The Abderites
[ Issue 6 ]

'The Abderites' intrigues Emily Bronto

Bikwil is proud to feature 'The Abderites'

The Abderites

In this article Bet Briggs lays out for us how she solved the mystery of who wrote the book about the town of Abdera and the foibles of its inhabitants.

For me, a long-time enthusiast of literary sleuthing, it was a challenge and an invitation

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A Town Like Abdera, or The Republic of Fools — Bet Briggs


So, who did write that book about Abdera? In Bikwil January 1998 The Man from Abdera posed the question and declared the book immortalising the town and the foibles of its inhabitants "one of the funniest . . . written in the 19th century". That's some claim!

His question was hardly a "trivia" one. For me, a long-time enthusiast of literary sleuthing, it was a challenge and an invitation. Given those tantalising clues as to period and geography — the 19th century, Germany, Abdera itself — how could I resist the temptation to investigate?

I put on my thinking cap and walking shoes, armed myself with pen and paper and headed for the library: mine first, Lane Cove several times and the State once.

On those excursions The Man from Highworth (Wiltshire, England), Nick Hidden, helped with my enquiries. And another sleuth, Bikwil's own editor, conversed with me by phone and also gave me a very helpful extract from J.G. Robertson's A History of German Literature, rev. ed. (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1953), which confirmed the evidence I had been gradually accumulating.

That teamwork has lead to a successful outcome, a solution to the case. Time now to file a report. I'll try, though, to spare readers tedious detail about methodology. But I would like to share the sequence of discovery and just let the references unfold naturally as we go on this brief literary journey.

To get myself started, at home I consulted a very worthy book The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (revised by Ivor H. Evans from Dr. Brewer's original). Consider the entry on Abdera:

A maritime town of Thrace, mythically founded by Hercules in memory of Abderus. The Abderites or Abderitans were proverbial for stupidity, said to be caused by the air, but among them were Democritus, the laughing philosopher (hence Abderitan laughter = scoffing laughter, and Abderite = scoffer); Protagoras, the sophist; Anexarchos, the philosopher friend of Alexander; and Hecatæus, the historian.

Like breakfast that was a good start. But I could find nothing more to digest in my own collection. So next stop was Lane Cove Library's reference section. There, William Rose Benet's entry on Abdera, Abderiten in The Reader's Encyclopedia (1965) added nothing new to what I'd already read in the Wordsworth. Surprisingly, too, a recently published encyclopedia on Satire had no reference at all to Abdera.

Remembering the German connection I looked up The Oxford Companion to German Literature (1976) and discovered on the very first page of entries under A, one on Die Abderiten: eine sehr warscheinliche Geschichte, a satire in five parts written between 1773 and 1779. The author was C.M. Wieland (1733-1813). The book was described as "a satire on the self-satisfied parochial life of German small towns in Wieland's day . . . the setting and disguise . . . the ancient Greek town of Abdera in Thrace, inhabitants of which (with the exception of Democritus) were noted for their narrow-mindedness".

Nine hundred odd pages later in the Companion there was a lengthy entry on Wieland, Christoph Martin, poet and novelist and much more besides, with critical commentary on his works and his contribution to German literature at the time of Goethe and Schiller. I'll return to this later. There was more about Die Abderiten to the effect that it appeared in 1774 and was reissued in 1961, but no reference to the 19th century.

At this point I rechecked Benet's (Reader's Encyclopedia) briefer entry. It more or less agreed with the Companion as regards date of publication of the novel, 1774, but it didn't mention either the 19th century or the 1961 reissue.

Despite this hitch in the research I was thrilled to find there really is a book on Abdera and I had now both author and title in one hit. But I was troubled about this one thing, this reference to the 19th century. Was the original Bikwil note a misprint or mistake? Or was I missing something? Was there some further crucial detail yet to be found? Could it be tucked away in a book with different focus and emphasis? (These are the kinds of questions the sleuth must ask herself.)

So, what about other encyclopedias, for example? I tackled several, including Britannica, Collins and World Books — nothing more than I'd already noted. I felt I'd run out of leads, come to a dead end, a bad moment for the literary sleuth. Fortunately I hadn't run out of the steam, or whatever it is that fires one to keep on searching.

I tried one more volume: the Lexicon Universal Encyclopedia. Editor Henry Garland had written the entry on Wieland and here I found gold again in these few words: "The Republic of Fools (1774; Eng. Trans. 1861) satirising German provincialism". So there was a 19th century text after all and in English! but no clue as to the translator. I needed to know that; the case couldn't be closed without that last piece of the puzzle.

All efforts to find reference in the works I'd already checked to the title The Republic of Fools were fruitless. Until that one visit to the State Library. For a couple of hours Nick and I browsed among the reference shelves. It was he who finally found the Dictionary of Literary Biography: Vol. 97: German Writers from the Enlightenment to Sturm und Drang, 1720-1764 (1990), with its very large, detailed entry in Wieland.

And there it was, the nugget I was hoping for: a mention of one Henry Christmas as the translator of Die Abderiten. With gratitude and great excitement I delved further into the pages on Wieland and found in the bibliography the novel's complete publication profile. I'll list the essentials of it because it shows finally all the threads of the research brought together:

Die Abderiten . . . (Weimar: Hoffmann, 1774) revised as Geschichte der Abderiten, 2 vols. (Leipzig: Weidmann & Reich); trans. By Henry Christmas The Republic of Fools: Being the History of the State and People of Abdera in Thrace, 2 vols. (Lond.: Allen, 1861); German version republished, ed. By Emil Steiger (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1961)

This is one of those great moments in the life of the sleuth. Mystery solved, now the case can be closed. Satisfied, one can relax, — and the sun being over the yard-arm — open the bar, pour the wine and drink a glass or two or three! to the success of the enquiry.

On that triumphant note I could end, but I said earlier I had more to add about Wieland. As well as a novelist he was a professor of Philosophy, translator and poet. His verse romance, Oberon (1790), according to the Companion is "regarded by some as his best work". In 1773 he launched Der teusche Merkur, a leading periodical in German intellectual life for 37 years. He edited it from 1773 to 1789, Robertson wrote in his History, adding that most of Wieland's own literary works appeared in the review's pages. Die Abderiten did, in 1774.

As a translator Wieland has some considerable importance in Germany. During the years 1762-1766 he translated 22 plays of Shakespeare, 21 in prose and one, A Midsummer Night's Dream, into verse. This was the first collection of Shakespeare's plays in German translation and this is how Wieland's contemporaries, Goethe and Schiller, first met Shakespeare's work. (I haven't found out which 21 of the Bard's plays Wieland translated yet, but that's another case for later.)

A few words about Wieland's own translator won't go amiss. Remember Henry Christmas? With a name like that what could he be but Reverend? That and more, as it turned out. In his 57 years — he lived from 1811 to 1868 — he was a scholar and writer on many subjects from antiquities to capital punishment, and, like Wieland, editor of journals, church and literary. He edited The Literary Gazette (1859-60), and acted as editor of several works including Pegge's Anecdotes of the English Language (1844). He was also a numismatist of repute, coined many articles on the subject and maintained his own extensive and valuable collection. He can be found in name and fame in the Dictionary of National Biography (Vol. IV).

What a stimulating exercise this has been! What fun! I must thank The Man from Abdera. The book of Abdera in Wieland's original German and Christmas's English translation may well be one of the funniest to have emerged to entertain 18th, 19th and 20th century readers. I have not seen either yet. I only understand the story from the outline of its five parts that I read in the Companion.

I like even more Robertson's description. Here’s a sample:

[An] . . . entertaining episode is that of the ass’s shadow . . . A dentist hires an ass to carry him to a neighbouring town. He has to cross a treeless plain, and as the day is hot, he dismounts, to rest in the shadow of the ass. The driver of the ass objects, on the ground that the ass and not its shadow has been hired. A lawsuit ensues, and the whole town is divided into two parties, the "asses" and the "shadows" ; excitement runs high, and ultimately the affair is brought to a conclusion by the slaughter of the unoffending ass.

I think I could enjoy this book about Abdera. It may be as relevant to the provincialism of our world today as it was for Wieland's time.

I'll try and locate a copy of Henry Christmas's The Republic of Fools before the next millennium.

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