Friday, April 26, 2019


Paul Botley, Máté Vince, The Correspondence of Isaac Casaubon in England. (4 vols.) Travaux d'humanisme et Renaissance, no 588. Genève: Librairie Droz, 2018. Pp. v. 1 587; v. 2 533; v. 3 579; v. 4 593. ISBN 9782600058889. $346.80.

Reviewed by James Zetzel (

Version at BMCR home site

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In October 1610 at the invitation of James I of England, Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), the greatest Hellenist of his age, emigrated from Paris to London. Casaubon's patron Henri IV had been assassinated in May 1610, and the Huguenot Casaubon thought it prudent and more conducive to scholarly research to live in a Protestant country. But although he was expecting and expected (as his correspondence shows) to write a commentary on Polybius to match the text and translation he had published in 1609, he never did. For the rest of his life he toiled in London as a defender of his faith for James I, producing two lengthy theological letters (to the Jesuit Fronton Du Duc and Cardinal Jacques Davy du Perron) and Exercitationes refuting Cardinal Cesare Baronio's account of the early church and papacy; the single volume of the Exercitationes Casaubon completed appeared shortly before his death. In addition to his controversialist writings, Casaubon produced a vast number of letters: the present edition contains the 731 surviving letters (including 312 previously unpublished) from his years in England. His entire extant correspondence numbers some 2500 letters, many still unpublished; the previous edition, by Theodore Janson van Almeloveen in 1709, contained only 1159 letters, most of them by Casaubon together with some addressed to him.1

The res publica litterarum of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was bound together by letters. A commonwealth physically extended but tightly knit by a web of correspondence, these letters contained news of scholarly projects and quarrels, politics and religious disputes (the two intimately related), family news, and gossip. The intimate and professional portraits created by these letters are immensely informative and sometimes moving; and although the publication of volumes of correspondence ebbed in the early eighteenth century, there has recently been renewed scholarly interest, including the discovery, annotation, and publication of important portions of this material. The new edition of the correspondence of Justus Lipsius reached volume 14 in 2012; the same year saw the publication by Paul Botley and Dirk van Miert of Scaliger's correspondence in eight volumes.2

According to his friend and correspondent Joseph Scaliger, Casaubon was "doctissimus omnium qui hodie vivunt"3; he may also be the one whom we are best equipped to understand as a person and a scholar. He published an extraordinary amount (including editions of Athenaeus, Polybius, Strabo, and Theophrastus' Characters in Greek and Persius, Suetonius, and the Historia Augusta in Latin, as well as a major essay on satire and much more); he also kept an extensive diary, wrote detailed notes on everything he read (some sixty notebooks survive, in the Bodleian) as well as copious marginalia in his books, many of which survive with his distinctive handwriting. And of course he was an assiduous correspondent; in addition to his own letters, there are five large volumes of letters to him in the British Library. They were used, as was Casaubon's diary, by Mark Pattison in his biography (itself a classic of Victorian literature); they have been studied to good effect by a few modern scholars, notably Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg in their recent book on Casaubon and the Jews.4 Nearly fifty years ago I proposed to edit the correspondence; luckily the committee that awarded me a fellowship took longer than I did to realize that I was not remotely up to the task.

The difficulties of studying Casaubon are formidable. Not merely the sheer quantity of his books and papers, but the range of his knowledge: he knew the classical world in encyclopedic detail, but was also as learned as he was devout in his study of religion and the early church. He read not only Greek and Latin, but Hebrew and Arabic as well. What is more, he was—particularly in the years covered in this edition—deeply engaged in theological controversy. There is a practical difficulty as well: while Casaubon and his friends were capable of calligraphic writing, his private notes are nearly impenetrable, and some of his correspondents are not much better. To master even a small part of Casaubon's mental universe requires a range of knowledge, keenness of sight, and devotion beyond the capacity of most mortals. For their labors on this material, Paul Botley and Máté Vince deserve our profound admiration as well as our thanks. This is an extraordinarily careful edition; in its methods and its precision, it follows the edition of Scaliger's letters produced by Botley and van Miert in 2012. The editors date letters as accurately as possible, identify individuals mentioned, give meticulous textual histories and apparatus criticus, and supply a synopsis in English of each letter, as well as a translation of one written in Arabic (most letters are in Latin, French, and/or Greek). There are some weaknesses: the annotation is pointlessly repetitive, and the choice of reference texts for quotations is sometimes unhelpful; there is no biographical index of correspondents; while all Greek phrases are translated, whole letters in Greek (and phrases in Arabic in the correspondence with Thomas Erpenius) are not; allusions to or quotations of Greek are more regularly identified than Latin ones, and references to Erasmus' Adagia are no substitute for identifying classical tags that the editors do not seem to recognize. By and large, however, this edition displays an astonishing level of both learning and accuracy.5

The whole of this collection is worth much more than the sum of its parts: it is the patterns and themes that are most illuminating. Certain subjects keep appearing: Casaubon's correspondents asking about the (never completed) commentary on Polybius; Casaubon talking about his various ecclesiastical projects, thanking his friends for letters, books, or assistance, and regretting his separation from his library (which the French government would not let him take to England), his wife (when she travelled to Paris on family business), and his country. The largest correspondence is with his close friend Jacques Auguste de Thou, the historian and statesman, who protected Casaubon's interests at the French court; there are significant numbers of letters also to and from Daniel Heinsius, Hugo Grotius, and others in Leiden, Augsburg, and Heidelberg, and in England with John Prideaux in Oxford and with the King's various episcopal advisers.

It is perhaps Casaubon's relationship with James I and his court that is the most persistent theme of the volume. James was a considerable scholar and controversialist himself, and he interfered with his experts. One long set of letters (e.g. 1602 02 26) documents James's attempts to alter the unfavorable portrait of his mother (Mary, Queen of Scots) painted by De Thou in his Histoire universelle. James expostulated and supplied his own version of events; De Thou did some whitewashing. James also insisted on reading the letters between Casaubon and de Thou, with the result that for a time they exchanged two parallel sets of letters, one for the King, and one private. And James read drafts of Casaubon's letter to Du Duc, at one point (through Bishop Neile), objecting to the use of the ambiguous facinus to describe Henry VIII's reformation; Casaubon substituted the more neutral inceptum. Casaubon writes to Georg Michael Lingelsheim bemoaning the distractions of the court: "Vita quam nunc vivo aliis me curis occupatum tenet. Plerumque enim Regem sequi cogor" (1611 11 27). There were benefits, too: the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury served as godparents to Casaubon's son James and he received a stipend as a prebendary of Canterbury Cathedral.

Aside from long-running discussions, there are some striking individual letters. There is a magnificent letter of commiseration to De Thou (1611 04 21) on not being made Premier Président of the Parlement of Paris, as well as letters to Heinsius on the recent deaths of Henry Prince of Wales and others (1612 12 01) and to De Thou on the death of Nicolas Lefèvre (1612 12 15): "Quantam in eo viro iacturam fecerit, hoc praesertim tempore cum in dies crescit impietas, patria nostra, quis exprimere verbis queat?" Casaubon writes to Archbishop Abbot, complaining that people were throwing stones at his windows (1612 09 24); to Claude Saumaise, praising the scholarship of English ecclesiastics (1612 11 20); to De Thou, describing his stay in Oxford (1613 06 26); to his son Jean (1611 11 28), inveighing against an opponent: "Asinus, stultus, imperitus, nebulo, vappa." A baroque request for a letter of recommendation from John Forbes in Heidelberg (1614 02 07) is equalled by a gaudy letter of self-introduction from Christian Anesorg (1613 11 29), filled with (particularly Plautine) classical echoes.

Casaubon's ecclesiastical preoccupations kept him from the classics, and there are few discussions of philological subjects. There is correspondence with Alexander Hume about Hume's Ramist Latin grammar; with David Hoeschel, Janus Rutgersius, and others about their publishing projects; requests or comments about the meaning or usage of a few individual words; requests for assistance in getting manuscripts; but there is nothing to match the 254 letters between Scaliger and Casaubon. More striking are the letters in which Casaubon sees his current projects as the extension, and perhaps culmination, of his philological work: thus to J. Cappel (1612 12 06): "Occurrunt multa philologica: non sine voluptate mea sit quod praeterita studia tam gravi instituto ancillentur"; to Heinsius (1613 09 04): "Quamquam scito, ab annis quam plurimis ita me alias literas tractasse ut semper tamen sacrae, et quae ad sacras pertinebant, me sibi vindicarent." Already terminally ill, he recalls a long-ago conversation with his father about religion and philology and relates it to his work on Baronius (1614 04 21): "Summa voti mei in suscipienda ea scriptione fuit ut quasi decimam studiorum meorum Deo immortali persolverem." Casaubon was, as Eduard Fraenkel said in describing his work on Aeschylus, "a great and good man," and much of that greatness and goodness lies in his religion. For him as for his friends, religious devotion and scholarly writing are inseparable; his diary shows the degree to which he viewed his philological labors as a gift from, and to, his God. This publication of even a part of his correspondence is a gift to us.6


1.   Theodorus Janson ab Almeloveen, ed., Isaaci Casauboni Epistolae, insertis ad easdem responsionibus (Rotterdam, 1709). There are two earlier editions. I note that all the early editions I have consulted for this review (and many more) can be found online at MDZ (Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum),
2.   A. Gerlo et al., eds., Iusti Lipsi Epistolae (Brussels, 1978--) ; Paul Botley and Dirk van Miert, eds., The Correspondence of Joseph Justus Scaliger (Geneva, 2012), reviewed BMCR 2014.10.02.
3.   "Casaubonus doctissimus. Ego eius discipulus, gustum habeo rerum, sed non doctrinam. . . . C'est le plus grand homme que nous ayons en Grec: Ie lui cède; est doctissimus omnium qui hodiè vivunt." Scaligerana Secunda (Groningen, 1669), 45.
4.   Mark Pattison, Isaac Casaubon, 1559-1614 (ed. 2 Oxford, 1892); Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg, "I have always loved the holy tongue": Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a forgotten chapter in Renaissance scholarship (Cambridge, MA, 2011), reviewed BMCR 2011.05.24.
5.   The text is astonishingly accurate. In ten cases where I thought something was wrong, I consulted BL Burney 363-366 on microfilm and found ten small mistakes distributed among five letters; the most serious were ignara for ignava in 1611 01 21 and uxorae for uxori in 1611 03 17. In 1613 12 30 read propere rather than perpere. The editors are not entirely consistent in adapting punctuation and capitalization to modern standards. The only serious printing error is that pages 9 and 10 of volume 4 are duplicates.
6.   Eduard Fraenkel, ed., Aeschylus: Agamemnon (Oxford, 1950) 1: 38. Fraenkel (1: 36-38, 62-78) and Grafton and Weinberg (above, n.4) are by far the best introductions to Casaubon's scholarship.

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