Some notes on Thomas Gaisford

The classical scholar Thomas Gaisford (1779-1855) is a name that I have run across several times while looking for editions of obscure works.  Among others, he edited the Praeparatio Evangelica of Eusebius.  Some interesting material about him appears in Rev. W. Tuckwell, Reminiscences of Oxford, p. 124, which is on Archive.org.  Gaisford was regius professor of Greek at Oxford from 1811, and became Dean of Christchurch College, a college then as now rather the preserve of men of an upper class background.  This Gaisford did not possess, and his defensiveness was legendary.

Gaisford became Dean unexpectedly; the men came up in October, 1831, to find his grim person in Smith’s vacated stall. … Gaisford was no divine; he preached annually in the cathedral on Christmas Day, and a sentence from one of his sermons reverberated into term-time.

“Nor can I do better, in conclusion, than impress upon you the study of Greek literature, which not only elevates above the vulgar herd, but leads not infrequently to positions of considerable emolument.”

The muse had taught him, as she taught Horace, malignum spernere vulgas.

He was a rough and surly man; had owed his rise originally to Cyril Jackson, who discovered the genius of the obscure freshman, gave him a Christchurch studentship, and watched over him. “You will never be a gentleman,” said the “Great Dean” to his protege with lordly candour, “but you may succeed with certainty as a scholar. Take some little known Greek author, and throw your knowledge into editing it: that will found your reputation.” Gaisford selected the great work on Greek metres of the Alexandrian grammarian Hephaestion, annotated it with marvellous erudition, and became at once a classical authority.

In 1811 Lord Liverpool, with a highly complimentary letter, offered him the Professorship of Greek: he replied: “My Lord, I have received your letter, and accede to its contents. Yours, etc.” The gaucherie came to Cyril Jackson’s ears; he sent for Gaisford, dictated a proper acknowledgment, and made him send it to the Prime Minister with a handsomely bound copy of his Hephaestion.

He never lectured; but the higher Oxford scholarship gained world-wide lustre from his productions. His Suidas and Etymologicon Magnum are glorified in Scott’s Homerics on the strife between Wellington’s and Peel’s supporters for the Chancellorship.

In a facetious record of the Hebdomadal Board Meeting in 1851 to protest against University Reform, he is quoted as professing that he found no relaxation so pleasant on a warm afternoon as to lie on a sofa with a Suidas in one’s arms. These Lexica, with his Herodotus, won cordial respect from German scholars, who had formed their estimate of Oxford from third-rate performances like Dr. Shaw’s “Apollonius Rhodius.” His son used to relate how, going with his father to call on Dindorf at Leipsic, the door was opened by a shabby man whom they took to be the famulus, but who on the announcement of Gaisford’s name rushed into his arms and kissed him. …

Gaisford was an unamiable Head, less than cordial to the Tutors, and speaking roughly to his little boys. He nominated my old schoolfellow, “Sam” Gardiner the historian, to a studentship. Sam became an Irvingite, and thought it right to inform the Dean, who at once sent for the College books and erased Gardiner’s name.

He had a liking for old Hancock, the porter at Canterbury Gate, with whom he often paused to joke, and whom he called the Archbishop of Canterbury. Hancock once presumed so far as to invite the Decanal party under that name to tea: I do not think they condescended to immure themselves in those unwholesome subterranean rooms of his.

The story of the Dean of Oriel’s compliments to the Dean of Christchurch is true in part. The Dean Minor was Chase; the Dean’s remark, not written but spoken to his neighbour, was, “Oh! yes Alexander the Coppersmith to Alexander the Great.”

In Gaisford’s day men required nothing more than a first degree to become a fellow; indeed anyone who graduated and remained at the college qualified, so long as they remained unmarried, and it was expected that they would leave in time to take a living in the church somewhere, or otherwise move on.  All of them were clergymen, of course.  Research was unheard of, and tuition no more extensive than now, until the reforms of Jowett later in the century created the modern university.

Gaisford also had some remarks to make on the Fathers. In Mozley’s Reminiscences Chiefly of Oriel College and the Oxford Movement (1882), vol. 1, p.356 we find this:

The old Oriel school would not have blundered as it did in its desultory attempts to mend the Athanasian theology, had it possessed even a moderate acquaintance with the ‘Scholastic philosophy.’ The classics were everything in those days, and the great scholars would then rather enlarge the circle of the classics than leave an opening for early Christian theology. Gaisford induced the Clarendon Press to spend 2,000L. in an edition of ‘Plotinus,’ by a German he brought over. Showing Christchurch library to a visitor, he walked rapidly past all the Fathers. Waving his hand, he said ‘sad rubbish,’ and that was all he had to say.

There is also an account of him in Peter H. Sutcliffe’s The Oxford University Press: an informal history, p. 3 here, where we learn that his edition of the Suda cost an astonishing £3,685 to produce.  What this means we can learn by comparing it to the fortune of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice; £10,000 a year, a sum great enough to make Darcy effectively a billionaire.   But the edition never sold more than ten copies in a year.  We also learn from Sutcliffe that the “emolument” anecdote was in the conclusion of an autobiographical sermon, doubtless intended to encourage rather than intimidate.

Gaisford’s obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine is here.

2 thoughts on “Some notes on Thomas Gaisford

  1. One might recall that Dr. Gaisford was quite right. There was a whole string of bishops in the first decades of the 19th century who made their reputations by editing Greek texts (e.g. Bp. Blomfield of London) – they were known as the ‘Greek play” bishops. In many ways their existence is an early sign of Victorian meritocracy – they won preferment through scholarship rather than influence.

    One might recall too that this is the early stage of the Genesis vs. Geology debates. The great John Keble spent an entire coach journey from London to Oxford trying to convince William Buckland (the eccentric geologist Dean of Westminster) that God put the fossils in the rocks to test our faith. Some of the early geology enthusiasts were country clergy. To commend to them the study of Greek was to advocate the study of texts over archaeology.

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