Rare texts and images from early modern France

Pierre-Daniel Huet in New York

This year should not go by without a brief salute to Pierre-Daniel Huet (1630-1721), the Norman polymath who was one of the most brilliant and renowned intellectuals during the reign of Louis XIV. Regrettably, the tercentenary of his passing was not included on the calendar of France Mémoire: the only deaths of 1721 declared worthy of national commemoration were those of the painter Antoine Watteau and the bandit Cartouche. A decidedly less popular figure, the academician and churchman Huet was one of the last survivors from a golden age of humanist erudition whose gradual “decadence” he openly deplored. In the final chapter of his long life, he worked to consolidate his legacy, publishing his autobiography (written in Latin) and entrusting the Jesuits with his library of some 8,000 books (many filled with his personal annotations).1

Perhaps the richest but also unwieldiest part of this legacy is Huet’s correspondence. Conscious of its potential interest for posterity, Huet carefully preserved thousands of letters sent to him by his many distinguished friends and interlocutors (princes, bishops, savants, poets…). In addition, convinced as he was of his own value, he kept drafts or copies of at least some of the letters he wrote; in 1712 appeared two volumes of “dissertations” derived from them. The history of these papers over the past three centuries has certainly been messier than Huet would have liked. Today, major ensembles subsist in Florence, Paris, and Caen, but smaller subsets and individual pieces have survived in many other public and private collections. To further complicate things, some letters are known in multiple versions, while others appear to have been irretrievably “lost” or have never been recorded to begin with.

Last year this blog presented some overlooked letters addressed to Huet by Anne Le Fèvre (aka Madame Dacier), his collaborator on the series of classical editions ad usum Delphini. It is now time to highlight a small bundle of letters written by Huet himself which have ended up in a somewhat unexpected place: the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, housed since 1986 at the New York Public Library. This intriguing medley of “Pierre-Daniel Huet manuscript material” comprises six letters and one quittance ranging over a fifty-year period, from 1656 to 1706. Along with numerous other autographs, Pforzheimer acquired them in 1919 at the sale of the monumental collection of Alfred Morrison. The printed catalog of the sale explicitly identifies only two letters written to Huet (by the Dauphin and Madeleine de Scudéry), but none by him: perhaps they were included in one of the “parcels” of autographs by “Foreign Ecclesiastics” that were sold on Day Sixteen of this historic auction. Some of the items are accompanied by references to the French and English sales where Morrison had bought them, mostly in the 1870s and 1880s. The earlier provenance is, as usual, murky; two letters (those to Boulliau and Colbert) were probably stolen from the Bibliothèque royale in the first half of the nineteenth century, when the library’s manuscript collections were poorly guarded and the burgeoning autograph market created big incentives for thieves.2

The various ways in which the writer signed these letters reflect the progression of his social identity and ecclesiastical career: from the simple “Huet,” to the complicated “L’Abbé Huet N. Ev. de Sons” (i.e. named bishop of Soissons – the pope left this nomination in limbo), and finally “P. Daniel A. Ev. d’Avranches” (i.e. former bishop of Avranches – he resigned the position for health reasons). What is constant throughout, except in the one Latin letter, is Huet’s idiosyncratic use of a slash to mark the end of a sentence / Despite a certain penchant for abbreviations, his script is generally neat and mercifully legible.

The text of three of the six letters has been known from manuscript copies kept in European libraries. They include two missives to the poet and scholar Gilles Ménage, Huet’s close friend and lifelong correspondent: the first (dated Caen, July 8, 1660) discusses Ménage’s neo-Latin poetry and Huet’s research on Origen, while in the second (Aunay, August 1, 1687) Huet defends his comparison between Moses and Priapus and criticizes Ménage for turning down entry into the Académie Française. The third letter (Lutetia, XV. Cal. Mai. MDCLXXIX) is written in Latin to Christopher Sandius, a German theologian working in Amsterdam, who went on to prepare the Dutch edition of Huet’s Demonstratio evangelica and to argue with him over Spinoza.3

The remaining three letters (to Boulliau, Colbert, and Bellaise) are, as far as I can see, unique and as yet not documented outside the NYPL catalog record. Pending a proper analysis by Huet experts, here are a few notes and snippets in English followed by full transcriptions of the French text, as a small and tardy contribution to this undercelebrated tercentenary.

Written in Caen on October 19, 1656, Huet’s letter to the mathematician and astronomer Ismaël Boulliau is a reply to the latter’s October 1 missive (known through copies in Paris and Caen), which itself was a belated reply to a June 21 letter from Huet (not preserved anywhere, it seems). It illustrates the young scholar’s equal zeal for humanist philology (copying and collating manuscripts) and empirical science (observing comets and eclipses), and expounds his interest in the Hellenistic astrologer Vettius Valens, also mentioned decades later in Huet’s autobiography. He inquires about Boulliau’s forthcoming publications and makes a confession:

It is true that I have had all my life an incredible passion for Astronomy, but I have almost always been busy with other studies, and I have not been able to acquire all the knowledge of it that I would have desired. If I ever have some time at my disposal, I will apply myself to it for good. Then I will beg you Monsieur to serve as my guide and to teach me.

The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle,
New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations

The letter ends with greetings to Jacques Dupuy (who would die four weeks later) and some banter about Christina of Sweden, at whose court Huet had stayed in 1652 and who was now touring France.4

Huet’s letter to Colbert, too, relates to a passage in his autobiography and reveals what the published narrative obscures. In the 1718 book, Huet explains at length how in 1656 his studious leisure was disrupted by the insolent actions of “farmers of the revenue” who tried to make a bounty from challenging his nobility. Having strenuously rebutted their first charge, “some years afterwards” he faced “the same molestation a second and a third time […] but the power of truth before equitable judges finally liberated me from this teazing persecution”.5 The letter to Colbert shows that in August 1664 Huet felt the urgent need to appeal personally to the minister in this affair and to capitalize on his newly gained favor with the king (who had awarded him a first gratification the previous summer). His peroration eloquently conveys the climate of the early years of the reign of Louis XIV, and points already to Huet’s future role as assistant tutor to the Dauphin:

I beseech you Monseigneur […] not to allow that under a government that promises nothing but peace and happiness to the entire public, someone disturb the tranquility of those who apply themselves to the study of virtue, and who have put themselves under your protection. I have the glory of being of this number […]

The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle,
New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations

Legal vexations again plagued the last phase of Huet’s life, when as Abbot of Fontenay (near Caen) he was embroiled in multiple lawsuits and conflicts. His 1706 message to Julien Bellaise, a Benedictine monk and antiquarian, proves that old manuscripts – such as an 1157 judgment in favor of the Mont-Saint-Michel abbey – continued to occupy his attention, but now for practical rather than purely academic reasons.6 This sheet is perhaps precious less for its contents than for its materiality, including the autograph superscription, folds, and well-preserved wax seal bearing the (former) bishop’s coat of arms.

The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle,
New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations
The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle,
New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations
Huet’s supralibros and bookplate
Bibliothèque nationale de France / Gallica

For me, the “Pierre-Daniel Huet manuscript material” at NYPL demonstrates in a nutshell the scope and appeal of Huet’s correspondence and the need for a critical, annotated edition of it. To be sure, such a project could only be carried out by a team of scholars of encyclopedic competence and would represent a huge, truly Benedictine labor. In the meantime, establishing a precise and comprehensive inventory of the extant papers would already be a great start and provide a most welcome resource for seventeenth-century studies.

Volker Schröder

December 31, 2021

Pierre-Daniel Huet to Ismaël Boulliau (NYPL Pforz Ms MISC 0519)

A Caen le 19 Oct. 1656.


Vostre lettre m’a donné la plus grande joye du monde, je ne pouvois deviner la cause de vostre silence, & pour vous dire le vray il me tenoit beaucoup en peine / Vous m’en avez tiré en m’assurant que ce n’a point esté aucun deffaut d’amitié mais seulement l’embarras de vos affaires qui vous a empesché de me faire l’honneur de me respondre / Cette precaution que j’ay prise avec vous Monsieur en vous demandant si vous ne serez point importuné de mes lettres & de mes prieres, & de laquelle vous vous plaignez si obligeamment m’a semblé necessaire, parce que ayant les occupations que vous avez, & travaillant utilement pour le public & pour la posterité comme vous faites, ie n’ay pas cru vous devoir oster la moindre partie d’un tems si precieux sans vous en demander la permission / Mais puisque vous avez la bonté de me la donner j’en useray avec liberté / Je vous supplie donc Monsieur de scavoir si M.r Coquié ou quelque autre voudroit me copier les Manuscrits d’Origene qui sont dans la Bibliotheque du Roy / Il y a long tems que i’avois esté contraint par de tres facheuses affaires d’en abandonner le soin, mais en estant sorti heureusement depuis quelques mois i’ay repris la continuation de mes estudes / J’ay parcouru depuis peu le Manuscrit que i’ay de Vettius Valens / Je le trouve imparfait en bien des endroits & je suis resolu d’escrire au premier jour a M.r Golius Professeur en l’Academie de Leyde pour le prier de m’envoyer les titres des chapitres du Manuscrit de cet auteur qui est dans la bibliotheque de l’Academie escrit de la main de Scaliger, & de suppleer les deffauts du mien / J’escrivis aussi il y a environ deux ans a M.r Selden pour luy faire la mesme priere, mais il mourut avant que de m’avoir respondu, & maintenant je ne scay ce qu’on a fait de son Manuscrit / Cet auteur est aussi ancien que Ptolemée car il paroist par quelques endroits de son livre qu’il a vescu sous l’Empereur Hadrien / Il y a une infinité de choses curieuses & rares dans cet ouvrage, & je m’estonne qu’il ne s’est trouvé personne qui l’ait mis au jour / Lucas Gauricus en avoit un exemplaire, & il est sans doute enseveli maintenant dans quelque bibliotheque d’Italie / Il en fist imprimer quelques Excerpta a Venise, & Joachimus Camerarius a Nuremberg, ie n’ay veu ny l’un ny l’autre, & s’ils se trouvoient chez les libraires de Paris, vous m’obligeriez bien de m’en donner avis & de m’en mander le prix / J’ay grande impatience de voir le traitté de Ptolemée Περὶ Κριτηρίου καὶ Ἡγεμονικοῡ [Peri kriteriou kai hegemonikou] ie ne doute pas qu’il ne soit beau, puisque vous l’avez jugé digne de vos soins / Je ne scay si l’on trouve presentement chez les libraires les autres ouvrages imprimez de Ptolemée je vous prie de me l’apprendre / Je les cherchay bien soigneusement au dernier voyage que ie fis a Paris sans les pouvoir rencontrer / J’ay grande envie aussi de voir vostre livre de lineis spiralibus / Il me semble que vous me distes il y a deux ans que vous estiez sur le point de faire imprimer quelques observations Astronomiques, & entre autres celles de l’Eclipse du 6e Aoust 1654, faites moy la grace de m’apprendre si vous avez executé ce dessein / Il est vrai que i’ay eu toute ma vie une passion incroyable pour l’Astronomie, mais i’ay presque toujours esté occupé en d’autres estudes, & je n’ay pas pu y acquerir toute la connoissance que i’aurois bien desiré / Si jamais j’ay quelque tems en ma disposition, je m’y appliqueray tout de bon / Ce sera alors Monsieur que ie vous supplieray de m’y servir de guide & de m’enseigner / J’ay acheté les instrumens de feu M.r Macé dont je vous ay parlé autrefois / Il y a entre autres un octant dont il fait mention dans son livre de la Comete de l’an 1618 / Il est entier, & est garni de pinnules & de son pied, & il ne luy manque qu’une personne qui s’en puisse bien servir, mais outre qu’il faut estre fort versé aux observations, ce qui est une estude particuliere, il faut avoir une profonde connoissance de l’Astronomie pour le pouvoir faire avec fruit, & je vous confesse que i’ay peu de l’un & point du tout de l’autre / mais je ne m’apperçois pas qu’il y a long tems que je vous entretiens & que je devrois vous avoir desia dit que je suis de tout mon cœur

Permettez moy d’assurer Monsieur du Puy de mon tres humble service / J’ay pris grand plaisir a lire ce que vous m’avez mandé de la Reyne Christine, mais mon plaisir eust esté encore plus grand si vous m’eussiez dit quelle fut cette response qu’elle fist a M.r de Guise, ou du moins si elle fut contre les vertus Theologales ou contre les Cardinales, car elle a une Theologie & une Morale assez particuliere / Tesmoin la priere qu’elle a faite au Roy de rapprocher Ninon aupres de sa personne, qui est a la verité une jolie demande pour une Neophyte /


Vostre tres humble & tres obeissant serviteur


Pierre-Daniel Huet to Jean-Baptiste Colbert (NYPL Pforz Ms MISC 0525)

[endorsed by Colbert’s secretary:] M Huet aoust 1664


Vous me fistes l’honneur dernierement de m’assurer de la protection du Roy, et de la vostre d’une maniere qui me la fait esperer dans une occasion qui se presente, & me donne la liberté de vous la demander tres humblement / Il y a huit ans Monseigneur que je fus inquieté dans la recherche des usurpateurs du titre de noblesse, qui se fist en cette Province / Aprés une vexation estrange que je souffris de la part du Traittant / aprés cinq Voyages que je fus contraint de faire de Caen a Rouen, & une grande despense a quoy ie fus obligé, j’obtins enfin un arrest contradictoire de descharge et de maintenue / Je croiois aprés cela ma qualité assurée pour l’avenir, & moy a couvert de toute sorte de troubles que j’eusse pu recevoir de cette part / Cependant Monseigneur je me vois replongé dans le mesme embarras d’ou je [viens?] de sortir, par l’assignation que l’on m’a donnée depuis deux jours pour m’obliger a une nouvelle preuve de noblesse, & a de nouvelles peines, & par ce moyen l’on me met absolument hors d’estat de pouvoir faire continuer l’impression d’un ouvrage que j’ay entrepris pour l’utilité publique, & dont l’achevement demande mes soins et ma presence sans aucune intermission / Je vous conjure Monseigneur de me donner des marques de vostre bonté en cette rencontre, & de me delivrer de cette persecution, soit en ordonnant a celuy qui me poursuit de consentir a ma descharge, soit en luy deffendant de me poursuivre davantage, & de ne souffrir pas que sous un gouvernement qui ne promet que paix & que bonheur a tout le public, on trouble le repos des personnes qui s’appliquent a l’estude de la vertu, & qui se sont mises sous vostre protection / J’ay [la] gloire d’estre de ce nombre, & de faire une profession particuliere d’estre tres respectueusement /


Vostre tres humble & tres obeissant serviteur

Huet /

Pierre-Daniel Huet to Julien Bellaise (NYPL Pforz Ms MISC 0522)


A Paris 29. 8.bre 1706 /

Le sejour que je fais a Paris ne me permettant pas, mon reverend Pere, de vous donner la copie que vous me demandez, donnez vous, s’il vous plaist la peine d’en ecrire a M.r le Prieur de Fontenay, qui est saisi d’une des clefs du Chartrier, comme mon neveu est saisi de l’autre / Ils se joindront sans doute volontiers pour vous satisfaire / Mais de ma part je vous demande aussi une copie de ce Jugement rendu en faveur du Mont St. Michel, l’an 1157 / Il pourra nous estre utile dans une affaire qui est pendante au Parlement de Rouën entre mon Abbaye de Fontenay, & un Voisin, qui a la faveur d’une petite terre qu’il a achetée, & qui luy a cousté 17000 , a osé s’attribuer tous les droits des Fondateurs /

Il est vray, mon reverend Pere, que la mortalité a esté grande a Fontenay / Il n’a pas tenu a moy que vos Peres n’y entrassent / & je serois encore prest d’y concourir / mais ils ont d’autres veuës, sur lesquelles ils pourront s’expliquer avec vous plus nettement qu’ils n’ont fait avec moy /

Je vous felicite de tout mon cœur du restablissement de vostre santé / Je vous la souhaitte longue & heureuse, pour l’utilité de l’Eglise / Si vous ecrivez a M.r le Prieur de Fontenay / Je vous supplie qu’il ne sache point que vous vous soyez addressé a moy / Je suis de tout mon cœur

Mon reverend Pere

Vostre très humble & très acquis serviteur

A Paris 29. 8.bre 1706 / + P. Daniel A. Ev. d’Avranches.

[address:] A mon reverend Pere

Le reverend Pere Dom Julien Bellaise, religieux a l’Abbaye de St Ouën /

A Rouën /


1. For a recent in-depth study of Huet’s manifold activities and relationships, see April G. Shelford, Transforming the Republic of Letters: Pierre-Daniel Huet and European Intellectual Life, 1650-1720, Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007.

2. See Ludovic Lalanne and Henri Bordier, Dictionnaire des pièces autographes volées aux bibliothèques publiques de la France, Paris: Panckoucke, 1851, especially p. 76 (Boulliau), 100-101 (Colbert), and 169 (Huet).

3. These two letters from Huet to Ménage are preserved in Paris in the form of an eighteenth-century copy which was meticulously corrected by a nineteenth-century bibliophile (Grangier de la Marinière) who was in possession of many of the originals. Excerpts from this copy are quoted in Lea Caminiti Pennarola’s edition of Gilles Ménage, Lettres inédites à Pierre-Daniel Huet (1659-1692), Napoli: Liguori, 1993. Another original letter from Huet to Ménage (dated September 28, 1684) can be found in the Ferdinand J. Dreer autograph collection housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. As for Huet’s letter to Sandius, Pablo Toribio lists two autograph drafts in Florence as well as two copies in Paris and Leiden, but not the original in New York (“Notas sobre la correspondencia manuscrita de Christoph Sand,” in Acta conventus neo-latini albasitensis, ed. Florian Schaffenrath et al., Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2020, p. 607).

4. For a summary of Huet’s epistolary exchanges with Boulliau, see Léon Tolmer, Pierre-Daniel Huet (1630-1721): humaniste-physicien, Bayeux: Colas, 1949, p. 194-197 and 208. An autograph letter from Huet to Boulliau (dated III. Eid. Januar. MDCLV), which used to be part of the Boulliau papers in Paris, is now preserved at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Simon Gratz autograph collection).

5. Memoirs of the Life of Peter Daniel Huet, translated and annotated by John Aikin, London: Longman et al., 1810, vol. 1, p. 250-252.

6. A subsequent letter from Huet to Bellaise, dated January 10, 1707, survives in Paris and provides further details.

Gérard Edelinck after Nicolas de Largillière, Portrait of Pierre-Daniel Huet
© The Trustees of the British Museum

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This entry was posted on December 31, 2021 in Autographs, Correspondence, Manuscripts and tagged , , .