‘Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte and his Gaelic Interests’

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On 8th October 2014, the Centre welcomed Prof. Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh to discuss ‘Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte and his Gaelic Interests’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte (January 4, 1813 – November 3, 1891) was the third son of Prince Lucien, Napoleon’s second surviving brother. A polymath (and polyglot), Louis dabbled in politics but dedicated much of his life to academia, specifically philology, and became a leading contemporary scholar on the subject. Henry Drummond Wolff commented:

‘His life was principally devoted to literature and science. He was a perfect encyclopedia of learning, ancient and modern.’

Thanks to his princely status, he had the income necessary to sustain both his scholarly interests and his own publishing company. He moved in upper-class social circles, boasting acquaintances such as Queen Victoria, Alexander Graham Bell, and William Gladstone.

Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte.
Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte.

Louis made two known visits to Scotland (in 1858 and later in 1875), aiming to gather linguistic data and improve his fluency in Gaelic. The local newspapers followed his progress through the country with great interest, recording his visits to various booksellers and learned individuals, such as Alexander MacGregor. On the 8th September 1858, The Scotsman claimed:

‘Prince Bonaparte made great progress in learning the Gaelic language, which he already speaks with considerable fluency.’

Prof. Ó Maolalaigh doubted his proficiency in Gaelic, but found it easy to be impressed by Louis’ active interest in the language. The prince clearly made a significant impression upon the communities he visited, as he has been incorporated into local tradition: the MacInnes family in Skye claim Bonaparte was once seen in Broadford with Dr. Samuel Johnson (despite the fact Johnson died in 1784, around thirty years before Louis was born).

The scholarly works of Louis impress in content and scope. In the 1882-4 edition of the Transactions of the Philological Society, Louis contributed no less than 11 articles of ‘extraordinary variety’, from Portguese vowels to ‘Names of European Reptiles in the Living Neo-Latin Languages’. Equally, his publications, such as Parabola de Seminatore ex Evangelio which records 72 languages, suggest he was ‘very learned with great resources’. Louis was also a bibliophile of some significance, having amassed a collection of c. 25,000 books by the time of his death. Many were sold to Newberry Library, Chicago for $21,000, and Prof. Ó Maolalaigh suggested the still extant collection deserved a dedicated research project.

Concluding, Prof. Ó Maolalaigh convincingly argued that Prince Louis has been hitherto unappreciated within the world of philology, and clearly deserves a place of honour. While his contributions may not have made a huge impact, his progressive respect of native languages provided much encouragement to future scholars.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our series continues next Tuesday 14 October with Matt McDowell, ‘Scottish football and Scandinavia, 1898-1914: the future of “European” popular culture?’. This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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