A Load of Old Babel: The Languages and Scripts of Balliol College

Opening of manuscript showing black and red Ge'ez script

This exhibition explores the languages and scripts of Balliol College’s historic collections. From Aleut to Welsh, the diverse languages of Balliol’s collections reflect the changing social, political and economic forces that have shaped the College and its collections over its 750 years.

At its foundation the language of Balliol was the Latin of the Church and scholarly communication. The Reformation ended this monopoly, as the vernaculars began their ascent, while the Scientific Revolution sought to create the perfect language. Balliol members  were instrumental in categorising and disseminating languages in the 19th and 20th centuries, while others worked hard to conceal them through cryptography.

Religious Languages

Unsurprisingly Latin features prominently in Balliol’s collections. The presence of the other languages that feature here is indicative of the College’s broad intellectual interests and expanding means of communication that provided access to an increasing range of cultures and languages.


Latin was one of three sacred languages in the medieval West, the other two being Greek and Hebrew. This section of the exhibition explores Latin as a language of religion, but also its wider context as the primary learned language and language of administration in medieval western Europe. The majority of surviving medieval manuscripts preserved at Balliol, and indeed in the world, are written in Latin. The Latin of the manuscripts and documents discussed here is medieval rather than the classical Latin of antiquity. It is still the same language—authors used classical grammar books—but people writing in the middle ages had variable training, and it was used alongside and sometimes mixed with vernacular languages.


Vulgate Bible. 13th century.


By far the most essential Latin text in the medieval world was the Bible itself, specifically the 4th-century version compiled by St Jerome, translating a variety of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic texts. This translation soon became the standard Latin Bible, its ubiquity giving rise to its name, versio vulgata (meaning ‘commonly used version’). This 13th-century volume, open to the beginning of the Book of Genesis, is one of several examples in Balliol’s collections.

Balliol College MS 1, folio 12r

Hrabanus Maurus, Commentary on scripture. 12th century.

Cropped image from Ms 168 showing decorated initial AJerome made extensive use of marginal annotations in the Vulgate, often to explain obsolete or foreign terms to readers. These notes are known as glossa or glosses, deriving from a Greek term meaning tongue or language. The Vulgate itself generated its own glosses, especially from the 9th century. By this point, these explanatory marginal notes had expanded to include critical commentary and scholarship. This new type of gloss became one of the most common types of medieval learned religious texts. This manuscript has grouped the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Judith and Esther. The author, Hrabanus Maurus, was a 9th-century Frankish scholar who was senior in the Church during the Carolingian Revival, when the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, encouraged a renewed interest in copying and studying important Latin and Greek texts. Maurus’s work was very important in spreading knowledge of the Church Fathers (influential early Christian theologians) in the medieval West. He knew Greek and Hebrew and even wrote about the origins of these languages and the runic alphabet in his treatise, The Invention of Languages. In fact, the Books of Chronicles are referred to by their Greek name, Paralipomenon, in the volume shown here.

This particular copy has a likely monastic origin (we know this because of a partially erased library mark). Until the rise of universities in the 13th century, most manuscripts were produced by monks working in scriptoria. It would have formed part of the monks’ working library, but a few centuries later was acquired by William Gray, Bishop of Ely, a Balliol Fellow and keen book collector who donated his library to the College by the time of his death in 1478.

Balliol College MS 168, folio 160v


The rise of universities in the 13th century led to greater demand for a wider variety of texts, covering secular as well as theological topics.

Albertus Magnus, De Vegetabilibus (Treatise on Plants). 14th century.

Initial letter from Ms 101 showing the author in an orchardAlbert the Great exemplified one of the most significant aspects of this surge in learning, the influence of the new Dominican Order, or Order of Preachers, on scholarship. A 13th-century scholar, philosopher and teacher active in Germany, Italy and France, his most famous student was another Dominican, St Thomas Aquinas. Albert was accomplished in many disciplines, from theology and logic to natural science. This volume represents one of Albert’s scientific studies. Combining his own observations with those of authoritative works, he made some scientific advances of his own. Here we see the author seated in an orchard.

Albert the Great is best known for prolifically paraphrasing and commenting in Latin on the works of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Arab scholars had done similar work, which Albert occasionally incorporated. In fact, many ancient Greek works ultimately reached the Latin West through the medium of Arabic.

Balliol College MS 101, folio 2r

Averroes. Early 14th century.

Detail of Averooes Manuscript Ms 112 showing marginalia and doodles

Ibn Rushd, perhaps better known by the Latinized form of his name, Averroes, was one of the most celebrated Arab scholars known to Albert the Great. A Muslim living in 12th-century Al-Andalus (modern Spain), he was a polymath, excelling at everything from philosophy and astronomy to law and linguistics. Ibn Rushd’s Aristotelian commentaries were translated from Arabic into Latin and Hebrew in the West to such an extent that he earned the nickname, ‘The Commentator’. This volume, a Latin translation of several of his treatises, including metaphysics and astronomy, demonstrates the university-driven demand for texts on philosophical and secular subjects. It was in Balliol’s library by the late 14th century. The doodles and marginal notes, also in Latin, give us a sense of how the book was used and received.

Balliol College MS 112, folio 13r


Detail of page showing manuscript the Latin Register of Balliol College for 1538

As we shall see, Latin continued to play a significant role in education and learning at Balliol and Oxford right up to the 20th century. It was also the language used for College record-keeping and administration, from College Statutes and meeting minutes to financial accounts. In fact, the early volumes of minutes of Balliol’s governing body are referred to as the ‘Latin Registers’. The entry above,  from 1538, records the establishment of the office of Notary or Secretary to the Master and Fellows, putting College administration on a more systematic footing.

Balliol College Archives. Latin Register 1. Folio 44


These Latin minutes were maintained up until 1916. However, from 1794, Balliol used a parallel series of detailed ‘English Registers’ of minutes to distinguish them from the Latin record. Just a few years after the College abandoned the Latin Register, the English minutes resolved that Latin was to be revived to record serious disciplinary matters . We don’t know the exact reason for this, but we think it might have been to protect the privacy of the subject while simultaneously underscoring the gravity of the offence. The minutes go on to record the temporary expulsion of a Blundell Scholar called Henry D. Bown for drunkenness (ebriatatis convicto).

Balliol College Archives. English Register of College Meeting minutes. 8 July 1921


Religion_Hebrew_01_scroll open

Book of Esther. 17th or 18th century.

Not merely a scroll, but ‘the Scroll’, the Book of Esther is the foundation for the Jewish festival of Purim. So key is the text that the generic term megillah (which means simply ‘book’ or ‘scroll’) is often used to refer to the Book of Esther specifically. It recounts the foiling of a genocidal plan against the Jews in Persia by Esther, the Persian King’s Jewish queen, and her guardian, Mordecai, who had previously rendered service by discovering a plan to assassinate the King. For such deliverance Purim is celebrated by the distribution of gifts of food, a celebratory meal and readings from the scroll.

This example is two or three centuries old and follows the tradition of the Book of Esther being kept on a single roller (most other Hebrew texts were kept on two). Although Jewish scholars began to use codexes (i.e. books with pages) in the Middle Ages, these were for study purposes. For religious and liturgical use, the scroll retained its sacred role. At the time that this example was produced Hebrew was chiefly a sacred and learned language, similar in status to Latin. It had disappeared as a spoken language over a thousand years earlier and wasn’t revived until the 19th century with the rise of Jewish nationalism.

Balliol College MS 377


‘To Know Wisdom and Instruction’: Armenian Psalter. 17th century?

Title page of Psalms of David in Armenian Arch.C.10
Title page of Psalms of David in Armenian

An early printing in another alphabet that, like Hebrew, held a nation together for over a millennium both under subjugation and in diaspora. With a homeland adjacent to a persistent political fissure, whether between the Roman and Persian Empires, the Byzantines and the Islamic Caliphate, or the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, Armenians often had to come to terms with periods of war and instability, and the rule of foreign overlords. Even so they managed to maintain a distinctive cultural identity based partly on their early adoption of Christianity, being the first nation to convert in the early 4th century. After a hundred years, a need for Gospel translations in their own language, rather than relying on Greek, Persian or Syriac versions, was recognised by those preaching to the people. One of these, Mesrop Mashtots, undertook the translation – inventing, and promoting, a novel alphabet which was sympathetic to the phonetics of the Armenian language. This work enabled the Armenian Church to hold its own against Zoroastrianism whose texts were in Persian, and later the Arabic of Islam and the Greek of the Orthodox Church.

In later centuries, particularly due to trans-Mediterranean trade from the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia on the Anatolian coast, many Armenians would settle in western Europe, taking their script with them. The numbers increased substantially after the fall of Cilicia to the Mamelukes at the end of the 14th century. A key destination for emigrés was Venice, and it was here in 1512 that the first book in Armenian was printed. By the end of the 17th century, 195 books had been printed in Armenian, of which this is one example. Many of these reflected the centrality of the church to Armenian identity, and this is no exception, being a translation of the Book of Psalms. Early Armenian printing often replicated in monochrome the head-pieces, border decorations and distinctive, often zoomorphic, initial letters to be found in its manuscript tradition.

Opening of book in Armenian, showing text and zoomorphic initials

Balliol College Library. Arch.c.10.10


Prayers to the Virgin Mary & Undescribed Manuscript. Dates unknown.

Manuscript 378 folio 1, showing Ge'ez text in red and black with yellow and red decorative edges
Manuscript 378, folio 1

Balliol’s collections include two manuscripts in Ge’ez, the language and script of the Ethiopic Christian Church. Manuscript 378 has the distinction of being Balliol’s smallest; at 2.5 x 3.5 inches, it’s not much bigger than a large matchbox. It is a collection of prayers to the Virgin Mary, its diminutive size indicating its use for personal contemplation. It belonged to Benjamin Jowett, Balliol Master from 1870-1893, the only manuscript in the College’s collection known to have come from him. We don’t know much about the larger of Balliol’s Ge’ez manuscripts beyond its provenance. It was purchased from Abyssinian Monks at Jerusalem, and presented to the College in 1880 by alumnus Reverend G. J. Chester along with 11 other manuscripts.

Christianity arrived in Ethiopia in the 4th century, brought by merchants to the trading communities on the country’s coast. The Ethiopic Church became independent of Rome in 451, later withstanding the spread of Islam in North Africa. Cut off from the continent it became a place of wonder for European Christians, and once contact with Europe was reinitiated in the 15th century, some suspected Ethiopia to be the lost kingdom of the mythical Christian Patriarch, Prester John.

Cover of Ms 366 made from wooden board
Both MS 366, shown here, and 378 are covered with wooden boards, the typical binding of Ethiopic manuscripts

Renewed contact led to great interest among Europeans in the language of the ancient Ethiopic Church. In 1649 German scholar Hiob Ludolf impressed Ethiopian priest Abba Gorgoryos with his knowledge of Ge’ez when they met in Rome, leading the two to collaborate on the Historia Aethiopica, which described the history, language and geography of the Ethiopian Empire, and featured in our previous exhibition The Elephant in the Room. Ge’ez remains the liturgical language of the Ethiopic Church today, but died out as a spoken language in the 14th century.

Balliol College MS 366 and 378


Kamma-vācā. 19th century?

When his followers proposed spreading his teachings through Sanskrit, Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, refused: Sanskrit was a learned language, while the path to Enlightenment was intended for all. Instead, Gautama encouraged his disciples to use local dialects known as Prakrits. This is how Pali, a literary Prakrit from North India and possibly similar to the Buddha’s own tongue, became the language of the Theravada Buddhist Canon called the Tripitaka.

Gilded and lacquered Pali Ms 385 with wooden boards
Wooden board covering and gilded and lacquered palm leaf of MS 385

Manuscript 385 in Balliol’s collection contains a portion of the Kammavaca, the part of the Tripitaka which describes aspects of monastic life such as ordination. It is in a Burmese script on gilded and lacquered palm leaves enclosed between painted wooden boards. Kammavaca were usually very ornate as they were commissioned as a gift for a monastery from the family of a novice.

As Buddhism swept through India and into China and South East Asia, Pali became the lingua franca of communities throughout the region. It died out as a literary language in the 14th century but remains a liturgical language in South East Asia to this day, although it bears no resemblance to local languages like Thai or Burmese. In China and Tibet, unlike South East Asia, Buddhist texts were translated into the local languages, on which they had a transformational influence; existing Chinese characters were combined to create thousands of new words that were based on Pali and Sanskrit concepts.

Balliol College MS 385



Aldus Manutinus. Aristophanis Comoediae novem. Venice, 1498.

Greek_01_AristophanesWhen Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, many Greek scholars fled the city, ending up in Venice, the centre of the book trade and home to a cosmopolitan community of scholars. They brought with them the works of classical Greek authors, mostly unknown to western Europeans at the time. It was a boon to humanist learning, but reproduction efforts were hampered by the difficulty of reproducing Greek script, whose accents and interwoven letters posed a problem for the new technology of the printing press.

Enter Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. Unlike earlier printers who mostly came from a crafting background – Johann von Gutenberg was a goldsmith – Aldus was a humanist scholar, versed in Greek. In 1495 he produced his own Greek type, modelled on the handwriting of Venice-based calligrapher Immanuel Rhusostas, and which made use of famed Greek metallurgic skills to overcome the mechanical difficulties of producing the type. Aldus’ success created a European market for Greek texts, which became a regular part of the book trade.

Aldus produced four Greek types in total. This collected work of classical playwright Aristophanes, published in 1498 was the last use of the first. Containing nine of Aristophanes’ eleven surviving works (all 11 wouldn’t be published until 1532), it is the first collection of classical Greek plays ever published. The text of the plays is in the centre of the page, surrounded by the copious annotations of editor Marcus Musurus. These required a smaller type apparently designed specifically for use in the Aristophanes.

Balliol College Library 605 b 6


As we saw with Armenian, commitment to religious languages of the Church vied with the proselytising needs of Christianity. This came to a head with the Reformation, the Reformed churches emphasising direct communication with God, which necessitated vernacular translations of the Bible and revived interest in early vernacular works.


Testimonie of Antiquitie. London, 1566.

Reformation_300 b 6(1)_01_Testimonie of Antiquity

Antiquarianism becomes a weapon of religious war in this text. Published in Anglo-Saxon and contemporary English is the Sermo de Sacrificio in die Pascae of Aelfric of Eynsham, the pre-eminent scholar of the 10th century. This was the first attempt at printing Anglo-Saxon, and uses a specially designed type, incorporating characters like thorn (Þ) and eth (ð) which do not occur in the standard Roman alphabet. Such effort and money was put into the reproduction because it was both politically and religiously highly significant, as it allowed its editor, Archbishop Matthew Parker, to forge a precedent for the Anglican communion by citing ancient practice against the current, and therefore decadent, practice of the Catholic Church.

In this venture he was aided and abetted by his associate, John Day, a leading printer of Protestant leanings. Day was arrested during the reign of Queen Mary under suspicion of producing pseudonymous pamphlets critical of the Catholic regime. On the accession of Elizabeth his press sprang back into life again, publishing, amongst other things, the monumental bestseller known colloquially as the Book of Martyrs by John Foxe, which detailed the sufferings of Protestants for their cause.

Balliol College Library 300 b 6(1)


Great Bible. Paris and London, 1539.

Reformation_English Bible_01_Title Page

God is squashed against the top of the title page to the first royally authorised Bible translation into English. He pales into insignificance above the bulk of Henry VIII who passes the divine Word to his bishops on his right, and his secular advisors, fronted by Thomas Cromwell, on his left. These then disseminate it amongst the crowds of the populace, who celebrate with cries of ‘God save the King!’ Or at least they would do if they weren’t all speaking Latin (apart from a child near the bottom, and one other). There is a certain irony that this English text is represented in the woodcut by books labelled ‘Verbum Dei’. The linguistic ambivalence of the image perhaps echoes the need to walk a fine line between encouraging confidence in a newly founded English national church, and not alienating conservative sensibilities with signifiers of an overtly radical Protestantism.

The translation of the Bible into English was a rather chaotic affair. Much of the text here is based on William Tyndale’s translation. After being rebuffed in England Tyndale left for the continent to print his New Testament in Cologne. This was stopped, so he fled to Worms to complete the work in 1526. The book was condemned in England and copies were burned publicly. Tyndale moved to Antwerp before being betrayed to the Catholic authorities and burnt at the stake in 1536. Henry VIII’s disestablishment of the Catholic Church in England in 1534 did nothing to save him, and neither did the fact that another exile, Miles Coverdale, had printed a translation of the whole Bible in 1535, most probably in Antwerp itself.

Meanwhile in England the King was now desperate to generate an authoritative text after the rebellions against his reforms. Thomas Cranmer pressured several bishops to help but they were unenthusiastic and dragged their feet. In the meantime Cromwell funded a printing, in Paris, of Tyndale’s translation as an interim measure (the ‘Matthew Bible’ of 1537). The radical nature of the text required adulteration with translations of passages from the Latin Vulgate to be acceptable to conservative bishops, and so the ‘Great Bible’ was approved by the King two years later. Even then it was still printed in Paris, where those overseeing the work had to escape from agents of the Inquisition, selling quantities of finished pages as waste paper to a local haberdasher, before Cromwell had them repurchased and sent on to London where the edition was finished.


Lutheran Bible. Wittenberg, 1541.

coloured print showing God in Heaven looking down on Eden, within a gilt frame
Coloured print of Eden in the Lutheran Bible

A monument not simply to the Word, but also to words, as so many translations of the Bible are. And, of course, also to the Elector of Saxony to whom this 1541 edition was dedicated. Johan Frederick I, whose portrait appears on the verso of the title page, was a key supporter of Martin Luther from an early age, and the main Protestant prince to stand against the Catholicism of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. No wonder then that he should be immortalized here in one the luxury editions of Luther’s German Bible that were produced in the reformer’s base of Wittenberg from 1534 onwards by the printer Hans Lufft. The book is replete with woodcut illustrations by Lucas Cranach the Elder, the court painter to the Saxon Electors. This particular copy is enhanced and made even more magnificent by the fact that it is printed on vellum, with contemporary hand-painted and gilt illumination, probably indicating ownership by nobility.

Hand coloured frontispiece from Luther Bible showing Elector Johann Frederick I
Frontispiece showing Johan Frederick I

Although not the first Bible translation into German, Luther’s was the first comprehensive translation from the original Hebrew and Greek texts, rather than from the intermediary of the Latin Vulgate. It was highly influential on the development of the modern German language. One reason for this was that the Saxon dialect he was using was intelligible to those speaking dialects from both the north and the south. Another was Luther’s ear for the vernacular, often spending time listening to those around him in everyday settings speak, and incorporating their turns of phrase into his text. Thirdly printing was beginning to find its feet commercially by this time, and Lufft was to print over 100,000 copies, which were disseminated to German speakers across the Holy Roman Empire. Consequently the Bible became a key factor in the development of a standardized, mutually comprehensible language. Due to the cultural centrality of the Bible a similar story could be told for several European languages.

Balliol College Library Luther 1


Early vernacular writing developed new forms of literature in areas that religious languages hadn’t explored, such as romantic love. Availability of literature in local languages helped to expand literacy beyond those versed in Latin and other languages confined to the learned. Vernaculars became an increasingly effective means of expressing, forming and consolidating national and regional identities.


Dante. La Commedia. Venice, 1544.

Romance_Italian_01_Satan detail

This image of Satan consuming sinners is one of 87 illustrations produced for a 16th-century edition of Dante’s Commedia. It might seem entertaining to us, but for contemporary audiences it was a stark reminder of the fate awaiting them if their souls were not saved.

Luckily Dante’s aim with his epic Commedia was to aid them in achieving this; by describing his journey from sin to Hell to Heaven he hoped to help readers transform their lives and attain salvation. Whether or not his work achieved such lofty aims we can only guess, but we do know that it had a transformational and lasting linguistic impact. At the time most literary works were in Latin, a language confined to the wealthy and educated. Dante wrote in a dialect of the Florentine upper classes, a language he expanded to make it capable of expressing most subjects, creating new terms in philosophy, science and astronomy along the way. The immediate popularity of the Commedia ensured that Florentine spread throughout the peninsula and became the standard form of Italian: 80% of most common Italian words used today appear in the Commedia.

Paget Toynbee's bookplate, in Latin and French

Dubbed ‘a new explanation’ when published, Alessandro Vetullio’s version of the Commedia set out to portray Dante’s narrative accurately through the impressive circular engravings and textual commentary, an effort at odds with the literary tendency of the time when texts were usually heavily interpreted. This copy of the Commedia is from the library of world-renowned Dante scholar and Balliol tutor Paget Jackson Toynbee (Balliol, 1874), which he bequeathed to the College in 1932.

Balliol College Library 3 a 7


Miguel Cervantes. Historia del Famoso Cavallero, Don Quixote de la Mancha. London, 1781

Title page of Don Quixote Part 1

Towards the end of part 1 of Don Quixote, a naval officer imprisoned in Algiers recounts his escape and return to Spain with the help of the Moorish woman he loves. ‘The captive’s tale’ is based on the experience of Don Quixote author Miguel Cervantes. He was captured by North African pirates in 1585 while returning from fighting the Turks in the Mediterranean and spent the next five years in Algiers as their prisoner. While enslaved there he encountered different cultures, among them, Moriscos (Muslims who had converted to Christianity), renegades and picaros (rogues who lived by their wits). The expression of these marginalised peoples’ stories is one of many reasons Don Quixote is considered the first, and many would say greatest, modern novel. Its realistic portrayal of a variety of human experiences was a radical departure from earlier fictional writing like the popular chivalric romances which it spoofed.

Although hugely popular throughout Europe when first published, Don Quixote was not seen as a work of serious literary merit. At the time fiction was not considered worthy of the same level of scholarship as the classics and history. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that this perception changed, thanks largely to the work of John Bowle. He spent 10 years researching Cervates’ chivalric, Spanish, Italian and classical sources before producing the first scholarly edition of Don Quixote. Published in 1781, it comprises six volumes and includes over 300 pages of annotations and extensive indexes; an impressive feat for an Englishman with reputedly mediocre Spanish. English reviews were unfavourable, but the book was a success in Spain. The value of his work was acknowledged later, and it remains the starting point for editions published today.

Balliol College Library 193 g 14


Ferran Soldevila. Història de Catalunya, Vol. 1. Barcelona, 1934.


In his memoir ‘Making History’, the historian John Elliott recounts a meeting with Ferran Soldevila while in Barcelona in the 1950s. He asked the Catalan historian to sing a 17th-century peasant song that had become an anthem of the 19th-century Catalan revivalist movement. Soldevila agreed and as he sang tears fell down his cheeks. ‘As I listened to him as we walked’ Elliott writes, ‘I realized, I think, for the first time, what it was not to be free.’ Soldevila was a Catalan Nationalist who had seen his region gain and lose autonomy a number of times during his lifetime, an experience that mirrored the area’s millennium of history. His three volume Història de Catalunya, published in 1934, was one of the first comprehensive histories of the region written in Catalan, a language derived from Vulgar Latin that dates back to the 9th century.

In his review of the book, a young student named Jaume Vicens Vives accused the author of being more interested in creating a romantic image of Catalunya than presenting facts. He saw Soldevila’s work as a continuation of the nationalistic and romantic school of Catalan history that he had dominated the field since the late 19th century.
History came down on the side of Vives who dedicated his career to revising what he saw as the mythologised view of Catalan history produced by Soldevila and his contemporaries. Història de Catalunya, remains a well-regarded, if somewhat biased, account of the area’s history. As John Elliott, remarked, every incipient nation needs a story and Soldevila provided one for Catalunya.

Ferran Soldevila went into exile in France following the Francoist victory in the Spanish Civil War. He remained there until 1943, when he returned to take up the position of Professor of Catalan History which he held until 1952.

Balliol College Library P. L. 30 f 13


Kywyddeu Kymraec. An anthology of Welsh verse, ca. 1540-50.

Page of Welsh poem in 16th century manuscript with marginal annotationsA 16th-century collection of Welsh verse has overwhelmed this commonplace book (a type of intellectual scrapbook in which people copied excerpts of texts they found entertaining or inspiring as well as their thoughts, sketches, etc.). There are other entries (including an account of a circumcision ceremony in Rome) but poetry has been crammed around them to produce this striking collection. The script is all in the hand of Sir John Prise, originally of Brecon, but who ended up in the employ of Thomas Cromwell and became a visitor involved in the dissolution of the monasteries, as well as one of those who interrogated by John Fisher and Thomas More. His close connection with Cromwell extended to marrying the latter’s niece at his house in Islington. Prise managed to continue a public career after Cromwell’s fall, although reduced in influence, even after the accession of Mary Tudor.

Although he was active in ending monastic life in Wales he reined the more destructive tendencies of his fellow visitor in Wales, and preserved many of the contents of monastic libraries by his enthusiastic collecting from the very institutions he was dissolving. He even ended up living in one as his primary residence, at St Guthlac’s Priory in Hereford. He is generally credited with producing the first book printed in Welsh, a compilation of religious texts, in 1546, and was keen to use the burgeoning technology of printing to preserve his homeland’s vernacular. This manuscript shows he was also deeply interested in the collection of secular Welsh literature as well. Many of the poets Prise collected here were active in the late-15th and early-16th centuries, and were bards attached to Welsh noble families.

Manuscript 353 has been digitised in its entirety and can be viewed by following this link:  https://bit.ly/3cev3Sy

Balliol College MS 353

Gwyneth Lewis. Sonedau Redsa a Cherddi Eraill. Llandysul, 1990 & Cyfrif Un Ac Un Yn Dri. 1996.

It is a rare poet who has their verse appear in 6-foot-high letters on a building that has made guest appearances in Dr Who. The Welsh Millennium Centre is an arts venue in Cardiff fronted by windows that spell out two lines of verse, one in Welsh and one in English, by Gwyneth Lewis, first National Poet of Wales, and alumna of Balliol (1985). Lewis studied for a DPhil in English at Balliol examining the work of the Welsh medievalist and forger, Iolo Morganwg, and is now an Honorary Fellow of the College. Being a native Welsh speaker, who was taught English by her father to entertain her when her mother was in hospital giving birth, through the course of her career she has published poetry in both languages. Displayed here are first editions of two collections of her Welsh verse presented to the Library by the poet. ‘Sonnets to Redsa and Other Verse’ deals with the history of the Philippines and was composed for the baptism of a Filipino girl; ‘One and One Make Three’ deals with society from two different points of view. Her most recent works include another collection in Welsh, Treiglo, dealing with a father/daughter relationship, and a translation of The Book of Taliesin into English, completed with Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.

Balliol College Library 1 f 72/2 & 1 f 72/5


Saadi, Gulistan (The Rose Garden), 16th century

Image of the Persian text on Folio 9 verso of the Gulistan, Balliol College Ms 370

In one of the stories in the Gulistan, the Persian poet Saadi meets an Arab King at the shrine to John the Baptist in Damascus. The monarch asks Saadi to pray for him as he is frightened of a powerful enemy. If he wishes to live without fear of retribution, the poet tells the King, he need only rule his people justly. Justice and the abuse of political power, self-interest and altruism are two of the central themes of the Gulistan, or ‘The Rose Garden’, composed by Saadi in the 13th century and considered by many the greatest work of Persian literature. The author wanted it to be a practical ethics manual, intended to teach others how to live a good and noble life in a light-hearted way.



The tales may have been aimed particularly at leaders, as the story of the Arab King indicates, but it was also intended for a general audience. Iran had been Muslim since the mid-7th century, and while the elites may have been bilingual, Arabic had never replaced Persian as the everyday language. Where Saadi uses Arabic verse in the Gulistan, he provides a translation in Persian if the poem is key to the narrative. The Gulistan was first introduced to a European audience through a 16th-century French translation. Like other Persian poets Rumi and Hafez, Sa’di has had a profound effect on western culture, influencing writers like Voltaire, Goethe and Emerson. Balliol’s copy of was bought by the College in 1905.

MS 370 has been digitised in its entirety and can be accessed by clicking on the following link: https://bit.ly/3diaip4

Balliol College MS 370

A New Lingua Franca

With Latin increasingly limited to Church use, 17th-century Europe searched for a new lingua franca. French became the international language of culture and diplomacy, its success attributed, by the French themselves, to the language’s innate superiority. In reality French dominance stemmed from the country’s social, political and economic influence. Meanwhile scholars experimented with creating synthetic languages to facilitate international scholarly communication and even, some hoped, describe all of human knowledge.


Memoire presented by Mallet du Pan to the allied sovereigns on the part of Louis XVI and other related papers, 1792

Image of folio 1 of manuscript Memoire composed by Jacques Mallet du Pan

In 1792, Swiss journalist and royalist Jacques Mallet du Pan was sent on a secret mission by King Louis XVI of France. He was entrusted to present a ‘Memoire’, or manifesto, to the Princes of Germany and the Austrian Emperor, Leopold II, Marie Antoinette’s brother. The manifesto, composed by Mallet du Pan under direction from the King, called for a moderate response by the Princes when intervening in French affairs in support of the beleaguered monarchy. Louis was concerned that an invasion of France by a foreign power would lead to reprisals against his family and could result in civil war. He asked that that all foreign intervention should be limited to reinstating the monarchy and restoring peace. The Princes apparently agreed to the terms laid out by Mallet du Pan, but reneged soon after. In July 1792 the Austrian commander Brunswick released a manifesto that declared if any harm should come to the French royal family ‘exemplary and eternally memorable revenge’ would be enacted on the French people, fomenting Republican sentiment. In August the constitutional monarchy collapsed and the King and Queen’s fates were sealed.

Jacques Mallet du Pan escaped execution, to be exiled to Berne in 1797 for publishing anti-Revolutionary pamphlets. He ended up in London in 1798 where he continued to work as a journalist and wrote extensively on his experience of the Revolution. His papers came to Balliol as part of the Mallet family archive which includes also the papers of Mallet du Pan’s son, diplomat Lewis Mallet, and those of Bernard Mallet (Balliol 1878) and Louis du Pan Mallet (Balliol 1883). In his memoir of his great-grandfather Jacques Mallet du Pan and the French Revolution, Bernard claims that the manifesto was approved by the King and includes annotations in his hand.

Balliol College Historic Collections. Mallet Family Papers I. Papers of Jacques (James) Mallet du Pan. 1.2

Philosophical Language

Isaac Newton, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, 2nd Edition. Cambridge, 1713, & Optice. London, 1706.

The works of one of the most famous British scientists started out being printed in Latin, and ended being printed in English. In spite of the rise of vernacular languages in religious contexts during the Reformation, Latin had initially flourished in print as a scholarly and literary language, throughout the 16th and well into the 17th centuries. It took time for the Reformation and the rise of the nation state to impact on Latin’s status as the go-to language of internationalism, but by the end of the 17th century its decline was evident, as languages such as French, English and German became more widely used in scholarly contexts in their own homelands, and more widely known internationally.

Cropped image of an elipsis surrounded by Latin text, from Newton's Principia Matematica
From Principia Mathematica

The history of the publication of Isaac Newton’s works exemplify this shift away from Latin as their publication straddled this period. His ground-breaking work on mechanics, the Principia, was originally published in Latin in 1687. Nineteen years later the second edition was still published in the language. It wasn’t until after Newton’s death that the first English translation was published in 1729. Consequently the Principia was often seen as a very technical and inaccessible text that left many readers bemused. In 1704, however, Newton had published another major work, his Opticks. This was published in English, one of the first major scientific works to appear in the language, and seemed more firmly aimed at explaining the topic to a popular readership. The Latin translation shown here was undertaken two years later as a scholarly publication, but still it was in this form that it reached a broader continental audience.

Balliol College Library 470 f 3 & 470 f 4

John Wilkins’s An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language. London, 1668

Plate divided into 31 squares, each showing the mechanism involved in pronouncing a letter from Wilkins' Real Character
Plate demonstrating how to pronounce Wilkins’ Real Character

As Latin as an international language of learning declined, scholars sought to replace it, seeing this as an opportunity to  formulate a system of communication based on rational principles. One notable example was devised by the theologian and founder member of the Royal Society, John Wilkins. Wilkins’s ‘real character’ was a notation based on logically ordered concepts, and therefore independent of any spoken language, an approach based on popular accounts of Chinese writing amongst Western audiences.
The ‘real character’ was a symbolic system that looked vaguely Arabic. To complement this notational system Wilkins also devised a means of articulating it phonetically so that people could, if so desired, speak a ‘philosophical language’. This ‘philosophical language’ mixed Roman and Greek letters.

The scheme was highly thought of amongst the Royal Society for a short while, particularly by Robert Hooke, probably because it worked like a classificatory system, moving from the general to the particular. Thus Z is used for the category of animals, Zi identifies the genus ‘beasts’ (mammals), Zit denotes ‘rapacious beasts of the dog kind’ and Zitα gives the species of dogs. As a language, though, this is not ideal, because words for fairly similar concepts look very similar (the word for monkey and cat are going to be four characters long and begin with Zi in the same way that dog does) leading to a vastly increased chance of verbal confusion. Wilkins made one such error in this book, using the notation for ‘barley’ instead of ‘tulip’.

Balliol College Library 30 e 92

Exotic Artifice

Robert Hooke, ‘Some observations and conjectures concerning the Chinese characters’, from The philosophical transactions of the Royal Society, volume 16. London, 1686


Nearly twenty years after the death of Wilkins, one of his proteges was still trying to validate his work in creating an artificial language on rational principles. Robert Hooke was the pioneering experimental scientist of his age, an associate of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, demonstrator to the Royal Society, and an experimental scientist in his own right, immortalized by Hooke’s Law regarding the extension of a spring. He had come under Wilkins’ influence during the later Commonwealth as part of a like-minded Royalist group with interests in natural philosophy, who were seeking to ensure the preservation of scientific learning which they perceived as being under threat from Cromwell’s regime.

Hooke had been very enthusiastic about Wilkins’s ‘real character’, and while this never really took off, he remained committed to the principle of an artificial language. In later years this was manifest in his participation on the discussions surrounding Chinese culture, and particularly linguistics. Hooke collected texts and word lists where he could and examined them. Bemused by the contrast between the apparent complexity of Chinese characters and the apparent simplicity of the sounds they represented, he concluded that there was a discontinuity here. The characters, he felt, actually represented an ancient rational writing system for which the original meaning had been lost in the mists of history, and which a later spoken language had adopted without relation to their original meaning. That such an artificial language seemed to have existed he took to validate Wilkins’ project. Even later, in 1693, Hooke’s interest in Chinese language was maintained, and he visited Chinese resident in London to share tea and try and converse in it.

Balliol College Library 1500 g 1



Anonymous, Attributed to Thomas Dekker. O Per Se O. London, 1612 & Richard Head. The Canting Academy or Villainies Discovered. London, 1674

The purpose of O Per Se O, its author tells us, is to help readers identify ‘villains and rogues’ so that they may protect themselves against these criminals’ activities. It is attributed to Thomas Dekker, a prolific Elizabethan playwright who turned his hand to pamphleteering after a stint in debtors’ prison for unpaid gambling debts. The author begins with descriptions of the varied members of the criminal classes, followed by a dictionary of Cant, the language supposedly used by these rogues to plan and carry out their dastardly deeds without being caught. Its use is demonstrated in rhymes like the one shown here, helpfully translated, or ‘Englished’, for the book’s bourgeoisie audience.

Page showing a poem in Cant and translated into English

Tracts like O Per Se O were popular among the middle classes who were both shocked and titillated by this supposed glimpse into the dark underbelly of society. The secret world it claimed to reveal was imaginary, invented by writers like Dekker looking to exploit polite sensibilities, but the impact was very real. The portrayal of the poor as secretly wealthy rogues and thieves alleviated middle-class guilt at the terrible poverty surrounding them and justified their failure to address the situation. The fact that the poor seemed to have their own language fostered the idea that the lower classes inhabited a world apart and opposed to ‘normal’ society.

Engraved Triptych showing people speaking Cant
Criminal revellers speaking Cant, from Head’s Canting Academy

Pamphlets on the lives of criminals ceased publication during the Civil War and Puritan Rule only to re-emerge in greater numbers after the end of the Commonwealth as interest in the underclasses increased. The Canting Academy, one such later work, has a similar purpose and format to O Per Se O. First published anonymously, it was the work of novelist Richard Head, best known for The English Rogue. Based on the Spanish stories about lawless adventurers that were popular at the time, it was the first English novel published on the European continent. Head’s rogues bear a striking resemblance to the villains both he and Dekker claimed to expose in their pamphlets.

Balliol Library 910 c 9 (11) & 915 a 1

The Classical Revival

The role of the study of Classical languages, history and philosophy in the last few centuries of Oxford history cannot be overemphasised. Oxford men contributed to the King James Bible in 1611, translating the New Testament. From 1636, those who wished to qualify for a BA needed to study Latin and Greek grammar and rhetoric for four years.
In the 19th century, Literae Humaniores (classical language, literature and philosophy), or ‘Greats’ was a staple of the Oxford BA. While late Victorian students were no longer required to read Classics, they still had to demonstrate ability in Latin to be admitted to Oxford. Indeed, Oxford’s emphasis on Classical education became the subject of lively international debate, with reformers arguing that the curriculum was too narrow and impractical, and the other side maintaining that a solid grounding in the ancient authorities created well-rounded individuals with excellent critical thinking skills.

Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford, 1855.

On top of their administrative and pastoral duties, Balliol’s Victorian Masters, Fellows and tutors indulged their own academic interests. Many Oxford academics still took holy orders, so it is unsurprising that they demonstrated a flair for biblical exegesis as well as critical commentary on classical language and thought, not dissimilar to scholars of the middle ages.

Painting of Robert Scott seated in academic robes
Robert Scott

Robert Scott (1811-1887) was the predecessor and more conservative rival of Benjamin Jowett, Balliol’s most celebrated Master. Having earned a first class degree in the classical school at Christ Church College, Scott became a Fellow and tutor at Balliol in the 1830s. He is best known for co-editing the monumental standard dictionary of Classical Greek with his old friend from Christ Church, Henry Liddell. This edition of A Greek-English Lexicon, with contemporary annotations, was published by Oxford University Press just a year after Scott’s appointment as Master of Balliol in 1854. While Master, Scott also served as Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture for the University.

Cropped image of opening of Greek-English dictionary with printed text on the right and a blank page with some notes on the left

Balliol College Library 1 a 161, 3 vols

Latin Prose by Matthew Arnold

Pencil and chalk drawing of the head and shoulders of Benjamin Jowett
Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) Balliol College Portraits: 67 Pencil and chalk on paper, 24×18″, c. 1855. Poole number 61

Benjamin Jowett, Balliol Fellow (1838), Tutor (1842) and finally Master from 1870 until his death in 1893, is almost synonymous with classical learning in Victorian Oxford. Appointed Regius Professor of Greek before being elected Master, he published several translations including St Paul, Plato, Thucydides and Aristotle over the course of his life.
Jowett was also the quintessential tutor, earning undergraduates’ high regard by devoting much of his time to teaching independent thinking by debating with them and setting essays on theology, classical and modern literature, philosophy and history.

Below is an early example of Latin prose composition by Matthew Arnold (Balliol 1841), who would go on to become a celebrated poet and writer with a keen interest in classical authors and the influence of Hellenic and Hebraic cultures on English society. It was found amongst Jowett’s papers, in a bundle of similar exercises by Jowett’s undergraduate students.

Balliol College Historic Collections, Jowett II.A1.2.1


Macdonnell, A. A., A Sanskrit Grammar for Beginners. Longmans Green, London, 1901

Sanskrit is a three thousand year old Classical language of learning, liturgy and literature. It is derived from the older Vedic, the language of the Vedas, religious texts which form the backbone of Hinduism. Many modern Indian languages like Hindi-Urdu are related to Sankrit through the Parkrits, just as the Romance are derived from vulgar Latin. Sanskrit was ‘discovered’ by Europeans in the 17th century. By the late 18th century scholars began to notice similarities between Sanskrit and the Classical European languages, a discovery which led to the development of comparative lingusitics and the classification of the Indo-European languages. Sanksrit literature became fashionable among intellectual circles, influencing writers like W. B. Yeats and Emerson, as well as the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

For British colonists knowledge of Sanskrit was essential to spread Christianity among the local Indian population. To this end, Joseph Boden, a retired member of the East India Company, left a bequest to Oxford University, used to establish the Boden Professorship of Sanskrit in 1827, the oldest and only remaining chair of Sanskrit in the UK. Reforms in 1882 saw Boden’s original objective removed, and the post was tied to a Fellowship at Balliol College, an arrangement that still stands. Balliol Fellow Christopher Minkowski is the eighth Boden Professor, a position he has held since 2015.

A Sanskrit Grammar for Beginners, written by second Boden Professor and Balliol Fellow Anthony MacDonnell, begins with a history of the language, and the alphabet of the Devanagari script, followed by a grammar and dictionary. The book would have been used by British officers taking the Indian Civil Service exam, a significant number of whom studied at Balliol in the late-19th and early-20th century.

opening showing Sanskrit alphabet table on the left with an introduction to Sanskrit on the right

Balliol College Library 2055 g 6

Expanding Languages

If the 19th century saw Balliol men involved in the revival of Classical languages,  in the 20th century they were instrumental in recording and disseminating those that had never been studied before.

Unangam Tunuu (Aleut)

Geoghegan, Richard. The Aleut Language. Washington D. C., 1944

Black and white photograph of Richard Geoghegan
Richard Geoghegan

When Balliol Master Benjamin Jowett met Richard Geoghegan, he was so impressed by the 18 year old’s linguistic skills that he financed the young man’s studies at the University of Oxford. Geoghegan left without finishing his degree, and over the years the man who reportedly spoke over 200 languages had a varied career. At one stage he was a linguistic consultant for the Japanese government, at another he deciphered the Mayan calendar. Fascinated by the idea of a universal language, he was the first English speaking Esperantist and produced the inaugural English-Esperanto dictionary.

In 1902 Geoghegan moved to Alaska to work in a clerical position. He became intrigued by the language of the Unangax people, whom early Russian occupiers of Alaska had christened the Aleut. Although the relationship between the two groups was exploitative, one positive outcome for the local population occurred in the 19th century, when Orthodox linguists accompanied fur traders to the areas inhabited by the Unangax, where they worked with locals to expand literacy. Together they devised a way to transcribe Unangam Tunuu, as the locals refer to their language, using the Cyrillic alphabet, which they used to translate religious and educational texts.

Examples of parts of speech in the Aleut languages with English trannslations

One of these linguists, Ivan Veniaminov, produced the first grammar of Aleut in 1824. Essentially a translation of Veniaminov’s work with the addition of a dictionary, Richard Geoghegan’s The Aleut Language was the first English language grammar of the language. It was published in 1944, a year after Geoghegan had died alone in an Alaskan cabin. The US Foreign Service presented Balliol with a copy of the book in 1946 at the request of Frederick Hollowell, a senior US civil servant.

Balliol College Library 1 a 266


Abraham, Captain R. C. The Grammar of Tiv. Kaduna, 1933

The language of the Tiv is spoken by about four million members of the tribe of the same name in North Central Nigeria and Cameroon. Linguist Roy Clive Abraham originally classified Tiv as a Bantu language, by far the most common family of African languages with some 350 million speakers throughout the continent. Today the Tivoid languages, of which Tiv is the most widely spoken, are considered their own family, although there is still debate about this. The difficulty in categorisation is partly due to the complex linguistic landscape of the continent: there are some 2000 African languages compared to the about 450 Indo-European spoken today.

Detail of page showing the tonal system in Tiv

Roy Abraham worked for the administrative service in Nigeria while it was under British colonial control. While there he produced The Grammar of Tiv in 1933, the first scholarly work on the language. It was intended for a European audience, in particular colonial administrators who were expected to learn the language and culture of local people over whom they would govern.

Abraham was a phenomenal linguist. He received a first in Arabic and Persian from the University of Oxford, while also holding a scholarship in Italian at Balliol. He worked extensively on West African languages including Hausa and Igbo, later adding Semitic languages Amharic, Ge’ez, as well as Barber and Somali to his impressive repertoire. Abraham received an honorary DLitt from Oxford University for his contribution to Tiv studies in 1949 and remains a key figure in 20th-century scholarship of African languages.

Balliol College Library 1 a 112


Cryptography has a very long history: people have been using codes and ciphers to protect secrets for millennia, from scandals and political or religious intrigue, to top secret strategies in wartime. People also devised ciphers simply to amuse and delight those who enjoy solving puzzles.

Richard Hill’s Commonplace Book

Cryptography_MS354_f401_cropped (1)

This is the memorandum book of Richard Hill, a citizen and grocer of London. It is written in English, Latin, French—and code. It contains a huge variety of different types of works including chronicles, family memoranda, a treatise on horse management, riddles, recipes, mathematical tables and excerpts from texts such as Gower’s Confessio Amantis. It is most famous for its many poems and carols in English, some of which are now unique. It was possibly used as a kind of teaching tool for members of Richard’s household. On this page Richard or someone he knew devised some ciphers. We have not deciphered all of it, but one line, written partly in Latin, partly in code, translates simply as: ‘this book belongs to Richard Hill’.

Richard Hills’ commonplace book has been digitised in its entirety and can be accessed by the following link: https://bit.ly/2T0AtJB

Balliol College MS 354, folio 401

Family secrets: the Diary of Sir John, 3rd Baronet Conroy, 1868-1869

Sir John Conroy (Balliol Fellow 1890) is perhaps best known for his scientific work in chemistry at Oxford, but he was born into a family with royal connections. This diary, written around the time he took a First in Natural Science at Christ Church College, includes reminiscences of his grandfather, the 1st Baronet, and Princess Sophia. The 1st Baronet had been Equerry to Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, Queen Victoria’s father, and his influence over young Victoria’s parents led to some scandalous rumours. More than a generation later, the younger Sir John still felt constrained to render some of his musings into cypher, including the possibility that his grandmother Lady Elizabeth was the Duke of Kent’s illegitimate daughter.

detail of John Conroy's diary in ink showing cryptogram

Balliol College Historic Collections, Conroy 3.D.9

Balliol and the Bedford Japanese School

The two world wars heralded major advances in both cryptography and cryptanalysis (code breaking), increasingly using mechanical or electromechanical devices. Balliol students played a major role in one initiative, driven by the sudden urgent need for linguists after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour drew Britain into the war on the Pacific front. Within two months of the attack, plans were set in motion for crash courses to train interpreters and code-breakers in Japanese at the Inter-Service Special Intelligence School at Bedford. The preferred candidates were students who had won open scholarships in classics at Oxford and Cambridge, the reasoning being they would have no difficulty applying their skills to mastering another language.

A.D. Lindsay, Master of Balliol, was the first to be approached for suggestions of individual students. Balliol ended up supplying fourteen, more than any other Oxford college and second only to Christ’s, Cambridge. One of the first, Laurence Jonathan Cohen, went on to the Naval Section at Bletchley Park and ultimately served in Naval Intelligence in the Far East. He returned to Balliol in 1947, earning a First in ‘Greats’ and going on to become a well-regarded philosopher. In a letter from 1945 he reveals the difficulties he and his comrades experienced persuading the Armed Forces to recognise their code-breaking work as active military service, and that they were therefore eligible for release to return to their university courses.


Balliol College Archives. Laurence Jonathan Cohen dossier

4 thoughts on “A Load of Old Babel: The Languages and Scripts of Balliol College”

  1. A most interesting collection, with a clear and informative commentary, full of fascinating details.

    1. We would have loved to include more languages and scripts in this exhibition, but as it was originally planned to be in a physical space – we couldn’t include everything. This exhibition is just a peek at some of the most interesting examples in our collection, and is particularly strong in the languages and scripts we’ve selected.

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