Exploring an abandoned 18th-century encyclopedia: an academic detective story

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Eighteenth-century Paris was a vibrant centre of scholarly activity, publishing, and consumption. As the number of printed works multiplied, the demand for condensed up-to-date summaries of all fields of knowledge increased. In my book The Maurists’ unfinished encyclopedia I tell the story of a hitherto unknown encyclopedic project that was being developed in Paris at the same time as Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. While the latter became a controversial but successful bestseller – often considered to be the medium of Enlightenment thought par excellence – the former never reached the public. The compilers were Benedictine monks of the Congregation of Saint-Maur, also known as Maurists. After ten years of work, they abandoned their encyclopedic enterprise. Decades later, after the French Revolution and the dissolution of all religious orders, the surviving manuscript found its way to the new national library, the Bibliothèque nationale de France. For the next 160 years, though, it escaped the attention of researchers.

Uncovering the history of the Maurist encyclopedia became something of an academic detective story. I first laid my hands on the manuscript in 2009 after coming across, two years earlier, a curious piece of information that eventually led me to the BnF. It was a congregational report briefly noting that two monks in the Parisian abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés had worked on a ‘dictionnaire universel des arts méchaniques et libéraux, des métiers et de toutes les sciences qui y ont quelque rapport’.[1] Their names were Dom Antoine-Joseph Pernety and Dom François de Brézillac, and the report was dated 1747. This was the same year in which Denis Diderot and Jean D’Alembert became editors of the embryonic Encyclopédie. Moreover, the monks’ abbey was located just a few hundred meters from the Café Procope, the favorite meeting place of the encyclopédistes. In other words, two large-scale encyclopedias were initiated at the same time, in the very same quarter in Paris, but only one of them would make it to the printing press and into the history books.

The Left Bank of Paris in the mid-eighteenth century: the location of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (1) and the Café Procope (2).

The Left Bank of Paris in the mid-eighteenth century: the location of the abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (1) and the Café Procope (2).

There was no record of a Maurist encyclopedia ever being published and I had not found a single mention of the project in earlier research on the Congregation. Therefore I initially suspected that the work had been abandoned at an early phase and had thus been too short-lived to produce any text. Two years later, when I traced down the surviving material at the BnF, I quickly revised my assumption. The collection amounted to six volumes in-folio. Clearly, this project had been in progress for quite some time before the writers put down their quills. So, what had happened? What kind of encyclopedia had these monks been making? And how had their vision compared to the contemporary work of Diderot and D’Alembert?

It took me four years following up on many clues to answer these questions.

The Maurist manuscript was uncharted territory. The collection had no title page or explanatory preface. There were no signatures stating the names of the compilers or any information on their number. The handwriting, however, suggested contributions from more than two individuals. Furthermore, some textual parts were elegantly rewritten while others were merely scribbled drafts. Indications of missing pieces cropped up here and there. One volume contained what seemed to be a discarded early version of the project; another consisted only of ‘working lists’, such as inventories of literature and illustrations. Then (as if things were not complicated enough), I discovered that the whole manuscript had been rearranged at the BnF in the mid-nineteenth century. I also learned that as much as a third of the original material could have been lost. Thus, what I held in my hands was not a finished manuscript preserved in its original state, but rather the incomplete remains of a dictionary abandoned in the making, later ordered and altered by uninitiated hands.

A page from the Maurists’ unfinished encyclopedia, showing a collage of articles rearranged by the conservators at the BnF in the mid-nineteenth century.

A page from the Maurists’ unfinished encyclopedia, showing a collage of articles rearranged by the conservators at the BnF in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Maurists’ unfinished encyclopedia is just as much about overcoming the methodological challenges of studying incomplete, unfinished texts as it is a history of an unrealized scholarly enterprise. By combining clues from handwriting analysis, codicological examination, extensive textual comparisons and archival work, I demonstrate that the Maurist enterprise began life in 1743 as an augmented translation of a foreign lexicon – a mathematical lexicon by the German philosopher Christian Wolff. Due to competition with the embryonic Encyclopédie in 1746, the conditions for the monks’ work changed and the scope of their project expanded. Like the encyclopédistes, the Maurists devoted great attention to the mechanical arts and they planned for a great number of illustrations. By excluding religion, politics and ethics, the monks created a secular, non-confrontational reference work that focused entirely on the productive and useful arts, crafts and sciences. In this respect, Diderot and d’Alembert were not alone in their encyclopedic innovations and secular Enlightenment endeavors, although they certainly were the most successful.

Abandoned in the mid-1750s – in the midst of the controversy surrounding the Encyclopédie – the Maurist enterprise may have made little difference to its contemporaries, but it does, however, make a difference for our present understanding of mid-eighteenth-century encyclopedism in France, the perceived novelty of the Encyclopédie, as well as the intellectual activities of the Congregation of Saint-Maur.

– Linn Holmberg

[1] Edmond Martène, Histoire de la Congrégation de Saint-Maur, ed. Gaston Charvin, 10 vol. (Paris, 1928–1954), vol.9 (1943), p.342.

Comment faire parler un répertoire des spectacles de l’Ancien Régime?

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‘Répertoire général’ de la troupe française (1777), Rossijskij gosudarstvennyj istoričeskij arhiv (Archives historiques d’Etat de Russie).

L’heure est au big data dans les études du théâtre français de l’Ancien régime, de la Révolution et de l’ère napoléonienne. Les technologies de numérisation permettent de rassembler les données sur un répertoire, de les traiter quantitativement et de les rendre accessibles aux publics qui n’ont pas l’habitude des archives. Au moins trois projets collectifs mettent le souci d’analyse quantitative au cœur de leur investigation: Registres de la Comédie-Française, Therepsicore et French Theatre of the Napoleonic Era. Dans certains cas, comme dans l’étude de Rahul Markovits, la recherche du répertoire va au-delà du territoire français, en élargissant l’enquête jusqu’à ‘l’empire culturel’ français.[1]

‘Au XVIIIe siècle on ne joue pas une œuvre mais un répertoire’[2]: cette formule de Martine de Rougemont est souvent reprise par les historiens du théâtre. Or, les rapports entre les deux structures signifiantes, œuvre et répertoire, restent à éclairer. Certes, l’ensemble des œuvres disponibles pour la mise en scène, c’est-à-dire les textes et les emplois dont une troupe disposait à un moment précis, définissait l’offre d’un théâtre.[3] Mais, à ma connaissance, si les distinctions entre les troupes – de la Comédie-Française et du Théâtre Italien, par exemple – ont été formulées et intégrées dans la vie théâtrale de l’Ancien régime, la notion de ‘répertoire’ en tant qu’ensemble signifiant au sein d’une tradition théâtrale n’a été convoquée quant à elle que pendant la Révolution française. Quoi qu’il en soit, le traitement autonome de ce répertoire, c’est-à-dire en termes uniquement esthétiques (la part d’un tel genre) ou d’histoire littéraire (la part d’un tel auteur) paraît éminemment problématique.

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Dans mon livre Les Spectacles francophones à la cour de Russie (1743-1796): l’invention d’une société j’ai exploré les circulations théâtrales transnationales pour reconstituer un répertoire des pièces représentées en français dans un pays située à la périphérie de l’Europe. Une liste de 267 œuvres apparaît dans les appendices de mon étude. Cette liste alphabétique, qui recense l’ensemble des pièces françaises et francophones représentées à Saint-Pétersbourg ainsi que dans d’autres lieux de séjour de la cour a d’abord eu pour but d’accompagner une liste chronologique publiée dans le deuxième volume de ma thèse de doctorat.[4] A l’occasion de la sortie de ce livre, basé sur le premier volume de cette thèse, je souhaite mettre cet instrument de travail à la disposition de ceux qui s’intéressent à la constitution du quotidien théâtral dans l’Europe du XVIIIe siècle. Ce calendrier des spectacles met en avant l’aspect temporel de la vie théâtrale à la cour, ainsi que son inscription dans le cycle des cérémonies et des fêtes, politiques et religieuses.

La question qui me poursuit depuis le début de mon travail de thèse porte plus particulièrement sur les façons historiquement adéquates d’aborder quantitativement les répertoires dramatiques. Qu’est-ce que ces données chiffrées nous apprennent ? Est-il possible de tirer des conclusions ou, au moins, des renseignements de ces données de manière à aller au-delà de la présentation descriptive? Quels critères pourrait-on utiliser pour faire le lien entre une représentation théâtrale historiquement et socialement située et l’abstraction statistique? Dans mon livre je propose une tentative de réponse à ces questions en articulant la reconstitution du calendrier des spectacles et les premières analyses statistiques du corpus des pièces avec les contextualisations sociohistoriques. L’idée est pourtant d’inviter d’autres chercheurs à rejoindre une réflexion critique sur la portée épistémologique des données chiffrées et leur valeur argumentative – tout en utilisant les nouveaux instruments de travail.

– Alexeï Evstratov

[1] Rahul Markovits, Civiliser l’Europe. Politiques du théâtre français au XVIIIe siècle ([Paris], 2014).

[2] Martine de Rougement, Lа vie théâtrаle en Frаnce аu XVIIIe siècle (ParisGenève, 1988), p.54.

[3] D’après le Trésor de la Langue Française Informatisé, Voltaire emploie le terme en 1769, pour désigner ‘liste des pièces que les comédiens jouent chaque semaine’. En 1798, le dictionnaire de l’Académie Française fixe une autre notion : ‘liste des pièces restées en cours de représentation à un théâtre’ (http://atilf.atilf.fr/dendien/scripts/tlfiv5/advanced.exe?8;s=2824323900;).

[4] Alexeï Evstratov, Le Théâtre francophone à Saint-Pétersbourg sous le règne de Catherine II (1762-1796). Organisation, circulation et symboliques des spectacles dramatiques, thèse de doctorat, vol. 2 (Paris, 2012), p.17-192.

Besterman’s commitment to the Eighteenth Century is still alive

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Theodore Besterman in the late 1940s

I have always been intrigued by Theodore Besterman – the Voltaire Foundation’s founder. At 99 Banbury Road, Oxford – home of the Voltaire Foundation since 1993 – he is commemorated by a black bust sitting at the left end of the mantelpiece in the main room (which was named after him); at the right end of the mantelpiece sits a white bust of Voltaire, and a picture of a stern-looking Rousseau hangs on the wall between them. Our meetings are thus presided over by this august trio.

I had heard the name Besterman in my academic publishing career before joining the Voltaire Foundation, because as a bibliographer, he gave his name to the Besterman/McColvin Awards for reference works (in both print and electronic forms). These are awarded by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).

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The mantlepiece in the Besterman Room at the Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

Tristram Besterman has just written a most informative personal memoir about his step-grandfather for the VF website. His account joins Giles Barber’s biography of Besterman as well as Haydn Mason’s history of the Voltaire Foundation.

One of Besterman’s many significant contributions to 18th-century scholarship was to found the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (or ISECS), the ‘umbrella’ organisation for all thirty national eighteenth-century societies worldwide. The VF still provides the secretariat functions for ISECS to this day.

ISECS holds an international congress every four years and the VF will of course be attending the next congress in July 2015 in Rotterdam. We hope to meet up with many of our colleagues, contributors and friends at our bookstand.

The Voltaire Foundation's stand at the Colonial Williamsburg ASECS

There will be plenary lectures given by Dan Brewer and John Robertson (author of OUP’s Very Short Introduction to the Enlightenment, due in September 2015). In 2019 the ISECS congress will be held at St Andrews, which was the location of the first congress, in 1967.

Besterman also started the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series (in 1955), formerly known as Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century (or SVEC for short). After 60 years and over 500 books, it remains the leading series in the area of Enlightenment studies.

We are currently seeking to appoint a new General Editor of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

The successful candidate would initially work alongside Professor Jonathan Mallinson who is standing down after 13 years. In 2016 he or she would take over as General Editor and be involved in appointing a deputy (who will be francophone if the General Editor is not, and vice versa).

Besterman’s legacy is still very much alive as demonstrated by the VF publications still rolling off the press – a new book in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series every month as well as six new volumes of the Complete works of Voltaire each year (the print edition is due for completion in 2018-2019). The VF’s blog gives an insight into the extended reach of our activities and some of our inner workings and musings – hence this blogpost.

– Clare

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment – what’s in a name?

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Jean-François de Troy, ‘Reading from Molière’, c.1728, Collection Marchioness of Cholmondeley .

As it enters its sixtieth year, and approaches its 550th volume, SVEC is changing its name; from 2014 the series will be known as Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.  

A change of name, yes, but not a change of direction. Over the last few years, the series has published leading research relating not only to France, but also to the UK, Germany and Spain, Russia and Greece, Africa and America; and it has encouraged work across a broad range of disciplines – economics and science, political and cultural history, music and the visual arts, literature and publishing -, as well as promoting new areas of research such as environmental studies.

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This editorial policy is quite consistent with the eighteenth century itself, which was constantly crossing boundaries of language, of nation and of discipline. Distinctions we might wish to make between, for instance, exception and rule, reason and emotion, functional and ornamental, laughter and tears, are all questioned in this period.  The Enlightenment is not about a single discipline, methodology, geographical terrain, intellectual position, or even about a defined period; it is an extensive process of exploration, exchange, and transgression.

The title Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment reflects those editorial principles and that intellectual practice.  The fact that the series is published by the Voltaire Foundation, a department of the University of Oxford and birthplace of the Electronic Enlightenment project, could not be more apt. Voltaire was one of the most interdisciplinary and international of writers, who thought beyond intellectual, cultural or even chronological boundaries.

It is in this spirit that the first book of the newly renamed series, India and Europe in the global eighteenth century, looks afresh at the relations between Europe and India using both eastern and western sources to explore the emergence of a new political and commercial order. From their home in Oxford University, Studies in the Enlightenment are well and truly global.

-JM

The making of a book

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Producing a typescript for a book, answering copyeditor queries and correcting typeset proofs may be familiar to most authors (if not, see the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment authors and editors page), but what happens after that? How does an electronic file become a physical book? This is what I was finding out on a recent visit to our printer, TJI.

Based in Padstow, Cornwall, TJI is a thriving UK manufacturer, printing all types of books from large-print for the visually impaired to textbooks and academic monographs, with every variation in between. There are two types of printing, lithographic (the most traditional and cost-effective for medium-long print runs) and its newer upstart, digital (great for short print runs and print-on-demand).

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (previously SVEC) books are initially printed on litho, with any reprints produced digitally.

Prepare for takeoff… a book pre-flights

As the publishing manager of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series of books, once I’m satisfied that both the text and cover are final, our typesetter prepares a set of press-ready PDF files and sends these to TJI through an ftp site. A member of the client services team from TJI downloads these files and converts them for positioning into 32 page sections (‘signatures’) or divisions of 32. Further file analysis takes place: are the images of the requisite quality? are the running heads and page numbers in the correct place (and we’re talking to the correct millimetre here)? I was amazed at how much pre-print checking is carried out, which shows the care TJI take in their work.

On to the factory floor – plating up

The printer-ready files are digitally uploaded to the plate-making unit. A ‘plate’ is a large sheet of aluminium where the surface is burnt away by a laser beam so that only the material intended for printing remains.

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From plate to paper…

The aluminium plates are now transferred to the printing unit, which has already been set up according to the print size, paper type and extent of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment book. The text is printed in 32-page signatures which progress to the folding line where they are folded and notched on the inside margin, and then gathered in their correct order to form books (‘book blocks’). (As Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment books are sewn, traditionally the most secure form of binding, the notches on the inside margins are for both the threading and binding of the text pages, and the subsequent gluing of the cover onto the spine.) It’s important to note that at this stage, the book blocks are still untrimmed, so that all pages of the book can be trimmed together at the end along with the cover.

…To binding

The book blocks move on to the binder. The first process involves compressing any air out of the book blocks, and the second process involves sewing together the book blocks. The book blocks are then pulled out of the binder so that they can be paired up with the book cover.

And finally the cover

As the text pages are being printed, folded, gathered and sewn, the cover is being produced separately on a full-colour lithographic press.

Covers for Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment books are slightly unusual as the inside and outside covers are folded back to create ‘flaps’ to preserve the strength of the paperback cover.

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Glue is introduced into the notches on the book block spines and the covers are attached. To further add to the intricacy of printing, our Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ‘flapped’ books are sent along a slightly different binding route than standard paperbacks as the standard paperback trimming would effectively trim off the flap. So with covers opened out and pinned back, the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment book fore-edge is trimmed, the covers are closed and the book then rejoins the standard binding-trimming route so that the top and bottom can be trimmed.

And there we have… a printed book! The 21st century printing process may be mostly automated, and a far cry from the days of the 18th-century handpress, but the skill and precision involved should not be overlooked.

–LR