Lenten fasts and Easter feasts chez Voltaire

A new government financial year begins in the UK today, which is why the Chancellor delivered the Budget last month. Voltaire’s housekeeper at Ferney may have engaged in some budgeting as well, though all that has come down to us to date are the account books of expenses paid, mainly kept by Jean-Louis Wagnière, Voltaire’s secretary, with the occasional addition by the master of the house himself. The ledgers are held by the Morgan Library in New York, and were published in a facsimile edition by Theodore Besterman in 1968. They allow us a certain degree of insight into the running of Voltaire’s household, and sometimes enable us to corroborate (though never disprove) claims and statements made in his published works and correspondence, or in writings by other people about him. As Easter is nearly upon us, it seemed apposite to look back at a rather singular Easter in Ferney to see what the household accounts can tell us.

Château de Ferney

Château de Ferney, engraving from Beat Fidel Zurlauben’s Tableaux topographiques (1777-), drawn by Michel Vincent Brandoin, engraved by Jean Benjamin de La Borde.

There is a gap in the accounts in 1768, with most of February absent altogether, so the beginning of Lent is lost to us. It is difficult to say whether any meat was obtained during this period: on 3 March the household seems to have paid part of an amount owed to two butchers: fifteen ‘Louis d’or à compte’ to Vérat, and eighteen to the ‘veal butcher’, Bernier, but it is not clear whether any new purchases were made from either. An enigmatic line in Voltaire’s own hand under the date of 21 March, ‘portées sur le livre in quarto’ (carried over to the quarto book) also suggests that there was a further ledger which may have detailed expenses not recorded here. According to our document, however, Voltaire’s food shops in the weeks leading up to Easter included butter (‘for melting’ is specified), lemons, eggs, cheese (and Gruyère cheese appears separately), brandy, salt, oil, tuna, olives, anchovies and herrings. A few years later, Voltaire was to offer sarcastic words about ‘the small number of rich people, financiers, prelates, magistrates, important lords and ladies, who deign to be served a lean diet at table, who fast for six weeks on sole, salmon, weevers, turbots and sturgeons’ (Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, article ‘Carême’, OCV, vol.39, p.505), but perhaps tuna, anchovies and herrings do not fall in quite the same category. One assumes that the gardens at Ferney kept the household in vegetables, potatoes and the like.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, La Raie

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, La Raie (1725). (Musée du Louvre)

Easter fell on 3 April that year, and on the 2nd we see visits from the jam-maker and the two butchers, purveyors of beef and veal, whose goods may have featured on the Easter menu. True, all three tradesmen were paid the balance owed to them, but the words ‘à ce jour’ perhaps imply that new purchases were also made on the day. More spiritual fare also required preparation: on 28 March we see that some of the eggs bought were held in reserve for baking communion bread, and on 1 April the yeast for said communion bread was obtained. Writing many years later, after Voltaire’s death, Wagnière recalls the communion bread of that Easter of 1768 in his posthumous revisions to Voltaire’s Commentaire historique: ‘Nous accompagnâmes M. de Voltaire à l’église, à la suite du superbe pain bénit [sic] qu’il était dans l’usage de faire rendre toutes les années le jour de Pâques’ (OCV, vol.78B, p.284).

Voltaire's account books

Account books, 1 April: ‘pain béni’.

The reason that Wagnière was still remembering that particular Easter so many years later was that Voltaire had unusually taken it upon himself in 1768 to attend mass on Easter Sunday, to take communion and to preach a sermon to the assembled faithful on the eighth commandment, following a recent incident of theft in the village. The surprised curate subsequently informed Jean-Pierre Biord, the bishop of Annecy, which provoked a drawn-out and increasingly acrimonious exchange between Voltaire and the bishop, which can be read in the Œuvres complètes (OCV, vol.70B).

Church built by Voltaire

The church built by Voltaire, drawn by Michel Vincent Brandoin, engraved by Jean Benjamin de La Borde.

One curious detail in this widely publicised incident is the matter of the altar candles mentioned in the telling of this event in the Correspondance littéraire, which was not confirmed by Wagnière and has been treated with scepticism by some. The Correspondance littéraire recounts that Voltaire ‘had ordered six large altar candles from Lyon and, having them carried ahead of him with a missal, and escorted by two gamekeepers, he made his way to the Ferney church’. The accounts record that on 18 April a sum was paid to the courier from Saint-Claude, ‘who carried the candles’ (flambeaux), and on the 26th payment is made for ‘the postage of the provisions from Lyon, and the candles’. The fact that these candles are mentioned in a Lyon-related context, as well as the fact that someone had been hired to carry them, adds weight to the Correspondance littéraire account, though nothing can be said about the presence of the gamekeepers.

Voltaire's account books

Account books, 26 April: carriage of provisions, including ‘flambeaux’, from Lyon.

After Easter, Lenten fasting is over, with chickens bought (four braces on 20 April, and the same again on the 30th), Voltaire’s beloved coffee (13 April) and the habitually prodigious consumption of eggs (8½ dozen bought on 14 April). One remarks, as well, how quickly the household appeared to go through brooms: seventeen purchased on 28 March, more on 14 April and still more only five days later. On 24 April Voltaire pays for a certificate to prove that he is still alive: normal life has resumed at Ferney.

Gillian Pink


Digitising the margins: a classification of Voltaire’s scribbles

The most famous squiggly lines relating to eighteenth-century writing are almost certainly to be found in Tristram Shandy. Sterne uses them to illustrate the non-linearity of stories (see about halfway down that page) and digressions from the main narrative, before reviving the device several volumes later to render graphically for his readers the movement of the stick brandished by the character Trim. But these squiggles from 1761-1762 are far from alone. Both before and after Sterne’s foray into wiggly line design, Voltaire was peppering the margins of his books with marginalia, which involved both verbal and non-verbal elements – that is, words and squiggles.

When a team of Russian scholars began to publish the marginalia from his library in the 1970s in the Corpus des notes marginales de Voltaire, they decided that a facsimile edition would be both too expensive and not sufficiently clear to read. They settled on a compromise editorial policy, which entailed transcribing Voltaire’s words and reproducing graphically any accompanying marks and lines (usually made in ink or lead pencil, but also comprising scratches or indentations in the paper, for example crosses scored with the thumb-nail). When the edition passed to the Voltaire Foundation, we adhered to the same principles for the remaining volumes, much to the chagrin of our typesetter, who nevertheless heroically drew hundreds of scribbles electronically to incorporate into the typeset file.

Vauvenargues, p.90; OCV, vol.145, p.484.

The example above and those that follow are from books that Voltaire annotated with the intent of returning them to their authors with suggestions for improvement. In principle this should mean a greater likelihood that any shapes drawn should be intelligible and contribute to the meaning of the verbal marginalia. Indeed, in the first case, in a copy of Vauvenargues’s Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain, we can see that the vertical wavy line in the margin brackets the passage generally, and is connected with the note ‘peu déve / lop[p]é’ (poorly developed), while the second + sign links ‘sage’ in the printed text to ‘fort’ in the margin, indicating that rather than referring to a wise person, the author should be talking about a strong person (in opposition to the weak person indicated by the first + sign higher up).

Vauvenargues, p.48; OCV, vol.145, p.477.

Here Voltaire uses + signs again to flag the word ‘dans’ twice at the top of the page, and indicates by the curved line and a further ‘dans’ in the margin that Vauvenargues should be consistent in beginning each in the series of adverbial clauses with the same preposition. At the beginning of the new section lower down, he uses a sort of Greek gamma in the margin to show that an insertion should be made. All very clear for the addressee of the annotations. And between those two? The squiggly line in the margin is hard to interpret and may simply bear testament to his reading: did he stumble on this passage? Did he dislike it? Perhaps he wanted to write a criticism or a suggestion but couldn’t decide on what to say. At any rate, the squiggle draws our eye, nearly 300 years after it was penned, to a passage to which Voltaire must also have paid particular attention.

Frederick, p.122; OCV, vol.145, p.156.

This final example is a bit different insofar as it is not actually in Voltaire’s hand, but is a careful copy made of an original that was subsequently destroyed in the bombing of Berlin during the Second World War. Slanted crosses, several with double verticals (reminiscent of the letter H), indicate lines of verse by Frederick, king of Prussia, with which Voltaire, preeminent poet of his day, was unhappy and which are commented in the margins. The ‘gamma’ again probably draws the king’s attention to the replacement word written over the line. Here, the limits of the typeset page become apparent as the slashing lines and crosses come so thick and fast that it becomes difficult to fit them all in. An apparatus of notes at the bottom of the page helps, but the effect at first glance is really not quite the same.

Digitising these volumes, as part the Voltaire Foundation’s new initiative Digital Enlightenment, poses new challenges, but can it also bring new solutions? On first analysis the infinitely flexible nature of Voltaire’s squiggles seems to be at odds with the ordered discipline inherent in our approach to digitising the Œuvres complètes. We soon decided that we were not going to scan every mark in the source volume and virtually paste it into the digital text – not only would madness likely that way lie, but also considerable expense, and it would be a distinctly inelegant way of solving the problem. The more you look at the corpus of squiggles, however, the more you see that although in strict terms you have a very large number of different marks, you have a much smaller number of different types of mark, and if we can successfully classify and label those types, we can use that classification and those labels when we digitise the content. Instead of the data saying ‘here’s a picture of a squiggle’, it will instead say ‘at this point there’s a mark of type X.’

How, then, to classify these marks? If you think of what makes up a mark or a squiggle, it will be one or more line-type marks, and where there is more than one line-type mark, they may meet or cross each other at a particular point. We call the line-type marks edges, and the points where they meet or cross nodes, and if you count the number of edges and nodes you find you have a ready-made way of classifying – and even sorting – your squiggles. For example:


has one edge, and no nodes:


has two edges, but still no nodes, and:

has one edge and one node. If we turn these counts into parts of a label (e.g. n0e1) we can start to distil order out of infinite variety, and we can pretty soon have an easy lookup for our digitisers to use:

There is, of course, a degree of discretion involved here in grouping marks according to type – there is a slanted line 10º from the vertical and another 10º from the horizontal, but what if we find a line precisely 45º from both? Or a vertical line that wiggles not once or twice but… seven times? Well, we may then need to add a shape and a code, but the method allows that, and if there’s one thing this digitisation exercise has taught us, it’s that until you’ve marked up the final full stop, novelty may at any time appear before you. Expect, and accommodate, the unexpected.

Using this method, we will be able to allow readers to search for particular marks. Or, more correctly, for particular classifications of marks, e.g. for ‘a straight line slanting from bottom left to top right at an angle of inclination less than 45º from the horizontal’ rather than for a specific slanting line. But the classification should be sufficiently specific that a reader encountering a mark in one text, and wondering where else Voltaire has used it, should be able to see the other relevant instances.

How will we deal with squiggles that defy classification? We defy squiggles to defy this classification! Time will, of course, tell, but we’re confident that we can accommodate anything that Voltaire felt necessary to add to the texts he was reading, blissfully unaware of the coding system that awaited his scribbles.

– Gillian Pink and Dan Barker, dancan Ltd


Translating ‘rights of man’ across language, time and meaning

With the release of this month’s book, The Enlightenment and the rights of man, the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment is pleased to publish, for the first time in our nearly 65-year history, a translation of a previously published scholarly title. We are honoured and proud that Vincenzo Ferrone, Professor of Modern History at the Department of Historical Studies, University of Turin, chose the series to present his richly sourced and deeply erudite argument to the English-reading public.[1]

The Studies have long been, and remain, an actively bilingual collection, offering books in French and English. And we have previously published translations of historical documents – most recently, Clorinda Donato and Ricardo López, Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie Méthodique’. However, this release marks a further expansion and evolution of our editorial mission as a scholarly collection interested in the full breadth and scope of the Enlightenment, a place for communication across disciplines but also across multiple languages.

The Enlightenment and the rights of man

The Enlightenment and the rights of man is the November 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The Enlightenment and the rights of man is an appropriate book for us to launch this new dimension of our publishing programme because it addresses a theme of such great currency for multiple disciplines, including history, politics, philosophy and law. Specifically, Ferrone seeks the origin of a language of “rights of man”, and explores both its distinction from, and its relevance to, contemporary understandings of political “civil rights” and a trans-national discourse of “universal human rights”. (These themes will be explored in a special discussion of the book on 19 February 2020, hosted by the Voltaire Foundation and the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights.)

One might consider the classical interpretation of the Enlightenment’s role in the history of rights to be found in the “Whig interpretation of history”. This interpretation, focused primarily on the history of England, traced a clear line of progression from late medieval and early modern natural law theory to the Enlightenment concept of “natural rights” put forth in Whig arguments for toleration, parliamentary sovereignty and limitations on the authority of the state over the life, liberty and property of the individual.[2] From there, this classical argument would hold, a more modern, liberal conception of rights emerged through the American Revolution and early republic.[3]

Then, about 40 years ago, this interpretation came under challenge through several works of enduring significance. John Pocock proposed an alternative paradigm, one which argued for the importance of “an Atlantic republican tradition” not grounded in natural law theory.[4] Pocock suggested classical civic republicanism and 17th-century radicalism, more than Enlightenment ideals of natural law, as the basis for a very different understanding of the place of rights in American (and more broadly, modern Western) political culture. Nearly simultaneously, working from a very different line of approach, Garry Wills[5] also downplayed Whig political ideology as the template for conceptions of political rights in the Declaration of Independence, and its legacy in American culture. Wills highlighted other Enlightenment languages, particularly the Scottish school of civil society and moral sentiment.[6] A third inflection away from classical natural law as the basis for rights followed Tom Paine’s trajectory, deploying “rights of man” as a concept encompassing not individual liberties but a broader vision of a democratic, egalitarian political culture. Paine’s view found fullest expression not in the Enlightenment but among the French Jacobins, for whom “the rights of man” characterised not only individual liberties of the 1789 “Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen”, but also the egalitarian fiscal policy of the republic and revised “Declaration” proposed in 1793 for its never-adopted Constitution.[7]

In the decade prior to the initial publication of Professor Ferrone’s book, the link between the Enlightenment ideas of natural right and “human rights” had been restored, but not as it was understood in the classical model. It is this more recent body of work to which Ferrone responds most directly. Lynn Hunt sought to reassert the Enlightenment origins of human rights but not ground them in natural law political theory; she argued instead that we should understand the “rights of man” as having been inspired by the “torrents of emotion” which poured forth in literary works, especially novels and personal memoirs, and through which an idea of the “self” emerged. This self, she argued, became the subjectivity to which rights could be attributed.[8] Hunt had adhered to the more classical argument in her documentary textbook, French Revolution and Human Rights (1st edition, Bedford Books, 1996), emphasising the influence of political debates over toleration and citizenship, and highlighting the structural and substantive link from the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen to the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even more recently, intellectual historian and legal scholar Sam Moyn argued that “human rights” should be understood as a contemporary political paradigm which emerges only after the 20th century undermined the Christian and Marxist eschatological visions of human destiny. To Moyn, “human rights” were not an Enlightenment ideal so much as the “last utopia”.[9]

The Enlightenment and the rights of man, in response, reasserts the importance, and historical specificity, of the European Enlightenment as the central terrain for interpreting how “rights of man” (which he distinguishes explicitly from “human rights”) took right as a modern political language. Inspired by his scholarly mentor, Franco Venturi, Ferrone casts his view broadly across Europe and North America, though paying particular attention to the English abolitionist movement (as symbolised by the image on the book’s cover). He argues for the relevance of the 18th century to modern concerns (especially in his preface), although he agrees that the discourse of “human rights” should be located in the 1940s and 1950s. He makes a powerful case for the Enlightenment “rights of man” as not being historically limited in its vision, even though the philosophes and abolitionists of that era did not attain, in vision or action, the global scale of post-war human rights organisations.

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

At present, manuscripts which are translations of several other published scholarly books are currently in development or under review. Those interested in discussing a proposal for an English translation of works on the Enlightenment, especially works originally written in non-Western languages, are encouraged to contact the General Editor or any other member of the editorial board.


[1] The volume was first published in Italian as Storia dei diritti dell’uomo: L’Illuminismo e la costruzione del linguaggio politico dei moderni (Roma: Editori Laterza, 2015). Visit the publisher’s website for more information.

[2] Although Herbert Butterfield famously associated this line of argument most closely with Lord Acton, its clearest expression was in Macaulay’s History of England from the accession of James II.

[3] One might also consider Leo Strauss’s Wallgreen Lectures, Natural Right and History (University of Chicago Press, 1953) as a pillar of this classical interpretation of rights as an expression of natural law theory. For a much more historically broad and deep account of the natural law origins of rights as expressed in the Enlightenment and then American and French Revolutions, see Dan Edelstein, On the Spirit of Rights (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

[4] The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton University Press, 1975, 2nd edition, 2003).

[5] Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (Doubleday, 1978, 2nd edition 2018).

[6] The significance of this argument is expanded by David Armitage, who has shown that the Declaration of Independence is much more than merely an American heritage, in The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Harvard University Press, 2008).

[7] On “social rights” as a component of the idea of “rights of man” in the French Revolution, see for instance Jean-Pierre Gross, Fair Shares for All: Jacobin Egalitarianism in Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1997), and the essay of G. Charles Walton in David Andress, ed., Experiencing the French Revolution (SVEC 2013:05).

[8] Inventing Human Rights: A History (Norton, 2007).

[9] The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard University Press, 2012).

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

The best Voltaire books – recommended by Nicholas Cronk

Interview by Charles J. Styles.

The eighteenth-century philosopher wielded his powers of ridicule and witticism against religious fanatics – but always championed free speech and religious toleration. He was also a historian, scientist, poet, playwright, and political activist. Nicholas Cronk, General Editor of the Complete Works of Voltaire, gives a detailed look at the polymathic philosophe.

He was born François-Marie Arouet in 1694, but assumed the title ‘Voltaire’ some twenty years later. Who was Voltaire?

Voltaire is the most famous of the Enlightenment thinkers. Not necessarily the most radical or the most extreme philosophe, but certainly the one with the highest profile. In French, we speak of the seventeenth century as the ‘Century of Louis XIV’ (an expression that Voltaire himself put into circulation). But we refer to the eighteenth century as the ‘Century of Voltaire’. He’s remembered nowadays as the author of the short comic novel Candide, but he wrote a vast amount over a very long lifetime. He was born in the last days of the seventeenth century and died at the age of 84, just a decade before the beginning of the French Revolution.

His first play is accepted by the Comédie-Française at the age of 24—so he becomes an instant star. And what is this first play? It’s about Oedipus killing his father. Now, Voltaire never really liked his own father, François Arouet—he was a lawyer at court. When this play is published, it’s the first time the name ‘Voltaire’ is printed on a title page. So, his first big literary triumph is when he abandons his father’s name and invents a new name for himself. You don’t have to be a Freudian to think there’s something going on there.

There are various theories about the name Voltaire chose for himself. The most obvious is that it is an anagram of ‘Arouet le jeune’ (‘Arouet the Younger’). It works like this: AROUET L(e) J(eune). You have to remember that in the 18th-century French alphabet, as in Latin, ‘I’ and ‘J’ along with ‘U’ and ‘V’ were interchangeable. So, replacing those letters, you get ‘AROVET L I’, or VOLTAIRE.

Now, this is plausible. Other theories say the name evokes a property his parents owned. Personally, I think the name ‘Voltaire’ is hugely evocative: voler means to fly, and volter means to leap about, making him sound like some character out of commedia dell’arte, leaping around the stage.

So, when we talk about ‘Voltaire’, we take for granted a name he invented. You might say it is one of his earliest and most successful fictions. And we are all complicit in his invention. It’s an odd fact, but it seems impossible to imagine writing a book about ‘François-Marie Arouet’. In time, ‘Voltaire’ becomes pretty much a brand name. He’s famous already when he’s quite young, but after the 1760s, he’s more than famous; he’s a superstar. For the last two decades of his life, he’s a huge European celebrity. He’s arguably the first.

I say ‘arguably’ because Rousseau could be a contender. Voltaire and Rousseau are the first real European literary celebrities. They are celebrities in the sense that they sell; their names sell books. Voltaire is a true celebrity in the sense that everyone has heard of him, even if they haven’t read him. That two-syllable name became very powerful. If he had stayed ‘Arouet’, it wouldn’t have had the same punch to it.

You are General Editor of the Complete Works of Voltaire, which spans some 200 volumes. From epic poetry to historical treatises and philosophical tales, the breadth of Voltaire’s literary output is astonishing. Can you give a sense of how widely he wrote?

Continue reading the original post and see all five of Nicholas Cronk’s recommendations at Five Books: the best books on everything.


Around the ‘Commentaire historique’

Voltaire Sesostris

End of ‘Lettres véritables’ and beginning of Sésostris in Commentaire historique sur les œuvres de l’auteur de La Henriade (Basle, 1776). Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: VET.FR.II.B.1997.

This summer the Voltaire Foundation team have been building up to the publication in September of Voltaire’s Commentaire historique, presented for the first time since its initial publication in 1776 with its dossier of ‘lettres véritables’ and the allegorical poem ‘Sésostris’ serving as a kind of postscript. This work, considered Voltaire’s final masterpiece, spans volumes 78b and 78c of the Complete Works. We have also put online a series of short articles aimed particularly at first-time readers of the Commentaire historique to highlight some of the various postures adopted by its chameleonic author over the course of the text.

We decided to focus on the keyword ‘legacy’: how did Voltaire want to be remembered? The Commentaire historique sees him creating a dossier of historical documentation to memorialise his life. The third-person narrator of Part 1 claims to have just found these letters from Voltaire’s correspondence and proceeds to give a preamble about the philosophe’s life before presenting the letters for posterity. It is as if Voltaire were imagining a historian from long after he has been forgotten, rediscovering this dossier and learning about his remarkable achievements for the first time. Marie-Hélène Cotoni calls it ‘le brillant curriculum vitae qui va lui servir d’introduction’, but it could just as easily be described as a social media profile designed to survive beyond its author’s death.[1] It presents the reader with a heavily doctored version of Voltaire’s life, neatly cropped with just the right filters applied so that some parts are foregrounded while others are obscured. The first of our articles, ‘Voltaire’s legacy under threat’, examines why Voltaire undertook this exercise in brand management.

We then take a tour around three personas that Voltaire chooses to highlight over the course of the Commentaire historique, starting with ‘Voltaire le voyageur’. The text places special emphasis on the philosophe’s tour of Europe during his younger years, visually presented by our annotated map that attempts to trace his voyages as described in the narrative of Part 1 and the letters of Part 2. It is not an easy job, as Voltaire has a tendency to flit from place to place over the course of one sentence without specifying when he arrived or left a particular city or country. He presents himself as a man on a mission, never tiring and always on the move. Furthermore, the religious connotations of this mission become apparent when we take a look at the particular countries he visits and those he avoids.

Voltaire nu by Pigalle Musée du Louvre

Voltaire nu (1776), by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. Musée du Louvre.

While he is very active in his younger years, the narrator does not shy away from the fact that his journey is almost over. ‘Voltaire le vieillard’ is a second persona that looms large in the Commentaire historique, representing a man coming to terms with his own mortality as he approaches death. This persona is perhaps best summed up by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s statue of ‘Voltaire nu’, which testifies to the fact that even in iconography, the philosophe continued to stir up controversy. You can read more about the statue and its relevance to the text in our second article, ‘The statues’

The inclusion of the epistolary dossier with the Commentaire historique shows that Voltaire recognises the importance of his status as a letter writer. The presentation of ‘Voltaire épistolaire’ through these letters is, however, far from un-doctored. The repeated insistence on veracity and authenticity is couched in irony and there is ample evidence that these letters may be heavily edited or even forged. The third of our complementary articles, ‘The letters’, therefore addresses the letters themselves and attempts to answer some of the questions readers might have when making their way through Part 2 of this work.

At times contradictory and frequently perplexing, the Commentaire historique is a rewarding text to decrypt and really hammers home some of the essential lessons Voltaire teaches his readers in many of his earlier works. We find ourselves putting these lessons into practice, forever looking for ulterior motives, questioning the author’s authority and resolving to take nothing we read at face value.

– Sam Bailey

[1] Quoted by Nicholas Cronk, ‘Introduction’, in OCV 78b, ed. Nicholas Cronk (Oxford, 2018), p.1-87 (p.83).

Jean-Benjamin de Laborde’s Choix de Chansons: Digital Editing and the Limits of Disciplinarity

One of the first projects being developed in the newly established Voltaire Lab is a cutting-edge digital edition of Jean-Benjamin de Laborde’s long-forgotten illustrated songbook Choix de Chansons (1773). Funded by the Australian Research Council, Performing Transdisciplinarity brings together a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the Australian National University, the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, and the Voltaire Foundation, working across the disciplines of art history (Mark Ledbury and Robert Wellington), musicology (Erin Helyard), French literature (Nicholas Cronk), and digital humanities (Glenn Roe). The team is exploring the interrelation and interactivity of images, music, and text in the Choix de Chansons and similar cultural objects in the eighteenth century more generally. By reconceiving the illustrated songbook as a multimedia digital interface for sharing and linking deep disciplinary knowledge, this project will provide a fascinating glimpse into the sounds, sensibilities, and social mores of late-eighteenth-century France.

Title Page from Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, ‘Choix de Chansons’, 1773.

Title Page from Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, ‘Choix de Chansons’, 1773.

As we know, the Enlightenment was the golden age of book illustration in France. Traditionally, studies of eighteenth-century illustrated books were the province of amateurs and bibliophiles who delighted in deluxe editions and wrote of the engravings they contained as splendid rococo follies, reflecting the decorative impulse of a lost courtly age. This approach, however, has marginalized the contribution of these artists through a failure to interrogate the significant sociological dimensions of their illustrated books and their participation in complex networks of production and reception.

One of the best-known illustrated songbooks of the later eighteenth century is the four-volume Choix de Chansons compiled by Laborde (1734–1794), fermier général and premier valet de chambre to Louis XV. Published in 1773 and dedicated to the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, this deluxe set is an exemplary work of hybrid performativity. It includes printed text from leading contemporary poets, including Voltaire, more than a hundred pictorial engravings, and hand-engraved musical scores for voice and harp or harpsichord. Its author, Laborde, was an avid musician, composer, musicologist, and Freemason. While remaining a noted member of Louis XV’s court, he corresponded with some of the most prominent intellectual figures of the period.

Frontispiece of the ‘Choix de Chansons’ featuring Laborde and a quatrain by Voltaire.

Frontispiece of the ‘Choix de Chansons’ featuring Laborde and a quatrain by Voltaire.

The songs selected by Laborde in his Choix de Chansons are by a variety of French poets whose subjects provide an extraordinarily wide panorama of eighteenth-century life. Laborde commissioned the celebrated print-maker, Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814), known as Moreau le Jeune. Moreau contributed only twenty-five plates to the four-volume set, however, with three other illustrators completing the project (Le Bouteux, Le Barbier, and Saint Quentin). Although the work is dedicated to Marie Antoinette, many contributors to the Chansons, especially Moreau and Voltaire, were socially progressive, both men having belonged to the radical Masonic Loge des Neuf Sœurs. Scholars have argued, for instance, that the same moral sensibility found in a thinker such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau can also be found in Moreau le Jeune’s printed œuvre. Laborde’s Choix de Chansons thus distils the dynamic sensibilities of late-eighteenth century France, embodying both the exuberance of the Court and the enlightened mores of the philosophes.

Engraving from the song ‘Le Dernier parti à prendre’, featuring Voltaire.

Engraving from the song ‘Le Dernier parti à prendre’, featuring Voltaire.

Our contention then is that the Choix de Chansons – to be fully appreciated – must be understood in its deeply multi- or trans-disciplinary historical context. As Julia Douthwaite and Mary Vidal have shown, the eighteenth century was perhaps the last truly ‘interdisciplinary century’. It was a time when artists, musicians, poets, jurists, mathematicians, philosophers, and diverse audiences worked together to produce new interdisciplinary practices that explored the fundamental inter-connectedness of the arts and sciences. Music was admired as much for its harmonic science as its compositional beauty; and the visual arts became an important point of entry into contemporary debates about the mechanics of aesthetic experience, in part stimulated by the new branch of physics called ‘optics’ that had developed in the wake of Descartes and Newton. Nowhere is this interdisciplinary gesture more evident than in the great mid-century Encyclopédie, a collaborative reference work edited by Denis Diderot and Jean D’Alembert that explicitly sought to establish epistemological correspondences between the arts, natural sciences, and technical trades.

In order to recapture the fundamentally interdisciplinary aspects of eighteenth-century cultural production, we aim to move beyond our normal areas of specialisation to explore the Choix de Chansons through a ‘transdisciplinary’ lens. The transdisciplinary approach aims to integrate disciplinary knowledge into a meaningful whole, one that implies a system of interrelated knowledge without established disciplinary boundaries that only becomes visible when brought together; a system that in fact has much in common with that imagined by Diderot and D’Alembert in the Encyclopédie. We propose that the Choix de Chansons is, like the Encyclopédie, in many ways a quintessential transdisciplinary object. As such, it requires a new methodological approach that operates at the interface of interdisciplinary collaboration, rich historical contextualization, and new media dissemination.

Le dernier parti a prendre from Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, ‘Choix de Chansons’ (1773). Music by Laborde, lyrics by Voltaire.

Through the digital editing and analysis of Laborde’s Choix de Chansons we will ‘perform transdisciplinarity’ in a way that both forges spaces for knowledge discovery and sharing and elucidates eighteenth-century practices of cultural production. To achieve these goals, we will develop a digital interface that acts as a holistic framework to enrich our understanding of the Choix de Chansons as well as other, similarly complex cultural objects and, more generally, of the performative nature of the cultural experience in eighteenth-century France. Working with design specialists at the ANU School of Art and Design, we are constructing a transdisciplinary data model and interface that can be applied to future humanities research across a variety of disciplines, including art history, literary studies, musicology, visual culture, book history, and digital humanities.

The Performing Transdisciplinarity team at BSECS 2018.

The Performing Transdisciplinarity team at BSECS 2018.

Our first major presentation of Performing Transdisciplinarity was delivered at the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (BSECS) conference in January this year as part of the panel, ‘Unboxing Jean Benjamin Laborde’s “Choix de Chansons” (1773) – ancien-régime sociability and the possibilities of the digital humanities.’ Conference delegates were also treated to a recital of eight songs from Laborde’s book, sung by Emilie Renard and accompanied by Erin Helyard on Harpsichord (see video link above). Further developments of this project can be found on the Voltaire Lab page.

– Glenn Roe and Robert Wellington

Enlightenment legacies: a new online resource

After a great Facebook response, I wanted to share this interesting initiative more widely – Greg Brown.

On January 7, 2015, two armed men claiming to belong to the extremist Islamic group Al-Qaeda entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper, shooting and fatally wounding several individuals. In the wake of this tragedy, French citizens were looking for answers on how to deal with this traumatic event. Voltaire’s 1763 Treatise on tolerance (Traité sur la tolérance) seemed to offer one potential answer, and copies of it were flying off the shelves of libraries and bookstores.

La Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen

La Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen.

This example highlights how, in times of crisis, people continue to turn to the Enlightenment as one way of understanding the current social and political climate. The repeated act of returning to Enlightenment philosophy to answer the most pressing current debates inspired us to seek just how much policies, philosophies, practices, and ideologies of the Enlightenment continue to shape our day to day existence.

Our project ‘Legacies of the Enlightenment: humanity, nature, and science in a changing climate’, explores how the Enlightenment informs – and haunts – our current worldviews. We created the website enlightenmentlegacies.org that contains a database of teaching and research materials, which we hope will be a useful tool for students, teachers, and researchers interested examining how and why we continue to practice and embody the legacies of the Enlightenment. The topics of our website include (but are not limited to):

  • evolutions of social and political relations;
  • theories of climate and climate change;
  • the nature of matter and objects;
  • structures of authority and institutions;
  • how notions of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and citizenship are questioned due to political upheavals and natural catastrophes;
  • how dualistic notions of embodiment are crucial for understanding the origins and the continued presence of racism and sexism;
  • how taxonomic practices influences our relation to each other, as well as to other (non-human) animals.
The first group meeting at Penn State University in April 2017.

The first group meeting at Penn State University in April 2017.

This site is the first step in a larger project – made possible thanks to a generous grant from the Humanities Without Walls consortium – which aims to scrutinize these questions in virtual and in-person environments. An important element of the project is a dedication to the mentoring of graduate students.

To that end, the second step of the project will involve a 3-day symposium at which graduate students will work with more senior scholars in various fields to refine an essay, article, or work of art for publication. Our hope is that we will find the funding to continue this important work of mentoring emerging scholars.

To find out more about the project, please visit our website. If you would like to get involved, please click the ‘Contact us’ tab and send us a message!

– Tracy L. Rutler

Celebrating Voltaire: A Symposium

J. Patrick Lee

J. Patrick Lee

McGill University in Montréal sponsored a Symposium on 9th March to celebrate its recent acquisition of J. Patrick Lee’s Voltaire Collection. Pat Lee, as he was known to friends and colleagues, was a pre-eminent American Voltaire scholar, an inspiring teacher and a gifted university administrator. He was also a discriminating bibliophile. At his death in 2006, his library held some 11,000 volumes and many manuscripts. Of these, McGill purchased 1,994 rare and important items, including 35 manuscripts in the hand of Voltaire, Madame du Châtelet, and others in Voltaire’s circle; there are 245 stand-alone editions of Candide, 39 of Zadig, 54 of the Dictionnaire philosophique, and 21 of La Henriade, as well as American imprints of Voltaire’s works, and volumes with notable American provenance.

The Symposium proved worthy of this remarkable collection. Held in the ballroom of the University Faculty Club, a capacity audience of students, academics, and members of the public was treated to series of lectures (some in French and some in English) presenting an overview of Voltaire’s life and career. Recurring themes were Voltaire’s role in promoting Enlightenment values and his battles against intolerance, superstition and religious fanaticism (Josiane Boulad-Ayoub), his relationship with England and the English (Richard Virr, Edward Langille), his latter day image as the patriarch of Ferney (Simon Davies), and, of course, his image beyond the grave (Hans-Jurgen Lüsebrink).

McGill Librarian Ann Marie Holland talked on the many versions of the Dictionnaire philosophique held in the Lee Collection.

From left to right: Marie-Claude Felton, Ethel Groffier, Benoît Melançon, Ugo Dionne, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne

From left to right: Marie-Claude Felton, Ethel Groffier, Benoît Melançon, Ugo Dionne, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne

Towards the end of the afternoon, the participants engaged in an exhilarating roundtable discussion on the question: ‘Why does Voltaire matter in the 21st century?’ which inevitably focused on the religious fanaticism of last year’s murderous attacks in France (Ethel Groffier, Ugo Dionne, Benoît Melançon, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne). A sceptical Benoît Melançon doubted whether sales of Voltaire’s Traité sur la tolérance really could have attained the 185,000 copies reported in the aftermath of those attacks, or at least whether any of those who did buy it actually read it or merely had it as a kind of talisman. And he wondered too, as others have done, whether Voltaire is a writer whose works everyone quotes but no one reads. It is ironic to reflect that Voltairian slogans on free speech and religious tolerance were widely quoted after the attacks, rather as the faithful recite prayers in times of grief. And like a secular saint, his image became familiar on posters and banners at free-speech rallies throughout France.

Robert Darnton

Robert Darnton

The keynote address was delivered by the Enlightenment historian Robert Darnton, who took us (happily) back to the eighteenth century and its fascination with Voltaire, the best-selling author. Darnton’s account of how the 75 year-old played publishers off, one against the other, in order to secure for his monumental Questions sur l’Encyclopédie as wide a readership as possible, provided a riveting conclusion to the day’s proceedings.

Mounted in conjunction with the Voltaire Symposium is an exhibition of works by or on Voltaire covering nearly three centuries. Contemporary editions of Voltaire’s works are juxtaposed with the key 20th-century editions of Voltaire’s most popular work, Candide (MacLennan Library).

The acquisition of the J. Patrick Lee Voltaire Collection at McGill University puts the land of ‘quelques arpents de neige’ on the map as an important centre of Voltaire and Enlightenment scholarship.

– E. M. Langille, St Francis Xavier University

(View a video recording of the Symposium here.)

Voltaire Bruxellois

Voltaire knew Brussels well: he visited first with Mme de Rupelmonde in 1722, and between 1739 and 1742 made several extended stays in the city with Émilie Du Châtelet. The pirated editions of Mahomet which appeared under a Brussels imprint in 1742 connect the name of the city with Voltaire’s crusade for religious toleration.


A 1742 edition of Mahomet, with Brussels imprint

All of us at the Voltaire Foundation express strongest solidarity with our friends and colleagues in Belgium, following the brutal events of 22 March.

– Nicholas Cronk


Avenue Voltaire, Brussels

Perfect correspondences

Enlightenment Correspondences, a two-day colloquium, took place last June at Ertegun House in Oxford. The organisers want to share a brief summary of the findings of a dream group of epistolary scholars as a thank you.

A group of participants at Ertegun House.

A group of participants at Ertegun House, June 2015.

Day One focused on the material aspects of epistolarity and infrastructure. If you wanted to know how much it cost to receive a letter; how many postal stations were on the map of France (or England); how the intra-urban post functioned (and why messengers were called ‘poulets’); how celebrities like Voltaire became so overwhelmed by a deluge of post they had to take out adverts in newspapers advising fans and readers please not to enter into correspondence – there was much to learn and enjoy in the papers and discussion.

Historian Laurence Brockliss brought real panache to a contrarian argument in focusing on a number of French provincial figures who demurred at the expense, labour and relative obscurity of letter-writing, in some instances preferring the essay and prize competition as ways of building a reputation.

The cost and procedures of writing, folding, sealing and posting letters earned a delightfully anecdotal but clear procedural exposition in Jay Caplan’s paper that dovetailed nicely with Nicholas Cronk’s fascinating analysis of how Voltaire’s many thousands of letters (over 16,000) eventually became collected into a corpus posthumously shaped into one of the great correspondences of the age. The hand of the writer could be seen from time to time in certain stunts such as the cycle of letters Voltaire originally rewrote as an epistolary fiction (Paméla – revealingly edited by Jonathan Mallinson [1]) that were later mistakenly edited as real letters.


A letter from the Grand Duchess Ekaterina Alekseevna (the future Catherine II) to Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams (1756).

That creation of a corpus was the subject of a first presentation on Catherine the Great, hugely famous and yet as a letter-writer unknown because her correspondence has yet to be fully constructed. The launch of the Digital Correspondence of Catherine the Great Pilot Project, a British Academy/Leverhulme funded pilot created at Oxford, showed how vital a part Digital Humanities can play in expanding the empire of letters – and in this case that would mean making fully available and searchable about 5,000 letters written by Catherine. The subject of how much value recipients and Catherine herself attributed to her letters as tokens of esteem and marks of favour formed the topic of Kelsey Rubin-Detlev’s paper which illuminated the connections between letter-writing and gift-giving.

We enjoyed a spectacular treat thanks to the kind offices of Chris Fletcher and Mike Webb, who arranged a visit to one of the state of the art seminar rooms in the Weston Library. It was a real feast for the eye, and gratifying to see actual autograph letters of some of the writers discussed.

Questions about the utility of the private/public dichotomy and continuum provided one thread linking many papers, including the detailed examination by Andrew Jainchill of a small set of letters which Voltaire and the minister d’Argenson exchanged on the subject of politics, protection and war – issues of state policy on which d’Argenson’s seemingly subversive views required the forum of private letters in order to skirt the dangers of publicity. ‘Protection’ opened up a rewarding discussion on the differences from patronage and letter-writing as a sketchbook of radical ideas. This looked ahead to the riveting discussion by Lauren Clay on the eleven chambres de commerce which, during the revolutionary period, lobbied politicians and the Estates General very hard on behalf of business by concerted campaigns of letter-writing, designed to show that their commercial interests did not pit them against the ideals of the Revolution.

This stream of pragmatic correspondence seemed a world apart from the high-minded philosophical letters published in Berlin by Moses Mendelssohn and Thomas Abbt. As Avi Lifschitz showed, these letters, with a certain nod to Socratic dialogue, refashioned in letter form investigations into sometimes highly metaphysical questions of religion and ethics. Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig’s touchingly illustrated exploration of the Herder family focused not on the great philosopher himself but rather on preserved copies of letters by one of his sons – epistolary ‘home movies’ as it were, that taught us a great deal about the practice of Bildung and the construction of childhood.

Madame de Sévigné was seemingly born to be a great letter-writer, and Wilda Anderson’s fascinating paper explored the discourse of race in her writings (ramifying out into examples from Racine’s tragedy) as an expression of an aristocratic ethos that carries a nearly biological imperative to write well.

Clare Brant offered a marvelous reconsideration of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s account of her visit to the Turkish baths, a favourite text in feminist, Orientalist and post-colonial readings. Clare’s reading stripped away that layer of varnish in order to refocus on the visual clues and references contained in the text, and she showed how signals that might have looked clear to Montagu’s readers seem to have got lost in a fog of lit. crit. preoccupied with voyeurism and theories of the gaze.

With a similar attentiveness to actual words and personal affinities, Pamela Clemit took us into the world of the Godwin-Shelley circle, decoding salutations, signatures, the order of letters in a sequence and, above all, the emotional expectations recipients had of letter-writers. A century or so earlier, the readers of classic and minor Restoration and eighteenth-century fictions, starting with Aphra Behn and Haywood and going on to Richardson and Fielding, would have found many letters in the stories of novels. Eve Bannet’s delightful and careful teasing out of the texture and viewpoints of narrative voices showed us how the cleverest of novelists possibly set up careless readers who might be gulled into taking the writers of these embedded letters at their own words.

Correspondences scholars at the Weston Library, June 2015.

Correspondences scholars at the Weston Library, June 2015.

Sociability is a key Enlightenment virtue, and on this occasion rarely felt more natural as academic events go. Scholars of literature and history shared a common approach and there was a welcome ease of exchange. Historians did close reading and literature scholars historicised and contextualised. Both methods are now second nature in both disciplines. Letter-writing seems to be a cross-section of every possible Enlightenment activity, and to crystallise the whole complex of factors that make its European manifestation so dynamic. Whether lobbying, emoting, protecting, publicising, celebrating, philosophising, retiring, ironising, commanding, educating or entertaining – nobody could really do without pen and paper in a great age of letter-writing.

– Andrew Kahn

See also: The Letter: Purloined and Printed, Anonymous and Edited.

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation), vol.45c (2010).