In his day, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637) was one of the most celebrated men in Europe. With the exception of Francis Bacon, whom he admired but never met, he was on close terms with virtually all the leading intellectuals of the time. He intervened with the Pope on behalf of his friend Galileo; he urged the great Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius to write the epoch-making book De jure belli ac pacis, which laid the foundations of international law; and he gave shelter to Tommaso Campanella, whose visionary work La città del sole portrayed an ideal commonwealth. He entertained Peter-Paul Rubens, who gave him a self-portrait, and he was painted by Van Dyck.

For much of his life, he maintained a vast scholarly correspondence throughout Europe, the Near East, and North Africa, writing or dictating at least 40,000 letters. At his house in Aix-en-Provence and his country estate at Belgentier, near Toulon, he accumulated an astonishing collection of books, manuscripts, coins, medals, gems, busts, statues, inscriptions, paintings, drawings, fossils, shells, minerals, Egyptian mummies, and rarities of every kind. He had a huge garden, in which he acclimatized exotic plants; an observatory, from which he observed comets and eclipses; and a menagerie, in which he bred chameleons and exhibited a crocodile and an elephant. When he died, he was mourned throughout Europe; and his intimate friend Pierre Gassendi, the celebrated scientist, mathematician, and Epicurean philosopher, wrote a five-hundred-page biography, which remains one of the most remarkable tributes ever paid by one scholar to another.

Peiresc’s intellectual interests were universal. They embraced chronol-ogy, Egyptology, biblical studies, the civilizations of Greece and Rome, medieval history, especially that of France and Provence, Oriental studies, linguistics and comparative philology, numismatics, paleography, ethnography, law, economics, comparative politics, music, poetry, and painting. On the scientific side, he was passionately interested in mathematics, astronomy, optics, geology, geography, cartography, botany, zoology, physiology, and anatomy. He enjoyed investigating rarities and freaks: centenarians, mermen, monsters, or people with trees growing out of their stomach. He also took a keen interest in the skills and technical secrets of craftsmen.

Anyone today who admitted to a comparable range of interests would be dismissed as a hopeless dilettante. Yet although Peiresc made few great advances himself, he managed to be at the cutting edge of many of these multifarious disciplines. He was a good linguist and an excellent paleographer. In classical archaeology, he pioneered the practice of precise measurement, devised a method of reading half-obliterated inscriptions, and was responsible for the discovery and excavation of the collection of antique statuary known as the Arundel Marbles, housed today in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. As a historian, he was notable for urging that historical evidence was to be found not just in documents and literary texts, but in buildings, statues, tombs, inscriptions, coins, seals, medals, and stained glass. As an Egyptologist, he took a keen interest in the study of the Coptic language and contemporary attempts to decipher hieroglyphics. As an eco-nomist, he understood the causes of inflation and offered advice on monetary policy. As a prolific letter-writer, he successfully agitated for improvements in the postal service.

His major achievement as a scientist was to recognize the importance of the work done by his brilliant contemporaries Galileo and William Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood. Much of the work done in his name was carried out by assistants. But he was a good enough astronomer to be the first to see the nebula in the belt of Orion, and it was he who commissioned the first map of the moon. By coordinating observations of an eclipse of the moon from various points in Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, he successfully recalculated the longitude of those places and thereby arrived at more accurate dimensions for the Mediterranean Sea. He also disposed of much popular mythology, showing that a mysterious “red rain” was merely excrement from the chrysalises of butterflies, that the bones attributed to a “giant” were really those of an elephant, and that armies in the sky were visual illusions.

Above all, Peiresc was outstanding for the indefatigable assistance and encouragement which he lavished on other scholars, whatever their branch of learning. He lent them books and manuscripts, found them patrons and publishers, arranged introductions, gave them prolonged hospitality, and assisted them with money. His incessant letters urged them to greater efforts and disseminated news of their activities to others in the field.

His house at Aix-en-Provence became a nodal point in the great Republic of Letters, the international community of learning of which Peiresc was the acknowledged general secretary. He was an indefatigable patron, animator, and facilitator: library, museum, academy, research institute, and learned journal all in one.

Such an achievement is inconceivable today. What made it possible in the early seventeenth century? And how did Peiresc come to occupy so focal a position in the intellectual life of the time? He had the advantages of wealth and social position. As a member of an old Provençal family, he had been sent to study law in Padua before taking up an influential position in 1604 as a member (conseiller) of the Parlement of Provence. He had traveled extensively in Italy, where he made many well-connected friends, and, as secretary to the celebrated Provençal philosopher, magistrate, and politician Guillaume du Vair, Louis XIII’s Keeper of the Seals, he would spend some years moving among intellectual circles in Paris. His home in Provence was ideally situated as the link between France and Italy. Travelers kept passing through, some of them highly influential ones, like Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII. Close to the ports of Marseilles and Toulon, he could dispatch his agents on the merchant vessels which plied across the Mediterranean to the Levant, the great source for classical antiquities and early Christian manuscripts.


Peiresc was also a man of great personal charm: affable, courteous, sensitive, and delighting in conversation, provided it was not about trivialities. He was naturally generous: if he borrowed books from other people, he would return them handsomely rebound. He was immensely industrious, seldom wasting time and virtually never taking any recreation; a young man who stayed with him for eight months saw him only once go for a walk. He was celibate, deliberately rejecting the marriage his father had planned for him, so as to concentrate on the life of the mind, and thereafter leading what was apparently a wholly asexual life. He was also rich enough to be lavish in his acquisition of scholarly materials, and generous in his patronage. He usually had some scholars in residence, plus a large staff of secretaries, artists, engravers, and gardeners, all working on his collections. Modern scholars have given little attention to the material basis of these activities, but Jean-Jacques Bouchard remarked in his funeral oration that Peiresc enjoyed an annual income of 36,000 livres tournois. This was an enormous sum, which presumably came from his ancestral estates. It would be good to know whether this was so.

Peiresc published nothing in his lifetime, but left a vast mass of papers behind him, which were at first treated with some indifference. As Dr. Samuel Johnson later observed, Peiresc’s death was lamented in forty languages, and his papers supplied his heirs with a whole winter’s fuel. Local patriotism kept Peiresc’s memory alive in Provence, but it was not until the late nineteenth century that serious attempts were made to recreate Peiresc’s intellectual activities and to establish their importance. Between 1888 and 1898 Philippe Tamizey de Larroque published seven huge volumes of Peiresc’s correspondence. Much more recently, other scholars have edited further selections from his correspondence, along with some of his unpublished papers. There have been numerous short lives and appreciative essays and some valuable monographs on aspects of Peiresc’s career. But we still await an adequate modern biography to pull together the different dimensions of Peiresc’s many-faceted life.1

Peter Miller’s exceptionally intelligent and stimulating book, Peiresc’s Europe, is not intended to fill that gap. His concern is not so much Peiresc himself as his role as an exemplar of a particular kind of scholarly culture. He identifies Peiresc’s lifetime as a crucial moment in the intellectual history of Europe. It overlapped with an era of relative peace, between the end of the French Wars of Religion (1598) and French intervention in the Thirty Years’ War (1635). It was an age when intellectual cooperation was still possible between scholars of different religions and nationalities; and when there were many irenic schemes for the reunion of the churches. Knowledge had not yet fragmented and the division between the humanities and the sciences was still unknown. A common Latin culture facilitated communication on a European basis (though Peiresc was notable for preferring to write in the vernacular) and scholars could move freely from one country to another. The support of rich intellectuals like Peiresc was crucial to this world of learning. He was not alone as a patron and collector; and there were other sociable, scholarly circles similar to his. In particular, he saw himself as the successor to Gian Vincenzo Pinelli (1535–1601), who had given scholars free access to his fine library and collection of rarities at Padua.

Miller’s book comprises a series of essays on aspects of Peiresc’s work and outlook, each of them designed to locate him in a wider setting. An excellent chapter on Peiresc as an antiquarian stresses that even the most abstruse investigations into the past could have an immediate contemporary application. In an age when political argument often took the form of disputes about legal and historical rights, it was inevitable that antiquarian scholarship should have a political dimension. Inquiries into Hebrew or Roman forms of government contained obvious lessons for contemporary politics. The study of the Roman army underpinned the military innovations of the Dutch commander Maurice of Nassau. Work on ancient numismatics made Peiresc sensitive to current financial issues; after studying the debasement of the Roman coinage, he recommended that French taxes should be related not to monetary values but to the value of grain. Great collections of historical documents, like those amassed by Peiresc or his English counterpart, Sir Robert Cotton, were arsenals of power, containing vital weapons which could be employed in the political or diplomatic conflicts of the day.


As a conscientious member of the Parlement of Provence, Peiresc was a strong local patriot. An important objective of his work was to demonstrate the antiquity and authority of local liberties and privileges. He drafted an essay on the origin of the Parlements and embarked upon an ambitious history of Provence. Miller compares Peiresc’s work on this subject to the studies of the English Parliament conducted by his friend Sir Henry Spelman. But as secretary to the royal Keeper of the Seals, Peiresc was also a bureaucrat in the service of the French state. In 1628 Louis XIII commissioned him to draw up a history of French relations with the principality of Orange, which, though a largely Catholic district in the south of France, belonged to the Dutch Protestant stadholders of the House of Nassau. Peiresc’s elaborate archival inquiries predictably vindicated the French King’s claims to suzerainty. His tragedy, says Miller, was his dual sense of patria as both nation and region; he “was compelled to work for a triumph of the former that could come only at the expense of the latter.”

Peiresc’s religious ideals were also typical of his time. Educated by the Jesuits, he became a priest and, eventually, the nonresident abbot of a Benedictine monastery. He was a pious man who said mass daily, and he remained a committed Roman Catholic. But all his sympathies were with those who, like Hugo Grotius or Erasmus before him, hoped for peaceful accommodation between the warring Christian sects. Christian dogma could be reduced to a few basic essentials. Metaphysical niceties were to be avoided. History, philosophy, and archaeology were all to be employed in the service of religion, for true Christianity had nothing to fear from erudition or the application of reason. As his far-flung correspondence abundantly shows, Peiresc was “a Catholic comfortable with Protestants, Jews, and Muslims.” He was deeply shocked by the condemnation of Galileo. His own much-admired mentor and patron was Guillaume du Vair, the translator of the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and the formulator of a synthesis of Stoicism and Christianity which was cosmopolitan and tolerant in its sympathies; du Vair saw no difficulty in combining pagan virtue with Christian wisdom.

Miller compares this attitude to that of the remarkable Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), who, in his efforts to convert the Chinese, reduced Christianity to its basic essentials and purveyed neo-Stoic teachings in a form easily assimilable to Confucianism. Miller also cites François La Mothe le Vayer (1583–1672), the prominent skeptic, whose work on pagan virtue, La Vertu des payens (1641), claimed that the Chinese were the people most consistently guided by the light of reason and closest to true religion.

Inevitably, this emphasis on the rationality of Christianity and the universality of reason produced a backlash. In the 1640s, Antoine Arnauld, the leader of French Jansenism, reasserted the Augustinian doctrine that one could not be saved by reason alone; human nature was hopelessly corrupt and salvation could come only from God’s mercy and faith in Jesus Christ. The salon philosopher Guez de Balzac (1594–1654), “the Peiresc of the Parisian chattering classes,” as Miller calls him, denounced as presumptuous the Erasmian faith in human reason. Peiresc had shared that faith; indeed his work would have been impossible without it. But in the years immediately after his death, it was hotly contested.

Miller argues that Peiresc’s antiquarianism had a deep moral purpose. It was an attempt to resist the inexorable encroachment of time upon all the works of humankind. Peiresc believed that the debris of the past should be treated with reverence; everything possible should be done to prevent its further deterioration. That was why the formation of collections was such an important feature of early antiquarianism; in his chests and cabinets, the antiquary could save at least some ancient manuscripts, coins, medals, and monuments from destruction. It did not matter whether or not they were beautiful; that was irrelevant to their historical value. What was important about them was their status as what Francis Bacon called “remnants of history which have casually escaped the shipwreck of time.” If Peiresc could not acquire the originals, then he would commission a scribe or an artist to make a copy. By studying the material thus assembled, scholars could perform the miraculous feat of bringing the dry bones of the past back to life. Yet no one knew better than the antiquary that all attempts to resist mortality were ultimately vain. Time was the great destroyer; and the truest wisdom lay in appreciating the ephemerality of all things.

Miller admits that it is only by inference that he can attribute these sentiments to Peiresc, who left no extended reflection on why he did what he did. It is by drawing on the more explicit views of some of his contemporaries, like the German poet-antiquary Martin Opitz (1597–1639), that Miller tries to reconstruct his implicit historical philosophy. But these were the commonplaces of the antiquarian movement; and in his biography Gassendi tells us that Peiresc believed that history taught humility by putting our short lives in longer-term perspective.

Miller’s most original argument is that Peiresc’s true importance was as an exemplar of an ideal of human excellence. He made important contributions to learning and to science, but in the eyes of his admirers his supreme merit was that he taught by example how life should be lived. This is the central proposition of Peiresc’s Europe, to which, with faintly irksome repetition, Miller repeatedly returns.

Gassendi’s Life was remarkable because it suggested that a scholar might be as much a hero as a warrior or a statesman, or indeed even more so. This was a commonplace of humanist thought, but Gassendi gave it new meaning. As he saw it, there was an integral connection between Peiresc’s moral excellence and his learning. He portrayed Peiresc as a modern Socrates, a truly happy man who enjoyed tranquillity of soul and the sweet conversation of his friends. Miller points to the influence on Peiresc and on Gassendi’s portrait of him of neo-Stoicism, a current of thought reflected in the writings of Michel de Montaigne and Justus Lipsius, and widespread among early-seventeenth-century intellectuals. The links between Peiresc and neo-Stoicism were close, for its leading French exponent, Guillaume du Vair, was his patron, and another convert was the influential poet François de Malherbe, whom Peiresc claimed to love as his own father.

The key influences upon the neo-Stoics were the works of Epictetus and Seneca. They taught that the crucial virtue was constancy, the ability to stay on a straight path, undeterred by either the buffetings of adversity or the temptations of success. Peiresc’s life was easily represented as a study in constancy. This sad-faced man, with his large nose and wispy hair, was chronically ill, suffering at one time or another from persistent fever, urinary difficulties, kidney stones, rheumatism, hemorrhoids, and a stroke; he dislocated his shoulder three times; and he died, in great agony, from a total stoppage of the urine. Yet, Gassendi informs us, “his custom of suffering was perfected and assisted by Reason which told him that what cannot be avoided, must be suffered patiently and gently.” His deathbed was a dignified and exemplary response to physical disintegration. In every aspect of his life Peiresc displayed similar patience and moderation. He lived modestly and was without personal ambition, which was perhaps why he never published anything. Gassendi’s portrait, Miller remarks, “was a lesson in how to chain the passions, conquer opinion, banish dogmatism, and eradicate vanity through scholarship.”

Peiresc exhibited other Stoic virtues too. In true Senecan fashion, he exchanged benefits for gratitude, creating a web of intellectual friendship, sustained by mutual conversation and correspondence. Gratitude, Peiresc believed, “secures and defends the bonds of human society.” Friendship brought the best out of people. Peiresc hated quarrels between scholars and did all he could to mediate conflicts between his learned friends.

The English translation of Gassendi’s Life by William Rand in 1657 was sponsored by Samuel Hartlib, head of a little group of intellectuals who wanted to bring about radical reform in English society. Dedicated to the virtuoso antiquarian and writer on gardens John Evelyn2 as the only person in England with truly “Peireskian virtues,” it was intended to encourage the English gentry to rate learning higher than prowess in the hunting field. In this it signally failed.

But within the learned world the Peireskian virtues would have a long currency. “Europe’s Republic of Letters,” writes Miller, “was not only a network of scholars, it was also a laboratory in which ideas of civility were elaborated and lived.” It was in this world of learned intercourse that national barriers were most effectively broken down and ideals of courteous and tolerant behavior most extensively observed. Miller helpfully surveys the Franco-Italian literature on civility. It was designed for would-be aristocrats, but it was also embraced by scholars. Sociability was an essential ingredient in the communication of ideas; and true erudition brought self-knowledge, as well as knowledge of the world. The Republic of Letters sought to be a genuinely civil society, freed from primitive antagonisms, yet independent of politics.

Yet the Peireskian moment was short-lived. In 1637, the year of Peiresc’s death, René Descartes published his Discourse on Method, a work which rejected history, along with other traditional forms of learning, as a foundation for true knowledge. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century would create its own culture heroes, like Galileo, Boyle, and Newton, to replace the erudite antiquaries of the past. The old unity of learning would disintegrate, as the polymath gave way to the specialist and the gentlemanly virtuoso was replaced by the professional scientist. Peiresc was an Ancient in what was becoming the age of the Moderns.

Even his ideal of rational, learned conversation failed to retain its social cachet. A crucial feature of Peiresc’s learned world was that it was for men only. Because of their inferior education, the presence of women would have lowered the tone. The mixed salon, which became fashionable in Paris from the 1620s, seemed to bear this out, for, in the world of the salons, social intercourse increasingly became a matter of polite courtesies and agreeable witticisms. The scholar was seen not as a model but as a boring and clumsy pedant. The mixed salon had a civilizing function, but it rang the death knell of truly learned sociability.3

Miller handles these themes with ingenuity and much learning. The extensive endnotes to his book are packed with valuable bibliographical references which remind us just how much attention the learned world of early modern Europe has received from historians during the last few decades. Peiresc’s Europe is not faultless. Miller’s transcriptions from original sources are occasionally inaccurate and his proofreading (or his editor’s) is poor. The treatment of Peiresc’s posthumous reputation is disappointingly perfunctory. Miller comments on the brevity of Pierre Bayle’s entry on Peiresc in his Dictionnaire, without explaining that Bayle apologized for having left himself insufficient space to deal with persons whose names began with the letters P to Z.4 Miller could also have added that the young English Anglo-Saxonist Humfrey Wanley confessed in 1694 that he had been won over to medieval studies by reading “Piereskius [sic] his life”5; and that in 1692, three days after the funeral of Robert Boyle, Samuel Pepys invited John Evelyn to come to a meeting, along with Isaac Newton and the classical scholar Thomas Gale, to help “in thinkeing of a man in England fitt to bee sett up after him for our Peireskius.”6

Yet Miller is right about Peiresc’s eventual oblivion. Today the vast Latin tomes in which the learning of the early seventeenth century expressed itself stand neglected on the library shelves. To all save a few specialists, the names of Peiresc and his fellow scholars—Jacques-Auguste de Thou, Claude Saumaise, Cassiano dal Pozzo, Athanasius Kircher, Pierre Dupuy, Girolamo Aleandro, and all the others—mean nothing. The world has moved on. Their forms of learning are not ours. Yet the ideals that sustained these men have not lost all their relevance. We are chary these days about telling anyone how they should live; for we are brought up to believe that diversity of lifestyle is a sign of a healthy society. But, if we have to choose a role model, then that of the Peireskian scholar, rational, tolerant, courteous, and collaborative, still has a good deal to be said for it.

This Issue

October 4, 2001