Animals and humans in the long eighteenth century: an intricate relationship

How does a scholarly book get started? In the majority of cases it is bound with the author or editor’s passion and deep-rooted (and often inexplicable) connection with his or her subject matter. For me, Animals and humans: sensibility and representation, 1650-1820 began nearly ten years ago, when I read Kathryn Shevelow’s eminently readable book For the love of animals, about the growth of the animal welfare movement in the eighteenth century. Our relationship with animals never ceases to fascinate, as we see from the Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition ‘Making nature: how we see animals’, and animal studies has recently flourished in the academic mainstream. Like Shevelow’s book, it crosses the boundaries between specialised academic study and deeply felt human experience.

My own beginning with this subject, though, occurred almost in infancy. An innate attraction to animals, these others with whom we co-exist on this planet, is shared by almost all small children and all human cultures in one way or another, and is represented throughout human history. And as we see in very small children, in this oldest relationship of the human species we still find a deep connection and resonance. In bringing together and editing this book, it was wonderfully liberating to be able to combine a lifelong passionate interest in animals with my own professional field of eighteenth-century literary and cultural studies.

Gainsborough, Girl with pigs (1782)

Thomas Gainsborough, Girl with pigs (1782), oil on canvas; Castle Howard Collection. © Castle Howard; reproduced by kind permission of the Howard family.

1650-1820 – the timeframe we cover in our study – is the period associated both with the growth of experimental science and the horrors of vivisection, and with the rise of modern humanitarianism. While the defence of animal rights itself goes back to classical times, in the eighteenth century it was directly linked to a growing awareness of universal human rights and a new definition of humanity based on the ability to feel rather than in the primacy of reason. Together with the abolitionist and feminist movements of the later eighteenth century, animal welfare came to resemble its modern self, with legislation first enacted in 1820.

Simon after Gainsborough, The Woodman

Peter Simon after Gainsborough, The Woodman (1791 [1787]), stipple engraving; Sudbury, Gainsborough House. © Gainsborough House.

But in this book we aim to explore more deeply the human relationship with animals in the long eighteenth century, in many different forms of expression. As shown by the different essays in this volume, this ancient relationship challenges not only the arbitrary divisions of Western cultural history (classicism and romanticism, for example), and not only disciplinary boundaries between poetry and science, art and animal husbandry, fiction and natural history, but also the basic assumptions of human self-perception, in which we do not see animals as objects of our ‘objective’ study, but rather as beings with whom we share a space and who demand a mutual response. A major thread of this book, then, is the re-evaluation of sentiment and sensibility, terms that in the eighteenth century referred to the primacy of emotion, and which were not solely the prerogative of humans. Through the lens of eighteenth-century European culture, contributors to this volume show how the animal presence, whether real or imagined, forces a different reading not only of texts but also of society: how humans are changed, and how we the readers are changed, in our encounters with the non-human other, in history, art, literature, natural science and economics. More deeply, we are reminded of the power and antiquity of this relationship.

– Katherine M. Quinsey

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Falconet: a sculptor’s quest for influence

Portrait of Falconet

Portrait of Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716–1791) (Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne the Younger, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Etienne Maurice Falconet came out of nowhere. We have no record of the years he is reported to have spent as an apprentice in a master’s shop. Although Parisian by birth, he did not belong to any of the established artistic dynasties. At eighteen, he is said to have worked at a chair-maker’s shop, heralding the type of artisanal livelihood that so many now unknown sculptors embraced in the burgeoning luxury trade of early eighteenth-century Paris. But soon enough he managed to ease his way out of chair-making and into the fortunate selection of young sculptors to compete for and achieve membership of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. What happened next, Falconet’s reinvention of himself as a modern philosophe, can be considered a singular achievement by any standards.

Contemporary apocrypha of course reinforce the idea of the hypnotic charm exuded by his works, and leave the man out of the picture. Chance discoveries in the gardens of Versailles and furtive work in the studio of his master Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne are all part of the legend: Lemoyne is reported to have barged in on Falconet during waged hours, catching him red-handed modelling an independent work, his Milo of Croton. Lemoyne then cheered him on. ‘The young Falconet offered himself to Lemoyne as servant, valet, anything he liked’, is how Denis Diderot, one of his closest friends and allies, recalls a decisive encounter between the two. Falconet’s mode of introduction to Lemoyne was a selling point, and it would have involved intricacies of parentage, speech, demeanour and manner.

Vue Perspective du Sallon de l'Academie Royal de Peinture et de Sculpture au Louvre, a Paris

Vue Perspective du Sallon de l’Academie Royal de Peinture et de Sculpture au Louvre, a Paris

The remainder of Falconet’s life story, now less apocryphal, shows that the man was unusually adept at winning over the well-connected and powerful. No other artist of his time seemed better able to tap into the wishes and convictions of his beneficiaries or contemporaries: to his Parisian masters, he was a renegade with an admiration for the Provençal sculptor Pierre Puget, while at the Académie royale, he was a social riser, author of a lecture on the art of sculpture written with a clarity and forcefulness worthy of a literate amateur member. He was a sumptuously decorative artist to Madame de Pompadour, who appointed him to the post of modeller for the recently created Sèvres National Porcelain Manufactory. He was the Boucher of sculpture to fashionable Parisian art collectors, and the Jean-Jacques Rousseau of sculpture to Diderot, his friend at the radical Salon d’Holbach. A bibliophile who, by the early 1760s, had accumulated a stunning facility with classical literature, Falconet culled from the stoics a persona of utter restraint, with living and dressing habits to match.

This was all before 1766, when, aged fifty, he emigrated to St Petersburg where he played a French homme d’esprit and confidant to Catherine II of Russia, who commissioned him with what would be his magnum opus as a sculptor: the landmark equestrian statue of Peter I in St Petersburg, known in street parlance as the ‘Bronze horseman’. Was this all really because his sculptures were so well done? As Diderot quipped in his Jacques le fataliste, we may believe it to be true, or decide it is a falsehood, and we would not be wrong in either case.

Inauguration of the Bronze Horseman monument to Peter the Great

Inauguration of the Monument to Peter the Great, A. K. Melnikov, A. P. Davydov, 1782

1 December 2016 marked three centuries since the birth of this remarkable actor of the Enlightenment stage. Art history, the discipline that through the twentieth century rediscovered him as a proto-romantic rebel, seems of late to have ignored his sculpture. He was not one to sympathize with those men of letters who reviewed works at the Salons where he exhibited his marble sculptures, even though these men were inventing modern art criticism. Conversely, their parliamentary reformism did not inform his manicured, seductive sculpture by any perceivable or logical rationale. Perhaps one day more will come of comparing his work to Diderot’s materialism and complex rethinking of the links between artistic activity and moral realities, illusion and artifice in art.

For now, the way one understands the socio-cultural and aesthetic modernity breaking through in eighteenth-century France is more Chardin or David than Falconet. By contrast, Falconet’s writings, which were recuperated from oblivion by Yves Benot and Anne Betty Weinshenker (Falconet: his writings and his friend Diderot, published in 1966), continue to represent a challenge, almost a missing link to fledging Enlightenment cultural battles. But theory too seems to have represented for Falconet a means of bending and refashioning his circumstances for the better. After starting on his Russian mission in 1766, Falconet practically gave up sculpture in order to devote himself to his written polemics. This new obsession led to his falling out with Diderot, who was wary of Falconet’s plans to publish a series of letters they had exchanged since 1765.

macsotay-bookcover

After this, Falconet set out to extract from the letters a body of critical commentary that, in 1781, became published simply as a collection of polemical pieces. Only in these pieces does Falconet deploy a more strident persona: an iconoclast that attacks false privilege and the condescension of literary luminaries writing inanely on art. It is left to the discerning connoisseur and the critical art historian to quarrel over how to credit Falconet’s successes. Was it a result of his sheer vocation for modelling and carving marble figures, or should we also see other factors at work? Power-grabbing is one thing to consider, as Jacques-Louis David made clear in his commentary on a heated argument from 1793 on power abuses at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. In David’s report, he recalled how a young former student of Falconet committed suicide after a falling-out with the sculptor. Whatever this may say to us, Falconet had a tenacious way of making sure he stayed on the winning side.

For a deeper analysis of the sculptor’s life at the famous Académie, see my book The Profession of sculpture in the Paris Académie.

– Tomas Macsotay

Relocating British Orientalism in Portugal

Fig.1. An Orientalist folly? Monserrate Palace and Gardens, Sintra, Portugal (© L.Châtel)

Fig.1. An Orientalist folly? Monserrate Palace and Gardens, Sintra, Portugal (© L. Châtel)

Perched high up on the Portuguese hills of Sintra, Monserrate, with its interlace of Moorish, neo-Gothic and Alhambresque features (Fig. 1 & 2), boasts a residence that has all the trappings of an Oriental palace.[1] In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-18), Byron was Monserrate’s most vibrant supporter, remembering the days when it was William Beckford’s hill, both enchanting and luxuriant:

‘And yonder towers the Prince’s palace fair:
There thou, too, Vathek! England’s wealthiest son,
Once formed thy Paradise, as not aware
When wanton wealth her mightiest deeds hath done,
Meek Peace voluptuous lures was ever wont to shun.’
(Canto 1, XXII)

Fig.2. Entrance to Monserrate Palace (© L.Châtel)

Fig.2. Entrance to Monserrate Palace (© L. Châtel)

In 1840, Oscar Wilde’s father also thought of Montserrate as ‘the princely mansion of Beckford’, and his evocation was ‘sadly qualified by regret at the utter destruction to which this most lovely of retreats is fast hastening’.[2] In 1880, in her Portugal à vol d’oiseau, Princess Rattazzi saw Monserrate as the ‘living picture’ of the Arabian nights: ‘Tout ce qui peut captiver, séduire, charmer, est réuni dans cet Eden que ne manque de visiter aucun voyageur, curieux de voir l’illustration des contes merveilleux des Mille et une Nuits.’

On the face of it, Monserrate’s Oriental splendour makes it a fitting place for Beckford. However, against all expectations, its Oriental airs owe nothing to him, but to the nineteenth-century owner Francis Cook and his architect, James Thomas Knowles. Beckford did indeed rent out the house between 1795-1798, but at that time it had none of the Oriental features it was given in the 1860s (Fig. 3).[3]

Fig.3a. Monserrate, 1830, plate in Anon, Portugal; or, The young travellers: account of Lisbon and its environs (London, 1830, p.137)

Fig.3b. Monserrate, detail, 1840, lithograph by Manuel Luiz. (© private collection)

Fig.3b. Monserrate, detail, 1840, lithograph by Manuel Luiz. (© private collection)

While it is tempting today to see a direct link between Monserrate’s decorative features and the narrative flourishes found in Vathek, the Oriental décor that encased the outside and embellished the inside of the previous eighteenth-century layer is unrelated to Beckford (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Interior long corridor, Monserrate Palace (© L. Châtel)

Fig. 4. Interior long corridor, Monserrate Palace (© L. Châtel)

His Orientalism lies elsewhere, and critics need to delve beneath the surface of post-Romantic constructions of Orientalism and consider Enlightenment aesthetics to relocate Beckford’s debt to the East. It is precisely my aim in William Beckford: the elusive Orientalist to revisit late eighteenth-century scholarship in order to ‘relocate’ British traces of Orientalism, and, specifically, Beckford’s.

Enlightenment Orientalism is often considered a French prerogative, and quite rightly so, since the French were indeed not only proponents of but decisive actors in shaping Orientalist taste. With his Bibliothèque orientale (1697) of facts and mores, Barthélémy d’Herbelot provided an alternative catechism, enabling a displacement of interest from Western to Eastern religious and political thinking. Through Antoine Galland, one was given access to the many delights of the Arabian nights (1704-17), and a significant new window onto the East. Voltaire was interested in Chinese and Indian culture[4], whilst Montesquieu, Diderot, and the abbé Raynal were important transmitters of Oriental lore.

Undeniably French as Orientalism may have been, recent scholarship has also drawn specific attention to the contribution of Britain, with pivotal studies written by Srinivas Aravamudan, Ros Ballaster, Robert Irwin, Saree Makdisi, Felicity Nussbaum, Diego Saglia and Marina Warner. It is my hope that William Beckford: the elusive Orientalist will add a chapter to the British story by drawing attention to the peculiar case of William Beckford.

Insert Fig 5. Interlaced motifs, Monserrate, first floor, design by James Thomas Knowles (© L.Châtel)

Insert Fig 5. Interlaced motifs, Monserrate, first floor, design by James Thomas Knowles (© L. Châtel)

I purposefully use ‘peculiar’ as Orientalism and ‘peculiarity’ are mutually enlightening. Beckford’s ‘peculiarity’ was, for a long time, interpreted as a quirky characteristic in psychological and biographical terms that conveyed notions of distrust or puzzlement. It is my contention that one can reappraise Beckford if one looks at his ‘peculiarity’ in aesthetic terms. Beckford’s creativity was always necessarily derivative and elusive. The frustration felt by most of his contemporaries is that Beckford never painted a clear picture of himself, as if he meant to hide his agency or somehow let it be believed that whatever he did was the result of an invisible agency. The translations from the Arabian nights were a ‘collective’ work, and one may easily imagine him to be the prime mover behind the grand scheme. It was not just his own doing, but was also that of the Turk Zemir, the English Lady Craven, Samuel Henley, and, last but not least, the French Madame de Starck (a.k.a. Melle Falques). The Orientalist artefacts displayed at Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower, co-produced with silversmiths, goldsmiths and his friend Gregorio Franchi, were an aggregate action; not only was it teamwork, but the Oriental piece was grafted onto another item and given a new lease of life by being subtly reprocessed, thus creating an art object (see, for example, the artefacts at Charlecote Park).

Insert Fig. 6 ‘Eye and turban’, frontispiece, published in Vathek (London, Clarke, 1815). Private collection.

Insert Fig. 6 ‘Eye and turban’, frontispiece, published in Vathek (London, Clarke, 1815). Private collection.

Back to the park and palace of Monserrate. The genius loci of this land of bizarre estrangement and wild luxuriance can lead the visitor astray, operating like a trompe l’œil or mirage of British Orientalist luxury. And yet it can also provide a clue to previous layers, pointing to the undeniably Orientalist, albeit elusive and misunderstood, taste of Beckford. How much of Beckford’s Orientalism Francis Cook meant to revive and restore at Monserrate deserves to be explored further. But it is wonderfully entertaining that, today, Monserrate can be interpreted as a resurgence of British Orientalism, if not a homage to Beckford himself. Monserrate confirms the necessarily allusive and elusive reception of Beckford’s aesthetics – ghostly, spectral but vividly present.

– Laurent Châtel

[1] Monserrate Park, 1995 World Heritage Site and 2013 European Winner of Garden Award is located about 3.5 km from the Sintra historical center and 25 km west to Lisbon; see https://vimeo.com/79885257

[2] William Wilde, The Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe, and Along the Shores of the Mediterranean (Dublin, William Curry & Co, 1840), p.74.

[3] For Monserrate, see Maria João Neto, The Romantic Country House of an English Family (Casal de Cambra, Ediçao e Artes Graficas, 2015); Malcolm Jack, Sintra – A Glorious Eden (2002); the official website: https://www.parquesdesintra.pt/en/parks-and-monuments/park-and-palace-of-monserrate/

[4] See, for example, his Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartars in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, ed. Marie-Hélène Cotoni, Basil Guy et al, vol. 77b (Oxford, 2014)

Comment faire parler un répertoire des spectacles de l’Ancien Régime?

evstratov_fig1

‘Répertoire général’ de la troupe française (1777), Rossijskij gosudarstvennyj istoričeskij arhiv (Archives historiques d’Etat de Russie).

L’heure est au big data dans les études du théâtre français de l’Ancien régime, de la Révolution et de l’ère napoléonienne. Les technologies de numérisation permettent de rassembler les données sur un répertoire, de les traiter quantitativement et de les rendre accessibles aux publics qui n’ont pas l’habitude des archives. Au moins trois projets collectifs mettent le souci d’analyse quantitative au cœur de leur investigation: Registres de la Comédie-Française, Therepsicore et French Theatre of the Napoleonic Era. Dans certains cas, comme dans l’étude de Rahul Markovits, la recherche du répertoire va au-delà du territoire français, en élargissant l’enquête jusqu’à ‘l’empire culturel’ français.[1]

‘Au XVIIIe siècle on ne joue pas une œuvre mais un répertoire’[2]: cette formule de Martine de Rougemont est souvent reprise par les historiens du théâtre. Or, les rapports entre les deux structures signifiantes, œuvre et répertoire, restent à éclairer. Certes, l’ensemble des œuvres disponibles pour la mise en scène, c’est-à-dire les textes et les emplois dont une troupe disposait à un moment précis, définissait l’offre d’un théâtre.[3] Mais, à ma connaissance, si les distinctions entre les troupes – de la Comédie-Française et du Théâtre Italien, par exemple – ont été formulées et intégrées dans la vie théâtrale de l’Ancien régime, la notion de ‘répertoire’ en tant qu’ensemble signifiant au sein d’une tradition théâtrale n’a été convoquée quant à elle que pendant la Révolution française. Quoi qu’il en soit, le traitement autonome de ce répertoire, c’est-à-dire en termes uniquement esthétiques (la part d’un tel genre) ou d’histoire littéraire (la part d’un tel auteur) paraît éminemment problématique.

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Dans mon livre Les Spectacles francophones à la cour de Russie (1743-1796): l’invention d’une société j’ai exploré les circulations théâtrales transnationales pour reconstituer un répertoire des pièces représentées en français dans un pays située à la périphérie de l’Europe. Une liste de 267 œuvres apparaît dans les appendices de mon étude. Cette liste alphabétique, qui recense l’ensemble des pièces françaises et francophones représentées à Saint-Pétersbourg ainsi que dans d’autres lieux de séjour de la cour a d’abord eu pour but d’accompagner une liste chronologique publiée dans le deuxième volume de ma thèse de doctorat.[4] A l’occasion de la sortie de ce livre, basé sur le premier volume de cette thèse, je souhaite mettre cet instrument de travail à la disposition de ceux qui s’intéressent à la constitution du quotidien théâtral dans l’Europe du XVIIIe siècle. Ce calendrier des spectacles met en avant l’aspect temporel de la vie théâtrale à la cour, ainsi que son inscription dans le cycle des cérémonies et des fêtes, politiques et religieuses.

La question qui me poursuit depuis le début de mon travail de thèse porte plus particulièrement sur les façons historiquement adéquates d’aborder quantitativement les répertoires dramatiques. Qu’est-ce que ces données chiffrées nous apprennent ? Est-il possible de tirer des conclusions ou, au moins, des renseignements de ces données de manière à aller au-delà de la présentation descriptive? Quels critères pourrait-on utiliser pour faire le lien entre une représentation théâtrale historiquement et socialement située et l’abstraction statistique? Dans mon livre je propose une tentative de réponse à ces questions en articulant la reconstitution du calendrier des spectacles et les premières analyses statistiques du corpus des pièces avec les contextualisations sociohistoriques. L’idée est pourtant d’inviter d’autres chercheurs à rejoindre une réflexion critique sur la portée épistémologique des données chiffrées et leur valeur argumentative – tout en utilisant les nouveaux instruments de travail.

– Alexeï Evstratov

[1] Rahul Markovits, Civiliser l’Europe. Politiques du théâtre français au XVIIIe siècle ([Paris], 2014).

[2] Martine de Rougement, Lа vie théâtrаle en Frаnce аu XVIIIe siècle (ParisGenève, 1988), p.54.

[3] D’après le Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé, Voltaire emploie le terme en 1769, pour désigner ‘liste des pièces que les comédiens jouent chaque semaine’. En 1798, le dictionnaire de l’Académie Française fixe une autre notion : ‘liste des pièces restées en cours de représentation à un théâtre’ (http://atilf.atilf.fr/dendien/scripts/tlfiv5/advanced.exe?8;s=2824323900;).

[4] Alexeï Evstratov, Le Théâtre francophone à Saint-Pétersbourg sous le règne de Catherine II (1762-1796). Organisation, circulation et symboliques des spectacles dramatiques, thèse de doctorat, vol. 2 (Paris, 2012), p.17-192.

French dog! ’: interpreting insults on the streets of London

In light of the recent events and the emergence of questions around British openness (or lack thereof) towards a cosmopolitan culture and foreign nationals, it is interesting to step back in time and observe what kind of reception foreign visitors to England enjoyed in the past. Even for the most anglophile early modern visitor, three aspects of any trip often remained problematic. First, the terrible physical discomfort of crossing the Channel. As the gallant poet Le Pays would have it, it is preferable to look at the sea in a painting than in real life, when one is in danger of joining in the choir producing a ‘symphony of hiccups’ on board. Then there is the ‘gastronomic’ shock of English cooking; and, last but not least, the insults foreign travellers (and French people in particular) systematically received from many locals, mostly from the lower classes, and particularly in London.

‘Sal Dab giving Monsieur a receipt in full’, 1776. Courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art. Variations on this same illustration – a Frenchmen having a fistfight with a fishwife in Billingsgate – are known from the 1750s. For a male version, see the illustration ‘The Frenchman in London’, 1770, in the Horace Walpole Library: http://images.library.yale.edu/walpoleweb/oneitem.asp?imageId=lwlpr02995 It is not known whether the illustrations are based on an actual event.

‘Sal Dab giving Monsieur a receipt in full’, 1776. Courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art. Variations on this same illustration – a Frenchmen having a fistfight with a fishwife in Billingsgate – are known from the 1750s. For a male version, see the illustration ‘The Frenchman in London’, 1770, in the Lewis Walpole Library. It is not known whether the illustrations are based on an actual event.

The most traditional insult, ‘French Dog!’, actually seems to go back all the way to the period of the Avignon schism. The author of the first French travelogue on England in 1558, Estienne Perlin, complained that he was often called ‘or son ou vilain fils de p.tain’. Huguenot visitor Misson de Valbourg, who fled France in 1685 and then sketched an idealised image of England as a land of hope and freedom, provided a much more favourable portrayal of the English. Still, he felt compelled to add that this positive image accurately describes only those who ‘hadn’t always been rotting in England’, but have seen something of the world. Voltaire was insulted on the street, but carefully avoids discussing this experience in the Lettres philosophiques. Montesquieu’s posthumously published ‘Notes sur l’Angleterre’ features some comments regarding unpleasant attitudes on the part of locals. These words inspired some scholars to categorize this text as anglophobic – no doubt an excessive statement, as many other opinions he expresses in the same text were clearly positive.

For French visitors who were not particularly favourable to England, xenophobic insults were a convenient tool to prove that the English notion of ‘freedom’, even though it seemed attractive in theory, was nothing but arrogance. Others attempted to explain the differences between the attitudes of what many of them perceived as the ‘mob’ on the one hand, and the excellent welcome they received from the often strongly francophile local elites on the other; they suggested that there might be ‘two nations’ living side by side in England. This led some to conclude that the true national character could only be found amongst the elites; others suggested that the brutality of the ‘mob’ in fact represented quintessential Englishness, the elites having been civilised by their contact with Continental culture. From the 1760s onwards, following Rousseau’s ideas (such as those in his chapter on travels in Emile), a new approach arose, which saw the true national character residing in the popular classes, but only when far away from the negative impact of large cities: thus, ‘true English people’ reside in the countryside.

During the last decades of the Ancien Régime, a new interpretation emerged for the insults encountered in the streets. In some ways parallel to Edmund Dziembowski’s suggestion that French anti-English feelings and propaganda could have contributed to the creation of a French national identity, some French visitors suggested that English xenophobia, however unpleasant an experience, could be a noteworthy (and even positive?) phenomenon. In his book Observations sur Londre celebrated by the Royal Censor as an ‘eternal antidote against the depraved and contagious morals of our so-called Philosophers’ for deconstructing the myth of English superiority, Lacombe suggested that the disappearance of xenophobic insults is a sign of England’s downfall, as these were manifestations of a powerful, true national character.

The Monument of the Great Fire of London (Wikimedia Commons). The inscriptions attributing the origin of the fire to a Popish plot were erased under James II, then re-engraved under William III; they finally disappeared in 1830.

The Monument of the Great Fire of London (Wikimedia Commons). The inscriptions attributing the origin of the fire to a Popish plot were erased under James II, then re-engraved under William III; they finally disappeared in 1830.

The unpleasant English attitudes that many foreign visitors encountered, and often reported, became for the French public part of a set of well-established ideas, related to the practice of a travel to England. As I have argued in Philosophies du voyage: visiter l’Angleterre aux 17e-18e siècles, the systematic study of the variations in the interpretation of such ideas allows for a better understanding of the complexities and uses of this travel phenomenon. The same event or the same place (such as the Monument of the Great Fire of London and its inscriptions) could receive radically different presentations depending on the personal profile, agenda and experiences of the visitor.

– Dr Gábor Gelléri, Aberystwyth University

See also https://cultureoftravel.wordpress.com

 

Gossip meets history at Versailles

The Fountain of Apollo, Park of Versailles, France (Wikimedia)

The Fountain of Apollo, Park of Versailles, France (Wikimedia)

‘Louis XIV was so magnificent in his court, as well as reign, that the least particulars of his private life seem to interest posterity.’

So wrote Voltaire in his account of the reign of Louis XIV, published in 1751. It’s still true today, apparently – a bit of a fuss has been made in the past few weeks about a BBC drama series called Versailles. Set during the reign of the French Sun King and controversially made in English, it seems to be aimed at the audience for the historical romp genre (The Tudors, Rome), with plenty of see-through dresses and glossy hair.

Noémie Schmidt plays Henriette (underneath), wife of Philippe and mistress of Louis (above). A scene from the BBC series Versailles. Image Daily Telegraph.

‘Noémie Schmidt plays Henriette (underneath), wife of Philippe and mistress of Louis (above).’ A scene from the BBC series Versailles. Image and caption: Daily Telegraph.

The show itself seems to be pretty much what you’d expect from the genre. Every lurid allegation of life at court which has surfaced over the past 300-odd years has been trussed up and ornamented, to choruses of ‘for shame!’ from the Daily Mail, while familiar faces on the media history circuit are produced to give academic credibility to every unlikely-sounding anecdote. An affair between the king and his sister-in-law? His brother’s homosexuality and transvestism? Queen Marie-Thérèse, famous for her Catholic piety and lack of interest in carnality, giving birth to a dark-skinned, apparently illegitimate baby? The programme makers are playing a mischievous game with us: simultaneously wanting us to gasp in horror while reassuring us of their interest in historical veracity. No need to bother with plausibility, then – (alleged) truth despite its implausibility is the trump card here.

Siècle de Louis XIV, 3 vol., 1768, vol.2, p.274.

Siècle de Louis XIV, 3 vol., 1768, vol.2, p.274.

We have a rich supply of this gossip, partly because of the success of Louis XIV at keeping his nobility within the confines of his enormous palace at Versailles. Quite a few of them kept almost daily diaries detailing who was rumoured to be sleeping with whom, pregnancies, illnesses, squabbles… Voltaire included several chapters of anecdotes in his Age of Louis XIV, which he introduces with the observation: ‘We had rather be informed of what passed in the cabinet of Augustus, than hear a full detail of the conquests of Attila or Tamerlane.’ And who wouldn’t? Voltaire’s chapters of anecdotes represent the private history of the king and his entourage as people, in contrast to the previous twenty-four chapters of public events: wars won and lost, peace treaties, alliances and so on. Voltaire deliberately carves out a space in his monumental history of the reign for these ‘domestic details’, but he also warns the reader to weigh up the sources when deciding when something is true or not. Although he admits that they are ‘sure to engage public attention’, in a later edition he adds a marginal note at this point: ‘Beware of anecdotes’.

The real domestic details are ultimately unknowable, of course, but anyone can and does imagine what might have happened in a bedroom, a birthing chamber, a salon. The temptation to fill in the gaps and invite a 21st century audience to experience this private space in simulation is, I think, what has proved so tantalising both to the creative impulses of the script-writers and the voyeuristic ones of the audience.

– A.O.

Enlightenment Scotland still burning brightly

View of Edinburgh and the Castle (Wikimedia Commons).

View of Edinburgh and the Castle.

Scotland has been making headlines. In the past year, it held a referendum on independence and the Scottish Nationalist Party made unprecedented gains in this year’s general election, claiming almost every constituency north of the border and becoming a vocal force in the Commons. However, Scotland has been shaking things up and radically challenging assumptions long before our century, and not only on the backbenches.

As the contributors to The Enlightenment in Scotland: national and international perspectives illustrate, Edinburgh’s affectionate nickname ‘Auld Reekie’ may mean ‘Old Smoky’, but the stars of Scotland’s intellectual firmament have always burned bright through any perceived haze.

In the eighteenth century, independent thinking, rather than independence, was the battle cry. In fields as diverse as politics, philosophy, economics, history, social theory, agriculture, science and technology, Scots forged new paths, forming dense and fruitful networks of friendships, collaborations, and institutions (including the Scottish universities which are still academic heavyweights today). Thinkers and scientists challenged the status quo, paving the way for revolts of all kinds through their theories and practical inventions, from the agrarian and industrial revolutions which shaped modern society, to the American Revolution which established one of today’s dominant global powers, the United States.

King's College, University of Aberdeen. Taken by Nick in exilio and published on Flickr.

King’s College, University of Aberdeen. (Taken by Nick in exilio and published on Flickr.)

In this constellation of exceptional minds, two names tend to epitomize the achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment: Adam Smith and David Hume, thinkers whose writings on politics, economics, and philosophy continue to influence policymakers today. However, ‘the Enlightenment’ is a nebulous concept, an umbrella term which can sometimes mask the complexities and heterogeneity of this momentous period of global transformation, and the Scottish Enlightenment was more than two individual thinkers. Indeed, the Scottish Enlightenment is a fascinating historiographical conundrum, which raises the question of the delicate symbiotic exchange of influences between Enlightenment thinkers in other countries and thinkers in Scotland.

Adam Smith, 1790, engraving attributed to John Kay (Wikimedia Commons).

Adam Smith, 1790, engraving attributed to John Kay.

This collective volume focuses on the specificity of the Enlightenment in Scotland, while also integrating it into a wider global narrative. The diversity of approaches, origins, and influences reflected in the studies included – from microcosmic case studies of opposition to the Enlightenment in the Scottish counties of Ayrshire and Renfrewshire to examinations of reception of Scottish ideas and theories in France, Germany, and America – has a scope commensurate with the ambition and vision of the Scots.

In Scottish politics, 2014-2015 has been a year about borders and boundaries, those of nations and of parliamentary constituencies – but the stars of Scottish Enlightenment defied borders and limitations to shed their light far beyond this island’s shores, onto the international stage.

– Madeleine Chalmers

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The Enlightenment in Scotland: national and international perspectives

Edited by Jean-François Dunyach and Ann Thomson

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, August 2015

ISBN-13: 978-0-7294-1166-0, 260 pages