BMCR 2023.02.20

Henri Estienne: On books

, , , Henri Estienne: On books. LYSA Neo-Latin texts, 2. Ghent: Lysa, 2022. Pp. 488. ISBN 9789464447675

Open Access


This volume offers a glimpse into the world of the prolific sixteenth-century printer Henri II Estienne (Henricus Stephanus, 1531-1598). In their Introduction, the editors describe the printing dynasty of the Estienne family, which spanned five generations from Henri I (1460-1520) to Antoine (1592-1674). Censured by the Catholic theologians of the Sorbonne, Henri’s father Robert (1503-1559) moved in 1550 from Paris to Geneva, where his son embraced Calvinism, while the Catholic branch of the family remained in Paris. Initially financed by Ulrich Fugger (from 1557 to 1568), Henri Estienne undertook Genevan editions of Greek classics—his 1578 Plato established the number-and-letter references still used today—and produced the monumental Thesaurus linguae Graecae (1572, 4208 pp. in folio), a masterpiece that nearly bankrupted him. After Fugger withdrew his support, he faced several financial setbacks and personal disappointments. His brilliant son-in-law Isaac Casaubon (1599-1671) contributed some notes to Henri’s publications but published his editions of Greek authors with other printers; and Etienne’s son Paul was eventually forced to sell the Geneva press in 1618.

The editors have selected nine texts—a sort of tribute to Herodotus’ Muses—which are printed in the original Latin with facing-page English versions: To the Reader, On Combining the Muses with Mars, the Example of Xenophon, Defence of Herodotus, Printing’s Complaint, Letter about his Printing-House, The Frankfurt Fair, On Latin Wrongly Regarded as Suspect, To the Plato-loving Reader, and a Letter to his Son, Paul Estienne. Estienne’s wit and versatility are further attested by substantial Latin verse compositions that he included in his prefaces (Printing’s Complaint, Printing-House, Frankfurt Fair), as well as by four original Greek epigrams appended to his Muses and Mars essay. The notes contain both a brief apparatus fontium of classical sources, and fuller English glosses. The former appear under the left-hand texts, while the latter are cued to both the original Latin and the English translation. The volume concludes with concise bibliographies of primary and secondary sources, and indexes of literary citations and proper names.

Such an anthology of humanist prefaces is not without precedent. A vast collection of similar texts was edited by Beriah Botfield (1807-1863) in his Prefaces to the First Editions of Greek and Roman Classics and of the Sacred Scriptures (London, 1861). The prefaces of Aldo Manuzio (1449-1515) were edited and translated by Giovanni Orlandi (2 vols., Milan, 1975), and have recently been published in the I Tatti Renaissance Library: The Greek Classics by N. G. Wilson (2016) and Humanism and the Latin Classics by John N. Grant (2017). The prefaces to various Roman incunabula of Giovanni Andrea Bussi (1417-1475) were reprinted by Massimo Miglio (Milan, 1978) and will appear in a future I Tatti edition edited by Martin C. Davies.

Estienne’s central role as a publisher of Greek classics is highlighted in the prefaces to the Hellenic trinity of Herodotus, Plato, and Xenophon. The next six prefaces illuminate the professional contexts of Estienne as both intellectual and businessman. As an editor and translator, he is critical of predecessors and contemporaries. Indeed, the editors call attention to his “penchant for often allowing irritation with the shortcomings of others to drive his Herculean efforts” (23); and they record his animadversions on Lorenzo Valla’s Latin versions of Herodotus and Thucydides (27-30), and his disputes with Jean de Serres (1540-1598) in annotating and translating Plato (41-44). By contrast, the commercial side of publishing motivates Printing’s Complaint, which is important in two respects. First, it displays Estienne’s delight in verse composition: his blend of prose and poetry in several prefaces clearly evokes the classical tradition of Menippean satire. Second, its title Artis typographicae querimonia echoes that of Erasmus’ 1517 Complaint of Peace (Querela Pacis). Erasmian themes naturally recur in Estienne, who published the Adagia (1570/1572). As John Considine has shown in his history of the early modern dictionary, both Estiennes were inspired by Erasmus’ “Herculean labors.” By the same token, Estienne espouses an Erasmian ideal of eclectic Latin in On Latin Wrongly Regarded as Suspect. Likewise, the Latin verses appended to The Frankfurt Fair celebrate a Heidelberg temperance league that recalls Erasmus’ 1529 Sober Banquet (Convivium sobrium). Estienne further describes the vicissitudes of publishing in the Letter about his Printing-House, a plea for subscribers to his Greek thesaurus, and a progress report on projects; and in The Frankfurt Fair he eulogizes the marketplace where inter alia arms and books were on offer. The anthology concludes with the hortatory Letter to his Son, Paul Estienne, printed in his 1585 edition of Aulus Gellius.

The Introduction concludes with a section on Henri Estienne as a Latin writer (47-51). Besides his vast prose output, he was a prolific versifier in both Latin and French. His monumental The Muse Instructor of Rulers (Principum monitrix Musa, 1590, 462 pp. in octavo) offers a didactic farrago of Latin prose and poems in various meters, including some prefatory French alexandrines addressed to King Henry III.

To the Reader (Lectori salutem, 1557) offers a brief introduction to Estienne’s Ciceronian Lexicon (Ciceronianum Lexicon Graecolatinum: id est, Lexicon ex variis Graecorum scriptorum locis a Cicerone interpretatis). As a printer-publicist, Estienne is well versed in epideictic rhetoric; and his preface in fact falls into two sections of praise and blame that allude to ancient Greece. In the first, Estienne celebrates the industry and accomplishments of his father Robert, who, he asserts, surpassed Alexander the Great because (unlike the Macedonian king) he shared the riches of antiquity with his contemporaries. In the second, he censures the French monk Joachim Perionius (1499-1559), whose defective edition of Aeschines and Demosthenes he condemns as riddled with errors.

The essay On Combining the Muses with Mars, the Example of Xenophon (De coniungendis cum Marte Musis, exemplo Xenophontis) introduces Etienne’s 1561 edition of the works of Xenophon, whose writings reveal his excellence as both a student of Socrates and a soldier. Estienne lauds the conjunction of learning and leadership as repeatedly asserted by Cicero, whose works he mined in compiling his Greek-Latin lexicon of 1557.

The Defence of Herodotus (Apologia pro Herodoto) is Estienne’s preface to his 1566 Latin translation of Herodotus. The essay is by far the longest of the texts included in this volume (131-251) and—appropriately for the Greek historian—the most farraginous: the editors comment that “as often with this writer, the argumentation is diffuse” (30). Estienne feels obliged to defend the historian from Plutarch, who had attacked him as unreliable and unpatriotic. In Estienne’s view, Herodotus often writes as a faithful eyewitness; and if parts of his narrative seem outlandish, that is because humanity everywhere displays bizarrely various   behaviors. As examples of such curiosities, Estienne regales the reader with stories and anecdotes on a wide range of topics: human gestation, wine and women, rulers and imposters (notably, Martin Guerre and Pope Joan), micturition, diet and dining, rituals and ceremonies, and warfare. In seeming homage to Herodotus, Estienne here transforms himself into an encyclopedic ethnographer.

Printing’s Complaint (Artis typographicae querimonia, 1569) bewails the ignorance of rival editors in a four-page letter that is followed by some eighty Latin elegiac couplets.

In his Letter about his Printing-House (Epistola de suae typographiae statu, 1969), Estienne reviews his current projects, and censures various faulty lexica that his forthcoming Thesaurus of the Greek Language will correct and supplant. (Estienne lists so many errata and lemmata that the translator has sensibly omitted most of them.) He further complains that his edition of Xenophon has been pirated, and concludes with a note thanking his ally, the German classicist Joachim Camerarius (1500-1574), and some forty Latin verses on the Frankfurt Fair.

The Frankfurt Fair (Francofordiense Emporium, 1574) begins with a dedication to the “consuls and senate of Frankfurt,” followed by a mock sale catalogue that lists two horses purchased by the author, as well as texts by classical authors extolling sobriety. There follows a eulogy of the fair, which begins by citing examples of paradoxical encomia that he borrows from Erasmus’ Praise of Folly. Yet paradoxically, one might say, Estienne offers a serious encomium that praises the city’s central location and its tradition of hospitality, as well the assorted wares for sale at the fair: horses, gadgets, and books. He supplements this prose encomium with six poems: hexameters on the Rhineland city of Bacharach, hendecasyllables on a dinner party given by Johannes Post (1537-1597), elegiacs on the temperance campaign of the poet Paul Schad (Paulus Melissus, 1539-1602), and three epigrams on drinking. There follows a brief prose postscript addressed to Schad.

Addressed to Jérôme de Chastillon (d. 1587), On Latin Wrongly Regarded as Suspect (1576) is the preface to Estienne’s De Latinitate falso suspecta, Expostulatio, a Latin lexicon emulating Lorenzo Valla’s Elegantiae linguae latinae (ca. 1440) and often illuminating Latin idioms by comparing French expressions. In the 1576 edition, the Expostulatio (pp. 1-362) is followed by Estienne’s treatise on Plautine Latin (De Plauti Latinitate Dissertatio, pp. 363-400).

To the Plato-loving Reader (Lectori φιλοπλάτωνι, 1578) is the preface to Estienne’s three-volume edition of Plato, in which he complains that his improved Greek text has been undermined by the accompanying Latin translation and notes composed by Jean de Serres (1540-1598).

The Letter to his Son, Paul Estienne (Epistola Paulo Stephano filio, 1585) accompanied Estienne’s edition of Aulus Gellius. After the usual complaints about an editorial colleague—in this case, Louis Carrion (1547-1595)—Henri reviews his son’s privileged upbringing (he was breast-fed by his mother and raised in a polyglot household!) and commends the reading of Gellius as a spur to erudition and editing.

The paratexts assembled here demonstrate Estienne’s versatility and volubility as publisher, scholar, poet, and lexicographer. Like his contemporary Michel de Montaigne, he was raised in a Latin-speaking household, but did not disdain writing in the vernacular, often on philological topics. Given the cultural and linguistic density of Estienne’s witty and erudite essays, the editors’ introductions, translations, and annotations are admirably comprehensive. Naturally, in so vast a project, not all of the translation will seem ideal. In the essay on Xenophon, for example, the reader finds Iliad 2.372-374 rendered quaintly as “I would that I had ten such counselors Amongst th’Achaeans. Then would quickly nod the city of lordly Priam, ta’en, Pillaged and sacked beneath our mighty hands.” This falls somewhere between the versions of Pope and Lattimore, but where? By contrast, striving for colloquial verve, the translators render Estienne’s prose demurrals as courtroom outbursts: the adversative “at(enim)” is twice rendered as “Objection!” (146-149); and “Imo vero tu fortasse, Iustiniane” becomes “No, no Justinian! It is you perhaps…” (174-175).

Beyond such small details, the translator must do justice to the larger context of syntax and style. Laced with proverbs and poetic citations in both Greek and Latin, Estienne’s elaborate sentences revel in assonance and florid predicates. Here is a sample from his 1557 To the Reader, with the alliterations highlighted:

Ecce enim, ille [Stephanus] tibi non lexicon Graecolatinum nescio quod ex ineptissimarum adnotationum quadam velut colluvie conflatum, tanquam vestimentum aliquod ex vilibus scrutis consarcinatum, sed ingentem et immensum Linguae Graecae thesaurum, iam a multis annis, sumptibus prope infinitis ex praestantissimis linguae Graecae authoribus tibi congerit atque coacervat. (56)

In this case, the translators retain too much of Estienne’s Latinate phraseology (cited in boldface), but capture little of his lexical artistry:

For behold! He has been gathering together and heaping up for you for many years now not some Greco-Latin dictionary conflated from the scourings, so to speak, of the most inept annotations, like some garment patched together from cheap trash, but, at almost boundless expense, a massive, immense Thesaurus of the Greek Language, compiled from the most outstanding authors of Greek. (57)

This might be expressed more idiomatically:

Lo and behold, over many years and at almost infinite expense, my father did not merely compile and collect a Greek-Latin dictionary—distilled from the dregs, as it were, of senseless footnotes, like a garment basted together from cheap scraps—but rather assembled a massive and immense Thesaurus of the Greek Language, culled from the most outstanding Greek authors.

All the same, such shortcomings are rare. The editors’ selections offer the reader a vivid portrait of Henri Estienne in all his complexity as polymath, polemicist, and publisher. Estienne addresses questions of textual scholarship with a vivacious blend of philology and personality, incorporating Juvenalian indignation and the prosimetrical ποικιλία of Menippean satire. The anthology is a rich and entertaining feast, like the symposia of antiquity.