Voltaire, historiographe précurseur: ‘Les mœurs des hommes, l’esprit de parti, se connaissent à la manière d’écrire l’histoire’ (Essai sur les mœurs, ch.171)

Les chapitres 170, 171 et 173 de l’Essai sur les mœurs (OCV, t.26B) consacrés aux guerres civiles de France donnent à Voltaire l’occasion de reprendre un sujet sur lequel il a commencé à faire des recherches lors de la composition de La Henriade (publiée sous le titre de La Ligue en 1723). Cette période particulièrement tourmentée et sanglante de l’histoire de France illustre mieux qu’aucune autre l’engrenage de la violence, qui revêt, à côté du conflit militaire, de multiples visages: libelles haineuses, conspirations (conjuration d’Amboise) et factions (la Ligue), emprisonnements et jugements sommaires, massacres (Wassy, la Saint-Barthélemy) et assassinats – ces derniers prenant même la forme extrême du régicide, sur lequel se clôt le règne calamiteux d’Henri III.

Hogenberg / Franois / 0410. L'assassinat du duc de Guise / [est

François Hogenberg, ‘L’assassinat du duc de Guise’ (estampe, XVIe siècle; Bibliothèque nationale de France).

C’est là un riche sujet de réflexion pour Voltaire, qui, dans la lignée de Bossuet, puise dans l’Histoire la matière d’un enseignement moral et philosophique, jugeant le passé à l’aune des préoccupations contemporaines. Les Guerres de Religion sont à cet égard un cas d’école: on ne peut mieux prouver les méfaits, bien plus, l’absurdité de l’intolérance religieuse, qui favorise ce qu’elle prétend détruire. Non pas que l’auteur accorde, dans sa narration, la place qu’on attendrait au débat théologique, bien au contraire. Ce silence s’explique fondamentalement par la vision voltairienne du rapport entre pouvoir et religion: chez les princes, note-t-il, ‘la religion n’est presque jamais que leur intérêt’; elle n’est qu’un prétexte pour conquérir ou conserver le pouvoir, un moyen d’instrumentaliser le peuple fanatisé.

Plus fondamentalement, son projet d’histoire universelle le conduit à renouveler le regard qu’il portait sur cette époque dans La Henriade ou l’Essay upon the civil wars of France (1728). Sa vision s’enrichit de l’attention portée à la longue durée – aux mœurs de la Cour, aux conditions matérielles d’existence, aux institutions politiques ou juridiques, aux structures économiques et financières du royaume. De façon intéressante, Voltaire intègre ces données d’arrière-plan à la trame événementielle. Ainsi, pour éclairer l’enchaînement imprévu des faits qui aboutissent à la tuerie de Wassy, il souligne l’habitude qu’ont alors les seigneurs de se déplacer accompagné d’une très nombreuse suite.

Voltaire approfondit son érudition par un travail de documentation considérable – puisant aussi bien dans les travaux des historiens que dans les chroniques et les mémoires du temps, chez les auteurs protestants que chez les auteurs catholiques – et prend ouvertement position dans le débat historiographique, ici pour corriger une erreur, là pour dénoncer la partialité d’un jugement, quitte à se montrer injuste envers les auteurs qu’il utilise abondamment, comme c’est le cas pour le jésuite Daniel.

Comme l’a montré Pierre Force dans sa Préface du tome 26B, l’écriture de l’Essai sur les mœurs témoigne d’un art de la brièveté qui le rattache au genre du ‘précis’. Dans nos chapitres, Voltaire se contente souvent de faire allusion aux événements supposés connus, pour se concentrer sur des détails piquants, des anecdotes savoureuses, des propos mémorables. Il livre un portrait romanesque de la Cour sous la régence de Catherine de Médicis et le règne de ses fils, qui forme un curieux mélange de ‘galanteries et de fureurs’, et ne manque pas une occasion de surprendre ou d’amuser son lecteur, a fortiori si elle lui permet au passage de faire montre de son savoir. En somme, on découvre dans ces chapitres quelques-unes des caractéristiques essentielles d’une figure d’historien que l’édition critique de l’Essai sur les mœurs aura permis d’appréhender dans toute sa complexité.

– Justine de Reyniès

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Stagestruck: the making of a theater industry during the late Old Regime

The theater at Lille.

The theater at Lille.

During the decades preceding the French Revolution, city-dwellers in France became swept up in la théâtromanie, a cultural phenomenon that extended far beyond Paris to include cities throughout France and its empire. In my recent book, I set out to write a socio-cultural history of the profound transformations that marked the French stage during the era in which, I argue, the theater emerged as the most prestigious and influential urban cultural institution of the age of Enlightenment.

Stagestruck lifts the curtain to take readers behind the scenes of the rapidly commercializing world of eighteenth-century French theater, when many dozens of cities in provincial and colonial France opened their first public playhouses. An evening at the theater was a commodity that came to be produced and consumed in new ways. To bring the classics of Molière, the musical comedies of Favart, and the tragedies of Voltaire to life evening after evening and to generate enough revenue to keep the operation in the black was no easy business. These enterprises required a diverse cast of characters ranging from actors and actresses to directors (a position that was in fact an eighteenth-century invention) to shareholders who invested in the business of entertainment to a growing base of paying customers.

An audience in the theater at Reims.

An audience in the theater at Reims.

These theater spectators came to conceive of themselves as a community with rights and prerogatives, one that should have an important say in urban cultural life.

During the later Old Regime, the public adopted an explicitly consumerist language to defend its prerogative to comment on the show. In 1787, one contemporary summed up this prevailing spirit as: ‘I paid to enter the theater… so I acquired the right to state my way of thinking and to reject what displeases me.’ As audiences recognized the power they wielded, their growing sense of entitlement was manifested in rather extraordinary ways. They became very clever about leveraging consumer pressure – including even the use of organized boycotts – to ensure that their demands would not be ignored.

During the 1780s, in cities from Bordeaux to Rouen to Le Cap, Saint-Domingue, clashes between theater directors and police authorities and spectators escalated into full-scale public protests that crossed definitively from the aesthetic to the political. Perhaps most astonishingly, these consumer boycotts almost always succeeded in the sense that directors and authorities felt compelled to respond to audience demands for fear that if they refused, these prestigious cultural institutions might go bankrupt.

Inside and outside new public playhouses, the French were able to rehearse the civil equality and participatory politics that they would demand – and receive – in 1789.

– Lauren R. Clay

Rococo rivalries: Germany v. France

As an American who studies European art, I must confess to a particular fascination with how European societies characterize each other. Stereotypes, rivalries, projections, and politically charged allegiances inflect all aspects of European culture. In eighteenth-century studies, we encounter this most commonly in the appreciation and animosities exchanged between Britain and France. My recent research on the Rococo took me to explore a different yet equally charged rivalry – that of Germany and France.

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The palace of Amalienburg. Photo: M. Yonan.

Bolstered by the art of Oppenord, Meissonnier, Watteau, and Boucher to name just a few, the Rococo’s place in French art history is secure. Harder to explain has been its popularity in Germany. German patrons built hundreds of richly decorated palaces outfitted with gorgeous rococo interiors, and the Germans went a step further by incorporating rococo ornament into religious edifices, something encountered only rarely in France. Both can be seen in Catholic Munich, where the urge to adopt rococo forms occurred early and eagerly. The palaces of Nymphenburg, Amalienburg, and Schleissheim, all in or near that city, contain room after room of beautifully ornamented rococo art. Travel a short distance outside Munich and you will encounter rococo pilgrimage churches, perhaps the most famous of which is the stunningly beautiful Wieskirche. But it is just one of hundreds. In short, the Germans loved the Rococo. A colleague once even described Bavaria to me as ‘Rococo Paradise’, so abundant is the style in that region.

The Wieskirche. Photo: M. Yonan.

The Wieskirche. Photo: M. Yonan.

In my contribution to the volume Rococo echo: art, theory, and historiography from Cochin to Coppola, ‘The Uncomfortable Frenchness of the German Rococo’, I explore specifically how German writers dealt with the problem of the Rococo’s French origins, and how that Frenchness became a thorn in the side of German art history for almost three hundred years.

Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola

Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola

German writers have struggled to explain the abundance of the Rococo in their homeland, and as nineteenth-century scholars began to write Germany’s national art history, they found the Rococo highly problematic, since it could not be easily characterized as German. And you might guess what happened: some rather creative attempts to explain (or explain away!) the Rococo’s Frenchness. When commenting on rococo southern German palaces, writers such as Cornelius Gurlitt and Hermann Bauer argued that the style was really German. In contrast, an earlier writer, Johann Friedrich Reiffenstein, complained that as a whimsical foreign import the Rococo was alien to the German character and therefore damaging to serious German art. Gottfried Semper tried to claim that it was the Germans who had invented rococo art, not the French, and thereby Germanized its origins. Stereotypes, rivalries, projections, and even military themes abounded. Writing this essay reminded me of how subversive Rococo art really is, and how much it challenges simple categorization, be it about quality, technique, subject matter, or national identity.

– Michael Yonan, University of Missouri