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 mrconroy@memphis.edu or @MelanieConroy. The Salons Project is online at salonsproject.org. The Salons Project is collaborative and invites new researchers to adopt its methods and share their data.

 

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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: de3@digitizingenlightenment.com

– Gregory Brown and Glenn Roe