Interview & Opinion

A diary opens up a new world

Why did the 19th century scholar and author Charles-Benoît Hase use Ancient Greek for his diary? Classical philologist and START Prize winner William Barton is on the trail of several mysteries. Source: Dominik Pfeifer/FWF

What is the main question you want to answer in your project?

William Barton: Our project focuses on the diary of Charles-Benoît Hase (1780-1864). He was a Hellenist, author and scholar, a professor of Modern Greek in Paris, and the director of the manuscripts department of the Royal Library, which later became the National Library of France. We want to find out what he wrote in his diary, and what we can learn from it.

Which aspects are central to this subject?

Barton: There are three aspects of particular interest to us. First, in addition to being a professor of Modern Greek, Hase was also a specialist in Byzantine texts and Ancient Greek. We want to explore why he wrote his diary in Ancient Greek. Did he use the language as a secret code to protect his personal data? We want to explore what kind of Ancient Greek he wrote in. Second, he is known to have forged Byzantine texts. We want to learn more about these forgeries: How did he make them, and why? Does the diary contain new, previously undiscovered information about the forgeries? Third, add to this that Hase was influential in his time as a renowned expert on Greek language and culture. The European philhellenic movement took an interest in Greek politics and the Greek Revolution (1821-1829). We want to find out how Hase leveraged his privileged position for Greeks in France in terms of politics, culture and humanitarianism.

What insights about life in 19th century Paris might the diary hold?

Barton: The diary contains Hase’s personal world. It offers a completely new perspective previously not available to readers. We can look over the shoulder of a 19th century philologist and watch him at work. It also comprises societal and cultural aspects. It can help us answer questions such as, was the cultural status of professors different than it is today? Where did a professor of Modern Greek go to have a glass of wine with his friends?

How did you find this diary?

After months of searching, I came across the volumes of the diary in an archive in Weimar.

Barton: Four years ago, I began to take an interest in so-called Neo-Ancient Greek literature, meaning texts that were written in Ancient Greek, but in modern times. In my research on modern forgeries written in Ancient Greek, I came across Hase’s name, and read that he had supposedly written a secret diary. Until then, only a very abridged collection of excerpts by a younger colleague of Hase’s had been available. The original diaries were thought to have been lost. After six months of research and searching in archives, as it happens, I came across the nine extant volumes of the diary in an archive in Weimar. In the catalogue, they were described as “Memo calendars:language:Greek”.

How do you conduct your research in this project?

Barton: Hase’s notes comprise a total of 2,440 pages. The first part of the START project involves reading and transcribing them in detail. We use AI-supported handwriting recognition software, the TRANSKRIBUS programme, to aid in this task. We upload images of pages of text, which the AI uses to learn from researchers how to recognise words, after receiving sufficient palaeographic input. With further training, the AI learns to transcribe the text itself. It does so with more than 95 per cent accuracy. We check and correct the results. In addition, we summarise the daily diary entries and Hase’s excerpts, and add explanations of the facts, persons, places and events mentioned he mentions. In the second part of the project, we can answer our research questions based on our understanding of the text. For the third part, I will be writing an intellectual biography. In it, I want to juxtapose Hase’s autobiographical view of himself with descriptions and imputations by others in order to answer the question: Who was this man?

What does the START Grant mean for your research?

Barton: It gives me an opportunity to concentrate almost exclusively on exploring this incredibly fascinating text. That is a privilege. The START programme is prestigious. The fact that a project on Neo-Ancient Greek has been awarded this grant means that this very small research field is receiving recognition.

What fascinates you about this research field?

Barton: When you learn Ancient Greek, it opens up a fascinating world of texts and thoughts for you. But when studying classical philology, you usually only read texts written by Ancient Greeks, and about the world in late antiquity. When I began to work with this early modern literature, I realised that command of this ancient language can open a window to a far greater cultural horizon. Hase’s diary is a wonderful example of yet undiscovered literature in Neo-Ancient Greek.


William Barton has been working as a postdoc at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies in Innsbruck since 2017. Born in Britain, he studied classical philology (Ancient Greek and Latin) at University College London and at the University of Calgary. In 2011, he joined the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies for his PhD project on Neo-Latin literature. He earned his doctorate at Kings College London in 2015. Most recently, William Barton was the postdoc team leader for a critical edition, with translation and commentary, of Pascasius Justus Turcq’s early medical treatise on problem gambling, the De alea (1561). He has a particular research interest in Ancient Greek production beginning with the Renaissance.


About the project

In the research project “Life in Ancient Greek: The Secret Diary of K.B. Hase”, William Barton and his team explore the diary of Hellenist and philologist Charles-Benoît Hase (1780-1864), who lived and worked in Paris. The diary opens up new perspectives on 19th century intellectual culture. The project has three goals: producing a digital version of the diaries and manuscripts, a critical analysis, and an intellectual biography of Charles-Benoît Hase.


The START Prize

The START Programme of the Austrian Science Fund FWF is aimed at outstanding young researchers, giving them the opportunity to plan their research over an extended period and with a high degree of financial security. It is endowed with up to EUR 1.2 million and is one of Austria’s most prestigious and most highly endowed awards alongside the Wittgenstein Award.

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