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Significant Scots
James Hepburn


HEPBURN, JAMES BONAVENTURE, of the order of the Minims, said to have been an extensive linguist, lexicographer, grammarian, and biblical commentator. When the historian and biographer happens within the range of his subjects, to find accounts of occurrences evidently problematical, and as evidently based on truths, while he can discover no data for the separation of truth from falsehood, his critical powers are taxed to no inconsiderable extent. There are three several memoirs of the individual under consideration. The first is to be found in the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Scotorum, of Dempster, an author whose veracity we have already had occasion to characterize. Another is in the Lives of Scots Writers, by Dr George M’Kenzie, a work to which we have made occasional allusions, and which shall hereafter receive due discussion; and the third is in the European Magazine for 1795, from the pen of Dr Lettice. Dempster’s account is short and meagre, except in the enumeration of the great linguist’s works; the second is as ample as any one need desire; and the third adds nothing to the two preceding, except the facetious remarks of the author. Among other authorities which might have given some account of his writings, or at least hinted at the existence of such a person, all we can discover bearing reference to any of his twenty-nine elaborate works, is the slight notice we shall presently allude to. According to M’Kenzie, "Dempster says that he is mentioned with great honour by Vincentius Blancus, a noble Venetian in his Book of Letters;" on reference to Dempster, the apparently extensive subject shrinks into "De Literis in manubrio cultelli sancti Petri." Now we might have suspected that Dempster had intended to perpetrate a practical joke in the choice of a name, had we not, after considerable research, discovered that there is such a discussion on the pen knife of St Peter in existence, from the pen of Vincenzo Bianchi, a Venetian; to this rare work, however, we have not been so fortunate as to obtain access, the only copy of it, of which we have been enabled to trace the existence, being in the library of the British museum, and we must leave the information it may afford on the life of Hepburn to some more fortunate investigator. M’Kenzie farther states that "he is highly commended by that learned Dr of the Canon law, James Gafferel, in his book of Unheard of Curiosities;" on turning to this curious volume, we find the author "highly recommending" Heurnius and his book, "Antiquitatum Philosophiae Barbaricae." But unfortunately for the fame of our linguist, the author of that book was Otho Heurnius, or Otho Van Heurn, a native of Utrecht, and son and successor to the celebrated physician Ian Van Heurn. We now turn with some satisfaction to the only firm ground we have on which to place the bare existence of Hepburn as an author. In the Bibliotheca Latino-Hebraica of Imbonatus, amidst the other numberless forgotten books and names, it is mentioned in a few words that "Bonaventura Hepbernus Scotus ord. min." wrote a small Hebrew lexicon, printed in duodecimo: its description shows it to have been a small and trifling production, of a very different description from the vast volumes which Dempster and M’Kenzie have profusely attached to his name. We have been unable to procure access to this dictionary, or to ascertain its existence in any public library. Without some more ample data or authority, we should deem ourselves worthy of the reproach of pedantry, were we to abbreviate the accounts presented to us, and tell the reader, ex cathedra, what he is to believe and what he is to discredit. We have then before us the choice, either to pass Mr Hepburn over in silence, or briefly to state the circumstances of his life, as they have been previously narrated. To follow the former would be disrespectful, not only to the veracious authors we have already mentioned, but also to the authors of the various respectable biographical works who have admitted Hepburn on the list of the ornaments of literature; and the latter method, if it do not furnish food for investigation, may at least give some amusement.

James Bonaventura Hepburn, was son to Thomas Hepburn, rector of Oldhamstocks in Lothian. M’Kenzie states that he was born on the 14th day of July, 1573, and, that we may not discredit the assertion, presents us with a register kept by the rector of Oldhamstocks, of the respective periods of birth of his nine sons. He received his university education at St Andrews, where after his philosophical studies, he distinguished himself in the acquisition of the oriental languages. Although educated in the principles of the protestant religion, he was induced to become a convert to the church of Rome. After this change in his faith, he visited the continent, residing in France and Italy, and thence passing through "Turkey, Persia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Ethiopia, and most of the eastern countries," gathering languages as he went, until he became so perfect a linguist, "that he could have travelled over the whole earth, and spoke to each nation in their own language." On returning from these laborious travels, he entered the monastery of the Minims at Avignon, an order so called from its members choosing in humility to denominate themselves "Minimi Fratres Eremitae," as being more humble still than the Minores, or Franciscans. He afterwards resided in the French monastery of the holy Trinity at Rome. Here his eminent qualities attracted a ferment of attention from the learned world, and pope Paul the fifth, invaded his retirement, by appointing him librarian of the oriental books and manuscripts of the Vatican. [It is singular that a person in the 17th century, living in Italy, professing so many languages in a country where linguists were rare, a librarian of the Vatican, and one whose "eminent parts had divulged his fame through the whole city" – should have entirely escaped the vast researches of Andrew in General literature, Fraboschi’s ample Investigation of Italian Literature, the minute Ecclesiastical Bibliographics of Dupin and Labbe, and other works of the same description.]

We shall now take the liberty of enumerating a few of the many weighty productions of our author’s pen, chiefly it is to be presumed written during the six years in which he was librarian of the Vatican. Dictionarium Hebraicum—Dictionarium Chaldaicum—Peter Malcuth, seu gloria vel decus Israelis, (continent cent, homilias sive conciones) – Epitomen Chronicorum Romanorum – Gesta Regum Israelis – Grammatica Arabica, (said to have been published at Rome in 1591, 4to.) He translated Commentarii Rabbi Kimchi in Psalterium – Rabbi Abraham Aben Exra Librum de Mysticis numeris – Ejusdem Librum alium de septemplici modo interpretandi sacram scripturam.

We shall now turn our consideration to one work on the celebrated linguist, from which a little more information appears to be derivable. This is the "Schema Septuaginta Duorum Idiomatum, sive virga aurea – quia Beata Virgo dicitur tot annis in vivis fuisse; et ille numerus discipulorum est Christi, et Romanae Ecclesiae cardinalium, et tot mysteria in nominee Dei: Romae, 1616." M’Kenzie says, "This was communicated to me by the late Sir John Murray of Glendoich, and since it is a singular piece of curiosity, I shall give the reader a particular account of it, with some reflections upon the different language that are here set down by our author." Whether by the term "communicated’ the biographer means to intimate that he saw the production he criticises, is somewhat doubtful; but at all events, our opinion of M’Kenzie’s veracity is such that we do not believe he would deliberately state that he had either been informed of or shown any particular work by Sir John Murray, and thereafter give a full and minute account of it, without some sort of foundation on which to erect his edifice of narrative. M’Kenzie proceeds to assure us that this is a large print, engraved at Rome in the year 1616, and dedicated to Pope Paul V. That upon the top is the blessed virgin, with a circle of stars about her head, wrapt in a glorious vestment, upon which is her name in Hebrew, sending forth rays of eulogiums in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, while over her head appear the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Angels and the apostles are at her side, and the moon and stars beneath her feet. Then follow seven columns in which these encomiums are translated into the numerous dialects with which the mighty linguist was familiar. A great northern philologist, recently deceased, has been held up to the wonder of the human race, as having been acquainted with thirty-two languages; but in a period when few were acquainted with more tongues than that of their native place, along with the Greek and Latin, and when the materials for more extensive acquisitions were with difficulty accessible, the craving appetite of Hepburn could not be satiated with fewer than seventy-two. We have among these—The Cussian, the Virgilian, the Hetruscan, the Saracen, the Assyrian, the Armenian, the Syro-Armenian, the Gothic, and also the Getic; the Scythian, and the Maeso-Gothic. Then he leaves such modern labourers as Champolion and Dr Young deeply in the shade, from his knowledge of the Coptic, the Hieroglyphic, the Egyptian, the Mercurial Egyptiae, the Isiac-Egyptiae, and the Babylonish. He then turns towards the Chaldaic, the Palestinian, the Turkish, the Rabbinical, the German Rabbinical, the Galilean, the Spanish-Rabbinical, the Afro-Rabbinical, and what seems the most appropriate tongue of all, the "Mystical." Gradually the biographer rises with the dignity of his subject, and begins to leave the firm earth. He proceeds to tell us how Hepburn wrote in the "Nonchic," the "Adamean," the "Solomonic," the "Mosaic," the "Hulo-Rabbinic," the "Seraphic," the "Angelical," and the "Supercelestial." "Now," continues M’Kenzie, with much complacency at the successful exhibition he has made of his Countryman’s powers, but certainly with much modesty, considering their extent, "these are all the languages (and they are the most of the whole habitable world,) in which our author has given us a specimen of his knowledge, and which evidently demonstrates that he was not only the greatest linguist of his own age, but of any age that has been since the creation of the world, and may be reckoned amongst those prodigies of mankind, that seem to go beyond the ordinary limits of nature."

Hepburn dabbled in the doctrines of the Cabala, but whether in vindication or attack, the oracular observations of his biographers hardly enable us to ascertain. He died at Venice in October, 1620, a circumstance in which Dempster has the best reason to be accurate, as it is the very year in which he pens his account. M’Kenzie finds that "others" (without condescending to mention who they are,) "say that he died at Venice, anne 1621, and that his picture is still to be seen there, and at the Vatican at Rome." Dr Lettice, in the refined spirit of a philosophical biographer, has drawn of him the following character: "Although Hepburn’s attainments in language were worthy of great admiration, I find no reason to believe that his mind was enlarged, or his understanding remarkably vigorous. He does not appear to have possessed that quick sense of remote but kindred objects, that active faculty of combining and felicity of expressing related ideas, or that intuitive discernment betwixt heterogeneous ones; those creative powers, in short, of thought or expression, by which original works of whatever kind are produced; those works in the contemplation of which alone, taste ever recognizes the fascination of genius." Did we possess the power of creating opinions out of nothing, which the Dr possessed, and to which he seems to refer, we should have tried his canons of criticism, on a minute review of all Hepburn’s works, but in the meantime, we can only say, we can scarcely agree with him in thinking that the linguist had not a quick sense of "remote but kindred objects," or that he had any defect in his discernment of heterogeneous ideas; nor do we conceive that his biographer has allowed him too narrow an allowance of "creative power."


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