‘Résumé de toute cette histoire…’: the final chapter of Voltaire’s Essai sur les mœurs

In our final volume of text for the Essai sur les mœurs [1], Voltaire delivers a further catalogue of barbaric anecdotes and atrocities. This brings the various countries of his study up to the seventeenth century and the start of his Siècle de Louis XIV.

Resumé page

Original opening of chapter 211 in 1756, Essai sur l’histoire générale, et sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours, vol.7, p.142.

In his final chapter, 197, ‘Résumé de toute cette histoire jusqu’au temps où commence le beau siècle de Louis XIV’, Voltaire attempts to take stock of this ‘vaste théâtre’ of his world tour, asking: ‘Quel sera le fruit de ce travail? quel profit tirera-t-on de l’histoire?’ In his answer he introduces new issues and arguments: for example, to settle old scores with Montesquieu, spared in the 1756 version, only a year after his death.

Originally written as chapter 211 in 1756, when the Essai and the Siècle formed one work (Essai sur l’histoire générale, et sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours) and the chapters were numbered consecutively, the slightly differently titled ‘Résumé de toute cette histoire, et point de vue sous lequel on peut la regarder’ had a more pessimistic tone, perhaps because it was written soon after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. In 1761, the chapter was then brought forward to conclude the Essai, and Voltaire composed a new ‘Conclusion et examen de ce tableau historique’ for the ensemble of his modern history texts, placed at the end of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV. The reworked conclusion to the Essai sheds some of its original pessimism, though invites the reader to share his skeptical vision of history.

Looking back over the publication history of our first seven volumes of the Essai, it seems that we, the publishing team, have also covered a ‘vaste théâtre’. Kick-started by a generous grant from the AHRC, with further financial support from the Fondation Wiener-Anspach, and after eight years’ work by:

  • four general editors,
  • twenty-eight Voltaire specialists, from ten countries, dealing with nine centuries of history,
  • seven preface contributors,
  • three typesetting companies,

and a publishing team of online researchers, bibliographical specialists, translators, indexers, copy-editors, proof-readers, typesetters, printers and distributors… the last volume of chapters has finally been published.

We, too, have taken in the world: our team of editors were based in countries as widespread as Hungary, Spain and the USA; in our research, we drew on special links with eleven libraries worldwide – most notably the National Library of Russia, Saint Petersburg, for illustrations of Voltaire’s handwritten marginalia taken from volumes in his library, as well as for vital descriptions of manuscripts.

Conceived in the 1740s, the Essai was continually reworked by Voltaire throughout his life, with major revisions published in 1753, 1754, 1761, 1768 and 1775. The reproduction of the different readings from these and further editions required the collation of thousands of variants from some sixteen editions and four manuscripts – supplemented with hours of on-screen ‘tagging’ of text to ensure that each of the variants appears at the correct point to correspond with the base text. Hundreds of historiographical sources contemporary to Voltaire were trawled for evidence as to where he had found his material – an enormous task, made easier by the appearance online of an increasing number of works as our project progressed.

As project manager, I can vouch for the team’s sense of achievement – not to say relief – as we reach this landmark point in such a monumental enterprise. ‘Quel sera le fruit de ce travail?’ Perhaps history will tell us.

– Karen Chidwick

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Voltaire Foundation, Oxford), vol.26C: chapters 177-197.


Battles on and off the field

The eleventh of May 2015 is the 270th anniversary of the battle of Fontenoy, a great French victory in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Voltaire’s official position as royal historiographer allowed him privileged access, for a time, to dispatches sent to Versailles from the battlefields, and he started to write an Histoire de la guerre de 1741 in which the battle of Fontenoy was central. In this he aimed to present a new kind of modern history to his contemporaries [1].


The Battle of Fontenoy (Praetiriti Fides, Exemplumque Futuri, http://pfef.free.fr/Index.htm)



Part of the work appeared in 1755 in an unauthorised edition, based on a stolen manuscript, rapidly followed by further editions and several English translations in 1756. Voltaire continued to develop the work and in an Avant-propos he makes the point that, in contrast to ancient history, modern history has been largely presented to the public through gazettes and newspapers, which ‘forment presque la seule histoire des changements arrivés de nos jours’ while ‘Il est important à la génération présente d’être informée au juste de ce qui la regarde’ [2]. The avant-propos was not published in Voltaire’s lifetime, as his falling out with the king made authorised publication of this work impossible. Instead the text went through several metamorphoses that were incorporated into the Essai sur les mœurs, and then the Précis du siècle de Louis XV which appeared first as an addendum to Le Siècle de Louis XIV.


Robert-François Damiens (gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France)


The Précis allowed for a candid view of Louis XV’s reign and reads like a contemporary political account of the period. Indeed, in the Précis Voltaire goes so far as to provide many details of the case against Robert-François Damiens, who had attacked and wounded the king, and the accusations made by this ‘régicide’ against prominent magistrates of the parlement of Paris who, Damiens claimed, had influenced his actions. Voltaire knew that ‘le parlement serait fâché qu’on vît dans l’histoire ce qu’on voit dans le procès verbal’ (D10985, 6 February 1763), but included it nonetheless. The modernity of Voltaire’s views on the need for modern history is summed up by his belief in the importance of transparency: ‘Il est utile de savoir la vérité de ce qui nous regarde, difficile de la démêler, et dangereux de la dire’ [2].

– James Hanrahan, Trinity College Dublin

[1] On this topic see Pierre Force, ‘Voltaire and the necessity of modern history’, Modern Intellectual History, 6, 3 (2009), p.457-484.

[2] Voltaire, Histoire de la Guerre de 1741, ed. by Jacques Maurens (Paris, Garnier, 1971), p.3.

A tale of losing, finding and coming home


In April of last year we were mourning the loss of our friend and colleague José-Michel Moureaux, whom we remember not only for the impeccable editions that he prepared for the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (for instance La Défense de mon oncle, the Discours de l’Empereur Julien), but also for his good advice, his unfailing interest in the life of the Voltaire Foundation and his kindness. We still feel his loss most keenly.

In April of this year, working on the chapters of the Essai sur les mœurs concerned with the discovery of the New World, we were in need of Fernand Caussy’s Œuvres inédites de Voltaire, a rare book of which the first volume only was printed just before the outbreak of the First World War (a small 1971 reprint is no longer available). This volume contains the fruits of Caussy’s work in St Petersburg more than a hundred years ago, among them transcriptions made by him of unpublished manuscript fragments in Voltaire’s hand relating to the chapters in the Essai sur les mœurs on the New World and only partially retranscribed by R. Pomeau during his own visit to St Petersburg. Up to now we have made use of the copy in the Bodleian Library, but for detailed work on these particular fragments we needed a copy here at 99 Banbury Road, a copy that we could use intensively – even adding our own marginalia!  We made one last on-line search, and located a copy of the original edition for sale by a small bookseller in the south of France.


Once the book arrived our need to get on with the work for the Essai was so pressing (this volume, OCV, t.26A, was published last month) that it was several weeks before the volume happened to fall open at the flyleaf, where we found the signature ‘J.-M. Moureaux, 1983’…

José-Michel’s copy was signed as a presentation copy from Fernand Caussy to one of his own colleagues in 1914.  It has at some stage been bound in an institutional binding. We don’t know how it came into José-Michel’s own library, but we are delighted that it has made its way to 99 Banbury Road, and we like to think that José-Michel would have been delighted too.


Putting a price on slavery: Voltaire and the New World

Voltaire and globeIt is now the mid-sixteenth century, and we have passed the half-way mark in the publication of Voltaire’s Essai sur les mœurs with the appearance this month of our fifth volume of text. In its fascinating central section (chapters 148-54), Voltaire charts the discovery of the New World and the rivalries between the various European powers in the exploitation of its wealth – without losing sight of the moral conflict caused by the parent powers and their depredations in the development of this new economy.

Two hundred and fifty years later, in September this year, it was announced that fourteen Caribbean countries are seeking reparations for the 10-12 million Africans transported to the New World in order to sustain that new economy. With an ongoing desire for justice, The Caribbean Community countries (Caricom) hope to create an inventory of the wrongs suffered, and on the basis of this to demand an apology and reparations from the former colonial powers of Britain, France and the Netherlands (New York Times). Caricom established an official reparations commission in July.

In chapter 152 of his Essai, Voltaire, always with an eye on human suffering, comments on the ‘marchandise humaine’ from the African coasts used to exploit the commodities of the New World: ‘Nous leur disons qu’ils sont hommes comme nous, qu’ils sont rachetés du sang d’un Dieu mort pour eux, et ensuite on les fait travailler comme des bêtes de somme […] s’ils veulent s’enfuir, on leur coupe une jambe […] Ce commerce n’enrichit point un pays; bien au contraire, il fait périr des hommes.’

W. Burke, An account of the European settlements in America, part 5, ‘The French settlements’ (London, 1758), vol.2, p.[iii-iv]; Voltaire’s copy contains his handwritten notes.

W. Burke, An account of the European settlements in America, part 5, ‘The French settlements’ (London, 1758), vol.2, p.[iii-iv]; Voltaire’s copy contains his handwritten notes.

In October, the Australian-based rights organisation Walk Free released a Global Slavery Index. The International Labour Organisation estimates that in 2013 there are almost 21 million people worldwide who are victims of forced labour.

‘… après cela,’ says Voltaire, ‘nous osons parler du droit des gens.’

Essai sur les mœurs, volume VI, chapters 130-162
OCV, vol.26A, ISBN 978 0 7294 0976 6, publication November 2013