The Correspondence of Joseph Mede

Primary Contributors:

Cultures of Knowledge


Detail from title page of The works of the pious and profoundly-learned Joseph Mede, 1677, 3rd edition. (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; source of image: Cultures of Knowledge)

Joseph Mede (1586–1638)

Joseph Mede was born in 1586 in Breden, Essex. His father, who was related to Sir John Mede of the nearby Wendon Lofts, died of smallpox when he was ten; his mother remarried a man named Gower, from Naseing. According to Venn, Mede was educated first at Hoddesdon in Herfordshire, and then at Wethersfield, Essex, where he may have studied under Richard Rogers, a non-conformist who was appointed to the school in 1573.1 Most of what was known of Mede’s life until recently was contained in the preface to the edition of his works edited by John Worthington and published (in a number of editions) just decades after Mede’s death. In Worthington’s account, the story of Mede’s trip to London at a young age is related, during which Mede purchased a copy of Robert Bellamine’s Hebrew grammar and from which he acquired ‘no small skill in the Hebrew Tongue’ before he left school.2 Mede matriculated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1603, and ten years later he was elected to succeed Hugh Broughton to the King Edward VI fellowship.

In 1618 Mede was appointed Mildmay Greek lecturer, a position he held for the remainder of his life. Those who studied under him included John Milton, Henry More, and John Worthington, the scholar who progressed to become his tutor’s own biographer and editor. By all accounts, Mede was a gifted and dedicated tutor. Worthington writes that he used to deliver private lectures to his pupils, and ‘In the Evening they all came to his Chamber to satisfie him that they had perform’d the Task he had set them. The first question which he us’d then to propound to every one in his order was, Quid dubitas? What Doubts have you met in your studies to day? (For he supposed that To doubt nothing and To understand nothing were verifiable alike.) Their Doubts being propounded, he resolved their Quaere’s, and so set them upon clear ground to proceed more distinctly.’3 Worthington describes his tutor also as: ‘an acute Logician, an accurate Philosopher, a skilful Mathematician, an excellent Anatomist (being usually sent for when they had any Anatomy in Caius Colledge), a great Philologer, a master of many Languages, and a good proficient in the studies of History and Chronology.’4

Mede lived in college, in a room situated beneath the library. He is described, again by Worthington, as being a man ‘studiously regardless of Academical Degrees, as being unwilling to make any great noise and report in the world.’5 Twice he declined the offer of James Ussher to take up the position of Provost of Trinity College Dublin, yet Worthington was at pains to point out that although Mede ‘loved a retired studious life’, he was not inward looking, but rather his ‘Heart was as large and wide as the Universe’.6  

Perhaps known best today for his eschatalogical works, in particular Clavis Apocalyptica (1627), which was intended initially for private and limited circulation only, but was reprinted three times within the twenty-three years following its publication, Mede died on 1 October 1638 in his chamber at Christ’s College. Having described himself modestly as possessing ‘brains … so narrow, that I can tend and mind but one thing at once’,7 Mede has flourished in a highly significant afterlife, not least through his influence on another Cambridge student — Isaac Newton — who arrived at Trinity College in 1661, three years before publication of the first edition of Mede’s work. Newton went on to write extensively about biblical prophecy and adopted Mede’s historicist interpretation of the Apocalypse.

 


Partners and Additional Contributors

Metadata for the letters selected for publication by John Worthington and printed in The works of the pious and profoundly-learned Joseph Mede, B.D. sometime fellow of Christ’s Colledge in Cambridge’ (for further details, see below) was collated for the Cultures of Knowledge research project by EMLO Digital Fellow Laura Lawrence and checked by Editorial Assistant Charlotte Marique. Twenty-five letters between Mede and Hartlib existed already in EMLO’s Hartlib catalogue, which was worked on initially by the first Cultures of Knowledge Hartlib Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Leigh Penman, under the supervision of Professor Howard Hotson and Professor Mark Greengrass, and in association with the Humanities Research Institute of the University of Sheffield, and subsequently by the second Cultures of Knowledge Hartlib Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Robin Buning, under the supervision of Professor Howard Hotson. The matching records between the two catalogues have been linked.

The letters in EMLO’s catalogue have been supplemented by those Mede dispatched each week to his friend and the father of two of his pupils, Sir Martin Stuteville, which are to be found in the British Library’s Harleian 389 and 390. Edited in two unpublished doctoral theses, by Daphne Wedgbury and David Cockburn respectively, metadata for these letters were calendared for EMLO by Charlotte Marique and Laura Lawrence. Metadata for the former has been included in this catalogue; metadata for the latter will be added shortly.


Key Bibliographic Source(s)

The works of the pious and profoundly-learned Joseph Mede, B.D. sometime fellow of Christ’s Colledge in Cambridge, ed. John Worthington (London, 1664; 1672, second edn; 1677, third edn).

David Cockburn, ‘A Critical Edition of the Letters of the Reverend Mead (1626–1627), contained in British Library Harleian MS 390’, DPhil. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1994.

Daphne Westbury, ‘An Edition of the Letters (1621–1625) of the Reverend Joseph Mead to Sir Martin Stuteville of Suffolk in BL MS Harleian 389’, PhD thesis, University of Leicester, 1991.


Contents

The fourth book of the Works contains ninety-eight letters from Mede’s correspondence with British and European scholars and theologians, many of which involve detailed discussion of his apocalyptic conclusions. As Jeffrey Jue writes of Mede’s correspondence, the letters ‘help to solidify Mede’s reputation as an expert on the Apocalypse during the seventeenth century. His letters are filled with queries from theologians not only in England, but also in Ireland, the Dutch Republic, and France. … Likewise, biblical scholars who were less convinced by Mede’s exegetical conclusions wrote to him as well. … Mede’s re-introduction of millenarianism was stimulating theological thought. Due to his growing popularity, those who disagreed obviously felt it was necessary to respond to Mede.’9

The letters Mede wrote each week over the years between 1619 and 1631 to his friend Sir Martin Stuteville (Harleian 389 and 390) are of a different nature entirely. Alongside his own comments on current affairs, Mede transcribed passages from news tracts sent to him from London. He reported to Stuteville on a wide range of topics: European events (including battles and significant news concerning the Thirty Years’ War); English politics; University and local Cambridge news. Of Mede’s interest in current affairs, his former student and editor, John Worthington wrote: ‘for the gaining of forein Intelligence (besides his Letters from some knowing Friends with whom he kept correspondence) he was not unwilling to expend yearly something out of his small Incomes, and when he sent it to such as were at charge to furnish him (weekly for the most part) with Intelligence, he us’d in his Letters to them to call it His Tribute, (that was his word, implying his ingenuity and withal his respect; not Wages, or any the like word of a mercenary or servile signification)’.10


Further resources

Bibliography

David Cockburn, ‘A Critical Edition of the Letters of the Reverend Mead (1626–1627), contained in British Library Harleian MS 390’, DPhil. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1994.

Jeffrey K. Jue, Heaven Upon Earth: Joseph Mede (1586–1638) and the Legacy of Millenarianism (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006).

The works of the reverent, iudicious and learned divine, Mr. Ioseph Mede (London, 1648).

The works of the pious and profoundly-learned Joseph Mede, B.D. sometime fellow of Christ’s Colledge in Cambridge, ed. John Worthington (London, 1664; 1672, second edn; 1677, third edn).

Daphne Westbury, ‘An Edition of the Letters (1621–1625) of the Reverend Joseph Mead to Sir Martin Stuteville of Suffolk in BL MS Harleian 389’, PhD thesis, University of Leicester, 1991.

Launch all records in EMLO to, from, or mentioning Mede

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Launch letters between Mede and Stuteville (Westbury, unpublished PhD thesis, 1991)

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Footnotes

J. Venn and J. A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses: a biographical list of all known students, graduates and holders of office at the University of Cambridge, from the earliest times to 1900 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1922–1954), part. 1, vol. 3, p. 170.

2 The works of the pious and profoundly-learned Joseph Mede, B.D. sometime fellow of Christ’s Colledge in Cambridge, ed. John Worthington (London, 1677, third edn), p. I.

3 Ibid., p. IV.

Ibid., p. II.

Ibid., p. XV.

Ibid., p. XVI.

Ibid., Book V, Epistle XIV.

Rob Iliffe, Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 235–6.

Jeffrey K. Jue, Heaven Upon Earth: Joseph Mede (1586–1638) and the Legacy of Millenarianism (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006), p. 15.

10 Worthington, ed., op. cit., above (1677), p. XVI.