I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Pass the Parcel

Enda O’Doherty


Learning has been … a Loser by being shut up in Colleges and Cells, and secluded from the World and good Company … Even Philosophy went to Wrack by this moaping recluse Method of Study, and became as chimerical in her Conclusions as she was unintelligible in her Stile and Manner of Delivery. And indeed, what cou’d be expected from Men who never consulted Experience in any of their Reasonings, or who never search’d for that Experience, where alone it is to be found, in common Life and Conversation?
David Hume, Of Essay-Writing
Pass the parcel … Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on.

Alan Bennett, The History Boys

Desiderius Erasmus: Rotterdam 1466 – Basel 1536
François Rabelais: Seuilly 1483 or 1494 – Paris 1553
Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc: Belgentier 1580 ‑ Aix-en-Provence 1637
Pierre Bayle: Carla-le-Comte 1647 – Rotterdam 1706

An essay that is organised around a progression from the first to the fourth of the writer-scholars listed above must start out by making some reference to the eras in which they lived and to how these have traditionally been marked out, or marked off, by historians. The lifetimes of Erasmus and Rabelais overlapped to some degree with those of Hieronymus Bosch and Albrecht Dürer, Raphael and Michelangelo: so we can certainly say they were men of the Renaissance. We might also say that they were men of the Reformation, since they lived through that tumultuous event or series of events too. They were neither of them, however, “Reformationists”, even if they would have welcomed a strong measure of reform in the church in their time had it been forthcoming. Peiresc, a highly gifted polymath chiefly remembered for his contributions to astronomy, was born into a world in which the traditional understanding of the universe or “Creation”, and Earth’s place in it, was beginning to be challenged by what became known as the Copernican Revolution. He was also acquainted with the church’s fightback against the doctrinal novelties of the century in which he was born through the movement known as the Counter-Reformation or Catholic Reformation. Pierre Bayle’s early life was deeply marked by religious doubt (which was the true one?) and his later life by doubt about the certainties of religion and the procedures of philosophy. The date of his death (1706) might disqualify him from being considered a figure of the Enlightenment proper, but one could say he was proto-Enlightenment: he would certainly have approved Kant’s injunction to “have the courage to use your own understanding”, even if his acute sense of the fallibility of human reasoning might recall not so much the confident, even bumptious, philosophes who came after him as the great humanist sceptic Michel de Montaigne who lived a hundred years before him.

Academic libraries hold tens of thousands of books explaining what these important concepts – Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment – mean; mostly in fact differing over what they mean. Of these I may over the years have read ten or a dozen, and a few of them more than once ‑ since I remembered, after a good few years, that they were excellent, but not so much about their precise content. It is not the ambition of this essay to explicate, in six or seven thousand words, two hundred and fifty years of European intellectual history. Nor indeed does it aim to provide anything more than a sketch of the thought of Erasmus, Rabelais, Peiresc and Bayle. What it does seek to do is to offer an impression, through a brief summary of these writers’ careers, of the ways in which knowledge was disseminated in early modern Europe as it began to move out of the confines of the universities, and of the circles of friendship, co-operation and patronage in which writers and scholars moved – their networks – and their changing relations to their audience.

The literary reputations and historical weight of the four writers chosen are not equal. Erasmus was by some distance the leading intellectual of his age, a familiar and much celebrated author read by the entire educated class of Europe. Rabelais, through his comic-epic tales of Gargantua and Pantagruel, was eventually to become a pillar of the history of French literature. Bayle, an important intellectual broker across national boundaries, is probably not widely known today outside France (and perhaps the Netherlands, where he eventually settled). Peiresc, who published nothing, was for a long time a significant figure only to specialist scholars. Nevertheless, he has attracted a reasonable amount of new interest over the last twenty years and his life and pursuits were so various and remarkable as to merit outlining here in at least as much detail as I will afford to better-known figures.

Desiderius Erasmus was born in Rotterdam, most likely in 1466, the son of a priest and his concubine, the daughter of a physician. He was educated at Gouda, Deventer and Bar-le-Duc and then entered a monastery at Stein, near Gouda, as an Augustinian canon before being ordained as a priest in 1492. Shortly afterwards he entered into the service of the bishop of Cambrai, very probably hired for his skill in Latin. This posting might have been the first step to a glittering career in the church but Erasmus, timid and irritable, did not have the diplomatic skills to carve out a career. In 1495 the bishop agreed to release him temporarily from his service so that he might attend the University of Paris.

The original purpose of his attendance at Paris – an object he did not attain – was to be awarded the degree of doctor of philosophy there. Erasmus did not warm to either the harsh, even squalid, conditions of student lodging or to much of the curriculum. The university had for decades been gripped by an increasingly sterile dispute between the rival schools of philosophical “Ancients” and “Moderns”, a dispute much concerned with categories and subdivisions and conducted according to stale and formal procedures of debate. Erasmus’s mind was more hospitable to the aesthetic than the strictly logical, to fine thoughts well expressed, but also to ideas of morality, right action, than to these to him sterile disputes. He wrote:

Those studies can make a man opinionated and contentious; can they make him wise? They exhaust the mind by a certain jejune and barren subtlety, without fertilizing or inspiring it.

He would, he wrote, rather see the complete works of the scholastic doctor subtilis Duns Scotus disappear than any of those of Cicero or Plutarch. The followers of Scotus whom he heard disputing at the Sorbonne did nothing for him: indeed he usually referred to them with rather heavy irony as magistri nostri, our teachers.

The chief works by which Erasmus was to make his name appeared in the first two decades of the sixteenth century: the Adagia (Proverbs) in 1500; the Enchiridion militis Christiani (The Handbook of a Christian Knight) in 1503; the satirical Stultitiae Laus (In Praise of Folly), a huge popular success, in 1511; Institutio principis Christiani (The Education of a Christian Prince) in 1516; the Colloquia (Dialogues) in 1518. Of these, the Adagia and the Colloquia in particular had as their first purpose to offer examples of a polished Latin prose style for the benefit of students and others. But they also had another effect: to bring the lore of the classical world closer to a lot more people than any previous humanist scholar had managed to do. The world of humanist scholarship, whose purpose was to rediscover the Greek and Latin classics and to have them published in new and faithful editions, had been marked by a certain pride and exclusivity. Erasmus, it seems, was now reproached by some for casting pearls before swine. His educational works, packed full of classical lore in accessible form, which were constantly reprinted, often in expanded editions, exhibited antiquity for a much wider public, in Johan Huizinga’s words, “in an emporium where it might be had at retail”.

But Erasmus was not just a populariser; he was also a serious, if occasionally fallible, scholar. Already skilled in Latin from his childhood education at the highly regarded Lebuïnuskerk school at Deventer, he started teaching himself Greek after returning in 1500 from a prolonged visit to England, where he had met the humanist scholars John Colet and Thomas More. He also started on Hebrew but soon abandoned it: he was never to be particularly sympathetic to the Judaic element in Christian religious practice. In 1506 he obtained from the Emperor Maximilian a “privilege”, the equivalent of a copyright agreement, to publish the Novum Instrumentum omne, in later editions the Novum Testamentum omne, a translation of the New Testament from Greek texts he had assembled into Latin, which aimed to substitute a new and reliable text for the traditional Vulgate which Erasmus, and many others, considered defective, “the true and genuine reading ha[ving] been corrupted by ignorant scribes … or altered by scribes who are half-taught and half-asleep”. In order that scholars might see on what basis he had carried out his work Erasmus had the Greek and Latin version displayed side by side on the page. The second edition (Novum Testamentum) was to be the basis of Luther’s New Testament translation (1522), and the third was used in making the English Geneva Bible (1557-60) and King James Version (1611).

Erasmus’s enormous prestige would have made him a hugely important ally of the Protestant reformers had he chosen to throw his weight behind them. He agreed in the first instance that many of the reforms that Luther was calling for were indeed urgently needed. He might also be considered a proto-Protestant in so far as he deprecated what he saw as empty rituals and observances; he condemned pilgrimages and saw the lack of education of much of the clergy and the corruption of bishops, cardinals and even popes as a scandal. All, or almost all, that was required of a Christian, he thought, was to read the New Testament, to hear Christ’s words, and to act on them.

On the other hand, he regarded the Protestants’ decision to break from Rome and set up their own church as a disaster. He was also repelled by the excess of Luther’s temperament (what Johan Huizinga called “his formidable boorish mind”) and feared the effects that schism and party hatred might have on the German people. (Interestingly, Stefan Zweig, in a 1935 essay on Erasmus, clearly saw Luther’s effect on the Germans through the contemporary lens of the recent victory of Nazism – “all the life, the vitality, the brutality of the people piled up to create a nature that is over-rich and ever-ready to explode”.) Erasmus also suspected that the Protestant princes who were Luther’s backers were acting not for reasons of faith but to serve their own interests – chiefly the wresting of greater independence from the German emperor:

The gospel, the word of God, faith, Christ, and Holy Spirit – these words are always on their lips; look at their lives and they speak quite another language.

The reformers (now reformationists) accused Erasmus of excessive timidity, even careerism. It was true that open conflict did not suit his temperament. As Huizinga puts it, “[w]ith him, peace and harmony rank above all other considerations, and he confesses them to be the guiding principles of his actions. He would, if it might be, have all the world as a friend.” But in the circumstances of what was developing into a permanent schism, it might not be, and in the latter part of his life Erasmus was prepared to indulge in sharp polemics, feeling that his enemies left him no alternative. In Hyperaspistes (1526-27), he addresses Luther thus:

Would a stable mind depart from the opinion handed down by so many men famous for holiness and miracles, depart from the decisions of the Church, and commit our souls to the faith of someone like you who has sprung up just now with a few followers, although the leading men of your flock do not agree either with you or among themselves – indeed though you do not even agree with yourself, since in this same Assertion [a reference to a work by Luther] you say one thing in the beginning and something else later on, recanting what you said before?

Erasmus’s distaste for the teaching at the University of Paris (known, for short, as the Sorbonne) did not cause him to permanently cut his ties with such institutions. He enjoyed the company of his academic English friends at Oxford and stopped by at Turin on a visit to Italy in 1506 to pick up a degree of doctor of theology. At the beginning of the next decade he was to spend a few not entirely happy years teaching at Cambridge, complaining of the foul weather and the impossibility (because of war with France) of finding decent wine. His major intellectual satisfactions, however, derived from his own quiet work and from intercourse with learned friends. This could be conducted either face-to-face, very enjoyably so in England with More, Colet and others, or by letter, of which Erasmus throughout his life wrote an enormous number, often with more than half a view to later publication.

Despite being offered a number of permanent settled posts, including at different stages a bishopric and the office of cardinal, Erasmus was to lead a rather itinerant life. Several of his earlier sudden flits had been dictated by the need to escape an outbreak of plague. But many trips were necessitated by the desire to see a book or books through the press. In various European centres, but particularly in Venice and Basle, he found in the printing house which specialised in humanist work and attracted scholars as collaborators a congenial alternative to the traditional university.

The humanist scholar turned printer/publisher Aldus Manutius (1449/52-1515) united in his person all the necessary gifts to be the most successful, certainly the most prestigious, European printer of his generation. He had a high level of educational attainment, having previously been a tutor to the sons of various Italian noble families; he was fascinated by language and its musical rhythms and possessed “an almost morbid sense of grammatical accuracy” – his editions were renowned for their correctness; he had a strong aesthetic sense, evidenced by his choice of attractive typefaces (notably what came to be known as italic), luxurious bindings (olive green Moroccan leather with gold embossing) and new book sizes (he popularised the small octavo format, the ancestor of today’s paperback); not least, he had a great capacity for hard work, strong financial backing from partners and investors and, in Venice, the pre-eminent trading city of the time, an ideal site for the export-oriented business of book publishing.

Throughout much of 1508 Erasmus worked happily in tandem with Aldus, helped by the group of scholars the latter had gathered together in what became known as the Accademia Aldina. This was an environment which, as confirmed by his later long stays with the publisher Johann Froben in Basle, the city in which he died in 1536, was to constitute, in Huizinga’s words, Erasmus’s “true element”: the printing office.

Amid the noise of the press-room, Erasmus, to the surprise of his publisher, sat and wrote, usually from memory, so busily occupied that, as he picturesquely expressed it, he had no time to scratch his ears. He was lord and master of the printing-office. A special corrector had been assigned to him; he made his changes in the last impression. Aldus also read the proofs. ‘Why?’ asked Erasmus. ‘Because I am studying at the same time,’ was the reply.

An adulatory letter sent to Erasmus in 1532 – he must have received hundreds such, possibly thousands – addressed him in terms which we might now consider extravagant but which may not have been so regarded at the time. The letter had some business to transact concerning a Greek manuscript of The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus which Erasmus had been seeking. The sender was now in a position to supply him with this text, but he also wished to take the opportunity to express his deep admiration, addressing him as

[M]y excellent father … [but I might also say] my mother, if you would pardon this expression. For as we see every day women who nourish the fruit of their wombs without every seeing them, protecting them against the hazards of the air, all of this you have done too, you who know neither my face nor name, nourishing me and watering me with the chaste breasts of your divine knowledge. Yes, everything that I am, everything I am worth, derives from you, and if I do not shout this loudly I must be the most ungrateful creature alive or who will ever live. Hail again, dear father, father and honour of the patrie, tutelary genius of letters and invincible champion of truth.

The letter was signed Franciscus Rabelaesus medicus. François Rabelais had been, from late 1532, practising as a medical doctor at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Lyon, the latest stop in what had been a rather erratic and continued to be a rich and varied career. The son of a lawyer, he became a Franciscan friar and later, perhaps as a result of his Greek books being confiscated (a probable consequence of the Sorbonne’s disapproval of Erasmus’s commentaries on the Greek text of St Luke), a Benedictine monk: the Benedictines were more liberal, more open to the Greek and Latin classics, than the Franciscans. In the late 1520s he seems to have abandoned his monk’s habit entirely, gone to Paris to study medicine and entered into a liaison with a widow there, with whom he fathered two children. In 1530 he enrolled at the faculty of medicine at Montpellier, whose statutes date back to 1220 and which enjoyed a high reputation as a crossroads of scientific knowledge open to inputs from the most various sources: Catalan, Jewish, Arab and Greek.

In tandem with practising as a doctor, Rabelais also worked as an editor of learned texts for the publishing house of Sébastien Gryphe (born Sebastian Greyff), in Mireille Huchon’s description “the ‘prince’ of the Lyonnais printers, of German origin, settled in Lyon since 1523, who made of his workshop an exceptional meeting place where humanists, poets and scholars might meet”. Here Rabelais worked on translations and commentaries on Hippocrates and Galen as well as on legal works. The many surviving examples of his compilations of these classical authorities which are covered with multiple annotations in pen suggest that they were commonly used as references by medical students. Gryphe seems to have published all or virtually all of Rabelais’s scholarly work, but of course he is now known for his fiction: the four books published between 1534 and 1551 which appeared pseudonymously under different imprints are now often published in one volume under the title Gargantua and Pantagruel. These were at once compendiums of folk tales, parodies of the epic and the chivalric romance, repositories of vast amounts of classical knowledge and scathing, frequently obscene, satires on clerical corruption, empty learning and sophistry. And of course he has given a word to the language. His translator JM Cohen remarks:

Of course François Rabelais was a Rabelaisian writer; that is to say one who mentioned human functions which, after his day, were referred to, by imaginative writers at least, in a far more guarded way, until James Joyce, his counterpart and admirer in our own age, put them back into literary circulation. But this is the least part of Rabelais’ achievement … He was a man intoxicated by every sort of learning and theory, who had at the same time the earthy commonsense of a peasant. His mind would reach out in pursuit of the wildest fancies, and when he had captured them he would relate them only to the three constants of this life: birth, copulation, and death, which he saw in their crudest physical terms. There was in the mind of this loose-living monk no twentieth-century conflict between the two sides of his nature, the scholar’s and the peasant’s. They played into one another’s hands.

If this portrait suggests a somewhat anarchic spirit, that may indeed have been the case, but Rabelais’s unruliness was not incompatible with a polemical purpose. The Gargantua and Pantagruel books are clearly written against the orthodox theology of the Sorbonne professors and for a conception of free intellectual exploration and evangelical, that is Gospel-based, Christianity (the term “evangelical” had a meaning in the Renaissance rather different from that which it would have in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Rabelais’s contempt for the intellectual productions of the orthodox could not be clearer in the intermittently obscene passage in Pantagruel (Chapter 7), where he lists the titles of the learned books in the library of Saint Victor:

The Thread-Ball of Theology … The Henbane of the Bishops … The Fanfares of Rome … The Puzzlements of Confessors … Reverendi patris fratris Lubini, provincialis Bavardie, de croquendis lardonibus libri tres (The most reverend father Gobble, provincial of Babbleland, on Bacon-eating, three volumes) … The Invention of the Holy Cross, for six actors, performed by the Clerks of Sharp-practice … Questio subtilissima, utrum Chimaera, in vacuo bombinans, possit comedere secundas intentiones, et fuit debatuta per decem hebdomadas in concilio Constantienti (The most subtle question whether a Chimaera, bombinating in the void, can be nourished on secondary intentions; one which was debated for ten weeks before the Council of Constance) … The Hey-presto of the Begging Friars, pocket-walleted by Friar Graspit … etc

How did Rabelais get away with this impiety? Well of course he didn’t – not entirely. His books were serially condemned by the Sorbonne, which exercised wide powers of censorship. But Rabelais enjoyed the protection of powerful people, notably Jean du Bellay, diplomat and French viceroy of Piedmont, whom he served as personal doctor, and his brother Cardinal Jean du Bellay, whom he accompanied to Rome and assisted in his archaeological digs. The du Bellays were servants of the king and the king had the power to nullify the Sorbonne’s censure by granting a royal privilege to publish, which successive kings (François I and Henri II) did indeed issue in Rabelais’s case. The extent of the favour bestowed on him by his patrons, and their influence at the highest level, can be seen in the fact that in 1540 his two natural children, François and Junie, were legitimised by Pope Paul III, this retrospective “legitimisation” being an extremely rare procedure.

Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc was a prosperous Provençal landowner and lawyer and a distinguished amateur botanist, zoologist, collector of coins and medals, linguist and astronomer. He imported jasmine from Spain, orange trees from China, planted sixty varieties of apple in his gardens, kept a menagerie of exotic animals from Africa and “a great Company” of cats, “procured out of the East, Ash-coloured, Dun and speckled Cats, beautiful to behold”. He corrected the wildly erroneous estimate of the east-west extent of the Mediterranean through marshalling a network of observers all along its length to record the lunar eclipse of August 28th, 1635. He mapped the moon, worked with the scientist-priest Pierre Gassendi, who was later to write his biography, on his theory of vision, experimented with lenses and mirrors and dissected the eyes of animals, birds and fish. He also wrote a history of his native Provence and a grammar of the Provençal language and maintained 500 correspondents, not just in Europe but in Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt and Goa in India. He left behind 10,000 letters and never published a single book.

Peiresc was born in 1580 in Belgentier, near Toulon in southern France, where his parents had fled from the plague that was ravaging Aix-en-Provence; the Fabri family had originated in Pisa in Italy. As a young man, he studied law in Italy and France, and, taking over a hereditary position which had belonged to his uncle, practised as a conseiller at the parlement of Provence, not a parliament in the modern sense but a provincial court of appeal. Peiresc’s main passions, however, were not legal but scholarly and scientific. He visited London, Leiden, Brussels and Louvain, in each of which he met the most distinguished scientists and antiquaries of the time; he also spent seven years of his early middle age in Paris in the retinue of the president of the Aix parlement, Guillaume du Vair, who for a time acted as keeper of the king’s seals (garde des sceaux). Many of the people he met on his travels were later to become his regular correspondents.

In Aix he became involved in the affair of the red or “bloody” rain, a curious phenomenon that affected the city in July 1608 and which some local clergy presented as a Satanic manifestation. Peiresc demonstrated that the red droplets that had attached themselves to many buildings were in fact a waste product deposited by the Vanessa butterfly as it emerged from its chrysalis. He was alerted to this explanation through noticing that a worm which he had been keeping in a box transformed itself into a butterfly and flew away, leaving behind a red blob. Examining the remains of the “red rain” he found that it had gathered mostly on the underside of masonry stones and in crevices – not places where you would expect to find rain. He also noted, delving into history, that such supposedly supernatural happenings had been recorded before, but always in July, which chimed perfectly with the life cycle of the butterfly. One cannot of course be certain that everyone found such a rationalistic explanation more persuasive than the one offered by the priests.

In 1610, hearing of the discoveries of Galileo, Peiresc ordered telescope lenses to be made for him in Paris and installed an observatory on the top of his house. He made sketches of the moons of Jupiter; discovered, with Joseph Gaultier, the Orion Nebula; and, towards the end of his life, drew the first-known map of the moon.

After returning to Provence at the end of his Parisian stay in 1623 Peiresc never left again, devoting himself to his scientific reading and experimentation and his voluminous correspondence with his collaborators and agents. The limits of Peiresc’s intellectual world were framed to a considerable degree by his particular interests, which were both scientific and antiquarian. He had few correspondents across the Rhine or the Pyrenees and not many in England. On the other hand he had large numbers in France, Italy and the Low Countries, and multiple contacts also in the Middle East, with ships’ captains from Marseille and Christian missionaries acting as his informants and agents in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. His was also, as Peter N Miller remarks, the first major epistolary network to be conducted chiefly in the vernacular. While he wrote some letters in Latin, many more were in French or Italian (“the sweetness whereof, and all its Elegancies he expressed, not only in his Letters, but also when he discoursed with Italians by word of mouth”).

In his scientific practice, Peiresc relied on observation and measurement rather than tradition or authority. He was an admirer of the experimental method proposed by Francis Bacon and consequently

displeased with that Doctrine of Nature, which is commonly taught in the Schools [universities], as being too obscure and imaginary, built more upon tricks of Wit, than experiments of Nature. He was therefore wont to frown, and look with a very discontented countenance, when he met with such writers of natural Philosophy, which did contend more with subtilty than solidity; and though he commended the acuteness of their wits, yet he grieved that it was worn out rather about words and trivial distinctions, than employed in penetrating into the nature of the things themselves, whose very surface was still unknown.

Peiresc stood by his friends even when they were threatened by powerful forces. He wrote to his friend Cardinal Francesco Barberini (whose brother, Maffeo, was Pope Urban VIII), warning him that the Catholic church’s insistence that Galileo recant his heliocentric theory could damage the reputation of the papacy, running the risk “of being interpreted and perhaps compared one day to the persecution of the person and wisdom of Socrates in his country, so condemned by other nations and by posterity itself”. He helped the Italian Dominican Tommaso Campanella, author of the utopian classic The City of the Sun, after Campanella’s release from twenty-seven years of imprisonment for heresy and other alleged crimes.

One visitor in 1630 described him thus: “A man without parallel in Europe for courtesy and kindness as also for wisdom, curiosity in relation to all fine things, and knowledge of all that is happening in the world: there is no realm nor any famous city where he does not have a correspondent, and where he does not know or possess whatever they have that is remarkable and rare.” Pierre Gassendi remarked that he succeeded in “[uniting] all Mankind, through the whole World, by the Commerce and Correspondence of Letters”. And yet despite his fame in life and the tributes paid to him on his death his reputation was before too long to be engulfed in oblivion. Why? Peter N Miller suggests that his failure to publish any of his own work was a major factor, for this failure came at a time when the printed word became an essential vehicle of memory. He was also soon to be seen as a somewhat old-fashioned figure: “His quiet, rational, minimally doctrinal faith seemed out of place in a world no longer polarized into fanatics and believers but believers and atheists.”

Peiresc’s Europe, Miller argues, the Europe of the generation that came of age around 1600,

stretched across a series of tensions that had not yet exploded. In political thought, pulled between the ancient constitution and new theories of absolutism; in political geography, between regions and centre; in religion, between Protestants and Catholics, national and universal churches, revelation and nature; in moral philosophy, between universal principles and conventional norms; in culture, between the authority of antiquity and the power of the ‘moderns’; in the history of scholarship, between an age of polymathy and one emphasizing ‘specialisation’; in society, between the old nobility and the new gentlemen.

If the eighteenth century found that this world which faced both ways had little to offer a society in urgent need of enlightenment and liberation from superstition and its agents we might also bear in mind Peiresc’s advice to his friend Campanella that he should not allow himself to get so angry about the “foolish” beliefs of the past since patient pursuit of the understanding of any age on its own terms remains an exercise of considerable worth.

Among those who paid warm tribute to Peiresc after his death was the philosopher and literary journalist Pierre Bayle, who declared that “never did anyone render more services to the Republic of Letters than he”. His emphasis on Peiresc as a facilitator of the work of others is justified – he expended great efforts at all times in passing on to his friends books or other materials that might be of interest or of use to them and furthering their projects; such an emphasis does, however, run the risk of having us forget his achievements in his own right, in many fields but perhaps chiefly in astronomy.

What was this Republic of Letters that Bayle spoke of? The term is first recorded in 1417, in correspondence between the young Venetian scholar Francesco Barbaro and the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini. The term – most often used in Latin, respublica litteraria, a synonym for the community of (humanist) scholars ‑ may have been coined by way of analogy with the respublica Christiana (a common term for the Christian church). Its loose organisation took many forms, first of all perhaps an actual network of letter-writers, which was maintained, and in some cases even strengthened, or felt to be more valuable, after the Reformation, as scholars did not wish to be separated permanently from valued colleagues who lived in a land that professed a different religion. These letters, in Anthony Grafton’s words,

constituted the fragile but vital canals that connected and animated intellectual commerce in the far-flung parts of the Republic. The strands of long-term correspondence formed a capillary system along which information could travel from papal Rome to Calvinist strongholds in the north, and vice versa – so long as both (as they did) had inhabitants who wished to communicate.

Other meeting points were the new academies, focuses for scientific, antiquarian or linguistic inquiry, like the Accademia del Cimento and the Accademia della Crusca in Florence, the Lincei in Rome,  the Académie des Sciences in Paris and the Academia Naturae Curiosorum in the free imperial city of Schweinfurt. In towns and cities, the learned might gather around a particular library, as they did in Paris with the hospitable “Cabinet” of the brothers Dupuy. From the 1660s on, Grafton writes, a swarm of new publications in both Latin and the vernacular languages (particularly in French, which increasingly most educated Europeans could read) made it possible for a large new audience of “the curious” to keep in touch with intellectual life through book reviews or accounts of scientific experiments.

One such publication was the Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (News from the Republic of Letters), edited by Pierre Bayle and published by Henry Desbordes in Amsterdam. The Nouvelles appealed to the quite large number of Dutch who could read (if not speak) French and – when it managed to evade blockage or seizure – to the French themselves, many of whom welcomed the chance to read an uncensored intellectual publication.

Bayle was the son of a Protestant pastor from Carla-le-Comte, near Pamiers, half-way between Toulouse and the Spanish border. In 1669 he entered the Jesuit college in Toulouse and converted to Catholicism, but a year and a half later returned to Protestantism. In the latter half of the 1670s he taught at the prestigious Académie de Sedan, but when this was shut down by Louis XIV in 1681 he was forced to emigrate to the United Provinces, where he became a professor of philosophy and history at Rotterdam.

In the Nouvelles, Bayle set himself the task of summarising new publications in what he hoped was an objective way. This would apply as much to books on religious as scientific matters. As he was to write in his Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697): “The Republic of Letters is an extremely free state. Only the rule of truth and reason are recognised there, and under their auspices one may make war innocently on whatever one chooses.” Bayle stated that he was more inclined to give an account of the content of a work than to pass judgment on it, though he did not always adhere strictly to this plan. But he confessed that he was temperamentally more inclined to judge a book to be good than bad. This may in part have stemmed from a desire to please the readers: with the encouragement of Desbordes, he attempted where possible to keep the tone light. He aspired to publish a review that would appeal not just to scholars but to “gentlemen and ladies”, indeed to all those who were curious about ideas and wished to be well-informed but were perhaps too busy (or lazy) to read many books.

Pierre Bost sees Bayle’s habitual moderation of tone in discussing religious matters as being something which may have made the Nouvelles even less welcome in Louis XIV’s France than a fierce Protestant pamphlet. It was easy enough, from the often scurrilous nature of their polemical material, to portray the Protestants as raging heretics with whom there could be no accommodation. The Nouvelles, on the other hand, might well appeal to moderate Catholic readers, offering them a calmer and more rounded discussion of doctrinal differences than they were likely to find anywhere else. “Censorship,” Bost writes, “which is not always as stupid as one might think, likes to deal in strong black and white contrasts but is unsettled by nuance.”

Bayle’s ideological journey, as we have seen, led in his youth from Protestantism to Catholicism and then back. In later life his suspicion of Catholicism, or perhaps more centrally of Catholic belief enforced by state absolutism, did not slacken, but he became less attached to Protestantism, less sure that it, in any of its forms, was in possession of the full truth. He could not find anywhere in the New Testament a justification for the imposition of one’s own religious beliefs on others. Many argued in defence of France’s reversal of its former policy of toleration, dating from the Edict of Nantes (1598), that a multiplicity of religions tended to destabilise the state. Bayle disagreed: “If the Multiplicity of Religions prejudices the State, it proceeds from their not bearing with one another but on the contrary endeavouring each to crush and destroy the other by methods of Persecution. In a word, all the Mischief arises not from Toleration, but from the want of it.”

Bayle’s philosophical position in later life is usually equated with scepticism, the view that humans are actually incapable of achieving “true knowledge” by rational processes. Rather than relying on their reason as a guide, he felt, they should listen more attentively to their consciences. Philosophy as practised by the professionals, many critics argued, consisted chiefly of “idle and fruitless speculations” and quibbles over words and terms. Bayle would probably have agreed: “Philosophy at first refutes errors. But if it is not stopped at this point, it goes on to attack truths. And when it is left on its own, it goes so far that it no longer knows where it is and can find no stopping place.” Poststructuralism anyone?

Many of the thinkers and publicists cited above were critical of the university and in particular the sterility of the teaching of philosophy in situations where it was dominated by religious orthodoxy, either Catholic or Protestant. This should not lead us to a general disparagement of these institutions: people from all over Europe continued to flock to the University of Padua, attracted by the fame of its medical faculty; Oxford and Cambridge excelled in mathematics; the Dutch universities, particularly Leiden, were to the forefront in scientific and medical knowledge. But philosophy in many places languished, a victim of watchful and suspicious orthodoxy. The Protestant mystic Valentin Weigel, who had himself taught at the University of Wittenberg, wrote: “In the universities one fool teaches another, but whoever has not studied in the house of these people is called by them ‘self-taught’.” The judgement may seem harsh but it does at least suggest the process whereby a new system of thought – perhaps even hailed at the time of its first reception as constituting “a paradigm shift” – can calcify, as it is passed on over a few generations, into what looks very like an unbudgeable orthodoxy.

The notable participants in the Republic of Letters were in many cases motivated to operate outside the university and they found mechanisms ‑ epistolary networks, book publication, new learned societies, libraries, learned or semi-learned periodicals – through which to conduct their business satisfactorily. The descendants of many of these institutions and practices still exist today, even if our engagement with them is less intensive. We still have excellent university presses – Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Harvard, Princeton – and journals like the Times Literary Supplement, the New York or London Review of Books, which often employ the services of those university teachers who think it valuable to try to bridge the gap between the academy and the intelligent public. There are also considerable resources on offer in the less-frequented corners of public service broadcasting and in scattered parts of the Internet. And all of this can be reached at a cost that is far from prohibitive. What is missing perhaps is mutual engagement. The contemporary Republic of Letters is a somewhat atomised one, where the consumer is most often left alone with his thoughts and reactions to what he has read. Still, it is a valuable resource and there for the taking for those of us who have long left behind our university years or even those who occasionally feel that significant numbers of teachers in today’s humanities departments in these institutions have lost interest in … well, humanity.


Note on reading
The above essay has drawn on a fairly large number of books, including the following. In some cases the works may exist in more than one edition. The dates given are the publication dates of the particular editions consulted.
Robert Mandrou, From Humanism to Science: 1480-1700, Pelican Books, 1985
Johan Huizinga, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation, Dover, 2001
Stefan Zweig, Érasme: Grandeur et decadence d’une idée, transl Alzir Hella, Livre de Poche, 2017
François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, transl JM Cohen, Penguin Classics, no date; first published 1955
Mireille Huchon, Rabelais, nrf/Gallimard, 2011
Peter N Miller, Peiresc’s Europe: Learning and Virtue in the Seventeenth Century, Yale University Press, 2000
Anne-Marie Cheny, Une Bibliothèque Byzantine: Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc et la Fabrique du Savoir, Champ Vallon, 2015
The Mirrour of True Nobility & Gentility, Being the Life of the Renowned Nicolaus Claudius Fabricius, Lord of Peiresk, Senator of the Parliament at Aix, written by the learned Pierre Gassendi, Professor of the Mathematicks to the King of France, Englished by W. Rand, Doctor of Physic, reprint of the 1657 edition (2003)
Marc Fumaroli, La République des Lettres, nrf/Gallimard, 2015
Hans Bots and Françoise Waquet, La République des Lettres, Belin – De Boeck, 1997
Anthony Grafton, Worlds Made By Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West, Harvard University Press, 2009
Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot, Polity Press, 2000


Enda O’Doherty is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.




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