Menachem Mendel

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Who was William Wickes

I once posted about two very important books on טעמי המקרא, Biblical Cantillation, which were written by the Reverend Dr. William Wickes. See this recent post by Lion of Zion which refers to one of them. Victor Tunkel has posted a comment to that post, and points out that in his book, The Music of the Hebrew Bible and the Western Ashkenazic Chant Tradition, he discusses Wickes’s biography. Below is some biographical information from Tunkel’s informative book.

Wickes was born in Dover, England, on August 15, 1817, and went on to study mathematics at Cambridge. After finishing Cambridge, he went to Canada and taught mathematics at a number of institutions. While in Montreal, he was ordained as a deacon, and later a priest. In 1854 he returned to England. Tunkel writes,

In 1856 he moved to the job which was to enable him to achieve his life’s work. He went to London to work for the Colonial and Continental Church Society (subsequently the Commonwealth and Continental, and now the Intercontinental). The Society’s main purposes were establishing and ministering to Anglican congregations in the colonies and mainland Europe, corresponding with them, visiting and supporting them, and providing them with chaplains. He was appointed one of several of the Society’s Association Secretaries. So for the next seven years he had the opportunity to travel all over the Continent in search and scrutiny of all the extant sources of the vocalised Bible text. In 1863 he was promoted to be the Secretary of the Society. That presumably kept him at headquarters in London; we may assume that by then he had all the source-material and could begin to collate and draw conclusions.
(p. 108)

He then returned to Canada, and had a number of teaching positions, both in Bible and mathematics. He eventually returned to England, and in 1881 published A Treatise on the Accentuation of the Three so-called Poetical Books on the Old Testament, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. In 1887 he then published A Treatise on the Accentuation of the Twenty-one so-called Prose Books of the Old Testament. Wickes died on October 17, 1903, at the age of 86. Again from Tunkel,

The above details of his life give little clue of how and when he acquired his extensive knowledge of Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and Syriac; or, indeed, what it was that originally inspired him as a mathematician and cleric to pursue this unlikely and arcane interest. Various contemporaries refer generally to his scholarship but say nothing of its content or breadth. One may guess that after having established himself in Canada, his return in 1855 to England, when approaching 40 and to poorly-paid employment, must have been motivated by his need for time and opportunity to pursue his manuscript studes.
(p. 109)

Tunkel quotes Aron Dotan who wrote,

Whatever flaws we may have found in Wickes’s work do not in the least detract from the fundamental value of his enormous achievement.

We thank Wickes for his work, and Victor Tunkel for helping give this important man the acknowledgement that he deserves.

7 Responses to “Who was William Wickes”

  1. 1

    It wasn’t that arcane in the 19th century.

    “As Simon Winchester writes of a slightly later period in “The Meaning of Everything: the Story of the Oxford English Dictionary,” “[F]or very many they were also cultured and learned times besides. . . . It is perhaps worth recalling just how very well educated people were in those days – or at least to recall how very well educated the educated clases were. . . . [p]eople, or people of a certain kind in the Britain of the day, were quite simply possessed of much time and much learning, and in far greater abundance than many like people possess it today. Items from the newspapers of the time hint at the almost incidental, quite casual cleverness of the cleverest of the reading public. An illustration of the kind of things appears that day in the ‘Telegrams in Brief’ section of The Times, in which it reports, without explanation or adornment, that:

    Further hostilities are reported between the Zaranik tribe and the forces of the Zaidi Imam Yahya of Sana’. The Zaranik attacked a Zaidi detachment at Mansuria, near Hodeida, and have been plundering caravans trading with Sana’.

    No further details are offered to suggest where all this fighting was (Yemen, one imagines), nor the identities of the parties to the feud. The newspaper’s editor presumes that readers, quite simply, had sufficient education to know.”

    Thanks for this very informative post. Like most people for whom Wicke’s name is embedded in their brain, I knew nothing about him.

  2. 2
    Lion of Zion:

    thanks for the link

    “what it was that originally inspired him as a mathematician and cleric to pursue this unlikely and arcane interest.”

    just to add to what S wrote, wickes’s wide interests might seem strange to modern academics, who are expected to become so specialized in one narrow subfield, and among whom breadth of knowledge is completey undervalued (or even considered negatively).

    besides wha’t so unusual? jordy penkower also was a budding mathematician (BA and MA) before making his mark as a bible scholar.

  3. 3
    Art W:

    I wonder if there’s any correlation between people with math/science abilities/training and ba’alei q’riyah. I know several math/science people who are ba’alei q’riyah (including yours truly). There seems to be a good number of mathematicians who are good musicians; I don’t know to what extent that matters. There’s also Jacobson’s discussion of recursive dichotomy as a parsing technique for verses; it shouldn’t be too hard to build a recursive-descent parser for same.

  4. 4
    Menachem Mendel:

    This comment was forwarded to me by David R.


    I was just preparing some notes of my own on Wickes when I found this
    post (and its partner). Thanks for them both!

    A further thought on “what it was that originally inspired him as a
    mathematician and cleric to pursue this unlikely and arcane interest.”
    Probably the biography in Victor Tunkel’s work also notes that Wickes
    had, years earlier (1863), published a rebuttal of the notorious work
    of Colenso on the Pentateuch (also on
    Twenty or so years later he was writing his “Treatises”. This still
    doesn’t explain the “turn” to the cantillation, of course, but it does
    suggest a motive for gaining deeper familiarity with the biblical text
    in the original. FWIW!

    The “note” I refer to is

    Best wishes from a fairly grey and damp Edinburgh,

  5. 5
    Victor Tunkel:

    I am pleased to see that the brief biographical sketch in my book – all that is known about Wickes – has been helpful to a few interested readers. The bold and vigorous way in which he set about all the earlier and contemporary scholars (Seligman Baer excepted) makes what might seem a very remote and esoteric subject into a quite lively read.

    It is sad that he received no recognition in his lifetime for a truly remarkable achievement. He surely deserves an entry in the DNB.

  6. 6
    Tom Gear:

    Do Wicke and Tunkel provide enough information for one to learn to Cantilate?

  7. 7
    Tom Gear:

    Sorry, Wickes.




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