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

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

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

– Glenn Roe, Voltaire Lab

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

a French salon

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

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

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

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

the Salons Project

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

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

– Melanie Conroy, University of Memphis

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



Digitizing Enlightenment III

The Voltaire Foundation, in collaboration with the Cultures of Knowledge project, the Maison Française d’Oxford, the Oxford Centre for European History and the Centre for Early Modern Studies, was pleased to host the third instalment of the Digitizing Enlightenment conference series on the 19th and 20th of July. This was the first academic event organised under the auspices of the Voltaire Lab, and was made possible by further support from the John Fell Fund.

Digitizing Enlightenment (DE) is a conference series that is establishing its domain as a major area of innovation in the Digital Humanities. The first convening of DE was in Sydney in 2016, hosted by Simon Burrows at Western Sydney University. This first meeting launched a set of discussions around a common set of problems and identified topics for collaboration in pursuit of interoperability among six distinguished, and in some cases, long-standing DH projects in the field of Enlightenment Studies:

  1. The ARTFL Project (Chicago);
  2. Mapping the Republic of Letters (Stanford);
  3. The Comédie Française Registres Project (MIT/Paris-Sorbonne/Nanterre);
  4. The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe (Western Sydney);
  5. Electronic Enlightenment (Oxford); and
  6. MEDIATE (Radboud).

The second gathering in Nijmegen in June of 2017, hosted by Alicia Montoya at Radboud University, continued these discussions and opened up more lines of communication and possible collaborative research across Europe and expanded our working notion of ‘Enlightenment’ as an historical period. These meetings thus established an international network of major digital humanities projects working on 17th- and 18th-century European intellectual and literary history. As a group, these projects have sought to identify and work collaboratively on shared research problems, solutions, and resources generated by their respective research programs in order to facilitate more comprehensive approaches to some of the major problems in the field today.

Greg Brown and conference attendees, Maison française d’Oxford.

Digitizing Enlightenment III was, by design, more focused than the prior meetings: it was aimed more narrowly at the hot topic of historical prosopography and network analysis, an area in which we felt the DE network can potentially provide leadership, and which could provide technical solutions that might allow for the integration of a whole range of ambitious projects in this field. The first two conferences were modest in size and quite international: 15-20 papers over two days, with 30-40 people in attendance. With our narrower focus, the third meeting was somewhat smaller but even more international, with participants from Australia, Austria, France, Germany, the US, and the UK. Accordingly, its format was more concentrated, in the form of six thematic round-tables, each dedicated to proposal and discussion of functional solutions to real-world problems already encountered in network analysis and prosopography of this period.

These roundtables were organized around a set of basic questions that allowed participants to engage with the overall thematic of the conference, without necessarily being experts in the domain. Participants spoke briefly on each proposed question, which allowed for ample discussion and question time afterwards. These questions included:

  • Why prosopography? Why networks?
  • What are historical or intellectual networks?
  • What is social network analysis?
  • How to re-construct a social network?
  • Who or what is excluded from networks?
  • What lies beyond networks, beyond prosopography?
  • How to link, sustain, and maintain networks?

A final roundtable was dedicated to discussion of next and future steps in this collaborative work, and where it was decided that we should aim to hold another event either during or around next year’s ISECS International Congress on the Enlightenment in Edinburgh.

Greg Brown (standing) and Howard Hotson.

Participants were also treated to a reception and dinner at Balliol College, generously sponsored by the Bodleian Libraries.

Between roundtables, we invited participants to present some of the current projects that are underway in the broad field of digital Enlightenment studies. These short presentations included already established projects, such as Early Modern Letters Online, the Quill Project, and Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, as well as new projects, such as the sequel to Simon Burrow’s FBTEE project, Mapping Print, Charting Enlightenment, and projects not yet fully developed on an early modern digital gazetteer, a new prosopographical model for natural law academics, and a project underway at Stanford on 18th-century salons as ‘networks’.

Our hope is that the Digitizing Enlightenment brand will continue on into the future, both in the form of future meetings – at ISECS in 2019 and perhaps Chicago in 2020 – and in a volume currently being edited for the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, which draws its content from the first two meetings. Should you have any questions about these projects, or our vision for future Digitizing Enlightenment events, please feel free to contact us at:

– Gregory Brown and Glenn Roe

The Voltaire Library Project: using digital humanities to understand Voltaire’s influences

Lena Zlock is a rising senior at Stanford University double-majoring in History and French. She is the principal investigator of the Voltaire Library Project, a digital humanities study of Voltaires personal library. She will be working at the Voltaire Lab during the summer of 2018. Her work is supported by the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford University. Lena can be reached at or @LZlock89.

In the firmament of the Siècle des Lumières, Voltaire is the sun. His presence in the Enlightenment world is enormous by any metric. In life as in death, Voltaire’s name came to signify those who challenged orthodoxy and convention. When asked why philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had not been arrested for his polemical critique of the Algerian War, French president Charles de Gaulle, simply replied, ‘One does not arrest Voltaire’.

To understand Voltaire’s thinking and impact, where better to look than his massive library of 6700 volumes? Much like its owner, the library has both a fascinating history and afterlife. It was sold to Catherine the Great of Russia by Madame Denis – Voltaire’s niece and lover – shortly after the author’s death in 1778. Catherine the Great was one of Voltaire’s most powerful admirers, writing to him in 1763, ‘By chance your works fell into my hands; and since then I have never stopped reading them, and have not wished to have anything to do with books which were not written as well and from which the same profit could not be derived.’[1] In 1779 the books started the perilous journey from Voltaire’s château in Ferney all the way to the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Under the careful watch of the Empress, the library was sorted and placed into the Hermitage Palace, alongside the library of fellow philosophe Denis Diderot. However, the contents of Diderot’s library were dispersed throughout the Hermitage. Voltaire’s library thankfully remained intact, with an occasional book identified as mistakenly belonging to the sire of Ferney.

Battle of the books

‘Before the Title of the Battle’, frontispiece to the Battle of the Books in the 1710 edition (London) of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of A Tub.

His library is extraordinary for this period not only because it remains intact, but because it was a working library, rather than a collector’s library. Gorbatov’s thesis of ‘the working library’[2] is especially helpful in understanding Voltaire’s interaction with his books. It was active and even chaotic, akin to Jonathan Swift’s depiction of a ‘battle of the books’. But even with this flurry of activity, Voltaire’s was a curated library for the purpose of research and writing, which means that deliberate choices were made as to what became part of the collection. With marginalia in over half the books, the story of the library is in many ways the origin story of Voltaire’s corpus.

In 1961, Soviet researchers put together a catalogue of the library, including titles; names of authors, editors, translators, and publishers; places of publication; and real and false data for books that were censored or printed underground. In studying the library, researchers usually flip through the catalogue to find a particular book (e.g. did Voltaire have works by John Locke? Yes, but not the ones you think). What if we could study hundreds or even thousands of books at once?

With the advent of digital humanities, we can now visualize the full breadth and depth of Voltaire’s ‘laboratory’. How many works of history did Voltaire own? Science? Theology? Jurisprudence? Did he purchase these books or were they gifted to him? How many were clandestinely printed? Where is the historical weight of the library? The goal of my project is to create a three-dimensional portrait of Voltaire’s ‘life of the mind’.

My current project is building a database of the library. I took the library catalogue and ran it through Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, making it machine readable (I am lucky to have Russian as my native language, otherwise the structure of the catalogue would have been unintelligible). Each of the 6700 books is organized along 130 metadata categories – including data on authorship, publication dates and locations, and censored works. These categories combine modern typologies with those intelligible to Voltaire and his contemporaries, such as 17th-century bookseller hierarchies of genre.

The database is enriched through linked data, drawing on repositories like Wikidata, Geonames, Virtual International Authority File (VIAF), and BnF Gallica. My research is guided by two questions: what forces – social, literary, geographic, political – shaped Voltaire’s library? And what in the library shaped Voltaire’s corpus? These questions are often two sides of the same coin. Using a big-data approach to the library, we can visualize the patterns that shaped the library, and in turn Voltaire’s own work. My goal is to recreate the experience Voltaire himself had as a researcher in the library. The library database will form part of a larger cross-referencing system. This system will incorporate a digitised version of Voltaire’s marginalia, as well as the current Electronic Enlightenment database. Users of the database will be able to reference his marginalia in the books, as well as letters to and from the individuals – authors, publishers, editors – in the library. By immersing ourselves in the laboratory of Voltaire’s mind, we can gain new insights into the Enlightenment’s lodestar.

– Lena Zlock

[1] Quoted in Inna Gorbatov, ‘From Paris to St Petersburg: Voltaire’s library in Russia’, Libraries & the Cultural Record, vol.42, No.3 (2007), p.308-324 (p.308).

[2] Gorbatov, ‘From Paris to St Petersburg’, p.314.

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

Voltaire Lab: new digital research tools and resources

As part of our efforts to establish the Voltaire Lab as a virtual research centre, we are pleased to announce a major update of the TOUT Voltaire database and search interface, expanding links between the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project and several new research databases made available for the first time. Working in close collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago – one of the oldest and better known North American centres for digital humanities research – we have rebuilt the TOUT Voltaire database under PhiloLogic4, ARTFL’s next-generation search and corpus analysis engine.


New Search interface for TOUT Voltaire

PhiloLogic4 is a powerful research tool, allowing users to browse Voltaire’s works dynamically by date or title, along with further faceted browsing using the ‘title’, ‘year’ and ‘genre’, combined with word and phrase searching. Word searches are greatly improved for flexibility and ease of display and now include four primary result reports:

  • Concordance, or search terms in their context
  • KWIC, or line-by-line occurrences of the search term
  • Collocation, or terms that co-occur most with the search term
  • Time Series, which displays search term frequency over time

The new search interface will allow users to formulate complex queries with relatively little effort, following lines of enquiry in a dynamic fashion that moves from ‘distant reading’ scales of exploration to more fine-grained close textual analysis.


TOUT Voltaire search results

Also in collaboration with ARTFL, we have just released the Autumn Edition 2017 of the ARTFL Encyclopédie, a flagship digital humanities project that for the past almost twenty years has made available online the full text of Diderot and d’Alembert’s great philosophical dictionary. This new release offers many new features, functionalities and improvements. The powerful new faceted search and browse capabilities offered by PhiloLogic4 allow users better to leverage the organisational structure of the Encyclopédie – classes of knowledge, authors, headwords, volumes, and the like. Further it gives them the possibility of exploring the interesting alternatives offered by algorithmically or machine-generated classes. The collocation search generates word-clouds or word lists that are clickable to obtain concordances for any of the words immediately. Further improvements include new author attributions, various text corrections, and better cross-referencing functionality.


New ARTFL Encyclopédie interface

This release also contains a beautiful new set of high-resolution plate images. Clickable thumbnail versions lead to larger images that can be viewed in much greater detail than was previously possible.


New high resolution plate images, ‘Imprimerie en taille douce’


Close up of plate image

Thanks to the Voltaire Foundation, full biographies of the encyclopédistes are directly accessible from within the ARTFL Encyclopédie simply by clicking on the name of the author of any given article. This information is drawn directly from Frank and Serena Kafker’s The Encyclopedists as Individuals: A Biographical Dictionary of the Authors of the Encyclopédie (SVEC 257, 1988) – still the standard reference for biographical information on the Encyclopédie’s 139 contributors. Our hope is that this first experiment will demonstrate the value of linking digital resources openly in ways that can add value to existing projects and, at the same time, increase the visibility of the excellent works contained in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment back catalogue.

Finally, we have begun the work of establishing new research collections that will form the basis of the Voltaire Lab’s textual corpus. For example, working with files provided by Electronic Enlightenment, we have combined all of Voltaire’s correspondence with TOUT Voltaire. This new resource, which we are for the moment calling ‘TV2’, contains over 22,000 individual documents and more than 13 million words, making it one of the largest single-author databases available for research. Due to copyright restrictions in the correspondence files we cannot make the full dataset publicly available, however we are keen to allow researchers access to this important resource on a case-by-case basis. Students and scholars who wish to access the PhiloLogic4 build of TV2 should contact me here.

Glenn Roe

Voltaire Foundation appoints Digital Research Fellow

I am delighted to announce my appointment as Digital Research Fellow at the Voltaire Foundation for the academic year 2017-2018. This is the first Digital Humanities appointment in French at Oxford, and is made possible by the generosity of M. Julien Sevaux and the John Fell Fund. As Digital Research Fellow, I will oversee the creation of a pilot Digital Voltaire project, establishing a dataset that for the first time contains all of Voltaire’s works, including his correspondence, as well as undertake a series of computational experiments around the theme of ‘Visualising Voltaire’.

Voltaire, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735.

Voltaire, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735.

As the monumental print edition of the Complete Works of Voltaire nears completion, the Voltaire Foundation is currently preparing the ground for Digital Voltaire, an interactive and innovative digital edition of Voltaire’s Œuvres complètes. The pilot project we are embarking upon will thus bring together two key existing datasets: TOUT Voltaire, developed in collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago; and Voltaire’s letters, drawn from Electronic Enlightenment. The combined dataset will include more than 20,000 individual documents and over 11 million words, making this one of, if not the largest single-author databases available for digital humanities research. This resource, together with a focused research project to scope and understand its potential uses and applications, will enable the Voltaire Foundation to begin to create a conceptual and infrastructural framework for a broader, transformational Digital Voltaire, for which fundraising efforts have already begun.

The Visualising Voltaire project will become part of the soon-to-be-created ‘Voltaire Lab’ – a virtual space for new research experimentation and dissemination centred on Voltaire’s textual output and its relationship to the broader field of eighteenth-century studies. By interrogating the ‘big data’ of Voltaire’s texts at both a macro- and microscopic level, we hope to shed new light on Voltaire’s use of intertextuality, his most commonly used themes and literary motifs, his intellectual networks, and his development as a thinker. This research project will further benefit from close existing ties with the ARTFL Project and the newly-established Textual Optics Lab at the University of Chicago, and with the Labex OBVIL (‘Observatoire de la vie littéraire’) based at the Sorbonne; centres for digital humanities research and development in French studies where much of this type of analysis has been pioneered.

Visualising Voltaire will include a number of literary experiments to test the scholarly and critical value of a combined digital archive of Voltaire’s texts. Following on from the work of Franco Moretti and the Stanford Literary Lab, the project will investigate how we can apply distant reading approaches to this large corpus in order to discover new connections and patterns at scale, and, at the same time, how these new approaches can interact and intervene with our traditional close reading modes of analysis. To this end, we have identified two areas of research that we will pursue in 2017-2018, and that we hope will lead to further projects in the future.

Sequence alignment.

Sequence alignment in the intertextual edition of Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes, Centre for Digital Humanities Research, Australian National University.

In the first instance, we will focus on Voltaire’s ‘intertextuality’ and how computational techniques such as sequence alignment – borrowed from the field of bio-informatics – can help us better understand the rich complexity of Voltaire’s writing practices. Indeed, one of the major research questions that has arisen from the preparation of the Complete Works of Voltaire concerns Voltaire’s unacknowledged use and reuse of other texts. This takes two forms: the widespread reuse (borrowing/theft/imitation) of works by other writers, and the equally widespread reuse of his own work. This is a huge subject that has never been satisfactorily studied until now.

In a second instance, the completion of the Complete Works of Voltaire on paper has also created the opportunity to provide an index to the whole of his writings, notably using automatic indexing and classification techniques developed in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In addition to our ‘traditional’ indexes of the paper editions, which can be digitised and leveraged for computational analysis, we will also aim to generate ‘thematic maps’ of Voltaire’s works and correspondence using both supervised and unsupervised machine learning algorithms such as vector space analysis and topic modelling. These sorts of approaches will, we hope, open up Voltaire’s writings in wholly new and exciting ways, creating opportunities for high-profile public engagement activities such as hackathons, and generating new areas of investigation for potential doctoral research students.

Choix de Chansons.

From Jean-Benjamin de Laborde’s Choix de Chansons, 1774 – subject of the ARC Discovery grant ‘Performing Transdisciplinarity’.

And finally, beyond these specific research projects, my role as Digital Research Fellow will entail making and maintaining connections with digital humanities teams both locally and internationally, building on past and current relationships to generate new research initiatives moving forward. We are interested, for example, in establishing a better understanding of the importance of Voltaire’s Enlightenment network and its participation in the larger eighteenth-century Republic of Letters, questions that can be addressed in collaboration with the Center for Spatial and Network Analysis at Stanford, and the Cultures of Knowledge project based in Oxford. The Voltaire Lab can thus become a venue for engaging with other complementary Oxford digital projects, such as the Newton Project, which will allow for broader access as well as further fundamental research. Newton is often seen as the key thinker who sets the agenda for Enlightenment scientific thinking – through his emphasis on empiricism and the experimental method – while Voltaire, the dominant intellectual figure of the Enlightenment, helps to popularise Newton’s scientific method across Europe. Voltaire’s role as a key critic and disseminator of ideas and texts is also an area of research to which digital approaches can bring much to bear, in particular by linking his correspondence to projects such as Western Sydney University’s French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe and Mapping Print, Charting Enlightenment.

We are equally keen to investigate the deeply interdisciplinary nature of Voltaire’s work beyond the purely literary or even textual, and, more generally, of his role in the often-overlooked interplay of music, images, and text in eighteenth-century print culture. This is in fact the subject of our recently awarded Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, ‘Performing Transdisciplinarity’, which brings together a team of interdisciplinary researchers from the Australian National University, the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney, and Oxford.

The above are just a few of the countless avenues of research opened up by digital approaches to Voltaire’s work and legacy, and to which many more will be added as the larger Digital Voltaire project takes shape over the next few years. As the newly appointed Digital Research Fellow at the VF, I very much look forward to keeping you all informed on the results of these experiments and of the project’s evolution in due course.

– Glenn Roe

‘je jeterai mon bonet par-dessus les moulins’ – delving into the Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny


The Correspondance de Mme de Graffigny, now available as a 15-volume set, is a rich account of eighteenth-century life detailing court events and intrigues, financial and social manoeuvres, theatre and cultural life, publishing activity and censorship, and anecdotes about the famous and near-famous with whom Mme de Graffigny was acquainted. Increasingly, scholars are exploring the Correspondance for data on urban life, the growth of trade and the consumer society, the practices of medicine and surgery, and the dimensions of a woman’s life: her home, work and social spheres.

Basic descriptions of all 2518 letters are given in the online database Early Modern Letters Online, and a selection of excerpts can now be enjoyed on the Voltaire Foundation website. The cumulative index, an indispensable tool for delving into the Correspondance, is also available online at the University of Toronto’s French Department website. Drawing upon all 15 volumes, it covers the two decades of the eighteenth century (1738-1758) spanned by the Correspondance. It allows the reader to trace locutions, surnoms, the genesis of literary works, and the actions of individuals and families over that period of time. It incorporates all updates that have been made to individual volume indexes as new research has filled in the details, especially concerning lesser-known figures.

Since the publication of the first volume in 1985, reviewers and scholars, dialect specialists, theatre buffs and other readers have generously provided biographical information and clues to the bits of verse, satirical songs, punchlines, and quotations which make Mme de Graffigny’s letters delightful to read but challenging to edit. The editors are grateful for all such comments and we encourage readers to keep us informed about new discoveries.

‘Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins!’

‘Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins!’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux, 1743

When the editors realise that an expression used in the letters is an idiom, a locution, they can search for its definition in an eighteenth-century source, such as the Dictionnaire universel françois et latin, vulgairement appelé Dictionnaire de Trévoux (Paris, 1743). Thus, in September 1750, Mme de Graffigny, trying in vain to persuade her friend the actress Mlle Quinault that La Brioche, their early draft of La Fille d’Aristide, would not work, wrote: ‘Je ferai encore un effort aupres de Nicole pour la retenir et puis je jeterai mon bonet par-dessus les moulins’ (Letter 1599). In other words, it was all she could say or would say on the topic: ‘On dit ordinairement à la fin des contes et des fables que l’on fait aux enfans: “Je jettai mon bonnet par-dessus les moulins, et je ne sais ce que tout devint”: ce qui se dit, ou lorsqu’on ne sait plus que dire sur quelque sujet, ou lorsqu’on ne veut pas dire tout ce que l’on en sait’ (Trévoux).

‘Il n’y a personne au logis’

‘Il n’y a personne au logis’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux, 1743

On another occasion, Mme de Graffigny wrote about the unhappy situation of Charles de Lorraine, comte d’Armagnac: ‘Eh, le pauvre prince Charle, il n’y a presque plus personne au logis, et son encien mal au pied est revenus. […] Il n’est plus au nombre des vivans et n’y sera probablement bientot plus phisiquement’ (Letter 1639). She did not mean that he had no one to take care of him, but rather that he had become senile. The expression she used was well known at the time: ‘On dit: il n’y a personne au logis, d’un […] mourant, qui n’a plus de connoissance’ (Trévoux).

Dorothy P. Arthur and Diane Beelen Woody

Dorothy P. Arthur and Diane Beelen Woody, Graffigny Project office, University of Toronto

This rich index is being updated regularly as part of the ongoing work on Volume 16, a digital publication which will include corrections and additions to the print volumes, supplementary archival and manuscript materials, and new letters as they come to light. (English Showalter continues as general editor, and Dorothy P. Arthur is volume editor, aided by Diane Beelen Woody, Marion Filipiuk and Edward A. Heinemann, long-time members of the Toronto team.)

In April we spoke to CBC Radio One Fresh Air about the project and this week my colleague Diane Beelen Woody and I look forward to speaking about Mme de Graffigny’s use of codes and the art of writing under police surveillance at the upcoming meeting of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

– Dorothy P. Arthur