Eighteenth-century studies, Besterman and Voltaire

Edinburgh castle.

Edinburgh welcomed dix-huitiémistes this year for the fifteenth ISECS congress. The Voltaire Foundation’s newest staff member, who joined in April 2019, experienced ISECS for the first time and was impressed by the strong ties in the research community. Meeting many of the OCV authors at the book stand was also a very welcoming and enlightening experience.

In July 2017, 50 years after the idea of the OCV was formed, the Voltaire Foundation published a blogpost summarising its first 25 years. Now, as we approach the end of the print edition, only a little later than hoped (does Achilles ever catch the tortoise?), it is time to look at the next 25 years, from 1993-1994 to 2018-2019, where the dominant theme has been scholarly collaboration.

The Voltaire Foundation at 99 Banbury Road, Oxford.

In 1993 the Voltaire Foundation bought a large Victorian house at 99 Banbury Road, giving much more space than the cramped modern offices it had previously occupied near the city centre. The first OCV volumes published from 99 were by key colleagues who are still being published in OCV, including Christiane Mervaud, with her edition of the Dictionnaire philosophique (vol.35-36) and her introduction to the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (vol.37, 2018), Henri Duranton (vol.21, Essai sur les mœurs, 2018), Ralph Nablow (Le Dimanche and Lettre de Monsieur de La Visclède, vol.77A, 2014), John Renwick (Annales de l’Empire, vol.44, publication in 2019), and David Williams (Corpus des notes marginales: complément, vol.145, 2019). The ISECS conference of this period took place in Münster, Germany, in 1995.

Two members of staff who transferred to 99 are also still publishing in OCV: Janet Godden (vol.29, Précis du siècle de Louis XV, 2019) and Martin Smith (vol.146, 2020). The earliest members of staff to join the VF at the new premises and who are still at 99 working on OCV were Pippa Faucheux (1998) and Nicholas Cronk. The latter joined the editorial board and became Director of the edition in 2000.

News Bulletin for the 1999 ISECS congress in Dublin.

International collaboration continued in other ways. By the time of the ISECS congress in Dublin in 1999, the general editor of OCV was Haydn Mason, soon joined by Nicholas Cronk (current general editor) who took sole responsibility for the series on Haydn’s retirement in 2001.

In 2002 regular annual Besterman lectures were instituted, bringing eminent scholars from the UK and other European countries and the USA to talk on a vast range of subjects related to eighteenth-century studies, from Jesuits in China to the French Revolution, from problems of editing to the progress of plagiarism, from the late Renaissance to digital culture, and many other topics.

In the same year the British Academy commenced its longstanding, ongoing and valuable support for OCV. At the same time, another event of great importance for international collaboration was the signing of the contract to complete the publication of the Corpus des notes marginales, originally a project of the Russian State Library in St Petersburg, and to incorporate it into OCV.

2003 brought the next ISECS congress, in Los Angeles, the first in the USA since Yale in 1975.

In 2005 the OCV in-house team began to expand with Paul Gibbard, who is still contributing from Australia, as author in vol.144 (2018). Our current research editors joined the team from 2006 to 2010, enabling the high-calibre work on the edition to be continued at increased pace and scale. In 2006 the first of the new Corpus des notes marginales volumes (no.6, vol.141) was published, and enhanced re-issues of the first five volumes appeared between 2008 and 2012.

Coffee with M. de Voltaire.

In 2007 the Voltaire Foundation initiated a process whereby a younger scholar is introduced to an established Voltaire scholar to collaborate on the critical edition of a particular text. The first of these partnerships was between Tom Wynn and Haydn Mason, for the Poème sur la loi naturelle in vol.32B. Many more successful collaborations followed.

In the same year important progress was made on the major multi-volume editions within the Complete works: the first of eight volumes of the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie appeared (vol.38), the work of a large team of collaborators, and the Voltaire Foundation also received a five-year AHRC award to support the publication of the nine-volume Essai sur les mœurs project. The first Essai volume would be published in 2009. 2007 was also the year of the twelfth ISECS conference, in Montpellier.

At this time, the Voltaire Foundation also declared a completion date for the OCV of 2019-2020, which would be achieved by publishing six volumes a year, making the edition a roughly fifty-year project, like the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 2009 the Voltaire Foundation continued its support of younger researchers by introducing another newer scholar to a well-established name, in this case Renaud Bret-Vitoz (then in Tunisia, now Professor at the Sorbonne) with Basil Guy (Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley), who co-signed the edition of L’Orphelin de la Chine (vol.45A).

Supporting post-doctoral work on Voltaire, the VF was pleased to welcome Antonio Gurrado, who was awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship for two years to work in Oxford on Voltaire’s religious works of 1776 (vol.79B, published in 2014). By 2010 all the current team of in-house OCV research editors (Gillian Pink, Alison Oliver and Georges Pilard) were working at 99 Banbury Road.

News Bulletin for the July 2011 ISECS congress in Graz, Austria.

Also in 2010, the Fondation Wiener-Anspach, which fosters academic exchanges between the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, provided support for the collaborative research project that was the Essai sur les mœurs edition. The OCV also received the Prix Hervé Deluen from the Académie française ‘in recognition of the fifty-year OCV project publishing the complete and critical works of Voltaire for the first time, so changing the image of Voltaire’.

The following year, 2011, eighteenth-century scholars of the world gathered at Graz for the thirteenth ISECS congress.

In 2013 the Voltaire Foundation began a collaborative blog and benefitted from the first of two MHRA one-year research associateships supporting new scholars: Nick Treuherz, working on vol.83 (published in 2015), followed by Helder Mendes Baiao, working on vol.60A (published in 2015). In 2014 a three-year Leverhulme research grant provided support for the preparation of the introductions to Voltaire’s historical works (Essai sur les mœurs, Siècle de Louis XIV and Précis du siècle de Louis XV, all published in 2019). The following year brought support from the Château de Versailles research centre for the first volume of Siècle de Louis XIV, and Nicholas Cronk received AHRC research support for his work on vol.6 (Lettres sur les Anglais).

The Voltaire Foundation’s stand welcoming dix-huitiémistes at the fifteenth ISECS congress in 2019.

Since the fourteenth ISECS conference, in Rotterdam in 2015, the last few years have seen the fruition of various collaborative projects. In 2016, unidentified texts published for the first time in the Kehl edition appeared in vol.34. In 2017 LVMH started supporting one volume per year (vol.20C, vol.65B and vol.21). In 2017 the Voltaire Foundation’s new website went live, replacing one dating from before 2002! This improvement was instigated by Alice Breathe, who is still contributing from Switzerland. In 2018 Christiane Mervaud’s introduction completed the eight-volume set of Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, and 2019 saw the completion of the eight-volume set of Essai sur les mœurs, the seven-volume set of Siècle de Louis XIV and the ten-volume set of the marginalia.

Theodore Besterman.

Theodore Besterman.

More than fifty years after Theodore Besterman held the first Congress in Geneva, he would probably be moderately pleased with the progress that has been made…

– Clare Fletcher et al.

Advertisements

Imperial letters don’t burn

“Burn my letters so that they will not be printed in my lifetime” – Catherine the Great wrote these words to one of her most trusted correspondents, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, in 1787. Note the caveat – Catherine did not really want her letters to be destroyed. What she sought was control over who read her letters, when, and how. My book, The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great, explores how Catherine skilfully designed every aspect of her correspondence to shape her image and to regulate how it reached different readers.

Portrait of Catherine II in front of a Mirror, Vigilius Ericksen, 1762-64. (The Hermitage Museum)

A German princess who married the heir to the Russian imperial throne, Catherine overthrew her husband in 1762 and subsequently ruled the empire successfully for thirty-four years. A prolific writer and author of some two dozen plays, a history of Russia, a series of remarkable memoirs, and much more, Catherine also produced several thousand letters by which she sought to win over supporters, manage her empire, and leave behind for posterity a legacy as a great ruler and appealing individual.

We’re very familiar today with the perils associated with email security for public figures – suffice it to think of the scandals surrounding Hillary Clinton’s emails and those of her staff in 2016. Catherine had similar concerns: receiving letters from the empress of Russia was so exciting that some readers could not resist leaking them to the press. Very few of the empress’s correspondents could get away with such indiscretions without a scolding – even Voltaire was allowed to publicise his elaborate exchange with the empress only within well-defined limits. Even more than that, the responses to Catherine’s letters could be truly outlandish: one was even the occasion for a séance at the Prussian court in 1791.

Yet Catherine’s choices regarding the publicity of her letters can also look quite bewilderingly different from twenty-first-century norms. Some of Catherine’s letters were indeed private, such as her love notes to her possible secret husband and most loyal deputy, Grigory Potemkin. But often they were not: writing to the salon hostess Marie-Thérèse Geoffrin, for instance, Catherine was actually addressing the select group of elite intellectuals, socialites, and political figures who gathered in Geoffrin’s home. The hostess might allow her guests to read the latest letter, or she would read it aloud; nonetheless, she and her guests knew better than to make copies or to publish what they heard. Rather, these privileged readers and listeners were meant to think positively about the empress when they read her witty, friendly letters, and they were to influence public and government opinion on her behalf. At the same time, Catherine firmly believed that, if she could win over elite readers in her own day, the best readers of future generations would agree with their enlightened views.

The Epistolary art of Catherine the Great is the August 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

More sneakily, Catherine decided to make use of widespread government surveillance of correspondences for her own benefit. As Jay Caplan has explored in Postal Culture in Europe, the rapid expansion of the postal service in early-modern Europe coincided with the development of sophisticated “Black Chambers” or cabinets noirs to spy on letters in transit. Naturally enough, ordinary citizens were of less interest to governments than those close to power, and so Catherine could rely on the governments of the territories her letters passed through to give in to temptation. So, when she wrote to a celebrity like Voltaire about Russian military successes, she was actually writing past the philosophe to inform the nosy French government that Russia had the resources and the military strength to be a major power in Europe.

Digital approaches to Catherine’s correspondence can help us to better visualise Catherine’s efforts to make herself present across Europe through her letters. That said, only close reading of rhetorical strategies can uncover how Catherine formulated in her letters the image she hoped to transmit to today’s readers. My study draws on both approaches to analyse for the first time the full range of Catherine’s correspondences and to argue for their status as a literary masterpiece of eighteenth-century epistolary writing.

– Kelsey Rubin-Detlev, University of Southern California

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev is the author of The Epistolary art of Catherine the Great, the first book to analyse Catherine the Great as an outstanding Enlightenment letter-writer, and the August volume of the Oxford University Studes in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Baron d’Holbach brought back to the motherland by a ‘joyous sett’

Ruggero Sciuto, Baron d’Holbach (on the screen), Nicholas Cronk

Ruggero Sciuto, Baron d’Holbach (on the screen), Nicholas Cronk.

He was ‘the most learned nobleman’ in Paris according to Laurence Sterne, ‘un des hommes de son temps les plus instruits, sachant plusieurs des langues de l’Europe’ for the abbé Morellet, ‘le vrai cosmopolite’ in Diderot’s words: there is no doubt that Baron d’Holbach won the affection and the esteem of those who met him.

Two hundred and thirty years after his death, Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach (1723-1789) continues to be a challenging figure of the European Enlightenment. Not only was he a materialistic philosopher, a champion of anticlericalism, the author of the monumental Système de la nature known as ‘the Bible of atheists’, an idéologue, a populariser of the natural sciences and a prolific contributor to the Encyclopédie, but he also played a fundamental role as a producer and circulator of clandestine literature and as the centre of a wide intellectual network. All over Europe he was known as the ‘maître d’hôtel de la philosophie’ (in the words of the abbé Galiani), and as ‘the great protector of wits, and the Sçavans who are no wits’ (in those of Sterne). D’Holbach’s house in the rue Royale in Paris hosted one of the most influential and cosmopolitan literary circles of the eighteenth century. According to David Hume, it was ‘a common receptacle for all men of letters and ingenuity’, and it was dubbed ‘the joyous sett’ by Sterne: this is where philosophers, men of letters, statesmen, and churchmen from all over Europe met to engage in free philosophical discussions and be introduced to Parisian society.

Alan Charles Kors lectures on d’Holbach’s skepticism

Alan Charles Kors lectures on d’Holbach’s skepticism.

German by origin (he was born in the village of Edesheim in the Palatinate), Dutch through his academic training (he studied in Leiden), French by adoption, and cosmopolitan by choice, d’Holbach spoke several languages and translated scientific works from the German and philosophical and irreligious works from the English.

For three days, 9-11 May 2019, the Institute of Advanced Studies of Göttingen at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg hosted ‘The Great Protector of Wits. D’Holbach 1789-2019’, the first international conference entirely dedicated to Baron d’Holbach, organised by Dr Laura Nicolì and Prof. Franziska Meier. Our own ‘joyous sett’ of Enlightenment scholars gathered to discuss the Baron’s works, as well as his figure and his legacy. Speakers engaged with the complexity of d’Holbach’s intellectual agenda, with d’Holbach the philosopher and the philosophe, but also the encyclopédiste and the scientist, the strategist and the ‘metteur en scène’, the translator and the creator of ‘fictions d’autorité’, the clandestine author and the centre of intellectual networks, the pessimistic skeptic and the inspirer of a revolutionary consciousness.

Charlotte-Suzanne and Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach, by Louis Carmontelle, 1766.

Thanks to the participants’ contributions and through the ensuing debate, there emerged a more nuanced, multifaceted understanding of d’Holbach than is typically conveyed by the secondary literature.

Left: Gerhardt Stenger, Emilio Mazza, Alain Sandrier. Right: Iryna Mykhailova and Tony La Vopa.

For everyone present, this conference on one of the most important yet neglected figures of the eighteenth century amounted to full immersion in a true microcosm of the European Enlightenment!

– Laura Nicolì

The Göttingen ‘joyous sett’

The Göttingen ‘joyous sett’: ‘Beaucoup de disputes, jamais de querelles’ (Morellet on the salon in the rue Royale).

 

The Journées Voltaire 2019

La vision et la réception de Voltaire et de ses séjours dans l’espace allemand au sein des réseaux de communication germanophones (XVIIIe- XIXe siècles).

The recent Journées Voltaire held on 13-14 June at Amiens and Paris focused on Voltaire’s reception in the German-speaking lands. Papers dealt with such questions as the diffusion of Voltaire’s work’s outre-Rhin, and the presence of Germany or German subjects in Voltaire’s works, as well as Voltaire’s influence on the major figures in German literature and philosophy: Goethe, Schiller, Herder, Nietzsche and others.

From left to right: Antony McKenna, Christiane Mervaud, Edouard Langille.

From left to right: Antony McKenna, Christiane Mervaud, Edouard Langille.

The conference’s final panel featured two papers of interest to the Voltaire Foundation’s edition of the Complete Works: Antony McKenna’s “La Lettre sur Locke à la cour princière de Rheinsberg”, and my own “L’Avis de l’éditeur précédant la Réponse aux vers précédents (c’est-à-dire les Vers aux Roi de Prusse) est-il de Voltaire?”

Enthusiasm can flag during the last panel of a conference, but such was not the case on 14 June. Under the presidency of Christiane Mervaud, Antony McKenna argued conclusively that as early as July 1736 a clandestine version of Lettre 13, “Sur Locke”, had made its way to Berlin where it was favourably received by Crown Prince Frederick. The young Frederick, it seems, now turned away from Wolff’s metaphysics and, following Voltaire’s interpretation of Locke, he increasingly called into doubt the immortality of the soul. These early days chronicle the beginning of Frederick the Great’s lifelong association with Voltaire, and they mark a turning point in the young Prince’s conversion to Enlightenment ideals. Interestingly, according to McKenna, the 1736 publication of the clandestine version of Lettre 13 was orchestrated by Voltaire’s enemies, who sought to discredit him by exposing his anti-Christian convictions to the wider public, especially in France. These findings will no doubt be considered as the VF prepares its forthcoming edition of the Lettres philosophiques.

Voltaire’s unsigned works have long occupied critics. Previously unattributed works, nevertheless, continue to be identified. In the second of the panel’s papers I wondered whether Voltaire wrote the Avis de l’éditeur preceding the poem entitled Réponse aux vers précédents, the latter an unbridled attack on Voltaire’s scandalous Vers au roi de Prusse. The Avis and Réponse were published anonymously in the last pages of the 1757 edition of the Lettre philosophique par M. de V*** (p. 276-285). The Avis’s ironic tone and word choices certainly appear to bear Voltaire’s stamp. Voltaire’s authorship seems even more plausible when one considers the Réponse’s menacing tone: “Comment ton grand savoir ne te dicte-t-il pas / Que les rois sont à craindre, ayant de fort longs bras?” (p. 283). Voltaire was hardly going to take such a threat lying down. Recalling his house arrest in Frankfurt in 1753 after he left Frederick’s court in Potsdam under a cloud, it seems likely that Voltaire arranged to publish the Réponse, preceded with the Avis, right after his own Vers au roi de Prusse, in order to discredit Frederick and expose the hostility his verse aroused at the Prussian court.

As Voltaire knew well, attack is the best form of defence.

– Edouard Langille

Digitization of the Enlightenment and Manifold Scholarship

Last month, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment released the first volume in the long history of the series that is devoted to the application of digital humanities methods to the study of eighteenth-century intellectual life, Networks of Enlightenment, edited by Chloe Edmondson and Dan Edelstein. To accompany this important and innovative book, we are pleased to be releasing our first-ever digital companion to an OUSE book through the Manifold Scholarship platform.

The digital companion site to Networks of Enlightenment 1 is hosted on the Liverpool University Press Digital Collaboration Hub, constructed on the Manifold Scholarship publishing platform. Funded by the Mellon Foundation, Manifold Scholarship is described as “the intuitive, collaborative, open-source platform for scholarly publishing you’ve been waiting for”. In their own words, the platform allows “for a much more expansive archive of primary sources, such as field notes, moving images, audio, interactive data and maps, photographs, interviews, and archival material” and “asks that an author think creatively about the broad set of materials that are collected in the process of researching and writing a book”.2 Liverpool University Press is participating in Manifold’s pilot program – this companion site is a pilot for the OUSE series as well.

The book at the center of this pilot for OUSENetworks of Enlightenment, focuses on the use of metadata to identify and represent social networks, such as those formed by correspondences, by academy affiliations or by the words in a text. As part of this work several contributors to the volume, using data visualization tools developed at Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, created 40 data visualizations to demonstrate the structure and density of these network relationships. The visualizations are, in fact, crucial to understanding the arguments presented in this book.

Yet these figures, principally due to their complexity as images, can only be approximately reproduced in the medium of the print book; Manifold allows these figures to be rendered as they ought to be – online, in high-resolution and in full color. This supplemental platform thus opens up the possibilities when it comes to publishing digital humanities scholarship, in this volume and in the future. We hope in the coming years to continue this utilization of Manifold to offer our authors, and readers, scholarship that is innovative in method, in findings and in its format.

We are launching this companion site on July 16th, during the XVth International Congress on the Enlightenment which is being held during the same week in Edinburgh, Scotland, under the auspices of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Today’s digital-focused day consists of the Voltaire Foundation-sponsored day-long workshop “Digitizing Enlightenment IV”, and will culminate in McEwan Hall at the formal launch (and drinks reception) for the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE, the digital collection which will make available the entirety of the OUSE/SVEC backlist by the end of 2020. Both events will be an exploration (and a celebration) of the efforts already made thus far to consider how scholarship can be enhanced by digital methods, now and in the future.

– Gregory S. Brown (General Editor, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, and Professor of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas) and Nicole Batten (doctoral student, Department of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas)

1 The site, it is important to note, is not a full-text digital edition. The text consists of the full text of the book’s Introduction and Table of Contents, and brief summaries of the nine body chapters of the book.

2 We would like to thank in particular Terence Smyre, Digital Projects Editor of University of Minnesota Press for his help in the assembly of this site. The assembly of the site also had support from the College of Liberal Arts at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which provided support for our time on this project.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

A Year in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment

As LUP continues to celebrate its 120-year anniversary, this month we are focusing on the eighteenth century and the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in partnership with one of our Partner Presses, the Voltaire Foundation.

On 1st August 2018, LUP officially joined together with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford to publish the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. The series is international in focus and covers wide-ranging aspects of the eighteenth century and the Enlightenment, from gender studies to political theory, and from economics to visual arts and music, and is published in English or French. Now, nearing one year into the partnership, we’re looking back over the past 12 months in the series and the breadth of scholarship that it has published.

From the first volume under the new partnership, Denys Van Renen’s Nature and the new science in England, 1665 – 1726 to the most recent volume, Volcanoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe by David McCallam, the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volumes published in the last year have covered topics as wide-ranging as correspondence networks and social network analysis, Beccaria’s criminal law and d’Argenson’s politics, and philosophical skepticism and narratives of religious faith. Our latest volume sees David McCallam consider the explosive history of volcanoes, drawing on a rich variety of multi-lingual primary sources and the latest critical thinking, to illustrate how the volcano is not only transnational but also transdisciplinary, a fitting subject for a series which aims to be interdisciplinary and global in its reach.

The near future will also see us welcome into the series books on Catherine the Great’s letter-writing as image-makingthe Enlightenment concept of the ‘amateur’, and the omnipresence of Rome as a paradigm in John V’s Portugalamongst many others. After such a successful and invigorating year of publishing, we look forward to many more months and volumes to come, expanding the series into even more thematic and geographical areas.

As part of the collaboration, LUP have developed a new digital collection Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINEa unique resource for research in the Enlightenment that sees the series’ backlist made available digitally for the first time. Now, one year into the partnership, we’re celebrating the launch of the digital collection with a drinks reception during the upcoming International Congress on the Enlightenment at McEwan Hall, Tuesday 16th July at 7:30pm. If you’re attending the conference, we’d love to see as many of you at the reception as possible, and please do stop by the Voltaire Foundation and Liverpool University Press stand and say hello during the week!

Follow us for more updates and sign up to our mailing list
#LUP120 | Sign up | @livunipress | Instagram Voltaire Foundation Blog

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

When volcanoes erupted with meaning

When the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in April 2010 it threw up a huge, glass-rich ash plume nine kilometres into the sky, penetrating the jet stream which then swept the volcanic debris south-eastwards over most of Europe. European air space was closed down, stranding approximately ten million passengers over six days at a cost of £130 million per day to the aviation industry. It disrupted the funeral of the Polish president and general election campaigning in Scotland, and brought blissful quiet to residents around Heathrow and other major European hubs. Ironically, the noxious gas-spewing volcano actually reduced air pollution by grounding planes for nearly a week. Among both witnesses to the eruption and those marooned by its billowing ash-clouds, it also produced a lot of stories (as well as a plotline for a 2013 French comedy).

Image of Eyjafjallajökull during its eruptions in 2010. (“14.05.10 | Eyjafjallajökull” by @dyntr is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

Yet these twenty-first-century anecdotes pale in comparison to the production of eighteenth-century ‘eruption narratives’ related by voluble, scribbling travellers of both sexes on the Grand Tour, socializing in Naples and picnicking on the burning flanks of Vesuvius or, more rarely, Etna. These breathless travelogues outnumber the more measured texts written by scientists on the same slopes, although both frequently draw on the reports diligently sent to the Royal Society by the most famous volcanologist of the age, Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In fact, scrambling up volcanoes became a form of secular ‘pilgrimage’ for natural historians such as Lazzaro Spallanzani who scoured the volcanoes of southern Italy from 1788 to 1790. Eruptions, then, produced not just tephra but texts. But they also drew artists to their brilliant blaze, establishing a lucrative industry in Naples for painters like Pierre Jacques Volaire, who would trim Vesuvius’s natural sublimity to populate its foreground with his patrons in tiny silhouette against the yellow fountains and scarlet streams of lava.

The erupting volcano became such a ubiquitous image in eighteenth-century Europe that, even for those who hadn’t seen one in person, it gave material form to their various philosophies of ‘enlightenment’. For physico-theologists, it provided a fizzling foretaste of the fiery Second Coming; for providentialists, it stood as a safety-valve defusing the globe’s dangerous internal fires – the work of a beneficent God; and for deists and materialists, its immemorially ancient layers of lava challenged Biblical chronologies of the Earth. Yet for all its ‘enlightenment(s)’, as Gaston Bachelard has suggested, the volcano atavistically divided its devotees into two camps: the Promethean and the Empedoclean – those who were afraid of it but looked to master its fire, and those who adored it, seeking a form of mystical union in its flames. On a political level, we can see this mythical conflict between Prometheus and Empedocles play out in the French Revolution, between those keen to curb the explosive forces of the ‘volcano of Revolution’, as Edmund Burke put it, and those who embraced its red-hot heat, stoking it to ever more violent conflagration. So when Vesuvius erupted terrifyingly in June 1794 at the height of the Terror, it seemed to many contemporaries that the physical and the political volcanoes were in league. Yet Vesuvius’s tremendous blast of that year was not the greatest of the century: for that we have to return to Iceland eleven years earlier for the cataclysmic eruption of Laki. We now have a clear scientific vision of Icelandic volcanism, the product of the island straddling the great Mid-Atlantic Ridge where two tectonic plates diverge. But in 1783, the eight-month outpouring of lava, ash and gas from the 27-kilometre-long Laki fissure dismayed contemporaries as it too (like Eyjafjallajökull’s ash plume in 2010) injected megatons of sulphuric acid and carbon dioxide into the lower stratosphere, cloaking western Europe in a deadly pall. A stifling summer was followed by a Siberian winter, killing hundreds of thousands of people and their livestock. Laki too produced stories – both intimate personal testimony from Icelandic survivors such as the so-called Fire Priest Jón Steingrímsson, and speculative climate theories involving comets, electricity, subterranean gases and the Calabrian earthquake of February that year.

My study ranges over all of these fields of volcanic meaning-making in order to show how the volcano articulated the fantasies and fears of eighteenth-century Europe. But in weaving these diverse narratives together, it also looks to contextualize and counter the dominance of a largely scientific conception of volcanism. At precisely the point where some situate the birth of the Anthropocene and others the emergence of the hierarchical dualisms of culture/nature and sciences/humanities, Volcanoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe seeks to revise these notions in light of the volcano as it is also constructed in local lore, travellers’ tales and as iconic object, figure of religious or humanistic transcendence or political master-metaphor.

– David McCallam, Sheffield University

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. David McCallam is the author of Volcanoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe: An Essay in Environmental Humanities which is the first book to examine European volcanoes in the period in the full range of their physical and figurative manifestations and is the July volume of the Oxford University Studes in the Enlightenment series.