In one era and out the other

John North

  • Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship. Vol II: Historical Chronology by Anthony Grafton
    Oxford, 766 pp, £65.00, December 1993, ISBN 0 19 920601 5

The first great Scaliger problem is that of distinguishing between father and son. When Swift, in his Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding, insisted that fiddlers, dancing-masters, heralds and masters of the ceremony were greater pedants ‘than Lipsius, or the elder Scaliger’, there must have been readers who asked themselves whether he wasn’t confusing Julius Caesar Scaliger, one of the 16th century’s most formidable literary scholars, and his son Joseph, who, as it happens, was successor to Lipsius at Leiden. And if their distinctive styles of pedantry make the two of them discernible to connoisseurs of these things, there remains the fact that they are closely linked in many people’s minds by a genealogical obsession of the father’s making. He spent much effort in convincing his son Joseph – and the world – that they were descended from the della Scala family, rulers of Verona, whose nobility they must uphold. The belief, and the need to defend it against a sceptical public, surely helped to form Joseph Scaliger’s irascible nature.

Julius Caesar Scaliger had believed in the superiority of Classical Latin literature to Greek, and if his son can be said to have rebelled in any one way it was in his insistence on the importance of the latter. He taught himself Greek – and in the course of time another dozen or so languages. F.-X. Feller commented that he knew them only well enough to use their terms of abuse against his rivals; but again, that was the nature of the game taught him by his father.

In erudition he was certainly his father’s son, but since his father had settled in Agen, in South-West France, before he was born (in 1540), he was subject to different forces – to Calvinism, for instance, which he embraced at the age of 22. It is a mystery how this dutiful son, with his boundless energy, who had always intended completing his father’s work on Aristotle’s Historia Animalium, never quite managed to do so. Perhaps one day a copy of the son’s Latin version of the Oedipus story, written when he was 16, will come to light, and we shall have another insight into relations between the two.

The first part of Anthony Grafton’s intellectual biography (‘Textual Criticism and Exegesis’) appeared in 1983. Together the two volumes provide little of a personal nature, but a remarkably rich insight into a vigorous period of scholarship for which the modern world, even the world of Classical learning and history, has little taste. The standard biography of Joseph Scaliger is by Jacob Bernays (1855), who saw his hero as the man who, almost single-handed, succeeded in professionalising Classical studies. Scaliger’s two main interests were Classical philology and historical chronology – that is, the nuts, bolts and scaffolding of history and literature. What Grafton showed in his first volume, as a corrective to Bernays’s eulogy, was that Scaliger was drawing heavily on the philological work of others; and now he does the same for chronology.

One of the main reasons for Scaliger’s success in both realms – quite apart from his cleverness and extraordinary drive – was not the novelty of what he did but the fact that there was a new intellectual market for studies that had previously been only incidental to other kinds of activity. The Reformation had created the demand, and the expanding universities the supply. Many of the religious controversies that gave rise to the Reformation hinged on the interpretation of early Christian and Jewish history. Textual criticism and exegesis here required a knowledge of Hebrew and other Eastern languages, which Scaliger acquired, but also a knowledge of historical time-reckoning and calendar systems, which in turn called for some astronomy. He needed this, too, to solve a number of problems encountered in the course of emending the text of the first-century astronomer Manilius. The weakness of his own scientific credentials did not mollify the venom in his remarks on the claims of various astronomers and mathematicians. The schoolman incarnate, he took much the same line in castigating his medical colleagues. If a doctor chose to rely on Hippocrates, how good could he be if he was ignorant of the art of Criticism?

Scaliger found that numbers could be harder to correct than words. But although his exposition was rather unsystematic, and although he often missed the point, he gradually built up an expertise in the history of much pre-Ptolemaic astronomy. It was universally known at the time that Arabic and Western astronomers were inheritors of a common Classical tradition, but what this owed to the early Greeks and the contiguous cultures of Egypt and Babylon was less well appreciated. He saw better than most that those Renaissance propagandists who had put across the idea of historical regress from a Golden Age were simply wrong. This was hardly news to the core of the astronomical fraternity, but at a humbler level Scaliger managed to insult astrologers by seeming to wish to promote, as had Pico della Mirandola, a reformed astrology. Insulting was second nature to him, but this was no doubt a misunderstanding. If he had anything scientific in his sights, it was the proper reckoning of time.

Medieval and Renaissance Europe had an obsession with time at many levels: with the monumental clock, which portrayed the moving universe; with the calendar of church festivals, that embodied hopes of both salvation and earthly rest; and with a sense of place in world history. On the last matter scholars were notoriously unable to agree – the first problem being the precise date of the world’s creation; but it was the thought that a universal history was possible that really counted. As Grafton notes, it was comfortable to live ‘at points clearly marked on the crisply calibrated scale of Biblical and historical time’. At a trivial level, this scale was seen as a necessary part of historical book-keeping – an insurance, for instance, against such inconsistencies as were implied in making out Alexander the Great to be King Solomon’s general. But chronology was also an aid to those who wished to incorporate ancient myths into their histories, by methods honest or arcane. Accurate chronological reckoning was seen as a mark of high civilisation, with something of the same status as today’s quartz watch, but it was also thought to provide the key to God’s purpose in the world – a role that some now give to the expanding universe. Prophecy on the basis of Biblical chronology offered crumbs of hope in a world at war and in political chaos.

Chronology, in short, mattered. It is not surprising that, as Scaliger wrote to Calvisius, no Frankfurt book-fair passed without its new crop of chronologies. As Grafton observes, however, the very name ‘chronology’, like ‘antiquarianism’, now serves as a synonym for useless, irrelevant scholarship. It was possible to locate Scaliger’s work in Renaissance textual scholarship with reference to many modern studies, but in the history of Renaissance chronology he found no considerable modern framework. Grafton represents even chronology itself as in decline, at least in its traditional form – and his wistful regrets are not the sort that carbon dating, thermoluminescence or dendrochronology are likely to mitigate.

In the course of editing texts, Scaliger had often come across chronological puzzles. The Italian humanists, and the Greek émigrés who fuelled their fire, had encountered a number of notorious problems – for example, that of the relations between the Attic calendar and the Julian calendar of Christian Europe. (Precisely when, for instance, was Marsilio Ficino to celebrate Plato’s birthday in 1468? The astronomers had preserved information on dozens of calendars, but not on this, it seemed.) Solutions were offered to such problems of calendar conversion in increasing numbers as the century wore on. In 1573, Scaliger was forced to confront the situation when he came to edit works by Macrobius, Aulus Gellius and, especially, Censorinus. This was a baptism of fire, for Censorinus in particular makes a number of poor historical judgments, and he was only one of many contradictory witnesses to bemuse the humanists.

Why did no two 16th-century chronologers find it easy to agree, when dealing with rational systems that had been drawn up by astronomers, using highly accurate parameters that were generally well reported? Was it not just a matter of simple arithmetic? There is no easy answer, but if one single generalisation is in order, it is that the calendar is easily overrated as a point of contact between civil and scientific history. The remarkable calendar cycles of early Antiquity, for example, which were so successful at bringing the movements of the Sun and Moon into step, were not aimed primarily at reforming civil calendars, with their rather haphazard intercalation of days and their involvement in a network of festivals and public affairs. In the Attic case they related the astronomers’ insights rather to weather-calendars, or parapegmata. This perspective became quite alien to most of Europe eventually, after the establishment of the Julian calendar – that imposed by the political skill of the real Julius Caesar. Scaliger dimly discovered the significance of parapegmata only after he moved to Leiden, but even then the point never really struck home.

In helping the learned Bishop de Foix de Candale with the Greek text of the Hermetic writings, Scaliger became greatly excited by the blend of Jewish creation story, Egyptian religion and Neoplatonic philosophy that he found there. His thoughts led on to the origins of the various European peoples, and to some of the medieval fantasies on this theme – such as that which traced the Franks back to the Trojan Francus and the Britons to his cousin Brutus. With the rise of nationalism, this quasi-historical movement became stronger, and took a number of religious turns, as when the French Calvinist Hotman replaced the Trojan myth with Frankish legends. Scaliger entered the fray with a discussion of the origins of the Scots in his commentary on Tibullus (1577). By a textual emendation of Seneca (scuta Brigantas became Scotobrigantas), he purported to show that the Romans knew the Scots by the first century AD, and that he was thereby giving the Scots a national identity. (He had visited the country.) A debate of extraordinary liveliness – extraordinary in view of its tiny beginnings – was still reverberating a century later. Scaliger was gradually getting the message: textual emendation could have its chronological dangers.

The growing mania for ancient genealogy chimed with his own history, which his father had insisted stretched back to Theodoric. Throughout his adult life, Joseph wore the purple to which he supposed his nobility entitled him. Later in life he emended his father’s fantastical family history, but only to refine it, not to overturn it.

The more Scaliger published against the sillier excesses of those seeking the beginnings of nationhood, the more enemies he acquired. Goropius, for instance, who had taken the famous experiment of King Psammetichus with twin baby boys as proving that the oldest language and the oldest people were the Dutch. (Their first word in asking for food had been bekos, which was deemed near enough to the Dutch for baker to prove the point.) Scaliger’s attack on this ‘fever-brained’ writer spilled over into his commentary on Manilius, and helped to turn his thoughts in the direction of a new project, the writing of what was to be his most famous book, De emendatione temporum,‘On the Emendation of Times’.

He made many mistakes in his early attempts to get to grips with the intricacies of technical calendar work, but in time he made himself the master of its literature. Grafton sketches well those points at which the best known of the 16th-century astronomers – Copernicus, Rheticus, Osiander, Reinhold and the rest – had touched on chronological matters, and the many outstanding problems. How were they to synchronise Nabonassar’s era with eras not found in Ptolemy? Was the Olympiad year 776 or 775? Was Funck right in his use of Ptolemy to criticise Copernicus? Was the Attic year lunar or not? Did the Jews borrow their calendar from the Babylonians, so that a whole tradition would have to be rewritten? The answer to the last question was a resounding yes, and by 1583 the world was able to read Scaliger’s view on that, and a thousand other such matters.

He took an aggressive stance even in the colophon, which dated his book by every era other than the one his readers knew best, the Christian era. He made gratuitous slurs on his opponents, even on whole cultures, but for some reason heaped praise on the Saxons, whom he knew from Bede. Scaliger’s was a pioneering work of great importance; but inevitably, it contained many imperfections. The astronomer Tycho Brahe corrected some, politely, and Kepler noted others in a letter to Scaliger in 1606. And as Kepler also remarked, it was a book that could not he read systematically. This had nothing to do with its astronomical pattern, or its use of tables – in which Scaliger revelled, much as his spiritual successors revel in databases. Kepler needed no instruction in such things. Scaliger’s nose was simply too close to his beloved texts for him to see that he was straining them too hard, and trying to extract from them information that they had never been intended to carry.

Scaliger was more than a chronologer, he was a historian of calendars. Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Persia, the Arabs – all were grist to his mill, even Japan. He distinguished what most of his contemporaries could not – namely, the difference between the Julian reform and the Julian calendar used by the medieval church. But Scaliger also added to history, inventing the Julian Period of 7980 years, combining three important cycles beginning on 1 January 4713 BC. Every astronomer should recognise this date as Julian Day Number 1. He had ideas of his own for a reform of the Christian calendar, a reform with a long medieval history. The Gregorian reform of the calendar had just been achieved by the time Scaliger’s work saw the light of day, but it was never too late for a polemic, and the longest and bitterest of his debates was that which followed with Christopher Clavius, who in so many ways was his scientific superior.

These were gloomy years. The Catholic League drove him and his friends from Paris, and he was obliged to study on the run – which at least had the merit of forcing him to reappraise some of his weaker arguments. And then there came a rescuing hand from Leiden, where a distinguished replacement for Lipsius was needed. He settled there, in 1593, in what he affectionately called ‘a swamp in the midst of swamps’, and remained there until his death in 1609. The culture-shock was extreme, especially when it came to the drinking habits of the Dutch – even his favourite pupil Heinsius was usually drunk, ‘more a jug than a man’. But a more serious shock to his system was when he tried his hand at certain long-standing mathematical problems and made an ass of himself in print. And he did much the same when he all too naively attacked the astronomical theory of the precession of the equinoxes. But he was grateful to his hosts, and magnificently productive in a great period for debate of his ideas, convinced that Athens had moved at last to Batavia.

To Leiden, satellites came from the four corners of Europe in increasing numbers. He did more editing – Jerome, Syncellus and so on – and made further studies of Greek chronography. He published a lengthy but more systematic work on calendars and epochs, Thesaurus temporum (1606). He spent much time in his last years defending the Greek Classical heritage, with its seeming impieties, from Protestant humanist attack – although he could hardly match the casuistry with which Casaubon (not the Middlemarch one) equated the Tantalus story to a vestige of a fading memory of the Fall.

Scaliger’s life illustrates the principle that if scholars have a tool and enjoy using it enough, they will create new uses for it, in advance of demand. Scaliger was an emendation freak. Emendation, whether of words or times or scholars, was a psychological need in him. His achievements in emendation were commensurate with his immense learning, but so was the vituperation that so often marred them. It was not just that he lived in a society whose violence spilled over into the paper world of the scholar, one in which – for him – Lutherans were ‘barbarians’ and Jesuits ‘asses’, and his scholarly peers were much worse. It was that he had a misplaced intellectual arrogance. Tycho’s diplomatic corrections to his work not-withstanding, Scaliger challenged the whole of the astronomical profession with half-baked views, even though it meant rewriting a good part of the history of astronomy in the process. He had the supreme self-confidence of the Man of Letters, believing that astronomy itself could be derived from Criticism. His views on precession are worth studying, but only as an aspect of this strange academic phenomenon. On chronology as a whole, however, he had for a time no equal.

Grafton’s weighty and copiously annotated volume does more than justice to this side of Scaliger’s life. It is a model of erudition and flourished prose of a sort that fits Scaliger far better than purple robes ever did.