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Viète [Vieta], Francois

1. Dates
Born: Fontenay-le-Comte, Poitou (now Vendée), 1540
Died: Paris, 23 February 1603
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 63
2. Father
Occupation: Lawyer, Government Official
Viète's father, Etienne Viète, was an attorney in Fontenay and a notary in Le Busseau. He was also a procureur du roi in Fontenay. Viète's grandfather was a merchant in the village of Foussay in Lower Poitou. Viète's mother was the first cousin to Barnabé Brisson, President of the Parlement de Paris under the League.
All the evidence places the Viète family among the most distinguished in Fontenary. At least by the age of twenty, Viète was Sieur de la Bigotière. His two brothers both had distinguished positions. I do not see how to avoid the conclusion that the family was wealthy.
3. Nationality
Birth: French
Career: French
Death: French
4. Education
Schooling: Poitiers, L.D.
He made his early studies with a tutor in Fontenay. In 1555 he began his studies in law at the University of Poitiers. In 1560 he received his bachelor's degree and his license for practicing law. I treat this as the equivalent of a B.A., and I list the law degree.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
Although Viète had many Huguenot clients, he never renounced his faith; neither did he brandish it, however, as a sword. His association with Huguenots as clients caused him some difficulty between 1584 and 1589 when his enemies had him banished from court.
There are some indications that Viète was indifferent to religion to the extent of rejecting it. However, the stories are gossip more than hard fact, and I do not list him as heterodox.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics
Subordinate: Astronomy
Viète's first scientific work was his set of lectures to Catherine Parthenay of which only Principes des cosmographie survives. This work introduced his student to the sphere, elements of geography, and elements of astronomy. His mathematical works are closely related to his cosmology and works in astronomy. In 1571 he published Canon mathematicus which was to serve as the trigonometric introduction to his Harmonicon coeleste which was never published. Twenty years later he published In artem analyticum isagoge which was the earliest work on symbolic algebra. In 1592 he began his dispute with Scaliger over his purported solutions to the classical problems with ruler and compass. In 1595 he began corresponding with Adrianus Romanus over a problem proposed by him in 1593. Adrianus was so impressed with Viète's solution to the 45th degree equation that he travelled to Fontenay to meet him. For all his achievement, however, mathematics was only a pastime for Viète, who was first and foremost a lawyer and public administrator.
Viète was involved in the calendar reform. He rejected Clavius's ideas and in 1602 published a vehement attack against the calendar reform and Clavius. The dispute ended only with Viète's death at the beginning of 1603.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Government, Patronage
Secondary: Law, Personal Means
After returning to Fontenay from his law studies he is reported in some sources to have taken on the cases of Eleanor of Aquitaine (1561) and Marie Stuart (1564), taking care of their interests in Poitou and Fontenay. Among his other clients were Coligny, Condé, the Queen of Navarre, and Henri de Bourbon. Of all this, however, (Henri de Bourbon excepted) Grisard, who appears very reliable, says nothing. From his career it appears reasonable to accept law practice, as distinct from legal work as a client, as an early occupation.
In 1564 he accepted the position as secretaire particulier to Antoinette d'Aubeterre (of the important Soubise family). He was also given the tutoring responsibilities of her daughter, Catherine de Parthenay.
Acccccording to some sources he was an avocat of the Parlement of Paris from 1570 to 1573. Grisard finds no evidence for this, but does think Viète was in Paris during this period.
In 1573 Charles IX appointed him counselor to the Parlement of Brittany at Rennes. During his six years with the Parlement (1574-80) he was frequently absent on business of the King who employed him in various ways.
He became maitre des requetes and royal privy counselor in 1580. He was apparently deeply involved in negotiating some justice for Françoise de Rohan in what was a scandalouus case. From 1584 to 1589 his enemies at court, primarily the Guise who stood to loose by the settlement of that case, succeeded in having him banished from the royal court. He appears to have lived as a client of Françoise during part of this time.
In 1589 Henri III set up court in Tours and recalled Viète. After the death of Henri III, Viète served Henri IV in the war with Spain by decoding the letters intercepted. He served as maitre des requetes and a member of Henri's privy council. He was also a member of the Parlement of Paris.
8. Patronage
Types: Aristrocrat, Court Official
Viète served as secretaire particulier to Antoinette d'Aubeterre. He dedicated his Art analytique to Catherine de Parthenay.
He dedicated his Essays to the Duc de Bouillon.
Grisard concludes that Viète owed his rather rapid rise in favor to Françoise de Rohan.
Except for the period between 1584 and 1589 he enjoyed the favor of the court from Charles IX, Henri III, and Henri IV.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Applied Mathematics
I list his contribution to trigonometrical calculations here.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
  1. F. Ritter, "Francois Viète, inventeur de l'algebre moderne, 1540-1603, essai sur sa vie et son oeuvre," Revue occidentale philosophique sociale et politique, 2nd ser., 10 (1895) 234-74.
  2. J.M. Dunoyer de Segonzac, "Deux hommes de sciences dans les pays de la Loire aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles: Francois Viète et René Descartes," in 97e congres national des sociétés savantes, (Nantes, 1972) 1, 123-33.
  3. J. Grisard, "Francois Viète, mathematicien de la fin du seizième siecle," These de 3e cycle Ecole pratique des hautes etudes, (Paris, 1968).
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. P. Dedron and J. Itard, Mathematiques et mathematiciens, (Paris, 1959), pp. 159-85.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

©1995 Al Van Helden
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