Greetings from the Orient: H.W. Ludolf as a central figure in 17th-cent. language study

Han Lamers (Leiden) & Toon Van Hal (Leuven)
Leiden University and University of Leuven

This post takes the reader to Ottoman Smyrna (Izmir in present-day Turkey) and Constantinople (now Istanbul) about 1700 A.D. Almost 250 years before, the Eastern-Roman, or Byzantine, empire had fallen into the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Sources about the socio-cultural and linguistic situation of the Greeks during this period of Tourkokratia or ‘Turkish rule’ (1453–1821) are fairly scarce. Hence, historians are much indebted to western archives and travel reports of westerners who visited the Greek world during this period.

It is, therefore, of some interest to read through a small bunch of letters written at the end of the 17th century about the linguistic situation of Smyrna and Constantinople. The letters suggest that Smyrna is dominantly Greek and Turkish linguistically speaking. Constantinople, on the other hand, is a Babel of different voices:

In no other place on earth than here in Constantinople the linguaphile (linguarum amator) will have a better occasion for exercising his languages. Although it is the prospect of either sustenance or profit that motivates the majority to start a conversation, there is no lack of ingenious men willing to have a more elevated conversation. 1

The linguarum amator who wrote these lines as well as the other letters is Heinrich Wilhelm Ludolf (1655–1712). After his training with his uncle, the renowned orientalist Hiob Ludolf (1624–1704), Heinrich Wilhelm became an energetic diplomat who is perhaps most famous for his Russian adventure between 1692 and 1694. Through his profound familiarity with the Russian mores and lingua he gained the admiration of G.W. Leibniz. And also in modern scholarship, his fame has largely been restricted to the very first grammar of Russian he composed (Grammatica Russica, London, 1696).

Franckesche Stiftungen

Franckesche Stiftungen in Halle, Germany (source: Stadtmarketing Halle)

To anyone who reads through Ludolf’s letters, however, it will readily appear that his Russian grammar has unjustly eclipsed some of his other major achievements. So, for instance, Ludolf played a crucial role in preparing the first Protestant missions. After his Russian journey he visited the Franckesche Stiftungen, a revolutionary educational project initiated by the Pietist Professor August Hermann Francke (1663–1727). There, he organized Russian language courses and so established one of the first centres of Slavonic studies in Western Europe. At the Franckesche Stiftungen, he also started to consider a new journey, this time to the ‘Orient’. It is important to emphasize that Ludolf’s linguistic interests were first and foremost motivated by his lifelong concern for evangelism and mission. He time and again emphasized the importance of thorough language skills for missionary activity. In his eyes, the connection between his journeys to Russia and the Orient was clear as he saw the Russian church as an offspring of Greek orthodoxy. In this religious context, he also established the first contacts between Halle and the Greek East and even proposed to found a collegium grecum in Halle.

Thanks to the polyglot letter exchange with Francke being preserved in Halle, one can follow Ludolf travelling from Livorno via Smyrna to Constantinople (1698–1699). In present-day Istanbul, Ludolf started to show signs of linguistic addiction as he wrote:

The more progress I make in learning Turkish and vulgar Greek, the more my stay in this place fulfils me with satisfaction. […] If only I would succeed in speaking both languages fair enough, I would have an excellent occasion to study Arabic. 2

Ludolf’s letters shed light on the way he preferred to learn the languages of the Orient. Instead of merely focusing on book-based grammar study, he would rather engage in active conversations with native speakers. This is in line with his Russian grammar, in which he had attached much importance to a conversational approach. In one of his letters, Ludolf noticed, and not without envy, the organizational skills of his Roman missionary opponents as they planned to erect a collegium in Constantinople,

where young Jesuits, after being trained in oriental languages, will aim at educating the youth in the sciences and the arts. Everyone will take on one language, which is to be mastered very well, from the following six: Greek, both the vernacular and the literary variant, Slavonic, Arabic, Persian, Armenian and Turkish. He will say that all other  tongues spoken in the Orient are dialects of these languages. 3

These lines nicely illustrate that it was possible for a Protestant missionary to learn from his Roman rivals in the field of linguistic training. Revealingly, Francke underlined the first lines of this passage in red, which suggests that he was particularly interested in this kind of information. Another manuscript reveals how Ludolf recommends that, in a Seminary for the Oriental Church,

there should always be someone cultivating the following languages: (1) Slavonic, Russian; (2) Greek, both barbarian and learned; (3) Arabic; (4) Turkish, and for every language another person. 4

Ludolf’s approach and initiatives probably informed the considerable importance Francke, himself a professor of ancient languages, attached to the institutionalization of the teaching of living languages in his Waisenhaus. After the start of the so-called Danish-Halle Tranquebar mission in 1706 (the first protestant mission ever established!) a firm linguistic training in Tamil (‘Malabarisch’) became a prerequisite for all missionaries heading to this place in the Southeast of India.

Ludolf’s concern for the contemporary Greek world is remarkable, although not entirely new. In fact, it places him in a firm tradition of Protestant philhellenism in Germany. This was instigated mainly by the 16th-century Tübingen scholar Martin Kraus (1526–1607). Better known under his Latin name Crusius, this pioneering scholar fostered a profound interest in contemporary Greeks, their language, and their orthodox religion, and corresponded with prominent Greeks in the East. Some of them visited him in Tübingen. Crusius encouraged his contemporaries to learn Modern Greek and made the first real efforts after Nikolaos Sofianòs in the 1540s to study the language attentively (see, e.g., the preface to his Turcograecia of 1584). Although anti-Greek prejudice naturally persisted, at least some Protestants saw the orthodox Greeks as kindred evangelical spirits and potential allies against Rome.

Ludolf clearly stands in this Protestant tradition that Crusius in many ways initiated. But while he lacks the more contemplative historical interest of the classical philologist Crusius, he adds to his inclusive linguistic interest the determination of a real missionary. His view of the East is far from academic, but deeply pragmatic. He was not a grecomaniac like Crusius and embraced the linguistic pluriformity of the Orient. Interestingly, moreover, it seems that his idea to found a collegium grecum was inspired by Roman examples. By the time Ludolf visited the Greek East, Rome had for long launched a programme to win over the Orient and sent its own Jesuit missionaries into the Greek world. Apart from the Jesuit college in Constantinople Ludolf mentioned in his letter, he probably also had the Greek college in Rome in mind, founded by Gregory XIII in 1577, and still a flourishing centre of Hellenism in Rome.

The case of Ludolf, and of the attention he so far received, highlight the danger of an exclusive focus on a scholar’s published work. His letters reveal that Ludolf was a central figure, both in the discovery of the multilingual Orient and in the active implementation of his pedagogical guidelines in Germany. Ludolf’s extensive network appears, if not from his correspondence, from the lists of contact persons which he meticulously kept (e.g. doc. AFst/H B 71, 2-8). All this information, however, is obscured by the fact that his correspondence is either unpublished or published disparately.

Exceptions such as Erasmus, Scaliger, and Leibniz apart, there are obviously not sufficient funds and time to realize monumental critical editions of the complete manuscript legacy of any individual Early Modern scholar. Still one might dream of more dynamic and collaborative initiatives. For example, an overarching database that steadily grows by the additions of individual scholars. Contributors are credited for entering metadata, content tags, summaries and/or transcripts as a by-product of their ongoing research. That such a dream is not utopian is proven by initiatives from other domains such as The Census of Antique Works of Art and Architecture Known in the Renaissance. These databases build on a large amount of information gathered over the years by scholars from all over the world and are a useful tool for anyone captivated by the smaller spiders in the web of history.


The original Latin and German fragments quoted in this post read as follows:

1 Nullo alio in loco linguarum amator meliorem occasionem eas exercendi nanciscetur, quam hic Constantinopoli, et quanquam maxima pars sive victui sive lucro quaerendo sit intenta, non desunt tamen ingenia a sanctificata conversatione non aversa. (AFSt/H D 71 b 15; 24.04.1699)

2 Quo magis in lingua Turcica et Graeca vulgari proficio, eo majorem voluptatem commoratio mea in hoc loco mihi conciliat. […] Si modo dictas duas linguas satis expedire callerem, egregiam haberem occasionem linguae Arabicae addiscendae. (ibid.)

3 nimirum ut Collegium Constantinopoli erigeretur, ubi juvenes Jesuitae mature se assuefacerent linguis orientalibus atque juventuti in scientis et artibus instituendae operam darent. Singulis unam linguam commendat, ut probe excolat, ex sequentibus sex linguis: Graecam tam vulgarem quam literalem, Slavonicam, Arabicam, Persicam, Armenam et Turcicam. Quarum linguarum dialectus esse dicet, omnes in Oriente reliquas. (AFSt/H D 71 b 13)

4 damit mann alle Zeit iemand an der Hand habe der folgende Sprachen exculiret: 1) Slavonica[m] Russicam; 2) Graecam tam barbaram quam Doctam; 3) Arabicam; 4) Turcicam, und zwar zu einer ieden Sprache einen absonderlichen Menschen. (AFst/H B 71, 35)

References and Sources

There are only German, Polish and Russian Wikipedia-entries devoted to Ludolf with a strong emphasis on his Grammatica Russica. This properly reflects the main focus of modern scholarship, some notable exceptions apart.

Publications containing editions of selected letters from Ludolf’s manuscript legacy (the biggest part of which is preserved at the Franckesche Stiftungen) include:

Tetzner, Joachim. 1955. H. W. Ludolf und Russland. Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Slawistik, 6. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

Tetzner, Joachim. 1958. “Briefe H.W. Ludolfs aus Kleinasien und Ägypten am Ende des 17. Jahrhunderts.” Der Islam 33: 326–336.

Moennig, Ulrich. 1998. “Die griechischen Studenten am Hallenser Collegium orientale theologicum.” In Halle und Osteuropa. Zur europäischen Ausstrahlung des hallischen Pietismus, Hallesche Forschungen, ed. by Johannes Wallmann & Udo Sträter, 299–329. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

For details about the Greeks students in Germany in general and in Halle in particular, see:

Eideneier, Hans, Ulrich Moennig & Helma Winterwerb. 2000. Neograeca in Germania: Bestande fruhneugriechischer und liturgischer Drucke des 16.-18. Jahrhunderts in Bibliotheken des deutschsprachigen Raums. Τετράδια Ἐργασίας, 23. Athens: Institut für Neogräzistische Forschung.

Moennig, Ulrich. 1999. Οι νεοελληνκές εκδόσεις της Typographia Orientalis του Johann Heinrich Callenberg (1746 έως 1749 ή 1751 περ.) [The Modern Greek editions of the Typographia Orientalis of Johann Heinrich Callenberg]. Athens: Ermis, 1999.

Tsirpanlis (Τσιρπανλής), Zacharias. 1980. Τὸ Ἑλληνικὸ Κολλέγιο τῆς Ρώμης καὶ οἱ μαθητές του (1576-1700). Συμβολὴ στὴ μελέτη τῆς μορφωτικὴς μολιτικὴς τοῦ Βατικανοῦ [The Greek College of Rome and its Pupils, 1576-1700. Contribution to the study of the educational policy of the Vatican]. Ἀνάλεκτα Βλατάδων, 32. Thessaloniki: Patriarchikon Idryma Paterikon Meleton.

Wendebourg, Dorothea. 1986. Reformation und Orthodoxie: Die ökumenische Briefwechsel zwischen der Leitung der Württembergischen Kirche Patriarch Jeremias II. von Konstantinopel in den Jahren 1573-1581. Forschungen zur Kirchen- und Dogmengeschichte, 37. Göttingen: Vandenbroeck & Ruprecht.

As to Francke and the first Protestant missions, see the following references:

Gross, Andreas, Y. Vincent Kumaradoss, and Heike Liebau (eds.). 2006. Halle and the Beginning of Protestant Christianity in India. Halle: Verlag der Franckeschen Stiftungen.

Wilson, Renate. 1998. “Heinrich Wilhelm Ludolf, August Hermann Francke und der Eingang nach Rusland.” In Halle und Osteuropa. Zur europäischen Ausstrahlung des hallischen Pietismus, Hallesche Forschungen, ed. by Johannes Wallmann & Udo Sträter, 83–108. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

How to cite this post:

Lamers, Han and Toon Van Hal. 2013. ‘Greetings from the Orient: H.W. Ludolf as a central figure in 17th-century language study’. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 17th century, Anatolia, Germany, History
One comment on “Greetings from the Orient: H.W. Ludolf as a central figure in 17th-cent. language study
  1. Very interesting! Completely outside my field, but I’m glad to be part of such a diverse blog!

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