Hugh Trevor-Roper’s last subject

David Wootton in the Times Literary Supplement:

Screenhunter_02_feb_20_1157Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914–2003) was perhaps the most gifted British-born historian of the twentieth century. He began his career with a biography of Laud (1940); he ends it, posthumously, with a biography of Mayerne. In between, in his chosen field of early modern history, he produced a stream of remarkable essays, collected in four volumes, but no monograph. The book we now have, edited by his friend and literary executor Blair Worden, was mainly written in 1979, the year before Trevor-Roper retired as Regius Professor of History at Oxford. Had it been published then it would have followed close on the success of The Hermit of Peking (1976). Now, it follows close on the success of another posthumous work, Letters from Oxford.

In order to understand why this is a great book we need to start with a little-known short story by Voltaire, “The Travels of Scarmentado”, written in the spring of 1754. Scarmentado travels the world, and everywhere he goes he finds cruelties and massacres. He is living in the worst of all possible worlds. In “Scarmentado” Voltaire is inventing pessimism. Five years later, after the Lisbon earthquake and the outbreak of the Seven Years War, he was to publish Candide, or Optimism – the title, of course, is ironic – which is set firmly among contemporary events. But when he wrote “Scarmentado” he had no doubt as to the right setting for a truly pessimistic story. Scarmentado is born in 1600 and goes on his travels in 1615: the world he inhabits is the world of Theodore de Mayerne.

Mayerne was born Theodore Turquet in Geneva in 1573 – his parents were refugees from the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day, and Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, was his godfather. He studied philosophy at Heidelberg and medicine at Montpellier before pursuing an immensely successful career as a Protestant doctor in the Paris of Henri IV…

More here.