For Elizabeth Armstrong, Robert I Estienne, was, in many ways, the quintessential renaissance man.[1] His multi-lingual ability (and, in particular, his expertise in Latin, the lingua franca of the age), in conjunction with his commitment to humanist scholarship, made him not only an attractive printer to the humanist scholars of sixteenth-century Europe, but also to King François I of France. The patronage of François I (1494-1547), and in particular his financial support for the creation of the famous Greek types known as the ‘Grecs du Roy’, has ensured Robert I’s place in the history of printing in sixteenth-century Europe.

De Latinis et Græcis nominibus arborum, fructicum, herbarum, piscium, & auium liber : ex Aristotele, Theophrasto, Dioscoride, Galeno, Aëtio, Paulo Aegineta, Actuario, Nicandro, Athenaeo, Oppiano, Aeliano, Plinio, Hermolao Barbaro, & Iohanne Ruellio : cum Gallica eoru[m] nominum appellatione (Paris, 1554), p. 3.

Although the Estienne printing dynasty was primarily famous because of the beauty and erudition of the Latin and Greek texts they produced, it is important to keep in mind that they also produced texts in the vernacular. Henri I Estienne first published in French in 1511, nine years before his death. His Geometrie en francoys. Cy commence le Livre de lart et science de Geometrie : avecques les figures sur chascune rigle [sic] au long declarees, par lesquelles on peult entendre et facillement comprendre ledit art et science de Geometrie (Paris, 1511), was, as the title suggests, a volume on geometry and it was one of a number of scientific works produced by the Estienne press.[2] This extension of production beyond the normal Latin and Greek which were the staple of most printing houses, was carried on by Henri I’s son Charles, who produced the above dictionary of the names of trees, fruits, herbs, fish and birds in 1554. In it he provided not only the Latin and Greek names, but also their French equivalent. The first extract here, ‘Abies’ (or ‘sapin’ in French) refers to fir trees.

The Estiennes’ commitment to the French language was not restricted to their grammatical and etymological works. Instead, Charles, following in his father’s footsteps, was responsible for a lot of scientific and geographical publications in French (most notably his La dissection des parties du corps humain (Paris, 1546).[3] Using French for such scholarly publications encouraged many to study in their first language.

Worth owned few Estiennes printed in French and none in Hebrew – he was clearly more interested in their Latin and Greek editions. But the lack of Estienne vernacular texts in his collection should not blind us to the fact that the Estiennes played a major role in the establishment of the modern French language. The lexicographical work of Henri II Estienne, his father Robert I, and many other family members, combined with the gigantic amount of translation undertaken by the whole family, was crucial in this regard.

Their commitment to the development of the French language may be seen in several prefaces to their books. For example, in Henri II’s Projet de Précellence, printed by Mamert Patisson in 1579, he addressed French as follows:

‘François, j’ay exalté si haut votre langage,
Que tous les autres sur lui on verra envieux,
Comme ayant dessus tous un si grand avantage,
Que si eux disent, luy dit encore mieux’.[4]

Henri II was particularly committed to the promotion of the French language. As Schreiber notes, this text was part of a trilogy of works he wrote extolling the importance of French.[5] The first of the trilogy had seen the light as early as 1565 when Henri II published his first vernacular work, the Traicté de la conformité du langage François avec le Grec (Geneva, 1565). This had been followed by his Deux dialogues de nouveau langage François italianizé (Geneva, 1578), and finally by the Proiect du livre De la precellenece du langage François (Paris, 1579).

[Anakreontos Teiou mele]: Anacreontis Teij odæ. Ab Henrico Stephano luce & Latinitate nunc primùm donatæ (Paris,1554), example of the largest Grecs du Roy.

Henri II’s father, Robert I, may have been better known for his Latin and Greek publications, but, as Armstrong notes, he too played an important role in the introduction of accents into printed French.[6] His chief glories were, however, his texts using the Grecs du Roy and his son Henri II continued to use them to great effect. An example of Henri II’s use of the largest of the three sizes is visible above. This text, the first edition of what was believed to be the poetry of the 6th century BC poet Anacreaon, was, as Screiber notes, a highly influential Renaissance text, creating a ‘poetic revolution’ in sixteenth-century Europe.[7]


Armstrong, Elizabeth, Robert Estienne, Royal Printer (Cambridge, 1954).

Estienne, Henri, Traicté de la conformité du langage François avec le Grec (Geneva, 1565).

Estienne, Henri, Proiect du livre intitulé la précellence du langage François (Paris, 1579).

Estienne, Henri, Proverbes epigrammatisez (Paris, 1594).

Schreiber, Fred, The Estiennes. An annotated catalogue of 300 highlights of their various presses (New York, 1982).



[1] Armstrong, Elizabeth, Robert Estienne, Royal Printer (Cambridge, 1954).

[2] This work is not in the Worth Library.

[3] This work is not in the Worth Library.

[4] Estienne, Henri, Proiect du livre intitulé la précellence du langage françois, (Paris, 1579). (This may be translated as: ‘French, I exalted your language so high/ Let everyone else be envious of it/ As having so much advantage over all/ that, if they can say something, we can say it better’.

[5] Schreiber, Fred, The Estiennes. An annotated catalogue of 300 highlights of their various presses (New York, 1982), p. 204.

[6] Armstrong, Elizabeth, Robert Estienne, Royal Printer (Cambridge, 1954), p. 54.

[7] Schreiber, The Estiennes, p. 129.