Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726) is April’s hottie of the month.

Originally apprenticed to a draper, Wanley developed an interest in old books and handwriting after a visit to Oxford. He then taught himself the fundamentals of paleography. His talents in this field soon attracted the attention of the right people, and he was able to matriculate at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, in 1694. During his second year, Wanley moved to University College and became an assistant librarian at the Bodleian Library.

Wanley left Oxford in 1699, taking a post as assistant to the secretary of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. He was soon promoted to secretary, nearly doubling him income, but he craved work as a librarian. When he was unsuccessful in his attempt to become the curator of the Cottonian Collection in 1702, he got on as a member of a commission hired to study the collection.

By this time, Wanley was becoming an expert on Anglo Saxon. He had become friends with George Hickes, a vicar who had written a study of Anglo-Saxon grammar in 1689. The two men took up a correspondence that Clare A. Simmons describes in her essay on Wanley for the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Vol. 33) like this:

his early letters to Hickes are written in florid Latin but include interesting discussions of Anglo-Saxon studies, while others show indications of a genuine warmth between the two men. In 1699 Wanley confided in Hickes, for example, a plan for gaining financial independence by marrying his cousin Elizabeth Phillipps, who had inherited some property: he describes her as “young, well-bred, vertuous, honest, good-humor’d, & not very ugly.” The scheme suggests a certain lack of romantic feeling on Wanley’s part, and scarcely surprisingly, his cousin seems to have refused him.

Wanley assisted Hickes in his research and, according to Simmons, compiled “the most complete compilation of Anglo-Saxon works then extant, mentioning books in some three dozen libraries, churches, and private collections, many of which had never been described in detail before.” Furthermore, Simmons notes, Wanley was the first person to draw attention to the poem we now know as Beowulf. In fact, the first recorded mention of Beowulf is in a letter from Hickes to Wanley written on August 20, 170o.

In 1701, Wanley met Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford, and in 1708 Harley hired him as his personal library, a post he retained for the rest of his life. I can’t help but feel happy that his dream of being a librarian finally came true!

Later in life, Wanley kept a diary, which was edited and published in 1966 as The Diary of Humfrey Wanley, 1715-1726. As Simmons relates, “The diary provides an invaluable source as to the precise duties of an eighteenth-century librarian–or at least, of an exceptionally knowledgeable and industrious one.” Wanley died in 1726 of dropsy.

I came across Wanley’s name when I became interested in the history of Beowulf in the eighteenth century. I taught the poem in my English Lit survey this past week and was reminded about how interesting the textual history of the poem is. In class, all I talked about was the ambiguity of the poem’s early textual history — so little is known about its origins and authorship. Once we were finished with the poem, I started wondering about its later textual history. So, I googled “eighteenth century Beowulf” just to see what would come up.

One of the sites that I found mentioned Hickes and Wanley, so I started googling and reading about them too. Wanley seems like a really interesting and important figure, one certainly worth more attention today. I wonder if anyone is working on him.

The other thing I found as I was looking at Beowulf‘s textual history is recent efforts to digitize the poem. I immediately started thinking of lots of things I could do in class next year when I teach this poem again in the survey. I’ve also starting wondering if it would work to teach it in Honors Tutorial class introducing the field of English Studies in the fall. I wonder if first-year honors students could get into issues of textual history, libraries, and the like. I know I would! (I just wish I spoke/read Old English!)

So, for his part in rediscovering Beowulf, I’ve selected Humfrey Wanley as April’s hottie of the month.