Thursday, February 12, 2009

Jean-Philipe Baratier; Christian child prodigies with Hebrew knowledge, part II

Take your pick.

I came across the story of Jean-Philipe Baratier (1721-1740) by accident. Born in Germany to French Huguenot parents, it was apparent from an early age that the boy was extremely gifted in languages, but more than that, he also had understanding.

Many people are familiar with him, having read of him in the works of Samuel Johnson, who had written an article about him in the December issue of the British periodical The Gentleman's Magazine (link, cont. Feb. 1741, link). However, I wasn't until I came across a work for children from 1801 called The Juvenile Library (including a complete course of instruction on every useful subject), in the section titled Lives of Celebrated Children (No. VI.) that I heard of young Baratier, whose significance I will get to shortly. But first I cannot help but to point out that someone apparently thought it would be really inspirational for children to read about famous kids who are big overachievers. Me, I'm thinking kids probably really hated to read that stuff. But I digress. The Juvenile Library volume looks like this:

So, this Baratier kid turned out to have a natural knack for languages. Under his father's tutelage, the boy knew German and French (his adopted home and family's languages), as well as Greek, Latin, at five years of age. His father was especially pleased at discovering that his son was so precocious, and so he taught him Hebrew, allowing him to read the Bible in Hebrew within the year. By age nine he is supposed to have been capably able to translate the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, and then translate back from the Latin into Hebrew anew. He knew Psalms by heart, in Hebrew. By ten he had written a Hebrew grammar. Even allowing for exaggeration in the accounts, there is no doubt about some facts:

At ten he had become very interested in rabbinic literature, so his father bought him the 1724-8 Amsterdam edition of the קהילות משה Mikra Gedola (the 7th; which happens also to be the first Mikraos Gedolos edition fully published by Jews), which he soon knew very well. In case there is any doubt, he wrote an article about it which was published in the prestigious journal Bibliothèque germanique (this was a French-language journal based in Germany and intended to introduce German scholarship to the rest of Europe in the first half of the 18th century; unfortunately the volume with this article is not yet online [not that my French is good enough anyway], but here is an announcement from the 1732 volume on something by Baratier [see next paragraph]).

When he was only 12 years old he published a complete annotated translation of The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela from Hebrew into French link (or link).

His many other academic achievements in his short life are noteworthy, but not of particular interest to this blog: he was also skilled in math and science, having graduated university with a Masters of Arts at 14, and granted lifetime membership as a fellow in the Berlin Royal Society. He published several books in his other areas of interest. He was a smart young guy, who sadly did not recover from illness at age 19.

No matter what one thinks about his attainments, there is something romantic about the image of a 10 year old Huguenot boy poring over a set of Mikraos Gedolos. In his time, he was a philological Doogie Howser.

Postscript: I saw something interesting in another 18th century book (on certain British women). In a discussion about a Miss (Maria) Howel (who we are told was 11 in 1741), we find her compared to Baratier, and she fares better. Firstly, I don't know if anyone would have said this about him, but this is said of her: she had "all the charms of body that the hand of nature could put into one human frame" as well as a "soul so bright and luminous, knowing and comprehensive, so good and gentle, divine and spiritual, that she seems, in the perfections of her understanding especially, to be a specimen of the vast capacitys the human mind is capable of acquiring," who, "as a Christian" had "received all that can be given by regeneration and the grace of the holy Spirit."

Not only, does this author write, did she attain similar literary accomplishments as Baratier, but she had better judgment!

Here is the footnote on Baratier:

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Some girl! (link)

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