Nicolaus Claudius Peiresc: scientist and antiquary as bibliophile

Austin Dobson, himself a learned bibliophile and antiquary, was evidently a great admirer of the seventeenth century savant and bibliophile , Nicolaus Peiresc, as his anthologies De Libris (1911) and A Bookman’s Budget ( 1917) demonstrate. In the latter Dobson quotes his biographer Gassendi on Peiresc’s generosity as a lender of books:

‘ He sought books, not for himself alone, but for any that stood in need of them. He lent an innumerable company, which were never restored; also he gave a world away…of which he could hardly hope ever to get the like again\: Which he did when learned men had occasion to use them.’

Nor, Dobson added, was Peiresc content to be an ideal lender; he was also an ideal borrower:

‘ Such books as he borrowed ( Gassendi continues) , being neglected by their owners and ill-bound, he delivered to his binder to be restified and beautified, viz. when their subject matter or rarity  deserved that cost; so that having received them , ill-bound, and ill favoured  he returned them trim and handsome.’

Nor did Peiresc shrink from marking or annotating his books. Here’s Gassendi again:

‘He was not therefore of their mind, who having gotten fair Books, are afraid to blot them  with such lines ( underscorings) , or marginal notes: for he esteemed those Books most highly, into which he could insert most notes; and therefore he commonly caused all his Books , when they were in quires, to be washed over with Alum-water, and when he foresaw their margents would not be large enough he caused white paper to be bound between the printed leaves.’

What was the purpose of alum-water? Well, since antiquity alum (typically aluminium sulphate) had been used as a mordant ( a drying agent ) in dyeing fabrics. In paper-making a solution of it was used to strengthen paper and make it less vulnerable to damp and therefore to mould growth. Presumably, Peiresc was aware of this property of alum and saw its use as contributing to the longevity of the paper on which his notes were written. This would make sense at a time when libraries were often damp, which environment contributed to the destruction of books through the growth of mould.

In some senses Peiresc was way ahead of his time in appreciating the value of underlinings and marginalia in books. As well as contributing marginalia to his own books with the idea that after his death readers might benefit from them, Peiresc may have lent his own books to fellow scientists and antiquaries, hoping that they might be returned to him adorned with notes and observations from the pen of these eminent borrowers.  Peiresc, like any genuine scholar, was more interested in the possibility of gaining knowledge and enlightenment  from lending books to fellow scholars, rather than luxuriating in owning a perfect copy of a rare book which was never lent to anyone. The connoisseur Grolier also invited others to read books in his collection, which prompted another bibliophile, J. H. Slater, to speculate on whether these books were returned to the owner ‘ dog-eared and stained ‘. Slater himself confessed to only owning ‘ working copies , useful but not valuable ‘. He does not say whether he personally would ever lend a rare and valuable book to someone he knew and respected, but he does warn ‘ amateurs ‘ to hide any ‘ single book out of the common from the borrower even as from a book worm’.

Doubtless Peiresc, the great and generous lender, would find this proprietorial attitude perplexing.

R. M. Healey. 

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