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A Hero of the Hebraic Renaissance

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British Library Board (C.76.g.7)
Detail from the title page of Isaac Casaubon’s copy of Flavius Josephus’ Opera Omnia

Librarians today blanch at the thought, but from ancient times onward, writing in margins was a time-honored proof of active readership. People jotted down illustrations, comments, alternatives for words that puzzled them (manuscript copies were usually riddled with imperfections), significant passages from other writers, and an inexhaustible collection of strange facts and strongly held opinions. (For example: one marginalium to Homer’s Iliad goes on at great length about earthworms, comparing their emergence from the soil to the human soul’s emergence into the divine light; a manuscript of Vitruvius in the Bodleian Library in Oxford finishes off the Ten Books on Architecture with a recipe for curing hemorrhoids with white bean paste and oil of violet; a fifteenth-century copy of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy has a self-portrait of the manuscript’s red-haired owner, moping melancholically as he says, “Console me, Mother Philosophy—an evil woman has done me wrong,” and Mother Philosophy obligingly tells him just where to look in the text of Boethius to pilot the ship of his soul into the port of salvation.)

The people who copied these eagerly annotated manuscripts often copied the marginalia as well as the main text, so that many medieval and early modern manuscripts present tiny blocks of some treasured original floating in a sea of commentary; early printed volumes, especially on the classics, law, or religion, often imitated the same format. By manhandling the books he owned and read, Casaubon was only doing what everyone around him did—and besides, paper in his day was expensive (not least because it was of such excellent quality). Although Casaubon also kept notes in an erasable donkey-skin notebook, he habitually jotted down his reactions to his reading, and his future plans for writing, right in the books that inspired him, or irritated him into action.

These marginalia allow Grafton and Weinberg to trace the development of Casaubon’s linguistic proficiency in Hebrew and Aramaic, and of the thoughts sparked by his new expertise. Most of “I Have Always Loved the Holy Tongue” consists in a painstaking comparison of Casaubon’s thick marginalia with the ideas that eventually appear in his published work. Although they twice describe his handwriting as “chicken scratches,” that description applies to his informal notes (which he himself found illegible on occasion); most of the time, in his defense, Casaubon writes a clear, legible script in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew square lettering, so clear, in fact, that it is readily decipherable in the book’s generous collection of photographs.

There was a definite feeling among literate people in the early modern world that clear texts and clear handwriting were essential to developing a clear mind (although the supremely lucid Thomas Aquinas had truly awful penmanship; spiky and spidery, it really does suggest chicken scratches). Isaac Casaubon’s script normally complements his drive to clarify, and if need be, to correct the spelling and grammar of ancient classical works in order to clarify his thoughts about matters ancient, modern, and eternal.

As the mature scholar’s knowledge of Hebrew and Judaic tradition grew, his thoughts became increasingly preoccupied with the Jewish contribution to Christian religion, from the time of Jesus, through Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, right up to his own era. Characteristically for this cosmopolitan man, his growing enthusiasm encompassed not only a written tradition of texts and languages, but also the living people who had produced and preserved that tradition in the first place: the Jews.

If Huguenots were persecuted in sixteenth-century France, the fate of European Jews had been troubled for a very long time. The story of Isaac Casaubon’s Hebrew and Jewish studies, therefore, is also, significantly, the story of Jewish–Christian relations in early modern Europe, a story that is still imperfectly known, and often difficult to trace. Much of the evidence for contact between Christians and Jews is anecdotal, and these isolated anecdotes may, in fact, reflect the way that the two religious creeds interacted most of the time: individually, episodically, and not always in line with the commands of prevailing law, custom, or prejudice.

Jewish communities had survived in Rome and southern Italy ever since ancient Roman times, some with strict observance of kosher rules, others assimilated to varying degrees, still others recent converts. Since then, however, a long, terrible history of persecution has disrupted Jewish communities in Europe for centuries, destroying people, possessions, and documents. Nor is it easy to find people who can read and interpret what evidence is left: that evidence survives in old writing, in old artifacts, in multiple languages. Furthermore, what people declare in surviving records has often been deliberately misleading: sixteenth-century Spanish officials in Naples and Sicily routinely reported back to Madrid that they had expelled all the Jews from their territory. Yet Jews still show up in their records. Some had been summarily baptized and therefore counted as “New Christians”; some continued to live more or less as they always had. During Casaubon’s lifetime, in commercial emporia like Hamburg, Antwerp, or the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, virtually every aspect of Jewish life could be negotiated and renegotiated: mercantile practice, clothing, residence in the Ghetto, keeping kosher, dealings with Gentiles.*

In the beginning, typically, Casaubon learned Hebrew from a Christian scholar, in his case at the Geneva Academy, in his twenties, from Pierre Chevalier. But he was too much of a classicist ever to have been satisfied with the bare biblical text. He wanted to know the comments and interpretations that other readers had added down the centuries—in its own way, his life of study, like his life away from his desk, was eminently, intensely social. Most commentators on the Hebrew Bible had been Jews, writing, for the most part, not in Hebrew but in Aramaic. So Casaubon set himself to learning Aramaic and, eventually, Yiddish—whatever it took to understand and to communicate. Grafton and Weinberg trace his growing competence as his readings broaden out to take in new eras, people, places, languages, and cultures. His exploration of the “Holy Tongue” was a lifelong enterprise, pursued in a spirit of rare humanity.

This humanity showed forth above all in his behavior to one individual living Jew who had helped him in his studies. Casaubon met Jacob Barnet on a visit to Oxford in 1613, and was struck immediately by the younger man’s expertise on the Talmud, the great body of Jewish commentary on every kind of religious question. It was the first time that this eager scholar of the Holy Tongue had ever met a living, practicing Jew. England had expelled its Jewish population in the fourteenth century, and Barnet was a rarity. He had come from Italy, his presence at Oxford eased by his stated intention to convert to Christianity. He and Casaubon sat down to long talks about life, scholarship, and Talmud; the older man’s marginalia in his books indicate how excited he was by having, at last, a living guide to this ancient Jewish tradition. As time went on, however, Barnet’s position became more difficult; he left Oxford, and returned. Now his Oxford colleagues, the King, and the Archbishop of Canterbury pressed him more and more insistently to convert in a grand public ceremony. At last the pressure overwhelmed him. On the scheduled day, he ran away. Chased down on horseback and apprehended, Barnet was cast into the university jail, confined with particular brutality because of the blasphemies he uttered at the time of his arrest.

Like a seventeenth-century Amnesty International—and unlike his scholarly colleagues—Casaubon lobbied tirelessly on the young man’s behalf, pressing the authorities at Oxford:

Please, don’t pass too severe a sentence on him. Let the obstinate Jew recognize the kindness of Christ in the clemency of those who profess Christ’s name…. Allow me to put off all shame before you on behalf of that man, whom it was my lot to have as a teacher.

Remarkably, Casaubon’s campaign succeeded: Jacob Barnet left prison, retreated to the Continent, and, after reaching Paris, melted, so far as we know, into oblivion, like so many refugees in those dangerous times.

It is precisely Casaubon’s willingness to defend, in public, a friend—a persecuted, ostracized friend—that elevates the record of his achievements from a simple history of scholarship to a life. In their account of Casaubon’s Hebrew studies, Grafton and Weinberg have illuminated far more than the scholar; they have done much to reveal the multiple sides of a deeply sympathetic figure who must have been, in many respects, a thoroughly modern man.

  1. *

    A wealth of new evidence is collected in Edward Goldberg, Jews and Magic in Medicean Florence: The Life of Benedetto Blanis (University of Toronto Press, 2011). 

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