Voltaire’s Letters on the English and the story of smallpox

‘It is inadvertently affirmed in the Christian countries of Europe, that the English are fools and madmen. Fools, because they give their children the small-pox to prevent their catching it; and madmen, because they wantonly communicate a certain and dreadful distemper to their children, merely to prevent an uncertain evil.’

Letters concerning the English nation

Title page of Letters concerning the English nation, London, 1733.

Here is Voltaire explaining inoculation to the French, quoted here in the translation Letters concerning the English nation, first printed in London in 1733 (published in French as the Lettres philosophiques). Voltaire lived in London between 1726 and 1728, and it is then that he learned at first hand about the English practice of inoculation. He decided, perhaps surprisingly, to include a letter on the subject in his Letters on the English, a work begun in London and published a few years later when he was back in France.

Letter 11, ‘On Inoculation’, is on the surface a description of how the English have embraced a modern medical technique then regarded with huge suspicion in France. But at its heart, this is a morality tale about the tension between empirical evidence and superstition, and that makes the letter seem a whole lot more topical. In her recent blog post, Leadership matters in the first days and weeks of an outbreak: lessons from the Great Plague of Marseille, 300 years later, Cindy Ermus wrote graphically about the outbreak of plague in Marseille in 1720, drawing uncomfortable parallels between the management of the crisis then and now. Voltaire’s letter on inoculation similarly acquires unexpected resonance in the context of the present crisis.

Le célèbre docteur Ane voulant introduire la mode de l'inoculation

Le célèbre docteur Ane voulant introduire la mode de l’inoculation, à Paris (c. 1784-1785). (BnF/Gallica)

The practice that Voltaire is describing is now strictly called variolation, and involves inoculating with the smallpox virus; inoculation with cowpox, that is vaccination, was a safer method introduced by Edward Jenner and others from the 1760s. Variolation was practiced widely in China, from where it spread to the Ottoman Empire and then to Europe. The first European country to take up variolation was England, where the practice became common from the 1720s, precisely the time when Voltaire was living in London.

Voltaire would have seen at first hand that even in England, inoculation was still mistrusted, and he uses what we would now call evidence-based argument to show the brute statistics of death. Modern journalists are currently talking a lot about the economic damage caused by the present pandemic, and the challenge of weighing human life against the health of the economy. Voltaire is in his time perhaps unusual in understanding that there is a link between a health crisis and a country’s commercial interests: ‘A trading nation is always watchful over its own interests, and grasps at every discovery that may be of advantage to its commerce.’

Lady Montagu in Turkish dress, by Jean-Etienne Liotard

Lady Montagu in Turkish dress, by Jean-Etienne Liotard (c.1756).

The most human note in Voltaire’s letter on inoculation is when he talks of the courage of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘a woman of as fine a genius, and endued with as great a strength of mind, as any of her sex in the British kingdoms’, who learned of inoculation in Constantinople (where her husband was British ambassador), and introduced the practice in England, with the active support of the Princess of Wales, Caroline of Anspach – ‘this Princess’, writes Voltaire, ‘born to encourage the whole circle of arts, and to do good to mankind’. The Letters on the English present a world of politics, science and literature that is predictably male-centred, and the letter on inoculation is a refreshing exception in presenting two remarkable female protagonists. And there have been journalists recently suggesting that many of the countries having most success in the fight against Covid-19 are those led by women…

Voltaire mentions in his letter the particularly severe epidemic that had swept Paris just a few years before he came to England: ‘Twenty thousand persons whom the small-pox swept away at Paris in 1723, would have been alive at this time’, he writes – no exaggeration, since modern historians put the figure at closer to 40,000 deaths. But what Voltaire does not say is that he experienced this epidemic at first hand. His close friend Génonville died of smallpox in September 1723, and in late October he went to stay with the président de Maisons at his house outside Paris, known nowadays as the château de Maisons-Laffitte (a beautiful baroque house designed by Mansart). From there he wrote to his friend the marquise de Bernières saying that ‘Paris is ravaged by this illness’ (30 October 1723), and listing their common friends who had died. Then Voltaire himself was diagnosed with smallpox, and he became dangerously ill, too ill to be moved. His friends feared for his life, a doctor was summoned from Paris (who apparently bled him copiously), and several weeks passed before he was out of danger. Finally, Voltaire was fit enough to leave the château de Maisons, and just as he left, a huge fire broke out, destroying a large part of the house: Voltaire’s visit to Maisons was not one his hosts quickly forgot.

Château de Maisons-Laffitte, by Jacques Rigaud

Château de Maisons-Laffitte, by Jacques Rigaud (1681-1754).

No sooner was Voltaire back in Paris than he got down to work. On the principle that you should never waste a good crisis, he wrote a poem addressed to Gervasi, the doctor who had, as he thought, saved him, and another poem to Mlle Lecouvreur, the great actress who had been present at Maisons when he was taken ill. He also wrote a letter to the baron de Breteuil (c. 5 December 1723), describing in fulsome detail the course of his illness; and then another anonymous letter appeared (c. 10 December 1723), apparently written to Voltaire by a fervent admirer, lauding the heroism of the poet, ‘truly the only poet’ in France, for having worked even during his illness. Voltaire could not have written a more glowing eulogy himself, and in fact that does seem to be what he did – forge a fan letter. These four pieces have long been known, but separately, and it was only when they were edited in the Oxford Complete Works of Voltaire (volume 3A, 2004, p.256-76) that we were able to understand for the first time that this amalgam of two prose letters and two poems was constructed deliberately as one single literary work, an epistle in prose and verse that Voltaire published in the Mercure de France in December 1723. The young ambitious poet had been out of the limelight for too long, and he was anxious to remind the literary world of the capital that he was back in Paris and in business – and his recovery from smallpox was a good story to tell.

What is interesting, to return to the Letters on the English, is that Voltaire does not tell that story here. This is a book written directly out of his experience of English life, but Voltaire never, ever, tells us everything. The Complete Works of Voltaire were begun in 1968, and the Voltaire Foundation plans to celebrate the completion of the 203 volumes at the end of 2020. When we chose the Letters on the English as the last major text to appear in the collection, we could not have known it would have this contemporary resonance. But Voltaire’s Enlightenment voice continues to resonate, powerfully, and often in ways we don’t expect.

– Nicholas Cronk

A (sacred) contagion

Les pestiférés de Rome by Alphonse Legros

Les pestiférés de Rome (c. 1855-1877), by Alphonse Legros. (BnF/Gallica)

You feel as though you are in danger. You know that what is threatening you is all around you and invisible. You feel precarious on this earth. When you look at the world out there, you are worried. Disorder makes you anxious, order reassures you. When you think of the days ahead, you find yourself in a state of bafflement; your mind vacillates between the fear of pain and disgrace and the hope for health and prosperity. At times of weakness or when your loved ones are exposed to risk, fear dominates. When they are safe, and you are feeling well, hope prevails. You are constantly suspended between opposite states of mind. Everything about your future and the future of your community seems unpredictable. You live in a constant state of emergency. Every day, you join your fellow citizens in lugubrious rituals where you remember the dead and celebrate the living, thank saviours and honour martyrs. You feel powerless. You do not understand; you know so little of the causes of your uneasiness. You wonder what they look like, where they reside, where they are from, how they affect you, when everything started, who was first affected, when misfortune will be over, and everything will be all right again. You have no answers.

Baron d’Holbach’s La Contagion sacrée

Title page of Baron d’Holbach’s La Contagion sacrée (1768).

But you realise that someone else knows more than you do. They do not have all the answers, but they do understand more than you, they are more acquainted with the invisible causes than you are, they have learned more. You trust them. You are scared. You have no choice. When their decrees are announced, you submit without a murmur; you adopt, without examining them, the prescribed ways of rendering the invisible agents harmless. You now follow their prescriptions methodically, ceremonially: you wear what they recommend, you purify your body according to their instructions, you move in the ways they endorse, in the places and times they have established. Sometimes, even those who have knowledge disagree, debate, fight battles, divide into sects. You doubt, sometimes. You do not like sects, perhaps. And yet you are scared. You do not know. You obey. You have no choice.

You are an inhabitant of this planet in the spring of 2020. You are also a believer from any time or place, according to the baron d’Holbach. Gods and goddesses may seem less real than viruses, but that does not mean they are less dangerous than a plague. The ghosts of religion and superstition can affect human life as much as a disease does. It is when fear meets ignorance and imagination, though, that the disease turns into an epidemic, a true ‘sacred contagion’: ‘fear is the most contagious of all passions’.

– Laura Nicolì

Laura Nicolì (Voltaire Foundation / LabEx OBVIL, Sorbonne Université) is currently working on the born-digital critical edition of Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach’s La Contagion sacrée ou Histoire naturelle de la superstition (1768), in the context of the Digital d’Holbach project.

‘Pour encourager les autres’: Admiral Byng, Voltaire, and the 1756 battle of Minorca

20 May 2020 marks the 264th anniversary of the naval battle of Minorca in 1756. This battle’s immortalisation by Voltaire has forever fixed the execution of British Admiral John Byng as a symbolic lieu de mémoire in our collective European memorial heritage. The battle’s greatest legacy is arguably Voltaire’s iconic phrase from Candide (1759): ‘pour encourager les autres’.

Events of 20 May 1756: the battle of Minorca

duc de Richelieu

Portrait présumé du duc de Richelieu, by Louis Toqué (c. 1753). (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours)

The naval battle of Minorca on 20 May 1756 saw France and Britain clash over possession of the island. This battle took place on the eve of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and is considered its first naval conflict. With a significant garrison stationed at the Fort St Philip fortress in Port-Mahon, Minorca was a strategic base for Britain. While the British navy was distracted by far-flung conflicts in the Atlantic and in North America, France, from the Toulon naval base, prepared a surprise expedition to attack Minorca. Under the duc de Richelieu, 15,000 French troops landed on Minorca on 19 April.

In response, the British dispatched a poorly equipped Admiral Byng to relieve the besieged British garrison. Byng, fearing that he was shorthanded for such an encounter, arrived off Port-Mahon on 19 May with thirteen ships. He faced a French fleet of twelve ships commanded by Marquis de La Galissonière. French naval reports state that Byng’s ships bore down on the French fleet at an angle, so that his six leading ships were exposed to fire from the French, who then slipped away unscathed. Byng subsequently failed both to land the soldiers he had on board, and to renew action against the French. After holding a council of war, he sailed back to Gibraltar, leaving the fort to its fate.

Prise de Port-Mahon sur l'île de Minorque, le 29 juin 1756

Prise de Port-Mahon sur l’île de Minorque, le 29 juin 1756, by Jean-Baptiste Martin le jeune.

Minorca surrendered in June, thus giving the French significant advantage in the Mediterranean. British Admiral Byng was summoned back to Britain, tried by court-martial, and condemned to death. He was shot on 14 March 1757 at Portsmouth.

Minorca: the scenic backdrop for naval battle

For modern readers, Minorca (Menorca) is an idyllic Spanish island, part of a trio of Balearic islands (with Majorca and Ibiza) in the western Mediterranean sea. Its megalithic stone monuments speak to a very ancient history, while as a biosphere reserve Minorca battles nowadays to protect its environment. The eighteenth century typified the island’s history of serial invasions: Minorca was initially captured by the British in 1708, during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). A new naval base was established in the deep natural harbour at Port-Mahon (nowadays Mahon, or Mao) and the influence of eighteenth-century Britain is still in evidence today in a wealth of indelible cultural signs.

The Execution of Admiral Byng

The shooting of Admiral Byng on board the Monarque

The shooting of Admiral Byng on board the Monarque, 1757. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

In the wake of the battle of Minorca, the execution of the British Admiral Byng proved deeply polemical and politicised. Public opinion was initially furious with Byng’s failure and flurries of pamphlets charged him with cowardice. The extreme severity of the court’s penalty for Byng’s failure to win the battle was primarily due to a recent amendment of the Articles of War which imposed death for the officer of any rank who did not do his utmost against the enemy either in battle or pursuit. Byng was deemed not to have done his utmost, but the court acquitted him of cowardice and in fact recommended mercy. A deeply entrenched antagonism between prime minister William Pitt the Elder and King George II complicated matters: a final pardon was ultimately refused by the king.

Admiral Byng

Admiral Byng, 1757. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Today, Byng’s descendants continue to petition the British government for a posthumous pardon. Ironically, after Byng’s trial, public clamour then rose against the ministry of the marine who had failed to provision Byng’s ships adequately and who were emphatically accused of casting the blame for their own failures onto a scapegoat, Byng.

Divided loyalties

In historical terms, it is not unusual to find that Irishmen held prominent positions on both sides: the Irish comte de Lally was one of the French king’s chief military advisors, while the defence of the British garrison was led by the Protestant Irish Lieutenant-Governor of Minorca, Lord Blakeney. Voltaire similarly enjoyed close affiliations to both sides: Richelieu was a long-standing personal friend, and he befriended both the young John Byng and his father, First Lord of the Admiralty Viscount Torrington, while in exile in England in 1726-1728. There is an uncanny symmetry in Voltaire’s attempt to save Byng from execution and his later vociferous campaign for Lally’s exoneration and posthumous rehabilitation, following a parallel accusation of treason after Lally’s defeat at Pondicherry, India (Fragments sur l’Inde, OCV, vol.75B). Even though Voltaire made personal profit out of a financial gamble on French success at Minorca, he felt deep sympathy for Byng, and carefully transcribed Richelieu’s own testimony that his enemy was not at fault during the battle and supplied it to England for the admiral’s defence.

Voltaire’s textual re-enactments

While Minorca was the sole naval battle that the French would win during the Seven Years’ War, Voltaire’s historical account in his Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCV, vol.29B) homes in on the adroit French multi-pronged land attack on the myriad British defences around the Port-Mahon fortress. In an account of the battle in the Précis (vol.29B, p.171-76), it is clear that Voltaire greatly admires the military tactics of his friend Richelieu. Rather impudently, Voltaire had penned a premature ode to Richelieu’s success, ‘Depuis plus de quarante années’, which circulated before the fall of Port-Mahon (OCV, vol.45A, p.383-89).

Voltaire is so deeply implicated in Minorcan events that when the British prime minister’s brother Thomas Pitt visited him, he was keen to intervene directly in the British row by providing a transcription of Richelieu’s bird’s-eye-view version of events. Textually, the historian Voltaire includes a conspicuously self-important metatextual reference to this particular diplomatic intervention: ‘En vain le maréchal de Richelieu, qui du haut d’un terre-plein, avait vu toute la bataille, et qui en pouvait juger, envoya à l’auteur de cette histoire une déclaration qui justifiait l’amiral Bing’ (vol.29B, p.175). The episode also ends with a reference to Byng sending evidential documentation to Voltaire, which makes the history incredibly immediate by again placing the writer front and centre in his own historiographical text: ‘avant d’être frappé, il envoya son mémoire justificatif à l’auteur’ (p.176). Not only does this emphasise authorial involvement and importance, but it attempts once more to underscore Byng’s innocence by citing the Englishman’s enemy, Richelieu. Moreover, the Précis is overtly critical of a king who could have pardoned Byng, but failed to do so. Thus, in life, Voltaire campaigns for exoneration, and though his writings, he campaigns for Byng’s posthumous pardon.

While the historical account in the Précis concludes on an emotive note regretting the execution of Byng, the infamous version in Candide offers a more deeply critical and reductively satirical version. That 1759 conte philosophique stages the moment of execution on Byng’s ship off Portsmouth without naming names. In this way, Voltaire focuses the spotlight on the timeless absurdity of executing an admiral who loses in battle. In an uncharacteristically decisive move, Candide darkly refuses to set foot in Voltaire’s beloved England, as he ponders pseudo-logically: ‘mais, dit Candide, l’amiral français était aussi loin de l’amiral anglais que celui-ci l’était de l’autre’. His interlocutors’ response is less a criticism of the execution itself than a broader indictment of the immense and miserable follies of war and of mankind: ‘il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres’.

– Síofra Pierse, Associate Professor, UCD Dublin

‘All together now’: accessing national theatre before the internet

Since the spread of global lockdowns to combat coronavirus, there has been an explosion of theatre productions that have been made freely available online. From New York to Delhi, from Cape Town to Rome, people have been able to come together and watch theatre in the space of their homes and to delve into the theatrical scenes of other cultures near and far. That’s without mentioning, of course, the prolific social media accounts of national theatres such as the Comédie-Française, the Opéra national de Paris, the National Theatre, or the Nationaltheater Mannheim (to name but four) which are sharing their content and behind-the-scenes snippets with confined spectators.

Tragedy and Nation in the Age of Napoleon

Tragedy and Nation in the Age of Napoleon is the May 2020 volume of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. It offers an exciting new perspective on the Napoleonic state and how it attempted to use theatre to reunite the nation after the Revolution.

Certainly, questions remain about the funding of the arts, and how they will survive the easing of social distancing measures, but more people than ever can access productions (the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night gained nearly 880,000 views on YouTube within a week, far more than the auditorium could hold in an entire run). But before the advent of the internet, how did people come together through theatre? How did they consume it without necessarily being in the auditorium that night? How did it give them a sense of community? How did it spread ideas of a national culture? These are some of the questions that are at the heart of my new book, Tragedy and Nation in the Age of Napoleon.

In what follows, I will briefly touch on three different ways during the Napoleonic period that people across France could relate to what was going on at the Comédie-Française, France’s national theatre for spoken theatre. Although this was a period long before the advent of the internet, people continue to access theatre in remarkably similar ways today.

The first and most prolific medium was the press. Accounts of the Comédie-Française’s performances were reprinted in provincial newspapers so that, whether you were sitting in Bordeaux or Marseille, in picking up the review the reader could engage with the performances that were meant to encapsulate the nation’s identity. Indeed, as today, these reports spread beyond France’s borders and became emblematic of its national culture through publications such as Le Spectateur du Nord (published in Hamburg). This was particularly important for the displaced members of the French population who were unable to return to their homeland after the Revolution.

La Couronne Théâtrale disputée par les Demoiselles Duchesnois et Georges Weimer

La Couronne Théâtrale disputée par les Demoiselles Duchesnois et Georges Weimer (Paris: Martinet, c. 1803). (gallica.bnf.fr / BnF)

The second important vein was through educational books (somewhat akin to today’s textbooks) and cheap editions of the classics which were performed at the Comédie-Française – for the era before PDFs and Kindle editions. These educational books were assembled in Paris, creating an anthology of the highlights of French theatre and literature with extensive introductions and footnotes to offer a guided reading. Indeed, as one publication noted, this was not just useful for the younger generations of the 1810s, but also for those who had lost out on an education during the ancien régime or the Revolution. Similarly, though more independently, publishing houses produced affordable runs of the classics which were well below the price of even the cheapest ticket at the Comédie-Française (just as today it is much cheaper to watch a production on YouTube than pay tens of pounds for a ticket), increasing the accessibility of these plays. This was national education on a large and – at 0.4 francs in one case – relatively cheap scale.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Joseph Karl Stieler, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1828, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen. (Neue Pinakothek München)

Finally, there were the actors themselves, who toured the provinces and the Empire to perform the hits of the Comédie-Française repertoire (either for their own financial gain or because Napoleon ordered them to) – for a comparison to our modern world, we might think about Sir Ian McKellen’s recent tour, which featured a heavy dose of Shakespeare. The Napoleonic period witnessed an increased interest in celebrity: people were intrigued to find out quite how magical a performance by the great actor Talma could be, or who was better in the intense rivalry between Mlles Duchesnois and Georges. Indeed, these performances were accessible to those who could not go to Paris (practically, or because they were exiled), and the existence of many free tickets meant that most ranks of society could try and slip inside the theatre. What is more, these provincial performances were in turn recorded, not just by local critics, but also by some of Europe’s greatest minds, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who saw the Comédie-Française’s performances in Erfurt, or Germaine de Staël, who famously recorded Talma’s provincial performance in On Germany, published in both London and Paris.

People have long been aware of theatre’s educative, morale-boosting, and entertaining effects. Theatre and Nation in the Age of Napoleon considers a time before the birth of the internet, but its questions of how theatre creates a sense of community and spreads national culture remain acutely pertinent to our current world.

– Clare Siviter, University of Bristol

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

The Battle of Fontenoy: a literary afterlife

The Battle of Fontenoy took place 275 years ago today, on 11 May 1745, near the city of Tournai, then in the Austrian Netherlands. The Maréchal de Saxe led French forces to victory against an allied Anglo-Dutch-Hanoverian army, led by Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, who had been sent to relieve Tournai from French siege. The French were in a strong defensive position; initial frontal attacks by Cumberland’s troops proved unsuccessful, and the Anglo-Hanoverian infantry were eventually driven back by the French cavalry, artillery, and the Irish Brigade, who were serving under French command. According to Voltaire, the battle saw the death of 5339 Frenchmen, although his Scottish contemporary Tobias Smollett puts the number closer to 12,000 dead on either side.

the Battle of Fontenoy

Vue de la Bataille de Fontenoy gagnée par le Roi Louis XV sur l’armée des alliés le XI mai 1745. Engraving by S. Guélard, drawing by J.B. Brouard. (BnF/Gallica)

Following the French victory at Fontenoy, Saxe and his forces continued their advance through the Austrian Netherlands, pushing back British, Dutch, and Austrian troops over the course of the following few months. Although the Austrian Netherlands were soon returned to the Habsburgs in 1748, following the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Battle of Fontenoy nonetheless represented a great victory on the part of France and of Louis XV.

Like all great battles, Fontenoy saw a significant literary afterlife, both in the years immediately following the battle, and well after it had passed from living memory. It boasts a number of fictional heroes among its veterans. Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste is perhaps the most memorable example: ‘Un régiment passait pour aller au Camp devant Fontenoy; de dépit je m’enrôle. Nous arrivons; la bataille se donne.’ A century later, in Treasure Island, we learn that Dr Livesey was among the British soldiers Jacques faced: ‘I have served his Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland, and got a wound myself at Fontenoy.’

The battle lingered and lingers on in Irish literary memory, too; the late nineteenth-century poet Emily Lawless wrote Fontenoy, 1745 from the perspective of the Irish soldiers who fought and died alongside the French. It begins:

Oh, bad the march, the weary march, beneath these alien skies,
But good the night, the friendly night, that soothes our tired eyes.
And bad the war, the tedious war, that keeps us sweltering here,
But good the hour, the friendly hour, that brings the battle near.
That brings us on to battle, that summons to their share
The homeless troops, the banished men, the exiled sons of Clare.

Voltaire, who was at the time of the battle historiographe de France, produced two literary accounts of the French victory: the Poème de Fontenoy (OCV, vol.28B, p.255-402), and two dedicated chapters in the second volume of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCVvol.29B, now published). Although ultimately a detailed and well-researched account, the chapters dedicated to Fontenoy in the Précis are not without dramatic embroidery and flourish, as we might expect from Voltaire. While Saxe is given the praise he is due, Voltaire opens by centering Louis XV as the hero of the narrative, raising morale – ‘Toute l’armée en voyant le roi et le dauphin, fit entendre des acclamations de joie’ – and showing valour and bravery in entering the fray: ‘Le roi ne voulut avoir pour sa garde qu’un escadron de cent vingt hommes de la compagnie de Charost, un seul gendarme, un chevau léger, un mousquetaire.’

Similarly, Voltaire’s use of direct speech produces a more dramatic and engaging narrative, although sometimes at the cost of the impression of total historical faithfulness; he writes, for example: ‘les Irlandais leur crièrent “Vive France”; mais dans le tumulte on n’entendait rien.’ Although effective in bringing home a striking image of the passion of the Irish soldiers in battle and the overwhelming clamour of war, it does beg the question as to how any source might have heard this battle-cry if it were indeed completely obscured by the surrounding noise.

the Battle of Fontenoy

A nineteenth-century depiction of Voltaire’s anecdote by French military painter Jean-Baptiste Édouard Detaille.

Perhaps the most famous moment of dramatic flair in Voltaire’s account, however, is an anecdote in which the British Lord Charles Hay, turning with his infantrymen to face the French troops, invites them to fire first; there ensues a brief, polite exchange of ‘after you’, ‘no, no, I insist, after you’:

Le comte de Chabannes, le duc de Biron qui s’étaient avancés et tous les officiers des gardes francaises leur rendirent le salut. Milord Charles Hay capitaine aux gardes anglaises cria: ‘Messieurs des gardes françaises, tirez.’ Le comte d’Auteroche, alors lieutenant des grenadiers et depuis capitaine, leur dit à voix haute: ‘Messieurs, nous ne tirons jamais les premiers, tirez vous-mêmes.’ Alors le capitaine anglais dit aux siens, ‘Give fire, gentlemen. Faites feu, Messieurs.’

The truth of this moment of etiquette in the heat of battle is hard to verify. Voltaire seems to be the first to publish this anecdote, which means either that he heard it from an oral source, or that it is the product of a dramatic embellishment. Regardless, it makes for an interesting and engaging story, which probably accounts for its widespread presence in subsequent literature on the battle.

Voltaire’s presentation of Fontenoy as a personal victory for Louis XV, and his dramatic, detailed account of the French victory, are no doubt in part motivated by the patriotic demands of the role of historiographe de France and a personal desire to win favour at court. The French victory at Fontenoy, and the celebratory literature produced around it, cemented it as an important moment in the history of the country, and indeed of Europe.

– Josie Dyster

The Taste of deception: plague, food, and medicine in seventeenth-century England

Today we are making a foray into the seventeenth century with Claire Turner. Claire is a first-year PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her research, which builds on her recent MA dissertation, focuses on how people experienced and perceived the plague through their senses in seventeenth-century England.

Butcher’s Row, London, 1800

Butcher’s Row, London, 1800. (Wellcome Images)

How well do you know your food, drink, and medicines? Do you trust their ingredients, appearance, and their taste? Recent research has demonstrated the importance of a balanced diet for convalescents in the early modern period. These concerns were equally prominent during London’s seventeenth-century plague outbreaks. People have always used their senses to decipher whether foods are pleasant or unpleasant, safe or unsafe. However, the senses could be easily deceived, no more so than in seventeenth-century discourses of food, drink, and medicine.

A cart for transporting the dead in London during the Great Plague

A cart for transporting the dead in London during the Great Plague. Watercolour painting by or after G. Cruikshank (1792-1878). (Wellcome Images)

In 1665, the plague visited London for the final time. Known as the Great Plague, this outbreak was arguably the most severe to visit the city in the seventeenth century. Concerns over the quality and wholesomeness of foodstuffs were paramount. In particular, Margaret Dorey has noted how contemporaries of plague outbreaks were suspicious of food traders such as butchers. A tract published in response to the outbreak included a warning to its readers. Roger Dixon highlighted the dangers of consuming meat which had been modified by the butchers who were selling it. The meat was blown into by the butchers with their ‘…filthy Pockey, Stinking, Putrified Breath, whereby they putrifie the flesh’. The practice of blowing meat was used by butchers in the early modern period to make their meat look plump, healthy, and fresh. In this way, butchers were deceiving the sense of sight. By making their foul meat look healthy, they actually further contaminated the meat by depositing their foul-smelling and potentially contagious breath into it.

Another significant outbreak occurred in London in 1625. At around the same time, Lady Frances Catchmay completed her compilation of medical recipes in A booke of medicens. One of these recipes concerned the plague. It advised the use of sugar to counteract the unpleasant taste of the remedy. Here, the use of sweet-tasting substances disguised the bitter and unsavoury taste of the medicine. As well as deceiving the sense of taste, the author of the recipe invoked the sense of sight by encouraging the addition of ‘three spoonefulls of white vinegar’. Derived from ancient European thought, the colour white was associated with purity. Research by Sidney W. Mintz has outlined that substances such as sugar and vinegar were deemed particularly effective when they were especially white. By influencing the colour and taste of the remedy, the author made the medicine appear even more effective and wholesome.

People strolling and buying plague antidotes in old St Paul’s Cathedral, London

People strolling and buying plague antidotes in old St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Etching by J. Franklin (1800-1861). (Wellcome Images)

Issues concerning sensory deception in diet and physick were evident across numerous plague epidemics. In both 1625 and 1665, authors of plague tracts focused on the hazards of consuming pleasant-tasting food and the benefits of eating seemingly unsavoury food. In 1625, London physician Stephen Bradwell advised his readers not to consume sweet-tasting foods because it ‘betrayes their vnfitnesse in times of Contagion’. Similarly, in London, in 1665, an anonymous tract encouraged the consumption of sharp-tasting sauces and juices alongside meats which did not putrefy and were easily digestible.

This awareness of the benefits of sharp-tasting foods was also present in tracts relating to plague outbreaks outside of London. In Oxford in 1644, Lionel Gatford informed his readers that often the most unsavoury and sharp tastes were ‘undoubtedly the most wholsome’. Therefore, these writers warned their readers not to let their sense of taste deceive them. To a certain extent, theories of food consumption and plague in the seventeenth century reinforced the notion that sensory ‘opposites attract’.

Ideas about illness and taste are once again at the forefront of our minds in the current COVID-19 pandemic. Health experts have reported that a proportion of COVID-19 sufferers experience an absence of the senses of taste and smell. It is clear, then, that the sense of taste will always remain a key indicator in experiences of illness and recovery. Alongside the other senses, taste in the seventeenth century was deceptive and hazardous. Today, its absence is just as menacing.

– Claire Turner

A ‘Taste’ of Voltaire

Roseanne Silverwood has just received an MA in Translation (French and Spanish) from the University of Bristol (with distinction). Her dissertation project was to translate Voltaire’s article Goût from Questions sur l’Encyclopédie into English. She studied Modern Languages as an undergraduate at St Hilda’s College at the University of Oxford.

To say I was daunted is probably an understatement. Who was I to translate a previously untranslated text of Voltaire’s from French to English? Voltaire, the highly esteemed eighteenth-century French writer who still tops bestseller charts in France today.  However, for some reason this translation project piqued my attention and I knew, despite the hard work that it would entail, that I did not want to turn down the opportunity to be part of something that had the potential to be bigger than just my own academic studies.

From <i>Questions sur l’Encyclopédie</i> (1771), vol.6.

From Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1771), vol.6.

I first spoke to Adrienne Mason, the intermediary between the Voltaire Foundation and myself, in late 2018 to find out more about how the collaboration between the University of Bristol and the Voltaire Foundation would work. However, it was early 2019 before I really embarked upon the project of translating Voltaire’s article Goût from Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, which formed the basis of my Master’s dissertation. After two years of studying for my MA Translation (part-time) as a distance learner at the University of Bristol, whilst working full-time in a completely different industry, I knew that taking on the translation of Goût (p.280-98) was going to be an enormous challenge, not just because I would be continuing to work full-time during the week, but also because I was planning a wedding at the same time!

What surprised me the most was how accessible Voltaire’s writing was to me as a modern-day reader, especially given that I am not a native French speaker. As part of the commission I was also tasked with translating the scholarly peritext (i.e. the footnotes to the article Goût in Volume 42A of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire), and I have to admit that I enjoyed translating Voltaire’s own writing much more than the critical annotations that accompanied his article. I expect this is because Voltaire’s writing was more free-flowing and abstract, whereas the academic peritext was factual and punctuated with constant references and quotations from other authors, which presented many challenges in translation.

I spent much of my spare time in spring and summer that year locked away in my study working through all twenty pages of the commission. If I could at least do a first draft of one page whenever I had a spare day at the weekend, I had a chance of getting my dissertation project completed by the September deadline. I was impressed that, equipped with my student library privileges, there were so many resources that I could access online, even more, I think, than when I was completing my undergraduate degree between 2007 and 2011.

Title page of Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1771).

Title page of Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1771), vol.6.

One of the hardest aspects of this translation was where Voltaire, or the author of the peritextual material, quoted from different authors in languages other than English. In these cases, I had to first search for an existing translation of the quotation, and only if this did not exist could I translate the fragment myself. Therefore, I found myself trawling through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts online for this purpose, and was truly amazed at what was available at the click of a button. As I write this blog post, most of the world is under some form of lockdown due to Covid-19, and this certainly brings to the forefront the importance of initiatives such as the Voltaire Lab – where my translation can now be consulted – a ‘virtual space for cutting-edge research and experimentation on Voltaire’, so that scholarship can still flourish in the modern day despite the challenges that could be posed by distance learning, or even global pandemics.

For me personally, I have always loved studying languages and hope to make a career as a translator one day, so during this project it was interesting to consider translation as a profession, and in particular how it can be perceived as an undervalued discipline. This, in turn, can mean that academic texts in other languages, such as the critical annotations to Voltaire’s article, or even the essay Goût itself if considered as a social science text, are often overlooked because they are not originally written in the academic lingua franca, English. Furthermore, if a spotlight can reveal the important role that translations can play in advancing scholarship about a writer such as Voltaire, perhaps the discipline of translation as a whole could be elevated to greater heights. After all, as I well know, it is an academically demanding and time-consuming process.

Fortunately, I managed to complete my dissertation project by the deadline so that I could go and celebrate my own hen party guilt-free the following weekend. I got married a month later, and once the excitement of the wedding had subsided I was delighted to get the fantastic news that my dissertation had received a mark of 82%, which tipped me over into a distinction for my Master’s grade overall. I cannot thank my supervisor, Clare Siviter, Adrienne Mason and the Voltaire Foundation enough for the opportunity to participate in such a pioneering research project that highlights the importance of digitisation in academia and the fruits that can be borne by collaboration between different universities.

– Roseanne Silverwood