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Science and poetry of tears: De lacrymis by Pierre Petit (1617-1687)






Science and poetry of tears: De lacrymis by Pierre Petit (1617-1678)

Supervisors: Prof. dr. T. van Houdt (University of Leuven) and Prof. dr. H.F.J. Horstmanshoff (Emeritus professor Leiden University)

The project is concerned with an investigation into the content and context of the book De lacrymis by the French author Pierre Petit (Petrus Petitus).[1] Petit lived from 1617 to 1687. He studied medicine, but never practiced as a physician. Instead he earned his living as a tutor in families of Parisian noblemen and was very active as an author of Neo-Latin poetry and of a number of books in Latin about a variety of subjects ranging from Descartes’ philosophy to the true nature of the Sybil and from man-eaters to the salutary effects of tea. Petit is not very well-known now, but his books were quite popular in his time.

The book De lacrymis discusses the causes, the material and the function of tears.

The book is made interesting by the presence of a number of different facets of the subject.

For one thing Petit gives his own interpretation of theories stemming from antique philosophy and medicine. These ancient sources do not offer a comprehensive theory of weeping, but different Neo-Latin authors developed their own synthetic vision on the basis of these sources. Petit presents his own theory and moreover, in doing so makes a case for value of antique opinions in a time of great scientific change which also left its mark on Petit.

Petit made extensive use of citations from Greek and Roman literature (especially from poetry) to support his opinions. It is interesting to see how he handles these sources, showing a varying amount of respect for the original context.

A third issue has to do with Petit’s philosophical points of view with respect to the passions.  In seventeenth-century France there was  an ongoing discussion about authors influenced by Neo-stoicism and philosophers, authors and playwrights who favoured a freer expression of emotions. Petit’s position in this debate is another interesting point of study.

Finally there is the issue of Petit’s scholarly and social context. What was the nature of his scholarly contacts and which relation do we find between these contacts and his own scholarly opinions? It is known that Petit was a member of a group of Neo-Latin poets. In seventeenth-century France there was a discussion between ‘ancients’ and ‘moderns’ which in 1687 led to the so-called ‘Querelle’. Petit died in 1687 and so was no party at this stage, but during his lifetime he seems to have been a supporter of the ‘ancients’. Not much is known as yet about Petit’s international contacts. Later in life he was in contact with scholars from the Dutch Republic, at least about the publication of some of his books. These international contacts and the circulation of his books form a further topic of study.


Procedure and state of affairs (January 2017)

The end product will consist of an English translation of De lacrymis with an introduction and annotations. The work on the project has been going on for a few years. At the moment there exists a second version of the introduction which has to be revised once more on the basis of the supervisors’ remarks. There also exists a complete version of the translation and notes of which only part has yet been reviewed by the supervisors. A summary and probably also a concluding chapter still need to be written. The aim is publish the work in the form of a book issued by a scientific publisher.


[1] Pierre Petit, De lacrymis libri tres (Parijs: Claudius Cramoisy, 1661)


Date:16 Sep 2015 →  5 Feb 2022
Keywords:Neolatin prose
Disciplines:Language studies, Literary studies
Project type:PhD project