Metalwork in the Encyclopédie: critical interpretation and the evidence of material culture

For the historian of technology, the Encyclopédie is invaluable for the snapshot it provides of eighteenth-century European metallurgy and metalworking technology. Its articles and plates are frequently referenced in studies of French and European metalwork, from the foundry of bells, canons and statuary to jewellery, silversmithing and bronze doré. Dozens of the Encyclopédie’s long-form articles provide detailed descriptions of equipment and processes, while hundreds more short entries describe specific metalsmithing terms, tools and procedures. In my own ongoing collection of articles which refer to metalwork and metallurgy, I have found close to 500 entries so far, but it seems likely that they may amount to a thousand or more. It is indeed a treasure trove of technology.

However, an enquiry into the sources of some of the articles and a critical survey of their scope with reference to surviving metal objects reveals that it may be unwise to assume that metalsmithing technologies described in the Encyclopédie necessarily correlate to those used in Paris or France more broadly during the period, or that a given piece of French metalwork from the period was necessarily made with the techniques described.

Plate One of a set of six plates in the Encyclopédie, ‘Fonte de l’or, de l’argent et du cuivre’, which are referred to in the article ‘Sable, Fondeur en’, illustrating a sand-casting workshop. Source: Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Autumn 2017 Edition), Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe (eds).

Since a number of the articles are translations of foreign works, some may not in fact describe French practices. The article ‘Sable, Fondeur en’ is one of the many Encyclopédie articles translated and adapted from Chambers’ Cyclopædia, in this case a section, ‘Foundry of Small Works, or the Manner of Casting in Sand’, from the article ‘Foundry’. The French article is not entirely a direct translation of the English; the author (possibly Diderot) does elaborate on some parts of the process and describes extra details which indicate that he had indeed visited a sand-casting workshop while preparing the article. However, the French article so closely follows the terminology, descriptions and order of operations in the English that it is unclear to what extent the article actually describes French practices.

In other instances, foreign works were translated without reference to local practices at all, as was apparently the case for ‘Soudure ou souder’, which d’Holbach extracted entirely from a 1760 German work, Ausführliche Beschreibung der Metalllothe und Löthungen by J.G.F. Klein. It may be that French and German soldering recipes and processes were identical, but we cannot assume that this is the case.

While there would have been some degree of homogeneity of metalworking technologies across Europe at the time, largely resulting from the migration of artisans over the preceeding centuries, there were nonetheless some distinct regional practices. A comparison between French and English silver illustrates this point. From at least the mid-17th century, French silver incorporated heavy, highly figurative cast fittings and mouldings, while English silver was generally more restrained in both ornamentation and material, being constructed largely from thin sheet. The influx of Huguenot silversmiths into England in the last quarter of the 17th century before and after the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes led to the incorporation of heavier cast ornamentation in English silver, but to a limited extent. English patrons were not always enamoured of the busier French style, nor willing to pay greater prices for the extra silver required, and the result was a synthesis of French and English styles. We can infer that a synthesis of technologies took place at the time so that, while English silversmithing technology would now have looked more similar to French technology than it had previously, it would still have been somewhat distinct. One can see how uncritical translations from the Cyclopædia might conflate English and French technologies, which could lead the modern historian astray.

Another concern is missing from the Encyclopédie. Naturally, we do not expect that the encyclopédistes could have described all processes of the mechanical arts, no matter how comprehensive their coverage. However, there is one metalworking process which, to the metal historian, is conspicuous by its absence: small-scale lost-wax casting. The Encyclopédie contains extensive descriptions and plates illustrating lost-wax casting of statuary, almost all of which are taken wholesale from Germain Boffrand’s 1743 Description de ce qui a été pratiqué pour fondre en bronze d’un seul jet la figure équestre de Louis XIV, but there are none describing the use of lost-wax casting in silversmithing or jewellery manufacture, nor even, as far as I can discover, any passing mention of it.

Silver Tureen by Étienne-Jacques Marcq (c. 1705–1781), Paris, 1749, Metropolitan Museum, 1975.1.2561a, b. The typical rococo ornaments applied to the lid of this tureen were undoubtedly cast by the lost-wax method, and the rocaille fittings are very likely to have been.

It is difficult to account for this lacuna in the Encyclopédie. It cannot have been left out for fear of repeating the process described for casting of statuary, because small-scale lost-wax casting is quite different, and the encyclopédistes did not shy from repeating themselves over numerous other articles. It is surely not from a deliberate avoidance of the production of luxury goods, because we see detailed discussions of other luxury manufactures such as tapestries, cut diamonds and gilding of metals. We might put it down to the unwillingness of gold- and silversmiths to share trade secrets, but the technique had been widely used for some time, and they were apparently willing to disclose many other techniques.

The significance of lost-wax casting is that it can produce objects which are complex and asymmetrical, such as figures, while the other prevalent technique, sand casting, was largely suited to producing one-sided or bilaterally symmetrical objects. It is curious that lost-wax casting of smaller works is missing from the Encyclopédie because not only had the technique been in common use for at least two centuries but it seems to have flourished particularly during the mid-eighteenth century, especially with the rise of rococo ornamentation. One might even say that rococo metalwork is characteristic of lost-wax casting since the method lends itself to the complex plant and animal ornaments and asymmetrical rocailles which decorate silverware of the period. Modern analysis has shown that bronze doré furniture mounts were sometimes cast by lost-wax, and it was probably common in jewellery manufacture too.

One of a pair of gilt bronze candlesticks after a design by Juste Aurèle Meissonnier (1695–1750), Paris, 1735-1750, Metropolitan Museum, 1999.370.1a, b, .2a, b. The whirling asymmetrical form of this candlestick was almost certainly cast with the lost-wax method, since other casting methods in use in France during this period were better suited to bilaterally symmetrical objects.

It seems likely, therefore, than it is owing simply to the encyclopédistes’ ignorance of the process, which we cannot hold against them, but it does raise a question about their methods for documenting manufacture. Is it possible that they approached the mechanical arts with preconceived ideas about what processes existed to be documented, perhaps informed by the literature which was already available and which they readily plundered? Rather than visiting workshops to passively observe and record what occurred, or encouraging artisans to speak freely about their work, they may perhaps have arrived with a ‘shopping list’ of techniques to study and describe, essentially filling in blanks in a pre-formed picture.

For the metal historian, the concerns raised here simply highlight the necessity of being judicious when using the Encyclopédie to determine the manufacture of French eighteenth-century artefacts. It is not sufficient to defer to it uncritically; the original source of the information should always be sought out, with attention to the possibility of regionalisation of technology, and there must be an awareness of the material evidence of the artefacts, which can reveal interesting gaps in knowledge and lead to new questions.

– Christina Clarke

Christina is an art historian based in the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at the Australian National University. Christina was a Visiting Academic at the Voltaire Foundation during 2018, funded by an Endeavour Research Fellowship awarded by the Australian Government.


Voltaire Lab: new digital research tools and resources

As part of our efforts to establish the Voltaire Lab as a virtual research centre, we are pleased to announce a major update of the TOUT Voltaire database and search interface, expanding links between the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project and several new research databases made available for the first time. Working in close collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago – one of the oldest and better known North American centres for digital humanities research – we have rebuilt the TOUT Voltaire database under PhiloLogic4, ARTFL’s next-generation search and corpus analysis engine.


New Search interface for TOUT Voltaire

PhiloLogic4 is a powerful research tool, allowing users to browse Voltaire’s works dynamically by date or title, along with further faceted browsing using the ‘title’, ‘year’ and ‘genre’, combined with word and phrase searching. Word searches are greatly improved for flexibility and ease of display and now include four primary result reports:

  • Concordance, or search terms in their context
  • KWIC, or line-by-line occurrences of the search term
  • Collocation, or terms that co-occur most with the search term
  • Time Series, which displays search term frequency over time

The new search interface will allow users to formulate complex queries with relatively little effort, following lines of enquiry in a dynamic fashion that moves from ‘distant reading’ scales of exploration to more fine-grained close textual analysis.


TOUT Voltaire search results

Also in collaboration with ARTFL, we have just released the Autumn Edition 2017 of the ARTFL Encyclopédie, a flagship digital humanities project that for the past almost twenty years has made available online the full text of Diderot and d’Alembert’s great philosophical dictionary. This new release offers many new features, functionalities and improvements. The powerful new faceted search and browse capabilities offered by PhiloLogic4 allow users better to leverage the organisational structure of the Encyclopédie – classes of knowledge, authors, headwords, volumes, and the like. Further it gives them the possibility of exploring the interesting alternatives offered by algorithmically or machine-generated classes. The collocation search generates word-clouds or word lists that are clickable to obtain concordances for any of the words immediately. Further improvements include new author attributions, various text corrections, and better cross-referencing functionality.


New ARTFL Encyclopédie interface

This release also contains a beautiful new set of high-resolution plate images. Clickable thumbnail versions lead to larger images that can be viewed in much greater detail than was previously possible.


New high resolution plate images, ‘Imprimerie en taille douce’


Close up of plate image

Thanks to the Voltaire Foundation, full biographies of the encyclopédistes are directly accessible from within the ARTFL Encyclopédie simply by clicking on the name of the author of any given article. This information is drawn directly from Frank and Serena Kafker’s The Encyclopedists as Individuals: A Biographical Dictionary of the Authors of the Encyclopédie (SVEC 257, 1988) – still the standard reference for biographical information on the Encyclopédie’s 139 contributors. Our hope is that this first experiment will demonstrate the value of linking digital resources openly in ways that can add value to existing projects and, at the same time, increase the visibility of the excellent works contained in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment back catalogue.

Finally, we have begun the work of establishing new research collections that will form the basis of the Voltaire Lab’s textual corpus. For example, working with files provided by Electronic Enlightenment, we have combined all of Voltaire’s correspondence with TOUT Voltaire. This new resource, which we are for the moment calling ‘TV2’, contains over 22,000 individual documents and more than 13 million words, making it one of the largest single-author databases available for research. Due to copyright restrictions in the correspondence files we cannot make the full dataset publicly available, however we are keen to allow researchers access to this important resource on a case-by-case basis. Students and scholars who wish to access the PhiloLogic4 build of TV2 should contact me here.

Glenn Roe

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.