What else makes a critical edition?

Material constraints in publishing can sometimes have the beneficial effect of focusing attention anew on the importance of the intellectual content of the book. As has happened so many times over the years in bringing out the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, a volume has turned out to be too big to fit comfortably into a single binding, and so it has been split into A and B volumes. The Introduction to Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV will therefore be published in two parts: volume 11A contains the introduction proper, a prose study by Diego Venturino of the history, intricacies and import of this landmark historical work, with contributions from Nicholas Cronk and Jean-Alexandre Perras. And 11B will have… everything else. ‘But what else could be needed?’ a reader might be forgiven for asking. ‘Quite a lot’, the answer turns out to be.

The most straightforward content in 11B is probably the sequence of appendices presenting various texts that surround and shed light on the Siècle but are not part of the text itself: an unpublished manuscript; open letters published by Voltaire in periodicals; and finally forewords and prefaces from printings not chosen as the base text of our edition. These are presented as short critical editions in their own right.

By far the longest component, however, is the list of manuscripts and editions of Voltaire’s text. While a one-hundred-page section of painstaking bibliographical description might look dry and off-putting (see example above), it is a vital complement to both the introduction in volume 11A and the text itself, and fulfils several functions. It contains the detail of the history of the text: its prehistory, in manuscript state, and its print evolution. The latter tracks when Voltaire introduced changes into his work, whether by making corrections, adding new material, or rearranging it. The list shows which editions follow the latest changes made and, equally, which merely reproduce older versions of the text, thus revealing the relative significance of the different printings in the author’s lifetime. Various mysteries are explained: the edition bearing ‘Dresden’ on its title page (see example on the left) was actually printed in Leipzig, whereas the ones proclaiming Leipzig as their place of publication in fact were produced in Paris… Another, dated 1753, is in fact found to have appeared at the beginning of December 1752, all of which is elucidated and confirmed by Voltaire’s active and passive correspondence, as well as by some of the appendices. Each full description can be linked, via its siglum – a shorthand identification – to the textual variants given in the volumes of text, so that a reader, wanting to know more about the circumstances surrounding the different readings, can find the relevant information.

Finally, the list of editions serves as a reference tool for anyone in the world who comes across an eighteenth-century printing of the Siècle, since the detailed technical description allows one to identify copies, sometimes via small tell-tale signs, like a printing error, or a typographical ornament, which can serve to differentiate between two or more otherwise very similar editions. Connected to the list of manuscripts and editions is a dossier of illustrations, as well as a list of eighteenth-century translations of the text.

While most of the variant readings of Voltaire’s text are printed at the bottom of the page in the Œuvres complètes, a few are simply too long to fit. A digital edition would avoid this seemingly arbitrary distinction between variants based on length, but in a print edition, it makes most sense to give these longer variants their own space. Amongst volume 11B’s appendices are therefore an early list of marshals of France from the 1751 edition, before it was vastly expanded, and the early versions of chapter 24, which examines the period between the death of Louis XIV and the war of the Austrian Succession. This chapter has strong links to other works by Voltaire, namely the Précis du siècle de Louis XV, and an early version of part of the same, the Histoire de la guerre de 1741. Looking at how he modified and reused his material here is both illustrative of his working methods and also at the centre of a very real problem in editing Voltaire’s works: how to present material that moves between different titles over the course of the author’s lifetime.

Even after the author’s death, the text acquired accretions of various kinds. In the first posthumous edition of Voltaire’s works, one of his editors, Condorcet, added over a hundred footnotes. While obviously not part of the text, they do shed light on different aspects of it. For example, Condorcet wrote:

“When the first edition of the Siècle de Louis XIV became public, Fontenelle was still alive. People sought to set him against Mr de Voltaire. ‘How am I treated in this work?’ Fontenelle asked one of his friends. ‘Sir,’ he replied, ‘Mr de Voltaire begins by saying that you are the only man alive for whom he has set aside his resolve to speak only of the dead.’ ‘I do not want to know any more,’ Fontenelle declared; ‘whatever else he may have added, I must be content.’”


“Since in what follows, there will often be references to this monetary operation [inflation], and since Mr de Voltaire has not discussed its effects in any of his works, we may be forgiven for entering into a few details here…”

Or else,

“These [relief maps of Vauban’s Citadel of Lille] have since been moved to the Invalides.”

These are the main ingredients that make up this atypical volume of Voltaire’s complete works. A chance effect of page extent and the physical properties of bookbinding has resulted in a book that the scholarly community didn’t know it needed in quite the same way as a volume containing Voltaire’s text or an introductory essay; nevertheless, it would not be surprising if the tools and supplements that it contains, all part of what makes a critical edition, ultimately mean that quite a lot of readers end up calling it up from their libraries’ stacks.

– Gillian Pink

Voltaire and the La Barre affair

250 years ago, on 1 July 1766, the young François-Jean Lefebvre de La Barre was executed in Abbeville, Picardy, having been charged with blasphemy in the summer of 1765. The first reference to La Barre in Voltaire’s correspondence is in a letter of 16 June 1766 to his great-nephew, Alexandre Marie François de Paule de Dompierre d’Hornoy. Voltaire then returned to La Barre’s execution in many letters and works: the Relation de la mort du chevalier de la Barre of 1766 and Le Cri du sang innocent of 1775 are entirely devoted to the La Barre affair.

This year’s Journées Voltaire took place in Paris on 17-18 June. Entitled ‘Autour de l’affaire La Barre’, they were organised by Myrtille Méricam-Bourdet (Université Lyon 2), in collaboration with the Société des Etudes Voltairiennes, the Centre d’Etude de la Langue et des Littératures Françaises (CELLF), and the Association Le Chevalier de La Barre.


Over the two days of the conference, attendees followed the gradual process that transformed La Barre from the victim of a dubious trial into a symbol of anti-clericalism, and the affair that ensued from a mere historical event into a revolutionary event in the Kantian sense.

The conference opened with a marvellously clear exposition of the trial’s proceedings by Eric Wenzel (Université d’Avignon). Eric Wenzel argued strongly that, if we except the fact that the question préalable was used in order to extort a confession, La Barre’s trial was actually conducted in accordance with the laws of Ancien Régime France. This begged the important question of what is right and what is – instead – legal.

Subsequent presentations focused on the role that Voltaire played in transforming La Barre into a symbol of anti-clericalism. Russell Goulbourne (King’s College, London) observed that Voltaire pursued this aim by dramatising the La Barre affair and by insistently describing La Barre himself as the hero of a tragedy: ‘M. le chevalier de la Barre est mort en héros. Sa fermeté noble et simple dans une si grande jeunesse m’arrache encore des larmes’ (to Jacques Marie Bertrand Gaillard d’Etallonde, 26 May 1767), and on multiple occasions comparing him to the hero of Corneille’s Polyeucte. The term ‘catastrophe’, with its connotations of tragedy, also appears in Voltaire’s discussion of the events at Abbeville (e.g. to Michel Paul Guy de Chabanon, 6 February 1771).

The tragic register, however, is not the only one Voltaire used when referring to La Barre’s execution. Two of the papers were concerned with how Voltaire’s response to the La Barre affair changed over time: Christiane Mervaud (Université de Rouen) demonstrated this evolution with reference to the article ‘Justice’ of the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, whereas Alain Sager focused mainly on Voltaire’s correspondence. The correspondence was also at the core of Laetitia Saintes’s (Université Catholique de Louvain) paper, which showed, in the context of letters dealing with the La Barre affair, how Voltaire modulated his tone according to addressee. New documents recently discovered in St Petersburg by Jack Iverson (Whitman College) will certainly cast new light on the reasons behind Voltaire’s re-writings of the La Barre affair.

Beyond the variations that Voltaire introduced into the retelling of events and his accusations of unfairness, the fact remains that his focus on the events at Abbeville succeeded impressively in magnifying their resonance. This is all the more important if one considers the utter indifference with which the Parisian public had originally received the news of La Barre’s execution. Voltaire himself complained about it in a letter to de Chabanon: ‘on va à l’opéra comique le jour qu’on brûle le chevalier de la Barre’ (7 August 1769).

Two papers at the conference therefore focused on how Voltaire’s writings prompted other intellectuals to engage with La Barre’s execution. Stéphanie Gehanne-Gavoty (Université Paris-Sorbonne) drew the audience’s attention to Friedrich Melchior Grimm’s treatment of the La Barre affair in the Correspondance littéraire. Linda Gil (Université Paris-Sorbonne) focused on Condorcet’s treatment, in the Kehl edition of Voltaire’s works, of the texts concerning La Barre, which fell into a newly created section,‘Politique et législation’, as well as on Condorcet’s own preface to that section.

As asserted by Charles Coutel (Université d’Artois; Association Le Chevalier de La Barre) in an enlightening paper, it was precisely by triggering such responses in the French intellectual elites that Voltaire succeeded in making a universal symbol out of the chevalier La Barre and a revolutionary event in the Kantian sense out of his execution. Thus, Coutel claimed, Voltaire’s reaction to La Barre’s death plainly testifies to the fact that humanity can progress even in the darkest times. As Voltaire put it in a letter of 26 September 1766 to the marquise d’Epinay, ‘le petit nombre de sages répandus dans Paris peut faire beaucoup de bien en s’élevant contre certaines atrocités, et en ramenant les hommes à la douceur et à la vertu’.

– Ruggero Sciuto