Poetry in the digital age: the Digital Miscellanies Index and eighteenth-century culture

For most of us, reading for pleasure usually means getting stuck into some fiction or non-fiction. Poetry is a less common diversion, but we still have an appetite for poems to dip into, to find solace in, to memorise and share. And we can choose from an array of collections that promote poetry as an everyday companion, a form of therapy, and a tradition of national interest. For readers looking for peace of mind, The Emergency Poet: An Anti-Stress Poetry Anthology offers comfort, while the popular twin collections of Poems That Make Grown Men (or Women) Cry present a cult of sensibility for the modern age.

It was in the eighteenth century that poetry collections like these became a staple of literary publishing in Britain. The tradition of printed collections of English poetry stretches back to the sixteenth century, with Songes and Sonettes (1557), an edition of short lyric poems compiled by the publisher Richard Tottel, generally regarded as the foundation of English Renaissance poetry and the most important early printed collection of English verse. But it was not until the eighteenth century that collections of poems by several hands, with prose as a secondary feature, became one of the most common forms in which British readers encountered poetry. Like their modern counterparts, eighteenth-century editors and publishers sought to gain a foothold in a crowded market by targeting specific audiences and promoting the benefits of reading poetry. Some produced didactic collections for young people (Poems for Young Ladies); others pitched their collections to lovers in need of poetic inspiration (The Lover’s Manual); and many more set their sights on a local audience (The Oxford Sausage).

Poems for Young Ladies

Poems for Young Ladies (1767), edited by the poet Oliver Goldsmith.

Collections like these shaped the ways in which poetry was written and read throughout the eighteenth century. Yet until recently relatively little was known about their contents. Thanks to the Digital Miscellanies Index (DMI), this is no longer the case. The DMI provides a searchable record of the contents of over 1,600 collections of poems by several hands published over the course of the eighteenth century. These books are sometimes referred to as anthologies, as most poetry collections are today. But the word anthology, derived from the Greek for ‘a gathering of flowers’, has connotations that sit uneasily with many eighteenth-century poetry collections. Few collections produced in this period claimed to present the best of English poetry, a rationale often seen as characteristic of anthologies (collections that cull the flowers of the poetic tradition). As a result, several scholars, myself included, prefer the term miscellany. Derived from the Latin miscellanea, meaning a ‘hotchpotch’ of foodstuffs, it captures the dominant characteristic of most eighteenth-century collections: variety. A typical miscellany offers a varied feast of poems to entertain readers with varied tastes and personalities.

The DMI was launched in 2013, following three years of development and data collection carried out by a team based at the University of Oxford. Led by Abigail Williams and Jennifer Batt, the project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust. In 2014, another Leverhulme grant set in motion the second phase of the project. One of the aims of this phase, to be completed in 2017, is to harness the data now accessible via the DMI to shed new light on how miscellanies evolved, how they packaged and popularised poetry, and on the habits of their readers. At the same time, we are working with the Bodleian’s Digital Libraries team to develop the DMI into a more flexible and wide-ranging resource, and last month we celebrated a milestone on this road. The thirty-strong audience at Lines of Connection, a conference I co-organised as part of the project, were among the first to see the DMI’s new search interface, which replaces the beta site created in 2013.

The Book of Fun

The Book of Fun (1759), a miscellany dominated by seventeenth-century verse.

The new search platform is much more than a digital facelift for the DMI. It provides access to a database undergoing expansion: the latest version includes new records for miscellanies published between 1680 and 1699, and future updates will extend the DMI ’s coverage further back to Tottel’s foundational Songes and Sonettes. The redeveloped interface also enables users to explore the data in new ways. Keyword and phrase searching is quicker and more extensive with the new basic search function. There is also the option to filter the records using a number of facets, which display and rank the data in ways that suggest key trends and lines of enquiry. For instance, clicking on ‘Poem’ under ‘Content Type’, then selecting the ‘Related People’ facet, reveals a list of almost one hundred of the most prominent authors in the database, ranked according to the number of poems attributed to them. At the top of the list is John Dryden, with around 1,500 poems; the highest ranked French author is Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, with over 120 poems in English translation (the DMI does not record appearances of poems in foreign languages). Although these figures should not be seen as straightforward indications of popularity, they remind us that many of the most widely read poets of the eighteenth century were those who had been active in the late seventeenth century. In his imitation of Horace’s epistle to Augustus (written 1737), Alexander Pope observed that the verse of his seventeenth-century predecessors was scattered ‘Like twinkling stars the Miscellanies o’er’. The DMI has made it possible to see these stars, and the sky around them, more clearly.

– Carly Watson

The shadow world of the Encyclopédie’s planches

As part of the methodology option ‘History of the Book’ for the Masters in Enlightenment course, students were asked to present some part of their research on a blog. We felt that student Thea Goldring’s research project concerning the Encyclopédie planches would be of interest to the readers of the Voltaire Foundation’s collaborative blog. Thea is going on to Harvard to start a PhD in Art History this autumn.

As scholars increasingly recognize the didactic function of the Encyclopédie’s planches and recast the texts and their images as a single working whole, it is important to acknowledge the problematic nature of these images. In the face of growing acceptance of the planches as visual arguments, this post seeks to recover some of the epistemological knots that entangle such readings.


Fig. 1: ‘Tapisserie basse-lisse des Gobelins,’ planche 1ère, Encyclopédie, xxvi, ARTFL

When the planches were completed in 1772, Diderot’s originally envisioned 1000 illustrations had grown to 2,569 engravings filling eleven volumes. Across this sprawl, Diderot’s hand is clearly discernable in the systemization of the planches’s spatial arrangements.[1] The planches fall into three categories: plates that establish a unified pictorial space across an entire page (Fig.1); plates that contain multiple pictorial spaces divided by clear framing, normally with a vignette/tableau above and a ‘blank’ or ‘schematic’ space below (Fig.2); and plates in which a ‘blank space,’ containing undefined and unrelated pictorial areas, extends over an entire page (Fig.3). The planches adopt a system in which certain spaces (the three-dimensional vignettes) maintain consistent perspective, scale, and modelling, while others (the schematic spaces) vary these qualities for didactic ends. By embracing multiple pictorial fields, the plates may use perspective and/or modelling but also clarify any didactic confusion resulting from these pictorial effects in the schematic areas, and also provide detailed views of the parts, while simultaneously displaying these parts as a working whole in the vignettes.

However, the disparity between the coherent pictorial effects in the vignettes and their relative confusion in the schematic areas complicates a viewer’s didactic use of the images. The inconsistencies in light effects between the tableaux and schematic spaces that pervade the planches are especially problematic. For example, upper vignettes often depict enclosed rooms which are always filled with directional light that floods in from prominent windows. In contrast, the cast shadows in the schematic areas, if present at all, seem to emanate from the objects themselves. There is never a clear light source, for, while the cast shadows may consistently point in one direction, there is no variation in length or strength to indicate an actual point of origin. The divergent use of shadows between the two pictorial spaces creates severe visual inconsistencies between them, which in turn confuse the relationship between the information communicated by each.


Fig. 2: ‘Aiguillier,’ planche 1ère, Encyclopédie, xviii, ARTFL

Shadows may seem like a very insubstantial detail to focus on. However, at the time these visual markers were at the center of epistemological debates such as the Molyneux problem, which considered how shadows communicate weight and volume. In simplest terms, the Molyneux problem asked whether seeing the shadows on a sphere or cube provides enough information to communicate a sense of three-dimensionality without having previously associated certain patterns of shadows with volume through touch.[2]

The confusion of information offered by the juxtaposed tableaux and schematic spaces primarily concerns the haptic sense. Touch is an integral part of the tableaux spaces, and the vignettes often depict people manipulating objects.[3] In contrast in the ‘blank spaces’, the haptic interactions represented above lose their meaning. The viewer can no longer pick up the tools because they are not sitting on a surface, cannot pull down on a bucket hanging by a rope because it has no tension, cannot wield any of the hammers because the hammer head is no heavier than its shaft. The haptic expectations and interactions established by the upper tableaux are unfailingly refuted by the inconsistent or absent pictorial signifiers in the schematic areas.


Fig. 3: ‘Faiseur de métier à bas,’ planche III, Encyclopédie, xix, ARTFL

In the eighteenth century such a confusion of haptic information was no small matter. For Condillac, in his Traité des sensations (1754), touch both affirms the existence of the exterior world and also ‘apprend aux autres sens à juger des objets extérieurs’.[4] Touch, not sight, provides understanding about exterior reality.[5] As Kate Tunstall’s analysis of Lettre sur les aveugles and its Addition demonstrates, Diderot also assigned primacy to touch not sight.[6] A consideration of touch is certainly present in Diderot’s EncyclopédieProspectus’: ‘Il a donc fallu plusieurs fois se procurer les machines, les construire, mettre la main à l’œuvre […] et faire soi-même de mauvais ouvrages pour apprendre aux autres comment on en fait de bons’.[7] Diderot had to interact with objects manually to understand them, the exact experience that the schematic areas of the planches deny. If Diderot, like many of his fellow philosophes, subscribed to the view that haptic experiences are necessary to comprehend the exterior world, how can didactic function of the plates, which offer either no or inconsistent haptic markers, survive?

Dividing the images into two spaces, one of which had no cohesive pictorial space and the other of which describes with consistent pictorial effects such as modelling, introduced a fissure into the planches. In light of the philosophical context, these distinct parts of the plates present irreconcilably different types of information. While viewers could understand and relate their experience to objects depicted in the tableau, those in the schematic space were out of reach and unknowable. Given this split, how then is one to understand the didactic usefulness of the planches? If singular planches undermine their own epistemological value, one might look for a unified didactic argument in the illustrations in their multitude and it is in the interconnections between plates that perhaps scholars should direct their attention.

– Thea Goldring

[1] Madeleine Pinault-Sørensen, L’Encyclopédie (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1993), p. 72.

[2] Laura Berchielli, ‘Color, space and figure in Locke: an interpretation of the Molyneux problem,’ Journal of the history of philosophy xl, i (2002), p.47-65.

[3] Joanna Stalnaker, The Unfinished Enlightenment. Description in the Age of the encyclopedia (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2010), p.61.

[4] Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, Œuvres complètes de Condillac: Traité des sensations iv (Paris, Dufart, 1803), p.11.

[5] Jessica Riskin, Science in the Age of Sensibility: the sentimental empiricists of the French Enlightenment (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002), p.43.

[6] Kate E. Tunstall, Blindness and Enlightenment: an essay (New York, Continuum, 2011).

[7] ‘Prospectus,’ in Encyclopédie (emphasis mine).

French dog! ’: interpreting insults on the streets of London

In light of the recent events and the emergence of questions around British openness (or lack thereof) towards a cosmopolitan culture and foreign nationals, it is interesting to step back in time and observe what kind of reception foreign visitors to England enjoyed in the past. Even for the most anglophile early modern visitor, three aspects of any trip often remained problematic. First, the terrible physical discomfort of crossing the Channel. As the gallant poet Le Pays would have it, it is preferable to look at the sea in a painting than in real life, when one is in danger of joining in the choir producing a ‘symphony of hiccups’ on board. Then there is the ‘gastronomic’ shock of English cooking; and, last but not least, the insults foreign travellers (and French people in particular) systematically received from many locals, mostly from the lower classes, and particularly in London.

‘Sal Dab giving Monsieur a receipt in full’, 1776. Courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art. Variations on this same illustration – a Frenchmen having a fistfight with a fishwife in Billingsgate – are known from the 1750s. For a male version, see the illustration ‘The Frenchman in London’, 1770, in the Horace Walpole Library: http://images.library.yale.edu/walpoleweb/oneitem.asp?imageId=lwlpr02995 It is not known whether the illustrations are based on an actual event.

‘Sal Dab giving Monsieur a receipt in full’, 1776. Courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art. Variations on this same illustration – a Frenchmen having a fistfight with a fishwife in Billingsgate – are known from the 1750s. For a male version, see the illustration ‘The Frenchman in London’, 1770, in the Lewis Walpole Library. It is not known whether the illustrations are based on an actual event.

The most traditional insult, ‘French Dog!’, actually seems to go back all the way to the period of the Avignon schism. The author of the first French travelogue on England in 1558, Estienne Perlin, complained that he was often called ‘or son ou vilain fils de p.tain’. Huguenot visitor Misson de Valbourg, who fled France in 1685 and then sketched an idealised image of England as a land of hope and freedom, provided a much more favourable portrayal of the English. Still, he felt compelled to add that this positive image accurately describes only those who ‘hadn’t always been rotting in England’, but have seen something of the world. Voltaire was insulted on the street, but carefully avoids discussing this experience in the Lettres philosophiques. Montesquieu’s posthumously published ‘Notes sur l’Angleterre’ features some comments regarding unpleasant attitudes on the part of locals. These words inspired some scholars to categorize this text as anglophobic – no doubt an excessive statement, as many other opinions he expresses in the same text were clearly positive.

For French visitors who were not particularly favourable to England, xenophobic insults were a convenient tool to prove that the English notion of ‘freedom’, even though it seemed attractive in theory, was nothing but arrogance. Others attempted to explain the differences between the attitudes of what many of them perceived as the ‘mob’ on the one hand, and the excellent welcome they received from the often strongly francophile local elites on the other; they suggested that there might be ‘two nations’ living side by side in England. This led some to conclude that the true national character could only be found amongst the elites; others suggested that the brutality of the ‘mob’ in fact represented quintessential Englishness, the elites having been civilised by their contact with Continental culture. From the 1760s onwards, following Rousseau’s ideas (such as those in his chapter on travels in Emile), a new approach arose, which saw the true national character residing in the popular classes, but only when far away from the negative impact of large cities: thus, ‘true English people’ reside in the countryside.

During the last decades of the Ancien Régime, a new interpretation emerged for the insults encountered in the streets. In some ways parallel to Edmund Dziembowski’s suggestion that French anti-English feelings and propaganda could have contributed to the creation of a French national identity, some French visitors suggested that English xenophobia, however unpleasant an experience, could be a noteworthy (and even positive?) phenomenon. In his book Observations sur Londre celebrated by the Royal Censor as an ‘eternal antidote against the depraved and contagious morals of our so-called Philosophers’ for deconstructing the myth of English superiority, Lacombe suggested that the disappearance of xenophobic insults is a sign of England’s downfall, as these were manifestations of a powerful, true national character.

The Monument of the Great Fire of London (Wikimedia Commons). The inscriptions attributing the origin of the fire to a Popish plot were erased under James II, then re-engraved under William III; they finally disappeared in 1830.

The Monument of the Great Fire of London (Wikimedia Commons). The inscriptions attributing the origin of the fire to a Popish plot were erased under James II, then re-engraved under William III; they finally disappeared in 1830.

The unpleasant English attitudes that many foreign visitors encountered, and often reported, became for the French public part of a set of well-established ideas, related to the practice of a travel to England. As I have argued in Philosophies du voyage: visiter l’Angleterre aux 17e-18e siècles, the systematic study of the variations in the interpretation of such ideas allows for a better understanding of the complexities and uses of this travel phenomenon. The same event or the same place (such as the Monument of the Great Fire of London and its inscriptions) could receive radically different presentations depending on the personal profile, agenda and experiences of the visitor.

– Dr Gábor Gelléri, Aberystwyth University

See also https://cultureoftravel.wordpress.com


The Man Behind England’s Green and Pleasant Land – Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in and around Oxfordshire

Bodleian Library Exhibition

Bodleian Library Exhibition (Oliver Cox)

This summer a small exhibition in the Blackwell Hall of the Weston Library on Broad Street, Oxford, will tell the story of The English Garden: Views and Visitors. It also marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the man behind England’s green and pleasant land, the landscape designer and entrepreneur Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.

What Shakespeare has done for English letters, so Brown has done for English landscape. Yet we know what Shakespeare created was fiction; even if his fiction was so convincing that when we think of Richard III or Henry V, we think firstly of Shakespeare’s characters, rather than the historical record. With Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the story is slightly different as his landscapes look so natural that it is hard to see the hand of the artist at work at all. Perhaps Brown’s success has been such that he has almost damned himself to historical obscurity through creating a product so good, subsequent generations of visitors have given nature herself the credit.

2016 gives us the opportunity to re-assert the balance, and bring Brown into the popular pantheon of English artistic heroes.

The county of Oxfordshire is pretty much where it all started for Capability Brown. Thirteen miles north of Oxford lies Kiddington Hall. This is where Capability Brown appeared, aged 23 in 1739, with introductions from his former employer, the Northumbrian landowner Sir William Lorraine. Kiddington’s owner, Sir Charles Browne, gave this other Brown his first big break in the south of England. Lancelot was involved in the formation of the lawns and lake in front of the house. The lake’s source was the River Glyme, which he would return to some twenty years later in his career to create the magnificent lake at Blenheim Palace.

View from South Portico at Stowe

View from South Portico at Stowe (Oliver Cox)

Two years later, Brown found himself twenty-five miles north east of the city of dreaming spires as the new Head Gardener of Stowe. By 1741 this landscape was already one of the most famous in Europe. Jacques Rigaud’s fifteen engravings, published in July 1739, ensured that Stowe’s landscape was broadcast far beyond Buckinghamshire. In the far corner of Lord Cobham’s estate at Stowe, Brown started work on creating an ideal valley, through which Cobham’s visitors could walk and imagine themselves as the poets of Classical antiquity. Excavating approximately 24,000 cubic yards of earth, Brown’s male and female labourers were creating landscape on the largest scale.

Brown’s long career, stretching for the next forty-two years until his death in 1783, is significant for a huge range of factors. Most importantly he codified the idea of the ‘natural’ in landscape design. The new exhibition at Compton Verney, celebrating Brown’s work there for the 14th Baron Willoughby de Broke from 1768, efficiently captures his style.

Compton Verney, viewed across Brown’s Lake

Compton Verney, viewed across Brown’s Lake (Oliver Cox)

Brown’s landscapes were typically simple, uncluttered and restrained, generally comprising sweeping pasture bordered with tree clumps, perimeter shelter-belts and screens of trees. He swept away the formal parterres and the classically-inspired allusions of the previous age, but also planted thousands of trees – predominantly oak, ash and elm. The resultant landscape was perfectly designed to encourage those 18th-century pursuits of hunting, shooting and carriage-riding.

In 2016, Brown’s image of England – appearing at the beginning of every episode of Downton Abbey thanks to his work at Highclere Castle – has achieved an unprecedented global reach.

– Oliver Cox

Le 14 juillet: « Liberté, égalité, fraternité » et les valeurs voltairiennes

« Tel est le fanatisme: c’est un monstre sans cœur, sans yeux et sans oreilles. Il ose se dire le fils de la religion, il se cache sous sa robe, et dès qu’on veut le réprimer, il crie, ‘Au secours on égorge ma mère.’ »

(Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, tome 70A (2015), p.142-43)


Hommage aux victimes à Nice

We all at the Voltaire Foundation express heartfelt solidarity with our friends and colleagues in France, following the brutal and tragic events in Nice, committed on ‘Bastille Day’, a day of national celebration of Republican values.


« Translation de Voltaire au Panthéon français » (1791)

These Republican values are also European values, inextricable from the legacy of Voltaire. In July 1791, Voltaire’s remains were transferred to the Panthéon, in what is remembered as one of the Revolution’s greatest public ceremonies. The hearse made its way first to the Place de la Bastille, and the crowd watched as the coffin was placed on a highly symbolic pile of rubble, the stones of the Bastille prison which had been torn down in 1789. Next day, the procession that wound its way to the Panthéon included a model of the hated Bastille, Houdon’s statue of Voltaire seated, and all seventy volumes of the Kehl edition of Voltaire’s complete works. On the coffin was an inscription reclaiming Voltaire as a hero of the Revolution:

« Il vengea Calas, La Barre, Sirven et Monbailli. Poète, philosophe, historien, il a fait prendre un grand essor à l’esprit humain, et nous a préparés à être libres. »

‘He avenged Calas, La Barre, Sirven and Monbailli. Poet, philosopher, historian, he made the human mind soar and prepared us to be free.’

– Nicholas Cronk


« Ordre du cortège pour la translation des mânes de Voltaire le lundi 11 juillet 1791 »



Un taxi londonien



The London Eye, le 15 juillet 2016

Digitizing Raynal (and Diderot): New Digital Editions of the Histoire des deux Indes

A collaborative digital research project

On the heels of Cecil Courtney and Jenny Mander’s recent publication, Raynal’s ‘Histoire des deux Indes’ colonialism, networks and global exchange (OSE, 2015), I am pleased to announce a new international research project aimed at further exploring Raynal’s monumental work and its impact on Enlightenment thought. Thanks to the generous support of the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World at the University of Minnesota, the Centre for Digital Humanities Research at the Australian National University, Stanford University Libraries, and The ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago, we have recently completed the digitization and text encoding (in TEI-XML) of the three primary editions of the Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes. These editions – the first edition of 1770, the second of 1774, and the 1780 third edition – were those that Raynal himself oversaw during his lifetime.

Our digital editions are based on high quality PDFs provided by the BNF’s Gallica online library (1770 and 1780 editions) and the Bodleian’s Oxford Google Books Project (1774 edition). A preliminary search interface has been built using the ARTFL Project’s PhiloLogic software and can be accessed here: Raynal search form. Users can query one or all of the above editions, which represent the first publicly available full-text digital edition(s) of the Histoire des deux Indes. In the coming months we will release a new version of the database running on ARTFL’s state-of-the-art PhiloLogic4 system, along with a preliminary ‘intertextual interface’ that will aim to incorporate the text of the three separate editions into one reading interface.


Title page and frontispiece of the 1780 edition of Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes (Gallica).

Diderot, Hornoy, and the 1780 edition

What is perhaps most exciting about these new digital resources is the inclusion of a unique 1780 edition of the Histoire des deux Indes recently made available by the BNF. Acquired at public auction in March 2015, this particular edition had been conserved since the late 18th century in the private library of Alexandre Marie Dompierre d’Hornoy (1742-1828). A lawyer at the Parlement de Paris and great-nephew of Voltaire – he in fact inherited Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s infamous nude statue of Voltaire upon his great-uncle’s death – Hornoy corresponded with many of the philosophes, Diderot included. His copy of the Histoire contains pencil marks in the margins of some passages, an unremarkable fact, perhaps, were it not for a note written by Hornoy just above a three-page insert at the beginning of the first tome. The handwritten tables included in the insert list all the sections marked in pencil over the four volumes of text: ‘mourceaux qui sont de M. Diderot’, Hornoy writes, ‘marqués en crayon par Mme de Vandeul’. Madame de Vandeul was, of course, Diderot’s daughter.


Handwritten insert of the 1780 edition (Gallica)

The existence of such an annotated volume of the Histoire was posited in the 19th century, notably by Joseph Marie Quérard in his Supercheries littéraires dévoilées (5 vols., 1845-1856). Quérard claimed that there supposedly existed a copy of the 1780 edition on which Diderot himself had marked in pencil all the passages that belonged to him [1]. According to Quérard, this copy became the property of Madame de Vandeul shortly after Diderot’s death. Whether or not the copy acquired by the BNF is the same as that owned by Vandeul we cannot say for sure, but Herbert Dieckmann, in his inventory of the ‘fonds Vandeul’, also mentions the hypothetical existence of a copy of the in-4o edition (e.g. 1780) that was purportedly annotated by hand, but that had since been lost [2].

Some preliminary experiments

While consensus as to the validity of Hornoy’s assertion that the marked sections are in fact those authored by Diderot will most likely take years to accrue, we can begin, using the new digital edition, to ask some basic questions as to the authorship claims indicated in the text. Thanks to extensive markup in TEI-XML notation, sections purportedly belonging to Diderot are clearly indicated, and perhaps more importantly, can be extracted as one test corpus. Using some basic statistical measures drawn from authorship attribution studies, or Stylometry, we can begin to think about how the ‘Diderot’ sections may, or may not, differ stylistically – i.e. in terms of comparative word usage over the most common words, an established metric of ‘authorship’ in stylometry and forensic linguistics – from the rest of the text.


Page from 1780 edition with ‘Diderot’ section marked in pencil (Gallica)

Working with the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at the University of Newcastle (Australia), and in particular with their Intelligent Archive software for stylistic and statistical text analysis, we extracted the top 200 words for each ‘author’ (e.g. those drawn from sections putatively by Diderot, and the remaining ‘Raynal’ sections). As a result, we were left with 4 ‘Diderot’ tomes (containing all of the text marked in pencil) and 4 ‘Raynal’ tomes (containing the remainder), representing their unique word lists over the entire edition. For a first preliminary test, we ran a cluster analysis on the 8 tomes to see if they would cluster together or separately:


Cluster analysis of ‘Diderot’ tomes vs. ‘Raynal’ tomes, based on top 200 word lists

Cluster analysis works by separating (or clustering) the most similar texts first and the most distinct last, in this case into 2 branches. A division like the one above, clearly separated into two distinct ‘trees’ is a very clear indication that the texts in each of the two branches are highly likely to be those of two different authors.

Principal component analysis (PCA) provides another method of examining our corpora. PCA is a procedure for identifying a smaller number of uncorrelated variables, called ‘principal components’, from a large set of data. The goal of PCA is to explain the maximum amount of variance with the fewest number of principal components. In our case, it is a technique that allows for the first two principal components of our two sets of texts, i.e. their word variance, to be plotted on a bi-axial or two-dimensional graph. One of these plots (using the 100 most frequent words of the full text) with both text corpora divided into 10,000 word blocks, is shown below.


Principal component analysis using 10,000 word blocks and 100 most frequent words

The disparity in size of our two test corpora meant that while there were 68 text sections for Raynal (in green), there were only 14 for Diderot (in blue). Nonetheless, the separation between the two authorial sets is almost complete, with just two of the Diderot sections located in the outer fringes of the Raynal set. Since the word variables underlying this plot were the 100 most frequent words of the whole text, this is a convincing stylistic division, one that suggests a strong distinction in terms of authorship signal between the two sets.

In order to account for the size discrepancy between the two corpora, we ran another PCA test but this time we increased the number of Diderot sections by segmenting his text into 5,000 word blocks and running these against the previous Raynal 10,000-word sections. This plot is shown below:


Principal component analysis on 5,000 word blocks (Diderot) and Raynal, using 100 most frequent words

Here we see the same sort of authorial/stylistic separation as we saw above, but this time (with the Diderot sections halved in size) the distinction is even stronger, as there is only one section located within the Raynal set of entries, indicating an even greater likelihood that the sections marked in pencil were written by a different author than the rest of the 1780 edition.

These are obviously very rudimentary experiments, but they nonetheless indicate several promising future avenues of exploration. Moving forward, we intend to apply a full suite of computational and stylistic approaches to the 1780 edition and its predecessors, including sequence alignment tools developed by ARTFL, text collation software, and the MEDITE system developed by the labex OBVIL at the Sorbonne for computational genetic criticism. All of these approaches will allow us to explore the textual evolution of the Histoire from 1770 to 1780 in an unprecedented manner, as well as its relationship to other Enlightenment texts and text collections such as Electronic Enlightenment, TOUT Voltaire, and the Encyclopédie.

– Glenn Roe

*I would especially like to thank Alexis Antonia and the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at Newcastle for their generous help with the above stylistic analyses.

[1] See Michèle Duchet, Diderot et l’Histoire des deux Indes ou l’écriture fragmentaire, Paris, Nizet, 1978, p. 22.

[2] Herbert Dieckmann, Inventaire du fonds Vandeul et inédits de Diderot, Genève, Droz, 1951.

Voltaire and the La Barre affair

250 years ago, on 1 July 1766, the young François-Jean Lefebvre de La Barre was executed in Abbeville, Picardy, having been charged with blasphemy in the summer of 1765. The first reference to La Barre in Voltaire’s correspondence is in a letter of 16 June 1766 to his great-nephew, Alexandre Marie François de Paule de Dompierre d’Hornoy. Voltaire then returned to La Barre’s execution in many letters and works: the Relation de la mort du chevalier de la Barre of 1766 and Le Cri du sang innocent of 1775 are entirely devoted to the La Barre affair.

This year’s Journées Voltaire took place in Paris on 17-18 June. Entitled ‘Autour de l’affaire La Barre’, they were organised by Myrtille Méricam-Bourdet (Université Lyon 2), in collaboration with the Société des Etudes Voltairiennes, the Centre d’Etude de la Langue et des Littératures Françaises (CELLF), and the Association Le Chevalier de La Barre.


Over the two days of the conference, attendees followed the gradual process that transformed La Barre from the victim of a dubious trial into a symbol of anti-clericalism, and the affair that ensued from a mere historical event into a revolutionary event in the Kantian sense.

The conference opened with a marvellously clear exposition of the trial’s proceedings by Eric Wenzel (Université d’Avignon). Eric Wenzel argued strongly that, if we except the fact that the question préalable was used in order to extort a confession, La Barre’s trial was actually conducted in accordance with the laws of Ancien Régime France. This begged the important question of what is right and what is – instead – legal.

Subsequent presentations focused on the role that Voltaire played in transforming La Barre into a symbol of anti-clericalism. Russell Goulbourne (King’s College, London) observed that Voltaire pursued this aim by dramatising the La Barre affair and by insistently describing La Barre himself as the hero of a tragedy: ‘M. le chevalier de la Barre est mort en héros. Sa fermeté noble et simple dans une si grande jeunesse m’arrache encore des larmes’ (to Jacques Marie Bertrand Gaillard d’Etallonde, 26 May 1767), and on multiple occasions comparing him to the hero of Corneille’s Polyeucte. The term ‘catastrophe’, with its connotations of tragedy, also appears in Voltaire’s discussion of the events at Abbeville (e.g. to Michel Paul Guy de Chabanon, 6 February 1771).

The tragic register, however, is not the only one Voltaire used when referring to La Barre’s execution. Two of the papers were concerned with how Voltaire’s response to the La Barre affair changed over time: Christiane Mervaud (Université de Rouen) demonstrated this evolution with reference to the article ‘Justice’ of the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, whereas Alain Sager focused mainly on Voltaire’s correspondence. The correspondence was also at the core of Laetitia Saintes’s (Université Catholique de Louvain) paper, which showed, in the context of letters dealing with the La Barre affair, how Voltaire modulated his tone according to addressee. New documents recently discovered in St Petersburg by Jack Iverson (Whitman College) will certainly cast new light on the reasons behind Voltaire’s re-writings of the La Barre affair.

Beyond the variations that Voltaire introduced into the retelling of events and his accusations of unfairness, the fact remains that his focus on the events at Abbeville succeeded impressively in magnifying their resonance. This is all the more important if one considers the utter indifference with which the Parisian public had originally received the news of La Barre’s execution. Voltaire himself complained about it in a letter to de Chabanon: ‘on va à l’opéra comique le jour qu’on brûle le chevalier de la Barre’ (7 August 1769).

Two papers at the conference therefore focused on how Voltaire’s writings prompted other intellectuals to engage with La Barre’s execution. Stéphanie Gehanne-Gavoty (Université Paris-Sorbonne) drew the audience’s attention to Friedrich Melchior Grimm’s treatment of the La Barre affair in the Correspondance littéraire. Linda Gil (Université Paris-Sorbonne) focused on Condorcet’s treatment, in the Kehl edition of Voltaire’s works, of the texts concerning La Barre, which fell into a newly created section,‘Politique et législation’, as well as on Condorcet’s own preface to that section.

As asserted by Charles Coutel (Université d’Artois; Association Le Chevalier de La Barre) in an enlightening paper, it was precisely by triggering such responses in the French intellectual elites that Voltaire succeeded in making a universal symbol out of the chevalier La Barre and a revolutionary event in the Kantian sense out of his execution. Thus, Coutel claimed, Voltaire’s reaction to La Barre’s death plainly testifies to the fact that humanity can progress even in the darkest times. As Voltaire put it in a letter of 26 September 1766 to the marquise d’Epinay, ‘le petit nombre de sages répandus dans Paris peut faire beaucoup de bien en s’élevant contre certaines atrocités, et en ramenant les hommes à la douceur et à la vertu’.

– Ruggero Sciuto