Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Castell, Edmund

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CASTELL, EDMUND, D.D. (1606–1685), Semitic scholar, was the second son of Robert Castell (probably of Christ's College, Cambridge), a man of property and education, and was born ‘iratis Musis,’ as he said, at East Hatley in Cambridgeshire in the year 1606, whence, after the usual grammatical training of the period, he proceeded in 1621, at the age of fifteen, to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and took the successive degrees of bachelor (1624–5) and master (1628) of arts, and bachelor (1635) and doctor (by mandate 1661) of divinity. After this last date he removed to St. John's College, on account of the advantages offered by its library, wherein he found much assistance in the compilation of the great work of his life, the ‘Lexicon Heptaglotton,’ upon which he had been at work since 1651. This vast undertaking was in some sort the outcome of Castell's previous labours in assisting Walton in the preparation of his ‘Biblia Polyglotta,’ in which the former was especially responsible for the Samaritan, Syriac, Arabic, and Ethiopic versions, as Walton himself admits; though it appears that Castell was credited by Walton with a much smaller share in the work than he really accomplished, and that, so far from deriving any profit from the gratuity which Walton allowed each of his assistants, he actually disbursed a thousand pounds of his private fortune, over and above that gratuity, in incidental researches.

The Polyglott Bible was published in 1657, and Castell was already in the throes of its great sequel, the ‘Lexicon Heptaglotton, Hebraicum, Chaldaicum, Syriacum, Samaritanum, Æthiopicum, Arabicum, conjunctim, et Persicum separatim.’ In the dedication to Charles II prefixed to the ‘Lexicon,’ when at length it was published in two volumes folio in 1669, the story of its composition is told with a sad simplicity that atones for a pedantic display of varied learning. The eighteenth year of composition, he writes, has been reached, and that long period has been filled with unremitting toil of seldom less than sixteen or eighteen hours a day, with constant vigils, with bodily suffering—‘membrorum confractiones, laxationes, contusiones’—with loss of fortune, and finally all but the loss of sight. Worthington (Diary, ii. 22) describes him at this time as ‘a modest and retired person, indefatigably studious: he hath sacrificed himself to this service, and is resolved to go on in this work though he die in it.’ He had scarcely any assistance. Now and again he induced, by the sacrifice of the remnant of his patrimony, some scholar to aid him, but it was rarely that he could retain such services for any length of time in so depressing a task. He mentions three scholars who rendered him more protracted service, but these deserted him at last, even his printer mutinied, and he was left alone in his old age to finish the gigantic work. One of his assistants suddenly died, and Castell had to pay for his burial, and took charge of his orphan child. He had not only spent his life and strength; he had reduced himself to poverty by expending over 12,000l. upon the work; and even so, he was 1,800l. in debt, and had become responsible for some debts of his brother, for which the unfortunate scholar was sent to prison in 1667. This condition of actual distress, aggravated by the loss of much of his library and effects in the great fire, and coupled perhaps with the notice attracted by a volume of congratulatory poems to the king, at length procured him a scanty measure of royal favour. In 1666 he was made chaplain in ordinary to the king; in 1667 he was appointed to the eighth prebendal stall in Canterbury Cathedral, from which, however, he was excused attendance, partly by reason of infirmities, and partly on account of the duties of the professorship of Arabic at Cambridge, to which he had been appointed in the year 1664. This was the only academic emolument he ever received, and that by royal, not university, nomination; and although he always stayed in his friend Lightfoot's rooms when at Cambridge, the chair cost him more than it brought in, as Castell himself stated in a letter (16 Aug. 1674) to the celebrated Dr. Spencer, master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (still preserved among the manuscripts at Lambeth Palace). He was also elected F.R.S. in 1674.

Castell brought out his ‘Lexicon’ in 1669. It marks an epoch in Semitic scholarship. J. D. Michaelis, who edited a separate issue of the Syriac division of the work (Göttingen, 4to, 1788), writes with respectful enthusiasm of Castell's unparalleled industry and solid learning, and differs in some points of detail from that ‘vir magnus’ only with the greatest diffidence. The Hebrew section also was published separately at Göttingen by Trier in 1790–2 in 4to. But the original ‘Lexicon’ met with a deplorably cold welcome in England. The ‘London Gazette’ (No. 429, December 23–7, 1669) contains an advertisement in which the unhappy scholar states that for three-quarters of a year he or his servants have attended in London at the place of sale, but that the subscribers send so slowly for their copies that he must fix the following Lady-day as the last date of attendance. At the time of his death about five hundred copies still remained unsold, and his niece and executrix, Mrs. Crisp, lodged the remnant of her uncle's life-work in one of her tenant's houses at Martin in Surrey, where for some years the rats played such havoc with the learned pages that when the stock came to be examined scarcely a single copy could be made up from the wreck of the sheets, and the fragments were sold for the sum of 7l.

When worn out with work and bowed with years Castell received the vicarage of Hatfield Peverell in Essex, from which he was removed to the rectory of Wodeham Walter in the same county, and finally to Higham Gobion, Bedfordshire, where he died in 1685. We learn from the epitaph which he himself inscribed over the grave of his wife, for them both, that he married Elizabeth, relict of Sir Peter Bettesworth, and afterwards of one Herris. In spite of the unhandsome usage he experienced at his university, he preserved to the last his zeal for academic interests, and he bequeathed his oriental manuscripts, including nineteen Hebrew, thirteen Arabic, and six Ethiopic, to the University Library (receipt of vice-chancellor, Nichols, Lit. Anecd. iv. 28); 111 books selected from his library to Emmanuel College, and a massive silver tankard to St. John's. The tankard and the manuscripts were left on condition that his name should be inscribed on each; and this, with his portrait (which may also be seen in the frontispiece to his ‘Lexicon’), has been duly affixed (Will of E. Castell, 24 Oct. 1685, Baker MS. 24, pp. 268–71, Brit. Mus.)

Besides the ‘Lexicon Heptaglotton’ and his share in Walton's ‘Biblia Polyglotta,’ Castell was the author of an inaugural lecture on the merits of the study of Arabic, as exemplified by the interpretation of the Canon of Avicenna (‘Oratio … in secundum canonis Avicennæ librum,’ London, 1667, 4to), which was included in Kapp's ‘Clarissimorum Virorum Orationes selectæ.’ Some marginal manuscript notes of Castell's are preserved in the copy of Plempius's Canon of Avicenna (1658) in the British Museum. His volume of poems addressed to Charles II is entitled ‘Sol Angliæ oriens auspiciis Caroli II regum gloriosissimi’ (London, ad insigne Campanæ in cœmiterio D. Pauli, 1660, 4to), and includes congratulatory odes in Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, Samaritan, Ethiopic, Arabic, Persian, and Greek, with indifferent Latin translations. The obvious design of these effusions is to attract the king's notice and support for the toiling author of the ‘Lexicon Heptaglotton:’

Sic erit ut sudans respiret Lexicon, atque
Lætius hinc totum progrediatur opus.

The terrible distress of the poor scholar excuses the fulsomeness of the language in which the king's virtues are set forth.

[Biog. Brit. s.v.; Hearne's Prælim. Obs. to Leland's Collectanea, p. 80; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. (Bliss), iii. 883; Fasti, ii. 48; Worthington's Diary, ii. 21, 44; twenty-three letters of Castell to Lightfoot, 1664–70, in Lightfoot's Works (ed. Pitman), vol. xiii.; London Gazette, No. 429; Ded. and Præf. to the Lex. Heptaglotton; information from Rev. J. E. B. Mayor, and from Rev. J. G. Lawrence, vicar of Tadlow, who finds the name spelt Castell in the baptismal register—not Castle, as some have supposed.]

S. L-P.