Let’s talk: 18th-century scholars, tell us about how you read

The editorial team of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (formerly, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century) is this month undertaking its first-ever survey of scholarly reading practices among 18th-century specialists.

Our goal is to learn how you – our readers, our authors and our reviewers – access scholarship, in print and in digital format, and then to use this information to better serve your needs. To do so, we have designed a short online questionnaire, to which we are asking specialists in 18th-century studies to respond. We need your help to ensure that we receive a response representative of our ‘republic of letters’. We want to hear from scholars from a wide range of nations, professional ranks, disciplinary backgrounds, research specializations, and, of course, using a variety of reading platforms.

You can access the survey from now until Sunday, October 29th, through this link: Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment survey of scholarly reading practices.

The Voltaire Foundation has been publishing, in the Studies, pioneering work on a wide range of Enlightenment topics since 1955; this longevity and success has been due in good part to the series’ strong bond with its scholarly community. As we move forward into our seventh decade, the @OxUniEnlightenment editorial team seeks to ensure that we continue to publish innovative research on topics at the forefront of the field – and to make this work as widely accessible to our readers as possible.

Hence we are asking, in this survey, how our community accesses scholarship – both print and digital. Through this survey, you can help shape the future not only of the Studies, but, we believe, the future of Enlightenment scholarship more generally.

The questionnaire should require less than 15 minutes to complete, whether in French or English. All responses will remain anonymous. No installation of software, account creation or personal information is required. By using established best practices for survey research, including the Qualtrics survey platform, we can assure all participants of the confidentiality of their responses and the security of their data. Further details, including the statement of informed consent, are available here.

In recognition of your time and your engagement on behalf of Enlightenment values of toleration and the dignity of all human beings, the Voltaire Foundation will make a charitable contribution for each survey response completed to two causes which defend these principles worldwide: Amnesty International and Médecins sans Frontières.

Could you please set aside 10 to 15 minutes to complete the survey this week? And in any case, could you please find time to do so before Sunday, October 29th, when the survey closes? To help ensure that your discipline and the members of your national society affiliate are well represented in the survey, please do forward the survey link to your colleagues or share this blog post on social media.

Please address any questions, suggestions or concerns to Gregory Brown.

How we developed this survey

The idea for such a survey is one that I first broached when I took on the duties of General Editor. Last year, in collaboration with the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, we undertook the first phase by assembling aggregate data on the national affiliations, native languages, disciplinary homes, and research specializations of a sample of over 6000 eighteenth-century scholars from around the world. This work was conducted by the ISECS Communications Secretary, Nelson Guilbert, with support from the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, and these findings were presented to the ISECS Executive Committee at their meeting in 2016.

Using that baseline, we prepared a survey and a research protocol, and then refined it to meet established best practices of survey research.

This second phase – the current survey – has received essential in-kind support from my home institution, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. At UNLV the Department of History and College of Liberal Arts provided a highly talented research assistant, Evan Casey, and Bridgit Kelley, director of the Cannon Research Center, provided expert advice on conducting the survey. UNLV’s Office of Information Technology provides access to the Qualtrics online survey platform.

We are grateful to the leadership of all national societies for eighteenth-century studies who have agreed to help circulate the invitation to their respective members. Indeed, you may have already received such an invitation, and we apologize for any cross-posting. Rest assured that the Qualtrics platform has functionality that ensures the validity of a survey accessed through an anonymous link.

Thank you for your support for Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment!

– Gregory Brown, General Editor, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment


In honor of Robert Darnton

Robert Darnton

Robert Darnton in 2016

This month Oxford University will award an honorary doctorate of letters to Robert Darnton, a (if not the) leading cultural historian over the past 50 years of eighteenth-century French publishing, book trade and literary culture.

I count myself as one of the many scholars inspired by his works. The Great Cat Massacre (1984) was among the first scholarly works I was assigned to read upon beginning postgraduate study. As a doctoral student, I benefited from his advisement (as a doctoral student at Columbia, I enrolled through a university exchange in his Princeton seminar on ‘The Social History of Ideas in Eighteenth-Century France’). And now as a senior research affiliate of the Voltaire Foundation and General Editor of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, I take particular interest in expressing on behalf of the Voltaire Foundation our collegial pride, admiration, and respect for Professor Darnton on this occasion. Indeed, I would like to highlight some of his impact on the Voltaire Foundation – though, unlike the Public Orator, I will not do so in Latin!

Darnton entered into the field of eighteenth-century studies at Oxford in 1960 as a Rhodes Scholar. He thus entered the field at a moment of dynamism and growth: just a few years earlier (1955) had seen the launch of what became Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, and just a few years later would bring the initial International Congress on the Enlightenment (1963).

Darnton remained at Oxford to complete his doctoral thesis (in 1964) on radical political pamphleteering in the 1780s. Moreover, under the influence of Oxford faculty Robert Shackleton and Richard Cobb, he conducted his first research on J.-P. Brissot and the rich police, book trade and censorship archives. These lines of research led directly to the seminal articles and books he would publish after taking up a position at Princeton, including Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (1968), The Business of Enlightenment (1979), and the Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982). This body of work alone would justify the recognition of an honoris causa doctorate.

Darnton however remained both directly and indirectly engaged with Oxford and the Voltaire Foundation. In 1983 he was elected to the executive board of the International Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies and served as its president from 1987 to 1991. He was instrumental in bringing the ISECS meeting to Budapest before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in establishing the East-West Seminar for early career scholars, which he directed until 1995. The proceedings of both the ISECS Congresses and the East-West Seminars were in those years published in SVEC. This includes Darnton’s 1991 presidential address, ‘Reviving the Republic of Letters’, SVEC vol.303, p.3-16, just one of at least six talks or papers he contributed to SVEC volumes between 1988 and 2003, before the series adopted its all-book format – and even after, he continued to contribute, penning a preface to Thierry Rigogne’s Between State and Market: Printing and Bookselling in Eighteenth-Century France (2007).

Darnton served two terms on the Voltaire Foundation board, in 1987-1991 and 2000-2007; during the latter term, he was an instrumental contributor to the conception and initial funding of the Electronic Enlightenment, launched by the VF before being moved to the Bodleian Libraries and distributed by Oxford University Press. During this period, he also authored and edited the Voltaire Foundation’s first foray into digital publishing, a fully on-line monograph and document collection, J.-P. Brissot, His Career and Correspondence (1779–1787) (2001).

The importance of his impact on Enlightenment studies has been so great that it merited a book of its own – SVEC vol.359, The Darnton Debate, edited by Haydn Mason, then the General Editor of the series. (This book first appeared as a SVEC hardcover and then was republished in 1999 as part of the VF’s paperback Vif series; it remains one of the best-selling SVEC volumes in its entire 60-year history.)

The 13 original essays in this volume assess the many facets of his work (to that point; he has published four major scholarly books since then, and another – his long-awaited survey of the French book trade in the eighteenth century – is expected next year!). Darnton here provided a response which, although far too early in his career to be a valedictory, nevertheless offers a lucid and compelling narrative of his own ‘two paths through the social history of ideas’.

It is, I think, fair to say that neither path would have been possible, for him or for those of us who have been able to follow him into this still-vibrant field, without the institutions that he helped build and maintain. And it is to such institutions as the Voltaire Foundation and Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment values that they espouse and embody, on the occasion of Darnton’s honorary degree awarded at the annual Encaenia ceremony, that we recommit ourselves in a celebration of ongoing renewal.

– Gregory S. Brown

NB listen to Robert Darnton speak on the subject of ‘fake news’ in the eighteenth century.

La comédie de mœurs: perversion du classique ou genre classique?

Pourquoi la comédie de mœurs fleurit-elle de 1680 à 1720? A cette question, l’histoire littéraire répond habituellement en évoquant le déclin de la France dans les dernières décennies du règne de Louis XIV, années de crise spirituelle et économique, favorisant la multiplication des escrocs en tous genres et le délitement des valeurs, à leur tour reflétés dans la comédie.

Pourtant, tous les thèmes de la comédie de mœurs préexistent largement cette période charnière entre les deux siècles, et j’en ai trouvé plusieurs illustrations dans des pièces des années 1630 ou 1640, dont je parle dans mon ouvrage La Comédie de mœurs sous l’ancien régime: poétique et histoire. Au-delà, se dessine même une tradition multiséculaire, remontant à l’antiquité grecque et latine, habituée à faire rire, de façon plus légère ou plus grinçante, d’un ‘aujourd’hui’ méprisable par rapport à un ‘hier’ idéalisé. En restant plus proche de la période charnière mentionnée plus haut, il suffit d’ouvrir les Satires de Boileau pour y découvrir tous les personnages caractéristiques de ce type de pièces: le financier indûment enrichi, le médecin assassin, le laquais parvenu, le procureur fourbe, le noble désargenté et prêt à se mésallier, la coquette.

En changeant de genre, on lit dans L’Histoire amoureuse des Gaules plusieurs scènes dignes de la comédie de mœurs, que Bussy-Rabutin donne pour ‘vraies’, mais qui semblent surtout avoir beaucoup emprunté au théâtre, avant de l’inspirer en retour. Pour ne donner qu’un exemple, on peut mentionner l’épisode de la séduction par l’argent, que Lesage devait avoir en tête en écrivant son Turcaret: le financier Paget, significativement désigné par le sobriquet ‘Crispin’, se fait précéder chez Ardélise par une lettre accompagnée d’une généreuse ‘subvention’, et qui lui ouvre à coup sûr le cœur et surtout le chemin du lit de la belle dame. L’ensemble du roman relève d’une esthétique de la médisance, Bussy expérimentant ainsi, avant les auteurs de la comédie de mœurs, une écriture qui crée un univers littéraire à partir d’une vision a priori, comme un pur exercice de l’esprit. L’enjeu n’est pas de fournir une lecture juste de la réalité, mais de faire illusion, en canalisant le regard du lecteur ou du spectateur uniquement vers les éléments qui confirment la perspective noire posée, sans tenir compte de tout ce qui l’infirme ou la nuance.

Ainsi, il est peut-être plus légitime de voir dans la comédie de mœurs non pas le résultat d’un déclin des mœurs et des goûts, mais la continuatrice d’une pensée classique. Celle-ci reprend à son compte d’anciennes critiques sur la modernité corruptrice, la couple avec la vision chrétienne du monde comme vallée des larmes, et décide de porter jusqu’à ses limites cette lecture sombre de l’humanité, en lui donnant une tournure décidément comique. Mettant au service de la satire son arsenal de types et de procédés, elle élabore une version policée, recevable si l’on peut dire, d’un jeu que l’on avait reproché à Bussy-Rabutin et à Boileau de pratiquer comme une attaque ad hominem. La représentation d’un monde d’où les principes moraux et la vertu ont généralement et définitivement disparu, à tous les échelons de la société, dilue les responsabilités et étouffe le scandale. Avec son côté absurde de neverland, la comédie de mœurs tire la représentation vers la farce. Sur fond d’essoufflement de la machine à caractères de premier plan, elle est certainement apparue aux comédiens comme une alternative de nature à relancer le théâtre et à renouveler le plaisir du spectateur.

Ioana Galleron

Rousseau and the perils of public address

In December 1776, the Courrier d’Avignon reported a curious incident in Ménilmontant: a supposedly mortal collision between the famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and…a great dane.

‘Rousseau, qui se promène souvent seul à la campagne, a été renversé il y a quelques jours par un de ces chiens Danois qui précèdent les equipages lestes: on dit qu’il est très malade de cette chute, et on ne peut trop deplorer son sort d’avoir été écrasé par des chiens.’ (no.97, December 3, 1776, p.4).

‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau est mort des suites de sa chute. Il a vécu pauvre, il est mort misérablement; et la singularité de sa destinée  l’a accompagné jusqu’au tombeau.’ (no.102, December 20, 1776, p.4).

Jean Jacques François Le Barbier, Brusselles (éd. de Londres), 1783, ‘Rousseau apportant le manuscrit des “Dialogues” à Notre-Dame de Paris’. Illustration pour Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques dans Œuvres de J.-J. Rousseau.

Rousseau, as we know, died a few years later in 1778 – the event in Ménilmontant leaving him not mortally injured, but with a face bruised and beaten. The mistaken reports in the Courrier d’Avignon prompted his Rêveries critical assessment of eighteenth-century public culture and, in particular, the social and discursive mechanisms that permitted the spread of rumours, an absence of fact-checking, and sensationalism. It was hardly, however, his first diagnosis of ‘fake news’.

In the very era when the postal system and print culture brought people together in ‘imagined communities’, Rousseau worried deeply about the risks of dead letters. Although Rousseau’s colleague, Diderot, was convinced that the two most important technological developments in early modern Europe were the postal system and print culture (enthusing to his sculptor friend Falconet, ‘Il y a deux grandes inventions: la poste qui porte en six semaines une découverte de l’équateur au pôle, et l’imprimerie qui la fixe à jamais’), Rousseau was much more leery of the new information age.

A critical assessment of the Enlightenment’s faith in transparent communication must attune itself to the persistent traces of ancient modes of rhetoric: the traditions of doublespeak and dog-whistle politics. Rousseau, sensitive to the tensions between an esoteric, libertine tradition of communication and an intellectual climate of social progressivism, frames the debate in a series of vexed questions: for whom should I be writing? what is a public and what can it do? Despairing over the absence of any true ‘ami de la vérité’, Rousseau heads to Notre Dame cathedral to deposit, in a famous acte manqué, a copy of Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques on the altar of the church.

‘En entrant, mes yeux furent frappés d’une grille que je n’avois jamais remarquée et qui séparoit de la nef la partie des bas-cotés qui entoure le Chœur. Les portes de cette grille étoient fermées, de sorte que cette partie des bas-cotés dont je viens de parler étoit vuide & qu’il m’étoit impossible d’y pénétrer. Au moment où j’apperçus cette grille je fus saisi d’un vertige comme un homme qui tombe en apoplexie, et ce vertige fut suivi d’un bouleversement dans tout mon être, tel que je ne me souviens pas d’en avoir éprouvé jamais un pareil. L’Eglise me parut avoir tellement changé de face que doutant si j’étois bien dans Notre-Dame, je cherchois avec effort à me reconnoître et à mieux discerner ce que je voyois. Depuis trente six ans que je suis à Paris, j’étois venu fort souvent et en divers tems à Notre Dame; j’avois toujours vu le passage autour du Chœur ouvert et libre, et je n’y avois même jamais remarqué ni grille ni porte autant qu’il put m’en souvenir.’ (‘Histoire du précédent écrit’, Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques, OC, t.1, p. 980).

He notes that in spite of having been in the church scores of times, he had failed to notice the barrier blocking access to the altar. The unpredictability of the reading public – indeed, the plurality of publics and their occasionally indeterminate nature – makes literary reception a chancy affair. In the very loud and crowded market of ideas of the French Enlightenment, the rhetorical gesture of address underscored the vulnerability and power of the modern writer. In my study, Jean-Jacques Rousseau face au public: problèmes d’identité, I explore the vagaries of public communication during the Enlightenment and the dialectical tensions between shadow and illumination, musicality and transparency.

As an insider of the Encyclopédie project turned outsider, Rousseau understood the complexities of the new social and ethical demands placed on the philosophes in a way that is fundamentally different from his contemporaries. By noting the unpredictability and inconsistencies of systems of public address (with readers and spectators moved alternatively by emotions, reason, flows of information, and the major works of a few key power players), Rousseau proposes alternative ways of thinking about communication and the circulation of information. He places value on economies of speech that include silence, babil (babbling), laconism, and musicality – modes of communication that contest conventional modalities of rationality and social exchange. His work is thus an invitation to consider the precarity of address within modern social life and, consequently, the politics of truth at stake in symbolic exchange.

Masano Yamashita

OSE Digitisation for archiving… then sale?

The Vf is in the midst of a big project to digitise all 550+ books from the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series into ORA (Oxford University Research Archive), the University’s own archive of scholarly publications – Oxford’s dark archive.

We are heavily indebted to four students who have hugely helped by working over the last two years. Here, Andi and Elizabeth give us their views, which show how much publishing has evolved since the beginning of the series and the benefits that the metadata capture and printing-on-demand (a.k.a. PODing) will bring to the users and buyers of Studies volumes.

Print-on-demand creationAndi Glover

I worked as a digitisation assistant for the Voltaire Foundation for four months, administering the creation of print-on-demand (POD) editions of volumes in the SVEC series (Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century), now Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

SVEC, established by Theodore Besterman in 1955, is a series of scholarly monographs in French and English on diverse aspects of eighteenth-century European history, culture and ideas. The volumes I worked on, published between 1964 and 1979, covered subjects as diverse as Molière’s critical reception in his time (vol.112), and a study of the influence of Hobbes and Locke on the concept of sovereignty in French philosophy (vol.101). Many of these volumes were written by authors still collaborating with the Vf today, such as a study on the account of Rousseau given in Madame de Graffigny’s letters (vol.175) by English Showalter, now the editor of her complete correspondence.

As a student of librarianship, I was aware of Besterman’s contribution to bibliography as the author of The Beginnings of Systematic Bibliography (1935), Counsellor of the World Bibliographical and Library centre, and editor of the World Bibliography of Bibliographies. Several SVEC volumes bear witness to his application of these skills to Voltaire studies, such as Some eighteenth-century Voltaire editions unknown to Bengesco (vol.111), which builds on earlier bibliographies of Voltaire with editions that Besterman located through his research.

To digitise and create POD editions of these volumes, I first prepared draft preliminary pages and covers, and sent them to typesetters with whom I then liaised to finalise the PDF files they created. I also approached some of the original authors to request overview text for the covers of their volumes; their good wishes and enthusiasm for the project were encouraging. Where we could not contact authors, I enjoyed choosing extracts from the books themselves that I felt would inform and engage a scholarly reader.

Next, I uploaded my proofs to the printer, Ingram’s Lightning Source website, and input key metadata about the volumes, such as number of pages and year of publication. Finally, I posted the hard copy volumes, provided by the Taylor Institution, to Ingram for scanning, and checked the resulting digital and hard copy proofs. The first hard copy proof arrived in early August; two months and many cups of coffee later, I had sent 60 volumes to be scanned and digitised.

Working simultaneously on several volumes, each at a different stage in the process, was challenging. I was well supported throughout as well as being free to make decisions independently about formatting, and organising my own workload, and as a result I have become more confident about managing responsibility!

Andi Glover is a Library and Information Studies MA student at University College London. Tweet @librarimand, or e-mail.

Malheur aux détails, la postérité les néglige tous… (*) except when needed for e-books! – Elizabeth Duncan

I worked at the Voltaire Foundation a couple of weeks after finishing the final exams for my BA degree in Classics and French, looking to gain some practical experience in publishing.

Over the summer I worked on capturing metadata for the digitisation of the extensive back catalogue of books in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series (formerly Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century).

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment holds a wealth of interesting and erudite work on the Enlightenment which deserves to be made more readily accessible and widely available, and digitisation, or electronic publishing, offers a way to achieve this aim.

Drawing of Château at Ferney

Drawing of Château at Ferney on website of Vanderbilt Library – relating to Voltaire’s British visitors

Begun in 1955, with over five hundred books to its name, the series encompasses scholarship ranging from highly specialised work on Voltaire, such as Sir Gavin de Beer and André-Michel Rousseau’s detailed catalogue of Voltaire’s British visitors, for which I wrote a description for the website, to broader studies shedding light on neglected areas, such as Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie méthodique’ (November 2015) for which I checked the first proofs.

My work largely consisted of cross-checking the details held about each book, from its ISBN to its pagination, and keying the short descriptions and tables of contents, in order to capture all the information (or metadata) necessary to find the electronic books when digitised and online. In the cases of earlier books, ones from the 1950s and 1960s when no-one ever dreamt that a book could become, or should become, an intangible piece of electronic data, finding and collating these details was sometimes a challenge! This initial project was an essential step in a longer process, and it is exciting to think of these older books, which still have valuable things to say about the Enlightenment, being made available once again to a new audience through a medium invented many years after they were written.

The other advantage of working in a small team like the Voltaire Foundation is that I had the opportunity to see other aspects of publishing by doing other odd jobs – I have definitely had my practical experience!

As a keen student of French literature who had very much enjoyed the eighteenth-century literature I covered at Oxford, I also really appreciated the chance to broaden my acquaintance with the subject by seeing the diversity of topics on which scholars work and publish, especially the opportunities to dip into the proofs of books not even published yet to see where the very newest thought on the Enlightenment is going.

(*) Title reference: Letter from Voltaire to the abbé Dubos, Best.D1569

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


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?


‘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.


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.