The origins of old Germanic studies in the Low Countries

Cornelis Dekker (1961-) has something with Latinised names, just like during the period he wrote about. He writes about Dutchmen, but almost every single one of them is named with a Latin name so even a fellow Dutchman like myself sometimes has to think who Dekker writes about. But this is of course not what I am writing aout. Dekker made a superb study of the study of Germanic languages during the Renaissance, a subject that highly interests me. When I was writing my article about the Northern Renaissance I have been looking for a book like this, but it came too late. Well… never too late! It is almost incredible how much information Dekker compiled about people interested in native history and especially native and old languages. There is so enormously much information in this book that I decided not to rewrite my Northern Renaissance article, but just make a very long book review giving the information that I find of interest.

The book is actually about Jan van Vliet (or Janus Vlitius, 1622-1666) “who studied Old Germanic languages during the last decade of his life.” (p.1). Van Vliet owned a large number of books by people from the past and his own day who had similar interests and Van Vliet always wrote his own thoughts in the marigins of those books. Dekker located as many books owned or written by Van Vliet, including his correspondence to find a staggering amount of information resulting in a very different view on the time than we usually get. Van Vliet himself was an interesting person. He wrote much like a scholar would nowadays, even referring to his sources so that they are traceble even in the present day. Van Vliet was not alone in his interests, Dekker writes about a great many other people that were influenced by Van Vliet, who influenced Van Vliet or who were just in the same ‘business’. Van Vliet named several of them himself. Van Vliets acknowledged the vast influence of Francis Junius (1591-1677) on his work. In a letter Van Vliets names “Vulcanius, Vossius, Pontanus, Mylius, Schottus, Scaliger and Casaubon as important sources Becanus; Schrieckus and Boxhorn are “phantasms or sphinxes” and Hugo Grotius, Beatus Rhenanus, Sigismund Gelenius and Hadrianus Junius “unsuccessfull scholars”. Just after Van Vliet came Nicholas Heinsius (1656-1718). Many more people are written about in this book, some at length, their systems and ideas compared to those of Van Vliets, sometimes only mentioned.

Personally I have more interest in some of the information that Dekker gives ‘surrounding’ his own subject.

One of these ‘little facts’: “The editio princeps of the Germania [of Tacitus] was published by Fanciscus Puteolanus in Bologna in 1472.” (note 31, p.16). This must be somewhat of a starting time of renewed interest in native history. In my article I write about how Icelandic manuscripts where moved to Denmark and Sweden because people there found out that these texts could tell them something about their past. This was in the 17th century. According to Dekker similar interests were present on the continent much earlier: “The Italian example of searching for ancient manuscripts in monastic collections and storing them in public libraries was followed in the sixteenth century by scholars from various countries north of the Alps. Among the first to go in search of historical manuscripts were Germans, encouraged by Emperor Maximilian I (1449-1519) to trace and copy manuscripts, not only of classical authors but also of vernacular texts. They included Jakob Wimpfeling (1445-1528), Franciscus Irenicus (Franz Fritz) (1495-c.1550), and Conrad Celtis (1459-1508), whose many discoveries included the works of the nun Hroswitha of Gandersheim, and the Tabula Peuteringiana, an ancient map. Their researches quickly led to the discovery of the first vernacular material. Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516), abbot of Spanheim, was the first to mention the Old High German paraphrase of the Gospels by Otfrid von Weissenburg and the Old High German translation of Tatina’s Harmonia evangelica.” (p.18). Etcetera! Dekker mentions a Goldast, a Joachin von Watt, a John Leland, all names that are new to me who seemed to have been searching for old manuscripts from their countries’ pasts. Kings ordered the collection of libraries about the nation’s pasts and even the writing of grammar books and dictionaries seems to have taken a flight. Also ancient law-texts such as the Frisian and Carolingian laws where discovered and published.

In the Low Countries people such as Johannes Smetius (1598-1651) and Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) started to write about the past based on Tacitus’ writings. Also local history was combined with current affairs. Lipsius compared the revolt of the Batavians against the Romans with the current affairs with the occupying country Spain. Histories were written in this area too. “Hugo Grotius” (Hugo de Grote, Hugo the Great 1583-1645) wrote a history of Belgium called Annales et historiae de rebus Belgicis and Pieter Cornelisz Hooft (1581-1647) translated Tacitus. Both works were published post-mortem.

Many people seemed to have had an interest in ancient texts and ancient scriptures. According to Dekker no one else than Johannes Trithemius (1562-1516) gave two “Viking alphabets” in his Polygraphia (1508) and Wolfgang Lazius (1514-1565) “presented a complete runic alphabet, which was also printed by Melchior Goldast in 1606.” (p.23). Also in the Netherlands the runes where known. The “Leiden professor Bonaventura Vulcanius in De literis et linguis Getarum sive Gothorum (Leiden, 1597). Besides Gothic, Vulcanius also included three runic alphabets.” (p.41).

Van Vliet did something similar. He made glossaries (that were never published) of a wide variety of languages: “Breton (Celtic), Danish, Dutch, English, German, Gothic, Greek, Icelandic, Italian, French, Latin, Middle Low German, Old Frisian, Old High German, Old Flemish, Old Franconian, Old English, ‘Runic’, and Spanish” (p.149), also runes as you can see. Many glossaries and lexicons where printed in that time, Dekker mentioned quite a number of them.

Van Vliet mostly got his knowledge of the runes from someone we got familiar with before: Ole Worm. In 1636 (Amsterdam) Worm published his RUNIR, seu Danica literatura antiquissima, a runic dictionary and Van Vliet owned a copy of it. Our other runic investigator of that time, Johannes Bureus is only mentioned in the book as Johannes Buraeus, but apparently Van Vliet never heard of the man.

A subject that you can read about in my Northern Renaissance article too is the discussion of the origin of languages and which is the original language. In De lingua Belgica (Leiden, 1612) by Abrahamus Mylius or Abraham van de Mijle (1563-1637) is said that Dutch was the mother language of the Teutonic peoples. Similar remarks where said about the Frisian language was was not a Germanic language but descended from Greek and Hebrew and Hebrew was -of course- the first and holiest of languages. Van Vliet joined the discussion when he got interested in his native tongue after the discovery of the Nehalenia (a Celtic goddess) temple in Walcheren (one of the islands of the province of Zeeland) in 1647. According to Ole Worm Germanic languages come from Greek, others trace them back to Scytian, Van Vliet makes the line: Scythian, Gothic, Anglo-Saxon, ancient Frisian, Dutch (and the runes come after Gothic and splits into Icelandic, Danish and Swedish). Van Vliet was of the opinion that the Germanic languages should be ‘elevated’ like the Italians did with their language in this time.

As you can see, a few Renaissance interests come together in the person of Van Vliet also some interests that I never really knew excisted in this time. Van Vliet had an interest in history and languages, old languages and their origins and he studied them in depth. Nice to know that this was actually a field of investigation in that time, because this is something you don’t hear much about. Too bad that Dekker doesn’t say anything about (possible) esoteric sides to this subject, so please allow me to end with…

A few thoughts of my own

There are a few interesting things about this story. As mentioned before, the famous German occultist Trithemius had an interest in ancient scriptures under which the runes. It would be interesting to see if he ever combined these two interests.

Lipsius had some of his works published by the printer Plantin from Antwerp, a printer that also published works of Agrippa and who was the spider in a web of (radical) religionists and magicians. He printed works by Hendrik Niclaes (founder of the ‘Huis der Liefde’), David Joris (from the same group, but later split off), Christopher Plantin was in contact with Guillaume Postel and probably with John Dee, so this may suggest that each and every of these persons could have been aware of the investigations of languages and ancient writing. At least Postel and Dee had an interest in finding the original language, so it is not unlikely that they found some of Plantins printings of high interest.

On page 35 Sebastian Franck (1499-1542) is mentioned. Franck is also one of these radical reformists like Niclaes and he is often regarded as one of the predecessors of the Rosicrucian uprise that would take place in Germany around 1600.

Of course just snippets. A lot of highly interesting information in the minituous investigation of Dekker brings just vague references to what I am mostly interested in, a connection between Renaissance occultism and the interest in native language and history. So far I only found this in Johannes Bureus about whom you can read at length within these pages.


Kees Dekker has chosen a higly interesting and (as far as I know) largely uninvestigated subject with a more than interesting work. The book itself is unobtainable or extremely expensive. Engaging your library to get this book is worth it, because the book is definately worth to study. If you have an interst in the person of Van Vliet you will find a staggering amount of information such as an inventarisation of Van Vliet’s correspondences and a list of publications. When you just want to learn more about the field of investigation of Van Vliet and people with similar interests, this book is a must-read too. Now I only hope that someone with an interest in esotericism will take up the task of investigating the link between the two fields.

I noticed that the English Wikipedia has a short text on Van Vliet, which you may want to read.

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