Postel, Guillaume

Postel, Guillaume
   French linguistic scholar, reli-gious reformer, cabalist, mystic, prophet of a new age, and (in the opinion of many contemporaries) madman. He was a born scholar, ea-ger to master all languages and to know all knowledge; he eventually published more than 60 books. During his studies at Paris in the 1530s he mastered the three languages emphasized by Renaissance human-ism, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In 1538 he accompanied a French diplomatic mission to the Turkish sultan at Istanbul, where he had his first serious exposure to the Arabic language and developed a lifelong interest in Christian missions to convert the Muslims. He also bought for the royal library a large collection of books in eastern languages. After his return, Postel lectured (1538-1542) on languages and math-ematics at Paris as one of the royal lecturers appointed by King Fran-cis I. He also published Linguarum duodecim characteribus/The Let-ters of Twelve Languages, the first comparative study of the grammar and alphabets of a number of eastern languages. He believed that He-brew, the language in which God spoke with Adam, was the source of all other languages. He thought that knowledge of languages was es-sential for Christian missions and for the unification of all human so-cieties. He also published the first Arabic grammar in Europe. De or-bis terrae concordia (1544) was a book justifying Christian doctrines, intended for use by Christian missionaries to the Islamic world.
   The concept of the unity of all humans was central to Postel's thought, pursued not only through his plans for missions but also through his efforts to promote moral reform of both the clergy and lay society in Christian Europe. He believed that a divine voice had in-structed him to work for reform. His pursuit of the twin goals of re-ligious reform and foreign missions led him to Rome, where in 1544 he became one of the early members of the Society of Jesus. Postel's reform ideas were so radical, however, that the Jesuits soon expelled him. About this time he discovered the Cabala and became even more convinced of his special mission as the firstborn son of the restitutio omnium, a providentially designed new age in human history. In 1546 he went to Venice, where he came under the influence of a female mystic who emphasized the need to express one's love of God through service to the poor and sick and who reinforced his mystical interests. His goal of a union of all religions was what had attracted Postel to the Jesuits, and his contact with the mystic whom he called the Venetian Virgin called forth grandiose ideas of a universal church and a universal monarchy, originally conceived as French but later as the Holy Roman Empire. His unrestrained speech and writing brought him before the Inquisition at Venice, and he was condemned as a heretic and madman and imprisoned from 1555 to 1559. His ver-nacular République des Turcs (1560) described the Ottoman Turks in remarkably positive terms.
   In 1560 Postel attended the Council of Trent, where he agitated for a broader, more inclusive Catholicism than was acceptable to the dominant conservatives. He was hostile to Protestantism because it had brought disunity into the life of the church. Yet his dream of unity included winning the support of the Protestants, and he sought con-tact with a number of scholarly and moderate Protestant leaders, in-cluding Philipp Melanchthon, and also with radical sectarians like Kaspar von Schwenkfeld. Postel was attracted to the nondogmatic underground religious movement known as the Family of Love. His mystical and prophetic tone attracted many readers distressed by the disunity and corruption of the church.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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