Wakefields at Christ Church

Hebrew studies have been part and parcel of academic life at Christ Church since the college was founded. First donations to the college library included books and manuscripts in Latin, Greek, as well as Hebrew. Over the almost five hundred years, its teaching and research collections have grown substantially and consequently, Christ Church library houses now one of the most important early modern Hebrew and Judaica collections in the country. A number of notable Hebrew scholars have been associated with the college.

Among them is Robert Wakefield (d. 1537/8) who became Regius Praelector of Hebrew at Christ Church in 1529 and three years later was appointed one of the founding canons of the college. Robert Wakefield was not only one of the most influential and learned Hebraists in England in the sixteenth century but he was also a scholar who was very well connected to the related academic circles in Europe. After all, he started off as a student of Hebrew at the University of Leuven in 1518 and the following year he was teaching Hebrew at Leuven’s Collegium Trilingue. The ethos of this famous humanist college that promoted the study of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and was an inspiration by none less than Erasmus, had, indeed, also become an essential part of  the theological curriculum in England. This can be seen in Wakefield’s publications and research interests.

As an example, in 1524 Robert Wakefield had argued in his inaugural oration (‘Oratio de laudibus & utilitate trium linguarum Arabicae, Chaldaicae & Hebraicae’) at Cambridge that Hebrew was an important vehicle for understanding the Bible, as was knowledge of Aramaic and Arabic. He and his contemporary biblical scholars occupied themselves with returning to the literal meaning of the Semitic words in order to better appreciate the Latin and Greek of the Christian Scripture.

Before his appointment at Oxford, Robert Wakefield held teaching positions in Paris, Hagenau and Tübingen where he succeeded the prominent German Christian Hebraist Johann Reuchlin. The two shared their deep absorption into Jewish sources, not least the rabbinic literature or kabbalah. In 1523, Robert Wakefield was elected Cambridge’s first salaried lecturer in Hebrew.

The same year Robert’s younger brother Thomas Wakefield (d. 1575) graduated BA at Cambridge. In 1540, Thomas became the first Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, and a member of Trinity college. During Thomas Wakefield’s career at Cambridge, valuable links with Christian Hebraists from continental Europe were preserved, and several religious refugees, such as Paul Fagius, Immanuel Tremellius, Anthony Chevalier and Philippe Bignon, were called in to help out with teaching Hebrew.

While Robert’s scholarly work was acclaimed and published, less is known about Thomas Wakefield’s research. However, it is possible to gain an insight into his theological and linguistic discourse from the abundance of marginal notes that he left in his own books and those that he had inherited from Robert. Brothers Wakefield Renaissance library may have been one of the greatest private collections of Hebraica in sixteenth-century England, before its disintegration. Today, the surviving copies are scattered among various libraries, including Lambeth Palace, Trinity College in Cambridge, Chetham’s Library in Manchester, and also Christ Church in Oxford.

Two separate annotated works are particularly interesting. The first book concerns Elijah Levita’s (1469-1549) ‘Tishbi’, printed by Paul Fagius in Isny in 1541. Tishbi is a classical dictionary of the Talmud and was very popular among Christian scholars of Hebrew. The copy has arrived at Christ Church via Richard Allestree (1619-1681), canon of Christ Church and former Regius Professor of Divinity. While its sixteenth or seventeenth century English calf binding does not give us enough clues about its previous ownership, there are many contemporary marginal annotations throughout, as well as the extensive manuscript notes on flyleaves that reveal the characteristic hand of Thomas Wakefield. Tishbi is a work, that Levita published late in his life and indeed demonstrates his impressive knowledge of rabbinic sources but also the excellence of Levita as a teacher. Not surprisingly, Wakefield makes good use of his copy of this marvellous linguistic tool, adding his discussion and reading of relevant passages to the margins. His notes enable us to follow the focus and depth of his biblical studies and are valuable sources of scholarship.

The other work is currently found in the collection that was named after Christ Church’s seventeenth century Regius Professor of Hebrew John Morris (1594/5-1648). It comes in two volumes that contain David Kimhi’s (ca. 1160-ca. 1235) commentary on the Former and Latter Prophets, printed by Gershom Soncino in Pesaro in 1511 and 1515. Both copies are heavily annotated by Thomas Wakefield in Latin and Hebrew, especially the tome that contains the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, as well as the Twelve Minor Prophets. While it is important to identify the sixteenth century scholarly owner of these books (indeed, there is also a barely visible signature of Thomas Wakefield in one of the volumes), it is even more rewarding to see how the books were used. Actually, these learned marginalia are what remains as Wakefield’s legacy for the coming generations of Hebrew scholars in England.

However, Thomas Wakefield was not the first and last owner of the Pesaro edition of the Prophets. Considering the close contacts that Robert Wakefield had established with continental Europe, it is not surprising that he was able to acquire the finest Hebrew printed books of his day, sometimes as second-hand copies. The Latter Prophets of 1515, for example, had been previously owned by a certain Samuel, son of Hayyim as his provenance inscription in Hebrew on title page verso confirms this. Later, the volumes were bound in England in the sixteenth century in blind-tooled sprinkled calf (perhaps in Oxford, and possibly either commissioned by Wakefield or by a subsequent owner), notably with fragments of early English manuscripts used as binding waste. Further binding evidence includes staple holes which mean that the book was chained while sitting on a library shelf, likely in the Old Library at Christ Church after its bequest by John Best (1569-1637). Indeed, Library’s Donors’ Book (page 92) informs us that a number of Hebrew books had arrived at the college in 1639, after the death of its former member John Best (BA in 1585) who had later become a prebendary of Hereford cathedral.

It is remarkable that today, almost five hundred years after Robert Wakefield took up his position as the first Regius Praelector of Hebrew at Christ Church, we continue to adhere to the tradition of Hebrew studies that the Wakefields pioneered, as witnessed in the scholarly notes that are found in their books.

Dr Rahel Fronda
Hebrew Antiquarian Cataloguer
Christ Church Library

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