The Contents of the Letters

Apart from a small handful of prefatory letters, Scaliger did not write his letters with an eye to publication. Scaliger was certainly very concerned with his reputation. He ensured that portraits of himself and his father – of which there are a good number surviving – were widely distributed. But Scaliger clearly did not see his own letters as a significant contribution to this reputation. They are not an extension of his public work, or a controlled projection of his public image.
The contents of the letters is very varied. They are usually informal and some of them offer rare glimpses into the everyday life of the man. We have, for example, a letter from an ambassador who writes to thank him for a remedy for colic. We have one which accompanied the gift of some bottles of wine. We have a few lines from Scaliger declining a wedding invitation, and the following year Scaliger wrote an equally brief letter declining an invitation to the wedding of the same man’s brother. There is even a letter in which he complains that his teeth are falling out because of the Dutch climate.
More importantly, the letters allow us to see a great scholar as he goes about his work. Scaliger is usually very forthright in them about what he likes and what he does not: his enemies are roundly and regularly abused; great scholars are praised generously; and the diligence and industry of lesser talents are charitably assessed. There are letters which throw light on the internal politics of the University of Leiden. We have many letters of introduction, carried by promising young students on their way to some centre of learning: such students seem often to have acted as couriers in return for a reference. There are long letters on textual scholarship, most of which have been plundered by classicists long ago. The difficult progress through the press of several important editions can be traced through Scaliger’s correspondence with their editors. The letters throw light on the accessibility of contemporary libraries, and the circulation of printed books. In the extensive and nearly complete correspondence between Scaliger and Isaac Casaubon, we have a remarkable witness to a friendship between two men who never met. The letters are always very practical, even when discussing matters of profound scholarship. Scaliger never wastes time getting to his point.

French or Latin?

About two thirds of the surviving letters are in Latin, while one third of them are in French. Scaliger may never have written a letter in any other language. He wrote to Italian scholars in French and to German and English scholars in Latin. He seems never to have mastered Dutch, the language of the country in which he spent the last fifteen years of his life. He could certainly have written letters in Greek, but there is no evidence that he ever did so. Composition in Greek was something of a literary tour de force, and to use Greek would have been ostentatious and unseemly in the practical matters which occupy most of the letters. He may well have written a letter, now lost, in Hebrew to the Samaritan communities in Egypt and Mount Gerizim in an unsuccessful attempt to secure a copy of their Bible. Latin translations of two Hebrew letters from the Samaritans appear to be a reply to this lost letter. The letters written by Scaliger himself display a very similar ratio: about two-thirds are in Latin and one third are in French.This figure may have been distorted by accidents of survival. Latin letters are perhaps more likely to survive: the trivial and the mundane are more likely to be written in the vernacular, and more likely discarded as unimportant over the centuries. One such accident is worth noticing: the correspondence between Isaac Casaubon and Scaliger – a total of 255 letters written over fifteen years – survives nearly intact.It survives partly because both parties to the correspondence were equally famous. These letters represent about 16% of the entire corpus, and they are all in Latin. Although they were both native French speakers, there are no letters between Casaubon and Scaliger in that language. This may be a preference of Casaubon rather than of Scaliger: there are, in fact, very few letters in French extant among Casaubon’s extensive correspondence. One wonders what language the two men would have spoken if they had ever met.

Other French scholars – such as Denys Lambin and Nicholas Rigault – corresponded with Scaliger in French. Pierre Pithou preferred the formality of Latin for his earliest letters to Scaliger, but soon dropped almost exclusively into French for the rest of their long correspondence. Many who were able to write a decent Latin letter still chose to approach Scaliger in French. It is possible that at least some of these were deterred from writing in Latin by Scaliger’s formidable reputation as a Latinist. Women, as a rule, wrote to Scaliger in French, not in Latin. In 1608, for example, Scaliger received a letter from a noblewoman informing him that her sister had just had a daughter. She expresses the wish that Scaliger had got married at the same time as her sister so that their children could marry. It is difficult to imagine what the elderly bachelor, now in the last year of his life, made of such a statement. It is certainly hard to imagine it being written in Latin. Despite his move to the Netherlands , it seems that Scaliger continued to regard himself as a Frenchman. His move to Leiden was seen, at least by his admirers, as a blow to France’s prestige. He certainly appears to have written in French much less frequently after he moved to Leiden . Before his move to Leiden , about three-quarters of his surviving letters are in French. After his move, the ratio is reversed: more than 80% of his letters from Leiden are in Latin.This is, of course, an inevitable consequence of such a move. At Leiden he came into contact with a good number of German protestant scholars, and established contacts with England. He continued to write French letters regularly until his death, but his old French friends died and Joseph outlived most of his family by many years. He died, as it were, in exile, although a very comfortable one. His will was written in both French and Latin.