The Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire: a new addition to the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire

In the autumn of 1744, amidst the turmoil of the War of the Austrian Succession, an anonymous, rather lengthy pamphlet entitled Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire appeared in print. It addressed the members of the Reichstag (the Imperial Diet) and urged them to take sides with Charles VII, Holy Roman Emperor, against Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia. The Représentation circulated widely across Europe, and copies can still be found in Germany, Sweden, Slovakia, and the Netherlands, as well as in France. However, the sudden death of Charles VII on 20 January 1745 rendered the project expounded in the Représentation utterly impracticable, thus dooming the pamphlet to be quickly forgotten.

Page 1 of Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire, 1744 (image Gallica).

Page 1 of Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire, 1744 (image Gallica).

The Représentation briefly resurfaced in 1887, when Jacques-Victor-Albert, duc de Broglie, republished the pamphlet in the first issue of the Revue d’histoire diplomatique. De Broglie identified the author of the pamphlet as none other than Voltaire, and made the further claim that the latter had produced the text at the request of the marquis d’Argenson, then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Nevertheless, probably because de Broglie provided very little evidence to support his argument for Voltaire’s authorship, the Représentation again failed to garner long-lasting attention and, to the best of my knowledge, no further mentions of it were made in Voltairean scholarship.

Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet.

Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet.

In July 2015, however, I made a discovery that was to shed new light on this question. As I was working in the Archivio di Stato di Firenze, I found 170 letters from Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet to Luigi Lorenzi, French Resident Minister to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Many of these letters provide insights into Voltaire’s activities in the 1740s. A letter dated 1 March 1743, in particular, the main subject of which is Voltaire’s comédie-ballet La Princesse de Navarre, proceeds explicitly to mention Voltaire as the author of the Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire.

After unearthing this document, I decided to investigate further. Off I went to Paris, and after a few days of research at the Archives du Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, the papers of Malbran de Lanoue (French ambassador to the Imperial Diet from 1738 to 1749) yielded a manuscript of the Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire. This manuscript is not in Voltaire’s hand, nor in that of any of his known secretaries. However, it bears several corrections which are in his hand. Furthermore, a marginal note on the front page reads: ‘cet écrit est du poète Voltaire’.

Study of this manuscript soon revealed significant similarities with other Voltairean texts, notably the Histoire de la Guerre de 1741, the Précis du siècle de Louis XV and the Mémoires pour servir à la vie de Monsieur de Voltaire. It also showed, however, remarkable differences from the text of the 1744 print edition that de Broglie had republished in the Revue d’histoire diplomatique in 1887. Another manuscript which I found amongst de Lanoue’s papers – the ‘Remarques de M. de Bussy sur l’écrit intitulé Représentations [sic] aux Etats de l’Empire de M. de Voltaire de novembre 1744’ – revealed that the manuscript of the Représentation had in fact been sent to diplomat François de Bussy for revision, before it was sent to press in 1744.

A manuscript with corrections in Voltaire’s hand, a marginal note unequivocally asserting Voltaire’s authorship, several textual similarities with other Voltairean works, an endorsement from Trublet… There seems to be sufficient evidence to include the Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire in the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire! [1]

– Ruggero Sciuto

[1] A critical edition of the Représentation aux Etats de l’Empire will be published in the forthcoming volume 29 of the Voltaire Foundation’s Œuvres completes de Voltaire, alongside Janet Godden and James Hanrahan’s edition of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV. In a brief introduction, I shall provide further evidence of Voltaire’s authorship and details on the pamphlet’s complex publication history. I shall also discuss the relationship between the Représentation and other diplomatic despatches that Voltaire penned on behalf of the marquis d’Argenson in the mid-1740s – e.g. the Lettre du Roi à la Czarine pour le projet de paix of May 1745, the Manifeste du Roi de France en faveur du prince Charles Edouard of December 1745 and, most importantly, the Représentations aux Etats-Généraux de Hollande (all three texts are already available in the Œuvres complètes). Finally, I shall consider François de Bussy’s interventionist approach in preparing Voltaire’s manuscript for publication, which further complicates the crucial question of authorship.

‘Résumé de toute cette histoire…’: the final chapter of Voltaire’s Essai sur les mœurs

In our final volume of text for the Essai sur les mœurs [1], Voltaire delivers a further catalogue of barbaric anecdotes and atrocities. This brings the various countries of his study up to the seventeenth century and the start of his Siècle de Louis XIV.

Resumé page

Original opening of chapter 211 in 1756, Essai sur l’histoire générale, et sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours, vol.7, p.142.

In his final chapter, 197, ‘Résumé de toute cette histoire jusqu’au temps où commence le beau siècle de Louis XIV’, Voltaire attempts to take stock of this ‘vaste théâtre’ of his world tour, asking: ‘Quel sera le fruit de ce travail? quel profit tirera-t-on de l’histoire?’ In his answer he introduces new issues and arguments: for example, to settle old scores with Montesquieu, spared in the 1756 version, only a year after his death.

Originally written as chapter 211 in 1756, when the Essai and the Siècle formed one work (Essai sur l’histoire générale, et sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours) and the chapters were numbered consecutively, the slightly differently titled ‘Résumé de toute cette histoire, et point de vue sous lequel on peut la regarder’ had a more pessimistic tone, perhaps because it was written soon after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. In 1761, the chapter was then brought forward to conclude the Essai, and Voltaire composed a new ‘Conclusion et examen de ce tableau historique’ for the ensemble of his modern history texts, placed at the end of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV. The reworked conclusion to the Essai sheds some of its original pessimism, though invites the reader to share his skeptical vision of history.

Looking back over the publication history of our first seven volumes of the Essai, it seems that we, the publishing team, have also covered a ‘vaste théâtre’. Kick-started by a generous grant from the AHRC, with further financial support from the Fondation Wiener-Anspach, and after eight years’ work by:

  • four general editors,
  • twenty-eight Voltaire specialists, from ten countries, dealing with nine centuries of history,
  • seven preface contributors,
  • three typesetting companies,

and a publishing team of online researchers, bibliographical specialists, translators, indexers, copy-editors, proof-readers, typesetters, printers and distributors… the last volume of chapters has finally been published.

We, too, have taken in the world: our team of editors were based in countries as widespread as Hungary, Spain and the USA; in our research, we drew on special links with eleven libraries worldwide – most notably the National Library of Russia, Saint Petersburg, for illustrations of Voltaire’s handwritten marginalia taken from volumes in his library, as well as for vital descriptions of manuscripts.

Conceived in the 1740s, the Essai was continually reworked by Voltaire throughout his life, with major revisions published in 1753, 1754, 1761, 1768 and 1775. The reproduction of the different readings from these and further editions required the collation of thousands of variants from some sixteen editions and four manuscripts – supplemented with hours of on-screen ‘tagging’ of text to ensure that each of the variants appears at the correct point to correspond with the base text. Hundreds of historiographical sources contemporary to Voltaire were trawled for evidence as to where he had found his material – an enormous task, made easier by the appearance online of an increasing number of works as our project progressed.

As project manager, I can vouch for the team’s sense of achievement – not to say relief – as we reach this landmark point in such a monumental enterprise. ‘Quel sera le fruit de ce travail?’ Perhaps history will tell us.

– Karen Chidwick

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Voltaire Foundation, Oxford), vol.26C: chapters 177-197.

Battles on and off the field

The eleventh of May 2015 is the 270th anniversary of the battle of Fontenoy, a great French victory in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Voltaire’s official position as royal historiographer allowed him privileged access, for a time, to dispatches sent to Versailles from the battlefields, and he started to write an Histoire de la guerre de 1741 in which the battle of Fontenoy was central. In this he aimed to present a new kind of modern history to his contemporaries [1].


The Battle of Fontenoy (Praetiriti Fides, Exemplumque Futuri,



Part of the work appeared in 1755 in an unauthorised edition, based on a stolen manuscript, rapidly followed by further editions and several English translations in 1756. Voltaire continued to develop the work and in an Avant-propos he makes the point that, in contrast to ancient history, modern history has been largely presented to the public through gazettes and newspapers, which ‘forment presque la seule histoire des changements arrivés de nos jours’ while ‘Il est important à la génération présente d’être informée au juste de ce qui la regarde’ [2]. The avant-propos was not published in Voltaire’s lifetime, as his falling out with the king made authorised publication of this work impossible. Instead the text went through several metamorphoses that were incorporated into the Essai sur les mœurs, and then the Précis du siècle de Louis XV which appeared first as an addendum to Le Siècle de Louis XIV.


Robert-François Damiens ( / Bibliothèque nationale de France)


The Précis allowed for a candid view of Louis XV’s reign and reads like a contemporary political account of the period. Indeed, in the Précis Voltaire goes so far as to provide many details of the case against Robert-François Damiens, who had attacked and wounded the king, and the accusations made by this ‘régicide’ against prominent magistrates of the parlement of Paris who, Damiens claimed, had influenced his actions. Voltaire knew that ‘le parlement serait fâché qu’on vît dans l’histoire ce qu’on voit dans le procès verbal’ (D10985, 6 February 1763), but included it nonetheless. The modernity of Voltaire’s views on the need for modern history is summed up by his belief in the importance of transparency: ‘Il est utile de savoir la vérité de ce qui nous regarde, difficile de la démêler, et dangereux de la dire’ [2].

– James Hanrahan, Trinity College Dublin

[1] On this topic see Pierre Force, ‘Voltaire and the necessity of modern history’, Modern Intellectual History, 6, 3 (2009), p.457-484.

[2] Voltaire, Histoire de la Guerre de 1741, ed. by Jacques Maurens (Paris, Garnier, 1971), p.3.

Voltaire: historian of modernity

Voltaire’s historical writings form a significant part of his output, including works on Louis XIV, Louis XV, Charles XII, Peter the Great, the Holy Roman Empire, and even a pioneering universal history. These histories were highly regarded in his lifetime, and Voltaire was a powerful influence on the other great historians of the age, Hume, Gibbon and Robertson.

Voltaire painted by Garneray, engraved by Alix.

Voltaire painted by Garneray, engraved by P. M. Alix. Voltaire’s achievements are listed as ‘Philosophie, Tragédie, Histoire, Poème, La Henriade, Comédies, Temple du goût, La Pucelle, Contes, Œuvres divers’. Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

Despite this, writers now are uncomfortable in trying to explain the importance of Voltaire as a historian. Karen O’Brien, for example, remarks that ‘Voltaire’s histories have not recovered today from the low reputation to which they sank after the French Revolution’. [1] We typically criticise Voltaire’s histories for being polemical and tendentious: his determination to view everything from a resolutely modern point of view can make him seem naïve, and some find it puzzling that his histories were once held in such esteem.

The aim of the Voltaire: historian of modernity project is to come to a better understanding of Voltaire’s overall philosophical project, by focusing on a neglected aspect of his work: his determination to write ‘modern’ history. Much of his historical writing, especially in the earlier years, is devoted to the modern world. Voltaire first explores the defining characteristics of the modern world (the benefits of trade, the scientific revolution, religious toleration) in a book about England (Lettres sur les Anglais, or Lettres philosophiques), before studying the flourishing culture of France during the previous century (Le Siècle de Louis XIV). He then extends this exploration, forwards into modern France (Précis du siècle de Louis XV)and outwards into the recent history of the whole world (Essai sur les mœurs).

The study of recent history was, Voltaire declared bluntly, ‘a matter of necessity’. [2] The study of modern times was more precise than the study of ancient history, because sources were more numerous and more reliable. Most importantly – and here Voltaire seems influenced by the English writer Bolingbroke – modern history is best placed to offer us instructive examples. Traditionally, it had always been ancient history that was thought to be significant as a source of morally improving examples of conduct. Voltaire turns that idea on its head. As an Enlightenment philosopher, he wants to teach the lessons of free thought and religious tolerance, and he turns to modern history for telling examples to prove his point.

Voltaire’s histories are not in a separate category on the margins of his œuvre: they are at its very core. We need to (re)read the modern histories alongside Voltaire’s other polemical works, and to understand them as part of one and the same project. The spirit of criticism that characterises the Enlightenment begins when we scrutinise our own age, and we cannot fully understand Voltaire the philosopher without appreciating his commitment to the study of modern history. [3]

– Nicholas Cronk

[1] Narratives of Enlightenment: cosmopolitan history from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge, 1997), p.21.

[2] Conseils à un journaliste, see Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.20A (Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 2003), p.482.

[3] This blog post is based on an article that first appeared in the Leverhulme Trust Newsletter in 2014.