On 18 February 1597, Isaac Casaubon turned 38 and began keeping a diary. Not an unusual thing, of course; a birthday, especially as you’re approaching 40, is a good time to take stock and consider making some changes. What is unusual in Casaubon’s case, however, is that for the next seventeen years he wrote in his diary almost every day: nulla dies sine linea. He seems to have been writing for his own use, not the eyes of posterity, but when his Ephemerides were unearthed and edited and published in 1850, posterity suddenly gained access to the day-by-day thoughts and struggles of a man who may be the hardest-working Classical scholar of all time.
If you know the name “Casaubon” today, you might know Edward Casaubon, the dessicated scholar of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–2), laboring in vain on his Key to All Mythologies – bloodless, sexless, and ultimately dead at the age of 45. Beyond his surname and scholarly bent, however, the fictional Edward Casaubon bears very little resemblance to his real-life namesake. Isaac Casaubon lived a full and vibrant life. Chased out of France by the Wars of Religion (1562–98), he found a home in Geneva before returning to France and ultimately migrating to England and the court of James I. Along the way he became one of history’s most learned men. And he was productive in every sense of the word. He wrote book after book, and produced child after child: more than twenty books, and at least eighteen children.
Born in 1559, Isaac Casaubon was one of nine children of Arnaud and Jeanne, devout French Huguenots. He spent his early years in Crest, a small town in the southeast of France, where Arnaud was pastor of the local church. Isaac learned the rudiments of Greek and Latin from his father, but his ordinary childhood came to an end after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. Driven into the mountains by Catholic persecution, the family hid in caves and had more pressing concerns than Classical education. Isaac tried to persevere in his studies on his own, but in later life he would bemoan his lack of formal education and the loss of some of his best years; he was apologetic about being self-taught and a late-comer to learning.
In 1578, at the age of nineteen, he entered the University of Geneva and took the first step on his academic cursus honorum. His rise was swift: three years later, the university’s Professor of Greek, on his deathbed, recommended Casaubon as his successor. Casaubon duly assumed the chair in 1582, aged 23. He married a fellow French refugee the following year, but she died in 1585; they had one daughter, who appears not to have survived to adulthood. In 1586 he married again, this time eighteen-year-old Florence Estienne, the daughter of the famous printer Henri Estienne (Henricus Stephanus). This marriage appears to have been a happy one; it was certainly fertile: by 1612, Mme Casaubon had given birth to seventeen children. Raising such a large family posed pecuniary challenges. Casaubon’s salary in Geneva was meager. The Genevan Council, although aware of his financial straits – at one point referring to “his family, which grows larger every year” (“sa famille, qui s’augmente annuellement”) – did little to remedy them. The family was in constant need of money
It is hard to trace the details of Casaubon’s daily life in Geneva. We don’t have his letters before 1590, and we don’t have his diary until after he’s left the city. Much of his time must have been spent in teaching, but he began to make an international reputation for himself as a scholar as well. He published an edition of and commentary on the Greek geographer Strabo (64/3 BC–AD c.24) in 1587, the editio princeps (the first printed edition) of the Greek military writer Polyaenus in 1589, an edition-cum-Latin-translation-cum-lengthy-commentary on the Characters of Theophrastus (c.371– c.287 BC) in 1592, and an edition of Suetonius (AD c.69–120s) in 1595, to say nothing of various parerga. This would be an almost inconceivable level of productivity for a scholar today, and Casaubon was laboring under enormous disadvantages. Not only was he poor and struggling to provide for his annually increasing family, he also had inadequate access to books: the library at Geneva was insufficient, and his father-in-law wouldn’t let him even see the Stephanus library (… it’s a long story). And if these difficulties were not enough, the Dukes of Savoy and other enemies were constantly at the city’s gates, and plague raged within the walls, and famine always loomed. There was even a time in the 1580s when it seemed that the university would have to close. Not exactly ideal conditions for sustained scholarly reflection.
By 1594, Casaubon had had enough; he was ready to leave Geneva. Negotiations were complex and protracted, but ultimately satisfactory: in 1596 he was appointed Professor of the University of Montpellier in southern France, at a much better salary than what he had subsisted on in Geneva. At last, on 31 December that year, Isaac Casaubon and his family moved to southern France. For a month he was occupied with settling in, visiting friends, and awaiting the arrival of his books. Then comes his 38th birthday, and from 18 February 1597, when he begins his Ephemerides, we know what Casaubon was doing almost every day until just two weeks before his death. It is as close as we can come today to peering over the shoulder of an early-modern scholar as he goes about his life and work.
In the opening pages Casaubon lays out his reasons for beginning the diary: time, he says, is our most precious possession. He wants to make sure he is being a good steward of his most valuable resource, and so he has resolved to render an account of how he has spent each day. If he judges that he’s used his time well, he can be happy; if he’s wasted it, at least he’ll be aware of his profligate ways. The diary as printed consists of 1,065 pages of Latin (vol. 1 and vol. 2), generously larded with Greek and occasional bits of Hebrew and French, and it contains very few remarks on how well he’s spent his days. The tone is instead one of constant self-recrimination: Casaubon almost never manages to live up to his standards of perfection.
What should he be doing with his time? His goals, he says, are: (1) to cultivate God, (2) to promote the study of literature, and (3) to see to the salvation of his soul and the souls of his family. And those are the basic themes of the diary, repeated in countless variations across the years: piety, literature, family. And absolutely unrelenting hard work to promote them.
Within the first few pages of the diary we’re reading sentences like, “Up at 5 am (how late!)” (“a quinta (heu quam sero) surreximus”). And what does he do after waking up? Well, he combs his hair, says his prayers, and sets to reading. That first day – his birthday, mind you – he read until 10 am, then ate and prepared his university lecture until 4 pm. He lectured, he ate dinner, he said his prayers, and he went to bed. Sometimes he might skip his dinner to gain more time for reading (“coena dein studiorum et valetudinis causa spreta”). On better days, he woke up at 4 am; on the best days he also returns to reading after dinner until late at night. He must have burned through a lot of candles.
Open up the Ephemerides to a random page, and you are guaranteed to find laments about all the things stealing away his time. “Friends” are the worst: “writing letters to my wife and friends took up my entire morning; the afternoon was given over to friends. And that’s pretty much how my whole day was wasted” (“mane literae abstulerunt, quas ad uxorem et amicos scripsi: a prandio amici. Ita dies fere periit”). He develops certain formulaic complaints, punning on “amici” and “inimici,” for example: “in the morning, by the grace of God, I managed my usual studies. The afternoon was given over to friends, who are more hostile to my studies than even enemies would be” (“mane τὰ ἐγκύκλια Dei beneficio. A prandio amici iniquiores studiis meis quam vel inimici”). In October of that first year we read: “Late, too late I managed to enter my office and say my prayers and spend what was left of my time on my usual studies. But scarcely had I written these words when my friends – I might almost say ‘enemies’ – detained me for a long, long time with their nonsense. In brief: I’ve thrown away my entire day. And I wish it were just today, but my public duties threaten to take away my whole week. Lord help me!” Even his beloved wife can’t escape the occasional reproach in the diary: “Lord, my wife is sometimes an obstacle to my scholarly pursuits” (“Domine, fateor ita maritam esse meam, ut… sit interdum studiis nostris impedimento”).
The other thing you will immediately notice in the diary is that it is, in the words of Mark Pattison, Casaubon’s 19th-century biographer, “surcharged with the language of devotion.” Casaubon is in constant dialogue with God, and in this regard the Ephemerides have a certain resemblance to Augustine’s Confessions. Pattison calculated that about one-third of the diary comprises litanies of prayer and praise. This piety is the very cornerstone of Casaubon’s life, and understanding Casaubon’s religious outlook is fundamental for understanding the motivations of Casaubon the man and scholar. I’ll return to this theme by way of conclusion.
For now, however, let us look at the scholar and his working habits. Although Casaubon does not record the number of pages he’s read in a given day, we can often reconstruct this information from what he does tell us. He has the pleasant habit of reading authors complete, and sometimes reports when he starts and finishes. So at the beginning of his diary, on 19 February 1597, he undertakes to read St Basil (AD 329–79). He’s done by March 11: 21 days. He was using the Froben 1551 edition – his annotated copy is still preserved today in the Marsh Library in Dublin – and so he read 698 terrifyingly dense folio pages of Greek in three weeks, or about 33 pages per day (although he couldn’t actually find time to read Basil each of those 21 days!). And Casaubon didn’t read in desultory fashion: he took copious notes, both in the margins of his books and in separate notebooks (some 48 boxes of which now reside in the Bodleian Library at Oxford). After plowing through Basil, he’s immediately on to Hippocrates (c.460–c.370 BC), whom he was perhaps inspired to read because the fame of the University of Montpellier at that time lay in its medical faculty. He reads Hippocrates complete in seventeen days; the Aldine folio consists of 233 pages, each crammed with 55 lines of obscure medical Greek.
Pliny the Elder read so much that it was a miracle he found time for writing, and wrote so much it was a miracle he found time for reading. Casaubon was the same way. His pace is a headlong gallop. For example, in Montpellier he began a set of notes (“animadversiones”: he refused to call them a commentary) on Athenaeus. He commenced work on 23 June 1597. In the midst of teaching and various administrative responsibilities – he served as rector of the Arts faculty that academic year – and his crushing reading load and the needs of his ever-growing family – in 1597 and 1598 two more children were born and a third died – he somehow managed to produce a full draft of his Animadversiones in just 297 days. The work was printed the following year as a massive folio volume of 648 pages, all written, of course, in Latin. Now Athenaeus is no easy author, nor is his text a brief one: The Learned Banqueters (Deipnosophistae) fills eight volumes in the modern Loeb edition. Ostensibly the record of a dinner party, the work in fact consists of wide-ranging discussion of every aspect of Ancient Greek life and literature. In the course of that discussion, the banqueters quote more than 10,000 lines of Greek verse from more than 1,000 poets. The learning required to write notes on such a text is stupendous.
Casaubon, it is true, was not starting from scratch in 1597; his edition of the text itself, without notes, had already appeared in that year. But open the Animadversiones to any page, and prepare to be crushed under the weight of Casaubon’s learning: Casaubon uses Athenaeus’ words as a jumping-off point to explain some feature of the ancient world, marshaling a vast array of supporting sources (which he must largely have read himself, not found by consulting indexes which didn’t yet exist), and casually emending texts along the way. As Georg Kaibel, the 19th-century editor of the Teubner text of Athenaeus wrote, “It’s of course unnecessary to add fresh praise for Isaac Casaubon’s genius, penetration, and learning: his Animadversiones did so much for Athenaeus that no one I know can be compared to him.”
And Casaubon didn’t even like the work. His diary and letters are full of complaints about it. But in the Deipnosophistae, Casaubon found a text uniquely apt for the exercise of his talents. Here he could draw on his massive stores of learning and pour them out in the elucidation of an obscure text, touching on every aspect of the ancient world. The work is a masterpiece of its genre.
Montpellier couldn’t hold Casaubon for long. In 1600 he was induced to move to Paris as “lecteur du roi”, a role which required no teaching. Life got easier, but it was still far from easy. He had been promised the post of librarian to King Henri IV (r.1589–1610), but he did not actually assume the position until 1605. It seems to have been hoped that he would convert to Catholicism (following Henri’s “Paris is worth a mass” model). He didn’t, and so preferment was delayed. But in Paris he finally had access to books, both in print and in manuscript, and he read voraciously. He wrote too, of course: an edition of the 4th(?)-century Historia Augusta, an edition of the poet Persius (AD 34–62) with commentary, a treatise on the genre of Roman satire, an edition of Polybius (c.203–120 BC) and Aeneas Tacticus (4th cent. BC), the editio princeps of some letters of St Gregory the Great (540–604), a treatise on ecclesiastical authority, and various other works. He managed all this in a decade in which he avowedly spent the vast majority of his working time reading, not writing.
Then, on 14 May 1610, Henri IV was assassinated. Fearing what awaited Protestants in France, Casaubon soon found his way to England, where he was made a prebendary of Canterbury and given a royal pension. He found the Anglican flavor of Christianity congenial, apparently answering many of his doubts about both Protestantism and Catholicism. Life in England was nonetheless still hard: he never learned English, he was apart from his wife and family for the first year, and he was forced to spend much of his time dancing attendance on the court of King James I (r.1603–25). He had the dubious privilege of dining with the King, where “dining” meant that the King sat and ate, while Casaubon stood and watched and provided learned discourse on theological themes. Casaubon apparently didn’t mind; his diary is invariably complimentary about James.
Once in England, Casaubon devoted himself entirely to theology and religious controversy. The results were not always happy: as a pamphleteer, he was a moderate and lacked the taste for scurrilous and unfounded insult that was required for “success.” He was eviscerated by less scrupulous controversialists, like the infamous Caspar Schoppe. (Schoppe was a troll avant la lettre: he invented and published outlandish stories about Casaubon, such as the tale that he was so aroused by reading about Venus and Anchises that he jumped on a servant who happened to walk by and tried to rape her.)
What turned out to be Casaubon’s last project, however, suited his abilities much better. The Roman Catholic Cardinal Cesare Baronio (Baronius Latine) had devoted two decades of his life to publishing a history of the Catholic Church in twelve folio volumes, the Annales Ecclesiastici; it was written to bolster the Church’s spiritual and temporal authority. Baronio had access to the Vatican Library and all its riches. But Baronio also had a great weakness: he didn’t know Greek or Hebrew. Add to that a tendency to accept the apocryphal as fact, and it’s easy to see why a Protestant scholar of Casaubon’s stature would find the Annales Ecclesiastici wanting. And so Casaubon decided to write a refutation, which he entitled De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis exercitationes XVI (“16 treatises on sacred and ecclesiastical matters”). He planned to work through Baronio’s treatise book for book and passage for passage, proceeding through all twelve volumes of the Annales Ecclesiastici. In the event, he lived only to complete his treatment of half of Baronio’s first book, reaching the year AD 34.
Writing, as always, like a man who’s running out of time, Casaubon first dips his quill into the inkpot on 27 April 1612. Less than a year later, on 20 April 1613, he has finished his first volume. It would be printed in 773 folio pages, omitting some of the material that he had wanted to include. Casaubon is in sovereign command of Early Church history. One of the better known examples is his treatment of Hermes Trismegistus. Baronio had made this shadowy figure a contemporary of Moses and a pagan prophet of Christianity. Casaubon was skeptical and scrutinized the whole of the Corpus Hermeticum, taking careful notes on its inconsistencies and anachronisms. In his Exercitationes, in just under twenty pages and with supreme philological acumen, he showed beyond any doubt that the whole was a forgery from the age of the Church Fathers.
Casaubon bore these massive labors as his health, always in a parlous condition, began to collapse. Doctors were summoned; blood was let; all was in vain. Somehow he managed to see his Exercitationes through the press, but soon thereafter, on 1 July 1614, he succumbed. An autopsy was performed, and a bladder deformity was detected. Learned physicians wrote treatises on Casaubon’s bladder, and an illustration – the only illustration in the whole book – was included in the 1709 edition of Casaubon’s letters. It shows a large sac opening from Casaubon’s bladder, which apparently swelled up and became infected. The doctors thought it might have been caused by Casaubon’s grueling work schedule, and his failure to take breaks to heed the call of nature.
The real diagnosis is probably more pedestrian. Casaubon’s “monstrous bladder” would now be known as a bladder diverticulum. It may have been congenital, or it may have been brought on by other health problems, which must in any case have exacerbated it. What problems? Well, it seems clear that Casaubon suffered from an enlarged prostate. This is indeed all but proved by the fact that his doctors couldn’t insert a catheter due to some kind of blockage (i.e., the swollen prostate). Perhaps his enlarged prostate was cancerous, perhaps not, but in any case it resulted in urinary retention and difficulty with evacuation, as painfully documented by the Ephemerides and Casaubon’s physicians. This urinary retention led to or aggravated the bladder diverticulum seen in the picture. In conjunction with this ailment, Casaubon also developed bladder stones, which his physicians describe as “red grains of sand” and the like in his urine. These caused him immense pain. And to add still further injury, he contracted an infection – he began suffering from fevers, chills, and so forth – which was probably the proximate cause of his death. While there is something oddly romantic about imagining Casaubon bringing about his own demise by his refusal to stop reading and writing long enough to pee, the truth is that, like so many men of a certain age, he simply had some problems with his plumbing.
In modern Classical scholarship, you’re most likely to find Casaubon’s name making cameo appearances in the apparatus criticus of a critical edition. But his contributions to scholarship can hardly be overstated; he is one of the giants on whose shoulders we pygmies stand today. With Joseph Scaliger and Justus Lipsius, he was one of the most learned men of the 16th century, and hence one of the most learned men of all time. Scaliger went so far as to say that Casaubon “is the greatest Greek scholar we have. He is my superior.” Casaubon was, in short, a really big deal. A big enough deal that three centuries later, in his History of Classical Scholarship (1921, Eng. trans. 1982), Wilamowitz could write: “we [Classical scholars] are still living on the capital accumulated by the industry of Casaubon.”
But you might wonder where that “industry” came from. Who wakes up at 4 am to read Hippocrates in Greek? Who writes thousand-page tomes in Latin year after year, taking breaks only to produce another child? To many of us today – even to many of us professional scholars – Casaubon’s work can look dry and, well, boring. And so it’s tempting to imagine Casaubon as simply the embodiment of the Protestant work ethic, putting duty before pleasure and slaving tirelessly in the scholarly mill. But I think this is almost certainly to misunderstand the man.
The thing is, Casaubon believed in his work. It gave his life meaning and purpose. He read St Basil, for example, not out of some mournful sense of obligation, but out of an eager desire to understand early Christianity, because he himself was a Christian, and he genuinely wanted to put the teachings of the early Church into practice in his own life. Antiquity, Casaubon felt, had immediate relevance to and importance for the contemporary world. This is a feeling foreign to most modern Classical scholars. And so we struggle to understand how someone could push themselves to work so hard; we just can’t imagine pushing ourselves to do what he did. But we should instead see Casaubon as being pulled to his material, desperately wanting to turn to his work and resenting everything that took him away from the studies that he strived to devote his life to.
It’s thus all wrong to imagine Isaac Casaubon as a passionless pedant. He was the very opposite. He filled hundreds of pages of his diaries with heartfelt prayers and zealous piety because his passionate religious convictions animated every aspect of his life. It was his religion that led him to the study of antiquity: not the “Protestant work ethic” but a sincerely and devoutly held Protestant faith. He believed that there could be nothing more important than his scholarly pursuits, which were inseparably blended with his religious devotion.
Indeed, it is not going too far to say that Casaubon’s scholarship was itself an act of religious devotion. Just as in the film Chariots of Fire (1981), the runner Eric Liddell was “made fast” and felt God’s pleasure when he ran, so Isaac Casaubon was made a scholar and felt God’s pleasure when he worked. Few people can ever have cared as deeply about the study of the ancient world and its continuing legacy as he did. Casaubon had the courage of his convictions and he lived his life in radical alignment with his values.
It is instead us, denizens of a dispassionately secular century, who might deserve charges like pedantry. Isaac Casaubon had an unshakeable reason to wake up at four o’clock every day and get to work; his studies were literally why he got out of bed in the morning. That’s something we might all to aspire to.
Tom Keeline is an associate professor of Classics at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Having thus far produced only two books and five children, he is outclassed by Isaac Casaubon in every way. But he does keep a diary in Latin.
Isaac Casaubon is among the best documented people of his era. Sources for his life include:
- His Ephemerides (vol. 1 and vol. 2), the journal he kept from his 38th birthday until two weeks before his death.
- His copious correspondence, consisting of more than 2,500 extant letters written by or to him. Some of the most interesting are the 253 letters between him and Scaliger, which can be read with notes in the marvelous but pricey eight-volume Correspondence of Joseph Justus Scaliger (P. Botley & D. van Miert eds., Librairie Droz, Geneva, 2012). Casaubon’s letters from 1610–14 have also recently been edited in four volumes with helpful annotations: The Correspondence of Isaac Casaubon in England (P. Botley & M. Vince eds., Librairie Droz, Geneva, 2018), also marvelous, also pricey. The 1709 edition of Casaubon’s letters, covering a much wider chronological range and containing much supplementary material besides, is free and easily accessible online.
- His published scholarly works (editions, commentaries, monographs, etc.). These are likewise available online with a bit of searching; a bibliography can be found here.
- His annotated personal library, now scattered in libraries across the UK and continental Europe.
- His manuscript notebooks, some 5.28 linear meters of which reside at the Bodleian library in Oxford.
This is a daunting mass of material, and no biographer has yet taken it all fully into account. Furthermore, almost all of it poses challenges, ranging from Casaubon’s chickenscratch handwriting to the rhetoric of early-modern Latin (many of Casaubon’s complaints in the Ephemerides, for example, should probably be taken “seriously but not literally”). All this is to say nothing of the biographer’s need to understand the political and social and intellectual history of the time, steeped in confessional controversy and topics like the chronology of universal history. Basically, it’s a really hard task, and the comprehensive biography remains to be written.
The best short introduction to Casaubon’s life is the entry by John Considine in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
The still standard full-length biography is Mark Pattison’s Isaac Casaubon (London, 1875; 2nd ed., Oxford, 1892), itself a classic piece of Victorian literature. This book is not without its failings (it gives surprisingly little picture of Casaubon as a person, and makes equally little mention of his actual work), but it is very good on Casaubon’s times and draws on a variety of primary sources. Pattison clearly saw himself in Casaubon, which in a way actually makes the book more interesting.
Anthony Nuttall’s Dead From the Waist Down: Scholars and Scholarship in Literature and the Popular Imagination (Yale UP, New Haven, CT, 2011) discusses Mark Pattison and George Eliot’s Edward Casaubon (perhaps in fact modeled on Mark Pattison) and Isaac Casaubon, redressing some of the imbalances in Pattison’s biography by presenting a more sympathetic portrait of Casaubon the man.
Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg’s “I have always loved the Holy Tongue”: Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 2011) concentrates on Casaubon as a scholar of Hebrew and redresses another of Pattison’s imbalances, this time concerning Casaubon as a scholar, with a close study of Casaubon’s marginalia and manuscript annotations.
The last three of these books all include at least some of Casaubon’s Latin (and French and Greek and Hebrew) in English translation.
|⇧1||In fact, George Eliot’s Casaubon may well be based on Isaac Casaubon’s most famous nineteenth-century biographer, Mark Pattison. For discussion see Anthony Nuttall’s Dead from the Waist Down, mentioned in the Further Reading below.|