Selected letters of Catherine the Great translated into Korean

Selected letters of Catherine the Great to Voltaire and others have recently been translated into Korean by Minchul Kim and Seungeun Lee and published by Itta.

While browsing through Electronic Enlightenment one day, I stumbled upon letters to Voltaire written by my soon-to-be queen of letter-writers, Catherine the Great. Seated on a precarious throne, the Tsarina had dreams she wanted to see realised. These she explained and advertised to Voltaire, in the hope of enlisting him in mobilising Western European public opinion in Russia’s favour. She considered herself to be surrounded by enemies: Pugachev, the nobility, the clergy, the Ottoman Empire, and after Voltaire’s death, the French revolutionary republicans. To her delight, Voltaire was happy to be her ally in her war against the Turks as well as against what they both regarded as feudal backwardness and religious fanaticism in Russia.

To the Korean public I wanted to relay the desires and anxieties of an aspiring philosopher-empress, who believed herself to be carrying the torch of Peter the Great against all odds. On her shoulders pressed heavily the burden of ruling a gigantic empire between Europe, China, and the Ottomans. I enlisted a student of the Nakaz, Seungeun Lee, as co-translator and approached an outstanding mid-sized publisher in Seoul with experience in both academic and trade books, Itta, which was already producing a book series of correspondences. The Spinozist Hyunwoo Kim, head of Itta, sat down with us, and the three of us started to pick out letters for translation. The decision was made after a long discussion to leave out the Tsarina’s correspondence with Grigory Potemkin and other Russian politicians, for two reasons. On the one hand, we liked to believe that there might be a future occasion for publishing them in a separate volume. On the other hand, more significantly, we wanted to shed light on a variety of aspects of the relationship that Catherine was trying to establish between the republic of letters and her court. We ended up selecting 46 letters in French written by Catherine to Voltaire (38), D’Alembert (4), Mme Geoffrin (2), Falconet (1), and Frederick II (1), accompanied by one of Voltaire’s letters to D’Alembert.

The collaboration was exciting. All three of us read French and English, and even at a master’s student level Seungeun possessed expertise in Russian language and history that was essential to the task. We consulted several editions including Alexandre Stroev’s from Non Lieu and Andrew Kahn and Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s from Oxford World’s Classics. I must add that Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great, along with Antoine Lilti’s Le Monde des salons and biographies of Catherine and Voltaire, was key to drafting the lengthy introduction for Korean readers. But most of all we ceaselessly returned to Electronic Enlightenment, even after the stage of initial translation, for annotations and links to related letters and people. All the way, Hyunwoo provided timely advice and firm support for the project.

Philippe de Lasalle’s woven portrait of Catherine (c.1771) of which a version still hangs in Voltaire’s château at Ferney (CC0 The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

It was a truly collective enterprise, driven first by the Tsarina’s praise for the poet: ‘En bonne foi Monsieur je fais plus de cas de vos écrits, que de toutes les prouesses d’Alexandre, et vos lettres me font plus de plaisir que les courtoisies de ce prince ne m’en donneraient’ (22 August / 2 September 1765). With humility (and perhaps some hidden desire for compliment) she compared what she did to help Diderot and the deeds of the vengeur des Calas: ‘Ce n’est rien que de donner un peu à son prochain, de ce dont on a un grand superflu, mais c’est s’immortaliser que d’être l’avocat du genre humain, le défenseur de l’innocence opprimée. Ces deux causes vous attirent la vénération due à de tels miracles. Vous avez combattu les ennemis réunis des hommes, la superstition, le fanatisme, l’ignorance, la chicane, les mauvais juges, et la partie du pouvoir qui repose entre les mains des uns et des autres’ (9 July / 20 July 1766). But the three of us were also aware of Voltaire’s panegyric of his admirer, for whom he wrote seventeen days before his death: ‘Que votre majesté impériale pardonne au bavardage de votre ancien serviteur de Ferney qui pourtant ne radote pas quand il parle de son héroïne’ (13 May 1778). Behind the edition, from inception to publication, was this mutual admiration between Catherine and Voltaire, which will hopefully reach a wider public in Korea, showcasing what the republic of letters had to do with the reform politics of the Enlightenment.

– Minchul Kim (Research Fellow at Voltaire Foundation / Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Global Intellectual History Unit at Sungkyunkwan)

Beaumarchais letters: editorial history and current research

The recent addition to Electronic Enlightenment (EE) of 417 letters from the Beaumarchais correspondence is a significant event in 18th-century studies. They appeared over thirty years ago in the two-volume edition prepared by Gunnar and Mavis von Proschwitz, Beaumarchais et le Courier de l’Europe, for the Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, volumes 273–274 (1990). Added to the 257 Beaumarchais letters already included in EE, these 674 letters constitute over a sixth of known Beaumarchais letters and approximately one third of Beaumarchais letters published to date. Their online publication, along with other current research projects on the correspondence, offers scholars new reasons to consider this oft-cited, but still little understood, figure of the Enlightenment.

A vast and far-ranging correspondence

If ever fully inventoried and edited, the Beaumarchais papers would no doubt include between 6000 and 20,000 documents. (The minimum estimate is based on the currently known corpus. The maximum is a seat-of-the-pants guess put forth by Brian Morton in 1969, based on his preliminary archival research. The actual number certainly lies somewhere in between, nevertheless making the corpus one of the largest of the period.) Beyond their sheer number, the Beaumarchais papers also stand out for their geographical and sociological breadth. From Vienna to Madrid to the Netherlands to England and North America, Beaumarchais’s correspondence network is far more than a simply ‘French’ or ‘francophone’ one. Moreover, Beaumarchais grants us insights into the 18th century that stand apart from those offered by the correspondences of other major figures. An artisan, a musician, a financier, commercial entrepreneur, printer, investor, politician, judge, diplomat, spy, litigant, criminal (he was imprisoned in at least four capitals), husband, lover, brother, father and, of course, a playwright, his correspondence brought him in touch with a wider swath of 18th-century European and North-American society than almost any other personality whose correspondence has been studied to date, with perhaps only Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson rivalling him in this respect.

Editorial history

The editorial history of the Beaumarchais correspondence traces across more than two centuries of literary and political history. Since his death in 1799, over 1500 letters have been edited, of which only slightly more than half feature a supporting critical apparatus.

Portrait of P. A. Caron de Beaumarchais, 1773, drawn by Charles Nicolas Cochin II, engraved by Augustin de Saint-Aubin. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the 19th century, fewer than 200 Beaumarchais letters were printed, mostly in editions of his works, but also in journals and biographies. The first edition of his complete works, edited by his amanuensis, Paul-Philippe Gudin de La Brenellerie (1809), included 55 letters, which Gudin had transcribed from the personal papers inherited by the writer’s widow upon his death. A second edition, by the journalist, historian and politician Saint-Marc Girardin, published in 1828, included 53 of the same letters, though with some editorial differences. An edition prepared in 1836 by the deputy curator at the Bibliothèque du roi, Jules Ravenel, included 10 letters reproduced from 18th-century periodicals, of which 6 were not published in either of the earlier editions. Also in 1836, the Revue rétrospective published a collection of 29 previously unpublished letters from manuscripts in the Comédie Française archives. The biographer Louis de Loménie, in his two-volume Beaumarchais et son temps (1858), referenced and included partial transcripts of hundreds of letters, but included in the appendix only 35 complete texts of previously unedited letters. A second biographer, Eugène Lintilhac, in his Beaumarchais et ses œuvres (1887), included 12 partially transcribed letters not previously published. (In 1890, Louis Bonneville de Marsangy published Madame de Beaumarchais, a biography of Beaumarchais’s third and final wife and widow, Marie Thérèse Willermaulaz; although Marsangy claimed to have consulted ‘sa correspondance inédite’, no letters are reproduced or directly referenced in the volume.)

In the 1920s, another 200 letters were brought into print from a variety of sources. In the early years of the century, as a young and ambitious man of letters, Louis Thomas undertook to produce a complete edition of the correspondence. However, military service during the Great War put an end to his research. In 1923, he published an edition entitled Lettres de jeunesse, including 167 letters from the first two decades of Beaumarchais’s adult life, of which 120 are attributed to manuscripts in the ‘Archives de Beaumarchais’ and the rest to printed sources. At least 80 of these had not been edited in earlier collections. (Thomas achieved renown as an editor and author in the interwar period before falling into ignominy during the Occupation as an ardent antisemite and collaborator whom the Vichy regime put in charge of the publishing house seized from Gaston Calmann-Lévy.) In 1929, the eminent French literature scholar in the United States Gilbert Chinard edited a collection of Lettres inédites de Beaumarchais consisting of 109 letters, mainly to Marie Thérèse Willermaulaz and their daughter, transcribed from manuscripts acquired by the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

In the past half-century, the pace of publication has accelerated. In the late 1960s, Brian Morton (then a faculty member at the University of Michigan) launched a project to publish a complete Correspondence and began to transcribe letters from both public and private collections as well as reproduce previously published letters. In the 1970s, Donald Spinelli, then of Wayne State University (in Detroit MI), became his collaborator and continued the project. Together they published about 1000 letters, of which at least 300 were previously unpublished. Four published volumes (1969-1978) cover the years up to 1778 and are now available on open access. In 2010, Spinelli added a fifth volume, covering the year 1779, also on his professional website.

In 1990, Gunnar von Proschwitz, a noted philologist, and his wife Mavis published the most extensive critical apparatus associated with any edition of Beaumarchais letters. The notes and a lengthy introduction to this edition lay out the significance of these documents for our understanding of Beaumarchais’s life and of the 18th century. In these letters, we see Beaumarchais not only as a playwright seeking to circumvent censorship to have Le Mariage de Figaro finally staged, but also as an entrepreneur, a printer, an urban property owner, an emissary, and a transatlantic merchant. Through these documents we have a window on an 18th century that is geographically, socially, and culturally much broader and more diverse than what we generally encounter through other published 18th-century correspondences.

Current research
A letter from Beaumarchais to Antoine Dauvergne, director of the Académie royale de musique, dated 7 August 1787, about Salieri’s opera Tarare (with a libretto by Beaumarchais). (Gallica)

At present, the scholarly world can look forward to the benefits of the first new projects on Beaumarchais’s correspondence in over thirty years, including the effort spearheaded by Linda Gil to produce a definitive inventory with a material bibliography. Gil is also the editor of a forthcoming volume, Éditer la correspondence de Beaumarchais (to be published in the Cahiers du Centre d’étude des correspondences et journaux intimes), and one of the organisers of a conference on ‘L’Europe de Beaumarchais’, to be held in Paris and online on 20 and 21 January 2023.

My own contribution to this effort, begun in collaboration with Spinelli in 2019, is to prepare a searchable dataset of the 3500 documents and nearly 5000 references to letters known and unknown, with which to analyse Beaumarchais’s transatlantic network of correspondents. To date, nearly 3780 named identities have been extracted, of which 980 are unique individuals, and another 500 corporate entities have been identified. Working in collaboration with a talented doctoral student, Dakota Ciolkosz, with Voltaire Foundation colleagues who have extensive expertise in scholarly editing of correspondence, with Miranda Lewis and Howard Hotson of Early Modern Letters Online, and with Glenn Roe, whose ‘ObTIC’ laboratory of Sorbonne Université has done extensive work as well on 18th-century correspondences, this project will seek to make available in the coming years, on an open access and non-exclusive basis, the searchable dataset, the metadata drawn from these documents, and a prosopography of participants in the transatlantic correspondence network.

– Gregory Brown, Professor, Department of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Senior Research Fellow, Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford

An earlier version of this post appeared on the EE blog.

Voltaire, the Lettres sur les Anglais, and Enlightenment cosmopolitanism

Fougeret de Monbron, Le Cosmopolite ou le citoyen du monde, title page of the 1753 edition (BnF).

‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means’: so spoke Prime Minister Theresa May, addressing her party faithful at a conference in 2016, soon after the Brexit referendum. It was Diogenes the Cynic, two and a half millennia ago, who first styled himself a kosmou polites, a citizen of the world, and this Greek expression survives in many modern European languages. The term cosmopolite enters the French language in the sixteenth century, and still today it is often used, in a weak sense, to describe someone who is simply well travelled. Fougeret de Monbron, for example, in a book entitled Le Cosmopolite ou le citoyen du monde (1750), wrote about his travels in Europe: ‘L’univers est une espèce de livre dont on n’a lu que la première page quand on n’a vu que son pays.’

In the eighteenth century the term acquired greater ideological heft. The ethos of cosmopolitisme (a term first attested in the first half of the eighteenth century) characterises a mindset that was common to the European élite of the Enlightenment. Educated men and women of this period experienced a feeling of kinship with a broader humanity, that was separate from, and not in contradiction with, the patriotism they felt for their own countries. This cosmopolitan ethos is evident in a letter Voltaire wrote to César de Missy, then resident in London (D2648, 1 September 1742): ‘Je ne sais si le pays qui est devenu le vôtre est l’ennemi de celui que le hasard de la naissance a fait le mien, mais je sais bien que les esprits qui pensent comme vous sont de mon pays, et sont mes vrais amis.’

In his essay ‘Of goodness and goodness of nature’, Francis Bacon famously wrote that ‘if a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows that he is a citizen of the world.’ In this perspective, cosmopolitanism is closely linked with the idea of civility. As Keith Thomas writes, in his recent book In Pursuit of Civility (2018): ‘The friendly reception of foreign visitors had been an essential test of civility since classical times. In the early modern period, it became increasingly important, with the growth of travel, the migration of religious refugees and the vast expansion of international trade.’

I came to reflect on this question recently when I was writing the introduction to the Lettres sur les Anglais for the Complete works of Voltaire. In the opening sentence of the book (in its French-language version), the narrator – who sounds suspiciously like Voltaire – presents himself to the reader as an ‘homme raisonnable’, curious to learn more about the Quakers. He calls on an eminent Quaker who has retired to a country house on the edge of London, and there follows a scene of high comedy. The Frenchman, who bows and waves his hat in deferential mode, is utterly confounded by the plainly dressed Quaker who refuses to bow and scrape, and addresses his French visitor with the familiar ‘thou’ (I quote here the original English-language version of the text): ‘He did not uncover himself when I appeared, and advanced towards me without once stooping his body; but there appeared more politeness in the open, human air of his countenance, than in the custom of drawing one leg behind the other, and taking that from the head, which is made to cover it. Friend, he says to me, I perceive thou art a stranger…’

In the scene that follows, the French visitor is received with sincere hospitality, even though he finds it difficult at first to unlearn his French social manners: ‘I still continued to make some very unseasonable ceremonies, it not being easy to disengage one’s self at once from habits we have long been used to.’ After eating together, the two men fall into a discussion of religion. The Catholic visitor explains to his Quaker host that to be considered a true Christian he would need to be baptised, to which the Quaker objects that baptism is a ceremony inherited from Judaism, and that Christ himself never baptised his followers. The French narrator, who had begun by declaring his reasonableness, finds that he has no answer to the Quaker on this point of doctrine, but nor can he admit that he has lost the argument. ‘I had more sense than to contest with him, since there is no possibility of convincing an enthusiast’, he declares pompously, before quickly changing the subject.

The opening letter of the Lettres sur les Anglais has attracted much commentary. To begin with, it places the theme of religion front and centre, using a seemingly light and amusing dialogue to conduct what is in fact a brief but sophisticated consideration of the nature and foundation of Christian belief. In suggesting that different Christian traditions pick and choose between different parts of the Bible, Voltaire clearly hints at the superiority of a deistic form of belief that transcends the particular ceremonies of any one sect: ‘But art thou circumcised, added he [the Quaker]? I have not the honour to be so, says I. Well, friend, continues the Quaker, thou art a Christian without being circumcised, and I am one without being baptised.’

The deist undercurrent of this opening encounter between Catholic and Quaker is self-evident, but in other respects this first letter poses challenges to the reader. At the start, we are naturally drawn into complicity with the self-styled reasonable narrator, faced as he is by the comic and eccentric figure of the Quaker who steadfastly refuses to remove his beaver fur hat. But as their discussion evolves, we come increasingly to admire the Quaker’s solid virtues, and the ‘reasonable’ narrator loses our confidence as he loses the argument with the Quaker. Our sympathy for the two actors in this scene is further complicated by an awareness that it might loosely be based on reality: the real-life Voltaire, when he was in London, did indeed pay a visit to a prominent Quaker, Andrew Pitt, who lived outside London, in Hampstead; as for the argument about the Biblical arguments in favour of baptism, Voltaire himself did engage in just such an argument in London, as is recounted by the young Quaker Edward Higginson who taught Voltaire English. This opening letter is a piece of fiction, of course, but it is a fiction inspired by Voltaire’s lived experience in London in the 1720s.

Voltaire’s magisterial use of irony contributes to – while also complicating – our pleasure in reading this opening letter. Erich Auerbach wrote some memorable pages on what he called Voltaire’s ‘searchlight technique’, his use of defamiliarisation (where bowing becomes ‘the custom of drawing one leg behind the other’) to make us rethink apparently familiar concepts. The comic defamiliarisation of acts of social intercourse such as bowing or raising a hat seems harmless and innocent enough; but in Voltaire’s hands the technique is treacherous, as he then immediately applies it to a discussion of religious ritual (baptism, circumcision). The deconstruction of these Christian practices is anything but harmless or innocent, and the unwitting readers who thought they were laughing at an eccentric English Quaker or an overly ceremonious French Catholic suddenly find themselves complicit in mocking Christian doctrine.

For years we have been taught to read Voltaire’s Lettres sur les Anglais as a book ‘about the English’, but it is not only that, and it is perhaps not even mainly that. The opening juxtaposition of the Ancien Régime Catholic and the sober English Quaker is an object lesson in cultural difference, but it is also a demonstration of how those differences may be overcome: even while Voltaire has fun in pointing out what divides them, he also reminds us of what they have fundamentally in common: they share a meal together, in mutual respect and civility and, despite everything, they both identify as Christians. This lesson in tolerant understanding and exchange is a lesson for Voltaire’s readers, a lesson in how to read the book that they are just beginning, and more generally a lesson in how to lead their Enlightened lives. Civility and the ethic of cosmopolitanism are at the heart of this opening letter, and it is surely no coincidence that the word cosmopolitisme enters the French language at round about the time of the publication of the Lettres sur les Anglais.

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

Our new edition of the Lettres sur les Anglais reveals this text in a fresh light by emphasising also the European, we might say cosmopolitan, nature of its publication. For most of the twentieth century, following Lanson’s pioneering edition of the Lettres philosophiques in 1909, the Lettres were seen as a book about England, written for the French. This interpretation failed to take account of the crucial fact that an English translation of the work, Letters concerning the English nation, appeared in London in 1733, with Voltaire’s full knowledge, before the French language editions, published in London, Rouen and Paris in 1734. The new Oxford edition of the Lettres is the first to include the English text and to accord it its due importance. It is now clear that Voltaire wrote this text also for an Anglophone readership, and the Letters were a best-seller in Britain and Ireland throughout the eighteenth century. In its French-language version, this book was published in London as well as in France, and was then reprinted in the Low Countries and in Germany. Much attention has been paid to the high-profile censorship of the Lettres philosophiques in France in 1734 (and of course, censorship was always good for sales); far less attention has been paid to the fact that this book was quickly reprinted and read across Europe. With his Lettres sur les Anglais, Voltaire wrote a book designed for a European élite, the first cosmopolitan classic of the Enlightenment.

Aaron Hill (National Portrait Gallery).

In his Reith Lectures of 2016, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah talked about the ways in which people’s thinking about religion, nation, race and culture very often reflects misunderstandings about notions of identity: ‘If cosmopolitanism involves a simple recognition that our lives are interrelated in ways that transcend boundaries and that our human concerns must, too, it has brute reality on its side.’ That is an idea that the Enlightenment well understood and that Voltaire explores memorably in the Lettres sur les Anglais.

Aaron Hill, The Tragedy of Zara, 2nd ed. (London, 1736) (image from

Voltaire’s cosmopolitan ambitions were certainly recognised in his lifetime, for example by Aaron Hill, the poet and dramatist who ran the Theatre Royal in London. He is remembered, among other things, as the author of Zara, an English rewriting of Zaïre, and by far the most successful English-language version of any Voltaire play in the eighteenth century. When Zara was first performed in London, Hill wrote to Voltaire as follows (D1082, 3 June 1736):

‘I found you born for no one country, by the embracing wideness of your sentiments; for, since you think for all mankind, all ages, and all languages, will claim the merit of your genius. Whatever narrowness there is in poets, there is none in poetry, at least, your poetry… What paints all manners, should delight all countries.’

– Nicholas Cronk

Endings and new beginnings: Voltaire’s seemingly infinite writings

Robert Darnton.

This week, Robert Darnton will be giving a lecture in Oxford, as part of a celebration to mark the publication of the final volumes of the Complete works of Voltaire. This project was first conceived in 1967, before the Voltaire Foundation came to Oxford in the 1970s; and as Greg Brown suggested, in a lecture given last week at the online Enlightenment Workshop, you could say the project goes back to the 1940s, when Theodore Besterman first had the idea of producing a new edition of Voltaire’s correspondence.

So the publication of all 205 volumes of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (known as OCV) marks an important moment in Enlightenment studies. Voltaire wrote a lot – one estimate puts the total at around 15 million words, which, as Besterman liked to say, is the equivalent of 20 Bibles. There have been previous ‘complete’ printings of Voltaire, most recently the so-called Moland edition in the 1870s and 1880s, but ours is the first ever critical scholarly edition. Every single work of Voltaire appears here with a full listing of all variants to the text, often extensive scholarly notes, and an introduction setting the work in its literary and historical context. Each text has been studied from the point of view of its printing history, and the astonishing extent of Voltaire’s detailed mastery of the print trade is revealed here for the first time.

Œuvres compètes de Voltaire.

But still, an anxiety remains: are these Complete works truly complete…? And what would ‘complete’ even mean, in the case of a writer like Voltaire? We include in OCV a number of texts published for the first time, most notably the marginal writings in the books in Voltaire’s library. Then there is another category of ‘new’ works, those that have always been available in theory, but that had become unrecognisable as a result of a profoundly corrupt print tradition. OCV reveals a number of masterpieces, including the Questions sur l’Encylopédie and the Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade, works that have not been printed as Voltaire intended since the eighteenth century. And we have also done our best not to include works that Voltaire did not write: the Moland edition began by including Candide, seconde partie, then had to reprint the volume in question when it was remembered that this was a work by Henri-Joseph Dulaurens (who was deliberately trying to pass it off as being by Voltaire…). Our new edition pays particular attention to this question of attributed and attributable works.

The business of defining exactly the extent (and limits) of Voltaire’s œuvre is far from simple. New research happily generates more discoveries, and so more questions, and no doubt other works of Voltaire will be added to our existing corpus in the years to come. And as for Voltaire’s letters, it was certainly unwise of Besterman to have named his second, revised, version of the Correspondence, the ‘definitive’ edition.

And a new Voltaire letter in Electronic Enlightenment

New Voltaire letters appear in salerooms all the time, but few are as interesting as the one he wrote to Marie Leszczyńska, queen of France, that has recently been acquired by the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. Written on 25 April 1728 from London, Voltaire asks the French queen for her protection for his recently published epic poem La Henriade. This is a remarkable letter, made more extraordinary by the fact that it is bound inside an edition of the poem – presumably the presentation copy intended for the queen – which is a hitherto unknown edition of the work, containing unrecorded variant readings of the poem. This new letter (D333a), written entirely in Voltaire’s hand, is being included this week in Electronic Enlightenment, where you can learn more about this amazing letter.

So as we celebrate the Complete works of Voltaire in its paper form, we can also celebrate new findings like this letter to the French queen. As one project finishes, another has started, and work is already under way on Digital Voltaire, a single-author database constructed with the materials contained in the 205 print volumes that will allow us to interrogate Voltaire’s writings in new ways – and to add new discoveries as they are made.

– Nicholas Cronk

Jacques Pierre Brissot and Charles Burney: unpublished letters reveal a dance to society’s music

Charles Burney, by Joshua Reynolds

Charles Burney, by Joshua Reynolds. (National Portrait Gallery)

Charles Burney (1726-1814), eminent music historian and man of letters, son of a musician and dancer, was a central figure in the literary, artistic and musical world of late eighteenth-century London, regularly to be found at Joshua Reynolds’ dining club among the leading figures of the day.

Brissot de Warville, by François Bonneville

Brissot de Warville, by François Bonneville, c.1790. (Musée Carnavalet, Paris)

In February 1783 the French philosopher and politician Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793), known as Brissot de Warville, moved to London with his wife, Félicité Dupont, a year after their marriage. Shortly after his arrival Brissot met Burney at the home of the lawyer and pamphleteer Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet (1736-1794). About a month later, on 16 March 1783, Brissot wrote to Burney, in French, from his lodgings in Brompton Row, initiating a correspondence that would continue for several months. In his letter, intended to renew their recent acquaintance, Brissot expressed his high esteem for Burney’s General history of music (1776-1789), of which the first two of four volumes had been published, and indicated his eagerness to meet Burney again. Enclosed with the letter was a prospectus for a forthcoming periodical, in which Brissot hoped to reproduce a portrait of Burney’s daughter Frances (1752-1840), whose bestselling first novel Evelina (1778) had recently been followed by the much longer and also highly successful Cecilia (1782).

Brissot to Charles Burney, 16 March 1783

Brissot to Charles Burney, 16 March 1783. (Beinecke Library, Yale University)

This intriguing letter, held by the Beinecke Library at Yale University, has never been published, although it is briefly summarized in the notes to the first volume of Burney’s letters, the only one published to date. (The Letters of Dr Charles Burney, vol. 1, 1751-1784, ed. Alvaro Ribeiro, S.J., Oxford, 1991, p.357. Five further volumes of this edition are now in progress, under my general editorship; Burney’s letters to Brissot will be published as an appendix to volume six.) This volume does include an undated draft of Burney’s reply, which he wrote, in laboured French dictated to Frances, on the verso of the second page of Brissot’s letter. Burney here tells Brissot that although his daughter is flattered by the request, she cannot grant it. Thomas Cadell, the publisher of Cecilia, had also wished to reproduce her portrait as the frontispiece to the fourth edition, ‘mais y ayant une répugnance invincible, elle lui a donné un refus absolu’ (p.358). Unknown to Ribeiro, the fair copy of this letter, in Charles Burney’s hand and dated 25 March 1783, is also extant, in the Fonds Brissot of the Archives nationales de France. This copy contains a concluding paragraph, absent from the draft published by Ribeiro, in which Burney cagily tells Brissot that while he would like to invite him for a visit to the Burneys’ home on St Martin’s Street, ‘je suis si rarement au logis, qu’il m’est à cet heure impossible de trouver un moment pour entretenir mes amis les plus intimes’.

Fanny Burney, by Edward Francisco Burney

Fanny Burney, by Edward Francisco Burney. (National Portrait Gallery)

Brissot’s reply to Burney’s letter, probably sent in late March, is missing. But Burney’s response to that letter, written on 2 April 1783, is also in the Fonds Brissot, together with three further hitherto unknown letters by Burney. This cache of material was discovered by the historian of eighteenth-century Anglo-French relations Simon MacDonald, to whom I much indebted. I am also grateful to the Burney scholar Lorna Clark, for providing me with photographs and draft transcriptions of the letters.

In his April letter to Brissot, Burney addresses his new correspondent in English, in preference to what he terms ‘the miserable French I am able to write’. He thanks Brissot for the interest he has taken in Frances Burney’s novels, and ‘the frank manner in which you have spoken of their merits & defects’; in the absence of Brissot’s letter, regrettably, the nature of these criticisms remains unknown. Burney next alludes to remarks that Brissot has made about Voltaire, who, ‘with all his wit & reputation, has never been able to convince the English that Shakespeare was a Barbarian, any more than many eminent Writers among my Countrymen, have been able to persuade the French that their taste in many things is false and frivolous’. He looks forward, he claims, to discussing ‘Literary projects’ mentioned by Brissot, but cannot spare time for a meeting at present, since he is immersed in volume three of the History of music.

Charles Burney to Brissot, 23 July 1763

Charles Burney to Brissot, 23 July 1763. (Fonds Brissot, Archives nationales de France)

The third letter from Burney in the Fonds Brissot is a note dated Saturday 12 July, sent from St Martin’s Street to Brissot at Brompton Row. Here Burney invites Brissot and his wife for a visit ‘next Friday afternoon’. Another note by Burney in the Fonds, dated 23 July, reveals that the visit had not materialized; instead Burney proposes another afternoon visit to take place on the following day. Brissot, however, somehow mistook the date for this second invitation. In a letter to Burney of 29 July, held by the Beinecke Library, he apologizes for the misunderstanding, and hopes to make amends by enclosing a copy of the Mercure d’Allemagne containing his review of Cecilia, of which a German translation had been published in Leipzig earlier that year. (See Catherine M. Parisian, Frances Burney’s Cecilia: a publishing history, Burlington, 2012, p.336.)

A fifth and final letter from Burney in the Fonds Brissot, written on 1 August 1783, reveals that the Brissots had made a visit to St Martin’s Street but without finding the family at home. Burney was ‘extremely mortified & concerned’ at having missed them, but hoped that they would still be able to meet, either at his home or at the Brissots’ lodgings. In the event, the Brissots did eventually come to St Martin’s Street, as an extensive note appended by Frances Burney to Brisot’s letter of 29 July reveals. Writing long after the event, Frances reports that there was an ‘Evening Rendez-Vous’. Brissot was ‘rather agreeable, from fullness of literary information’, while his wife was ‘very young, & very civil, & a sort of flaming beauty, by the dazzling crimson of her natural complexion, & lustre of her Eyes’. Brissot, however, then made the fatal mistake of leaving London to join the ‘dreadful Duke d’Orleans’, and ‘Ten years after this peaceful meeting … he was Guiliotined [sic], with 20 other Members of The Convention!’

No further correspondence between Brissot and Burney is known to be extant, but in her Memoirs of Doctor Burney (1832) the eighty-year old Frances, now the widowed Mme d’Arblay, provides a four-page account of the letters and meetings of 1783. Over the years she had turned against Brissot, and her portrait of him is distinctly hostile. He had, she claims, ‘a certain low-bred fullness and forwardness of look, even in the midst of professions of humility and respect, that were by no means attractive to Dr. Burney’. Her father thus avoided ‘this latent demagogue’, whose ‘jacobinical harangues and proceedings, five years later, were blazoned to the world by the republican gazettes’. Brissot’s ‘pretty wife’, she added, seemed unobjectionable, but Burney ‘always regretted that he had been deluded into shewing even the smallest token of hospitality to her intriguing husband’ (Memoirs, II, 336, 337). Thanks to the newly discovered letters in the Fonds Brissot, we can now, for the first time, compare Frances Burney’s harsh retrospective account of 1832 with the delicate social manoeuvring revealed by surviving correspondence between Brissot and Dr Burney in 1783.

Peter Sabor


Exploring Voltaire’s letters: between close and distant readings

La lettre au fil du temps: philosophe

‘La lettre au fil du temps: philosophe.’

A stamp produced by the French post office in 1998 celebrates the art of letter-writing by depicting Voltaire writing letters with both hands. It’s true that Voltaire wrote a lot of letters – over 15,000 are known, and more turn up all the time – but even so it’s not altogether clear that an ambidextrous letter-writer is someone we entirely want to trust. Voltaire’s correspondence is full of difficulties and traps, and faced by such a huge corpus, it is hard to know where to start. Without question, the Besterman ‘definitive’ edition (1968-77), digitised in Electronic Enlightenment, has had a major impact on Enlightenment scholarship: historians and literary critics make frequent use of these letters, but usually in an instrumental way, adducing a single passage in a letter as evidence in support of a date or an interpretation.

Nicholas Cronk and Glenn Roe, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings (CUP, 2020)

Nicholas Cronk and Glenn Roe, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings (CUP, 2020).

Voltaire’s letters can be notoriously ‘unreliable’, however, and they really need to be read and interpreted – like all his texts – as literary performances. Few critics have attempted to examine the corpus of the correspondence in its entirety and to understand it as a literary whole. In our new book, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings, we have experimented with a range of digital humanities methods, to explore to what extent they might help us identify new interpretative approaches to this extraordinary correspondence. The size of the corpus seems intimidating to the critic, but it is precisely this that makes these texts a perfect test-case for digital experimentation: we can ask questions that we would simply not have been able to ask before.

For example, we looked at the way Voltaire signs off his letters – and were surprised to find that only 13% of the letters are actually signed ‘Voltaire’; while over a third of the letters are signed with a single letter, ‘V’. Then Voltaire is hugely inventive in the way he plays with the rules of epistolary rhetoric, posing as a marmot to the duc de Choiseul. And if you want to know why in a letter (D18683) to D’Alembert he signs off ‘Miaou’, the answer is to be found in a fable by La Fontaine…

We studied Voltaire as a neologist. Critics have usually described Voltaire as an arch-classicist adhering rigorously to the norms of seventeenth-century French classicism. True, yet at the same time he is hugely energetic in coining new words, an aspect of his literary style that has been insufficiently studied. Here, corpus analysis tools, coupled with available lexicographical digital resources, allow us to consider Voltaire’s aesthetic of lexical innovation. In so doing, we can test the hypothesis that Voltaire uses the correspondence as a laboratory in which he can experiment with new formulations, ideas, and words – some of which then pass into his other works. We identified 30 words first coined by Voltaire in his letters, and another 36 words first used in his other works, many of which are then reused in the correspondence. Emmanuel Macron has encouraged the description of himself as a ‘président jupitérien’, so it’s good to discover that ‘jupitérien’ is one of the words first coined by Voltaire.

Voltaire letter

A letter in Voltaire’s hand, sent from the city of Colmar to François Louis Defresnay (D5612, dated 1753/1754).

A reader of Voltaire’s letters cannot fail to be struck by the frequency of his literary quotations. We explore this phenomenon through the use of sequence alignment algorithms – similar to those used in bioinformatics to sequence genetic data – to identify similar or shared passages. Using the ARTFL-Frantext database of French literature as a comparison dataset, we attempt a detailed quantification and description of French literary quotations contained in Voltaire’s correspondence. These citations, taken together, give us a more comprehensive understanding of Voltaire’s literary culture, and provide invaluable insights into his rhetoric of intertextuality. No surprise that he quotes most often the authors of ‘le siècle de Louis XIV’, though it was a surprise to find that Les Plaideurs is the Racine play most frequently cited. And who expected to find two quotations from poems by Fontenelle (neither of them identified in the Besterman edition)?! Quotations in Latin also abound in Voltaire’s letters, many of these drawn, predictably enough, from the famous poets he would have memorised at school, Horace, Virgil, and Ovid – but we also identified quotations, hitherto unidentified, from lesser poets, such as a passage from Manilius’ Astronomica. By examining as a group the correspondents who receive Latin quotations, and assigning to them social and intellectual categories established by colleagues working at Stanford, we were able to establish clear networks of Latin usage throughout the correspondence, and confirm a hunch about the gendered aspect of quotation in Latin: Voltaire uses Latin only to his élite correspondents, and even then, with notably rare exceptions such as Emilie Du Châtelet, only to men.

The woman on the left, a trainee pilot in the Brazilian air force, is an unwitting beneficiary of Voltaire’s bravura use of Latin quotation. The motto of the Air Force Academy is a stirring (if slightly macho) Latin quotation: ‘Macte animo, generose puer, sic itur ad astra’ (Congratulations, noble boy, this is the way to the stars). The quotation is one that Voltaire uses repeatedly in some dozen letters, and it is found later, for example in Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe. On closer investigation it turns out that this piece of Latin is an amalgam of quotations from Virgil and Statius – in effect, a piece of pure Voltairean invention.

In the end, Voltaire’s correspondence is undoubtedly one of his greatest literary masterpieces – but it is arguably one that only becomes fully legible through the use of digital resources and methods. Our intention with this book was to affirm the simple postulate that digital collections – whether comprised of letters, literary works, or historical documents – can, and should, enable multiple reading strategies and interpretative points of entry; both close and distant readings. As such, digital resources should continue to offer inroads to traditional critical practices while at the same time opening up new, unexplored avenues that take full advantage of the affordances of the digital. Not only can digital humanities methods help us ask traditional literary-critical questions in new ways – benefitting from economies of both scale and speed – but, as we show in the book, they can also generate new research questions from historical content; providing interpretive frameworks that would have been impossible in a pre-digital world.

The size and complexity of Voltaire’s correspondence make it an almost ideal corpus for testing the two dominant modes of (digital) literary analysis: on the one hand, ‘distant’ approaches to the corpus as a whole and its relationship to a larger literary culture; on the other, fine-grained analyses of individual letters and passages that serve to contextualise the particular in terms of the general, and vice versa. The core question at the heart of the book is thus one that remains largely untreated in the wider world: how can we use digital ‘reading’ methods – both close and distant – to explore and better understand a literary object as complex and multifaceted as Voltaire’s correspondence?

– Nicholas Cronk & Glenn Roe, Co-directors of the Voltaire Lab at the VF

Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings will be published in print and online at the end of October. The online version is available free of charge for two weeks to personal and institutional subscribers.

From the mundane to the philosophical: topic-modelling Voltaire and Rousseau’s correspondence

Voltaire and Rousseau’s correspondence are two fascinating collections which have perhaps not received the amount of attention than they could have due to the nature of these texts. Written over five decades, these letters cover a wide range of topics, from the mundanity of everyday concerns to more elaborate subjects. Getting an overall picture of these correspondences is challenging for the simple reader. This is unfortunate since these correspondences not only constitute a window into the private lives of Voltaire and Rousseau, or show an unfiltered expression of their respective thoughts, but they are also an example of the eclecticism professed by the philosophes. Fortunately modern computational techniques can truly help in providing an overview of the content of these letters and hopefully recapture – in a somewhat organized fashion – this very eclecticism of the Lumières. Thanks to the collaboration between the Voltaire Foundation and the ARTFL Project, I will be briefly discussing how topic-modeling can be used to draw an overall picture of these correspondences, and show a couple of examples of the model built from the Voltaire letters.

The ARTFL Project has long been engaged in exploring 18th-century discourses using digital tools, and the thematic opacity of correspondences is an ideal use-case for topic-modelling. This particular algorithm was designed to generate clusters of closely related words (or topics) by analyzing all word co-occurrences in any given corpus. Because these topics are extracted from their source texts, they are understood to describe the contents of the corpus analyzed. We recently released a topic-modelling browser – called TopoLogic – which was designed to explore such clusters of co-occurring words, and ran a preliminary experiment against the French Revolutionary Collection, the results of which can be seen here. When we built the topic models for Voltaire and Rousseau’s correspondences, we made sure to use the same parameters for both collections such that 40 topics (or discourses) were generated from each set of letters. We also only used those letters written by Voltaire on one side, and Rousseau on the other, hoping that we could perhaps make some comparisons between both models.

Let’s start with the Voltaire model, from which you can see the first 20 topics below:

As a first view into the topic model, the browser gives us the top 10 words for each topic, as well as their overall prevalence in the letters by Voltaire. From there we can further explore any topic, such as 16, which seems to map to Voltaire’s idea of the philosophe fighting against religious intolerance. By clicking on the topic however, we get an overview of how the topic is distributed in time, most important words in the topic, correlated topics, as well as documents where the topic is prominent (see figure below).

Let’s focus on several sections of this overview. We note below that the terms of philosophe and philosophie are weighted far more heavily than any other term, suggesting perhaps that all other words in this cluster may just constitute different characteristics of the philosophe in Voltaire’s eyes: religious concerns (prêtre, jésuite, religion, tolérance), attributes (honnête, sage), means of expression (article, livre).

All of these observations can of course be verified by exploring letters that feature topic 16 in a prominent way, which the browser does list. We can also see how the philosophe discourse evolves over the more than sixty years of Voltaire’s letters. Unsurprisingly, as his public involvement in religious affairs increases, the prevalence of such terms discussing his idea of the philosophe rises as well in his letters.

Among the discourses which tend to follow the same trend over time (see figure below), the cluster of terms related to justice (topic 5) stands out, once again showing that his public involvement is mirrored in his private correspondence. While these aspects are nothing really new, they provide for the prospective reader an easy way to find those letters that do discuss these topics.

Another interesting aspect of topic-modeling is that we can also examine the discursive make-up of any of Voltaire’s letters, and see if there are any other letters that share the same themes. Let’s examine Voltaire’s famous letter to Rousseau in which he mocks the citoyen de Genève’s position on the impact of literature in the second discourse (see figure below): ‘Les Lettres nourissent l’âme, la rectifient, la consolent’.

When we look at topical representation of this letter in the browser, we can note that the model found a number of different topics within this letter, which when combined do provide an overview of its contents. In it, Voltaire discusses – with much irony – his own experience as a writer (topic 33), which includes his role as historiographe du roi (topic 36), as well as the many controversies he was involved in (topic 10). He sarcastically laments the fact that he cannot afford to live with savages in a distant land (topic 25) because his health requires him to be treated by a doctor (topic 26 and 35). And as a whole, he defends the role of literature as a positive good for man (topic 0). Of course, one could argue that this topical structure is approximate, prone to discussion, and this is certainly true. However, this approximation is now available for all 15,000 letters, which then allows the computer to compare and group letters by this very topical structure. In this same document view, we can see documents which share a similar mixture of topics, such as a letter to Ivan Shuvalov from 1757 where Voltaire discusses his writing of history while displaying a very keen concern for the perception and impact of his writing, or another to D’Alembert where he complains about his bad health while stressing the importance of writing about useful things (‘il y avait cent choses utiles à dire qu’on n’a point dittes encore’).

One last aspect of the topic model is to examine the individual uses of words and the different contexts in which they are used. If we look at the uses of écrivain in the correspondences (see figure below), we can see how that its uses span across different types of discourses related to reason, the writing of history, or the public role of the writer. Looking at the actual word associations, we also note potentially interesting patterns. In the case of words that share similar topic distributions (used with a similar mix of discourses), a group of terms related to ignorance seems to dominate: fausseté, mensonge, ignorance, vérité, erreur, fable… This may allude to a sense of mission in Voltaire’s writings: to correct inaccuracies, to dispel lies, to reestablish the truth in the face of ignorance. Looking this time at words that tend to co-occur with écrivain, we get a very different picture, with terms that relate more to the activity of writing and the product of that writing. These two views on word associations do not contradict one another, but suggest different ways of thinking of the role of the écrivain as depicted in Voltaire’s letters.

To finish, let’s take a look at the topic model of Rousseau’s correspondence, and in particular how we can relate it to that of Voltaire. A quick overview of the first 20 topics in Rousseau’s letters reveals a similar – yet distinct – picture of the topical composition of his correspondence (see figure below).

Using the browser, we could track down Rousseau’s response to Voltaire’s criticism of the second discourse, and see if other letters discuss similar themes. This is all within the scope of this browser. For the sake of brevity however, and to show how topic models can be used to run comparative experiments, we wanted to focus on Rousseau’s usage of the word écrivain in order to see if and how it differed from what was suggested in the Voltaire model. As we can see below, Rousseau tends to use the term in similar contexts: the écrivain is invoked first and foremost as a conveyor of truth. But looking more closely at word associations, a distinctive pattern does emerge: such terms as lâche, haine, hypocrite, acharnement, or jalousie highlight a well-known trait of Rousseau, his paranoia in the face of his success as a writer. Clicking on any these words in the browser would allow a researcher to track down the individual uses of these terms as they relate to écrivain, and find those letters to discuss his persecution complex.

To conclude, we are well aware that any analysis provided here is purely built on the patterns derived from the topic models, and as such, remain unproven until verified by a close reading of the letters themselves. However, we hope to have shown how using a tool such as topic modeling can potentially provide new insights into the correspondences of Voltaire and Rousseau, or at the very least offer better guidance to scholars working on these two incredibly rich collections.

Clovis Gladstone

This article was first published in the Café Lumières blog in June 2020.

Clovis Gladstone’s Rousseau et le matérialisme appeared in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment 2020:8.


La Beaumelle, écrivain engagé avant la lettre

Le quinzième tome de la « Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle », qui vient de paraître, se concentre sur la période de janvier 1764 à décembre 1766.

Le 23 mars 1764 le mariage de La Beaumelle avec Rose-Victoire Lavaysse veuve Nicol est célébré en l’église du Taur à Toulouse. La Beaumelle a contraint par voie d’huissier le curé qui connaissaient les époux comme des protestants notoires à respecter la législation qui stipule que le royaume est tout entier catholique.

Laurent Angliviel de la Beaumelle

Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle. Artiste inconnu.

La Beaumelle s’installe à la Nogarède, propriété de sa femme, près de Mazères en pays de Foix. Il consacre beaucoup de soins à la mise en valeur de cette demeure et à la modernisation de l’exploitation des terres : locations, fermages, plantations de muriers, production de céréales. Le 22 août 1765, en tant que ‘seigneur haut, moyen et bas justicier du Carla’, il est élu député du corps de la noblesse et des militaires de Mazères à l’assemblée des notables de la province. En effet il a acheté à sa femme la seigneurie du Carla, la patrie de Bayle. Il s’engage dans les contestations politiques qui agitent ces deux communautés.

Par son mariage La Beaumelle est devenu le gendre du célèbre avocat David Lavaysse et le beau-frère de Gaubert Lavaysse, impliqué dans l’affaire Calas. La réhabilitation des condamnés prend le pas dans ses préoccupations sur sa Vie de Maupertuis et sur ses traductions des auteurs latins. Il rédige les ‘Lettres à Mr [Daine]’, l’un des maîtres des requêtes de l’Hôtel qui le 9 mars 1765 déclarent innocents tous les accusés. Sollicité par Mme Calas il achève une consultation pour la prise à partie en dommage et intérêts des Capitouls et de la Tournelle du Parlement de Toulouse. Il y analyse la responsabilité du capitoul David de Beaudrigue dans les premiers commencements de cette procédure inique : par la rédaction antidatée du procès verbal de sa descente sur les lieux, par l’arrestation précipitée des personnes présentes avant tout interrogatoire et sans procéder à un état des lieux, par l’invention de prétendus bruits publics évoquant un crime religieux, il a empêché toute enquête objective et réduit au silence des témoins transformés en accusés. Gaubert Lavaysse à Paris est à la croisée de la rédaction de deux mémoires de prise à partie, l’un réalisé à Toulouse par La Beaumelle auquel Mme Calas renoncera, l’autre à Paris par Elie de Beaumont poussé par Voltaire.

Parmi les nombreux documents inédits contenus dans ce volume on notera les ‘Lettres à Mr [Daine]’ inachevées, le très étendu ‘Mémoire à consulter pour la dame Calas’ prêt pour l’impression, tous deux de la main de La Beaumelle, le dossier qui a conduit à la destitution partielle du capitoul David de Beaudrigue convaincu de prévarication sans lien avec son action dans l’affaire Calas, et le rapport relevant dans les Mémoires de Maintenon les affirmations contraires à la foi catholique qui justifient sa mise à l’index par le Vatican en 1765.

– Claude Lauriol

N.B.: Jusqu’en 2019, la ‘Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle’ a été publiée par la Voltaire Foundation. D’entente avec les éditeurs Hubert Bost, Claude Lauriol et Hubert Angliviel de La Beaumelle, le relais éditorial sera pris, à partir du tome XVI, par les éditions Slatkine pour les derniers tomes de l’édition.

The humanist world of Voltaire’s correspondence

We know from reading Voltaire’s letters that he likes quoting – French literature in abundance, but also a fair amount of Latin. There is often a strong sense that he is quoting from memory, which is more than likely the lasting mark of his Jesuit teachers at Louis-le-Grand, who put Latin at the centre of the curriculum. Indeed, Voltaire had the benefit of some renowned Jesuit scholars as his teachers, notably Le Père Porée, who famously taught a ‘Senecan’ prose style, and Le Père Thoulier (later the abbé d’Olivet), a distinguished Cicero scholar who remained on friendly terms with Voltaire throughout his career.

Latin verse in particular, played a preponderant role in Voltaire’s education, as poets were at the heart of college teaching, and Virgil, Ovid, and Horace were by far the big three since the 16th century at least.[1] The Jesuits taught primarily by way of daily recitals (recitatio) of verse required by all students: ‘On attachait à la recitatio une importance dont nous n’avons pas idée aujourd’hui…’ (Dainville, p.175). Thus, students at Louis-le-Grand all committed large chunks of Latin verse to memory as both a means of imitation for learning to write, and also as a method of retaining information, as Voltaire would elsewhere describe the pedagogical approach of the Jesuit Claude Buffier: ‘Il a fait servir les vers (je ne dis pas la poésie) à leur premier usage, qui était d’imprimer dans la mémoire des hommes les événements dont on voulait garder le souvenir’.[2]

Collège de Louis le Grand, circa 1789.

Collège de Louis le Grand, circa 1789.

Given this background, we aimed to examine Voltaire’s use of Latin quotations across his massive collection of correspondence, described by Christiane Mervaud as ‘perhaps his greatest masterpiece’. The Besterman edition of Voltaire’s correspondence, originally published in some 50 print volumes, and digitised in the early 2000s as part of the Electronic Enlightenment project, contains 21,256 letters of which 15,414 are written by Voltaire himself. It is astonishing, then, that this masterpiece remains relatively unstudied. Besterman identifies Latin passages when they are from the major writers (Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Lucretius) – the authors for whom there were concordances easily available in the 1950s and 1960s. In the case of lesser poets like Manilius, however, Besterman was obliged to leave the passages unannotated. These passages can now be easily identified thanks to new methods developed in the digital humanities. In particular, as part of this year’s research programme in the Voltaire Lab, we compared all of Voltaire’s letters to Latin digital sources in an effort to systematically identify all of his Latin quotations, while at the same time, as we’ll see below, exploring the social and intellectual networks over which these quotations were exchanged.

<img class=”size-medium wp-image-2573″ src=”″ alt=”Marcu Manilius, Astronomicon, 1767.” width=”300″ height=”253″> Marcu Manilius, Astronomicon, 1767.

Using sequence alignment algorithms designed to identify literary text re-use at scale –developed in collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago – we identified some 672 Latin citations in Voltaire’s correspondence by comparing the letters to the Packard Humanities Institute’s Classical Latin Texts (PHI) digital corpus. The PHI contains essentially all Latin literary texts written before A.D. 200, as well as some texts selected from later antiquity. The resulting alignments allow us to move beyond Besterman’s ad hoc manner of identifying quotations towards a more systematic understanding of Voltaire’s use of Latin authors.

After some data pruning – the inclusion of several commentators and grammarians from Late Antiquity in the PHI dataset meant that there were some repeated matches that were spurious – we reduced our set of Latin passages to 342 citations used by Voltaire himself to his various correspondents. Here is a list of these quotations by Latin author in descending order:

Table 1. 342 individual Latin passages found in letters by Voltaire.

Table 1. 342 individual Latin passages found in letters by Voltaire.

Overwhelmingly Voltaire prefers to quote Latin poets; and that Horace, Virgil and Ovid should be the top three is hardly surprising, though the presence of Horace is dominant. There is breadth as well as depth here, and the list goes beyond the usual suspects to include minor figures such as Manilius, Statius, and Cato the Elder. Does this mean, for instance, that Voltaire is quoting someone like Manilius from memory? If so, how interesting and altogether unexpected.

The next important question we broached was concerned with the recipients of Latin passages, i.e., who are the adressees of the letters in which these Latin quotations appear? In all we found 101 different recipients of at least some Latin, out of 1,465 total recipients in Voltaire’s correspondence (roughly 14.5 %). This is quite small, as a proportion of addressees overall. So how can we gloss these names as members of a group, or network of Latin quotations?

Table 2. Addressees with more than five Latin quotations.

Table 2. Addressees with more than five Latin quotations.

Using the ‘Procope’ social network ontology of the French Enlightenment, established by Dan Edelstein et al., at Stanford,[3] we were able to automatically assign social categories to our list of addressees, which while not a perfect system, nonetheless helped us understand the fundamentally ‘elite’ status of this sub-set of Voltaire’s correspondents.

Gender is an obvious criterion that is apparently lacking: all addressees are male apart from one. Given that men learned Latin, and women didn’t, the use of Latin quotations is self-evidently gendered in this case. This is further reinforced by the manner in which Voltaire uses two verses by Virgil with La Duchesse de Choiseul, his one female addressee, in a letter from 1771:

‘Pour moi, Madame, qui les aime passionément je vous dirai
Ante leves ergo pascentur in æthere cervi
Quam nostro illius labatur pectore vultus.’

‘Vous entendez le latin, Madame, vous savez ce que celà veut dire:
Les cerfs iront paître dans l’air avant que j’oublie son visage.’

After quoting the two lines from the Bucolics, Voltaire goes on to translate them for Madame de Choiseul, even though she can presumably understand the Latin – a case of early-modern ‘mansplaining’ in action.

Within the group of 101 addressees, there is a clearly-defined social group of old, close friends from school (those with whom he had learned Latin), as well as an overlapping sub-group in Normandy, or in one case from Voltaire’s early law career:

Addressees from Louis-le-Grand, where Voltaire learned Latin:

  • The Marquis d’Argenson (later foreign minister)
  • The Comte d’Argenson (later war minister)
  • The Duc de Richelieu (soldier and leading courtier)
  • The Comte d’Argental, conseiller au parlement de Paris
  • Pierre-Robert Le Cornier de Cideville, conseiller au parlement de Rouen

Other old friends from the overlapping Normandy/law group:

  • Formont, a wealthy, talented light poet who was also friends with Cideville.
  • Theriot, a an early friend of Voltaire’s, from when they were both young apprentice lawyers, who was also friends with Formont and Cideville.

Otherwise, we find many cultivated acquaintances in this list who are themselves authors: Frederick, Algarotti, D’Alembert, etc.; along with one of Voltaire’s teachers from Louis-le-Grand: d’Olivet, translator of Cicero and Desmosthenes into French, elected to the Académie in 1723. Clearly, Voltaire’s use of Latin was a means of determining readership. By constructing an epistolary community with selected groups of correspondents, Voltaire underscored their shared experiences and humanist culture.

But, to what extent was this sort of cultural exchange reciprocal? I.e., if Voltaire writes to you quoting Latin poets, do you feel obliged to respond in kind? What does it mean, for instance, that Voltaire uses Latin in so many letters to Frederick, and yet the prince never once uses Latin in return? Socially, the 41 respondents identified belong by-and-large to the same ‘elite’ categories of government or aristocracy, although there is a markedly greater presence of hommes de lettres (an ‘intellectual network’ that overlaps with the ‘social networks’ drawn from Procope) in this second list. See Table 3.

Table 3. Respondents with more than two Latin citations.

Table 3. Respondents with more than two Latin citations.

These are just some of the preliminary results we have begun to process in the context of a larger project on Voltaire’s culture of text re-use (including his penchant for ‘self-plagiarism’). As with most digital humanities projects, initial computational analyses don’t always produce ‘clean’ results, or cut-and-dried interpretations: some of the results have to be examined carefully, and some – as was the case for the grammarians and commentators mentioned above – will prove spurious or misleading. One begins asking one set of questions – can we identify Voltaire’s use of Latin and verify Besterman’s attributions – and end up with new ones: e.g., with whom did Voltaire use Latin, and how? Equally, we could extend these questions by examining other literary quotations, e.g., from French or Italian authors and by including other correspondence collections, comparing Diderot and Rousseau’s use of Latin, for instance, to that of Voltaire.

Ideally, this sort of experimental research approach also generates new research questions, ones that would have been difficult to frame outside of the digital environment. In this case, we were quickly confronted with the notion of what constitutes an instance of ‘re-use’ as opposed to an allusion or more oblique cultural reference. For example, our algorithm identified this passage from Cicero’s epistles:

‘Vale. CICERO BASILO S. Tibi gratulor, mihi gaudeo. te amo, tua tueor. a te amari et quid agas quidque agatur certior fieri volo…’

as a potential re-use employed by Voltaire in a letter to Marmontel from 1749:

‘Si vous recevez ma lettre ce soir, vous pourrez m’envoyer votre poulet pour m. de Richelieu, que je ferai partir sur le champ. Te amo, tua tueor, te diligo, te plurimum, &c.’ [5]

Is this re-use or not? Besterman makes no mention of Cicero in his annotation, but rather places this passage into a more generic class of ‘Roman epistolary formulas’. But perhaps there is more going on here; perhaps the model of Cicero’s epistles – central to the Jesuit syllabus – remains at the forefront of Voltaire’s mind when he himself is in the act of letter-writing. With the sorts of addressees for whom Voltaire uses Latin quotations he may likewise use a Ciceronian subscription. Here the Ciceronian model shapes Voltaire’s epistolary rhetoric.

Finally, pushing this line of enquiry a bit further, we came across another discovery: there are reduced versions of the passage, “Vale. Te amo”, which Voltaire uses extensively in the correspondence, and in particular with the social network of old school friends outlined above. This passage is in fact too small to be identified by our matching algorithms, and we would furthermore be a bit hard-pressed to classify it as a singularly Ciceronian borrowing. And yet…

– Nicholas Cronk and Glenn Roe

[1] See François de Dainville, L’Education des jésuites (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles) (Paris, Minuit, 1978).

[2] Voltaire, Siècle de Louis XIV, ‘Catalogue des écrivains’, OCV, vol.12.

[3] See Maria Teodora Comsa, Melanie Conroy, Dan Edelstein, Chloe Summers Edmondson, and Claude Willan, ‘The French Enlightenment Network’, The Journal of Modern History 88, no. 3 (September 2016): 495-534.

[4] [D17251]. Voltaire [François Marie Arouet], ‘Voltaire [François Marie Arouet] to Louise Honorine Crozat Du Châtel, duchesse de Choiseul [née Crozat]: Monday, 17 June 1771’. In Electronic Enlightenment Scholarly Edition of Correspondence, University of Oxford.

[5] [D3918]. Voltaire [François Marie Arouet], “Voltaire [François Marie Arouet] to Jean François Marmontel: Friday, 2 May 1749”, in Electronic Enlightenment Scholarly Edition of Correspondence, University of Oxford.

La Beaumelle dans la tourmente de l’affaire Calas

Le quatorzième tome de la « Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle », qui vient de paraître, se concentre sur la période de mars 1761 à décembre 1763.

La Beaumelle par Liotard

Portrait de La Beaumelle par Liotard (Archives Angliviel de La Beaumelle).

Sorti vainqueur de son procès avec le capitoul David de Beaudrigue qui se venge en le faisant désarmer sur la place royale de Toulouse, La Beaumelle compose un mémoire pour la marquise de Montmoirac, accusée d’adultère par son mari, et travaille à une Vie de Maupertuis.

La découverte le 17 octobre 1761 du corps de Marc-Antoine Calas bouleverse l’existence de La Beaumelle. Ses conférences avec l’avocat David Lavaysse, qui prend la défense de son propre fils Gaubert accusé avec la famille Calas, sont l’occasion de sa rencontre avec une des filles de Lavaysse, Rose-Victoire Nicol, devenue veuve. Deux années lui seront nécessaires pour obtenir l’agrément de celle-ci à leur mariage et le consentement du père.

David Lavaysse

Portrait de David Lavaysse (Collection privée).

La situation particulière de La Beaumelle à Toulouse l’oblige à une grande prudence. Protestant notoire, ennemi personnel du capitoul David, il est connu de tous les acteurs de l’affaire, du procureur du roi et des juges du Capitole ou du Parlement comme des accusés et de leurs avocats. En décembre le président de Niquet obtient du comte de Saint-Florentin une lettre de cachet contre lui pour « mauvaise conduite » (un an après le ministre s’irritera d’avoir été abusé). Informé La Beaumelle quitte Toulouse pour Mazères (où Mme Nicol possède une propriété) et le pays de Foix, dont le commandant le marquis de Gudanes est un ami de David Lavaysse.

Ainsi ne faut-il pas s’étonner que malgré les nombreux documents inédits que comporte ce volume, il ne soit pas possible de retracer dans le détail l’action de La Beaumelle en faveur des Calas. Le 1er décembre 1761 il a achevé la rédaction de la « Lettre pastorale » que Paul Rabaut envoie au Procureur général Riquet de Bonrepos, et qui imprimée sous le titre de La Calomnie confondue sera brûlée par le Parlement. Il a collaboré au Mémoire pour le sieur Gaubert Lavaysse que publie David Lavaysse en janvier 1762. Les Observations pour le sieur Jean Calas, la dame de Cabibel son épouse, et le sieur Pierre Calas, son fils, signées par le procureur Duroux fils et traditionnellement attribuées au conseiller au Parlement Lassalle, doivent être restituées à La Beaumelle. Début juin il rédige le mémoire « au Roy » par lequel Mme Calas demande que soit « rétablie la mémoire de Jean Calas son mari en sa bonne fame et renommée ». Il compose en septembre le placet des demoiselles Calas pour obtenir leur libération des couvents où elles étaient enfermées.

Paul Rabaut

Portrait de Paul Rabaut (Bibliothèque du protestantisme français, Paris).

L’activité d’écriture de La Beaumelle en cette année 1762 est intense. Il s’exerce encore à présenter une image fidèle de la doctrine calviniste, accusée d’avoir par son intolérance poussé Jean Calas à tuer son fils. En avril il augmente la Requête qu’il avait écrite en décembre 1761 pour le pasteur François Rochette, ouvrage maintenant en trois volumes, « dans lequel il approfondit tous les principes de la tolérance civile » (ce texte a été publié en 2012). Le 31 août est la date de son manuscrit de la « Lettre pastorale de Paul Rabaut, ministre de l’évangile, sur le livre de Mr J.-J. Rousseau, intitulé Emile, ou de l’éducation » (1763). La Beaumelle compose aussi un catéchisme entièrement fondé sur des citations bibliques, qui ne sera jamais publié.

De retour à Toulouse en décembre il entretient une correspondance avec le pasteur Rabaut soucieux de tirer les enseignements de la condamnation de Jean Calas. Il rédige les documents qui seront soumis aux délibérations du synode national des Églises du Désert qui se réunira près de Nîmes en juin 1763. Paul Rabaut aurait souhaité sa présence incognito à proximité pour défendre les propositions qu’il l’a chargé de préparer : la désignation du marquis de Gudanes comme le représentant à Paris des Églises du Désert, la constitution d’un fonds pour faciliter ses démarches, la création d’une gazette protestante et la rédaction d’une requête au Roi. Ces délibérations ne seront pas adoptées.

– Claude Lauriol