Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Isaac Casaubon

Isaac Casaubon (February 18, 1559 - July 1, 1614) was a classical scholar, first in France then later in England, regarded by many at the time as the most learned in Europe.

He was born in Geneva to French refugee parents. The family returned to France with the publication of the Edict of Saint-Germain in 1562, and settled at Crest in Dauphiné, where Arnaud Casaubon, Isaac’s father, became minister of a Huguenot congregation. Till he was nineteen, Isaac had no other instruction than what could be given him by his father during the years of civil war. Arnaud was away from home whole years together in the Calvinist camp, or the family were flying to the hills to hide from the fanatical bands of armed Catholics who patrolled the country. Thus it was in a cave in the mountains of Dauphiné, after the massacre of St Bartholomew, that Isaac received his first lesson in Greek, the textbook being Isocrates ad Demonicum.

At nineteen Isaac was sent to the Academy of Geneva, where he read Greek under Francis Portus, a native of Crete. Portus died in 1581, having recommended Casaubon, then only twenty-two, as his successor. He remained at Geneva as professor of Greek till 1596. Here he married twice, his second wife being Florence, daughter of the scholar-printer, Henri Estienne. At Geneva, without the stimulus of example or encouragement, with few books and no assistance, surrounded by religious refugees, and struggling for life against the troops of the Catholic dukes of Savoy, Casaubon made himself a consummate Greek scholar and master of ancient learning. He missed his supply of books and the sympathy of learned associates. He spent all he could save out of his small salary on buying books, and in having copies made of such classics as were not then in print. Henri Estienne, Theodore de Beza (rector of the university and professor of theology), and Jacques Lect (Lectius), were indeed men of superior learning. In those last years of his life, Estienne discouraged visitors, and would not allow his son-in-law to enter his library. “He guards his books,” writes Casaubon, “as the griffins in India do their gold!” Beza was engrossed by the cares of administration, and retained, at most, an interest for theological reading, while Lect, a lawyer and diplomat, had abandoned classics for politics.

The sympathy and help which Casaubon’s native city could not offer, he sought by cultivating the acquaintance of the learned of other countries. Geneva, as the metropolis of Calvinism, received a constant succession of visitors. No continental tour was complete without a visit to Geneva. It was there that Casaubon met young Henry Wotton, the poet and diplomat, who lodged in his house and borrowed his money. More important to Isaac Casaubon was the acquaintance of Richard Thomson (“Dutch” Thomson), fellow of Clare College, Cambridge; for it was through Thomson that the attention of Joseph Scaliger, settled in 1593 at Leiden, was directed to Casaubon. Scaliger and Casaubon first exchanged letters in 1594. They never met, but their correspondence passes through the stages of civility, admiration, esteem, regard and culminates in a tone of the tenderest affection and mutual confidence. Influential French men of letters, the Protestant Jacques Bongars, the Catholic Jacques de Thou, and the Catholic convert Philippe Canaye, sieur du Fresne, helped him with presents of books and encouragement, and endeavoured to get him invited, in some capacity, to France.

This was achieved in 1596, when Casaubon accepted an invitation to the University of Montpellier, with the title of conseiller du roi and professeur stipendie aux langues et bonnes lettres. In Montpellier he held the professorship for only three years, with several prolonged absences. The hopes raised by his brilliant reception were disappointed; he was badly treated by the authorities, paid very irregularly, and, finally, not at all. He was never insensible to the attractions of teaching, and his lectures at Montpellier were followed not only by the students, but by men of mature age and position. But the love of knowledge was gradually growing in him, and he began to see the editing of Greek books as a more suitable job for him than teaching. At Geneva he had produced some notes on Diogenes Laertius, Theocritus and the New Testament, the last undertaken at his father’s request. His debut as an editor had been a complete Strabo (1587), of which he was so ashamed afterwards that he apologized to Scaliger for it. This was followed by the text of Polyaenus, an. editio princeps, 1589; a text of Aristotle, 1590; and a few notes contributed to Estienne’s editions of Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Pliny’s Epistolae. His edition of Theophrastus’s Characteres (1592), is the first example of that peculiar style of illustrative commentary, at once apposite and profuse, which distinguishes Casaubon among annotators. At the time of his removal to Montpellier he was engaged upon what is the capital work of his life, his edition of, and commentary on, Athenaeus.

In 1598 Casaubon was at Lyons, superintending the passage of his Athenaeus through the press, for which he had been unable to find facilities at Montpellier. Here he lived in the house of Méric de Vicq, surintendant de la justice, a liberal-minded Catholic]]. In the suite of de Vicq, Casaubon made a flying visit to Paris, and was presented to King Henry IV of France. The king said something about employing Casaubon’s services in the “restoration” of the fallen University of Paris. Full of hope, he returned to Montpellier. In January 1599, he received a summons to return to Paris. But the terms of the letter were so vague that Casaubon hesitated to act on it. However, he resigned his chair at Montpellier. Instead of hastening to Paris, he lingered more than a year at Lyons, in de Vicq’s house, where he hoped to meet the king, who was expected to visit the south. Nothing more was heard about the professorship, but instead he was summoned by De Vicq, who was then in Paris, to come to him in all haste on an affair of importance. This proved to be the Fontainebleau Conference. Casaubon was persuaded to sit as a referee on the challenge sent to Du Plessis Mornay by Cardinal Duperron. By so doing he placed himself in a false position, as Scaliger said:

“Non debebat Casaubon interesse colloquio Plessiaeano; erat asinus inter simias, doctus inter imperitos“ (Scaligerana 2).

The issue was so contrived that the Protestant party could not fail to be pronounced in the wrong. By concurring in the decision, which was unfavourable to Du Plessis Mornay, Casaubon lent the prestige of his name to a court whose verdict would without him have been worthless, and confirmed the suspicions already current among the Reformed churches that, like his friend and patron, Canaye du Fresne, he was meditating abjuration. From then on, he became the object of the hopes and fears of the two religious parties; the Catholics lavishing promises, and plying him with arguments; the Reformed ministers insinuating that he was preparing to forsake a losing cause, and only haggling about his price. At the time, it was not possible for the immediate parties to the bitter controversy to understand the intermediate position between Genevan Calvinism and Ultramontanism to which Casaubon’s reading of the fathers had conducted him.

Meanwhile, the efforts of De Thou and the liberal Catholics to keep him in Paris were successful. The king repeated his invitation to Casaubon to settle in the capital, and assigned him a pension. No more was said about the university. The recent reform of the university of Paris had closed its doors to all but Catholics; and though the chairs of the College de France were not governed by the statutes of the university, public opinion ran so violently against heresy, that Henry IV dared not appoint a Calvinist to a chair, even if he had desired to do so. It was planned that Casaubon should succeed to the post of sub-librarian of the royal library when it became vacant. In November 1604, Jean Gosselin died in extreme old age; and Casaubon succeeded him as sub-librarian, with a salary of 400 livres in addition to his pension.

Casaubon remained in Paris till 1610. These ten years were the brightest period of his life. He had attained the reputation of being, after Scaliger, the most learned man of the age, in an age in which learning formed the sole standard of literary merit. He had enough to live on. He had such facilities for religious worship as a Huguenot could have, though he had to go out of the city to Hablon, and afterwards to Charenton, for them. He enjoyed the society of men of learning, or of men who took an interest in learned publications. He had the best opportunities of seeing men of letters from foreign countries as they passed through Paris. Above all, he had ample facilities for using Greek books, both printed and in manuscript, the want of which he had felt painfully at Geneva and Montpellier, and which no other place but Paris could at that period have supplied.

In spite of all these advantages, Casaubon considered many schemes for leaving Paris and settling elsewhere. Offers came to him from various quarters, including Nimes, Heidelberg and Sedan. His friends Lect and Giovanni Diodati wished, rather than hoped, to get him back to Geneva. The causes of Casaubon’s discomfort in Paris were various, but the principal source of uneasiness lay in his religion. The life of any Huguenot in Paris was insecure at that time, for it was doubtful if the police of the city was strong enough to protect them against any sudden uprising of the fanatical mob, always ready to re-enact the St Bartholomew. Casaubon was also exposed to persecution of another sort. Ever since the Fontainebleau Conference, an impression had prevailed that he was wavering. He was given to understand that he could have a professorship only by recantation. When it was found that he could not be bought, he was plied by controversy. Henry IV, who liked Casaubon personally, made a point of getting him to follow his own example. By the king’s orders Duperron was untiring in his efforts to convert him. These encounters mostly took place in the king’s library, over which the cardinal, in his capacity of aumonier, exercised some kind of authority; and it was therefore impossible for Casaubon to avoid them. On the other hand, the Huguenot theologians, and especially Pierre du Moulin, chief pastor of the church of Paris, accused him of conceding too much, and of having departed already from the lines of strict Calvinistic orthodoxy.

When the assassination of Henry IV gave full rein to the Ultramontane party at court, Duperron became more importunate, and even menacing. It was now that Casaubon began to pay attention to overtures from the bishops and the court of England. In October 1610 he came to England in the suite of the ambassador, Lord Wotton of Marley (brother of Casaubon’s early friend), an official invitation having been sent him by Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury. He had the most flattering reception from King James I, who was perpetually sending for him to discuss theological matters. The English bishops were equally delighted to find that the great French scholar was a ready-made Anglican, who had arrived, by independent study of the Fathers, at the very via media between Puritanism and Romanism which was becoming the fashion in the English Church. Casaubon, though a layman, was collated to a prebendal stall in Canterbury, and a pension of £300 a year was assigned him from the exchequer. Nor were these merely paper figures. When Sir Julius Caesar made a difficulty about payment, James sent a note in his own hand: ”Chanceler of my excheker, I will have Mr Casaubon paid before me, my wife, and my barnes.” He still retained his appointments in France, and his office as librarian. He had obtained leave of absence for the visit to England, where he was not supposed to settle permanently. In order to retain their hold on him, the government of the queen regent, Marie de Medici refused to allow his library to be sent over. It required a specific request from James himself to get leave for Madame Casaubon to bring him a part of his most necessary books. Casaubon continued to speak of himself as the servant of the regent, and to declare his readiness to return when summoned to do so.

Meanwhile his situation in London gradually developed unforeseen sources of discomfort. Not that he had any reason to complain of his patrons, the king and the bishops - James continued to the last to delight in his company, and to be as liberal as the state of his finances allowed. John Overall had received him and his whole family into the deanery of St Paul’s, and entertained him there for a year. Overall and Lancelot Andrewes, then Bishop of Ely, were the most learned men of a generation in which extensive reading was more general among the higher clergy than it has ever been since. These two were attracted to Casaubon by congenial studies and opinions. With Andrewes in particular Casaubon was always happy to spend time. Andrewes took him to Cambridge, where he met with a most gratifying reception from the notabilities of the university. They went on together to Downham, where Casaubon spent six weeks of the summer of 1611, in which year he became naturalized. In 1613 he was taken to Oxford by Sir Henry Savile, where, amid the homage and feasting of which he was the object, his principal interest was for the manuscript treasures of the Bodleian Library. He declined the honorary degree which was offered him.

These distinctions did not make up for the serious inconveniences of his position. Having been taken up by the king and the bishops, he had to share in their rising unpopularity. The courtiers were jealous of a foreign pensioner who had frequent opportunities of taking James I on his weak side - his love of book talk. Casaubon was especially mortified by Sir Henry Wotton’s behaviour towards him, so inconsistent with their former intimacy. His windows were broken by vandals, and his children were pelted in the streets. On one occasion he appeared at Theobalds with a black eye, having been assaulted in the street. These outrages seem to have arisen solely from the English antipathy to the Frenchman. Casaubon, though he could read an English book, could not speak English, nor could his wife. This deficiency exposed him to insult and fraud, and restricted his social activity. It excluded him from the circle of the “wits“; and he was not accepted in the circle of the lay learned—the “antiquaries.” William Camden, the antiquary and historian, he saw but once or twice. Casaubon had been imprudent enough to correct Camden’s Greek, and it is possible that the ex-headmaster of Westminster School kept himself aloof in silent resentment of Casaubon’s superior learning. With Robert Cotton and Henry Spelman he was slightly acquainted. Of John Selden we find no mention. Though Sir Henry Savile ostensibly patronized him, yet Casaubon could not help suspecting that it was Savile who secretly prompted an attempt by Richard Montagu to forestall Casaubon’s book on Baronius. Besides the jealousy of the natives, Casaubon had now to suffer the open attacks of the Jesuit pamphleteers. They had spared him as long as there were hopes of getting him over. The prohibition was taken off, now that he was committed to Anglicanism. Not only Joannes Eudaemon, Heribert Rosweyd and Scioppius (Gaspar Schoppe), but a respectable writer, friendly to Casaubon, Andreas Schott of Antwerp, gave currency to the insinuation that Casaubon had sold his conscience for English gold.

The most serious cause of discomfort in his English residence was that his time was no longer his own. He was continually being summoned to one or other of James’s hunting residences in order that the king might enjoy his conversation. He had come over from Paris seeking leisure, but found that new claims were made on his time. The king and the bishops compelled him to write first one, then a second, pamphlet on the subject of the day, the royal supremacy. At last, ashamed of thus misappropriating Casaubon’s stores of learning, they asked him to refute the popular Annals of Baronius. Upon this task Casaubon spent his remaining strength and life. He died of a congenital malformation of the bladder; but his end was hastened by an unhealthy life of over-study, and latterly by his anxiety to acquit himself creditably in his criticism on Baronius. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. The monument by which his name is there commemorated was erected in 1632 by his friend Thomas Morton when Bishop of Durham.

Besides the editions of ancient authors which have been mentioned, Casaubon published with commentaries Persius, Suetonius, the Scriptores Historiae Augustae. The edition of Polybius, on which he had spent vast labour, he left unfinished. His most ambitious work was his revision of the text of the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus, with commentary. The Theophrastus perhaps exhibits his most characteristic excellences as a commentator. The Exercitationes in Baronium are but a fragment of the massive criticism which he contemplated; it failed in bringing before the reader the uncritical character of Baronius’s history, and had only a moderate success, even among the Protestants. His correspondence (in Latin) was finally collected by Van Almeloveen (Rotterdam, 1709), who prefixed to the letters a careful life of Isaac Casaubon. But this learned Dutch editor was acquainted with Casaubon’s diary only in extract. This diary, Ephemerides, of which the MS. is preserved in the chapter library of Canterbury, was printed in 1850 by the Clarendon Press. It forms the most valuable record we possess of the daily life of a scholar, or man of letters, of the 16th century.

His son Méric Casaubon was also a classical scholar.

This article is based on text from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.