What else makes a critical edition?

Material constraints in publishing can sometimes have the beneficial effect of focusing attention anew on the importance of the intellectual content of the book. As has happened so many times over the years in bringing out the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, a volume has turned out to be too big to fit comfortably into a single binding, and so it has been split into A and B volumes. The Introduction to Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV will therefore be published in two parts: volume 11A contains the introduction proper, a prose study by Diego Venturino of the history, intricacies and import of this landmark historical work, with contributions from Nicholas Cronk and Jean-Alexandre Perras. And 11B will have… everything else. ‘But what else could be needed?’ a reader might be forgiven for asking. ‘Quite a lot’, the answer turns out to be.

The most straightforward content in 11B is probably the sequence of appendices presenting various texts that surround and shed light on the Siècle but are not part of the text itself: an unpublished manuscript; open letters published by Voltaire in periodicals; and finally forewords and prefaces from printings not chosen as the base text of our edition. These are presented as short critical editions in their own right.

By far the longest component, however, is the list of manuscripts and editions of Voltaire’s text. While a one-hundred-page section of painstaking bibliographical description might look dry and off-putting (see example above), it is a vital complement to both the introduction in volume 11A and the text itself, and fulfils several functions. It contains the detail of the history of the text: its prehistory, in manuscript state, and its print evolution. The latter tracks when Voltaire introduced changes into his work, whether by making corrections, adding new material, or rearranging it. The list shows which editions follow the latest changes made and, equally, which merely reproduce older versions of the text, thus revealing the relative significance of the different printings in the author’s lifetime. Various mysteries are explained: the edition bearing ‘Dresden’ on its title page (see example on the left) was actually printed in Leipzig, whereas the ones proclaiming Leipzig as their place of publication in fact were produced in Paris… Another, dated 1753, is in fact found to have appeared at the beginning of December 1752, all of which is elucidated and confirmed by Voltaire’s active and passive correspondence, as well as by some of the appendices. Each full description can be linked, via its siglum – a shorthand identification – to the textual variants given in the volumes of text, so that a reader, wanting to know more about the circumstances surrounding the different readings, can find the relevant information.

Finally, the list of editions serves as a reference tool for anyone in the world who comes across an eighteenth-century printing of the Siècle, since the detailed technical description allows one to identify copies, sometimes via small tell-tale signs, like a printing error, or a typographical ornament, which can serve to differentiate between two or more otherwise very similar editions. Connected to the list of manuscripts and editions is a dossier of illustrations, as well as a list of eighteenth-century translations of the text.

While most of the variant readings of Voltaire’s text are printed at the bottom of the page in the Œuvres complètes, a few are simply too long to fit. A digital edition would avoid this seemingly arbitrary distinction between variants based on length, but in a print edition, it makes most sense to give these longer variants their own space. Amongst volume 11B’s appendices are therefore an early list of marshals of France from the 1751 edition, before it was vastly expanded, and the early versions of chapter 24, which examines the period between the death of Louis XIV and the war of the Austrian Succession. This chapter has strong links to other works by Voltaire, namely the Précis du siècle de Louis XV, and an early version of part of the same, the Histoire de la guerre de 1741. Looking at how he modified and reused his material here is both illustrative of his working methods and also at the centre of a very real problem in editing Voltaire’s works: how to present material that moves between different titles over the course of the author’s lifetime.

Even after the author’s death, the text acquired accretions of various kinds. In the first posthumous edition of Voltaire’s works, one of his editors, Condorcet, added over a hundred footnotes. While obviously not part of the text, they do shed light on different aspects of it. For example, Condorcet wrote:

“When the first edition of the Siècle de Louis XIV became public, Fontenelle was still alive. People sought to set him against Mr de Voltaire. ‘How am I treated in this work?’ Fontenelle asked one of his friends. ‘Sir,’ he replied, ‘Mr de Voltaire begins by saying that you are the only man alive for whom he has set aside his resolve to speak only of the dead.’ ‘I do not want to know any more,’ Fontenelle declared; ‘whatever else he may have added, I must be content.’”


“Since in what follows, there will often be references to this monetary operation [inflation], and since Mr de Voltaire has not discussed its effects in any of his works, we may be forgiven for entering into a few details here…”

Or else,

“These [relief maps of Vauban’s Citadel of Lille] have since been moved to the Invalides.”

These are the main ingredients that make up this atypical volume of Voltaire’s complete works. A chance effect of page extent and the physical properties of bookbinding has resulted in a book that the scholarly community didn’t know it needed in quite the same way as a volume containing Voltaire’s text or an introductory essay; nevertheless, it would not be surprising if the tools and supplements that it contains, all part of what makes a critical edition, ultimately mean that quite a lot of readers end up calling it up from their libraries’ stacks.

– Gillian Pink

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

Un espace virtuel avant la lettre: la presse littéraire du dix-huitième siècle

Au dix-huitième siècle se développe un nouveau genre d’écrire, le journal, et notamment un périodique spécifique: le journal littéraire. Cette expression, forgée au dix-neuvième siècle, réunit l’ensemble des périodiques dont l’actualité est constituée des ouvrages publiés, consacrés à l’activité de critique des textes et des arts, et qui donnent une place inédite aux lecteurs. Ces journaux vont bouleverser la pratique de la lecture en introduisant le concept de périodicité mais surtout ils vont modifier profondément le rapport à soi et à l’autre.

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1763

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1763 (collection privée)

La périodicité de ces journaux (entre une semaine et un mois) fait naître le sentiment d’actualité, de contemporanéité, d’instantanéité. A l’instar de l’internet d’aujourd’hui, qui nous donne l’impression de vivre les choses, de les savoir en même temps qu’elles arrivent, les lecteurs du dix-huitième siècle se sentent pris dans un tourbillon de nouvelles littéraires et intellectuelles. Dans la mesure où la lecture s’effectue un peu partout, dans les salons, les cafés, chez soi, seul ou en public, la relation à l’espace est elle aussi modifiée. On peut discuter des nouvelles ou au contraire en profiter pour soi. Les distances se rétrécissent grâce à la plus grande rapidité de distribution du courrier et des journaux (les routes et les postes se modernisent), mais aussi parce qu’on est au courant de l’actualité en Europe et même au-delà, comme si la Prusse, l’Angleterre, voire la Chine ou l’Inde étaient plus proches qu’on ne l’avait cru.

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1759

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1759 (collection privée)

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1759

Pages du Journal des dames, février 1759 (collection privée)

Enfin, le journal littéraire facilite les échanges. Il publie des lettres de lecteurs, des correspondances entre savants, des débats et des querelles donnant ainsi l’illusion d’une place publique dessinée dans les pages du périodique. Ces modifications ne touchent qu’une mince partie de la population, la couche socialement aisée et éduquée mais elles vont mettre en branle tout un processus qui s’élargira au reste de la population progressivement.

Mon livre, Le Journal littéraire en France au dix-huitième siècle: émergence d’une culture virtuelle, se concentre sur la formation d’un espace virtuel de communication, sur ses caractéristiques et spécifiquement sur les conséquences de cet espace. Il met en évidence les possibilités de création littéraire et de renouvellement du discours critique par le biais de l’acte de lecture et montre que l’écriture n’est finalement qu’une autre façon de lire.

The salon of the Duke of Orleans

‘The salon of the Duke of Orléans (sitting); he is with his son (standing)’ (Wikimedia commons)

En proposant une autre expérience de l’espace et du temps, qui favorise l’échange et le dialogue, les périodiques littéraires développent, à l’insu de leurs rédacteurs et contre leur gré, l’esprit critique et l’individualité des lecteurs. ‘Chacun y est tout ensemble souverain et justiciable de chacun’ [1] comme disait Bayle. La vérité n’est plus l’apanage des grands, des philosophes et des savants puisqu’on a vu qu’ils pouvaient se tromper, que leur parole pouvait être relativisée. Bien plus qu’un simple apport d’informations, le périodique littéraire, grâce à ses spécificités, renouvelle le rapport au savoir en proposant une vérité relative, valable jusqu’à la preuve du contraire. Il encourage l’expression personnelle des lecteurs, leur pratique du texte, du temps, de l’espace et les plonge finalement dans une expérience d’eux-mêmes.

– Suzanne Dumouchel

[1] Pierre Bayle, Dictionnaire historique et critique, article ‘Catius’, 1720 (3e. éd.).