Guillaume Postel

Guillaume Postel (25 March 1510 – 6 September 1581) was a French linguist, astronomer, Cabbalist, diplomat, professor, and religious universalist.

Born in the village of Barenton in Normandy, Postel made his way to Paris to further his education. While studying at the Collège Sainte-Barbe, he became acquainted with Ignatius of Loyola and many of the men who would become the founders of the Company of Jesus, retaining a lifelong affiliation with them. He entered Rome in the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in March 1544, but left on December 9, 1545 before making religious vows.

Diplomacy and scholarship

Postel was adept at Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac and other Semitic languages, as well as the Classical languages of Ancient Greek and Latin, and soon came to the attention of the French court.

Travel to the Ottoman Empire

In 1536, when Francis I sought a Franco-Ottoman alliance with the Ottoman Turks, he sent Postel as the official interpreter of the French embassy of Jean de La Forêt to the Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople.

Postel was also apparently assigned to gather interesting Eastern manuscripts for the royal library, today housed in the collection of oriental manuscripts at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.


In Linguarum Duodecim Characteribus Differentium Alphabetum Introductio (An Introduction to the Alphabetic Characters of Twelve Different Languages), published in 1538, Postel became the first scholar to recognize the inscriptions on Judean coins from the period of the Great Jewish Revolt as Hebrew written in the ancient "Samaritan" characters.[1]

In 1543, Postel published a criticism of Protestantism, and highlighted parallels between Islam and Protestantism in Alcorani seu legis Mahometi et Evangelistarum concordiae liber ("The book of concord between the Coran and the Evangelicals").[2]

In 1544, in De orbis terrae concordia, (Concerning the Harmony of the Earth), Postel advocated a universalist world religion. The thesis of the book was that all Jews, Muslims and heathens could be converted to the Christian religion once all of the religions of the world were shown to have common foundations and that Christianity best represented these foundations. He believed these foundations to be the love of God, the praising of God, the love of Mankind, and the helping of Mankind.

In his De la République des Turcs (Of the Turkish Republic) Postel makes a rather positive description of the Ottoman society.[3]

His 1553 Des merveilles du monde et principalemẽt des admirables choses des Indes & du noveau monde is one of the earliest European descriptions of religion in Japan. He interprets Japanese religion in terms of his universalist views on religion, claiming that the indigenous Japanese religion was a form of Christianity and that one could still find evidence of their worship of crucifixes.[4] Such claims about Japanese religion were common in Europe at the time; Postel's writings may have influenced Francis Xavier's expectations of Japan as he traveled there.[4]

Postel was also a relentless advocate for the unification of all Christian churches, a common concern during the period of the Reformation, and remarkably tolerant of other faiths during a time when such tolerance was unusual. This tendency led him to work with the Jesuits in Rome and then Venice, but the incompatibility of their beliefs with his prevented his full membership in their order.

Cosmographer and Cartographer

Postel is believed to have spent the years 1548 to 1551 on another trip to the East, traveling to the Holy Land and Syria to collect manuscripts. After this trip, he earned the appointment of Professor of Mathematics and Oriental Languages at the Collège Royal. He took an interest in geography in his course of lectures at the Collège Royal from 1537. In 1557, he published a short compendium under the name, De Universitate Liber, perhaps inspired by that of Henricus Glareanus (1527). This geographer had drawn two polar projections which remained in manuscript. Postel enlarged his treatise in the Cosmographicae Disciplinae Compendium, published in Basel by Oporinus in 1561, in which he set out clearly his ideas on the five continents: Asia-Sem, Africa-Cham or Chamesia, Iapetia or Europe and Atlantides-America divided into boreal and austral, separated from Chasdia or the Austral continent by the Fretum Martini Bohemi (Strait of Magellan). The Cosmographicae Disciplinae had an index of 600 names, which Postel put into his 1578 world map, Polo aptata Nova Charta Universi.[5] He inscribed on it to the south of South America a legend reading: Ce quart de globe, ou demy Hémisphere contient dedans sa longitude clxxx degrès [180º], partie Australle de l'Atlantide dicte Peru ou America par Americ Vespuce Florentin son inventeur, et davantage une partie de la Chasdia or terre Australle vers les Isles Mologa ou Moluques (This quarter of the globe, or half hemisphere, contains within its 180 degrees of longitude the Austral part of Atlantis called Peru or America after Amerigo Vespucci its discoverer, and as well a part of Chasdia or Terra Australis toward the Mologa or Moluccas Islands). On his map, the Terre Australe is called Chasdia in three places: under Africa (CHASDIAE pars adhuc incognita); under America (CHASDIAEcalled residuum Atlantidis meridiana pars); and under the Moluccas (CHASDIAE pars), where it is joined to an unnamed New Guinea with its Rio S. Augustin. Between South America and Chasdia is found the mention of the Fretum Martin Bohemi (Strait of Martin Behaim). Chasdia was a term forged by Postel: Chasdia qui est vers le Gond ou Pole Austral ainsi appellée à cause que de la Meridionale partie ou Australe procede la Misericorde dicte Chassed (Chasdia which is toward the austral Hinge or Pole, so called because from the southern or austral part originates Mercy called Chessed).[6] Another legend on the same map over the southern continent reads: CHASDIA seu Australis terra, quam Vulgus nautarum di fuego vocant alii Papagallorum dicunt (Chasdia or Terra Australis, which the common sailors call Tierra del Fuego and others say is the Land of the Parrots).[7] Postel’s world map strongly influenced Gerard de Jode and others of the Antwerp school.[8]

Near East and Central Europe

After several years, however, Postel resigned his professorship and traveled all over Central Europe, including Austria and Italy, returning to France after each trip, often by way of Venice. Through his efforts at manuscript collection, translation, and publishing, he brought many Greek, Hebrew and Arabic texts into European intellectual discourse in the Late Renaissance and Early Modern periods. Among these texts are:

Two aspects of the soul

To Postel, the human soul is composed of intellect and emotion, which he envisages as male and female, head and heart. And the soul's triadic unity is through the union of these two halves.

The mind by its purity makes good errors of the heart, but the generosity of the heart must rescue the egoistic barrenness of the brain.... Religion to the majority is superstition based in fear, and those who profess such have not the woman-heart, because they are foreign to the divine enthusiasms of that mother-love which explains all religion. The power that has invaded the brain and binds the spirit is not that of the good, understanding and long-suffering God; it is wicked, imbecilic and cowardly.... The frozen and shriveled brain weighs on the dead heart like a tombstone. What an awakening will it be for understanding, what a rebirth for reason, what a victory for truth, when the heart shall be raised by grace! ... The sublime grandeurs of the spirit of love will be taught by the maternal genius of religion. The Word has been made man, but the world will be saved when the Word shall have been made woman.

Yet Postel did not mean a second incarnation of divinity, his sentiment and language make it clear that he spoke figuratively.[10]

Heresy and confinement

While working on his translations of the Zohar and the Bahir in Venice in 1547, Postel became the confessor of Mother Zuana, an elderly woman who was responsible for the kitchen of the hospital of San Giovanni e Paolo. Zuana confessed to experiencing divine visions, which inspired Postel to believe that she was a prophet, that he was her spiritual son, and that he was destined to be the unifier of the world's religions. When he returned from his second journey to the East, he dedicated two works to her memory: Les Très Merveilleuses Victoire des Femmes du Nouveau Monde and La Vergine Venetiana.

Based on his own visions, these works brought Postel into conflict with the Inquisition. Postel's ties, however, with the very men tasked with trying him led to a verdict of insanity, rather than heresy, which could to the death penalty, and consequently Postel was confined to the Papal prisons in Rome.[11] He was released when the prison was opened upon the death of Paul IV in 1559. Czech humanist Šimon Proxenus ze Sudetu (1532–1575),[12] reports that in 1564 Postel was detained to the monastery of St. Martin des Champs in Paris, "because of his delusions on the Mother Jeanne".[13]

Postel resumed his life in Paris, but the Miracle at Laon in 1566 had a profound effect on him, and that year he published an account of it, De summopere considerando miraculo, in which he again expounded upon the interrelatedness of all parts of the universe and his imminent restoration of the world order.[14] As a result, he was sentenced to house arrest by the parlement of Paris, and eventually spent the last eleven years of his life confined to the monastery of St. Martin des Champs.


  • De originibus seu de hebraicae lingua (Concerning the Origins or concerning the language of Hebrew, in Latin), 1538.
  • Les Magistratures athéniennes (The Athenian Magistrates, in French), 1540.
  • Description de la Syrie (Description of Syria, in French), 1540.
  • Les Raisons du Saint-Esprit (The Plans of the Holy Spirit, in French), 1543.
  • De orbis terrae concordia (Concerning the Agreement [in Doctrines] of the World, in Latin), 1544.
  • De nativitate Mediatoris (Concerning the Nativity of Jesus, in Latin), 1547.
  • Absconditorum clavis, ou La Clé des choses cachées et l'Exégèse du Candélabre mystique dans le tabernacle de Moyse (The Key to Hidden Things and the Interpretation of the Mystical Menorah in Moses' Tabernacle, in French), 1547.
  • Livre des causes et des principes (Book of Causes and Principles, in French), 1551.
  • Abrahami patriarchae liber Jezirah (The Sefer Yetzirah of Abraham the Patriarch," in Latin), 1552.
  • Liber mirabilium (Book of Miracles, in Latin), 1552.
  • Raisons de la monarchie (Reasons for Monarchy, in French), 1552.
  • La Loi salique (The Salian Law, in French), 1552.
  • L'Histoire mémorable des expéditions depuis le déluge (The Known History of Travels after the Flood, in French), 1552.
  • Les Très Merveilleuses Victoires des femmes du Nouveau monde (The very Marvelous Victories of the Women of the New World, in French), 1553.
  • Des merveilles du monde et principalemẽt des admirables choses des Indes & du noveau monde (On the Marvels of the world and especially on the Admirable Affairs of the Indies and the New World, in French), 1553
  • Le Livre de la concorde entre le Coran et les Évangiles (The Book of Concordances between the Quran and the Gospels, in French), 1553.
  • Cosmographie (Cosmography, in French), 1559.
  • La République des Turcs (The Turkish Republic, in French), 1560.
  • La Vraye et Entière Description du royaume de France (The True and Whole Description of the Kingdom of France, in French), 1570.
  • Des admirables secrets des nombres platoniciens (On the Admirable Secrets of Platonic Numbers, in French).

See also


  • Jeanne Peiffer, article in Writing the History of Mathematics: Its Historical Development, edited by Joseph Dauben & Christoph Scriba
  • Marion Kuntz, Guillaume Postel: Prophet of the Restitution of All Things, His Life and Thought, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Hague, 1981
  • Whose Science is Arabic Science in Renaissance Europe?
  • Jean-Pierre Brach, "Son of the Son of God: The feminine Messiah and her progeny, according to Guillaume Postel (1510–1581),' in Olav Hammer (ed), Alternative Christs (Cambridge, CUP, 2009), 113-130.


  1. Frederic Madden, History of Jewish Coinage and of Money in the Old and New Testament, page ii
  2. Orientalism in early modern France, by Ina Baghdianitz McCabe, ISBN 978-1-84520-374-0, p.25
  3. Veiled encounters: representing the Orient in 17th-century French travel by Michael Harrigan p.21
  4. Josephson, Jason (2012). The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 59-60.
  5. France, Service historique de la Marine, fonds du service hydrographique, recueil no.1, carte no.10; another copy Brazil, Ministério de Relaçiões Exteriores, Rio de Janeiro, 193-3.
  6. Marcel Destombes, “Guillaume Postel cartographe”, in Günter Schilder, P. C. J. van der Krogt, Steven de Clercq (eds.), Marcel Destombes, 1905-1983: contributions sélectionnées à l'histoire de la cartographie et des instruments scientifiques, Volume 3 of HES studies in the history of cartography and scientific instruments, HES Publishers, 1987, pp.552-566, p.561.
  7. Charles Gilbert Dubois, Celtes et Gaulois, Paris, 1972, p.167.
  8. Rodney W. Shirley, The Mapping of the World: Early Printed World Maps 1472-1700, Early Riverside, Conn., World Press, 2001, pp.166-7, pl.122.
  9. Islamic science and the making of European Renaissance, by George Saliba, p.218 ISBN 978-0-262-19557-7
  10. Eliphas Levi Histoire de la Magie, 1860.
  11. Yvelise Bernard, L'Orient du XVIe siècle, Paris, L'Harmattan 1988. see her annotated biography pp 31-37
  12. Proxenus ze Sudetu, Šimon (1979). Martínková, Dana (ed.). Commentarii de itinere Francogallico. Bibliotheca scriptorum Medii Recentisque Aevorum, ser. nova, t. 5 (in Latin). Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó. ISBN 978-963-05-1843-7. OCLC 7736635.
  13. Secret, François (1998). Postel revisité: nouvelles recherches sur Guillaume Postel et son milieu (in French). Paris: S.É.H.A. ISBN 978-88-7252-187-8. OCLC 123291208.
  14. Kuntz, Marion Leathers (1997). "Guillaume Postel et Jean Boulaese: De Summopere (1566) et le Miracle de Laon (1566)". Sixteenth Century Journal. 28 (4): 1355. doi:10.2307/2543605. JSTOR 2543605.
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