Journey to the end of the river, with La Condamine

It is now official: according to an article recently published in Le Figaro, the highest point on Earth is… Mount Chimborazo, in Ecuador. Although there are dozens – if not hundreds – of peaks that are considerably taller than Chimborazo when measured as elevations above sea level, the top of the Ecuadorian volcano is the point furthest away from the centre of the Earth (outranking Mount Everest by some 1,800 metres) due to the fact that our planet is not a perfect sphere: rotation has slightly flattened it at the poles and made it bulge at the Equator.

Although the exact measurement of Chimborazo (‘to the nearest centimetre’, says Le Figaro) was only made possible by state-of-the-art technology, the fact that our terrestrial globe is flatter at the extremities and plumper in the middle did not exactly come as news. Newton had figured it out mathematically long ago, and the experimental evidence was provided by the twin expeditions of Maupertuis in Lapland and of La Condamine in modern-day Ecuador (then Peru) from the mid-1730s to the mid-1740s.

Reading the story about Mount Chimborazo, and with one thing leading to another, I felt compelled to look up works by Charles Marie de La Condamine on the Internet, and I started reading his Relation abrégée d’un voyage fait dans l’intérieur de l’Amérique méridionale […] lue à l’assemblée publique de l’Académie des Sciences le 28 avril 1745 on Archive.org. For, as well as measuring his arc of meridian in Ecuador in order to settle the question of the shape of the Earth once and for all, La Condamine was also the first scientist to explore, describe and map the Amazon basin and its intricate network of tributaries in detail. His Relation abrégée was published in 1745, the same year he came back to Paris (via Amsterdam, as he sailed back to Europe from the Dutch colony of Suriname), having left the port of La Rochelle bound for the Americas ten years before, in 1735.

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‘Carte du cours du Maragnon ou de la Grande Rivière des Amazones’, in Relation abrégée d’un voyage fait dans l’intérieur de l’Amérique méridionale, by Charles Marie de La Condamine (Paris, chez la veuve Pissot, 1745). Image gallica/BnF.

The sense of immediacy afforded by La Condamine’s account of his journey, committed to the page so soon after its completion, is enhanced by the quality of the reading experience one gets thanks to the remarkable clarity of the scans of the first edition of the book (Paris, Chez la veuve Pissot, 1745) on Archive.org. Perusing the original edition, the reader feels transported back in time and space into a new world, huge swathes of which were then still largely unknown to Europeans, a world where the existence of a tribe of real-life Amazons could not be entirely dismissed (even though La Condamine himself was highly sceptical) and where echoes of stories about a land of gold – El Dorado – still resonated.

The book contains descriptions of many strange and mysterious animals – including the coati and the manatee – as well as what is quite possibly the first description of rubber by a European (La Condamine introduced the substance to Europe): ‘la résine appelée Cahuchu (prononcez Cahout-chou) […] est aussi fort commune sur les bords du Marañon […] Quand elle est fraîche, on lui donne avec des moules la forme qu’on veut; elle est impénétrable à la pluie, mais ce qui la rend plus remarquable, c’est sa grande élasticité. On en fait des bouteilles qui ne sont pas fragiles, des bottes […]’ (p.78-79).

La Condamine’s account of the character of the native Americans he encountered would undoubtedly make it quite difficult for him to find a publisher were he to submit his manuscript today, and would probably get him expelled from most universities’ Anthropology departments: ‘j’ai cru reconnaître dans tous [les Indiens Américains] un même fond de caractère. L’insensibilité en fait la base. […] Elle naît sans doute du petit nombre de leurs idées […] pusillanimes et poltrons à l’excès si l’ivresse ne les transporte pas […] ennemis du travail […] incapables de prévoyance et de réflexion […] ils passent leur vie sans penser, et ils vieillissent sans sortir de l’enfance dont ils conservent tous les défauts’ (p.52-53).

Charles Marie de La Condamine, by Charles Nicolas Cochin (artist) and Pierre Philippe Choffard (engraver), 1768. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Marie de La Condamine, by Charles Nicolas Cochin (artist) and Pierre Philippe Choffard (engraver), 1768. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Having said that, he is not unaware of his own biases as an external observer: describing how Indians inhale a crushed plant’s powder as snuff through a Y-shaped reed that they insert into their nostrils, he writes ‘cette opération […] leur fait faire une grimace fort ridicule aux yeux d’un Européen, qui veut tout rapporter à ses usages’ (p.73-74).

And his own commentary on what he perceives as the unenviable condition of native American women (offered as a theory concerning the possible origin of the Amazons) reveals his humane and compassionate side: ‘Je me contenterais de faire remarquer qui si jamais il y a pu avoir des Amazones dans le monde, c’est en Amérique, où la vie errante des femmes qui suivent souvent leurs maris à la guerre, et qui n’en sont pas plus heureuses dans leur domestique, a dû leur faire naître l’idée et leur fournir des occasions fréquentes de se dérober au joug de leurs tyrans, en cherchant à se faire un établisssement où elles pussent vivre dans l’indépendance, et du moins n’être pas réduites à la condition d’esclaves et de bêtes de somme. Une pareille résolution prise et exécutée n’aurait rien de plus extraordinaire ni de plus difficile que tout ce qui arrive tous les jours dans toutes les colonies européennes d’Amérique, où il n’est que trop ordinaire que des esclaves maltraités ou mécontents fuient par troupes dans les bois, et quelquefois seuls’ (p.110-111).

Although a bit dry (ironically) when describing the drainage basin of the Amazon river, the sheer variety of the observations and reflections contained in this slim volume and the author’s superb style make it a compelling and rejuvenating read, a first-hand account of an endlessly fascinating world, full of mysteries and wonders, by one of the great explorers and scientists of his time.

– Georges Pilard

 

Voltaire’s De la paix perpétuelle

Charles-Irénée Castel

Charles-Irénée Castel, abbé de Saint-Pierre; portrait published in Un contemporain égaré au XVIIIe siècle: Les projets de l’abbé de Saint-Pierre, 1658-1743, by S. Siégler-Pascal (Paris, 1900).

For his polemics against the Church, Voltaire had an arsenal of facts and arguments that he used repeatedly in a variety of contexts. De la paix perpétuelle (1769) presents in a concise and forceful manner materials on bloodshed and strife caused by religious intolerance that appear in La Philosophie de l’histoire, Traité sur la tolérance, Dictionnaire philosophique, L’Examen important de milord Bolingbroke, Des conspirations contre les peuples, Dieu et les hommes, and Histoire de l’établissement du christianisme.

The work is framed by references to the ideas of Charles-Irénée Castel, abbé de Saint-Pierre, who, under the title Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe (1712), proposed a peace plan that is a precursor of the current European Union. This plan stipulates that a lasting peace could be achieved by a permanent alliance of the Christian states of Europe. All princes would forgo war as a means of settling differences. Any prince who engaged in armed hostilities would be banned from the union. If any member state was attacked, it would be defended by all the other member states. National boundaries would be preserved, and the political system of each state would be protected. Once the alliance was formed, a uniform economic policy would be developed. Turkey would be excluded from the confederacy. Voltaire rejected the abbé’s peace plan because he found it utopian and did not believe that lasting peace could be achieved by legal machinery alone without changing the attitudes that lead to war.

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Holograph dedication to the marquis de Torcy by the abbé de Saint-Pierre, in Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe (1712), copy BnF Rés. *E-534 / Image gallica/BnF

He furthermore foresaw that peace in Europe could not be maintained without taking into account the rest of the world. In Rescrit de l’empereur de la Chine, the emperor is surprised that, in the plan to establish lasting peace, countries outside of Europe such as Turkey, Persia, and Japan have wrongly been left out of the confederacy. He supposes that if Turkey, which was specifically excluded from the abbé’s alliance, attacked Hungary the European equilibrium could be broken. Convinced that Chinese membership is an absolute necessity, he decides to build in the center of the earth a city where the plenipotentiaries of the universe would assemble and where the representatives of all the major religions would come together to be preached into agreement by Portuguese Jesuits.

In De la paix perpétuelle, Voltaire celebrates the fact that war has become less cruel and religious persecutions less frequent, but he recapitulates a long series of atrocities caused by religious intolerance in the past. He emphasizes the fact that intolerance was brought to Rome by Christians. The most original part of the work is a debate between a Christian and a Jew moderated by a Roman senator before Marcus Aurelius. The Christian insists that Christianity is the only true religion and with naive confidence puts forth proofs based on the narrative of the Gospels. The senator invalidates with historical evidence the stories of the census and of the star that appeared upon the birth of Jesus. The Christian flaunts the genealogy of Jesus, the virgin birth, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Old Testament prophecies, and the miracles. Bored by the Christian demonstration, Marcus Aurelius orders the Jew to compare the two religions and the relationship between them.

In contrast with the arrogance and intolerance of the Christian, the Jew is respectful and pledges loyalty to the empire. He impersonates the Jewish apologists praised by Voltaire in the ninth of the Lettres à S. A. Mgr le prince de ***, and his arguments reflect those presented in the letter. He counters the miracles of Jesus with the more grandiose splitting of the Red Sea by Moses and stopping of the sun by Joshua. His well-informed analysis of the Scriptures mirrors the arguments of Orobio de Castro and Isaac of Troki. He challenges the alleged prophecies Christians found in the Old Testament and in sibylline verses. He explains the meaning of the term ‘Messiah’, wrongly associated with Jesus, and interprets the Hebrew expression ‘Son of God’ to mean a virtuous man. He finds proof in the Gospels that Jesus was a Jew preaching the Jewish law and was punished not for wanting to change the law but for fomenting disorder and insulting the magistrates. He mocks the end-of-the-world prophecies. Marcus Aurelius judges that both are equally insane, but while the empire has nothing to fear from the Jew it has everything to fear from the Christian.

The debate is followed by a summary of ecclesiastical history that traces the crimes of Christian emperors, bloodshed caused by controversies over absurd dogma, massacres, and persecutions. The narrative concludes with the belief that discord will end only through the elimination of divisive dogma and with the proclamation that tolerance has begun to spread through enlightenment. Voltaire rejected Saint-Pierre’s peace plan but fully agreed with his religious ideas. In the end, he joined the abbé by advocating the adoption of a universal religion that consists solely of the love of God and benevolence toward men. De la paix perpétuelle addresses problems and solutions that are still with us today.

– Pauline Kra

Old world meets new in Pittsburgh, PA – ASECS 2016

Pittsburgh bridge

Pittsburgh: a bridge over the Allegheny

Pittsburgh, otherwise known as ‘the steel city’. My image of the place, unfairly tainted by the UK’s steel industry crisis, was of a struggling post-industrial metropolis, possibly in need of a complete makeover. The location of this year’s ASECS meeting completely overturned my prejudices: what I encountered was an impressively upbeat conurbation boasting several splendid art deco buildings, majestic bridges spanning the Allegheny river and recreational treats such as the Andy Warhol Museum, the National Aviary Center and the unlikely named Mattress Factory.

The Omni Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh

The Omni Penn Hotel, Pittsburgh

The annual ASECS meeting took place in one of the oldest hotels in Pittsburgh, the Omni Penn, which has just celebrated its centenary. ASECS delegates would join the long list of illustrious guests which boasts John F. Kennedy and Bob Hope. For a UK-based publisher, the ASECS meeting is both a great way of showcasing our books from the ‘Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment’ series to faculty and academics, and, just as importantly, of meeting our US-based authors. With email and file transfer sites, communicating with authors is easy, though the one missing aspect for me is the human element. Meeting authors in person is very rewarding, always interesting, and sometimes surprising as the mental images we inevitably form of a person are, more often than not, completely wrong! This year I finally had the pleasure of meeting, amongst many other ‘old friends’, Sabrina Ferri, whose book Ruins past: modernity in Italy, 1744-1836, marks our first foray into Italian studies, and Clorinda Donato, co-editor of Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, which is part of our growing programme of Spain and Hispanic studies-related works.

Clorinda Donato

Clorinda Donato at the Voltaire Foundation’s stand

ASECS is also an ideal opportunity for me and the new General editor of the series, Las Vegas-based Greg Brown, to get together in person. Whilst I manned our book stand in the exhibitors’ hall, Greg attended panel discussions and met several potential new authors. We hosted an inaugural drinks reception to celebrate the series – many thanks to Byron Wells and Vickie Cutting at the ASECS Executive Office for their organisational help – where the chocolate and fruit dessert proved very enticing.

My abiding memories of Pittsburgh: warm (even though it snowed on the day of departure), generous, up-and-coming and forward-looking. Next year’s ASECS in Minnesota may be slightly chillier, but wrap up warm, shelve those Fargo-esque preconceptions, and you may be surprised by what you find.

– Lyn Roberts

Greg Brown

Greg Brown at the Voltaire Foundation’s stand

The sense of an ending – final Mme de Graffigny letters published

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This month we celebrate the publication of the final volume (vol.15) of the Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny alongside the launch of the completed correspondence’s online cumulative index – a live reference tool for all 15 volumes. This new volume brings Mme de Graffigny’s life to a close, and covers both the settlement of her estate and her friends’ early efforts to preserve her fame for posterity. The moment seems fitting to try to evaluate the end of her extraordinary life.

Her final year, 1758, was dominated by the failure of her play, La Fille d’Aristide. Many of her contemporaries connected it to her death. Voisenon quipped that ‘the public died of boredom and the author of grief’. Voltaire repeated the idea in a letter two years later. Casanova, who claimed to have attended the disastrous opening, said that she died of chagrin five days afterward.

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Two variant title pages of the original edition of La Fille d’Artistide (Paris, 1759).

In fact, the play premiered on 29 April 1758 and Mme de Graffigny died seven months later on 12 December. Her letters tell a very different story of her reaction to the play’s poor reception. Her old friend and correspondent François-Antoine Devaux wrote that she accepted the failure ‘as reasonably as could be imagined’. Moreover, letters from other friends and acquaintances in May 1758 all attest to her equanimity. At the same time, she confronted far more serious troubles.

The first was the disgrace of her friend, the comte de Maillebois. In 1756 he had arranged a paid position in the archives of the Invalides to be shared by two of Mme de Graffigny’s Lorraine protégés, Nicholas-François Liébault and Devaux. Maillebois was a rising star in the French military at the start of the Seven Years’ War. At the battle of Hastembeck, on 29 July 1757, the French won a victory but let the enemy forces slip away. Maillebois engaged in a public dispute with the commanding general, the maréchal d’Estrées, about responsibility for this mistake, was convicted of insubordination, and exiled in May 1758.

In June, Liébault was suspected of leaking military documents while in the post Maillebois had obtained for him. He managed to flee, but his younger brother and assistant Léopold was imprisoned in the Bastille. Léopold was transferred to Vincennes in October, but remained behind bars until spring 1759, when he was exonerated and discharged. Mme de Graffigny did everything she could to help Léopold, recruiting powerful friends to support him, sending him money and supplies, and visiting him herself.

In July, Helvétius published his work of materialist philosophy, De l’Esprit. He was not just an old friend but the husband of Mme de Graffigny’s cousin Anne-Catherine de Ligniville. Their long courtship had taken place in Mme de Graffigny’s apartment. He was handsome, charming, immensely wealthy and well connected, a perfect husband. His book, however, though approved by a censor, was immediately attacked by the Church and by the Paris Parlement, which condemned it in 1759. Helvétius had to publish retractions and barely escaped serious penalties. On his behalf, too, Mme de Graffigny attempted to intervene, visiting the Procureur Général of Parlement to plead his case.

Françoise de Graffigny

Françoise de Graffigny by Pierre-Augustin Clavareau. Lunéville, musée du château des Lumières. Photo: T. Franz, Conseil départemental 54.

As these disasters unfolded, Mme de Graffigny’s health declined. She had long suffered from poor health and occasional fainting spells, but in May she began to lose consciousness more frequently, sometimes without realizing that anything had happened. She was often fatigued, forced to dictate her letters to conserve strength. From time to time she spat blood. It is impossible to say now exactly what caused her death; some symptoms sound like cardiac events, others like strokes, or epileptic seizures, pulmonary problems, tuberculosis or cancer. Perhaps all were present. Her doctors cannot have helped, with such treatments as bleeding and flogging her legs to raise blisters.

The rumour bruited by Casanova, Voisenon and Voltaire made Mme de Graffigny’s death the punchline of a comic plot. She was portrayed as a ‘femme savante’, who had challenged nature by excessive ambition and was brought low by the return of normality. In reality, she led a heroic life. After surviving marriage to a brutal husband, she was forced by political events to leave her native Lorraine. Alone, with little income, she made her way to the pinnacle of Paris literary society. She wrote a novel, Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747), and a play, Cénie (1750), which were hugely successful. She presided over an informal salon frequented by the most famous figures of the era. At her death she was the most celebrated living woman writer in the world.

Moreover, she had the peaceful death of a person who has lived well and feels no regrets. In her last days she was rereading her favourite authors and receiving calls. On the eve of her death, when she was first stricken, she was playing cards with old friends. To the end she followed the example of the poet Maynard, who wrote, ‘I await death without fearing or desiring it’.

– English Showalter

Celebrating Voltaire: A Symposium

J. Patrick Lee

J. Patrick Lee

McGill University in Montréal sponsored a Symposium on 9th March to celebrate its recent acquisition of J. Patrick Lee’s Voltaire Collection. Pat Lee, as he was known to friends and colleagues, was a pre-eminent American Voltaire scholar, an inspiring teacher and a gifted university administrator. He was also a discriminating bibliophile. At his death in 2006, his library held some 11,000 volumes and many manuscripts. Of these, McGill purchased 1,994 rare and important items, including 35 manuscripts in the hand of Voltaire, Madame du Châtelet, and others in Voltaire’s circle; there are 245 stand-alone editions of Candide, 39 of Zadig, 54 of the Dictionnaire philosophique, and 21 of La Henriade, as well as American imprints of Voltaire’s works, and volumes with notable American provenance.

The Symposium proved worthy of this remarkable collection. Held in the ballroom of the University Faculty Club, a capacity audience of students, academics, and members of the public was treated to series of lectures (some in French and some in English) presenting an overview of Voltaire’s life and career. Recurring themes were Voltaire’s role in promoting Enlightenment values and his battles against intolerance, superstition and religious fanaticism (Josiane Boulad-Ayoub), his relationship with England and the English (Richard Virr, Edward Langille), his latter day image as the patriarch of Ferney (Simon Davies), and, of course, his image beyond the grave (Hans-Jurgen Lüsebrink).

McGill Librarian Ann Marie Holland talked on the many versions of the Dictionnaire philosophique held in the Lee Collection.

From left to right: Marie-Claude Felton, Ethel Groffier, Benoît Melançon, Ugo Dionne, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne

From left to right: Marie-Claude Felton, Ethel Groffier, Benoît Melançon, Ugo Dionne, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne

Towards the end of the afternoon, the participants engaged in an exhilarating roundtable discussion on the question: ‘Why does Voltaire matter in the 21st century?’ which inevitably focused on the religious fanaticism of last year’s murderous attacks in France (Ethel Groffier, Ugo Dionne, Benoît Melançon, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne). A sceptical Benoît Melançon doubted whether sales of Voltaire’s Traité sur la tolérance really could have attained the 185,000 copies reported in the aftermath of those attacks, or at least whether any of those who did buy it actually read it or merely had it as a kind of talisman. And he wondered too, as others have done, whether Voltaire is a writer whose works everyone quotes but no one reads. It is ironic to reflect that Voltairian slogans on free speech and religious tolerance were widely quoted after the attacks, rather as the faithful recite prayers in times of grief. And like a secular saint, his image became familiar on posters and banners at free-speech rallies throughout France.

Robert Darnton

Robert Darnton

The keynote address was delivered by the Enlightenment historian Robert Darnton, who took us (happily) back to the eighteenth century and its fascination with Voltaire, the best-selling author. Darnton’s account of how the 75 year-old played publishers off, one against the other, in order to secure for his monumental Questions sur l’Encyclopédie as wide a readership as possible, provided a riveting conclusion to the day’s proceedings.

Mounted in conjunction with the Voltaire Symposium is an exhibition of works by or on Voltaire covering nearly three centuries. Contemporary editions of Voltaire’s works are juxtaposed with the key 20th-century editions of Voltaire’s most popular work, Candide (MacLennan Library).

The acquisition of the J. Patrick Lee Voltaire Collection at McGill University puts the land of ‘quelques arpents de neige’ on the map as an important centre of Voltaire and Enlightenment scholarship.

– E. M. Langille, St Francis Xavier University

(View a video recording of the Symposium here.)

On translating the hasty writing of encyclopedia articles

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Translating French and Spanish encyclopedia articles from the Enlightenment into English is not easy. There are, of course, the typical problems that one encounters when doing any translation, such as negotiating between surface meanings and deep meanings, dealing with false cognates, contending with idiomatic expressions, and deciding whether to go with a literal or an idiomatic translation. However, when dealing with encyclopedia articles that were written at a furious pace for the gargantuan compilations that were the Encyclopédie méthodique and its Spanish translation, the Encyclopedia metódica, there emerges the problem of translating hurried and at times careless writing that was possibly never proof-read, and certainly never corrected. Knowing that eighteenth-century encyclopedists worked under stringent publication deadlines, the vexed but somewhat amused translator could hardly blame them for suffering the all-too-common professional flaw of careless writing.

A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’) Artist: Rembrandt

A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’) (Rembrandt, ca. 1652; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

This is what my co-translator, Clorinda Donato, and I encountered when preparing our volume, Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, for which we translated and annotated the articles ‘Espagne’ (from the Méthodique) and ‘España’ (from the Metódica). Although the articles are generally well written, there are nevertheless moments when authors Nicolas Masson de Morvilliers and Julián de Velasco felt the urgency of their task and careened their way through long, convoluted sentences without ever looking back. That a pronoun lost track of its referent, or that a verb strayed so far from its subject that it forgot whether it should be singular or plural mattered little when the encyclopedia mill had to keep grinding. Reading these articles I also find passages where the zeal to badmouth Spain’s backwardness or defend its misunderstood Enlightenment overrode any respect for the conventions of grammar. The passions aroused by Enlightenment debate were just too strong to obey the strictures of the Académie Française and the Real Academia. Indeed, these are the moments when Masson and Velasco are most fun to read.

Annotating these translations also revealed an interesting consequence of such hasty writing. While citing, copying, and paraphrasing was a regular practice among eighteenth-century scholars, the verification of information was not. If a scholar cites a source that is based on a citation that is based on another citation that is based on another citation and so on, that scholar will likely have in his hands a cumulative error, a product of distortions and embellishments. This is what we find in Masson’s negative portrayal of Spain and the Inquisition. Where he cites sources that have been embellished, he enters the fray by adding yet another layer of gleeful embellishment. Indeed, it would not be entirely wrong to say that the polemic emerging out of Masson’s infamous question ‘What does Europe owe Spain?’ is in large measure the result of an Enlightenment version of the game of telephone (or Chinese whispers).

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A Scene in a Library (photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot, ca.1844; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

But if haphazard writing and cumulative error are endemic to encyclopedia culture, then how can Enlightenment discourse ever safeguard itself from the vagaries and flighty opinions of scholars such as Masson? This is precisely the question that our volume seeks to answer. By translating and juxtaposing Masson’s and Velasco’s articles on Spain, we see how the Spaniards object to being the butt of the joke running down the telephone chain of French philosophie, and how they insist that the discourse of Enlightenment return to its more noble purpose of advancing civility and rational exchange.

– Ricardo López

Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, edited by Clorinda Donato and Ricardo López. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, November 2015, ISBN 978-0-7294-1170-7, 336 pages, 2 ills

 

Voltaire Bruxellois

Voltaire knew Brussels well: he visited first with Mme de Rupelmonde in 1722, and between 1739 and 1742 made several extended stays in the city with Émilie Du Châtelet. The pirated editions of Mahomet which appeared under a Brussels imprint in 1742 connect the name of the city with Voltaire’s crusade for religious toleration.

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A 1742 edition of Mahomet, with Brussels imprint

All of us at the Voltaire Foundation express strongest solidarity with our friends and colleagues in Belgium, following the brutal events of 22 March.

– Nicholas Cronk

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Avenue Voltaire, Brussels