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The Scholar of Scholars

I well remember the bracing impact of those words at that time and thinking to myself that the author, whose name I had never heard before, was destined to become one of the major historians of the next generation. His spectacular debut was followed six years later by the first volume of a study of the sixteenth-century scholar Joseph Scaliger, a voracious reader of ancient texts who combined mastery of the relevant languages with a taste for the intricacies of historical chronology. Grafton proved to have just the right combination of technical expertise and expository skill to bring Scaliger and his world to modern readers. The second volume of his study had to wait for ten years, because Grafton’s exceptionally broad interests in early modern historiography and science led him in many other directions. His study of the origins of the scholarly footnote, which Gibbon was already able to deploy with such brilliance, and his investigation into the curious link between scholarship and forgery showed that Grafton was no less expert in communicating with the literate public than with his academic peers.

On many occasions Grafton has written about his indebtedness to Arnaldo Momigliano, whose seminars he attended at the Warburg Institute in London in 1973–1974. Those seminars, in which their authoritative leader actively encouraged discussion and disagreement among students, also promoted debate with the illustrious dead whose works were being studied. Grafton was a formidable student, as I heard later from Momigliano himself, not only because he arrived as a fully trained classicist but because he was also well on his way to being an accomplished historian of early modern scholarship. His capacity for research had led his mentors at Chicago to send him to Momigliano to begin his work on Scaliger.

At the Warburg, as Grafton describes in a partly autobiographical essay about his teacher in Worlds Made by Words, he learned from Momigliano the importance of understanding the historiography of the past on its own terms, and then to place that understanding in its relation to the present. He says of Momigliano’s essays from the 1940s and 1950s that they “worked dialectically between the present—of classical studies—and their past.” Such an empathy for the past combined with a constant awareness of the present has become a hallmark of Grafton’s work, to an even greater extent than it was for Momigliano himself. His book, with its frequent invocation of computers and the Internet, as well as a final chapter on Google and virtual libraries, would have left Momigliano puzzled but undoubtedly appreciative.

Grafton is an honored citizen in the Republic of Letters, a scholarly community without borders that has its origins in the late Renaissance and anticipated the great academies of Europe. It is fitting that the first essay in his book is an account of that network of scholars and scientists who communicated and debated with each other from generation to generation across national boundaries. This fictive nation, the Respublica Literaria or Respublica Literarum, served as a kind of international forum for the exchange of knowledge and ideas. Much of the exchange occurred inevitably through correspondence, to which Grafton gives proper emphasis:

The constant writing and sending of letters was more than a system for collecting and exchanging information. Many citizens of the Republic saw it as a moral duty.

But readers should be warned that the “Letters” in the Republic’s name allude to cultivation and high literacy, as in “arts and letters” or “man of letters,” and not to epistolography.

Although the Republic of Letters has now attracted ample attention and is often mentioned, it was far less visible as recently as 1988 when Marc Fumaroli explored its meaning and origin.1 It is a little surprising that his analysis, with its advocacy of the Republic, is absent from Grafton’s essay. Fumaroli has now set up a research project in France on an important Enlightenment patron of the arts, the Comte de Caylus, and his contributions to the Republic of Letters. His project has been funded through the Balzan Prize, which he received in 2001. By an astonishing coincidence Grafton received the same prize in the very next year and devoted his funds to another project in the Republic of Letters—a massive publication, in print and online, of the collected correspondence of Scaliger. Given his Warburg past, Grafton set up his project in London at the Warburg with the collaboration of the Scaliger archive in Leiden. So now thanks to the Balzan Foundation, we have two great enterprises in support of the Republic of Letters.

As one who not only works on but belongs to the Republic of Letters, Grafton is an experienced archival historian. The two volumes on Scaliger, to say nothing of his Balzan project, make this clear, as do his strictures on scholars who have not met his high standards of research. These appear prominently in his essay on Mark Pattison, the much-admired nineteenth-century biographer of the classicist Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614), whose name, if not achievement, is echoed in the desiccated scholar of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Grafton tears into Pattison on Casaubon with the same gusto he applied to Kenney on classical texts:

Repeated encounters with his inability to quote a document accurately, his ineptitude at establishing dates, and his incompetence at summarizing plain German accurately in English have led me to wonder whether he deserves the authority he still enjoys in the English-speaking world.

Only two others before Grafton had examined the Casaubon materials in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and those two—the great German classical scholar Eduard Fraenkel and the literary critic A.D. Nuttall—had been similarly disenchanted when they discovered the weaknesses in Pattison’s notes and writings. It is particularly impressive to find Fraenkel, a superb philologist from the old German university tradition, engaged in thorough archival research on Casaubon as a part of the preparation for his magnificent commentary on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. He could see, as Pattison could not, that Casaubon was close to finishing a commentary of his own on that marvelous play.

Through his archival research and his skill in reading the scripts of early modern Latin, Grafton had taken what he learned in those seminars at the Warburg in quite new directions. When Momigliano told the director of Oxford University Press in the late 1940s that he had resolved to devote himself to the history of historiography, he did not mean that he would scour the archives of Europe. What he meant was that he would try to read everything in print and retain it in his prodigious memory for comparison and analysis.

But for Grafton manuscripts and old volumes are what ancient objects are for archaeologists. When he writes of a turn among recent historians toward material evidence, he is in a sense describing a turn he made himself when he started in earnest on Scaliger. In contemplating what digitalization cannot do, he cites with obvious sympathy a historian who systematically sniffed 250-year-old letters in an archive:

By detecting the smell of vinegar—which had been sprinkled on letters from towns struck by cholera in the eighteenth century, in the hope of disinfecting them—he could trace the history of disease outbreaks.

It is exceedingly rare to find in one and the same scholar this love for archival material and the talent to show the world at large why it is interesting and important.

From Momigliano perhaps Grafton learned how to make an attractive essay out of a scholarly debate, although his own curiosity and wit probably provided the basic intellectual resources. In his essay on the Warburg seminars he writes that Momigliano “saw style as central to the history of scholarship.” By this he meant “style of collection and argument” as represented among the antiquarians, and he rightly observes that this mattered as much to Momigliano as the subject matter of the scholars he was studying.

But what was not important to Momigliano was literary style, and that is probably why he became so vexed by Hayden White’s emphasis on rhetoric in the writing of history. His tin ear when it came to literary style led to a memorable debate at Lausanne in 1976 on the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Momigliano claimed that Gibbon had not made up his mind whether the poems of Ossian were a forgery or not. But Gibbon’s ironic style had misled him. Already in March 1776 David Hume had recognized what Gibbon was saying and, in a letter of congratulations, wrote that he was “certainly right” to doubt the authenticity of the poems.

Grafton has enriched what he learned at the Warburg with his own sensitivity to material evidence. As for large relics Momigliano “always insisted on his amateur status as a student of monuments,” and I can vouch that this extended to smaller material remains as well. Anyone who ever visited a museum with him will know that it was conversation with his companion that propelled him through the galleries. He wasted little time in looking at something in a vitrine or propped up on the floor. But he was always receptive to the ideas of someone who worked with objects. That was because he loved ideas.

Grafton loves ideas too, and he devotes substantial parts of his book to his reflections on the once fashionable history of ideas or, as it also used to be called, intellectual history. His long essay “The History of Ideas: Precept and Practice, 1950–2000 and Beyond,” written for the Journal of the History of Ideas, of which he is an editor, aims to put this subject in perspective and back into the historical arena. The path from A.O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being to John Pocock’s multivolume study of Edward Gibbon (four volumes and counting) is a tortuous one, and along the way came the histories of books and readers, as espoused by Robert Darnton, Roger Chartier, and Carlo Ginzburg. Intellectual history and its ideas have, as Grafton astutely remarks, returned by way of the book trade, and “the history of ideas no longer seems so marginal.”

  1. 1

    Marc Fumaroli, “The Republic of Letters,” Diogenes, Vol. 36, No. 145 (1988), pp. 129–152.

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