Biography: Erpenius - Thomas Van Erpe

Thomas van Erpe (1584-1624), also known by his Latin name Erpenius, was a famous Dutch orientalist who studied Arabic works, published them, and taught Arabic.


Born at Gorcum, in Holland, on the 11th of September 1584. After completing his early education at Leiden, he entered the university of that city, and in 1608 took the degree of master of arts. By the advice of Scaliger he studied Oriental languages whilst taking his course of theology.

He afterwards travelled in England, France, Italy and Germany, forming connections with learned men, and availing himself of the information which they communicated. During his stay at Paris he contracted a friendship with Issac Casaubon, which lasted during his life, and also took lessons in Arabic from an Egyptian, Joseph Barbatus, otherwise called Abudacnus. At Venice he perfected himself in the Turkish, Persian and Ethiopic languages.

After a long absence, Erpenius returned to his own country in 1612, and in February 1613 he was appointed professor of Arabic and other Oriental languages, Hebrew excepted, in the university of Leiden.

Soon after his settlement at Leiden, motivated by the example of Savary de Breves, who had established an Arabic press at Paris at his own charge, he caused new Arabic characters to be cut at a great expense, and erected a press in his ownhouse.

In 1619 the curators of the university of Leiden instituted a second chair of Hebrew in his favor. In 1620 he was sent by the States of Holland to induce Pierre Dumoulin or Andre Rivet to settle in that country; and after a second journey he was successful in inducing Rivet to comply with their request. Some time after the return of Erpenius, the states appointed him their interpreter; and in this capacity he had the duty imposed upon him of translating and replying to the different letters of the Moslem rulers of Asia and Africa.

His reputation had now spread throughout all Europe, and several princes, the kings of England and Spain, and the archbishop of Seville made him the most flattering offers; but he constantly refused to leave his native country.

He was preparing an edition of the Koran with a Latin translation and notes, and was projecting an Oriental library, when he died prematurely on the 13th of November 1624.


  • Grammatica Arabica, quinque libris methodice explicata(Leiden 1613). You can see a picture of an antique copy for sale.
  • Rudimenta Linguae Arabicae (Leiden 1620)
  • Locmani Spientis Fabulae et Selecta Quaedam Arabu Adagia.  An image of an antique copy is also available.
  • Grammatica Ebraea Generalis (Amsterdam 1621)
  • Grammabiea Chaldaica et Syria (Amsterdam 1628)
  • An edition of Elmacin's History of the Saracens. This reference was used extensively in Europe, for example by Edward Gibbon in his monumental work Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • Orationes tres de Linguarum Ebraeae atque Arabicae dignitate (Leyden, 1621).
  • Pauli Apostoli ad Romanos Epistola, Arabice. An Arabic edition of St. Paul's epistle to the Romans. See an image of a copy, as well as description.
  • Biblia Arabica. The Bible in Arabic. (Leiden 1622)

Several of his works are available as rare books, as noted above, as well as on this page.


Thanks to his huge linguistic knowledge he may be considered the father of the Dutch orientalist school of the 17th century: his important Arabic grammar was a standard text till the beginning of the 19th century.

The Arabic fonts that were prepared for him were distinguished for their beauty and precision and were employed for printing such works as a collection of Arab proverbs (1614), an Arabic translation of the Pentateuch (1622) and several editions of Elmacin, History of the Saracens (first edition, 1625).

The private books of Van Erpe found their way to University of Cambridge, when the Duke of Buckingham purchased them from Van Erpe's widow, and later The Duchess of Buckingham gave them to said university.