Superstition springs eternal

We always say that Voltaire’s battles are far from over in the twenty-first century, but I usually think more of religious intolerance than of deeply ingrained superstition. A few weeks ago Sanal Edamaruku spoke in Oxford, hosted by Skeptics in the Pub, and made it clear that superstition is still a dangerous problem in parts of the world today, using a specific example from modern-day Mumbai. Alongside modern architecture and technological innovation in this emerging market, there remains a disturbingly large segment of the population in the thrall of potentially lethal religious practices, for example dipping infants in hot oil, or throwing them down from a temple roof to the dubious safety of a raised sheet below, in a gesture of thanksgiving for divine favours received. Edamaruku explained to us that he is currently unable to return to India because of an arrest warrant brought against him under an outdated nineteenth-century blasphemy law on the instigation of Roman Catholic bishops in Mumbai. All of this for having revealed that a ‘weeping’ crucifix was caused by a blockage in a sewage pipe, a finding which should instead be hailed as a contribution to public health, since church-goers had been collecting the ‘tears’ in bottles and vials as holy relics.

In late 1771, Voltaire wrote the article ‘Superstition’ for his work Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. In this article he heaps ridicule on just such ‘miracles’ as the blood of St Januarius, contained in a phial in Naples Cathedral and said to liquefy each year when brought into close proximity of the relic of the saint’s head. In the article ‘Vision’, written a few months later in 1772, he lashes out against charlatans who seek ‘a reputation as holy men or women, which is very flattering, or to make money, which is even more flattering’… Edamaruku has also exposed a number of religious frauds in this category.

While the battle cry of ‘Ecrasez l’infâme’ may have evolved into something less martial today, the crusade to debunk false prophets carries on. I’ll be following the progress of Edamaruku’s world tour with interest, and I hope that he will succeed in having the blasphemy charges dropped and/or the law reformed.

–G.P.

The Online Republic of Letters

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Welcome to the Voltaire Foundation’s first blog. We are the publishers of the first critical edition of Voltaire’s Complete Works, as well as monographs in the SVEC series touching on all aspects of eighteenth-century culture, history and literature. As a publisher and research department of the university of Oxford, we are fascinated by networks. After all, if Voltaire were alive today he would no doubt be a prolific social networker, blogging incendiary material, fuelling large Facebook thread debates and over-using #infâme on twitter.

In this spirit, this first post is a gateway to the online eighteenth-century community with links to interesting blog posts, databases and projects, to further encourage a network of exchange.

Network Databases

  • Epitomising the spirit of this blog post is the Mapping the Republic of Letters project. Based at the University of Stanford, this interdisciplinary and international project has been shepherding huge amounts of data acquired from the correspondence, travel and social networks of early-modern writers. To see this research in action, you can watch Scott Spillman and Julia Mansfield’s paper on Benjamin Franklin. For access to eighteenth-century letters, there is of course Electronic Enlightenment, an online collection of edited correspondence, which gives users access to over 60,647 historical documents.
  • Also focused on networks is The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe project, which uses database technology to map the trade of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel, a Swiss publishing house that operated between 1769 and 1794 and published Voltaire among others. The database allows you to see for instance when and where books were sold and is an invaluable tool for understanding how the book trade operated in eighteenth-century Europe.
  • Candide, the ultimate Bildungsroman, built from a network of tales from across the globe, is now available as a free enriched digital edition thanks to a collaboration between Orange, the BnF and the Voltaire Foundation. We were present at a talk on 24th March at the Salon du Livre in which the BnF’s Thierry Grillet spoke of Candide as a blank page printed upon by his experiences and the characters he encounters. This idea of a base text enriched by layers is one that translates to this app, which can be used as a simple book but really rewards further exploration with its additional materials: videos, iconography, and opportunities for further discussion.

Trading Diseases

Finally, for a different type of networking, here is a blogpost by Alun Whitney on James McKittrick Adair’s 1790 book Essays on Fashionable Diseases, in which the physician discusses the contagion of heroic suffering. As Whitney writes:
‘letters became filled with narratives of illness, commonly with the writer fashioning themselves into the role of embattled victim, wrestling with almost overwhelming symptoms and constantly surprised that they even had strength to hold a pen.’
Sounds like Voltaire!

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If this tickles your fancy, you might be interested in our latest SVEC monograph, Medicine and narration in the eighteenth century, edited by Sophie Vasset, which explores the overlapping narrative strategies in the writings of novelists and doctors.

What are your favourite eighteenth-century online resources? Do make the most of the comment box to share.

Claire Trévien, research editor.