Peril at sea: the digital search for allusions in Voltaire’s epic poetry

Tesserae-OBVIL is an intertextual search tool currently being developed with support from the Voltaire Foundation, designed to compare French and Latin texts and locate possible poetic allusions between them. In this blog post, developer and Vf Post-Doctoral Fellow James Gawley explains several new allusions found with Tesserae-OBVIL that deepen our understanding of the Henriade, one of Voltaire’s most important, yet least-studied works.

The Henriade
Louis-François Charon, Voltaire à la Bastille composant la Henriade, 1822, print, 48.2cm x 34.7cm, Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

In 1717, Voltaire was thrown into the Bastille for writing and distributing scurrilous verses about the Regent. In his cell, he began to compose a new poem called the Henriade. In contrast to the short, scandalous verses that had put him in prison, this would be a national epic designed to trumpet France’s place in the world and in world literature. Voltaire’s ambition was huge: unlike Greece and Rome, and unlike other modern European nations, France lacked a national epic, a crowning work of literature that could give the country a sense of national identity.

The poem made its author a celebrity. For the eighteenth century, Voltaire was the author of the Henriade. It was quickly translated into many languages and published in almost every European country. Voltaire even lived to see an American edition released in 1778. Yet today, we hardly know what to make of his epic. There is little critical work published on the poem, and print editions are rare in libraries and non-existent in bookstores. Simply put, something considered to be Voltaire’s masterpiece by his contemporaries is virtually unknown to modern readers. One key missing element is the classical context, obvious to eighteenth-century readers, but increasingly obscure today.


Allusion, at its simplest, is the adaptation of a recognisable passage or phrase in the text of a new poem. Allusion is not rote copying; it depends on an adaptation of old material, meaning that the words or the context are altered to create something new. Nor is it plagiarism, since the author intends for the reader to recognise the borrowed material. In fact, the word ‘allusion’ is derived from the Latin ludus, or ‘game’. This game was much easier for Voltaire’s readers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when epic poetry and its allusive tradition were taught in schools. Today, expertise in both the Latin epic tradition and the literature of the Enlightenment is rare. So that new readers might come to appreciate the Henriade, I have adapted the open source Tesserae Project to search for allusions that connect French epic poetry with its Latin predecessors. The tool (in its current, early form) is called Tesserae-OBVIL.

Detail of La Tour’s portrait of Madame de Pompadour showing the Henriade on her bureau. Maurice Quentin de La Tour, Portrait en pied de la marquise de Pompadour, 1749-1755, 175cm x 128cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Poets use a very small amount of shared language to connect themselves to their predecessors; once the connection is formed in the reader’s mind, the alluding poet changes the text as much as possible. So instead of looking for passages with a large number of similarities, Tesserae-OBVIL looks for places where just two or more words are shared between poems within a single phrase. The system then filters these points of similarity according to the rarity of the shared words and their proximity to one another on the page. The user still has to interpret the search results, sifting out the meaningful allusions. Yet even with false positives in the search results, Tesserae-OBVIL makes it easier for us to read the Henriade as Voltaire’s contemporaries did, with an eye for epic allusion and intimate knowledge of the Latin epics.

Allusions in the Henriade

The genre of epic poetry depends on allusions. References to the canon prove that a poet has done their homework. Even better, if the poet can improve on famous verses, then they elevate themself above their predecessors and take their own place in the canon. Perhaps most important, allusions in epic poetry establish the mastery of the poet’s culture. Allusions are therefore intrinsic to Voltaire’s goals in composing the Henriade.

To establish France’s literary supremacy, Voltaire had to engage closely with Virgil. This is why the Henriade starts out in the same way as the Aeneid. Both poems begin with a hero’s sea voyage to a foreign queen; Aeneas encounters Dido, while Henry IV meets Elizabeth I of England. Voltaire is taking advantage of poetic license here: though England did aid France in the wars of religion, Henry never actually met Elizabeth. Voltaire invents the scene to connect himself to Virgil, and this engagement has a competitive French twist. When the hero Aeneas is nearly shipwrecked at the beginning of Virgil’s poem, he bitterly laments his fate. This lamentation is a failure of stoic courage, which would require Aeneas to accept whatever the gods have in store for him without complaint. Voltaire reproduces this scene at the beginning of the Henriade, but when Henri believes he will be drowned, he does not rail against fate. His only lament is for the fate of France. The French hero of the Henriade is implicitly braver than the Roman hero of the Aeneid.

Aeneid 1.88–1.101

Eripiunt subito nubes caelumque diemque
Teucrorum ex oculis; ponto nox incubat atra.
Intonuere poli, et crebris micat ignibus aether,
praesentemque viris intentant omnia mortem.
Extemplo Aeneae solvuntur frigore membra:
ingemit, et duplicis tendens ad sidera palmas
talia voce refert: ‘O terque quaterque beati,
quis ante ora patrum Troiae sub moenibus altis
contigit oppetere! O Danaum fortissime gentis
Tydide! Mene Iliacis occumbere campis
non potuisse, tuaque animam hanc effundere dextra,
saevus ubi Aeacidae telo iacet Hector, ubi ingens
Sarpedon, ubi tot Simois correpta sub undis
scuta virum galeasque et fortia corpora volvit?’

[Suddenly clouds take sky and day away
from the Trojan’s eyes: dark night rests on the sea.
It thunders from the pole, and the aether flashes thick fire,
and all things threaten immediate death to men.
Instantly Aeneas groans, his limbs slack with cold:
stretching his two hands towards the heavens,
he cries out in this voice: ‘Oh, three, four times fortunate
were those who chanced to die in front of their father’s eyes
under Troy’s high walls! O Diomede, son of Tydeus
bravest of Greeks! Why could I not have fallen, at your hand,
in the fields of Ilium, and poured out my spirit,
where fierce Hector lies, beneath Achilles’s spear,
and mighty Sarpedon: where Simois rolls, and sweeps away
so many shields, helmets, brave bodies, of men, in its waves!’]

Compare these lines with a passage of the Henriade connected to it by Tesserae-OBVIL:

Henriade 1.166–1.176:

On découvrait déjà les bords de l’Angleterre;
L’astre brillant du jour à l’instant s’obscurcit;
L’air siffle, le ciel gronde, et l’onde au loin mugit;
Les vents sont déchaînés sur les vagues émues;
La foudre étincelante éclate dans les nues;
Et le feu des éclairs, et l’abîme des flots,
Montraient partout la mort aux pâles matelots.
Le héros, qu’assiégeait une mer en furie,
Ne songe en ce danger qu’aux maux de sa patrie,
Tourne ses yeux vers elle, et, dans ses grands desseins,
Semble accuser les vents d’arrêter ses destins.

[The coast of England is already appearing;
The bright star of day darkens all at once;
Air whistles, sky rumbles, the wave in the distance roars;
The winds are unleashed on the agitated waves;
Flashing lightning bursts in the clouds;
The fire of thunderbolts, and the abyss of the waves,
Showed death all around to the pale sailors.
The hero, besieged by a furious sea,
Thinks in this danger only of the suffering of his country,
Turns his eyes towards her, and, in his grand designs,
Seems to accuse the winds of stopping his destiny.]

The similarity between these passages is obvious when compared directly, but this allusion from Voltaire to Virgil has gone unnoted in scholarly literature. Sometimes it takes a digital search tool to show us where to look. Yet there is more to this passage than a French hero reacting more calmly than a Roman one. Allusions are often polyvalent, connecting one point of a poem with several predecessors. This near-shipwreck passage in Voltaire is one of these polyvalent allusions.

Claude Joseph Vernet, Le Naufrage, 1772, oil on canvas, 113.5cm x 162.9cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In between the Aeneid and the Henriade, another epic reproduced this scene. Lucan’s Civil War was composed some eighty years after the death of Virgil, while the emperor Nero was in power. Whereas Virgil’s epic is designed to establish Rome as a nation whose culture deserves to dominate the Mediterranean, Lucan’s follow-up poem laments Rome’s mindless and self-destructive tendencies. When Lucan sends Julius Caesar – epic hero and ancestor of the current ruler – into the storm, he portrays Caesar as unflinching in the face of death. Caesar offers no lament about the fate of himself or of Rome. In fact, he is utterly convinced of his importance and does not particularly care what happens to Rome, provided that he gets what he wants. Caesar is not a ‘hero’ in the modern sense of the word – he is heroic in scale and monstrous in ambition.

Civil War 1.88–1.101

Nubibus et coelo Notus est: si murmura ponti
Consulimus, Cori verrunt mare. Gurgite tanto,
Nec ratis Hesperias tanget, nec naufragus oras.
Desperare viam et vetitos convertere cursus,
Sola salus. Liceat vexata litora puppe
Prendere, ne longe nimium sit proxima tellus.
Fisus cuncta sibi cessura pericula Caesar,
Sperne minas, inquit, pelagi, ventoque furenti
Trade sinum. Italiam si coelo auctore recusas,
Me pete. Sola tibi caussa haec est iusta timoris,
Vectorem non nosse tuum; quem numina numquam
Destituunt, de quo male tunc Fortuna meretur,
Cum post vota venit. Medias perrumpe procellas,
Tutela secure mea. Coeli iste fretique,
Non puppis nostrae labor est: hanc Caesare pressam
A fluctu defendet onus.

[A north-westerly tempest will overcome the waves.
In such a gale, neither shipwrecked crew nor vessel
shall ever reach the shore of Italy. Our one chance
is to renounce all hopes of the passage denied us
and retrace our course. Let me seek the shore nearby
in our battered craft, lest the land proves unreachable.’
Confident that all perils would give way before him,
Caesar cried: ‘Scorn the sea’s threats, spread our sail
to the raging wind. Seek Italy at my command though
you refuse that of heaven. Only your ignorance of whom
you carry justifies your fear. Here is one whom the gods
never desert, whom fate treats unjustly if she comes only
in answer to his prayers. Thread the heart of the tempest,
secure in my protection. This turmoil concerns the sea
and sky, not our vessel: that she bears Caesar will defend
her from the waves.’]

The language of Voltaire’s near-shipwreck scene shares almost as much with Civil War as it does with the Aeneid, and if we read a little further in the Henriade, Voltaire makes the reference more explicit:

Henriade 1.177-182:

Tel, et moins généreux, aux rivages d’Épire,
Lorsque de l’univers il disputait l’empire,
Confiant sur les flots aux aquilons mutins
Le destin de la terre et celui des Romains,
Défiant à la fois et Pompée et Neptune,
César à la tempête opposait sa fortune.

[Such, and less generous, on the shores of Epirus,
When the empire of the universe he disputed,
Trusting on the waves to the mutinous aquilons
The destiny of the earth and of the Romans,
Defying both Pompey and Neptune,
Caesar opposed his fortune to the storm.]

Engraving of Henri IV from a copy of Voltaire’s Œuvres complètes (Kehl, 1785), vol.10 (La Henriade), frontispiece.

If Voltaire felt obligated to demonstrate his mastery of Virgil, he also felt obligated to demonstrate his mastery of Lucan. By including hints of Julius Caesar when he depicts Henri IV as brave in the face of the storm, he adds an ominous note to his apparent flattery of the royal family – readers recall that Caesar was responsible for a civil war that nearly destroyed Rome, and died a tyrant. This is far from the only hint of Voltaire’s personal opinions in the poem. Aeneas himself was an ambiguous hero. Throughout most of Virgil’s epic, Aeneas is a patient leader and obedient to the gods. In the poem’s final lines he gives in to rage and butchers his fallen opponent, a man who is clinging to his knees and begging for mercy. Epic poetry is always somewhat ambivalent in its praise. Given the writer’s rocky relationship with the descendants of Henry IV, I would say that Voltaire chose the medium of his praise very well.

For its original audience, the Henriade was not simply an obsequious homage to the ruling family that imprisoned Voltaire. It was a celebration of France, one that also conveyed a carefully veiled criticism of its royal family. Imprisoned for openly mocking the powerful, Voltaire used allusions to add an ironic subtext to his praise of Henri IV. It is this combination of nationalist pride and mistrust of authority – both inaccessible unless one understands the allusions beneath the surface of the text – that make the Henriade a compelling piece of literature. These complexities have been mostly lost to the reader for the past century-and-a-half, and are only now being rediscovered with digital tools like Tesserae-OBVIL.

– James Gawley, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Voltaire Foundation

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s surprising ‘cosmopolites’

Reading the recent blog, ‘Voltaire, the Lettre sur les Anglais, and Enlightenment cosmopolitanism’ I was reminded that Bernardin de Saint-Pierre employed ‘cosmopolite’ as an adjective. I had always assumed that the term was utilised exclusively as a noun – for instance, we read early on in ‘Livre I’ of Rousseau’s Emile: ‘Défiez-vous de ces cosmopolites qui vont chercher dans leurs livres des devoirs qu’ils dédaignent de remplir autour d’eux.’ As the general editor of Bernardin’s Harmonies de la Nature (Œuvres complètes of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, t.4, Paris, Classiques Garnier, forthcoming), I came across this adjectival usage on several occasions, moreover describing the natural world. Bernardin’s monumental work in nine ‘Livres’ was probably begun in 1790 and then recast in several versions for the next fifteen to twenty years without being published in its author’s lifetime. In ‘Livre I’ we read regarding plants (the italics are mine):

Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, engraving by Etienne Frédéric Lignon (1818).

‘Le blé a des harmonies avec la terre par ses racines, divisées par filaments, qui en y pompent leur nourriture. Elles ne sont ni longues ni nombreuses mais elles y adhèrent si fortement qu’on ne peut les enlever sans emporter une portion du sol ni rompre la paille à cause de sa dureté. Voilà sans doute les raisons qui obligent les laboureurs de le scier plutôt que de l’arracher. Ces rapports terrestres lui sont communs avec beaucoup d’autres végétaux, mais ce qu’il a de particulier, c’est qu’il n’y a aucune partie du globe où ne puisse croître quelqu’une de ses espèces, depuis le riz du Gange jusqu’à l’orge de la Finlande. Il est cosmopolite comme l’homme […].’

In the same ‘Livre’ one finds:

‘Les plantes cosmopolites croissent en général le long des grands chemins. Ce sont des espèces d’hospices que la nature y a établis pour les animaux domestiques voyageurs.’

Birds are endowed with this capacity in ‘Livre II’:

‘L’organisation des volatiles, leur instinct et leurs vols, peuvent se rapporter à une infinité de besoins de la vie sociale. Ils peuvent servir à découvrir les propriétés des végétaux, à annoncer l’arrivée des orages, le changement des saisons, et les îles qui sont hors de la vue des navigateurs. Les volatiles sont les premiers habitants des terres, de tous les genres d’êtres organisés, le leur est seul cosmopolite.’

The utility of floating vegetation is illustrated in ‘Livre III’:

‘Ces végétations flottantes forment quelquefois des tribus si nombreuses, qu’elles arrêtent la course des vaisseaux: telles sont celles de la Floride. D’autres semblent poser des limites stables et tracer des lignes de démarcation sur les plaines liquides de la mer: elles peuvent déterminer les bornes des diverses puissances maritimes, et donner aux navigateurs des points plus sûrs que leurs longitudes estimées. D’autres font comme eux le tour du globe, et circulent d’un pôle à l’autre avec l’océan. C’est peut-être parmi ces espèces voyageuses et cosmopolites, que de malheureux marins, naufragés sur un écueil, peuvent choisir des trajectiles propres à annoncer leur infortune sur tous les rivages.’

‘Livre IX’ offers a further example:

‘Tels sont les principaux genres physiques qui se subdivisent en moraux, les uns vivant fraternellement comme les moineaux. Tous se divisent en deux sexes. Quelques-uns vivent conjugalement comme les tourterelles, d’autres maternellement ainsi que les abeilles qui travaillent en familles sous le gouvernement d’une mère. Des familles les unes se rassemblent en tribus ainsi que les castors, quelques tribus se réunissent en nations telles que plusieurs espèces de poissons. Enfin d’autres sont cosmopolites et vivent pour ainsi dire sphériquement en parcourant le globe. Telles sont les espèces voyageuses comme les hirondelles.’

I wondered whether this extended use could be found elsewhere. The search facility of Electronic Enlightenment offered an excellent resource. It registered 29 occurences. Voltaire writes towards the end of a letter to Frederick II, c.15 July 1742: ‘Mais j’ay essuyé une des plus illustres tracasseries de ce monde. Mais je suis si bon cosmopolite, que je me réjouiray de tout.’ On 29 April 1752 he chides La Condamine: ‘mon cher cosmopolite, ne me croyez pas assez ignare pour ne pas savoir où est Cartagene; j’y envoie tous les ans plus d’un vaisseau, ou du moins je suis au nombre de ceux qui y en envoient […].’ Moultou told Rousseau on 13 October 1762: ‘R[oustan] n’a pas compris vôtre dernier chap. du Contrat social, au moins il ne l’a pas compris come moy. Quand vous dites que le Xanisme est contraire a l’esprit social, il me semble que cette assertion revient a celle cy, que la bienveillance se relâche en s’etendant, & que le Xanisme nous fesant envisager touts les homes come nos fréres, nous empêche de mettre une grande difference entre eux, et nos concitoyens. De la le Systéme du Xanisme est plus favorable a la société universelle des homes qu’aux societés particuliéres: le Xen est plus cosmopolite que patriote.’

However it is the abbé Morellet who appears the greatest fan of the term ‘cosmopolite’. He tells David Garrick on 21 April 1765: ‘N’ai je pas fait là un petit sacrifice à l’utilité publique qui merite de la part des amis du genre humain quelque reconnoissance. Je dis de la part du genre humain car je ne crains pas de vous avoüer que ce n’est pas pour mon pays que je travaille. On ne profitera pas de longtemps de ce que je pourrai avoir dit de bon dans ce pays cy et on ne m’en saura peut-etre pas grand gré. Mais je suis cosmopolite et si je puis en développant les principes d’une science aussi vaste et j’ose dire assés inconnue jusqu’à present etre utile à quelque nation que ce soit[,] fut elle notre ennemie[,] je me croirai bien payé de mes travaux.’ He tells Pietro Verri in a missive composed between 14 and 15 March 1767: ‘Dites moi, Monsieur le Comte, si vos occupations et celles de M. le Comte Carli vous empêchent d’écrire sur ces objets intéressans. Devenus des hommes d’état, vous ferez les meilleures choses du monde dans votre Milanois, cela est bien. Mais je suis cosmopoliteet je voudrois bien que vous travaillassiez un peu pour le genre humain.’

He further champions the idea of being ‘cosmopolite’ in letters of 4 September 1775 and c.30 December 1777 to the 1st marquess of Lansdowne and on 30 October 1785 to Benjamin Franklin. The term is not found in Bernardin’s own letters but exists in a communication to him dated c. October 1789. The correspondent is a fellow Norman and a fervent admirer, Mme Le Pesant de Boisguilbert. She is now an émigrée in Margate: ‘il n’est point de bonheur pour moi sachant La France agiteé de troubles et de divisions et travaillant elle même a sa ruine. personne pour mon malheur n’est moins cosmopolite que moi; je tiens fortement à ma patrie […].’ Here the word has clearly negative connotations unlike the resonances in the other quoted letters.

Evidently ‘cosmopolite’ has no linkage with the non-human world in the above quotations. I wondered therefore whether the seemingly new usage might be found in contemporary reference books. The word was clearly in circulation in the early decades of the eighteenth century with its ‘citizen of the world’meaning. Yet it is absent from the 1694, 1718 and 1740 editions of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. It appears however as a noun in the 1762 version: ‘Celui qui n’adopte point de patrie. Un cosmopolite n’est pas un bon citoyen.’ The 1798 edition is arguably more positive: ‘Citoyen du monde. Il se dit de celui qui n’adopte pas de patrie. Un cosmoplite regarde l’univers comme sa patrie.’ (The 1835 edition follows similar lines.) The Encyclopédie article in volume 4 of the 1751 edition offers: ‘COSMOPOLITAIN, ou COSMOPOLITE, (Gram. & Philosoph.) On se sert quelquefois de ce nom en plaisantant, pour signifier un homme qui n’a point de demeure fixe, ou bien un homme qui n’est étranger nulle part.’ In volume 2 of its edition in 1771 the Dictionnaire de Trévoux suggests: ‘Cosmopolitain, aine. On dit quelquefois ce mot en badinant, pour signifier un homme qui n’a point de demeure fixe, ou bien un homme qui nulle part n’est étranger […].’ The abbé Féraud supplies nothing new in his Dictionnaire critique de la langue française (1787): ‘Cosmopolite, Celui qui n’adopte point de patrie; citoyen de l’univers. “Il se fait honneur d’être cosmopolite, mais un cosmopolite n’est pas un bon citoyen.”’

The first reference that I have encountered which records Bernardin’s practice is in the Dictionnaire Littré (1873-1877). Its entry begins with the customary definition: ‘Celui qui se considère comme citoyen de l’univers’ but suggests also ‘celui qui vit tantôt dans un pays tantôt dans un autre; qui adopte facilement les usages des divers pays. C’est un cosmopolite.’ It goes on to list: ‘Adjectivement. Un philosophe cosmopolite. Une existence cosmopolite. “De tous les genres d’êtres organisés, le genre des insectes est seul cosmopolite”, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Harm. liv. II, Anim.’ Bernardin’s is the only source cited although the quotation is slightly incorrect as it should be ‘volatiles’ and not ‘insectes’ (see the quotation from ‘Livre II’ above). Could Bernardin thus be the initiator of this adjectival extension of ‘cosmopolite’ to the non-human world? Intriguingly the old but still valuable study of changes in the French language by Ferdinand Gohin in the final decades of the eighteenth century would seem to support that possibility. In a section entitled ‘On applique aux choses ce qui ne se disait que des personnes’ he provides an entry for ‘cosmopolite’: ‘B. de St-P., Et., II. 383; […]. – Ibid, I, 71 […].’* The reference is not to the Harmonies de la Nature but to the Etudes de la Nature (first published in 1784).

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Etudes de la Nature, frontispiece and title page of the first edition (Taylor Institution library).

I have omitted above Gohin’s quotations from Bernardin (in the square brackets) for clarity. I shall quote the second one first: ‘[La nature] a donné aux plantes qui lui [à l’homme] sont les plus utiles, de croître dans tous les climats; les plantes domestiques, depuis le chou jusqu’au blé, sont les seules qui, comme l’homme, soient cosmopolites’ (Etudes de la Nature, ed. Colas Duflo, Œuvres complètes of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, t.3, Paris, 2019, p.131). Bernardin believed in a divinely ordered universe which is governed by providence where everything was primarily geared to the benefit of ‘le genre humain’. The other quotation (which I cite at greater length) could be considered as very revealing: ‘C’est dans cette famille, si j’ose dire cosmopolite, que la nature a placé le principal aliment de l’homme; car les blés, dont tant de peuples subsistent, ne sont que des espèces de graminées. Il n’y a point de terre où il ne puisse croître quelques espèces de graminées’ (ibid., p.700). It is the insertion of the phrase ‘si j’ose dire cosmopolite’ which is telling. It surely implies that Bernardin recognises that he is not following standard usage and that his readers may disapprove of such linguistic licence.

Those familiar with Bernardin’s works are well aware of his vast range of vocabulary. Unless possessing specialist knowledge, his early readers (and doubtless their twenty-first century successors) can only regard his terminology for flora and fauna in the lands of the Indian Ocean as exotic and evocative without comprehending their precise meaning. In common with his contemporary acquaintance, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, he championed the invigorating value of new words. Jean-Claude Bonnet claims that ‘Bernardin s’est révélé hardiment néologue.’** In ‘Livre IX’ of the Harmonies de la Nature Bernardin includes ‘propulsation’ three times, a word unknown to any dictionary, in effect a ‘barbarisme’. The final letter of his first publication, the Voyage à l’île de France (1773), states: ‘L’art de rendre la nature est si nouveau, que les termes même n’en sont pas inventés’ (ed. A. Gigan and V. Kapor, Œuvres complètes, t.2, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2019, p.854).

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage à l’île de France, frontispiece and title page of the first edition (Taylor Institution library).

Editors of his Œuvres complètes frequently fail to find words that he employs in eighteenth-century dictionaries. Indeed when they are found in nineteenth-century listings, examples of usage are often derived from Bernardin’s works, particularly the Harmonies de la Nature. With reference to ‘cosmopolite’ one can speculate that Bernardin adapted the positive implications of the term to an adjectival context to consider nature in a wider focus – its productions can be admired and consumed across the planet. People benefit from the presence and exchange of plants etc on a global scale just as they benefit from the sharing of ideas and experiences – we live in a joined-up world.

* Les transformations de la langue française pendant la deuxième moitié du XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1903), p.302. The Trésor de la langue française informatisé in its entry for ‘cosmopolite’ suggests its first appearance as an ‘adj. bot.’ was in the Etudes de la Nature edition of 1784 and cites Gohin as its source. It defines its modern meaning as ‘Qui connaît une très large répartition géographique.’

** ‘Bernardin néologue à l’épreuve de l’océan Indien ou “l’art de rendre la nature”’, in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre et l’océan Indien, ed. Jean-Michel Racault, Chantale Meure and Angélique Gigan (Paris, 2011), p.405.

Simon Davies

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

Launching CatCor: towards a digital edition of the letters of Catherine the Great

Catherine II by Fyodor Rokotov (1735-1808) after Alexander Roslin (1718-1793), Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg (Wikimedia Commons).

From the Washington Post to the London Times, Catherine the Great continues to make front page news. The reason? A letter. The subject? Immunization (already sensationally depicted in Season 1 of the television romp The Great). Writing in April 1787 to Count Piotr Rumiantsev, the governor-general of Ukraine, she advised him that one of his most important tasks was the ‘introduction of inoculation against smallpox, which, as is known, causes great harm, especially among the ordinary people’. A decade earlier the Empress had invited the English physician Thomas Dimsdale to St Petersburg to inoculate her, the heir Pavel Petrovich, and members of the court. The variolation technique, a type of immunization, proved successful and Dimsdale did not have to make use of the extraordinary provisions for escape Catherine had devised in the event of her death and an attack by a mob on the foreigners. Another aspect of Dimsdale’s legacy was a gift of Mr Thomas Anderson, sometimes mentioned in her correspondence. No Pretender to the Throne, Mr Tom was in fact her beloved English greyhound given to Catherine by the physician.

It is entirely typical of Catherine that below the headline topic she then goes on to give Rumiantsev detailed advice on how and whom to immunize and how to defray the cost by using local taxes. Catherine was the original micro-manager. She is also one of the most impressive letter-writers of the eighteenth century, an age when letters went global, sped all over continents thanks to new postal routes, and sent sailing across oceans by trading routes. She is comparable to other eighteenth-century ‘enlightened’ monarchs, especially Frederick II of Prussia, in producing an extensive epistolary output as both a tool of policy and a space for intellectual and personal engagement.  Catherine could do everything in a letter from charming a lover to planning a battle, from laying out a garden to playing realpolitik. Her correspondence contains strategic despatches to her generals, back-channelling diplomatic posts, swapping ideas with Voltaire and d’Alembert, point-scoring with Frederick the Great, and sparring with the sculptor Etienne Falconet about the design of the Bronze Horseman: she used her letters to formulate ideas and policies and to inform the world about her aspirations for Russia.

Catherine II, empress of Russia (d.1796), notes stated to be in her handwriting, undated, in French (fol.3). Bodleian Archives and Manuscripts catalogue MS. Montagu d. 20, fol.3. With thanks to Mike Webb of the Bodleian Libraries.

Her letters are of multi-faceted interest, providing a real-time and often blow-by-blow account of personal matters, affairs of state, aesthetics, and ideas, and covering the decades from her arrival as a bride in Russia in 1745 to her mustering of forces against the French Revolution in defence of Enlightenment and Absolutism. Early letters trace her involvement in a court conspiracy with the British ambassador Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams, and her letter about the putsch that put her on the throne – an absolute potboiler of a narration – remains a unique source on those events. She also understood that the artful projection of a civilized personality was itself a statement of cultural superiority. In a letter of 1772 she insinuated that her favourite Grigory Orlov’s cultural superiority would ensure his success at the Fokshani peace congress over the Ottomans: ‘Le comte Orlof, qui, sans exagération, est le plus bel homme de son temps, doit paraître réellement un ange vis-à-vis de ces rustres-là; sa suite est brillante et choisie, et mon ambassadeur ne hait point la magnificence ni l’éclat.’ Catherine needed to project her court’s strength and self-confidence, also manifested in civilised gaiety at Tsarskoe Selo: ‘Il est impossible d’être à la lettre d’une gaité plus folle et d’une folie plus sage que nous l’avons été.’

Count Grigory Orlov (1734-1783) by Fyodor Rokotov (Wikimedia Commons).

‘How many letters did Catherine write?’ is an obvious question and starting point. The best guesstimate is that close to 5,000 letters survive but the number might well rise to over 6,000 or on some accounts closer to 10,000. For reasons of dynastic politics, her letters were never properly collected into a scholarly edition. Many thousands of letters were published in batches or singly in the so-called Russian ‘thick journals’ in the second half of the nineteenth century and are scattered across more than 120 publications and therefore hard to use. To this day there is no definitive inventory of the correspondence. Bright spots have been editions of separate correspondences.  Properly edited collections include letters to Voltaire, Potemkin, de Ligne, and Gustave III of Sweden which have appeared in the past 20 years in French and Russian.  These are just the tip of the iceberg. In English, Kelsey Rubin-Detlev and I have produced a translated anthology, the first of its kind in any language, that can also work as a history of the reign and biography through letters (see also here). Nonetheless, because of their dispersal and inaccessibility, the letters are insufficiently appreciated and remain underused. The solution to the problem of accessing, reading, searching, and using this unique correspondence seemed to lie through the new resources of the Digital Age.

Some years ago, Kelsey Rubin-Detlev and I embarked on a project we dubbed CatCor, officially known as the Digital Correspondence of Catherine the Great. With several rounds of funding, the project advanced from an initial phase to the pilot being launched thanks to the dedication of a great team of research assistants and the expertise of our digital advisers. With nearly 1,100 letters fully marked up, CatCor now contains a critical mass of letters as well as much annotation. Her letters often move fast and are dense with information. As part of its scholarly utility, CatCor includes a new apparatus of editorial notes that facilitates the perusal of the letters with hyperlinks glossing names, places, events and objects mentioned in the correspondence. The pilot database provides new annotations on the letters and the visualization in the map can also generate lists of letters by place. It is possible to browse and filter letters by people, places, events, and objects mentioned.

There is also the sheer delight of browsing through a single correspondence. In this pilot containing a cross-section of letters from her reign, readers can take in virtually the entire set of letters Catherine wrote to Falconet, while extensively sampling the letters she wrote to Grimm, of a very different character stylistically and thematically. CatCor also also provides the most extensive and only inventory of letters with open access links to the print sources. This display of metadata (listed in the Calendar function), the first list of its kind ever to have been done, gives a good idea of the remaining work needed to achieve a comprehensive digital edition. We hope that CatCor will contribute to a new discussion of the perennially troublesome tension between theory and practice in Catherine’s engagement with the values of the European Enlightenment.

Please come and take a look.

And please let us have your feedback.

Andrew Kahn (e-mail)

Mon été avec Voltaire: la numérisation de la collection Lambert-David

En mai 2021, on m’a approchée pour procéder à la numérisation de la collection Lambert-David, une série de manuscrits de Voltaire appartenant au professeur Peter Southam. Après une première phase de tests réalisée par un photographe professionnel, M. François Lafrance, le travail s’est déroulé dans les locaux de la Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines situés sur le campus principal de l’Université de Sherbrooke. Comme l’université ne dispose pas d’une salle et d’un équipement professionnel attitrés à la numérisation d’archives, les autres membres de l’équipe et moi-même avons rassemblé le matériel nécessaire pour entreprendre le projet. Tout au long du processus, j’ai pris soin de suivre les recommandations et les pratiques de trois institutions patrimoniales (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, Bibliothèque nationale de France et Musée Canadien de l’histoire) pour la numérisation des documents qui sont résumées dans le Recueil de règles de numérisation.* Je ferai ici un survol du processus de numérisation et de mon expérience de travail.

Le matériel et l’espace de travail

Pour numériser des documents, il existe deux types d’outils sur le marché: les numériseurs (scanner) et les appareils photo numériques. Le choix entre ces deux technologies dépend essentiellement de l’état des manuscrits qui composent la collection. Le numériseur possède plusieurs avantages: numérisation en très haute résolution, éclairage uniforme géré par l’appareil et aucune distorsion optique. Cependant, il est moins polyvalent que l’appareil photo (la surface de numérisation est limitée) et il est souvent beaucoup plus dispendieux. Dans le cadre de ce projet, nous avons opté pour l’appareil photo numérique. Voici donc une liste non exhaustive du matériel requis:

  • Un appareil photo numérique, de type DSLR et d’au moins 12 mégapixels (Recueil, p.10)
  • Un objectif: il est préférable d’opter pour un objectif de type zoom, c’est-à-dire avec une plage focale
  • Un support de stockage des données
  • Un ordinateur muni d’un logiciel de traitement d’images
  • Un trépied horizontal
  • Un système d’éclairage continu
  • Un arrière-plan de couleur neutre: blanc, gris ou noir
  • Une charte des couleurs: ColorChecker ou charte Q-13 (Recueil, p.12)

Notre objectif était de mettre en place un espace de travail temporaire à la fois efficace et économique. Plusieurs articles de l’équipement nous ont été donnés ou prêtés. L’appareil photo numérique (Canon Rebel T7) et son objectif (EF-S 18-55 mm) ont été empruntés au Comptoir de prêt du Service de soutien à la formation de l’Université de Sherbrooke. Le propriétaire de la collection, Pr. Southam, possédait déjà un trépied horizontal et M. Lafrance nous a gentiment imprimé un fond gris. Pour la captation et le traitement des images, j’ai utilisé mon ordinateur personnel équipé d’une vieille version de Photoshop et de Camera Raw. J’ai également installé le logiciel gratuit de Canon (EOS Utility), pour la captation des images à distance,ainsi que le logiciel de conversion de fichiers d’Adobe (Adobe Digital Negative Converter). L’utilisation d’un logiciel d’acquisition photo permet de régler les paramètres et déclencher l’appareil à distance évitant ainsi de toucher à l’appareil pendant la numérisation.

L’éclairage est un élément crucial pour prendre de belles photos. L’utilisation d’une lampe-éclair professionnelle est fortement conseillée (Recueil, p.12), mais il s’agit d’une pièce d’équipement très dispendieuse. Nous avons donc opté pour un éclairage en continu. J’ai d’abord emprunté quatre lampes DEL au Comptoir de prêt, mais comme il s’agit de matériel fortement en demande, j’ai terminé le projet avec un ensemble d’éclairage personnel composé de deux boîtes à lumière avec diffuseurs.

La pièce d’équipement qui a été la plus difficile à obtenir est la charte des couleurs. Bien que la ColorChecker soit plus fiable et plus facilement accessible, nous avons opté pour la charte Tiffen Q-13 de Kodak. Pour faciliter le traitement et s’assurer que chaque image est indépendante, la charte des couleurs devait se retrouver à côté de toutes les pages photographiées. Le format de la ColorChecker (12×9 cm) était donc peu pratique comparativement au format de la charte Q-13 (19×6 cm). De plus, par souci d’uniformité, il s’agissait de la même charte utilisée par le photographe François Lafrance lors de la première phase du projet.

Enfin, il fallait choisir un environnement de travail approprié. Il est préférable d’opter pour un local assez sombre (sans fenêtre) où la lumière ambiante est tamisée et constante. L’espace doit également être propre et exempt de poussière (Recueil, p.12). On dispose ensuite l’équipement en s’assurant de bien éclairer la surface de numérisation.

La démarche

Avant d’entamer le processus d’acquisition des images, il faut ajuster les paramètres de l’appareil photo. Il y a au moins quatre facteurs à prendre en considération: l’exposition, la balance des blancs, la netteté (mise au point) et le format d’enregistrement. L’exposition est influencée par trois paramètres: la sensibilité du capteur (ISO), l’ouverture du diaphragme et la vitesse d’obturation. Dans le cadre du projet, selon la suggestion du photographe François Lafrance, j’ai utilisé une ouverture de f/8, une vitesse de 1/100 et une sensibilité ISO de 100. Ces paramètres ne sont présentés ici qu’à titre indicatif et il peut être nécessaire de les ajuster selon la quantité de lumière disponible. L’important est d’avoir une image nette et bien exposée. J’ai également ajusté la balance des blancs en utilisant l’outil de EOS Utility et la charte des couleurs (cette étape fut effectuée au début de chaque séance de numérisation). Enfin, j’ai réglé les paramètres d’enregistrement dans un format RAW (CR2).

On peut maintenant procéder à la photographie des manuscrits. Il faut d’abord positionner le document sur la surface de numérisation. Il est important de bien le mettre à plat lorsque l’état du document le permet. Autrement dit, on doit respecter le manuscrit, sa préservation ayant priorité sur la qualité du fichier. On effectue ensuite le cadrage de l’image à l’aide de la ‘visée par l’écran’ du logiciel d’acquisition. J’ai affiché les grilles et les repères afin de m’aider à centrer le document. Il est conseillé de garder une marge minimum de 1 cm tout autour du manuscrit et de s’assurer que la charte des couleurs soit visible dans son entièreté. Il ne reste plus qu’à effectuer la mise au point et appuyer sur le déclencheur. Tous les documents ont été numérisés dans leur intégralité (recto et verso), même lorsque les pages ne contenaient aucun texte. Les fichiers ont été enregistrés sur un disque dur externe en prenant soin de les classer dans des dossiers bien identifiés.

Les fichiers (CR2) obtenus doivent ensuite être traités. Il fallait d’abord les convertir dans un format RAW universel (DNG) à l’aide du logiciel Adobe Digital Negative Converter. J’ai par la suite effectué quelques traitements à l’aide de Camera Raw(extension dePhotoshop). Pour chacune des images, j’ai effectué les traitements suivants: la balance des blancs, l’exposition et la correction de la déformation optique. J’ai ensuite ouvert le document dans l’interface de Photoshop et ajouté l’étiquette pour identifier le manuscrit. Toutes les images ont été enregistrées en format TIFF non compressé. Bien que je n’aie effectué aucun traitement de couleur (l’équipement à ma disposition ne me permettait pas de calibrer les appareils), j’ai pris soin de traiter et enregistrer les images dans l’espace colorimétrique recommandé dans le Recueil de règles de numérisation, soit Adobe RGB 1998 (p.11). Puisque la charte de couleur se retrouve sur chaque image, un tel traitement pourra être effectué a posteriori.

Des documents fragiles et précieux: les défis rencontrés

Pendant le processus de numérisation, j’ai rencontré des documents particuliers qui furent plus difficiles à numériser. Puisque l’intégrité et la préservation des archives ont priorité sur les copies numériques, les solutions devaient éviter toute altération du document original.

Correspondance Frédéric-Voltaire, f.1.

Le premier défi fut la numérisation d’un document qui avait été collé avec du ruban adhésif. Le ruban empêchait non seulement une bonne mise à plat, mais camouflait également une ligne de texte. Enlever le ruban adhésif aurait fortement endommagé le manuscrit. Après plusieurs discussions au sein de l’équipe et selon la suggestion du propriétaire, Pr. Southam, j’ai coupé une petite partie du ruban adhésif. Heureusement, cette manipulation a pu se faire sans altérer le document original.

Correspondance Decroze-Voltaire.

Le deuxième défi fut d’assurer une bonne mise à plat de documents pliés plusieurs fois. A la demande du propriétaire, j’ai aplati les documents en les compressant entre deux livres lourds. Ils ont ensuite été remis au propriétaire dans cet état (sans les replier) à la demande de celui-ci.

Vers de Voltaire.

Le troisième défi fut de photographier un manuscrit de très grande taille (41×78 cm). Le trépied de Pr. Southam ne me permettait pas de reculer suffisamment l’appareil pour capter le document dans son ensemble. J’ai d’abord essayé de procéder à main levée, mais l’instabilité et le manque d’éclairage rendaient l’exercice très difficile. J’ai donc utilisé un autre trépied que j’ai fabriqué avec mon père pendant mes vacances. Celui-ci me donnait une plus grande marge de manœuvre et me permettait d’éloigner davantage l’appareil du sujet à photographier. Enfin, pour assurer une bonne visibilité du texte dans l’image, j’ai également photographié le manuscrit en plus petites sections en suivant le sens de lecture.

Théâtre de Voltaire, t.1.

Le dernier défi, et non le moindre, fut la numérisation d’un document relié de 250 pages. La manipulation de ce document était très délicate et il était impossible de faire une mise à plat complète sans briser sa reliure. Une étudiante à la maîtrise en littérature de l’Université de Sherbrooke, Frédérika Jean, est donc venue m’aider. Elle tenait le document ouvert pendant que je prenais la photo. Pour faciliter le processus, le recto de toutes les pages a été photographié dans un premier temps et le verso dans un second temps.

Au cours de l’été, j’ai eu la chance de découvrir une collection exceptionnelle de manuscrits voltairiens. La numérisation de celle-ci permettra, à long terme, de faciliter son analyse et sa diffusion. Ce court article n’a pas la prétention de s’imposer comme outil de référence pour toute entreprise de numérisation. Il vise plutôt à conserver la mémoire technique et méthodologique de cette expérience en décrivant avec précision et transparence les étapes qui ont mené à la création des fichiers numériques de la collection Lambert-David. Cette expérience démontre bien qu’en combinant les efforts et les ressources de plusieurs intervenants, il est possible d’installer un espace de travail à la fois efficace et économique.

Espace de travail.

Je terminerai en remerciant toute l’équipe du ‘projet Voltaire’, Pr. Peter Southam, Dr Gillian Pink de la Voltaire Foundation, Pr. Louise Bienvenue, Pr. Nicholas Dion, Pr. Anick Lessard et M. Rock Blanchard, doyenne et directeur administratif de la Faculté des lettres et sciences humaines de l’Université de Sherbrooke, ainsi que tous les collaborateurs ayant participé de près ou de loin au projet. Un merci spécial à François Lafrance, Yvon Blouin – mon père, et Frédérika Jean pour leur aide précieuse. Cette expérience m’a non seulement permis de perfectionner mes compétences en numérisation d’archives, mais également d’en apprendre davantage sur un personnage et une période de l’histoire que je connaissais trop peu. Je peux maintenant presque dire que j’ai passé un été en compagnie de l’un des philosophes des Lumières les plus célèbres: Voltaire!

Une pièce d’équipement fabriquée sur mesure

Le trépied du Pr. Peter Southam fut adéquat pour l’ensemble du projet. Cependant, la hauteur maximale du trépied ne permettait pas de photographier les documents de très grande taille. La numérisation d’un seul document ne justifiait pas l’achat d’un nouveau trépied ou d’un nouvel objectif. Pendant mes vacances, mon père et moi avons entrepris de confectionner un autre support. Après avoir pris connaissance de mes besoins, mon père, un homme très ingénieux et talentueux, a été en mesure de fabriquer un trépied horizontal à l’aide d’objets recyclés. Nous y trouvons, entre autres, deux bâtons de hockey, un vieux trépied trouvé dans une vente à débarras, un ancien poteau de tente, une équerre combinée sans sa règle ainsi que différents éléments issus d’objets amassés au fil des années. Le tout a ensuite été peint afin de le rendre plus uniforme. Ce nouveau prototype de trépied horizontal permet d’éloigner suffisamment l’appareil photo du sujet photographié afin de numériser des documents de grande taille dans leur entièreté. De surcroît, il est facilement démontable et ajustable. Le résultat est pratique, économique et écologique!

Sonia Blouin

Le support fabriqué.

* Marie-Chantal Anctil, Michel Legendre, Tristan Müller, Dominique Maillet, Kathleen Brosseau et Louise Renaud, Recueil de règles de numérisation [en ligne] (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Musée canadien de l’histoire, 2014), sur le site Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec,, consulté le 10 août 2022.

New resources for d’Holbach scholars

When was the last time you checked the ‘Digital d’Holbach’ page on the Voltaire Foundation website? More than two months ago? Well, in that case you may want to go back – and soon! – for quite a lot has changed as of late.

Paul Thiry, baron d’Holbach, by Louis Carmontelle.

D’Holbach aficionados and habitués of our blog may remember a post of mine from May 2021 in which I presented my Selected bibliography of d’Holbach-related publications. Well, to begin with, that bibliography has now been considerably enlarged thanks to the suggestions of various scholars who very kindly responded to my desperate call for addenda – special thanks to Gerhardt Stenger and Emmanuel Boussuge for their helpful suggestions! But that is but the tip of the iceberg!

On the ‘Resources for authors’ page, our followers will find a full list of pre-1789 editions of d’Holbach’s works, which is based on Jeroom Vercruysse’s seminal Bibliographie descriptive des imprimés du baron d’Holbach (rev. ed. Paris, 2017) and provides links, for every volume of every single edition, to digitised copies on Google Books, HathiTrust, and Gallica. This file, I hope, will be of use to anyone working on the Digital d’Holbach project and facilitate both the establishment of the base text and the collation of variants. (Well, when I say ‘for every volume of every single edition’ that is admittedly a bit of an overstatement… Some editions, marked in yellow in my file, are regrettably not available online. Should your university library own them and should they be willing to digitise them, please do let us know!)

Colleagues working on the Digital d’Holbach project will also be pleased to know that a first draft of the Digital d’Holbach Editorial Guidelines is now available on the Voltaire foundation website. These guidelines will take you through all the different, exciting phases of the editorial work, from the choice of the base text all the way down to penning the introduction. Like any human undertaking, however, they are also susceptible of improvement. Should you have any suggestions, please do get in touch. A Sample Treatment of the Base Text has also been uploaded as a separate file and should serve as a model for any English-language editions to come (We’ll upload a French counterpart shortly, ne vous inquiétez pas!)

Dulcis in fundo: a catalogue of d’Holbach’s library! Thanks to generous grants from the Leverhulme Trust, St Edmund Hall, and the University of Oxford, I have been able to hire three wonderful research assistants to work on the Tout d’Holbach project – more on that shortly. One of them, Gabriel O’Regan, has provided us with a fully searchable and very accurate transcription of the inventaire après décès of d’Holbach’s library, a tool which will be of enormous help to anyone trying to reconstruct the origins of d’Holbach’s ideas and pin down exactly the sources he used when penning his works. We now have great plans for taking this catalogue up a notch and turn it into an even more useful resource, but more on this another time!

Ruggero Sciuto

From Cyclopaedia to Encyclopédie: experiments in machine translation and sequence alignment

Figure 1. Title page from the 1745 prospectus of the first Encyclopédie project. This page image is taken from ARTFL’s 18th Volume of the Encyclopédie.

It is well known that the Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers began first as a modest translation project of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia in 1745. Over the next few years, Diderot and D’Alembert would replace the original editors and the project would be duly transformed from a simple translation into an effort to compile and organise the sum total of the world’s knowledge. Over the course of their editorial work, Diderot, and most notably D’Alembert, were not shy in incorporating these translations of the Cyclopaedia as filler for the Encyclopédie. Indeed, ‘ils ont laissé une bonne partie de ces articles presque inchangés, ou avec des modifications insignifiantes’ (Paolo Quintili, ‘D’Alembert “traduit” Chambers. Les articles de mécanique de la Cyclopædia à l’Encyclopédie’, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 21 (1996), p.75). The philosophes were nonetheless conscious of their debt to their English predecessor Chambers. His name appears some 1154 times in the text of the Encyclopédie and he is referenced as sole or contributing source to 1081 articles, where his name appears in italics at the end of a section or article. Given the scale of the two works under consideration, systematic evaluation of the extent of the philosophes’ use of Chambers has remained, even today, a daunting task. John Lough, in 1980, framed the problem nicely: ‘So far no one has had the patience to make a detailed study of the exact relationship between the text of Diderot’s Encyclopédie and the work of Ephraim Chambers. This would no doubt require several years of arduous toil devoted to comparing the two works article by article’(‘The Encyclopédie and Chambers’ Cyclopaedia’, SVEC 185 (1980), p.221).

Recent developments in machine translation and sequence alignment now offer new possibilities for the systematic comparison of digital texts across languages. The following post outlines some recent experimental work in leveraging these new techniques in an effort to reduce the ‘arduous toil’ of textual comparison, giving some preliminary examples of the kinds of results that can be achieved, and providing some cursory observations on the advantages and limitations of such systems for automatic text analysis.

Our two comparison datasets are the ARTFL Encyclopédie (v. 1117) and the recently digitised ARTFL edition of the 1741 Chambers’ Cyclopaedia (link). The 1741 edition was selected as it was one of the likely sources for the translation original project and we were able to work from high quality pages images provided by the University of Chicago Library (On the possible editions of the Cyclopaedia used by the encyclopédistes, see Irène Passeron, ‘Quelle(s) édition(s) de la Cyclopœdia les encyclopédistes ont-ils utilisée(s)?’, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 40-41 (2006), p.287-92.) In a nutshell, our approach was to generate a machine translation of all of the Cyclopaedia articles into French and then use ARTFL’s Text-PAIR sequence alignement system to identify similar passages between this virtual French Cyclopaedia and the Encyclopédie, with the translation providing links back to the original English edition of the Chambers as well as links to the relevant passages in the Encyclopédie.

For the English to French machine translation of Chambers, we examined two of the most widely used resources in this domain, Google Translate and DeepL. Both systems provide useful Application Programming Interfaces [APIs] as part of their respective subscription services, and both provide translations based on cutting-edge neural network language models. We compared results from various samples and found, in general, that both systems worked reasonably well, given the complications of eighteenth-century vocabularies (in both English and French) and many uncommon and archaic terms (this may be the subject of a future post). While DeepL provided somewhat more satisfying translations from a reader’s perspective, we ultimately opted to use Google Translate for the ease of its API and its ability to parse the TEI encoding of our documents with little difficulty. The latter is of critical importance, since we wanted to keep the overall document structure of our dictionaries to allow for easy navigation between the versions.

Operationally, we segmented the text of the Cyclopaedia into short blocks, split at paragraph breaks, and sent them for automatic translation via the Google API, with a short delay between blocks. This worked relatively well, though the system would occasionally throw timeout or other errors, which required a query resend. You can inspect the translation results here – though this virtual French edition of the Chambers is not really meant for public consumption. Each article has a link at the bottom to the corresponding English version for the sake of comparison. It is important to note that the objective here is NOT to produce a good translation of the text or even one that might serve as the basis for a human edition. Rather, this machine-generated edition exists as a ‘pivot-text’ between the English Chambers and the French Encyclopédie, allowing for an automatic comparison of the two (or three) versions using a highly fault-tolerant sequence aligner designed to pick out commonalities in very noisy document spaces. (See Clovis Gladstone, Russ Horton, and Mark Olsen, ‘TextPAIR (Pairwise Alignment for Intertextual Relations)’, ARTFL Project, University of Chicago, 2008-2021, and, more specifically, Mark Olsen, Russell Horton and Glenn Roe, ‘Something borrowed: sequence alignment and the identification of similar passages in large text collections’, Digital Studies / Le Champ numérique 2.1 (2011).)

The next step was to establish workable parameters for the Text-PAIR alignment system. The challenge here was to find commonalities between the French translations created by eighteenth-century authors and translators and machine translations produced by a modern automatic translation system. Additionally, the editors and authors of the Encyclopédie were not necessary constrained to produce an exact translation of the text in question, but could and did, make significant modifications to the original in terms of length, style, and content. To address this challenge we ran a series of tests with different matching parameters such as n-gram construction (e.g., number of words that constitue an n-gram), minimum match lengths, maximum gaps between matches, and decreasing match requirements as a match length increased (what we call a ‘flex gap’) among others on a representative selection of 100 articles from the Encyclopédie where Chambers was identified as the possible source. It is important to note that even with the best parameters, which we adjusted to get favorable recall and precision results, we were only able to identify 81 of the 100 articles. (See comparison table. The primary parameters chosen were bigrams, stemmer=true, word len=3, maxgap=12, flexmatch=true, minmatchingngrams=5. Consult the TextPair documentation and configuration file for a description of these values.) Some articles, even where clearly affiliated, were missed by the aligner, due to the size of the articles (some are very small) and fundamental differences in the translation of the English. For example, the article ‘Compulseur’ is attributed by Mallet to Chambers, but the machine translation of ‘Compulsor’ is a rather more literal and direct translation of the English article than what is offered by Mallet. Further relaxing matching parameters could potentially find this example, but would increase the number of false positives, in effect drowning out the signal with increased noise.

All things considered, we were quite happy with the aligner’s performance given the complexity of the comparison task and the multiple potential variations between historical text and modern machine translations. To give an example of how fine-grained and at the same time highly flexible our matching parameters needed to be, see the below article ‘Gynaecocracy’, which is a fairly direct translation on a rather specialised subject, but that nonetheless matched on only 8 content words (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Comparisons of the article ‘Gynaecocracy’.

Other straightforward articles were however missed due to differences in the translation and sparse matching n-grams, see for example the small article on ‘Occult’ lines in geometry below, where the 6 matching words weren’t enough to constitute a match for the aligner (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Comparisons of the geometry article ‘Occult’.

Obviously this is a rather inexact science, reliant on an outside process of automatic translation and the ability to match a virtual text that in reality never existed. Nonetheless the 81% recall rate we attained on our sample corpus seemed more than sufficient for this experiment and allowed us to move forward towards a more general evaluation of the entirety of identified matches.

Once settled on the optimal parameters, we then Text-PAIR to generate both an alignment database, for interactive examination, and a set of static files. Both of these results formats are used for this project. The alignment database contains some 7304 aligned passage pairs. The system allows queries on metadata, such as author and article title as well as words or phrases found in the aligned passages. The system also uses faceted browsing to allow the user to summarize results by the various metadata (for more on this, see Note below). Each aligned passage is presented as a facing page representation and the user can toggle a display of all of the variations between the two aligned passages. As seen below, the variations between the texts can be extensive (fig. 4).

Figure 4. Text-PAIR interface showing differences in the article ‘Air’.

Text-PAIR also contextualises results back to the original document(s). For example, the following is the article ‘Almanach’ by D’Alembert, showing the aligned passage from Chambers in blue (fig. 5).

Figure 5. Article ‘Almanach’ with shared Chambers passages in blue.

In this instance, D’Alembert reused almost all of Chambers’ original article ‘Almanac’, with some minor variations, but does not to appear to have indicated the source of the first part of his article (page image).

The alignment database is a useful first pass to examine the results of the alignment process, but it is limited in at least two ways. It identifies each aligned passage, but does not merge multiple passages identified in in article pairs. Thus we find 5 shared passages between the articles ‘Constellation’. The interface also does not attempt to evaluate the alignments or identify passages that occur between different articles. For example, D’Alembert’s article ‘ATMOSPHERE’ indeed has a passage from Chambers’ article ‘Atmosphere’, but also many longer passages from the article ‘Generation’.

To accumulate results and to refine evaluation, we subsequently processed the raw Text-PAIR alignment data as found in the static output files. We developed an evaluation algorithm for each alignment, with parameters based on the length of the matching passages and the degree to which the headwords were close matches. This simple evaluation model eliminated a significant number of false positives, which we found were typically short text matches between articles with different headwords. The output of this algorithm resulted in two tables, one for matches that were likely to be valid and one that was less likely to be valid, based on our simple heuristics – see a selection of the ‘YES’ table below (fig. 6). We are, of course, making this distinction based on the comparison of the machine translated Chambers headwords and the headwords found in the Encyclopédie, so we expected that some valid matches would be identified as invalid.

Figure 6. Table of possible article borrowings.

The next phase of the project included the necessary step of human evaluation of the identified matches. While we were able to reduce the work involved significantly by generating a list of reasonably solid matches to be inspected, there is still no way to eliminate fully the ‘arduous toil’ of comparison referenced by Lough. More than 5000 potential matches were scrutinised, looking in essence for ‘false negatives’, i.e., matches that our evaluation algorithm classed as negative (based primarily on differences in headword translations) but that were in reality valid. The results of this work was then merged into in a single table of what we consider to be valid matches, a list that includes some 3700 Encyclopédie articles with at least one matching passage from the Cyclopaedia. These results will form the basis of a longer article that is currently in preparation.


In all, we found some 3778 articles in the Encyclopédie that upon evaluation seem highly similar in both content and structure to articles in the 1741 edition of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia. Whether or not these articles constitute real acts of historical translation is the subject for another, or several other, articles. There are simply too many outside factors at play, even in this rather straightforward comparison, to make blanket conclusions about the editorial practices of the encyclopédistes based on this limited experiment. What we can say, however, is that of the 1081 articles that include a ‘Chambers’ reference in the Encyclopédie, we only found 689 with at least one matching passage. Obviously this recall rate of 63.7% is well below the 81% we attained on our sample corpus, probably due to overfitting the matching algorithm to the sample, which warrants further investigation. But beyond testing this ground truth, we are also left with the rather astounding fact of 3089 articles with no reference to Chambers whatsoever, all of which seem, at first blush, to be at least somewhat related to their English predecessors.

The overall evaluation of these results remains ongoing, and the ‘arduous toil’ of traditional textual comparison continues apace, albeit guided somewhat by the machine’s heavy hand. Indeed, the use of machine translation as a bridge between documents to find similar passages, be they reuses, plagiarisms, etc., is, as we have attempted to show here, a workable approach for future research, although not without certain limitations. The Chambers–Encyclopédie task outlined above is fairly well constrained and historically bounded. More general applications of these same methods may well yield less useful results. These reservations notwithstanding, the fact that we were able to unearth many thousands of valid potential intertextual relationships between documents in different languages is a feat that even a few years ago might not have been possible. As large-scale language models become ever more sophisticated and historically aware, the dream of intertextual bridges between multilingual corpora may yet become a reality. (For more on ‘intertextual bridges’ in French, see our current NEH project.)


The question of the Dictionnaire de Trévoux is one such factor, as it is known that both Chambers and the encyclopédistes used it as a source for their own articles – so matches we find between the Chambers and Encyclopédie may indeed represent shared borrowings from the Trévoux and not a translation at all. Or, more interestingly, perhaps Chambers translated a Trévoux article from French to English, which a dutiful encyclopédiste then translated back to French for the Encyclopédie – in this case, which article is the ‘source’ and which the ‘translation’? For more on these particular aspects of dictionary-making, see our previous article ‘Plundering philosophers: identifying sources of the Encyclopédie’, Journal of the Association for History and Computing 13.1 (Spring 2010) and Marie Leca-Tsiomis’ response, ‘The use and abuse of the digital humanities in the history of ideas: how to study the Encyclopédie’, History of European ideas 39.4 (2013), p.467-76.

– Glenn Roe and Mark Olsen

Annotation in scholarly editions and research

It has been, alas, almost exactly a year since our last face-to-face Besterman Workshop at 99 Banbury Road. Of course, webinars allow more people to join, and to do so, most importantly, from the comfort of their homes, where they can sit comfortably and set their thermostats to the temperature that suits them best. The advent of the Zoom/Teams era, however, has brought with it a number of unfortunate consequences: discussions are not as lively as they used to be, asking a follow-up question is nearly impossible, and so are chats with friends and colleagues, before, during, or after the talk. Worst of all, we no longer get a chance to eat our beloved Leibniz or Belgian biscuits – but those, to be fair, had already become something of a rarity towards the beginning of 2018. Anyway: those of you who did attend our last face-to-face Besterman Workshops may remember this gloomy and cumbersome poster of mine hanging from the mantelpiece.

This poster was presented at a conference in Wuppertal, Germany, at the end of February 2019: ‘Annotation in Scholarly Editions and Research: Function – Differentiation – Systematization’. Organised by Julia Nantke (Universität Hamburg) and Frederik Schlupkothen (Bergische Universität Wuppertal), this two-day bilingual Anglo-German colloquium was a wonderful occasion to reflect on the age-old human habit of glossing, commenting, and generally interfering with other people’s work.

Alongside some theoretical papers (to mention but one, Willard McCarty’s brilliant keynote lecture on annotation as a knowledge-producing practice), the symposium featured several more practice-oriented talks that would have certainly been of interest to many of our Digital Humanities followers: some focused on how best to structure and visualise annotation in digital scholarly editions; others raised the question as to how to annotate audio-visual materials; and yet others investigated the extent to which annotation can be automated.

Some of the papers given at the ‘Annotation in Scholarly Editions and Research’ conference can now be read in a volume published last year (yes, in 2020!) by De Gruyter and available in print as well as an Open Access eBook.

My own contribution to the volume (which you can find here, should you want to read it) presents what I think might be an efficient and user-friendly three-level annotation system, the ‘reversible annotation system’, which I developed while working on Digital d’Holbach, a born-digital scholarly edition of Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach’s complete works. On this model, I argue, a single set of notes can be so structured as to cater to very different audiences, meaning that the edition can hope simultaneously to be user-friendly and cost-efficient. Should you have any comments or suggestions for improvement, please do not hesitate to let me know!

Ruggero Sciuto, University of Oxford

The Comédie-Française by the numbers, 1680-1793

The Comédie-Française in 1790, by Antoine Meunier

The Comédie-Française in 1790, by Antoine Meunier. (Bibliothèque en ligne Gallica, ARK btv1b10303194d)

Almost every evening at the playhouse of the Comédie-Française in Paris from 1680 to 1793, once the curtain had fallen and the theatre crowd had gone home, a designated member of the troupe retired to the box office (no doubt with a verre!) to count the evening’s proceeds, and enter the ticket sales by category in a folio-sized register. One hundred and thirteen of these registers, which allowed the troupe’s actors to divvy up the nightly proceeds, have remained in the possession of the troupe for over three centuries.

Register for the 1680-81 season (Paris, 1680)

Register for the 1680-81 season (Paris, 1680).

During the past decade an international team of scholars and developers has made digital versions of the registers available on the website of the Comédie-Française Registers Project (CFRP), and extracted the data they contain into a searchable database. Now a new volume of open-access, bilingual essays, Databases, Revenues, and Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680-1793 | Données, recettes et répertoire. La Scène en ligne (1680-1793), published exclusively online by the MIT Press, scrutinizes the data assiduously recorded by the eighteenth-century actors to come up with new and surprising conclusions about the business of the stage in the Age of Enlightenment, as well as observations about the potentials and perils of the digital humanities for contemporary scholarship.

Databases, Revenues and Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680-1793

Databases, Revenues and Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680-1793 (MIT, 2020).

Scholars of the French eighteenth century know that the plays of the seventeenth-century greats, Molière, Racine, and Pierre Corneille, were frequently performed, but the troupe’s full repertory in this 113-year period consisted of more than 1000 plays written by over 300 authors, spread across more than 33,000 nightly performances. Essays in this new volume explore how politics, economics, and social conflict shaped the troupe’s repertory and affected its finances, and reveal some surprising conclusions. First, contributors Pierre Frantz and Lauren Clay underscore the fact that Voltaire, who wrote over two dozen plays that have largely been forgotten, was the financial mainstay of the troupe in the eighteenth century. By the second half of the century, revenue from the staging of his plays had overtaken that generated by the works of the seventeenth-century triumvirate, the authors that literary and theatre historians today tend to associate with the French theatre before 1800. The implication is that Voltaire was a box office draw because of his passion for political causes, thereby suggesting that the theatre was far more politicized in this period than we may have imagined.

The Crowning of Voltaire after the sixth performance of Irène in 1778, by Charles-Etienne Gaucher, after Jean-Michel Moreau

The Crowning of Voltaire after the sixth performance of Irène in 1778, by Charles-Etienne Gaucher (1741-1804), after Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814). (Art Institute of Chicago, public domain)

Second, as economic historian François Velde points out, this extraordinarily complete business archive, detailing the expenditures and revenues of a major cultural enterprise over more than a century, offers important financial and economic insights into Enlightenment France. After 1750 the box office revenues of the troupe grew every year, suggesting both increasing prosperity and growing interest in cultural activity among many classes in the decades leading up to the French Revolution of 1789. The actors adapted accordingly, adjusting ticket prices and altering their repertory to appeal to changing public taste. The nightly record of plays staged and box office receipts provides surprising insight into the changing political culture of eighteenth-century France.

This volume and the initial phase of the CFRP were focused on the nightly box office receipt data for 113 seasons. An essay by project co-director Jeffrey Ravel in the recent Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume Digitizing Enlightenment: Digital humanities and the transformation of eighteenth-century studies (eds. Simon Burrows and Glenn Roe), charts the history of the project and addresses questions of audience in the digital humanities. In subsequent phases of the CFRP, already underway, the team will be recording data on the troupe’s daily expenditures and its casting decisions for each night’s plays. The expenditure data, when analyzed alongside the box office receipts, will tell us much more about the troupe’s aesthetic and financial decisions during this key period of French political and cultural history. The record of casting choices promises important insights into the history of celebrity and its financial impact on political and cultural institutions in both the past and the present. The team will also be digitizing the registers from 1799 through 1914, thereby providing an unparalleled run of over two centuries of box office receipt data for one of the major theatrical and cultural institutions in the world in this period.

If only those lonely, tired actors counting their livres tournois each evening had known the uses to which their labours would be put by interested scholars three hundred years later!

Jeffrey S. Ravel