Matthias Christian Sprengel

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Matthias Christian Sprengel
Signature Matthias Christian Sprengel.PNG

Matthias Christian Sprengel (born August 24, 1746 in Rostock ; † January 7, 1803 in Halle (Saale) ) was a German geographer and universal scholar .


Sprengel was born as the son of a merchant who moved from Danzig to Rostock. Not much is known about his early life. He is said to have attended school in Rostock. He then began studying law at the University of Rostock in April 1764 , which he continued in Bützow from the 1767 summer semester . He then studied at the University of Göttingen and was particularly interested in the English and French languages. This led him to grapple with the history of England and its colonies, which led him over to geographic exploration. In August Ludwig von Schlözer (1735–1809) he found a teacher who made him hold lectures on French colonies in North America in 1774.

In the summer semester of 1778 he became an associate professor of philosophy in Göttingen, where he lectured on the history and the state of the British colonies in America and dealt with statistics and the history of European states. In the following year Sprengel was appointed full professor of history and statistics at the University of Halle ; in the inaugural lecture in the summer semester of 1779 he dealt with the "origin of the negro trade".

Copper engraving by Matthias Christian Sprengel
Link to the picture
(Please note copyrights )

In Halle he made the acquaintance of Johann Reinhold Forster , with whom he worked together on some literary works. Sprengel married Wilhelmine, the third daughter of Johann Reinhold Forster, on October 28, 1781, so he became his father-in-law.

Sprengel read in Halle about statistics, about the history of Prussia, the German Empire and about the history of European states, whereby he gave priority to modern history. He read the statistics based on the floor plan by Gottfried Achenwall (1719–1772), who had published a textbook which at that time enjoyed an extraordinary reputation. But he did not stick to it strictly. Rather, his handwritten compendia show how he made the greatest possible use of all advances in statistical and historical knowledge and how he thoroughly processed particularly foreign original works. The history of geographical discoveries plays a major role in Sprengel's public lectures.

In his favorite studies, however, he moved in his public lectures about the British colonies in North America, about the American war of independence, about the peace treaties in Paris in 1763 and 1783, about the history of India and the trade relations of the Europeans with this country , Substances in the treatment of which he interweaves teachings on politics, business and finance. He also sought in a kind of geographic-historical seminar ("geographica schola") and in exarainatoria on selected chapters of the latest history to achieve a special deepening of these studies in his audience. In addition to his professorship, he received the post of first university librarian, which he tried to give up in 1803 because of his age, which was very appealing to his polyhistorical inclinations, especially since he also invested immense private sums in this activity.

With a few interruptions, Sprengel's life now flowed calmly and evenly. Only small trips occasionally brought a change in his strenuous activity. In the summer of 1784 he established personal relationships with scholars from Jena, but after his return he thanks God “that he is not allowed to live there”. In the summer of 1786 he visited his old home in Rostock, in 1788 he renewed his old friendships in Göttingen, especially with Christian Gottlob Heyne , for whom he had unlimited admiration and whom he strove to see again in order to "pour out his heart rightly" to be able to “if everything goes below and above in Halle”.

Sprengel also took on organizational tasks at the Halle University and was Vice-Rector of the Alma Mater three times in 1787/88, 1796/97, 1799/1800 .

He visited the city of Weimar several times. But he did not embark on a major scientific journey, and he did not get beyond the borders of Germany.

When he died of a chest infection accompanied by nerve fever, his contemporaries saw death primarily as a grave loss to geography; one compared his merit with that of Anton Friedrich Büsching 's (1724–1793) and praised his enrichment of the worldview in political and geographical terms.


Sprengel's scientific activity was extensive and varied. His English language studies first led him into the old Scottish folk poetry and from this soon into the full breadth of the then flourishing geographical and statistical English literature, in which he was mainly involved in compiling and editing, often also purely translating. French and Italian literature were also taken into account. The slave trade, to which he had devoted a program when he took up his professorship in Halle in 1779, also occupied him later; Sprengel is one of those who pioneered its repeal through speech and writing.

There is no more significant step in the exploration of the British and French colonies that Sprengel did not report and discuss in his own works or articles. With the support of both Forster, he gave since 1781 “Contributions to regional and ethnology” (14th vol. 1781–1799) and “New contributions” (13 vol. 1790–1794) and since 1794 alone a continuation under the title “Selection of best foreign geographical and statistical news for the clarification of the country and ethnology ”(14 th. to 1800) out, which however was nothing more than a collection of abridged translations of geographical works and travelogues. Commercial geographical notices made these contributions with preference. The edits are often made in a very fleeting manner. Sprengel began the library of the latest and most important travelogues , which was later continued by Friedrich Justin Bertuch and Theophil Friedrich Ehrmann (7 vols. To 1803; the first half of the 8th volume, the journey of Sauer and Billings, is still completed by S.), it consists mainly of translations.

Sprengel earned credit for the publication of later editions of Achenwall's statistics, which Schlözer had obtained until 1781. Sprengel's outline of the national studies of the most distinguished European empires is also an essential revision of individual parts of Achenwall's handbook. It therefore consists of political-statistical pepertories, the zealous collection of which formed a large part of Sprengel's activity. The Bertuch'sche Landesindustriecomptoir acquired a mass of statistical material from its estate, which various employees brought into a usable condition.

Sprengel's work testifies to an enormous reading of old and new literature, including daily literature. That alertness and that practical eye for what is politically outstanding or interesting, which we also see in the works of some contemporaries, prevents the masses of reading fruits from turning into dry lists. On the contrary, Sprengel had a stimulating and encouraging effect in many respects and shares with Schlözer and Büsching in the merit of having brightened the Germans' view of the wider world, but with both of them he did not escape the danger of flattening, which in the quick production Assessment of the daily events from the table of scholars.

His writings on questions of the time, especially the statistical ones, should actually have been followed by practical application through colonization in a time of calmer development. But Sprengel himself does not seem to have thought of that, but contented himself with an incessant, diligent collection of materials, so that Bertuch was able to announce Sprengel's complete and detailed history of Europe in 12 fifty-sheet volumes immediately after his death, which, however, never appeared.

In addition to all this work, Sprengel found time to work extensively as a reviewer and publicist in the periodical press. As such, he published a countless number of treatises, articles and reviews in the “Rostocker Wochenblatt” (1773), “Encyklopädischen Journal” (1775), “Deutsche Museum” (1779–1788), in Gatteres “Historisches Journal”, in Meusel's various Publications on historical literature, in the "Allgemeine Litteraturzeitung", in the "Allgemeine Deutsche Bibliothek", in the "Rostockschen non-profit news" and in the Göttingische Schehre Werbung etc. It is impossible to deal with these smaller works; because their number is exorbitant. Again and again they show his endeavors to be there with his science where he can benefit the broadest circles. But they are also a testimony to the inexhaustible workforce of this man.

When looking at all of his oeuvre, two things are particularly worth mentioning: the novelty and strangeness of the materials to which he devoted his time, and the peculiar adaptation of science to the requirements of popular taste. These characteristics of his literary production raised the prestige that his contemporaries had for him and the admiration of the lay public. Various of his works were distributed by reprint, others had multiple editions or were translated into Dutch and French. The title of the work was imitated in order to take away "the figurehead" or one easily committed literary theft of his works. All evidence of how influential his writing had become.

Works (selection)

  • History of the Falkland Islands. Goettingen 1776
  • Brief description of the British colonies in a table. Goettingen 1776
  • Letters concerning the current state of North America. Goettingen 1777
  • From the origin of the negro trade. 1779 ( digitized version )
  • About the current North American War and that for England and France. Leipzig 1782
  • Statistical news for the elucidation of the country and ethnology. 14 parts. until 1800
  • History of the Europeans in North America until 1688. Leipzig 1782
  • History of the North American Revolution. 1783
  • About the War of the English East Indies. Hall 1783
  • History of the Marattas up to the last peace with England on May 17th 1782. With a map . Halle 1786. [Reprints: Gegel, Frankenthal 1791; Gegel, Frankenthal 1814]
  • History of the major changes of state and trade in the East Indies. Berlin 1786
  • History of the Indian changes of state from 1756 to 1783. Leipzig 1788
  • Life of Hyder Allys, Nabobs of Mysore. 1st part hall 1784, 2nd part hall 1786
  • About the latest state of the East Indian trading company in the Netherlands. Lübeck; Leipzig 1797
  • About Tippo Saheb's States. 1800


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Rostock matriculation of Matthias Christian Sprengel in the Rostock matriculation portal
  2. ^ Bützow matriculation of Matthias Christian Sprengel in the Rostock matriculation portal
  3. Matthias Christian Sprengel (ed.), Theophil Friedrich Ehrmann (ed.): Library of the latest and most important travelogues to expand geography . ( Retro digital copies ). Verlag des Großherzoglich Sächsischen priv. Landes-Industrie-Comptoirs, Weimar. (Online at ALO ).