The Empire strikes back: Spain vs. France in the eighteenth-century encyclopedia

As a scholar of the ‘other’ enlightenments, i.e. those that were not located in England or France, but rather in Spain and Italy, I have been struck by the extent to which the eighteenth-century French rhetorical style controlled the reader’s view of the world. And as a scholar of eighteenth-century encyclopedias, most of which were written in French, I have been equally surprised by how the geographical articles written in these French-language compilations helped shape national identities, as seen not only from within, but also from without. Words are powerful weapons. Who can forget Metternich describing Italy in the nineteenth century as merely “a geographical expression”? Never had there been a more effective rallying cry for national unity.

A new map of Spain and Portugal, from the latest observations [Geography anatomiz’d, or, The geographical grammar: being a short and exact analysis of the whole body of modern geography...: collected from the best authors, and illustrated with divers maps], Gordon, Patrick, fl. 1700, engraving, 1722.

A new map of Spain and Portugal, from the latest observations [Geography anatomiz’d, or, The geographical grammar: being a short and exact analysis of the whole body of modern geography…: collected from the best authors, and illustrated with divers maps], Gordon, Patrick, fl. 1700, engraving, 1722.

When armchair geographer Masson de Morvilliers penned, in 1783, the equally powerful judgment of the Spanish Empire in the form of the rhetorical question, ‘What do we owe Spain?’, its derogatory impact and dissemination dealt a painful blow to the Spanish intellectual class, which rallied against it en masse. But the reception of the insult hardly stopped there. Allies in Italy and Germany, who had also experienced the negative repercussions of the French whip of words in encyclopedic representations, joined forces with Spain. Virtually overnight, writers, journalists, reformers, and men of science and letters took up the call to verbal arms and composed their responses.

The most important of these rebuttals, the article ‘España’, has been reproduced in our volume Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, in Spanish (with English translation), together with Masson’s French provocation. Reading these articles side by side, I’m always struck by the measured energy of the Spanish translator-authors as they speak their own truth, in Spanish, to the hegemonic power of the French Enlightenment, which in the hands of Masson had branded the Empire as a site of ongoing black legend atrocities, inquisitional tyranny, and fanatical thinking. Against Masson’s defamation, the Spanish encyclopedists culled opposing examples from the virtually unknown cultural history of the Spanish Empire, and in doing so restored Spanish confidence.

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A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’), ca. 1652, by Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn).

In a world in which Spain and Latin America are so well known to us, it is sometimes hard to remember that knowledge about these places was scant and hardly circulated in the vast eighteenth-century encyclopedia market. There were very few books of travel literature devoted to Spain, as the grand tour had taken place in Italy, attracting primarily British and French tourists who wrote extensively about their experiences, albeit it in English and French. I am reminded of a recent article in The Guardian that discusses language use on the web: “Rich countries largely get to define themselves and poor countries largely get defined by others… Inequality in information and representation in different languages online can also affect how we understand places and even how we act in them”. This information inequality, the article claims, has the potential to reinforce colonial-era patterns of information production and representation.

I can’t help but think that the situation of encyclopedias, language, and representation in the eighteenth century is the mirror image of our internet- and content-driven world. It might also not be too far-fetched to think that Masson, with his quarrelsome rhetoric and uninformed Spain-bashing, in some ways mirrors todays Internet troll, who weaponizes historical and cultural sensibilities in order to disrupt the course of knowledge production.

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Indeed, who would have thought that eighteenth-century encyclopedism would be so contemporary?

– Clorinda Donato

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

See also:

From ‘Encyclopédie’ to ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’: revision and expansionKathleen Hardesty Doig. SVEC 2013:11, ISBN 978-0-7294-1077-9, 328 pages, 6 ills.

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