De Coste on Mersenne

In 1649, the year following Marin Mersenne's death, Fr Hilarion de Coste of the Order of Minims, the same Order as Mersenne, wrote La vie du R P Marin Mersenne, theologien, philosophe et mathematicien, de l'Ordre der Pères Minim. The full reference is H de Coste, La vie du R P Marin Mersenne, theologien, philosophe et mathematicien, de l'Ordre der Pères Minim (Paris, 1649). We present extracts from this work in a translation by Maxine Merrington.

Marin Mersenne 1588-1648

The Life of The Reverend Father Marin Mersenne
Theologian, philosopher and mathematician, member of the Order of Minim Fathers

Brother Hilarion de Coste of the same Order

printed in Paris by Sebastian and Gabriel Cramoisy in 1649 by ecclesiastical authority with a dedication to Louis de Valois, Comte d'Alais. Licence from the Reverend Father General Thomas Munos and Spinossa.

The world knows that the Province of Mayne has always been the birthplace of great men, whom learning and courage have made praiseworthy. In the past there were the Cardinals De la Forest, Philastre, du Bellay and Cointereau or Cointerel; Messieurs Guillaume, Seigneur de Langeay, and Martin, Prince d'Yvetot of the House of Bellay, Monsieur de St François, Master of the Requests, later Bishop of Bayeux, Geofroy Boussard, Chancellor of the University of Paris, Pierre de Ronsard, Jean and Jacques Pelletier, Pierre Belon, Robert Garnier, Felix de la Mote le Vayer, Abel Foulon, Sieur Denisot, Germain Pilon, and in our time Monsieur Coeffeteau, Bishop of Marseille, and a great many others. These are the distinguished men who bear witness to this truth.

The Reverend Father Mersenne was born in this same Province in the borough of Oysé on the 8th of September in 1588, a day celebrated in the Church for the birth of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and for the destruction of Jerusalem, which was captured and destroyed by the Emperor Titus, Vespasian's son, as predicted by the Saviour of the world forty years previously. This day is also remarkable for being the birthday of many men famous for their piety, valour and knowledge.

The same day, he was baptised by the Priest, Sieur Pierre Basairdy, through the solicitude of his father and mother, Julien Mersenne and Jeanne Moulière, both pious and excellent people. Sanson Ory and René Blanchar were his godfathers, Marie Mersenne, his paternal aunt, was his godmother, and he was named Marin.

If anyone reproaches me for commenting on these small matters, I would remind him that Plutarch was greatly displeased by the omission of details equally trifling. For he complains of those who did not give in writing the names of the mothers of Nicias, Demosthenes, Formion, Thrasybulus and of Theramenes, notable contemporaries of Socrates; and on the other hand he was delighted with Plato and Antisthenes, because the first gave the name of Alcibiades' tutor and the second did not disdain naming his nurse. Neglect of the ancient writers has been so great that it has caused a dispute between seven towns which all claim to be the birthplace of Homer; each one claims the honour of being the nurse of the greatest poet of Greece. This has always made me think that it is a grave fault of those who are concerned in writing the lives of famous men; they leave out small particulars, which though not considered of much importance at the time, would be greatly appreciated in another century.

Just as fountain-makers take it to be a good omen when they see vapour coming out of the earth in the morning, because it is one of the signs which make them hope they will find a good spring; so in the same way, those who have the best knowledge of our souls, rejoice in noting at a tender age, a passionate desire to learn and a rapturous ardour for knowledge and for virtue, because from that they can conjecture almost certainly the good quality of our minds and the excellence which we must one day achieve.

He, of whose life I am writing, appears to have had a good nature from his earliest years; he had an ardent inclination towards piety and a noble passion for all kinds of curious and agreeable things: for no sooner could he talk than he only spoke of good things: scarcely could he walk but he wished to go to school. In fact he had an aversion for all other forms of exercise except prayer and study. These two occupations never irked him and the older he grew, the more he discovered the delights of knowledge and religious study; so much so that one had to use force if one wished him to leave these happy pursuits.

His parents, seeing his inclination to devotion and study, sent him to Le Mans, where he never failed to satisfy the demands of his Masters and where he soon showed, by little victories gained over his companions, that he would one day triumph in the great world of knowledge.

At that time King Henry the Great gave the Royal palace of La Flèche to the Jesuit Fathers in order to establish a College of their Order. No sooner had Marin Mersenne heard this news than he begged his parents to send him there. He studied with these learned men with great facility, not only literature, which because of its sweetness is called a Humanity, but also Logic, Physics, Metaphysics, Mathematics and some works on Theology, on all of which he thrived happily. This made him a favourite with the Fathers Chastelier, De la Tour, Jean Phelipeaux and others.

After he left the College of La Flèche, he came to Paris to continue his studies in that famous University and in the Royal College heard the illustrious Professors Marius Ambosius, George Criton and Theodore Marsile, and in the Sorbonne (where reside the strength and support of the Faith) the three celebrated doctors André du Val, Philippe de Gamaches and Nicolas Ysambert, whose names will be immortal amongst the pious and the learned. Under these great men, he took his course in Theology which he always honoured as the queen of all knowledge, the rest being no more than her servants. Thus he devoted the best part of his life to this holy exercise, having never let a day pass without reading the Bible and some Greek or Latin Father.

It was by means of this holy occupation, and through the good example set by the Minim Fathers of the Convent at Plessis, near Tours (through which he happened to pass on his way to Paris from his native district), that he resolved to join this Order.

He applied for the habit at the Convent of Paris, near the Place Royale, from the Rev Father Olivier Chaillou, who was Vicar-General at the time. This good Father saw that he was received at the Convent of Notre-Dame de Toutes Graces, also called Nigeon, near Paris, by the Reverend Father Pierre Hébert, who was then the Provincial of the Province of France, a man whose memory is blessed among our people, as much for his piety and for his humility as for the exemplary way in which he governed the Order of which he was the thirty-second General.

Having therefore received the habit of the Order from the hands of the Reverend Father Hébert in the Convent of Nigeon on the 17th of July in the year 1611, feast of the incomparable St Alexis, and after spending two and a half months there, he was sent for the remaining ten months of his year of Probation to the Convent of St Pierre de Fublines, near Meaux and the Royal palace of Monceaux, where he made his Profession on the 17th July, 1612, at the age of 24, at the hands of the Venerable Father Nicolas Guériteau, Corrector of this Convent, founded by Monsieur Pierre Poussemie, Canon and Precentor of the Church of St Estienne of Meaux.

He spent his noviceship most devoutly at the Convents of Nigeon and Fublines, edifying by his virtue and humble scholarship all the men in these two Monasteries, to whom he set a good example in humility, penitence, obedience and charity. This is why he was permitted, by common consent, to take his religious vows, which he had faithfully kept with God, having led a life on earth worthy of Heaven, so poor, so chaste and so pure that he triumphed over those passions which usually triumph over most men, and had sacredly preserved that foremost freedom with which all men are born.

After his religious Profession, the simplicity of his manner, his modest ambition and his love of books and learning enabled him to live contentedly in the Order of the Minims, for innocence reigned in his soul; in the Cloister, he sought only the acquisition of knowledge and virtue; the desire to learn and practise the good, and the conversation of wise and pious men were his only pursuits and delights.

Two and a half months after his Profession, he went to live in the Convent of Paris, where he took Orders as Sub-Deacon, Deacon and Priest at the hands of Monseigneur Henry de Gondy, Bishop of Paris, who has since become Cardinal of Raiz; he celebrated his first Mass on the 28th of October in 1613, the Feast of the Apostles St Simon and St Jude.

Being a Priest, he learnt to perfection the Holy language which was taught him by the Reverend Father Jean Bruno, the Scot, who is said to have been made a Doctor of Theology at the University of Alcala de Henarez and the University of Avignon before entering the Order of Minims and who since then had established the Order in Flanders or the Netherlands with the Reverend Father Jean Sauvage, the celebrated Preacher of the same Order.

The Reverend Father Jean Pricur, being elected Provincial of the Province of France at Michaelmas in 1614, gave Father Mersenne an order under Holy Obedience to stay at the Convent of St Francis of Paula, which the late Duc de Mantouë, de Montferrat and de Nivernois had founded near the town of Nevers in order to teach Philosophy. And in fact Mersenne taught philosophy there during the years 1615, 1616 and 1617 and taught Theology during 1618. But he was obliged to stop these activities as he was elected Corrector of this same Convent. He governed with all the virtues proper to a Superior of a Religious House.

When he had finished his Correctoriate towards the end of 1619, he received an order under Holy obedience from the Reverend Father Hébert (who was for the second time Provincial of the Province of France) to live as a Conventual at the Convent of the Annunciation and of St Francis of Paula near the Place Royale; where he had no sooner arrived than he planned to work on the Holy Scriptures and wrote the first volume of his Commentaires sur la Genèse, which saw the light of day in 1623. He dedicated it to Monseigneur Jean François de Gondy, First Archbishop of Paris. He produced at the same time Des Remarques sur les Problèmes de George Venitien.

The same year, he presented to the public two small books of devotions in French, namely, L'Analyse de la Vie Spirituelle and L'Usage de la Raison.

Furthermore, seeing that impiety was growing steadily in that unhappy age and that God was greatly dishonoured by certain young Libertines, he was inspired to refute their detestable maxims in French, as he had already done in Latin in his commentary on Genesis. That was why he published a book divided into two parts and volumes entitled:

L'impiété des Déistes, des Athées, et des plus subtils libertins de ce temps, combattue et renversée de point en point par raisons tirées de la Philosophie et de la Théologie.

He also gave to the public his book De la Vérité des Sciences, in which he refuted the opinions of the Sceptics and Pyrrhonists; and also two small volumes in Latin for Mathematicians called De l'Abrégé ou Inventaire de la Mathématique and another book in French called De l'Harmonie Universelle.

Next he wrote several other books in the same language called Les Questions Inouies; Les Questions Harmoniques; Les Questions Théologiques, Physiques, Morales et Mathématiques; Les Mécaniques de Galilée; and Les Preludes de l'Harmonie.

He wrote Douze Livres de l'Harmonie in Latin, which he revised and augmented in a second edition a few months before his death.

But as he loved his country and honoured his nation greatly, he transcribed this book into French in two large volumes in folio under the title L'Harmonie Universelle, contenant la Théorie et la Pratique de la Musique.

In the first Volume he described the nature of sound, rhythm, consonance, dissonance, style, modes, composition, the voice, songs and all kinds of harmonic instruments with their notations.

The second Volume contained the practice of consonances and dissonances; figured counterpoint; a method of teaching and learning singing; the embellishment of airs; accentual music; rhythms; prosody; French metrics; methods for singing the Odes of Horace and Pindar; the use of harmony; and several new observations both physical and mathematical.

Three Volumes in quarto written in Latin, of which the first contained the following Treatises, entitled

1. Des Mesures, des Poids, et des Monnoyes des Hébreux, des Grecs et des Romains, réduites à la valeur de celles de France.

2. Des Phénomènes ou secrets naturels qui se font par les mouvements et les impressions de l'eau et de l'air.

3. Le moyen de naviger et de cheminer dessus et au dessous des eaux, avec un Traité de la Pierre d'Ayman.

4. De la Musique speculative et Pratique.

5. Un Traité des Mécaniques selon la Théorie et la Pratique.

6. He explains the trajectories of bullets, arrows, javelins and similar bodies projected by force from longbows and crossbows.

The second Volume consisted of Un Abrégé de la Géométrie Universelle et des Mathématiques mixtes which gave:

Firstly, the fifteen books of the Elements of Euclid, with three others by Monsieur François de Foix de Candale, Bishop of Aire, Commander of the two Orders of the King, the Euclid of his time.

2. Twenty-seven books on the Geometry of Pierre de la Ramée, called Ramus.

3. The works of Archimedes, that is two books on the sphere, the cylinder, the dimensions of the circle, the conic and spherical forms, etc.

4. The supplement of Archimedes.

5. Three books on the spherics of Theodosius, three also on Menelaus, and three on Maurolic and on Antoli of the Sphère avec Théodose about the many habitats of men who live on the earth. The Phenomena of Euclid and Cosmography. Four books of Apollonius' conic sections. Two books of Selenus on the section of the cylinder. Four books on the conic sections of Monsieur Mydorge. Eight books summarizing the Collections of Pappus, which give Euclid's suppositions. The section of angles of Monsieur Viète and several other Treatises. Two books on Mechanics, in which are found the works of Commendius and of Luc Valerius; and on the centre of gravity of solid bodies etc. Seven books on Optics. where he explains catoptrics, dioptrics, parallaxes and different aspects of refraction.

In the third Volume is found Les Nouvelles Observations Physicomathématiques avec Aristarche Samien de la Constitution du Monde.

We must not omit here that our Reverend Father Mersenne took the trouble to revise the Latin and French book Thaumaturgue Optique by the Reverend Father Jean François Niceron the Parisian, a Religious of our Order; after writing his book this Religious had died at the Convent of Aix-en-Provence on the 22nd of September, 1646, aged only thirty-three, to the great sorrow of the scholars and intellectuals who knew him and who loved him for his great knowledge of Theology, Philosophy and Mathematics and for his other excellent qualities.

While working on this book and at the same time on a second Volume of Commentaires sur la Genèse, et sur S Mathieu, and while making constant experiments on the vacuum, he fell ill on the 27th July, 1648, with an abscess which was thought at first to be a false pleurisy. A few days later, seeing that the illness on his side did not lessen but became worse from day to day, he prepared himself to leave this terrestrial life for the eternal and blessed one, since death which appears frightful to most men seemed to him full of enchantment and beauty. He faced the end of his life with all the tenderness of his heart, having purified it by a scrupulous General Confession of his whole life, which he made to me on the 5th of August, Feast of our Lady of the Snows; thus he fortified himself by frequent reception of Holy Communion, by the Holy Viaticum and by Extreme Unction which he demanded with insistence and which he received with incredible zeal and fervour. So that having armed himself with these divine weapons for the battle between the flesh and the spirit and having shed all human affections in order to clothe himself with Jesus Christ alone, he resigned himself to this fearful moment as a perfect Christian and a true Religious. The Venerable Father Jean Auvry, Corrector, and all the brethren of this Convent of St Francis of Paula near the Place Royale, who had looked after him for the thirty-seven days of his illness and who saw him die, wonder yet at the great strength of his character. After having said, during the last days of his illness, what his intentions were about his books which were in the press, and having asked the Father Superior to sequester all the forbidden books that were in his room, his unfettered soul thought only of opening the way to Heaven.

Thus lived, and thus died the Reverend Father Marin Mersenne, Member of the Order of Minims of St Francis of Paula on the 1st of September at three o'clock in the afternoon in the year 1648, having lived sixty years all but one week. He had been a Religious for thirty-seven years, during which he had spent his time either in praying to God or studying or conferring, as much in conversation as in writing, with many able men in all professions, who respected him greatly not only for his knowledge (for he did not ignore anything which could make a man wise) but also because of his sweetness, his humility and all his other excellent qualities which made him the admiration of all those who had the good fortune to know him either by his discussions or by his writings or by the journeys he made in Germany, Flanders and Holland in 1630, in France in 1639 and in Italy and France during the years 1644, 1645 and 1646. For he made friends with the most distinguished and the most celebrated people of the countries in which he travelled.

He was universally mourned by those who had known him, both great and small. I cannot describe the tenderness of heart he bestowed on all who spoke to him. His discourse was never sad, but it was imbued with a certain ingenuousness and a sweetness so engaging that he seemed to hold a gentle power over men's hearts. In fact everyone loved his conversation above all things.

Sixtin Amama, Professor of Grammar at Franeker in Friesland, and Robert Fludd, English physician from the University of Oxford, wrote books against Father Mersenne: but the first, recognising his frankness and sincerity, later made friends with him, as one may see from the pleasant and worthy letters he often wrote to him. The other, having abused both his person and his books with insults such as might be expected from a man without Religion, had to his great displeasure seen many learned men take sides with Father Mersenne against him; amongst whom were the Reverend Father François de la Nouë, Parisian, Theologian of our Order of Minims (now Assistant to the Most Reverend Father Thomas Munoz and Spinossa, Corrector General of the same Order) who wrote under the name Sieur Flaminius; also, the Reverend Father Jean Durel of Forez, Theologian of the same Order, under the name Eusebe de St Just; and Monsieur Gassendi, Provost of the Church of Digne in Provence, who refuted by solid arguments the insults, impertinences and false opinions of this enraged and melancholy man.

These two writers have acquired no glory from the books they wrote against Father Mersenne, for instead of being hurt by the jealous taunts aimed at his virtue and knowledge, he caused the self-same arrows to fall back on their heads by the sincerity of his actions, by the probity of his life and by the strength of his doctrine.

JOC/EFR August 2007

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