Eutychius and the English Civil War

The Annals of the 10th century Arabic Christian writer Eutychius, also known as Sa`id ibn Bitriq, were printed for the first time, together with a Latin translation, during that curious period of history, the 1650s.  Charles I was dead, and the revolution had devolved into government by the army and the protector, Oliver Cromwell. Fanaticism was in the ascendant, and wearying the patience of all.

The editor and translator who achieved this feat was Edward Pococke, who held the professorships of Arabic and Hebrew at Oxford, and, amazingly managed to retain much of his academic connections despite the purges of the universities by the Commonwealth commissioners, and the opportunities this gave to the malicious or greedy.

A rather nice account of what happened may be found in G. J. Toomer, Eastern Wisedome and Learning: The Study of Arabic in Seventeenth-century England, Clarendon 1996.  I have only access to the Google Books preview, but it looks fascinating.

The Eutychius section begins on p.164.  Here is an excerpt.

The mover in this [project] was Selden, who wished to produce a complete edition and translation of the Annals of Eutychius, for which he had long borne an affection. At one time he contemplated doing this himself, for his own Latin translation of a large part of the work survives among his manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. However, in April 1652 he approached Langbaine with the proposal that the edition be printed at Oxford, at his own expense but under the supervision of Langbaine and Pococke, with a Latin translation which Pococke should make for the purpose.

On 11 May he put the same request to Pococke himself, who was reluctant, but felt that he could not refuse, since Selden had been so active in his promotion and defence. Twells has a long discussion of the reasons for Pococke’s reluctance, which he attributes primarily to Selden’s attempt (in his Eutychius, 1642) to use Eutychius to ‘bear down Episcopacy’, an attempt which Twells himself refutes at length. It is true that Pococke heartily disliked controversy, especially of the theological variety, but there was nothing of the kind in the book now projected by Selden, and it is absurd to suppose that he would feel himself compromised by the association with Selden’s earlier work. Rather, he must have disliked the delays in the publication of the Porta Mosis that this new task would entail.

Furthermore, Selden had idiosyncratic ideas about the right way to edit a text, and, although he had three manuscripts of the work available, insisted that the printed text should follow one of them to the letter, with any variants in the other two being consigned to the notes.[79]

Pococke was clearly unhappy with this practice, but perforce adopted it in the printed work. Above all, he knew how inferior as a historical source Eutychius’ Annals were in comparison with Abu ‘l-Faraj, and must have resented having to spend his time on this author when the other was still unpublished as a whole.

Pococke worked intermittently on the translation and correction of the text of the Eutychius from 1652 to 1654, by which time the book was substantially finished, and the title-page to the second volume already printed. Selden not only provided the paper for the edition, but also paid for Arabic type to be cast from the university’s matrices.

Twells mentions that a new puncheon and matrix were made for one letter at Pococke’s instance, and this story seems to have been generally accepted. The matter is indeed discussed by both Langbaine and Pococke in their correspondence with Selden (which reveals that the letter in question was dal). But the form of that letter in the printed Eutychius appears to be identical with that in earlier texts printed with the Oxford fount (e.g. those of John Greaves), so the plan must have been abandoned.

The publication of the work was delayed by the death of Selden, which occurred on 30 November 1654. In a codicil to his will he had bequeathed the whole edition of the Eutychius (500 copies) to Langbaine and Pococke, but it was published only in 1656, after Pococke had completed the notes (mainly listing variant readings), written the preface, and compiled extensive indices and a list of errata.

In the interval between 1654 and 1656, besides the distractions caused by the accusations of ‘insufficiency’ and by completing Porta Mosis, he had also been occupied with supervising the transfer of Selden’s oriental and other manuscripts to the Bodleian, where they had been donated.

Pococke’s preface to the Eutychius betrays his personal dissatisfaction with the work. He is distressed by the solecisms of the printed text which Selden’s editorial methods had imposed on him, and takes pains to document Eutychius’ untrustworthiness as a historian. Nevertheless, the translation is reliable, and given the paucity of any printed editions of Arabic historians at the time, it was a valuable contribution.

[79] This is explained by Pococke in his preface to the publication. This rule, and others which he insisted on, are listed by Selden in MS Selden supra 109, fol. 348.

Remarkable stuff for the disordered period of the Commonwealth.  For in such periods, when men are tested for their loyalty to this or that arbitrary principle, there are not lacking unscrupulous men who see their path to wealth by making accusations.  P.158-9 describe Pococke’s trials, even though he was a man who was obviously a bookworm and no harm to anyone.  In the preface to his Eutychius he refers to the “malitia plane insuperabili” which distracted him from his work on the volume.  He was denounced by some of his parishioners, who had a grudge about tithes, to the commissioners whose duty it was to remove idle and incompetent ministers.  Everyone testified for him.

However, it took the personal intervention of some eminent members of the university, headed by John Owen, the puritanical Vice-Chancellor, and himself one of the Commissioners appointed by Cromwell, to convince the County Commissioners ‘of the infinite contempt and reproach which would certainly fall upon them, when it should be said, that they had turned out a man for insufficiency, whom all the learned, not of England only, but of all Europe, justly admired for his vast knowledge, and extraordinary accomplishments’.

We could use a revival in Arabic learning today.  Would it really be so difficult or expensive to translate the whole of Arabic literature to 1500 into English?  But has there ever been a period of history in which such gigantic gestures were practical politics?  I fear not.

One thought on “Eutychius and the English Civil War

  1. Fascinating indeed – many thanks!

    And, “the whole of Arabic literature to 1500 into English” – that would be grand!

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