University of Amsterdam
1. The Popham notebook
In the summer of 2008, a leather-bound booklet attracted the attention of a member of staff of Warner Leisure Hotels in Littlecote House, near Hungerford, Wiltshire, UK. It looked old, and in fact it was. It turned out to be a seventeenth-century notebook, filled for the most part with hand-written text. On the title page it said: “Alexander Popham, his book. Oxford, Novemb. 8. 1662″.
It soon became clear that this notebook was a fascinating find, as it promised to shed light on a famous case in the history of teaching language to the deaf. Littlecote House used to be the home of the Pophams, a wealthy family whose members were admirals and judges playing an important role in early modern political history. Alexander Popham was born deaf, and remained mute until he was about ten years old.
He then was taught, at least in part successfully, how to speak, read and write, by two teachers: first by William Holder (1616-1698), and subsequently by John Wallis (1616-1703). The recently discovered notebook is written in the hand of Wallis, Popham’s second teacher, and it is obvious from its contents that it was composed by Wallis specifically for the purpose of instructing Popham.
The case of Alexander Popham has primarily become famous for two reasons. First, although he was not the first person born deaf in Western history to succeed in acquiring command of a language of the hearing, to do so was certainly a rare and remarkable achievement. Until the sixteenth century, it was generally considered impossible to cure deafness or to find a remedy for muteness other than to have recourse to signing, which was typically seen as at best a very deficient substitute for spoken language. In 16th-century Spain, the first systematic attempts were undertaken to teach written and spoken language, in this order, to deaf-mutes (Plann, 1997). These attempts reportedly succeeded, and although Holder and Wallis must have been aware of this, they considered themselves pioneers. Secondly, both teachers of Popham afterwards claimed the credit for this success, which led to a bitter dispute between them. The dispute attracted more attention from historians than the average petty quarrel between rival scholars as it was fought out in print, and took place within the early Royal Society, involving as it did two of its prominent members, who both appealed to other fellows in support of their claims.
In what follows, I summarize the debate between Holder and Wallis before briefly returning to the Popham notebook.
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