Renaissance and Reformation Joseph Justus Scaliger
Dirk van Miert
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0484


Joseph Justus Scaliger (b. 1540–d. 1609) is regarded as one of the most important scholars of Europe around 1600. His scholarship is primarily devoted to the philology of texts ranging from preclassical Rome to the Byzantine period, including the Bible. Building on the work of Italian and French humanists, Scaliger increased the empirical character of textual criticism by assessing the materiality of the documentary evidence and by sharpening the principles to establish the interdependence of manuscripts in the chain of transmission of ancient Greek and Roman authors, on the one hand, and of the Bible, on the other hand. Moreover, he is often billed as the founding father of comparative chronology on account of his two editions of Manilius (1579, 1599), his De emendatione temporum (1583, 1598) on calendar reform, and the Thesaurus temporum (1606). Scaliger was also famed as a pioneer among Europeans in the study of eastern languages such as Arabic, Chaldaic (Aramaic), Aethiopic, and Persian. As an accomplished Christian Hebraist, he took an interest in Rabbinic scholarship and studied the Hebrew Bible, the Greek New Testament, and the Septuagint as well as versions in other languages. Scaliger himself never published a coherent study of his biblical observations and his polyhistorical antiquarian knowledge, which remained scattered across his published works, letters, and Table Talk. He exercised a lasting influence on the Leiden School of classical, biblical, and oriental historico-critical philology and antiquarianism through such scholars as Janus Gruter, Hugo Grotius, Daniel Heinsius, Gerardus Vossius, Thomas Erpenius, Jacob Golius, Constantine l’Empereur, Louis de Dieu, Claude Saumaise, and Isaac Vossius. Together with his friend and closest correspondent, Isaac Casaubon, he informed a variety of debates regarding ancient philosophy and modern religion in 17th-century England. Scaliger, the son of the philosopher, medical scholar, and poetical theorist Julius Caesar Scaliger, was born in Agen, France, and studied in Paris. After his conversion to Calvinism (1563), he entered a wandering life in the services of a French nobleman who fought on the side of the Catholic king. In 1593, he moved to Leiden University, where he lived until his death, at times embroiled in polemics with Catholic scholars who mocked his vain claim to a noble pedigree. He corresponded widely with German, French, Flemish, and Dutch scholars. Part of his private oriental collection was posthumously integrated into the collections of the university library, and, in the twenty-first century, the university named a research institute after him.

General Overview

Scaliger’s importance as a classical philologist was recognized in his own times and only increased in subsequent ages. His name features in all the major biographical dictionaries of his time, including those that were not primarily devoted to French scholars. The first modern book-length study is the astounding intellectual biography Bernays 1855, which compelled the author of Pattison 1889 to give up his own attempts and focus on a biography of Isaac Casaubon instead. Bernays largely ignored Scaliger’s chronological and oriental scholarship, which led to an image of Scaliger primarily as a classical scholar. Pattison’s positive bias toward classical scholarship and reservations for ecclesiastical history contributed to eclipsing the religious aspects that were integral to the work of Scaliger and Casaubon. Arnaldo Momigliano recognized the importance of Scaliger as the link between southern and northern classical philology, although he did not publish about him. De Jonge 1975 is the first major study of Scaliger in the twentieth century. Momigliano inspired his student Anthony Grafton to dedicate his dissertation to the first half of Scaliger’s intellectual life (Grafton 1983). This volume is read far more often than Volume 2, which appeared ten years later (Grafton 1993) and which is largely devoted to Scaliger’s chronological studies, rendering the book even more technical than the first volume, already difficult for readers not acquainted with classical philology. Since then, scholarship on Scaliger has been fragmentary, although Grafton continued to be both a driving force and a source of inspiration for other scholars. His initiative for a critical edition of the full correspondence of Scaliger in 2003 inspired a slim volume about Scaliger’s time in Leiden (Hoftijzer 2005). The edition, published in eight volumes (Botley and Van Miert 2012 [cited under Reference Works]), prompted a dissertation about Scaliger’s oriental books and manuscripts (Van Ommen 2020). An important book for a vindication of Scaliger as a major figure in the history of Western culture is the broadly read Bod 2013. A more detailed study in which Scaliger’s influence on debates in 17th-century England is assessed is Levitin 2015. It appears that a new generation of scholars is taking up the study of Scaliger, as can also be gathered from the references cited under Journal Articles and Book Chapters).

  • Bernays, Jacob. Joseph Justus Scaliger. Berlin: Verlag von Wilhelm Hertz, 1855.

    Still unsurpassed in many ways, Bernays’s brilliant, concise, and sparkling account of Scaliger’s intellectual development covers little more than seventy pages of main text (pp. 31–104), but his dense 161 pages of pertinent annotations act as small essays (pp. 105–266). Although it largely neglects Scaliger’s study of historical chronology, it has an essential bibliography (see Bernays 1855 [cited under Bibliographies]). See the appraisal in Grafton 1983, pp. 1–4. Reprinted Osnabrück, Germany: Otto Zeller, 1965.

  • Bod, Rens. A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from Antiquity to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199665211.001.0001

    Probably no book did more to make Scaliger more accessible to a broader student audience than Bod’s much debated History of the Humanities. The Early Modern period constitutes the core part of Bod’s history and Scaliger takes center stage in it (pp. 142–183). Discarding the nuance that Grafton provided, Bod straightforwardly presents Scaliger’s historico-critical philology as a force in a process of secularization and modern science.

  • De Jonge, Henk Jan. “The Study of the New Testament.” In Leiden University in the Seventeenth Century: An Exchange of Learning. Edited by Th. H. Lunsingh Scheurleer and G. H. M. Posthumus Meyjes, 64–109. Leiden, The Netherlands: Universitaire Pers, 1975.

    This seminal study of Scaliger’s scholarship on the New Testament (pp. 76–87) formed the bedrock on which all later studies by De Jonge were based. It was the first major study of Scaliger in the twentieth century and still is fundamental reading for anyone interested in Scaliger’s biblical philology.

  • Grafton, Anthony. Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship. Vol. 1, Textual Criticism and Exegesis. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983.

    This landmark first half of an intellectual biography revived Scaliger from a century of scholarly neglect. In this technical and detailed, but lucid and witty volume, Grafton unearths the twists and turns in the development of Scaliger’s methods, warts and all, as he came to grips with Italian and French philological traditions. A revisionist history of early modern knowledge, it continues to inspire as a model for research into the history of scholarship.

  • Grafton, Anthony. Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship. Vol. 2, Historical Chronology. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

    This study puts chronology on the map of the history of scholarship as a central early modern endeavor. In the comparison of time-keeping systems of different historical traditions, Scaliger demonstrated advanced technical and broad linguistic skills and knowledge. Grafton’s profound analysis of Scaliger’s De emendatione temporum and Thesaurus temporum requires patience and dedication from the reader.

  • Hardy, Nicholas. Criticism and Confession: The Bible in the Seventeenth Century Republic of Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    Hardy’s revisionist interpretation argues that the Republic of Letters was not a scholarly refuge in which people like Scaliger, Isaac Casaubon, and Hugo Grotius took shelter from 17th-century religious polemics to develop a philology that had a secularizing influence. This well-documented and perceptive book sometimes uncharitably flattens the nuances of previous interpretations, but it excels at demonstrating Scaliger’s influence on later scholars who held diverse theological agendas.

  • Hoftijzer, P. G. Adelaar in de Wolken: De Leidse jaren van Josephus Justus Scaliger, 1593–1609; Catalogus bij een tentoonstelling in de Leidse Universiteitsbibliotheek, 30 juni–28 augustus 2005, met bijdragen van R. Breugelmans, W. P. Gerritsen, H. J. De Jonge, C. L. Heesakkers, D. van Miert, J. De Landtsheer en K. van Ommen. Leiden, The Netherlands: Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden, 2005.

    A volume with nine accessible contributions by various scholars about Scaliger’s period in Leiden: his opinion of Leiden, his household and boarding students, his ties to Lipsius, and the Dousa family and Raphelengius’s printing press as well as his visitors and epistolary contacts. A useful study of the interrelations of the various portraits as well as a small exhibition catalogue completes this concise booklet.

  • Levitin, Dmitri. Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science: Histories of Philosophy in England, c. 1640–1700. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316226612

    This endlessly erudite but sometimes meandering monograph argues that Scaliger, together with Isaac Casaubon, had a hitherto hardly acknowledged influence on English 17th-century scholarship. Their particular method of empirically minded and contextually sensitive historico-critical philology often informed topical debates on philosophy, natural science, and church history.

  • Nisard, Charles. Le triumvirat littéraire au XVIe siècle: Juste Lipse, Joseph Scaliger et Isaac Casaubon. Paris: Amyot, 1852.

    Sandwiched between Lipsius and Casaubon, Nisard’s book-length treatment of Scaliger’s life (pp. 149–308) is little read these days. Grafton and De Jonge 1993 (cited under Bibliographies) does not even mention this essay in comparing characters that put an emphasis on Scaliger’s irascible character and neglect the depth of Scaliger’s scholarship. Reproduction: Geneva, Switzerland: Slatkin, 1970.

  • Pattison, Mark. “Joseph Scaliger.” In Essays. Vol. 1. Edited by Henry Nettleship, 132–195. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1889.

    See also “Life of Joseph Scaliger (Fragment)” (pp. 196–243). The first essay was originally published in 1860 as a review of Bernays 1855. It praises Bernays’s biography but actually makes scant reference to it. Rather than a review (it is as long as Bernays’s own account of Scaliger’s life), it retells Bernays in a less technical fashion. Like Bernays, Pattison largely ignores Scaliger’s De emendatione temporum. The “Life” is a collection of unfinished and posthumously published fragments.

  • Van Ommen, Kasper. “Tous mes livres de langues estrangeres”: Het oosterse legaat van Josephus Justus Scaliger in de Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden. PhD diss., Leiden University, 2020.

    Van Ommen analyses how Scaliger collected his manuscripts and printed books in eastern languages, drawing on his epistolary network involving scholars, merchants and diplomats. Scaliger legated his eastern books to Leiden University Library, and this book traces how the process of incorporation took place and what the effect was on Leiden University’s reputation.

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