‘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.

Voltaire: historian of modernity

Voltaire’s historical writings form a significant part of his output, including works on Louis XIV, Louis XV, Charles XII, Peter the Great, the Holy Roman Empire, and even a pioneering universal history. These histories were highly regarded in his lifetime, and Voltaire was a powerful influence on the other great historians of the age, Hume, Gibbon and Robertson.

Voltaire painted by Garneray, engraved by Alix.

Voltaire painted by Garneray, engraved by P. M. Alix. Voltaire’s achievements are listed as ‘Philosophie, Tragédie, Histoire, Poème, La Henriade, Comédies, Temple du goût, La Pucelle, Contes, Œuvres divers’. Source gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Despite this, writers now are uncomfortable in trying to explain the importance of Voltaire as a historian. Karen O’Brien, for example, remarks that ‘Voltaire’s histories have not recovered today from the low reputation to which they sank after the French Revolution’. [1] We typically criticise Voltaire’s histories for being polemical and tendentious: his determination to view everything from a resolutely modern point of view can make him seem naïve, and some find it puzzling that his histories were once held in such esteem.

The aim of the Voltaire: historian of modernity project is to come to a better understanding of Voltaire’s overall philosophical project, by focusing on a neglected aspect of his work: his determination to write ‘modern’ history. Much of his historical writing, especially in the earlier years, is devoted to the modern world. Voltaire first explores the defining characteristics of the modern world (the benefits of trade, the scientific revolution, religious toleration) in a book about England (Lettres sur les Anglais, or Lettres philosophiques), before studying the flourishing culture of France during the previous century (Le Siècle de Louis XIV). He then extends this exploration, forwards into modern France (Précis du siècle de Louis XV)and outwards into the recent history of the whole world (Essai sur les mœurs).

The study of recent history was, Voltaire declared bluntly, ‘a matter of necessity’. [2] The study of modern times was more precise than the study of ancient history, because sources were more numerous and more reliable. Most importantly – and here Voltaire seems influenced by the English writer Bolingbroke – modern history is best placed to offer us instructive examples. Traditionally, it had always been ancient history that was thought to be significant as a source of morally improving examples of conduct. Voltaire turns that idea on its head. As an Enlightenment philosopher, he wants to teach the lessons of free thought and religious tolerance, and he turns to modern history for telling examples to prove his point.

Voltaire’s histories are not in a separate category on the margins of his œuvre: they are at its very core. We need to (re)read the modern histories alongside Voltaire’s other polemical works, and to understand them as part of one and the same project. The spirit of criticism that characterises the Enlightenment begins when we scrutinise our own age, and we cannot fully understand Voltaire the philosopher without appreciating his commitment to the study of modern history. [3]

– Nicholas Cronk

[1] Narratives of Enlightenment: cosmopolitan history from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge, 1997), p.21.

[2] Conseils à un journaliste, see Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.20A (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 2003), p.482.

[3] This blog post is based on an article that first appeared in the Leverhulme Trust Newsletter in 2014.

Voltaire, historiographe précurseur: ‘Les mœurs des hommes, l’esprit de parti, se connaissent à la manière d’écrire l’histoire’ (Essai sur les mœurs, ch.171)

Les chapitres 170, 171 et 173 de l’Essai sur les mœurs (OCV, t.26B) consacrés aux guerres civiles de France donnent à Voltaire l’occasion de reprendre un sujet sur lequel il a commencé à faire des recherches lors de la composition de La Henriade (publiée sous le titre de La Ligue en 1723). Cette période particulièrement tourmentée et sanglante de l’histoire de France illustre mieux qu’aucune autre l’engrenage de la violence, qui revêt, à côté du conflit militaire, de multiples visages: libelles haineuses, conspirations (conjuration d’Amboise) et factions (la Ligue), emprisonnements et jugements sommaires, massacres (Wassy, la Saint-Barthélemy) et assassinats – ces derniers prenant même la forme extrême du régicide, sur lequel se clôt le règne calamiteux d’Henri III.

Hogenberg / Franois / 0410. L'assassinat du duc de Guise / [est

François Hogenberg, ‘L’assassinat du duc de Guise’ (estampe, XVIe siècle; Bibliothèque nationale de France).

C’est là un riche sujet de réflexion pour Voltaire, qui, dans la lignée de Bossuet, puise dans l’Histoire la matière d’un enseignement moral et philosophique, jugeant le passé à l’aune des préoccupations contemporaines. Les Guerres de Religion sont à cet égard un cas d’école: on ne peut mieux prouver les méfaits, bien plus, l’absurdité de l’intolérance religieuse, qui favorise ce qu’elle prétend détruire. Non pas que l’auteur accorde, dans sa narration, la place qu’on attendrait au débat théologique, bien au contraire. Ce silence s’explique fondamentalement par la vision voltairienne du rapport entre pouvoir et religion: chez les princes, note-t-il, ‘la religion n’est presque jamais que leur intérêt’; elle n’est qu’un prétexte pour conquérir ou conserver le pouvoir, un moyen d’instrumentaliser le peuple fanatisé.

Plus fondamentalement, son projet d’histoire universelle le conduit à renouveler le regard qu’il portait sur cette époque dans La Henriade ou l’Essay upon the civil wars of France (1728). Sa vision s’enrichit de l’attention portée à la longue durée – aux mœurs de la Cour, aux conditions matérielles d’existence, aux institutions politiques ou juridiques, aux structures économiques et financières du royaume. De façon intéressante, Voltaire intègre ces données d’arrière-plan à la trame événementielle. Ainsi, pour éclairer l’enchaînement imprévu des faits qui aboutissent à la tuerie de Wassy, il souligne l’habitude qu’ont alors les seigneurs de se déplacer accompagné d’une très nombreuse suite.

Voltaire approfondit son érudition par un travail de documentation considérable – puisant aussi bien dans les travaux des historiens que dans les chroniques et les mémoires du temps, chez les auteurs protestants que chez les auteurs catholiques – et prend ouvertement position dans le débat historiographique, ici pour corriger une erreur, là pour dénoncer la partialité d’un jugement, quitte à se montrer injuste envers les auteurs qu’il utilise abondamment, comme c’est le cas pour le jésuite Daniel.

Comme l’a montré Pierre Force dans sa Préface du tome 26B, l’écriture de l’Essai sur les mœurs témoigne d’un art de la brièveté qui le rattache au genre du ‘précis’. Dans nos chapitres, Voltaire se contente souvent de faire allusion aux événements supposés connus, pour se concentrer sur des détails piquants, des anecdotes savoureuses, des propos mémorables. Il livre un portrait romanesque de la Cour sous la régence de Catherine de Médicis et le règne de ses fils, qui forme un curieux mélange de ‘galanteries et de fureurs’, et ne manque pas une occasion de surprendre ou d’amuser son lecteur, a fortiori si elle lui permet au passage de faire montre de son savoir. En somme, on découvre dans ces chapitres quelques-unes des caractéristiques essentielles d’une figure d’historien que l’édition critique de l’Essai sur les mœurs aura permis d’appréhender dans toute sa complexité.

– Justine de Reyniès

L’Europe des Lumières: un recours face au désenchantement présent?

Le désenchantement face à la construction européenne n’est pas neuf. L’âge d’or qui présida, après la seconde guerre mondiale, à la renaissance du projet européen, fut de courte durée. Aussi depuis trente ans la désillusion ne cesse-t-elle de s’approfondir et de prendre des formes nouvelles.


David Rumsey Map Collection, www.davidrumsey.com

Ce désenchantement tient, nous dit-on, au ‘déficit démocratique’ dont la construction européenne serait victime. Dans cet esprit, les projets politiques pour l’Europe, vaste palette allant des Etats-Unis d’Europe à la fédération des peuples, semblent plus ou moins relégués aux oubliettes de l’histoire. A mesure que ses critiques dénoncent la froide vérité de la construction européenne, les espoirs de ceux qui, depuis la Résistance et l’antifascisme, ont considéré l’Europe comme le remède aux barbaries nationales, sont sans cesse déçus. L’Europe ne fait plus rêver: depuis 2005 et le non français et néerlandais au référendum sur le Traité Constitutionnel Européen, elle fait surtout parler d’elle pour des raisons techniques plus ou moins obscures. En 2012, la crise des dettes souveraines, menaçant ce qui semblait jusqu’alors intangible (l’union monétaire voire l’union elle-même) n’a fait qu’accentuer la désillusion.


Non-sensunique, Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Pourtant, l’Europe n’a pas vocation à être l’objet de ce regard désenchanté. Encore faut-il savoir ce qu’est l’Europe et de quelle histoire elle hérite. Le volume collectif Penser l’Europe au XVIIIe siècle: commerce, civilisation, empire se propose donc, non de définir l’Europe par son passé, mais de retrouver les origines d’une pensée de l’Europe. Il se pourrait en effet que l’Europe souffre moins d’un déficit démocratique que d’un déficit théorique, d’une difficulté à concevoir cette entité étrange qui n’est ni une nation, ni un empire, qui ne se laisse réduire ni à sa géographie ni à son histoire.

Cette pensée de l’Europe plonge ses racines au cœur du XVIIIe siècle, dans la période privilégiée de l’histoire européenne qui se situe entre la fin des guerres de religion et la montée en puissance des nationalismes. Le détour par les Lumières s’impose donc pour explorer l’histoire de l’idée d’Europe, antérieurement à la simplification dualiste aujourd’hui dominante (fédération ou marché). L’hypothèse de ce recueil est en effet la suivante: si l’Europe a une longue histoire, c’est bien au XVIIIe siècle que se sont forgées les premières théories de l’Europe – théories qui furent largement occultées au siècle suivant.


L’Europe fut alors conçue comme une fédération, mais aussi, à la suite de la découverte du Nouveau Monde, comme une forme de ‘marché’ en pleine expansion, au moment où l’économie politique commençait à prétendre au titre de science et où la traite en plein développement trouvait ses premiers critiques. Tendue entre la réalité naissante du marché mondial associé à l’expansion coloniale et soumis aux rivalités impériales, et l’utopie de l’association d’Etats désireux de garantir une coexistence pacifique, l’Europe fut aussi théorisée de manière plus profonde, plus féconde et plus dangereuse à la fois: elle fut conçue, pour la première fois sans doute, comme une ‘civilisation’. C’est alors une autre généalogie, complexe et polémique, dont il faut comprendre les enjeux: celle des théories de la civilisation européenne, avant le développement de l’impérialisme triomphant au XIXe siècle.

– Antoine Lilti et Céline Spector



Penser l’Europe au XVIIIe siècle: commerce, civilisation, empire

Edité par Antoine Lilti et Céline Spector

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, octobre 2014, ISBN 978-0-7294-1148-6, 280 p.

Voir aussi:



David Bien: the ancien régime in a new light

Satirical print from 1789 depicting the Third Estate carrying the clergy and nobility on its back. The caption reads: ‘A faut esperer qu’eus jeu la finira bentot’ – ‘Here’s hoping this game’s over soon’. SOURCE: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Satirical print from 1789 depicting the Third Estate carrying the clergy and nobility on its back. The caption reads: ‘A faut esperer qu’eus jeu la finira bentot’ – ‘Here’s hoping this game’s over soon’.
(Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Say the words ‘ancien régime’ and what might spring to mind is an image of Marie Antoinette nibbling on rosewater macaroons and declaring ‘let them eat cake’ while the starving poor of France sharpen their pitchforks at the gates of Versailles.

In our cultural psyche, France’s ancien régime is the age of the Three Estates: the nobility, the clergy, and everyone else. It is the age when wigs, powder and mouches covered up baldness and smallpox scars, when the sprightly minuets of Louis XVI’s court attempted to drown out the cries of the hordes – and when an outward semblance of elegant refinement masked corruption, cruelty and inequality.

It is a period which David Bien, Professor of History at the University of Michigan from 1967-1996, made his own. A quiet radical, he devoted his scholarly career to unravelling its paradoxes and nuances, constructing a multi-faceted portrait of a historical period far more complex than this collection of cultural clichés might lead us to suppose.


Interpreting the ‘ancien régime’: David Bien brings together for the first time in one accessible volume his essays on religious tolerance, policies of ennoblement, and military reform. It offers access to his cogent and sensitive analyses, but also represents an opportunity to re-evaluate questions about the ways in which we read, write and think about history.

David Bien relished the opportunity to let the past speak for itself. His highly original readings of events were hewn from hours of research in the archives. He heard in the rustle of parchment the whisper of the past, and found innovation where one would least expect it, in centuries-old documents. In 1960, his daring new reading of the notorious Calas affair brought him firmly onto the historical scene. In 1761, the scandalous death of Marc-Antoine and the condemnation and torture of his father, Protestant Jean Calas, accused of murdering his son because he intended to convert to Catholicism, appeared to pit the religious establishment in the form of the judges of Toulouse’s Capitoul against Enlightenment thinkers promoting tolerance and religious freedom.

The frontispiece of a late 18th or early 19th century English chapbook, depicting ‘The cruel death of Calas, who was broke on the wheel at Toulouse, March 9th, 1762’

The frontispiece of a late 18th or early 19th century English chapbook, depicting ‘The cruel death of Calas, who was broke on the wheel at Toulouse, March 9th, 1762’

David Bien’s reading ran counter to the accepted narrative, which was largely based on Voltaire’s presentation of the case in his Traité sur la tolérance. Rather than viewing ideas as absolute schools, Bien placed them back into their specific historical context in order to re-evaluate this version of events. He demonstrated that the events in Toulouse were the exception rather than the rule, using judicial records to suggest that many Catholic French judges of the time were actually embracing the ideal of religious tolerance, often presented as the sole preserve of Enlightenment thinkers, in their attitude towards Protestants. Bien invites us to reconsider the writings of thinkers like Voltaire on the Calas affair as carefully crafted pieces of polemic which are indissociable from a wider intellectual project of secularization.

Detail from a portrait of Voltaire, after Maurice Quentin de La Tour c.1736 (Château de Ferney)

Detail from a portrait of Voltaire, after Maurice Quentin de La Tour c.1736 (Château de Ferney)

David Bien’s early work on tolerance in the eighteenth century is perhaps a hallmark of his attitude as a historian. Open-minded and sensitive to the inconsistencies of the past, David Bien refused to be drawn into the polemical clash of theories and schools which wracked the French establishment in the 1970s and 1980s, as Marxist historians grappled with the new revisionist school spearheaded by Bien’s close friend, François Furet. For Bien, scholarly nuance and intellectual rigour came before adherence to a particular school.

When he retired from teaching in 1996, David Bien therefore left behind not a theory but an ethos, which proved inspirational to the next generation of US academics. David Bien’s approach reminds us that, while it may all be in the past, history refuses to play dead.

– Madeleine Chalmers


Interpreting the ancién régime. David Bien.

Edited by Rafe Blaufarb, Michael S. Christofferson and Darrin M. McMahon

Preface by Keith Baker

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, September 2014

ISBN 9780729411448, 320 pages