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Hyde, Thomas (1636–1703), oriental scholar, was born on 29 June 1636 at Billingsley in Shropshire, the son of Ralph Hyde, rector of the parish, and of his wife, Anne Jennings of Barrowden, Rutland. He was educated at Eton College for some four years before being admitted to King's College, Cambridge, in 1652. There his aptitude for oriental languages, apparently nurtured by his father, quickly caught the attention of Abraham Wheelocke, the professor of Arabic, who recommended him to Brian Walton, the editor of the polyglot Bible. Hyde worked on correcting proofs in Syriac and Arabic and on transcribing a Persian version of the Pentateuch from Hebrew characters back into Persian ones and then in making a Latin translation of it.

In 1654 Hyde moved from Cambridge to Queen's College, Oxford, from where he proceeded MA in 1659. That year he was appointed sub-librarian of the Bodleian Library, becoming its librarian in 1665, a post which he held until he resigned in 1701, being weary of ‘the toil and drudgery of daily attendance in all times and weathers’ (Macray, 170). In 1674 a new catalogue of the library was published under his name, although it was believed that he had done little of the actual work involved. He was appointed a canon of Salisbury, rector of a parish in Gloucestershire, and archdeacon of Gloucester. Having proceeded DD in 1682, he became Laudian professor of Arabic at Oxford in 1691 and acquired the regius professorship of Hebrew together with a canonry at Christ Church in 1697. He served the government for many years as translator of diplomatic correspondence with the Ottoman empire or the states of north Africa.

Hyde was described as a ‘corpulent man’, often rapt in thought and disregarding all around him, ‘wonderfull slow of speech, and his delivery so very low that 'twas impossible to hear what he said’. On one occasion he preached inaudibly for an hour-and-a-half until he had emptied the cathedral and the vice-chancellor ‘sent to him to come down’. Yet ‘he would be merry and facetious in discourse’ (Remarks, 11.368–9). His first wife, Anne, whom he married about 1670, was the widow of John Hill, cook at Queen's. She was maliciously called ‘an old whore … who hath domineered over the old fool so imperiously’ and was said once, on suspicion that he had been ‘too familiar with her mayd’, to have beaten him so severely that he was confined to his rooms for two months (Letters of Humphrey Prideaux, 46–7). She died in 1687, deemed ‘a mad woman’ (Life and Times of Anthony Wood, 3.213). The following year he married Elizabeth, née Oram, who was evidently a talented singer; Hyde later thought it inappropriate for her, as a ‘Divine's wife’, to take part in a competition ‘in a Play-House’ (letter to T. Bowrey, 29 Jan 1701, BL OIOC, MS Eur. E 192, no. 11). There appear to have been no children by either marriage.

Hyde has been assessed as ‘a mediocre orientalist’ (Feingold, 495–6) and his tenure of the chairs in Arabic and Hebrew was not notably distinguished. His linguistic abilities above all in Persian and also in Arabic were remarkable, but he did little teaching. He proposed or started many projects which he never finished, so that his published work was mostly confined to essays (with many others left unpublished at his death), apart from his magnum opus, the Historia religionis veterum Persarum, published towards the end of his life in 1700. The Historia was an attempt to present for the first time in Europe the beliefs of the ancient Zoroastrians of Persia through material acquired by Hyde from Parsis in western India by the good offices of men in the East India Company's service. Financially the book was a disaster. Hyde was ‘left in the lurch’ by promised subscribers, so that ‘a great part of the charge fell upon myself’ (letter to H. Sloane, 24 Jan 1701, BL, Sloane MS 4038, fol. 292), and he was warned that his book was not to the taste of ‘the men of phantasy and the young fry of wits and poets’ (Hyde, 2.492–3). The book gained in reputation after Hyde's death, however, to the point that a second edition was successfully issued in 1760. By the end of the eighteenth century the Historia had been displaced by the first deciphering of the Avestan texts which Hyde, who had relied on Persian, could not read.

The lethargic manner in which Hyde seems to have discharged his official duties at Oxford gives a misleading impression of a man whose correspondence reveals an intense intellectual curiosity about all things Asian, a curiosity which went far beyond the usual biblically inspired concerns of a seventeenth-century orientalist for the ancient languages of the Near East. He assiduously collected books and manuscripts, seeking them not only in Europe but in Asia, and he bombarded men who had travelled in Asia with requests for books and curiosities. Asian people who turned up in England were for him the most authentic source of knowledge. ‘I, for my own benefit and pleasure, do catch at all opportunities of discoursing with the natives of those countries in their own languages’, he wrote (Works of … Boyle, 6.563). He spoke Turkish to a couple captured by the Austrians, but was forced to use Latin in communicating with a ‘very knowing and excellent’ young Chinese who visited Oxford (ibid., 6.574).

Hyde was an avid collector of languages. The deciphering of ancient Persian was his prime concern, but he sought out grammars or vocabularies of other languages, ancient or modern. He asked his friends in India to get him ‘the alphabets and languages of all the sorts of Tartars who trade there’, including ‘the Mogul Tartars about Samarcand and Ouzbek’ (letter to Bowrey, 13 April 1701, BL OIOC, MS Eur. E 192, no. 15). He spent a great deal of time and money personally cutting plates of characters for printing in Asian languages, including the ‘old Persian’ for the Historia and Chinese, and supervised the printing of a published version of the gospels in Malay at Oxford that appeared in 1677.

Hyde collected religions as well as languages and was broadly tolerant in his attitude to non-Christian beliefs. He asked that the Parsis be assured that he was ‘a great lover of their religion’ (letter to Bowrey, 13 April 1701, BL OIOC, MS Eur. E 192, no. 15). Tolerance did not, however, imply that Hyde was in any sense a freethinker. He assured Robert Boyle that he primarily studied ‘eastern authors’ in order to help in ‘the explication of the Scriptures’ and ‘for the edification of others in the truth and right understanding of His word’ (Works of … Boyle, 6.559). He was enthusiastic about the prospect of Christian missions in Asia, for which the gospels in Malay were intended to be a contribution.

Hyde died at Christ Church on 18 February 1703, survived by his wife, and was buried two days later at Hanborough in Oxfordshire. By then his reputation may have been somewhat equivocal in his own university, but a Dutch scholar commented on the news of his death: ‘Decessit Hydius stupor mundi’ (‘Hyde, the wonder of the world, has died’; Remarks, 1.295).

P. J. Marshall

Sources  

P. J. Marshall, Thomas Hyde: stupor mundi, Hakluyt Society [1983] · M. Feingold, ‘Oriental studies’, Hist. U. Oxf. 4: 17th-cent. Oxf., 449–503 · G. Sharpe, appendix, in T. Hyde, Syntagma dissertationum … Thomas Hyde, ed. G. Sharpe, vol. 2 (1767) · W. D. Macray, Annals of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, 2nd edn (1890) · Remarks and collections of Thomas Hearne, ed. C. E. Doble and others, 1, OHS, 2 (1885) · Remarks and collections of Thomas Hearne, ed. C. E. Doble and others, 11, OHS, 72 (1921) · The life and times of Anthony Wood, ed. A. Clark, 3, OHS, 26 (1894) · Letters of Humphrey Prideaux … to John Ellis, ed. E. M. Thompson, CS, new ser., 15 (1875) · BL OIOC, MS Eur. E 192 [Bowrey letters] · BL, Sloane MSS 4037–4038 [Sloane letters] · The works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, ed. T. Birch, new edn, 6 (1772) · BL, Harley MS 3779 [Wanley letters] · W. Sterry, ed., The Eton College register, 1441–1698 (1943) · Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn, 4.522 · Venn, Alum. Cant.

Archives  

BL, catalogue of books and papers, Sloane MSS 3323, 4062 · Bodl. Oxf., catalogue of the Selden MSS |  BL, letters to Sir Hans Sloane, Sloane MSS 4037–4038 · BL, letters to Humfrey Wanley, Harley MS 3779 · BL OIOC, letters to Thomas Bowrey, MS Eur. E 192 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Thomas Smith


Likenesses  

F. Perry, line engraving, bust, repro. in Sharpe, ed., Syntagma · portrait, Bodl. Oxf.

Wealth at death  

no debts: will, Oxf. UA, chancellor's court wills, Hyde