Thursday, October 2, 2014


Paul Botley, Dirk van Miert (ed.), The Correspondence of Joseph Justus Scaliger (8 vols.). Travaux d'humanisme et Renaissance, 507/1-8. Genève: Librairie Droz, 2012. Pp. 5,000. ISBN 9782600015523. $528.00.

Reviewed by Scott Mandelbrote, Peterhouse, University of Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site

The work under review is the first critical edition to modern standards of the correspondence of arguably the most important scholar of the classical world active during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

At the funeral of Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609), his colleagues at the University of Leiden, Daniel Heinsius and Dominicus Baudius delivered orations that celebrated the 'learning so unprecedented in a single man', which had left no field of letters 'untouched or untried': 'nothing escaped him which was worthy of notice and on which he had decided that he ought to bestow his efforts.'1 Scaliger's friends, disciples, and immediate successors burnished his reputation. Accounts of his table talk, frequently reprinted, vied with his constant presence in the chain of authorities cited by editors to keep his name always in the mind of early modern scholars of classical and Christian antiquity. Jacob Bernays and Mark Pattison extolled him to a new generation in the mid-nineteenth century. If Housman was typically sharp in exposing the 'arrant gasconading' of Scaliger's table talk, he wrote with genuine reverence of his achievement as a critic of Manilius, whose deductions were 'enough to make a dozen editors illustrious.'2 Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, who sternly turned against such 'wild conjectures', nevertheless enumerated Scaliger's achievements: the discovery of early Latin as a living language; the reconstruction of the canon of Eusebius and of the basis for chronology; the idea of compiling a complete collection of Latin inscriptions; the editing of unpromising classical texts, regardless of their lack of intrinsic literary or scientific merit, in order to shed light on ancient beliefs and practices. 'Nobody before [Barthold Georg] Niebuhr rated Scaliger at his true worth.'3

More recent historians and students of antiquity, led by Henk Jan de Jonge and Anthony Grafton, have shown greater respect for the judgement of Scaliger's contemporaries. They have allowed us to understand Scaliger's achievement as perhaps the first scholar of ancient history and ancient religion to attempt properly to contextualise the evidence before him. Their Scaliger is the judicious inventor of a chronological system which can be independent of ancient accounts of history, including that of the Bible; the sceptical interrogator of the language and antiquity of Jewish and Christian texts; the excited seeker after new forms of evidence and knowledge, whether in Byzantine chronography or Samaritan sacred books. The questions that defined his erudition remain alight throughout the history of scholarship: what is authentic, how much can be known, whose judgement can we trust? Thanks to Grafton, in particular, it is possible to understand the transformation that Scaliger wrought in the humanist scholarship that had been practised for more than a century by his French and Italian forebears. In the process, we can see how Scaliger stood so high in the estimation of contemporaries, who did not share the values of late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century classical scholarship, and appreciate some of the reasons why Scaliger's heirs were so perverse as to fall away from what seemed to later minds to be their hero's standards. We still lack a true biography of Scaliger, but we understand the life in scholarship of a man who can plausibly be said to have lived for scholarship.

After Grafton had won the Balzan prize in 2002, he established a research project at the Warburg Institute to produce a modern edition of Scaliger's extensive correspondence. Such an edition is an essential tool for understanding Scaliger's true place in the republic of letters, as well as providing the material out of which further evaluation and re-evaluation of Scaliger's life and scholarship might develop. After eight years of labour (2004-2012), eight volumes of Scaliger's letters have now been published, edited with exemplary skill and tact by Paul Botley and Dirk van Miert, and beautifully produced by Librairie Droz of Geneva. Seven volumes contain the main sequence of more than 1600 letters, printed in date order from 10 April 1561 to 3 February 1609 (two weeks after Scaliger's death), with the eighth consisting of a few undated letters, a list of 119 datable letters to and from Scaliger that can be inferred to have existed from the correspondence itself, a remarkable biographical register, and an index of personal names and some subjects. Two-thirds of the letters are written in Latin (with frequent references to Greek and less frequent ones to Arabic, Hebrew, and other languages), almost all of the remainder are in French (with a notable exception being the letters to Scaliger from the Samaritans of Cairo and from Eleazar, high priest at Sichem, which are printed here in Hebrew rather than Samaritan type, and of which the editors were unable to see the originals, supposed to be held in the department of oriental manuscripts in the Bibliothèque nationale de France). The editors have normally been indefatigable in tracking down and comparing surviving copies of letters, and identifying priority between them. Their apparatus is consistently helpful in providing variant readings and in establishing the dates and immediate contexts for letters. People and texts referred to in the letters are spotlessly identified and discussed in the notes, although the secondary literature cited there is not always repeated in the relevant entries in the biographical register. Given the breadth of Scaliger's learning, the unfamiliarity of many of his concerns to modern editors and compilers of reference works, and the (sometimes deliberate) allusiveness of his writing, the seamless presentation achieved in the main by Botley and van Miert represents an astonishing achievement. From the point of view of the text, they have established a definitive corpus of Scaliger's correspondence, in a form that will assist the understanding of even very erudite readers.

That this work was necessary derived from the complex history of the publication and survival of Scaliger's correspondence, about which the editors provide an adequate account in their introduction to the edition. This reveals the extent to which the surviving corpus of Scaliger's letters was shaped by the collecting and sifting of his correspondence by its recipients and above all by friends who themselves published, assisted with, or planned to publish editions of their exchanges with Scaliger: Isaac Casaubon, Janus Gruter, Dominicus Baudius, Pierre Dupuy, and Daniel Heinsius. Differences in editorial skill and method and in the resources of printers and publishers help to explain discrepancies between the early editions of Scaliger's letters and the originals (where they survive or can be reconstructed). They also help to account for differing patterns of survival: all but five of the letters that Casaubon had received from Scaliger and to which he referred in the first selection to be printed from Scaliger's correspondence in the Opuscula of 1610 exist in autograph (and can be found in the collection made by Dupuy for his abortive edition), whereas the earliest witness to almost all of Scaliger's letters to Gruter is the augmented reprint of the Opuscula, with which Gruter seems to have collaborated, and which appeared in 1612. One consequence of this is that whereas thirty letters of Scaliger to Gruter are known, only two survive in any form from Gruter to Scaliger (one in manuscript). Casaubon's correspondence was itself carefully collected after his death, and initially published in 1638. Yet, of the 254 letters between him and Scaliger that are known (the largest exchange surviving from Scaliger's correspondence), only one of the 143 letters that Casaubon sent to Scaliger (140 of which were printed in 1638) survives in manuscript.

The surviving correspondence of Scaliger is therefore very much less than the sum total of the letters that Scaliger must have written. It is heavily shaped by the choices of seventeenth-century editors and by the materials available to copyists working for seventeenth-century collectors of scholarly correspondence. Despite the considerable number of letters in French, this remains a learned correspondence, with remarkably little leavening from family or business letters. Women scarcely feature in the letters, whether as correspondents or in any other capacity (although the elderly Scaliger acknowledged to Casaubon his dependence on both his servant, Jonas Rousse, and on Rousse's wife). Botley and van Miert have nevertheless been able to rescue something of the character of Scaliger, clearly expressed in the table talk, from the excisions made in earlier publications. The reader learns much about the range of Scaliger's interests and his indefatigable pursuit of them. On his birthday in 1601, for example, Scaliger fired off seven letters, one each to Isaac Casaubon in Paris, to Eilhardus Lubinus in Rostock, to Johannes Caselius in Helmstedt (sent with the letter to Lubinus), to Marquard Freher and to Janus Gruter, both in Heidelberg, and to David Hoeschel and Marcus Welser, both in Augsburg. Topics ranged from errors in the Greek of St Paul, to the publication of Gruter's work on inscriptions (to which Scaliger played midwife, spending ten months on its index) and Lubinus' edition of Juvenal, the exchange of information about manuscripts, and the progress of Scaliger's edition of Eusebius. The letters assume that several of the correspondents will be known to one another, and offer up information or reflections about the activities of one to another. They reveal Scaliger's praise of the achievements of his friends, his anxieties about his own work and distrust of his printer, and the pride that prevented him from begging for access to manuscripts that he needed.

Pride in both his own work and that of his father, as well as in his ancestry, represents a sometimes discordant theme across much of Scaliger's correspondence, sometimes lightened by humour, however, as in another letter addressed to Welser on 13 November 1607: 'Last evening our Mylius informed me that he had learned from your letter that I was dead at Prague. I do not suppose, dear Welser, that it makes any great difference to me whether I am dead somewhere else, so long as I am alive here.'4 It is a pity that these differences of tone will be lost for many readers, since they are missing from the dry English summaries provided by the editors for each letter. Indeed, for modern readers, the greatest shortcoming by far of this edition lies in these summaries, which capture little more than the kernel of the content of what Scaliger writes and almost none of the style with which he expresses himself. It would have been too much to ask the editors to make full English translations of every letter, although all but the most erudite readers might have gained from such an exercise. This reader would certainly have found it easier to navigate the correspondence had the letters been numbered sequentially, which might also have saved space in an index volume that is sometimes hard to use. The discussion of the correspondence in the introduction is admirably terse, but might have gained from offering greater statistical information about the distribution of Scaliger's letters by correspondent, date, and location of recipient.

When Joseph Scaliger composed his will on 18 November 1608, he ordered that 'the other writings which shall be found after my death… I neither wish nor permit that they be published, inasmuch as they are incomplete and without any arrangement…', going on to allow Heinsius permission to 'deal with and correct according to his judgment' those which 'I have composed, corrected by my hand and enlarged.'5 Heinsius interpreted this permission as extending to the edition that he prepared of Scaliger's correspondence, published at Leiden in 1627. We may all rejoice, however, that Grafton as Maecenas and Botley and van Miert as editors have so disregarded Scaliger's intentions. The efforts of Heinsius have at last been superseded, and a proper gathering in has been made of the epistolary remains of a true prince of the republic of letters. Our descendants will be using the fruit of their labours for as long as books are read and letters regarded, which one must hope will be for at least a further three hundred and eighty five years.


1.   George W. Robinson (ed.), Autobiography of Joseph Scaliger (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927), pp. 77, 94.
2.   A.E. Housman (ed.), M. Manilii Astronomicon liber primus (London: Grant Richards, 1903), pp. xiii-xiv.
3.   U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, History of Classical Scholarship, ed. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, trans. Alan Harris (London: Duckworth, 1982), pp. 52-3.
4.   Translated in Robinson (ed.), Autobiography of Scaliger, p. 53.
5.   Translated in Robinson (ed.), Autobiography of Scaliger, pp. 63, 68.

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