Lysa (2022) 488pp €39.00 (ISBN 9789464447675)

Every now and then a new book opens a window on the sixteenth century which gives a fresh and invigorating glimpse of a part of its life. This selection from the Latin writings of Henri Estienne, the most remarkable member of a five-generation French publishing family, does just that, and leaves an indelible impression of an extraordinarily gifted, manically industrious, and bristlingly self-confident scholar/businessman in full flow. The book is one of a planned series which aims to present Latin sources which are in danger of neglect in a reliable text together with an English translation; it recognizes the regrettable fact that today even Renaissance specialists may find such support necessary as well as convenient. The book succeeds admirably on all counts; the translations are clear, stylish and accurate—Latin verse even being represented in English blank verse—and there is an extremely useful apparatus fontium which tracks Henri’s multitudinous references to classical and other sources (this a real labour of love!).

The longest piece, the ‘Defence of Herodotus’, is the essay Henri wrote for a book he published in 1566 containing Lorenzo Valla’s Latin translation of Herodotus (heavily corrected by Henri), fragments of Ctesias, and the pseudo-Herodotean ‘Life of Homer’. The defence is detailed and mostly constructed from what Herodotus himself says about his sources and how he used them. As for the frequently-levelled charge of bias, Henri wryly observes that Herodotus had no patrons to please (a constant burden for Renaissance authors), and, as for the gods and their sanctuaries, the historian showed an understanding which was everything you could expect from someone who did not know Christianity!  Henri takes Herodotus’ multi-cultural sympathies very seriously indeed and approves them with the aid of a great many ancient and modern parallels—even contemporary Frenchmen had first-hand evidence of cannibalism! The whole essay adds up to a most impressive and detailed case for the defence.

The next longest piece is an extraordinary and bewilderingly varied work entitled ‘The Frankfurt Fair’. This has been translated into English before and some items are here omitted, but the editors are perfectly right to include the bulk of it. The background was both institutional and, for Henri, both commercial and personal. The Fair was fast becoming a well-known international event, especially in the book trade, and most importantly it offered considerable opportunities to a publisher whose financial prospects were becoming increasingly worrying (the family firm had recently lost its biggest backer, Ulrich Fugger). The collected offering also, however, celebrates a personal connection with two of Henri’s particular friends, the doctor, Johannes Post, and the poet, Paul Schad, who had founded a society for the promotion of moderate habits of drinking. The whole thing begins with a formal dedication to the city fathers of Frankfurt, and this is followed by a shopping-list of the contents of the book. The first item is a long, florid and flattering ‘Encomium’ of the Fair aimed at the organizers and the city notables with the clear aim of soliciting their financial support (in fact, they gave him a present but not the cash he hoped for). The editors omit a strained allegorical account of horse-trading and pass on to a rather charming hymn of hexameter praise for one of the Rhine wine-villages, Bacharach, an attractive way-station on the route to Frankfurt (if only Homer and Vergil had visited Bacharach, Achilles would have had a different character and Aeneas would have been much bolder!).

There is then a slightly sluggish account in verse of a dinner-party given by Henri’s friend, Johannes Post, which praises the food and the cooking but loudly laments the mini-wine-cups which promoted the doctor’s passion for moderation in alcohol consumption. However, as a makeweight, this is followed by three of the forty-three epigrams which illustrate the theme of sobriety. There follows a pot-pourri of Greek and Latin excerpts, both poetry and prose, on the same theme, and a final short letter to the poet, Paul Schad, sums up the whole enterprise (and rather sophistically excuses the inclusion of the joys to be found in Bacharach).

The third long essay, ‘On combining the Muses with Mars: the example of Xenophon’, is an accompaniment to Henri’s publication in 1561 of the complete works of Xenophon with the Greek text followed by Latin translations made by various other hands. The theme is well-worn—the advantage to a military leader of the study of literature and philosophy—and the case is argued with a dazzling display of references from ancient literature to ‘prove’ the value of the Muses to the general, Xenophon himself being of course the central example. The weakness of brute force alone is hammered home, even if some of the argument is pressed to perhaps tongue-in-cheek conclusions (does working in a cold library really prepare you for freezing military campaigns?). All the same the ageing general who has had a book in his knapsack can console himself with a strong, taut mind like a bowstring … like Xenophon.

Two of the shorter pieces—the ‘Letter about his Printing House’ and ‘Printing’s Complaint’—take us into the real business of publishing and are all the more intriguing for being so much closer to the shop floor. The first has two main subjects: first, an assurance to the reader (along with an ambitious forward list) that all was still commercially well with the publishing house. This was very necessary for it was becoming common knowledge that Ulrich Fugger was no longer supporting the firm. There then follows, after a heartfelt plea for help, a detailed description of the great project which Henri had taken over from his father, Robert—the Thesaurus linguae Graecae which finally appeared in five volumes in 1572 and which, by virtue of its complexity and relatively limited market, was responsible for not a few of the Estienne financial problems. At the end of the piece there is a return to a constant theme which also takes up most of the little essay, ‘Printing’s Complaint’ as well as the introductory ‘To the Reader’—the need for a publisher to have the academic background and the interest to keep a close personal watch on the quality and progress of his books (major publishers of today—please note).

Of the other essays, ‘On Latin’, wrongly regarded as suspect, is a contribution to the debate about how contemporary Latin should be written and whether strictly ‘Ciceronian’ Latin should be the touchstone. Henri takes a prudent middle way between slavish Ciceronianism and ‘barbarism’ i.e. free composition. ‘To the Plato-loving reader’ is part of the introduction to the three-volume Plato published in 1578 which testifies to difficulties arising when one joint editor does not get on with his colleague (in this case Jean de Serres who did the Latin translation). ‘The Letter to his Son’, Paul Estienne, is a nice fatherly accompaniment to the gift of a text of Aulus Gellius and, in addition to a warning about Paul’s expanding waistline, it contains a fond tribute to his mother and an interesting snapshot of the Estienne household which included ten of the correctores employed by the publishing house whose different backgrounds meant that Latin had become the everyday lingua franca.

The vivid portrait which emerges from these selections is a remarkable tribute to the fruitful collaboration and sheer hard labour of the three editor/translators of this book. Henri himself had the highest standards, a Google-like memory for a huge range of literature, a talent for slipping effortlessly into versification, a very sharp judgement, and a quite incredible capacity for hard work. It is therefore the highest praise to say that he would have been delighted with the present work. The book is beautifully designed and a pleasure to read, the translations are accurate and elegant, and the supporting information, including a very helpful and concise introduction, is well-researched and clearly presented.

Hats off all round! And it has a very reasonable price too. May the series flourish.

John Muir

King’s College London