Chapters 10 and 11 of Genesis contained material which was interpreted by seventeenth-century commentators as providing an account of how the world was peopled after the Flood. Chapter 10 revealed detailed genealogical information about the descendants of Noah and his sons, while chapter 11 related the story of the Tower of Babel, in which God had punished the vain pride of humans (demonstrated by their attempt to build a tower to reach the sky) by laying upon them the confusion of tongues, which resulted in their dispersion geographically and into ethnic groups.
The genealogical details provided in Genesis 10 gave scant geographical evidence with which to identify the locations where the descendants of Noah had lived, but, by combining the suggestions made in Genesis with etymological suppositions about the origins of the names of races mentioned subsequently in the Bible, early modern critics were able to supply a history for most of the peoples of the Middle East. Theological assumptions encouraged them to be more ambitious than this. They believed that God had intended the whole world to be populated, and that he had divided it between the offspring of Noah's three sons (Genesis 9:25-7 and 10:32). Thus they searched for linguistic or historical evidence to prove the descent of all nations from the sons of Noah. They derived names to be found in classical and oriental history and literature from biblical originals, often demonstrating great erudition and considerable imagination in the course of arguments that never proved less than contentious.
Although individual conclusions often differed markedly from one another, there was general consensus on both the assumptions and the methods necessary for the construction of biblical and universal history. There was also widespread agreement on the necessity of the task, and its usefulness for a proper understanding of the Bible and its prophecies. Nevertheless the sources for such historical projects remained uncertain, with many authors relying on materials (such as the pseudo-Berossos) which were effectively the products of Renaissance forgery. Debate could therefore be violent, and, despite the local success of works like Ralegh's Historie (catalogue no.30 ), no one view of biblical or universal history ever succeeded in establishing intellectual hegemony. Far from detracting from the historical importance which was placed on the Bible as a source, however, this failure threw scholars back on scriptural material and on a search for alternative kinds of evidence (such as that of archaeology) with which to confirm it.
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The mechanism by which God had ensured the dispersion of peoples across the globe was the confusion of their language. The story of the building of the Tower of Babel provoked a variety of responses during the seventeenth century. For many political thinkers, the tyrannical decision to build the Tower (which was normally ascribed to Nimrod, who was held to be in rebellion against the rightful authority of Noah) represented a defining moment in the history of government. To others, the political meaning of the story was less essential than its implications for human knowledge, language, and ethnography. Prior to the building of Babel, human beings had all belonged to one family, and had spoken one language, which preserved elements of the true language that Adam had used in Eden (identified with Hebrew by many authors). After the confusion of tongues, languages had decayed and multiplied by natural as well as providential means, causing divisions among people. Nations had been formed, and humanity had been dispersed across the globe.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a number of authors attempted to establish the history of the development of language since Babel, often in order to trace the spread of peoples, in particular across Europe. They sought to use linguistic material to differentiate the history of the various races within Europe. Others were principally concerned with the understanding of oriental languages and were frequently beguiled by the biblical story of Babel into making too simplistic an analysis of their similarities and differences. Thus, Christian Ravis argued for the integrity of the Semitic languages, tending to view them as little more than dialects of Hebrew (see catalogue no. 78 ). Although he developed a more relativistic view of the importance of Hebrew, Brian Walton (see catalogue nos. 73, 75 and 77 ) even continued falsely to incorporate Persian and Armenian with it in the same family of languages.
Much linguistic scholarship was devoted to establishing the text of the Bible and understanding the languages in which it had been written. However, its conclusions also had implications for the history of knowledge. In particular, humanist ideas of copia (abundance or richness) were deployed to support the notion that Hebrew might have been the original language. With other oriental languages, it was taken to have a simple economy of vocabulary and expression which could contain all the meanings of the more extensive European languages in a smaller compass. This was held to indicate its rhetorical sophistication and primitive purity. In Hebrew and other Semitic languages, the division between words (or at least roots) and the things which they represented was supposedly less extreme than in the more developed (or decayed) western tongues.
The desire to surmount the arbitrary division between words and things lay behind much seventeenth-century work on the idea of a universal language. Inspired by the writings of Bacon (catalogue no. 53 ) and Comenius (catalogue nos. 39 and 40 ), several authors, including a number of members of the Hartlib circle, tried to overcome the curse of linguistic division in this way. They hoped to promote trade, missionary work, and international harmony by establishing an agreed means of communication. Beyond these aims lay the goal of a real, scientific language which might recover for humanity the ability to express concisely the true knowledge of things that Ad am had once enjoyed before the Fall. The decay to which all contemporary human tongues were naturally prey, resulting from the curse laid on them at Babel,
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which many assumed to have afflicted even Hebrew as it survived in the modern world, prompted reformers to seek to create an artificial language rather than to try to re-establish Adam's speech by philological means. This work ideally required the collection and analysis of a huge amount of information about the natural world in order to classify it accurately and establish the structures which would make up the new universal language. The work of John Wilkins (catalogue no. 43) and his collaborators came closest to achieving this impossible task. It demonstrated that the historical curse of Babel could be a spur to considerable natural philosophical endeavour in the seventeenth century and could encourage people to reshape the parameters of their knowledge. This was also the task of education in the thinking of Hartlib and his circle. For them, a true understanding of the world could only be achieved if people had been taught to reason correctly, and to analyse information (especially the experience of their senses) in a useful way. They sought to purge educational and philosophical practice of the errors which Bacon had identified in them, mainly through the adoption of the reformed methods of teaching advocated by Comenius.
Comenius's educational ideas had developed out of the scholastic and encyclopaedic traditions of the new central European Protestant universities. Although they were traditional in some respects, they represented a considerable departure from standard Aristotelian thinking about the world and from the way in which such knowledge had usually been imparted. Hartlib hoped that it would be possible to reform school and university education in England and made a number of attempts to put his ideas into practice. It was unfortunate that other, less thoughtful, but more socially radical critiques of English education were published at much the same time as some of his schemes. In the end, traditional methods, and certainly traditional institutions, came through the period of the Civil Wars and Interregnum relatively unscathed. This was partly because they proved far more adaptable than their critics allowed, but also because state support was usually lacking for anything more adventurous than ensuring the political conformity of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
The Tower of Babel was, like the Garden of Eden, in part a reminder of the failures imposed by human pride. But the events which had taken place at Babel, like those which had happened in the Garden, were also crucial for the development of the providential course of history. Without them, human beings might have resisted the divine command to people the earth (Genesis 1:28). The second part of that instruction promised that human beings would eventually establish mastery over nature, a prophecy which Samuel Hartlib and his contemporaries hoped to see fulfilled in their own times. As well as being a monument to the fallen state of human knowledge, the Tower was therefore a tantalizing symbol of what might be preserved and achieved if people were able to co-operate with God's plans.