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Literary Blunders

WHEN Dante published his “Inferno,” the simplicity of the age accepted it as a true narrative of his descent into hell.

When the Utopia of Sir Thomas More was first published, it occasioned a pleasant mistake. This political romance represents a perfect, but visionary republic, in an island supposed to have been newly discovered in America. “As this was the age of discovery,” says Granger, “the learned Budæus, and others, took it for a genuine history; and considered it as highly expedient, that missionaries should be sent thither, in order to convert so wise a nation to Christianity.”

It was a long while after publication that many readers were convinced that Gulliver’s Travels were fictitious.

But the most singular blunder was produced by the ingenious “Hermippus Redivivus” of Dr. Campbell, a curious banter on the hermetic philosophy, and the universal medicine; but the grave irony is so closely kept up throughout this admirable treatise, that it deceived for a length of time the most learned of that day. His notion of the art of prolonging life, by inhaling the breath of young women, was eagerly credited. A physician, who himself had composed a treatise on health, was so influenced by it, that he actually took lodgings at a female boarding-school, that he might never be without a constant supply of the breath of young ladies. The late Mr. Thicknesse seriously adopted the project. Dr. Kippis acknowledges that after he read the work in his youth, the reasonings and the facts left him several days in a kind of fairy land. I have a copy with manuscript notes by a learned physician, who seems to have had no doubts of its veracity. After all, the intention of the work was long doubtful; till Dr. Campbell informed a friend it was a mere jeu d’esprit; that Bayle was considered as standing without a rival in the art of treating at large a difficult subject, without discovering to which side his own sentiments leaned; and Dr. Campbell had likewise read more uncommon books than most men; he wished to rival Bayle, and at the same time to give the world much unknown matter. He has admirably succeeded, and with this key the whole mystery is unlocked.

Pallavicino, in his History of the Council of Trent, to confer an honour on M. Lansac, ambassador of Charles IX. to that council, bestows on him a collar of the order of the Saint Esprit; but which order was not instituted till several years afterwards by Henry III. A similar voluntary blunder is that of Surita, in his Annales de la Corona de Aragon. This writer represents, in the battles he describes, many persons who were not present; and this, merely to confer honour on some particular families.

A book was written in praise of Ciampini by Ferdinand Fabiani, who, quoting a French narrative of travels in Italy, took for the name of the author the following words, found at the end of the title-page, Enrichi de deux Listes; that is, “Enriched with two Lists:” on this he observes, “that Mr. Enriched with two Lists has not failed to do that justice to Ciampini which he merited.” The abridgers of Gesner’s Bibliotheca ascribe the romance of Amadis to one Acuerdo Olvido; Remembrance, Oblivion. Not knowing that these two words, placed on the title-page of the French version of that book, formed the translator’s Spanish motto!

D’Aquin, the French king’s physician, in his Memoir on the Preparation of Bark, takes Mantissa, which is the title of the Appendix to the History of Plants by Johnstone, for the name of an author, and who, he says, is so extremely rare, that he only knows him by name.

Lord Bolingbroke imagined, that in those famous verses, beginning with Excudent alii, &c. Virgil attributed to the Romans the glory of having surpassed the Greeks in historical composition: according to his idea, those Roman historians whom Virgil preferred to the Grecians were Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus. But Virgil died before Livy had written his history, or Tacitus was born.

An honest friar, who compiled a church history has placed in the class of ecclesiastical writers, Guarini, the Italian poet; this arose from a most risible blunder: on the faith of the title of his celebrated amorous pastoral, Il Pastor Fido, “The Faithful Shepherd,” our good father imagined that the character of a curate, vicar, or bishop, was represented in this work.

A blunder has been recorded of the monks in the dark ages, which was likely enough to happen when their ignorance was so dense. A rector of a parish going to law with his parishioners about paving the church, quoted this authority from St. Peter—Paveant illi, non paveam ego; which he construed, They are to pave the church, not I. This was allowed to be good law by a judge, himself an ecclesiastic too!

One of the grossest literary blunders of modern times is that of the late Gilbert Wakefield, in his edition of Pope. He there takes the well-known “Song by a Person of Quality,” which is a piece of ridicule on the glittering tuneful nonsense of certain poets, as a serious composition. In a most copious commentary, he fatigues himself to prove that every line seems unconnected with its brothers, and that the whole reflects disgrace on its author, &c. A circumstance which too evidently shows how necessary the knowledge of modern literary history is to a modern commentator, and that those who are profound in verbal Greek are not the best critics on English writers.

Prosper Marchand has recorded a pleasant mistake of Abbé Bizot, the author of the medallic history of Holland. Having met with a medal, struck when Philip II. set forth his invincible Armada, on which was represented the King of Spain, the Emperor, the Pope, Electors, Cardinals, &c., with their eves covered with a bandage, and bearing for inscription this fine verse of Lucretius:

O cœcas hominum mentes! O pectora cœca!

prepossessed with the false prejudice, that a nation persecuted by the pope and his adherents could not represent them without some insult, he did not examine with sufficient care the ends of the bandages which covered the eyes and waved about the heads of the personages represented on this medal; he rashly took them for asses’ ears, and as such they are engraved!

Mabillon has preserved a curious literary blunder of some pious Spaniards, who applied to the Pope for consecrating a day in honour of Saint Viar. His holiness, in the voluminous catalogue of his saints, was ignorant of this one. The only proof brought forward for his existence was this inscription:


An antiquary, however, hindered one more festival in the Catholic calendar, by convincing them that these letters were only the remains of an inscription erected for an ancient surveyor of the roads; and he read their saintship thus:


Maffei, in his comparison between Medals and Inscriptions, detects a literary blunder in Spon, who, meeting with this inscription,

Maxime VI Consule,

takes the letters VI for numerals, which occasions a strange anachronism. They are only contractions of Viro Illustri—VI.

As absurd a blunder was this of Dr. Stukeley on the coins of Carausius; finding a battered one with a defaced inscription of


he read it


And sagaciously interpreting this to be the wife of Carausius, makes a new personage start up in history; he contrives even to give some theoretical Memoirs of the August Oriuna!

In the Valeriana we find, that it was the opinion of Father Sirmond, that St. Ursula and her eleven thousand Virgins were all created out of a blunder. In some ancient MS. they found St. Ursula et Undecimilla V. M. meaning St. Ursula and Undecimilla, Virgin Martyrs; imagining that Undecimilla with the V. and M. which followed was an abbreviation for Undecem Millia Martyrum Virginum, made out of Two Virgins the whole Eleven Thousand!

Pope, in a note on Measure for Measure, informs us, that its story was taken from Cinthio’s Novels, Dec. 8. Nov. 5. That is, Decade 8, Novel 5. The critical Warburton, in his edition of Shakespeare (as the author of Canons of Criticism observes), puts the words in full length thus, December 8, November 5.

Voltaire has given in his Philosophical Dictionary, article Abus des Mots, a literary anecdote of a singular nature; a complete quid pro quo. When the fragments of Petronius made a great noise in the literary world, Meibomius, an erudit of Lubeck, read in a letter from another learned scholar of Bologna, “We have here an entire Petronius; I saw it with mine own eyes, and with admiration.” Meibomius in post-haste travels to Italy, arrives at Bologna, and immediately inquires for the librarian Capponi. He asks him if it was true that they had at Bologna an entire Petronius. Capponi assures him that it was a thing which had long been public. Can I see this Petronius? Have the kindness to let me examine it. Certainly, replies Capponi. He leads our erudit of Lubeck to the church where reposes the body of St. Petronius. Meibomius bites his lip, calls for his chaise, and takes his flight.

A French translator, when he came to a passage of Swift, in which it is said that the Duke of Marlborough broke an officer; not being acquainted with this Anglicism, he translated it roué, broke on a wheel!

Cibber’s play of “Love’s last Shift” was entitled “La Dernière Chemise de l’Amour.” A French writer of Congreve’s life has taken his Mourning for a Morning Bride, and translated it L’Espouse du Matin.

Sir John Pringle mentions his having cured a soldier by the use of two quarts of Dog and Duck water daily; a French translator specifies it as an excellent broth made of a duck and a dog! In a recent catalogue compiled by a French writer of Works on Natural History, he has inserted the well-known “Essay on Irish Bulls” by the Edgeworths. The proof, if it required any, that a Frenchman cannot understand the idiomatic style of Shakespeare appears in a French translator, who prided himself on giving a verbal translation of our great poet, not approving of Le Tourneur’s paraphrastical version. He found in the celebrated speech of Northumberland in Henry IV.

Even such a man, so faint, so spiritless,
So dull, so dead in look, so woe-begone

which he renders “Ainsi douleur! va-t’en!”

A remarkable literary blunder has been recently committed by the Abbé Gregoire; who affords another striking proof of the errors to which foreigners are liable when they decide on the language and customs of another country. The abbé, in the excess of his philanthropy, to show to what dishonourable offices human nature is degraded, acquaints us that at London he observed a sign-board proclaiming the master as tueur des punaises de sa majesté! Bug-destroyer to his majesty! This is no doubt the honest Mr. Tiffin, in the Strand; and the idea which must have occurred to the good abbé was, that his majesty’s bugs were hunted by the said destroyer, and taken by hand—and thus human nature was degraded!

A French writer translates the Latin title of a treatise of Philo-Judæus Omnis bonus liber est, Every good man is a free man, by Tout livre est bon. It was well for him, observes Jortin, that he did not live within the reach of the Inquisition, which might have taken this as a reflection on the Index Expurgatorius.

An English translator turned “Dieu défend l’adultère” into “God defends adultery.” Guthrie, in his translation of Du Halde, has “the twenty-sixth day of the new moon.” The whole age of the moon is but twenty-eight days. The blunder arose from his mistaking the word neuvième (nine) for nouvelle or neuve (new).

The facetious Tom Brown committed a strange blunder in his translation of Gelli’s Circe. When he came to the word Starne, not aware of its signification, he boldly rendered it stares, probably from the similitude of sound; the succeeding translator more correctly discovered Starne to be red-legged partridges!

In Charles II.’s reign a new collect was drawn, in which a new epithet was added to the king’s title, that gave, says Burnet, great offence, and occasioned great raillery. He was styled our most religious king. Whatever the signification of religious might be in the Latin word, as importing the sacredness of the king’s person, yet in the English language it bore a signification that was no way applicable to the king. And he was asked by his familiar courtiers, what must the nation think when they heard him prayed for as their most religious king?—Literary blunders of this nature are frequently discovered in the versions of good classical scholars, who would make the English servilely bend to the Latin and Greek; however, its genius will not bear the yoke their unskilful hands put on its neck. Milton has been justly censured for his free use of Latinisms and Grecisms.

The blunders of modern antiquaries on sepulchral monuments are numerous. One mistakes a lion at a knight’s feet for a water curled dog; another could not distinguish censers in the hands of angels from fishing-nets; two angels at a lady’s feet were counted as her two cherub-like babes; and another has mistaken a leopard and a hedgehog for a cat and a rat! In some of these cases are the antiquaries or the sculptors most to be blamed?

A literary blunder of Thomas Warton is a specimen of the manner in which a man of genius may continue to blunder with infinite ingenuity. In an old romance he finds these lines, describing the duel of Saladin with Richard Cœur de Lion:

A Faucon brode in hande he bare,
For he thought he wolde thare
Have slayne Richard.

He imagines this Faucon brode means a falcon bird, or a hawk, and that Saladin is represented with this bird on his fist to express his contempt of his adversary. He supports his conjecture by noticing a Gothic picture, supposed to be the subject of this duel, and also some old tapestry of heroes on horseback with hawks on their fists; he plunges into feudal times where no gentleman appeared on horseback without his hawk. After all this curious erudition, the rough but skilful Ritson inhumanly triumphed by dissolving the magical fancies of the more elegant Warton, bv explaining a Faucon brode to be nothing more than a broad faulchion, which, in a duel, was certainly more useful than a bird.

Bayle supposes that Marcellns Palingenius, who wrote a poem entitled the Zodiac—the twelve books bearing the names of the signs—assumed, from this circumstance, the title of Poeta Stellatus. But it appears that this writer was an Italian and a native of Stellada, a town in the Ferrarese. It is probable that his birthplace produced the conceit of the title of his poem: it is a curious instance how a critical conjecture may be led astray by its own ingenuity, when ignorant of the real fact.

Editor’s Notes

 § Five footnotes were added to this article in later editions of the Curiosities. First, further to the mention of Gulliver’s Travels, in the third paragraph:

The first edition had all the external appearance of truth: a portrait of “Captain Lemuel Gulliver, of Redriff, aetat. Suæ lviii.” faces the title; and maps of all the places, he only, visited, are carefully laid down in connexion with the realities of geography. Thus “Lilliput, discovered A.D. 1669,” lies between Sumatra and Van Dieman’s Land. “Brobdignag, discovered A.D. 1703,” is a peninsula of North America. One Richard Sympson vouches for the veracity of his “antient and intimate friend,” in a Preface detailing some “facts” of Gulliver’s Life. Arbuthnot says he “lent the book to an old gentleman, who went immediately to his map to search for Lilliput.”

Second, after mention of ‘Mr. Enriched-with-two-lists:’

In Nagler’s Kunstler-Lexicon is a whimsical error concerning a living English artist—George Cruikshank. Some years ago the relative merits of himself and brother were contrasted in an English review, and George was spoken of as “The real Simon Pure”—the first who had illustrated scenes of “Life in London.” Unaware of the real significance of a quotation which has become proverbial among us, the German editor begins his Memoir of Cruikshank, by gravely informing us that he is an English artist, “whose real name is Simon Pure!” Turning to the artists under the letter P, we accordingly read:—“Pure (Simon), the real name of the celebrated caricaturist, George Cruikshank.”

Third, concerning Stukeley’s Oriuna:

The whole of Dr. Stukeley’s tract is a most curious instance of learned perversity and obstinacy. The coin is broken away where the letter F should be, and Stukely himself allows that the upper part of the T might be worn away, and so the inscription really be Fortuna Aug; but he cast all such evidence aside, to construct the imaginary life of an imaginary empress; “that we have no history of this lady,” he says, “is not to be wondered at,” and he forthwith imagines one; that she was of a martial disposition, and “signalized herself in battle, and obtained a victory,” as he guesses from the laurel wreath around her bust on the coin; her name he believes to be Gaulish, and “equivalent to what we now call Lucia,” and that a regiment of soldiers was under her command, after the fashion of “the present Czarina,” the celebrated Catherine of Russia.

Fourth, upon the paragraph concluding ‘are the antiquaries or the sculptors most to be blamed:’

One of the most curious pictorial and antiquarian bluncers may be seen in Vallencay’s Collectanea. He found upon one of the ancient stones on the Hill of Tara an inscription which he read Beli Divose, “to Belus, God of Fire;” but which ultimately proved to be the work of some idler who, lying on the stone, cut upside down his name and the date of the year, E. Conid, 1731; upon turning this engraving, the fact is apparent.

And, fifth, further to the penultimate paragraph:

Erroneous proper names occur continually in the early writers, particularly French ones. There are some in Froissart that cannot be at all understood. Bassompierre is equally erroneous. Jorchaux is intended by him for York House; and, more wonderful still, Inhimthort, proves by the context to be Kensington!

 ¶ This article was revised and expanded from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. Some anecdotes included in the earlier version of the piece are omitted here:

Marville informs us, that one George Vicelius committed a singular anachronism. He has given, as a book of Plutarch, the life of Charlemagne, written by Donatus Acciaioli, because it is sometimes joined to the life of Plutarch by that author.
Quintus Curtius, though a polished historian, has many gross geographical blunders. He takes Arabia Felix for the deserts of Arabia, and conveys the rivers Tygris and Euphrates through Media, where they never yet ran. Marville gives many other instances of the incorrectness of this historian.
Simon Grynæus (Marville says) mistook the celebrated geographer and astronomer Ptolomy for one of the kings of Egypt of this name.
Jean le Clerc has made of Olympius Nemesianus, a Latin poet, two, viz. Olympius and Nemesianus.
The erudite Struvius advises those who would learn the history of Ethiopia, to read the Ethiopic history of Heliodorus. This critic could not have read the work which he so warmly recommends; for this history is well known only to be a romance, consisting of the adventures of two lovers.

A further anecdote, concerning Saint Xinoris, also formerly a part of this article, later found its way into D’Israeli’s piece on ‘Legends.’