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