Editing Clusius’s letters


1600 Letters from and to Clusius have been preserved. Over the course of the last two centuries, these letters have attracted the attention of several historians and biologists, and some hundreds have been published. However, a complete edition of his correspondence was never brought about. Huygens ING collected all existing manuscript and printed transcriptions in the online editing tool eLaborate. Together with detailed metadata and high-resolution scans, we now offer a searchable edition-in-progress of the Clusius correspondence.


The Clusius correspondence


Charles de Houchin to Clusius, 1585-02-07 © University Libraries Leiden

Clusius’s preserved correspondence offers a fascinating view into the practice of natural history in the sixteenth century. It consists of 1600 letters, of which nearly 1200 are kept in the University Library in Leiden (most bearing shelf mark VUL 101). The rest is scattered among other European libraries. The letters were written by 330 correspondents, writing between 1549 and 1609, in six different languages, and from twelve European countries.

Besides containing information on botany, travels, gardens, and publications, the letters are full of other aspects of sixteenth-century life: news about friends and family, health issues, politics, court gossip, university life, new books projects, the weather… They provide us with an understanding of the development of nature as an object of study in a wider social and intellectual culture of collecting, exploration, publishing, humanist reform, war, and patronage.

Towards a digital edition

Although Clusius’s letters have been studied by biologists and historians of science, and some hundreds have been published over the course of the last two centuries, we still lack a complete edition of this unique, but dispersed correspondence.

A first step towards a complete digital edition was made in 2004, when dr. Florike Egmond (Clusius Project, Leiden University) and the Leiden University Library digitized almost 1200 Clusius letters from the Leiden collections. These high-resolution scans were enriched with detailed metadata and additional information about 300 letters from other libraries. This collection of scans and metadata of 1500 letters is still freely accessible via the Digital Special Collections website of the Leiden University Library.

Online edition in eLaborate

In 2011, the Scaliger Institute of Leiden University Libraries and Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands, made a next step towards a complete digital edition of the Clusius correspondence.


Transcription from the archive of Ans Berendts

Under direction of dr. Esther van Gelder, and aided by numerous interns and volunteers, they started digitizing existing transcriptions from several research archives and linking them to the metadata and scans from the Leiden University Library in eLaborate, an online collaborative editing tool developed at the Huygens ING. After digitizing more than 400 unpublished transcriptions, some major (older) collections of published letters were included to the database. In a later stage, the metadata was improved, enlarged and corrected. Information about some hundred additional letters was added as well.

At this moment, in December 2015, we are ready to release a first version of the Clusius correspondence as an edition-in-progress.