The Correspondence of Guilielmus Surenhusius

Primary Contributors:

Dirk van Miert (SKILLNET), with the assistance of Milo van de Pol (SKILLNET)

Portrait of Guilielmus Surenhusius, by Abraham de Blois, after David van der Plas. c. 1699. Engraving, 28.4 by 19.3 cm. (Amsterdam Rijksprentenkabinet, object no. RP-P-1936-748).

Guilielmus Surenhusius (c. 1664–1729)

The facts of the life and career of Surenhusius, the Amsterdam professor of oriental languages, are few. Most of the biographical details known about him hitherto were gleaned from the prefatory material of his published work, primarily his famous six-volume edition containing the translation of the Mishna (Amsterdam, 1698–1703), his inaugural address (1704), and his understudied Sefer hamashve (1713). His correspondence, however limited and patchy, reveals a number of new facts about his contacts and his working habits.

Surenhusius (whose name may be spelled Willem or Wilhelm, Surenhuys, Surenhuis, or Surenhuisen) was born around 1664 in the environs of Groningen. His father was a German who had studied philosophy in the city and worked afterwards in the province of Groningen as a minister. Surenhusius enrolled at Groningen University in the arts faculty in 1682, where he focussed on Hebrew studies. The realization that Amsterdam offered far greater opportunities to develop his interests than Groningen, where there were no resident Jews, prompted his move to capital in 1686. We learn from the letters that he struck up relations with members of the Portuguese Jewish community, trading books and manuscripts with them. From 1698 to 1703, Surenhusius published his famous edition with Latin translation of the Mishna, along with its commentaries by Maimonides and Bertinoro, as well as with reprints of previous published Latin translations of, and commentaries on, the Mishna, by other Christian scholars. His correspondence from these years shows that he  planned to add an appendix to this six-volume edition, listing unpublished manuscripts with translations and interpretations of the Mishna and the Talmud. This appendix never came to fruition.

Through his letters, Surenhusius orchestrated carefully the dedications of the second and third volumes to Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and to his brother, the prince and cardinal Francesco Maria de’ Medici, receiving a remuneration from the former, although various attempts to secure payment from the latter were unsuccessful. The correspondence refers to one of the individuals who turns out to be a financer for this massive project: the Leiden merchant Abraham Cosson (d. 1705). From Surenhusius’s letters to Cosimo’s learned agent Antonio Magliabechi, it becomes clear that sending the volumes over to Florence via Livorno was not easy; one shipment of books was seized by French pirates, and Cosimo had to ask the French King to retrieve them. Another interesting exchange is that with the Swedish theologian and librarian Erik Benzelius the Younger (1675–1743), who had travelled through Europe and who developed an interest in Hebrew books. Surenhusius secured a number of books for him, providing meticulous breakdowns of the cost. The letters demonstrate also that Surenhusius was involved in some way with the production of a four-volume folio edition of Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah, of which he sold copies to Benzelius, and forwarded Hebrew and Latin subscriptions prospectuses to Florence.

A year after completion of this work, in 1704, Surenhusius was appointed professor of oriental languages at the Amsterdam Athenaeum Illustre. In one letter, he complains that for seven years the mighty Amsterdam burgomaster Johannes Hudde blocked this appointment; what he omits to say, however, is that it might have been problematic that he had neither submitted a dissertation nor was in receipt of a doctorate.

A number of single letters survive from what must have been larger exchanges: a letter to the son of the Hebrew scholar Balthasar Scheidt gives an idea of the movement of unpublished of much-coveted manuscripts and commentaries, including a lost Latin translation of the whole of the Talmud by Balthasar Scheid, apparently a thirty-six volume quarto manuscript. Another interesting lost manuscript is a handwritten commentary on the whole of the Talmud, drawn up by the cabbalist and linguist Benjamin ben Immanuel Musaphia (c. 1606–1675). He wanted to publish this in two volumes in folio, but the project was never realized. Surenhusius appears to have been an avid collector of manuscripts, even if the sales catalogue of his library hardly mentions manuscripts. Surenhusius’s letters to the great Hebrew scholar and autograph-collector Johann Christoph Wolf likewise give evidence of the traffic of books and manuscripts.

From other letters, it appears that Surenhusius experienced misunderstandings with his printer Gerardus Borstius concerning the promotion of his Mishna project. The correspondence with his student Willem Te Water, who studied in Leiden but was supposed to travel to Amsterdam to study with Surenhusius during the vacations, was very different: when, some years later, Te Water secured a post as minister in a small village in the south of Zeeland in a hostile Catholic environment, Surenhusius tried to comfort him.

The surviving letters show Surenhusius as a peaceful scholar, one not prone to polemics. His favourite expression is ‘for the sake of learning’ (‘in rei literariae commodum’). We know from his work that he had great respect for the Rabbinic tradition, and he seems genuinely to have enjoyed the company of Jews. He argued that without the knowledge of Rabbinic literature, Christians could not fully understand the Old and the New Testaments. In other aspects, Surenhusius comes across as a sociable, serviceable, and responsible scholar: he writes and secures letters of recommendations, admonishes students, boasts of the success of his students, and complains of his teaching load and of all the visitors with whom he has to talk. One summer, he retreated for a couple of weeks to the countryside in an attempt to escape visitors and the arrival of letters.

We know very little about Surenhusius’s private life. He never married and he did not have children. In one letter, he writes that he is wedded to his work. Near the end of his life, his eyesight was diminishing and in a postscriptum to Wolf he asks his correspondent to write his reply in a larger hand.

It has not been established what happened to Surenhusius’s manuscripts following his death in Amsterdam in 1729. They are not listed in the 1,386 non-Hebrew and 339 Hebrew book in the sales catalogue of his library. None of the letters addressed to him has survived, not even those written to him by Cosimo III. The only reason it is possible to speak of his ‘correspondence’ instead of merely his ‘letters’, is because we are able to reconstruct the metadata and contents of some of the letters other people sent to him; these references have been added to this catalogue.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The metadata for the correspondence in this catalogue was collected for EMLO by Dirk van Miert during a Polonsky visiting fellowship at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, in combination with a Plumer fellowship of St Anne’s College, Oxford (May–June 2019). ERC Consolidator project no. 724972 ‘SKILLNET’ is indebted also to the European Research Council.


Scope of Catalogue

From the sixty-one entries, twenty refer to letters of which we have no archival record or printed edition. These were reconstructed from evidence of existing letters. Almost all existing letters are written by Surenhusius; only one of them is addressed to him. Six letters are epistles dedicatory, and seven others are found in works printed by contemporaries of Surenhusius. The remaining twenty-eight letters survive in twenty-six autographs and three manuscript copies (one letter survives in both these manifestations). Eleven of these were published in the twentieth century: six letters to Erik Benzelius the Younger, and five letters Johann Christoph Wolf, by Alvar Erikson in 1979 and Jan Wim Wesselius in 1992, respectively. The autographs are kept in Linköping, Copenhagen, Berlin, Hamburg, The Hague, London, and Florence. In addition to the letters, six entries by Surenhusius in alba amicorum were found, all signed in Amsterdam. These are not integrated into the catalogue. Of one album, the owner is unknown (Berlin, StaBi, Slg. Darmstaedter 2b, 1698: Surenhusius, Guilielmus, Blatt 2); the others were owned by the school rector Henricus Arntzenius (1665–1728: Amsterdam, University Library, ms. IV J 15, fol. 113r), the engraver Petrus Schenk (1645–1715: Leiden, University Library, LTK 903, fol. 121r), Friedemann Andreas Zülich (b. 1687; Weimer, Goethe- und Schiller Archive, GSA33/788 Blatt 7 recto(1).), the historian of scholarship Michael Lilienthal (1686–1750; lost during WW II, but kept at that moment in Königsberg, Stadtbibiothek: S 33, 12o, fol. 45), Johann Ulrich Henrici (1678–1712; private possession; see Walther Ludwig, Beispiele interkonfessioneller Toleranz im 16.–18. Jahrhundert. Zwei humanistische Stammbücher und die christlichen Konfessionen, Hildesheim, Zürich, New York 2010, pp. 222, no. 96) and Johannes Conradus Ihring (fl. 1717; The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, mark 74 H 47, fol. 48r).

Further resources


Dirk van Miert, Humanism in an Age of Science. The Amsterdam Athenaeum in the Golden Age, 1632–1704 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009), pp. 212, 214, and 218.

Peter van Rooden, ‘Wilhem Surenhuis’ opvatting van de Misjna’, in Jan de Roos, Arie Schippers and Jan Wim Wesselius, eds, Driehonderd jaar oosterse talen in Amsterdam (Amsterdam: Juda Palache Instituut, 1986), pp. 4354.

Peter van Rooden, ‘The Amsterdam Translation of the Mishnah’, in William Horbury, ed., Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1999), pp. 25767.

David Ruderman, Connecting the Covenants: Judaism and the Search for Christian Identity in Eighteenth-Century England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), passim.

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