Title page of the first edition of Hermannus Hugo

Title page of the first edition of Hermannus Hugo's emblem book.

Detail map of Antwerpen, Vlaanderen, Belgium Overview map of Antwerpen, Vlaanderen, Belgium

A: Antwerpen, Vlaanderen, Belgium

Hermannus Hugo Issues the First History of Writing


In 1617 Dutch Jesuit priest, military chaplain, Neo-Latin poet and writer Herman Hugo (Hermannus Hugo) issued the first book entirely devoted to the history and nature of writing. It was published in Antwerp at the press of Plantin-Moretus, and entitled De prima scribendi origine et universae rei literariae antiquitate. The work included an unusual plate showing 24 different directions in which writing was done across the page in different languages.

"De prima scribendi origine also signals important changes in atitudes to writing in his time, for Hugo gave scant attention to the hermetic and cabalistic ideas about writing that were popular in the Renaissance. In Hugo's mind, writing had the strictly practical function of recording and preserving speech; it is defined in his first chapter as 'vocem aut vocis partes ob oculos ponere per literas' (putting the voice or parts of the voice before the eyes by means of letters). He rejected claims concerning the magical powers of writing, and filled his tract with dry, factual accounts of the evolution of writing instruments and paper, and the different ways of opening and closing epistles. Hugo agreed that Hebrew was the first form of writing, 'nam prima lingua fuit Hebraica' (for the first tongue was Hebrew). But he left unresolved whether Adam received Hebrew characters from God for invented them himself, or even whether they were contrived by his youngest son, Seth. Whatever the origin of Hebrew writing, it was far from being the most perfect in existence. The Jesuit particularly cirticised the direction of Hebrew writing from right to left as evidence of its 'rude' and 'uncultivated' state. Writing from left to right, the direction later adopted by the Greeks, was more 'commodious', he claimed, because the right-handed writer moved away from the body and could more easily see his letters. . . . (Hudson, Writing and European Thought 1600-1830 [1995] 33-34). 

Like certain other seventeenth century scholars such as John Wilkins, Hugo believed that a universal language would be a worthwhile goal. According to Paul Cornelius, Languages in Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth-century Imaginery Voyages (1965) p. 29-30, Hugo's ideas on this topic

"were inspired by the relations about the Chinese language which had found in Matthew Ricci's journals, edited and published by Nicholas Trigault in 1615, just two years before. In the section of his book which had for its subject the possiblity of a universal character for Europe, Hugo discussed the question in the following way: assuming that all men have the same concept of a horse, a cow, or any other object in exterior reality when they see these objects — for he assumed that the senses present things in the same way to all men — Hugo argued that men disagreed because of the ambiguity of the names which they imposed on things, and not because the concepts which they had about them were different. The hope of Herman Hugo, as well as of other language reformers of the same period, was that all men would agree upon the many important issues over which there had been so much strife, if the truths about them were clearly enough expressed in a language inteligible to all men. Maintaining that the invention of such universal symbols would not oppose the will of God—which was the Confusion of Tongues He had imposed at Babel— Hugo argued that such symbols would be the means by which a divided society could become one again. Nor would the learning of such a large number of characters be too difficult for human industry to accomplish. To prove this, Hugo argued that even in his own time, the peoples of Europe memorized the many words of their own inadequate languages. Certainly Europeans would be able to invent and memorize universal characters of their own, and by doing so alleviate the Confusion of Tongues.

"Hugo did not go beyond proposing a universal language for Europe; he did not try to invent one. But behind his posposal and the actual projects of a few decades later were the same philosophical assumptions. The increasing emphasis on the sensory origins of all human knowledge in the seventeenth century, which perhaps culminated in John Locke's theory of human knowledge, played an important role in men's attitudes towards langauge during that age. Behind Hugo's proposal were those assumptions, and the hope that a language could be invented which would, as closely as possible, reflect the reality for which it stood. The Chinese written language, he believed, was a language which approached this ideal."  

Hugo's history of writing was translated into French in 1774 and published as Dissertation historique sur l'invention des lettres et des caractères d'ecriture, sur les instrumens dont les anciens se sont servi pour l'ecriture, tirée d'Hermannus Hugo (Paris, 1774).

Hugo's Pia desideria, a spiritual emblem book published in Antwerp in 1624, was the most popular religious emblem book of the seventeenth century". It underwent 42 Latin editions, and was widely translated up to the 18th century.

(This entry was last revised on 03-04-2015.)

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