Leiden student discovers unknown letters by Robert Lowth

Myrte Wouterse, a third-year student at Leiden University, has identified two previously unrecorded letters by Robert Lowth in the University Library. Lowth was the leading English grammarian of the 18th century.

Letter signed by R. Oxford, or rather Robert Lowth

Letter signed by R. Oxford, or rather Robert Lowth

The letters give important insight into the lives of Lowth (1710-1787) and his correspondent, Leiden orientalist H.A. Schultens (1749-1793). They are also a source of information on informal networks in the 18th century. The letters were written during Schultens' stay in England from 1772 to 1773 and were included in an appendix to Schultens' account of his visit. This probably explains why they were not previously recorded in the Library catalogue.

Social networks in the 18th century

Schultens is known to have studied in Oxford, where he obtained an MA, but these newly discovered letters tell the real story behind this qualification. It was an honorary title, that in Schultens' own words was awarded only in rare cases, and certainly not to foreigners. Schultens made good use of his social network to acquire his MA. He wrote to the father of his friend and fellow student Thomas Henry Lowth (1753-1778), Bishop Lowth in other words, asking Lowth to put in a good word for him. Robert Lowth writes in his letters that he often receives such requests, but that he never accedes to them. He advises Schultens to take the official route and at the same time shows that he is prepared to help by promising to write to a number of his friends in Oxford. Which he duly did, as is witnessed by the fact that Schultens did receive his Oxford MA.

The letters enable us to see that Schultens has Lowth to thank for his MA, and they illustrate how contemporary informal networks operated: Schultens was a friend of Lowth's son, a connection that he made good use of for his career. This was how the system of patronage worked at that time: Lowth himself owes his own career within the Anglican church largely to his social contacts.

Beginner's luck

Myrte Wouterse located the letters by Robert Lowth in the appendix to a trip report by orientalist H.A. Schultens.

Myrte Wouterse located the letters by Robert Lowth in the appendix to a trip report by orientalist H.A. Schultens.

This interesting discovery was made by Myrte Wouterse, third-year student of English Language and Culture and a student of the Leiden Honours Academy:

'It was pure chance, beginner's luck. I was given a tour of the University Library by Thijs Porck, one of my lecturers, on the subject of the special collections, and how we can use them for our research. At the time I was preparing a presentation as part of Professor Tieken's ‘Introduction to Late Modern English’ course. Actually, we had requested a different letter (from William Jones to Schultens) and to our surprise we received a whole package of letters, including Schultens' report of his visit to England. When we leafed through the documents we found the name ‘R. Lowth’ (a very familiar name to students of English Language and Culture), but the letters were signed ‘R. Oxford’. I now know that it was common practice for bishops at the time to use the name of their diocese, and Lowth was then bishop of Oxford.'   

Not in the catalogue

To her surprise, Myrte was unable to trace the letters in the library catalogue. 'In Schulten's account of his travels, there was only a reference to the original appendix, nothing more. I had expected the letters to be in the catalogue. When I talked to Professor Tieken about my presentation, that should actually have been about an English diary from the 18th century, she was very enthusiastic. She had not been aware that there were letters by Lowth in Leiden. Luckily, she agreed to my changing my presentation to these letters by Lowth, rather than sticking to the diary idea.'

A pleasant - and valuable - surprise

Last year, Professor Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade published a book about Lowth: The Bishop’s Grammar, Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism (Oxford University Press, 2011). This book is largely based on Lowth's letters, and it was a pleasant surprise for her to discover that there were also letters by Lowth in the University Library, something she had been unaware of previously.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade explains: 'The Bishop’s Grammar focuses on Lowth's grammar, about which there are all kinds of preconceptions. I wanted to use my book to put some of these right. An important part of my research consists of examining Lowth's letters, because I wanted to show that, contrary to expectations, his grammar rules were not taken directly from his own language use, which in itself is another preconception. I have spent several years collecting Lowth's letters, and now have a total of 330, 250 of them written by him personally. And now it turns out that there are another two, so close to home! Eventually, I intend to publish an edition of his letters. Putting together a complete collection of letters is always problematic, as the identification of these letters confirms. If Myrte hadn't come across these letters, aided by Thijs Porck, I would never have known of their existence.'

Lowth as a person

'Apart from their importance for our knowledge of the way that Schultens obtained his honorary master's degree at the University of Oxford, the letters are also important for our understanding of Lowth as a person. He is very cautious, but is prepared to assist other people and to approach his network contacts about something that he considers a worthy purpose. Just like Lowth's son Thomas Henry, Hendrik Albert Schultens was a promising young man.'

'What is also important is that we now know of another individual who actually met Lowth, and who was even a friend of his son who had died at much too early an age. In my line of research, all my informants have long dead, but you still want to try to build a picture of what motivated people. These letters, as well as Schultens' diary, tbeen hat I have now studied more carefully, will make a valuable contribution to my research.'

Further research on language use and social networks

Myrte is now going to devote her presentation for the Late Modern English course to the newly discovered letters by Lowth. Later, she intends to write an essay on them, focusing on the use of language in the period, but also on how social networks were used. After that, the plan is to write a joint article with Ingrid Tieken for publication.

Special collections

Leiden University Library (UB) has sizeable special collections of national and international standing. The Western manuscripts and private archives contain a total of 500,000 letters. More than 300,000 of these are accessible via the UB's own catalogue and the national Catalogus Epistularum Neerlandicarum (CEN). Besides letters, the special collections of the UB also contain manuscripts, archives, photos, maps and atlases, oriental collections, old editions, prints and drawings. Holders of the LU-Card can view this material in the Special Collections Reading Room. Many of the items can also be viewed via Digital Special Collections.

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Last Modified: 11-12-2012