‘My memory will be erased’: the bicentenary of Sade’s death

In his fiction, the Marquis de Sade conceived countless ways to die. The most shocking ones are notorious: After having escaped from the hands of numerous libertines, the virtuous Justine is struck by lightning. Other victims are just as unfortunate and end up being tortured to death by Juliette and her fellow libertines. In Les Cent-Vingt Journées de Sodome, the duc de Blangis even informs a host of beautiful creatures that they should already consider themselves ‘dead to the world’ before having been dispatched.


Engraving from Justine ou les malheurs de la vertu, 3rd edition: ‘En Hollande, 1800’.

Despite these somewhat intimidating aspects, Sade’s decent works provide less painful ways to be decomposed into particles of insensible matter. In Florville et Courval, a tale belonging to the Crimes de l’amour, the pious Mme de Lérince dies feeling pangs of conscience, while the Epicurean Mme de Verquin peacefully passes away on a voluptuous bed, scantily dressed and surrounded by fragrant flowers: ‘I will calmly fall asleep on the bosom of nature, without regret and pain, without remorse and anxiety’. On her deathbed, Mme de Verquin already imagines the flowers that will have been fed by the atoms of her ‘disorganized’ body. Sade’s literary universe, usually renowned as one of torture and pain, does not exclude peaceful death.

Unlike Mme de Verquin, who dies aged 25 and in the flower of her youth, Sade passed away aged 74 in the lunatic asylum of Charenton. As his biographers tell us, he wasn’t spared the ailments of old age and even suffered violent pain during the days preceding his death on 2 December 1814.


The lunatic asylum of Charenton in 1856. Engraving from Adolphe Joanne, Les Environs de Paris illustrés (Paris, 1856), p.575.


Far more interesting than the real circumstances of his decease is how Sade imagined it. In his testament, signed in 1806, Sade stipulates that his corpse should be buried on his property of Malmaison southwest of Paris. Furthermore, he specifies some particulars of the burial:

‘Once the grave has been covered up, one will sow acorns, and when the ground has become overgrown and the brushwood turns to be as thick as it used to be, the traces of my tomb may disappear from the surface of the earth, just as I like to think that my memory will be erased from the spirit of mankind.’

As the rich and often controversial reception of his work over the last two centuries shows, his last will has not been fulfilled. According to his testament, he wanted to fade from collective memory, but 200 years after his death he is a part of both popular and scholarly culture.

Yet we might not be betraying his last will when we study his texts today. The instructions to the undertaker have something deeply theatrical and seem keen on capturing attention rather than erasing memory. Unsurprisingly, the last sentence from the testament is one of the favourite quotes in Sade studies…

On 2 December 2014, numerous scholars will commemorate Sade’s life and work. A conference in Amsterdam, organized by Gert Hekma and Lode Lauwaert, will investigate Sade’s impact on contemporary ideas of sexuality. On the eve of the bicentenary day, Nicholas Cronk and I will present our recent edited volume Sade, l’inconnu? at Oxford. And many others might join us and lift their glasses in honour of de Sade: A la vôtre, Monsieur le Marquis!

– Manuel Mühlbacher

Trolling in the eighteenth century: a case study

Voltaire, over the course of his long career, had a taste for publishing works under pseudonyms: perhaps most famously, M. le docteur Ralph, author of Candide, in whose pockets additions to the tale were supposedly found after the good doctor’s death. Also the rabbi Akib, the abbé Bazin, M. de Morza, to list but a few of his many noms de plume. More than a strategy to deflect the consequences of his more provocative and controversial writings (the anonymous Twitter handles and ‘sock-puppet accounts’ of the day), the practice also gave him playful enjoyment in the sheer variety of names and personas that he adopted.

J.-J. Le Franc de Pompignan (Anonymous), Hotel d’Assézat, Toulouse.

J.-J. Le Franc de Pompignan (Anonymous), Hotel d’Assézat, Toulouse.

All of Voltaire’s pseudonyms were not imaginary characters, however, and in the early days of 1764 a letter appeared in print, apparently a reply from his secretary Wagnière to one Ladouz, former secretary of one of Voltaire’s arch-enemies, the academician Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan (who in 1763 had arranged for his local church to be restored, an enterprise which provided Voltaire with the opportunity to poke fun in a series of amusing pamphlets). This Ladouz has supposedly written to Voltaire, seeking a formal attestation that he has not betrayed his erstwhile employer by sending compromising documents to Ferney.

Ladouz has not betrayed his master’s confidence, ‘Wagnière’ confirms; his own master’s knowledge of Mr Le Franc de Pompignan is confined to:

1. Some rather bad verse;

2. His speech to the Académie Française, in which he insults all men of letters;

3. A memorandum to the king in which he tells His Majesty that he has a fine library at Pompignan-lès-Montauban;

4. The description of a magnificent celebration that he organised at Pompignan, the procession in which he walked behind a young Jesuit, accompanied by local pipers, and the great feast for twenty-six that was the talk of the province;

5. A beautiful sermon of his own composition, in which he is said to be amongst the stars in the firmament, whilst the clergymen of Paris and all men of letters are in the mud at his feet.

If indeed Ladouz did write to Voltaire, the letter provided an excellent pretext to trot out again these lines of ridicule, which had already appeared under Voltaire’s own pen the year before. The Lettre du secrétaire de M. de Voltaire, au secrétaire de M. Le Franc de Pompignan may have begun life as a genuine letter, as the editor of his correspondence, Theodore Besterman, tells us, but anyone familiar with Voltaire’s writings against Le Franc will recognise the style and content of the Lettre. In fact, the author wrote to D’Alembert on the subject of the Lettre, quoting Renaissance poet Clément Marot (D11628):

     Monsieur l’abbé et monsieur son valet
     Sont faits égaux, tous deux comme de cire.


Drop-title of the Lettre du secrétaire de M. de Voltaire (Bibliothèque nationale de France, 8-LN27-12065).

If anything, this aptly quoted verse is a tacit sign that his secretary has lent him his name – although even after the master’s death, Wagnière took responsibility for the piece. So was this then in fact a real letter, or does the epistolary form only serve further to broadcast material ridiculing Le Franc in a different guise and from a – supposedly – different pen? If it was a letter, how does its publication fit with eighteenth-century epistolary protocols?

The Lettre du secrétaire appears in Voltaire’s correspondence (D11616), and also appears in his complete works since the piece benefitted from a separate publication at his hands. This new edition has the advantage of focussing attention on the ambiguities of such a document, a short text that would otherwise be lost in the great mass of Voltaire’s writings and letters. It is published this month, along with the Lettre de M. de L’Ecluse, the Hymne chanté au village de Pompignan, the Relation du voyage de M. le marquis Le Franc de Pompignan, the Lettre de Paris, du 28 février 1763 and an Avis des editeurs, under the umbrella title ‘Writings on Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan’ in OCV, volume 57A.

– G.P.

Besterman lecture 2014: The German Enlightenment and its interpretation

The Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment and the TORCH Enlightenment Programme invite you to the 2014 Besterman Lecture: ‘ “True Enlightenment can be both achieved and beneficial” – The German Enlightenment and its interpretation’ by Joachim Whaley, Professor of German History and Thought, Cambridge, on Thursday 20 November 2014, at 5:15 pm, in Room 2, Taylor Institution, Oxford. All welcome.

A podcast of the lecture is now available.

There is a long-standing scholarly tradition that affirms the existence of a distinctive German Enlightenment or Aufklärung but which denies that it had any long-term impact on German history.

In the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries deep-rooted narratives of German history emphasised the special destiny of a country which turned away from the sterile rationalism of western (essentially French) Enlightenment. Romanticism and Idealism were said to have transcended the Enlightenment and to have represented a uniquely German way of understanding the world.


Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer went so far as to suggest that the Enlightenment was effectively responsible for the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Photograph taken in April 1964 by Jeremy J. Shapiro at the Max Weber-Soziologentag. Horkheimer is front left, Adorno front right, and Habermas is in the background, right, running his hand through his hair. Jjshapiro at en.wikipedia

After 1945 the same narrative gained negative connotations in the context of the view that German history followed a ‘special path’ (Sonderweg), which sought to explain the long-term origins of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Indeed, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer went so far as to suggest that the Enlightenment was effectively responsible for those later developments. That was an extreme view which many rejected. Yet the scholarly consensus in Germany nonetheless consistently underplayed the role of the Aufklärung. Germany, it was held, turned away from the Enlightenment in the 1790s; the movement was too weak to prevail over the critical assault of its enemies, who set Germany on a course that led inexorably to the disasters of the 1930s and 1940s.

Jonathan Israel’s more recent narrative of the Enlightenment in many ways complements this view. His focus on the Radical Enlightenment as the true Enlightenment (which, however, developed moderate and critical or antagonistic variants throughout Europe) leads him to dismiss most Aufklärung thinking as moderate and therefore incapable of effecting true modernisation in the form of the core values that he defines for Western society. He underlines again the force of antagonistic and critical views in the last years of the eighteenth century.

These approaches do not do justice to the distinctive character of the Aufklärung, or to its impact and legacy. The main reason for this is that they do not pay attention to the framework within which it developed. Ever since the early nineteenth century historians have by and large held negative views of the Holy Roman Empire: an allegedly sclerotic and doomed system that could not possibly have been associated with progressive Enlightenment ideas. Yet in fact the Holy Roman Empire not only formed the institutional and state framework within which the Aufklärung developed; its institutions were themselves transformed by the ideas of the new way of thinking.


Johann Joachim Spalding (1714-1804) by Anton Graff. Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin.

The German Enlightenment mainstream was not defined by radicalism, by the followers of Spinoza, whom Israel puts at the heart of his narrative, but by reformism. The central text of the movement there was Johann Joachim Spalding’s Über die Bestimmung des Menschen (Reflections on the destiny of man). First published in 1748 as a twenty-six page pamphlet, it went through over forty editions before Spalding’s death in 1804, ending up as a book of 244 pages. It was perhaps the title as much as the content which accounted for the work’s impact. For the idea that man might have a vocation, a destiny or a ‘determination’ chimed perfectly with the mood of the mature German Aufklärung. Indeed the phrase ‘die Bestimmung des Menschen’ itself rapidly became one of the fundamental ideas of the Aufklärung, both a declaration and a programme in its own right.

It is only if one explores the implications of this programme that one can fully understand the German Enlightenment in its distinctive context of the eighteenth-century Holy Roman Empire: a quasi-federal polity with central and regional institutions, a polity in which the actual business of government was devolved to the territories and cities. Furthermore, the reform movements associated with the Aufklärung at all levels – empire, regional structures, and territories and cities – had effects that shaped German history into the twentieth century and arguably even into the twenty-first century. Exploring these ramifications of Enlightenment in Germany is to uncover a hidden history. ‘Enlightenment can be both achieved and beneficial’, proclaimed the Brockhaus encyclopaedia in 1864. Despite everything that later happened in Germany, the conviction that Aufklärung might still be possible continued to inspire significant numbers of Germans, as it still does today.

– Joachim Whaley

Find out more about 6000 years of German history in the series ‘Germany: memories of a nation’, presented by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum.

Rediscovering Voltaire and Rameau’s Temple de la gloire


Le Temple de la gloire was commissioned by the duc de Richelieu to celebrate Louis XV’s return to Versailles after a famous (and rare) victory at Fontenoy, in the War of the Austrian Succession. Voltaire provided the libretto, and the piece, described variously as an opéra-ballet or ballet héroïque, was set to music by Jean-Philippe Rameau. There were two performances at court in late November and early December 1745, followed by further performances in Paris, and a short-lived revival of a revised version in 1746: since then, the piece has all but vanished.


Russell Goulbourne’s critical edition of Le Temple de la gloire in the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (vol. 28A, 2006) gets to grips for the first time with the complicated history of Voltaire’s libretto. But it is hard to fully appreciate any libretto without the music which brings it to life. Voltaire’s libretto was frequently printed in his lifetime, but Rameau’s music remained unpublished until 1909, when Saint-Saëns brought out the 1746 version of the score; the music of the 1745 version, long thought lost, has only recently turned up in the university library at Berkeley.

A French musicologist, Julien Dubruque, has just produced the first critical edition of the score (Opera omnia Rameau, vol. IV.12), its appearance in 2014 timed to coincide with the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death. Much of this music has never been heard since the eighteenth century, and on 14 October 2014 a concert performance of Le Temple de la gloire was given in the beautiful eighteenth-century Opéra Royal at Versailles, with Guy Van Waas conducting his orchestra, Les Agrémens, and the Chœur de chambre de Namur. To those of us who had only heard the old LP recording made by Jean-Claude Malgoire (CBS, 1982), this concert was an amazing revelation.


Of course Le Temple de la gloire was only ever an occasional piece, but perhaps on that account we have underestimated it. The work was patently an attempt to relive the glory days of the celebrations at the court of Louis XIV. But if Louis XV was clearly uncomfortable in the shoes of the Sun King, Rameau and Voltaire, on the evidence of this concert, could certainly fill the shoes of Lully and Quinault. The re-emergence of Rameau’s glorious music – and a recording of the concert is to be released – should encourage us to return to Voltaire’s libretto and reassess his achievement as a writer for the Court.

The concert can be heard on the website of France Musique until 13 November 2014.

For more on eighteenth-century libretti, see Le Livret d’opéra en France au XVIIIe siècle, by Béatrice Didier.

– Nicholas Cronk

Sixty years on: the museum of the Institut et Musée Voltaire

From 1755 to 1760, Voltaire lived at Les Délices in Geneva, where he notably wrote the Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, in reaction to the devastating earthquake that struck Lisbon on 1 November 1755, contributed articles to the Encyclopédie, and put the finishing touches to his most famous work, Candide, begun at his winter quarters at Montriond in Lausanne.

Geneva by Geissler

Christian-Gottlieb Geissler, Vue de Genève et du Salève depuis les Délices, watercolour, 1774

In the two and a half centuries since Voltaire left Les Délices, the land and views recorded by Geissler have been swallowed up by the town and the house has even been threatened with demolition to make way for high-rise buildings. How fortunate for us that, sixty years ago, Theodore Besterman managed to persuade the local authorities to let him set up the Institut et Musée Voltaire! The collection and the library that Besterman started and that his successors have actively developed make this a wholly fascinating place in which to immerse oneself in Voltaire’s world. Here is a quick overview of some of the latest developments in the museum.

The portrait gallery, to the right of the entrance hall, has been rehung to give a real sense of Voltaire’s far-flung circle of friends and relations during his time in Geneva. Favourite actors Lekain and Mlle Clairon, in her costume for L’Orphelin de la Chine, still share the space with, among others, Protestant pastor Moultou as a child, in a green brocade gown, a bird perched on his finger. They now also rub shoulders with two of Voltaire’s neighbours, Simon Bertrand and his wife, thanks to the recent Masset bequest, while Marie-Louise Denis, Voltaire’s niece who lived with him at Les Délices, is currently being restored and will soon reclaim her place as mistress of the house.

The latest acquisition is a pair of huge portraits of Louis XV et Marie Leczinska, which, along with the portrait of Louis XIV already in the collection, will enable visitors to explore the theme of Voltaire’s always ambiguous relationship with royalty.

Institut et Musée Voltaire, photograph by Matthias Thomann

Institut et Musée Voltaire, photograph by Matthias Thomann

In recent years, Les Délices has welcomed another inhabitant: Rousseau. A portrait by Robert Gardelle that had been lost for so long that some even doubted it had ever existed was rediscovered in the bequest mentioned earlier and now hangs in the small room to the left of the entrance. The library of the Société Jean-Jacques Rousseau is housed upstairs, while Houdon’s monumental terracotta statue of a seated Voltaire smiles on with surprising benevolence.

Once you have visited the Institut et Musée Voltaire, the logical next step is to follow Voltaire to the Château de Ferney, just over the border in France (but do check that it is not closed for restoration first).

The museum of the Institut et Musée Voltaire is open Monday to Saturday, 2–5pm, or for group visits by appointment in the morning. Entry is free.

If you can’t get there in person, we recommend this video and the more up-to-date A short history of Les Délices: from the property of Saint-Jean to the Institut et Musée Voltaire.

– Alice

L’Europe des Lumières: un recours face au désenchantement présent?

Le désenchantement face à la construction européenne n’est pas neuf. L’âge d’or qui présida, après la seconde guerre mondiale, à la renaissance du projet européen, fut de courte durée. Aussi depuis trente ans la désillusion ne cesse-t-elle de s’approfondir et de prendre des formes nouvelles.


David Rumsey Map Collection, www.davidrumsey.com

Ce désenchantement tient, nous dit-on, au ‘déficit démocratique’ dont la construction européenne serait victime. Dans cet esprit, les projets politiques pour l’Europe, vaste palette allant des Etats-Unis d’Europe à la fédération des peuples, semblent plus ou moins relégués aux oubliettes de l’histoire. A mesure que ses critiques dénoncent la froide vérité de la construction européenne, les espoirs de ceux qui, depuis la Résistance et l’antifascisme, ont considéré l’Europe comme le remède aux barbaries nationales, sont sans cesse déçus. L’Europe ne fait plus rêver: depuis 2005 et le non français et néerlandais au référendum sur le Traité Constitutionnel Européen, elle fait surtout parler d’elle pour des raisons techniques plus ou moins obscures. En 2012, la crise des dettes souveraines, menaçant ce qui semblait jusqu’alors intangible (l’union monétaire voire l’union elle-même) n’a fait qu’accentuer la désillusion.


Non-sensunique, Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Pourtant, l’Europe n’a pas vocation à être l’objet de ce regard désenchanté. Encore faut-il savoir ce qu’est l’Europe et de quelle histoire elle hérite. Le volume collectif Penser l’Europe au XVIIIe siècle: commerce, civilisation, empire se propose donc, non de définir l’Europe par son passé, mais de retrouver les origines d’une pensée de l’Europe. Il se pourrait en effet que l’Europe souffre moins d’un déficit démocratique que d’un déficit théorique, d’une difficulté à concevoir cette entité étrange qui n’est ni une nation, ni un empire, qui ne se laisse réduire ni à sa géographie ni à son histoire.

Cette pensée de l’Europe plonge ses racines au cœur du XVIIIe siècle, dans la période privilégiée de l’histoire européenne qui se situe entre la fin des guerres de religion et la montée en puissance des nationalismes. Le détour par les Lumières s’impose donc pour explorer l’histoire de l’idée d’Europe, antérieurement à la simplification dualiste aujourd’hui dominante (fédération ou marché). L’hypothèse de ce recueil est en effet la suivante: si l’Europe a une longue histoire, c’est bien au XVIIIe siècle que se sont forgées les premières théories de l’Europe – théories qui furent largement occultées au siècle suivant.


L’Europe fut alors conçue comme une fédération, mais aussi, à la suite de la découverte du Nouveau Monde, comme une forme de ‘marché’ en pleine expansion, au moment où l’économie politique commençait à prétendre au titre de science et où la traite en plein développement trouvait ses premiers critiques. Tendue entre la réalité naissante du marché mondial associé à l’expansion coloniale et soumis aux rivalités impériales, et l’utopie de l’association d’Etats désireux de garantir une coexistence pacifique, l’Europe fut aussi théorisée de manière plus profonde, plus féconde et plus dangereuse à la fois: elle fut conçue, pour la première fois sans doute, comme une ‘civilisation’. C’est alors une autre généalogie, complexe et polémique, dont il faut comprendre les enjeux: celle des théories de la civilisation européenne, avant le développement de l’impérialisme triomphant au XIXe siècle.

– Antoine Lilti et Céline Spector



Penser l’Europe au XVIIIe siècle: commerce, civilisation, empire

Edité par Antoine Lilti et Céline Spector

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, octobre 2014, ISBN 978-0-7294-1148-6, 280 p.

Voir aussi:



David Bien: the ancien régime in a new light

Satirical print from 1789 depicting the Third Estate carrying the clergy and nobility on its back. The caption reads: ‘A faut esperer qu’eus jeu la finira bentot’ – ‘Here’s hoping this game’s over soon’. SOURCE: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Satirical print from 1789 depicting the Third Estate carrying the clergy and nobility on its back. The caption reads: ‘A faut esperer qu’eus jeu la finira bentot’ – ‘Here’s hoping this game’s over soon’.
(Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Say the words ‘ancien régime’ and what might spring to mind is an image of Marie Antoinette nibbling on rosewater macaroons and declaring ‘let them eat cake’ while the starving poor of France sharpen their pitchforks at the gates of Versailles.

In our cultural psyche, France’s ancien régime is the age of the Three Estates: the nobility, the clergy, and everyone else. It is the age when wigs, powder and mouches covered up baldness and smallpox scars, when the sprightly minuets of Louis XVI’s court attempted to drown out the cries of the hordes – and when an outward semblance of elegant refinement masked corruption, cruelty and inequality.

It is a period which David Bien, Professor of History at the University of Michigan from 1967-1996, made his own. A quiet radical, he devoted his scholarly career to unravelling its paradoxes and nuances, constructing a multi-faceted portrait of a historical period far more complex than this collection of cultural clichés might lead us to suppose.


Interpreting the ‘ancien régime’: David Bien brings together for the first time in one accessible volume his essays on religious tolerance, policies of ennoblement, and military reform. It offers access to his cogent and sensitive analyses, but also represents an opportunity to re-evaluate questions about the ways in which we read, write and think about history.

David Bien relished the opportunity to let the past speak for itself. His highly original readings of events were hewn from hours of research in the archives. He heard in the rustle of parchment the whisper of the past, and found innovation where one would least expect it, in centuries-old documents. In 1960, his daring new reading of the notorious Calas affair brought him firmly onto the historical scene. In 1761, the scandalous death of Marc-Antoine and the condemnation and torture of his father, Protestant Jean Calas, accused of murdering his son because he intended to convert to Catholicism, appeared to pit the religious establishment in the form of the judges of Toulouse’s Capitoul against Enlightenment thinkers promoting tolerance and religious freedom.

The frontispiece of a late 18th or early 19th century English chapbook, depicting ‘The cruel death of Calas, who was broke on the wheel at Toulouse, March 9th, 1762’

The frontispiece of a late 18th or early 19th century English chapbook, depicting ‘The cruel death of Calas, who was broke on the wheel at Toulouse, March 9th, 1762’

David Bien’s reading ran counter to the accepted narrative, which was largely based on Voltaire’s presentation of the case in his Traité sur la tolérance. Rather than viewing ideas as absolute schools, Bien placed them back into their specific historical context in order to re-evaluate this version of events. He demonstrated that the events in Toulouse were the exception rather than the rule, using judicial records to suggest that many Catholic French judges of the time were actually embracing the ideal of religious tolerance, often presented as the sole preserve of Enlightenment thinkers, in their attitude towards Protestants. Bien invites us to reconsider the writings of thinkers like Voltaire on the Calas affair as carefully crafted pieces of polemic which are indissociable from a wider intellectual project of secularization.

Detail from a portrait of Voltaire, after Maurice Quentin de La Tour c.1736 (Château de Ferney)

Detail from a portrait of Voltaire, after Maurice Quentin de La Tour c.1736 (Château de Ferney)

David Bien’s early work on tolerance in the eighteenth century is perhaps a hallmark of his attitude as a historian. Open-minded and sensitive to the inconsistencies of the past, David Bien refused to be drawn into the polemical clash of theories and schools which wracked the French establishment in the 1970s and 1980s, as Marxist historians grappled with the new revisionist school spearheaded by Bien’s close friend, François Furet. For Bien, scholarly nuance and intellectual rigour came before adherence to a particular school.

When he retired from teaching in 1996, David Bien therefore left behind not a theory but an ethos, which proved inspirational to the next generation of US academics. David Bien’s approach reminds us that, while it may all be in the past, history refuses to play dead.

– Madeleine Chalmers


Interpreting the ancién régime. David Bien.

Edited by Rafe Blaufarb, Michael S. Christofferson and Darrin M. McMahon

Preface by Keith Baker

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, September 2014

ISBN 9780729411448, 320 pages