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Isaac Casaubon

Casaubon worked in Geneva in the 1590s and in Paris from 1600. After the assassination of King Henri IV in 1610, he accepted a position in England from James I and placed his enormous knowledge at the King’s disposal. He was employed to speak to Europe on behalf of his new home, and to supply intellectual substance to the ongoing defence of the English Church against its Catholic detractors. His letters show that he brought to England not just his learning, but also his extensive network of European correspondents, among whom were the most eminent historians, theologians, philosophers and critics of the day.

Throughout the seventeenth century, Casaubon’s importance remained unquestioned, and this reverence for his example and his achievements culminated in a monumental edition of a portion of his poetry, prose and letters in 1709. These works were published alongside a lengthy Latin biography which constitutes the first serious attempt to assess his contribution to the history of scholarship. However, most of the letters published in 1709 were written by Casaubon, with a small appendix of letters written to him. In fact, very few of the letters written by others to Casaubon have ever been published. The shape of the published material emerged from a seventeenth-century preoccupation with biography, and it has obscured the sense of international scholarly collaboration which characterises the correspondence.

The edition of 1709 marked a peak in interest in Casaubon, and the eighteenth century soon forgot him. When interest in Casaubon revived in the second half of the nineteenth century, it took a very different form. Three works shaped the new conception of Casaubon during this later period. The first was the publication of his diary in 1850; the second was the character of Edward Casaubon created by George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch in 1871-1872; the third was Mark Pattison’s biography of Casaubon, published in 1875, a minor classic of the genre, written in vigorous, engaged, Victorian prose.

Casaubon’s diary offers a striking picture of a devoted and meticulous student of ancient literature. It is not a diary in the modern sense of the term, but rather an account book, enumerating the uses its author has made of his God-given time. As such, it lists the books which he has read, details the number of pages consumed every day, and it fretfully laments the time wasted by visitors and social engagements. This account of his life struck some nineteenth-century readers as morbidly obsessive and it led directly to Eliot’s memorable portrait of Edward Casaubon as a man devoted to the most arid and sterile types of scholarship. Isaac Casaubon has struggled to emerge from beneath Eliot’s influential depiction of these enormous but futile scholarly labours.

The new edition of Casaubon’s correspondence should finally lay to rest the idea of Casaubon conjured up by Eliot. The nineteenth century saw Casaubon as a solitary antiquarian, indulging an intense but sterile passion for information. The Casaubon emerging from recent work is a man who worked to connect the world of Antiquity to the aspirations of his age, who saw his scholarship as part of a collaborative enterprise, and who cultivated an international network of correspondents to further that end.