The Newberry French Revolution Collection at ARTFL

As we begin planning Digitizing Enlightenment IV, which will take place in the context of the ISECS Congress in Edinburgh in July 2019, we are keen to broaden the scope and breadth of the Digitizing Enlightenment community in order to highlight new, and existing, digital projects across the interdisciplinary spectrum of eighteenth-century studies. This post, based on work presented at the Digitizing Enlightenment III workshop held in Oxford in July 2018, demonstrates how to identify text reuse – citations, borrowings, plagiarisms – as well as other techniques for leveraging freely available large data-sets from the 18C.
– Glenn Roe, Voltaire Lab

The incredible richness of the Newberry Library’s French Revolution Collection (FRC) has been long known. It consists of more than 30,000 pamphlets and more than 23,000 issues of 180 periodicals published between 1780 and 1810, representing the opinions of all the factions that opposed and defended the monarchy during the turbulent period between 1789-1799 and also contains innumerable ephemeral publications of the early First Republic. The Newberry has released digital copies of more than 35,000 pamphlets totalling approximately 850,000 pages. Not only has the Newberry made the collection available to the public, but it has released a data feed of the entire collection, consisting of the Library’s exceptional metadata describing each object, the OCR text data, and links to the digital facsimiles accessible from the Internet Archive, encouraging researchers and instructors to incorporate the digital collection in new kinds of scholarship and engagement.

In order to facilitate experimental work at ARTFL on this unparalleled resource, we have loaded two versions of this collection – based on a download of the collection from the Newberry’s GitHub repository in November 2017 – into PhiloLogic4, the latest release of ARTFL’s text analysis software. The full version contains all 38,377 documents dating from the 16th century to the end of the 19th century. Our second build attempts to eliminate duplicate documents, is restricted to the period 1787-1799, and thus contains 26,445 documents.   Additional implementation information and full open access to both versions of the FRC collection are available online. The quality and coverage of the FRC texts makes it an ideal environment to test a variety of experiments and algorithms to enhance access and open new kinds of approaches using the 1787-99 sample data. At the bottom of the ARTFL FRC page, we have provided links to several different models for examining the collection which are based on extensions to the PhiloLogic4 package.

The simplest model is a document level search which returns matching documents by relevancy ranking based on Python Whoosh. This functions somewhat like a Google search on the collection, with links to the page images of the document or specific instances of the search words in context. For example, the results of a search for “conspirateurs aristocrates ennemis étrangères royalistes” can be seen here.

The second approach is the application of a Topic Model algorithm to the collection. Topic Models are a set of unsupervised learning algorithms that divide collections into a specified number of clusters based on vocabularies of each document which is widely used in digital humanities. The results of the Topic Model has been added to the metadata of the PhiloLogic4 build of the 1787-99 sample data. Each document is identified as having a first and second topic, denoted as A or B, with a number from 00-49 as listed in this TABLE. This first column is the topic number, the second is one or more english keywords which can also be searched. The third column is the top 3 weighted words (features) of that topic, and the 4th column is the rest of the top 10, all of which are shown in relative weight order. Thus, A29 will return the documents that have money assignats as the top weighted topic. Searching for “money” in topic models will get this as eight the first or second topic.   An alternative use of this data is to copy some or all of the terms in columns 3 and 4 into the Whoosh search form and get the documents in a ranked relevancy order.

Our first presentation of our work at the Digitizing Enlightenment III showed results from applying the latest version of our sequence aligner to detect text reuse – citations, borrowings, plagiarisms, and so on – from pre-Revolutionary documents during the Revolutionary period. Sequence alignment is a family of algorithms used in a surprising range of disciplines from genetics to text analysis to identify similar segments of arbitrary length. For this work, we aligned the FRC 1787-99 sample against ARTFL’s Frantext pre-1788 collection. The Frantext sample contains 1,263 documents and is particularly strong in 18th century holdings. We loaded the results of the alignment run in a dedicated database which can be queried in a variety of ways, such as source and/or target metadata as well as by words in matching passages.

The public database (June 22, 2018 build) found 8,937 aligned passages, or which around 1,000 were identified algorithmically as banalities. Filtering out shorter alignments, less than 10 words, results in just under 7,000 passages. It is important to note that these numbers are very relative, since they can vary significantly depending on the approach we use to identify and merge, where appropriate, longer passages. The general frequencies are not particularly surprising. The following is a table of the number of borrowed passages in the FRC by author.

Montesquieu – 1,315

Rousseau – 1,133

Voltaire – 979

Mably – 303

Aulony – 263

Racine – 168

Helvétius – 167

D’Holbach* – 146


Saint-Simon – 135

Bossuet – 110

La Fontaine – 94

Diderot – 85

Corneille – 72

Mirabeau – 71

Boileau – 69

Bernardin – 67

Montaigne – 65

*D’Holbach appears as two entries due to slight metadata differences.

The yearly distribution of borrowings from the top three Enlightenment authors again follows a reasonable pattern.

The annual distribution in the FRC of the 536 passages derived from Rousseau’s Contrat Social, seems reasonable and would match expectations based on other things we know.

While the global numbers are interesting, if not very surprising, there are number of specific texts and authors which would warrant further investigation. There are numerous chapbooks, such as the Calendrier moral, 1794, which are interesting because of their selection of inspiring passages from various authors. Jean-Jacques Barthélemy’s L’Accord de la religion et de la liberté (1791) features some 25 long extracts from d’Holbach’s Système social.

The alignment database is available to the public. The database has a variety of useful features. This link will push a search for all of the aligned passages in the FRC from Rousseau’s Contrat Social greater than 10 words. The report is laid out chronologically (in this case by FRC year). Each instance shows the matching passages with available metadata, links to the context of each passage, and a button to highlight the differences in each matching pair. The facets on the right will allow you to get frequencies by author, title, year and so on. Clicking on those will return the corresponding text pairs.

We anticipate further experimental work on the FRC, most notably in using the excellent subject information as ways to assess the accuracy of Topic Modelling and to consider supervised learning algorithms to further classify the collection by subject.

It is our pleasure to acknowledge that the Newberry Library has released this extraordinary resource under the Open Data Commons Attribution License, ODC-BY 1.0.   We believe that this splendid collection and the Newberry’s release of all of the data will facilitate a generation of ground-breaking work in Revolutionary studies. If you find the collection useful, please do contact the Newberry Library to congratulate them on this wonderful initiative and how their efforts contribute to your research.

We would love to hear from you. Please send comments, suggestions and problem reports to

– Clovis Gladstone and Mark Olsen



La Beaumelle dans la tourmente de l’affaire Calas

Le quatorzième tome de la « Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle », qui vient de paraître, se concentre sur la période de mars 1761 à décembre 1763.

La Beaumelle par Liotard

Portrait de La Beaumelle par Liotard (Archives Angliviel de La Beaumelle).

Sorti vainqueur de son procès avec le capitoul David de Beaudrigue qui se venge en le faisant désarmer sur la place royale de Toulouse, La Beaumelle compose un mémoire pour la marquise de Montmoirac, accusée d’adultère par son mari, et travaille à une Vie de Maupertuis.

La découverte le 17 octobre 1761 du corps de Marc-Antoine Calas bouleverse l’existence de La Beaumelle. Ses conférences avec l’avocat David Lavaysse, qui prend la défense de son propre fils Gaubert accusé avec la famille Calas, sont l’occasion de sa rencontre avec une des filles de Lavaysse, Rose-Victoire Nicol, devenue veuve. Deux années lui seront nécessaires pour obtenir l’agrément de celle-ci à leur mariage et le consentement du père.

David Lavaysse

Portrait de David Lavaysse (Collection privée).

La situation particulière de La Beaumelle à Toulouse l’oblige à une grande prudence. Protestant notoire, ennemi personnel du capitoul David, il est connu de tous les acteurs de l’affaire, du procureur du roi et des juges du Capitole ou du Parlement comme des accusés et de leurs avocats. En décembre le président de Niquet obtient du comte de Saint-Florentin une lettre de cachet contre lui pour « mauvaise conduite » (un an après le ministre s’irritera d’avoir été abusé). Informé La Beaumelle quitte Toulouse pour Mazères (où Mme Nicol possède une propriété) et le pays de Foix, dont le commandant le marquis de Gudanes est un ami de David Lavaysse.

Ainsi ne faut-il pas s’étonner que malgré les nombreux documents inédits que comporte ce volume, il ne soit pas possible de retracer dans le détail l’action de La Beaumelle en faveur des Calas. Le 1er décembre 1761 il a achevé la rédaction de la « Lettre pastorale » que Paul Rabaut envoie au Procureur général Riquet de Bonrepos, et qui imprimée sous le titre de La Calomnie confondue sera brûlée par le Parlement. Il a collaboré au Mémoire pour le sieur Gaubert Lavaysse que publie David Lavaysse en janvier 1762. Les Observations pour le sieur Jean Calas, la dame de Cabibel son épouse, et le sieur Pierre Calas, son fils, signées par le procureur Duroux fils et traditionnellement attribuées au conseiller au Parlement Lassalle, doivent être restituées à La Beaumelle. Début juin il rédige le mémoire « au Roy » par lequel Mme Calas demande que soit « rétablie la mémoire de Jean Calas son mari en sa bonne fame et renommée ». Il compose en septembre le placet des demoiselles Calas pour obtenir leur libération des couvents où elles étaient enfermées.

Paul Rabaut

Portrait de Paul Rabaut (Bibliothèque du protestantisme français, Paris).

L’activité d’écriture de La Beaumelle en cette année 1762 est intense. Il s’exerce encore à présenter une image fidèle de la doctrine calviniste, accusée d’avoir par son intolérance poussé Jean Calas à tuer son fils. En avril il augmente la Requête qu’il avait écrite en décembre 1761 pour le pasteur François Rochette, ouvrage maintenant en trois volumes, « dans lequel il approfondit tous les principes de la tolérance civile » (ce texte a été publié en 2012). Le 31 août est la date de son manuscrit de la « Lettre pastorale de Paul Rabaut, ministre de l’évangile, sur le livre de Mr J.-J. Rousseau, intitulé Emile, ou de l’éducation » (1763). La Beaumelle compose aussi un catéchisme entièrement fondé sur des citations bibliques, qui ne sera jamais publié.

De retour à Toulouse en décembre il entretient une correspondance avec le pasteur Rabaut soucieux de tirer les enseignements de la condamnation de Jean Calas. Il rédige les documents qui seront soumis aux délibérations du synode national des Églises du Désert qui se réunira près de Nîmes en juin 1763. Paul Rabaut aurait souhaité sa présence incognito à proximité pour défendre les propositions qu’il l’a chargé de préparer : la désignation du marquis de Gudanes comme le représentant à Paris des Églises du Désert, la constitution d’un fonds pour faciliter ses démarches, la création d’une gazette protestante et la rédaction d’une requête au Roi. Ces délibérations ne seront pas adoptées.

– Claude Lauriol

‘Garden centres must become the Jacobin Clubs of the new Revolution’

Must they? Ian Hamilton Finlay is the author of this startling command. It is one of his Detached Sentences on Gardening (1980-1998): Finlay was a concrete poet and artist who developed a now-renowned garden by the name of Little Sparta, just to the south of Edinburgh, from the late 1960s onwards. His work, we read, is characterised by an ‘unwavering engagement with the relationship between civilisation and violence’, which his curious ‘detached sentence’ presumably illustrates in the way it connects the garden centre to the Jacobin Club and thence to ‘the new Revolution’. Yet it still seems rather hard to perceive the route from political engagement to garden centre.

William Shenstone, by Edward Alcock

William Shenstone, by Edward Alcock (1760).

Finlay was, it appears, directly influenced in the form and subject of his ‘detached sentences’ by William Shenstone’s Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening (1764). Shenstone was a poet, landowner and landscape gardener. Consultation of his Unconnected Thoughts does not reveal a revolutionary, but it does reveal a dogmatist who opposes the straight line. Not for him the admiration Montaigne expresses in his essay ‘Des Coches’ (On Coaches) for the straight, wide, paved, walled, tree-lined, stream-washed and generally highly usable road linking Quito to Cusco. Shenstone, on the contrary, slams ‘strait-lined avenues’ as giving ‘actual pain to a person of taste’. He singles out two ‘famous vistas’, one in Russia and the other in India, for his particular ire, and this is the comparison he makes: ‘For [a person of taste] to be condemned to pass along the famous vista from Moscow to Petersburg, or that other from Agra to Lahore in India, must be as disagreeable a sentence, as to be condemned to labour at the gallies.’ What, really? Here we find taste and politics brought together with a vengeance. This nasty brew of British imperial superciliousness is so potent, so intoxicating, that it enables Shenstone to use his reference to a vicious penal system as part of a pithy put-down of other tastes, other cultures, other countries. On he goes, empathising with the experience of the galley convict: ‘I conceived some idea of the sensation he must feel’, he says, ‘from walking but a few minutes, immured, betwixt lord D’s high-shorn yew hedges.’

And here, in amongst Lord D’s hedges, is where I ended up, not along a straight line, but after several diversions and detours as pleasingly various as anything the disagreeable Shenstone might have endorsed, and understanding rather better than before how civilization and violence might come together in a garden prospect.

Where I started off was, however, somewhere else entirely: I gave a paper last May at the Voltaire Foundation’s Enlightenment Workshop, run by Nicholas Cronk and Avi Lifschitz. I was talking about eighteenth-century French materialist thought upstream and downstream of Diderot. I was wondering about style and voice and recognisability, and I was trying to understand whether materialist thought – that beast so loathed and reviled by the censoring authorities that it had to go about in disguise, or at least its authors did – had other ways of making itself visible and ensuring its perpetuation. I was wondering whether the repetition of arguments or examples might be part of that, and whether, if what you’re looking at is the ongoing flow of collective voices, it is legitimate or even possible to identify particular ones within the flow.

Basically, I was trying to understand whether Diderot’s late medico-philosophical text the Eléments de physiologie was or was not being cited in Revolutionary Paris of the 1790s; I was also trying to understand what sort of arguments or tools I could use to find this out, given the wall-to-wall silence regarding it; and finally, I was trying to understand whether there’s something somehow against-the-grain in my approach, given that materialist thought tends to privilege connections and the ebb-and-flow of the whole, and does not see any one part as meaningful when separated from any of the rest (thereby interestingly meeting a historicist approach to texts and contexts). Diderot’s work shows this over and over, whether we’re looking at bees in a swarm, an organ in a body, a workman and his loom, a hanger-on in a society of sycophants, or indeed at matter in the universe. And there you have it: the problem in a nutshell. Nobody apart from Diderot writes about this so imaginatively, so interestingly, so self-reflexively. And he’s the one talking about inseparability, the whole being greater than the part, and so on. Back to square one.

Square one, in fact, is that Diderot’s Eléments de physiologie is supposed to be fragmentary and unfinished. You know why? Because he said so, in the preface, in which he describes himself as already dead, and having failed to assemble these promising fragments into a complete text before sadly perishing. Strangely and/or hilariously and/or entirely understandably, this claim has always been taken at face value. Understandably, because it reappears verbatim in his disciple Naigeon’s Mémoires sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. Diderot (1823), which Diderot scholars always seem to take literally, drawing on it as an eye-witness source of factual information. Of course Naigeon was simply quoting Diderot’s own preface, not that anyone has noticed. Fragments, then: why is Diderot focusing on fragments? What is a fragment? Something unfinished, something detached (as in Finlay’s work), or unconnected (as in Shenstone’s)? Something – an element – that’s defined by its relation to the whole of which it is part and without which it has no meaning?

This is what Laura Ouillon, graduate student at the ENS Lyon, disputed. She heard about my paper from Ilya Afanasyev, a medievalist historian specialising in questions of nation and identity who attended the Enlightenment Workshop. Laura is working on Ian Hamilton Finlay, and she sent me her dissertation, ‘Mémoire et Expérience de/à Little Sparta: Le Jardin de pensée selon Ian Hamilton Finlay’, thereby introducing me to his writing, his art and his gardens. Laura is a specialist on British contemporary art, and hopes to pursue her initial work on Finlay in a doctoral thesis. She suggests that we consider the experience of the fragment as an experience in itself, as something that expresses the possibility of sharing and association, of ‘re-membering’, that even invites it. In Finlayan language, the fragment is a crucial brick in the process of bricolage, so beautifully explained by the late lamented Chris Johnson. Or as illustrated in concrete terms here by Finlay himself, with reference to the Jacobin and revolutionary Saint-Just, minus the garden centre. Or did he mean that the garden itself is a centre, a hub of new elements, new fragments?

Little Sparta

Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden in South Lanarkshire, Scotland.

Thinking about connections, juxtaposition and flow, all such crucial aspects of eighteenth-century materialist thought, even if the gorgeous notion of bricolage was not then available, one wonders what sorts of connections there are between the materialism of then and the materialism of now, and what happens if one puts their writing together. Do current theoreticians of materialism, the new materialists, with their intermediary experience of Marxism, think about eighteenth-century materialist writing, Diderot, his upstream and downstream, at all? Of course they have a dense relationship to the tradition via Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault too. Rosi Braidotti, Distinguished University Professor at Utrecht University, important feminist philosopher and articulator of the new materialism, says this about the body. It is:

‘A piece of meat activated by electric waves of desire, a text written by the unfolding of genetic encoding. Neither a sacralised inner sanctum nor a pure socially shaped entity, the enfleshed Deleuzian subject is rather an ”in-between”: it is a folding-in of external influences and a simultaneous unfolding outwards of affects. A mobile entity, an enfleshed sort of memory that repeats and is capable of lasting through sets of discontinuous variations, while remaining faithful to itself. The Deleuzian body is ultimately an embodied memory.’ [1]

I like what she says, and I like her philosophical verbosity, her urgency. But is what she says new, exactly? It sounds continuous with what we read in the Eléments de physiologie:

‘La douleur, le plaisir, la sensibilité, les passions, le bien ou le malaise, les besoins, les appétits, les sensations intérieures et extérieures, l’habitude, l’imagination, l’instinct, l’action propre des organes, commandent à la machine et lui commandent involontairement’ (Pain, pleasure, sensibility, the passions, well-being or discomfort, needs, appetites, internal and external sensations, habit, imagination, instinct, and the natural functioning of the organs, they all command the machine, and do so involuntarily) (Eléments de physiologie, chapter on free will).

And in this context, what the self is, is memory. Thus: ‘la mémoire constitue le soi’ (memory constitutes the self) (Eléments de physiologie, chapter on memory). What Braidotti says, therefore, sounds more like an iteration in modern philosophical language, a renewal of the sort of thing we find in Diderot, than something completely new. As Braidotti herself says, ‘I think French philosophy is rich in minor traditions, which we would do well to revisit.’ She then confesses that her ‘personal favorite is the enchanted materialism of Diderot‘ (p.28).

How great that the affinity is recognised, even if these earlier texts are somehow downgraded, made inferior, relegated to a ‘minor tradition’? What does it matter that she engages with Diderot via the charming title of Elisabeth de Fontenay’s famous study, rather than directly with his words, he not being very likely to use the vocabulary of enchantment or magic in this context? What does it matter that Braidotti’s description of the body seems like a new version of something pretty old? What does it matter whether she knows she’s doing it or not? What does it matter if the point is simply that the collective voice is managing to make itself heard?

The answer is that it doesn’t really matter if an individual contribution is overlooked, but that it does matter if this new materialism preaches collective connectivity while conceptualising it in a flat or forward-facing time frame of now and novelty. That would be a weakness, a failure to acknowledge that connections can made backwards in time as well as sideways in space, a failure to explore the richness of retrospective ‘re-membering’ bricolage. Perhaps all we need to do is to encourage new materialists to do more of the revisiting Braidotti proposes, and rather less of the hierarchical arrangement of ‘traditions’ into ‘minor’ and ‘major’. Because who knows what might happen when you combine elements or place fragments in a new way? You might make new connections, new associations. You might even end up in a garden centre, having started off with Diderot. It might be an experience all of its own.

– Caroline Warman

[1] Braidotti, ‘Teratologies’, in Deleuze and Feminist Theory, ed. I. Buchanan and C. Colebrook (Edinburgh, 2000), p.156-72 (p.159), quoted in ‘Interview with Rosi Braidotti’, New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies, ed. Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin (Ann Arbor, 2012), p.19-37 (p.19).

Human rights, story-ballet and insects: The Oxford Enlightenment programme for 2018-2019

Our 2018-2019 programme is spearheaded by events on human rights and the Enlightenment, a much-debated topic with contemporary implications. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, two emblematic documents took for granted the view that human beings were entitled to certain basic universal rights (albeit within clearly demarcated political communities). In August 1789, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen began with a reference to ‘the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man’; while thirteen years earlier, the Founding Fathers of the nascent United States famously held ‘these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’.

In both cases reality on the ground did not match the universalist thrust of the celebratory Declarations. Moreover, eighteenth-century concepts of human rights should not be teleologically conflated with contemporary, post-war ideas and documents bearing similar titles (see, for example, Samuel Moyn’s account of the very recent history of present-day human rights). While trying to avoid such a distorting perspective, significant questions remain to be answered concerning, in the first place, the origins of the rights discourse so manifest in the American and French Declarations of the late eighteenth century; and, secondly, the intellectual genealogy of human rights from the Age of Revolutions onwards.

In our first event this year, the Besterman Lecture of the Voltaire Foundation on 15 November 2018, Keith Michael Baker of Stanford University – one of the foremost scholars of the French Revolution – will subject to close scrutiny different contexts and discussions of human rights in the early stages of the Revolution. The title of his lecture is ‘Writing Rights in 1789’. At the other end of the academic year, on 29 April 2019, Dan Edelstein (also of Stanford) will return to the origins of some of the basic notions at the heart of the Revolution in the inaugural George Rousseau Lecture, provisionally entitled ‘Liberty as Equality: Rousseau and Roman Constitutionalism’. The Lecture has been made possible by a generous gift from George Rousseau, a leading scholar of eighteenth-century culture, to Magdalen College (where the event will take place). The George Rousseau Lecture will be preceded by an afternoon colloquium (on the same day) on human rights and the Enlightenment, taking its cue from Dan Edelstein’s forthcoming book on the topic. We are delighted to welcome to Oxford for this discussion three major scholars of eighteenth-century political thought: Annelien de Dijn (Utrecht), Mark Philp (Warwick), and Céline Spector (Sorbonne, Paris).

Beyond this thematic focus, the Enlightenment Workshop returns in the second and third terms with a genuinely interdisciplinary programme on diverse aspects of eighteenth-century European culture. Daniel Fulda, Director of the Enlightenment Research Centre at the University of Halle (IZEA), will show us how major Enlightenment ideas were represented visually. Emma Spary (Cambridge) will examine the relationship between humanism and eighteenth-century scholarship by focusing on botany and what she calls ‘the Enlightenment of ginseng’. Moving on from flora to fauna, Dominik Hünniger of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg at the University of Göttingen will discuss the ways in which Enlightenment authors imagined and depicted the reproduction of insects. In papers on eighteenth-century British culture, Ros Ballaster (English, Oxford) will investigate the interface between theatre and the novel by focusing on Charlotte Lennox and Oliver Goldsmith, and Peter Sabor (McGill University, Montreal) will share with us some of the insights gained through his impressive editorial work on authors of the Burney family. In other sessions, Kate Tunstall (French, Oxford) will discuss representations of the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Louis XV in 1757, and Julia Bührle (English, Oxford) will look at the links between eighteenth-century dance and literature in a session on the Enlightenment’s ‘story-ballet’. In the third term, Iwan-Michelangelo D’Aprile (co-director of the Research Center Sanssouci in Potsdam) will talk about eighteenth-century migration politics, while Maxine Berg (Warwick) will take us to one of the farthest reaches of the Enlightenment: Nootka Sound on the northwestern Pacific coast.

Last but not least, Richard Whatmore of the University of St Andrews will survey the activities of eighteenth-century Genevans in Ireland in a paper promisingly entitled ‘Terrorists, Anarchists and Republicans’. Professor Whatmore will accompany the rich menu of the Enlightenment Workshop with his series of six Carlyle Lectures on ‘The End of Enlightenment’. The dates and titles are available on the History Faculty website.

From eighteenth-century human rights and migration politics to the performance arts via ginseng and insects: we hope to provide something of interest to anyone who would like have a closer, unusual look at the European Enlightenment.

Avi Lifschitz (Magdalen)

Would Voltaire have made a good PhD supervisor? Voltaire mentors Vauvenargues

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues (1715-1747), by Charles Amédée Colin.

A current work in progress at the Voltaire Foundation relates to one of Voltaire’s less-discussed friendships that ended all too soon due to a fatal illness. On 4 April 1743, Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues, penned the philosophe an enthusiastic letter comparing the merits of France’s two most celebrated tragedians, Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine. The combination of strong opinions and well-placed flattery must have caught Voltaire’s attention, for he wrote back less than two weeks later. The 27-year-old Vauvenargues brazenly criticised Corneille’s declamatory style and lack of subtlety, arguing that ‘surtout Corneille paroît ignorer que les hommes se caractérisent souvent d’avantage par les choses qu’ils ne disent pas, que par celles qu’ils disent’. Never one to stand at the sidelines of a literary debate, Voltaire’s reply praised Vauvenargues for his good taste in preferring Racine while offering a judicious defence of Corneille, counting that ‘il y a des choses si sublimes dans Corneille au milieu de ses froids raisonnements, et même des choses si touchantes, qu’il doit être respecté avec ses défauts’ (15 April 1743). This began a lively exchange between the two men, as Vauvenargues iconoclastically refused to yield ground to Voltaire’s more balanced take on the playwright’s merits and flaws: ‘Monsieur, Je suis au désespoir que vous me forciez à respecter Corneille’ (22 April 1743).

As well as offering us an entertaining example of an eighteenth-century celebrity’s interactions with a fan, this exchange is important because, after befriending Voltaire, Vauvenargues began to see the philosophe as a mentor figure, asking him for advice on his own Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, which was supplemented by his Réflexions et maximes and published for the first time in 1746. Any PhD student can imagine the huge sigh of relief Vauvenargues must have let out when Voltaire wrote back on 15 February 1746 to say that he liked it even before he had finished reading it. The young author’s joy is palpable in his response to his mentor’s praise, thanking him for taking the time to provide suggestions and corrections for the work’s improvement (15 May 1746). Vauvenargues then substantially revised his text and published a second edition in 1747.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.79 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

As part of our work on Voltaire’s marginalia, we are interested firstly in the kind of suggestions the philosophe made in the annotated copy he sent back to Vauvenargues, and secondly to what extent did the latter incorporate these suggestions into the revised version of his book. The work of cross-referencing the annotated first edition and the revised second edition revealed some interesting patterns. In the cases where the corrections are easy remedies, for example a different choice of wording or a quick clarificatory remark, Vauvenargues has mostly deferred to Voltaire’s wisdom and edited his manuscript accordingly. Things got trickier when Voltaire suggested structural changes or major additions, both things which Vauvenargues appeared more reluctant to carry out. This is most likely because the revisions were extremely time-sensitive, given that Vauvenargues was in ill-health and had to rush to edit and publish the second edition of his work before he died later that year at the age of thirty-one. It is perhaps for this reason that he did not find the time to develop a section on page 75 by which Voltaire has scribbled ‘cela merite plus de détail’.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.86 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

As with any patterns, there are notable exceptions. More mystifying are instances such as on page 86 where Voltaire asks ‘pour quoy longue?’, seemingly questioning Vauvenargues’s choice of adjective. This should have been an easy fix for the marquis. In the second edition, however, Vauvenargues has edited this sentence but kept the very same adjective that Voltaire did not like: ‘L’étonnement une surprise longue & accablante; l’admiration une surprise pleine de respect.’ Similarly, one of the sassiest comments can be found on page 88 where Vauvenargues writes that ‘il y auroit là-dessus des réflexions à faire aussi nouvelles que curieuses’, to which Voltaire witheringly retorts ‘faites les donc’. Vauvenargues does indeed revise this passage in his second edition, but chooses not to elaborate on what these reflections might be, writing that he has ‘ni la volonté, ni le pouvoir’ to do so.

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.88 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

Like any good supervisor, Voltaire does not hold back in his criticism of his student’s work: what is most striking is the sheer volume of corrections, additions and suggestions, some of which are more helpful than others. Sometimes he is perhaps a little harsh, accusing Vauvenargues of writing ‘mauvaise poésie’ on more than a couple of occasions. One of his most scathing comments comes towards the end of the list of maxims that forms the second part of the text. Vauvenargues makes the not-very-insightful remark that ‘quelque amour qu’on ait pour les grandes affaires, il y a peu de lectures si ennuyeuses & si fatiguantes que celles d’un Traité entre des Princes’, next to which his mentor has incredulously scribbled ‘c’est bien la peine d’imprimer cela?’ It’s safe to say that any PhD student would be horrified to have elicited such a remark from their supervisor!

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain

Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, p.364 (Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence).

But above all, Voltaire is a meticulous reader, picking up on ideas repeated from many pages back and highlighting the slightest inconsistency. Equally, neither does he shy away from complimenting Vauvenargues’s work when it is deserving: several sections receive a smattering of ‘bien’, ‘beau’, ‘fort’, ‘excellent’ and even a ‘fin et profond et juste’, which more than make up for the moments of criticism.

– Sam Bailey

Sam is a PhD student at the University of Durham and a frequent VF collaborator.

An earlier blog post on this same subject by Gillian Pink can be found here.

Zola in the eighteenth century: The Dream and the embroiderer’s art

Emile Zola, The DreamWhen I began work on my translation of Emile Zola’s Le Rêve (The Dream) of 1888 for Oxford World’s Classics, I did not appreciate just how distinctive an eighteenth-century flavour the novel takes on in places.

Zola, who lived from 1840 to 1902, is of course one the great chroniclers of the French nineteenth century: in the Rougon-Macquart series, published between 1871 and 1893, he portrays life in France under the Second Empire (1852-1870) across a broad geographical sweep, from south to north, and through all levels of society – from the struggles of the poor in novels like L’Assommoir (1877) and Earth (1887) right up to the machinations of the very rich and powerful in The Kill (1872) and Money (1891).

Zola took great pains in striving for documentary accuracy in the series. As well as touring key sites and conducting interviews, he read omnivorously. The thousands of pages of notes and plans he made for the series are kept at the Bibliothèque nationale (and are now consultable on Gallica). Naturally enough, the majority of his sources date from the second half of the nineteenth century: works on coal mining or contemporary socialism for Germinal, on the working class and Parisian slang for L’Assommoir, or on the French railway system for La Bête humaine (1890).

If Zola is sometimes guilty of anachronism in his Rougon-Macquart novels, it is because he inserts elements from the time of their composition into a Second Empire setting. And so, in Germinal (1885) for example, he transplants details of an 1884 strike into an earlier 1860s setting. While this sort of chronological tinkering is relatively unremarkable, in The Dream the mixing together of different time periods takes on a new significance. It is done for a specific artistic purpose: he merges the Second Empire setting with the more distant past in order to create a dreamlike mood.

The Dream is one of the most curious of the Rougon-Macquart novels. After his 1887 novel Earth had been denounced as obscene, Zola changed tack and aimed to write a ‘simple idyll’ which could be placed in ‘the hands of young girls’.[1] The Dream has an unusual hybrid form: it is both a realist novel set in the years 1860-69 and a fairy tale. It relates the story of a young girl, Angélique, abandoned by her parents and taken in, one snowy Boxing Day, by a pair of honest but childless embroiderers. The fairy-tale elements proliferate: the girl falls in love with a lord’s son, her own Prince Charming, but his father refuses their match. The setting and mood are created in meticulous detail: Angélique grows up in the shadow of a medieval cathedral and becomes preoccupied by the lives of the saints in Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend, even as she develops into an expert embroideress. Heraldry and stained-glass windows, along with Gothic architecture, the lives of the saints, and embroidery, form the backdrop to Angélique’s life.

Zola was a keen medievalist and draws on many different sources to overlay his nineteenth-century setting with a mood more suggestive of the Middle Ages. But there is further anachronism: the descriptions of the embroiderers’ practices in the novel are closely based on Zola’s reading of Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin’s L’Art du Brodeur (‘The Embroiderer’s Art’), published in 1770. To this extent, the novel takes on a particularly eighteenth-century complexion.

Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin

Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, drawing by his son Augustin de Saint-Aubin (1736-1807), Paris, Institut Néerlandais.

Saint-Aubin (1721-1786) was an embroiderer who attracted the favour of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour and adopted the title dessinateur du roi pour la broderie et la dentelle. In 1770 he published his influential manual on embroidery as part of a series of seventy-two treatises on different luxury products that was overseen by the Académie des Sciences. In L’Art du brodeur Saint-Aubin traces the history of embroidery back to ancient times and goes on to describe contemporary techniques and terms in great detail, offering numerous illustrations. Saint-Aubin also published a Recueil de plantes, containing fine plant drawings, for Madame de Pompadour,[2] and was involved in producing the satirical Livre de caricatures.

L’Art du Brodeur

Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, L’Art du Brodeur (Paris, L. F. Delatour, 1770), plate 2 (detail), Google Books.

Zola’s reliance on L’Art du Brodeur is profound. His set-piece description of Angélique and her guardians in their embroidery workshop, with all its tools and implements, is modelled closely on a drawing from Saint-Aubin’s treatise:

‘Fashions were changing and the embroiderer’s craft was evolving, but, embedded in the wall, a heavy brace – a piece of wood supporting the embroidery frame at one end, as a movable trestle did at the other – remained where it had always been. Old tools slumbered in the corners: a diligent, with its cogwheels and pins, by which one could transfer spooled gold thread onto a spindle without touching it with one’s hands; a hand-held spinning wheel, a sort of pulley, which twisted together different threads that were attached at one end to the wall; and tambours of all sizes, with their hoops and taffetas, used for crochet embroidery. An old collection of spangle punches lay on a shelf, alongside a relic, a large traditional copper candlestick that had served the embroiderers of bygone days. In the loops of a rack, made by nailing a strap onto the wall, hung bodkins, mallets, hammers, irons for cutting vellum, and small boxwood chisels used for shaping thread as it was worked. Under the lime-wood cutting table there stood a yarn windle, consisting of two cage-like revolving wicker cylinders, around which a skein of red wool was trained. Chains of brightly coloured silk spools, strung onto a cord, hung by the sideboard. On the floor lay a basket heaped with empty spools. A ball of string had rolled off a chair, unravelling a little.’[3]

The passage continues with descriptions of the embroiderers themselves, and offers a very close reproduction of the illustration, right down to the unravelling ball of string – with the precise vocabulary drawn from the treatise’s ‘Explanation of Some Terms’. Other lengthy accounts of Angélique’s craft also derive from Saint-Aubin, as she takes on, for example, the technique of padded three-dimensional embroidery known as ‘shaded gold’. The treatise also serves as an inspiration for other features of the novel: the river running through Angélique’s town is named the Ligneul – a term that appears in the treatise, being a type of thick waxed thread.

Readers will discover in The Dream a Zola very different from the well-known naturalist master. In this novel he retreats at times into the Middle Ages for mood and detail, but also into a more recent century: channelling Saint-Aubin, Zola momentarily presents the world to us through eighteenth-century eyes.

– Paul Gibbard

[1] Emile Zola, preparatory notes for Le Rêve, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France: n.a. fr. Ms 10323, f. 217.

[2] See Juliet Carey, ‘The king and his embroiderer’, in The Saint-Aubin ‘Livre de caricatures’: Drawing Satire in Eighteenth-Century Paris, ed. Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, and Emily Richardson (Oxford, 2012), p. 261-81.

[3] Emile Zola, The Dream, trans. Paul Gibbard, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford, 2018), p. 33-34.

On a similar subject, see also: ‘Exploring Parisian archives thanks to the BSECS/Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment Travel Award’.

Lighting the Enlightenment

Try googling ‘light and enlightenment’ and see what you find. Buddhism, new age religion, mindfulness, and spirituality top the list. Scroll down and you may come across a few fleeting references to 18th-century theology. But if you are hoping to find discussions of the Enlightenment in the context of lanterns, illumination, and light, you’ll need to search a little harder, or be prepared to be left in the dark.

Was there really no relationship at all between that great movement of 18th-century culture and actual illumination? Between the Enlightenment and light itself? To be sure, scholars have long probed the question in metaphorical terms, showing how a master Christian metaphor was wrested from the hands of those who had once proclaimed Jesus as the exclusive light and way. But to search for some connection between the material practice of lighting and the Enlightenment of the mind appears to have struck many as too basic, or too banal, to spark reflection.

And yet it is clear that light in the age of Enlightenment was more than just a metaphor. We know from the pioneering work of social and urban historians of the night such as Wolfgang Schivelbusch, A. Roger Ekirch, Craig Koslofksy, and Alain Cabantous that the long 18th century was, quite literally, a century of lights in the sense that it witnessed an unprecedented conquest of the dark. Marked by a concerted effort to publicly illuminate cities, this conquest took the form of hundreds of thousands of lanterns that were erected in urban centers from Paris to Potsdam. Whereas in 1660, not a single city in Europe possessed regularly illuminated streets, a century later that situation had changed. Voltaire, for one, took note of the transformation, observing ruefully in his Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) that while ‘five thousand lamps lighted up Paris every night,’ Rome itself was not lighted at all. The symbolism was perfect. Paris had become the true beacon of the world, at once illuminated and enlightened. Rome, not so much.

Although scholars of the Enlightenment have been slow to register these developments, and to ask what impact they may have had on the light of the times, that is beginning to change. Social and urban historians such as Marco Cicchini and Sophie Reculin have been mapping the topography of the 18th-century lighting revolution with ever-greater precision, showing how light moved from a luxury to a necessity in the 18th century, and how new urban spaces around theatres, public promenades, and squares were transformed by illumination. Meanwhile, literary scholars such as Marine Ganofsky have analyzed (in this very blog) the ways in which illumination transformed the night into an erotic adventure-zone, a space free of fear and open to pleasure, where libertines could frolic. And in my own work I have sought to explore the relationship between illumination and Enlightenment in a number of ways.

An enlightened history of the lantern by a society of men of letters, by Jean-François Dreux du Radier. Although the work was written as a satire, it effectively contributed to what was a new Enlightenment genre: the cultural and technical history of lighting practices. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

For one thing, a surprising number of Enlightenment figures were themselves directly interested in lighting and illumination. Benjamin Franklin, the son of a tallow chandler, took a keen interest in lantern design and helped to organize the public lighting of the city of Philadelphia. Lavoisier penned a treatise on the best means to light a great city like Paris, and experimented constantly with fuels, wicks, and the angles of reflection and refraction in the light emitted from lanterns. Voltaire, too, like Marat and Madame Du Châtelet, experimented with flames. Diderot wrote about the history of candles. Jefferson studied whale oil, among the 18th-century’s most important lighting fuels. Goethe not only studied optics, but also concerned himself with the intricacies of stage lighting.

Just as importantly, a host of lesser lights pursued Enlightenment through illumination. Some, like the inventor and engineer Bourgeois de Chateaublanc, devoted their energy to technical matters, like perfecting the new reflector lamps, the réverbères. Others, such as Jean-Francois Dreux du Radier and his ‘society of men of letters’, wrote satirical histories of lanterns, mocking the pretensions of a new genre, the comparative history of light. Still others, like Pierre Tourtille-Sangrain or Charles de Rabiqueau, pursued the business of illumination as the counterpart to the business of Enlightenment. As the latter declared on his calling card, advertising his services as an entrepreneur de l’illumination, Rabiqueau could ‘enlighten the mind as well as matter.’

‘He enlightens and illuminates, both matter and the mind’! The calling card of the inventor, scientist and entrepreneur de l’illumination Charles de Rabiqueau, advertising his services and spectacles at his shop on the rue St. Jacques in Paris. © Archives Nantes.

And that is precisely the point. Enlightenment and illumination went hand in hand. Perhaps most importantly, public lighting created the conditions for a vastly expanded urban sociability that was central to the emergence of the public sphere. Shops stayed open longer, theatre curtain times were pushed back, and restaurants and cafés served long after dark, later than ever before. Salons and visiting hours were also extended into the night, meaning that enlightened discussion was very often conducted after the sun went down. Street lighting led the way, creating the appearance (if not always the reality) of greater safety and rational control over the environment, combatting not just crime but superstition and fear.

Light, in these respects, was a vivid symbol of progress, and contemporaries were highly aware that its implementation set the enlightened apart. As Anne-Louis Leclerc du Brillet observed typically in a draft history of street lighting written sometime in the 1730s, ‘The usage of public lighting in cities does not seem to have been established in any nation previously – even in those that passed for the most civilized (les plus policés).’ Public lighting, in short, was unique to the modern age, and it reflected perfectly the novel sense that contemporaries were living in a novel time, a singular epoch of progress and advancement. To illuminate the night was to begin to understand and control what had long been considered another realm, dispelling darkness and the superstitions it fostered.

Not all, to be sure, welcomed the light. A dialectic of illumination was the counterpart to the dialectic of Enlightenment, giving rise to protests and a European (and North American) wave of lantern smashing over the course of the 18th century. When viewed from this perspective, lanterns could seem a little bit like surveillance cameras; they were not always welcome. And yet by the last third of the 18th century, the evidence is strong that proponents of illumination were overcoming their less enlightened antagonists. It is telling that a good number of the cahiers de doléances written up in France before the convening of the Estates General in 1789 asked for more light, not less. Like Goethe on his deathbed, the Enlightened and illuminated citizens of the age desired mehr Licht.

– Darrin M. McMahon

Darrin M. McMahon is a professor of history at Dartmouth. His article, ‘Illuminating the Enlightenment: Public Lighting Practices and the Siècle des lumières’, appears in the August 2018 edition of ‘Past & Present’.