BMCR 2013.10.29

Prescribing Ovid: The Latin Works and Networks of the Enlightened Dr. Heerkens

, Prescribing Ovid: The Latin Works and Networks of the Enlightened Dr. Heerkens. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. xii, 268. ISBN 9780715637234. $110.00.


Although the Enlightenment is usually not associated with the use of Latin and is traditionally seen as indifferent or even hostile towards the classical and humanist tradition, recent years have witnessed a revaluation of the position of classical antiquity in an age when Rousseau and Diderot published all of their ideas in the vernacular. An example of this trend is “Mapping the Latin Enlightenment”, a project led by Yasmin Haskell, which ran from 2009-2011 and sought to give a reappraisal of the role of Latin as a scientific and literary language in the eighteenth century. Haskell’s book, Prescribing Ovid, is a fruit of this project and entails a case study of the life and works of Gerard Nicolaas Heerkens (1726-1801). How and why did this physician and Neo-Latin poet from the Dutch Republic contrive “to live as a cosmopolitan Latin humanist between (climatically, at least) gloomy Groningen and the big smoke of Voltaire’s Paris?” (p.1) Haskell tries to answer this question and in doing so endeavours to demonstrate the continued vitality of Latin culture during the Enlightenment.

The book’s introduction contains a very brief historical contextualization, in which Haskell presents the views of among others Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, who believed that the use of Latin was in general decline, and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux who felt disdain for contemporary Latin poetry (p.4). These views are used as a starting point to be nuanced by the case of Heerkens and his work. A quick survey of Heerkens’s life takes up the rest of the introduction and includes references to other chapters in the book in which particular aspects of this physician-poet are discussed in more detail (pp.6-32). Gerard Nicolaes Heerkens grew up in Kleinemeer, a small peat colony to the east of Groningen. He was educated by Jesuits in Meppen, Westphalia, before becoming a student at the University of Groningen and later Leiden. In 1748 Heerkens moved to Paris to continue his studies under the famous medical professors Jean Astruc (1684-1766) and Antoine Ferrein (1693-1765). He also met celebrated contemporaries like Voltaire and Louis Racine (1692-1763), son of the illustrious tragedian. Heerkens moved back to Groningen in 1750 ; after the deaths of his mother (1756) and father (1758) he left for Italy in 1759 and visited Venice, Rome, Naples as well as many other towns and centres of Italian culture. We find Heerkens back in Groningen at the end of 1761. The second half of his life was devoted to editing and writing the bulk of his publications all in Latin. He published a lively and often amusing account of his travels both in prose in his Notabilia (Books I, II (1765); Books III, IV (1770)) and Italica, which appeared in two editions in 1762 and 1793. Other major publications are Empedocles (1783, second enlarged edition 1798), a collection of epigrams on medical topics (“physica epigrammata”); Aves Frisicae (1788), a series of poems on birds; Icones (1787), a series of historical verse portraits. An important recurring theme in all of Heerkens’s works is his self-fashioning on the model of Ovid, both in his style of writing and in his self-presentation as an outsider in his native Groningen and as a traveller in Italy. For this reason Haskell chose the title Prescribing Ovid for her work.

In Chapter One, a detailed synopsis is given of a pamphlet war between Heerkens and some representatives. She demonstrates how right from the beginning Heerkens tried to picture himself as a flamboyant, Catholic outsider in a gloomy Calvinist environment. Very quickly he realizes the usefulness of the figure of Ovid as a model for self-presentation. An example is his elegy on the occasion of the publication of the Bellingeweerder Uitspanningen, a collection of pious poetry, written by the young poetess Clara Feyoena Sytzama (1729-1807). Heerkens poem contains lines like “Naso querebatur Getici de frigore coeli,/ Bruma quasi venam strinxerit atra suam […] Frisia at exilio tibi si Peligne fuisset;/ Justior illa tibi forte querela foret.” (“Naso [Ovid] complained about the freezing sky of the Getae, as if the black winter had caused his veins to contract […] But if, bard of the Paeligni, you had been exiled to Frisia, your complaint would have been more just!” (Quoted and translated by Haskell, pp. 67-68.)

Chapter Two focuses on De valetudine literatorum within the context of Heerkens’s intellectual network in France and Holland. This work had two editions, one in 1749 and one in 1790, and Haskell argues that with the help of the attempts Heerkens made to revise his text for the second edition it is possible to say more about contemporary developments. We find references, for instance, to works that were published during the period between these two editions (p. 76). Haskell compares Heerkens’s De valetudine, for example, with Tissot’s work from 1766 and points out that the Dutchman had a much more positive view of the impact of learning and culture both on the health of the individual scholar and on the wellbeing of society as a whole (p. 76). This could also be an allusion to Rousseau and his ideas as set out in, for example, the Discours sur les arts et les sciences (1750) (pp. 99-100). In other passages anti-Latin sentiments from thinkers like d’Alembert and Voltaire are refuted (p. 87). The genesis of the second edition of the De valetudine therefore reflects Heerkens’s own dealings with these French intellectuals as well as broader developments in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The young Dutch physician’s expanding network of correspondents and the ways in which it was exploited are the subject of Chapter Three. Haskell pays particular attention to the correspondence between Heerkens and Cornelis Walraven Vonck (1724-68), a philologist and politician, whose good connections in Italy helped Heerkens to establish and strengthen his own network of correspondents in that region. Vonck arranged for his friend his eagerly wanted contact with Cardinal Angelo Maria Querini (1680-1755) and Otto Frederik, Count van Lynden (1716-1788), with whom Heerkens stayed when he was on his way to Italy (p. 108). In this way, his correspondence helped Heerkens to prepare for his Grand Tour. The second half of this chapter is devoted to the Italica, a collection of epistles written in elegiac verses and addressed to friends and acquaintances in Holland, such as Nicolaas Tenhove, a Dutch nobleman who himself had travelled in Italy. While during his student days in his native Groningen Heerkens had stressed his position as a worldly Ovidian outsider among temperate, dull northerners, in the Italica he becomes a “warm-hearted, down-at-heel Dutch exile in the land of the lugubrious lagoon-dwellers” when writing about his stay in Venice (p. 121). Heerkens thus adjusts his Ovidian self-image according to the changed circumstances.

In Chapter Four, we find a discussion of the account given of this Grand Tour in the Notabilia. Apart from looking at the contents of the work itself, Haskell tries to find out for what kind of audience the work was written. She argues that Heerkens’s audience was mostly Dutch (p. 152), a point of view that leads to an interesting situation: how does a Catholic Dutchman inform his predominantly Calvinist fellow countrymen about Catholic Italy? The reader is presented with different kinds of examples, among which are the views Heerkens expresses about certain pagan vestiges in Italian Catholicism. He held a very positive opinion about the early Church’s policy of assimilating pagan traditions in the Catholic adoration of saints and this may be seen as an admonition to his Calvinist readers who had a more iconoclastic and austere view of religion (p. 146). Heerkens is more explicit when he writes about his admiration for the respect which Italians show towards antiquities, monuments and famous men from the past: “I often wished after I had returned home, that there might be in our people some share in that veneration with which the Italians honour the memory of their great men” ( Notabilia Book 2, p. 126, transl. Haskell, p. 154).

The point of monuments and great historical figures brings us to Chapter Five, which deals with Heerkens’s edition of Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne (1755), his Icones and his work on birds, the Aves Frisicae. Both the edition of Einhard and the Icones, a collection of verse portraits, are indicative of Heerkens’s optimism about the influence of civilization and learning on morality. The physician from Groningen presented himself as an antiquarian with a particular interest in Roman history. He felt disdain towards a Tacitean predilection for human failings and barbarity and believed that in a civilized society even crooks could teach us some moral lessons (p. 157). He believed Plutarch and Suetonius were examples that should be followed in the way they depicted great men and that only Einhard had managed to do so (p. 160).

This chapter rounds off with a discussion of the Aves Frisicae, a series of poems devoted to bird species from Heerkens’s native region of Groningen and Friesland. It is especially with regard to this work that Haskell clearly shows how the poet Heerkens was taken seriously as a man of science. She points out that this work was cited (and refuted) by the French biologist Buffon (1707-88) in his Histoire naturelle des oiseaux published in Paris between 1771 and 1786 (p. 187). It should probably be seen within the context of Heerkens’s attempt to become a member of the Parisian Académie des sciences (p. 186).

The final chapter of Haskell’s book shows us Heerkens as a physician-poet by examining his De officio medici (1752), a didactic poem in elegiac metre, and his Empedocles (1783), a collection of epigrams. Both deal with the practice of medicine and good health and like the Aves Frisicae they combine a wish to write in a colourful, attractive style full of classical reminiscences with handing down scientific beliefs and knowledge. This becomes particularly clear from the reason Heerkens gives for the title of his Empedocles, the philosopher-poet who, as Heerkens explained, “wrote so harmoniously (‘numerosus’) about natural philosophy and medicine (‘de Physica’)” (quoted and translated by Haskell on p. 214) and thus serves the enlightened doctor from Groningen as an example. Haskell’s work is in this respect a continuation of her earlier work on Jesuit didactic poetry.1

As Haskell readily admits, Heerkens “was no first-order scientific thinker, natural historian or even classical scholar” (p. 32). However, on the level of “average” intellectuals Haskell provides us with a well-documented case study of Heerkens as a man whose life and works show us that Latin that “a Latin voice [could still] be raised and heard on the stage of the Lumières as a voice for Enlightenment”, although it was “necessarily a voice from the wings” (p. 235).

From the point of view of a classicist, the large amounts of often little known eighteenth-century names and figures can occasionally be a bit overwhelming. Yet Haskell gives enough biographical background information and references to make her book understandable for those who feel less at home in Dutch enlightened circles. Prescribing Ovid will be particularly useful for those interested in the position of Latin in the eighteenth-century and the Enlightenment. It is also a valuable case study about the ways in which the Republic of Letters was put to practical use during this period. Finally, Heerkens’s self-presentation as an eighteenth-century Ovid is a fascinating case for those working on self-fashioning both in literature in general and in the works of early modern (Neo-Latin) authors in particular.


1. See Y.A. Haskell, Loyola’s Bees. Ideology and Industry in Jesuit Latin Didactic Poetry (Oxford 2004), especially chapter four “Breaking Ground: Scientific Poetry in Enlightenment Rome”, pp. 178-244.