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?

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