Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Renouf, Peter le Page

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RENOUF, Sir PETER le PAGE (1822–1897), egyptologist, oriental scholar, and theologian, son of Joseph Renouf of Guernsey, and his wife Mary, daughter of John le Page, also of Guernsey, was born in Guernsey on 23 Aug. 1822. He was educated at Elizabeth College, Guernsey, and thence passed in 1841 with a scholarship to Pembroke College, Oxford, where, being intended for the church, he soon came into contact with the protagonists of the tractarian movement, especially with Newman, whose views exerted considerable influence over him. He is said to have aided in the compilation of some of the 'Tracts for the Times.' Certainly his tractarianism was of so uncompromising a type that it hurried him rapidly into the Roman church, and he was 'received' as early as Easter 18-42 at St. Mary's College, Oscott, where, having abandoned Oxford, he remained for some years engaged in various studies.

The years from 1846 to 1855 were occupied in desultory travel and study. In the latter year Renouf, after delivering, at the newly founded Roman catholic university of Ireland, a course of historical lectures on French literature and the history of philosophy, was appointed by Newman, then the rector, to the chair of ancient history, to which was afterwards added the professorship of eastern languages. He held this professorship till 1864, and it was during his tenure of it that he first turned his attention towards egyptology. His first essays in the science which was eventually to become the chief occupation of his life were published in 'Atlantis,' the literary journal of the university, in which, in 1863, appeared his noteworthy defence of egyptological science against the attacks of Sir George Cornewall Lewis [q. v.], entitled 'Sir G. C. Lewis on the Decipherment and Interpretation of Dead Languages.' This article finally disposed of all objections to Young and Champollion's: method of deciphering the hieroglyphs [see Young, Thomas, 1773-1829]. Though devoting more and more of his time to egyptology, Renouf still took part in the discussion of other subjects, chiefly theological, which interested him. He contributed articles to the 'Home and Foreign Review,' 'North British Review,' and other periodicals. After 1864, when he severed his connection with the Irish Catholic university, he gradually grew out of sympathy with the Ultramontane position. In 1868 he published an essay on the subject of 'The Condemnation of Pope Honorius.' This was in effect a vigorous attack on the doctrine of papal infallibility, which was now definitely propounded at Rome; he showed that without possible doubt the 'infallible Vicar of Christ' Honorius was a monothelite heretic, who, in the words of the judgment of the council held at Constantinople in 681, 'shall be cast out of the Holy Church of God, and be anathematised with them (Sergius of Constantinople and others), because we have found, from the letter written by him to Sergius, that he followed the mind of the latter in all things, and gave authority to his impious dogmas.' This insistence on the historical condemnation of a pope as a heretic was by no means to the taste of the Ultramontane champions of infallibility on the continent and in Ireland, and Renouf 's essay was placed on the 'Index.' His thesis was taken up vigorously by a Jansenist writer, the Rev. J. A. van Beek, who translated Renouf's essay into Dutch, under the title 'Zal de Paus op het aanstaande Concilie onfeilbaar verklaard worden? De Veroordeeling van Paus Honorius,' and supported it with a brochure of his own, 'Beschouwingen over de Pauselijke Onfeilbaarheid.' Renouf did not retreat before the clamour of Ultramontane resentment, which was well expressed in a pamphlet written by Paolo Bottalla, an Italian priest, but he defended his position in a second publication, 'The Case of Pope Honorius reconsidered, with reference to recent Apologies' (1869). With the official adoption of the doctrine of infallibility the controversy ceased. But Renouf did not follow Dr. Dollinger in severing his connection with the Roman church on its adoption of that dogma.

In 1864 Renouf advocated a project which commended itself to many English Roman catholics, though not to the Ultramontanes the foundation of a college for Roman catholics at Oxford; his views were put forward in a letter addressed to Dr. Newman by 'a Catholic Layman,' and entitled 'University Education for English Catholics' (London 1864). The proposal came to nothing.

On his retirement from the Irish catholic, university Renouf was appointed in 1866 one of her majesty's chief inspectors of schools, a post which he held for nearly twenty years. Theology was now abandoned, and Renouf devoted an increasing part of his leisure to egyptological study. One of his most notable contributions to egyptology during this period was his 'Elementary Grammar of the Ancient Egyptian Language' (1875, 2nd edit. 1896). With the exception of Dr. Birch's linguistic notes in the second edition of Bunsen's 'Egypt's Place in Universal History' (1867, vol. v.), this was the first ancient Egyptian grammar published in English. In 1879 he delivered the Hibbert lectures, taking for his subject 'The Religion of Ancient Egypt.' The views therein expressed are now to some extent superseded, because Renouf in many ways followed in the footsteps of Professor Max Müller [q. v. Suppl.], and in dealing with Egyptian religion was inclined to lay too much stress upon philological theories and not to pay sufficient attention to the modern developments of anthropological science.

In 1885 Renouf was appointed to succeed Samuel Birch [q. v. Suppl.] as keeper of the Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities in the British Museum. In this position he presided over the publication of the 'Coffin of Amamu' (1890), a work prepared by Birch, and of a facsimile of the well-known papyrus of Ani, which has since been fully edited and translated by his successor in the post of keeper, Dr. Wallis Budge. At the end of 1891 he retired, after having been specially permitted to exceed the ordinary civil service age-limit by four years.

In 1887 Renouf succeeded Sir Charles Newton [q. v. Suppl.] as president of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, to whose 'Transactions' and 'Proceedings' he had made many contributions. In 1892, after his retirement from the British Museum, he commenced the publication in the 'Proceedings' of an elaborate translation of and commentary upon the 'Book of the Dead,' a work left unfinished at the time of his death. In 1896 he was knighted. He died on 14 Oct. 1897.

In 1857 Renouf married Ludovika, daughter of Brentano la Roche of Frankfort.

It is by his egyptological work that Sir Peter Renouf is best known. His temperament was strongly controversial, not to say polemical, yet he rendered lasting service to egyptology, especially in the domain of the language of ancient Egypt, our knowledge of which he greatly helped to place in the position of certainty that it has now attained.

[Obituary notice by W. H. Rylands in Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, xix. (1897), pp. 271 ff.; Men of the Time.]

H. R. H.