Vossius, Isaac (DNB00)

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VOSSIUS, ISAAC (1618–1689), canon of Windsor, and scholar, born at Leyden in 1618, was the seventh child of Gerard John Vos (1577–1649), the famous Dutch scholar, by his second wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Francis du Jon (Junius). The family name was usually latinised into Vossius. Gerard Vos was invited over to England about the same time as Meric Casaubon [q. v.], and, like him, was presented by Laud to a canonry in Canterbury Cathedral (1629) in recognition, it is supposed, of the value of his ‘Historia Pelagiana.’ He got permission from Charles I to return to the Low Countries, and in 1633 he was appointed to the chair of history in the newly founded university of Amsterdam. He was on intimate terms with the celebrated English classical editor Thomas Farnaby [q. v.], and Farnaby's ‘Latin Grammar’ is based to a certain extent upon that which Vossius wrote for the Elzevir press in 1629. Among his English correspondents, besides Farnaby, were Brian Duppa, Dudley Carleton, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the Duke of Buckingham, the prelates Laud, Ussher, and Sterne, and Christopher Wren (see Vossii et Clarorum Virorum Epistolæ, London, 1690, fol.). All the sons of Gerard Vos were precocious scholars.

Isaac was educated partly by his father, an oracle of classical learning, and partly by a private tutor whom he shared with his younger brother Gerard (Gerardi Vossii Epistolæ, 1690, p. 140). He early displayed quickness of apprehension and a wonderful memory, and decided to consecrate the whole of his life to letters. When twenty-one he published an edition of the ‘Periplus’ of Scylax (Amsterdam, 1639, 4to), with a Latin translation and notes. To the fragment attributed to Scylax was appended an anonymous ‘Periplus Ponti Euxini e Bibliotheca C. Salmasii,’ showing that the young scholar had already attracted the notice of the great Salmasius (Saumaise). When, however, in 1632 Salmasius was chosen to occupy the chair at Leyden that Scaliger had vacated as long ago as 1609, a coolness sprang up between him and the Vos family. The geographical notes and fragments by Vossius were afterwards collected in the ‘Geographia Antiqua’ (1697, 4to) of Gronovius. In 1640 some notes by Isaac Vossius enriched the Elzevir edition of the ‘Justini historiarum ex Trogo Pompeio Libri xliv.’ (Leyden, 12mo, frequently reprinted). Two years later from his letters to Nicolas Heinsius, it appears that he made a journey to Rome, where he complains of the obstacles put in the way of the student, and the difficulty of obtaining entrance to the libraries. He found the means nevertheless, as he was on his way back from Italy, to prepare an edition of seven (henceforth known as ‘The Vossian’) ‘Epistles of Saint Ignatius,’ based upon a precious manuscript preserved in the Medicean Library at Florence (Amsterdam, 1646, 8vo; London, 1680). This contained, together with the Greek text of seven (out of the twelve) epistles in a briefer form than that previously promulgated, a Latin translation attributed to Robert of Lincoln, and some notes which were reproduced in ‘Patres Apostolici’ (Amsterdam, 1724, fol.); the publication served to confirm Ussher's view that certain of the twelve epistles were authentic, although disguised by interpolations. Upon his return he is said to have visited the libraries of France, and even to have crossed over into England in his quest of manuscripts. In 1648 he was invited by Queen Christina to come and throw the lustre of his erudition upon Stockholm, while early in the following year he was offered the reversion of his father's professorship at Amsterdam. The university went so far as to promise an increased stipend. Vossius parried both of these offers at first, but before the end of 1649 he went to Stockholm, whence for the next three years his letters to Heinsius are dated. He taught Christina Greek, and undertook to collect a royal library worthy of her capital, a task for which his bibliographical and linguistic gifts admirably fitted him. He sold to the queen his own, or rather his father's, library in 1650 for twenty thousand florins, reserving to himself the superintendence, and receiving five thousand florins a year besides board and lodging. In 1653 four large rooms would not hold the library (Bain, Christina, pp. 168 seq.). Meanwhile Saumaise had come to Stockholm, and acquired a predominant influence over Christina. Frequent mention is made both of him and his ‘Xanthippe’ in the letters to Heinsius. Relations soon became strained between the two savants. Vossius was imprudent enough to lend money to a spendthrift son of his rival, and Saumaise refused to recognise the debt. The queen listened to Saumaise's version of affairs, and when Vossius returned to Sweden (bringing with him Samuel Bochart and Pierre Daniel Huet) in 1652, he was denied an audience, and ordered to apologise to Saumaise. He promptly withdrew from Sweden. In spite of the disgrace which she had thus inflicted upon him, Christina did not cease to correspond with her former tutor. Vossius on his side continued to speak of the queen with respect, and when they met in Holland it was upon friendly terms. These facts seem to negative the imputation that he carried off ‘rich but scandalous spoils’ from the royal library, though it may have been that in buying books for the queen he was not backward in charging commission (the imputation is made by Catteau-Calleville in his ‘Histoire de Christine,’ 1815, i. 330, but no document is cited in its support). Vossius was no less forbearing in regard to Saumaise. He made no formal attack upon him during his lifetime, and it was only in 1658, in some notes to an edition of ‘Pomponius Mela’ (The Hague, 4to; in French, 1701), that he pointed out some grave geographical errors in the French scholar's ‘Exercitationes Plinianæ in Solinum.’

Instigated no doubt by the reputation gained among scholars by the work of Ussher, Vossius began about this time to give his attention to chronology. Adopting as his basis the Septuagint scheme of chronology, he published in 1659 ‘Dissertatio de vera ætate mundi, qua ostenditur natale mundi tempus annis minimum 1440 vulgarem æram anticipare’ (The Hague, 4to). A defence of the original Hebrew text and computation was at once undertaken by George Horn, whose treatise elicited ‘I. Vossii Castigationes ad scriptum G. Hornii’ (The Hague, 4to). Other tracts on the same subject followed, and the views of Vossius were further contested by Bircherod in his ‘Lumen Historiæ Sacræ Veteris’ (1687, fol.), and by John Milner (1628–1702) [q. v.] in his ‘Defence of Ussher against Cary and Vossius.’

He was evidently pleased by the controversial issue, for he returned to the subject in his ‘De Septuaginta Interpretibus eorum que Translatione et Chronologia Dissertationes’ (1661, 4to, appendix, 1663; new edition, London, 1665). Hulsius proceeded to vindicate the Hebrew text in his ‘Authentia S. textus Hebræi,’ while Schook (followed in 1663 by Schotanus, and much later by Patrick Cockburn [q. v.]) attacked his theory of a local and partial deluge in ‘Diatriba qua probatur Noachi diluvium toti terrarum orbi incubuisse’ (1662, 12mo). Vossius next displayed his versatility in directing against the predominant Cartesianism his ingenious ‘De Lucis natura et proprietate,’ Amsterdam, 1662, 4to (‘apud Ludovicum et Danielem Elsevirios,’ Willems, p. 329), which he defended against the attacks of Johannes de Bruyn and others in a ‘Responsum’ (1663), at the same time rounding off his theory with a ‘De motu marium et ventorum liber’ (The Hague, 1663, 4to), which was translated into English by A. Lovel in 1677. He seems to have held that light and heat are merely accidents; he attributes the tides to the influence of the sun, and describes a ‘baroscope’ by means of which navigators might with certainty foretell the approach of storms. Of more interest was his ‘De Nili et aliorum fluminum origine’ (The Hague, 1666, 4to), in which he attributes the flooding of the river to the heavy rainfall of Ethiopia. In 1666 and 1669 he saw through the press the amusing collection of table-talk called ‘Scaligerana,’ and the similar collection entitled ‘Perroniana, sive excerpta ex ore Cardinalis Perronii,’ and in the latter year he edited Pliny's ‘Natural History’ ‘cum commentariis et adnotationibus.’ In the early sixties Vossius seems to have visited Geneva, and spent a good deal of time at Paris, where he became intimate with Paul Colomiès [q. v.] Colomiès subsequently came over to England upon his invitation, probably in 1681.

In 1663 Vossius received through Colbert, together with a most flattering letter in allusion to his father's and his own services to the cause of learning, a handsome ‘gratification’ from the French king. His case was very similar to that of Casaubon, and the bait was as tempting. He solved the religious problem in the same way by embracing Anglicanism; not, however, like Casaubon, because it expressed his belief, but rather because it seemed to him more congenial to his philosophic doubt. Charles II is said to have welcomed him on his arrival in England in 1670, but his real sponsor seems to have been John Pearson, the profoundly learned master of Trinity (and afterwards bishop of Chester). Their common interest was the vindication of the authenticity of the ‘Eusebian’ epistles of Ignatius, in opposition to the views of Daillé, Saumaise, and Blondel, and when Pearson's ‘Vindiciæ’ appeared at Cambridge in 1672, 4to, ‘Isaaci Vossii Epistolæ Duæ’ formed an appendix, together with his ‘Responsio ad Blondellum’ (cf. Vindiciæ, Oxford, 1852, ii. 489, 620 seq.) What is perhaps the most original of the works of Vossius appeared anonymously at Oxford in 1673, under the title ‘De Poematum cantu et viribus rythmi,’ dedicated to Lord Arlington. The author retraces the ancient alliance between poetry and music, and insists upon a strict adherence to the rules of prosody as opposed to the intuitive method. He dwells much, too, upon the beauty of rhythmical movement (some criticisms upon this work by Roger North are in Addit. MS. 32531, f. 53).

Vossius had been created D.C.L. at Oxford on 16 Sept. 1670, and he was now presented by Charles II to a vacant prebend in the royal chapel of Windsor (he was installed on 12 May 1673, in place of Thomas Viner; see Pote, History of Windsor, p. 413). He was now frequently to be seen about the court. Evelyn met him at the lord chamberlain's at supper with the bishop of Rochester, at the houses of other prelates, and at Monmouth House. But his favourite resort was the house of the Duchesse de Mazarin, where he constantly met Saint-Évremond. They observed of him that he knew all the languages of Europe, but did not speak one well, and that he was intimately acquainted with the manners and the personages of all ages but his own. His style was generally held to be too disputatious, and his epithets too erudite for the drawing-room. He shocked some of his colleagues by remarking of one of their number about whom inquiries were being made, ‘Est sacrificulus in pago et rusticos decipit.’ Other anecdotes of a like tendency (such as that he used habitually to read Ovid during service), even if we cannot accept them literally, seem to indicate that he was very near to being a complete sceptic. Yet he was by no means free from credulity, and Charles II remarked of him that he would believe anything if only it were not in the Bible. The remark was perhaps suggested by his next book of any importance, ‘I. Vossii de Sibyllinis aliisque quæ Christi natalem præcessere Oraculis’ (‘e Theatro Sheldoniano,’ Oxford, 1679, 8vo; Leyden, 1680, 12mo), the main contention of which was fairly refuted by Reiskius, ‘Exercitationes,’ 1688, and later by Fontenelle. A short passage of arms followed upon the old battleground of the Septuagint, but before his adversary, Richard Simon, had time to reply (see R. Simonis Critica Opuscula adversus L. Vossium, 1685), the versatile Vossius was engaged upon an edition of Catullus (London, 1684, 4to), with a commentary rich in erudition, though disfigured, as some held, by an excursus (which was practically a résumé of the suppressed work of Adrian Beverland), ‘De prostibulis veterum’ (see Bayle, Nouvelles de la Républ. des Lettres, June 1684). Next year appeared ‘Variarum Observationum liber’ (London, 1685, 4to), containing a dissertation of interest ‘De Triremium et Liburnicarum constructione,’ which Grævius inserted in the twelfth volume of his ‘Thesaurus Antiquitatum Romanorum’ (it is referred to with commendation in Smith of Jordanhill's ‘Dissertation’ on the ‘Navigation of the Ancients,’ ed. 1880, p. 223), a treatise ‘De Origine et progressu pulveris bellici,’ and another opuscule, ‘De antiquæ Romæ magnitudine’ (Thesaurus Antiq. Rom. vol. iv.). Throughout this work Vossius gave free rein to his capricious imagination and to his love of paradox. He passes an extravagant eulogy on the Chinese civilisation, and tries to prove that the population of Rome was fourteen millions, and that its area was twenty times greater than that of Paris and London combined. (He introduces some flattering remarks about Charles II and upon the country of his adoption, see pp. 65 seq.; but his alleged depreciation of the size of London elicited several replies, notably London bigger than Old Rome demonstrated … against Vossius, by De Souligné, London, 1701 and 1710). Evelyn, who was delighted with their ingenuity, mentions several other opuscules, notably one ‘Περὶ ταχυπλοία,’ on the subject of tacking in navigation, which was never published; he was also greatly diverted by a note of Vossius upon a certain harmony which was produced in the east by the snapping of drivers' whips (Evelyn to Pepys, 23 Sept. 1685).

Among the labours of his last years were some annotations upon the works of his father, particularly the ‘Etymologicon,’ and an edition of the ‘Satires’ of Juvenal (London, 1685, 4to, and 1695). Some corrections by him were included in the 1695 edition of Anacreon, ‘variæ lectiones ex notulis I. Vossii,’ appeared in the Lucretius of 1725, and some notes by him were embodied in the edition of Hesychius of Alexandria, published at Leyden in 1746, fol. He also made some notes on Arrian, which were included in the large edition of 1842. His objections to the accented pronunciation of Greek were answered by W. Primatt in his ‘Accentus Redivivi’ (1764).

Vossius fell ill during the winter of 1688–1689. According to the story told by Des Maizeaux and Nicéron, he obstinately refused to conform to the usages of religion and receive the sacrament until two of his fellow canons urged that if not for the good of his soul, he must needs comply for the honour of the chapter. He died at Windsor on 21 Feb. 1688–9. A warrant was issued from Whitehall on 20 May for the grant of his prebend to John Maynard (State Papers, Dom. 1689–90, p. 111; see under Maynard, John, (1600–1665)).

According to Wood, Vossius had accumulated the finest private library in the whole world. It included 762 manuscripts which his enemies described as ‘spoils.’ A catalogue of these was drawn up by Colomiès, and is now in the Bodleian (Cod. Tanneri, 271; cf. Brit. Mus. Eg. MS. 2260, f. 142); 3,000l. was offered by the university of Oxford for the library in September 1710, but on 10 Oct. it was sold to Leyden for thirty-six thousand florins (Reliq. Hearn. i. 207). Evelyn bitterly deplored the loss to the country. ‘Where are our rich men? he asked. Will the Nepotismo never be satisfied?’ (Diary, iii. 306, 308). A large number of the original letters of Vossius are preserved in the Bodleian, and form nine quarto volumes. Others included in the d'Orville collection were purchased by the Bodleian in 1805. The same library has the ‘Codex Vossianus,’ a Latin psalter of the tenth century, in Anglo-Saxon characters (see Westwood, Palæographia Sacra, and Facsimiles, 1868, p. 100, and Plate xxxiv). The British Museum has a Greek Testament (1620, fol.), with manuscript notes and readings by Vossius. Most of his books were included in the ‘Index librorum prohibitorum,’ some of them, it is said, against the advice of Mabillon, the usual referee in such matters between 1680 and 1705 (see Reusch, Der Index der verbotenen Bücher, 1885, ii. 115, 152). Vossius's correspondence with Heinsius comprises the third volume of the ‘Sylloges Epistolarum’ of Burmannus (1727), and other letters to the same correspondent are in Addit. MS. 5158.

[Le Neve's Fasti Eccl. Angl. i. 404; Wood's Fasti Oxon. ed. Bliss, ii. 323; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1500–1714; Gent. Mag. 1796, ii. 717; Nicéron's Mémoires, vols. vii. viii. and xiii. 89–148; Bayle's Dict. Hist. et Critique, 1720; Moreri, 1759, x. 705; Eachard's Hist. of Engl. 1718, iii. 943; Foppens's Bibliotheca Belgica, Brussels, 1739; Morhof's Polyhistor; Des Maizeaux's Vie de Saint-Évremond, 1726; Baillet's Jugement des Savans, 1725, ii. 261, v. 103; Hearne's Collectanea, ed. Doble, iii. 263, 264; Evelyn's Diary, 1852, ii. 81, 103, 106, 383, iii. 190, 278; Colomesiana, Amsterdam, 1740; Elmes's Wren and his Times, 1852; Pattison's Isaac Casaubon, 2nd edit. 1892, passim; Macray's Annals of the Bodleian; Penny Encyclopædia; Journal de Trévoux, January 1715; Chambers's Book of Days, i. 241; Aa's Biographisch Woordenboek der Nederlander, xix. 416 (with authorities there given), and the valuable notice contributed to the forty-ninth volume of the Biographie Universelle (1827) by the distinguished scholar, Pierre Claude François Daunou.]

T. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.271
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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