Mapping a polycentric Republic of Letters in eighteenth-century Mexico

Map of Mexico or New Spain (1708), by Herman Moll. (Wikimedia Commons)

The viceroyalty of New Spain – whose territory largely corresponded to that of present-day Mexico – was, during the eighteenth century, the most important intellectual hub in Latin America and a place of extraordinary scholarly endeavors. During this period Mexico’s viceregal society saw the publication of its first regularly issued newspapers (for example the Gazeta de México), its first biobibliography of Mexico’s written production (Bibliotheca Mexicana), its first scientific periodicals (such as the Diario literario de México), and one of the first – if not the first – science fiction works of the region (Un viaje novohispano a la luna). Despite these achievements the literary production and intellectual life of eighteenth-century Mexico has been overlooked. Why? Perhaps one of the reasons lies in the need for scholarship on this era to go beyond the analysis of the traditional models and genres of the Hispanic Golden Age studied by specialists of the early modern period. Given that literatura was an umbrella term that, during the eighteenth century, extended to almost the entire universe of writing, I think that the literary production of this time in Mexico is best approached as the product of the complex historical, scientific, philosophical, and religious inquiry that marked the era. Viceregal scholars, the practitioners of this literature, were polymaths that notably held a wide array of scholarly interests.

Front pages of the first issues of Mercurio volante (1772-1773), a scientific periodical edited by José Ignacio Bartolache (left), and of Gazeta de literatura de México (1788-1795).

My study Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico: A New World for the Republic of Letters aims to fill this critical void by analyzing how eighteenth-century Mexican writers sought to establish their local literary republic’s place within the global community of learning. These individuals formed scholarly networks, engaged in the historical exploration of the past and present, and configured new epistemological approaches to literary production inspired by enlightened ideas. Polemics of different kinds, as suggested in the title of my study, played a crucial role in the formation of scholarly circles. One of the first of such controversies was related to the lack of recognition by European scholars of the intellectual capacities of those born in the Americas. In order to debunk existing prejudices and to be considered part of the res publica literaria, Mexican scholars were eager to showcase their intellectual attainments to Europe. For these scholars, the Republic of Letters was polycentric, with one of its centers located precisely in viceregal Mexico.

Many literary works of this era not only utilized scholarly polemics as unique points of departure, but also gave rise to new controversies. Beyond Mexican scholars’ efforts to defend the intellectual capacities of fellow inhabitants of the New World, these writers, especially during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, were involved in internal, epistemological battles related to the practice of knowledge. My book not only highlights the efforts of scholars in eighteenth-century Mexico to construct a polycentric Republic of Letters in order to receive recognition from their European peers, but also demonstrates the extent to which the intellectual realm was dynamic within the viceroyalty.

Elementa recentioris philosophiae, by Juan Benito Díaz de Gamarra (Mexici, 1774) (Bodleian Library)

As such literary debates on knowledge attest, several intellectual circles coexisted in the viceroyalty that, due to their different characteristics, grew increasingly distant over time. In the works of some Mexican authors there existed two chronologically distinct Republics of Letters, that from the pre-Columbian era and that which emerged after the Spanish conquest. In the late eighteenth century, however, several publications attested to the simultaneous existence of at least two distinctive groups of scholars, one that was old and pertaining to scholasticism – the philosophical-educational system traditionally ruling the world of scholars – and another that was new, or modern, and influenced by enlightened ideas. In other words, the seemingly stable idea of the Republic of Letters in the mid-eighteenth century was to fall apart in the following decades, when Enlightenment-inspired criticism, opposition to ancient authorities, and philosophical and scientific development concerned with social realities put into play innovative approaches to knowledge and the practice of religion in the viceroyalty.

With Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico: A New World for the Republic of Letters, I invite those scholars devoted to the study of eighteenth-century cultures to engage in an examination of a less-explored scholarly territory and its networks, and to think about how it was heterogeneously constructed by many-sided polemics and debates manifested through a broad range of literary works.

– José Francisco Robles, University of Washington

Polemics, literature, and knowledge in eighteenth-century Mexico is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in April 2021.

What do children do with books?

A key concept in childhood studies since the 1970s, children’s agency has recently returned to the heart of the reflections of a group of childhood historians. The conference Se soustraire à l’empire des grands. Enfance, jeunesse et agentivité (1500-1830) (Escaping the empire of the grown-ups: childhood, adolescence and agency, 1500-1830), organised by Sylvie Moret-Petrini at the Université de Lausanne, focused on the personal journals of children and adolescents. The aim was to tackle this source, often seen by historians as a surveillance and educational tool, or as ‘panoptiques de papier’ (paper panopticons), from a new angle and consider it as a space where young writers could reflect on their status as children and express forms of rebellion or indiscipline.

These reflections invite us to take a fresh look at another object that educators advised should be placed under the constant and close supervision of parents – the book. What kind of agency can be achieved in children’s and adolescents’ relationships with books, whether this was how they approached and absorbed texts, how they handled the book as a physical object, or the resources they drew from their reading to inform their present actions or future choices? This approach, as always, requires a cross-analysis of the rare traces that remain of the way children treated books and the mass of adult, pedagogical, parental, medical and literary discourse.

Gradus ad Parnassum

Becoming a poet and settling accounts in the margins: the Berkeleys’ Gradus ad Parnassum. (Centre culturel irlandais, Paris, fonds patrimonial, B 1010)

It is clear there was plenty of room for manoeuvre concerning ways of reading, places and times of reading, and the material uses of the book as a physical object. Those who enjoyed reading as a child recall their ability to fully immerse themselves into the imaginary world opened up by a text, like children who play at being a fairy or Robinson Crusoe. In adolescence, parents express the fear that certain books may cause their offspring to ‘emulate something unusual’ or to take up careers other than those they had envisioned for them. The ‘wild’ handling of books is documented by the volumes themselves, such as the practice of writing and drawing in the margins, either to pass the time or to convey messages to someone sitting nearby. We find examples in literature and art of children making castles out of books or using them as stepping stones, like the Cholmondeley children painted by Hogarth in 1732. However, beware of such overly euphoric representations of childish creativity. Alongside these noisy diversions, there were also quieter forms of agency, ‘weak uses’ of books such as interrupted or unengaged reading, or expressions of a dislike of reading (sometimes found in correspondence or in parents’ diaries), which were all ways of rejecting the pedagogical norms of consulting books as a means of self-improvement and learning.

Hogarth, The Cholmondeley family

Building paper worlds: Hogarth, The Cholmondeley family, 1732. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As is often the case, most traces of, or clues to, the agency of young readers are available to the historian only through writings originating from the adult world (theoretical discourse, pedagogical literature) or produced under close adult supervision (children’s journals). Even annotated books, which in principle offer the most spontaneous traces of children’s reading, have only been preserved and transmitted to us as a result of adult arbitration. The discourses undoubtedly refer less to childish practices and more to the preoccupations and concerns about juvenile behaviour projected by the adult world. But it doesn’t end there, of course. The figures of child readers represented in eighteenth-century children’s literature in particular pose a problem. What can literature teach the historian? Or, as Judith Lyon-Caen might say, what can history teach us about literature? There are two possible research avenues here.

The historian can first of all shed light on these literary figures through archives that document their reality in a more fragmentary and indirect way. The foolish vanity of the young Valentin, who waves his Telemachus under the nose of a gardener’s son to clearly mark the social divide between them, is certainly ridiculed in La Vanité punie, but the episode also highlights the fact that the child has grasped the social advantage that he can gain from his small possession – albeit he uses it inappropriately here – at a time when children were given beautiful books as gifts at New Year and in a society where owning a library was a powerful symbol of social distinction. Agency, as we know, is never disconnected from the socio-institutional contexts that are imposed on it at the very heart of practices.

Arnaud Berquin, L’Ami des enfants

Arnaud Berquin, L’Ami des enfants (London, 1782).

Similarly, in the short play Un bon cœur fait pardonner bien des étourderies (A good heart makes up for many careless mistakes) (published in L’Ami des enfants in 1782), Arnaud Berquin portrays a young man, Frédéric, who sells his watch and school books to give money to the poor. Police archives contain many files on peddlers convicted of acquiring books from schoolchildren in exchange for sweets or novels. Some had been unmasked as a result of the ex libris on the textbooks, as in Berquin’s play. The practice of selling on is therefore well documented, but it is presented in literature as a form of children’s agency rather than as the (female) street vendors’ agency as generally tackled by historians.

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIIIᵉ siècle

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIIIᵉ siècle is the February 2021 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

This example leads us on to the second research avenue. It reminds us not to present children’s agency as a given, an a priori, but rather as a construction, an ‘œuvre de re-connaissance et de re-présentation des enfants par les adultes’ (work of re-cognition and re-presentation of children by adults), to borrow Pascale Garnier’s expression. The focus on childhood in the eighteenth century led to the valorisation of youthful inventiveness, including in its negotiations with the rules, as long as it remained venial, expressed qualities associated with childhood (innocence, impulsiveness), and did not constitute a threat to the established order. Children’s literature thus presented a framework of acceptability for a number of uses of the book, regardless of the final judgement made on the protagonist. We still need to be able to document what was outside the scope of the representable, what the anecdotes left out, what the parents did not want to admit, what only serendipitous archives perhaps can tell us as historians.

Emmanuelle Chapron, Aix Marseille Université

A version of this notice first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in February 2021.

Livres d’école et littérature de jeunesse en France au XVIII siècle is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: adventures in words and deeds

Frontispiece and title page of Paul et Virginie

Frontispiece and title page of a 1789 edition of Paul et Virginie. (Taylor Institution, Oxford)

Why read and study Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814)? Until recently, his reputation rested almost exclusively on arguably the most-published novel in French literature, Paul et Virginie (1788). However, the appearance of the first scholarly editions of his correspondence in Electronic Enlightenment and his Complete Works (in progress, Garnier) have produced not only reliable texts but substantial fresh material. His status has been considerably enhanced.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, engraving by Etienne-Frédéric Lignon

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, engraving by Etienne-Frédéric Lignon, after a painting by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824). (Public domain)

Trained as a military engineer, Bernardin found job opportunities impossible after the Seven Years War. He sought his fortune by setting out for Eastern Europe. In Russia he met Catherine the Great and secured employment. He then crossed into Poland where he was imprisoned for an unwise military escapade and acted as an unofficial spy for a French diplomat. He observed customs and landscapes as well as drafting reports. It was a political awakening. Penniless, he returned to France before being posted in 1768 to its colony of île de France (Mauritius).

His sea journey was perilous, marked by deaths and scurvy. On the island he was appalled by aspects of the French administration. He possessed two slaves as servants but was shocked by the treatment of slaves on plantations. Despite having family members engaged in the maritime slave trade, he attacked the brutality of slavery in his correspondence and subsequent publications.

Paul and Virginie obtain pardon for a runaway slave, print by Charles Melchior Descourtis

Paul and Virginie obtain pardon for a runaway slave, print by Charles Melchior Descourtis, after Jean Frédéric Schall (1752-1825). (Public domain)

He returned to France in 1771. In Paris, he became a friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and attended the salon of Julie de Lespinasse. In a surprising career move, he became a writer, in a variety of formats.

His first work, a sort of travel account, appeared in January 1773, the Voyage à l’île de France. Its publication was supported by d’Alembert and it was admired by Condorcet. It was published anonymously because officials disapproved of its harsh depiction of colonial life. Bernardin was not against colonisation but wanted reforms. Indeed he proposed schemes to the government for foreign initiatives, but all to no avail. He lived on his wits but refused to sell his pen like those in Robert Darnton’s version of Grub Street. Some financial stability arrived with the publication of the Etudes de la nature (1784) and Paul et Virginie (1788).

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Etudes sur la nature

Frontispiece and title page of the first edition of Etudes sur la nature. (Taylor Institution, Oxford)

The three-volume Etudes supplied a panorama of his thoughts: a firm belief in God and Providence and the ideal of harmony in an interlinked world but also opposition to the scientific and political establishments. It won him a large readership. He received an abundant fan mail from admirers from different backgrounds. He was regarded as a sage, as a moral authority in whom even strangers could confide.

Invitation à la concorde

Invitation à la concorde. (Gazette Drouot)

At the outset of the Revolution he was famous. He used his fame to enter the political arena as a reformist pamphleteer. In September 1789 he published the Vœux d’un solitaire and was eager that Revolutionary activists should read it. The wisdom of the poor and excluded was championed in the character of the pariah in the short story La Chaumière indienne (1791). He sought to influence moderate public opinion through his little-known poster Invitation à la concorde displayed in the Palais-Royal in July 1792. He was elected to a Revolutionary body, a position that he refused. He belonged to no political grouping. There followed a series of posts that he could not turn down. Louis XVI appointed him Intendant of the Jardin des plantes in 1792 (a position formerly held by Buffon). The Comité d’instruction publique nominated him in 1794 as professeur de morale républicaine at the new Ecole normale (Bernardin’s views on education have been neglected but receive significant coverage in my book). The Ecole closed in May 1795 but he was still a ‘go to’ man and became a member of the Institut during the Directory. Linked with the Bonapartes, he remained a prominent figure in his declining years.

Despite his intimacy with Rousseau, it is possible that he read Voltaire’s works more extensively. This study suggests that the slippery terms philosophe or antiphilosophe cannot be unambiguously applied to him. He was a witness to an age in transformation who gained supporters engaged in politics to add to his wide community of readers. He was not just an adventurer in terms of his travels to Eastern Europe and the Indian Ocean, but also in his ideas and their varied forms of expression. He believed that the world was in constant change, history was not cyclical. A growing assessment of his importance is emerging and this monograph hopes to provide information and insights to stimulate further research on Bernardin and his times.

Simon Davies

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: Colonial Traveller, Enlightenment Reformer, Celebrity Writer is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

This text first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog, January 2021.

Montesquieu, the Persian Rousseau, and Napoleon’s French Revolution in India

Soltan Hosayn, by Cornelis de Bruijn

Soltan Hosayn, by Cornelis de Bruijn. (Rijksmuseum)

The year 2021 marks the tercentenary of the publication of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes and the two hundredth anniversary of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. At first glance, the philosophe who penned a novel about a fictional Persian’s travels to Paris in the first half of the eighteenth century seems to have little in common with the Corsican who marched his army across three continents at its end. But in fact both men were motivated by the same sequence of events to cast their eyes towards Persia. Pierre Victor Michel’s embassy to Shah Soltan Hosayn in 1708 and Mohammad Reza Beg’s delegation to Louis XIV in 1715 inspired Montesquieu’s peripatetic Persian protagonist and Napoleon’s 1808 treaty with Persia’s Fath-Ali Shah. Napoleon was an avid student of Persian history. His admiration for Persian conqueror Nader Shah ran so deep that he brokered his treaty to continue Nader’s invasion of the Asian subcontinent and bill it as a French Revolution in India.

Nader Shah

Nader Shah. (Unknown artist, Victoria and Albert Museum)

One of the chief architects of this revolution was Jean-François Xavier Rousseau, a forgotten Persian first cousin of another philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Unlike the Citizen of Geneva, who eschewed trans-imperial trade and warned against commercial luxury, Jean-François embraced it. His father Jacques had arrived in Persia as part of Louis XIV’s first official delegation to Soltan Hosayn in 1706. He remained there and became jeweller to the Safavid and Afsharid shahs. Jacques’s son was born in Isfahan in 1738. By the age of eighteen, Jean-François secured a position as chancellor of trade in Basra. Following the deaths of the French consuls of Baghdad and Basra in the Great Persian Plague Epidemic of 1773, he assumed their consulships for three decades. Across the reigns of the Zands and the Qajar shah Fath-Ali, Jean-François lobbied Persian rulers, French kings and revolutionary governments to establish alliances while he organized plans for their joint conquest of India.

Jean-François’s project ran contrary to the French Bourbon monarchy’s long-standing partnership with the Ottomans. But from the late seventeenth century, missionaries and entrepreneurs who hoped to enrich themselves and grow French influence further east had peddled the idea of negotiating trade agreements with Turkey’s adversary, Persia. Following Michel’s commercial treaty with Soltan Hosayn in 1708, abbé Martin Gaudereau, Jean Billon de Canserilles, and Greek-French drogman-turned-consul Etienne Padéry attempted to convince Louis XIV, the duc d’Orléans, and Louis XV to secure more privileges by providing weapons and ships that the Safavids and their successors needed to suppress tributary populations and imperial competitors. Persia’s borderland violence intensified as famine and plague forced the Baluch, Kurdish, Ghilji, and Abdali tribes to migrate into the empire and the Omani Ya’rubids fought for control of the Gulf. Having exhausted English and Dutch aid, the Persians increasingly turned to France.

French rulers who sought to repair their global reputation following the disastrous Seven Years War found Persia’s entreaties enticing. Louis XV’s foreign minister, Etienne François, duc de Choiseul, toyed with the idea of colonizing Egypt and weighed opportunities in Basra and Baghdad to weaken Britain’s India trade. Under his direction, Jean-François Rousseau negotiated an agreement with Shah Karim Khan Zand to support French shipping through the Persian Gulf. Plague, borderland conflicts, and succession crises frustrated these plans. But Jean-François continued to lobby for a belligerent anti-British policy in western and south Asia. Following the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, he repackaged his project for a Franco-Persian offensive on India as a logical continuation of the French Revolution.

Napoleon breathed new life into Jean-François’s plans. Imagining a French corridor from Africa across the Indian Ocean and fantasizing being crowned emperor in Asia, he corresponded with Fath-Ali Shah, promising military aid against the Russians in exchange for a joint assault on India. Jean-François submitted a Tableau général de la Perse to Charles de Talleyrand, co-authored with his son Joseph and outlining plans for French marines to join Persians, Afghans, and Sikhs in the Gulf of Sindh, march on Delhi, and seize ‘the places that have knelt under the yoke of British domination’ (see ‘References’ below, no.1). The ‘liberation’ of the subcontinent would allow Napoleon and his Persian ally to surpass Nader Shah as warriors of the century.

Signing of the treaty of Finkenstein, by François-Henri Mulard

Signing of the treaty of Finkenstein, by François-Henri Mulard (1810).

But as soon as Napoleon signed his Treaty of Finkenstein with Fath-Ali’s ambassador Mirza Mohammed Reza Qasvini in 1807, he abandoned Persia and set his sights on Eastern Europe. Jean-François died in Aleppo the same year. While the subcontinent was spared a French offensive, Napoleon’s about-face reignited the Russo-Persian War of 1804-13. Without French aid Fath-Ali could not prevent carnage in the disputed northern frontier as Tsar Alexander drove a wedge into the Caucasus.

So the French Revolution in India never materialized. Then why remember another of Napoleon’s failures? Historians who studied eighteenth-century political ruptures traditionally ignored Asia, focusing on the three revolutions in England, France, and North America. But these were just a few of many political earthquakes that shattered old regimes during the Age of Revolutions. European contemporaries who witnessed the Siamese Revolution of 1688, the janissaries’ revolt against Ottoman Sultan Mustafa II (1703), Mahmud Hotaki’s siege of Isfahan (1722), and Nader Shah’s conquest of India (1738-40) described them as Asian ‘revolutions’, reflected on their causes, and mused over their effects on politics at home.

But as western powers jockeyed for global dominance, European elites consolidated a view, made famous by Montesquieu, that in Asia ‘power is always despotic’ and ‘liberty never grows’ (see ‘References’, below, no.2). The more they associated ‘revolution’ with a modern, democratic experiment, they saw its ideals as exclusively European. Asia was written out of the history of revolutionary progress, and labelled a political aberration. It is time to insert it back in. When we reconsider the Age of Revolutions globally we can better understand how two of the most significant processes of the century – competition among Eurasian empires and the development of democratic revolutions – were more intertwined than scholars have allowed.

Iran and a French empire of trade, 1700-1808: The other Persian letters is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


  1. Centre des archives diplomatiques du ministère des affaires étrangères (La Courneuve), Correspondance politique Perse [AE CP] 8.64, f.182-89v, Jean-François Rousseau to Talleyrand, 28 vendémaire An XII (October 20, 1804); AE CP Perse 8.89, f.236, Rousseau to Talleyrand, 25 ventôse An XIII (March 20, 1805).
  2. Montesquieu, ‘Cause de l’immutabilité de la religion, des mœurs, des manières, des loix, dans les pays d’orient’, De l’esprit des lois, book 14, ch.4, p.288.

Junko Takeda, Syracuse University

A version of this text appeared on the Liverpool University Press blog.

Virtue in crisis: Enlightenment perspectives

With frightening speed, COVID-19 has brought about a global crisis. In western democracies the phenomenon was first tracked and measured from a distance, then discovered to be not just ‘their’ problem, but ‘ours’ too. In the process, common behaviours were subjected to new scrutiny; with the virus, moral sentiment proliferated. Formerly anodyne acts were proclaimed to be vices, twinned with equal and opposite virtues. Politicians devised lists of what may and may not be done, and other lists, of what should and should not be done. These lists concerning ‘should’ and ‘should not’ are in fact a plea for civic virtue: if the majority are sufficiently virtuous, the nation will be healed. Striking a utilitarian note, certain commentators began to argue that the good of some must now be sacrificed for the good of all, and current lives, for future prosperity.

Thanks to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Virtue and Truth prevent Human Pride from resisting the efforts of Nature to allow children to live a happy life

Thanks to the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Virtue and Truth prevent Human Pride from resisting the efforts of Nature to allow children to live a happy life. Engraving by G. Vidal after Ch. Monnet. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

In the Enlightenment era, natural disasters, contagions, and wars also fed debates about civic (and other) virtues. Then as now, these were embedded in larger discussions of morality, the common good, and the relation between individual citizens and the polity. For instance, we may recall an exchange that took place between Rousseau and Voltaire, following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Voltaire wrote a poem expressing rage against Optimists who might still argue, with Alexander Pope, that ‘partial evil’ is ‘universal good’. In the case of the Lisbon earthquake, ‘partial evil’ would consist in many thousands of deaths. Yet according to Voltaire’s Optimists (whom he addresses as ‘wretched mathematicians of human suffering’), universal good would be sustained by those very deaths. After all, children could inherit their parents’ wealth, stone masons find employment, and animals feast on rotting corpses. In a letter to Voltaire, Rousseau objected that the disastrous effect of the earthquake was not tied to some unfathomable cosmic riddle. It was, rather, the consequence of the European tendency to live in large cities, where so many are exposed at once to a single danger; and neither God nor nature, but humanity was responsible for this. More generally, as in his celebrated Second Discourse, Rousseau argues that, as it pursues what (other) philosophes see as progress, civilisation reaps what it sows.

If we can hear echoes of such debates in contemporary life, it is because we are, in important respects, heirs of the Enlightenment. Many of us think about virtue and the common good in an entirely secular way; our moral duties are owed, we feel, not to God, but to our fellow citizens. It makes sense to describe this as a ‘post-Enlightenment’ view. After all, it counted as a bold step when, towards the end of the seventeenth century, Pierre Bayle wrote that a society of atheists might be capable of virtue.

But by the mid-eighteenth century, secularisation, linked by the historian Paul Hazard to a ‘crisis of the European mind’, had gained extensive ground. In France, atheistic thinkers suggested that virtuous behaviour should be understood as whatever contributes to the common good in this, the only life we have. Diderot and the materialist coterie of the baron d’Holbach, for instance, tended towards this view. But Voltaire and Rousseau, who abhorred atheism, were secularisers, too; for they rejected ecclesiastical explanations of the Lisbon earthquake (or anything else). In brief, secularisation in France was in the first instance a case of pushing back against the mundane influence of the Church and its theology. We should be wary, however, of casting a few major writers as the isolated prophets of secular modernity. If there was a crisis of the European mind, it was caused by a nexus of cultural, social and historical forces which far exceeded the ‘Republic of Letters’.

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, March 2020

James Fowler is the co-editor of the March volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Enlightenment Virtue, 1680-1794, in which contributors analyse complex and shifting relations between religious and civic virtue during the Age of Enlightenment.

During the Revolution, various factions laid claim to civic virtue. Speaking for the Montagnards, Robespierre asserted, not only that virtue was the essence of the (French) Republic, but that Terror could be an ‘Emanation of virtue’. He also echoed those, including Rousseau, who (had) admired the ‘male’ virtues of Sparta, or other ancient republics. Despite women’s participation in the Revolution, the virtues prescribed by the Terror were gendered ones; indeed, what was virtue in a man might be vice in a woman. The Moniteur universel of 17 November 1793 held up three recently executed women as examples of vice: Marie Antoinette; ‘la femme Roland’ (married to the Girondin Jean Roland); and Olympe de Gouges (author of a Declaration of the Rights of Woman). The former queen was a ‘bad mother’ and ‘debauched wife’; as for the others, they had in different ways ‘forgotten the virtues of their sex’. For a brief period, at least, it must have seemed that the state did not distinguish between private, public, and gendered virtue, nor between unvirtuous thoughts and crimes against the nation. Public executions became, as never before, virtue’s instrument.

In moments of national crisis, we tend to inquire, earnestly and urgently, what should count as civic virtue. If only half-consciously, we may turn to notions of the common good, especially utilitarian ones, which we have inherited from the Enlightenment era. Certainly, that period is an excellent place to start if we wish to put the current debate into historical perspective.

– Dr James Fowler, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, London

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

The phenomenon of the ‘amateur’

The September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, L’amateur à l’époque des Lumières, studies the phenomenon of amateurship in several disciplines and cultural backgrounds. It aims to articulate sociological, rhetorical and poetical perspectives, as the term ‘amateur’ is considered to refer to a social type or role, to a discursive figure and to a creator at the same time. In this blog post, Enrico Mattioda explores how the very definition of the word amateur sparked confusion, controversy, and clashes throughout the 18th century.

The amateur has been the subject of new interest in recent years, not only in the German sphere, where attention to this theme has never been lacking, but also in France, thanks in part to Charlotte Guichard’s studies in the discipline of fine arts. The eighteen essays included in the present volume, edited by Justine de Reyniès and Bénédicte Peslier Peralez, are the result of contributions made by distinguished experts in the field, and all offer a vision of the phenomenon in Europe as never seen before. The book does not claim to solve all the problems related to the amateur; rather, its importance lies in its ability both to challenge the notion itself and to offer different arguments and perspectives.

L’amateur à l’époque des Lumières is the September 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The investigation of the figure of the amateur is not limited to the classical fields of the arts and sciences. Instead, a vision of the concept of amateur is expanded, extended into other human activities ranging from literature to journalism, from sociabilité to coups d’œil, and continuing into the subject of women who express themselves in music or literary judgements.

The impetus to extend the concept of amateur to other human activities may perhaps be located in the limitations to be found in Alexander Rosenbaum’s book, Der Amateur als Künstler, published in 2010. From a personal point of view, I do not agree with Rosenbaum’s anti-historical approach, which seeks to define amateurs starting from the Italian Renaissance and trivializes the concept of sprezzatura developed by Baldessar Castiglione. It should be remembered that in the 15th and 16th centuries, the distinction between professional and amateur was not recognized in Italy: it was only in 1620, when the Accademia di San Luca in Rome received permission from Pope Urban VIII to establish who was an art professor and who was not, that the distinction between the fields began to be defined. Historical dictionaries indicate that the first attestation of the word ‘amateur’ was seen from 1682 onwards; my own research pushes the date to 1660, but certainly not any earlier.

These considerations lead us to a more general problem. For too long it has been claimed that there are synonymous terms to define the phenomenon within the various European countries; instead, we must accept the fact that these terms are false linguistic friends and do not cover the same semantic field. Confusion already reigned in the 18th century: the entry amateur in the Encyclopédie linked the French word to the Italian word ‘virtuoso’; Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Dictionnaire de musique stated, instead, that the French word is a translation of the Italian word ‘dilettante’. These are two very different concepts, and neither of them grasped the great semantic difference imposed in France with the creation of the amateurs honoraires within the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, wherein these amateurs honoraires came to establish the taste in the artistic field and to dominate the art market. In 1757 the Encyclopédie initiated a violent backlash, which then continued with direct clashes between Caylus and Diderot and with a series of art dictionaries published by the amateurs.

This controversy surrounding the definition was immediately acknowledged in Germany, where we first see the use of ‘Dilettant’ starting in 1759. The term held negative connotations in all fields except music, where the Italian word was used to mark a clear distinction with respect to the previous ‘Liebhaber’. From the French controversy, the critique of amateurism developed in Germany. The new negative concept of the dilettante was established. No longer was it the amateur who limited himself to the knowledge of an art-form or who presented himself in private and non-profit spheres; it was now the bourgeois amateur who worked in an art-form and presented himself in public without knowing the rules of the art itself and without precise know-how. While we can find a fundamental document in the notes written by Goethe and Schiller in 1799 for an article that was never finished, entitled Über den Dilettantismus, in France the controversy had already come to a close in 1788 with the publication of Amateur, an entry by Claude-Henry Watelet for the Encyclopédie Pancoucke. Here Watelet proposed two alternative solutions: to open the category of amateurs to the female world and to sociabilité, or, in the opposite direction, to withdraw from society and ensconce oneself in a utopia of solitary refuge in classical values. The following year, the French Revolution would bring an end to the amateur Ancien Régime.

The strongest merit to be found in L’amateur à l’époque des Lumières is in the volume’s drawing of attention to this cultural and social phenomenon – one which was fundamental to the culture of the eighteenth century – through its presentation of the different achievements of the amateur and its suggestions of updated readings of the various fields of knowledge and social sciences.

– Enrico Mattioda, Université de Turin

Enrico Mattioda is a contributor to the September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, L’amateur à l’époque des Lumières.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Digitization of the Enlightenment and Manifold Scholarship

Last month, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment released the first volume in the long history of the series that is devoted to the application of digital humanities methods to the study of eighteenth-century intellectual life, Networks of Enlightenment, edited by Chloe Edmondson and Dan Edelstein. To accompany this important and innovative book, we are pleased to be releasing our first-ever digital companion to an OUSE book through the Manifold Scholarship platform.

The digital companion site to Networks of Enlightenment 1 is hosted on the Liverpool University Press Digital Collaboration Hub, constructed on the Manifold Scholarship publishing platform. Funded by the Mellon Foundation, Manifold Scholarship is described as “the intuitive, collaborative, open-source platform for scholarly publishing you’ve been waiting for”. In their own words, the platform allows “for a much more expansive archive of primary sources, such as field notes, moving images, audio, interactive data and maps, photographs, interviews, and archival material” and “asks that an author think creatively about the broad set of materials that are collected in the process of researching and writing a book”.2 Liverpool University Press is participating in Manifold’s pilot program – this companion site is a pilot for the OUSE series as well.

The book at the center of this pilot for OUSENetworks of Enlightenment, focuses on the use of metadata to identify and represent social networks, such as those formed by correspondences, by academy affiliations or by the words in a text. As part of this work several contributors to the volume, using data visualization tools developed at Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, created 40 data visualizations to demonstrate the structure and density of these network relationships. The visualizations are, in fact, crucial to understanding the arguments presented in this book.

Yet these figures, principally due to their complexity as images, can only be approximately reproduced in the medium of the print book; Manifold allows these figures to be rendered as they ought to be – online, in high-resolution and in full color. This supplemental platform thus opens up the possibilities when it comes to publishing digital humanities scholarship, in this volume and in the future. We hope in the coming years to continue this utilization of Manifold to offer our authors, and readers, scholarship that is innovative in method, in findings and in its format.

We are launching this companion site on July 16th, during the XVth International Congress on the Enlightenment which is being held during the same week in Edinburgh, Scotland, under the auspices of the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Today’s digital-focused day consists of the Voltaire Foundation-sponsored day-long workshop “Digitizing Enlightenment IV”, and will culminate in McEwan Hall at the formal launch (and drinks reception) for the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINE, the digital collection which will make available the entirety of the OUSE/SVEC backlist by the end of 2020. Both events will be an exploration (and a celebration) of the efforts already made thus far to consider how scholarship can be enhanced by digital methods, now and in the future.

– Gregory S. Brown (General Editor, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, and Professor of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas) and Nicole Batten (doctoral student, Department of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas)

1 The site, it is important to note, is not a full-text digital edition. The text consists of the full text of the book’s Introduction and Table of Contents, and brief summaries of the nine body chapters of the book.

2 We would like to thank in particular Terence Smyre, Digital Projects Editor of University of Minnesota Press for his help in the assembly of this site. The assembly of the site also had support from the College of Liberal Arts at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which provided support for our time on this project.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

A Year in Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment

As LUP continues to celebrate its 120-year anniversary, this month we are focusing on the eighteenth century and the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in partnership with one of our Partner Presses, the Voltaire Foundation.

On 1st August 2018, LUP officially joined together with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford to publish the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. The series is international in focus and covers wide-ranging aspects of the eighteenth century and the Enlightenment, from gender studies to political theory, and from economics to visual arts and music, and is published in English or French. Now, nearing one year into the partnership, we’re looking back over the past 12 months in the series and the breadth of scholarship that it has published.

From the first volume under the new partnership, Denys Van Renen’s Nature and the new science in England, 1665 – 1726 to the most recent volume, Volcanoes in Eighteenth-Century Europe by David McCallam, the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volumes published in the last year have covered topics as wide-ranging as correspondence networks and social network analysis, Beccaria’s criminal law and d’Argenson’s politics, and philosophical skepticism and narratives of religious faith. Our latest volume sees David McCallam consider the explosive history of volcanoes, drawing on a rich variety of multi-lingual primary sources and the latest critical thinking, to illustrate how the volcano is not only transnational but also transdisciplinary, a fitting subject for a series which aims to be interdisciplinary and global in its reach.

The near future will also see us welcome into the series books on Catherine the Great’s letter-writing as image-makingthe Enlightenment concept of the ‘amateur’, and the omnipresence of Rome as a paradigm in John V’s Portugalamongst many others. After such a successful and invigorating year of publishing, we look forward to many more months and volumes to come, expanding the series into even more thematic and geographical areas.

As part of the collaboration, LUP have developed a new digital collection Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment ONLINEa unique resource for research in the Enlightenment that sees the series’ backlist made available digitally for the first time. Now, one year into the partnership, we’re celebrating the launch of the digital collection with a drinks reception during the upcoming International Congress on the Enlightenment at McEwan Hall, Tuesday 16th July at 7:30pm. If you’re attending the conference, we’d love to see as many of you at the reception as possible, and please do stop by the Voltaire Foundation and Liverpool University Press stand and say hello during the week!

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This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Networks of Enlightenment: new approaches, new perspectives

While many ‘great men and women’ stand out in eighteenth-century Europe, what is notable about the Enlightenment is the prominence of its ‘great groups’, or, as we like to call them, networks. Many individuals owe their participation in the Enlightenment to their membership in intellectual groups and institutions: the philosophes, the salons, the academies… the list goes on. And these networks were, in turn, central to their participants’ identity. What’s more, the leading figures of the Enlightenment were not only members of these groups or networks, but they were often the central nodes of networks that were integral to the Enlightenment: from Voltaire’s or Catherine the Great’s correspondence networks to Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, mediated and unmediated communication were essential to making the Enlightenment possible.

Networks of Enlightenment, edited by Chloe Edmondson and Dan Edelstein, is the June 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters presents a series of case studies of correspondence networks, social networks, and knowledge networks throughout Europe, with a particular focus on France. Authors examine anew some of the pre-eminent networks of the Enlightenment, drawing on digital methods and Social Network Analysis (SNA) to pioneer historically driven methods for thinking about networks in early-modern societies.

Although scholars have long zeroed in on the importance of social groups and networks in the Enlightenment, from networks of publishers and booksellers to provincial academies, the salons, and correspondence networks, technological innovations have only recently made it possible to study these networks from new perspectives. Data-driven approaches provide a more comprehensive and granular understanding of the many different types of networks that formed the intellectual and cultural infrastructure of the Enlightenment throughout Europe. The digitization of correspondence collections has been essential for data-driven scholarly projects, allowing scholars to study these networks at both the micro and macro levels, and to explore the worlds of the philosophes and the ‘nodes’ in their networks in rich detail. Indeed, it was thanks to metadata produced in large part by the Electronic Enlightenment Project at Oxford University that many authors in this volume first developed and applied methods for historical data analysis in a project reconstructing ‘The French Enlightenment Network.’

Working from historical data to study networks is not without its challenges, and one of the core concerns of this volume is how to responsibly study historical networks in the absence of complete data. At the most fundamental level, a social network is a system of actors (nodes) and the ties between them (edges). Social Network Analysis can be applied to virtually any type of network, and an SNA study relies on both information about the nodes and the relational ties between them. Reconstructing complete historical networks, however, is not only difficult and messy, but near impossible in most cases due to the quality of historic sources. Often, we do not know if someone was truly not ‘in’ the network, or if his or her membership was simply not recorded. The mathematical and statistical metrics typically used for SNA studies, which rely on complete or representative samples, would thus produce results that would distort reality when applied to historical data. As such, the adoption of SNA methods by historians requires creativity to tailor SNA methods to the object of inquiry, the data available, and the research questions at hand.

The authors of the essays in this volume do precisely that: they elegantly combine traditional humanistic inquiry with innovative digital methods to offer fresh perspectives on important networks and issues of the Republic of Letters. At this intersection of Enlightenment historiography, data capture, and social network analysis, the essays in this volume take advantage of new data sources, configurations, and modes of analysis to deepen our understanding of how Enlightenment sociability worked, who it included, and what it meant for participants.

Authors not only examine various types of networks, but they also use the term ‘network’ in very different ways. While part I of the volume concerns ‘correspondence networks’ with case studies of Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Francesco Algarotti, and Jacques Pérard, part II focuses on ‘social networks’, or who interacted with whom in milieus of sociability. These studies include Julie de Lespinasse’s salon, Gustav Philip Creutz’s Parisian networks, and Casanova’s theater network. Finally, part III examines ‘knowledge networks’ from two very different approaches: the first, by examining the role of the academies in the Republic of Letters, and second, the knowledge networks present in Johnson’s Dictionary.

This volume emerged out of a conference held at Stanford University in 2016, and it seems fitting that the first volume in the series Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment dedicated to digital approaches to eighteenth-century studies would originate in the heart of Silicon Valley. This conference, which brought together an international group of scholars, demonstrated the exciting possibilities that can ensue when technological advancements are leveraged in the service of the humanities. Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters is very much the culmination of many years of figuring out how best to accomplish that, through interdisciplinary collaboration and experimentation on projects that preceded and gave rise to the ones contained in this volume.

– Chloe Summers Edmondson, Stanford University

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Chloe Edmondson is co-editor of the June Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume Networks of Enlightenment: Digital Approaches to the Republic of Letters, which provides exciting new perspectives on the European networks that made up the Republic of Letters.

The age of lightness

Le petit-maître et la dame en l’air, engraving, c.1780 (source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

France is a light-hearted nation… This classical common belief is echoed repeatedly throughout the eighteenth century and bears witness to the deep axiological, scientific and ethical upheavals which this volume explores. By analysing the importance of, and issues at stake in, these transformations, the articles gathered within tell the story of another age of Enlightenment: the story of an age of lightness.

Lightness is at the crux of how the French eighteenth century represents itself both in contrast with previous centuries and through parallels between European nations.

The notion of lightness therefore constitutes an essential paradigm of the historiography that developed immediately after the French Revolution. The intellectual heirs of the eighteenth century do not only find in this period an age of reason, progress, Enlightenment and citizens’ rights; they also feel, at times, contempt, at other times, nostalgia for the alleged lightness of its mores, the futility of its taste or the frivolity of its childish ways. Between the industrious bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century exploiting the voluptuous representations of fêtes galantes and the fascination of our own twenty-first century for the delightful frivolity of Marie-Antoinette’s era, the eighteenth century in its lightness has never lost its charm. Yet, crucially, it also challenges the progressive narrative of the history of reason and usefulness in the definition of the very values on which our community is built.

(Attr. to James Gillray), Politeness, c.1779, hand-coloured engraving (source: the Trustees of the British Museum).

It is therefore particularly revealing to analyse the concepts and values associated to the notion of lightness in the eighteenth century. Such an approach yields breakthroughs in understanding why, and to what extent, this idea of lightness has been related to the French national character in general as well as, more particularly, to its eighteenth century.

Le Siècle de la légèreté: émergences d’un paradigme du XVIIIe siècle français offers an interdisciplinary perspective that bridges multiple fields of study related to the question of lightness. The fifteen chapters deal with paintings, morals, sciences, political history, literature and technology as well as economics. Together, these articles reveal the complexity of the notion of lightness in the eighteenth century by proposing not only new and original analyses of well-known sources (Hogarth, Fontenelle or Voltaire) but also discoveries of texts and objects less often studied (such as La Morlière, le Père Castel, Octave Uzanne, carriages or perfumes).

Richard Newton, British servants with Honesty and Fidelity against French servants with Perfidy & Impudence (detail), 1795, hand-coloured etching (source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection).

The critical and historiographical approach taken by this collection challenges preconceived notions and other prejudices, and unveils the national, diplomatic and at times existential concerns which contributed to the construction of the representations of eighteenth-century France. Far from proposing yet another traditional thematic approach, this volume offers the analysis of an endogenous and problematic paradigm around which multiple visions of humanity and of the world are articulated; it aims to offer a contribution to the renewal of eighteenth-century studies. Whilst it transforms how we look at a key moment in the construction of modernity, it also lays bare the sources of the fascination exerted by the French eighteenth century.

– Jean-Alexandre Perras (Institut d’études avancées de Paris) and Marine Ganofsky (University of St Andrews)

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. Marine Ganofsky and Jean-Alexandre Perras are co-editors of ‘Le Siècle de la légèreté: émergences d’un paradigme du XVIIIe siècle français’, the April volume of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.