The historie of the world Commonly called, the natural historie of C. Plinius Secundus. Translated into English by Philemon Holland Doctor in Physicke. The first tome, London: Printed by Adam Islip, 1601.

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Philemon Holland was born at Chelmsford, Essex, in 1552.  After graduating from Oxford and Cambridge, Holland started working as a physician in 1597 while teaching at Coventry’s free school. Just before the turn of the century, he embarked on an ambitious enterprise, namely the unabridged translation of Livy’s History of Rome (1600), followed by the translation of Pliny the Elder’s seminal Naturalis Historia in 1601. The translation was regarded as a major achievement in Holland’s lifetime and a work  sufficiently accurate to be considered a landmark in the history of translation. His preface to The historie of the world Commonly called, the natural historie of C. Plinius Secundus shows us the level of thinking and analysis which characterized one of the first quasi-professional English translators.


Note sur le texte.

L’édition consultée par le biais d’EBBO est celle d’origine (STC 2e édition, n° 20029). Un exemplaire se trouve à la British Library.

La préface reproduite ci-dessous est extraite d’un premier volume de 88 pages. Le texte anglais est retranscrit dans son orthographe d’époque. L’usage des u et v, I et j, ainsi que celui des s longs, ont néanmoins été normalisés.


The Preface to the Reader.

Happie were they in times past reputed (and not unworthily) who had that gratious and heavenly gift, aut facere scribenda, aut scribere legenda: that is to say, either to doe such things as deserved to be written, or to write that which was worth the reading. Those that could not attaine to these two braunches of felicitie, and yet utterly misliked idleness, contented themselves in a third degree, namely, to take in hand the old works of their auncients, and by new labours to immortalize their memorie. Thus Nicophanes (a famous painter in his time)[1] gave his mind wholly to antique pictures, partly to exemplifie and take out their patternes after that in long continuance of time they were decaied; and in part to repaire and reforme the same, if haply by some injurious accident they were defaced. The ingenuous[2] mind of this artisan thus devoted to antiquitie, as I doe highly commend; so I cannot chuse but embrace his pollicie, seeking hereby to avoid the envie and reproofe of others. In this number I must raunge those learned men in severall ages, who to illustrat the monuments left by former writers, have annexed unto them their Commentaries; and to save them entire and uncorrupt, have left thereto judiciall observations; and to publish them for a generall benefit of posteritie, have translated the same into their mother language. As for my selfe, since it is neither my hap nor hope to attaine to such perfection, as to bring foorth somewhat of mine owne which may quit the pains of a reader; and much lesse to performe any action that might minister matter to a writer; and yet so farre bound unto my native country and the blessed state wherein I have lived, as to render an account of my yeers passed & studies employed, during this long time of peace and tranquilitie, wherein (under the most gratious and happie government of a peerelesse Princesse,[3] assisted with so prudent, politique, and learned Counsell[4]) all good literature hath had free progresse and flourished, in no age so much: me thought I owed this dutie, to leave for my part also (after many others) some small memoriall, that might give testimonie another day what fruits generally this peacable age of ours hath produced. Endeavoured I have therefore to stand in this third ranke, and bestowed those hours which might be spared from the practise of my profession, and the necessarie cares of this life, to satisfie my countrymen now living, and to gratifie the age ensuing, in this kind. Like as therefore I have travailed alreadie in Titus Livius a renowned Historiographer,[5] so I have proceeded to deale with Plinius Secundus the elder, as famous a Philosopher. Now, albeit my intention and only scope was, to do a pleasure unto them that could not read these authours in the originall: yet needs I must confesse, that even my selfe have not only gained therby increase of the Latine tongue (wherein these works were written) but also growne to farther knowledge of the matter and argument therein contained. For this benefit wee reape by studying the books of such auncient authours, That the oftener we read them over, the more still we find and learne in them: as being so judiciously and pithily penned, that, as the Poët said verie well, decies repetita placerent. Well may the newest songs and last devised plaies delight our ears at the first, and for the present ravish our senses; like as horarie and early Summer fruits content our tast and please the appetit: but surely it is antiquitie that hath given grace, vigor, & strength to writings; even as age commendeth the most generous and best wines. In which regard, and upon this experience of mine owne, I nothing doubt but they also whome I might justly feare as hard censours of these my labours, will not only pitie me for my pains, but also in some measure yeeld me thanks in the end, when either by the light of the English (if they bee young students) they shall be able more readily to goe away with the darke phrase and obscure construction of the Latine; or (being great schollers and taking themselves for deepe Criticks) by conferring the one with the other, haply to espie wherein I have tripped, they shall by that means peruse once againe, and consequently gather new profit out of that authour whom peradventure they had laid by for many yeers as sufficiently understood. When some benefit (I say) shall accrew unto them likewise by this occasion, I lesse dread their fearfull doome, to which so wilfully I have exposed my selfe. Well I wist, that among the Athenians, order was taken by law, That an enterlude newly acted should be heard with silence and applause: which custome, as it was respective and favourable to the first endeavors of the actours, so it implied an inevitable danger of hissing out and utter disgrace, if afterwards they chanced to misse and faile in their parts. Having shewed my selfe once before upon the stage, presuming upon this priviledge and the curtesie of the theatre, I might have now sitten still and so rested: In mounting up thus soon againe, I may seeme either in the assured confidence of mine owne worthinesse, to proclaime a challenge to all mens censures; or els upon a deepe conceit of some generall connivencie make reckning of an extraordinarie and wonderfull favour. But as the choise that I have made to publish the monuments of other men, without fathering any thing of mine owne, doth excuse and acquit me for the one; so the froward disposition of carpers in these daies wherein wee live, will checke the other. Howbeit, considering such pains undergone by me one man, for the pleasure of so many; so much time spent of mine, for gaining time to others; and some opportunities of privat lucre overslipt and lost, to win profit unto all; I feare not but these regards may deserve a friendly acceptance, & counterweigh all defects and faults escaped, whatsoever. The persuasion hereof, but principally the privitie of my affectionat love unto my country (which assured me of a safe-conduct to passe peaceably through their hands who are of the better sort and well affected) induced me to a resolution not onely to enter upon this new taske, but also to breake through all difficulties, untill I had brought the same, if not to a full and absolute perfection, yet to an end and finall conclusion. Besides this naturall inclination & hope which[6] carried me this way, other motives there were that made saile and set me forward. I saw how divers men before me had dealt with this authour, whiles some laboured to reforme whatsoever by injurie of time was growne out of frame: others did their best to translate him into their own tongue, and namely, the Italian and French: moreover, the Title prefixed therto so universall as it is, to wit, The Historie of the World, or Reports of Nature, imported (no doubt) that he first penned it for the generall good of mankind. Over and besides, the Argument ensuing full of varietie, furnished with discourses of all matters, not appropriat to the learned only, but accommodat to the rude paisant of the countrey; fitted for the painefull artizan in town and citie; pertinent to the bodily health of man, woman, and child; and in one woord, suiting with all sorts of people living in a societie and commonweale. To say nothing of the precedent given by the authour himselfe who endited the same, not with any affected phrase, but sorting well with the capacitie even of the meanest and most unlettered: who also translated a good part thereof out of the Greeke. What should I alledge the example of former times, wherein the like hath evermore been approved and practised? Why should any man therefore take offence hereat, and envie this good to his naturall countrey, which was first meant for the whole world? And yet some there be so grosse as to give out, That these and such like books ought not to be published in the vulgar tongue. It is a shame (quoth one) that Livie speaketh English as hee doth: Latinists onely are to bee acquainted with him: As who would say, the souldiour were to have recourse unto the universitie for militarie skill and knowledge; or the schollar to put on arms and pitch a campe. What should Plinie (saith another) bee read in English, and the mysteries couched in his books divulged: as if the husbandman, the mason, carpenter, goldsmith, painter, lapidarie, and engraver, with other artificers, were bound to seeke unto great clearks or linguists for instructions in their severall arts. Certes, such Momi[7] as these, besides their blind and erroneous opinion, thinke not so honourably of their native countrey and mother tongue as they ought: who if they were so well affected that way as they should be, would wish rather and endeavour by all means to triumph now over the Romans in subduing their literature under the dent of the English pen, in requitall of the conquest sometime over this Island, atchieved by the edge of their sword.[8] As for our speech, was not Latine as common and naturall in Italie, as English here with us. And if Plinie faulted not but deserved well of the Romane name, in laying abroad the riches and hidden treasures of Nature, in that Dialect or Idiome which was familiar to the basest clowne: why should any man be blamed for enterprising the semblable, to the commoditie of that countrey in which and for which he was borne. Are we the onely nation under heaven unworthie to tast of such knowledge? or is our language so barbarous, that it will not admit in proper tearms a forrein phrase? I honour them in my heart, who having of late daies troden the way before me in Plutarch, Tacitus, and others, have made good proofe, that as the tongue in an English mans head is framed so flexible and obsequent, that it can pronounce naturally any other language[9]; so a pen in his hand is able sufficiently to expresse Greeke, Latine, and Hebrew. And my hope is, that after mee there will arise some industrious Flavii who may at length cornicum oculos configere.[10] For if my selfe, a man by profession otherwise carried away, for gifts farre inferiour to many, and wanting such helps as others be furnished with, have in some sort taught those to speake English who were supposed verie untoward to bee brought unto it; what may be expected at their hands, who for leisure may attend better; in wit are more pregnant; and beeing graced with the opinion of men and favour of the time, may attempt what they will, and effect whatsoever they attempt with greater felicity? A painfull and tedious travaile I confesse it is; neither make I doubt but many do note me for much follie in spending time herein, and neglecting some compendious course of gathering good and pursing up pence. But when I looke back to the example of Plinie, I must of necessitie condemne both mine own sloth, and also reprove the supine negligence of these daies. A courtiour he was, and great favourit of the Vespasians both father and sonne: an oratour besides, and pleaded many causes at the barre: a martiall man withall, and served often times as a leader and commaunder in the field: within the cittie of Rome he managed civile affairs, and bare honourable offices of State. Who would not thinke but each one of these places would require a whole man? and yet amid these occasions wherwith he was possessed, he penned Chronicles, wrate Commentaries, compiled Grammaticall treatises, and many other volumes which at this day are utterly lost. As for the Historie of Nature now in hand, which sheweth him to be an excellent Philosopher and a man accomplished in all kind of literature (the only monument of his that hath escaped all daungers, and as another Palladium[11] been reserved entire unto our time) wherein hee hath discoursed of all things even from the starrie heaven to the centre of the earth; a man would marveile how hee could possibly either write or doe any thing els. But considering the agilitie of mans spirit alwaies in motion; an ardent desire to benefit posteritie, which in these volumes hee hath so often protested; his indefatigable studie both day and night, even to the injurie of nature, and the same continued in everie place, as well abroad as within-house; in his journey upon the high way, where his manner was to read and to indite;[12] in his ordinarie passage through the streets betweene court and home, where hee gave himselfe no rest, but either read, or els found his notarie worke to write; and for that purpose rode usually in an easie litter, with the said Notarie close by his side: lesse wonder it is, that he perfourmed his service to prince and state according to his calling: and withall delivered unto posteritie so many fruits of wit and learning. For what is not the head of man able to compasse? especially making saile with a fervent desire and resolution to see an end, and besides taking the vantage of all moments, and loosing no time, wherof he was unus omnium parcissimus. Touching his affection to search into the secrets of Nature, it was that and nothing els which shortened his daies, and hastened his untimely death: for having lived not much above the middle age of man, desirous he was to know the reason, Why the hill Vesuvius burned so as it did? and approched so neare, that with the strong vapours and smoke issuing from thence, his breath was sodainly stopped, and himselfe found dead in the place: a man worthie to have lived for ever. What remaineth now, but onely to recommend unto my countreymen this worke of his (which for mine owne part I wish to be immortall) were it not for one scruple to bee cleared, which at the first troubled my selfe a little, and might peradventure otherwise offend some readers. In attributing so much unto Nature, Plinie seemeth to derogat from the almightie God, to him αγνωσος; and therefore daungerous (saith one) to be divulged. Farre be it from me, that I should publish any thing to corrupt mens manners, and much lesse to prejudice Christian religion. After conference therefore with sundrie divines[13] about this point, whom for their authoritie I reverence; whose learning I honor and embrace; and in whom for judgement & synceritie of religion I rest, confirmed I was in my first purpose, and resolved to finish that which I had begun, namely, not to defraud the world of so rich a gem, for one small blemish appearing therein. And that it may appeare how I did not abound in mine owne sense, but had regard as well to satisfie the conscience of others as mine owne, I have thought good to annex immediatly hereunto, in manner of a Corollarie, the opinion of one grave and learned preacher concerning this doubt, as it was delivered unto me in writing; which for that it is grounded upon sufficient reasons, and accordeth with the judgement of the rest, the lesse I respect the rash projects of some fantasticall spirits: nothing doubting, but the same will settle the minds of the weake,[14] and free my labours from the taint of irreligion.

The copie of the said Letter, written as touching the
Translation of Plinie.

My beloved, in twentie yeers and better so many tokens of our mutuall love passing betweene us, I need not now to professe my affections to your selfe; and my daily conversing with you, hath yeelded my approbation of your tedious labor in translating Plinie. These few lines therefore shall onely serve to witnesse unto others the deserved account which for your learning I have alwaies made of you, and my conceit[15] of this your travaile in opening to your countrymen the treasurie of Nature: therein to see and to admire the wisdome, power, and the goodnesse of the only true God, the Framer of Nature. I am not of their minds, who desire that all humane learning in Arts and Naturall Philosophie should be reserved under locke and key of straunge language, without the which no other man should have accesse unto it: for as such knowledge is a braunch of that excellencie wherein man was formed, so the repaire thereof (though it be not the chiefe) is yet a thing unworthily neglected, as well in regard of our owne comfort therein gained, as for the glorie of God thereby promoted. And it was the wisdome and provident hand of the All-sufficient, so to guide the wise heathen in Arts and Nature, that they should publish such their skill unto their countreymen in mother tongue: partly to correct the rudenesse which is in ignorance, and in part to leave them the more inexcusable: In which regard, they may in some sort be called, The Prophets and Teachers of the heathen.[16] And though Plinie and the rest were not able by natures light to search so far as to find out the God of Nature, who sitteth in the glorie of light which none attaineth, but contrariwise in the vanitie of their imagination bewrayed the ignorance of foolish hearts,[17] some doting upon Nature her selfe, and others upon speciall creatures, as their God: yet feare we not that Christians, in so cleare light, should be so farre bewitched by such blind teachers, as to fall before those heathen idols. Yea, though some of them (as namely Plinie) have spoken dishonourably of the only true God and of his providence, because they knew him not; which speeches (if it might stand with the laws of Translation) I could wish were utterly omitted; yet may wee hope that Christian men so long taught by the light of grace out of the holy word of God, will no lesse therefore give him his deserved honour, than when they doe in like sort heare the blasphemies of Sanneherib king of Ashur, who sent to raile upon the living God.[18] I feare not the corrupting of unstable minds anything so much by these foolish Gentiles which are without, as by the deceitfull spirit of error speaking in the mouth of men within: such I meane as are within the bosome of the Church. These are the foxes[19] by whom we feare the spoile of the Lords vines when as the grapes first begin to cluster; for whose taking I desire that all Gods husbandmen would bee more carefull. As for the speeches of these blind heathen, the true Christian may well thereby be provoked to extoll the mercie of God, who sitteth in so glorious a light as hath dasled the sharpest sight of Nature; but for our comfort hath put a vaile upon his glorie, and by his grace hath so cleared the eye of our understanding, that wee might see his face in his beloved, and know him to be the only true God, and his blessed providence upon all his creatures. And when they shall perceive that the wisest clearke[20] in naturall skill could not learne by the booke of heaven and earth to know their maker, whose glorie they declare, and handiworks set out;[21] nor who it was that framed Nature, when by his word he first created them in such excellencie,[22] and then, by his blessing gave, and by his providence working in all, doth yet maintaine such an operative power, as by the which they are still continued in their kinds: nor how it came to passe that Nature lost her excellence in all creatures, and her power unto good was not only weakened[23] (whence we see her faile in many of her purposes) but also perverted unto evill; then (I say) they will the more be stirred up by Gods grace to make reverent account of the holy Scriptures, [24] which God in rich mercie hath given to them to be a light in all things for to direct them through the errors in Natures blindnesse, and to bring them to the heavenly Jerusalem and happie world of all: he holie where he dwelleth, whome they worship in unitie and trinitie. Proceed then my beloved friend to bring unto the birth your second labour; whereof I pray that God may have honour in the praise of his works throughout nature, and wish you comfort in good acceptance with the reader, and your countrie use and pleasure in the skill thereof. Unto him which onely hath immortalitie and dwelleth in that light which none attaineth, to God only wise be all honour and glorie. Iunij xij. 1601.

Your loving friend in the Lord,





[1] Nicophanes is mentioned by the second-century compiler, Athenaeus, in his Deipnosophistae. The compiler includes the painter amongst pornographers such as Aristeides or Pausias—a fact which Holland may have been unaware of. See Ian Frederick Moulton, Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 8.

[2] Frequently used for ingenious in the period.

[3] Namely, Elizabeth I. Holland dedicated his previous work to the Queen.

[4] i.e. Elizabeth’s Privy Council. The Queen’s chief adviser was Sir William Cecil (1520-1598). His second son, Sir Robert Cecil (1563-1612), took over the responsibilities of Secretary of State in 1596. The Historie of the World is actually dedicated to Sir Robert Cecil.

[5] Holland translated Livy’s History of Rome (known as Ab Urbe Condita) in 1600.

[6] Here the original text reads “with” instead of “which”.

[7] OED, “Momus”, 1.b. A person who habitually grumbles or finds fault, a carping critic. Originally, Momus was the Greek god of censure and ridicule.

[8] Cf. Turberville’s “address to the reader” in his translation of Ovid’s Heroides: “It is a work of prayse to cause / A Romaine borne to speak with English jawes” (George Turberville, The Heroycall Epistles, London, 1567, X2v).

[9] Cf. Holland’s “preface” to his translation of Livy (1600): “If the sentence be not so concise, couched and knit togither as the originall, loth was I to be obscure and dark: have I not Englished everie word aptly? Ech nation hath severall manners, yea and tearmes appropriate by themselves.”

[10] cornicum oculos configure, i.e. “to peck crows’ eyes”, is taken from Cicero’s Pro Murena. This proverbial expression is also discussed by Erasmus in Adagia, 1.3.75.

[11] OED, 1. Classical Mythol. An image of the goddess Pallas (Athene) in the citadel of Troy, whose presence was believed to guarantee the safety of the city.

[12] OED  †1. trans. To utter, suggest, or inspire a form of words which is to be repeated or written down.

[13] “Divine”, OED, 2.a.: One who has officially to do with ‘divine things’; formerly, any ecclesiastic, clergyman, or priest.

[14] Here, “weake” refers to unsteadfast, wavering readers (see OED, 2.a).

[15] Here in the sense of OED II. Personal or private opinion (†4.a. Personal opinion, judgment, or estimation).

[16] Margin note: Tit. 1

[17] Margin note: Rom. 1.

[18] Magin note: 2 Reg. 18.

[19] Margin note: Cant. 3.

[20] OED 4.a. A man (or woman) of book learning, one able to read and write; a scholar.

[21] Margin note: Psal. 19. Rom. 1.

[22] Margin note: Gen. 1.

[23] Margin note: Gen. 3. Rom. 8.

[24] Margin note: Psal. 119. & 147.

Citer ce billet
TTT (2017, 6 septembre). PHILEMON HOLLAND, “THE PREFACE TO THE READER” (1601). Le traducteur traduit. Consulté le 20 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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