Digitization of the Enlightenment and Manifold Scholarship

Last month, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment released the first volume in the long history of the series that is devoted to the application of digital humanities methods to the study of eighteenth-century intellectual life, Networks of Enlightenment, edited by Chloe Edmondson and Dan Edelstein. To accompany this important and innovative book, we are pleased to be releasing our first-ever digital companion to an OUSE book through the Manifold Scholarship platform.

The digital companion site to Networks of Enlightenment 1 is hosted on the Liverpool University Press Digital Collaboration Hub, constructed on the Manifold Scholarship publishing platform. Funded by the Mellon Foundation, Manifold Scholarship is described as “the intuitive, collaborative, open-source platform for scholarly publishing you’ve been waiting for”. In their own words, the platform allows “for a much more expansive archive of primary sources, such as field notes, moving images, audio, interactive data and maps, photographs, interviews, and archival material” and “asks that an author think creatively about the broad set of materials that are collected in the process of researching and writing a book”.2 Liverpool University Press is participating in Manifold’s pilot program – this companion site is a pilot for the OUSE series as well.

The book at the center of this pilot for OUSENetworks of Enlightenment, focuses on the use of metadata to identify and represent social networks, such as those formed by correspondences, by academy affiliations or by the words in a text. As part of this work several contributors to the volume, using data visualization tools developed at Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, created 40 data visualizations to demonstrate the structure and density of these network relationships. The visualizations are, in fact, crucial to understanding the arguments presented in this book.

Yet these figures, principally due to their complexity as images, can only be approximately reproduced in the medium of the print book; Manifold allows these figures to be rendered as they ought to be – online, in high-resolution and in full color. This supplemental platform thus opens up the possibilities when it comes to publishing digital humanities scholarship, in this volume and in the future. We hope in the coming years to continue this utilization of Manifold to offer our authors, and readers, scholarship that is innovative in method, in findings and in its format.

We are launching this companion site on July 16th, during the XVth International Congress on the Enlightenment which is being held during the same week in Edinburgh, Scotland, under the auspices of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Today’s digital-focused day consists of the Voltaire Foundation-sponsored day-long workshop “Digitizing Enlightenment IV”, and will culminate in McEwan Hall at the formal launch (and drinks reception) for the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE, the digital collection which will make available the entirety of the OUSE/SVEC backlist by the end of 2020. Both events will be an exploration (and a celebration) of the efforts already made thus far to consider how scholarship can be enhanced by digital methods, now and in the future.

– Gregory S. Brown (General Editor, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, and Professor of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas) and Nicole Batten (doctoral student, Department of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas)

1 The site, it is important to note, is not a full-text digital edition. The text consists of the full text of the book’s Introduction and Table of Contents, and brief summaries of the nine body chapters of the book.

2 We would like to thank in particular Terence Smyre, Digital Projects Editor of University of Minnesota Press for his help in the assembly of this site. The assembly of the site also had support from the College of Liberal Arts at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which provided support for our time on this project.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.


Networks of Enlightenment: new approaches, new perspectives

While many ‘great men and women’ stand out in eighteenth-century Europe, what is notable about the Enlightenment is the prominence of its ‘great groups’, or, as we like to call them, networks. Many individuals owe their participation in the Enlightenment to their membership in intellectual groups and institutions: the philosophes, the salons, the academies… the list goes on. And these networks were, in turn, central to their participants’ identity. What’s more, the leading figures of the Enlightenment were not only members of these groups or networks, but they were often the central nodes of networks that were integral to the Enlightenment: from Voltaire’s or Catherine the Great’s correspondence networks to Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, mediated and unmediated communication were essential to making the Enlightenment possible.

Networks of Enlightenment, edited by Chloe Edmondson and Dan Edelstein, is the June 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters presents a series of case studies of correspondence networks, social networks, and knowledge networks throughout Europe, with a particular focus on France. Authors examine anew some of the pre-eminent networks of the Enlightenment, drawing on digital methods and Social Network Analysis (SNA) to pioneer historically driven methods for thinking about networks in early-modern societies.

Although scholars have long zeroed in on the importance of social groups and networks in the Enlightenment, from networks of publishers and booksellers to provincial academies, the salons, and correspondence networks, technological innovations have only recently made it possible to study these networks from new perspectives. Data-driven approaches provide a more comprehensive and granular understanding of the many different types of networks that formed the intellectual and cultural infrastructure of the Enlightenment throughout Europe. The digitization of correspondence collections has been essential for data-driven scholarly projects, allowing scholars to study these networks at both the micro and macro levels, and to explore the worlds of the philosophes and the ‘nodes’ in their networks in rich detail. Indeed, it was thanks to metadata produced in large part by the Electronic Enlightenment Project at Oxford University that many authors in this volume first developed and applied methods for historical data analysis in a project reconstructing ‘The French Enlightenment Network.’

Working from historical data to study networks is not without its challenges, and one of the core concerns of this volume is how to responsibly study historical networks in the absence of complete data. At the most fundamental level, a social network is a system of actors (nodes) and the ties between them (edges). Social Network Analysis can be applied to virtually any type of network, and an SNA study relies on both information about the nodes and the relational ties between them. Reconstructing complete historical networks, however, is not only difficult and messy, but near impossible in most cases due to the quality of historic sources. Often, we do not know if someone was truly not ‘in’ the network, or if his or her membership was simply not recorded. The mathematical and statistical metrics typically used for SNA studies, which rely on complete or representative samples, would thus produce results that would distort reality when applied to historical data. As such, the adoption of SNA methods by historians requires creativity to tailor SNA methods to the object of inquiry, the data available, and the research questions at hand.

The authors of the essays in this volume do precisely that: they elegantly combine traditional humanistic inquiry with innovative digital methods to offer fresh perspectives on important networks and issues of the Republic of Letters. At this intersection of Enlightenment historiography, data capture, and social network analysis, the essays in this volume take advantage of new data sources, configurations, and modes of analysis to deepen our understanding of how Enlightenment sociability worked, who it included, and what it meant for participants.

Authors not only examine various types of networks, but they also use the term ‘network’ in very different ways. While part I of the volume concerns ‘correspondence networks’ with case studies of Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Francesco Algarotti, and Jacques Pérard, part II focuses on ‘social networks’, or who interacted with whom in milieus of sociability. These studies include Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, Gustav Philip Creutz’s Parisian networks, and Casanova’s theater network. Finally, part III examines ‘knowledge networks’ from two very different approaches: the first, by examining the role of the academies in the Republic of Letters, and second, the knowledge networks present in Johnson’s Dictionary.

This volume emerged out of a conference held at Stanford University in 2016, and it seems fitting that the first volume in the series Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment dedicated to digital approaches to eighteenth-century studies would originate in the heart of Silicon Valley. This conference, which brought together an international group of scholars, demonstrated the exciting possibilities that can ensue when technological advancements are leveraged in the service of the humanities. Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters is very much the culmination of many years of figuring out how best to accomplish that, through interdisciplinary collaboration and experimentation on projects that preceded and gave rise to the ones contained in this volume.

– Chloe Summers Edmondson, Stanford University

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Chloe Edmondson is co-editor of the June Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters, which provides exciting new perspectives on the European networks that made up the Republic of Letters.

The Voltaire Foundation blog: a collaborative resource for all 18th-century enthusiasts

The Voltaire Foundation blog recently marked its sixth anniversary, having clocked up some 250 posts since it was launched in April 2013 with the help of our former colleague Claire Trévien.

In its six years’ existence so far the VF blog has attracted dozens of collaborators from a great variety of countries and backgrounds, from seasoned academics and authors to budding scholars. Thanks to all who have contributed, we have managed to build up a resource which beautifully reflects the extraordinary scope and vitality of eighteenth-century scholarship.

As the Siècle des Lumières offers endlessly fertile ground for thinking about our past, present and future, we have have cast our minds back to its trail blazers, reflected on the lessons it holds for our monde comme il va (or comme il ne va pas, as the case may be), drawn parallels, identified points of convergence, measured progress, and tackled the technical, the musical, the quirky, the intimate and the unexpected, among many other areas.

Our blog is also a way of charting significant milestones in the life of our own institution, notably the completion of groundbreaking subseries such as the Essai sur les mœurs and the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, or the correspondences of Madame de Graffigny and Pierre Bayle. It also allows us to celebrate valued partnerships and long-standing friendships with other institutions such as the CELLF in Paris, the Musée Voltaire in Geneva, or the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg.

Looking ahead to the future, we are increasingly turning our attention to the revolutionary potential offered by digital humanities as a whole, and our Voltaire Lab in particular.

Current events are a constant reminder that reflection on the Enlightenment values that have shaped our world is more needed than ever. We would like to express our gratitude and appreciation to all contributors, and invite everyone to share this collaborative resource as widely as possible, and to get in touch with their own suggestions.

– Georges Pilard

PS: Watch this space for a piece about insect sex in the 18th century coming up soon, a subject once again not completely unrelated to modern concerns!


The age of lightness

Le petit-maître et la dame en l’air, engraving, c.1780 (source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

France is a light-hearted nation… This classical common belief is echoed repeatedly throughout the eighteenth century and bears witness to the deep axiological, scientific and ethical upheavals which this volume explores. By analysing the importance of, and issues at stake in, these transformations, the articles gathered within tell the story of another age of Enlightenment: the story of an age of lightness.

Lightness is at the crux of how the French eighteenth century represents itself both in contrast with previous centuries and through parallels between European nations.

The notion of lightness therefore constitutes an essential paradigm of the historiography that developed immediately after the French Revolution. The intellectual heirs of the eighteenth century do not only find in this period an age of reason, progress, Enlightenment and citizens’ rights; they also feel, at times, contempt, at other times, nostalgia for the alleged lightness of its mores, the futility of its taste or the frivolity of its childish ways. Between the industrious bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century exploiting the voluptuous representations of fêtes galantes and the fascination of our own twenty-first century for the delightful frivolity of Marie-Antoinette’s era, the eighteenth century in its lightness has never lost its charm. Yet, crucially, it also challenges the progressive narrative of the history of reason and usefulness in the definition of the very values on which our community is built.

(Attr. to James Gillray), Politeness, c.1779, hand-coloured engraving (source: the Trustees of the British Museum).

It is therefore particularly revealing to analyse the concepts and values associated to the notion of lightness in the eighteenth century. Such an approach yields breakthroughs in understanding why, and to what extent, this idea of lightness has been related to the French national character in general as well as, more particularly, to its eighteenth century.

Le Siècle de la légèreté: émergences d’un paradigme du XVIIIe siècle français offers an interdisciplinary perspective that bridges multiple fields of study related to the question of lightness. The fifteen chapters deal with paintings, morals, sciences, political history, literature and technology as well as economics. Together, these articles reveal the complexity of the notion of lightness in the eighteenth century by proposing not only new and original analyses of well-known sources (Hogarth, Fontenelle or Voltaire) but also discoveries of texts and objects less often studied (such as La Morlière, le Père Castel, Octave Uzanne, carriages or perfumes).

Richard Newton, British servants with Honesty and Fidelity against French servants with Perfidy & Impudence (detail), 1795, hand-coloured etching (source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection).

The critical and historiographical approach taken by this collection challenges preconceived notions and other prejudices, and unveils the national, diplomatic and at times existential concerns which contributed to the construction of the representations of eighteenth-century France. Far from proposing yet another traditional thematic approach, this volume offers the analysis of an endogenous and problematic paradigm around which multiple visions of humanity and of the world are articulated; it aims to offer a contribution to the renewal of eighteenth-century studies. Whilst it transforms how we look at a key moment in the construction of modernity, it also lays bare the sources of the fascination exerted by the French eighteenth century.

– Jean-Alexandre Perras (Institut d’études avancées de Paris) and Marine Ganofsky (University of St Andrews)

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Marine Ganofsky and Jean-Alexandre Perras are co-editors of ‘Le Siècle de la légèreté: émergences d’un paradigme du XVIIIe siècle français’, the April volume of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

Reasonable doubt and the birth of Enlightenment

There has rarely been a better time to write about skepticism than the current so-called post-truth era. Recent debates over fake newsalternative facts, and the role of expertise in public policy have shaken the United States, Europe, and the world. Contemporary pundits and political demagogues often play the skeptic in an attempt to sway popular opinion and fuel nascent populist movements. By questioning how we know what we know, whether we can know anything with certainty, or whether any source or testimony can be fully trustworthy, these figures seek to undermine the basic shared assumptions of liberal societies.

The Skeptical Enlightenment is the March 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The use (and arguably abuse) of skepticism raises troubling questions, but they are neither new nor peculiar to the present. They harken back to previous crises of certainty. Skepticism first emerged in the world of contentious philosophical debates of ancient Greece. There, the skeptics posed challenging arguments that offered an appealing alternative to dogmatic schools of thought that claimed to offer true and certain claims about the surrounding world. The skeptics, by contrast, called for a suspension of judgement on all questions and insisted that we could know nothing with certainty – not even the proposition that we could know nothing with certainty! The most radical articulation of skepticism, known as Pyrrhonism, was revived in early modern Europe during the Reformation and reached its peak popularity in the early 1700s. Through these debates about truth and certainty, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers first came to articulate our modern understanding of rationality – one that used a limited skepticism about what was known and knowable to arrive at useful understandings of nature and of human affairs.

This volume of essays provides a timely explanation of how Enlightenment thinkers successfully grappled with the challenges posed by an earlier crisis of philosophical confidence. We dispute popular and commonplace narratives that continue to depict the Enlightenment as an unalloyed Age of Reason when Europeans boasted an unbounded confidence in the powers of human understanding. Instead, the essays in this collection depict a complicated, variegated, and entangled Enlightenment culture to which skepticism was far more central than anyone thought. We build on recent scholarship to show how eighteenth-century responses to powerful skeptical arguments led thinkers to redefine reason, moderate its ambitions, and turn toward morally and socially useful ends.

Philosophers no longer considered rationality an innate or nearly infallible faculty. Instead, they accepted the fallibility of human understanding, the limitations of individual experiences, and the need to interrogate one’s assumptions. Such a reorientation made the cultivation of a healthy and limited skepticism indispensable to the improvement of the human condition, and it placed education at the forefront of Enlightenment theories of progress.

Recognizing the limits of human understanding in philosophical and theological questions also increasingly led thinkers to accept religious toleration. Contrary to what one might expect, critics of organized religion and those who championed faith against reason both embraced skeptical doubt. In a further irony, notable opponents of skepticism emerged from amongst those who tried to defend the rational foundations of belief. Many of the essays in this collection thus examine the persistence of religious belief in the Enlightenment while untangling the complex interactions between religion and philosophy in this period.

We suggest that rethinking the central place of skepticism in eighteenth-century learned culture provides important insights into the most vital concerns faced by the intellectuals of this period. Indeed, skeptical doubts were pervasive in various fields of knowledge, including not only epistemology and metaphysics, but also history, jurisprudence, theology, and political thought. Essays in this volume therefore highlight how debates between the skeptics and their opponents helped inform the modern evidentiary foundations of these fields and disciplines. We explain how notions such as probability and common sense emerged as bulwarks against skeptical critiques.

Examining the ways in which Enlightenment thinkers struggled with fundamental questions about truth and certainty invites us to consider how best to grapple with similar challenges in our current ‘post-truth’ moment. While the historical contexts are vastly different, important similarities nevertheless exist between the present and the eighteenth-century skeptical crisis. Then as now, various economic uncertainties, the proliferation of new forms of media, and new technologies all combine to create the sense that the real world might not be as it appears. Then as now, some answers can be found in a reexamination of the fundamental assumptions and truths that may no longer be as self-evident as we might think. Then as now, the ability to grapple with these questions has profound moral and political implications. This study of the Skeptical Enlightenment reminds us that fake news and the self-interested machinations of the powerful are powerless against a healthy dose of skepticism deployed in the service of humanity.

– Anton M. Matytsin (Kenyon College) and Jeffrey D. Burson (Georgia Southern University)

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Anton M. Matytsin and Jeffrey D. Burson are co-editors of the latest Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume.

Voltaire’s Hymn to Liberty : in search of a wider audience

On January 31st, France celebrated the ‘Nuit des idées’. Now in its fourth year, this is a festival of public events designed to engage broad debate around all manner of ideas and issues, and it is celebrated all over France as well as in the various French cultural institutes in more than 70 countries around the world.

The theme this year was ‘Face au présent’, and the Institut d’Études Avancées (IEA) in Paris organised an evening of events to discuss how knowledge is legitimised and spread, from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first, from the Encyclopédie to Wikipedia.

Saadi Lahlou, Nicholas Cronk, Glenn Roe, Anne Pasquignon and Jean-Claude Idée.

Two roundtable discussions on the topic ‘Rassembler, légitimer et diffuser le savoir, hier, aujourd’hui et demain’ were chaired by Saadi Lahlou, director of the IEA. The first panel, made up of Anne Pasquignon (BnF), Glenn Roe (Sorbonne, and Digital Research Fellow at the Voltaire Foundation) and myself, talked in particular about the issues of classification that were problematic for the Encyclopédie and remain so today for the BnF. The second panel, devoted to the theme ‘Formes émergentes de construction et de partage des connaissances’, brought together Pierre-Yves Beaudouin (president of Wikimédia France), Dominique Cardon (director of the Médialab at Sciences Po), Primavera de Filippi (CNRS, and attached to the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard), and Charlie Danger (historian and archaeologist), who describes herself as ‘la première vidéaste vulgarisatrice féminine sur Youtube’). This being a ‘night’ of ideas, the panels provoked lively discussions that lasted until nearly midnight.

The evening that finished with Wikipedia had begun with Voltaire. The panels were preceded at 6:30pm by a theatrical performance, a lecture-spectacle, entitled Hymne à la liberté. This remarkable text is the creation of the actor and director Jean-Claude Idée who with the philosopher Michel Onfray created in 2012 the Universités Populaires du Théâtre. Their ambition, inspired by the work of Jean Vilar, was to produce accessible theatrical perfomances in unconventional spaces that would be free and open to all; the texts performed were philosophical and thought-provoking, accessible but certainly not dumbed down. Over the years the Universités Populaires du Théâtre have produced leçons-spectacle based on authors ranging from Ovid, Erasmus, Rabelais and Montaigne to Camus and Sartre. Enlightenment texts have figured too, notably Diderot and Voltaire. The full title of the work performed is Hymne à la liberté: Histoire de la rédaction, à Ferney, du ‘Dictionnaire Philosophique’ de Voltairethe published text is available – and it is made up of a selection of articles taken from the Dictionnaire philosophique, with a Prologue and Epilogue explaining to the audience the circumstances in which the work came to be written. The three actors, Annette Brodkom, Jacques Neefs and Jean-Claude Idée himself, read several articles from the Dictonnaire philosophique, beginning with ‘Egalité’, and ‘Fanatisme’: the rhythms of Voltaire’s prose when read aloud are remarkable, and the actors brought out to the full the inherent theatricality of Voltaire’s voices at play in this work. There was audience participation too, when we were asked to vote between ‘Athéisme’ and ‘Credo’ (‘Athéisme’ won), and between ‘Destin’ and ‘Dogme’ (we went for ‘Destin’). A vote between ‘Guerre’ and ‘Loi’ was happily too close to call, so the actors gave us both. It transpired that Victor Hugo was sitting in the body of the hall and he intervened at one point to read us the celebrated ‘Discours’ delivered in 1878, on the centenary of Voltaire’s death. The Epilogue describes how Voltaire uses the theatre to educate, and the performance ended with these words:

‘Voltaire au contraire répétait à qui voulait l’entendre que le théâtre est le meilleur moyen d’adoucir les mœurs et d’éduquer les gens à la tolerance, et à la liberté.’

Jean-Claude Idée’s aim was to offer the audience a chance to (re)discover a major work by Voltaire while bringing out its relevance to the present, and the performance was followed by an exchange between Jean-Claude Idée and myself, initiating a debate with the audience reflecting on the role of live spectacle as a means of transmission of ideas, and as an interactive pedagogic tool, for teaching literary and philosophical texts in schools: one teacher, for example, intervened to say that recordings of the Dictionnaire philosophique would be a powerful way to engage school students with Voltaire.

Nicholas Cronk, Jean-Claude Idée and Saadi Lahlou.

The performance and ensuing debate were certainly successful in taking an eighteenth-century polemical text and making it speak to and engage a modern audience. It also made me reflect on Voltaire’s own intentions in writing his Dictionnaire philosophique portatif. Publication of the Encyclopédie came to a halt in 1757, after the publication of volume 7, and when the Portatif appeared in 1764, no one knew when or if the remaining volumes of the Encyclopédie would ever see the light of day (in the event, they appeared all together the following year, 1765). So Voltaire’s Portatif – a title he uses in the correspondence (see for instance his letter of 1 October 1764 to D’Alembert, D12113) – is not just a response to the publicity generated by the Calas affair; it is also a riposte to the challenge of publishing a large encyclopedia in multiple folio volumes. The government could successfully censor such a large and cumbersome enterprise. But Voltaire’s Portatif – a Livre de poche ahead of its time – was easier to publish, easier to smuggle, and harder to censor effectively. Smaller books are faster to produce and easier to hide; and being cheaper, they can reach a larger audience.

As Voltaire writes to D’Alembert, on the subject of the censorship of the Encyclopédie:

‘Je voudrais bien savoir quel mal peut faire un livre qui coûte cent écus. Jamais vingt volumes in-folio ne feront de révolution; ce sont les petits livres portatifs à trente sous qui sont à craindre. Si l’évangile avait coûté douze cent sesterces, jamais la religion chrétienne ne se serait établie.’ (5 April 1766, D13235)

Voltaire’s response to the encyclopedic project does not of course end with the Portatif, for after 1770 it continues with the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, published in 9 volumes over two years. This work has long been neglected, but the new critical edition, the first printing of the integral text since the eighteenth century, has now appeared in the Complete works of Voltaire (8 vols, 2007-2018), as described in Gillian Pink’s recent blog. As a follow-up to the Voltaire Foundation edition, a one-volume edition of the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie is due to appear in the Bouquins collection in April 2019.

Jean-Claude Idée is planning a collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation to produce a spectacle based on articles from the Questions, and it will be enormously instructive to hear how the actors bring to life the Voltairean voices in these texts. The question of why Voltaire ceased revising the Dictionnaire philosophique after 1769, and turned instead to creating a new and longer alphabetical work, is not easily answered. One response might be to say that by 1770, when Voltaire enjoyed towering celebrity status, he was hardly concerned to say new things, but he was most definitely concerned to convey his message to a new and wider audience. And certainly one way to test this hypothesis will be to bring the articles to life in front of audiences and measure their reaction.

Cultural institutions in the twenty-first century have an obligation to reach out and engage wider publics. But perhaps this is nothing new. The spirit of the Enlightenment was emphatically to take new thinking to wider audiences – in Diderot’s words, à propos of the Encyclopédie, ‘changer la façon commune de penser’ – and Voltaire is deeply engaged in this movement. Evidence for his desire to reach new publics can be found in his style and expression, as well as in his experiments with different literary forms. In the best sense of the term, Voltaire was a great journalist. In the precarious business of speaking truth to power, he was firmly in the tradition of Auberon Waugh, who gave this advice to the author and journalist Henry Porter:

‘You should tell the truth as often as you can, but in such a way as people don’t believe you or think that you’re being funny.’

– Nicholas Cronk

The Salons Project: a digital approach to eighteenth-century French salons

We are currently finalising the programme for Digitizing Enlightenment IV, a day-long workshop that will take place on 15 July as part of the ISECS Congress in Edinburgh this summer. In order to expand our network of Digitizing Enlightenment projects and researchers, we encourage those working in any aspect of digital humanities across the interdisciplinary spectrum of eighteenth-century studies to attend the event, if in Edinburgh, or contact us for more information.

Meantime below is the second post in our series of follow-up discussions based on work presented at the Digitizing Enlightenment III workshop.

– Glenn Roe, Voltaire Lab

Eighteenth-century French salons have developed a mystical aura as sites of elite sociability and (more controversially) as potential workshops of Enlightenment philosophy. They were, however, ordinary face-to-face gatherings in many ways – not unlike unscheduled conferences and meetings with loose agendas today; the one consistent difference is that they were held in private homes instead of conference rooms and organized by individuals (normally women) rather than groups or committees. The nineteenth-century term “salon” grouped together a variety of meetings with certain characteristics: salons were held in private homes with relatively elite participants, conversation was the primary activity, and they occurred on set days and at times that were part of a larger social calendar. Aside from these very general characteristics, salons had a wide variety of purposes, publics, and activities.

a French salon

Niclas Lafrensen [Nicolas Lavreince] (1737-1807), A French salon.

The most celebrated among salons, notably Tencin’s, Graffigny’s, Geoffrin’s, and Lespinasse’s, have become associated with great writers, philosophes, and mathematicians, like Voltaire and D’Alembert. Antoine Lilti has challenged the view that salons were primarily counter-cultural venues for philosophical debate, showing that the aristocratic traditions influenced notions of politesse in the salons and emphasizing the aristocratic habitus of many salon hostesses even when they had philosophes as guests. Disagreements over the character of salons may amount to differences more of degree than of type, since historians generally agree that the salons were mixed environments, but these debates do demonstrate the importance, now more than ever, of working through who was in attendance, in order to identify the social characteristics of eighteenth-century French salons.

I am the co-director with Chloe Edmondson of The Salons Project, a database of primarily eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European salon participants. We completed our pilot project of French salons from 1700 to 1800 last year and have some preliminary results, which will appear in the volume Digitizing Enlightenment, edited by Glenn Roe and Simon Burrows, in 2019. As expected, we found a great deal of evidence for social mixité in eighteenth-century salons, including patterns of mixed gender, age, occupation, interests, and social status. We also found that both women and literary figures were present in all of the major salons, including salons like Deffand’s which were not known for their openness to the philosophes. We found that nobles were present in all salons, as were gens de lettres, and that these people were often one and the same.

Our list of more than 600 salon participants is far from a complete record of eighteenth-century French salon attendees, but it is the largest and most complete database that we are aware of. The purpose of our study was not only to create a database, but also to create a method and a format for sharing data about salons and other informal networks. This method uses the robust data model created by the Electronic Enlightenment project, such that our data are compatible with the many other Enlightenment-era projects that are inspired by that database. We also use the schema “Procope”, which we developed along with Maria Teodora Comsa, Dan Edelstein, and Claude Willan to classify Early Modern European individuals, and which is described in our article “The French Enlightenment network”.

the Salons Project

Salon, correspondence, and knowledge networks in French salons, 1650 to 1815 (data from The Salons Project, Conroy and Edmondson).

Within our larger dataset (1650 to 1815), we found that the letters networks and salon networks remained well integrated, and that philosophes were a minority but well integrated into the core of the network (see diagram). The most central figures are the ones whose networks are most associated with each field of knowledge (for example, Lespinasse’s salon is strongly associated with the “Letters_Philosophical” network, whereas Praslin’s is not; Voltaire’s correspondence network is more strongly associated with the encyclopédistes than is Necker’s; the Letters networks and “Letters_Philosophical” network are themselves tightly connected and central to salon networks). Whereas the best known salons of the era were well integrated into the letters and philosophical networks, it is important to remember that many of the salon attendees were not otherwise part of the French Enlightenment network, especially women, lower-status individuals, family members of other salon participants, and foreigners. By adding these more marginal people to the records on eighteenth-century French sociability, we hope to open up new avenues for finding social relations that are not well known among these more marginal participants on the edges of the Enlightenment. Even where we were not able to learn much about some of these more minor figures, including them in this preliminary dataset increases the chances that we will learn more about them in the future.

– Melanie Conroy, University of Memphis

Melanie Conroy is assistant professor of French at the University of Memphis and the co-director with Chloe Summers Edmondson (PhD candidate, Stanford University) of The Salons Project, a database of European salon participants. She can be reached at mrconroy@memphis.edu or @MelanieConroy. The Salons Project is online at salonsproject.org. The Salons Project is collaborative and invites new researchers to adopt its methods and share their data.