Metalwork in the Encyclopédie: critical interpretation and the evidence of material culture

For the historian of technology, the Encyclopédie is invaluable for the snapshot it provides of eighteenth-century European metallurgy and metalworking technology. Its articles and plates are frequently referenced in studies of French and European metalwork, from the foundry of bells, canons and statuary to jewellery, silversmithing and bronze doré. Dozens of the Encyclopédie’s long-form articles provide detailed descriptions of equipment and processes, while hundreds more short entries describe specific metalsmithing terms, tools and procedures. In my own ongoing collection of articles which refer to metalwork and metallurgy, I have found close to 500 entries so far, but it seems likely that they may amount to a thousand or more. It is indeed a treasure trove of technology.

However, an enquiry into the sources of some of the articles and a critical survey of their scope with reference to surviving metal objects reveals that it may be unwise to assume that metalsmithing technologies described in the Encyclopédie necessarily correlate to those used in Paris or France more broadly during the period, or that a given piece of French metalwork from the period was necessarily made with the techniques described.

Plate One of a set of six plates in the Encyclopédie, ‘Fonte de l’or, de l’argent et du cuivre’, which are referred to in the article ‘Sable, Fondeur en’, illustrating a sand-casting workshop. Source: Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Autumn 2017 Edition), Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe (eds).

Since a number of the articles are translations of foreign works, some may not in fact describe French practices. The article ‘Sable, Fondeur en’ is one of the many Encyclopédie articles translated and adapted from Chambers’ Cyclopædia, in this case a section, ‘Foundry of Small Works, or the Manner of Casting in Sand’, from the article ‘Foundry’. The French article is not entirely a direct translation of the English; the author (possibly Diderot) does elaborate on some parts of the process and describes extra details which indicate that he had indeed visited a sand-casting workshop while preparing the article. However, the French article so closely follows the terminology, descriptions and order of operations in the English that it is unclear to what extent the article actually describes French practices.

In other instances, foreign works were translated without reference to local practices at all, as was apparently the case for ‘Soudure ou souder’, which d’Holbach extracted entirely from a 1760 German work, Ausführliche Beschreibung der Metalllothe und Löthungen by J.G.F. Klein. It may be that French and German soldering recipes and processes were identical, but we cannot assume that this is the case.

While there would have been some degree of homogeneity of metalworking technologies across Europe at the time, largely resulting from the migration of artisans over the preceeding centuries, there were nonetheless some distinct regional practices. A comparison between French and English silver illustrates this point. From at least the mid-17th century, French silver incorporated heavy, highly figurative cast fittings and mouldings, while English silver was generally more restrained in both ornamentation and material, being constructed largely from thin sheet. The influx of Huguenot silversmiths into England in the last quarter of the 17th century before and after the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes led to the incorporation of heavier cast ornamentation in English silver, but to a limited extent. English patrons were not always enamoured of the busier French style, nor willing to pay greater prices for the extra silver required, and the result was a synthesis of French and English styles. We can infer that a synthesis of technologies took place at the time so that, while English silversmithing technology would now have looked more similar to French technology than it had previously, it would still have been somewhat distinct. One can see how uncritical translations from the Cyclopædia might conflate English and French technologies, which could lead the modern historian astray.

Another concern is missing from the Encyclopédie. Naturally, we do not expect that the encyclopédistes could have described all processes of the mechanical arts, no matter how comprehensive their coverage. However, there is one metalworking process which, to the metal historian, is conspicuous by its absence: small-scale lost-wax casting. The Encyclopédie contains extensive descriptions and plates illustrating lost-wax casting of statuary, almost all of which are taken wholesale from Germain Boffrand’s 1743 Description de ce qui a été pratiqué pour fondre en bronze d’un seul jet la figure équestre de Louis XIV, but there are none describing the use of lost-wax casting in silversmithing or jewellery manufacture, nor even, as far as I can discover, any passing mention of it.

Silver Tureen by Étienne-Jacques Marcq (c. 1705–1781), Paris, 1749, Metropolitan Museum, 1975.1.2561a, b. The typical rococo ornaments applied to the lid of this tureen were undoubtedly cast by the lost-wax method, and the rocaille fittings are very likely to have been.

It is difficult to account for this lacuna in the Encyclopédie. It cannot have been left out for fear of repeating the process described for casting of statuary, because small-scale lost-wax casting is quite different, and the encyclopédistes did not shy from repeating themselves over numerous other articles. It is surely not from a deliberate avoidance of the production of luxury goods, because we see detailed discussions of other luxury manufactures such as tapestries, cut diamonds and gilding of metals. We might put it down to the unwillingness of gold- and silversmiths to share trade secrets, but the technique had been widely used for some time, and they were apparently willing to disclose many other techniques.

The significance of lost-wax casting is that it can produce objects which are complex and asymmetrical, such as figures, while the other prevalent technique, sand casting, was largely suited to producing one-sided or bilaterally symmetrical objects. It is curious that lost-wax casting of smaller works is missing from the Encyclopédie because not only had the technique been in common use for at least two centuries but it seems to have flourished particularly during the mid-eighteenth century, especially with the rise of rococo ornamentation. One might even say that rococo metalwork is characteristic of lost-wax casting since the method lends itself to the complex plant and animal ornaments and asymmetrical rocailles which decorate silverware of the period. Modern analysis has shown that bronze doré furniture mounts were sometimes cast by lost-wax, and it was probably common in jewellery manufacture too.

One of a pair of gilt bronze candlesticks after a design by Juste Aurèle Meissonnier (1695–1750), Paris, 1735-1750, Metropolitan Museum, 1999.370.1a, b, .2a, b. The whirling asymmetrical form of this candlestick was almost certainly cast with the lost-wax method, since other casting methods in use in France during this period were better suited to bilaterally symmetrical objects.

It seems likely, therefore, than it is owing simply to the encyclopédistes’ ignorance of the process, which we cannot hold against them, but it does raise a question about their methods for documenting manufacture. Is it possible that they approached the mechanical arts with preconceived ideas about what processes existed to be documented, perhaps informed by the literature which was already available and which they readily plundered? Rather than visiting workshops to passively observe and record what occurred, or encouraging artisans to speak freely about their work, they may perhaps have arrived with a ‘shopping list’ of techniques to study and describe, essentially filling in blanks in a pre-formed picture.

For the metal historian, the concerns raised here simply highlight the necessity of being judicious when using the Encyclopédie to determine the manufacture of French eighteenth-century artefacts. It is not sufficient to defer to it uncritically; the original source of the information should always be sought out, with attention to the possibility of regionalisation of technology, and there must be an awareness of the material evidence of the artefacts, which can reveal interesting gaps in knowledge and lead to new questions.

– Christina Clarke

Christina is an art historian based in the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at the Australian National University. Christina was a Visiting Academic at the Voltaire Foundation during 2018, funded by an Endeavour Research Fellowship awarded by the Australian Government.


‘Une encyclopédie de ma façon’: le chef-d’œuvre méconnu de Voltaire

Voltaire a toujours soutenu la grande entreprise collective de l’Encyclopédie dirigée par D’Alembert et Diderot (consulter cet ouvrage en français ou en anglais). Il a rédigé une quarantaine d’articles pour le dictionnaire, mais avait toutefois quelques réserves sur certains articles: ‘La France fournissait à l’Europe un Dictionnaire encyclopédique dont l’utilité était reconnue. Une foule d’articles excellents rachetaient bien quelques endroits qui n’étaient pas des mains des maîtres,’ écrit-il à Francesco Albergati Capacelli le 23 décembre 1760. Une quinzaine d’années plus tard, il fera imprimer le charmant conte De l’Encyclopédie, qui fera encore l’éloge de cet ouvrage tout en lui reconnaissant certains défauts. Voltaire trouvait notamment que les articles avaient tendance à être trop longs ou trop subjectifs: ‘Je suis encore fâché qu’on fasse des dissertations, qu’on donne des opinions particulières pour des vérités reconnues. Je voudrais partout la définition, et l’origine du mot avec des exemples’ (à D’Alembert, le 9 octobre [1756]).

Après l’achèvement de ce grand dictionnaire, l’éditeur Charles-Joseph Panckoucke forme le projet de publier une réédition avec des corrections. Cela donne à Voltaire l’occasion de proposer des réductions et des réécritures du texte. Un certain nombre de manuscrits trouvés parmi ses papiers après sa mort semblent témoigner de ses efforts dans ce sens, textes déjà publiés dans les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire. Cependant, cette entreprise ne sera pas menée à terme.

Voltaire se décide alors à faire un dictionnaire ‘de sa façon’, où il se sert peut-être de certains articles écrits pour Panckoucke, et où il redéploie quelques-uns des textes qu’il a rédigés pour l’Encyclopédie. On retrouve donc dans ses Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1770-1772) des thèmes et des sujets qui lui sont chers et omniprésents dans son œuvre (tolérance, critique biblique, questions juridiques, superstition…). Mais étant donné que ce n’est plus un ouvrage de référence, l’auteur ne suit pas les consignes qu’il avait préconisées pour le dictionnaire collectif. Le caractère plus personnel de ses Questions lui permet d’adopter par moments un ton ludique: il invente la fiction plus ou moins transparente du Mont Krapack, où une petite société de gens de lettres est censée vivre et travailler aux Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. De nombreux articles jouent l’effet de surprise. Le titre ‘Montagne’ annonce un très court article (de 120 mots seulement) qui évoque la fable de La Fontaine où la montagne met au monde une souris, afin de railler les matérialistes de l’époque, qui voulaient que la matière ait produit le vivant. Sous le mot ‘Rare’, l’auteur congédie la signification du mot en physique pour proposer une méditation sur le sens moral et esthétique: ‘on n’admire jamais ce qui est commun’, affirme-t-il avant de considérer l’émotion que nous éprouvons face aux livres rares, aux trésors architecturaux, à un rhinocéros à Paris. La fine satire ‘Gargantua’, enfin, évoque bel et bien le personnage de Rabelais, mais constitue une sorte d’allégorie où l’auteur, en disputant ‘des esprits téméraires qui ont osé nier les prodiges de ce grand homme’, vise en fait les miracles vécus par et attribués à maints personnages des Saintes Ecritures (Moïse, Josué, Jésus…).

La collection complète des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, publiée par la Voltaire Foundation.

L’ouvrage des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie a disparu dans les éditions posthumes de ses œuvres. L’édition de la Voltaire Foundation, composée de huit volumes (2007-2018) sous la direction de Nicholas Cronk et de Christiane Mervaud, dont l’introduction de Christiane Mervaud vient de paraître, permet de redécouvrir ce texte, le plus long et sans doute le plus varié de Voltaire. L’introduction est la première monographie à être consacrée à ce grand ouvrage, et rend compte de sa genèse, des réactions d’époque, de sa relation complexe avec l’Encyclopédie, et des stratégies d’écriture développées par l’auteur.

Nous remercions tous les collaborateurs de cette édition, qui ont participé à l’annotation des articles, à la préparation des index, aux vérifications bibliographiques. J’ai eu personnellement l’honneur et le grand plaisir d’être associée aux huit volumes de la collection, et d’être secrétaire de l’édition pour six d’entre eux. L’édition critique d’un ouvrage de cette envergure ne peut être qu’un travail d’équipe, en l’occurrence mené sur une période de plus de dix ans, et qui représente en miniature l’entreprise des Œuvres complètes, elle aussi sur le point d’être achevée.

– Gillian Pink

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

The science of parchment and paper: discovery and conservation

Over the past year, a battle has been waged between the House of Lords and the House of Commons as to whether public Acts should continue to be printed on parchment. On the one hand, parchment is used at a substantial cost compared to paper; on the other, it is more durable and maintains tradition, including keeping in business the last parchment and vellum maker in the UK. But what is the distinction between vellum and parchment? At the Bodleian Library on 14 February, a large group gathered to attend a joint venture between the local ‘Café scientifique’ and the Bodleian to find out more about ‘Science and the love of books’ in all their animal, vegetable and mineral glory from Bodleian conservator Andrew Honey. One of the things that we learned was that vellum is a type of parchment, the latter referring generally to all animal skin used as a writing support. But confusingly, while ‘vellum’ literally refers to parchment made of calf-skin, it has, in certain circles, come to acquire the connotation of ‘high-quality parchment’. Which is why it is safer to refer to parchment tout court to avoid speaking at cross-purposes about vellum.

Honey talked the audience through the process of transforming animal skin into parchment, complete with (sometimes somewhat grisly) photos and videos from the Conservation department’s successful attempt to do so from scratch, the results of which were present for viewing and handling. It was interesting to learn that a practical understanding of the material is enabling the team to work out the size of calves in the twelfth century thanks to a close examination of the pages of a large Bible, the pages of which retain clues to anatomical features such as the ilium, the sacrum, the caudal vertebrae and sometimes the first and second thoracic vertebrae. By the eighteenth century, parchment had mostly been replaced by paper for writing and printing, though Alexis Hagadorn gives a detailed account of parchment-making in eighteenth-century France. Even in the nineteenth century, it was still occasionally used by ‘ordinary’ people for binding books instead of calf or morocco leather, as attested for example by this travel diary by William Campion, dated 1858.

‘Observations of Wm Campion In His Travels 1858’, Voltaire Foundation collection.

When it came to paper, we were in more familiar eighteenth-century territory. The process described, and which can be viewed in this 1976 film made at Hayle Mill, would have been familiar to the writers of the 1765 Encyclopédie article ‘Papier’ which, in addition to explaining the techniques used to make the European ‘Papier de linge’ (cloth-based paper), also describes other types of paper from around the globe. What the author, Louis de Jaucourt, would not have known, however, was the neat chemical transformation that takes place as the wet paper dries in its mould, whereby the hydrogen bonds between the fibres and the water are slowly replaced by hydrogen bonds between the fibres themselves, thus giving the paper its structure.

Paper is flexible, foldable – and, just as crucially, scalable. Paper can give us the folio volumes of the Encyclopédie as well as small duodecimo (or even smaller) books which are portable and easily hidden. As Voltaire wrote to D’Alembert on 5 April [1766]: ‘Je voudrais bien savoir quel mal peut faire un livre qui coûte cent écus. Jamais vingt volumes in-folio ne feront de révolution; ce sont les petits livres portatifs à trente sous qui sont à craindre. Si l’évangile avait coûté douze cents sesterces, jamais la religion chrétienne ne se serait établie’ (I’d like to know what harm can be done by a book that costs a hundred crowns. Twenty folio volumes will never bring about a revolution; it is the small, portable books costing thirty pennies that are to be feared. If the gospels had cost twelve hundred sesterces, the Christian religion would never have caught on).

It sounds as though a conservator’s life is never dull. Something new always comes to light when an object needs to be disassembled for repair, even if that discovery is the distressing mess of animal-based glue that reveals a hasty nineteenth- or twentieth-century repair done on the cheap. The prime candidates for restoration work are items that are both badly damaged but also in high demand by readers. Digitisation is possible, and also a solution increasingly adopted by the Bodleian but, happily for us readers, conservators are aware that there will always be cases when, in order to answer research questions, scholars need to see and handle the original document, when nothing but an examination of the object, in all its sometimes messy physicality, will do.

Gillian Pink


Pour la France, et pour Paris en particulier, l’année 2015 se sera terminée aussi douloureusement qu’elle avait commencé. Il nous a paru opportun, pour cette dernière livraison avant le nouvel an, de revenir sur la place centrale qu’occupait le combat contre l’intolérance chez Voltaire et ses amis philosophes.

La Liberte

‘La Liberté armée du Sceptre de la Raison foudroye l’Ignorance et le Fanatisme’ / Dessiné par Boizot; Gravé par Chapuy. 1793-1795. Paris, BnF.

Voltaire écrivit maintes fois contre le fanatisme religieux et ses conséquences néfastes pour le genre humain. Mais il appréciait également les textes des autres dans ce domaine. L’un de ces écrits, l’article ‘Fanatisme’ de l’Encyclopédie, rédigé par Alexandre Deleyre, a fait l’objet d’une réécriture voltairienne, où le Patriarche condense ce qui était déjà un texte frappant pour le rendre encore plus incisif. Cette réécriture fait partie d’un groupe de textes publiés de façon posthume à partir de manuscrits tombés entre les mains de ses éditeurs. Cet ensemble difficile à interpréter, provisoirement appelés les ‘manuscrits de Kehl’, sera publié dans la série des œuvres alphabétiques de Voltaire au sein des Œuvres complètes. Dans cet article ‘Fanatisme’, Voltaire emprunte donc la voix d’autrui pour disséminer une énième fois le message contre l’intolérance et la superstition:

« Imaginons une immense rotonde, un panthéon à mille autels, et placés au milieu du dôme; figurons-nous un dévot de chaque secte, éteinte ou subsistante, aux pieds de la divinité qu’il honore à sa façon, sous toutes les formes bizarres que l’imagination a pu créer. A droite, c’est un contemplatif étendu sur une natte, qui attend, le nombril en l’air, que la lumière céleste vienne investir son âme. A gauche, c’est un énergumène prosterné qui frappe du front contre la terre, pour en faire sortir l’abondance. Là c’est un saltimbanque qui danse sur la tombe de celui qu’il invoque. Ici c’est un pénitent immobile et muet comme la statue devant laquelle il s’humilie. L’un étale ce que la pudeur cache, parce que Dieu ne rougit pas de sa ressemblance; l’autre voile jusqu’à son visage, comme si l’ouvrier avait horreur de son ouvrage. Un autre tourne le dos au Midi, parce que c’est là le vent du démon; un autre tend les bras vers l’Orient, où Dieu montre sa face rayonnante. De jeunes filles en pleurs meurtrissent leur chair encore innocente, pour apaiser le démon de la concupiscence par des moyens capables de l’irriter; d’autres, dans une posture tout opposée, sollicitent les approches de la Divinité. Un jeune homme, pour amortir l’instrument de la virilité, y attache des anneaux de fer d’un poids proportionné à ses forces; un autre arrête la tentation dès sa source, par une amputation tout à fait inhumaine, et suspend à l’autel les dépouilles de son sacrifice.

« Voyons-les tous sortir du temple, et pleins du Dieu qui les agite, répandre la frayeur et l’illusion sur la face de la terre. Ils se partagent le monde, et bientôt le feu s’allume aux quatre extrémités; les peuples écoutent, et les rois tremblent. Cet empire que l’enthousiasme d’un seul exerce sur la multitude qui le voit ou l’entend, la chaleur que les esprits rassemblés se communiquent, tous ces mouvements tumultueux, augmentés par le trouble de chaque particulier, rendent en peu de temps le vertige général. C’est assez d’un seul peuple enchanté à la suite de quelques imposteurs, la séduction multipliera les prodiges, et voilà tout le monde à jamais égaré. L’esprit humain une fois sorti des routes lumineuses de la nature, n’y rentre plus; il erre autour de la vérité, sans en rencontrer autre chose que des lueurs, qui, se mêlant aux fausses clartés dont la superstition l’environne, achèvent de l’enfoncer dans les ténèbres. »

– G.P.

Émilie du Châtelet, forgotten encyclopédiste?

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749), portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour. (

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749), portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour. (

Émilie du Châtelet was a great many things: mathematician, natural philosopher, translator of Newton, successor of Leibniz and Wolff, lover and scientific companion of Voltaire, and various other sundry pursuits. She was not, however, nor is she today, widely considered as a contributor to the Encyclopédie. No mention of her is made in either D’Alembert’s “Discours préliminaire”, or in any of the other “Avertissements & Errata” paratexts that accompanied the Encyclopédie’s publication. Logically then, she is also not to be found in any of the exhaustive lists and inventories of encyclopaedic authors compiled by later scholars such as Richard Schwab and Frank Kafker.[1]

This accepted wisdom, however, is now being brought into question thanks to renewed interest in Du Châtelet not merely as a translator, commentator, or companion of great men, but equally as a significant intellectual force in her own right. Recent scholarship such as that by Koffi Maglo[2] has succeeded in challenging what had for centuries been assumed as Du Châtelet’s decidedly minor role in the encyclopaedic enterprise. More recently still, an international group of scholars came together in Oxford this past May for a study day on the subject of “Émilie Du Châtelet: Philosopher & Encyclopédiste”, a workshop aimed at unravelling Du Châtelet’s complicated and often overlooked encyclopaedic legacy.

Title page of the Encyclopédie (1751). (

Title page of the Encyclopédie (1751). (

We now know, for instance, that the unsigned article “Hypothèse” is largely drawn from Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (1740). Indeed, “Hypothèse” is one of seven articles that explicitly cites the Institutions de physique as a source. And, of these seven articles, “Hypothèse” is the only one that is not at least partially authored by Samuel Formey. Formey, it would seem, is largely responsible for Du Châtelet’s inclusion in the Encyclopédie, so much so that, according to Maglo, if one follows “les traces de Formey […] vous serez en compagnie de Mme Du Châtelet”. However, Formey’s role in the Encyclopédie is somewhat curious.

An exiled Huguenot pastor and perpetual secretary of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, Formey had begun his own philosophical dictionary as early as 1742. By 1747 he had heard rumour about a French encyclopaedia project – which took as its starting point a translation of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia – and decided to approach its editor, then the Abbé Gua de Malves, offering his completed articles to the new enterprise. By 1749, the deal – executed by the libraires associés who controlled the project – was finalised, and Formey sent the editors (by then Diderot and D’Alembert) some 1800 manuscript pages (petit in folio) in exchange for 300 livres; with the added proviso that the manuscript be returned to the author and that he be mentioned in the work’s preface.

It is thus presumably through the mediation of Formey’s articles that Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (one of Formey’s admitted sources for his articles on Metaphysics) came to be incorporated into the Encyclopédie. As such, most scholars have treated Du Châtelet as a secondary source for the Encyclopédie, and little more. But, digging into the issue a little, it would seem that the Du Châtelet/Formey relationship is rather more complex than we normally assume. Is this really just a simple case of an author (Formey) using a source (Du Châtelet) in order to bolster an argument or expand upon a concept? Or, as with “Hypothèse”, is there more to Du Châtelet’s presence in the Encyclopédie than we’ve previously admitted?

To answer these questions I compared a copy of the Institutions de physique found in the BNF’s Gallica digital library to the entire text of the Encyclopédie using a sequence alignment algorithm developed by the ARTFL Project.[3] The results, which will be published in full later this year, not only give us a better understanding of the extent to which Du Châtelet was used in the seven articles that cite the Institutions de physique, but also reveal a further six articles that make extensive use of Du Châtelet’s text with no attribution at all. Given both the scope and scale of these borrowings, whether cited or not, these new findings serve to complicate further the already nebulous notion of authorship in the Encyclopédie.


Title page of Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (1740). (

Take, for example, the article “Contradiction”, attributed unequivocally to Formey by Diderot and D’Alembert: “Cet article est de M. Formey”. Of its 338 words, 320 of them are drawn directly from sections 4 and 7 of the Institutions de physique, again with no attribution. To put this into terms perhaps more familiar to modern academic sensibilities, this means that Formey’s Turnitin-style “similarity score” for the article “Contradiction” would register at a rather alarming 95%. Indeed, all of the Formey articles we examined would score well above the 50% originality metric in terms of their similarity to Du Châtelet’s text.

Nor was this practice limited to Du Châtelet, apparently, as Alexander Bocast has convincingly demonstrated. Formey also makes quite liberal and unacknowledged use of Condillac’s Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines in his article “Définition”, for example.[4] All of which inevitably begs the question: should we continue to attribute articles to Formey that are drawn primarily from other sources? If not, to whom should we attribute them? Formey and Du Châtelet (or Condillac) together (in what order?); or Du Châtelet (and Condillac) alone, if above a certain threshold of borrowing? At what point does an article “belong” to its author as opposed to its source? And, on what grounds should one make these sorts of editorial decisions at all?

These questions all speak to the unique dialogical structure of the Encyclopédie and its multiple layers of authorship and authority. Contributors (both acknowledged and anonymous) would weave outside sources into their articles with varying degrees of attribution. These contributions would then often become the subject of editorial interventions on the part of Diderot and, to a lesser extent, D’Alembert. All of which makes the Encyclopédie a fundamentally “social” text, one built on the premise of philosophical conversation between the various members of Diderot’s “société des gens de lettres”, a microcosm of that larger international “Republic of Letters”.

Émilie du Châtelet was unquestionably a leading citizen of this Republic. And, while her contributions may be obscured by their apparent status as secondary source, new research such as that presented here is beginning to deconstruct this primary/secondary distinction in favour of a more expansive, and dialogical notion of encyclopaedic authorship. If Montesquieu is unambiguously considered as one the encyclopédistes thanks to his “contribution” of a single, unfinished posthumous article (e.g. “Goût”), then can’t we imagine an expanded author list for the Encyclopédie that makes room for Émilie du Châtelet, and doubtless many others? I, for one, would hope so.

But while we collectively might not yet be prepared to grant Du Châtelet full status as an Encyclopédie author (though I would argue that we should be), then, at the very least, we should do our best to make sure that she’s an acknowledged – and significant – participant in the philosophical conversation that the Encyclopédie enacts.

– Glenn Roe

[1] See Richard N. Schwab, Walter E. Rex and John Lough, Inventory of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol.80, 83, 85, 91, 92, 93 and 223, Oxford, 1971-1984) and Frank Kafker, The Encyclopedists as Individuals (Studies on Voltaire, vol.257, Oxford, 1988).

[2] See Koffi Maglo, ‘Madame Du Châtelet, l’Encyclopédie et la philosophie des sciences’, in Emilie du Châtelet: éclairages et documents nouveaux (Paris, Ferney-Voltaire: CIEDS, 2008), p.255-66.

[3] This is the same methodology, in fact, that we used previously to examine the citation practices of the encyclopédistes. See Dan Edelstein, Robert Morrissey, and Glenn Roe, “To Quote or Not to Quote: Citation strategies in the ‘Encyclopédie’”, Journal of the History of Ideas 74.2, April 2013, p.213-36.

[4] See Bocast, “Condillac’s Contributions to Formey’s Article on ‘DÉFINITION’ in Diderot’s Encyclopédie”.

Happy birthday Denis Diderot! A letter from Marian Hobson

Cher Denis Diderot, happy 300th birthday!

birthdaydiderotWherever you are – for you were a non-believer all your life, and the afterlife you looked forward to was one of infinitely recyclable molecules living on in ever new combinations. A process possibly without end, spinning out like the cosmos itself, but one that was sufficiently complex to leave room for human intervention.

So for 20 years of your life and against the odds you edited the Encyclopédie, aiming to consolidate what was known about agriculture, art, theology, trade – a raft of subjects that probably no other European would have dared bring together – in order that intervention might improve, and wrongs in human systems and thought be at least discussed, and if possible righted.

However, that changing of opinions and recycling of molecules requires energy – that you also knew. In deliciously underhanded ways you developed yours by writing: for instance, dialogues of speculative science prefiguring cloning (Le Rêve de D’Alembert); a hilarious novel (Jacques le fataliste), anticipating le nouveau roman of the 1950s and 1960s, one presenting a net of random co-occurrences out of which events develop in a way that mimics freedom. Your novel forms a net which thus appears as the paradoxical opposite of a linear, causal determinism, and from it we see that these apparent opposites take in each other’s philosophical washing: What is it to be free? Not to be determined. To be determined? Not to be free.

Notably kind, you yet had a talent for comedy and satire which you hid in unpublished work, the satire in the form of a novel-cum-dialogue (Le Neveu de Rameau). Unlike your friend-enemy Rousseau, you are not in the Panthéon; your work doesn’t appear as a set philosophical text in that summum of your country’s education ladder, the written exam of the agrégation en philosophie.DiderotJacquesFatalist01

Your accolades are less of the Establishment, are more wayward and in the future – you will be translated by Goethe, be used as a springboard towards the dialectic by Hegel, and Freud will be glad to find in you a past confirmation of his Oedipus complex. Your work ghosting for others (the atheist d’Holbach), commenting on and round them (Helvétius and the believer Hemsterhuis) and collaborating namelessly on a history of colonialisms (L’histoire des Deux-Indes) has gently rocked beliefs without inculcating dogma or doctrine. We can’t turn you into a memorial, not yet anyway, there is too much to do. You make us keep on thinking. Thank you for all this, cher Denis Diderot!

-Marian Hobson

To find out more about Diderot, please visit our dedicated page.