Tidbits on Early Modern Publishing from Jonathan Spence at the 2010 Jefferson Lecture

Historians in the News

Publishing may not have been Jonathan Spence's topic for the 2010 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, but publishing's concerns, and headaches, were a recurrent theme for the historian, a professor emeritus at Yale University. Speaking to a packed Warner Theatre in downtown Washington last week, Spence unraveled a winding tale of encounter between China and the West-centering on three men and their "meeting of the minds." The scholar made no apology for his micro-approach for the talk, arguably the biggest official gig for the humanities in the United States. As a historian, Spence said, he has "always been drawn to the apparently small-scale happenings in circumscribed settings, out of which we can tease a more expansive story."

In this case, the tease-worthy material began with an account of a letter of introduction sent in July 1687 by an English linguist named Thomas Hyde to the famed scientist Robert Boyle concerning a young Chinese man, Shen Fuzong, who had arrived in England a few months earlier. Shen had been helping Hyde catalogue Chinese books for what became the Bodleian library at Oxford. Shen's ultimate destination was Portugal to complete training for the Catholic priesthood. However the occasion for his leaving his homeland was a publishing project. One of the Jesuits who had taught Shen Latin in China was bringing him to Europe to do the final proofreading of a Latin translation of Confucius. Shen was also to insert written Chinese characters at key places in the Latin text, "so as to prevent any interpretive mistakes," Spence said....

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