Theatre and colonialism: the show goes on

The cover image of Colonialism and slavery in performance: theatre and the eighteenth-century French Caribbean shows a black and white detail from a wonderful color map of Le Cap, from the collection of the John Carter Brown Library, which can be viewed in exquisitely high detail here. I encourage strolling through the city! The theatre, pictured on the cover of the volume, occupies a rectangular corner lot below the government complex gardens, with its shorter face spilling onto the Place de la Fontaine Montarcher, and its longer face allowing for dramatic arrivals along the end of the broad cours of the Rue Espagnole. Theatre was literally at the heart of the Saint-Domingue’s cultural capital, a haven of spectacle that, as the essays in our collection show in so many ways, was adopted and adapted in the Caribbean slave colonies, to lasting effect.

Place et Fontaine Montarcher. (Manioc – Bibliothèque numérique caraïbe)

As editors of this volume, Karine Benac-Giroux and I are delighted to share this collection of essays with scholarly communities around the world. We feel that this is a particularly opportune time to look back at how popular entertainment shaped perceptions and identities in the transatlantic French empire, and the ways in which the legacy of these eighteenth-century cultural practices has continued to inform the artistic production and historical understanding of the modern Francophone Caribbean. By presenting these essays in English, we also hope that they can help to extend the growing body of research around slavery and culture across early modern European colonial empires.

Over the course of the time that this volume was in preparation the world has been rocked by a number of epoch-defining events. The international wave of protests set off by the killing of George Floyd in 2020 has shone a bright light on the continued structural disadvantages imposed on descendants of African slaves in America and abroad. These events unfolded during a worldwide public-health crisis that has, amongst other depredations, forced the closing of almost all live performance venues. While we join the world in our outrage and mourning over these trials, we also recognize the rare timeliness of essays on eighteenth-century studies and theatre, to reflect on the cultural and representational apparatus of a slave-labor driven political empire that was an important contributor to the mentalities and practices that continue to shape the lives of Black people around the world. Performance, in the eighteenth century as today, retains a unique ability to reflect and mold our social perception; each of these essays confirms this power, offering a range of critical tools and past examples to underscore the long history that led up to this point, and how we might seize on these same representational tools to forge a more equitable future.

Map of Saint-Domingue (Hispaniola), by Nicolas de Fer (1646-1720). (John Carter Brown Library)

Here is a quick summary of the volume’s contents. The volume is divided into three parts. The first looks at the cultures of performance in France’s most profitable eighteenth-century colony, Saint-Domingue. Before the Haitian revolution made this colony into the New World’s first Black Republic, Saint-Domingue’s economy was driven by slave labor at the island’s sugar plantations. Life in Saint-Domingue may have lacked much of the refinement of life in Paris, but in addition to importing unspeakably brutal labor practices, the colonists also brought a semblance of French theatrical life to the Caribbean. Travelling companies from Europe could profitably tour the colony with popular works from France, where the reigning théâtromanie made playhouses an important site for the negotiation of national values, tastes, and identity, all functions that theatre at once retained and modified in colonial Saint-Domingue. Logan Connors’ exploration of military-themed entertainment played in the colony reflects the increasing importance of an armed presence necessary for the commercial success of the slave-driven plantation economy, just as Julia Prest’s close reading of blackface performance illuminates the ways in which theatre helped to metabolize the conflicting moral valence of the racialized other under the ancien régime. In her exploration of the changes made to a successful pantomime spectacle when it was brought to Saint-Domingue by a traveling company of actors from France, Béatrice Ferrier’s research shines a light on the preferences of local audiences, while Bernard Camier details the emergence of a Creole theatrical culture articulated around the sophisticated use of the island’s homegrown idiom, notably in the works of the author and composer Clément, whose adaptation of Rousseau’s smash hit Le Devin du village provides a compelling case study for the emergence of a new identity – not French, but in dialogue with France – in Saint-Domingue.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Le Devin du village.

In turn, Sean Anderson turns his focus on the dance performances of enslaved people, detailing how increasing colonial efforts at regulating this cultural expression were nevertheless unable to suppress this vital embodied expression of community and identity among slaves. Laurence Marie rounds out this section, and provides a transition into the next part of the book, with an attentive reading of the theatrical notices in the Saint-Domingue newspaper, Les Affiches américaines, analyzing how this publication reflected and promoted the unique theatrical culture in the Atlantic colonies, both within the Caribbean space and before the curious public in continental France.

The second part of the book turns its focus to how Atlantic slavery was represented on Europe’s stages, beginning with Catherine Ramond’s review of the theme of slavery in eighteenth-century French theatre, where the topic received largely comic treatment until the early days of the revolution. My own article, on the representation of slaves in Revolution-era theatre focuses on linguistic caricature (the infamous ‘baragouin’ of Black characters on the French stage), is followed by Pierre Saint-Amand’s penetrating analysis of an explicitly abolitionist play, La Liberté générale, written following the declaration of universal emancipation by the Convention nationale in 1794, a scathing denunciation of the machinations of the colonial planter class in Paris.

La Liberté générale. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

The view then moves to a larger European stage, with Fredrik Thomasson’s chronicle of slave-plays in Stockholm, triggered by the Swedish crown’s takeover of the slave island of Saint-Barthélémy, ceded by France in 1784, making Sweden a slave-holding colonial power for the first time in its history. While the Haitian Revolution is now recognized as a signal realization of the French Revolution’s ostensible goals of liberty and equality, it was nevertheless experienced as a deep trauma for the French nation, a trauma that Pascale Pellerin situates in the cultural context surrounding Napoleon’s Egypt expedition through her reading of two plays written by Népomucène Lemercier during this campaign, whose focus on North African slavery comes to stand in for the anxieties of a diminished France following the loss of Saint-Domingue.

The final section pivots to look at the inheritance of this eighteenth-century theatrical culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Laurent Dubois and Kaiama Glover’s collaborative contribution probes the porous borders of history and fiction through the intellectual relationship between Jean Fouchard, the pioneering mid-century historian of Saint-Domingue’s eighteenth-century theatre culture, and Marie Vieux-Chauvet, whose novel La Danse sur le volcan (1957) draws on Fouchard’s research to fill in the story of the mixed-race performer Minette, the colony’s most celebrated actress. Following this, Emily Sahakian turns her attention to two contemporary Guadeloupian artists, LénaBlou and Gilbert Laumord, whose respective artistic practice enters into dialogue with the experience of the enslaved people – their ancestors – whose voices are muted in eighteenth-century stage culture, but whose testimony lives on through the Caribbean dance and music traditions that form the basis of these artists’ work.

Colonialism and slavery in performance, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, March 2021.

The final two essays look at contemporary creations in Martinique, beginning with Karine Bénac-Giroux’s reflections on Histoires de valets, her Creole-feminist adaptation of Louis de Boissy’s La Surprise de la haine, performed by Martinican college students in Schoelcher in 2017, in which she stages a literal confrontation between eighteenth-century theatre and the lives of contemporary French citizens, descendants of slaves, who live in France’s overseas departments. Nadia Chonville closes our collection with an analysis of gender construction in a Daniely Francisque’s 2018 play Ladjablès, illustrating how the stage remains as important a site for exploring the contours of a French-Caribbean identity that is forever marked by the legacy of ancien régime slavery.

Jeffrey M. Leichman, Louisiana State University

Jeffrey M. Leichman and Karine Bénac-Giroux are co-editors of the March volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Colonialism and slavery in performance: theatre and the eighteenth-century French Caribbean.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog, March 2021.

Enfin Moland vint ou comment reprendre le flambeau

La première partie de cette notice, ‘Moland avant Voltaire’, peut se lire ici.

2. Moland et Voltaire

Portrait de Louis Moland dans H. Carnoy, Dictionnaire biographique des hommes du Nord, I. Les contemporains (Paris, 1894), p.134. (artiste inconnu)

Commençons par dire qu’en l’état présent de nos connaissances nous ne savons rien de concret concernant la genèse de l’édition des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, ni si Moland lui-même en était l’initiateur. Le prospectus initial, qui annonce une édition d’environ quarante-cinq volumes in-8o cavalier, attire surtout l’attention du lecteur sur le fait que ‘Ceux qui voulaient placer les Œuvres de Voltaire à côté des belles éditions de nos grands écrivains, qui se multiplient de toutes parts, ne trouvaient aucune édition qui pût les satisfaire. C’est cette lacune que nous entreprenons de combler.’ D’une part, il se peut que les Garnier aient tout simplement subodoré un créneau béant dans un marché lucratif; d’autre part – cas de figure peut-être plus probable – il se peut que Moland ait plaidé la cause d’une édition selon ses propres critères d’excellence qui pût en effet profiter des résultats des recherches entreprises – sur une période d’une quarantaine d’années – depuis l’époque de l’édition Beuchot. Ce même prospectus pourrait très bien porter la trace de sa propre plume: ‘Publiée sous la direction de M. Louis Moland, la nouvelle édition de Voltaire [présentée en tête du prospectus comme étant ‘conforme pour le texte à l’édition de Beuchot’] sera la plus complète de toutes, celle qui présentera un plus remarquable ensemble de notices, de commentaires et de travaux accessoires: études biographiques et bibliographiques, table générale analytique, enfin ce que les lecteurs sont accoutumés de trouver dans nos grandes éditions modernes. Le nom de l’éditeur si considéré des Œuvres de Molière, de La Fontaine, de Racine, de Rabelais, etc., suffit à garantir que notre édition ne laissera rien à désirer sous le rapport littéraire.’

Le nom de Beuchot dans ce contexte, comme inspirateur, n’a rien d’étonnant: de toutes les éditions de Voltaire, parues depuis la grande édition de Kehl, il n’y avait que la sienne qui pût satisfaire un critique comme Moland dont les préférences éditoriales étaient évidemment panoramiques. Si pour les uns, intellectuellement ou culturellement peu exigeants, les 72 volumes de Beuchot étaient un capharnaüm indigeste, pour d’autres – dont évidemment Moland – ils constituaient un véritable coffre aux trésors. Son édition à lui sera donc, qu’il l’ait dit ouvertement ou non, un hommage à un éditeur dont il admirait l’engagement indéfectible, et qu’il tenait à mettre à jour de la manière la plus efficace possible. L’édition de base sera donc celle de Beuchot, complétée de diverses manières par un Moland que l’on peut qualifier de disciple.

Voltaire. (estampe: Gallica, BnF)

A comparer les deux, nous ne discernons que peu d’innovations du côté de celui qui reprend un flambeau si brillamment porté en 1828-1833, car même si Moland arrive à ajouter au dossier Voltaire de nombreuses pièces inédites aussi importantes qu’éclairantes, même s’il arrive à ajouter par-ci par-là (au niveau des variantes et des notes) des compléments d’information essentiels, même s’il arrive à rédiger lui-même des introductions liminaires à une multitude de textes de toutes sortes, il ne s’écartera nullement de la marche de son modèle. Bref, il ne fait que l’actualiser de manière intelligente tout en y mettant son sceau personnel.

Comment illustrer cette affirmation? Elle se recommande à nous, comme un phénomène incontournable, dès le premier tome chez l’un comme chez l’autre. Dans sa Préface générale (t.1, p.[i]-xxxviii), Beuchot, conscient du fait que son édition à lui est infiniment plus scientifique que celles qui l’ont précédée, en conclut qu’elle sera donc infiniment plus utile qu’elles. Il s’applique donc, à l’exclusion de toute autre considération, à la situer comme l’apogée d’une longue lignée d’éditions de toutes sortes (dont évidemment il nous propose l’historique circonstanciée) et non point à nous proposer une explication raisonnée des dispositions internes de la sienne. Il nous propose comme qui dirait une explication éclatée: ‘comme j’ai mis, en tête de chaque division ou de chaque ouvrage ou opuscule, des préfaces ou notes, dans lesquelles je donne les explications que j’ai jugées nécessaires, je n’ai point à en parler ici’ (t.1, p.xxxi-xxxii). Les raison de son classement des parties intégrantes des Œuvres complètes ne sont donc pas immédiatement évidents. Moland, par contre, dans sa propre Préface générale (t.1, p.[i]-vii) tient d’emblée à donner, comme entrée en matière, ‘quelques explications sur le plan et sur l’économie de cette nouvelle édition […], tel est l’objet de cette préface’ (t.1, p.[i]). Dans dix paragraphes qui se tiennent, il définit et justifie ce qu’on peut appeler l’architecture interne de l’édition, laquelle n’est à tout prendre qu’un véhicule à proposer (quoique grossièrement) une présentation chronologique de la production voltairienne … aveu que fait Moland, de manière à éviter la controverse, en écrivant dans son Introduction au théâtre de Voltaire (t.2, p.[i]): ‘La présente édition commence, conformément à un usage traditionnel, par le théâtre. Cet usage ne tient aucunement, comme on l’a dit, à l’espèce de préséance qu’on accordait à la poésie sur la prose. Mais c’est qu’il est bon que, dans la suite des œuvres complètes, l’auteur apparaisse successivement tel qu’il s’est montré à ses contemporains, et que l’on assiste autant que possible au développement graduel de son esprit. […] Sous quel aspect se révèle d’abord Voltaire? Il se révèle d’abord comme poète dramatique et comme poète épique’ (p.[i]). D’où, par la suite, apparemment selon les avatars successifs de son personnage (mais en même temps selon une échelle de valeurs esthétiques bien connue, propre à ne pas froisser les tenants de l’école néo-classique), son classement ‘logique’ (Préface générale, p.ii-iii) en tant qu’historien, philosophe, romancier, nouvelliste et conteur, pour aboutir enfin à l’auteur des pamphlets qu’il nommait lui-même ses ‘élucubrations’, ‘petits pâtés chauds’, ‘rogatons’ ou ‘fromages’. C’est ainsi que Moland, à la différence de Beuchot, se met immédiatement au diapason de son lecteur qui est avide de comprendre quel est le ‘fil d’Ariane’ qui doit le mener à une meilleure compréhension de l’auteur et non moins à cette confiance indispensable qui doit s’instaurer entre éditeur et lecteur.

Or si, toutefois, j’ai plus haut caractérisé Moland de disciple de Beuchot, c’est que je m’intéresse tout particulièrement à certaines innovations vraiment révolutionnaires, faites par ce dernier, qui devaient être entérinées de tout cœur par ce premier. Comment, en effet, en tant que membre de l’équipe éditoriale que je suis, recruté il y a bien longtemps par Theodore Besterman pour aider à échafauder une édition à la fois synchronique et diachronique, présentée comme inédite, pouvais-je rester insensible devant une telle approche, évidemment inattendue, chez un éditeur du XIXe siècle? La présentation de textes de manière chronologique n’était en aucune façon pour Beuchot terra incognita. En vérité il s’y aventura délibérément quand il jugeait le procédé utile et éclairant. S’intéressant depuis longtemps aux éditions modernes de Voltaire (voir sa Préface générale, t.1, p.[i]-xxxviii), il n’ignorait pas que, dans l’édition Dalibon (1824-1832), Jean Clogenson avait décidé de classer toutes les lettres de Voltaire (LXVIII-XCV) de façon chronologique, ‘sans distinction des personnes à qui ou par qui elles sont écrites, c’est-à-dire sans les subdivisions de correspondances particulières établies dans les éditions de Kehl, et conservées depuis’ (t.1, p.xxvi et xxxi). Disposition qu’il adopta lui-même quelques années plus tard dans sa propre édition (LI-LXX).

Theodore Deodatus Nathaniel Besterman (1904-1976). (Studio Harcourt, Paris)

Mais Beuchot ne s’arrêta pas là. Il décida d’extrapoler cette méthodologie vers une multitude d’autres écrits qu’il intitule Mélanges (XXXVII-L). Si, dans sa Préface du volume 37, il annonce tout simplement la publication de cette masse par ordre chronologique, ce n’est que dans sa Préface générale qu’il s’en était expliqué: les sections discrètes, intitulées dans les éditions de Kehl et leurs imitations Mélanges historiques, Politique et Législation, Philosophie, Physique Dialogues, Facéties, Mélanges littéraires, devaient être classées ‘sous le titre de Mélanges, dans l’ordre chronologique, sans distinction de genre ni de matière’. Et de se justifier: ‘La classification que j’ai adoptée fait suivre au lecteur la marche de l’esprit de Voltaire. En commençant l’édition, je craignais d’être obligé de justifier longuement cette disposition; cela est superflu aujourd’hui, qu’elle a eu la sanction d’un grand nombre de personnes’ (t.1, p.xxxi). Non pas contre toute attente, Moland reprit le flambeau: ‘L’ordre chronologique donne seul une idée juste des travaux de cette existence extraordinaire, de leur multiplicité et de leur variété. […] C’est en mettant chaque œuvre à sa date qu’on permet au lecteur de se rendre compte à peu près de la marche suivie par le chef des philosophes, de voir ses prudents détours, ses diversions habiles, de deviner sa tactique […]. L’intérêt de certains morceaux augmente ainsi par juxtaposition et par contraste’ (t.1, p.iii). La seule différence que l’on puisse remarquer entre les deux érudits, ce sont des différences d’opinion sur la date de composition de tel ou tel écrit, car l’ordre de leurs tables chronologiques de la totalité des écrits de Voltaire (Beuchot, t.70, p.498-519; Moland, t.1, p.525-42), reflète l’ordre de leur publication de part et d’autre. Mais c’est l’existence même de ces tables qui autorise une question capitale: serait-on, par voie de conséquence, en droit de soupçonner qu’ils auraient pu découvrir, bien avant William Barber et Owen Taylor, les vertus d’une édition des Œuvres complètes entièrement chronologique?

L’Inspiration de l’artiste (c.1761-1773), par Jean-Honoré Fragonard. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

M’étant penché sur les travaux de Moland, j’admire sa constante fidélité à une conception très ardue de son rôle d’éditeur et d’érudit. Mais il y a un autre aspect de son portrait qui séduit sur le plan humain: c’est sa générosité d’esprit. Déjà le 13 juillet 1863, Sainte-Beuve lui reconnaissait la même qualité. Répétons-en l’essentiel: ‘M. Moland est […] le contraire de ces critiques dédaigneux qui incorporent et s’approprient sur le sujet qu’ils traitent tout ce qu’ils rencontrent et évitent de nommer leurs devanciers [et] dont le premier soin est de lever après eux l’échelle par laquelle ils sont montés’ (Nouveaux Lundis, t.5, p.274-75). En rendant constamment hommage aux efforts et aux découvertes de ses devanciers et de ses contemporains, qu’il nomme chaque fois sans faute, il prouve à l’évidence, quant à moi, qu’il était conscient du fait que le monument à Voltaire qu’il érigeait en 52 volumes était le fruit d’un travail collaboratif. En quoi n’est-il pas notre semblable et notre frère? Car, arrivés enfin au terme de tous les efforts consentis depuis cinquante ans pour donner vie à cette édition qui concrétise le rêve de Theodore Besterman, il me semble que, dignes successeurs de Moland, nous avons tous à notre tour érigé un monument, non seulement à l’érudition la plus pointue, mais aussi aux ressources inépuisables du travail en équipe qui a été bien mené et bien encadré.

John Renwick, Professeur émérite, University of Edinburgh

Lenten fasts and Easter feasts chez Voltaire

A new government financial year begins in the UK today, which is why the Chancellor delivered the Budget last month. Voltaire’s housekeeper at Ferney may have engaged in some budgeting as well, though all that has come down to us to date are the account books of expenses paid, mainly kept by Jean-Louis Wagnière, Voltaire’s secretary, with the occasional addition by the master of the house himself. The ledgers are held by the Morgan Library in New York, and were published in a facsimile edition by Theodore Besterman in 1968. They allow us a certain degree of insight into the running of Voltaire’s household, and sometimes enable us to corroborate (though never disprove) claims and statements made in his published works and correspondence, or in writings by other people about him. As Easter is nearly upon us, it seemed apposite to look back at a rather singular Easter in Ferney to see what the household accounts can tell us.

Château de Ferney

Château de Ferney, engraving from Beat Fidel Zurlauben’s Tableaux topographiques (1777-), drawn by Michel Vincent Brandoin, engraved by Jean Benjamin de La Borde.

There is a gap in the accounts in 1768, with most of February absent altogether, so the beginning of Lent is lost to us. It is difficult to say whether any meat was obtained during this period: on 3 March the household seems to have paid part of an amount owed to two butchers: fifteen ‘Louis d’or à compte’ to Vérat, and eighteen to the ‘veal butcher’, Bernier, but it is not clear whether any new purchases were made from either. An enigmatic line in Voltaire’s own hand under the date of 21 March, ‘portées sur le livre in quarto’ (carried over to the quarto book) also suggests that there was a further ledger which may have detailed expenses not recorded here. According to our document, however, Voltaire’s food shops in the weeks leading up to Easter included butter (‘for melting’ is specified), lemons, eggs, cheese (and Gruyère cheese appears separately), brandy, salt, oil, tuna, olives, anchovies and herrings. A few years later, Voltaire was to offer sarcastic words about ‘the small number of rich people, financiers, prelates, magistrates, important lords and ladies, who deign to be served a lean diet at table, who fast for six weeks on sole, salmon, weevers, turbots and sturgeons’ (Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, article ‘Carême’, OCV, vol.39, p.505), but perhaps tuna, anchovies and herrings do not fall in quite the same category. One assumes that the gardens at Ferney kept the household in vegetables, potatoes and the like.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, La Raie

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, La Raie (1725). (Musée du Louvre)

Easter fell on 3 April that year, and on the 2nd we see visits from the jam-maker and the two butchers, purveyors of beef and veal, whose goods may have featured on the Easter menu. True, all three tradesmen were paid the balance owed to them, but the words ‘à ce jour’ perhaps imply that new purchases were also made on the day. More spiritual fare also required preparation: on 28 March we see that some of the eggs bought were held in reserve for baking communion bread, and on 1 April the yeast for said communion bread was obtained. Writing many years later, after Voltaire’s death, Wagnière recalls the communion bread of that Easter of 1768 in his posthumous revisions to Voltaire’s Commentaire historique: ‘Nous accompagnâmes M. de Voltaire à l’église, à la suite du superbe pain bénit [sic] qu’il était dans l’usage de faire rendre toutes les années le jour de Pâques’ (OCV, vol.78B, p.284).

Voltaire's account books

Account books, 1 April: ‘pain béni’.

The reason that Wagnière was still remembering that particular Easter so many years later was that Voltaire had unusually taken it upon himself in 1768 to attend mass on Easter Sunday, to take communion and to preach a sermon to the assembled faithful on the eighth commandment, following a recent incident of theft in the village. The surprised curate subsequently informed Jean-Pierre Biord, the bishop of Annecy, which provoked a drawn-out and increasingly acrimonious exchange between Voltaire and the bishop, which can be read in the Œuvres complètes (OCV, vol.70B).

Church built by Voltaire

The church built by Voltaire, drawn by Michel Vincent Brandoin, engraved by Jean Benjamin de La Borde.

One curious detail in this widely publicised incident is the matter of the altar candles mentioned in the telling of this event in the Correspondance littéraire, which was not confirmed by Wagnière and has been treated with scepticism by some. The Correspondance littéraire recounts that Voltaire ‘had ordered six large altar candles from Lyon and, having them carried ahead of him with a missal, and escorted by two gamekeepers, he made his way to the Ferney church’. The accounts record that on 18 April a sum was paid to the courier from Saint-Claude, ‘who carried the candles’ (flambeaux), and on the 26th payment is made for ‘the postage of the provisions from Lyon, and the candles’. The fact that these candles are mentioned in a Lyon-related context, as well as the fact that someone had been hired to carry them, adds weight to the Correspondance littéraire account, though nothing can be said about the presence of the gamekeepers.

Voltaire's account books

Account books, 26 April: carriage of provisions, including ‘flambeaux’, from Lyon.

After Easter, Lenten fasting is over, with chickens bought (four braces on 20 April, and the same again on the 30th), Voltaire’s beloved coffee (13 April) and the habitually prodigious consumption of eggs (8½ dozen bought on 14 April). One remarks, as well, how quickly the household appeared to go through brooms: seventeen purchased on 28 March, more on 14 April and still more only five days later. On 24 April Voltaire pays for a certificate to prove that he is still alive: normal life has resumed at Ferney.

Gillian Pink


Enfin Moland vint ou comment reprendre le flambeau

1. Moland avant Voltaire

Louis-Emile-Dieudonné Moland (1824-1899) ne fut nullement destiné à devenir le troisième volet de ce triptyque si bien connu des dix-huitiémistes: Kehl, Beuchot, Moland. Son père, descendant d’une famille de magistrats, juge au tribunal de Saint-Omer, entendait qu’il suive la même carrière. Ses études au lycée de Douai terminées, il monta donc à Paris pour y faire son Droit. Reçu licencié en août 1846, il prêta serment comme avocat à la Cour d’Appel de Paris (26 novembre 1846), fit même son stage … puis se désintéressa totalement de la carrière qu’on avait voulu lui imposer. L’attrait des recherches historiques et de la composition littéraire s’était avéré irrésistible.

Louis Moland

Portrait de Louis Moland dans H. Carnoy, Dictionnaire biographique des hommes du Nord, I. Les contemporains (Paris, 1894), p.134. (Artiste inconnu)

De 1851 à 1862, il devait en fait se faire avantageusement connaître comme spécialiste … du Moyen Age (témoins, par exemple, Peuple et roi au XIIIe siècle, 1851; Nouvelles françaises en prose du XIIIe siècle, 1856; Nouvelles françaises en prose du XIVe siècle, 1858; Origines littéraires de la France, 1862). Fait digne de remarque: c’est l’illustre critique Sainte-Beuve qui, dès 1861, avait porté des jugements remarquables sur ses talents de critique dans l’introduction qu’il rédigea pour Les Poëtes français. Recueil des chefs-d’œuvre de la poésie française depuis les origines jusqu’à nos jours (Paris, Gide, 1861-1863, 4 vols). Confronté aux nombreuses notices que Moland avait rédigées pour les XIIe, XIIIe et XIVe siècles, il ne lésina pas sur ses louanges. Ayant évoqué ‘la plume docte et sûre de M. Moland’, il poursuit sur sa lancée en ajoutant: ‘Ses exposés précis, lumineux, sont plus que des notices: ce sont d’excellents chapitres d’une histoire littéraire qui est encore toute neuve’ (t.1, p.x). Quoique le médiéviste ait eu pour compagnons dans la confection de ce volume Anatole de Montaiglon et Charles d’Héricault, il est évident que Sainte-Beuve lui attribuait (avec raison) la part du lion. Voilà pourquoi le jugement suivant est particulièrement éloquent: ‘Il s’est créé depuis une douzaine d’années une jeune école d’érudits laborieux, appliqués, ardents, enthousiastes, qui se sont mis à fouiller, à défricher tous les cantons de notre ancienne littérature, à en creuser tous les replis, à rentrer jusque dans les portions les plus explorées et censées les plus connues, pour en extraire les moindres filons non encore exploités. Cette jeune école de travailleurs, plus épris de l’étude et de l’honneur que du profit, s’était groupée autour de l’estimable éditeur M. Jannet, dont la Bibliothèque elzévirienne restera comme un monument de cet effort de régénération littéraire érudite’ (p.x-xi).

Louis Moland, Origines littéraires de la France

Louis Moland, Origines littéraires de la France. (University of Michigan)

Or, ce fut en 1862, malgré ce succès indéniable, que Moland décida de changer de cap, faisant publier chez Garnier Frères (1863) les deux premiers volumes des Œuvres complètes de Molière dans une nouvelle édition revue, annotée et précédée d’une introduction. C’est pour la deuxième fois que le public français assista à l’apparition d’un éditeur de textes talentueux. Entre-temps Sainte-Beuve n’avait pas changé d’avis. Séance tenante, dans ses Nouveaux Lundis, l’illustre critique détecta de nouveau chez lui, le lundi 13 juillet 1863, une originalité certaine doublée de talents et de qualités entièrement humains. Ecoutons-le: ‘Non content d’une large et riche Introduction, qui se poursuit et se renouvelle même en tête du second volume par une Etude sur la troupe de Molière, M. Moland fait précéder chaque comédie d’une Notice préliminaire, et il accompagne le texte de remarques de langue, de grammaire ou de goût, et de notes explicatives. Il s’est fait une règle fort sage, de ne jamais critiquer ni discuter les opinions des commentateurs qui l’ont précédé; cela irait trop loin: “Lorsqu’ils commettent des erreurs, dit-il, il suffit de les passer sous silence: lorsqu’ils ont bien exprimé une réflexion juste, nous nous en emparons.” Il s’en empare donc, mais en rapportant à chacun ce qui lui est dû. M. Moland est, en effet, le contraire de ces critiques dédaigneux qui incorporent et s’approprient sur le sujet qu’ils traitent tout ce qu’ils rencontrent et évitent de nommer leurs devanciers; qui affectent d’être de tout temps investis d’une science infuse et plénière, ne reconnaissant la devoir à personne […]. Lui, il ne s’arroge rien d’emblée; il est graduel pour ainsi dire, et laisse subsister les traces; il tient compte de tous ceux qui l’ont précédé et aidé; il les nomme, il les cite pour quelques phrases caractéristiques; il est plutôt trop indulgent pour quelques-uns. Enfin sa critique éclectique, au meilleur sens du mot, fait un choix dans tous les travaux antérieurs et y ajoute non seulement par la liaison qu’il établit entre eux, mais par des considérations justes et des aperçus fins qui ne sont qu’à lui’ (p.274-75). On y trouve déjà l’homme estimable qui, quatorze ans plus tard, se mettra à éditer Voltaire.

Mais évidemment, en 1863, son ‘apprentissage’ en tant qu’éditeur d’auteurs modernes n’est pas encore arrivé à son terme. Il a l’air d’ailleurs de se cantonner de préférence dans des époques qui ne sont pas celles des Lumières. En compagnie de Charles d’Héricault, il se lança dans une nouvelle aventure éditoriale avec La France guerrière, récits historiques d’après les chroniques et les mémoires de chaque siècle (1868, 1873, 1878, 1878-1885) mais où les éditeurs n’ont apparemment pas laissé leurs griffes. Le seul détail de l’Avant-propos, auquel il manque d’ailleurs une ou des signatures, et qui ait attiré mon attention, est le dédain – dédain typiquement Voltairien – réservé aux récits de bataille où foisonnent les vaines descriptions des mouvements de troupe et des détails d’une stratégie monotone. Exactement comme Voltaire ces deux auteurs, dont principalement peut-être Moland lui-même, adoptent une autre approche: ‘Il en est tout autrement, lorsqu’on voit les hommes dans l’action, avec les sentiments qui les animent, avec les mobiles et les passions qui les poussent, avec les formes successives que revêt, pour ainsi dire, l’héroïsme individuel ou collectif’ (p.ii).

Restant toujours bien loin du siècle de Voltaire, il s’était tourné en parallèle vers Brantôme dont il édita (1868) les Vies des dames illustres. Si l’introduction qu’il y signa (p.[i]-xxxviii) est frappée au coin de l’homme cultivé, versé dans l’histoire littéraire de France, nous ne pouvons réserver à ses notes explicatives, ou à son appareil critique, qu’un accueil moins positif: on y trouve un minimum d’éclaircissements de différentes sortes, parfois lapidaires et banales, moins souvent franchement utiles. Mais en gros l’impression qu’il nous laisse est celle d’une édition faite (peut-être selon les vœux des Frères Garnier), non pas pour des érudits, mais pour des honnêtes hommes. En somme, on dirait que – pour un critique capable de prestations beaucoup plus impressionnantes – cette édition représentait sans doute une commande qui ne l’intéressait que médiocrement. Par contre, il est évident que Moland redevenait pleinement lui-même quand il se trouvait à proximité du Moyen Age: ainsi son édition des Œuvres de Rabelais (1873, 2 vol.), qui avait mérité tous ses soins, est le comble de l’érudition: textes collationnés sur les éditions originales; vie de l’auteur d’après les documents les plus récemment découverts; le tout assorti de notes savantes.

Œuvres de Rabelais, éd. Moland

Œuvres de Rabelais, éd. Moland, Le Quart Livre, illustration de Gustave Doré. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

A la maison Garnier Frères, il est évident que Louis Moland était un collaborateur fort estimé. Précédant de peu son Rabelais, il avait entrepris une édition des Œuvres oratoires de Bossuet (1872, 4 vol.), la présentant au public comme une ‘nouvelle édition […] améliorée et enrichie à l’aide des travaux les plus récents sur Bossuet et ses ouvrages’. Et de préciser qu’il s’agissait d’une ‘édition purgée des erreurs graves et des altérations importantes qui y ont été signalées’ car ‘il s’agissait de concilier le respect plus profond du texte de l’auteur et la fidélité plus scrupuleuse qu’on réclame’. Si donc, la plupart du temps – quand l’auteur l’intéressait – Moland était capable d’adopter les mêmes scrupuleuses approches critiques, assorties d’introductions et de commentaires totalement appropriés aux genres dont il s’agissait (voir, par exemple, les Œuvres complètes de La Fontaine, 1872-1876, 7 vol.), il faut néanmoins reconnaître que d’autres auteurs semblent l’avoir intéressé beaucoup moins, ne méritant que le minimum d’attention. Obéissait-il à une certaine idée bien arrêtée quant à la valeur individuelle de toute une gamme de littérateurs français? Y aurait-il eu chez lui un ordre hiérarchique ou même un ordre de préférences individuelles? Ou obéissait-il tout bonnement à des consignes imposées intra muros? Ce qui m’a frappé, c’est la longueur quasi-invariable de ses notices, préfaces ou introductions dans les ouvrages suivants: Œuvres complètes de Beaumarchais (1874, xvi pages), Œuvres poétiques de Malherbe (1874, viii pages), Théâtre choisi de Marivaux (1875, viii pages), Théâtre de Regnard (1876, xvi pages). Les quatre ouvrages sont d’ailleurs remarquables par leur absence d’interventions éditoriales.

Contes de La Fontaine, éd. Louis Moland

Contes de La Fontaine, éd. Louis Moland (Paris, Garnier, s.d.).

Malgré cette incertitude, toujours est-il que nous arrivons, grâce à un rapide survol de l’ensemble, à définir les caractéristiques de cet éditeur qui s’est vite fait une réputation enviable. Parlons de cette dernière: dès son apparition dans le monde des lettres, il mérita de la part d’Ernest Prarond (De Quelques écrivains nouveaux, Paris, 1852, p.123-30) un accueil chaleureux. En 1861 et puis en 1863, Sainte-Beuve, qui était difficile à contenter, n’avait pas été avare d’éloges sur ses talents de novateur et d’homme de goût. En 1865, à la mort de Joseph-Victor Le Clerc, la Maison Garnier Frères n’hésita pas à faire appel à ses compétences reconnues: ‘La mort de l’honorable savant nous a forcés de confier ce soin [celui de continuer la publication des Essais de Montaigne] à un autre collaborateur. Nous ne pouvions mieux nous adresser qu’à l’écrivain distingué dont le beau travail sur Molière a si bien démontré la compétence en matière de goût et de bonne érudition. M. Louis Moland a bien voulu, sur notre demande, accepter cette tâche’ (Avis des éditeurs, en tête du t.4, 1866). En 1873, la mort de l’académicien Saint-Marc Girardin voulut à son tour que les mêmes éditeurs aient songé à lui confier, dès le tome 3, la continuation de l’édition de Racine (tomes 3-8). Ce sont là des appréciations éloquentes qui trouvaient constamment écho dans la presse, que ce soit en France, en Grande-Bretagne ou aux Etats-Unis. Ce qui séduisait surtout ces publics cultivés, ce fut la nature exhaustive de son exégèse, sa volonté de proposer un texte de base irréprochable, de profiter des travaux de ses prédécesseurs sans jamais leur voler leur bien, sa volonté enfin de combler des carences et de mettre à profit les découvertes les plus récentes. Ainsi armé, Moland était tout indiqué pour éditer les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire que la Maison Garnier Frères songeait à faire paraître dès 1877.

John Renwick, Professeur émérite, University of Edinburgh

La suite, ‘Moland et Voltaire’, sera publiée dans ce blog en avril.

‘Quelque chose de piquant’ – Voltaire on marriage, adultery, society, and the Church in Questions sur l’Encyclopédie

Encyclopédie, vol.1, title page

Encyclopédie, vol.1, title page. (Public domain image)

The article ‘Adultère’ in the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was written by abbé Claude Yvon and François-Vincent Toussaint. Though both these writers faced persecution by the authorities for other writings, this article is on the face of it a dry, sober, moralistic and legalistic account of the crime of adultery: ‘Nous jugeons avec raison, et conformément au sentiment de toutes les nations, que l’adultère est, après l’homicide, le plus punissable de tous les crimes, parce qu’il est de tous les vols le plus cruel, et un outrage capable d’occasionner les meurtres et les excès les plus déplorables.’

Voltaire, in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (OCV, vol.38, p.101-18), takes a radically different tack.

Sganarelle ou le cocu imaginaire

Sganarelle ou le cocu imaginaire, by Molière. Drawing by Pierre Brissart, engraved by Jean Sauvé. (Wikimedia Commons)

He launches in medias res with a lapidary statement: ‘Nous ne devons point cette expression aux Grecs.’ He continues with an etymological roundup, during which he dismisses Hebrew as a ‘jargon du syriaque’, to finish with an accurate account of the Latin origin of ‘adultère’: ‘Adultère signifiait en latin, altération, adultération, une chose mise pour une autre, un crime de faux, fausses clefs, faux contrats, faux seing; adulteratio’, followed by a comic flourish: ‘De là celui qui se met dans le lit d’un autre fut nommé adulter, comme une fausse clef qui fouille dans la serrure d’autrui.’ The mild but louche erotic imagery recalls his interest in such matters, as evidenced in the Notebooks and some scandalous poetry freely attributed to him. Thus, in one short paragraph, Voltaire sets the tone of his article with a show of erudition, a slight on the origins of Christianity, and a lively witticism. This approach was suggested in a letter to Mme Du Deffand who had expressed a wish to see the work in hand: ‘voici trois feuilles qui me tombent sous la main. Faites-vous lire seulement les articles Adam et adultère. Notre premier père est toujours intéressant, et adultère est toujours quelque chose de piquant’ (25 April 1770, D16314 in his correspondence).

The light but erudite tone continues with a discussion of the way the meaning of ‘cocu’, deriving from the cuckoo that lays its egg in another’s nest, has transferred from the intruder to the intruded upon, and he cites a licentious verse by Scarron. (The account is not strictly accurate. Littré in his dictionary cites Antoine Du Verdier: ‘Non seulement ceux qui abusent des femmes d’autrui, mais aussi les maris abusés sont appelés cocus; de sorte que, ce nom étant actif et passif et commun à tous les deux, nous pouvons dire cocu cocuant et cocu cocué.’)

Portrait of a woman, by Robert Campin

Portrait of a woman, by Robert Campin (c.1430-1435). (National Gallery, London, public domain)

Voltaire turns to the cuckold’s notorious horns, ranging, with fanciful etymology and quotations from Molière, over Greek goats, male and female, to the ‘cornettes’ on women’s headgear in earlier centuries.

In the same light tone Voltaire takes a short digression on social language, how the term adultery is avoided: ‘On ne dit point, Madame la duchesse est en adultère avec monsieur le chevalier. Madame la marquise a un mauvais commerce avec monsieur l’abbé. On dit, Monsieur l’abbé est cette semaine l’amant de madame la marquise. Quand les dames parlent à leurs amies de leurs adultères, elles disent, J’avoue que j’ai du goût pour lui. Elles avouaient autrefois qu’elles sentaient quelque estime; mais depuis qu’une bourgeoise s’accusa à son confesseur d’avoir de l’estime pour un conseiller, et que le confesseur lui dit, Madame, combien de fois vous a-t-il estimée? les dames de qualité n’ont plus estimé personne, et ne vont plus guère à confesse.’ These last mischievous words look forward to the main point of the article.

His target is the Church in France. ‘Il y a quelques provinces en Europe où les filles font volontiers l’amour, et deviennent ensuite des épouses assez sages. C’est tout le contraire en France; on enferme les filles dans des couvents, où jusqu’à présent on leur a donné une éducation ridicule’, which makes them unfit for marriage, and ready for adultery.

Christine de Pisan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria

Christine de Pisan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (miniature, c.1410-1414 by the Master of the Cité des Dames), each wearing an ‘escoffion’, or horned headpiece. (Wikimedia commons)

The crucial point, though, is the absence of divorce. The Church allows separation after adultery, but divorce is forbidden. In the section of ‘Adultère’ entitled ‘Mémoire d’un magistrat’ Voltaire gives a précis of a recent publication in favour of divorce: ‘Mon épouse est criminelle, et c’est moi qu’on punit’, and ‘Dieu me permet de me remarier, et l’évêque de Rome ne me le permet pas! […] Les lois civiles d’aujourd’hui, malheureusement fondées sur le droit canon, me privent des droits de l’humanité.’ In a letter to Francesco Albergati Capacelli, who wanted a divorce, Voltaire had written some ten years previously: ‘je ne sais rien de si ridicule que d’être obligé de vivre avec une femme avec laquelle on ne peut pas vivre’ (15 April 1760, D8854). But it was not always so, as he tells his readers in ‘Adultère’: ‘Le divorce a été en usage chez les catholiques sous tous les empereurs; il l’a été dans tous les Etats démembrés de l’empire romain. Les rois de France, qu’on appelle de la première race, ont presque tous répudié leurs femmes pour en prendre de nouvelles. Enfin il vint un Grégoire IX ennemi des empereurs et des rois, qui par un décret fit du mariage un joug insecouable; sa décrétale devint la loi de l’Europe.’

Le Christ et la femme adultère, by Nicolas Poussin

Le Christ et la femme adultère, by Nicolas Poussin. (Louvre, Paris, Wikimedia Commons)

Voltaire also condemns the unequal treatment of women in France by the Church and the law, the fact that their rights are far less than those of men: ‘Je demande si la chose est juste, et s’il n’est pas évident que ce sont les cocus qui ont fait les lois.’ In this context he chides the Church by citing the famous words of Jesus concerning the woman taken in adultery: ‘Que
 celui de vous qui est sans péché jette la première pierre.’

From the cover of playful erudition Voltaire casts his own finely honed stones at his frequent target, l’infâme.

Martin Smith


What do children do with books?

A key concept in childhood studies since the 1970s, children’s agency has recently returned to the heart of the reflections of a group of childhood historians. The conference Se soustraire à l’empire des grands. Enfance, jeunesse et agentivité (1500-1830) (Escaping the empire of the grown-ups: childhood, adolescence and agency, 1500-1830), organised by Sylvie Moret-Petrini at the Université de Lausanne, focused on the personal journals of children and adolescents. The aim was to tackle this source, often seen by historians as a surveillance and educational tool, or as ‘panoptiques de papier’ (paper panopticons), from a new angle and consider it as a space where young writers could reflect on their status as children and express forms of rebellion or indiscipline.

These reflections invite us to take a fresh look at another object that educators advised should be placed under the constant and close supervision of parents – the book. What kind of agency can be achieved in children’s and adolescents’ relationships with books, whether this was how they approached and absorbed texts, how they handled the book as a physical object, or the resources they drew from their reading to inform their present actions or future choices? This approach, as always, requires a cross-analysis of the rare traces that remain of the way children treated books and the mass of adult, pedagogical, parental, medical and literary discourse.

Gradus ad Parnassum

Becoming a poet and settling accounts in the margins: the Berkeleys’ Gradus ad Parnassum. (Centre culturel irlandais, Paris, fonds patrimonial, B 1010)

It is clear there was plenty of room for manoeuvre concerning ways of reading, places and times of reading, and the material uses of the book as a physical object. Those who enjoyed reading as a child recall their ability to fully immerse themselves into the imaginary world opened up by a text, like children who play at being a fairy or Robinson Crusoe. In adolescence, parents express the fear that certain books may cause their offspring to ‘emulate something unusual’ or to take up careers other than those they had envisioned for them. The ‘wild’ handling of books is documented by the volumes themselves, such as the practice of writing and drawing in the margins, either to pass the time or to convey messages to someone sitting nearby. We find examples in literature and art of children making castles out of books or using them as stepping stones, like the Cholmondeley children painted by Hogarth in 1732. However, beware of such overly euphoric representations of childish creativity. Alongside these noisy diversions, there were also quieter forms of agency, ‘weak uses’ of books such as interrupted or unengaged reading, or expressions of a dislike of reading (sometimes found in correspondence or in parents’ diaries), which were all ways of rejecting the pedagogical norms of consulting books as a means of self-improvement and learning.

Hogarth, The Cholmondeley family

Building paper worlds: Hogarth, The Cholmondeley family, 1732. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As is often the case, most traces of, or clues to, the agency of young readers are available to the historian only through writings originating from the adult world (theoretical discourse, pedagogical literature) or produced under close adult supervision (children’s journals). Even annotated books, which in principle offer the most spontaneous traces of children’s reading, have only been preserved and transmitted to us as a result of adult arbitration. The discourses undoubtedly refer less to childish practices and more to the preoccupations and concerns about juvenile behaviour projected by the adult world. But it doesn’t end there, of course. The figures of child readers represented in eighteenth-century children’s literature in particular pose a problem. What can literature teach the historian? Or, as Judith Lyon-Caen might say, what can history teach us about literature? There are two possible research avenues here.

The historian can first of all shed light on these literary figures through archives that document their reality in a more fragmentary and indirect way. The foolish vanity of the young Valentin, who waves his Telemachus under the nose of a gardener’s son to clearly mark the social divide between them, is certainly ridiculed in La Vanité punie, but the episode also highlights the fact that the child has grasped the social advantage that he can gain from his small possession – albeit he uses it inappropriately here – at a time when children were given beautiful books as gifts at New Year and in a society where owning a library was a powerful symbol of social distinction. Agency, as we know, is never disconnected from the socio-institutional contexts that are imposed on it at the very heart of practices.

Arnaud Berquin, L’Ami des enfants

Arnaud Berquin, L’Ami des enfants (London, 1782).

Similarly, in the short play Un bon cœur fait pardonner bien des étourderies (A good heart makes up for many careless mistakes) (published in L’Ami des enfants in 1782), Arnaud Berquin portrays a young man, Frédéric, who sells his watch and school books to give money to the poor. Police archives contain many files on peddlers convicted of acquiring books from schoolchildren in exchange for sweets or novels. Some had been unmasked as a result of the ex libris on the textbooks, as in Berquin’s play. The practice of selling on is therefore well documented, but it is presented in literature as a form of children’s agency rather than as the (female) street vendors’ agency as generally tackled by historians.

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIIIᵉ siècle

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIIIᵉ siècle is the February 2021 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

This example leads us on to the second research avenue. It reminds us not to present children’s agency as a given, an a priori, but rather as a construction, an ‘œuvre de re-connaissance et de re-présentation des enfants par les adultes’ (work of re-cognition and re-presentation of children by adults), to borrow Pascale Garnier’s expression. The focus on childhood in the eighteenth century led to the valorisation of youthful inventiveness, including in its negotiations with the rules, as long as it remained venial, expressed qualities associated with childhood (innocence, impulsiveness), and did not constitute a threat to the established order. Children’s literature thus presented a framework of acceptability for a number of uses of the book, regardless of the final judgement made on the protagonist. We still need to be able to document what was outside the scope of the representable, what the anecdotes left out, what the parents did not want to admit, what only serendipitous archives perhaps can tell us as historians.

Emmanuelle Chapron, Aix Marseille Université

A version of this notice first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in February 2021.

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIII siècle is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

Reviewing Ritchie Robertson’s The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of happiness, 1680-1790: our own personal Enlightener

Around 1980, during a conference in Cambridge on the early history of political economy, I sat at dinner next to the German intellectual historian Hans Erich Bödeker. In the midst of some general chat about the state of things, he asked me whether in England people at large had lost faith in the Enlightenment. Taken by surprise, I said tentatively that I didn’t think most people in England had a view on the Enlightenment either way: the thing, or concept, simply didn’t have that sort of place in our culture.

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment, cover.

Forty years later, I still think that’s broadly true. Newton and Smith may be names to conjure with, but I doubt that they’re generally thought of as Enlightenment intellectuals; Hume, Gibbon and Godwin don’t have a place in our national story remotely comparable to that occupied by Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau in France. There have been changes. The Enlightenment has a larger presence in British public culture than it had in the last century. One’s more likely to encounter it in TV history programmes, or in the text framing exhibitions, moreover as a feature of our own and not just other nations’ history – even if one’s still more likely to encounter representations of the period foregrounding court intrigue, or ballroom belles, or indeed the East India Company, or the slave trade. Awareness of there being a case against ‘the Enlightenment project’ has spread too, whether in its postmodern, or, more widely, in its post-colonial form.

Ritchie Robertson’s huge but readable Allen Lane/Penguin tome in some ways reflects these changes. The commissioning editor – who, by the author’s account, took a close interest in the shaping of the book – must have believed there to be an anglophone reading public with an appetite for an 800-odd-page survey on this theme (and its respectful reception by the broadsheets suggests that he was right about that, or at least that quite a few readers will be persuaded that this is something that they should have read). And if this loosely centred book has an overall mission, both I and its other reviewers take that to be to dispel the various newish forms of suspicion or disdain that may attach to the category.

Statue of David Hume, by Alexander Stoddart, Edinburgh

Statue of David Hume, by Alexander Stoddart, Edinburgh, annotated (unnamed photographer).

The book occasionally argues its case in this regard. Yes, Hume wrote an objectionable racist footnote, and refused to retract it – but that isn’t all that there was to Hume, or to the Enlightenment. Indeed some of his peers objected to what he said too – otherwise the question of retraction wouldn’t have arisen. ‘Enlighteners’ (as Robertson calls them, Englishing the German Aufklärer) didn’t, he readily concedes, get everything right. But nor did they adhere to any single set of dogmas. On the contrary, they were always questioning and arguing. We may still find value in some of the ideas they came up with, but above all it’s their spirit of enquiry, and their (admittedly uneven) openness to diverse voices that entitles these thinkers to our notice and respect.

Overall, the book develops this case not so much by explicit argument as by the way in which it proceeds. What we’re offered here is, in effect, a reader’s guide to the Enlightenment, one that takes us through the writings in which ideas were advanced and thrashed out. A striking number of pages are devoted to summaries of key or otherwise illuminating texts. And all the illustrations are of title pages of books. Robertson puts us in a position to hear these authors’ voices, their concordances and discordances. And, as we hear them, he’s there with us, or just in front of us, listening, responding. I think this approach works quite well. The texts aren’t too mediated – we get quite close to them. But they are mediated, by an informed, affable, reflective persona, who tells us what strikes him, and sometimes enlarges on what seems to him more or less sensible and usable in what he’s read. He’s our own personal Enlightener.

Thomas Paine, Age of reason, 1793

Title page of the first volume of Thomas Paine’s Age of reason, Paris and London, 1793.

I don’t think the book’s overarching argument is primarily addressed to scholars in the field – more to a wider public, or scholars in adjacent fields, because scholars who work on the Enlightenment already know how polyphonic it was. But they’re not ignored: their work deeply shapes this account. Notably, it underpins many of the book’s second-level interpretative positions. Thus, its conception of the Enlightenment as a European, and not a distinctively French phenomenon, and its insistence on the importance of religion as a context in which Enlighteners worked, critically but also very often sympathetically, with the aim of reforming rather than obliterating. It’s striking that the book has more chapters on religion than on science. Also, last but not least, Robertson goes with the trend of scholarship when he downplays the notion of an ‘age of reason’. Not merely was reason, when lauded, lauded more as critical instrument than as source of certainty, but also, through the century, its dependence on emotion was increasingly stressed. Emotion motivated, coloured and was itself a source of insight. The Enlightenment science of man was a science of an only partly rational being.

Others of the book’s features are more idiosyncratic, reflecting the author’s specific knowledge and interests, or the consequences of the way he set about writing it. The Enlightenment as conceived here was an intermeshed assemblage of relatively formally developed ideas. It didn’t inhere primarily in widely held, let alone popular attitudes and beliefs, though its thinkers were aligned with some broader currents in thought; putatively enlightened rulers are exceptional among non-authors in being given attention (and actually some of them did present themselves as authors, notably Frederick II of Prussia, but also Catherine II of Russia, with her propagandistic Nakaz).

A multilingual edition of Catherine II, Nakaz, 1770

A multilingual edition of Catherine’s Nakaz, St Petersburg, 1770. (PY Rare Books, London)

Scholars have done an enormous amount of work in recent decades on the infrastructure of Enlightenment – correspondence, publications, translations, libraries, academies, societies, universities (sometimes), discussion groups and salons. We hear something about this infrastructure here, but as context, not as a major focus of interest in its own right. Again, what is surveyed here is a pan-European Enlightenment, extending to North America; other parts of the world feature only as objects of enquiry – whereas some scholars have started trying to bring them into the story in other ways. Given that the author is a professor of German, it’s not surprising, though it’s a merit of the book that, among Europeans, he aimed from the start to give Germany as much attention as England and France. It’s noteworthy too, though, that he gives equal weight only to these three. Italy receives a fair amount of attention (Robertson thinks more in terms of language-regions than petty states, so feels free to write about ‘Germany’ and ‘Italy’). Thinkers and writers from other places – Dalmatia, Switzerland, Finland – make interesting cameo appearances. The Netherlands, however, plays quite a small part, and Spain seems almost entirely absent, as if perceived only through the haze of its ‘Black Legend’ (Charles III isn’t among the enlightened rulers investigated). These limits to the book’s vision probably stem partly from the author’s ‘Reader’s Guide’ approach, which allows him to treat equally only works in languages he can comfortably read.

Robertson is a literary scholar – which may help to explain his very textual approach. But that feature of his background probably also helps to explain some of the book’s other distinctive and attractive features. Thus the generic breadth of the texts it covers – here, novels, plays and poems feature alongside essays and treatises. At a recent discussion of the book (on which more in a moment), the historian Anthony La Vopa singled out for special praise the chapter in which Robertson explores in turn Richardson’s Clarissa, Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloïse, and Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, and makes them speak to one another.

The book’s chapters each focus on a different theme about which Enlighteners thought. Sometimes the chapters are a bit miscellaneous, as the book seems to strain for almost encyclopedic coverage. But all in their various ways provide helpful introductions, sometimes excellent introductions, to thought and debate around the given theme. One chapter is devoted to Aesthetics: not a common topic in historical surveys, so the more welcome here.

If the book’s overarching message is primarily aimed at non-specialists, and much of what it says (inevitably) summarises recent scholarship, does it nonetheless have something distinctive to say to historians and literary scholars whose own work focuses on the period? And what will they make of it? An opportunity to test this was provided by a recent panel discussion, organized by Oxford’s interdisciplinary (though mainly historical and literary) ‘Enlightenment Workshop’, a seminar that’s been run during two terms of each year for some thirty years, for most of those years on the premises of the Voltaire Foundation in Banbury Road. Its establishment around 1990, and flourishing since, illustrates once again the rising trajectory of ‘the Enlightenment’ in British life. The Workshop’s range and character also testify to changing conceptions. Voltaire may be the tutelary genius of the place (his bust stands on the mantelpiece in the seminar room), but he presides over notably geographically and thematically varied terrain. It’s suggestive of this diversification that the Foundation’s long-running publication series, Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, has recently been rebranded Oxford Studies in the Enlightenment.

Voltaire, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, 1738

Voltaire, Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, Amsterdam, 1738, frontispiece. (public domain)

When the pandemic first raged last year, the Workshop shut up shop. This year it has reconvened, though now of course on-line. The panel discussion of Ritchie Robertson’s book, followed by his impromptu response, and open discussion, marked the Workshop’s first meeting in the new format. As we’ve all repeatedly seen during the pandemic, the on-line format has benefits as well as costs. In this case it opened the way to an audience of unprecedented size: some 120 people watched the discussion live (only one fifth of those from within Oxford). Following its first airing, the YouTube recording was started by several hundred more people (though some didn’t linger long). At the same time, habitual attenders reported feeling uncomfortably distanced from the proceedings – and anonymized, as questions they posed were passed through a moderator who didn’t report (probably scarcely had the chance to register) their names.

There were three speakers on the panel. I started things off. I’m an Oxford historian, a specialist in the period but not primarily in its intellectual life. The other speakers were Karen O’Brien, another Oxford scholar, in her case of English literature, and Anthony La Vopa, an American historian of German social and cultural history, who has presented at the Workshop in the past (indeed, his last book The Labor of the mind: intellect and gender in Enlightenment cultures, was the subject of an earlier panel discussion); in this instance he spoke from his home base in the States. Like the author, the panellists are literary and historical in scholarly orientation, not, for instance, philosophical; indeed, none of the panellists would (I guess) characterize themselves even as intellectual historians. This made it likely that they would approach the book essentially on the author’s own terrain. The normal inclination of any reviewer is to find things to praise and things to criticize. All the panellists spoke warmly of the book’s range and lucidity. But all were also struck by some things the author doesn’t do.

I noted, thus, that the book does strikingly little with an issue that has loomed large in the more general scholarly literature in recent decades: the definitional question, What do we mean by ‘the Enlightenment’? What’s the case for using such a term, and for applying it to particular times, places and people? Jonathan Israel, in his several books (2001-) which play up the foundational role of the Dutch and distinguish a ‘radical’ from a ‘moderate’ Enlightenment, has offered one notable answer to these questions; John Robertson, in his The Case for the Enlightenment (2005), which uses the cases of Scotland and Naples to explore differences in modes of participation in common debates, offers a different vision; Dan Edelstein, in The Enlightenment: a genealogy (2010), adopts an entirely different approach, looking at how some thinkers and writers, initially in France, came to represent themselves and their age as ‘enlightened’. My own view, partly intuitive, partly arising from this scholarship, is that we never will agree on the character and boundaries of an entity termed ‘the Enlightenment’. But the category is not just diffcult to ditch, it also has heuristic use. Several different accounts of ‘the Enlightenment’ each in their own way help us to discern patterns, and to frame worthwhile questions. But even if (as I think), it’s acceptable to mix and match frameworks of reference, yet still (I would maintain) we need to be aware of which one we’re employing at any given time, and what its limitations are.

It’s not obvious that Ritchie Robertson agrees with this. He seems happy to dub people ‘Enlighteners’ without making clear on what basis he does that, and sometimes he reifies the Enlightenment: tells us for example that ‘the Enlightenment agreed’ on some point. At some level this doesn’t matter very much; it’s a mode of writing; he’s mostly concerned to give content to things that fall within generally accepted ‘Enlightenment’ parameters. Still, if there’s no clarity about criteria, the status of claims about what the Enlightened thought remains radically unclear. Do they amount to a definition of Enlightenment – are they specifying a criterion? Or are such statements synthetic, telling us something empirically verifiable about a set of people judged by other, unspecified criteria to be enlightened? Or are we being told that there was a general consensus among all serious thinkers at this time: is ‘Enlightenment’ operating in this instance just as the name of a period? If you’re the kind of reader who asks yourself questions like these, you’ll be left fretting, because they won’t be answered. Responding to this comment, the author said that he felt enough had been written about those issues by others, and it would be boring to harp on about them. Fair enough. I’m sure he has a point. Personally, I do fret a bit about such things.

A cartoon attacking Paine by George Cruickshank,1819

A cartoon attacking Paine by George Cruickshank (1819). (British Museum, public domain)

I also noted some fuzziness in the book’s treatment of the Enlightenment’s legacies. The book’s terminal date is 1790, though in fact it carries its account through the French Revolutionary Terror, that is, to 1794 (but not to post-Terror phases of the Revolution). What’s the argument for stopping precisely there, or indeed approximately there? In what senses were early nineteenth-century thinkers and rulers continuators of Enlightenment, or its heirs, and in what senses not? Like many other writers on the topic, Robertson doesn’t argue the case for stopping where he does; he just stops. He often uses Kant’s critical comments on enlightened traditions of thought to wrap up discussions, though – which might seem to imply that things did take a new direction in the last decades of the century, that is, not just because of the Revolution but also because of other shifts in thought. But then, in what sense and through what causal chain are we heirs to the Enlightenment, as the author often implies that we are? All this remains unclear.

Karen O’Brien in her comments picked up on another major theme of the book, the subject of its subtitle, indeed: The Pursuit of happiness. She noted that, as in other respects, and entirely legitimately, Ritchie Robertson builds on themes in recent scholarship. She suggested, however, that while the theme works convincingly as a recurrent motif, arguably – given the central role it’s assigned – it should have been given more analytical and discriminating attention. Robertson occasionally hints that there were a number of very different conceptions of happiness around (this emerges, for instance, in his account of ideas about punishment). But not much is made of these distinctions, or their implications for how thinkers subsequently diverged.

Tony La Vopa expressed appreciation especially of the book’s dialogic staging: the very suggestive way in which it brings different texts into conversation with each other. But he too noted some omissions which struck him as important. He said he was surprised that the book didn’t say more about the modern social theorists who have been among the Enlightenment’s most influential recent critics and interpreters: Horkheimer and Adorno; Foucault; Habermas. They’re noted, but briefly, and scarcely directly engaged with. The author explained that he had initially written more about Habermas at least, but his editor thought that this section should be cut. La Vopa also suggested that something important gets missed if one doesn’t say much about the Enlightenment’s penetration into everyday life. Inasmuch as Enlighteners engaged with religion, for example, they engaged with institutions, concepts and practices which touched people’s lives very deeply, for example, through the institution of marriage.

In his response, Ritchie Robertson largely agreed with panellists’ characterization of what the book does and doesn’t do, while defending or at least explaining his choices in terms of his own interests and his vision of the book’s mission. He said, remarkably, that this massive, very learned and very lucid book had been easy to write. His editor, Stuart Profitt, had somehow discerned that he had it in him, and, confronted with that proposition, he had found that it was true.

In the brief question period that followed, one of the most consequential questions came, to my mind, from the Hungarian historian László Kontler (though it came to Robertson and the panel in anonymous form; only YouTube watchers could see who asked what question). Kontler in his work has been preoccupied with the shape of the Enlightenment across the map: the different forms it took in different places; in what ways differently located thinkers interacted, and in what ways they cross-fertilised. One can’t rise far above the very particular in that line of enquiry without having to think hard about what one might mean by ‘Enlightenment’, in a context in which one’s going to want simultaneously to recognize some kind of unity and to admit difference. Kontler asked if chronologies of Enlightenment differ depending on one’s geographical focus. But this, like other definitional and demarcational issues, largely lies outside the agenda of Ritchie Robertson’s book.

Because the book doesn’t engage very directly with scholarly arguments, it’s not clear that it will reshape how scholars think about their subject. But who knows, perhaps it will, precisely by going around the back of those arguments, and implicitly at least posing new questions, which may help to shape the way a new generation, who grow up with this book, will think.

As to the place that Enlightenment occupies in our public culture: will it get caught up in the culture wars which politicians are reportedly pondering whether to stir up for political gain? Anything is possible, but this doesn’t look likely to me. It may figure in the occasional scrap, as over whether or not we should blacklist Hume. But by and large, wider dissemination of the notion that the Enlightenment was an important phase in history has, as I’ve noted, been associated with the diversification and geographical extension of the term’s scope. With any luck, we’ll keep seeing it as polyphonic, and all of us will find Enlighteners that we want to argue for, as well as ones that we want to argue with. Ritchie Robertson’s book – even if it doesn’t push diversification and geographical extension to anything like their limits – should help to advance this cause.

– Joanna Innes

Ritchie Robertson, The Enlightenment: The Pursuit of happiness, 1680-1790, Allen Lane, 2020.

Our warm thanks to the editors of the Oxford magazine, where this review first appeared (no.429, Fifth week, Hilary term, 2021).

Annotation in scholarly editions and research

It has been, alas, almost exactly a year since our last face-to-face Besterman Workshop at 99 Banbury Road. Of course, webinars allow more people to join, and to do so, most importantly, from the comfort of their homes, where they can sit comfortably and set their thermostats to the temperature that suits them best. The advent of the Zoom/Teams era, however, has brought with it a number of unfortunate consequences: discussions are not as lively as they used to be, asking a follow-up question is nearly impossible, and so are chats with friends and colleagues, before, during, or after the talk. Worst of all, we no longer get a chance to eat our beloved Leibniz or Belgian biscuits – but those, to be fair, had already become something of a rarity towards the beginning of 2018. Anyway: those of you who did attend our last face-to-face Besterman Workshops may remember this gloomy and cumbersome poster of mine hanging from the mantelpiece.

This poster was presented at a conference in Wuppertal, Germany, at the end of February 2019: ‘Annotation in Scholarly Editions and Research: Function – Differentiation – Systematization’. Organised by Julia Nantke (Universität Hamburg) and Frederik Schlupkothen (Bergische Universität Wuppertal), this two-day bilingual Anglo-German colloquium was a wonderful occasion to reflect on the age-old human habit of glossing, commenting, and generally interfering with other people’s work.

Alongside some theoretical papers (to mention but one, Willard McCarty’s brilliant keynote lecture on annotation as a knowledge-producing practice), the symposium featured several more practice-oriented talks that would have certainly been of interest to many of our Digital Humanities followers: some focused on how best to structure and visualise annotation in digital scholarly editions; others raised the question as to how to annotate audio-visual materials; and yet others investigated the extent to which annotation can be automated.

Some of the papers given at the ‘Annotation in Scholarly Editions and Research’ conference can now be read in a volume published last year (yes, in 2020!) by De Gruyter and available in print as well as an Open Access eBook.

My own contribution to the volume (which you can find here, should you want to read it) presents what I think might be an efficient and user-friendly three-level annotation system, the ‘reversible annotation system’, which I developed while working on Digital d’Holbach, a born-digital scholarly edition of Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach’s complete works. On this model, I argue, a single set of notes can be so structured as to cater to very different audiences, meaning that the edition can hope simultaneously to be user-friendly and cost-efficient. Should you have any comments or suggestions for improvement, please do not hesitate to let me know!

Ruggero Sciuto, University of Oxford

Voltaire on Capitol Hill: ‘Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’

Bust of Voltaire by Jean-Antoine Houdon

Bust of Voltaire by Jean-Antoine Houdon. (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Houdon’s bust of Voltaire still dominates the entrance hall of Thomas Jefferson’s house at Monticello, and last week Voltaire was being quoted on Capitol Hill. In the closing arguments of the impeachment trial of President Trump, Democrat Congressman Jamie Raskin, the House impeachment manager, quoted Thomas Paine on tyranny, and then Voltaire on why people commit atrocities: ‘Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’

His speech was widely praised, and the quotation of Voltaire evidently struck a chord, being quickly picked up on social media – here is an extract from his speech.

The French ‘original’ of this quotation is easy enough to find on the web: ‘Ceux qui peuvent vous faire croire à des absurdités peuvent vous faire commettre des atrocités.’

The quotation has been much tweeted in France, including by the actor Fabrice Luchini in 2017, and a quick search of the web reveals that the quotation can be purchased, in English at least, and with varying wording, on tote bags and bumper stickers, a sure sign that it enjoys popular approval and recognition.

Congressman Jamie Raskin

Congressman Jamie Raskin.

However a Voltaire specialist writing in the Genevan newpaper Le Temps in 2015 pours cold water on this merchandise, describing the quotation in question as nothing more than a ‘hoax’.

It is perfectly true that the sentence as it stands cannot be found in Voltaire. Tout Voltaire is helpful here. In the whole of Voltaire’s writings we find 117 occurrences of ‘atrocité(s)’ and 311 instances of ‘absurdité(s)’ – these are clearly favoured Voltairean terms – but there is no instance of the two terms appearing in the plural in the same sentence. So where does this quotation come from?

A clue lies in the fact that the quotation is more often found on the web in English than in French, and is most frequently cited in the USA. As Walter Olson has previously suggested, in a blog from the Cato Institute in Washington DC, this quotation seems to derive from Norman Torrey (1894-1980), a distinguished American Voltaire scholar who did pioneering work investigating Voltaire’s library in what was then Leningrad. In his book Les Philosophes: The Philosophers of the Enlightenment and modern democracy (New York, 1960), he produces an anthology of eighteenth-century extracts, all chosen to resonate with our modern notions of liberal democracy, including this passage from Voltaire (p.277-78, the emphasis in bold is mine):

One of many versions of the quotation on a tote bag

One of many versions of the quotation on a tote bag.

‘Once your faith, sir, persuades you to believe what your intelligence declares to be absurd, beware lest you likewise sacrifice your reason in the conduct of your life.

‘In days gone by, there were people who said to us: “You believe in incomprehensible, contradictory and impossible things because we have commanded you to; now then, commit unjust acts because we likewise order you to do so.” Nothing could be more convincing. Certainly anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. If you do not use the intelligence with which God endowed your mind to resist believing impossibilities, you will not be able to use the sense of injustice which God planted in your heart to resist a command to do evil. Once a single faculty of your soul has been tyrannized, all the other faculties will submit to the same fate. This has been the cause of all the religious crimes that have flooded the earth.’

This passage comes from Questions on miracles, an important and intricate polemical work that has only been fully revealed recently, in the remarkable critical edition by Olivier Ferret and the late José-Michel Moureaux that appeared in the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire in 2018.

Collection des lettres sur les miracles

Collection des lettres sur les miracles, title page (Neufchâtel [Genève], 1765).


The passage quoted above is from the eleventh letter – published as a separate pamphlet in 1765 – in what we now properly call Voltaire’s Collection des lettres sur les miracles. Here is the French original (OCV, volume 60D, p.290-91; again, the emphasis in bold is mine):

‘Mais, Monsieur, en étant persuades par la foi, des choses qui paraissent absurdes à notre intelligence, c’est-à-dire, en croyant ce que nous ne croyons pas, gardons-nous de faire ce sacrifice de notre raison dans la conduite de la vie.

‘Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois, vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que ‘nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde, est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible, l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de mal faire, la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre cœur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.’

So the quotation that is now received usage seems to have been adapted from an English translation of Voltaire’s Collection des lettres sur les miracles – and then promptly translated back into French. The position is summed up concisely but accurately in Oxford essential quotations, edited by Susan Ratcliffe (5th edition, OUP, 2017), which includes under ‘Voltaire’ this entry:

‘“Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust”, commonly quoted as “Those who can make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities” (Questions sur les miracles, 1765).’

Don the Con

Voltaire, like all the philosophes, is preoccupied with prejudice, and fundamentally concerned with clarity of thinking and with the damage done when we think lazily. If we want to reduce injustice in the world, he tells us, then it is important not to give credit to things that are patently absurd. Voltaire had a genius for coining one-liners that sum up exactly an idea that needs to find expression at a particular moment.

So if the idea that ‘anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’ has suddenly caught our attention, it must seem necessary to our present moment. And Voltaire understood better than anyone that well-turned phrases catch on and are repeated. A poster designed by Rick Frausto, currently advertised online, and entitled ‘Don the Con’, gives new life to the Voltaire quotation employed in Jamie Raskin’s speech.

Nicholas Cronk

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: adventures in words and deeds

Frontispiece and title page of Paul et Virginie

Frontispiece and title page of a 1789 edition of Paul et Virginie. (Taylor Institution, Oxford)

Why read and study Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814)? Until recently, his reputation rested almost exclusively on arguably the most-published novel in French literature, Paul et Virginie (1788). However, the appearance of the first scholarly editions of his correspondence in Electronic Enlightenment and his Complete Works (in progress, Garnier) have produced not only reliable texts but substantial fresh material. His status has been considerably enhanced.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, engraving by Etienne-Frédéric Lignon

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, engraving by Etienne-Frédéric Lignon, after a painting by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824). (Public domain)

Trained as a military engineer, Bernardin found job opportunities impossible after the Seven Years War. He sought his fortune by setting out for Eastern Europe. In Russia he met Catherine the Great and secured employment. He then crossed into Poland where he was imprisoned for an unwise military escapade and acted as an unofficial spy for a French diplomat. He observed customs and landscapes as well as drafting reports. It was a political awakening. Penniless, he returned to France before being posted in 1768 to its colony of île de France (Mauritius).

His sea journey was perilous, marked by deaths and scurvy. On the island he was appalled by aspects of the French administration. He possessed two slaves as servants but was shocked by the treatment of slaves on plantations. Despite having family members engaged in the maritime slave trade, he attacked the brutality of slavery in his correspondence and subsequent publications.

Paul and Virginie obtain pardon for a runaway slave, print by Charles Melchior Descourtis

Paul and Virginie obtain pardon for a runaway slave, print by Charles Melchior Descourtis, after Jean Frédéric Schall (1752-1825). (Public domain)

He returned to France in 1771. In Paris, he became a friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and attended the salon of Julie de Lespinasse. In a surprising career move, he became a writer, in a variety of formats.

His first work, a sort of travel account, appeared in January 1773, the Voyage à l’île de France. Its publication was supported by d’Alembert and it was admired by Condorcet. It was published anonymously because officials disapproved of its harsh depiction of colonial life. Bernardin was not against colonisation but wanted reforms. Indeed he proposed schemes to the government for foreign initiatives, but all to no avail. He lived on his wits but refused to sell his pen like those in Robert Darnton’s version of Grub Street. Some financial stability arrived with the publication of the Etudes de la nature (1784) and Paul et Virginie (1788).

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Etudes sur la nature

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Etudes sur la nature. (Taylor Institution, Oxford)

The three-volume Etudes supplied a panorama of his thoughts: a firm belief in God and Providence and the ideal of harmony in an interlinked world but also opposition to the scientific and political establishments. It won him a large readership. He received an abundant fan mail from admirers from different backgrounds. He was regarded as a sage, as a moral authority in whom even strangers could confide.

Invitation à la concorde

Invitation à la concorde. (Gazette Drouot)

At the outset of the Revolution he was famous. He used his fame to enter the political arena as a reformist pamphleteer. In September 1789 he published the Vœux d’un solitaire and was eager that Revolutionary activists should read it. The wisdom of the poor and excluded was championed in the character of the pariah in the short story La Chaumière indienne (1791). He sought to influence moderate public opinion through his little-known poster Invitation à la concorde displayed in the Palais-Royal in July 1792. He was elected to a Revolutionary body, a position that he refused. He belonged to no political grouping. There followed a series of posts that he could not turn down. Louis XVI appointed him Intendant of the Jardin des plantes in 1792 (a position formerly held by Buffon). The Comité d’instruction publique nominated him in 1794 as professeur de morale républicaine at the new Ecole normale (Bernardin’s views on education have been neglected but receive significant coverage in my book). The Ecole closed in May 1795 but he was still a ‘go to’ man and became a member of the Institut during the Directory. Linked with the Bonapartes, he remained a prominent figure in his declining years.

Despite his intimacy with Rousseau, it is possible that he read Voltaire’s works more extensively. This study suggests that the slippery terms philosophe or antiphilosophe cannot be unambiguously applied to him. He was a witness to an age in transformation who gained supporters engaged in politics to add to his wide community of readers. He was not just an adventurer in terms of his travels to Eastern Europe and the Indian Ocean, but also in his ideas and their varied forms of expression. He believed that the world was in constant change, history was not cyclical. A growing assessment of his importance is emerging and this monograph hopes to provide information and insights to stimulate further research on Bernardin and his times.

Simon Davies

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: Colonial Traveller, Enlightenment Reformer, Celebrity Writer is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This text first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog, January 2021.