Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bedwell, William

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BEDWELL, WILLIAM (d. 1632), nephew of Thomas Bedwell [q. v.], and father of Arabic studies in England, was born in 1561 or 1562, for his tombstone in the chancel of Tottenham church makes him aged 70 at his death on 5 May 1632. The place of his birth seems to be indicated by the words ‘Haslingburgensis A. Saxo’ on the title-page of his Arabic edition of the epistles of St. John. He was educated at Cambridge, where, according to the university registers, he was A.B. in 1584–5, and A.M. in 1588. He became scholar of Trinity in May 1584, but was never fellow of his college. In 1601 he became rector of St. Ethelburgh's, Bishopsgate Street. He was selected in 1604 as one of the Westminster company of translators of the Bible (the statement often repeated that he was with Sir H. Wotton at Venice is due to a mistake of Lilly (Life, edition of 1715, p. 23), who confused him with W. Bedell, bishop of Kilmore). The president of that company was Dr. Lancelot Andrewes, and by him Bedwell was presented in October 1607 to the vicarage of Tottenham High Cross. Andrewes, as we learn from Casaubon (Ep. 821), continued to encourage Bedwell's studies after his promotion to the see of Ely. These studies embraced all the oriental languages, but were especially directed to Arabic, which, from the paucity of helps and texts, was then very little known in northern Europe. The nature of Bedwell's interest in so difficult a study is explained in the preface to the epistles of John already mentioned, where he lays stress alike on the practical importance of a tongue which was the only language of religion and the chief language of diplomacy and business from the Fortunate Islands to the China Seas, and on the value for letters and science of a literature so rich in theological, medical, and mathematical works, and in translations of ancient authors. He also expresses just views of the use of Arabic in the elucidation of Hebrew words, as exemplified in the writings of the mediæval Rabbins. His reputation as an Arabist had extended to the continent before 1603 (Casaub. Ep. 344); Erpenius, when he visited England about 1608, found particular satisfaction in making the acquaintance of Bedwell, and Casaubon was his correspondent, and watched with impatient interest the progress of an Arabic lexicon which he had commenced to compile before 1610 (Ep. 663: ‘Bedwellus Lexicon urget suum. O virum bonum doctum et simplicem!’), and, indeed, apparently before Erpenius's visit to England (Ep. 662). In 1612 Bedwell went over to Leyden to see Scaliger's Arabic collections with a letter from Casaubon (Ep. 821) to Heinsius, and during this visit he published there the epistles of John in Arabic and Latin. The preface is dated from the Hague, 28 Sept. 1612, N.S. In 1615 there appeared at London, under the title ‘Mohammedis impostura,’ Bedwell's translation of a polemical dialogue which had been printed anonymously in Arabic (s. l. et a.) some years before, together with the ‘Arabian Trudgman’ and an ‘Index’ of the Suras of the Koran, which Bedwell had studied in manuscripts. The ‘Trudgman’ is an explanation of Arabic words used by Western writers about the East, and bears evidence of very wide reading in all works of this sort from the Byzantines downwards.

Bedwell had also occupied himself with mathematics ever since he was at Cambridge, and in 1612 put out a little table, ‘Trigonicum Architectonicum,’ for the use of carpenters. This was followed in 1614 by a treatise on geometrical numbers, which is nominally an enlarged translation of Lazarus Schonerus's ‘De Numeris Geometricis,’ but in reality is altogether rewritten, with the practical object of explaining the use of the ‘trigonicum,’ or ‘carpenter's square,’ and the ‘ruler,’ or mechanical contrivance for carpenters' computations, which had been invented by his uncle. This ‘ruler,’ or mesolabium architectonicum, had great value in Bedwell's eyes, and in the preface to his book of 1614 he expresses an intention to publish something further on it. This he did in the ‘Mesolabium Architectonicum,’ 1631 (repr. 1639). Bedwell also translated Salingnac's ‘Arithmetic,’ and his enlarged version of Ramus's ‘Way to Geometry’ was posthumously published in 1636. From this book it appears that he was a personal friend of John Greaves and H. Briggs. After his death, ‘his library being sold into Little Britain,’ Lilly, the astrologer, tells us, ‘I bought amongs them my choicest books of astronomy.’ Amidst these studies he found time to publish in 1631 ‘A Survey of Tottenham,’ in which the well-known burlesque poem, the ‘Turnament of Tottenham,’ was first published from a manuscript now in the university library at Cambridge. Bedwell died in 1632. He left to his university his manuscript lexicon, together with a fount of Arabic type to print it (Geo. Richter, Ep. Sel. 485). This was never done, but by a grace of 25 June 1658 it was lent to E. Castell and R. Clark. Castell used the manuscript largely in his great ‘Lexicon Heptaglotton,’ and in this way Bedwell has a lasting place in the history of Arabic scholarship. His most famous personal disciple was Edward Pocock, for Erpenius can hardly be called Bedwell's pupil, but rather, as Castell puts it (Præf. Lex.), his partner in opening Arabic literature. Bedwell's manuscript lexicon consists of seven volumes folio, with two small quartos containing his final revision of the initials alef and veit. It includes Hebrew, Syriac, Chaldee, and Arabic words, and in the original draught is entirely gathered from the author's own reading. For the Arabic, which is much the most important feature in the work, he uses the Koran (in manuscript), the Arabic versions of the Bible (some of which had been printed), and the publications of the Italian press—notably Avicenna and Nāsir-ed-Dīn's ‘Euclid.’ The connection between Arabic and mathematics was then very close; astronomers especially looked to the Arabs for valuable aid, as appears in Twells's ‘Life of Pocock,’ and probably enough it was through mathematics and astrology (for he quotes Haly) that Bedwell was first led to Arabic studies. After the seven folios were written out, Bedwell must have got a copy of the great native lexicon, the ‘Kāmūs,’ extracts from which are written all over the margin and incorporated in the revised volumes.

[Isaacson's Life of Andrewes; Casaubon's Epistolæ (passim); Twells's Life of Pocock; Vossius's Funeral Oration on Erpenius; Prefaces and other notices in Bedwell's works; Newcourt's Repertorium, i. 346, 755.]

W. R. S.