William Bedwell: the tribulations of an Arabist

By , 26 July 2011 12:39 pm

Bedwell was an Arabic scholar and mathematician born in Great Hallingbury, Essex, in 1563. He is often known as the father of Arabic studies in England, but he encountered many trials and setbacks during his career, so that the full extent of his achievements can be underestimated. It was as a student at Cambridge that he first encountered a circle of scholars with interests in Biblical studies and Semitic languages. Encouraged by this stimulus, he progressed rapidly with his studies in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and later, in Arabic. In 1595, he began an ambitious project to write an Arabic–Latin dictionary, which became a lifetime’s work, and which he had hopes would be the first of its kind to be published in Europe.

He made contacts with other important scholars of the time such as Lancelot Andrewes (Master of Pembroke College and Bishop of Ely), and he developed a close friendship with the noted Huguenot language scholar, Isaac Casaubon. Through him he also met the Dutch scholar Thomas Van Erpe, to whom he also gave some tuition in Arabic; another famous pupil was Edward Pococke, the future Professor of Arabic in Oxford.


Leaf of the first volume of Bedwell's lexicon in Arabic and Latin, also showing his use of Hebrew roots. Ms Hh.6.1 l.183

Bedwell’s progress with learning Arabic was, all along, hampered by the lack of good texts and reference sources in England at the time. So, in 1612, he travelled to Holland to consult Arabic manuscript collections there. Leiden had become a famous centre for Arabic studies and important figures there included Joseph Scaliger, Conrad Vorstius and Thomas van Erpe. The Dutch also possessed the finest printing presses for Arabic script in northern Europe at that time. The Dutch scholars Frans Raphelengius and his sons were also printers of Arabic texts for Plantin in Antwerp, and Bedwell wished to investigate the possibility of printing his works there, or even to purchase an Arabic type font to publish his dictionary back in England.

Bedwell’s knowledge of Arabic was based on his own readings of texts and eventually his dictionary reached nine volumes, with additional slips inserted between the pages. After completing seven volumes of this work, he came across a copy of the Qamus of Firuzabadi, the famous Persian grammarian, and in the light of this extra knowledge, added yet more definitions. The manuscript of the dictionary was seen by many of the Arabic scholars of the age, and was much admired, but it was doomed to remain unpublished as the Arabic type punches and matrices he succeeded in purchasing in Leiden proved unequal to the task of printing it. Following his death, Bedwell’s dictionary came to the Library, where it was consulted by, among others, Edmund Castell during the creation of his monumental Lexicon Heptaglotton printed in 1669.


Dedication on the first leaf of Bedwell's Qur'an; the first Arabic work to enter the Library's collections. Ms Ii.6.48 l.1

In the early part of the seventeenth century the University Library did not have a single Arabic work in its collections. Bedwell changed this by donating his own copy of the Qur’an which came to the Library after his death in 1631. On the first leaf of the manuscript can be seen the dedication by Abraham Whelocke (1593–1653), the first Professor of Arabic in Cambridge and also the University Librarian. He was keen to develop Arabic collections here and was later to be instrumental in acquiring the manuscripts of Thomas Van Erpe.

Arabic was a neglected subject in Europe in the sixteenth century and students were hampered in many ways in their endeavors. There was a lack of original texts and reference sources, travel to the Middle East was fraught with dangers and they also faced a real prejudice against the study of Islamic subjects. Bedwell struggled on in the face of all these difficulties; he was noted for his friendships and the encouragement of others and for his teaching and sharing his expertise. However, success with his own publications met with problems throughout his career. His dedication to the study of Arabic was notable and tenacious and yet he often referred to himself as الفقر (al-faqīr), the humble one. According to some sources, it was Bedwell, and not Thomas Van Erpe, who was the first to revive the study of Arabic in Europe.

The riddle of the Syriac double dot: it’s the world’s earliest question mark

By , 22 July 2011 1:10 pm

Double dotManuscripts written in Syriac, an ancient language of the Middle East, are peppered with mysterious dots. Among them is the vertical double dot or zawga elaya. A manuscripts specialist at Cambridge University Library thinks that the zawga elaya is the world’s earliest question mark.

Read the full story on www.lib.cam.ac.uk

Historic Hong Kong

By , 12 July 2011 9:28 am

Hong Kong under water (Y30383A/7)

Six spectacular photographic panoramas of Hong Kong, taken c. 1900, were recently painstakingly conserved by Nicholas Burnett and colleagues at Museum Conservation Services at Duxford, along with one panorama of Macau, one of Canton, and one of Medicine Hat, Alberta, taken in 1913.

The panoramas form part of the Royal Commonwealth Society Library’s impressive  photographic collection.

Unfortunately, the rolled panoramas had been stored in London in conditions which were too dry and had become brittle, so that it was impossible to unroll them without causing permanent damage.  Cracks had formed along creases, the ends  most exposed to the elements had become dirty and small sections of photograph had been lost.  Early tears had been mended by sellotape, which had become acidic and degraded the photographic paper and there were also some small signs of insect damage.

The conservation process was a slow one, taking 21 months, as the rolled panoramas were first placed in a humidity chamber for periods varying from  approximately half and hour to a few hours to relax the paper, before they could be unrolled and then slowly flattened between sheets of blotting paper under light weight for a period of months.  Cleaning came next, including washing.  In the gallery below you can see the panoramas of Hong Kong and Medicine Hat each submerged in a tank, and that of Medicine Hat carefully being conserved.  (Click on the images to enlarge them).  Finally eight of the panoramas were enclosed in inert, clear polyester sleeves and backed with acid-free card  before being returned to Cambridge University Library where they are now stored flat in a plan chest.  The largest panorama, that of Medicine Hat, measuring just over two metres in length, was too large to store in the plan chest, so was very carefully and loosely rolled, and wrapped in acid-free fabric to keep dust out.

The conserved panoramas may now be viewed in the Library’s Manuscript Room by appointment.  Please contact the RCS librarian to arrange viewing.

Books and Babies

By , 7 July 2011 4:06 pm
Jakob Rüff, De conceptu et generatione hominis…, 1554 (K.9.24)

Jakob Rüff (1500–1588), De conceptu et generatione hominis…, Zurich: C. Froschover, 1554 (K.9.24)

Most displays in the Library’s main Exhibition Centre draw on Special Collections materials to some degree, but few of them have included quite such a wide-ranging selection of the division’s holdings as ‘Books and Babies: Communicating Reproduction’, which opened to the public this morning.

Curated by a team from the University’s ‘Generation to Reproduction’ group, the display highlights medieval gynaecological texts from the Department of Manuscripts, extraordinary seventeenth and eighteenth-century anatomical engravings from the Rare Book collections, and a ‘Cambridge University Student Union Survival Guide’ (complete with tea, coffee and condoms) kept in the University Archives. These are displayed alongside items from the Library’s modern printed book and periodical collections, together with ancient sculptures, laboratory glassware, twentieth-century research papers and rare printed items generously loaned by the Fitzwilliam Museum, Bourn Hall Clinic, and a number of private collectors (some through the good offices of the Churchill Archives Centre).

As the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, pointed out in his speech at the opening reception last night, the diversity of the objects on show does not obscure the central theme running throughout the exhibition: the role played by communication media over the centuries in shaping and disseminating ideas about human reproduction.

‘Books and Babies’ runs until December. A full set of web pages created to accompany the exhibition is available here, and Paul Kerley’s Books and Babies slideshow on the BBC News website is also well worth a look.