Patterns of trauma in post-revolutionary France

As this year’s recipient of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Travelling Award,[1] I was able to extend my stay in the French city of La Rochelle for three weeks of study in their departmental and municipal archives in March of 2015. My research concerned the emotional experience and aftermath of the Revolution there, and specifically the patterns of trauma and emotional reconstruction that took place in the city during the Directory era (1795-1799).

Located just south of the Vendée region, La Rochelle occupied a strategic place. Though initially receptive to the Revolution, especially its early reforms of religion and trade, republican feeling would cool amongst the inhabitants of this largely Protestant city as the Terror took a more radical turn. Serial incidents of physical violence, a profound change to the power relationship between citizens and municipal and national authorities, and material deprivation combined to exert a powerful trauma on the popular psyche. Despite this the city would continue to form a base from which much of the retribution against royalist rebels in staunchly Catholic Vendée was planned and executed, and came to represent a real frontier for the Revolution.

Donald M. Greer, the famous statistician of the notorious Reign of Terror that took place in 1793-1794 bemoaned as early as 1936 that ‘statistics do not, cannot, tell all. Their findings are dark and abstract; they enable us to study only one plane of life, the external and the rational; they give us no glimpse of psychology, no hint of the emotional density and amplitude of moving events’.[2]

Noyades dans la Loire, par ordre du fŽroce Carrier: les 6 et 7

Noyades dans la Loire, par ordre du féroce Carrier: les 6 et 7 décembre 1793, ou 5 et 6 frimaire an 2ème de la République. Duplessis-Bertaux, Pierre-Gabriel Berthault – 1802. BnF.

It is indeed difficult to believe that the extreme physical and ideological warfare waged all over France, which heralded a whole new era of political, social and economic organisation, did not leave a profound psychological mark. Yet whether trauma – and particularly the modern, medicalised concept of post-traumatic stress disorder – can be applied retrospectively by the historian is the subject of wide and well-documented debate.[3]

In my analysis of letters, judicial records and confiscated materials from the years 1795-1799 in La Rochelle, I was able to unearth a distinct narrative of revolutionary trauma, and grapple with the mixed and often contradictory patterns of personal and civic emotional reconstruction that took place in its wake.

One manifestation of the trauma experienced during that period was the peculiar ‘sickness of the Vendée’, a vague part-physical, part-psychological condition that was thought to result directly from the atrocities of war, which became endemic amongst soldiers during the Republican government’s brutal scorched-earth campaign in the region.

Also of particular interest was the bulging cache of confiscated anti-revolutionary documents which deftly manipulated common revolutionary memories to invoke or play on a sense of fear, anxiety or guilt in the reader.

Un sans-culotte instrument de crimes dansant au milieu des horre

‘Un sans-culotte instrument de crimes dansant au milieu des horreurs…’ / Artist unknown; between 1793 and 1795. BnF.

Finally, the curious case of Joseph Darbelet – a murderous local sans-culotte who, in the post-Revolutionary period, was put on trial, imprisoned and then released – provides a fascinating case study into the dysfunctional, swinging extremes of apathy and reactionary vigilantism that came to characterise the justice system during the Directory era in La Rochelle.

The research, both archival and secondary, that I undertook for my short thesis only skims the surface of a rich and quickly developing new field of historical enquiry. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to BSECS and the Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment for their support of my project.

– Emily Honey

[1] See the fourth entry in the ‘Postgraduate and early career scholars’ category.

[2] D. Greer, The Incidence of the Terror during the French Revolution (Cambridge, 1935).

[3] See for instance R. Steinberg, ‘Trauma before trauma: imagining the effects of the Terror in post-Revolutionary France’, in Studies in Voltaire and the eighteenth century 2013:5; D. Fassin & R. Rechtman, The Empire of trauma: an enquiry into the condition of victimhood (Princeton, 2009); P. Higonet, ‘Terror, trauma and the “young Marx” explanation of Jacobin politics’, in Past and Present 2006:191; D. Jenson, Trauma and its Representations: The Social Life of Mimesis in Post-revolutionary France (Baltimore, 2001).

Voltaire’s ‘monosyllabic’ tempest

Voltaire relished a good fight. But while the passions that would be invested in the Calas and La Barre affairs were to leave little room for feelings of amusement, when it came to Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan the target was ripe, the personal risk was low, and never was Voltaire in such fully gleeful form as during the years 1760-1761. He was safely settled; the exasperating conflicts with Frederick II of Prussia were well behind him; after the resounding triumph of Candide, he had the satirical wind in his sails, and he ran with it.

For all of this, Le Franc had no one but himself to blame. Bolstered by his election to the Académie française, on 10 March 1760 he delivered an inaugural discourse of rare arrogance, posturing as France’s religious antidote to the ascending philosophes in French culture and in the Académie itself (he all but named Voltaire and D’Alembert), all the more so that he saw himself as God’s poet, his chief claim to fame being a series of editions of his Poésies sacrées, adaptations of Biblical psalms and other texts. Le Franc, a provincial magistrate, was really in every way insignificant except as a self-ordained symbol of reaction.

Title page of Les Quand

Title page of Les Quand (Geneva [Paris], 1760), an edition printed in red ink.

Voltaire perceived his target perfectly and struck with exquisite precision. He refers repeatedly and perversely to Le Franc’s earlier (as he calls it) Prière du déiste, which is nothing but a French translation of Pope’s Universal Prayer. From Le Franc’s Mémoire présenté au roi, published in May, he concludes (quite rightly) that Le Franc wanted to wrap himself in pious royal protection, headily aspiring even to the dignity of royal governor. Le Franc repeatedly exposed himself in every way to Voltaire’s wilting barrage, and surely rued the day he saw fit to allude to ‘ma naissance et mon état’, every syllable of which gave Voltaire purchase to sink his claws deeper into ‘le seigneur de Montauban’.

Whereas Les Quand, which launched the serial attack, rhetorical indictment, the flurry of ‘monosyllabes’ (so named because many were based on single-syllable anaphoras, beginning with quand, qui, etc.) that followed – anonymous all, of course, if not pseudonymous – was more pointed. There seemed to be broadsides sprouting up everywhere, and they were intended to be recopied, by press or by hand, ad libitum, so much so that their proliferation stretches the limit of what an ‘edition’ is; even their order of appearance is hard to sort out. André Morellet chimed in with his own Si, Mais and Pourquoi, and in September these, along with several other pieces joined the bulk of Voltaire’s satirical productions of 1760 and were assured a certain fixity in the Recueil des facéties parisiennes pour les six premiers mois de l’an 1760.

Engraving of Palissot

Engraving of Palissot, pursued by a wraith-like Voltaire. The caption mocks his name.

The dramatist Charles Palissot de Montenoy must have thought that Le Franc’s star was rising – when it was about to go down in flames – and more or less hitched to it his comedy Les Philosophes. The play upped the stakes for the philosophes: Le Franc just made people laugh at him, Palissot made them laugh at the philosophes. A Voltaire didn’t have to worry much about the Académie, but the Comédie-Française was another thing entirely, and raised the spectre of persecution. With Le Russe à Paris he broadened the attack to include such other enemies as Maupertuis and numerous religious polemicists and ‘sponsors’ of Palissot’s. It took a year for the rage on both sides to subside, and by then the balance was about to tip dramatically in the philosophes’ favour.

– Philip Stewart

Volume 51A of the Complete works of Voltaire publishes Voltaire’s interventions in the literary quarrels of 1760, both his own original pieces, and his annotated or abridged versions of texts by other participants.

Émilie du Châtelet, forgotten encyclopédiste?

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749), portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour. (

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749), portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour. (

Émilie du Châtelet was a great many things: mathematician, natural philosopher, translator of Newton, successor of Leibniz and Wolff, lover and scientific companion of Voltaire, and various other sundry pursuits. She was not, however, nor is she today, widely considered as a contributor to the Encyclopédie. No mention of her is made in either D’Alembert’s “Discours préliminaire”, or in any of the other “Avertissements & Errata” paratexts that accompanied the Encyclopédie’s publication. Logically then, she is also not to be found in any of the exhaustive lists and inventories of encyclopaedic authors compiled by later scholars such as Richard Schwab and Frank Kafker.[1]

This accepted wisdom, however, is now being brought into question thanks to renewed interest in Du Châtelet not merely as a translator, commentator, or companion of great men, but equally as a significant intellectual force in her own right. Recent scholarship such as that by Koffi Maglo[2] has succeeded in challenging what had for centuries been assumed as Du Châtelet’s decidedly minor role in the encyclopaedic enterprise. More recently still, an international group of scholars came together in Oxford this past May for a study day on the subject of “Émilie Du Châtelet: Philosopher & Encyclopédiste”, a workshop aimed at unravelling Du Châtelet’s complicated and often overlooked encyclopaedic legacy.

Title page of the Encyclopédie (1751). (

Title page of the Encyclopédie (1751). (

We now know, for instance, that the unsigned article “Hypothèse” is largely drawn from Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (1740). Indeed, “Hypothèse” is one of seven articles that explicitly cites the Institutions de physique as a source. And, of these seven articles, “Hypothèse” is the only one that is not at least partially authored by Samuel Formey. Formey, it would seem, is largely responsible for Du Châtelet’s inclusion in the Encyclopédie, so much so that, according to Maglo, if one follows “les traces de Formey […] vous serez en compagnie de Mme Du Châtelet”. However, Formey’s role in the Encyclopédie is somewhat curious.

An exiled Huguenot pastor and perpetual secretary of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, Formey had begun his own philosophical dictionary as early as 1742. By 1747 he had heard rumour about a French encyclopaedia project – which took as its starting point a translation of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia – and decided to approach its editor, then the Abbé Gua de Malves, offering his completed articles to the new enterprise. By 1749, the deal – executed by the libraires associés who controlled the project – was finalised, and Formey sent the editors (by then Diderot and D’Alembert) some 1800 manuscript pages (petit in folio) in exchange for 300 livres; with the added proviso that the manuscript be returned to the author and that he be mentioned in the work’s preface.

It is thus presumably through the mediation of Formey’s articles that Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (one of Formey’s admitted sources for his articles on Metaphysics) came to be incorporated into the Encyclopédie. As such, most scholars have treated Du Châtelet as a secondary source for the Encyclopédie, and little more. But, digging into the issue a little, it would seem that the Du Châtelet/Formey relationship is rather more complex than we normally assume. Is this really just a simple case of an author (Formey) using a source (Du Châtelet) in order to bolster an argument or expand upon a concept? Or, as with “Hypothèse”, is there more to Du Châtelet’s presence in the Encyclopédie than we’ve previously admitted?

To answer these questions I compared a copy of the Institutions de physique found in the BNF’s Gallica digital library to the entire text of the Encyclopédie using a sequence alignment algorithm developed by the ARTFL Project.[3] The results, which will be published in full later this year, not only give us a better understanding of the extent to which Du Châtelet was used in the seven articles that cite the Institutions de physique, but also reveal a further six articles that make extensive use of Du Châtelet’s text with no attribution at all. Given both the scope and scale of these borrowings, whether cited or not, these new findings serve to complicate further the already nebulous notion of authorship in the Encyclopédie.


Title page of Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (1740). (

Take, for example, the article “Contradiction”, attributed unequivocally to Formey by Diderot and D’Alembert: “Cet article est de M. Formey”. Of its 338 words, 320 of them are drawn directly from sections 4 and 7 of the Institutions de physique, again with no attribution. To put this into terms perhaps more familiar to modern academic sensibilities, this means that Formey’s Turnitin-style “similarity score” for the article “Contradiction” would register at a rather alarming 95%. Indeed, all of the Formey articles we examined would score well above the 50% originality metric in terms of their similarity to Du Châtelet’s text.

Nor was this practice limited to Du Châtelet, apparently, as Alexander Bocast has convincingly demonstrated. Formey also makes quite liberal and unacknowledged use of Condillac’s Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines in his article “Définition”, for example.[4] All of which inevitably begs the question: should we continue to attribute articles to Formey that are drawn primarily from other sources? If not, to whom should we attribute them? Formey and Du Châtelet (or Condillac) together (in what order?); or Du Châtelet (and Condillac) alone, if above a certain threshold of borrowing? At what point does an article “belong” to its author as opposed to its source? And, on what grounds should one make these sorts of editorial decisions at all?

These questions all speak to the unique dialogical structure of the Encyclopédie and its multiple layers of authorship and authority. Contributors (both acknowledged and anonymous) would weave outside sources into their articles with varying degrees of attribution. These contributions would then often become the subject of editorial interventions on the part of Diderot and, to a lesser extent, D’Alembert. All of which makes the Encyclopédie a fundamentally “social” text, one built on the premise of philosophical conversation between the various members of Diderot’s “société des gens de lettres”, a microcosm of that larger international “Republic of Letters”.

Émilie du Châtelet was unquestionably a leading citizen of this Republic. And, while her contributions may be obscured by their apparent status as secondary source, new research such as that presented here is beginning to deconstruct this primary/secondary distinction in favour of a more expansive, and dialogical notion of encyclopaedic authorship. If Montesquieu is unambiguously considered as one the encyclopédistes thanks to his “contribution” of a single, unfinished posthumous article (e.g. “Goût”), then can’t we imagine an expanded author list for the Encyclopédie that makes room for Émilie du Châtelet, and doubtless many others? I, for one, would hope so.

But while we collectively might not yet be prepared to grant Du Châtelet full status as an Encyclopédie author (though I would argue that we should be), then, at the very least, we should do our best to make sure that she’s an acknowledged – and significant – participant in the philosophical conversation that the Encyclopédie enacts.

– Glenn Roe

[1] See Richard N. Schwab, Walter E. Rex and John Lough, Inventory of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol.80, 83, 85, 91, 92, 93 and 223, Oxford, 1971-1984) and Frank Kafker, The Encyclopedists as Individuals (Studies on Voltaire, vol.257, Oxford, 1988).

[2] See Koffi Maglo, ‘Madame Du Châtelet, l’Encyclopédie et la philosophie des sciences’, in Emilie du Châtelet: éclairages et documents nouveaux (Paris, Ferney-Voltaire: CIEDS, 2008), p.255-66.

[3] This is the same methodology, in fact, that we used previously to examine the citation practices of the encyclopédistes. See Dan Edelstein, Robert Morrissey, and Glenn Roe, “To Quote or Not to Quote: Citation strategies in the ‘Encyclopédie’”, Journal of the History of Ideas 74.2, April 2013, p.213-36.

[4] See Bocast, “Condillac’s Contributions to Formey’s Article on ‘DÉFINITION’ in Diderot’s Encyclopédie”.

Le Roi est mort

Le Roy dans son lit de parade tel qu'il y parut le premier de septembre jour de son decès 1715 (BnF).

Le Roi dans son lit de parade tel qu’il y parut le premier de septembre jour de son décès 1715 (BnF).

Le château de Versailles présente du 27 octobre 2015 au 21 février 2016 Le roi est mort. Louis XIV 1715. Commémorant le tricentenaire de la mort de Louis XIV, cette exposition, placée sous le commissariat de Béatrix Saule, directeur-conservateur général du musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon, et de Gérard Sabatier, professeur émérite des Universités et président du comité scientifique du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles, entend donner à voir et à comprendre un rituel méconnu: celui des funérailles du Grand roi, de son exposition à Versailles dans sa chambre mortuaire le 1er septembre 1715 à son inhumation dans l’abbaye de Saint-Denis le 23 octobre suivant. Ces obsèques marquaient l’aboutissement, en même temps que le profond renouvellement, d’un cérémonial séculaire, qui allait devenir une des plus éclatantes manifestations de la civilisation de cour. Des funérailles royales françaises, on ne retient généralement que les proclamations du héraut d’armes lors de la mise au tombeau de la dépouille: le roi est mort, vive le roi, officialisant le décès du défunt et l’avènement de son successeur, adage de la monarchie qui ne meurt jamais. Le rituel lui-même n’avait pas retenu l’attention des historiens car il n’avait pas de contenu politique, les aléas de la transmission du pouvoir étant réglés avant le décès, selon le principe lignager de la primogéniture masculine. A la fin du XVème siècle et jusqu’en 1610, l’écart entre le décès et l’inhumation fut considérablement dilaté par l’adoption de conduites honorifiques nécessitant l’utilisation d’une effigie tenant lieu du cadavre imprésentable, et de procédures imitant celles des funérailles des empereurs romains. Ce parasitage cérémoniel retardant l’instantanéité de la transmission de pouvoir fut abandonné par étapes sous la pression des circonstances pendant la période des guerres civiles à partir de 1560, et la forme triomphale des funérailles des Valois fut réfutée par Louis XIII en 1643. Cependant, loin de disparaître, les funérailles royales françaises connurent sous les Bourbons une mutation que cette exposition se propose de montrer et d’expliquer.

Représentation de l'endroit où a été déposé le corps de Louis quatorze roy de France dans l'église de S.t Denis (BnF).

Représentation de l’endroit où a été déposé le corps de Louis quatorze roi de France dans l’église de St. Denis (BnF).

Exposition-événement, c’est la première de ce genre en France, ce qui s’explique par l’attitude précédemment évoquée des historiens, et la quasi absence de documents directs, décorations, accessoires, iconographie même. Les musées français, espagnols, allemands, anglais, suédois, américains ont permis toutefois de rassembler d’importants tableaux, certains jamais montrés, des instruments chirurgicaux, des accessoires de deuil, des pièces originales du trésor de Saint-Denis, tout l’apparat du dernier cérémonial funèbre , celui de Louis XVIII. Des archives proviennent le testament et le rapport d’autopsie de Louis XIV. Grace à une abondante documentation textuelle, Pier Luigi Pizzi a pu pallier l’absence de témoignages originaux par une muséographie très évocatrice. Le séquençage suit une progression chronologique en neuf étapes.

Marche et Convoy funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roy de France (BnF).

Marche et Convoi funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roi de France (BnF).

  1. Ce roi qui disparaît est une sélection de tableaux, de gravures, de médailles d’or ou de médaillons de bronze qui pouvaient contribuer à produire, chez les contemporains, une figure du roi, un imaginaire de Louis XIV, dans son ambivalence entre lumières et ombres.
  2. Louis se meurt rapporte les trois semaines où le roi fit face à la maladie puis organisa théâtralement sa mort, veillant au souvenir qu’il laisserait. Des extraits de Si Versailles m’était conté et de L’Allée du roi présentent la mort cinématographique de Louis XIV.
  3. Ouverture et embaumement est une séquence réaliste qui permet de découvrir une des pratiques les plus étranges des funérailles royales: l’ouverture du corps, le prélèvement des entrailles et du cœur, l’embaumement permettant une présentation supportable.
  4. Exposition et effigie montre trois modes de présentation des monarques défunts pour recevoir les hommages et les prières, selon qu’on a à faire aux Valois, aux Bourbons ou aux Habsbourg.
  5. Le deuil à la cour. Les funérailles royales sont un moment essentiel dans la vie des courtisans. La réglementation minutieuse des pratiques du deuil est l’occasion de rendre visible la hiérarchie des rangs qui structure cette société, exprimée notamment par les types et les couleurs des vêtements.
  6. Le convoi funèbre. Autre grand moment des funérailles royales, le plus important peut-être au XVIème siècle, lorsque le cortège réunissant tous les corps de la société autour du défunt traverse la capitale. Les Bourbons depuis Louis XIII procèdent différemment. L’exposition montre précisément et explique cette nouveauté souvent mal interprétée.
  7. Les services à Saint-Denis, en France et à l’étranger. Présentation des pièces du trésor, reconstitution des placements, évocation de l’apparat surprenant d’une église transformée en salle de spectacle. Mais les funérailles de Louis XIV ne furent pas seulement célébrées dans la nécropole royale, des services commémoratifs se tinrent partout en France, et jusqu’en Amérique, sur ordre de son petit fils Philippe V.
  8. Tombeaux et mausolées. Un des mystères des funérailles des Bourbons. Alors que les Valois avaient faits construire de prestigieux monuments funéraires, leurs successeurs rompent avec cette tradition, ne menant pas à terme les projets architecturaux dont on présente les plans, se contentant de simples cercueils alignés dans la crypte. Par contre, ils accordent tous leurs soins à l’ensevelissement de leurs entrailles et surtout aux tombeaux de leurs cœurs. Les vrais monuments funéraires des Bourbons furent cependant les apparats éphémères, les mausolées dressés partout dans les églises, dont on trouvera plusieurs feuilles de dessin.
  9. Des funérailles royales aux funérailles nationales. L’exposition s’achève sur les héritages d’une pratique monarchique que la Révolution avait voulu détruire, la recherche d’une nécropole autre que Saint Denis, la remise en honneur des grands cortèges avec les hommages populaires. Les tableaux officiels des funérailles des présidents de la république s’inscrivent dans une continuité éloquente.

La thématique retenue permet d’évoquer les obsèques royales sous leur aspect politique, social et culturel, situant un rituel que l’on pourrait croire obsolète au cœur d’un imaginaire du pouvoir au-delà des ruptures historiques.

– Gérard Sabatier

Le deuxième tome du Siècle de Louis XIV (chapitres 13-24) (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation), est maintenant disponible.

Perfect correspondences

Enlightenment Correspondences, a two-day colloquium, took place last June at Ertegun House in Oxford. The organisers want to share a brief summary of the findings of a dream group of epistolary scholars as a thank you.

A group of participants at Ertegun House.

A group of participants at Ertegun House, June 2015.

Day One focused on the material aspects of epistolarity and infrastructure. If you wanted to know how much it cost to receive a letter; how many postal stations were on the map of France (or England); how the intra-urban post functioned (and why messengers were called ‘poulets’); how celebrities like Voltaire became so overwhelmed by a deluge of post they had to take out adverts in newspapers advising fans and readers please not to enter into correspondence – there was much to learn and enjoy in the papers and discussion.

Historian Laurence Brockliss brought real panache to a contrarian argument in focusing on a number of French provincial figures who demurred at the expense, labour and relative obscurity of letter-writing, in some instances preferring the essay and prize competition as ways of building a reputation.

The cost and procedures of writing, folding, sealing and posting letters earned a delightfully anecdotal but clear procedural exposition in Jay Caplan’s paper that dovetailed nicely with Nicholas Cronk’s fascinating analysis of how Voltaire’s many thousands of letters (over 16,000) eventually became collected into a corpus posthumously shaped into one of the great correspondences of the age. The hand of the writer could be seen from time to time in certain stunts such as the cycle of letters Voltaire originally rewrote as an epistolary fiction (Paméla – revealingly edited by Jonathan Mallinson [1]) that were later mistakenly edited as real letters.


A letter from the Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseevna (the future Catherine II) to Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams (1756).

That creation of a corpus was the subject of a first presentation on Catherine the Great, hugely famous and yet as a letter-writer unknown because her correspondence has yet to be fully constructed. The launch of the Digital Correspondence of Catherine the Great Pilot Project, a British Academy/Leverhulme funded pilot created at Oxford, showed how vital a part Digital Humanities can play in expanding the empire of letters – and in this case that would mean making fully available and searchable about 5,000 letters written by Catherine. The subject of how much value recipients and Catherine herself attributed to her letters as tokens of esteem and marks of favour formed the topic of Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s paper which illuminated the connections between letter-writing and gift-giving.

We enjoyed a spectacular treat thanks to the kind offices of Chris Fletcher and Mike Webb, who arranged a visit to one of the state of the art seminar rooms in the Weston Library. It was a real feast for the eye, and gratifying to see actual autograph letters of some of the writers discussed.

Questions about the utility of the private/public dichotomy and continuum provided one thread linking many papers, including the detailed examination by Andrew Jainchill of a small set of letters which Voltaire and the minister d’Argenson exchanged on the subject of politics, protection and war – issues of state policy on which d’Argenson’s seemingly subversive views required the forum of private letters in order to skirt the dangers of publicity. ‘Protection’ opened up a rewarding discussion on the differences from patronage and letter-writing as a sketchbook of radical ideas. This looked ahead to the riveting discussion by Lauren Clay on the eleven chambres de commerce which, during the revolutionary period, lobbied politicians and the Estates General very hard on behalf of business by concerted campaigns of letter-writing, designed to show that their commercial interests did not pit them against the ideals of the Revolution.

This stream of pragmatic correspondence seemed a world apart from the high-minded philosophical letters published in Berlin by Moses Mendelssohn and Thomas Abbt. As Avi Lifschitz showed, these letters, with a certain nod to Socratic dialogue, refashioned in letter form investigations into sometimes highly metaphysical questions of religion and ethics. Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig’s touchingly illustrated exploration of the Herder family focused not on the great philosopher himself but rather on preserved copies of letters by one of his sons – epistolary ‘home movies’ as it were, that taught us a great deal about the practice of Bildung and the construction of childhood.

Madame de Sévigné was seemingly born to be a great letter-writer, and Wilda Anderson’s fascinating paper explored the discourse of race in her writings (ramifying out into examples from Racine’s tragedy) as an expression of an aristocratic ethos that carries a nearly biological imperative to write well.

Clare Brant offered a marvelous reconsideration of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s account of her visit to the Turkish baths, a favourite text in feminist, Orientalist and post-colonial readings. Clare’s reading stripped away that layer of varnish in order to refocus on the visual clues and references contained in the text, and she showed how signals that might have looked clear to Montagu’s readers seem to have got lost in a fog of lit. crit. preoccupied with voyeurism and theories of the gaze.

With a similar attentiveness to actual words and personal affinities, Pamela Clemit took us into the world of the Godwin-Shelley circle, decoding salutations, signatures, the order of letters in a sequence and, above all, the emotional expectations recipients had of letter-writers. A century or so earlier, the readers of classic and minor Restoration and eighteenth-century fictions, starting with Aphra Behn and Haywood and going on to Richardson and Fielding, would have found many letters in the stories of novels. Eve Bannet’s delightful and careful teasing out of the texture and viewpoints of narrative voices showed us how the cleverest of novelists possibly set up careless readers who might be gulled into taking the writers of these embedded letters at their own words.

Correspondences scholars at the Weston Library, June 2015.

Correspondences scholars at the Weston Library, June 2015.

Sociability is a key Enlightenment virtue, and on this occasion rarely felt more natural as academic events go. Scholars of literature and history shared a common approach and there was a welcome ease of exchange. Historians did close reading and literature scholars historicised and contextualised. Both methods are now second nature in both disciplines. Letter-writing seems to be a cross-section of every possible Enlightenment activity, and to crystallise the whole complex of factors that make its European manifestation so dynamic. Whether lobbying, emoting, protecting, publicising, celebrating, philosophising, retiring, ironising, commanding, educating or entertaining – nobody could really do without pen and paper in a great age of letter-writing.

– Andrew Kahn

See also: The Letter: Purloined and Printed, Anonymous and Edited.

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation), vol.45c (2010).

Enlightenment Scotland still burning brightly

View of Edinburgh and the Castle (Wikimedia Commons).

View of Edinburgh and the Castle.

Scotland has been making headlines. In the past year, it held a referendum on independence and the Scottish Nationalist Party made unprecedented gains in this year’s general election, claiming almost every constituency north of the border and becoming a vocal force in the Commons. However, Scotland has been shaking things up and radically challenging assumptions long before our century, and not only on the backbenches.

As the contributors to The Enlightenment in Scotland: national and international perspectives illustrate, Edinburgh’s affectionate nickname ‘Auld Reekie’ may mean ‘Old Smoky’, but the stars of Scotland’s intellectual firmament have always burned bright through any perceived haze.

In the eighteenth century, independent thinking, rather than independence, was the battle cry. In fields as diverse as politics, philosophy, economics, history, social theory, agriculture, science and technology, Scots forged new paths, forming dense and fruitful networks of friendships, collaborations, and institutions (including the Scottish universities which are still academic heavyweights today). Thinkers and scientists challenged the status quo, paving the way for revolts of all kinds through their theories and practical inventions, from the agrarian and industrial revolutions which shaped modern society, to the American Revolution which established one of today’s dominant global powers, the United States.

King's College, University of Aberdeen. Taken by Nick in exilio and published on Flickr.

King’s College, University of Aberdeen. (Taken by Nick in exilio and published on Flickr.)

In this constellation of exceptional minds, two names tend to epitomize the achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment: Adam Smith and David Hume, thinkers whose writings on politics, economics, and philosophy continue to influence policymakers today. However, ‘the Enlightenment’ is a nebulous concept, an umbrella term which can sometimes mask the complexities and heterogeneity of this momentous period of global transformation, and the Scottish Enlightenment was more than two individual thinkers. Indeed, the Scottish Enlightenment is a fascinating historiographical conundrum, which raises the question of the delicate symbiotic exchange of influences between Enlightenment thinkers in other countries and thinkers in Scotland.

Adam Smith, 1790, engraving attributed to John Kay (Wikimedia Commons).

Adam Smith, 1790, engraving attributed to John Kay.

This collective volume focuses on the specificity of the Enlightenment in Scotland, while also integrating it into a wider global narrative. The diversity of approaches, origins, and influences reflected in the studies included – from microcosmic case studies of opposition to the Enlightenment in the Scottish counties of Ayrshire and Renfrewshire to examinations of reception of Scottish ideas and theories in France, Germany, and America – has a scope commensurate with the ambition and vision of the Scots.

In Scottish politics, 2014-2015 has been a year about borders and boundaries, those of nations and of parliamentary constituencies – but the stars of Scottish Enlightenment defied borders and limitations to shed their light far beyond this island’s shores, onto the international stage.

– Madeleine Chalmers


The Enlightenment in Scotland: national and international perspectives

Edited by Jean-François Dunyach and Ann Thomson

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, August 2015

ISBN-13: 978-0-7294-1166-0, 260 pages

Newtonianism in the French Enlightenment

Rob Iliffe is Professor of Intellectual History and the History of Science in the Department of History at the University of Sussex. He has written the Very Short Introduction to Newton and directs the online Newton Project. On 28 February 2015 he gave a fascinating talk at the ‘Voltaire and the Newtonian Revolution’ conference that explored the fate and legacy of Newton’s scientific views in eighteenth-century France of which this is a brief summary.


Soon after Newton had published his initial work on the heterogeneity of white light (in 1672), he became embroiled in a series of disputes about the truth of his theory, and about the facts on which it was based. Edme Mariotte’s failure to reproduce aspects of Newton’s ‘crucial experiment’ in 1681 influenced the negative opinion of Newton’s work by many French physicists, although there was increased interest in his work at the Académie des Sciences following the publication of his Optice in 1706. There was also opposition to the physical theories and epistemological claims expressed in his Principia Mathematica, and many commentators continued to prefer the Cartesian doctrine of tourbillons to the notion of ‘attraction’ that underlay Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759). Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759). Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

A delegation of French natural philosophers visited England in 1715 and were treated to a number of experiments that confirmed Newton’s theories. However, it was Newton’s death in the spring of 1727, and Bernard de Fontenelle’s influential Eloge that followed, that triggered a serious spurt of interest in his work. Two men, Voltaire and Pierre Moreau de Maupertuis wrote popular works in the early 1730s that brought the nature and revolutionary scope of Newton’s ideas to a much larger audience. Yet it was not until the results of a French scientific expedition to Lapland were announced in 1737 that the public really began to switch allegiance to the Newtonian worldview. This excursion, led by Maupertuis, left France in 1736 to measure the length of a degree, one year after another voyage had set out to perform similar cartographic measurements in Peru (now Ecuador). The results from the Finnish expedition, and indications from the ill-fated trip to Peru, showed that the earth was flattened at the poles (as Newton had argued), and was not a prolate spheroid as many Cartesians had claimed.

Newtonianism was duly adopted and made the central plank of their paean to Enlightenment by men such as Voltaire and Jean Le Rond D’Alembert. Newton’s attacks on arbitrary and fictitous ‘hypotheses’ and ‘systems’ were reconfigured to serve in the general assault on the ‘infamy’ of persecution and superstition. There were some problems with the approach, firstly because Newtonianism could be used (as the British largely did) to defend the idea of an intelligent Creator God, and secondly because Newton himself was clearly both devout and a serious student of theology. While the latter could be explained away as the result of senility or dilettantism, there was always the danger that Newton himself could be deified as the founder of Reason. This possibility was explored in the majestic designs for a Cenotaph to Newton created by Etienne-Louis Boullée in the mid-1780s, and in the early plans for a ‘Church of Newton’ described by Henri de Saint-Simon at the start of the following century.

– Rob Iliffe, Director of the Newton Project

Cross-section of a ‘Newton cenotaph’ by Etienne-Louis Boullée. Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Cross-section of a ‘Newton cenotaph’ by Etienne-Louis Boullée. Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France