Paul Rapin Thoyras and the art of eighteenth-century historiography

As I type this, experts reach out to us by all means available, on Twitter and talk-shows, to explain the best course of actions to curb a worldwide pandemic. We, lay people of a society as interconnected and literate as ever, have to navigate the flow of information and distinguish the dubiously self-appointed experts from those who are adequately equipped to steer decision-making at both state and individual level.

Epidemiology and social media were light years away from Paul Rapin Thoyras, the expatriate Huguenot historian whose œuvre is at the centre of my book Paul Rapin Thoyras and the art of eighteenth-century historiography. Yet, in the early eighteenth century, scholars also debated about how to discern and acknowledge a certain kind of expertise: who could produce reliable historical accounts. I reconstruct Rapin’s crafting of the persona of a historian as an ‘expert’ who weighed all available evidence and eventually emitted a plausible verdict, which others could in turn take up and challenge. The book accounts for how history-writing earned Rapin a badge of membership in the Republic of Letters, a self-appointed community of scholars who strove to advance learning in all domains. Such a Republic had to juggle emerging media (the periodical journals); editorial formats (serializations, abridgements, popularizations); and writers (journalists, hack writers, editorial all-rounders) to steer the reception of printed works beyond a narrowly envisioned scholarly circle to an audience that was increasingly literate and hungry for historical accounts.

Chapters One and Two survey how skeptics at the turn of the eighteenth century doubted that history could be a magistra vitae as it had always been conceived: personal bias stood in the way of an impartial reconstruction and history-writing seemed unable to attain the allegedly unequivocal knowledge of physics and mathematics. Rapin drew his pen to fight the mounting skepticism and rehabilitate history-writing as a discipline of probable reconstructions. This resulted in what I call the Histoire-project: commented abridgments of English primary sources (1714-1725); an essay on the English political parties (1717); and the a ten-volume Histoire d’Angleterre (1724-1728) which represented the culmination of his twenty-year enterprise.

Rapin’s historiographical trials are put to test in Chapter Three, to see how his musings on the Anglo-Saxons or the disentanglement of the Popish Plot also responded to ongoing political and religious debates in England. Striving for impartiality did not – does not? – equate to being neutral in things political. Rapin thought of history-writing as a means to understand the deep-seated roots of present issues and advocate for religious toleration.

Rapin’s achievements were extraordinary, yet his strategies and ambitions were common within the Republic of Letters – as were his previous occupations as soldier and tutor, and his multiple displacements: to England, the Netherlands, and ultimately Germany. His personal trajectory thus illuminates how scholars reconsidered the boundaries of their community in the face of the booming printing industry and the interconnected growth of a readership among the general public (chapters Two and Four). Fellow scholars provided Rapin with primary sources, intellectual support and publicity in a common effort to make history-writing a worthy scholarly endeavour.

Paul Rapin Thoyras, Histoire d’Angleterre, 10 vols. (La Haye, A. de Rogissart, 1724-1727), vol.1, title page.

Chapter Four follows the many afterlives of Rapin’s œuvre – continuations, translations, adaptations – to show how knowledge of the past was becoming a ‘widespread cultural currency’ (see note below). The impact and spread of Rapin’s œuvre are further gauged through English political newspapers: Whig and Tory party-writers quarried the history written by a foreigner for their domestic political crossfire. The Histoire was thus brought from the royal and scholarly cabinets also to an audience assembled in coffee houses for their daily news. Commentators on opposing sides of the religious and political spectrum equally strove to guide lay readers’ reception of Rapin, criticizing his works either for being ‘too French’ (in England), ‘too Anglophile’ (in France), or even the product of a motley crew of Dutch pamphleteers. History, traditionally written by retired gentlemen for the edification of their peers, was turning into a popular reading genre; and the Republic of Letters felt compelled to mediate the unscholarly in approaching the past.

This guiding was boldly taken up by authors of Enlightenment narratives, who through history-writing traced the emergence of a modern society from a supposed state of barbarity. Rapin’s crafting of historical expertise is compared in Chapter Five with Hume’s and Voltaire’s histoires philosophiques. Both avid readers of Rapin, they brandished his erudition in their respective historiographical works but claimed an expertise decidedly beyond that of the Republic of Letters. While Rapin detected biased interpretations of events by previous historians, Hume and Voltaire detected the change of mankind through the eras to dispense cures for the evils of current society. The Enlightenment pair hoped to eventually dispel all traces of superstition and intolerance by offering their counselling at royal courts and by widely distilling their wisdom through printed matter.

Clio’s altar, the frontispiece of vol.1 of the Histoire d’Angleterre.

Praising Hume’s History of England – written to challenge Rapin’s – Voltaire admired how the Scotsman ‘talked of barbarity as if it were an epidemic disease’. I wonder how Hume and Voltaire would react at seeing superstitious knowledge about the current pandemic spreading at pandemic speed. Rapin might have spoken his mind clearly only within a restricted circle of friends or in private correspondence, while he would painstakingly weigh evidence in the public arena. Despite the increasing pace of print and scholarship, in Rapin’s view knowledge was still manageable by scholars through ink skirmishes. The same that earned him a place on Clio’s altar in the eighteenth century, and a cover in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series almost exactly 314 years after the signature of his contract for the Histoire d’Angleterre (23 December 1701).

Note: Daniel R. Woolf, ‘From hystories to the historical: five transitions in thinking about the past, 1500-1700’, Huntington Library quarterly 68:1-2 (2005), p.37.

–  Miriam Franchina (University of Trier)

Paul Rapin Thoyras and the art of eighteenth-century historiography is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

Launching CatCor: towards a digital edition of the letters of Catherine the Great

Catherine II by Fyodor Rokotov (1735-1808) after Alexander Roslin (1718-1793), Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg (Wikimedia Commons).

From the Washington Post to the London Times, Catherine the Great continues to make front page news. The reason? A letter. The subject? Immunization (already sensationally depicted in Season 1 of the television romp The Great). Writing in April 1787 to Count Piotr Rumiantsev, the governor-general of Ukraine, she advised him that one of his most important tasks was the ‘introduction of inoculation against smallpox, which, as is known, causes great harm, especially among the ordinary people’. A decade earlier the Empress had invited the English physician Thomas Dimsdale to St Petersburg to inoculate her, the heir Pavel Petrovich, and members of the court. The variolation technique, a type of immunization, proved successful and Dimsdale did not have to make use of the extraordinary provisions for escape Catherine had devised in the event of her death and an attack by a mob on the foreigners. Another aspect of Dimsdale’s legacy was a gift of Mr Thomas Anderson, sometimes mentioned in her correspondence. No Pretender to the Throne, Mr Tom was in fact her beloved English greyhound given to Catherine by the physician.

It is entirely typical of Catherine that below the headline topic she then goes on to give Rumiantsev detailed advice on how and whom to immunize and how to defray the cost by using local taxes. Catherine was the original micro-manager. She is also one of the most impressive letter-writers of the eighteenth century, an age when letters went global, sped all over continents thanks to new postal routes, and sent sailing across oceans by trading routes. She is comparable to other eighteenth-century ‘enlightened’ monarchs, especially Frederick II of Prussia, in producing an extensive epistolary output as both a tool of policy and a space for intellectual and personal engagement.  Catherine could do everything in a letter from charming a lover to planning a battle, from laying out a garden to playing realpolitik. Her correspondence contains strategic despatches to her generals, back-channelling diplomatic posts, swapping ideas with Voltaire and d’Alembert, point-scoring with Frederick the Great, and sparring with the sculptor Etienne Falconet about the design of the Bronze Horseman: she used her letters to formulate ideas and policies and to inform the world about her aspirations for Russia.

Catherine II, empress of Russia (d.1796), notes stated to be in her handwriting, undated, in French (fol.3). Bodleian Archives and Manuscripts catalogue MS. Montagu d. 20, fol.3. With thanks to Mike Webb of the Bodleian Libraries.

Her letters are of multi-faceted interest, providing a real-time and often blow-by-blow account of personal matters, affairs of state, aesthetics, and ideas, and covering the decades from her arrival as a bride in Russia in 1745 to her mustering of forces against the French Revolution in defence of Enlightenment and Absolutism. Early letters trace her involvement in a court conspiracy with the British ambassador Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams, and her letter about the putsch that put her on the throne – an absolute potboiler of a narration – remains a unique source on those events. She also understood that the artful projection of a civilized personality was itself a statement of cultural superiority. In a letter of 1772 she insinuated that her favourite Grigory Orlov’s cultural superiority would ensure his success at the Fokshani peace congress over the Ottomans: ‘Le comte Orlof, qui, sans exagération, est le plus bel homme de son temps, doit paraître réellement un ange vis-à-vis de ces rustres-là; sa suite est brillante et choisie, et mon ambassadeur ne hait point la magnificence ni l’éclat.’ Catherine needed to project her court’s strength and self-confidence, also manifested in civilised gaiety at Tsarskoe Selo: ‘Il est impossible d’être à la lettre d’une gaité plus folle et d’une folie plus sage que nous l’avons été.’

Count Grigory Orlov (1734-1783) by Fyodor Rokotov (Wikimedia Commons).

‘How many letters did Catherine write?’ is an obvious question and starting point. The best guesstimate is that close to 5,000 letters survive but the number might well rise to over 6,000 or on some accounts closer to 10,000. For reasons of dynastic politics, her letters were never properly collected into a scholarly edition. Many thousands of letters were published in batches or singly in the so-called Russian ‘thick journals’ in the second half of the nineteenth century and are scattered across more than 120 publications and therefore hard to use. To this day there is no definitive inventory of the correspondence. Bright spots have been editions of separate correspondences.  Properly edited collections include letters to Voltaire, Potemkin, de Ligne, and Gustave III of Sweden which have appeared in the past 20 years in French and Russian.  These are just the tip of the iceberg. In English, Kelsey Rubin-Detlev and I have produced a translated anthology, the first of its kind in any language, that can also work as a history of the reign and biography through letters (see also here). Nonetheless, because of their dispersal and inaccessibility, the letters are insufficiently appreciated and remain underused. The solution to the problem of accessing, reading, searching, and using this unique correspondence seemed to lie through the new resources of the Digital Age.

Some years ago, Kelsey Rubin-Detlev and I embarked on a project we dubbed CatCor, officially known as the Digital Correspondence of Catherine the Great. With several rounds of funding, the project advanced from an initial phase to the pilot being launched thanks to the dedication of a great team of research assistants and the expertise of our digital advisers. With nearly 1,100 letters fully marked up, CatCor now contains a critical mass of letters as well as much annotation. Her letters often move fast and are dense with information. As part of its scholarly utility, CatCor includes a new apparatus of editorial notes that facilitates the perusal of the letters with hyperlinks glossing names, places, events and objects mentioned in the correspondence. The pilot database provides new annotations on the letters and the visualization in the map can also generate lists of letters by place. It is possible to browse and filter letters by people, places, events, and objects mentioned.

There is also the sheer delight of browsing through a single correspondence. In this pilot containing a cross-section of letters from her reign, readers can take in virtually the entire set of letters Catherine wrote to Falconet, while extensively sampling the letters she wrote to Grimm, of a very different character stylistically and thematically. CatCor also also provides the most extensive and only inventory of letters with open access links to the print sources. This display of metadata (listed in the Calendar function), the first list of its kind ever to have been done, gives a good idea of the remaining work needed to achieve a comprehensive digital edition. We hope that CatCor will contribute to a new discussion of the perennially troublesome tension between theory and practice in Catherine’s engagement with the values of the European Enlightenment.

Please come and take a look.

And please let us have your feedback.

Andrew Kahn (e-mail)

Marketing Voltaire: Tobias Smollett and the first edition of Voltaire’s works in English translation

Authors – or rather authorial brand names – sell books. They also sell translations. From the 1730s onwards, the name ‘Voltaire’ was well enough known in England to ensure that translations of his work were many and various, even if their reception was mixed. By the 1760s, as the prefatory Advertisement in The Works of Mr de Voltaire suggests, Voltaire’s reputation across Europe and the sheer quantity and complexity of his writings made a ‘complete and regular translation’ of his works an attractive prospect for booksellers. It was also an ambitious and risky one.

Tobias Smollett (unknown artist, c.1770, National Portrait Gallery).

The circumstances of Smollett’s involvement in the project are unclear. Unlike Voltaire, he did not oblige posterity by leaving a voluminous correspondence. However, the ‘learned Doctor Smollett’, as he was wryly dubbed, was an obvious choice as editor. He was a successful novelist and historian, as well as the translator of Gil Blas and Don Quixote. Crucially, as founding editor of the Critical Review, he was also an influential literary ‘gate-keeper’ in the London book business. The lustre of the Smollett name on the title page beneath that of Voltaire would maximise the prestige and credibility of the initiative and reduce the risks. It seems probable that Smollett was approached by the conger of seven booksellers whose names appear in all the volumes of the first edition. If that was indeed the case, their gamble paid off handsomely. A second edition of volume 1 followed hard on the heels of the first, of which few copies survive, suggesting that demand quickly outstripped the booksellers’ expectations. Some volumes appeared in as many as 6 editions by 1781, while further translations claiming to extend the edition were published well after Smollett’s death in 1771. To this day, however, the 36 volumes of The Works of Mr. de Voltaire published between 1761 and 1769 are commonly called the ‘Smollett edition’.

Title page of volume 1 of the second edition, which appears as vol.1 in most sets of the 1st edition.

As anyone familiar with the Voltaire Foundation will know, the production of Voltaire’s collected works, translated or otherwise, is a vast collaborative enterprise. And Smollett was no Besterman. He was neither the prime mover, nor the sole editor of the edition. Nor did he claim to be. In a letter to an American admirer in 1763 he admitted only to ‘a small part of the translation’, while his editorial notes in the 19 volumes of prose works that he oversaw suggest that his enthusiasm for ‘our author’, as he called Voltaire, was (at best) qualified. Although the title page in volume 1 of the 1761 edition attributes it solely to ‘Dr. Smollet [sic], and others’, by volume 2, the name T. Smollet, M.D. is joined by that of T. Francklin, M.A., one of the four ‘gentlemen of approved abilities’ who had worked with Smollett to launch the Critical Review. According to Eugène Joliat, the editors worked independently, and The Works of Mr de Voltaire were divided into two sets of volumes: Smollett took on the prose works, Francklin, a minor dramatist and successful translator, oversaw the set devoted to plays and poetry. But the active involvement of both men ceased in 1763, long before the first edition was completed.

The ‘Smollett edition’, therefore, is something of a misnomer. But that is not to belittle Smollett’s active editorial contribution. In a letter to Richard Smith, a month before he left for France in June 1763, Smollett indignantly declares himself ‘mortified’ by the rumour that he had merely lent his name to booksellers: ‘a species of Prostitution of which I am altogether incapable’. The charge was repeated, however, in the Monthly Review the following October in a bilious critique of the enterprise by William Kenrick, who had a score to settle with ‘the forehorse in the team of dulness’. ‘Poor’ Voltaire, lamented Kenrick, was the ‘mangled and expiring victim’ of ‘unknown and desperate bravoes’ whose intertextual butchery was endorsed by ‘men of character’ ready to make ‘a strange, and most illiberal sacrifice to Mammon’.

Monthly Review, October 1763.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle ground. Despite his success, Smollett was perennially short of money and doubtless exacted a substantial reward for his services from the booksellers. Moreover, he took care to distance himself from the translations themselves. But, as Chau Le-Thanh has shown, the copious ‘notes historical and critical’ in 19 volumes of the prose works are certainly his, and his role as editor (perhaps Francklin’s too) probably extended beyond that. Alexander Carlyle, describing a meeting with Smollett in 1758, hints at a possible scenario. He found Smollett in a coffee house among ‘minions to whom he prescribed tasks of translation, compilation, or abridgement, which, after he had seen, he recommended to the booksellers’.  It seems likely that Smollett turned to this atelier of ‘understrappers [and] journeymen’, as he describes them in Humphry Clinker, and set them to work on the laborious ‘business of book-making’ involved in this complex translation project.

Pages 5-6 of the Advertisement to the ‘Smollett’ edition (2nd edition).

Booksellers are not alone in being attracted by the aura of an author’s name. Scholars are similarly beguiled. Interest in the so-called ‘Smollett’ edition has come almost entirely from the field of English Studies and focuses primarily on Smollett’s part in it. Voltaireans have largely echoed Kenrick’s undifferentiated disdain for texts not penned by ‘their’ author. This is a missed opportunity. The edition is a remarkable example of ‘multiple translatorship’, and it was very successful throughout the eighteenth century and beyond. Its aim, as the Advertisement tell us, was not simply to assemble translations, but to ‘correct’, ‘elucidate’ and ‘explain’. The texts, peritexts and long afterlife of The Works of Mr de Voltaire have much to tell us about how Voltaire’s œuvre was represented, re-presented, and received by generations of English readers who wanted and needed to discover ‘Voltaire’ in their own tongue.

Adrienne Mason