Exploring an abandoned 18th-century encyclopedia: an academic detective story


Eighteenth-century Paris was a vibrant centre of scholarly activity, publishing, and consumption. As the number of printed works multiplied, the demand for condensed up-to-date summaries of all fields of knowledge increased. In my book The Maurists’ unfinished encyclopedia I tell the story of a hitherto unknown encyclopedic project that was being developed in Paris at the same time as Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. While the latter became a controversial but successful bestseller – often considered to be the medium of Enlightenment thought par excellence – the former never reached the public. The compilers were Benedictine monks of the Congregation of Saint-Maur, also known as Maurists. After ten years of work, they abandoned their encyclopedic enterprise. Decades later, after the French Revolution and the dissolution of all religious orders, the surviving manuscript found its way to the new national library, the Bibliothèque nationale de France. For the next 160 years, though, it escaped the attention of researchers.

Uncovering the history of the Maurist encyclopedia became something of an academic detective story. I first laid my hands on the manuscript in 2009 after coming across, two years earlier, a curious piece of information that eventually led me to the BnF. It was a congregational report briefly noting that two monks in the Parisian abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés had worked on a ‘dictionnaire universel des arts méchaniques et libéraux, des métiers et de toutes les sciences qui y ont quelque rapport’.[1] Their names were Dom Antoine-Joseph Pernety and Dom François de Brézillac, and the report was dated 1747. This was the same year in which Denis Diderot and Jean D’Alembert became editors of the embryonic Encyclopédie. Moreover, the monks’ abbey was located just a few hundred meters from the Café Procope, the favorite meeting place of the encyclopédistes. In other words, two large-scale encyclopedias were initiated at the same time, in the very same quarter in Paris, but only one of them would make it to the printing press and into the history books.

The Left Bank of Paris in the mid-eighteenth century: the location of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (1) and the Café Procope (2).

The Left Bank of Paris in the mid-eighteenth century: the location of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (1) and the Café Procope (2).

There was no record of a Maurist encyclopedia ever being published and I had not found a single mention of the project in earlier research on the Congregation. Therefore I initially suspected that the work had been abandoned at an early phase and had thus been too short-lived to produce any text. Two years later, when I traced down the surviving material at the BnF, I quickly revised my assumption. The collection amounted to six volumes in-folio. Clearly, this project had been in progress for quite some time before the writers put down their quills. So, what had happened? What kind of encyclopedia had these monks been making? And how had their vision compared to the contemporary work of Diderot and D’Alembert?

It took me four years following up on many clues to answer these questions.

The Maurist manuscript was uncharted territory. The collection had no title page or explanatory preface. There were no signatures stating the names of the compilers or any information on their number. The handwriting, however, suggested contributions from more than two individuals. Furthermore, some textual parts were elegantly rewritten while others were merely scribbled drafts. Indications of missing pieces cropped up here and there. One volume contained what seemed to be a discarded early version of the project; another consisted only of ‘working lists’, such as inventories of literature and illustrations. Then (as if things were not complicated enough), I discovered that the whole manuscript had been rearranged at the BnF in the mid-nineteenth century. I also learned that as much as a third of the original material could have been lost. Thus, what I held in my hands was not a finished manuscript preserved in its original state, but rather the incomplete remains of a dictionary abandoned in the making, later ordered and altered by uninitiated hands.

A page from the Maurists’ unfinished encyclopedia, showing a collage of articles rearranged by the conservators at the BnF in the mid-nineteenth century.

A page from the Maurists’ unfinished encyclopedia, showing a collage of articles rearranged by the conservators at the BnF in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Maurists’ unfinished encyclopedia is just as much about overcoming the methodological challenges of studying incomplete, unfinished texts as it is a history of an unrealized scholarly enterprise. By combining clues from handwriting analysis, codicological examination, extensive textual comparisons and archival work, I demonstrate that the Maurist enterprise began life in 1743 as an augmented translation of a foreign lexicon – a mathematical lexicon by the German philosopher Christian Wolff. Due to competition with the embryonic Encyclopédie in 1746, the conditions for the monks’ work changed and the scope of their project expanded. Like the encyclopédistes, the Maurists devoted great attention to the mechanical arts and they planned for a great number of illustrations. By excluding religion, politics and ethics, the monks created a secular, non-confrontational reference work that focused entirely on the productive and useful arts, crafts and sciences. In this respect, Diderot and d’Alembert were not alone in their encyclopedic innovations and secular Enlightenment endeavors, although they certainly were the most successful.

Abandoned in the mid-1750s – in the midst of the controversy surrounding the Encyclopédie – the Maurist enterprise may have made little difference to its contemporaries, but it does, however, make a difference for our present understanding of mid-eighteenth-century encyclopedism in France, the perceived novelty of the Encyclopédie, as well as the intellectual activities of the Congregation of Saint-Maur.

– Linn Holmberg

[1] Edmond Martène, Histoire de la Congrégation de Saint-Maur, ed. Gaston Charvin, 10 vol. (Paris, 1928–1954), vol.9 (1943), p.342.

Voltaire editor, edited and re-edited

The first posthumous edition of Voltaire’s complete works, printed in Kehl in 1784 and financed by Beaumarchais, was recently the subject of a 900-page thesis (Linda Gil, Paris-Sorbonne, 2014). The latest volume of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, not lagging far behind, at 604 pages, also started life with this 70-volume edition as its focus, in particular the nearly 4000 pages that make up what the editors call the ‘Dictionnaire philosophique’. Under this title, made up in large part of Voltaire’s 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique portatif (later La Raison par alphabet) and the 1770-1772 Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, the Kehl editors included a number of previously unknown articles and fragments.

A manuscript of one of the texts in this volume (article ‘Ame’, in the hand of Voltaire’s secretary, Wagnière). Bibliothèque de Genève, Musée Voltaire: MS 34/1, f.1.

A manuscript of one of the texts in this volume (article ‘Ame’, in the hand of Voltaire’s secretary, Wagnière). Bibliothèque de Genève, Musée Voltaire: MS 34/1, f.1.

Our edition of these texts attempts to pin down what they were, when (and whether) Voltaire wrote them, whether certain groups can be discerned amongst them, and to what degree the printed record of the Kehl edition reflects the manuscripts that were actually found after Voltaire’s death – as much as is still possible, that is, after two hundred years have elapsed, and when most of the manuscript sources have long since disappeared.

As the volume moved through the stages of the editing and publishing process, it proved to be a protean thing, changing shape several times: some texts originally included in the original list of contents were found not to belong in the volume after all; others were discovered or moved in from elsewhere along the way; and once or twice new manuscripts unexpectedly came to light, changing the tentative dating and identification of one or another of the texts. What began as a simple alphabetically ordered series of about 45 texts eventually took shape as a book in four sections (of uneven length) which covers the ground of all posthumous additions to Voltaire’s ‘alphabetical works’, usually under the title ‘Dictionnaire philosophique’, from 1784, through the nineteenth-century, right up to the present day, in the form of a fragment that has in fact never before been published at all.

The chain of editorial decision-making goes further back in time than one initially realises, however, starting with Voltaire’s own apparent intention to produce a compendium of excerpts from other people’s works. As Bertram Schwarzbach adumbrated in 1982, twenty-four of the texts in this volume (with a possible twenty-fifth), show Voltaire (or one of his secretaries, perhaps?) re-working existing writings by others in what sometimes strongly resembles current practices of copying and pasting, much as we move sentences and parts of sentences around using a word processor. This in no way suggests that Voltaire was guilty of plagiarism: to begin with, he did not publish these re-workings in his own lifetime; furthermore, the boundaries of editing, re-publishing and re-purposing in the late eighteenth century were different than they are today. But the fact that these manuscripts were found amongst Voltaire’s papers meant that his early editors believed them to be by him (with one exception, ‘Fanatisme’, which they recognised as an abridged version of Deleyre’s Encyclopédie article). Thus were these texts eventually published under Voltaire’s name in the Kehl edition, leading to a (partly) unintentional distortion of the Voltairean canon, perpetuated in all subsequent editions until the Oxford Œuvres complètes. Questions such as these are soon to be addressed more generally in a one-day conference: ‘Editorialités: Practices of editing and publishing’, and Marian Hobson has written elsewhere about the value of critical editions. It is in part thanks to modern-day editorial work that the editor-generated puzzles of over two centuries ago are now being unpicked: a neat illustration of just how much the role of editor has changed in that time.

– Gillian Pink

The shadow world of the Encyclopédie’s planches

As part of the methodology option ‘History of the Book’ for the Masters in Enlightenment course, students were asked to present some part of their research on a blog. We felt that student Thea Goldring’s research project concerning the Encyclopédie planches would be of interest to the readers of the Voltaire Foundation’s collaborative blog. Thea is going on to Harvard to start a PhD in Art History this autumn.

As scholars increasingly recognize the didactic function of the Encyclopédie’s planches and recast the texts and their images as a single working whole, it is important to acknowledge the problematic nature of these images. In the face of growing acceptance of the planches as visual arguments, this post seeks to recover some of the epistemological knots that entangle such readings.


Fig. 1: ‘Tapisserie basse-lisse des Gobelins,’ planche 1ère, Encyclopédie, xxvi, ARTFL

When the planches were completed in 1772, Diderot’s originally envisioned 1000 illustrations had grown to 2,569 engravings filling eleven volumes. Across this sprawl, Diderot’s hand is clearly discernable in the systemization of the planches’s spatial arrangements.[1] The planches fall into three categories: plates that establish a unified pictorial space across an entire page (Fig.1); plates that contain multiple pictorial spaces divided by clear framing, normally with a vignette/tableau above and a ‘blank’ or ‘schematic’ space below (Fig.2); and plates in which a ‘blank space,’ containing undefined and unrelated pictorial areas, extends over an entire page (Fig.3). The planches adopt a system in which certain spaces (the three-dimensional vignettes) maintain consistent perspective, scale, and modelling, while others (the schematic spaces) vary these qualities for didactic ends. By embracing multiple pictorial fields, the plates may use perspective and/or modelling but also clarify any didactic confusion resulting from these pictorial effects in the schematic areas, and also provide detailed views of the parts, while simultaneously displaying these parts as a working whole in the vignettes.

However, the disparity between the coherent pictorial effects in the vignettes and their relative confusion in the schematic areas complicates a viewer’s didactic use of the images. The inconsistencies in light effects between the tableaux and schematic spaces that pervade the planches are especially problematic. For example, upper vignettes often depict enclosed rooms which are always filled with directional light that floods in from prominent windows. In contrast, the cast shadows in the schematic areas, if present at all, seem to emanate from the objects themselves. There is never a clear light source, for, while the cast shadows may consistently point in one direction, there is no variation in length or strength to indicate an actual point of origin. The divergent use of shadows between the two pictorial spaces creates severe visual inconsistencies between them, which in turn confuse the relationship between the information communicated by each.


Fig. 2: ‘Aiguillier,’ planche 1ère, Encyclopédie, xviii, ARTFL

Shadows may seem like a very insubstantial detail to focus on. However, at the time these visual markers were at the center of epistemological debates such as the Molyneux problem, which considered how shadows communicate weight and volume. In simplest terms, the Molyneux problem asked whether seeing the shadows on a sphere or cube provides enough information to communicate a sense of three-dimensionality without having previously associated certain patterns of shadows with volume through touch.[2]

The confusion of information offered by the juxtaposed tableaux and schematic spaces primarily concerns the haptic sense. Touch is an integral part of the tableaux spaces, and the vignettes often depict people manipulating objects.[3] In contrast in the ‘blank spaces’, the haptic interactions represented above lose their meaning. The viewer can no longer pick up the tools because they are not sitting on a surface, cannot pull down on a bucket hanging by a rope because it has no tension, cannot wield any of the hammers because the hammer head is no heavier than its shaft. The haptic expectations and interactions established by the upper tableaux are unfailingly refuted by the inconsistent or absent pictorial signifiers in the schematic areas.


Fig. 3: ‘Faiseur de métier à bas,’ planche III, Encyclopédie, xix, ARTFL

In the eighteenth century such a confusion of haptic information was no small matter. For Condillac, in his Traité des sensations (1754), touch both affirms the existence of the exterior world and also ‘apprend aux autres sens à juger des objets extérieurs’.[4] Touch, not sight, provides understanding about exterior reality.[5] As Kate Tunstall’s analysis of Lettre sur les aveugles and its Addition demonstrates, Diderot also assigned primacy to touch not sight.[6] A consideration of touch is certainly present in Diderot’s EncyclopédieProspectus’: ‘Il a donc fallu plusieurs fois se procurer les machines, les construire, mettre la main à l’œuvre […] et faire soi-même de mauvais ouvrages pour apprendre aux autres comment on en fait de bons’.[7] Diderot had to interact with objects manually to understand them, the exact experience that the schematic areas of the planches deny. If Diderot, like many of his fellow philosophes, subscribed to the view that haptic experiences are necessary to comprehend the exterior world, how can didactic function of the plates, which offer either no or inconsistent haptic markers, survive?

Dividing the images into two spaces, one of which had no cohesive pictorial space and the other of which describes with consistent pictorial effects such as modelling, introduced a fissure into the planches. In light of the philosophical context, these distinct parts of the plates present irreconcilably different types of information. While viewers could understand and relate their experience to objects depicted in the tableau, those in the schematic space were out of reach and unknowable. Given this split, how then is one to understand the didactic usefulness of the planches? If singular planches undermine their own epistemological value, one might look for a unified didactic argument in the illustrations in their multitude and it is in the interconnections between plates that perhaps scholars should direct their attention.

– Thea Goldring

[1] Madeleine Pinault-Sørensen, L’Encyclopédie (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1993), p. 72.

[2] Laura Berchielli, ‘Color, space and figure in Locke: an interpretation of the Molyneux problem,’ Journal of the history of philosophy xl, i (2002), p.47-65.

[3] Joanna Stalnaker, The Unfinished Enlightenment. Description in the Age of the encyclopedia (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2010), p.61.

[4] Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, Œuvres complètes de Condillac: Traité des sensations iv (Paris, Dufart, 1803), p.11.

[5] Jessica Riskin, Science in the Age of Sensibility: the sentimental empiricists of the French Enlightenment (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002), p.43.

[6] Kate E. Tunstall, Blindness and Enlightenment: an essay (New York, Continuum, 2011).

[7] ‘Prospectus,’ in Encyclopédie (emphasis mine).

On translating the hasty writing of encyclopedia articles


Translating French and Spanish encyclopedia articles from the Enlightenment into English is not easy. There are, of course, the typical problems that one encounters when doing any translation, such as negotiating between surface meanings and deep meanings, dealing with false cognates, contending with idiomatic expressions, and deciding whether to go with a literal or an idiomatic translation. However, when dealing with encyclopedia articles that were written at a furious pace for the gargantuan compilations that were the Encyclopédie méthodique and its Spanish translation, the Encyclopedia metódica, there emerges the problem of translating hurried and at times careless writing that was possibly never proof-read, and certainly never corrected. Knowing that eighteenth-century encyclopedists worked under stringent publication deadlines, the vexed but somewhat amused translator could hardly blame them for suffering the all-too-common professional flaw of careless writing.

A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’) Artist: Rembrandt

A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’) (Rembrandt, ca. 1652; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

This is what my co-translator, Clorinda Donato, and I encountered when preparing our volume, Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, for which we translated and annotated the articles ‘Espagne’ (from the Méthodique) and ‘España’ (from the Metódica). Although the articles are generally well written, there are nevertheless moments when authors Nicolas Masson de Morvilliers and Julián de Velasco felt the urgency of their task and careened their way through long, convoluted sentences without ever looking back. That a pronoun lost track of its referent, or that a verb strayed so far from its subject that it forgot whether it should be singular or plural mattered little when the encyclopedia mill had to keep grinding. Reading these articles I also find passages where the zeal to badmouth Spain’s backwardness or defend its misunderstood Enlightenment overrode any respect for the conventions of grammar. The passions aroused by Enlightenment debate were just too strong to obey the strictures of the Académie Française and the Real Academia. Indeed, these are the moments when Masson and Velasco are most fun to read.

Annotating these translations also revealed an interesting consequence of such hasty writing. While citing, copying, and paraphrasing was a regular practice among eighteenth-century scholars, the verification of information was not. If a scholar cites a source that is based on a citation that is based on another citation that is based on another citation and so on, that scholar will likely have in his hands a cumulative error, a product of distortions and embellishments. This is what we find in Masson’s negative portrayal of Spain and the Inquisition. Where he cites sources that have been embellished, he enters the fray by adding yet another layer of gleeful embellishment. Indeed, it would not be entirely wrong to say that the polemic emerging out of Masson’s infamous question ‘What does Europe owe Spain?’ is in large measure the result of an Enlightenment version of the game of telephone (or Chinese whispers).


A Scene in a Library (photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot, ca.1844; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

But if haphazard writing and cumulative error are endemic to encyclopedia culture, then how can Enlightenment discourse ever safeguard itself from the vagaries and flighty opinions of scholars such as Masson? This is precisely the question that our volume seeks to answer. By translating and juxtaposing Masson’s and Velasco’s articles on Spain, we see how the Spaniards object to being the butt of the joke running down the telephone chain of French philosophie, and how they insist that the discourse of Enlightenment return to its more noble purpose of advancing civility and rational exchange.

– Ricardo López

Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, edited by Clorinda Donato and Ricardo López. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, November 2015, ISBN 978-0-7294-1170-7, 336 pages, 2 ills


The Empire strikes back: Spain vs. France in the eighteenth-century encyclopedia

As a scholar of the ‘other’ enlightenments, i.e. those that were not located in England or France, but rather in Spain and Italy, I have been struck by the extent to which the eighteenth-century French rhetorical style controlled the reader’s view of the world. And as a scholar of eighteenth-century encyclopedias, most of which were written in French, I have been equally surprised by how the geographical articles written in these French-language compilations helped shape national identities, as seen not only from within, but also from without. Words are powerful weapons. Who can forget Metternich describing Italy in the nineteenth century as merely “a geographical expression”? Never had there been a more effective rallying cry for national unity.

A new map of Spain and Portugal, from the latest observations [Geography anatomiz’d, or, The geographical grammar: being a short and exact analysis of the whole body of modern geography...: collected from the best authors, and illustrated with divers maps], Gordon, Patrick, fl. 1700, engraving, 1722.

A new map of Spain and Portugal, from the latest observations [Geography anatomiz’d, or, The geographical grammar: being a short and exact analysis of the whole body of modern geography…: collected from the best authors, and illustrated with divers maps], Gordon, Patrick, fl. 1700, engraving, 1722.

When armchair geographer Masson de Morvilliers penned, in 1783, the equally powerful judgment of the Spanish Empire in the form of the rhetorical question, ‘What do we owe Spain?’, its derogatory impact and dissemination dealt a painful blow to the Spanish intellectual class, which rallied against it en masse. But the reception of the insult hardly stopped there. Allies in Italy and Germany, who had also experienced the negative repercussions of the French whip of words in encyclopedic representations, joined forces with Spain. Virtually overnight, writers, journalists, reformers, and men of science and letters took up the call to verbal arms and composed their responses.

The most important of these rebuttals, the article ‘España’, has been reproduced in our volume Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, in Spanish (with English translation), together with Masson’s French provocation. Reading these articles side by side, I’m always struck by the measured energy of the Spanish translator-authors as they speak their own truth, in Spanish, to the hegemonic power of the French Enlightenment, which in the hands of Masson had branded the Empire as a site of ongoing black legend atrocities, inquisitional tyranny, and fanatical thinking. Against Masson’s defamation, the Spanish encyclopedists culled opposing examples from the virtually unknown cultural history of the Spanish Empire, and in doing so restored Spanish confidence.


A Scholar in His Study (‘Faust’), ca. 1652, by Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn).

In a world in which Spain and Latin America are so well known to us, it is sometimes hard to remember that knowledge about these places was scant and hardly circulated in the vast eighteenth-century encyclopedia market. There were very few books of travel literature devoted to Spain, as the grand tour had taken place in Italy, attracting primarily British and French tourists who wrote extensively about their experiences, albeit it in English and French. I am reminded of a recent article in The Guardian that discusses language use on the web: “Rich countries largely get to define themselves and poor countries largely get defined by others… Inequality in information and representation in different languages online can also affect how we understand places and even how we act in them”. This information inequality, the article claims, has the potential to reinforce colonial-era patterns of information production and representation.

I can’t help but think that the situation of encyclopedias, language, and representation in the eighteenth century is the mirror image of our internet- and content-driven world. It might also not be too far-fetched to think that Masson, with his quarrelsome rhetoric and uninformed Spain-bashing, in some ways mirrors todays Internet troll, who weaponizes historical and cultural sensibilities in order to disrupt the course of knowledge production.


Indeed, who would have thought that eighteenth-century encyclopedism would be so contemporary?

– Clorinda Donato

Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’, edited by Clorinda Donato and Ricardo López. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, November 2015, ISBN 978-0-7294-1170-7, 336 pages, 2 ills.

See also:

From ‘Encyclopédie’ to ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’: revision and expansionKathleen Hardesty Doig. SVEC 2013:11, ISBN 978-0-7294-1077-9, 328 pages, 6 ills.

Émilie du Châtelet, forgotten encyclopédiste?

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749), portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour. (Wikipedia.org)

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749), portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour. (Wikipedia.org)

Émilie du Châtelet was a great many things: mathematician, natural philosopher, translator of Newton, successor of Leibniz and Wolff, lover and scientific companion of Voltaire, and various other sundry pursuits. She was not, however, nor is she today, widely considered as a contributor to the Encyclopédie. No mention of her is made in either D’Alembert’s “Discours préliminaire”, or in any of the other “Avertissements & Errata” paratexts that accompanied the Encyclopédie’s publication. Logically then, she is also not to be found in any of the exhaustive lists and inventories of encyclopaedic authors compiled by later scholars such as Richard Schwab and Frank Kafker.[1]

This accepted wisdom, however, is now being brought into question thanks to renewed interest in Du Châtelet not merely as a translator, commentator, or companion of great men, but equally as a significant intellectual force in her own right. Recent scholarship such as that by Koffi Maglo[2] has succeeded in challenging what had for centuries been assumed as Du Châtelet’s decidedly minor role in the encyclopaedic enterprise. More recently still, an international group of scholars came together in Oxford this past May for a study day on the subject of “Émilie Du Châtelet: Philosopher & Encyclopédiste”, a workshop aimed at unravelling Du Châtelet’s complicated and often overlooked encyclopaedic legacy.

Title page of the Encyclopédie (1751). (Encyclopedie.uchicago.edu)

Title page of the Encyclopédie (1751). (Encyclopedie.uchicago.edu)

We now know, for instance, that the unsigned article “Hypothèse” is largely drawn from Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (1740). Indeed, “Hypothèse” is one of seven articles that explicitly cites the Institutions de physique as a source. And, of these seven articles, “Hypothèse” is the only one that is not at least partially authored by Samuel Formey. Formey, it would seem, is largely responsible for Du Châtelet’s inclusion in the Encyclopédie, so much so that, according to Maglo, if one follows “les traces de Formey […] vous serez en compagnie de Mme Du Châtelet”. However, Formey’s role in the Encyclopédie is somewhat curious.

An exiled Huguenot pastor and perpetual secretary of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, Formey had begun his own philosophical dictionary as early as 1742. By 1747 he had heard rumour about a French encyclopaedia project – which took as its starting point a translation of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia – and decided to approach its editor, then the Abbé Gua de Malves, offering his completed articles to the new enterprise. By 1749, the deal – executed by the libraires associés who controlled the project – was finalised, and Formey sent the editors (by then Diderot and D’Alembert) some 1800 manuscript pages (petit in folio) in exchange for 300 livres; with the added proviso that the manuscript be returned to the author and that he be mentioned in the work’s preface.

It is thus presumably through the mediation of Formey’s articles that Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (one of Formey’s admitted sources for his articles on Metaphysics) came to be incorporated into the Encyclopédie. As such, most scholars have treated Du Châtelet as a secondary source for the Encyclopédie, and little more. But, digging into the issue a little, it would seem that the Du Châtelet/Formey relationship is rather more complex than we normally assume. Is this really just a simple case of an author (Formey) using a source (Du Châtelet) in order to bolster an argument or expand upon a concept? Or, as with “Hypothèse”, is there more to Du Châtelet’s presence in the Encyclopédie than we’ve previously admitted?

To answer these questions I compared a copy of the Institutions de physique found in the BNF’s Gallica digital library to the entire text of the Encyclopédie using a sequence alignment algorithm developed by the ARTFL Project.[3] The results, which will be published in full later this year, not only give us a better understanding of the extent to which Du Châtelet was used in the seven articles that cite the Institutions de physique, but also reveal a further six articles that make extensive use of Du Châtelet’s text with no attribution at all. Given both the scope and scale of these borrowings, whether cited or not, these new findings serve to complicate further the already nebulous notion of authorship in the Encyclopédie.


Title page of Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (1740). (Gallica.bnf.fr)

Take, for example, the article “Contradiction”, attributed unequivocally to Formey by Diderot and D’Alembert: “Cet article est de M. Formey”. Of its 338 words, 320 of them are drawn directly from sections 4 and 7 of the Institutions de physique, again with no attribution. To put this into terms perhaps more familiar to modern academic sensibilities, this means that Formey’s Turnitin-style “similarity score” for the article “Contradiction” would register at a rather alarming 95%. Indeed, all of the Formey articles we examined would score well above the 50% originality metric in terms of their similarity to Du Châtelet’s text.

Nor was this practice limited to Du Châtelet, apparently, as Alexander Bocast has convincingly demonstrated. Formey also makes quite liberal and unacknowledged use of Condillac’s Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines in his article “Définition”, for example.[4] All of which inevitably begs the question: should we continue to attribute articles to Formey that are drawn primarily from other sources? If not, to whom should we attribute them? Formey and Du Châtelet (or Condillac) together (in what order?); or Du Châtelet (and Condillac) alone, if above a certain threshold of borrowing? At what point does an article “belong” to its author as opposed to its source? And, on what grounds should one make these sorts of editorial decisions at all?

These questions all speak to the unique dialogical structure of the Encyclopédie and its multiple layers of authorship and authority. Contributors (both acknowledged and anonymous) would weave outside sources into their articles with varying degrees of attribution. These contributions would then often become the subject of editorial interventions on the part of Diderot and, to a lesser extent, D’Alembert. All of which makes the Encyclopédie a fundamentally “social” text, one built on the premise of philosophical conversation between the various members of Diderot’s “société des gens de lettres”, a microcosm of that larger international “Republic of Letters”.

Émilie du Châtelet was unquestionably a leading citizen of this Republic. And, while her contributions may be obscured by their apparent status as secondary source, new research such as that presented here is beginning to deconstruct this primary/secondary distinction in favour of a more expansive, and dialogical notion of encyclopaedic authorship. If Montesquieu is unambiguously considered as one the encyclopédistes thanks to his “contribution” of a single, unfinished posthumous article (e.g. “Goût”), then can’t we imagine an expanded author list for the Encyclopédie that makes room for Émilie du Châtelet, and doubtless many others? I, for one, would hope so.

But while we collectively might not yet be prepared to grant Du Châtelet full status as an Encyclopédie author (though I would argue that we should be), then, at the very least, we should do our best to make sure that she’s an acknowledged – and significant – participant in the philosophical conversation that the Encyclopédie enacts.

– Glenn Roe

[1] See Richard N. Schwab, Walter E. Rex and John Lough, Inventory of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol.80, 83, 85, 91, 92, 93 and 223, Oxford, 1971-1984) and Frank Kafker, The Encyclopedists as Individuals (Studies on Voltaire, vol.257, Oxford, 1988).

[2] See Koffi Maglo, ‘Madame Du Châtelet, l’Encyclopédie et la philosophie des sciences’, in Emilie du Châtelet: éclairages et documents nouveaux (Paris, Ferney-Voltaire: CIEDS, 2008), p.255-66.

[3] This is the same methodology, in fact, that we used previously to examine the citation practices of the encyclopédistes. See Dan Edelstein, Robert Morrissey, and Glenn Roe, “To Quote or Not to Quote: Citation strategies in the ‘Encyclopédie’”, Journal of the History of Ideas 74.2, April 2013, p.213-36.

[4] See Bocast, “Condillac’s Contributions to Formey’s Article on ‘DÉFINITION’ in Diderot’s Encyclopédie”.

Pierre Bayle: a pre-Enlightenment luminary

Pierre Bayle

Pierre Bayle at approximately 27 years of age. Portrait by Louis Elle-Ferdinand le jeune.

Hyperconnected, multidisciplinary, transnational – the buzzwords of twenty-first century digital communication could just as easily apply to the pan-European Republic of Letters in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. An empire of paper rather than Facebook posts or tweets, the Republic of Letters transcended national boundaries as writers and thinkers criticized, complemented, and commented on the controversies of the moment in a dense nexus of correspondence. These erudite intellectual exchanges between friends and foes fostered the heated debates which shaped modern thought.

The Republic’s major architect was the prolific Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) – best-selling author, journalist, and audacious thinker.

As editor of the journal Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, which published its first issue in 1684, Bayle was arguably the first to coin the term ‘Republic of Letters’. The very title of the journal testifies to Bayle’s ambition. Bringing together articles and reviews of new publications from contributors across Europe, and with a Europe-wide distribution, Pierre Bayle was a man in dialogue with his peers and his times, constantly challenging the consensus and engaging with the opinions of others in his own analysis of the quest for philosophical and historical certainty. Marked by his early experiences of religious intolerance (a recurrent theme in his work) as a Protestant living in predominantly Catholic seventeenth century France, Bayle settled in tolerant Rotterdam where he dedicated himself to a life of creative ferment and intellectual rigour.


Dissatisfied with the conclusions of Descartes in his Discours de la méthode (1637), and closer to Gassendi in his critique of Descartes’ Méditations métaphysiques (1641), Bayle proposed a radical scepticism towards the ability of human reason to reach true knowledge about the universe, and firmly pinpointed the antagonism of reason and religious faith and the dangers of religious fanaticism. He is perhaps best-known for his monumental Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697) – a hybrid and polymathic bestseller. With articles on every conceivable topic, it appears as a forerunner of Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie and Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique, and had a considerable influence outside France, reaching Leibniz, Hume and Kant.

As seen in the recently published volume XII of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle, edited by Antony McKenna et al, the complexity, ambiguity, and plurality of Bayle’s work still make him a fascinating subject of study today.

Volume XII of the Correspondance de Pierre Bayle dates from the period January 1699-December 1702: a time of effervescence for Bayle, who was preparing the second edition of his extremely successful Dictionnaire at a feverish pace, while fielding commentaries and criticisms from readers of the first edition. His circle of correspondents was expanding apace. At a time when numerous projects – Early Modern Letters Online, Mapping the Republic of Letters, and Electronic Enlightenment – are using modern technology and graphics to find new ways of recreating the Republic of Letters, this volume of correspondence has a vital place in our understanding of the period.

Pierre Bayle is a model for our age of networking. From the dense web of articles in his Dictionnaire to his border-transcending Nouvelles and correspondence, his networks illuminate the intellectual exchanges firing the bold new thought which sparked the Enlightenment. Perhaps, as indicated in the very first Voltaire Foundation blogpost, The Online Republic of Letters, Bayle’s legacy lives on in this blog!


Rotterdam, where Bayle spent the last 25 years of his life.

– Madeleine Chalmers


Correspondance de Pierre Bayle, Volume XII, edited by †Elisabeth Labrousse, Antony McKenna, Wiep van Bunge, Edward James, Bruno Roche, Fabienne Vial-Bonacci, ISBN 978-0-7294-1028-1, March 2015

Le Rayonnement de Bayle, ed. Philippe de Robert, Claudine Pailhès and Hubert Bost, SVEC 2010:06, ISBN 978-0-7294-0995-7

Click here for a list of books and articles published by the Voltaire Foundation on Pierre Bayle or his work.