The Correspondence of Marin Mersenne

Primary Contributors:

Cultures of Knowledge

Marin Mersenne, by Claude Duflos. Engraving. (Source: Gallica/Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Marin Mersenne (1588–1648)

Mersenne was one of the most active ‘intelligencers’ and intellectual impresarios of the seventeenth century. He is perhaps best known as the friend, correspondent, and agent of Descartes, but his network of personal and intellectual contacts ranged far and wide, including not only philosophers but also mathematicians, musical theorists, medical men, antiquarians, oriental scholars, and theologians — Dutch, English and Italian as well as French, and Protestant as well as Catholic. He acted as midwife to many publications, and wrote significant works of his own on theology, music, and natural philosophy.

Of fairly humble origins (his father was an overseer of farm workers), Mersenne was a pupil at the Jesuit college of La Flèche from 1604 to 1609. After two years studying theology at the Sorbonne he entered the Minim order of friars in 1611. From 1619 until the end of his life (with occasional interruptions) he lived in the Minim convent near the Place royale in Paris. His early publications were, in part or in whole, polemical works, directed against hermeticists and occultists, deists, libertines, and sceptics; his attack on the hermeticist Robert Fludd brought him to the attention of Pierre Gassendi, who became a close friend. During the early 1620s he also became acquainted with Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, who introduced him to a wider circle of Parisian intellectuals and became a mentor, and a model, for Mersenne’s own development as an intelligencer. In 1626 Mersenne published the first of his scientific compilations, Synopsis mathematica, a collection of ancient and recent mathematical texts. By this stage he had begun holding weekly scientific discussions in his convent, and developing correspondence with learned men throughout Europe. His close friendship with Descartes apparently dates from the latter’s long stays in Paris in the 1620s; when Descartes moved to the Netherlands in 1628 he entrusted Mersenne with the task of managing all his French correspondence.

During the early 1630s Mersenne was attracted to, and became an active proselytiser for, the ‘new’ mechanistic philosophy. This may have been stimulated by a visit to Isaac Beeckman in the Netherlands in 1630; it was strengthened by prolonged study of the works of Galileo, whose treatise on mechanics Mersenne translated and published in 1634. In the mid-1630s he was also working intensively on musical matters, gathering and publishing a mass of material on almost every aspect of music, from its physics to its history. Mersenne went to great trouble to arrange the publication of Descartes’s Meditationes in 1641, commissioning sets of ‘objections’ from various writers, to which Descartes wrote replies. Two of the objectors were major philosophers deeply opposed to Cartesian principles: Gassendi and Thomas Hobbes (who had first met Mersenne in the mid-1630s, and became a close friend after his move to Paris in late 1640). It was characteristic of Mersenne that he could maintain the most friendly relations with people who were intellectually at daggers drawn; another of his most valued acquaintances was the mathematician Gilles Personne de Roberval, a notoriously outspoken anti-Cartesian.

Mersenne published two important compilations of scientific works in 1644, and a third in 1647; they included treatises by Hobbes and Roberval, and texts by Torricelli. He travelled to Italy in 1644–5, and to the south of France in 1646–7. But after his return to Paris he fell ill, and on 1 September 1648 he died. He left several unpublished manuscripts (an optical treatise was printed in 1651), a mass of correspondence, and grieving friends throughout the learned world. Mersenne was not a major original thinker, but the stimulus he gave to other writers in many fields — by posing problems, transmitting objections, supplying information, brokering contacts, prompting publication or indeed organizing it himself — was absolutely invaluable.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The seventeen-volumed edition of Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne, Religieux Minime, edited by Cornelis De Waard with René Pintard, B. Rochot, and A. Beaulieu, was brought out between 1932 and 1988. The first four volumes were published by the Presses Universitaires de France; volumes v to xvii came out under the aegis of Éditions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique [CNRS]. We are delighted at this juncture to be making available the metadata from this invaluable edition, complete with the additional letters published as a Supplément in volume xvii, and although today many of the volumes may be purchased only second hand, we would like to make our users aware that a certain number of volumes are available for purchase via the CNRS backlist. Staff at Cultures of Knowledge worked tirelessly through the summer of 2014 to prepare this metadata for release in EMLO, and special thanks are due to Editorial Assistant Mark Thakkar, Digital Fellow Lucy Hennings, and EMLO intern Charlotte Marique.

This calendar compiled from the de Waard edition has been supplemented by the inclusion of metadata for eleven new letters published in two articles by Noel Malcolm (The Seventeenth Century, 16 [2001] and 21 [2006]; for full bibliographic details, please see below). EMLO is exceptionally grateful to Sir Noel Malcolm for this addition and for his invaluable contribution of the text for this introductory page.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne, Religieux Minime, ed. Cornelis De Waard, René Pintard, Bernard Rochot, and Armand Beaulieu, 17 vols (Paris: PUF and CNRS, 1933–88).

Noel Malcolm, ‘Six Unknown Letters from Mersenne to Vegelin’, The Seventeenth Century, 16:1 (2001), pp. 95–122.

Noel Malcolm, ‘Five Unknown Items from the Correspondence of Marin Mersenne’, The Seventeenth Century, 21:1 (2006), pp. 73–98.

Scope of Catalogue

It should be noted that the date for each letter has been recorded as it is listed in the edition. This is almost always, but not exclusively, a date according to the Gregorian calendar. Where the date provided in the edition is clearly marked and listed as the Julian calendar (for example, in Theodore Haack’s letter to Mersenne of 7 June 1648), the date as marked in the letter has been captured and the use of the Julian calendar has been indicated.

EMLO will continue to enhance, update, and enrich this metadata over the coming years, completing manuscript details and adding full metadata for the letters that were not published in the edition by de Waard and his successors.

Further resources


The first life of Mersenne was published by his friend and fellow-Minim Hilarion de Coste: La Vie du R. P. Marin Mersenne (Paris, 1649); this remains an important source.

The classic intellectual biography of Mersenne is by Robert Lenoble, Mersenne ou la naissance du méchanisme (Paris, 1943). The most important recent study of his thinking is Peter Dear, Mersenne and the Learning of the Schools (Ithaca, NY, 1988). Jean-Pierre Maury’s À l’Origine de la recherche scientifique: Mersenne, ed. Sylvie Taussig (Paris 2003) is an accessible introduction to his life and thought, but adds little or nothing that is new.

Philippe Tamizey de Larroque published 25 letters from Mersenne to Peiresc, together with Hilarion de Coste’s life of Mersenne, in his Les Correspondants de Peiresc, vol. xix (Paris, 1892).

Descartes’s letters to Mersenne, with a few related items from Mersenne’s correspondence, were printed in the edition of Descartes’s Oeuvres edited by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery (Paris, 1897–1913).

Paul Tannery had also planned a complete edition of Mersenne’s correspondence; after his death (in 1904) his widow, Marie, encouraged the Dutch scholar Cornelis de Waard to take up this task, making use of materials Tannery had gathered. The French historian René Pintard also became involved. The first volume of the Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne was published in Paris in 1933. Pintard worked also on the second volume; the third and fourth were edited by de Waard, with help from Robert Lenoble; from the fifth onwards, essential assistance was given by Bernard Rochot. Cornelis de Waard died in 1963, shortly before the publication of volume viii. Rochot took over, but died in 1971, while completing work on volume xii. The last four volumes of the text, and a supplementary volume (vol. xvii: Paris, 1988) containing indexes, were edited by Armand Beaulieu.

The editorial work by de Waard and his successors was exceptionally thorough; and the letters included in the edition consist not only of letters to and from Mersenne, but also of many letters (in whole or in part) between third parties which mention Mersenne or are relevant to his own correspondence. These seventeen volumes form one of the monuments of twentieth-century scholarship in early modern intellectual history.

Only a very small number of items of Mersenne correspondence have come to light since the completion of the edition: see the two articles by Noel Malcolm, ‘Six Unknown Letters from Mersenne to Vegelin’, The Seventeenth Century, 16 (2001), pp. 95–122, and ‘Five Unknown Items from the Correspondence of Marin Mersenne’, The Seventeenth Century, 21 (2006), pp. 73–98. In 2010 the Dutch scholar Erik-Jan Bos discovered an unknown letter from Descartes to Mersenne (of 27 May 1641) in the collection of Haverford College, Pennsylvania; this had been stolen from the Institut de France in the nineteenth century, and has now been generously returned by Haverford College to the Institut. It will appear in a forthcoming edition of Descartes’s correspondence, edited by Bos.


Launch Catalogue

Please see our citation guidelines for instructions on how to cite this catalogue.