Isaac Disraeli (1766-1848)
My edition is the sixth, published in 1824, in three volumes. This is a collection of anecdotes, obscure historical events, little known authors, and even littler known books. The Disraeli family left Italy around 1750 and settled in the Netherlands. Isaac emigrated to England toward the end of the century. He had a well-founded reputation as a scholar, linguist, and pursuer of minutia; he lived simply, and was kind to his wife and children. These short essays were published in small literary magazines and periodicals. Here are some of the more interesting subjects and factoids i found:
Before 1440, all books were in manuscript. Richard de Bury bought 40 books from the monastery at St. Albans for 50 pounds of silver. He wrote Philobiblion in 1340; it’s a description of his library and included information on preserving and accumulating books. At the time, the state library of France consisted of 20 volumes. There were more books available by the middle of the next century. The Duke of Bedford purchased 900 of them from Charles V of France at that time.
Literary criticism was , initially, pursued with emphases on revenge and conspiracy as authors fought to maintain a toe-hold in the early publishing environment. Sarasin’s Sello’s essays in the Hebdomadary Flame were replete with “acidity and salts”. Bayle was a bit more discrete; he wrote 36 volumes of criticism in the period leading up to 1678. Le Clerc was the author of 82 volumes, and Beausobre and L’Enfant translated 50 books of German criticism. The first British Journal devoted to review and criticism was the “Monthly Review” which appeared in 1749.
Manuscripts were valuable at the time and hunters of them rummaged through the garbage cans of Europe for them. Poggio found a copy of Aretino on Quintillian in the trash can behind a monastery. One of Petrarch’s favorite books was Cicero, “On Glory”. It was stolen, plagiarized, and destroyed by a visiting monk. Another copy has never been located.
Robert Cotton, an early enthusiast, was visiting his tailor one day and noticed him using a piece of parchment for patterns. It was one of the few remaining original transcripts of the Magna Carta.
Isaac noted that even early Classical authors could be rancorous: Homer apparently stole part of his work from Suidus and Syagrus. Plutarch intensely disliked Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle spent much of their time warring against each other as well as against other local scholiasts. Josephus was a tool of the Roman state, tuning his writing to support the persecution of Jews and Christians. Thomas Aquinas was regarded by some as one of the dimmer bulbs in the Christian world of the time. He said angels were made of thick air. A contemporary regarded his efforts as “cobwebs of sophistry”, full of “captious logic”.
Poets and writers were often seriously poor: Camoens walked and begged for ten thousand miles before expiring. Tasso had to borrow from friends to finish his “Jerusalem Delivered”, Corneille starved to death, Dryden sold 10,000 verses for 300 lbs., Purchas, author of a book of travels, was jailed for debt. An early inventor, Marquis of Worcester, was ignored by Charles II: he, according to Disraeli, invented the first steam engine (aside from Hero of Alexandria, that is). Simon Ockley, orientalist, was happy to be in prison. He said it was quiet and the food was better than that available outside. Boethius and Grotius agreed with him, both of them producing major works while incarcerated.
Some of the activities engaged in by writers and philosophers to relax were notable: Richelieu used parkour, jumping up walls and fences, Tycho Brache made laboratory instruments and ground lenses, Samuel Clarke leaped over tables, Buffon and Evelyn were avid gardeners. Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly was written as a sort of relief from his serious researches.
Vaucanson was an early genius, unrecognized in his time. As a child, having observed a clock pendulum. he intellectually analyzed its construction and built his own. Later he made many robots and simulacrums, like his flute-playing automaton. When Ariosto finished his Orlando Furioso, he submitted it to the local Cardinal who sent a note back: “Where the devil did you get all this stuff!”
The Countess of Pembroke told Chaucer she admired his silence more than his wit, but Addison was criticized for never saying much at all while in society.
Isaac included a long section on the Talmud, mostly recording his astonishment at some of the things it contained: data on efficient gardening, divorce reasonable if the lady of the house burned the soup, and quite a bit about the incredible scholasticism the “chop logic”, as regards the minutia of life. Some of Sancho Panza’s antics in “Quixote” are taken directly from the Talmud.
This is not a book to breeze through: it’s one of those, like the Encyclopedia Brittanica, that is more suitable for quiet, reflective investigation than for perusing on a weekend. or two. But it’s quite intriguing. It’s sort of like eating chocolate chip cookies: it’s hard to know when to stop. The writing style is fluid and readily intelligible. This edition has 500 pages in the first volume alone, every one of them crammed with fascinating detail as regards the little-known corners of history. I hope to get to the other two volumes fairly soon. Isaac wrote “Calamities of Authors” as well. They’re all available on Gutenberg.