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Philippus Ferdinandus Polonus – the first Polish scholar in England 

Mateusz Kusio, University of Oxford Graduate

This story doesn’t begin around 2004, when the first Polish students and academics wanted to experience the advantages of the EU membership. Neither it begins in 1970 when Leszek Kołakowski took up the fellowship in All Souls College in Oxford, nor in the 1960s which saw the outburst in the academic interest in Poland. It wasn’t during wartime, when Polish refugee academics were establishing faculties-in-exile, hoping to educate the elites of future Poland. This story begun much earlier. 


Beginning of 1599. Where now stands Maughan Library of the King’s College London, there used to be Domus Conversorum, “The House of Converts”, an institution dedicated to supporting converts from Judaism. Its collection contains a signed receipt of 45 shillings and seven and a half pence by the undersigned Philippus Ferdinandus.


There is little known about Filip Ferdynand, although the sources say he was a Polish Jew, who, having converted to Christianity became the first Pole and one of the first Jews to be employed at a British university. It is believed he was born in 1555 or 1556 in Poland. After a period of silence, our protagonist comes back in 1596 with a note in the matriculation book of the University of Oxford. He must have been a Protestant back then as the admission to Oxford (or indeed holding any kind of public office) was impossible unless a candidate sworn on the 39 Articles that constituted the basics of Anglicanism. Ferdynand didn’t stay in Oxford for long – he became a tutor in Cambridge only six months later where he started teaching Hebrew and Arabic. In 1598, disappointed by a lack of popularity among students and low income, he moved with his wife to Domus Conversorum.


However, his stay in Oxbridge wasn’t fruitless as in 1597 his only book, Haec sunt verba Dei (“These are the words of God”), was published in Cambridge - the Latin translation and commentary to 613 commandments, a condensation of the whole Torah to a list of regulations and prohibitions done by medieval rabbis. Despite of how abstract and distant this subject may appear to us, the importance of the Ferdynand’s academic work cannot be overlooked. Coming from Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where the Jewish population was starting to grow rapidly and, hence, to generate intellectual life. Ferdynand was building bridges between Jewish tradition, usually unknown or unavailable in Western Europe because of the medieval pogroms, and modern humanism. Furthermore, it was especially important in the Protestant world, where knowledge about Judaism was particularly valued as it was introducing the Bible in its original which was the aim of both the Reformation and the Renaissance culture in general.  


In 1599, Ferdynand received an invitation from Joseph Scaliger, a leading French classicist, to Leiden in the Netherlands. Ferdynand began giving lectures on Arabic grammar and later became the head of a brand new faculty of Arabic studies. Leiden was kinder for him than Oxford or Cambridge had been. He was teaching future Hebraists and Arabists, and Scaliger himself took a lot from Ferdynand’s knowledge of Judaism. The growing career in Leiden was stopped by Ferdynand’s death in December 1599. 

The story of Filip Ferdynand could be treated as an antiquarian curiosity. It is difficult to even call it a story – Ferdynand left one edition of a source text. Only a few registers and letters mention him. Scaliger himself, allegedly deeply touched by the death of his co-worker and teacher, misstated his name in his 1605 book as Philippus Fredericus. It would be a mistake to assign more significance to Ferdynand than he actually had, and he had only a little. 


But let us be carried by the imagination. What can Ferdynand say to us from the depths of history? Few things. First of all, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth wasn’t a lonely island that contacted the outside world only through wars. Those citizens that managed to educate themselves, often were part of rei publicae litterarum, “the republic of scholars” – early modern network of contacts and ideas exchange sustained by common use of Latin, popularisation of print and first universities. Second of all, one of the joints of this dependence was Judaism and Jewish culture. Filip Ferdynand familiarised the Western European scholars with its vitality that he knew from Poland and with which he stayed in touch. It is also significant that the first Polish scholar in England, repeatedly identified as Polonus in the preserved documents, was a Jew. It shows that the attempts of telling the story of Polish culture, its relations with Europe, and even about history of Poles in England without including Jews are incomplete or outright false. 


Last but not least – Filip Ferdynand, regardless the significance of his person or rather the lack of it, is the oldest known ancestor of Polish students and scholars in the UK. It is possible that some medieval monk came to England from Poland even earlier, but he didn’t leave any trace. Our roots here are more than 400 years old. It would be a purely sentimental observation, were it not for Brexit and the uncertainty of the Polish student community in the UK about its future. Our community should derive its strength and resilience from, among other things, its history.


There is more to this history than we tend to think. So let’s hope the same will be true for our future. 

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