A few weeks ago I looked at some manuscripts of the French intellectual and antiquarian Nicolas-Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637)
at the Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, France. I describe Peiresc as an “intellectual”; he was one of those universal scholars we find in early modern Europe who were interested in everything. Peiresc’s fame, such as it is, resides mainly in his antiquarian work, as a collector of books and manuscripts and ancient artifacts, part of a Europe-wide network of late-humanist scholars who followed a path marked out by Petrarch (1305-1374) almost three centuries earlier of reviving classical scholarship.
Peiresc spent most of his career in Aix-en-Provence, where he was a member of the Parlement (law court) of Aix. Aix was not far from where Petrarch had spent much of his career, in the papal court at Avignon (which remained a papal state until 1791). Peiresc was a proud Frenchman but he was also a proud son of Provence, once a monarchy within itself. He wrote equally in French and Italian and of course Latin, that universal language of scholarship.
Like many of his fellow savants, Peiresc’s interests extended far beyond antiquities. I first discovered him assisting at a dissection in the early 1630s, along with his close friend and early biographer Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), known among historians of science as a natural philosopher. Peiresc’s lack of lasting fame, until his rediscovery by historians in the last two decades, owes much to the fact that although he wrote a lot, he never published anything. This was not uncommon among such scholars, who had no university or ecclesiastical positions. Even a century and a half later, as Laurence Brockliss has documented, another French savant, Avignon physician Esprit Calvet (1728-1810) published only one or two articles about his collections and scholarly investigations. What both of these men did was write letters. Peiresc‘s correspondence ranged far and wide across Europe; according to Peiresc scholar Peter Miller, he used his political connections to establish a regular postal service between Aix and Lyon so he could communicate more easily with his Paris correspondents. Even after the depredations of time and neglectful heirs, we have thousands of letters to and from Peiresc. He was a genius at connecting people and information.
At the Bibliothèque Méjanes was a manuscript catalogued as “Instructions pour une voyage.” I thought it might be a general set of instructions for travelers such as one the natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-1691) wrote toward the end of the seventeenth century, General Heads for the Natural History of a Country Great or Small, drawn out for the Use of Travellers and Navigators, published posthumously in 1692. Boyle wrote a checklist for would-be naturalists of things to note and look for if one happened to be in a strange country. I thought Peiresc might have written something similar, and optimistically further thought I might find a heading titled something like “what to do when you find giant fossil bones.”
What I received at the Bibliothèque Méjanes — in the Peiresc reading room, overlooked by a bust of Peiresc — was a large quarto volume of lot of different manuscripts bound together, ranging from accounts of the Council of Trent to medieval genealogies of French noble families to instructions for the Parlements of Paris and Aix. There was no index, and none of the pages were numbered. I realized that I have been quite spoiled by long acquaintance with Hans Sloane’s and more recently Joseph Banks’s manuscripts at the British Library, exquisitely catalogued and foliated. I began flipping through the volume, looking for the instructions, trying not to get too dragged off track by some interesting-looking tidbit even though sometimes those are the best finds. About two-thirds of the way through (and 45 minutes later), I found what I was looking for, although it did not turn out to be what I expected.
Peiresc’s instructions were written in French, possibly in his own hand (I haven’t read enough of his manuscripts to be sure), and were very specific. According to a marginal note, they may have been written for Peiresc’s younger brother Valavez (Palamède Fabri de Valavez, 1582-1645) who toured Europe in 1609. I think these notes may have been written somewhat earlier, since some of the individuals named died in 1608 or 1609, but this may simply indicate how slowly news traveled. Peiresc himself had completed his grand tour in 1599, and had visited London, Paris, and Flanders in 1607.
Beginning in Amiens, the instructions follow an itinerary through England and the Low Countries, with the majority of time spent in London. Peiresc loaded down his traveler, whoever he was, with letters and gifts to distribute to a wide circle of friends and fellow scholars. In London, first and foremost on the list was Peiresc’s close friend, the antiquarian William Camden (1551-1623), author of Britannia (1586), the first chorographical surely of Great Britain. “Kiss his hands for me,” Peiresc advised his traveler. Other to be visited included another member of Camden’s College of Antiquaries, Sir Robert Cotton (1570-1631), whose collections of manuscripts are now in the British Library; the Italian jurist Alberico Gentili (1552-1608); and John Norden (1546-1625), author of Speculum Britanniae (1593). Peiresc sent letters and medals to Camden, and in return asked some very specific questions about medieval manuscripts and inscriptions. He also asked that Camden guide his traveler to “toutes les plus curieux de Londres,” which could mean all the curious things, or all the most inquiring people.
Although Peiresc’s main interests were in antiquarian studies, he also advised his traveler to visit “Dr Lobel,” that is the botanist Mathias de l’Obel (1538-1616), Royal physician William Gilbert (1541-1603), author of De magnete (1600), a pioneering treatise on magnetism, and a certain Mr Pory in the Strand, owner of “Le plus beau cabinet de Londres.” These are only a few of the twenty or more individuals Peiresc listed to visit. He even gave addresses, although his spelling was eccentric; Bishopsgate Street, where Gentili lived, was written “Becepsghat Streid.”
From London, Peiresc’s traveler crossed over to the Netherlands, where he visited the Delft antiquarian Abraham Gorlaeus (1549-1608), who possessed another famous cabinet. In Leiden the traveler would encounter the botanist Charles de l’Écluse, known as Clusius (1526-1609), and the classical scholar and librarian Daniel Heinsius (1580-1655); while in Amsterdam he was instructed to meet with the cartographer Petrus Plancius (1552-1622). These are only a few of the many individuals Peiresc listed, indicating the wide range of his acquaintances and his interests.
Apart from people, Peiresc’s traveler would investigate Roman ruins, copy inscriptions, and find the tomb of Charlemagne in the cathedral of the town then known as Aix-la-Chapelle on the German border. In Brabant he would encounter statesmen and antiquaries, and so make his way south through Louvain, Ghent, Lille, and Tournai, ending his journey in France, north of Paris, at Meaux. These half-dozen manuscript pages give us a glimpse into the rich intellectual life of an early seventeenth-century savant, and of the intertwining networks of friendship, correspondence, gift-giving, and travel that made the early modern republic of letters such a vibrant enterprise, enduring for more than a two centuries.