Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.07.41 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.07.41

J. Papy (ed.), The Leuven Collegium Trilingue 1517-1797. Erasmus, Humanist Educational Practice and the New Language Institute Latin-Greek-Hebrew.   Leuven:  Peeters, 2018.  Pp. 228.  ISBN 9789042936225.  €60,00.  


Reviewed by Andrea Hugill, University of Saint Paul in the University of Ottawa (ahugi074@uottawa.ca)

Table of Contents

Jan Papy of KU Leuven has compiled a book of seven chapters, replete with illustrations of treasures preserved in special collections in Belgium and entertaining anecdotes from the 280 years of the Leuven Collegium Trilingue’s life and beyond. It also contains new historical and theological contributions from several specialists in the contemporary Catholic University of Leuven, and meaningful didactic advice for the study of (modern, classical, ancient and ‘holy’) language. Papy refers to “an academic and humanist (language) education” (Pg. 63) distinguishing the classical from the ancient. The publication is a commemoration of 500 years since the founding of Leuven Collegium Trilingue, and an exhibition was held in parallel at the University Library of Leuven from October 18th 2017– January 18th 2018. Corpus Christi College Oxford celebrated their 500 year anniversary around the same time. Their volume will come out in Oxford University Press’ History of the Universities series later this year, edited by John Watts, and includes a contribution on their 16th century trilingual library. Pierre Swiggers also mentions by way of comparison the beginnings of the Colegio San Ildefonso in Spain and the Parisian College Royal in the 16th century.

In their chapter on the teaching of Latin in the Collegium, Xander Feys and Dirk Sacre trace the beginnings of the Leuven Collegium Trilingue to the life’s work of a humanist from Groningen, Rudolph Agricola (1443-1485), writing that “with some imagination, we could in this figure see the embodiment of what the Collegium Trilingue would try to accomplish a couple of decades later.” (Pg. 105). Agricola was reportedly a great influence on Desiderius Erasmus, and helped to prepare the arrival of Erasmus’ ideas of Renaissance in the North. He proposed a three step plan for learning Ciceronian Latin which involved 1. careful reading for a correct understanding; 2. cultivation of the memory via memorization and 3. constant practice of producing meaningful work.

Erasmus’ edition of the New Testament was printed in 1516 and in July 1517, he arrived in Leuven and played an important role in the formation of the new Collegium. (Girt Gielis also documents his stay in Leuven at the start of the 16th century). Jan Papy describes in his first chapter the contributions of Erasmus and Hieronymus Busleyden to the creation and founding of the Collegium. Eramus did not initially have high expectations for the university city, but he was eventually convinced to move there by travelling carriage bringing with him his books. Upon arrival, he ordered armchairs from Brussels and by September 1517 found spacious accommodation. Earlier in the year of 1517, Erasmus had reconnected with his old acquaintance Busleyden, who had studied in Leuven in 1485-86. Papy describes Busleyden as one with “a cultivated Renaissance mind” who had during his law studies “developed a clearly humanist predilection for classical literature.” (Pg. 8) In the summer of 1517, Busleyden, who was a top magistrate, made a diplomatic mission to prepare for the arrival of the young King Charles V in Spain by travelling ahead of him to his destination. But Busleyden died of pleurisy en route in Bordeaux, two days before he was due to depart for Spain. Erasmus had been invited to join him to Spain but had declined, and was now left with the task of overseeing the foundation for the new Collegium as prescribed in Busleyden’s will.

The day of Busleyden’s death, June 22nd 1517 is the founding date of the Collegium in Busleyden’s will. (A copy of the will is held in the Leuven city archives and one page is reprinted as an illustration.) Upon the death of Busleyden, and with the money he had donated, Erasmus helped to prepare the Collegium “for the study of the three ‘holy’, learned and classical languages, Hebrew, Greek and Latin.” (Pg. 11) Busleyden’s intentions for the Collegium are described by Papy in a chapter entitled “A will, a vision and perseverance… The creation, the prime and the reputation of the Three-Languages Colleges” and another chapter entitled “Life at the Three Languages Colleges”. In these chapters of Papy, the early 16th century accounts are exceptionally well documented but there is not much mention of the later centuries of Collegium life, and the reader is left to speculate over possible changes to the economic and social life beyond Erasmus’ days. According to the instructions in Busleyden’s will, stipends were to be provided for three professors of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. The professors of Greek and Hebrew were given twice as much in wages as the professor of Latin for the first ten years, after which time their stipends were to be reduced and the money that was saved from the wages would then be used to create new scholarships for fellows from Mechelen and Luxembourg. For the first ten years, the scholarships were only available for fellows from Busleyden, Marville, Arlon, Aire and Steenbergen. (Pg. 578) The professors were required to live in the college with the fellows and commensals, and when one professor of Greek married and lived outside the Collegium, Erasmus had to intervene so that he could keep his position in the college. Papy notes that Leuven University, which had been founded in 1425, already held Greek classes its Lily College at the time of the creation of the Collegium. The new building for the Collegium at Vismarkt had yet to be planned and built when Erasmus settled at Leuven. The decision was made on the basis of instructions in the will to purchase the property of a professor of law in the same complex of the Vismarkt where the Hebrew classes were already being held by the Collegium’s first professor of Hebrew.

Erasmus contributed to “humanist pedagogical renewal” by providing textbooks adapted to the partially modernised education of his day. (Pg. 29) He had many prestigious invitations to elsewhere but he remained in Leuven for many years and established a new academic method for theological study. Pierre Van Hecke points out that the emergence of Protestantism and the Protestant Reformation, which also embraced the humanist ideal for reference to the original sources and put much value on the study of the Bible in the original languages, meant that some linguists (especially of Hebrew) became suspects of Protestant sympathies. Gielis mentions the arrival of a bundle of treatises by Martin Luther which were investigated by the Faculty of Theology, some of whom “considered Luther to be an extreme version of Erasmus’ innovative ideas…” (Pg. 40) Papy offers insight into the daily life of the Collegium and its library in his chapter entitled “Life at the Three Languages College”, referring to a detailed 1977 doctoral study which scrutinized the accounts and archives in detail. He gives details on the responsible role of the maid of the college, and describes the oversight and book-keeping duties of the president of the Collegium, (who was also required to be a clergyman). The executor of Busleyden’s will, Bartholomeus Van Vessem, set up the large college library (77 square feet) and developed a system for the organization and shelving of the collection. Busleyden’s books had been brought from Mechelen to Leuven by boat and were described by Thomas More as a “tam egregie referta bibliotheca” (Pg.64) In the late 17th century, a priest by the name of Dominicus Snellaerts bequeathed his library of 3600 volumes to Leuven university. (Pg. 125)

Pierre Swiggers questions the dichotomous view of ancient language versus vernacular, which opposition he associates with Dante. He points out that in Dante’s historical context, knowledge, diplomacy and secular and ecclesiastical power were bound in the Latin language. For Dante and his contemporaries, acquiring the vernacular was a matter of natural assimilation, a living language was thought to be acquired naturally in day to day practice. From Dante’s day, Swiggers selectively overviews changes in the late medieval and early modern contexts of language education, and concludes that there was an increase in education in the vernaculars by the end of the Enlightenment. He mentions the influence of the Irish Franciscans, who arrived in the early 17th century and set up an Irish printing press in Leuven (which was not a multi-lingual and commercial place like the Antwerp of the day). The humanistic interest in the three ancient languages was philological (the study of texts of special interest from different fields); and humanists wanted to revive ancient language and refine literary forms. But Swiggers writes that Renaissance humanists also made room for vernaculars, and refers to humanists devoted to the study of their mother tongues and to one humanist who lamented having been fully immersed in Latin from childhood because the vernacular would have been more useful to him.

Pierre Van Hecke has contributed to the book a chapter on the study of Hebrew at the Collegium which looks more closely at the Hebrew education practice in all its aspects. From the 16th century, the study of Hebrew was included together with Greek and Latin in the curriculum of classical education. This was sometimes the result of a humanist and missionary intention, but the objective of the Hebrew classes was primarily the better understanding of the biblical text. Rabbinical and medieval Jewish literature was not included in the classical curriculum, nor was it read in the classes of colleges who sought to immerse students in languages of primary texts, but van Hecke mentions that commentary writers affiliated with the Collegium show familiarity with Judaism. Certain biblical texts, especially the Psalms, were studied in Hebrew in the college setting with the help of grammatical resources. Van Hecke effectively recreates the first Hebrew class at the Collegium for the reader to envision the excitement of being given the first printed document in the Hebrew language. The first Hebrew Professor at the Collegium was a converted Jew of Spanish origin, and he taught in a ground floor classroom furnished with wooden benches. He purchased a printed Hebrew Bible, and Erasmus wrote of the great success of his classes.

Van Hecke reconstructs the educational practice at the Collegium with great attention to detail and drawing from a wide variety of sources, many preserved in the Leuven special collections and Royal library of Belgium. In his story of the Collegium from its beginning to its end, he answers the question ‘what did they know about Hebrew?’ The objective of the Hebrew classes was primarily the better understanding of the biblical text, and the reading of selected biblical texts, some of which were well-known to the students from the Christian liturgy. Van Hecke notes that in the 16th century, there was a fascination with the Kabballah reading of the Hebrew Bible and an adoption of the method for deeper secrets of Christianity. Among many exemplary Hebraists, he notes that “…Johannes Reuchlin published, in the interests of education, a literal translation and a linguistic commentary on the seven Psalms of Repentance.” (Pg. 169) One difference from the contemporary Hebrew pedagogical practices that van Hecke describes is the emphasis in the classical approach to language education on informal epistle writing. Students learned to write and to edit Hebrew texts, and were soon able to write Hebrew letters about mundane things. Van Hecke also describes Hebrew lexicography affiliated with the Collegium, such as a peculiar 17th century glossary and an 18th century interlinear Latin-Hebrew lexicon intended for the research of Hebrew language and texts.

This volume will be appreciated not only by medieval and early modern scholars interested in languages and linguistics, Erasmus, or the history of language institutions, but also by the contemporary teacher and student of languages for its numerous prescriptions for educational practice, and even more broadly, by readers who are seeking to learn of the history and culture of the city of Leuven.

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