Bentley’s battles: Appendices and Indexes

The greatest classical scholar of his day attracts the scorn of the greatest satirist of all time

Mike Selby

No one had seen anything like it.

In 1691, John Mill — a department head at Oxford — was preparing a new edition of  ‘The Chronicle of Malasas,’ a Greek manuscript from the 6th century. Although a relatively minor work, Oxford owned the only copy in existence, and Mill felt duty bound to make translations of it available.  After having the galleys reading for printing, Mill only needed someone to quickly proofread it.

He found that person in Richard Bentley, a 29-year-old undergraduate tutor who had only recently arrived at Oxford. Mill handed Bentley the galleys, and asked him to mark anything which needed correcting. Bentley happily agreed, and return the proofs with corrections the following week.

Mill was stunned.

Not only had Bentley thoroughly marked up almost every paragraph in Mill’s translation, but he also tacked on 125 pages of notes, entirely written in Latin.  Bentley listed where parts of the Chronicle came from the 4th century BC dramatist Ion of Chois. This seemed impossible, as work by Ion of Chois only existed in a few rare fragments. Yet Bentley’s assertion turned out to be completely accurate. He also linked the book to various other writings from both ancient Greece and Rome, turning over some long held assumptions.

Bentley went on to demonstrate how passages from the Chronicle illuminated Hellenistic theology, philological word origins and changes in grammar, and a completely lost form of Greek poetry.  Bentley also cited every claim he made, to many ancient manuscripts Oxford didn’t even own.

The corrected proofs Mill has asked were so illuminating that it was published as an appendix to Mill’s translation.  Everyone agreed the appendix was the greatest part of the book — an unheralded work of sheer brilliance. Bentley was soon recognized as the greatest classical scholar of all time, and the young tutor became somewhat of a hero to scholars all over Europe.

Bentley’s mind was soon turned to a split which was erupting all over academia. It began in France with students asking “Wasn’t modern French a better literary vehicle than ancient Greek and Latin? Had modern writers outgrown the crudity and rambling wordiness of Homer?” This debate soon spread throughout England.

Publications such as “An Essay Upon Ancient & Modern Learning” and “Reflections Upon Ancient & Modern Learning” began to appear, dividing scholars into either “ancients” or “moderns.”  For all his of genius in Classical thought, Bentley was most definitely a “modern.”

This became clear in his book titled “Dissertation on the Letters of Phalaris.” At the time, the “Letters” were popular in an edition by Sir Charles Boyle.  Here Bentley stated that the letters were fake — a fraud perpetrated on the Greek people. Like his work on the Chronicle, Bentley provided extraordinary proof for his reasoning. The letters were indeed counterfeit.

Unlike the Chronicle, not everyone was happy with his conclusions, least of all Sir Boyle. Boyle quickly published a new edition of the Letters, including a new addition to his work: an index.

At the time, the index was seen as as tool of the “moderns” (there were no pages to index in ancient scrolls). So Boyle’s index was way of lampooning modern learning, and at the same time discredit Bentley.  Close textual reading, wordlists, and subject indexes were viewed by the “ancients” as cheating. “Anyone can be an index-scholar” claimed Boyle, implying that modern indexes were not the result of true learning.

Boyle’s index only listed one subject anyway, Bentley himself, with sarcastic entries of his “extraordinary talent in drollery,” “his dogmatic air,” and “his modesty and decency in contradicting great men.”  There is also an apology for including the index, “but it is the only part in part of a book that Bentley reads.”

Bentley, somewhat baffled by the personal attack, quickly issued a new edition of his work, with even more evidence as to why the letters were fake.  This time, Boyle did not reply.

He didn’t have to. The entire debate was satirized with new scorn heaped on Bentley in the work ‘The Battle of the Books,’ written by a new and ill-tempered author, Jonathan Swift.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library