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Home > Mezzofanti > Eminent linguists > French Linguists > Postel

The first" great name in this department which we meet in the history of French letters, is that of the celebrated Rabbinical scholar, William Postel. This extraordinary man was born at Dolerie in 1510. Having lost both his parents at a very early age, he was left entirely dependent upon his own exertions for support; and, with that indomitable energy which often accompanies the love of knowledge, he began, from his very boyhood, a systematic course of self-denial, by which he hoped to realize the means of prosecuting the studies for which he had conceived an early predilection. Having scraped together, in the laborious and irksome occupation of a school-master, what he regarded as a sufficient sum for his modest wants, he repaired to Paris; but he had scarcely reached that city, when he was robbed by some designing sharpers, of the fruits of all his years of self-denial; and a long illness into which he was thrown by the chagrin and privation which ensued, reduced him to the last extremity. Even still, however, his spirit was unbroken. He went to Beauce, where, by working as a daily labourer, he earned the means of returning to Paris as a poor scholar. Presenting himself at the College of Saint Barbara, he obtained a place as a servant, with permission to attend the lectures; and having in some way got possession of a Hebrew grammar, he contrived, in his stolen half hours of leisure, to master the language so thoroughly, that in a short time his preceptors found themselves outstripped by their singular dependent. His reputation as an Oriental scholar spread rapidly. When La Fret's memorable embassy to the Sultan was being organized by Francis I., the king was recommended to entrust to Postel a literary mission, somewhat similar to that undertaken during the reign of Louis Philippe, at the instance of M. de Villemain, one of the objects of which was to collect Greek and Oriental MSS. It was on his return from this expedition, (in which he visted Constantinople, Greece, Asia Minor, and part of Syria,) that Postel met Teseo Ambrosio at Venice, and published what may be said to have been the first systematic attempt as yet made to bring together materials for the philosophical investigation of the science of language- being a collection of the alphabets of twelve languages, with a slight account of each among the number." He was soon after appointed Professor of Mathematics, and also of Oriental Languages, in the College de France; but the wild and visionary character of his mind appears to have been quite unsuited to any settled pursuit. He had conceived the idea that he was divinely called to the mission of uniting all Christians into one community, the head of which he recog-nized in Francis I. of France, whom ho maintained to be the lineal descendant of Sem, the eldest of the sons of Noah Under the notion that this was his pre-ordained vocation, he refused to accompany La Fret on a second mission to the East, although he was pressed to do so by the king himself, and a sum of four thousand crowns was placed at his disposal for the purchase of manuscripts. He offered himself, in preference, to the newly founded society of the Jesuits; but his unsuitableness for that state , soon became so apparent, that St. Ignatius of Loyola, then superior of the society, refused to receive him. After many wanderings in France, Italy, and Germany, and an imprisonment in Venice, (where his fanaticism reached its greatest height,) he undertook a second expedition to the East, in 1549, whence he returned in 1551, with a large number of valuable MSS. obtained through the French ambassador, D'Aramont, but wilder and more visionary than ever. He resumed his lectures in the College des Lorn bards, now the property of the Irish College in Paris. The crowds who flocked to hear him were so great, that they were obliged to assemble in the court, where he addressed them from one of the windows. His subsequent career was a strange alternation of successes and embroilments. The Emperor Ferdinand invited him to Vienna, as Professor of Mathematics. While there, he assisted Widmandstadt in the preparation of his Syriac New Testament. He left Vienna, however, after a short residence, and betook himself to Italy, in 1554 or 1555. He was put into prison in Rome, but liberated in 1557. In 1562 he returned to Paris. The extravagancies of his conduct and his teaching led to his being placed under a kind of honourable surveillance, in 1564, in the monastery of St. Martin des Champs, near Paris. Yet so interesting was his conversation that crowds of the most distinguished of all orders continued to visit him in this retreat till his death in 1581. Postel's attainments in languages living or dead, were undoubtedly most extensive. Not reckoning the modern languages, which he may be presumed to have known, his Introduction exhibits a certain familiarity with not less than twelve languages, chiefly eastern; and he is said to have been able to converse in most of the living languages known in his time. Duret states, as a matter notorious to all the learned, that he "knew, understood, and spoke fifteen languages ;" and it was his own favourite boast, that he could traverse the entire world without once calling in the aid of an interpreter. In addition to his labours as a linguist, Postel was a most prolific writer. Fifty-seven of his works are enumerated by his biographer.

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