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.

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