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Josephus Scaliger: famous scholar and grouch

Josephus Justus Scaliger was one of the most famous scholars of his time and yet today his name is likely to be met with blank looks. His correspondence shows that this Leiden professor was also irritable to say the least. Kasper van Ommen will defend his PhD thesis on Scaliger’s legacy on 2 July. Find out more about Scaliger and Van Ommen’s thesis in this long read.

After its foundation in 1575, to help it get off to a good start Leiden University began recruiting leading academics, such as Justus Lipsius, a humanist from the Southern Netherlands who was appointed to the chair in history, and botanist and physician Carolus Clusius, who founded the Hortus botanicus. And the plan worked: students and fellow scholars flocked to Leiden to lap up the knowledge of these famous scholars. In 1593, Josephus Scaliger succeeded Lipsius when he returned to Leuven.

Portrait of Josephus Justus Scaliger (in red gown!) painted by Jan Cornelisz. Van ’t Woudt in 1609, the year of Scaliger’s death. The painting hangs in the Senate Chamber in the Academy Building.

Red gown

In 1592, the city and the University went to great lengths to extend a fitting welcome to the Frenchman Scaliger, who was to be appointed chair of Roman History and Antiquities. Anyone who was anyone was there. The journey and the welcome cost a staggering 1,423 guilders and two pennies, which was a fortune in those days. Even afterwards, Scaliger was lavished as a decus academiae, an ornament of the academy – although this was gradually cut back. Scaliger did not have to give lectures, and yet he still received a princely annual salary. The University initially paid for his accommodation, and he was the only professor who was allowed to wear a red gown. In doing so, Scaliger highlighted his ancestry from the noble Della Scala family in Verona. That ancestry, however, was a story invented by his father, Julius Caesar Scaliger, but Josephus had always believed it. The University commissioned the famous engraver Hendrick Goltzius to produce a portrait of Scaliger and his father, and sent it to various European courts and universities in a concerted marketing campaign.

Scaliger’s second edition of Manilius Astronomicon was printed in Leiden in 1600 by Raphelengius, son-in-law of the famous printer Plantijn. This copy includes a dedication from Scaliger to the French mathematician Henri de Monanteuil and an engraved portrait of Scaliger, which only appeared after his death and was later included in the book

Budding scholar

Josephus Justus Scaliger was born in 1540 in Agen, in southwest France. Encouraged by his father, who taught him Latin, he became a great lover of the classics from a young age. He also loved books and manuscripts, and went on to amass quite a collection. At the age of 19, after the death of his father, Scaliger left for Paris to study there. It was here that he learned Greek, among other things. He constantly sought opportunities to meet scholars who could teach him something, as well as like-minded contemporaries. 

Louis Chasteigner de la Roche-Posay played an important role in Scaliger’s life. Once the young Scaliger had finished his studies, Chasteigner employed him as a tutor for his son and treated him like a member of the family. He also took Scaliger with him on trips to Rome and England. Everywhere he went, the budding scholar established connections with other academics. In his own field, Scaliger focused on writing commentaries on classical works. His first publication was on the ancient poet Varro’s (116-27 BC) use of the Latin language. Scaliger had an excellent command of Greek and Latin. He greatly improved his Greek by reading a Greek and a Latin version of Homer’s Iliad side by side. He later used this comparative method to learn Hebrew, Ethiopian, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Syriac and Arabic, among others, to such a level that he was able to converse in those languages with scholars from the respective regions. It is said that Scaliger was proficient in 13 languages.

The Scalier and the Della Scala coats of arms.

Academic work

In that period, France was ravaged by decades of religious wars. Scaliger converted to Calvinism in 1562, and was passing through Strasbourg 0n Bartholomew’s Night in 1572, when thousands of Calvinists were murdered in France. Frightened, he fled to Geneva, where he then spent some time as a professor of philosophy. It became apparent, however, that teaching wasn’t his thing; his academic work, on the other hand, really began to flourish. Editions of Ausonius, Festus, Varro, Tibullus and Propertius were quickly published featuring his commentaries, thus helping him to establish a name for himself. However, Scaliger returned to France as soon as he could so as to continue working for the Chasteigner de la Roche-Posay family. He roamed from castle to castle, continuously trying to flee the war. During this time, he also worked on his scholarly oeuvre and expanded his collection of books.

In the 16th century, Scaliger gained wide recognition as a philologist and historian. His scientific approach to chronology – a scientific discipline which attempts to place historical events in the correct order of time – was quite exceptional. One of his writings was the Emendatione temporum (‘Improvements to chronology’). A second, more extensive edition was published in Leiden in 1598, where Scaliger lived at the time. Around 1600, he was appointed to the great role for which he was destined and students and scholars from all over Europe flocked to him. Scaliger only gave lectures to students he had selected himself, including future great names such as the mathematician and physicist Willebrord Snellius and law scholar Hugo Grotius.

The Scaliger Medal
Leiden University’s Scaliger Medal was awarded for the very first time in 2017. The University introduced this new medal to honour individuals and organisations who make an exceptional contribution towards upholding the University’s values. The first medal was awarded to Kurt Deketelaere, professor of law at KU Leuven and the (first) Secretary-General of the League of European Research Universities (LERU). He received the medal for ‘his exceptional contributions towards promoting the position of research universities in Europe and European cooperation in the field of education and research’. Building upon his doctoral thesis, Van Ommen wrote a book on Scaliger, for which he was also awarded the medal.

Image: the medal featuring the image of Scaliger was designed by Theo van de Vathorst.

‘Quatre chesnes, qui font une forest’

Scaliger originally lived on Schoolsteeg behind Pieterskerkgracht; Carolus Clusius, founder of the Hortus botanicus, was his neighbour. However, he was less than happy with his accommodation: he complained constantly and demanded a bigger house. The University offered him a house on Breestraat (the current no. 111-113, which now bears a commemorative plaque). This was spacious, with a basement and two floors. At the back of the house there was a large garden with oak trees. ‘J’ay trois ou quatre chesnes, qui font une forest’, boasted Scaliger about his garden.

One of the books from Scaliger’s collection: Levi Gersonides’ commentary on the Pentateuch, printed in Venice in 1547.

Scaliger was not especially positive about the people of Leiden, as evidenced by his complaints about the noise made by his neighbours: ‘Here, one may burden one’s neighbour without punishment. My neighbours shout loudly, and there is nothing I can do about it. On days of fasting they start drinking very early in the morning.’ And yet, he was happy in his beautiful house. However, in 1607 Scaliger was forced to move. The influx of large numbers of Calvinistic refugees from the Southern Netherlands had put great pressure on the housing market, and the owner wanted to sell the house. Scaliger described the city with all its newcomers as a ‘pandemonium and bedlam’, and ‘one crowded pub’. And although Scaliger himself was well versed in religious wars, he hated the Flemish and Walloon immigrants. ‘Foreign thugs from Belgium’; that’s what the city had to put up with.

Scaliger moved to another house which he described as a gurgustiolum, a hut. And that hut turned out to be as leaky as a sieve. Nevertheless, Scaliger had to make do until his death, two years later.


When Scaliger died in Leiden on 21 January 1609, after a professorship of 16 years, he left behind a considerable and valuable library comprising roughly 2,250 books. His friends were allowed to choose which books they wanted, and some were auctioned off to provide his servant with a decent retirement. He donated the remaining works, books and manuscripts from Asia and the Middle East, to the University: they formed the basis on which Leiden was able to develop into a centre for Middle Eastern studies. The books were carefully stored in a special cupboard (see the image at the bottom of this page), but later became scattered throughout the library.


Scaliger was buried in Vrouwekerk on Vrouwenkerkkoorsteeg, all of which remains are a few ruins (opposite the 't Praethuys café). Some 200 years later, in 1819, his remains and the memorial plaques, together with those of Carolus Clusius, who also died in 1609, were transferred to Pieterskerk.

Scaliger was a scholar pur sang who had little interest in anything but science. Or nice houses.

About the research
For his doctoral thesis, Kasper van Ommen read correspondence from and to Scaliger. The historical catalogues of Leiden University Libraries (UB, 1612, 1623 et seq.) were also important sources; here, Scaliger’s legacy is described in different ways, with each description recording a different number of books. Van Ommen also used the library’s archive. His thesis focuses in particular on Scaliger’s books from Asia and the Middle East and on his network that helped him to acquire books from all over Europe.

Van Ommen: ‘For my thesis I investigated exactly how many books from Asia and the Middle East Scaliger bequeathed to the University, which books they were and how he acquired them. It was already well-known that the scholar was quite grumpy, but he could also become rather impatient if his academic friends did not deliver the requested books quickly enough.’

Competition from the Bodleian Library in Oxford
In 2013, Van Ommen spent a month in Oxford on a Humfrey Wanley Fellowship. ‘I compared Thomas Bodley’s Asian and Middle Eastern collection with that of his contemporary Scaliger. That research was also intended to provide a definitive answer to the claim that Leiden University, with Scaliger’s legacy, had the largest and most significant collection of books from Asia and the Middle East in Europe.’ It turned out that there were a few objections to that claim. Van Ommen: Bodley collected almost as many books from Asia and the Middle East, but with a particular focus on theology. Scaliger’s legacy was much more diverse in terms of subjects and depth. Bodley was familiar with the Dutch Republic; he was an ambassador to The Hague. I think that he modelled the Bodleian Library, which is named after him, on the Leiden University Library.’

From external PhD candidate to curator
Van Ommen worked on his doctoral thesis for ten years as an external PhD candidate, in addition to his full-time job as coordinator of the Scaliger Institute of the Leiden University Library (UB). ‘In 2008 I came across a number of prints from Asia and the Middle East annotated by Scaliger in the closed stacks,’ says Van Ommen. ‘In 2009, to mark the 400th anniversary of Scaliger’s death, I decided to organise an exhibition to draw attention to these books. Arnoud Vrolijk helped me. My idea to do further research eventually resulted in the thesis. Scaliger is interesting because of his drive to open himself up to new insights, to continue to develop and his will to keep learning new languages, such as Arabic. He also continued to call himself a student, a wonderful quality for a scholar.’ Since 1 June 2020, Van Ommen has also been curator of old prints and special editions at the University Library.

The University Library in 1610, with the Arca Scaligeri in the foreground on the right, by Willem van Swanenburg after drawings by Johannes Cornelisz. Woudanus in Stedeboeck der Nederlanden (1649). Even after Scaliger’s death, his legacy attracted a considerable amount of academic interest. Some scholars travelled to Leiden especially to see it. An arca is actually a chest (for valuables), but here it is understood to mean ‘cupboard’.

Tous mes livres de langues estrangeres
PhD defence by Kasper van Ommen
Thursday 2 July 2020, 16:15

Images: Leiden University Libraries

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