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

Gossip meets history at Versailles

The Fountain of Apollo, Park of Versailles, France (Wikimedia)

The Fountain of Apollo, Park of Versailles, France (Wikimedia)

‘Louis XIV was so magnificent in his court, as well as reign, that the least particulars of his private life seem to interest posterity.’

So wrote Voltaire in his account of the reign of Louis XIV, published in 1751. It’s still true today, apparently – a bit of a fuss has been made in the past few weeks about a BBC drama series called Versailles. Set during the reign of the French Sun King and controversially made in English, it seems to be aimed at the audience for the historical romp genre (The Tudors, Rome), with plenty of see-through dresses and glossy hair.

Noémie Schmidt plays Henriette (underneath), wife of Philippe and mistress of Louis (above). A scene from the BBC series Versailles. Image Daily Telegraph.

‘Noémie Schmidt plays Henriette (underneath), wife of Philippe and mistress of Louis (above).’ A scene from the BBC series Versailles. Image and caption: Daily Telegraph.

The show itself seems to be pretty much what you’d expect from the genre. Every lurid allegation of life at court which has surfaced over the past 300-odd years has been trussed up and ornamented, to choruses of ‘for shame!’ from the Daily Mail, while familiar faces on the media history circuit are produced to give academic credibility to every unlikely-sounding anecdote. An affair between the king and his sister-in-law? His brother’s homosexuality and transvestism? Queen Marie-Thérèse, famous for her Catholic piety and lack of interest in carnality, giving birth to a dark-skinned, apparently illegitimate baby? The programme makers are playing a mischievous game with us: simultaneously wanting us to gasp in horror while reassuring us of their interest in historical veracity. No need to bother with plausibility, then – (alleged) truth despite its implausibility is the trump card here.

Siècle de Louis XIV, 3 vol., 1768, vol.2, p.274.

Siècle de Louis XIV, 3 vol., 1768, vol.2, p.274.

We have a rich supply of this gossip, partly because of the success of Louis XIV at keeping his nobility within the confines of his enormous palace at Versailles. Quite a few of them kept almost daily diaries detailing who was rumoured to be sleeping with whom, pregnancies, illnesses, squabbles… Voltaire included several chapters of anecdotes in his Age of Louis XIV, which he introduces with the observation: ‘We had rather be informed of what passed in the cabinet of Augustus, than hear a full detail of the conquests of Attila or Tamerlane.’ And who wouldn’t? Voltaire’s chapters of anecdotes represent the private history of the king and his entourage as people, in contrast to the previous twenty-four chapters of public events: wars won and lost, peace treaties, alliances and so on. Voltaire deliberately carves out a space in his monumental history of the reign for these ‘domestic details’, but he also warns the reader to weigh up the sources when deciding when something is true or not. Although he admits that they are ‘sure to engage public attention’, in a later edition he adds a marginal note at this point: ‘Beware of anecdotes’.

The real domestic details are ultimately unknowable, of course, but anyone can and does imagine what might have happened in a bedroom, a birthing chamber, a salon. The temptation to fill in the gaps and invite a 21st century audience to experience this private space in simulation is, I think, what has proved so tantalising both to the creative impulses of the script-writers and the voyeuristic ones of the audience.

– A.O.

The Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes across the Channel: Swift and Voltaire


Our book Ancients and Moderns in Europe: comparative perspectives is a collection of chapters covering three centuries of European quarrels over the legacy of classical Greece and Rome. With such a broad range of reference, it is inevitable that some key players in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes have lost the leading roles they played in earlier accounts. Voltaire, the tutelary spirit of ‘Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment’, is a case in point. His article on ‘Anciens et Modernes’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie is mentioned only once in the volume, in Ourida Mostefai’s essay on Rousseau’s critique of modernity (p.243-56), yet it is the clearest testimony we have of the Enlightenment’s conflicted sense of the quarrel as both inconsequential and absolutely unignorable. Let us therefore examine his article in more detail.


Voltaire, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, detail

In ‘Anciens et Modernes’ Voltaire is himself guilty of certain omissions. Of the great voices of the quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns, Voltaire gives Fontenelle a good hearing, while Sir William Temple gets rough handling for his hatred of his century (‘Il possédait de grandes connaissances: un préjugé suffit pour gâter tout ce mérite’ [1]). Voltaire clearly saw the quarrel as a pan-European phenomenon, something that happened as much between Fontenelle and Temple as between Fontenelle and Boileau, or Temple and William Wotton. The comparative perspectives taken in Ancients and Moderns in Europe fit well with this vision of the dispute.

It is, furthermore, curious that Voltaire left Jonathan Swift, the author of ‘The Battel of the Books’, out of his article on the quarrel. There is, of course, abundant evidence of how largely Swift loomed in Voltaire’s literary imagination. On several occasions Voltaire called him ‘le Rabelais d’Angleterre’ (Voltaire to Nicolas Claude Thieriot, 13 February 1727), and always gave Swift the advantage in the comparison. Swift represented a particularly powerful, if not unambiguous manifestation of the qualities that Voltaire most admired in the British: ‘que j’aime la hardiesse anglaise!’, he wrote to the Marquise Du Deffand on 13 October 1759, thinking of the range of Swift’s satire, ‘que j’aime les gens qui disent ce qu’ils pensent!’. Why would Voltaire miss the opportunity to bring this most hardy of authors into the most celebrated of early-modern literary tussles?


The answer, perhaps, is that Voltaire knew Swift’s writing too well to mistake him for a quarreler. What Swift did was to adjudicate controversies, loudly and with much bias, from the sideline. In the ‘Small Leningrad Notebook’ [2] that Voltaire kept in 1726-28, the years of his residence in London and of his acquaintance with Swift and his circle, there is an entry in English with the Swiftian title ‘A Tale of a Tub’. In commonwealths and free countries, notes Voltaire, traders of all religions are welcome to argue with one another’s religion, so long as they continue otherwise to deal with one another ‘with trust and peace; like good players who after having humour’d their parts and fought against one another upon the stage, spend the rest of their time drinking together’ [3].

Swift by Jervas

Jonathan Swift, by Charles Jervas, detail

It is strange to see this Addisonian, cosmopolitan vision of modern Britain associated so closely with Swift. But the association happens consistently whenever Voltaire writes about him. It has long been understood that Zadig (1747) owes its high satirical relish for foolish disputes to Gulliver’s travels (which appeared in London in the same month as Voltaire himself), and particularly to the quarrel of the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians. As late as 1768 Voltaire returns in Pot-pourri to the world of ‘A Tale of a Tub’, and of hypocritical, energetic, and ultimately evanescent quarrels touched upon in that entry to the ‘Small Leningrad Notebook’. Gulliver’s travels is so extremely funny, Voltaire told Nicolas Claude Thieriot in 1727, ‘par les imaginations singulières dont il est plein, par la légèreté de son stile, etc. quand il ne seroit pas d’ailleurs la satire du genre humain’. For Voltaire’s Swift, the disputes of his enemies are only ever a sideshow: his great quarrel, and the only one really worth having, is with the human animal itself.

– Paddy Bullard

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Oxford, 1968- ), vol.38 (2007), p.340.

[2] ‘Small Leningrad Notebook’ in Voltaire’s Notebooks, ed. Theodore Besterman, Geneva, 1952, p.43.

[3] Ibid.