The Salons Project: a digital approach to eighteenth-century French salons

We are currently finalising the programme for Digitizing Enlightenment IV, a day-long workshop that will take place on 15 July as part of the ISECS Congress in Edinburgh this summer. In order to expand our network of Digitizing Enlightenment projects and researchers, we encourage those working in any aspect of digital humanities across the interdisciplinary spectrum of eighteenth-century studies to attend the event, if in Edinburgh, or contact us for more information.

Meantime below is the second post in our series of follow-up discussions based on work presented at the Digitizing Enlightenment III workshop.

– Glenn Roe, Voltaire Lab

Eighteenth-century French salons have developed a mystical aura as sites of elite sociability and (more controversially) as potential workshops of Enlightenment philosophy. They were, however, ordinary face-to-face gatherings in many ways – not unlike unscheduled conferences and meetings with loose agendas today; the one consistent difference is that they were held in private homes instead of conference rooms and organized by individuals (normally women) rather than groups or committees. The nineteenth-century term “salon” grouped together a variety of meetings with certain characteristics: salons were held in private homes with relatively elite participants, conversation was the primary activity, and they occurred on set days and at times that were part of a larger social calendar. Aside from these very general characteristics, salons had a wide variety of purposes, publics, and activities.

a French salon

Niclas Lafrensen [Nicolas Lavreince] (1737-1807), A French salon.

The most celebrated among salons, notably Tencin’s, Graffigny’s, Geoffrin’s, and Lespinasse’s, have become associated with great writers, philosophes, and mathematicians, like Voltaire and D’Alembert. Antoine Lilti has challenged the view that salons were primarily counter-cultural venues for philosophical debate, showing that the aristocratic traditions influenced notions of politesse in the salons and emphasizing the aristocratic habitus of many salon hostesses even when they had philosophes as guests. Disagreements over the character of salons may amount to differences more of degree than of type, since historians generally agree that the salons were mixed environments, but these debates do demonstrate the importance, now more than ever, of working through who was in attendance, in order to identify the social characteristics of eighteenth-century French salons.

I am the co-director with Chloe Edmondson of The Salons Project, a database of primarily eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European salon participants. We completed our pilot project of French salons from 1700 to 1800 last year and have some preliminary results, which will appear in the volume Digitizing Enlightenment, edited by Glenn Roe and Simon Burrows, in 2019. As expected, we found a great deal of evidence for social mixité in eighteenth-century salons, including patterns of mixed gender, age, occupation, interests, and social status. We also found that both women and literary figures were present in all of the major salons, including salons like Deffand’s which were not known for their openness to the philosophes. We found that nobles were present in all salons, as were gens de lettres, and that these people were often one and the same.

Our list of more than 600 salon participants is far from a complete record of eighteenth-century French salon attendees, but it is the largest and most complete database that we are aware of. The purpose of our study was not only to create a database, but also to create a method and a format for sharing data about salons and other informal networks. This method uses the robust data model created by the Electronic Enlightenment project, such that our data are compatible with the many other Enlightenment-era projects that are inspired by that database. We also use the schema “Procope”, which we developed along with Maria Teodora Comsa, Dan Edelstein, and Claude Willan to classify Early Modern European individuals, and which is described in our article “The French Enlightenment network”.

the Salons Project

Salon, correspondence, and knowledge networks in French salons, 1650 to 1815 (data from The Salons Project, Conroy and Edmondson).

Within our larger dataset (1650 to 1815), we found that the letters networks and salon networks remained well integrated, and that philosophes were a minority but well integrated into the core of the network (see diagram). The most central figures are the ones whose networks are most associated with each field of knowledge (for example, Lespinasse’s salon is strongly associated with the “Letters_Philosophical” network, whereas Praslin’s is not; Voltaire’s correspondence network is more strongly associated with the encyclopédistes than is Necker’s; the Letters networks and “Letters_Philosophical” network are themselves tightly connected and central to salon networks). Whereas the best known salons of the era were well integrated into the letters and philosophical networks, it is important to remember that many of the salon attendees were not otherwise part of the French Enlightenment network, especially women, lower-status individuals, family members of other salon participants, and foreigners. By adding these more marginal people to the records on eighteenth-century French sociability, we hope to open up new avenues for finding social relations that are not well known among these more marginal participants on the edges of the Enlightenment. Even where we were not able to learn much about some of these more minor figures, including them in this preliminary dataset increases the chances that we will learn more about them in the future.

– Melanie Conroy, University of Memphis

Melanie Conroy is assistant professor of French at the University of Memphis and the co-director with Chloe Summers Edmondson (PhD candidate, Stanford University) of The Salons Project, a database of European salon participants. She can be reached at or @MelanieConroy. The Salons Project is online at The Salons Project is collaborative and invites new researchers to adopt its methods and share their data.



Believing in an age of Enlightenment

Over the past few decades historians have justly complicated the narrative of the Enlightenment’s essentially secular nature. The once normative tale of philosophes heroically sparring against religious belief to plant the seed of modern secularism has given way to a landscape that is far more complex and nuanced, challenging the stark difference between the religious and the secular. Whether it be the story of religious reformers seeking to find a via media between traditional articulations of belief and the opinions of radical critics or the investigation of how philosophical perspectives had their genesis in mysticism and theology, scholarship on the Enlightenment has affirmed the important role that religion played in the era’s intellectual and cultural transformations. In so far as the eighteenth century was an age of secularization, it was so partly as a result of the ideas and actions of those who self-identified as proponents of religious traditions, and not just their vocal opponents. [1]

However, scholars have only scratched the surface of religious belief in the Enlightenment. In Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France: Essays in Honor of Dale K. Van Kley, we dig deeper into the manifestations and impact of belief in France and its empire during the long eighteenth century. In their various ways, the contributors demonstrate how belief continued to show up in conversations, representations, and institutions, sometimes in unpredictable ways. They find the persistence of religious belief at the heart of social, cultural, and political life well into the nineteenth century.

Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France: Essays in Honor of Dale K. Van Kley, edited by Mita Choudhury and Daniel J. Watkins, is the latest volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

At the center of our investigation is the Catholic reform movement known as Jansenism. Active throughout Catholic Europe, Jansenism found a home in France and impacted ecclesiastical and political life in dramatic ways. At first glance, the penitent and rigorist sensibilities of Jansenists seem far from the progressive and worldly predilections of enlightened philosophes. A deeper look, however, reveals how Jansenist belief contributed to a host of social and political reforms including the critique of absolute monarchy, the promotion of religious toleration, and the articulation of the rights of the citizen and the rule of law. Jansenists present historians with examples of intensely devoted Catholics whose religious beliefs contributed to their engagement with the political public sphere.

Jansenism, however, did not exist in a vacuum. Throughout the long eighteenth century it competed with other voices in the Church over what it meant to believe in an enlightened age. The conflicts wrought by Jansenists and their internecine nemeses, the Jesuits, dominated political conversations in France certainly until the latter’s expulsion and suppression in the 1760s and even after. The tensions between these groups involved disparate ways of reconciling traditional religious beliefs with new epistemologies. In their disagreements about such matters as human nature, society, and politics, they both articulated forms of enlightened Catholicism that competed with one another throughout the eighteenth century.

An anti-Jesuit polemical image showing members of the Jesuits falling through a sieve held by God and shaken by a member of the French parlements, judicial bodies in the Old Regime.

The centrality of this conflict in the conversation about belief and its manifestations during the Enlightenment owes much to the work of Dale K. Van Kley, whose scholarship this volume honors. His work over the past four decades has provided the foundation for all of our contributors’ investigations into French religious life. Van Kley has shown that the competition between Jansenists and the partisans of the Jesuits defined religious culture in France and consequently played a formative role in shaping how belief impacted political and social institutions during the Enlightenment and well into the revolutionary era.

The persistence of the Jansenist–Jesuit struggle complicates the long-standing narrative of France’s progressive secularization beginning in the eighteenth century. It sheds new light on the way that we frame the Enlightenment’s connection with secularization and, therefore, modernity. Amidst increasing voices calling for the separation of social and cultural life from the auspices of the Church, many continued to see religious belief as not only a part of their identities but also an important tool for navigating the social and political spheres of the modern world.

– Mita Choudhury and Daniel J. Watkins (Vassar College and Baylor University)

[1] For an example, see the work that Alan C. Kors has done on the history of atheism in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe: Alan C. Kors, Atheism in France, 1650–1729, vol. 1: The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Naturalism and Unbelief in France, 1650–1729 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Epicureans and Atheists, 1650–1729 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Belief and Politics in Enlightenment France is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

The humanist world of Voltaire’s correspondence

We know from reading Voltaire’s letters that he likes quoting – French literature in abundance, but also a fair amount of Latin. There is often a strong sense that he is quoting from memory, which is more than likely the lasting mark of his Jesuit teachers at Louis-le-Grand, who put Latin at the centre of the curriculum. Indeed, Voltaire had the benefit of some renowned Jesuit scholars as his teachers, notably Le Père Porée, who famously taught a ‘Senecan’ prose style, and Le Père Thoulier (later the abbé d’Olivet), a distinguished Cicero scholar who remained on friendly terms with Voltaire throughout his career.

Latin verse in particular, played a preponderant role in Voltaire’s education, as poets were at the heart of college teaching, and Virgil, Ovid, and Horace were by far the big three since the 16th century at least.[1] The Jesuits taught primarily by way of daily recitals (recitatio) of verse required by all students: ‘On attachait à la recitatio une importance dont nous n’avons pas idée aujourd’hui…’ (Dainville, p.175). Thus, students at Louis-le-Grand all committed large chunks of Latin verse to memory as both a means of imitation for learning to write, and also as a method of retaining information, as Voltaire would elsewhere describe the pedagogical approach of the Jesuit Claude Buffier: ‘Il a fait servir les vers (je ne dis pas la poésie) à leur premier usage, qui était d’imprimer dans la mémoire des hommes les événements dont on voulait garder le souvenir’.[2]

Collège de Louis le Grand, circa 1789.

Collège de Louis le Grand, circa 1789.

Given this background, we aimed to examine Voltaire’s use of Latin quotations across his massive collection of correspondence, described by Christiane Mervaud as ‘perhaps his greatest masterpiece’. The Besterman edition of Voltaire’s correspondence, originally published in some 50 print volumes, and digitised in the early 2000s as part of the Electronic Enlightenment project, contains 21,256 letters of which 15,414 are written by Voltaire himself. It is astonishing, then, that this masterpiece remains relatively unstudied. Besterman identifies Latin passages when they are from the major writers (Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Lucretius) – the authors for whom there were concordances easily available in the 1950s and 1960s. In the case of lesser poets like Manilius, however, Besterman was obliged to leave the passages unannotated. These passages can now be easily identified thanks to new methods developed in the digital humanities. In particular, as part of this year’s research programme in the Voltaire Lab, we compared all of Voltaire’s letters to Latin digital sources in an effort to systematically identify all of his Latin quotations, while at the same time, as we’ll see below, exploring the social and intellectual networks over which these quotations were exchanged.

Marcu Manilius, <i>Astronomicon</i>, 1767.

Marcu Manilius, Astronomicon, 1767.

Using sequence alignment algorithms designed to identify literary text re-use at scale –developed in collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago – we identified some 672 Latin citations in Voltaire’s correspondence by comparing the letters to the Packard Humanities Institute’s Classical Latin Texts (PHI) digital corpus. The PHI contains essentially all Latin literary texts written before A.D. 200, as well as some texts selected from later antiquity. The resulting alignments allow us to move beyond Besterman’s ad hoc manner of identifying quotations towards a more systematic understanding of Voltaire’s use of Latin authors.

After some data pruning – the inclusion of several commentators and grammarians from Late Antiquity in the PHI dataset meant that there were some repeated matches that were spurious – we reduced our set of Latin passages to 342 citations used by Voltaire himself to his various correspondents. Here is a list of these quotations by Latin author in descending order:

Table 1. 342 individual Latin passages found in letters by Voltaire.

Table 1. 342 individual Latin passages found in letters by Voltaire.

Overwhelmingly Voltaire prefers to quote Latin poets; and that Horace, Virgil and Ovid should be the top three is hardly surprising, though the presence of Horace is dominant. There is breadth as well as depth here, and the list goes beyond the usual suspects to include minor figures such as Manilius, Statius, and Cato the Elder. Does this mean, for instance, that Voltaire is quoting someone like Manilius from memory? If so, how interesting and altogether unexpected.

The next important question we broached was concerned with the recipients of Latin passages, i.e., who are the adressees of the letters in which these Latin quotations appear? In all we found 101 different recipients of at least some Latin, out of 1,465 total recipients in Voltaire’s correspondence (roughly 14.5 %). This is quite small, as a proportion of addressees overall. So how can we gloss these names as members of a group, or network of Latin quotations?

Table 2. Addressees with more than five Latin quotations.

Table 2. Addressees with more than five Latin quotations.

Using the ‘Procope’ social network ontology of the French Enlightenment, established by Dan Edelstein et al., at Stanford,[3] we were able to automatically assign social categories to our list of addressees, which while not a perfect system, nonetheless helped us understand the fundamentally ‘elite’ status of this sub-set of Voltaire’s correspondents.

Gender is an obvious criterion that is apparently lacking: all addressees are male apart from one. Given that men learned Latin, and women didn’t, the use of Latin quotations is self-evidently gendered in this case. This is further reinforced by the manner in which Voltaire uses two verses by Virgil with La Duchesse de Choiseul, his one female addressee, in a letter from 1771:

‘Pour moi, Madame, qui les aime passionément je vous dirai
Ante leves ergo pascentur in æthere cervi
Quam nostro illius labatur pectore vultus.’

‘Vous entendez le latin, Madame, vous savez ce que celà veut dire:
Les cerfs iront paître dans l’air avant que j’oublie son visage.’

After quoting the two lines from the Bucolics, Voltaire goes on to translate them for Madame de Choiseul, even though she can presumably understand the Latin – a case of early-modern ‘mansplaining’ in action.

Within the group of 101 addressees, there is a clearly-defined social group of old, close friends from school (those with whom he had learned Latin), as well as an overlapping sub-group in Normandy, or in one case from Voltaire’s early law career:

Addressees from Louis-le-Grand, where Voltaire learned Latin:

  • The Marquis d’Argenson (later foreign minister)
  • The Comte d’Argenson (later war minister)
  • The Duc de Richelieu (soldier and leading courtier)
  • The Comte d’Argental, conseiller au parlement de Paris
  • Pierre-Robert Le Cornier de Cideville, conseiller au parlement de Rouen

Other old friends from the overlapping Normandy/law group:

  • Formont, a wealthy, talented light poet who was also friends with Cideville.
  • Theriot, a an early friend of Voltaire’s, from when they were both young apprentice lawyers, who was also friends with Formont and Cideville.

Otherwise, we find many cultivated acquaintances in this list who are themselves authors: Frederick, Algarotti, D’Alembert, etc.; along with one of Voltaire’s teachers from Louis-le-Grand: d’Olivet, translator of Cicero and Desmosthenes into French, elected to the Académie in 1723. Clearly, Voltaire’s use of Latin was a means of determining readership. By constructing an epistolary community with selected groups of correspondents, Voltaire underscored their shared experiences and humanist culture.

But, to what extent was this sort of cultural exchange reciprocal? I.e., if Voltaire writes to you quoting Latin poets, do you feel obliged to respond in kind? What does it mean, for instance, that Voltaire uses Latin in so many letters to Frederick, and yet the prince never once uses Latin in return? Socially, the 41 respondents identified belong by-and-large to the same ‘elite’ categories of government or aristocracy, although there is a markedly greater presence of hommes de lettres (an ‘intellectual network’ that overlaps with the ‘social networks’ drawn from Procope) in this second list. See Table 3.

Table 3. Respondents with more than two Latin citations.

Table 3. Respondents with more than two Latin citations.

These are just some of the preliminary results we have begun to process in the context of a larger project on Voltaire’s culture of text re-use (including his penchant for ‘self-plagiarism’). As with most digital humanities projects, initial computational analyses don’t always produce ‘clean’ results, or cut-and-dried interpretations: some of the results have to be examined carefully, and some – as was the case for the grammarians and commentators mentioned above – will prove spurious or misleading. One begins asking one set of questions – can we identify Voltaire’s use of Latin and verify Besterman’s attributions – and end up with new ones: e.g., with whom did Voltaire use Latin, and how? Equally, we could extend these questions by examining other literary quotations, e.g., from French or Italian authors and by including other correspondence collections, comparing Diderot and Rousseau’s use of Latin, for instance, to that of Voltaire.

Ideally, this sort of experimental research approach also generates new research questions, ones that would have been difficult to frame outside of the digital environment. In this case, we were quickly confronted with the notion of what constitutes an instance of ‘re-use’ as opposed to an allusion or more oblique cultural reference. For example, our algorithm identified this passage from Cicero’s epistles:

‘Vale. CICERO BASILO S. Tibi gratulor, mihi gaudeo. te amo, tua tueor. a te amari et quid agas quidque agatur certior fieri volo…’

as a potential re-use employed by Voltaire in a letter to Marmontel from 1749:

‘Si vous recevez ma lettre ce soir, vous pourrez m’envoyer votre poulet pour m. de Richelieu, que je ferai partir sur le champ. Te amo, tua tueor, te diligo, te plurimum, &c.’ [5]

Is this re-use or not? Besterman makes no mention of Cicero in his annotation, but rather places this passage into a more generic class of ‘Roman epistolary formulas’. But perhaps there is more going on here; perhaps the model of Cicero’s epistles – central to the Jesuit syllabus – remains at the forefront of Voltaire’s mind when he himself is in the act of letter-writing. With the sorts of addressees for whom Voltaire uses Latin quotations he may likewise use a Ciceronian subscription. Here the Ciceronian model shapes Voltaire’s epistolary rhetoric.

Finally, pushing this line of enquiry a bit further, we came across another discovery: there are reduced versions of the passage, “Vale. Te amo”, which Voltaire uses extensively in the correspondence, and in particular with the social network of old school friends outlined above. This passage is in fact too small to be identified by our matching algorithms, and we would furthermore be a bit hard-pressed to classify it as a singularly Ciceronian borrowing. And yet…

– Nicholas Cronk and Glenn Roe

[1] See François de Dainville, L’Education des jésuites (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles) (Paris, Minuit, 1978).

[2] Voltaire, Siècle de Louis XIV, ‘Catalogue des écrivains’, OCV, vol.12.

[3] See Maria Teodora Comsa, Melanie Conroy, Dan Edelstein, Chloe Summers Edmondson, and Claude Willan, ‘The French Enlightenment Network’, The Journal of Modern History 88, no. 3 (September 2016): 495-534.

[4] [D17251]. Voltaire [François Marie Arouet], ‘Voltaire [François Marie Arouet] to Louise Honorine Crozat Du Châtel, duchesse de Choiseul [née Crozat]: Monday, 17 June 1771’. In Electronic Enlightenment Scholarly Edition of Correspondence, University of Oxford.

[5] [D3918]. Voltaire [François Marie Arouet], “Voltaire [François Marie Arouet] to Jean François Marmontel: Friday, 2 May 1749”, in Electronic Enlightenment Scholarly Edition of Correspondence, University of Oxford.