Saving Your Textbooks: Cicero’s importance to scholars of all ages

By Jamie Cumby |

In 1578 a collection of Cicero’s letters was printed in Paris. As a new academic year begins, Preserving the World’s Rarest Books is highlighting a copy of this early modern educational book at Merton College Library in Oxford, one of our library partners (75.E.8(4)).  Gabriel Buon, printer of the edition, gave the collection the title Epistolae, ob perspicuitatem sententiarum, & rerum varietatem, in usum puerorum selectee atque in tres libros distinctae (USTC 170439).  Buon’s edition brings together a selection of letters to be read as examples of clear argumentation and Latin prose, aimed at schoolchildren.


Cicero's Letters Title Page
Title page of Buon’s Epistolae. Merton College, Oxford, 75.E.8(4). USTC 170439


Cicero became an important part of the curriculum thanks to humanist pedagogues, who used his writing, along with that of other classical authors, like Virgil and Terrence, to replace cumbersome Latin grammatical textbooks.  More advanced students would also read Cicero’s moral and philosophical works, but a basic education might stop at excerpts from the letters, like the ones compiled in this book.  The collection of letters was first assembled by Johannes Sturm, the Paris-educated Strasburg humanist who revolutionized Strasburg’s educational system.  Sturm organized the letters by their degree of difficulty, graduating from brief notes to much longer and more complicated pieces.  Buon’s 1578 edition is similar to other editions of Sturm’s collection, which had been printed in a number of European cities, especially in the Holy Roman Empire (i.e. USTC 674017).

Gabriel Buon first began actively printing in Paris in 1558, after he purchased the tools and device of another Paris printer, Catherine de La Porte, widow of Maurice de La Porte.  Aside from the works of Pierre de Ronsard, of whose poems and theological writings Buon published more than 100 editions, the output of his workshop came mainly from two genres: anti-protestant polemic and educational works.  Both types of books were very saleable.  Polemical pamphlets were popular and topical in a Paris fraught with religious conflict, and educational books enjoyed the steady market and frequent use provided by their captive demographic of students and schoolchildren.  Like the polemical pamphlets he printed, Buon’s educational editions were often short, small format books.  Buon was printing books that not only had a strong and active consumer base but were also relatively inexpensive to produce.  His edition of the Sturm Cicero letters is a relatively brief quarto of only 35 leaves or nine printed sheets.

This copy came to Merton College bound together with eleven other works on various theological, political, and educational topics, mostly in Latin and English.  The Cicero letters are the earliest of the printed works, with the latest being a pamphlet titled “The case of ministers maintenance by tithes” printed in London in 1653 (75.E.8(8)).

The collection had been put together by Griffin Higgs, who left his library to the college upon his death in 1659.  Higgs was a theologian and Dean of Lichfield and maintained an extensive book collection, which he acquired at numerous auctions and bookshops in the Netherlands and in England.  In addition to bequeathing his books, he also endowed the position of Librarian at the college, with a £10 annual stipend.  The funds came with a number of instructions, including a code of conduct that mandated, among other duties, that the librarian make new, alphabetical and subject catalogues of the entire library, and also that he prepare a print catalogue of the library’s manuscript collection.


Note of Higg's donation
Inscription noting Higg’s donation to Merton College Library. Merton College, Oxford, 75.E.8(4). USTC 170439


Higgs made frequent use of the works bound together in this volume, including the Cicero letters.  As is visible in the image below, he flagged several passages with underlining and his distinctive trefoil manuscript notes.


Higg's own marginalia
Higg’s manuscript notes. Merton College, Oxford, 75.E.8(4). USTC 170439


This rare surviving copy of an early modern educational edition can tell us something interesting about books intended for the humanist classroom. While most of this edition likely fell apart after rough handling by successive young pupils, Higgs’ copy has been carefully preserved.  Johannes Sturm’s goal in teaching Cicero to children and adolescents was to make their spoken and written Latin more elegant.  It seems that Sturm’s collection had long-term value to Higgs, even into the mid-seventeenth-century when he was at the height of his career.   It may well be that Higgs bought it when he was a student and kept referring back to it later in life, as the edition has not yet been linked to any of the annotated booksellers’ catalogues that contain information on Higgs’ later book purchases.   Apparently, humanist compendia for teaching rhetoric to schoolchildren were useful reference works even for highly educated men of letters.


Is your library one of our partners? Let us know if you would like to contribute to this blog. Please contact us by email at [email protected].

Are you a librarian interested in learning more about the rarity of your collection? Learn more about how to partner with Preserving the World’s Rarest Books.

Jamie Cumby is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews.  She is currently a Senior Editor on Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, and has been affiliated with the USTC project since beginning her PhD in 2014.  Her ongoing work explores the development of the publishing industry in Lyon before the Wars of Religion, with special attention to the Compagnie des libraires.  She is also St Andrews’ contributor to the Material Evidence in Incunabula database. You can follow her on Twitter at @JECumby.


Images courtesy of Merton College Library, Oxford.

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