work The Cheese and the Worms.
Bibliography for further reading included.
A well known and often read historian examining witchcraft, art history, and peasant belief in early modern rural Italy, Ginzburg is often cited as a practitioner of the art of micro-history, a methodology where a larger historical perspective is studied through the close analysis of singular events. Professor Emeritus at UCLA, Ginzburg is one of the most famous historians working today. The International Balzan Prize Foundation, which Ginzburg won in 2010, has called Ginzburg “ one of the most original and influential historians of our time,” calling his oeuvre “impressively large,” and declaring his work on the heretical miller, Menocchio, The Cheese and the worms, a classic.
The Cheese and the worms is not primarily a work of book history, rather it is a history that uses book history to illuminate its larger story, which is an examination of pre-Christian peasant beliefs held within the rural districts of north eastern Italy in the 16th century. For Ginzburg, these beliefs are given voice by the miller Menocchio who finds a language to express his heretical beliefs through exposure to the written word. Thus, The Cheese and the worms is an example of book history that intercepts the so-called book circuit of Darnton at the point of the reader, in this case Mennocio.
We learn the titles of several books to which Mennocio was exposed during the years that he developed his heretical views by his reference to these works in his testimony. We also learn of other works which his language mirrors to which he may or may not have had access. Of primary concern to the author is how Mennocio read these works, both physically, through borrowing them, as well as intellectually, using them to articulate positions that were his own by adapting their language to his own philosophical speculations. Of course, there are some other aspects of book history that arise in Ginzburg’s analysis, we must of course be aware of what books were available when and where.
But the primary concern of the author is how Mennocio read. It was the technology of print that “enabled him to confront books with the oral tradition in which he had grown up and fed him the words to release that tangle of ideas and fantasies he had within him.” (xxxi) One of the books, a travel log that told tall tales of Prester John and strange lands, had been translated from the English work The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. According to Ginzbug, “By means of Mandeville’s accounts, his largely imaginary descriptions of distant lands, Menocchio’s mental universe expanded enormously.” (42)
We learn the price of another book, 2 lira, which becomes a stumbling block to repairing Mennocio’s relationship with the church. We also hear of lending groups and traveling booksellers, though these ideas are only on the periphery of the primary narrative, which is ultimately the testimonies and trials of the miller as he faces prosecution by the learned and surprised inquisitors of the church courts.
Ginzburg, C. (1980). The Cheese and the worms : the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ginzburg, C. (1983). The night battles : witchcraft & agrarian cults in the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press. A study of a group of 16th century peasants, born with a caul, and known as the “benandanti,” they comprised a special class of people believed to have special powers of incorporeal travel and the ability to do spiritual battles with witches at night.These peasants ran afoul of the Inquisition and were themselves charged with witchcraft for their claims of special powers. Ginzburg studies their cases through the use of Inquisition archives. The use of reference books describing the activities and characteristics of witches provides another primary source of inquiry.
Ginzburg, C. (1989). Clues, myths, and the historical method. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press. A series of essays concerning historical method. According to the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, as quoted on the back cover, “Ginzburg reflects on how easily we miss the context in which we read, write, and live. Only hindsight allows some understanding.” Some topics covered include witchcraft, eroticism in 16th century art, the Freudian interpretation of lycanthropy, and German mythological thinking in Nazi teutonism.
Ginzburg, C. (1992). Ecstasies : deciphering the witches’ Sabbath. New York: Penguin Books. A broad study of the Witches Sabbath covering the 14th to the 17th century. Like other works in this bibliography, Ginzburg supposes a thread of truth behind accusations of witchcraft, supposing a pre Christian survival or at least a parallel strata of alternative belief pervading Late Medieval and Early Renaissance peasant culture in Europe.
Ginzburg, C. (1999). History, rhetoric, and proof. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England. A challenge to postmodern historical theory that supposes that all historical truth is constructed and that there is no such thing as historical knowledge. Ginzburg admits that there is a lack of absolute certainty in historical analysis and construction but holds that such analysis might still profitably reveal the imminently probable. Chapters of the book are case studies that Ginzburg uses to prove his points.
Ginzburg, C. (2000). The enigma of Piero : Piero della Francesca. New ed. with appendices. London: Verso. A work of art history, this book examines the iconography and origins of three masterpieces of Renaissance Art, Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ, the Flagellation, and the Arezzon cycle. By combining his study with an examination of the patronage and commissioning of such works, Ginzburg tries to bring a new sensibility to interpretation by considering the conditions of the works’ origin. Black, quoting the book’s introduction, notes: “one of this book’s most remarkable features is the range of sources it exploits without regard to the frontiers between disciplines” (Black, 1986: 69).
Ginzburg, C. (2000). No island is an island : four glances at English literature in a world perspective. New York: Columbia University Press. A series of four essays that examine English literature in relationship to its reception in outside contexts. One essay concerns Lucian and his influence on Thomas Moore, author of Utopia. A second essay deals with the Elizabethean English rejection of poetry based primarily or solely on meter, as in the ancient Greek and Latinc classics, and working instead with rhyme as a primary component of verse formation. A third essay deals with the formal structure of Early Modern novel Tristram Shandy. The final chapter deals with Robert Lewis Stevenson and the relationship of his short fiction “The Bottle Imp” to exotic island locales.
Ginzburg, C., Ryle, M. H, & Soper, K. (2001). Wooden eyes : nine reflections on distance. New York: Columbia University Press. A series of essays reflecting on distance as a metaphor for historical analysis.
Ginzburg, C., Lincoln, B., & Höfler, O. (2020). Old Thiess, a Livonian werewolf : a classic case in comparative perspective. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Another case study of an Inquisition trial this one takes place at the end of the 17th century in Livonia, where a peasant is accused of having commerce with the devil. This book is not solely the work of Ginzburg but includes transcriptions from the trial, and interpretive essays by both Ginzburg and Lincoln Old Theiss was an 80 year old man who, while in court for a theft trial, was accused of being a werewolf. Ginzburg reads the testimony, as he does in The Cheese and the Worms, as indication of an unattested because non-literary layer of pagan belief and culture coexisting alongside the official Roman Catholic religion.
Darnton, Robert (Summer 1982). What is the history of books? Daedalus, 111, 65-83.
Den Hollander , J., Paul, H., & Peters, R. (2011). Introduction: The Metaphor of historical distance. History and Theory, 50(4), 1-10. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41342617
Ginzburg, C. (1980). The cheese and the worms : the cosmos of a sixteenth-century miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ginzburg, C. (1983). The night battles : witchcraft & agrarian cults in the sixteenth & seventeenth centuries. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ginzburg, C. (1989). Clues, myths, and the historical method. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ginzburg, C. (1992). Ecstasies : deciphering the witches’ Sabbath. New York: Penguin Books.
Ginzburg, C. (1999). History, rhetoric, and proof. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
Ginzburg, C. (2000). The enigma of Piero : Piero della Francesca. New ed. with appendices. London: Verso.
Ginzburg, C. (2000). No island is an island : four glances at English literature in a world perspective. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ginzburg, C., Ryle, M. H, & Soper, K. (2001). Wooden eyes : nine reflections on distance. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ginzburg, C., Lincoln, B., & Höfler, O. (2020). Old Thiess, a Livonian werewolf : a classic case in comparative perspective. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Old Thiess, A Livonian Werewolf: A Classic Case in Comparative Perspective, In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Volume 88, Issue 3, September 2020, Pages 859–869, https://doi-org.proxy.ulib.uits.iu.edu/10.1093/jaarel/lfaa043
The Wilson Quarterly (1976-), 8(4), 143-143. (1984). doi:10.2307/40256790
From its inception the Septuagint was the result of an idée fixe,the Ptolemaic obsession with collecting and monopolizing the extant knowledge of the oikumene: the known civilized world. The problem with the Torah or Pentateuch, however, was that it wasn’t written in a language the scholars of Alexandria’s famous library could understand; it was written in Hebrew.
Desirous of the acquisition, however, Ptolemy II decided to launch an ambitious project to translate the holy books of the Judeans into excellent 3nd century BC Greek. Sequestering 72 Hebrew scribes on the island of Pharos (of lighthouse fame) Ptolemy demanded that the scribes each individually translate the 5 books into Greek, with the intent to then compare the translations in an effort to divine the most accurate. According to legend, by a miraculous coincidence, all the translations corresponded exactly to one another and thus must have been the revealed word of the Hebrew god.
It is no wonder, then, that this book became remarkably influential, having been given both a divine as well as a royal seal of approval. The Septuagint is still famous and influential to this day, and it may have been the only version of the Hebrew scriptures that was known to many famous philosophers and theologians of antiquity, including Philo of Alexandria, one of the first thinkers to combine Semitic religion with Platonic philosophy.
The Septuagint was also one of the first books to be printed in Greek after the introduction of moveable type. One example is kept at the Stanford library in Southern California. This particular edition is an incunable, printed in Milan in September of 1481. According to the library notes this book was published as a collaborative effort by the printer Bonus Accursius and the Italian scholar and grammarian of Greek, Johannes Crastonis. The binding is clearly modern, being attributed to 19th century binder Roger De Coverly. The library notes record the following:
“The earliest book of the Bible to be printed in Greek. A liturgical Psalter; the LXX. text, with a Latin translation … the appended canticles include the Magnificat and the Benedictus–the earliest portions of the N.T. to be printed in Greek.”–Darlow & Moule, 4590.
The date and location of the printing are derived from the colophon, illustrated below. All images are downloaded from the Stanford library which has made scans of the entire work available.
British and Foreign Bible Society. Library., Darlow, T. H. (Thomas Herbert)., Moule, H. F. (Horace Frederick). (19031911). Historical catalogue of the printed editions of Holy Scripture in the library of the British and Foreign Bible Society. London: Bible House. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001179750
Manning, J. Gilbert. (2010). The Last Pharaohs : Egypt Under the Ptolemies, 305-30 BC. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Edward Gibbon is perhaps one of the best known historians to ever write in the English language, and this more than 200 years after his death. Though many of his conclusions have been challenged, his methodology was surprisingly contemporary and he is sometimes considered the forbear of modern scientific historicism. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says of his magisterial six volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
Its breadth of treatment, large perspectives, meticulous accuracy, and its author’s mastery of style are among its principal merits.
Cross & Livingston, 2005, “Gibbon, Edward”
Gibbon was, given his erudition, not unsurprisingly, an avid reader and book collector as well as historical innovator. According to the Oxford Companion to the Book “Gibbon called his library ‘the foundation of my works, and the best comfort of my life’” (Caines, 2011). That a catalog of Gibbon’s library still exists and is available through HathiTrust is truly intriguing and unexpected.
It should be noted as well, that numerous private letters of Gibbon’s have also been published and provide insight into Gibbon’s opinions concerning matters contemporary to him, such as the American revolution, as well as treating of his scholarly interests and personal matters. To hear the insights of a learned man on the important matters of his day are always of interest and provide new ways of viewing historical events.
For example, in one excerpt from a letter written in 1778, at the height of the American War of Independence Gibbon writes to a friend:
No news from America, yet there are people, large ones too, who talk of conquering it next summer with the help of 20,000 Russians. I fancy you are better satisfied with private than public War. The Lisbon Packet in coming home met about forty of our privateers.
Gibbon & Gibbon. (1907: 220).
In another letter form 1791 Gibbon touches on British colonialism in India.
I know not what to say at present of India bonds — do they not Sink? Our affairs in that Country seem in a very ticklish situation. At all events consult with Darrel, he has knowledge of that sort and is a real friend. Yet I am almost ashamed to complain of some stagnation of interest, when I am witness to the natural and acquired philosophy of so many French, who are reduced from riches, not to indigence, but to absolute want and beggary.