A Hero of the Hebraic Renaissance

National Portrait Gallery, London
Portrait of Isaac Casaubon by an unknown artist, late sixteenth or seventeenth century

Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614) was a stern, driven, French-Swiss classicist who may be best known now for having lent his name to the dismal Edward Casaubon of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Eliot cast her Mr. Casaubon as an obsessive drone who spends his days slogging away at a Key to All Mythologies—as if so pure a pedant could ever have picked his way through that gossamer realm of story and song. Formidably learned herself, she must have relished the differences between her fictitious Edward—by now a mythic figure in his own right—and the eminently real Isaac.

Yet Isaac Casaubon shared one crucial quality with his invented relative: he devoted inordinate portions of his life to rummaging through the cluttered attics of human learning. As a good Calvinist, however, the real Casaubon turned all those rummagings into a distinguished series of published books, including one with almost the same cosmic scope as Eliot’s imagined Key to All Mythologies. Isaac Casaubon’s On Matters Sacred and Ecclesiastical (De rebus sacris et ecclesiasticis) was first published in 1614, the year in which its industrious author died at the age of fifty-five, slain by a terrible infection of the urinary tract brought on, at least according to his physician, by years of refusal to rise from his reading desk to answer the calls of nature.

To On Matters Sacred and Ecclesiastical, as to several other works of similar or still greater bulk, Casaubon brought a finely tuned mind, a masterful command of Greek and Latin, and all the religious baggage with which his time—the Reformation—and place—the religious battlegrounds of Northern Europe—could load him. That combination of quick wit, intense religious faith, and phenomenal industry eventually took him into an entirely new world of learning. “I Have Always Loved the Holy Tongue” explores this famous classicist’s encounters with another ancient language, Hebrew, and, through Hebrew, with the whole weight of Jewish tradition.

Casaubon did not come by any of his learning easily. Turmoil surrounded him from the moment of his birth, for he came into the world a Huguenot, a French Calvinist, thirteen years before the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, when Catholic troops would slaughter his coreligionists in every corner of France. Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg introduce us to this strong, determined scholar by considering a particularly illuminating and unusual aspect of his scholarly life: his efforts to study Hebrew in depth. To do so, in Casaubon’s circumstances, was not a simple task. If Christians were at one another’s throats during the Reformation, the prospects were still more dire for Jews.

But Casaubon’s own story is quite a tale in itself: his birth in Geneva to exiled parents, their return to France despite the growing threat of civil war, the Catholic patrols that continually threatened…

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