Treasures of the Library : Titi Lucretii Cari De rerum natura libri sex : cover

'Lucretius'

Treasures of the Library

This copy of Lucretius' poem De rerum natura (On the nature of things), edited by Denis Lambin and printed in Paris in 1563, belonged to the French writer Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and is covered with his notes and annotations. Discovered as recently as 1989, it came to Cambridge University Library in 2008 as part of the library of the Montaigne scholar and financier Gilbert de Botton (1935-2000), a remarkable collection of books connected with Montaigne, his life and times, and his library, including ten of Montaigne's personal copies.

The influence of Lucretius on Montaigne had long been recognised. Montaigne quotes him extensively in his Essais, particularly in the chapters 'To philosophise is to learn how to die' and 'An apology for Raymond Sebond'. But, like so many of the thousand volumes that Montaigne tells us were in his library, his copy was not known to survive. It was only in December 1989 that it finally came to light - an important discovery, revealing a text heavy with Montaigne's annotations and the date when he finished reading it, 16 October 1564, at the age of thirty-one. It allows us a remarkable insight into the way that Montaigne read and understood Lucretius.

This copy was identified as Montaigne's by the librarian of Eton College, Paul Quarrie (who had purchased the book from the antiquarian booksellers Hesketh and Ward) and Professor M.A. Screech. Montaigne's signature on the title-page has been more or less obliterated by that of a subsequent owner, 'Despagnet', who also owned at least three other books of Montaigne's. This was most likely Jean Despagnet, a counsellor in the Bordeaux Parlement and its president from 1600 to 1611.

Montaigne's notes take the form of marginal comments (mostly in French), marked passages and extensive Latin annotations on the eight flyleaves, keyed to pages in the text. His close reading can be illustrated by his annotations on p. 251. He has marked lines 12 to 16 of the text with a pen-stroke and comments on them in a revealingly personal gloss on one of the flyleaves that helped identify the book as Montaigne's: 'Vt sunt diuersi atomorum motus non incredibile est sic conuenisse olim atomos aut conuenturas ut alius nascatur montanus' ('Since the movements of the atoms are varied, it is not unbelievable that atoms once came together - or will come together again in the future - so that another Montaigne be born').1

A full transcription and study of Montaigne's notes was published in 1998 by Professor Screech. Montaigne's copy of Lucretius is also available as part of the 'Montaigne à l'œuvre' (MONLOE) strand of the online resource Les Bibliothèques Virtuelles Humanistes.

1. Transcription and translation from M. A. Screech, Montaigne's annotated copy of Lucretius: a transcription and study of the manuscript, notes and pen-marks (Genève, 1998), p. 134.

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