I confess I knew almost nothing about Isaac Casaubon except that, as Ingrid D. Rowland writes at the beginning of her NYRB review of a book about his scholarship, he “lent his name to the dismal Edward Casaubon of George Eliot’s Middlemarch.” But Rowland makes him sound like someone I’d like to have known, and I was particularly impressed by his linguistic attainments:

As we read in Grafton and Weinberg’s book, it was this transitional period of late antiquity and early Christianity, so mysterious and so eventful, that became Isaac Casaubon’s particular obsession in the waning years of the sixteenth century, when his curiosity drove him to learn the “Holy Tongue” and then push beyond it. Like most European Christians then and now, he had come to his faith through translations of the Bible: for Protestants like himself, this meant first a vernacular translation, then, as his education proceeded, the Latin of Saint Jerome’s Vulgate. Learning Greek allowed him at last to read the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament more or less as they had been written. He could also read the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, drafted in Hellenistic Alexandria (begun in the third century BCE, finished before 132 BCE) by a team of some seventy scholars (septuaginta is Latin for seventy) to serve the Greek-speaking Jews of that cosmopolitan city (many of them as shaky in their Hebrew as their modern counterparts).

Casaubon, like many Protestant scholars, had made a study of Hebrew in his youth, but in his early thirties, as a more established professional, he began to pursue the language in earnest, driven by his inexhaustible curiosity and what must have been a considerable physical vigor. As he gained confidence in Hebrew, that curiosity took him still further: into Aramaic, the colloquial language of Judea that was spoken in early Christian times, into the more contemporary Aramaic of the Talmud, the body of commentaries preserved and expanded by rabbis through the ages, and at last into contemporary Yiddish.

She then goes on to a charming excursus on marginalia:

Librarians today blanch at the thought, but from ancient times onward, writing in margins was a time-honored proof of active readership. People jotted down illustrations, comments, alternatives for words that puzzled them (manuscript copies were usually riddled with imperfections), significant passages from other writers, and an inexhaustible collection of strange facts and strongly held opinions. (For example: one marginalium to Homer’s Iliad goes on at great length about earthworms, comparing their emergence from the soil to the human soul’s emergence into the divine light; a manuscript of Vitruvius in the Bodleian Library in Oxford finishes off the Ten Books on Architecture with a recipe for curing hemorrhoids with white bean paste and oil of violet; a fifteenth-century copy of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy has a self-portrait of the manuscript’s red-haired owner, moping melancholically as he says, “Console me, Mother Philosophy—an evil woman has done me wrong,” and Mother Philosophy obligingly tells him just where to look in the text of Boethius to pilot the ship of his soul into the port of salvation.)


  1. I first learned about Isaac Casaubon many years ago, from reading Frances Yates’ writings about Giordano Bruno. Casaubon was the scholar who first debunked the writings of ‘Hermes Trismegistus’. It’s a fascinating story that I won’t even try to summarize here.
    But I will complain here about some of the treatment Yates has been getting lately. There’s been a Bruno revival in recent years and Yates barely gets mentioned. Hard to exaggerate how unfair that is.

  2. I entirely agree, and I’m sorry to hear she’s being neglected.

  3. Grafton’s earlier Defenders of the Text also has a chapter on Casaubon v. Baronio, with good old Athanasius Kircher making a late appearance for the defense.

  4. I should point out that my doctoral thesis has a chapter on Casaubon v. Baronio, with good old Athanasius Kircher making a late appearance for the defense—of an entirely different subject!

  5. I haven’t yet read the new book but it’s on my list. Both of the authors have been very generous to me; Weinberg pointed me to some juicy Casaubon marginalia in a 16c. epitome of the Talmud. Arcane waters indeed.

  6. Having never read “Middlemarch”, to me “Casaubon” was always just the name of the narrator of Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum”! Great to learn the source of that allusion – thanks.

  7. A.D.Nuttall’s _Dead from the Waist Down_ deals with both Casaubons, flanking Mark Pattison …

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