Clementi and the woman at the piano

Erin Helyard’s Clementi and the woman at the piano is the June volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book explores how Clementi afforded female pianists a new and radical style of performance. In this blog post, Erin Helyard discusses this new publication, Clementi’s career, and the impact Clementi had in creating a new kind of keyboard music. 

Clementi and the woman at the piano: virtuosity and the marketing of music in eighteenth-century London looks at the works and activities of a composer you probably know. If you’re a pianist, you’ve probably played him. If you’re the parent of an aspiring pianist, you’ve probably heard him. If you’ve ever waited on a telephone line to be connected, you’ve probably experienced him as background music. He is arguably one of the most played and popular composers for the piano ever: Muzio Clementi. But it is only his Progressive Sonatinas (Op. 36, 1797) that have remained in the repertoire, choice pieces for beginners and ‘heard’ widely as hold music on the telephone.

Few non-musicians today would know his name, however, despite Clementi receiving widespread and international fame during his lifetime as a composer, performer, and entrepreneur of considerable repute. Previously quite rare, the piano only began to grow in popularity in Clementi’s youth in the 1770s. It was widespread and considerably more technically advanced at the height of Clementi’s career in the 1780s and 1790s. Clementi thus started out as a harpsichordist but ended up being lauded as the ‘Father of the Pianoforte’. His piano and music publishing company, Clementi & Co, was one of the largest music businesses in the world and was at the forefront of a rapidly changing piano technology.

His career not only straddles the emergence and dominance of the piano but also other important changes in musical culture. Most notably among these is a rise in female pianism. The market for keyboard music was overwhelmingly female, and Clementi’s music presents them with new – and controversial – challenges. Another feature arises during Clementi’s career: the so-called ‘work-concept’. After 1800, composers write works destined for repeat performance, and musical notation and performance practice emphasise that the performer should play ‘as if from the soul of the composer’, to quote a contemporary, and not improvise or otherwise alter the text, as had been commonplace for centuries when notation was less prescriptive.

Aleksander Orlowski, ‘Portrait of an Italian Composer Muzio Clementi’, black chalk and sanguine (1810).

Together with the rise of the work-concept and the conceptual separation of composer and performer, we also witness a consequent rupture of musical and commercial aesthetics. In Enlightenment culture, commercial success was often equated with artistic success, but in the Romantic era commercial success was increasingly viewed with suspicion. Clementi’s career is thus in many respects a perfect case study for the tensions between Enlightenment thinking and new Romantic ideologies.

Before Clementi the ideology of domestic Enlightenment keyboard culture in England was essentially one of galant ease, gracefulness, and pleasantness. This music was ideally meant to be sight-readable (or at least performable after a couple of lessons) and difficulty was disdained as pretentious, unnecessary and – for some conservative, religious-minded writers – dangerous. Professional keyboard players working in the 1770s and before were for the most part male composer/performers whose virtuosity (sanctioned in this case by their gender and profession) goes generally unrecorded in works that were printed for the keyboard (and overwhelmingly female) market.

Clementi’s 6 Sonatas for Piano Forte or Harpsichord (Op. 2, 1779) is a springboard for discussion in this monograph. Op. 2 goes against all the established norms. This was the work that secured him the title ‘Father of the Pianoforte’, and commentators regularly mentioned it in their assessments of Clementi’s achievements. Clementi dramatically interposes three accompanied sonatas that conform to prevailing notions of taste (easy, sight-readable, and galant) with three solo sonatas, ‘crammed … [with] passages so peculiar and difficult’, as a contemporary noted. Any compelling performance of these sonatas demands a level of dedicated practice that far exceeds traditional standards. In one bold stroke, Clementi has created a new kind of keyboard music.

Furthermore, he does so in a set of six sonatas that calls attention to the difference between a prevailing printed keyboard culture and another more revolutionary one. The difficult sonatas allow other, mostly female, performers to partake in a virtuosity that had previously remained an undocumented (and hence unrepeatable) affair, practised amongst a small class of male specialists. Importantly, it affords female players a new kind of musical expression and experience, radically different from the deliberately simple, beautiful, and artless music that had up to this point dominated publications destined for their consumption.

Clementi and the woman at the piano maps the social, musical, and gendered implications of technically difficult music, and attempts to underline and discuss important changes in Enlightenment culture and keyboard practice. Along the way, we re-assess Clementi’s reputation, discuss Clementi’s influence on the emerging idea of the autonomous work-concept, and attempt to reassess Clementi’s ‘virtuosity’ in a way that might help us understand its widespread popularity, currency, and agency.

Clementi’s ‘virtuosity’ and career as a businessman have dogged him in particularly unfair ways. These attitudes generally feed off Mozart’s jealous and racially charged commentary about Clementi, slights that emanated from Mozart when he came off rather bruised from an unexpectedly competitive musical encounter with Clementi in Vienna in 1781. This monograph reviews Mozart’s assessment of Clementi and shows that not all in the Mozart family shared Mozart’s negative assessment of Clementi’s works and playing style.

The book is complemented by a website with complete world premiere recordings by the author of the Op. 2 sonatas, both in their original 1779 format on a Kirckman harpsichord of the period, and then in their revised 1807 version from Vienna, on a replica of a Graf piano from the early nineteenth century. All the musical examples have also been recorded on period instruments.

– Erin Helyard (Artistic Director of the award-winning Pinchgut Opera in Sydney, Australia)

This post first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

Gibbon et Voltaire: une rencontre fortuite?

Compte-rendu de l’ouvrage: Béla Kapossy et Béatrice Lovis (dir.), Edward Gibbon et Lausanne. Le Pays de Vaud à la rencontre des Lumières européennes, Gollion, Infolio, 2022

Dans le cénacle restreint des spécialistes du XVIIIe siècle peu sont ceux qui ignorent le rôle fondamental qu’a joué la ville suisse de Lausanne dans l’évolution intellectuelle de l’historien Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) et dans le parachèvement de son œuvre magistrale: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 vol., 1776-1788).

Par suite d’une conversion inopinée au catholicisme lors de ses années de formation à Oxford, le père du jeune Edward Gibbon décide de placer son fils sous le patronage d’un exigeant précepteur lausannois Daniel Pavillard (1703-1775), afin de lui faire retrouver le chemin de la foi anglicane.

A partir des années 1730, les étudiants étrangers deviennent nombreux à Lausanne, ville réputée pour la beauté de ses paysages et pour son académie huguenote du Refuge. La cité vaudoise, alors sous le contrôle de Berne, offre en prime un cadre politique extrêmement stable, ce qui la distingue de sa voisine Genève, périodiquement perturbée par des troubles politiques. Les précepteurs lausannois accueillent de nombreux élèves de marque, comme le comte de Lippe-Detmold. Lausanne fait dès lors partie de la crème des réseaux d’éducation internationaux européens. Une autre particularité qui distingue Lausanne de sa capitale bernoise ou de la cité de Calvin est la présence d’une noblesse oisive. Comme le rappelle l’historienne Danièle Tosato-Rigo (p. 74) l’existence d’une noblesse lausannoise garantissait que les jeunes étrangers de marque pouvaient acquérir des mœurs bourgeoises et fréquenter les cercles convenant à leur rang aristocratique.

Béla Kapossy et Béatrice Lovis (dir.), Edward Gibbon et Lausanne. Le Pays de Vaud à la rencontre des Lumières européennes (Gollion: InFolio, 2022).

C’est sur les trois séjours de Gibbon à Lausanne, les années d’apprentissage (1753-1758), l’étape du Grand Tour (1763-1764) et la retraite studieuse pour terminer le Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1763-1764) que revient l’ouvrage remarquable publié sous la direction de Béla Kapossy et de Béatrice Lovis: Edward Gibbon et Lausanne. Le Pays de Vaud à la rencontre des Lumières européennes. Comme Béla Kapossy le démontre dans l’article ‘Gibbon et les historiens lausannois’ (pp. 107-15), les années de formation lausannoises furent essentielles pour l’émergence d’une méthode historiographique chez le jeune Gibbon. Hasard de l’histoire, c’est aussi à Lausanne que Gibbon découvre et se familiarise avec le théâtre. Or il est également attiré par la personnalité de Voltaire dont il fréquente la propriété de Mon-Repos où le dramaturge organise ses représentations.

J’aimerais insister ici sur le rôle que joua Voltaire pour Gibbon, comme lointain mentor, pour son introduction à l’art théâtral et pour sa réflexion sur l’écriture de l’histoire. Comme l’illustrent les nombreux articles de l’ouvrage collectif Edward Gibbon et Lausanne, la ville vaudoise créa les conditions cadre pour l’émergence d’un laboratoire cosmopolite de la pensée des Lumières.

Gustave Courbet, Coucher de soleil sur le Léman, 1874, huile sur toile, 54.5 x 65.4 cm, musée Jenisch, Vevey.

En 1755, lorsqu’il arrive sur les bords du Lac Léman et s’installe pour l’hiver dans la propriété du Grand-Montriond entre Lausanne et Ouchy, Voltaire cherche également une retraite studieuse. De nature entreprenante, l’homme de lettres ne décrit pas les coteaux lémaniques comme un lieu de repli mais bien comme une zone de transit européen (Épître de M. de Voltaire en arrivant dans sa terre, près du Lac de Genève). Anticipant sur la teneur de l’article ‘Genève‘ pour l’Encyclopédie, rédigé par d’Alembert mais soufflé par Voltaire, l’homme de lettres souhaite également, comme le précise Béatrice Lovis, ‘apporter la civilisation aux Vaudois’ (‘Le théâtre de société lausannois vu par Gibbon’, p. 302). Gibbon est témoin de cette mise en scène des vertus théâtrales, comme il le rapporte dans son journal:

‘Avant d’être rappelé de Suisse, j’eus la satisfaction de voir l’homme le plus extraordinaire du siècle; poète, historien, philosophe; qui a rempli trente in-quarto de prose, de vers; de productions variées, souvent excellentes, toujours amusantes. Ai-je besoin de nommer Voltaire? […] Le plus grand agrément que je tirai du séjour de Voltaire à Lausanne, fut la circonstance rare d’entendre un grand poète déclamer, sur le théâtre, ses propres ouvrages’ (Gibbon, Mémoires, suivis de quelques ouvrages posthumes, vol. 1, chap. IX, pp. 100-102).

Cette découverte laissera des traces, car Gibbon qui précise son grand amour pour l’art de Shakespeare, compte également dans sa bibliothèque les œuvres d’auteurs français tels que Diderot, Carmontelle, Beaumarchais, et Madame de Genlis. Voltaire occupe dans cette collection une place à part puisque Gibbon possède ses œuvres complètes à double, imprimées à Lausanne et à Genève (p. 300). Gibbon a donc entretenu un authentique dialogue littéraire et philosophique avec l’intellectuel Voltaire.

Concernant l’écriture de l’histoire, Gibbon jugeait que l’historiographie de Voltaire était superficielle. Nonobstant son impressionnante bibliothèque, Voltaire ne recherchait pas des sources archivistiques, et il utilisait ce qui avait déjà été publié ou ce que ses correspondants lui mettaient sous la main. Cependant, malgré ses critiques sur l’approche méthodologique de Voltaire, Gibbon était fasciné par l’envergure intellectuelle de l’Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations (1756). La philosophie de l’histoire (1764) offrait aussi une lecture des événements du récit de l’humanité qui ne devait rien à une lecture providentialiste de l’histoire.

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Discours sur l’histoire universelle (Paris: Durand, 1771). Notez le but explicitement religieux du projet historique de Bossuet.

Si l’on songe au rôle essentiel que joua le Discours sur l’histoire universelle à Monseigneur le Dauphin (1681) de Bossuet dans la conversion au catholicisme du jeune Gibbon, on prendra mieux la mesure du rôle fondamental que représentait pour l’historien anglais l’explication laïque des faits historiques. Dès 1742 avec ses brèves Remarques sur l’histoire, Voltaire attaquait l’histoire ancienne. ‘L’esprit philosophique’ appliqué à la science historique devait produire un savoir prétendument utile, loin des fables et des compilations d’anecdotes qui caractérisaient les récits traditionnels. Position que Voltaire répète dès l’introduction de l’article ‘Histoire‘ de l’Encyclopédie, publié en 1765: ‘c’est le récit des faits donnés pour vrais; au contraire de la fable, qui est le récit des faits donnés pour faux’. Et il écarte d’emblée l’intérêt de ‘l’histoire sacrée’, qu’il présente comme ‘une suite des opérations divines et miraculeuses, par lesquelles il a plu à Dieu de conduire autrefois la nation juive, et d’exercer aujourd’hui notre foi. Je ne toucherai point à cette matière respectable’.

Si Gibbon fut sensible à l’envergure du récit voltairien sur l’histoire globale, les réticences furent plus nombreuses concernant la méthode voltairienne. L’historien anglais ne pouvait adhérer au scepticisme général de Voltaire pour tous les faits qui mettaient en valeur le rôle du christianisme ou de l’Église de Rome. Dans sa lutte contre l’Infâme, Voltaire dédaignait tout évènement qui ne cadrait pas avec son ironie, alors que Gibbon s’est formé à une critique rigoureuse des sources. Il cherchait à étayer les hypothèses – y compris celles qui présentaient le rôle de l’Église comme positif – par les faits rapportés par des témoins fiables et/ou consignés par les historiens les plus crédibles.

Une deuxième différence entre les deux hommes est que Gibbon s’intéresse au passé pour saisir dans la longue durée le façonnement des mœurs, alors que Voltaire perçoit l’histoire ancienne comme un objet de curiosité. L’essentiel du discours historique doit se porter selon lui sur l’histoire moderne – celle qui se fait depuis la Renaissance. C’est cette histoire-là qui est pourvoyeuse de progrès et de Lumières.

Feuille manuscrite du Essai sur les mœurs de Voltaire. Forschungsbibliothek, Gotha, Chart. B 1204 (MS G), p.4.

Une troisième différence fondamentale peut être relevée dans le style des deux historiens. Voltaire privilégie un discours fluide, ironique, quasi-pamphlétaire, alors que Gibbon respecte le travail érudit des antiquaires et fleurit ses pages de nombreuses notes où il analyse les sources discutées et en critique le contenu.

Gibbon et Lausanne, par la richesse de son contenu et l’érudition de son apparat critique, permet au spécialiste, comme au profane, une compréhension plus riche des rapports qui relient Gibbon à son environnement helvétique. Le livre réunit trente-cinq auteurs provenant de divers horizons académiques mais aussi de diverses disciplines. L’ouvrage prend pour fil rouge l’élaboration du Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire et offre une synthèse internationale des travaux consacrés au XVIIIe siècle lausannois depuis deux décennies. Les contributions sont répertoriées en sept thématiques comme ‘religion et éducation’, ‘sociabilité et divertissements’, ‘La grotte, lieu de vie et de mémoire’ ou ‘Archives et reliques’, etc. Ces catégories visent à englober les différents aspects de la vie de Gibbon et à les rattacher aux caractéristiques proprement lausannoises.

Comme l’indique Béla Kapossy dans l’introduction: ‘Avant que la cité vaudoise ne devienne la capitale olympique, Lausanne était ainsi connue comme la ville de Gibbon’ (p. 13). Les jeunes anglais romantiques avaient l’habitude d’escalader les murs de la propriété pour apercevoir les lieux où l’historien avait conclu son œuvre grandiose. Avant que ne soit construit le premier palace – le bien nommé ‘Gibbon’, sur l’emplacement de la ‘Maison de la Grotte’ – les voyageurs anglais pratiquant leur Grand Tour ou explorant les Alpes continuaient à faire de Lausanne une étape incontournable de leur périple.

Les dernières lignes du Decline and Fall sont demeurés célèbres par la description poétique qu’en donne l’auteur: alors que Lausanne est recueillie dans un calme profond, Gibbon contemple les Alpes savoyardes imperturbables et le bleu sombre du lac où se reflète la lune. L’historien suspend enfin sa plume et cède à sa rêverie nocturne.

Charles Louis Constans, Gibbon, c. 1810-1820, lithographie, 17.5 cm x 13.3 cm, British Museum, Londres. L’artiste dépeint Gibbon assis devant les Alpes dans un jardin à Lausanne.

En quittant Lausanne, lors de son deuxième séjour, Edward Gibbon note dans son journal qu’il laisse derrière lui une ville mal bâtie qui a perdu les charmes des premières fois. Ce jugement négatif s’est atténué avec le temps, car Gibbon est revenu dans la ville pour parachever le Decline and Fall. Il retourne cependant en Angleterre au crépuscule de son existence, s’installant à Londres pour consoler son ami Lord Sheffield (1735-1821) qui venait de perdre sa femme, sa santé se détériore et il finit par mourir à l’âge de 56 ans. Ironie de l’histoire qui rappelle la mort inattendue de Voltaire à Paris après de nombreuses années d’exil.

Les charmes du séjour lausannois auront atténué les rigueurs républicaines du Gibbon des années 1760, qui percevait Berne comme une république autoritaire et les Lausannois comme des citoyens qui confondaient tranquillité et liberté. Son troisième séjour réveille son intérêt pour la vieille république aristocratique helvétique, mais probablement que Berne n’évoquait plus pour lui l’État qui en Europe suggérait la grandeur des Cités-États antiques. A l’aube de ‘l’ère des Révolutions’ – selon la formule d’un autre grand historien britannique –, Berne n’était plus un exemple de conservatisme dépassé, mais un modèle de stabilité dans une Europe au bord de la rupture.

– Helder Mendes Baiao, Assistant docteur de littérature française, Universität Bern

Pioneering women’s rights during the French Revolution: Marie-Madeleine Jodin

Marie-Madeleine Jodin is surely amongst the most neglected figures in the history of eighteenth-century political thought. Primarily considered as a correspondent of the philosopher Denis Diderot, of whom her father had been a collaborator, her biographical profile and the prominence of her intellectual contribution have only been rediscovered by historians over the past twenty years. In 1790, Jodin addressed to the French National Assembly a legislative proposal to ensure women’s political rights. My book, Donne in Rivoluzione. Marie-Madeleine Jodin e i diritti della citoyenne provides the first critical edition of Jodin’s Legislative Views for Women (Vues législatives pour les femmes) and frames her political contribution to the history of women’s rights and the participation of women in the French Revolution.

Title page, Marie-Madeleine Jodin, Vues législatives pour les femmes adressées à l’Assemblée nationale, Angers, Chez Mame, 1790.

But first, who was Marie-Madeleine Jodin?

She was born in 1741 in Paris, where her family had moved so that her father could further his watchmaking studies, which, in 1754, resulted in his presentation of a project for a two-pendulum clock at the Académie des sciences. In 1761 Marie-Madeleine’s life was thrown into turmoil when after her father’s death, her paternal uncle accused her mother of prostituting her daughter and had the two women locked up at the Salpêtrière. This institution, part of the Hôpital général de Paris, had been in operation since the late seventeenth century, and was intended to hold women accused of prostitution or scandalous behaviour. We do not know much about the time that Marie-Madeleine spent at the Salpêtrière but it was certainly an experience that deeply affected her life and the development of her political thought.

In the aftermath of her liberation from the Salpêtrière, presumably between 1763 and 1764, Marie-Madeleine embarked on a career as an actress outside the borders of France, in Warsaw and Dresden, perhaps to escape the stigma that marked the women who had been interned in the hospital-prison. After a somewhat bumpy career – which was followed by Diderot, who regarded her with paternal esteem – she moved to Bordeaux, where she met the magistrate Jean-Baptiste Lynch, to whom she would later send her legislative opinions, and thence to Paris, where she was present at the outbreak of the French Revolution. When the Estates General opened, and, later, the Constituent Assembly met, Jodin invoked the need to also call French women citizens to reform society with her Legislative Views for Women. This 86-page text was addressed to the deputies of the National Assembly and to the whole French nation, and outlined the characteristics of a new legislative plan that would restore ‘the rights which are ours by Nature and by the social compact’ to women.

Significantly, the text opened with the dedication ‘To my sex’, followed by the eloquent statement ‘And we too are Citizens’. At a time when the French people were committed to regenerating society and founding the future happiness and glory of the nation, Jodin claimed for women the honour and the right to contribute to public prosperity by breaking the silence to which politics seemed to have condemned them. Jodin called for ‘an independent legislative code’ that would eliminate the source of the excesses that had tainted the glory and virtues of women and called for a new political organisation that would free Frenchwomen ‘from that kind of protection’ that had kept them out of public interest.

Jodin remarked that the state of degradation in which her sex found itself did not derive from any imperfection of the female nature, but from the neglect of laws that had allowed a scandalous licence to be introduced into customs. The first point of Jodin’s reform was the abolition of prostitution. Beyond the current of reformists and punitives, she, who had known very closely the reality of the femmes publiques locked up in the Salpêtrière, observed that ‘the ignominy to which your police seem to devote part of our sex to the incontinence of yours, outrages the Laws and destroys the respect belonging to the sacred titles of citizenesses, wives and mothers’. While claiming equality between men and women – underlining, as François Poulain de La Barre had already done a century earlier, that ‘the mind has no sex, any more than virtues do’ – Jodin argued, from the point of view of complementarity between the sexes, the need for ‘a jurisdiction of women’ which would contribute to the restoration of the public good, starting from a reform of morals. For this reason, the plan included, in addition to the abolition of prostitution, the closure of gambling houses and the censorship of obscene prints. For the realisation of her proposal, Jodin therefore envisaged the creation of a national tribunal ‘concerned exclusively with, and presided over, by women’ consisting of a chamber of conciliation and a civil chamber. Cases of marital separation, family disputes regarding inheritance and any other discussion involving both sexes would be examined in the chamber of conciliation, while the civil chamber would deal only with matters of public scandal.

Chérieux, Club des femmes patriotes dans une église, 1793.

Following the example of the National Constituent Assembly, Jodin proposed a national women’s assembly. She stated that ‘we must proceed to establish our Laws, as the nation proceeds to reform its own. The King, who summoned in his paternal goodness the enlightened men who are now carrying out this great task, cannot forget that we women are part of his great family. He cannot ignore the fact that fathers take charge of the education of their sons and leave that of their daughters to the mother. We demand, with the confidence that his justice inspires in us, to be subjected to the same maternal authority, the one assigned to us by Nature and implicit in the relations of the sexes’.

Jodin did not live to see the publication of the French Constitution in September 1791, nor could she applaud the institution of divorce in 1792. She died in 1790, at the age of 49, shortly after publishing her Legislative Views for Women.

– Valentina Altopiedi

Turmoil: post-pandemic paradigm shifts and elastic adaptations

Síofra Pierse is co-editor with Emma M. Dunne of Turmoil: instability and insecurity in the eighteenth-century francophone text, the May volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book is a collection of essays by international eighteenth-century colleagues, who explore instances of turmoil through study of eighteenth-century francophone texts. Turmoil(s) captured appear familiar to the modern readership: revisionism, disasters, realignment, instability, insecurity and resilience. In her introduction to Turmoil, Síofra Pierse proffers a new ontology of turmoil that has ramifications far beyond the eighteenth century. In this blog post, Síofra tests this book’s new turmoil paradigm against more recent geopolitical events such as climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, or war in Ukraine.

Sensational news stories are designed to shock. If they don’t affect us, or our environment, we simply dismiss them, barely giving them a second glance, registering that they are simply that, sensational headlines, and not something closer to home. But every so often, something terrible impinges on our lives, our world, or our consciousness. Then, the world tilts, often imperceptibly, on its axis. Suddenly, that particular headline, state, or event constitutes an instance of turmoil.

This study of turmoil and Jessica Stacey’s recent study of catastrophe narratives (also in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series) clearly capture a certain zeitgeist: that’s unsurprising, given recent global events in 2020-22. Stacey identifies catastrophe within the eighteenth century as a broad ‘meaning-maker expressing hopes as well as fears’. But the ontology proposed by this book highlights the significant difference between turmoil and its close cousins of catastrophe. As Catriona Seth writes in her preface: ‘The three stages of turmoil make it possible to distinguish this phenomenon from other forms of catastrophe studies which do not take the subsequent state into account’ (p.8, n4).

An Ontology of Turmoil

Turmoil proposes a new ontology of turmoil: any time there is turmoil, a paradigm shift subsequently occurs and ultimately there is an adaptation of some sort. Take, for example, the 1757 assassination attempt on Louis XV which did not kill the king, yet it triggered many changes, resulting in myriad instances of spin and propaganda. The significant difference between catastrophe and turmoil is that turmoil consistently manifests with a post-turmoil paradigmatic shift that reveals an elasticity of adaptation. Indeed, this book bears witness to the surprising human ability to engage in significant paradigm shifts. Even more remarkable is the incredible range and elasticity of post-turmoil adaptations. Many adaptations are affirmative ones, such as the reconstruction of post-earthquake Lisbon, or where new body burial directives emerged due to the excess of bodies needing burial during the bloodbath of post-revolutionary Terror in 1793-94.


One of the first revelations of this book is that to analyse turmoil is to burrow into the perennially dark side of humanity, with focus on sempiternal instability, insecurity and marginalisation. Where Kate Tunstall tracks the spin doctors of Versailles under Louis XV, she reminds us that there is nothing new about fake news, beyond its name. Similarly, while the term sadism dates only from the end of the eighteenth century, studies in our book reveal how the images so brutally practised by Sade in fact long predate the marquis and his century: infanticide and feminicide will, sadly, always be headline material. Similarly, turmoil narratives of eighteenth-century natural disasters connect directly to contemporary geopolitics. Most of all, eighteenth-century global turmoil awakens us to our deep, transnational interconnectedness: it was in the wake of the Napoleonic wars that Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich made his infamous quip about France sneezing and the rest of the world catching a cold.

The Paradigm Shift

Where Voltaire considered war as an inevitable curse on humanity, Turmoil addresses war from the perspectives of problematic narrative bias and the unreliability of memory. For anyone who has grown up in the luxury of relatively stable world peace, the invasion of the Ukraine on 24 February constituted a significant instance of turmoil. Perceptions of western stability were rocked by shocking images of bombardment, basement shelters, forced emigration, conscription, and the decimation of a modern European neighbour. Where elasticity of adaptation may permit engagement in local actions to help Ukrainian refugees, we are exposed to a barrage of new discourses around war ‘norms’, while absorbing good/bad dichotomies of cruel exaggeration within the recently-exhumed conventional rhetoric of international warfare. When perspectives shifted irrevocably on 24 February 2022, the complexities of post-invasion reinterpretation and revision became infinite.

Elasticity of Adaptation

The crucial final identifier within our ontology is that of post-turmoil adaptation, exemplifying the incredible elasticity of humanity. Turmoil focuses on many eighteenth-century manifestations of resilience such as Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s reinvention of self during the Revolution, or Isabelle de Charrière’s snappiness with discontent émigré-e-s. Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided us with endless recent examples of post-turmoil adaptations and resilience: where government lockdowns engendered everything from shifts in perspective to epiphanies, the world quickly coined the telling term the new normal, and snapped into a universe of masks, hand sanitiser and vaccination certs. To study turmoil is to reveal the perpetual elasticity of the human world and its striking adaptability. This book highlights and celebrates humanity’s dramatic ability to adapt, to repair, to forge on. But it also exposes a new dark side, which must surely become the focus of a future study on humanity’s concomitant ability to swiftly blank the turmoil within its serially new adaptations or accommodations: we suffer, we adapt … and we ultimately forget.

– Síofra Pierse (University College Dublin)