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Guy Lefevre de la Boderie

French Orientalist and poet; b. near Falaise in Normandy, August 9, 1541; d. in 1598

Lefevre de la Boderie, Guy, French Orientalist and poet; b. near Falaise in Normandy, August 9, 1541; d. in 1598 in the house in which he was born. At an early age he devoted himself to the study of Oriental languages, particularly Hebrew and Syriac. After much travelling in different provinces of France he settled down to uninterrupted study under the guidance of the Orientalist Guillaume Postel, who was a professor in the College de France. Guy was an earnest student and his scientific ardor was intensified by the religious enthusiasm of his character. He was convinced that deep study and full knowledge were the surest natural mainstays of faith. He felt, too, that if this was true generally, it was true in a very special way in regard to Biblical work. He became an Orientalist therefore like many others, because he was an apologist. He selected Syriac and Aramaic generally as his special department that he might come nearer to the mind of Christ by the study of Christ’s vernacular. His first published work of importance was a Latin version of the Syriac New Testament published in 1560. This work attracted much attention, and in 1568 Guy was invited by Arias Montanus to assist in the production of the Antwerp Polyglot. Guy accepted the invitation and proceeded to Antwerp with his brother Nicolas who was also an Orientalist.

The work assigned to Guy by Arias Montanus was the editing of the Syriac New Testament. He examined for this purpose a new Syriac. MS. of the New Testament which Guillaume Postel had brought from the East. In 1572 appeared in the fifth volume of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible the result of Lefevre’s work, entitled “Novum Testamentum syriace, cum versione latina” This work included the collated Syriac text and Lefevre’s previously published (and now amended) Latin version. This work was republished by Le Jay in 1645 in the Paris Polyglot. In 1572 Lefevre published at Antwerp a short Syriac text which he had found accidentally thrown together with the Eastern Biblical MS. above mentioned. This text, furnished with a Latin translation, appeared under the title “D. Severi, Alexandrini, quondam patriarchy, de Ritibus baptismi et sacrae synaxis apud Syros Christianos receptis liber”. Lefevre tells us (Epistola dedicatoria, p. 4 f.) that he published this text to illustrate the agreement of the ancient Eastern Church with the Western in the important matter of sacramental ritual. To make the little text useful for beginners in Syriac Lefevre vocalized the text and added at the foot of the page a vocalized transliteration in Hebrew characters. In the sixth volume of the Antwerp Polyglot appeared a further work by Lefevre, “Grammatica chaldaica et Dictionarium Syro-Chaldaicum”. In the same year 1572, Lefevre published, also at Antwerp, a short introduction to Syriac, “Syriacae linguae prima elementa”. This work has no scientific value: it is little more than an account of the names of the consonants and vowel signs with a few easy texts. On completing his work in Antwerp in 1572 Lefevre returned to France where he soon obtained the post of secretary and interpreter to the Duke of Alencon. In this position he was brought into close contact with the somewhat radical thought of the period. His associates were men like Baif, Dorat, Ronsard, Vauquelin de La Fresnaye etc. But Lefevre remained, in spite of all, a strong Catholic and a steady enemy of Protestantism. In 1584 he published a transliteration in Hebrew characters of the Syriac New Testament, “Novum J. Chr. Testamentum, syriace litteris hebraicis cum versione latina interlineari”. In this work the Vulgate and Greek texts were printed at the foot of the page.

But Lefevre was not merely a philologist; he was also a poet. His poetic flights, however, were not high, and in his poetry, as in his Orientalia, the apologetic trend of his thought is clear. He was, as his friend Vauquelin de La Fresnaye said of him, poete tout chrestien. Among his more important poetic performances are: “L’Encyclie des secrets de l’Eternite” (Antwerp, 1571), an apology of Christianity; “La Galliade, ou de la revolution des arts et sciences” (Paris, 1578; 2nd ed. 1582), which celebrates the return to France of the banished sciences; “Hymnes ecclesiastiques” and “Cantiques spirituels et autres melanges poetiques” (Paris, 1578-1582), many of which are translations from the Italian; “L’Harmonie du Monde” (Paris, 1582), a translation of a Latin work. Lefevre published in his last years an immense number of translations from Latin, Italian, Spanish etc., in verse and prose. Most of these translations are apologetic, and few of them are of any value. Lefevre shows by the choice of his life work that his thoughts were ahead of his time. Of his life, apart from his writings, we know next to nothing. It has been conjectured from some words of his in a poem addressed to Marguerite de France that he was an ecclesiastic; and it has been said that Pope Clement VIII wished to make him a cardinal. But Lefevre would not allow himself to be led away in his last days from his books to the Roman Court. He died in the peaceful family mansion of La Boderie in 1598. An epitaph which he wrote for himself sums up his life work simply and well:

Tandisque j’ai vescu, j’ai toujours souhaite

Non d’amasser tresors, mais chercher Verite.


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