A publishing challenge – the metamorphosis of a major work

Every project in the Complete Works of Voltaire corpus seems to have its own special features that make it not quite fit into the mould of what has gone before. Our team meetings ring to the sounds of editors wailing ‘But this is different !’ The principles that have served us well over the 50-year duration of the project have had to be agile and adaptable to cover the astonishing range of genres and styles covered by Voltaire.

Histoire de la guerre de 1741

Histoire de la guerre de 1741, Amsterdam 1755 (left: Bnf, Paris; right: Bodley, Oxford)

Even by the standards of the Voltaire Foundation, though, the Précis du siècle de Louis XV presents a unique challenge because of its complex genesis. Much of the material in the chapters of the Précis which cover the War of the Austrian Succession was first written by Voltaire for his Histoire de la guerre de 1741, a project enthusiastically started when he was appointed as historiographe de France in the 1740s. He never published it himself (though it was published, supposedly unofficially, and at least twice, in 1755), but rewrote and integrated large parts of it in his ambitious universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs. Later, he separated the material on Louis XIV (to become the Siècle de Louis XIV) and Louis XV, and the Précis (which was by this time not really a précis) became a work in its own right in 1769, with later chapters added in the 1770s to take account of, amongst other things, the king’s unexpected death in 1774.

Essay sur l’histoire générale

Essay sur l’histoire générale, [Geneva], 1756 (Bodley, Oxford)

This genesis means that the collation and presentation of variants is different from what we usually do. Our usual process goes something like this:

  1. Select a work by Voltaire
  2. Assess the different editions and manuscripts of the work and choose the most appropriate base text (for example, the version that was last overseen by Voltaire, or sometimes the first edition, or else the edition that was most widely read during his lifetime).
  3. Collate significant textual variants from other editions and manuscripts against the base text and present them neatly at the foot of the page.

Sometimes (particularly for example in the theatrical corpus) the variant versions are too divergent from the base text to be presented on the same page, and so in such cases we would print whole scenes or sections as an appendix, with a reference on the relevant page of the base text to direct the reader to where this material could be found.

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe. Laurent Cars after François Lemoyne (BnF, Réserve QB-201 (170, 9)-FT 4). By kind permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In the case of the Guerre/Précis project, though, it was clear that we were dealing with not one but (at least) two separate works. The remit of the Précis is much wider than the War of the Austrian Succession, the primary focus of the Guerre. Not to mention what we might call the Essai sur les mœurs stage in the middle, where the titles are dispensed with but the material is reused and moved around to create a narrative that fits into the wider universal history.

We decided early on that the Guerre needed therefore to be treated as a separate text, and, for the first time in a collection of Voltaire’s complete works, it is published in full. This has avoided some horrendous complexities of page layout had we tried to show all the Guerre material as variants to the Précis, as well as the awkwardness of chopping it up into gobbets for appendices. Being able to read the Guerre in its entirety allows the reader a richer understanding of this little-known and underrated text as well as of how it fits into the context of the Précis project. It has also allowed us to separate the manuscripts relating to the composition of the Guerre from those which relate specifically to the Précis, and to present variants from these in the most appropriate context.

However, it has meant that the overlap between the material in the Guerre and that of the Précis has to be shown in other ways. We decided to adopt the method of lightly shading passages in the Guerre to show when there is textual overlap between that text and the later Précis text. This has had the great advantage of showing the reader at a glance the scale of the reuse of this material, as well as allowing us to concentrate in greater detail on the text that is unique to the Guerre. For the shaded sections, readers are referred to the annotation of the Précis, whereas the unique Guerre text is annotated in full in that volume. As Voltaire edited the text as he reused it, we have ignored small differences in phrasing for the purposes of this exercise (see image for example) – but it does sometimes throw into relief small amendments made during the reuse process, for example, deciding to name someone, or amending figures of battlefield casualties etc. in response to new information.

Histoire de la Guerre de 1741 / Précis du siècle de Louis XV

Above: Histoire de la Guerre de 1741, ch.24, l.264-69. Below: Précis du siècle de Louis XV, ch.26, l.78-83.

This decision necessitated another choice: should we shade only the material that was used in our base text of the Précis (Voltaire’s revised 1775 edition, amended by him shortly before his death in anticipation of a new version of his complete works), or should we include all the material that was taken forward from the Guerre, through the Essai and early standalone Précis editions, even if it was subsequently deleted? After discussion with the general editors, it was decided in the end that in the Guerre it was important to distinguish between what Voltaire reused, and what was only ever used in the Guerre. This means that not all the highlighted text will be found in the base text of our edition of the Précis – much of it can be found instead in the variants. The critical thing is that all the shaded text is accounted for and commented on in our edition of the Précis (OCV, vols.29A and 29B).

The Histoire de la guerre de 1741, OCV, vol.29C, publishing in October 2020, completes the three-volume set of the Précis du Siècle de Louis XV, with volumes 29A and 29B published earlier in the year, the general editors being Janet Godden and James Hanrahan.

Alison Oliver

Voltaire and Choiseul: the ever-evolving French diplomacy of 1759-1760

Louis XV, by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1748)

Louis XV, by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1748).

In May 1759 king Frederick II of Prussia sent Voltaire a poem disdaining the French king Louis XV (see Mémoires pour servir à la vie de Monsieur de Voltaire, OCV, vol.45C, p.439) and insulting his favorite, Mme de Pompadour. The Cabinet noir, empowered to read letters, informed the concerned parties, and Voltaire’s position with the French court was suddenly at stake. In a conciliatory effort, instead of waiting for lightning to strike him, Voltaire sent the poem to the duc de Choiseul, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was protected by Pompadour.

Madame de Pompadour as Diana, by Jean-Luc Nattier (1746)

Madame de Pompadour as Diana, by Jean-Luc Nattier (1746).

Choiseul responded in kind, sending a poem ridiculing the Prussian sovereign, with a threat to publish it should Frederick disclose his to the public (D8270; part of the poem is in Mémoires, p.441). This was an invitation: either to encourage a war of words between Frederick and Choiseul, or to mediate between Prussia and France. Thus was born a utilitarian relationship, whereby Voltaire shared Frederick’s messages with the minister, suggested diplomatic actions in line with Choiseul’s policies, and, most importantly, applauded Choiseul’s every move to the public.

In response Choiseul could tactfully disseminate specific ideas of his ministry by merely corresponding with the philosophe. Because of the fame they each enjoyed, they both understood that their relationship was not entirely private, but their exchanges benefited from a veil of intimate friendship. Therefore, when salons passed around copies of Voltaire’s letters, or when Choiseul’s responses ‘accidentally’ found themselves in the hands of peers, both could retreat into the légèreté that characterized Choiseul’s ministry. Choiseul used this to his advantage to navigate the tumultuous seas of the Seven Years’ War.

Summer 1759

The first exchanges between Choiseul and Voltaire present a spunky star minister possessing shameless confidence. He responds to Frederick’s verses by calling him a coward, too insignificant to be noticed by the big players of the European arena. On top of his brazenness, he explicitly leaves Voltaire the choice of transmitting his thoughts back to the enemy. Keen to claim a sense of privacy in his correspondence, the minister nonetheless wastes no time in showing his anger over Frederick’s poetry to the Austrian ambassador.

Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul, by Louis-Michel van Loo (1763)

Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul, by Louis-Michel van Loo (1763).

Choiseul’s words were not, in fact,  spontaneous or innocent. Throughout the spring of 1759 Choiseul had worked hard to inspire faith in the new alliance on both the French and Austrian sides, to convince the Austrian administration of his goodwill, and finally to ratify the new defensive treaty between France and Austria to protect against Prussian aggression on the continent. In the same vein, in his letter of 6 July 1759 (D8387) he tactfully asks Voltaire to share Frederick’s letters with the Russian ambassador to reveal Frederick’s vulgar comments on the czarina. Two days later he also sends a memoir to his ambassador to St Petersburg in which he justifies the need for more Russian involvement in the war, possibly as a mediator for peace. Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria and czarina Elizaveta of all the Russias shared a healthy diplomatic relationship, due to their common interest in crushing Prussia. Very much aware of this, Choiseul wanted to show his support for their alliance, for the continental war, and for Russia’s growing role on the European scene. The minister used these spontaneous events and the genuineness of correspondence between friends to emphasize his diplomatic commitments.

Autumn 1759

Frederick the Great, by Antoine Pesne (1757)

Frederick the Great, by Antoine Pesne (1757).

In his letter of 12 November of the same year (D8588) Choiseul recognizes, with optimism, the many obstacles impeding French diplomacy. News of the loss of Québec had reached France by then. He quotes the proverb placed as a motto over his door by his relative Henri-Louis de Choiseul, marquis de Meuse, ‘A force d’aller mal tout ira bien’, before sneering at his favorite target, the Prussian princeling. The minister makes more explicit links between France, Austria, and Russia, likening them to doctors curing Europe of war while Prussia is merely a soothsayer. By focusing on the continental war in his semi-public correspondence, he purposefully aligns all three powers to the eyes of the public. His growing ties with the Spanish court and his concerns for the maritime war against England are carefully omitted. Indeed, on 10 August 1759 king Carlos III ascended to the Spanish throne, advocating for a strong alliance with France and for firm defence against English sea power. The French ambassador always at his side, his plans for the Bourbon Family Pact were soon under way, much to Vienna’s dismay. Taking great care not to cause waves in the fragile Austrian alliance, Choiseul uses the cover of a friendly letter to underline his pro-Austrian and pro-Russian position on the European continent.

Winter 1759-1760

Come December, all of this has changed. Not only has France lost Québec, but the French invasion of England had been a complete, and very costly, disaster. Thankfully on 27 November England and Prussia proposed a peace congress to all belligerent parties. On 20 December  (D8666) Choiseul jokes to Voltaire about signing a peace treaty and claims France’s only quarrel is with England. Spain is boldly mentioned, and the additional risk taken of saying how war on the continent does not interest the king’s cabinet. The French minister is indirectly striking back at the request by Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Kaunitz that France forget about her maritime war and focus solely on supporting Austria. Choiseul has decided to make his distance from Austrian interests clear in this letter. Peace has become his only concern, and he actively solicits his ambassadors to Russia, Denmark, Holland and Spain in the hopes of finding a mediating power. In a letter of 14 January (D8708) the minister brags about France having the power to crush Prussia, whose only hope for survival would be a peace treaty. From his perspective, only Prussia’s enemies or his allies can make peace, not France. The duke makes his terms for peace very clear in the letter, arguing for no territorial gain on France’s behalf. While he continues to bash Frederick II with his usual panache, by winter his intentions have changed radically: instead of criticizing Frederick to show his engagement with Austria, he now ridicules the sovereign in the hopes he will realize how much Europe needs peace.

In eighteenth-century Europe, much like today, figures like Voltaire offered their fame as a channel through which savvy politicians could run their public relations. With his early letters Choiseul plugs the many holes causing the Austrian alliance to sink, portraying a unified continental alliance system that laughs in the face of German princelings. Later the minister advocates for peace on every front, formal or informal, diplomatic or social, making a point to open the way towards negotiation without pointing fingers. The recurrent coincidence in timing between his letters and news from the different battle fronts make clear the moments when Choiseul reached certain conclusions about his diplomatic strategy, and when he put them into action.

The ‘war of poems’ is discussed, with some questions about the accuracy of Voltaire’s account, in Choiseul et Voltaire: d’après les lettres inédites du duc de Choiseul à Voltaire, edited by Pierre Calmettes (Paris, 1902), p.7f. Not all the letters mentioned have survived. Those that have are available in Voltaire, Correspondence and related documents, ed. Th. Besterman, and Electronic Enlightenment, identified by D and the letter number.

Aliénor Sauvage

The Digitizing Enlightenment ‘twitterstorm’ of 3 August 2020

This past week our publication partner, Liverpool University Press, shipped out copies of Digitizing Enlightenment: digital humanities and the transformation of eighteenth-century studies, edited by Simon Burrows and Glenn Roe, the July volume of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

Rousseau’s Premier Discours

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Rousseau’s Premier Discours, on the question ‘Si le rétablissement des sciences et des arts a contribué à épurer les mœurs’.

To help launch this important book, on Monday 3 August Burrows and Roe, joined by Melanie Conroy, one of the contributors, organized a ‘twitterstorm’, inviting dix-huitiémistes working on digital humanities projects of any sort to post links of their work on Twitter, tagged with #DigitizingEnlightenment.

Over the course of 48 hours stretching from first light Sunday morning in eastern Australia to midnight Monday night on the Pacific coast of the United States, 112 unique tweets were posted from 28 accounts. The sequence of posts may be read, in reverse chronological order, here.

To enlighten and enliven the discussion, and in the spirit of eighteenth-century intellectual exchange, the Voltaire Foundation sponsored a competition, asking for the most creative and thoughtful response to the question: ‘Has the rise of  #dh been a boon or a barrier to #C18 studies?’

Twelve individuals posted responses, and the jury – consisting of Burrows, Roe and Conroy – deploying a sophisticated algorithm, ranked the entries and identified three runners-up and two winners.

The three runners-up were:

Helen Williams


As a first-gen scholar in the North East teaching & researching at a post-92 institution, #DigitizingEnlightenment is a boon, making the #18thcentury accessible & bringing diverse new voices, projects & approaches to scholarship & study. Many of us wouldn’t be here without it.

– Helen Williams (@helen189) August 3, 2020

Bryan Banks


Really excited to see this book come out!@SimonBu86342933 @glennhroe @MelanieConroy1 put the #DH in 𝐝ix-𝐡uitiemistes.

Today’s organized hashtag #DigitizingEnlightenment, like much DH work more broadly, makes the #18thC more legible and accessible to us today./1 https://t.co/IajlYLtPWk

– Bryan Banks (@BryanBanksPhD) August 3, 2020

Russell Goulbourne


Definitely a boon – because it’s the #DH analysis of huge numbers of texts that allows us to see that it’s precisely in the 1760s, at the height of the Enlightenment, that boon comes to mean “a benefit enjoyed”. QED. #DigitizingEnlightenment

– Russell Goulbourne (@FrenchProfessor) August 3, 2020

And now the winners:

Chad Wellmon

As Kant wrote 200+ years ago, DH has been a boon to #C18 studies. It’s a no-brainer @VoltaireOxford: “It is so easy to be immature. If I have a [computer] that has understanding for me, surely I do not need to trouble myself.” I. Kant, “An Answer to the Question ‘What is DH?’” https://t.co/wIGQJDT7p4

– chad wellmon (@cwellmon) August 3, 2020


Megan K. Roberts

I hate to be the lone skeptic, but I am concerned about the influence of #DH and #DigitizingEnlightenment on the field. Some projects are wonderful for research and teaching, but I worry that others place too much emphasis on an extremely select group of French philosophes.

– Meghan Roberts (@MeghanKRoberts) August 3, 2020


Both winners received copies of Digitizing Enlightenment as well as OSE’s June 2019 title, another volume of essays which deployed digital humanities methods to study the eighteenth century, Networks of Enlightenment, edited by Chloe Edmonston and Dan Edelstein.

As a supplement to the printed books, the data visualizations, tables and figures, as well as a portion of the text for each of these two volumes, are accessible on open access on the OSE ‘Digital Collaboration Hub’, built on the Manifold Scholar platform and hosted by Liverpool University Press. These may be accessed, appropriately, at http://digitizingenlightenment.com

Thanks to all who participated – and we all hope to be able to renew the annual ‘Digitizing Enlightenment’ symposium in July 2021, to be hosted at the University of Montpellier, in the context of the ‘Enquête sur la globalisation des Lumières’ initiative.

– Gregory S. Brown

NB: For the month of August, copies of Digitizing Enlightenment are available for purchase at a 25% discount. Purchasers in North America may order from the OUP-Global site using the code “DISTRO25” and purchasers anywhere else in the world, including UK, Europe and Australia,  may order from the LUP site using the code “DIGITIZING25“.

Free thinking in secret

We all have secret thoughts which are occasionally betrayed by an unexpected gesture, an uncontrolled facial expression, a peculiar lapsus… which express at an awkward moment precisely what we wanted, or were supposed, to hide. All the secret services of all political regimes rely on that kind of clue to detect clandestine dissidents. But even if we are not all revolutionary rebels or terrorists, the simple conventions of everyday sociability make us very conscious of the necessity of self-censorship and the constraints bearing on the public sphere and even on mundane conversation. When we perceive signs of divergence in others, we judge them according to circumstances and quickly make a feasible interpretation – which may remain secret…

The execution of Anne Du Bourg at the Place de Grève

The execution of Anne Du Bourg at the Place de Grève.

It does not seem to me to be totally extravagant to imagine the birth and spread of free thought in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries on the same model. We know that there existed in France a strict system of censorship, that the punishments inflicted on free thinkers were drastic and that the Bastille, the Vincennes dungeon and the place de Grève (where executions were carried out) were well-known to careless or reckless writers and booksellers. In this context, can we not expect free thought to have found expression in subtle and ambiguous texts addressed to an élite of intellectual accomplices? Isn’t it obvious that texts of that period should be read “between the lines” if one is to discover the undercover coherence and the true intention of the author?

Clandestine manuscripts at the Mazarine library

Clandestine manuscripts at the Mazarine library.

The proceedings of the conference organised at the Mazarine library on The Secret Thoughts of Academicians: Fontenelle and his fellow-members – published in the latest number of the periodical La Lettre clandestine (Paris, Garnier: no 28, 2020)  – assume a positive answer to that question.

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle by Nicolas de Largillière

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle by Nicolas de Largillière.

There were indeed many  Academicians who secretly contributed to the spread of free thought: Fontenelle, Lévesque de Pouilly and his brother Lévesque de Burigny, Fréret, Terrasson, the abbé de Saint-Pierre, Voltaire, Montesquieu, D’Alembert, Mirabaud, Naigeon are here studied in depth, as are the conditions of censorship and the circulation of clandestine manuscripts among specialised booksellers and the critical judgement on them offered by Louis Racine, the cardinal de Bernis and by the journalists of the Society of Jesus. A good number of clandestine manuscripts – and in particular those that belonged to the family of Mme Du Châtelet, identified by Maria Susana Seguin – are now kept at the Mazarine Library in Paris.

Jacques-André Naigeon by Fragonard

Jacques-André Naigeon by Fragonard. (Getty Images / The Bridgeman Art Library)

Rather than resume too briefly the many articles published here, I would like to offer a short reflection – based on recent research by Gianluca Mori – on the approach to reading and interpretation that they suggest and on the coherence of the history of free thought of which they give us a glimpse. The historian Oskar Kristeller used to claim that the reputation of Italian scholars of the 16th and 17th centuries as unbelievers and atheists was a false retrospective view of the Paduan professors imposed by French scholars whose historical vision was distorted by their interest in the 18th-century Enlightenment. Despite research published by Jean-Pierre Cavaillé, this thesis – which excludes any covert intention on the part of Cremonini and Pomponazzi in particular – was maintained by the American scholar Richard Popkin in his works on La Mothe Le Vayer, and has more recently been theorised by the Cambridge professor Quentin Skinner.

Nicolas Fréret, Lettre de Thrasybule à Leucippe (Mazarine: ms. 1193-4)

Nicolas Fréret, Lettre de Thrasybule à Leucippe (Mazarine: ms. 1193-4)

However, it obviously imposes very narrow limits on any enquiry concerning authors of the modern period (16th-18th century): since these authors publicly declare their orthodox opinions, tainted by skepticism and fideism, it becomes impossible to suspect them of entertaining heterodox convictions or of being the authors of anti-Christian writings. To my mind, this prejudice is blown apart as we read the articles devoted to Fontenelle and his colleagues: the modern period is marked by the abyss between public and private life, between professions of faith and philosophical convictions. As is demonstrated by the research of Jean-Pierre Cavaillé on “libertinism”, of Alain Mothu on Bonaventure des Périers and of Gianluca Mori on Guy Patin, and as is made manifest by Molière’s comedies and Pierre Bayle’s published works, the Academicians were heirs to a long tradition of dis/simulation. The cat is now out of the bag.

– Antony McKenna