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“I have always loved the Holy Tongue”: Isaac Casaubon, the Jews, and a Forgotten Chapter in Renaissance Scholarship, by Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg, with Alastair Hamilton. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. 392 pp. $35.00.
In this original, highly learned, and beautifully produced volume Anthony Grafton and Joanna Weinberg, known for their important contributions to Renaissance scholarship and intellectual history, have teamed up to provide an innovative and provocative study of an intriguing, if often neglected, Renaissance Hebraist, Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614). The methodology they utilize, namely careful attention to Casaubon’s marginal comments on books that he read (he annotated hundreds of books and wrote sixty volumes of notes), is powerful and, combined with a close and nuanced reading of his published works and a broad context, makes this a remarkable book that will have implications far beyond its immediate field.
Better known for his philological prowess and his studies of ancient Greek and Latin literature, Casaubon was also an avid reader, student and collector of Judaica. He read works in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and even Yiddish. The analysis in the volume proceeds on a number of levels simultaneously, as the authors assess the traditional presentation of Casaubon, place him in an historical context, and scrutinize the full range of his writings. The resulting image of Casaubon that Grafton and Weinberg re-create is of an individual in formation. They point to his accomplishments and successes and well as his failures and searching. They craft a multi-dimensional human being and explore how he thought and responded to what he read and discussed.
Describing the process of his note taking, Grafton and Weinberg provide useful insights into Casaubon’s thought process and methods of contextual and meaning-making reading. They point to the intricate web that connects Casaubon’s thought in his published work as well as his draft publications, notes, letters (including approximately 2,500, mostly in Latin) and journal entries. Grafton and Weinberg trace his methods of reading and then move to a detailed discussion of Casaubon’s study of Hebrew, a particularly useful exercise given that Casaubon taught Hebrew only briefly and was not a specialist in that field.
For Casaubon, much of his interest in Hebrew writing and Jewish thought was related to his own, internal Christian polemics—especially his criticism of Hermes Trismegistus and his attack on Pietro Galatino. Much of Casaubon’s impressive Hebrew learning was enlisted in a fierce battle with Cardinal Cesare Baronio. Casaubon’s critique made much of what Casaubon saw as Baronio’s ignorance of Hebrew and Greek and his lack of critical acumen, as well as his shortcomings when it came to chronology and his lack of understanding of Hebrew and Jewish customs. For Casaubon, the study of late Antiquity and the early years of Christianity had important resonance for his day and required contextualization within the Jewish world of Jesus as well as his disciples and opponents. Grafton and Weinberg offer a nuanced account of Casaubon’s engagement with Baronio, providing important discussion that measures the intellectual and religious climate and agenda of the time and that spills over into more personal issues of religion and attempts to convert Casaubon to Catholicism. In this context, Grafton and Weinberg provide particularly intriguing and useful discussion of Casaubon’s interaction with Joseph Scaliger. Although they never met in person, the two scholars exchanged letters and engaged in discussion of key academic themes, with many of Scaliger’s sensibilities serving as fodder for Casaubon’s own approach and conclusions.
Like others of his time, Casaubon appears to have been engaged in a “spiritual quest, which knew no denominational boundaries” (p. 43). While the authors generally find Casaubon to be a “dispassionate” reader, even when annotating Jewish prayerbooks, they note the appearance of hidden agendas on occasion. Despite the use he made of Hebrew texts and his great engagement with them, Casaubon like other Christian Hebraists does not appear to have been “sympathetic” to the Jews or the rabbis, though as later episodes would reveal, Casuabon had the capacity and at times appears to have been personally open to individual Jews and interested in Jewish beliefs and practices. Grafton and Weinberg explore this tension through two specific cases. The first interaction described is with Julius Conradus Otto (b. 1562), a convert from Judaism and a professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages at the Altdorf Academy, with whom Casaubon corresponded about kabbalistic ideas. The second, more robust encounter was with Jacob Barnet at Oxford, an individual who appeared to renounce Judaism, was pressed by authorities for a public baptism, and later refused to convert.
In understanding how and why Casaubon read Hebrew texts, Grafton and Weinberg review the range of Casaubon’s readings and library holdings. They emphasize Casaubon’s use of particular grammars and Christian Hebraist works, as well as his deep interest in ancient history. Although he clearly read kabbalistic works, these more speculative arts appear to have held little sustained interest for Casaubon. In reading the Bible Casuabon applied similar reading techniques as he did when he read the literary classics of Antiquity—frequently excerpting, reflecting on, and re-circulating what he read. In this glossing, Causaubon assumed that Jewish commentaries (including some from more recent Jewish scholars)—at times from the original Hebrew and at other times, such as with some works by Maimonides (whom he appeared to hold in high esteem), through a Latin translation— were integral in constructing a solid Christian interpretation.
Generally, though not always, Casaubon appears to have read with a careful critical eye, noting “authenticity, derivation, and antiquarian detail” (p. 128). He also rather seamlessly incorporated concepts from other scholarship he read into his own engagement with the texts. Assessing the central work of Buxtorf in Casaubon’s approach to Hebrew texts, for example, Grafton and Weinberg present a useful discussion of Buxtorf’s ethnographical approach to Jewish rites as well as his value for Casaubon. But, they note, Casaubon did not blindly accept Buxtorf. He identified Buxtorf’s textual sources and chided him when he appeared to blur details and elide differences. Grafton and Weinberg also discuss in detail Causaubon’s reading of the works of Azariah de’ Rossi—which found little practical application in Casaubon’s own work—, with special emphasis on a shared commitment to critical reading and an appreciation of diverse forms of knowledge from a wide range of sources. And yet Casaubon’s interest in the Jews themselves had limits, as he at times neglected to synthesize all his reading and research. In the end, Casuabon, like many of his contemporaries, knew Jews and Judaism through books, not through lived experience.
The volume includes several appendices related to Casuabon and Arabic (by Alastair Hamilton), Casaubon on the Masoretic text, and an overview of Casaubon’s Hebrew and Judaic library. The volume also includes a brief glossary, a substantial bibliography, and many images of Casaubon’s marginal notations and other illustrations. On occasion (such as the second chapter on How Casaubon Read Hebrew Texts) the authors do not provide completely digested or systematic conclusions, but in general the argument is cohesive and compelling and the scholarship is precise, contextual, and methodologically innovative. This is a splendid volume that, because of its content and scholarly approach, will be of value to scholars with a wide range of interests.
Dean Phillip Bell
Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies