Exploring Parisian archives thanks to the BSECS/Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment Travel Award

Tabitha Baker is a 3rd-year PhD student at the University of Warwick and V&A Museum. Her thesis is entitled ‘The Embroidery Trade in Eighteenth-Century France’ and is an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership project supervised jointly by Professor Giorgio Riello (Warwick) and Professor Lesley Miller (V&A).

On a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1903, Beatrix Potter was shown an elaborately embroidered French velvet coat from the 1780s. Inspired by the sparkling embroidery which had retained its brilliance for over a century, an illustration of the coat was to appear on page 12 of her children’s story, The Tailor of Gloucester. The coat was later displayed in 1987-88 as part of the Beatrix Potter exhibition at the Tate Gallery, and remains a stunning example of eighteenth-century court dress. Eighteenth-century French embroidered clothing in the collections of the V&A and museums around the world is displayed for its technical excellence and beauty. Yet these objects are also the products of a deeply hierarchical and complex luxury trade, the socio-economic intricacies of which have been little studied to date.


Ensemble (coat), France, 1780s. 1611&A-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum.

My research examines the relationship between the consumption and professional production of fashionable embroidery for clothing and furnishings in eighteenth-century France (c.1660-1791), with a particular focus on Paris and Lyon. By using archival sources alongside surviving embroidered objects from museums in the UK, France and the US, I investigate how embroidery techniques changed over time, how the trade functioned in different cities, and the nature of the professional embroiderers’ clientele.

Embroidery was a well-established trade in France by the time the ‘Beatrix Potter’ coat was produced, readily supplying the luxury clothing and furnishings market in the major cities of France and elsewhere in Europe. Due to their dealings with elite customers who were in a position to command long cycles of credit, it was not uncommon for professional embroiderers who ran large workshops to find themselves in precarious financial situations and succumb to bankruptcy.

The BSECS/Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment Travel Award enabled me to go to France in June 2017 to undertake detailed research on the bankruptcy records of the professional embroiderers of eighteenth-century Paris. At the Archives de Paris, I discovered more about their customers, orders, prices and delivery timeframes. This led me to analyse more fully the working practices of professional embroiderers during this period, including how long it took to produce and deliver to the client different types of embroidery, and how the cost of producing embroidery varied over the course of the eighteenth century.

Waistcoat, France, 1730s

Waistcoat, France, 1730-1739. 252-1906. © Victoria and Albert Museum.

An item such as this waistcoat (left), elaborately embroidered in coloured silk and silver threads and which can be seen today at the V&A, is one example of the fashion for luxuriously embroidered clothing at the royal court and the types of commissions taken on by the professional embroiderers of Paris. The order books that I have been working on at the Archives de Paris suggest that embroidery in gold and silver, popular amongst members of the French nobility, could have cost anything between 800 and 2500 livres to purchase, and such orders were placed with embroiderers at the top end of the occupational hierarchy, usually embroiderers to the king and court.

Due to their economic and social standing, customers of this calibre were able to purchase expensive luxury products such as these waistcoats on a long credit cycle, meaning that products would not be paid for in full until months or even years after the receipt of the product. Embroiderers who supplied the wealthy nobility were therefore caught up in a credit cycle, and were often owed great sums by their clients, as can be seen in many of the bankruptcy files.

Thanks to the generosity of BSECS and the Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment, my findings from this period of research have enabled me to make significant progress on my examination of the structure of the professional embroidery trade and how the embroiderers’ occupation reacted to a fluctuating consumer market. A close analysis of how embroidery was consumed in France during the eighteenth century, and the effects this consumption had on the structure of the French embroidery trade, will, I hope, contribute to a greater understanding of the relationship between elite consumption and the French luxury trades.

– Tabitha Baker


Fake views: an unusual false attribution

While looking for a pamphlet entitled Lettre de M. de B… à Monsieur de Voltaire I came across a Lettre de M. de Voltaire au peuple d’Angleterre, sur les écarts qu’il a fait paraître, au sujet des balladins français. I have located only four copies in library catalogues. The copy in the Taylorian Library used to belong to Theodore Besterman, who describes it in Some eighteenth-century Voltaire editions unknown to Bengesco (SVEC 111, 1973, no.352). Besterman swiftly dismisses the work in a note stating: ‘As a preface to this pamphlet is printed a letter from Voltaire to Garrick, oddly dated from Coppet, 29 November 1755, and no more authentic than the rest.’ But the work has some interest.

A first consideration with such publications is to assess whether the imprint is genuine: ‘A Londres: Chés J. Robinson, au Lion d’Or, dans Ludgate-Street. M.DCC.LV.’ The pamphlet was certainly printed in England, as is proved by the presence of a press-figure on p.2. The firm of J. Robinson was principally associated with religious publications, and some medical and scientific works, but also history and there was, in 1744, Stage policy detected; or some select pieces of theatrical secret history laid open: in a letter to a certain manager on his imaginary justification of his late conduct. By an impartial hand. So perhaps the imprint is genuine.

The word ‘baladin’ (in its modern spelling) is defined in the Robert dictionary: ‘Vx. Danseur de ballets; bouffon de comédie, comédien ambulant.’ It is not much used in modern French but was certainly well known in the eighteenth century. According to F. Noël’s Philologie française (Paris, 1831), ‘Les balladins étaient des danseurs qui vinrent d’Italie en France dans le 16e siècle.’ What appears to be the sole example of its use in Voltaire’s works is found in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, article ‘Anciens et modernes’: ‘Molière, dans ses bonnes pièces, est aussi supérieur au pur, mais froid Térence, et au farceur Aristophane, qu’au baladin Dancourt’ (OCV, vol.38, p.346). He uses the word in a letter to Marie-Louise Denis in 1744 (D3015): ‘Je me sens un peu honteux à mon âge de quitter ma filosofie et ma solitude pour être baladin des rois’; and to Tronchin and Richelieu in 1764. The ‘Lettre à M. Garrick’ in this pamphlet mentions ‘le genre balladin’. There is no evidence of any correspondence between Voltaire and Garrick before the mid-1760s.

Garrick by Gainsborough.

The anonymous writer has fluent French, is familiar with Voltaire’s work and makes some effort to imitate his style, with varying degrees of success, but he is probably English. The spelling is sometimes strange (‘tandîque’, ‘Etâts’, ‘interrêt’, ‘rivâle’); older verb endings are used (‘vous voyés’); ‘ce’ is often fused with the word that follows it (‘ceque’). The use of the word ‘Quixotisme’ in the ‘Lettre à M. Garrick’ surprises. It is not used anywhere by Voltaire, and indeed the word seems to be unknown in France, not recorded by either Littré or Robert. The only other example I have found in French is in a letter written by Joseph Conrad to Jean Masbrenier on 14 January 1913. In this letter Conrad is clearly translating from his own English. The word is therefore an anglicism. The real French term ‘donquichottisme’ is recorded in 1789, while ‘Quixotism’ is recorded in English from 1664.

The writer shows some knowledge of Voltaire’s private life in the ‘Extrait d’une lettre envoyée de Genève à Londres’ which introduces the pamphlet, and uses it well to give a spurious authenticity to the work. The letter is dated ‘Ornex, 30 novembre 1755’ and its writer claims that Voltaire was with them, visiting ‘le P. Vionnet’ ‘son bon ami, et son frère en Apollon, comme il l’appelle’. I have found no evidence to back up either of these claims, though Voltaire was at Les Délices at the time and so could have visited. Georges Vionnet taught rhetoric at the Collège de la Trinité in Lyon, and wrote some plays. Only one letter from Voltaire to Georges Vionnet is known, and refers to their plays: ‘J’ai l’honneur, mon révérend père, de vous marquer une très faible reconnaissance d’un fort beau présent [Vionnet’s Xerxès]. Vos manufactures de Lyon valent mieux que les nôtres; mais j’offre ce que j’ai [Voltaire’s Sémiramis]. Il me paraît que vous êtes un plus grand ennemi de Crébillon que moi. Vous avez fait plus de tort à son Xerxès, que je n’en ai fait à sa Sémiramis. Vous et moi, nous combattons contre lui. Il y a longtemps que je suis sous les étendards de votre société. Vous n’avez guère de plus mince soldat; mais aussi il n’y en a point de plus fidèle. Vous augmentez encore en moi cet attachement, par les sentiments particuliers que vous m’inspirez pour vous, et avec lesquels j’ai l’honneur d’être, etc.’ (14 December [1749], D4074). But Georges Vionnet died in December 1754. His brother Barthélemy also taught at the college, was also a playwright, and was still alive in 1762, but there is no evidence that Voltaire had contact with him.

The supposed addressee of the letter is unnamed. The Histoire tragique arrivée à l’encontre des danseurs françois ascribed to him, and which allegedly prompted Voltaire’s Lettre, does not appear to have survived, if it ever existed.

The ‘Extrait d’une lettre’ recounts how Voltaire amusingly defended his love of the English. The writer claims that the next morning (!) Voltaire’s ‘valet de chambre’ brought the Lettre au peuple d’Angleterre, and he has made a copy, which he encloses.

The 1763 Covent Garden riot.

The occasion for the pamphlet was a riot at the Drury Lane Theatre in November 1755. Riots were not unusual in theatreland. There had been one in 1737 when footmen were denied their usual free seats in the gallery. There was one in 1763 over increased ticket prices.

The 1755 riot was different, being political, and developed over several days. David Garrick had engaged the Frenchman Jean-Georges Noverre to produce a spectacular ballet.

Jean-Georges Noverre.

Noverre was an innovative and admired balletmaster who created some 150 ballets, of which none have come down to us, but his influence on ballet has been great. In 1754 his Fêtes chinoises had enchanted Paris, and Garrick asked for an even richer version for his London audience. Unfortunately for the production, tensions with France were growing – it was the eve of the Seven Years’ War – and a section of the audience was hostile. The Journal étranger of December 1755 (part 2) gives a detailed account of hostilities in the theatre. On the first performance (8 November), even in the King’s presence, there were whistles, jeers and shouts of ‘No French dancers!’ On 12 November the performance was interrupted by fighting between the nobility and the ‘parterre’. On the 14th the nobility were absent and the ‘peuple furieux’ drowned out the music. On the 15th, again in the absence of nobility, there was a full riot by the ‘Blagards’, which was put down by the militia. Garrick’s assistant promised there would be no further performances. On the 17th the nobility demanded the Fêtes chinoises. Some people repeated the cry for no French dancers. Garrick was summoned. He was unable to satisfy the rival parties but after much argument it was agreed to put on the ballet on the 18th. On that day the opposing sides were present in numbers, the nobility well armed. Total war in which the nobility were unable to overcome the rebels. The theatre was badly damaged; Garrick’s house in Southampton Street was attacked, with all the windows broken, and there was a risk it would be set on fire.

Garrick’s house in Southampton Street, London.

The Journal étranger (p.235) concludes: ‘Il serait trop long d’entrer dans le détail des platitudes qui se sont débitées à Londres à cette occasion, comme chansons, pièces de vers, libelles, etc. On a poussé l’extravagance jusqu’à imprimer que les danseurs français étaient des officiers, et le Maître des ballets, le Prince Edouard.’ Reports also appeared in the Caledonian Mercury (27 November) and the Leeds intelligencer (2 December). A more colourful account is given in the footnote on p.41 of The Pin-basket to the children of Thespis by Anthony Pasquin [John Williams] (London, 1797).

A detailed examination of the whole affair is given in Hsin-yun Ou’s ‘The Chinese festival and the eighteenth-century London audience’ in The Wenshan Review of literature and culture, vol.2.1 (December 2008).

The scene is set and our anonymous writer, in the ‘Lettre à M. Garrick, pour servir d’Introduction’, starts off with a voltairean rhetorical question: ‘Est-il possible qu’un peuple qui passe dans toute l’Europe pour penser, se livre à des égarements aussi ridicules, que ceux où l’on m’écrit qu’il s’est jeté?’ and introduces the main text: ‘Je joins ici une lettre, dont l’objet roule uniquement à faire voir à cette sage nation, combien elle déroge à son honneur et à sa gloire, toutes les fois qu’elle s’abandonne à une passion marquée au coin de la haine et de la jalousie, pour des sujets aussi frivoles que celui du genre balladin.’

But is is perhaps in this introductory letter that there is a clue to the purpose of the deceit. Towards the end the writer clarifies what he means by ‘peuple’. It is not the common people: ‘La populace n’a ni yeux pour voir, ni oreilles pour entendre. […] C’est une machine informe et pesante, qui n’avance qu’autant qu’on lui donne de force. […] La populace eut vu jouer votre Ballet chinois avec des yeux aussi tranquilles que stupides, si quelque Mégère d’un souffle empesté, n’eût allumé le flambeau dont elle arma cette multitude insensée. C’est donc à ces personnes distinguées de la populace […] que j’adresse cette lettre; à ces personnes qui ont du bon-sens et de la raison, mais que le défaut d’expérience et le manque de réflection, empêchent d’en faire usage à propos; à ces personnes qui n’ayant ni les sentiments où est élevée la noblesse, ni l’ignorance où croupit la populace, tiennent justement le milieu entre le haut et le dernier rang d’une République. Ce sont ceux-là, que le mot de liberté, transporte, affole, enthousiaste; et qui donnant trop de feu à leurs passions, les consument au lieu de les nourrir, pour le soutien et pour l’éclat du corps républicain.’ An appeal to the middle classes for a political rebirth.

What are we to make of the expression ‘corps républicain’? It was not common in French at this time, but became so later in the century. But this is an Englishman writing. Is he appealing to the tradition of the Commonwealth men?

The Lettre de M. de Voltaire au peuple d’Angleterre itself contains a long satirical tirade in which the writer taunts the English with having abandoned their military glory in favour of defeating French dancers: ‘je demanderais aux Anglais, quels étaient leurs grands balladins du temps des Edouards, des Henris, des Elizabeth, des Cromwell? Quelle tache encore une fois pour ces grands princes, de n’avoir pas établi dans leurs états, des écoles de danse, d’escrime et de frisure!’ He thinks it fine to dispute the ‘gloire’ of Shakespeare and Molière, but not farce and ballet. He continues with a diatribe against the weakening of the nation who will not know the glory of arms and will despise battle and combat, and will have no ‘destinée’ but to go to the courts of princes to be diverted by leaps, dances, songs and farces. ‘Les Anglais ne sont point nés danseurs, ni friseurs, ni balladins. Ils ont l’esprit plus élevé; les grands objets font leur occupation: la liberté, la guerre, les sciences, les arts, les métiers, les manufactures et le commerce, voilà pourquoi est né un Anglais; et c’est une gloire pour eux de n’avoir jamais eu, et de n’avoir encore à présent ni friseur, ni danseur, ni balladin.’ The writer praises England, but condemns its concentration on trade and avidity for gold. He praises Louis XIV for forbidding his nobles to engage in commerce.

He writes too against the ‘Antigallicans’ who are hostile to the French, and who think: ‘il est bien cruel de voir notre argent que nous avons tant de peine à faire venir dans notre île, en sorte par la voye de tant d’étrangers, qui comme la fourmis, viennent ici faire leur provision, et vont ensuite la consumer ailleurs’. He argues forcefully that foreigners who earn money here also spend it here, supporting the economy. Here are interesting similarities with current arguments in Britain.

The letter ends in a mode of voltairean irony: ‘Mais silence …. je ne m’apperçois pas que pour un sujet aussi frivole que celui du Genre balladin, je me jette dans des réflexions profondes et à perte de vue. Que le peuple anglais s’obstine à écarter les danseurs français; qu’il nous apprenne qu’avec des batons il sait casser des lanternes; et qu’avec des cailloux il sait enfoncer des vitres; ne réformons personne, laissons le monde tel qu’il est, etc. etc.’

At a time when Europe and other parts of the world were moving towards war, the anonymous writer has used Voltaire’s prestige to support what is in effect a call to arms and moral regeneration, while avoiding simple jingoism.[1] Much emphasis is put on praise for England, but France is not disparaged. It is a clever piece of work and perhaps one of the ‘libelles’ referred to by the writer of the account in the Journal étranger. We unfortunately cannot know how widely the Lettre was read nor how much influence it had.

I have not found any clues to the identity of the writer. He was knowledgeable about Voltaire’s writings and some details of his private life. His French was good. He had strong views about the changes needed to make Britain powerful again. He admired France and Voltaire. At first blush one might think of Sir Everard Fawkener, who was a close friend and admirer of Voltaire and fluent in French. He had also been active in military matters, being from 1745 secretary to the duke of Cumberland, and diplomacy, having been made ambassador to the Sublime Porte in 1735. But this seems unlikely. The ageing Fawkener would by this time probably have been too troubled by his growing financial problems to be tempted to lead a campaign for national regeneration.[2] The Voltaire Foundation would be interested to receive suggestions of the writer’s identity.

– Martin Smith

[1] Voltaire’s celebrity was such that his name was falsely attached to many publications of different kinds, and for various purposes. For an account of this phenomenon see Nicholas Cronk, ‘The selfless author: Voltaire’s apocrypha’, Romanic Review 103.3-4 (2013), p.553-77.

[2] See Norma Perry, Sir Everard Fawkener, friend and correspondent of Voltaire, SVEC 133 (1975), ‘The last ten years’.

Les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, the first 25 years – the pioneers

OCV – ‘one of the most significant and thoughtful scholarly ventures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ – John Renwick

The idea of publishing the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire is 50 this month. This has made us reflect on the many people who have been – and still are – working to realise this ambitious project in 2019. The current Vf in-house team have all been around at least ten years; however, only one of us was part of the first twenty-five years, so he was asked to write a blog!

Theodore Besterman

Theodore Besterman.

Theodore Deodatus Nathaniel Besterman, in the course of a life of extraordinary intellectual activity, became a passionate voltairien, at one time living in Voltaire’s house, Les Délices, and sleeping in the philosopher’s own bedroom. Whether Besterman’s earlier experience as research officer for the London Society for Psychical Research enabled any special insights through this location is not recorded, but he used his time in Geneva to produce an edition of Voltaire’s correspondence (107 volumes) and Notebooks, as well as starting the series Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century (now Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment). After moving back to England he proposed, at the second congress of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies at St Andrews in 1967 (the Society itself being in part Besterman’s creation), to produce a critical edition of the complete works of Voltaire, an offer enthusiastically received by Jean Ehrard, René Pomeau, Owen Taylor, Samuel Taylor and Jeroom Vercruysse. The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire were born and an international committee formed to direct the edition, including, as well as the above, William Barber (later general editor), Roland Mortier and Robert Niklaus. The Voltaire Foundation was based at Besterman’s house at Thorpe Mandeville in Oxfordshire.

Besterman immediately started a revised edition of the correspondence, to be called the ‘Definitive edition’ (1968-1977), and of the Notebooks, published in 1968. The following year saw the appearance of La Philosophie de l’histoire, edited by J. H. Brumfitt, and in this year too Besterman published his biography of Voltaire, which was to see two revised editions over the following six years, and translations into Italian and German in 1971.

Les Délices

The Maison Les Délices in its garden in Geneva (Wikimedia commons).

1970 saw Owen Taylor’s edition of La Henriade, a revision of his edition published in 1965 in vols 38-40 of Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, this series also being a creation of Besterman while in Geneva. (Owen’s bequest still supports a travel grant established to support young researchers). In the same year Jeroom Vercruysse’s edition of La Pucelle appeared.

Research and publication progressed steadily, helped from 1974 by Samuel Taylor’s detailed recension of Voltaire’s emendations to his own text in the copy of the ‘encadrée’ edition in Voltaire’s own library in Leningrad (SVEC 124). In this year William Barber became general editor. David Williams completed his three-volume edition of the Commentaires sur Corneille and he continues to contribute to the series, most recently in the Nouveaux Mélanges (2017).

1976 brought great changes as Theodore Besterman died and the Voltaire Foundation was bequeathed to the University of Oxford. A small office was set up in Oxford in 1977, consisting of just two people, to be joined the following year by the present writer, whose initial responsibilities were the continuing publication of Ralph Leigh’s edition of Rousseau’s correspondence, which Besterman had also taken on, and the Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century series, now with Haydn Mason as general editor.

Publication of the complete works continued, with notably, in 1980, Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, edited by René Pomeau, who had previously published his study La Religion de Voltaire and who went on to lead the team that wrote Voltaire en son temps, published by the Voltaire Foundation, a rich source for Voltaire studies. The number of international collaborators increased and Christiane Mervaud and Haydn Mason joined the committee. In 1984 La Défense de mon oncle and A Warburton, edited by José-Michel Moureaux, appeared and his work on Lettres sur les miracles will be published in 2018 in collaboration with Olivier Ferret.


Sir Isaac Newton by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt. (Wikimedia commons).

In 1986 Le Droit du seigneur, edited by W. D. Howarth, Haydn Mason’s predecessor at Bristol University, was published and his edition of Le Dépositaire was revised by Russell Goulbourne and published in 2013. In 1987 John Renwick’s edition of André Destouches à Siam appeared in volume 62, and he continues to contribute widely to the series. Roland Mortier, whose Le Philosophe ignorant and L’Examen important de milord Bolingbroke also appeared in volume 62, is thanked for his work on the Fragment d’une lettre du lord Bolingbroke by Jean Dagen, whose edition appears in a volume to be published in 2017; and in 1988 Sylvain Menant joined the committee – his most recent contribution was published in 2014 in Contes de Guillaume Vadé.

Our 25-year survey closes with the publication of Voltaire’s magnum opus of scientific popularisation, the Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, edited by William Barber and Robert L. Walters. William’s editorship ended the following year.

This period saw the idea of a rare individual, who might, some thought, have almost believed himself to be a reincarnation of Voltaire, grow into reality through the collaboration of a large number of scholars in several countries and continents who laid a solid foundation for the next twenty-five years plus. To be continued…

– Martin Smith
Oxford, July 2017

OSE Digitisation for archiving… then sale?

The Vf is in the midst of a big project to digitise all 550+ books from the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series into ORA (Oxford University Research Archive), the University’s own archive of scholarly publications – Oxford’s dark archive.

We are heavily indebted to four students who have hugely helped by working over the last two years. Here, Andi and Elizabeth give us their views, which show how much publishing has evolved since the beginning of the series and the benefits that the metadata capture and printing-on-demand (a.k.a. PODing) will bring to the users and buyers of Studies volumes.

Print-on-demand creationAndi Glover

I worked as a digitisation assistant for the Voltaire Foundation for four months, administering the creation of print-on-demand (POD) editions of volumes in the SVEC series (Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century), now Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

SVEC, established by Theodore Besterman in 1955, is a series of scholarly monographs in French and English on diverse aspects of eighteenth-century European history, culture and ideas. The volumes I worked on, published between 1964 and 1979, covered subjects as diverse as Molière’s critical reception in his time (vol.112), and a study of the influence of Hobbes and Locke on the concept of sovereignty in French philosophy (vol.101). Many of these volumes were written by authors still collaborating with the Vf today, such as a study on the account of Rousseau given in Madame de Graffigny’s letters (vol.175) by English Showalter, now the editor of her complete correspondence.

As a student of librarianship, I was aware of Besterman’s contribution to bibliography as the author of The Beginnings of Systematic Bibliography (1935), Counsellor of the World Bibliographical and Library centre, and editor of the World Bibliography of Bibliographies. Several SVEC volumes bear witness to his application of these skills to Voltaire studies, such as Some eighteenth-century Voltaire editions unknown to Bengesco (vol.111), which builds on earlier bibliographies of Voltaire with editions that Besterman located through his research.

To digitise and create POD editions of these volumes, I first prepared draft preliminary pages and covers, and sent them to typesetters with whom I then liaised to finalise the PDF files they created. I also approached some of the original authors to request overview text for the covers of their volumes; their good wishes and enthusiasm for the project were encouraging. Where we could not contact authors, I enjoyed choosing extracts from the books themselves that I felt would inform and engage a scholarly reader.

Next, I uploaded my proofs to the printer, Ingram’s Lightning Source website, and input key metadata about the volumes, such as number of pages and year of publication. Finally, I posted the hard copy volumes, provided by the Taylor Institution, to Ingram for scanning, and checked the resulting digital and hard copy proofs. The first hard copy proof arrived in early August; two months and many cups of coffee later, I had sent 60 volumes to be scanned and digitised.

Working simultaneously on several volumes, each at a different stage in the process, was challenging. I was well supported throughout as well as being free to make decisions independently about formatting, and organising my own workload, and as a result I have become more confident about managing responsibility!

Andi Glover is a Library and Information Studies MA student at University College London. Tweet @librarimand, or e-mail.

Malheur aux détails, la postérité les néglige tous… (*) except when needed for e-books! – Elizabeth Duncan

I worked at the Voltaire Foundation a couple of weeks after finishing the final exams for my BA degree in Classics and French, looking to gain some practical experience in publishing.

Over the summer I worked on capturing metadata for the digitisation of the extensive back catalogue of books in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series (formerly Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century).

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment holds a wealth of interesting and erudite work on the Enlightenment which deserves to be made more readily accessible and widely available, and digitisation, or electronic publishing, offers a way to achieve this aim.

Drawing of Château at Ferney

Drawing of Château at Ferney on website of Vanderbilt Library – relating to Voltaire’s British visitors

Begun in 1955, with over five hundred books to its name, the series encompasses scholarship ranging from highly specialised work on Voltaire, such as Sir Gavin de Beer and André-Michel Rousseau’s detailed catalogue of Voltaire’s British visitors, for which I wrote a description for the website, to broader studies shedding light on neglected areas, such as Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’ (November 2015) for which I checked the first proofs.

My work largely consisted of cross-checking the details held about each book, from its ISBN to its pagination, and keying the short descriptions and tables of contents, in order to capture all the information (or metadata) necessary to find the electronic books when digitised and online. In the cases of earlier books, ones from the 1950s and 1960s when no-one ever dreamt that a book could become, or should become, an intangible piece of electronic data, finding and collating these details was sometimes a challenge! This initial project was an essential step in a longer process, and it is exciting to think of these older books, which still have valuable things to say about the Enlightenment, being made available once again to a new audience through a medium invented many years after they were written.

The other advantage of working in a small team like the Voltaire Foundation is that I had the opportunity to see other aspects of publishing by doing other odd jobs – I have definitely had my practical experience!

As a keen student of French literature who had very much enjoyed the eighteenth-century literature I covered at Oxford, I also really appreciated the chance to broaden my acquaintance with the subject by seeing the diversity of topics on which scholars work and publish, especially the opportunities to dip into the proofs of books not even published yet to see where the very newest thought on the Enlightenment is going.

(*) Title reference: Letter from Voltaire to the abbé Dubos, Best.D1569

If Voltaire had used Wikipedia…

At the Voltaire Foundation we’ve recently had the opportunity to work with the University of Oxford’s Wikimedian in residence, Dr Martin Poulter. He has helped us to build some new content for our website as well as contributing to our mission to promote the work of Voltaire. In this blog post, he explains a bit more about the project.

Sharing open knowledge about Voltaire’s histories

To raise awareness of Voltaire as a historian, we used three tools:

  1. Histropedia: a free tool for creating engaging, interactive visualisations
  2. Wikidata: a free database and sister site of Wikipedia that drives Histropedia and other visualisations
  3. Wikipedia: the free multilingual encyclopedia.

As well as holding data about people, publications, and events, Wikidata acts as a cross-reference between the different language versions of Wikipedia, showing which concepts are represented in which languages. By querying Wikidata, we could count how many language versions of Wikipedia had an article on each work by Voltaire. This showed, as expected, a large imbalance: forty languages for Candide versus three for the Essai sur les mœurs, for example. The current number of articles for each work is shown by the size of the bubbles below.


Creating interactive timelines

The timelines are built from three things:

  1. Wikipedia articles (that open on double-clicking the entry in the timeline)
  2. Publication dates and titles from Wikidata
  3. Images (in the case of books, usually title pages) that are hosted in the Wikimedia Commons repository (another sister site of Wikipedia).

We added articles, data and images to what was already present on these sites. Since Wikimedia sites are open and free, this content is available for reuse by other sites and applications. For instance, the images have been tagged by their year, language and subject so as to appear in searches and image galleries (for example for books in French or books from the eighteenth century).

A custom Wikidata query showed works by Voltaire with their publication dates, helping to identify works lacking a date. We added new entries for some works that were absent, including most of the historical works.

The timeline of Voltaire’s works uses a custom database query to bring all this content together. The timeline does not by any means include all of Voltaire’s works, but more will appear in future as their details are added to Wikidata. As well as each work’s title, publication date and image, the query returns the type of work; poems, plays, fiction and so on. This is used to colour-code the timeline. Clicking on the drop icon in the top left brings up a list of types. Readers can select the type they are interested in to filter the results shown in the timeline, for example to show only the histories. To make the histories especially visible, we added title page images from public domain sources or the Voltaire Foundation’s own collection.

As well as the timeline of works, we used Histropedia to create a companion timeline for ‘An explorer’s guide to the Siècle de Louis XIV ’. Instead of a database query, this one is driven by a fixed list of people and events, all of whom already had articles in English Wikipedia. The resulting timeline is the sort of thing that we like to imagine Voltaire might have produced, if he’d had access to Wikipedia while researching his monumental history of the reign of the Sun King. We’re sure he would have been unable to resist adding to Wikipedia a few articles of his own…

Creating and publicising Wikipedia articles

We created English articles on The Age of Louis XIV, Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, Annals of the Empire and Précis du siècle de Louis XV. These are not intended to be comprehensive, but to give basic facts about each work, to indicate why each work is important and to cite printed editions and relevant online resources, such as the explorer’s guide.

One way we drew readers to these new articles was to make links from elsewhere in Wikipedia, naturally including the Voltaire article which gets 3670 hits per day. Another was to use the Did You Know (DYK) process: new articles, of sufficient length, can be submitted for review. If they pass a check of accuracy and quality, an interesting fact from the article, linked to the full article, appears on the front page of English Wikipedia for twelve hours, exposing it to potentially millions of people. The articles on Essai sur les mœurs and The Age of Louis XIV were both submitted to DYK, getting 1584 hits and 1070 hits respectively during their times on the front page. The attention inspired another Wikipedian to create a Turkish article on the Essai, bringing the total number of Wikipedia articles on the Essai to five.

The four new English articles get about fifty views per day, or 18,000 per year. They have been checked and approved by other Wikipedians, and the individual facts within them are cited, so can be expected to remain in Wikipedia from now on.

Someone who has just read an article is open to reading a related article. In usability research, the end of an article is termed a ‘seducible moment’ for this reason. Wikipedia uses navigational templates (blocks of related links) to take advantage of these moments and direct readers to articles on the same theme.

We expanded English Wikipedia’s navigational template for Voltaire works, and, since French Wikipedia lacked a template, we created one. This links to all articles about Voltaire works and the article about Voltaire, greatly increasing the number of incoming links to each. We left instructions for French Wikipedians on how to embed the block in future articles.

Comparing article hit rates before and after the change, we estimate that the French navigational template increased views of its articles by about 2,000 per month, or 24,000 per year.

– Martin Poulter


Editorialités: pratiques et enjeux à travers les siècles

Après la journée consacrée aux « Matérialités » du livre, qui s’était déroulée en janvier 2015, la collaboration entre l’Université d’Oxford et l’Université de Fribourg (Suisse) – familièrement surnommée Oxfrib ou Fribox selon les goûts – a fait son retour en novembre dernier à la Maison Française d’Oxford, pour une troisième édition: « Editorialités: Practices of Editing and Publishing ».

ploix-fig1Selon une pétition rédigée par le London book trade en 1643, le statut conféré aux professionnels du livre en France est tenu en haute estime, et on lui fait l’honneur de lui réserver une place à la « périphérie de la littérature » (cité dans Wheale, Writing and Society, 1999, cf. ici). La journée d’études a placé cette périphérie littéraire au centre de l’attention. Parce qu’il ne peut y avoir de centre sans périphérie, ni de périphérie sans centre, les intervenants ont montré avec conviction l’influence et le rôle essentiel de l’édition dans la création de l’œuvre littéraire. Deux perspectives générales m’ont semblé se dessiner: l’enquête sur les tenants et les aboutissants de la genèse du livre en tant qu’objet pour en comprendre davantage la signification, et l’étude des difficultés que peut poser l’œuvre à l’éditeur-critique, par sa nature problématique ou son contexte de création. (Pour les résumés des communications, voir ici).

La présentation initiale de la journée a d’emblée permis de concilier ces deux perspectives. Proposer des éditions modernes des manuscrits-recueils médiévaux invite à élucider les ressorts sous-jacents de leur compilation, à travers la recherche des réseaux de convergence et des réalités matérielles de production qui furent les leurs (Marion Uhlig).

Le plus souvent, l’enquête sur l’ethos du compilateur se mène via le paratexte. Une enquête d’autant plus nécessaire, dans le cas des textes de la Renaissance, car le terme d’« imprimeur-libraire », communément utilisé, est trop large pour déterminer avec précision la nature de l’intervention éditoriale (Nina Mueggler). Dans le cas de Gille Corrozet, Nina a également soulevé le problème décisif et récurrent de la confrontation de deux identités. Le compilateur étant lui-même auteur, que dire de son ethos éditorial, qu’il revendique consciencieux, fidèle et soigné, lorsque l’on constate une tendance à « ajouter du liant » et à anoblir le style des textes qu’il assemble?

Souvent, la transformation d’une œuvre par le geste éditorial relève d’une véritable démarche herméneutique. Louis le Roi, traduisant le Banquet de Platon, reterritorialise et assimile le texte source: la réorganisation signifiante du récit et l’importante présence de commentaires exégétiques, font du Banquet un texte chrétien (Antoine Vuilleumier).

Plusieurs autres exemples d’éditions guidées par un paradigme de lecture préconçu et adressées à un lectorat spécifique ont été développés. Grâce à une relecture critique des Parallèles Burlesques de Dufresnoy, inclues dans l’édition de J.F. Bernard des Œuvres de Rabelais (1741), Olivia Madin a notamment montré le rôle du paratexte dans la réappropriation féministe de l’œuvre. Emma Claussen a donné un brillant aperçu de l’engagement politique des rééditions successives de la Satyre ménippée dans le contexte des guerres de religion.

Dans certains cas, l’objectif de l’éditeur ne se limite pas à servir le texte original ou le lectorat contemporain, et peut avoir pour but principal l’autopromotion. A l’image de la démarche de justification et de valorisation de Louis le Roi dans ses commentaires, Corneille, de manière encore plus marquante, édite ses propres pièces pour en faire un répertoire de référence d’une théorie théâtrale universelle (Marine Souchier).

La question du positionnement de l’édition par rapport au texte source est centrale lorsque les obstacles imposés par le matériau textuel problématisent l’édition. Le texte épars que constitue Lamiel de Stendhal, assemblage de multiples réécritures et fragments dont la logique échappe souvent au critique, en offre un exemple probant (Sarah Jones). La relation entre éditorialité et fidélité par rapport à l’œuvre est d’autant plus problématique lorsque l’auteur fait preuve d’un engagement pugnace sur les modalités de la publication de ses propres œuvres (Jean Rime). Les écrits journalistiques de George Sand, à « logique médiatique » et rédigés collectivement, offrent, de surcroît, un nouvel exemple de tension entre l’œuvre à publier et la tradition éditoriale moderne, solidement ancrée dans une « logique de l’auteur ».

On a été amené à élargir le champ d’étude à d’autres genres. Le texte théâtral étant subordonné aux contingences des répétitions et à l’appropriation du metteur en scène, la représentation théâtrale déstabilise la conception habituelle de l’éditorialité (Vanessa Lee). Le médium non textuel du cours magistral ou séminaire entraîne également une série de problèmes pour l’édition. Dépendant de l’intermédiaire d’une transcription, elle-même, souvent déformante, le contenu du cours, consubstantiel à la présence physique de la voix, est en proie à se dénaturer (Sophie Jaussi).



La conférence plénière de Catriona Seth, riche d’anecdotes et d’exemples, a retracé l’histoire fascinante de la réception d’André Chénier à travers les éditions successives de ses œuvres. Chargées de fortes implications politiques au tournant du siècle, les éditions bâtissent une mythologie de l’auteur en tant que figure victimaire de la Révolution. Elles participent également à l’établissement de la gloire posthume d’un poète: à titre d’exemple, Latouche (1819) et Walter (1940) font du dernier vers du poète un vers nettement conclusif, presque épigrammatique, en parfaite corrélation avec l’image d’un poète posant un point final avant de monter sur l’échafaud. L’Anthologie de la poésie française co-dirigée par Catriona Seth conserve le véritable vers de conclusion, « Ce sera toi demain, insensible imbécile »; vers authentique, mais orphelin, non rimé, qui évacue l’effet de sublime.

Qu’Oxford fût le lieu de cette journée pourrait presque sembler opportun: l’Oxford University Press, bien sûr, mais également la Voltaire Foundation, font de cette ville un haut lieu de l’édition. La répercussion des choix éditoriaux comme engagement, fidélité, distanciation, clarification, justification, assimilation, unification, appropriation, promotion ou autopromotion soulèvent chaque jour des questionnements dans la maison abritant le travail de réédition de l’œuvre complète de Voltaire: l’article de Gillian Pink publié récemment (accessible ici) en offre un aperçu révélateur.

« Génialissimes ». C’est par ce terme qu’Alain Viala a décrit les intervenants dans sa conclusion générale en fin de journée. Le succès de cette rencontre revient avant tout aux organisateurs: Professor Alain Viala, Dr Kate TunstallDr Emma ClaussenGemma Tidman et Olivia Madin.

– Cédric Ploix, doctorant, St Hugh’s College

The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire are nearly fifty years old

John Renwick has been a member of the ‘Œuvres complètes de Voltaire’ team since 1970, and of its Conseil scientifique since 1997. Within OCV, he has edited over fifty individual texts, from ‘Amulius et Numitor’ (1711) to the ‘Fragments sur l’histoire générale’ and the ‘Fragments sur l’Inde’ (1773). He has signed the edition of twenty-eight articles in the ‘Questions sur l’Encyclopédie’ and forty-five chapters of the ‘Essai sur les mœurs’, and more than sixty entries for the forthcoming volume 9 of the ‘Corpus des notes marginales’. He is the editor of the major text ‘Traité sur la tolérance’.


In a recent contribution (September 2016), Jeroom Vercruysse, the editor of Voltaire’s mock epic poem La Pucelle and many other texts since, reminds us of how he and a small number of colleagues were invited by Theodore Besterman to start producing a critical edition of Voltaire’s complete works. In it, he remembers – though fleetingly – how those ‘Founding Fathers’ translated their early aspirations into the concrete formulation of editorial policy. He mentions also their early recognition that such a vast corpus of work would require their having recourse to ‘d’autres dix-huitiémistes afin d’assurer la préparation et la publication de textes si divers’. And he concludes his reminiscences with the observation that ‘nous envisageons la sortie des derniers volumes vers 2020’.


His comments could not fail to elicit a positive response from this particular reader, who was one of the early second-generation recruits to be approached by Theodore Besterman (in 1970, I was a mere 31-year-old, the same age as Jeroom at the inception of the Œuvres complètes in 1967) and who, decades later (again like Jeroom), is still intimately associated with the enterprise which he also (just as fervently) hopes to see to its completion in 2020.


It is, however, and more precisely, the comments that Jeroom makes en filigrane about the original editorial approaches that embolden me to return to, and then to expand upon, a topic (that I first treated in 1994 [1]) that now – more than twenty years later – concerns more particularly the constant evolution of the original editorial principles over the fifty years that have intervened since inception in 1968 with the Notebooks, edited by Besterman, then in La Philosophie de l’histoire, edited by J.H. Brumfitt in 1969. Having constantly been a party to a redefinition and an expansion of those editorial parameters, I have been privileged, from beginning to what is now near-end, to witness the refinement of those parameters, a progressive process that has been responsible for making the OCV into what is arguably one of the most significant and thoughtful scholarly ventures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


The fact that it has also transpired to be a ‘formidable aventure intellectuelle’ makes it even more remarkable. How and why this came about is worth charting in a preliminary sketch that will one day (or so it is to be hoped) provide the impetus for someone to turn the whole question into a detailed study, because, in the time-honoured phrase, this topic is surely a beau sujet de thèse.

– John Renwick

[1] See John Renwick, ‘The Complete works of Voltaire: a review of the first twenty-five years’ in Pour encourager les autres. Studies for the tercentenary of Voltaire’s birth 1694-1994, SVEC 320, p.165-207.