The race competition

An old photograph of the former home of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Belles Lettres, and Arts at Bordeaux. It was located on the fashionable Avenue du Tourny.

On January 15, 2019, I received an unexpected phone call from Henry Louis Gates Jr. I had never met the famous Harvard professor, but he asked me if I’d be interested in doing a book with him on a curious essay competition organized by Bordeaux’s Royal Academy of Sciences in 1739. The winning of these ‘prize puzzles’, as they were called in eighteenth-century English, had often transformed people’s careers. The most famous example of this is, of course, that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who submitted his famous essays on ‘the sciences and the arts’ and the ‘origins of inequality’ to two such contests.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discours qui a remporté le prix à l’Académie de Dijon. En l’année 1750. Sur cette question proposée par la même académie: si le rétablissement des sciences et des arts a contribué à épurer les mœurs. Par un citoyen de Genève (Genève, 1750/1751).

Bordeaux’s 1741 competition was quite pointed: it focused on the source or causes of black skin and hair. This was actually one of the biggest ‘anthropological’ questions of the day, linked as it was to the larger question of how all of humankind’s varieties – they were not yet called races – came into being, and how they related to each other, or not.

Explanations related to Black skin had been circulating for twenty-five centuries before the Bordeaux contest. But the 1741 competition was the first time that a scientific institution invited Europe’s best thinkers to envision an entire sub-species of humans in terms of separate genealogies and separate categories. It is hard, now, not to marvel at the audacity of this French provincial Academy.

The first page of essay number 2, as submitted by its author.

Long story short, Skip Gates (as he is known in more informal settings) and I spent months figuring out just how to contextualize the contest. In addition to a substantial introduction, we decided that we would add a history of race timeline. He came up with a great title for the book: Who’s Black and Why? A hidden chapter from the eighteenth-century invention of race (Belknap/Harvard, 2022).

The resulting book dives deeply into this strange contest: its strange result (which I will not reveal here), the academy members themselves, as well as the history of the Port city of Bordeaux, whose slave-trading vessels ultimately carried 150,000 enslaved Africans to the New World. Slavery is, of course, the unstated link between the contest and the fascination with African skin.

To a certain extent one might say this book is slice of history, a microhistory of how race came about. Yet Who’s Black and Why? is also a macrohistory because the essays from the contest – they came from as far as Germany, Sweden, and Ireland – might also be seen as a European focus group, or a core sample of what Europeans thought about what was considered humankind’s most ‘extreme variety’, dark-skinned Africans.

Regarding the contest itself, the Academy of Sciences was primarily interested in naturalistic (not religious) explanations for blackness. And they received many ‘physical’ explanations, most of them pseudoscientific absurdities. One contestant maintained that blackness came from the vapours that emanated from the skin; another that the power of a pregnant mother’s imagination had imprinted a dark colour on her child and its descendants; a third claimed that blackness was passed on from person to person through darkened sperm; a fourth that the stifling heat and humidity of the Torrid Zone stained the skin and clouded the humours. Present in these essays, however, were also the three major tendencies that became the foundation for the new idea of race that was taking shape during the Enlightenment.

Herman Moll, geographer; Thomas and John Bowles, publishers: Negroland and Guinea with the European Settlements …  Atlas minor (London, 1729). The French slave port of Gorée appears in the upper left section of the map. By the time the Bordeaux slave trade had begun to rise, the entire west coast of Africa had been colonized by European powers.

The first was that of genealogy. Nearly a decade before Buffon published his own theory of degeneration in the third volume of his Histoire naturelle (1749), one of the thinkers posited that an original prototype human race moved around the globe and morphed into humankind’s many varieties as a result of climate and different types of food.

The second tendency is the rise of anatomical theories related to the source of blackness. This was best exemplified by the only contestant who ultimately published his essay after the contest: a surgeon named Pierre Barrère, who had been a surgeon on a plantation in Guiana. Barrère’s so-called findings – he maintained that his studies demonstrated that Africans had black blood and bile – were republished throughout Europe, in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and even cited by Thomas Jefferson.

Title page of Pierre Barrère, Dissertation sur la cause physique de la couleur des nègres, de la qualité de leurs cheveux, et de la dégénération de l’un et de l’autre, par M.*** docteur en médecine de l’université de Perpignan (Paris, P.-G. Simon, 1741) (public domain, digitised by Google).

And there was a third tendency in the essays as well. In addition to the aforementioned genealogical and anatomical theories, some essays revealed a classificatory impulse, a desire to break humankind down into discrete sub-species or races. Twenty-five years later, thinkers including Blumenbach and Kant would bring human taxonomies to a new level, providing the essential infrastructure for organizing centuries of xenophobia into trenchant categories.

Who’s Black and Why? is designed to be helpful for both researchers and students. To that end we have also created an extensive timeline of the history of race We hope that this, and the book itself, will be a gateway into a curious moment in Enlightenment-era history, one where science was actively claiming jurisdiction over the human species.

Andrew S. Curran, William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities, Wesleyan University

300 years after Kangxi

Pedro Luengo’s Global architecture for eighteenth-century Beijing is the April volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book reinterprets Beijing during the eighteenth century, revealing a new chapter in the global history of architecture. In this blog post, Pedro Luengo discusses the beginning of a new period of Chinese international relations after the death of Qing emperor Kangxi and the new approach to cosmopolitanism developed in response to eighteenth-century global modernity.

China’s relations with the rest of world is a vital issue for our times. International relationships are deeply connected to notions of the perceived Other, which in turn can be shaped by personal experiences, powerful propaganda and historical events. To better understand China’s approach to foreign relations in the present, it can be useful to look to its past.

Portrait of the emperor Kangxi at age 32 by Caspar Luiken (1698).

The death of the Qing emperor Kangxi on 20 December 1722 marked the beginning of a new period of Chinese international relations. First with Kangxi’s successor, emperor Yongzheng, at the helm, followed by emperor Qianlong from 1735, the Qing dynasty developed different ways of dealing with eighteenth-century global modernity. Ethnically Manchu while governing a Han society, they proposed a new approach to cosmopolitanism. As part of a Chinese cosmovision, the emperor was placed at the centre of the globalised world, governing both their territories and beyond. While previous scholarship has tended to examine the role of European missionaries and the exchange of artistic traditions among the local elite, Global architecture for eighteenth-century Beijing: Building Qing Enlightenments aims to explain how these Qing emperors defined an image of globalisation in eighteenth-century Beijing.

More specifically, the book begins by reviewing the most recent approaches to court history in order to provide an analysis of specific building complexes. Yuánmíng Yuán is treated here not as a Chinese garden with exotic buildings based on European forms but as a vast architectural project that showcases Asian and European influences as well as Chinese styles. Indeed, references to French, Italian, Persian, and southeast Asian architecture can all be identified.

From Catholic churches to Russian monasteries to mosques, the second set of buildings under consideration provide a means to examine the Qing emperors’ support for religious tolerance during the period. This particular aspect of globalisation spread among both the elite and rural populations with engravings and paintings providing evidence of this cosmopolitan view, including in artworks found to adorn opera stages and shrines.

Green Wutong Tree Academy from Forty scenes of Yuanming Yuan commisioned by the Qianlong emperor in 1744 (BnF).

Analysed using new historical sources and the latest digital technology, these buildings help to provide a more accurate image of Beijing as an important global centre during the eighteenth century. This also allows for comparisons to be drawn between other contemporary cities, such as Istanbul, Paris, and Rome among many others. Knowledge of how the issue of multiculturalism was dealt with by these societies may help others to address similar challenges in the present. In addition, it might prompt renewed conservation efforts to help preserve or restore these historical sites. Yuánmíng Yuán is currently preserved as ruins after the destruction wrought by British and French soldiers in the nineteenth-century, while the churches, monasteries, and mosques examined mostly disappeared during the current century. The paintings found at rural sites are, themselves, at high risk. Curiously, the typical Chinese approach to heritage and its preservation insists on community value at the expense of other aspects such as material authenticity. In this way, the ruins of Yuánmíng Yuán are explained today as the consequence of European barbary, and not so much noted as a prime example of the Chinese contribution to the international history of multilateralism. Notwithstanding its terrible attack, the monument might therefore be better used to highlight and reinforce the potentially positive role that China can play as the world navigates its current tensions and challenges.

Pedro Luengo (Universidad de Sevilla)

Global architecture for eighteenth-century Beijing is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This article first appeared in the Liverpool University Press Blog.

Les Antiquités dépaysées

Charlotte Guichard and Stéphane Van Damme’s Les Antiquités dépaysées is the March volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book is the first on the geopolitics of antiquarianism in the eighteenth century. In this blog post Charlotte Guichard and Stéphane Van Damme discuss this new publication and how the volume came to exist.

In recent decades there has been a proliferation of conferences, books and articles that have rethought antiquarian knowledge in a global context in art history, history of material culture, and the history of knowledge. They were mainly based on the idea of the long – even deep – history of Antiquity and on a comparative approach between cultures of collecting. There were also perspectives on the history of Antiquity more rooted in the colonial world or addressing global Renaissance. In all these cases, the aim was to break with the disciplinary genealogies of modern archaeology in order to recapture the early modern period.

Our viewpoint in this book was slightly different: we questioned the idea that antiquarian curiosity was an anthropological invariant, and we also wanted to interrogate further the shift from antiquarianism to archaeology that occurred during the Enlightenment. We come from two different but complementary backgrounds: Charlotte Guichard comes from art history and has done a lot of work on collecting, expertise and the world of objects, and Stéphane Van Damme comes from the history of science and has taken an interest in urban antiquities. This volume is therefore the result of a series of meetings that took place in Paris that aimed to pool the approaches of a new generation of historians and art historians who belong to different historiographical fields and who have been sensitized to the question of the circulation of antiques in the eighteenth century in worlds and spaces as different as the Mughal Empire, the Chinese Empire, the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, the Spanish empires in New Spain, or the antiquarian culture in the young Republic of the United States.

Our problem is anchored in a connected history and we chose to focus on the devices of encounter that constitute moments of testing and appraising of these artefacts. Circulation is not an inert framework but a phase of transformation, translation and adaptation that played a role in giving a new identity to these artefacts. We have therefore always paid attention to the actors, the mediations that made these circulations possible or, on the contrary, hindered them. Less than structural comparison, the connection and circulation between these worlds required agreements on the nature of these objects and their interpretations. The history of knowledge mobilized here is part of the material turn to account for this intense work of qualification, as the ontologies of objects and artefacts are not fixed but constantly discussed and negotiated. The global dimension does not invite us to focus solely on the analysis of the processes of globalization of a material culture of Antiquity, but rather to show the diversity of the collecting enterprises and the variety of local contexts in which they were embedded.

By studying antiquarian knowledge in context, the book aims to give an archipelagic representation of the antiquarian world rather than the plenary vision that has become established, and which gives a false image of these exchanges. In the eighteenth century there were indeed high places and metropolitan cities where these meetings took place: Paris, London, Philadelphia, Constantinople, Beijing, Delhi, Mexico. The collective work therefore consisted in mapping these exchanges. While the paradigm of international trade was established in eighteenth-century European societies, the flow of antique objects was not homogeneous. Antiquarian curiosity was not unanimously shared, and enthusiasm was often tempered. This book reveals, on the contrary, the indifference or the obstacles in this pursuit. In so doing, our collective investigation aims to re-politicize the exchanges, highlight the conflicts and power relations, and even the economy of predation that surrounded these circulations of Antiquity in the eighteenth century.

Charlotte Guichard and Stéphane Van Damme (Ecole normale supérieure)

Les Antiquités dépaysées: Histoire globale de la culture antiquaire au siècle des Lumières is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This notice first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in March 2022.

The Oxford Complete Works of Voltaire … complete!

The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, one of the most complex publishing projects ever, has been underway since 1967. Two of the editors look back on this great undertaking.

Gillian Pink: It’s amazing to think that we’ve finally reached the end! When I tell non-specialists that our edition of Voltaire’s works runs to 205 volumes, they are always astonished to learn that he wrote so much. Certainly, his better-known works represent only a very small part of the whole.

Alison Oliver: That’s true – and there is so much to discover! We should remember also that almost exactly a quarter of those 205 volumes is correspondence – an astonishing editorial feat by our founder, Theodore Besterman, who edited it not once, but twice. The edition we use now is what he called ‘definitive’ – a bold claim even in 1968, especially as new letters are emerging even now.

GP: Yes, and while there have been fewer ‘new’ discoveries outside the correspondence, one obvious place in which our edition breaks fresh ground compared to its predecessors is in the inclusion of Voltaire’s marginalia. Publication began in the seventies as a separate project run by a team of Russian specialists, but it joined the Complete Works in the early 2000s and was finished here at the Voltaire Foundation, in collaboration with our Russian colleagues.

AO: All this adds up to an extraordinary body of work. Voltaire is an astonishingly versatile writer, and nothing was beneath his notice. For example, his support for victims of injustice, such as Jean Calas, is well known, but he also interested himself in more quotidian matters in his capacity of lord of the manor on his estate of Ferney on the Swiss border. His epic poems La Henriade and La Pucelle brought him fame (and infamy), but there are also gems of occasional verse in which his wit and style are encapsulated in just a few lines.

Gillian Pink and Alison Oliver.

GP: And the chronological organisation of the edition means that those lesser-known writings may gain more visibility: anyone consulting Œdipe [the play that made Voltaire famous in his twenties] in vol.1A may be interested to find the tantalising fragments of an even earlier play, Amulius et Numitor, dating from his school days. Or a reader interested in another of his well-known plays, Mahomet, would find, in the same volume 20B, the short prose text De l’Alcoran et de Mahomet, which was published with the play in Voltaire’s lifetime, but separated from it in all the posthumous editions until this one.

AO: What I like about the idea of the chronological principle is that it is non-judgemental. Literary judgements are apt to date badly, and we want the edition to be, as far as any can be, timeless. By organising according to chronology – at least as far as this can be determined – we are trying to provide a neutral framework on which to hang the content, rather than engage in judgements about genre, hierarchy and literary merit. The founders of the edition opted for ‘date of substantial composition’, rather than date of publication – for the sound reason that Voltaire did not always publish works (and sometimes ones of major importance) as soon as they were written. It’s true that the chronological principle has immeasurably complicated the publishing process… if we’d decided to put all the poetry together, for example, a single volume could potentially have been edited by an individual editor, with all of it ready to publish as soon as it was received. As it is, we’ve often had to hold back texts edited by one person while waiting for other editors to catch up.

GP: I laughed when you referred, very delicately, to ‘complicating the publishing process’! As we know so well, but our readers won’t, that number of 205 has been in constant flux over the years.

AO: We’ve recently been delving into the archives relating to the founding of the project. The fact that ‘as many as 200 volumes’ was mentioned way back in 1967 (before being dialled back later, and then eventually reached) surprised me for one! It’s also been interesting to discover that William Barber and Owen Taylor, who pitched the project to Besterman, initially envisaged only a fairly modest project – just a good, reliable text to replace that of the standard nineteenth-century edition then in use, with minimal introductions and annotation.

GP: These elements have certainly expanded over the years, and with them has come the need to split volumes. I think it was in 1990 that it was first deemed necessary to do that, with volume 63, because it became clear that the content would result in far too many pages to fit within a single physical binding. Since then, we’ve had not only pairs, like 75A and 75B, but as many as a four-way split, with 60A-D. This did allow us a certain amount of leeway sometimes in getting round the problem of waiting for contributors to submit their work, but must have confused librarians and frustrated readers. The Œuvres complètes were a sort of Penelope’s shroud, a seemingly ever-expanding universe of Voltaire, stretching endlessly into the future!

AO: It’s one of the challenges of taking on such an ambitious project, though. And over the course of the 50+ years of the endeavour, editorial standards have inevitably evolved. As the edition has grown, it has allowed scholars to study the Voltaire corpus in ways unimagined at the start of the project, and so it is unsurprising that the more we publish, the more there is to say!

GP: This is something we’re encountering right now as we prepare to make the print edition into a digital resource. Some of this is a (relatively) straightforward conversion process, but occasionally we’d quite like to be able to add little supplements to some of the volumes published longer ago.

AO: Yes, and there will be new ways of looking at the corpus by making it cross-searchable, adding metadata and links to other resources. It’s exciting to think of these possibilities for research evolving in ways that we can’t predict. But also reassuring to know that the books themselves will endure and will be on library shelves for generations to come.

– Alison Oliver and Gillian Pink

First blogged in: The Oxford Polyglot 2021-22, Issue 2, Hilary term 2022.

Britain’s eighteenth-century meritocrats on the march

Meritocracy is a major theme in my new book, The Georgians: the deeds and misdeeds of eighteenth-century Britain (Yale UP, January 2022). In this era, individuals from relatively modest backgrounds were winning national fame and influence in greater numbers than ever before.

Some became as well known as the monarchs who ruled over them. Just a few examples of people who became ‘names’ include: the pundit Dr Samuel Johnson (son of a Lichfield bookseller); the actor David Garrick (son of an army captain of French Huguenot descent); the physicist Isaac Newton (a posthumous son, reared in the household of a clerical step-father); the Irish actor Margaret ‘Peg’ Woffington (daughter of a Dublin bricklayer); Captain James Cook (son of a farm labourer); and Emma, Lady Hamilton (daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith who died shortly after her birth).

Self-portrait of Swiss painter and writer on art, Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), a meritocratic artist’s son, who made a successful career in Britain. His pose is intense and meditative, as though asking: ‘What does it all mean?’ (Henry Fuseli, Self-portrait (c.1780), in Victoria & Albert Museum, Prints, Drawings and Paintings Collection, accession number: E.1028-1918).

All these ‘names’ became renowned not for their lands, titles, and money but for their own deeds – those resulting, in the case of Emma Hamilton, from her mix of sexual and personal charisma, social notoriety, and successful social climbing. And there were plenty more Georgian meritocrats, in a great many walks of life. I’ve listed fully 300 leading names in my new website Georgian Witnesses (section 16), which has been devised as web-companion to my book.

To be sure, social ‘arrivistes’ like these were not an entirely new phenomenon. There were individual examples of successful meritocrats in earlier times. In particular, the church and the army had always recruited a certain number of ‘outsider’ men of talent. In a pitched battle, for example, it was a definite advantage to have commanders who knew how to fight (and, better still, to win).

Yet, in the commercialising and urbanising world of Georgian Britain, many more ‘outsider’ men – and a smaller number of women – were coming to the fore in a much expanded range of roles. They did not displace the power of the great landowners and plutocrats. Indeed, a number of able but impecunious meritocrats were protégés of the rich.

But individuals within the new ‘Aristocracy of Talent’, as they were termed in 1809 by the poet-turned-sage Samuel Taylor Coleridge (son of a clergyman), were not averse from singing their own praises. And, by extension, they were de facto challenging the socio-political claims of all talentless aristocrats.

By the mid-eighteenth century, a new literature was publicly lauding individuals from modest backgrounds who had made their own way in the world. These newcomers should be the real recipients of social honour, it was argued. Thus A Treatise on merit (London, 1748) observed pointedly that: ‘If it is advantageous to be born Noble, ’tis far more so to ennoble one’s self’.

This trenchant observation came in an anonymous text, allegedly translated from the French. Its full title was A Treatise on merit: calculated to correct the vain, improve the modest, and encourage the deserving. In that spirit, the anonymous author was less than polite about the British peerage. It was sufficiently unusual for such sharp criticisms to appear in respectable texts that the translator added (in brackets) an emollient apology: ‘(the reader will remember that the author was a foreigner)’.

Meanwhile, home-grown writers were also growing bold. ‘TITLES and that eye-catching pomp of state / May draw the mob, but can’t esteem create’, suggested a poet in 1746. He further added that ‘All men in merit are, or may be, great’ (Merit. A satire, by Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, Dublin, 1746).

Remarks such as these tended to come from educated members of the metropolitan intelligentsia. They wrote as much to boost their own morale as to challenge the social structure directly. They praised individuals with exceptional abilities who used them for social good. And while these ‘merit-boosting’ tracts were not calling for revolution, they were notably cool about external rank and inherited titles.

A particularly explicit statement of this credo was published in 1735 by an anonymous common lawyer. He declared firmly that: ‘Personal Merit is the only true Nobility; and the Lord who inherits the Dignities without the Virtues of his Ancestors, is but a despicable Creature.’ Interestingly, but not surprisingly, many of these early pronouncements in favour of personal merit were penned anonymously. Their message did not call for social revolution, but was liable to be feared as dangerously radical by traditionalists.

A range of laudatory terms were pressed into service. ‘Worth’ was initially popular. ‘Talent’ was another, being safer than pure ‘genius’ (which was generally acknowledged to be rare). And ‘merit’ too was becoming increasingly common in these eighteenth-century discussions. Notably, these terms were all gender-neutral. Those who expressed liberal views about the location of social value tended also to have liberal views about female abilities. In 1711, for example, The Spectator – the very new progressive-liberal magazine – referred to a ‘woman of merit’, without intending any controversy. It was true that, in context, the reference was to social as well as personal status.

Nevertheless, growing numbers were willing to make the case explicitly in favour of female brainpower. An anonymous feminist asserted confidently in 1780: ‘Good sense is of no gender.’ And the long title of her tract said it all: Female restoration, by a moral and physical vindication of female talents; in opposition to all dogmatical assertions relative to disparity in the sexes … by a Lady. Clearly, she recognised that not all agreed with her sentiments. But the expansion of female literacy and learning was giving educated women access to the eighteenth-century print media, where they could stake their claims. (But note that the author of this trumpet-blast also found it prudent to remain anonymous.)

In a related vein, a novel in 1784 provided a radical exhortation to social advancement across class barriers. It took the form of love letters between ‘a lady of quality’ and her suitor from an ‘inferior station’. The ‘lowly’ lover hesitates to press his suit. But in Letter 33 the lady encourages him, with a paean of praise for social mobility: ‘My ancestors may have quitted the plough-share and the pruning hook a century before yours – and there is all the mighty difference between us. In China, where superior learning and virtue procure nobility, you would have been a noble of the first class. There is no rank to which superior merit and great talents may not aspire.’

With neat historical irony, the author of this bold novel, William Combe, was himself downwardly socially mobile. He had become burdened by debts, after living beyond his means. Combe’s general message, however, was clear. And his reference to China was highly significant. Fuelled by travellers’ reports, scholars were fascinated by the meritocratic reputation of the Chinese mandarinate. This body provided the nation’s civil service, as founded by the tenth-century Song Emperor Taizu. The Mandarins were scholar-bureaucrats, chosen by competitive examination to provide rational rule, replacing the old militarised aristocracy. In fact, the Western interpretation of China’s system was highly idealised. Wily Chinese landowners found various ingenious ways of getting their sons through the examinations and into office. Yet the concept of rational authority and the rule of brainpower struck a strongly sympathetic chord with Western liberals.

Furthermore, the Chinese case gave British advocates of advancement by merit the great support of being able to cite a real-life example. In that way, they could escape accusations of unrealism. An appeal to ‘China’ invoked the status of a distant but historic power in support of change. And, while they took a considerable time to succeed, these liberal voices were harbingers of later campaigns for universal education (including for women), for extending the franchise, and for career advancement by merit, rather than by blue-blood, title, lands, or money.

One visible pledge of changing social attitudes in eighteenth-century Britain was the gradual spread of the handshake. Initially adopted between men in commercial circles – and by the socially radical Quakers – this egalitarian greeting was becoming more commonplace. By 1800 women might also shake hands in certain specific circumstances. (Reread Jane Austen.) This behavioural change was, moreover, spreading outwards and upwards from ‘middling’ commercial circles, rather than starting from the ‘top’ and trickling downwards. Changes were in hand (literally).

Britons in the eighteenth century were living in an era of invention, exploration, creativity and learning (including learning about things which went wrong). All very exciting. However, before painting too rosy a picture, it is worth reflecting that open and competitive societies, which encourage advancement by merit, also generate disappointment on the part of those who have high hopes but fail to ‘make it’.

Meritocratic pathways were not open to all. Those who were chronically impoverished and illiterate had little serious chance of competing. Indeed, that point was stressed in 1751 in the famous Elegy by the poet Thomas Gray (the son of a scrivener, or professional letter-writer for the illiterate). Unnumbered masses were unable to develop their full potential. Talents were unfairly muzzled. Some who might have become great poets were thus consigned to live, in Gray’s memorably vivid phrase, as ‘mute inglorious Miltons’.

Numerous educated women also faced obstacles. A powerful and traditional conservatism persisted alongside liberal hopes. Hence, within the optimism of advancing meritocracy, there was some bitterness from individuals with thwarted hopes – many of them being women. The rising tide did not lift all equally. To take one example, in 1759 the poet and novelist Clara Reeve (daughter of a clergyman) lamented that her ambitions had been crushed. Like too many clever women, then and later, she found it socially advisable to pretend to be silly. ‘These talents, that were once my pride, / I find it requisite to hide; / For what in man is most respected, / In woman’s form shall be rejected.’ And the title of her bitter poem explained that she was writing to warn a female friend who had argued ‘In Favour of the natural equality of both the sexes …’.

Voices such as these – happy, sad, optimistic, pessimistic – survive in abundance from this period of spreading literacy. They contributed to the open and argumentative society that impressed the young Voltaire, during his stay in 1726-28. Substantive change, with its paradoxical achievements of signal deeds and unpalatable misdeeds, is the motif of the era. Hence both the sub-title and the core theme of my study of The Georgians – as the eighteenth-century meritocrats set out on the march.

Penelope J. Corfield

What’s blood got to do with it? Reimagining kinship in the Age of Enlightenment

To pass the time on a recent rainy drive to Pittsburgh with my family, we listened to an episode of The Ezra Klein Show that consisted of a conversation between Klein and American novelist Richard Powers. Powers is the author of, among many things, The Overstory, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel recently included in Barak Obama’s list of three books everyone should read. The main characters of the story are the trees, their stories told through the humans that form intimate relationships with them. While listening to the interview, I was struck by how, in describing the relationships between humans and trees (and plants, and other animals), Powers referred again and again to this vast network as one of kinship. He reframed kinship as an immense and powerful interspecies network that brings together all the matter that exists on earth.

In many ways Powers’ project, that of both re-imagining what kinship can be, and of exploring what these different forms of intimate communities can do, is also the project of Queering the Enlightenment. While firmly grounded in human interaction, my book establishes a strong link between kinship, knowledge production, and political critique in eighteenth-century France, arguing that one valid method of critique of the French monarchy was stories about queer intimate communities. Many eighteenth-century French authors were critical of the kinds of kinship that reproduced wealth and social hierarchies through practices such as primogeniture and arranged marriage, and so they turned to figures such as the orphan, the bastard, and the foreigner to imagine how the moving pieces of the family might be rearranged, and how these new kinship formations might change how we think about knowledge and power.

Each chapter of Queering the Enlightenment focuses on a single paradigm of intimacy as unearthed through readings of various canonical authors of eighteenth-century France. A chapter on Crébillon fils, for instance, shows how the author harnesses the power of cruising in his novels to propose that random hookups and one-night stands can lead to meaningful methods of sharing the human experience with others. Kinship, gender, and sexuality lose all fixed meaning in a world such as this one. Another chapter turns to several works of Pierre de Marivaux to examine the possibility of a feminine symbolic that emerges from the space of the maternal and circulates among women who nurture and care for other women. In so doing, it invites us to imagine a queer motherhood capable of nourishing the French Republic in ways unavailable to the bare-breasted Marianne that serves as a symbol of France to this day. Other chapters question the heteronormative family structure guided by analyses of the literature of Voltaire, Montesquieu, the abbé Prévost, and Françoise de Graffigny to see how certain outcast figures find hope in unlikely encounters, and how the relationships they form question the very idea of a cultural knowledge based on (sexual) reproduction.

François Boucher, Le Déjeuner (1739), Louvre Museum, Paris (Wikimedia Commons).

It is not without a hint of irony that I began this post with an incredibly banal scene of heteronormativity. What could be more normative than a family of three driving an SUV to the zoo while listening to a New York Times podcast? And so, to close, I would like to attempt what Voltaire, and Graffigny, and Crébillon, and the others did so eloquently almost three hundred years ago – I would like to take these pieces and see how we might understand them differently. Yes, we were a unit on the same journey to the same destination, but we were also three bodies sharing a space but experiencing the time in different ways. As one body drives, they may let their mind wander in and out of the podcast, thinking about the animals they would see, or the tasks they need to complete, or the bit of news they heard that they want to remember to tell their sibling; another might be riding, enjoying the beauty in the mountains and trees as they pass or wishing their arms were long enough to reach the stuffed animal or the used tissue on the floor – mentally exploring and learning from their interactions with the objects around them; still the third might be contemplating the ethics of visiting a zoo where animals are confined in spaces too small for their bodies, or drafting a blog post in their head, or maybe they are thinking about nothing at all. Or maybe the trees and mountains are watching them, wondering why they are there, or if the roads will ever decay to leave room for more flora to bloom. In any case, by decentering the experience of the nuclear family, we might be able to expand what we expect from kinship and intimacy, and we might be surprised at how such a perspectival shift can change what we think we know about the world.

– Tracy Rutler (Pennsylvania State University)

Tracy Rutler is the author of Queering the Enlightenment: Kinship and gender in eighteenth-century French literature, the November volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

9 Thermidor Year II: the best-documented day in the French Revolution?

La Prise de la Bastille (1789), by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735-1813), Bibliothèque nationale de France. At the centre is the arrest of Bernard René Jourdan, marquis de Launay (1740-1789).

Was 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794) the most copiously documented day of action in the French Revolution? It saw the overthrow of Maximilien Robespierre, most high-profile member of the Committee of Public Safety which had for more than a year ruled through terror – and is one of the pivotal days of action (or journées) around which the Revolution developed. The most influential journée in terms of French national history was 14 July 1789, which saw the storming of the Bastille and which is conventionally viewed as marking the beginning of the Revolution. Another day, 18 Brumaire Year VIII (9 November 1799), witnessed the coup d’état by which Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and effectively ended the Revolution. The overthrow of Louis XVI and the monarchy on 10 August 1792 and the 9 Thermidor journée mark the third and fourth journées which structure the revolution in most historical narratives.

There are numerous accounts all of these individual days, for each was a kind of ‘lightbulb moment’ that stayed in the minds of participants. But in writing my book, The Fall of Robespierre: 24 hours in Revolutionary Paris, I gained a strong impression that the ‘best-documented’ accolade must go to 9 Thermidor. After 18 Brumaire only the heroic Napoleonic narrative was allowed and censorship closed down on discordant stories. There was much to celebrate after 14 July 1789 and 10 August but celebration was not investigation. And what marks 9 Thermidor off from all others is that the day was followed by extraordinarily detailed attempts to recapture exactly what had happened in all parts of the city.

The Execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794, artist unknown (Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Réserve QB-370 (48)-FT 4).

The reason for this was the determination of government to root out and to punish those individuals within the State, in public life and across the city who had supported Robespierre. Actions might relate to events over the previous two years of terror, but the litmus test of what began to be called ‘Robespierrism’ was invariably what individuals actually did on the day of 9 Thermidor. The city government, the Commune, had tried to mobilise Parisians to offer armed resistance to the national assembly in Robespierre’s cause. So the key question was, had an individual shown support for Robespierre and his supporters in the Paris Commune in their attempt to overthrow the government and purge the national assembly? Or did they remain loyal to the national assembly and the rule of law? Those found guilty of ‘Robespierrism’ could face expulsion from public life, imprisonment and even death at the guillotine.

Newspaper reports, political pamphlets and later memoirs invariably contain accounts of the day. Yet this was only the tip of the iceberg. A few days after the event, Paul Barras, the deputy whom the government charged with the security of the city on the night of 9 Thermidor, initiated a punctiliously thorough review of everything that had happened within each of the 48 Parisian sections on 8, 9 and 10 Thermidor.

Exit libertè a la Francois! – or – Buonaparte closing the farce of Egalitè, at St. Cloud near Paris Novr. 10th. 1799, by James Gillray (1756-1815) (public domain).

‘Gather together all details’, he instructed sectional authorities. ‘A fact that seems minor may illuminate a suspicion or lead to the discovery of a useful truth. Inform me of all orders that you gave and all that you received; but above all, be precise on the dates and the hours; you will appreciate their importance.’

(‘Recueille donc tous les détails: un fait minutieux, en apparence, éclaire un soupçon, ou conduit à la découverte d’une vérité utile. Fais-moi part de tous les ordres que tu aurois donnés, de tous ceux que tu aurois reçus; mais surtout précise les heures et les dates: tu en sens toute l’importance.’ Archives nationales W 500, dossier 4. Note the Revolutionary ‘tutoiement’.)

This call engendered nearly two hundred micro-accounts of at least part of the day from vantage points all over the city containing millions of the called-for ‘details’. Many of the individual accounts were broken down for key periods of the day into quarter-hourly chunks.

Apprehension of Robespierre 27 July 1794, engraving by Michael Sloane (active 1796-1802) after a painting by G. P. Barbier (active 1792-1795) (Gallica digital library, public domain).

Besides this capital source, the Convention also set up a special official commission to make a report on the day, which was presented in the assembly exactly a year later. And finally, literally hundreds of individual police dossiers over the next year or so also provide similar micro-accounts of episodes and moments of the day as ordinary citizens were pressed to prove their loyalism.

Most of these extremely rich sources – never before tapped by historians in quite this way – are to be found in the French National Archives, particularly in series relating to policing and judicial affairs. Taken together, they allow us to see the city in close-up during these 24 hours through a mosaic of thousands of narrative micro-fragments, as its inhabitants confronted and grappled with a decision that would affect not only their own futures but also the future of the Revolution.

Studying these accounts, collating them and analysing them at the micro-level not only gives us an extraordinarily vivid picture of a city at a pivotal moment in its history. It also allows us to present a new narrative of the day and a new analysis of what was at stake within it. What emerges – in a way that cuts against conventional narratives – is a profile of a moment at which Parisians took their political futures in their hands and overthrew Robespierre.

Researching and writing the history of these 24 hours, I have often pondered whether there is another day in the whole Revolutionary decade when we can see what was  happening up close at such a moment of drama. Indeed we might even ask: was 9 Thermidor the best-documented day in the whole of the eighteenth century?

– Colin Jones, Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London

Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800

Carly Watson, Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800 (London, 2021).

Today’s miscellanies tend to be compendia of interesting facts or curious trivia – think of Schott’s original miscellany – but three centuries ago miscellanies were at the forefront of literary culture. My book, which is aimed at an academic audience, reveals how miscellanies changed the ways poetry was written, published, and read in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

What is a miscellany?

The word miscellany comes from the Latin miscellanea, meaning a hash of mixed ingredients. The English word has been applied to books since the late sixteenth century, but its meaning as a literary term has changed over time.

In the period that the book covers, the word miscellany was used to refer to books with one author and books containing works by many authors. A miscellany could be any book offering an assortment of shorter works or extracts of different kinds. As the lawyer and writer William King wrote in 1709, it ‘is generally presum’d, that a Miscellany should consist of what the World most delights in, that is, Variety’.

Samuel Lewis, A Deception, c.1780. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. Gift of Max and Heidi Berry. (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, though, the word miscellany is usually used by scholars in a narrower sense, to mean a book containing works by more than two authors. This is the definition used by the Digital Miscellanies Index, a freely available database providing details of over 1750 miscellanies published between 1557 and 1800.

My book argues that we can better understand the cultural importance of miscellanies in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries if we let go of this more limited sense of what a miscellany is. Unlike most other studies of miscellanies in the period, this book looks at both single- and multiple-author miscellanies, showing that miscellanies were a popular vehicle for authors publishing their own writing as well as editors collecting works by many writers.

Putting authors in the spotlight

Hundreds of books called miscellanies, and many more that could be thought of as miscellanies, were published between 1680 and 1800. Why did miscellanies become ubiquitous in this period?

For some scholars, it was because of the changing needs of readers: as more people learned to read, and more books were published, there was a growing market for miscellanies offering handy selections of material from the mass of literature in print.

Miscellany, being a collection of poems by several hands; together with Reflections on morality, or, Seneca unmasqued, edited by Aphra Behn (London, 1685).

My book argues that this is only part of the story.

As well as catering to new readers and reading habits, miscellanies appealed to authors. From the 1680s to the 1730s many leading authors, including Aphra Behn and John Dryden, edited miscellanies showcasing new writing by their friends and contemporaries. For ambitious young authors, publishing in miscellanies was a way of getting their work noticed. For those who might not otherwise have been able to publish their writing, such as schoolboys and young women, miscellanies offered the chance to see their work in print.

It was not just authors editing and contributing to miscellanies who boosted their numbers. Many authors chose to present collections of their own writing as miscellanies, emphasising the variety of the work they produced. My book tells the stories of a number of these authors who deserve to be better known, including the Oxford-based writer Mary Jones, whose miscellany reveals a more diverse œuvre than is sometimes appreciated, and Richardson Pack, an army officer-turned-writer who was inspired by the influential miscellanies of the late seventeenth century.

Understanding what people read

Much of the modern interest in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century miscellanies has been driven by a desire to find out more about what people actually read in this period. What was in the hundreds of miscellanies that were published? Which authors were most popular?

Mary Jones, Miscellanies in prose and verse (Oxford, 1750).

Using newly available data from the Digital Miscellanies Index, this book reveals the authors who were featured in the most miscellanies in each decade from the 1680s to the 1770s. It is no surprise that the big names of the era – John Dryden and Alexander Pope – are the ones readers were most likely to encounter in miscellanies for much of the period, but from the 1740s onwards earlier authors such as William Shakespeare and John Milton also appeared in relatively high numbers of miscellanies.

This innovative analysis suggests that miscellanies played a more important role than has previously been thought in cementing the canonical status of the great English writers of the past.

Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800 shows that miscellanies were a vital part of the literary ecosystem of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of the poetry published in them has been forgotten, but we can still be entertained and surprised by these multifaceted books, which remind us that variety is the spice of life.

–  Carly Watson

A version of this blog was published by the University of Oxford Department for continuing education.

Artisanal labour and the ethics of craft

Scholars today are rewriting histories of the eighteenth century to be more ambitious in scale and inclusive in scope. As a discipline whose foundations have traditionally been located in the European Enlightenment, art history has long defined itself through exclusive canons of ‘artists’ and ‘art’ that have valorized certain individuals and objects at the expense of others. Recent directives to decolonize art history, as well as architectural history, demonstrate that these disciplines seek to credit those who labour as part of art- and knowledge-making processes.

Artisanal objects represent the material and archival evidence of someone’s work and, accordingly, histories of art and architecture double as histories of labour. Our volume Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks recognizes artisan-labourers and contextualizes their identities in order to acknowledge distinct processes of facture – be that artisanal labour standardized, precarious, oppressed, or coerced – and the working conditions under which eighteenth-century artisans operated. Our volume captures the diversity of artisans from a range of occupations – sculptors, manuscript illuminators, ornamental carvers, desk– and chair-makers, clockmakers, garden designers, ceramicists, architects, and jewellers – working in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, colonial America, viceregal Mexico, Mughal India, Qing dynasty China, and colonial Australia. The dialogues between historians of art, architecture, material culture, sociology, and technology featured in our book demonstrate how contested histories of colonialism, imperialism, and Enlightenment are also fundamentally artisanal histories.

Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks is the June 2021 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The contributions in Crafting Enlightenment all argue for artisanal participation within the pluralities of Enlightenment thought, along multiple narratives of Enlightenment that existed across the eighteenth-century world. Instead of focusing exclusively on the Enlightenment’s European intellectual origins, we consider how artisans from the long eighteenth-century and the products of their labour responded to a multifaceted Enlightenment that meant very different things in different places, as historian Sebastian Conrad has argued. Our version of this transnational Enlightenment extends well beyond the eighteenth century, from seventeenth-century projects of state building to nineteenth-century consequences of imperialism and cross-cultural encounters. We hope our volume encourages readers to delve more deeply into the intertwined narratives between art objects and labour – like the artisans discussed, the objects themselves also represent critical moments of transnational exchange.

Crafting Enlightenment offers a timely reminder that artisans employed craftsmanship and labour to assert their own creativity across the eighteenth-century world. These important queries around pluralism and inclusive practices continue to resonate throughout the academy and governments via policy. In addition to identifying historical eighteenth-century actors who have been marginalized by history, scholars might further chart ambitious intellectual territory by tracking how the exploitation of labour and extraction of natural resources today continue to advance the problematic agenda of colonialism around the world. Public attention is now increasingly trained on the ways that local materials, outsourced labour, and working conditions determine our habits of consumption. Such ecologies of natural resources and labour, identified as such in the long eighteenth century, have allowed us to explore how transnational networks highlight discrepancies between certain privileged artisans who had access to imperial commissions and others who did not and remain uncredited for their work. These issues are as relevant today as they were in the long eighteenth century. Artisanal craftsmanship remains at the heart of social critique, demonstrating how the objects we make and use reflect our personal biases. The practices of contemporary craft – hand-woven textiles being one example – demonstrate how feminized labour, materiality, gender, and race have pulled these techniques towards ideological ends. Ethical questions prompted by artisanal production inflect ongoing debates in art and architecture, signalling how the structural limitations of Enlightenment thought have persisted in determining the production and reception of craft.

Lauren R. Cannady (University of Maryland, College Park) and Jennifer Ferng (University of Sydney)

Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in June 2021.

The quotable Voltaire

The Quotable Voltaire: a compilation of wit, wisdom, quips and quotations by and about Voltaire, edited and presented by Garry Apgar and Edward Langille (Bucknell University Press, 2021).

The popularity of quotations, especially of famous people, reflects the human thirst for wisdom and for the pithy encapsulation of a clever thought. Insightful observations economically expressed – proverbs, maxims, adages, truisms, quips, etc. – have been around forever. Whether they be anonymous or credited to eminent statesmen, poets or pop stars, quotes help us cope with the mysteries and challenges of life. They supply food for thought at dinner parties and epigrams for books.

Few have served up as many bons mots as Voltaire. ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ is a current favourite with the governing class in Washington. ‘All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’, ‘We must cultivate our garden’, and ‘Pour encourager les autres’ are all familiar expressions in English as well as in French. And how can we forget ‘If God did not exist, He would have to be invented’? Or again the oft-quoted cynical line that ‘God is on the side of the big battalions’. The list of Voltaire’s aperçus is a long one. For Nicholas Cronk, Voltaire was ‘a master of the one-liner’. His witty aphorisms, – shrewd, cynical, or spiteful – surpass in sheer quantity the sayings of any other writer we can think of.

David Levine, pen-and-ink caricature of Voltaire. Illustration for John Weightman’s review of two works about Voltaire in the New York Review of Books, 18 June 1970. © Matthew and Eve Levine.

But Voltaire is famous not just for his witticisms. He may in fact be even more famous for things he never wrote or said, the most notorious and long-lived being: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ This sentence, while faithful to Voltaire’s liberal principles, sprang from the pen of an English woman of letters around the turn of the last century. Writing under the alias ‘S. G. Tallentyre’, Evelyn Beatrice Hall offered a summary of Voltaire’s reaction to news that an atheistic tract by Helvétius had been condemned by the Church: ‘“What a fuss about an omelette!” he had exclaimed … How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” was his attitude now.’

Hall’s qualifying phrase, ‘his attitude now’, was overlooked by almost all who read her book, and her stirring paraphrase, immediately ascribed to Voltaire, was later carved in stone inside the lobby of the Tribune Tower, home of the Chicago Tribune, when it was inaugurated in 1925. In June 1934 Reader’s Digest passed the bogus quote on to its vast national readership. In 1938 it was further fixed in the public mind by the Hollywood film Jezebel, starring Bette Davis, in which a dinner guest declared, ‘I think it was Voltaire who said, “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.’ Writers, journalists, and politicians have since sown the misquotation further afield.

Voltaire had opinions on virtually everything, from Aristotle, friendship, and luxury to testes and Zoroaster, though, it must be added that they were not always polite or what we would now regard as politically correct. He was, at times, malicious, and often obscene.

The Best of All Possible Worlds: Voltaire’s romances and tales (1929), with an introduction by US labour lawyer Clarence Darrow. Dust jacket designed by Art Young, showing Voltaire dropping a splash of light on a benighted world. Private collection.

The 1300 or so quotations that appear in this book show both the positive and negative facets of Voltaire’s character. The Quotable Voltaire is unique in terms of its bilingual format, substance, and the trouble that has been taken to ensure accuracy. We offer parallel versions in French and English for each quotation (except those originally written in English) so that the translation may be compared with the original French. This extends to the inclusion of a handful of quotations commonly misattributed to Voltaire. In compiling The Quotable Voltaire we have relied chiefly on the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, the first critical edition of the whole of Voltaire’s works, newly completed, in 200 volumes. All entries are fully documented, with dates of publication and page numbers for every source we cite.

The second half of the dictionary presents a three-part section of comments on Voltaire, his life and accomplishments, by Voltaire himself, by his contemporaries, and by personalities as diverse as Goethe, Charles de Gaulle, Ray Bradbury, Mae West, and even the heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. Underscored is Voltaire’s pre-eminent position in Anglo-American culture, especially from the 1930s onward, when, progressively, he became the poster-boy of the American Left, or Right, depending on one’s point of view!

Finally, and interestingly, the book is richly illustrated, some images (including the book’s cover) having never been previously published.

Garry Apgar and Edward Langille