The mysterious M. Birt

Another post on the mysteries and fascination of doing research!

So I’m checking the transcriptions of various articles by H. G. Wells, and I’m working on a book review he did for the Saturday Review in 1895. The book was Abelard and the Origin and Early History of Universities by Gabriel Compayré. And I get to this:

I often run into this sort of name dropping in Wellsian articles. Since I’m annotating his work, I need to find out who M. Birt is. I assume M is “Monsieur”, though it could be a first initial. I do what I always do, grabbing some of the quote and Googling it in quotation marks. Nothing.

This is unusual, but it’s happened before. Not everything published is available online, of course. So I try to hunt down M. Birt with search terms: Birt + 19th + century + education, Birt + 19th + century + university.

There’s a printer named Birt in Seven Dials, there’s a Rodger Birt who wrote recently about a 19th century photographer. A theologian at Leeds…nope. This looks promising:

He seems to be some sort of astronomer, so I search for a first name. Scroll up 15 pages. William Radcliffe Birt. Google that then.  Oooh, he was a leading selenographer. I know that word now: he liked mapping the moon. But what does that have to do with medieval universities? Maybe he wrote something about them. Try Google Books — all astronomy. Internet Archive. Nothing. Nothing? Take out his middle name. An obituary. An astronomer, and died decades before. Hathi Trust. Nope. Maybe it’s not him.

Back to Google. Birt + university. Lots of acronyms. Birt + medieval + university. Google changes Birth to “birth”, but if I wish I could see what ratings Paul Birt at University of Ottowa is earning on RateMyProfessors.

Back to plan A, the quotation. I try “This is the way with learned bodies.” Nothing. F*** Google. Switch to Dogpile.

Try M. Birt medieval university. Hmmm…

Germany? Entirely possible.

Change search to t + birt + medieval + university. He’s there in Google Books. A modern classicist. No, that’s not it. Back to Search theodor birt german. All the books are in German. I don’t read German. Back to Google: Theodor Birk. Wikipedia!

Great! Except none of his publications are in English. The most popular one with a close date is Das antike Buchwesen in seinem Verhältnis zur Literatur (1882). Something about ancient books. Maybe he did medieval stuff too?

Idea! Maybe the quotation is translated from the German. Use Google Translate. Put in part of the quotation. Get German translation. Get Google to translate German result. Not making sense. Try “medieval university” translated, with his name. Nothing.

Besides, Wells didn’t speak German, or if he did he couldn’t have done it well. And he wouldn’t bother translating for an article he’d dashed off for money. It just didn’t make sense. And why would Theodor Birt be messing around in the Middle Ages anyway if he was a classicist? It was all too obscure. By now it’s midnight and I’ve had it up to hear with M. Birt.

Plan A again. I try Googling, “Peripatetics when all the world”. The article by Wells that I’m transcribing comes up, which is nice. But right below it is this:

That’s strange. It’s the book Wells is reviewing. Isn’t the quotation from M. Birt? I take a look. The quote is actually from Campayré’s book. But something is a little different:

That’s not M. Birt. It’s M. Biot. The printer (not Birt the printer) got it wrong. It’s a typo. A 124-year-old typo that has had me searching all over for a mysterious Mr Birt in the middle of the night.

Biot. M. Biot. Campayré calls him a historian of science. Google: Biot + history + science. First link is a dead end, some kind of anagram. Second link goes to some Memoir in Google Books. Score! It’s the Report of the Council to the Forty-third Annual Meeting of (scroll up) the Royal Astronomical Society, 1864. Not astronomy again? But there it is, in all its glory, a little biography:

Ah, Jean-Baptiste. Google the full name. Wikipedia. Oh, no, all the books are in French. Translate: université médiévale…

But, the important thing is, I know it’s a typo, and I know that it’s Compayné quoting and not Wells. That will have to do for what is, quite literally, a footnote to history.


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