Francis Lodwick: A Brief Sketch

Francis Lodwick is an important but incompletely understood figure in seventeenth-century thought. Following the facsimile reprint of his linguistic works with a pioneering introductory essay by Vivian Salmon in 1972, he is known, if at all, for his work in the fields of phonology, shorthand, and universal language. Lodwick, along with John Wilkins and George Dalgarno, was one of the three major figures in England to publish an attempt at an artificial language in the early-modern period; indeed, he was the first and the last of these men to publish on such matters, bringing out his first attempt, A Common Writing, in 1646, and then finishing off his career four decades later with his innovative universal phonetic alphabet, published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1686. His earlier work is characterised by his associations with the vibrant epistolary network centred around the ‘Great Intelligencer’ of revolutionary London, Samuel Hartlib (1600-1662); his later writings, conversely, were produced after Lodwick had become a fellow and central administrative figure of the Royal Society, and an inner member of Robert Hooke’s coterie.

Lodwick was therefore continuously associated with the changing milieux of the scientific revolution in England, and among his acquaintances he numbered Samuel Hartlib, George Dalgarno, John Wilkins, John Ray, John Aubrey, Edmund Halley, Christopher Wren, and Robert Hooke. In later life, he is to be found almost daily in the company of Hooke and the Royal Society Treasurer Abraham Hill – these men, along with Hooke’s various other cronies, acolytes and spies, met daily in the coffee-houses of London to gossip and swap ideas, as Hooke vividly recorded in his various and intermittent private journals.

There is much more, however, to this language-planner than his apparent public credentials suggest. Lodwick came from a prominent family of merchants with strong continental links – his father was from the Low Countries and his mother Huguenot – and Lodwick was polylingual. The Lodwicks were pillars of the London Dutch community, and various members of his family held office in the Dutch Church, Austin Friars. The family was also rich and intellectually curious, and Lodwick himself spent much time abroad in his younger years, trading, and also collecting pieces of information or objects for Hartlib and his correspondents.

Francis Lodwick's <em>Universall Alphabet</em>
Francis Lodwick's Universall Alphabet

Lodwick left behind him a mass of manuscripts, almost all unedited, containing linguistic, literary, philosophical, and theological material, as well as other miscellanea. Some time after Lodwick’s death, the majority of these manuscripts found their way, perhaps via Hooke or Hill, into the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, and were among the manuscripts that formed the core of the British Museum collection when they were purchased by the nation for that purpose upon Sloane’s death in 1753. There they have remained largely untouched ever since.

Lodwick’s manuscripts are no casual jottings: most are meticulous fair copies in calligraphic hand, arranged into families of similar discourses and carefully corrected. Lodwick even wrote down a list of his writings and included it in his own library catalogue. Yet as far as we know he did almost nothing to disseminate these manuscripts, preferring instead to hoard up his essays and observations, keeping his writing all but secret. He only published his linguistic work. He did not publish anything else original. Why did he behave like this?

The reason for this sharp distinction between printed, linguistic work and manuscript, non-linguistic work is that Francis Lodwick held strikingly, indeed shockingly unorthodox ideas for one so centrally located in the burgeoning scientific community. He contended that there were men before Adam, that the different nations of the world had arisen polygenetically, and that there was no common origin of languages. He said that the Bible was textually corrupt, that it only told the history of the Jewish nation, and that it should not be considered binding for other nations. He disposed of the ideas of the fall, of original sin, and of the trinity. Building on the otherwise execrated proposals of John Milton, he said that divorce was justified. He even wrote an extended utopian fiction called A Country Not Named in which he allowed these ideas space to breathe in a fictional environment. The result was that his utopians founded a church from which they banned the Bible.

Lodwick was no atheist, however. His scepticism was pious, and his rejection of most of the foundations of dogmatic theology was only in order to further what he called the ‘peace ecclesiasticall’, an international religious harmony based on an extremely minimal set of beliefs, in which salvation did not even depend upon knowledge of Christ the man, but rather upon the Christian principles that Reason, man’s internal light, reveals. Nor did Lodwick think in a vacuum. His curious blend of extreme scepticism concerning Christian theology and extreme optimism concerning human reason can be traced to many influences, some of them undoubtedly Socinian, and his biblical criticism owed much to the very recent work of Richard Simon and Benedict Spinoza. But his opinions on the great antiquity of the world, the existence of men before Adam, and his emphasis on the Judaeocentric nature of the Bible furnish unmistakable evidence of the governing influence of the continental heretic Isaac La Peyrère (1596-1676), whose notorious Prae-Adamitae (1655) had expounded precisely these beliefs. Lodwick owned two copies of the banned work, one in English and one in Latin, and until now, no major English exponent of La Peyrère’s pre-Adamism has been identified.

Lodwick thus spans many worlds of the Seventeenth Century – prominent member of the London Dutch community, intelligencer for Hartlib, Continental European trader, phonetician, universal linguist, deviser of short-hand systems, pre-Adamist and free-thinker, and active member of the Royal Society in its third decade of existence.

The Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, exhibited a book by Lodwick as part of its exhibition 'The Garden, The Ark, The Tower, The Temple: biblical metaphors of knowledge in early modern Europe' in 1998. The relevant catalogue page is reproduced online here.

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