‘Quelque chose de piquant’ – Voltaire on marriage, adultery, society, and the Church in Questions sur l’Encyclopédie

Encyclopédie, vol.1, title page

Encyclopédie, vol.1, title page. (Public domain image)

The article ‘Adultère’ in the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was written by abbé Claude Yvon and François-Vincent Toussaint. Though both these writers faced persecution by the authorities for other writings, this article is on the face of it a dry, sober, moralistic and legalistic account of the crime of adultery: ‘Nous jugeons avec raison, et conformément au sentiment de toutes les nations, que l’adultère est, après l’homicide, le plus punissable de tous les crimes, parce qu’il est de tous les vols le plus cruel, et un outrage capable d’occasionner les meurtres et les excès les plus déplorables.’

Voltaire, in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (OCV, vol.38, p.101-18), takes a radically different tack.

Sganarelle ou le cocu imaginaire

Sganarelle ou le cocu imaginaire, by Molière. Drawing by Pierre Brissart, engraved by Jean Sauvé. (Wikimedia Commons)

He launches in medias res with a lapidary statement: ‘Nous ne devons point cette expression aux Grecs.’ He continues with an etymological roundup, during which he dismisses Hebrew as a ‘jargon du syriaque’, to finish with an accurate account of the Latin origin of ‘adultère’: ‘Adultère signifiait en latin, altération, adultération, une chose mise pour une autre, un crime de faux, fausses clefs, faux contrats, faux seing; adulteratio’, followed by a comic flourish: ‘De là celui qui se met dans le lit d’un autre fut nommé adulter, comme une fausse clef qui fouille dans la serrure d’autrui.’ The mild but louche erotic imagery recalls his interest in such matters, as evidenced in the Notebooks and some scandalous poetry freely attributed to him. Thus, in one short paragraph, Voltaire sets the tone of his article with a show of erudition, a slight on the origins of Christianity, and a lively witticism. This approach was suggested in a letter to Mme Du Deffand who had expressed a wish to see the work in hand: ‘voici trois feuilles qui me tombent sous la main. Faites-vous lire seulement les articles Adam et adultère. Notre premier père est toujours intéressant, et adultère est toujours quelque chose de piquant’ (25 April 1770, D16314 in his correspondence).

The light but erudite tone continues with a discussion of the way the meaning of ‘cocu’, deriving from the cuckoo that lays its egg in another’s nest, has transferred from the intruder to the intruded upon, and he cites a licentious verse by Scarron. (The account is not strictly accurate. Littré in his dictionary cites Antoine Du Verdier: ‘Non seulement ceux qui abusent des femmes d’autrui, mais aussi les maris abusés sont appelés cocus; de sorte que, ce nom étant actif et passif et commun à tous les deux, nous pouvons dire cocu cocuant et cocu cocué.’)

Portrait of a woman, by Robert Campin

Portrait of a woman, by Robert Campin (c.1430-1435). (National Gallery, London, public domain)

Voltaire turns to the cuckold’s notorious horns, ranging, with fanciful etymology and quotations from Molière, over Greek goats, male and female, to the ‘cornettes’ on women’s headgear in earlier centuries.

In the same light tone Voltaire takes a short digression on social language, how the term adultery is avoided: ‘On ne dit point, Madame la duchesse est en adultère avec monsieur le chevalier. Madame la marquise a un mauvais commerce avec monsieur l’abbé. On dit, Monsieur l’abbé est cette semaine l’amant de madame la marquise. Quand les dames parlent à leurs amies de leurs adultères, elles disent, J’avoue que j’ai du goût pour lui. Elles avouaient autrefois qu’elles sentaient quelque estime; mais depuis qu’une bourgeoise s’accusa à son confesseur d’avoir de l’estime pour un conseiller, et que le confesseur lui dit, Madame, combien de fois vous a-t-il estimée? les dames de qualité n’ont plus estimé personne, et ne vont plus guère à confesse.’ These last mischievous words look forward to the main point of the article.

His target is the Church in France. ‘Il y a quelques provinces en Europe où les filles font volontiers l’amour, et deviennent ensuite des épouses assez sages. C’est tout le contraire en France; on enferme les filles dans des couvents, où jusqu’à présent on leur a donné une éducation ridicule’, which makes them unfit for marriage, and ready for adultery.

Christine de Pisan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria

Christine de Pisan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (miniature, c.1410-1414 by the Master of the Cité des Dames), each wearing an ‘escoffion’, or horned headpiece. (Wikimedia commons)

The crucial point, though, is the absence of divorce. The Church allows separation after adultery, but divorce is forbidden. In the section of ‘Adultère’ entitled ‘Mémoire d’un magistrat’ Voltaire gives a précis of a recent publication in favour of divorce: ‘Mon épouse est criminelle, et c’est moi qu’on punit’, and ‘Dieu me permet de me remarier, et l’évêque de Rome ne me le permet pas! […] Les lois civiles d’aujourd’hui, malheureusement fondées sur le droit canon, me privent des droits de l’humanité.’ In a letter to Francesco Albergati Capacelli, who wanted a divorce, Voltaire had written some ten years previously: ‘je ne sais rien de si ridicule que d’être obligé de vivre avec une femme avec laquelle on ne peut pas vivre’ (15 April 1760, D8854). But it was not always so, as he tells his readers in ‘Adultère’: ‘Le divorce a été en usage chez les catholiques sous tous les empereurs; il l’a été dans tous les Etats démembrés de l’empire romain. Les rois de France, qu’on appelle de la première race, ont presque tous répudié leurs femmes pour en prendre de nouvelles. Enfin il vint un Grégoire IX ennemi des empereurs et des rois, qui par un décret fit du mariage un joug insecouable; sa décrétale devint la loi de l’Europe.’

Le Christ et la femme adultère, by Nicolas Poussin

Le Christ et la femme adultère, by Nicolas Poussin. (Louvre, Paris, Wikimedia Commons)

Voltaire also condemns the unequal treatment of women in France by the Church and the law, the fact that their rights are far less than those of men: ‘Je demande si la chose est juste, et s’il n’est pas évident que ce sont les cocus qui ont fait les lois.’ In this context he chides the Church by citing the famous words of Jesus concerning the woman taken in adultery: ‘Que
 celui de vous qui est sans péché jette la première pierre.’

From the cover of playful erudition Voltaire casts his own finely honed stones at his frequent target, l’infâme.

Martin Smith

 

How to tell a king he writes bad verse

Frederick II

The only portrait Frederick ever personally sat for (by Ziesenis, 1763).

In 1750, Voltaire travelled to the court of the Prussian king, Frederick II. There, one of his official duties would be to correct the king’s writings in French, in particular his poetry: to ‘bleach his dirty linen’, as Voltaire would later write in his epistolary half-fiction, Paméla, never published in his lifetime. However, at the outset, very willing, Voltaire wrote to the king around August of that year:

‘Si vous aimez des critiques libres, si vous souffrez des éloges sincères, si vous voulez perfectionner un ouvrage que vous seul dans l’Europe êtes capable de faire, votre majesté n’a qu’à ordonner à un solitaire de monter.
Ce solitaire est aux ordres de votre majesté pour toutte sa vie.’

The French poet knew how to be tactful, and though he sent back pages of corrections, he balanced them with flattery. Referring to Frederick’s Art de la guerre, he wrote the following summer: ‘Tout l’ouvrage est digne de vous, et quand je n’aurais fait le voyage que pour voir quelque chose d’aussi singulier, je ne devrais pas regretter ma patrie’. The corrected manuscript of l’Art de la guerre still exists and can be seen in Berlin at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Unfortunately, the heavily marked up volumes of the king’s Poésies have disappeared, following the Allied bombing of the Monbijou Palace in Berlin during the Second World War. The latest volume of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire attempts to reconstruct those corrections, however, as part of its complement to the Russian-led publication of Voltaire’s marginalia, the Corpus des notes marginales, a final volume that assembles the known marginal notes housed outside the main collection of the writer’s library in the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg.

This volume, Notes et écrits marginaux conservés hors de la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie (OCV, vol.145), brings together a motley collection of such documents. Some, such as Frederick’s poetry, were intended for use by friends and were never part of Voltaire’s own collection. Another such case is that of the annotated copy of a work by Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues (also discussed by Sam Bailey), or the manuscript on the rights of French Protestants to marry by the future statesman Joseph-Marie Portalis. Other books, such as a volume of Rousseau’s Emile, or a volume of Le Vrai Sens du système de la nature, by pseudo-Helvétius, seem to have been distributed as gifts by Voltaire, and the notes within give hints of having been conceived for that very purpose. Others still may in fact have parted ways with Voltaire’s personal collection, either before it left France, or in Russia (two works, the first Fénelon’s Œuvres philosophiques, and the second an Essai général de tactique by Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte, comte de Guibert, were borrowed from the Hermitage library by Tsar Alexander I, and never returned).

But the largest component of the lot remains Voltaire’s corrections and comments on Frederick’s poetry. Given the absence of the original volumes, it is gratifying to see how much it has been possible to reconstruct. Of the two printed volumes from 1750, a copy with notes turned up in Belgium in 1979 thanks to the Voltaire Foundation’s longstanding contributor Jeroom Vercruysse. It turned out to be very literally a copy, that is, a painstaking piece of work in which Voltaire’s corrections, including those to his own comments, were reproduced by hand. While they have every characteristic of Voltaire’s style, there might have been doubts about the authenticity of the notes, had a German scholar, Hans Droysen, not published a couple of photographs in 1904 that exactly match the text and layout of the Belgium copy.

Œuvres du philosophe de Sans-Souci, vol.3 (1750), p.250, with corrections in the hands of Voltaire and Frederick II (reproduced by Hans Droysen, ‘Friedrichs des Großen Druckerei im Berliner Schlosse’, Hohenzollern Jahrbuch 8, 1904, p.84).

Excitingly, one photograph shows a page with writing by both Voltaire and Frederick, thanks to which it was possible to tell which of the hand-copied notes were by which man, since the copyist went to the extreme of doing a passable imitation of the handwriting of each. But what of the second volume? In this case, another German scholar, Reinhold Koser, had published, two years after Droysen, a large number of Voltaire’s notes, though frustratingly in a thematic order of his own devising, and with precious little context for some of the comments. Thanks to a considerable team effort and a lot of patience (and special thanks go to my colleague Martin Smith), it was possible to identify the location of most of Voltaire’s corrections and remarks (sometimes relying on discussion of rhymes to pinpoint particular verses). Only a few notes remain unattached to a specific place in Frederick’s text.

We learn a lot about the minutiae of what was and was not admissible in eighteenth-century versification, but Voltaire makes other stylistic comments and, as ever, he strives for wit and elegance. For example, he marks four instances of the word ‘plat’ within the space of two pages, numbers them, and next to the fourth, notes: ‘voila plus de plats icy que dans un bon souper’.

Frederick’s verse includes pieces that were written in an epistolary context addressed to Voltaire himself, and some of the latter’s notes provide glimpses into his own literary past. In the margin of a reference to his play Sémiramis, he writes ‘je ne hazarday cet ouvrage que pour feu madame la Dauphine qui m’avoit demandé une trajedie a machines.’ Who knew that the thunderclaps, opening tomb and ghost in that tragedy were of royal inspiration?

Voltaire eventually tired of this work (and who can blame him?) and for this and other reasons, attempted to leave Prussia. He was stopped and searched in Frankfurt and kept under arrest for some days by an envoy of the king, since the latter wanted to keep strict control over the copies of his book, and would not countenance Voltaire leaving the country with a copy. But that is a whole other story…

– Gillian Pink