The forces of reproduction. Meta/physics and insect sex in eighteenth-century entomology

In the early modern era, popular opinion on insect reproduction was largely based on the Aristotelian concept of ‘spontaneous generation’. Yet, in the seventeenth century, natural historians began to challenge this longstanding concept, which held that insects came into being out of mud, manure and other decaying matter. This theory was eventually discarded fully in the eighteenth century when a growing number of naturalists argued that copulation and functioning reproductive organs were indeed necessary for the creation of new insect life.

Insecto-theologia title page

Insecto-theologia (1738), title page.

Through microscopic observation and ‘experimental’ methods, scholars studied insect behaviour and reproductive cycles, and thereby altered understandings of sexual activity beyond the insect world. As many users of these techniques discovered reproductive organs and observed female and male insects actually engaging ‘in the act’, ‘spontaneous generation’ slowly vanished as an explanation for how ‘creepy crawlies’ came into the world. The recent work of Mary Terrall, Matthew Cobb, Erik Jorink, Brian Ogilvie, Marc Ratcliff and Thomas Ruhland among others has shown how the discussion on spontaneous generation is part and parcel of a more general history of observation in the emergent sciences.

Title page of the French edition

Title page of the French edition (1752).

Not surprisingly for scholars of the early modern world, theologians were an important group of actors in these processes (see Blair and von Greyerz). As is widely acknowledged, insects played an important role in physico-theology – or natural theology – and other religious texts around 1700. This has been studied comprehensively in the German context most recently by Anne-Charlott Trepp and Brian Ogilvie (both in Blair and von Greyerz, above). One central text in both authors’ work is Friedrich Christian Lesser’s Insecto-theologia from 1738. The text received widespread attention in the German-speaking lands, prompting a second edition in 1742. In the same year a French edition appeared with remarks by Pierre Lyonnet. This was then translated into Italian in 1751. Building on Trepp’s and Ogilvie’s œuvre, I will add a further perspective on natural theology, insects and science in the Enlightenment by focusing on how mating practices were described and reproductive organs depicted. The additional analysis of notions of force/power (Kraft) within these texts will further explain how the physical (in all senses of the word) was so important for the metaphysics of Enlightenment natural theology.

Lesser based his book to a great extent on Dutch scholars, like Jan Swammerdam, and used Baconian ‘new science’ for his argument for design – to use a slightly anachronistic term. As Anne-Charlott Trepp has shown, physico-theology replaced some of the dominant eschatological arguments of the seventeenth century with a new concern to prove God’s omnipotence and benevolence by looking at natural objects and finding order in nature. Jorink asserts that Swammerdam ‘was primarily guided by a prioris of a philosophical and theological kind’. One of these was that everything in nature, including the generation of insects, obeys God’s laws.

Insecto-theologia, frontispiece

Insecto-theologia, frontispiece.

As with many of his fellow theologians in the eighteenth century, the study of the natural world became central to Lesser’s everyday life. The frontispiece clearly shows a naturalist at work in the familiar setting of the home.

It also already contains the important ‘maxima in minimis’ argument. He was of course certain that God’s power can be seen in the smallest worms as in the largest elephants. However, Lesser was convinced that this notion had not yet been sufficiently recognised among his fellow scholars in the republic of letters. Here he referred to the contemporary emphasis on physical experimentation in the creation of new knowledge, but made an interesting point regarding the social life of knowledge. According to him the above-mentioned attention deficit was not so contemptible in ‘people with untrained senses’ (‘Leute von ungeübten Sinnen’) but certainly scholars should not shy away from learned attention to the minuscule.

Friedrich Christian Lesser

Engraving of Friedrich Christian Lesser with an inscription by Johann Eustachius Goldhagen. (National Library of Denmark)

Lesser explicitly spoke of the creator’s ‘artistry’ in generating insects, such that even the smallest worm is made with such unattainable art that even the finest artist could not imitate it (Lesser, p.2), thereby echoing his Dutch predecessors and explicitly referring to William Derham in the corresponding footnote. Not surprisingly for a German author, the erudition is in the footnotes. He of course acknowledged previous work in his footnotes, and indeed most of the pages of the introduction are bibliographical references. Lesser’s description of Swammerdam’s scholarly practices are of special importance here because Lesser saw these as instrumental in the processes of knowledge formation. He went out himself to catch insects, collecting and nourishing them carefully. He constantly observed them, investigated their anatomy and had all their parts illustrated by an artist (p.27).

As in other realms of natural history, book learning and practical experience went hand in hand. Interestingly Lesser also specifically mentioned instruments and collections as the main tools of research in his introduction to Insecto-theologia. All these aspects are of course no surprise to historians of early modern science, but why did Lesser focus on generation to connect religion and natural history?

Swammerdam, The Book of Nature: Five reproductive organs of the bee

Swammerdam, The Book of Nature: Five reproductive organs of the bee. (Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International, CC BY 4.0)

Lesser took his inspiration from scripture and literally the beginning of the creation myth. Referring to Genesis, Lesser claimed: ‘The almighty being that created insects through his almighty word, has given them the power through ordinary procreation to multiply and reproduce the species’ (p.37). In the following paragraph, he also recounted the ‘generationem aequivocam’ theory but refuted it clearly by confirming that the notion of insects generating from decaying matter was only formed because the ancient philosophers had not observed nature with enough attention to detail and so had not realised that insects did lay small eggs in such things as manure, flesh, etc. Modern philosophers (‘Neue Welt-Weise’) however had observed things with sharper eyes. He then described his predecessors’ observations in great detail, starting with Francesco Redi who conducted experiments in the 1660s. Revisiting Redi’s work, Emily C. Parke has recently shown that seventeenth-century ‘spontaneous generation’ was ‘not a single theory but rather a landscape of possible views’. This is also clearly visible in Lesser’s text. Accordingly, it exhibits the range of arguments and refutations in a variety of ways. Next to observation was reason of course spiced with long-standing conventions like the important ‘chain of being’ assumption. For Lesser it would be ‘against all reason’ if plants, which are on a lower scale than animals, could bring forth insects.

Clearly, not only observation but also tradition, especially classical authors and scripture itself, was proof that the sexual act was indeed necessary. Returning to Genesis, Lesser maintained that God had given every living organism the power (Kraft) to procreate and this was true for insects too: ‘that this almighty word was extended to the insects’ procreation through insemination, as in all other animals’ (Lesser, p.41). The power/force (Kraft) metaphor recurs persistently in Lesser’s work and certainly has some connection to the important concept of force in Newtonian physics, connecting early modern natural history to natural philosophy or physics.

Combining this with observation again, Lesser stressed that one can see the ‘proper body-parts for siring and giving birth’ in insects as well as the eggs from which they spring. He described the basics of animal mating in a distinct chapter on proliferation and started this with a definition on how procreation works. Lesser clearly favoured the sperm over the egg. He also compared insects to human beings and other animals and described the two practices of mating he knew about: either insects mated belly to belly or from behind. But as the observation of insect copulation was one of the main problems in eighteenth-century entomology, as Mary Terrall has recently shown, it is not surprising that Lesser did speak at lengths about eggs when writing about what was actually observed: the generation of insects from ova.

He provides lots of details, and describes male and female organs thus: ‘The male member can be found mostly at the rump but sometimes also on the abdomen. They also have their rod and testicles. The size of those vary according to the size of the insects themselves. The vulva on the female insect is rough in order to prevent chafing of this tender element during intercourse. Ordinarily it is placed at the rump but sometimes also at the upper parts of the abdomen’ (p.268-69). Lesser’s detailed description of genitalia is astounding not only because of the religious nature of his text, but also because 65 years later one of the most important entomologists of the later eighteenth century rejected any attention to genitalia in natural history. In 1803 Johann Christian Fabricius – often called the Linnaeus of insects – wrote an important article in one of the earliest specialised entomology journals (‘Vertheidigung des fabricischen Systems’, Magazin für Insektenkunde 2 (1803), p.1-13).

Addressing his critics, he explained why his taxonomic system that was based on the mouthparts of insects was the best despite its flaws. First, genitalia are often too small to observe properly and second, echoing Linnaeus, he argued that inquiry into genitals was abominable and displeasing (‘Genitalium disquisitio abominabilis displicet’, Fabricius, p.5). This may come as a surprise to historians of eighteenth-century botany who are fully aware that Linnaeus based his plant taxonomy on the reproductive organs of plants. It is very difficult to ascertain why both Linnaeus and Fabricius made this statement, but one explanation might be a differentiation between flora and fauna where the morphology of the former was different enough from human reproductive organs. And although anthropomorphism was popular in botany and Linnaeus’s sexual system was severely criticised precisely for its attention to reproduction, non-human animals seem to have been more closely connected to a discussion of human sexuality.

Again, insects are used for understanding human behaviour. Apparently Linnaeus’s ‘nosce te ipsum’ had put humans firmly in the animal kingdom. Of course this was further developed in the nineteenth century. We know that the Victorians were obsessed with sex – as was the Enlightenment. In 1820 Johannes Jacob Hegetschweiler could publish a dissertation in Zurich that was concerned with insect genitalia (‘Dissertatio inauguralis zootomica de insectorum genitalibus’). Hence Fabricius’s dictum about genitals being abominable did not hold for long. Genitals are indeed one of the important characteristics of differentiating between insect species today.

Dominik Hünniger, Universität Hamburg

Dominik is author of the chapter ‘Inveterate travellers and travelling invertebrates’, in the edited volume Interspecies Interactions: Animals and Humans between the Middle Ages and Modernity’, ed. Sarah Cockram and Andrew Wells (Routledge, 2017).

Language, science and human control of nature: the case of Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’

In the French eighteenth century, it is difficult to understand how science worked without first studying its relationship to written language. Language was not only a way to communicate ideas. It was the foundation of worlds both real and imagined: it comprised the building blocks of both human nature and of external nature. Things in the world existed because people named, ordered and narrated them. Nature could be studied because it was, in large part, an invention of the human mind; its workings became legible, predictable, scientific because they had been captured in language. In the Encyclopédie, Denis Diderot asked: ‘What difference would there be between the reading of a work in which all the motives of the universe are explored, and the very study of the universe? almost none.’ [1]

Portrait of Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1753), by François-Hubert Drouais, Musée Buffon à Montbard.

The French natural historian Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon thought in a similar manner, proposing in his 1778 ‘Des époques de la nature’ (just recently translated into English!) to recount the great eras of natural history ‘as they are or as they could be: for these two points of view are practically the same.’ [2] He wrote as if he had personally observed the work of nature since the birth of the planet Earth, and the imagined or hypothetical story was to be considered as good as, if not better than, the first-hand experience of observation. My book traces this curious assumption, which can sound quite foreign in the light of modern scientific practice, but which begins to make sense when science is understood as itself a language. The discipline of natural history, in particular, was rigorously redefined by Buffon in the 1750s in terms of the creation of relationships (‘rapports’) between the mind and the world in the form of written expression.

Buffon believed that the more the historian studied nature, dedicating time and thought to understanding its order and operation, the more his or her language would come to resemble the world. Nature could be reproduced in words, and soon words could come to stand in the place of nature. The idea of a new, written nature became ever more important to Buffon’s work through the 1760s and 1770s, when he suggested that real nature was losing energy and slowly dying. It needed to be replaced with the human idea of nature. This was no longer simply the story of the past eras of natural history or of the regularity of natural law: it was a vision of a future where the art of human language and the artificiality of human landscapes would become the new natural. Humans gained the ability, right, and obligation to control and change nature because they had appropriated its language. In ‘Des époques de la nature’ Buffon imagined the world devoid of what he thought to be terrifying wild animals, rugged and inhospitable forests, and cold, uninhabitable swamps. Once people could speak like nature, they could possess it and transform it into a temperate garden, a terrestrial Eden.

After finishing the final chapter of the book, about the human control of nature and the creation of what Buffon considered to be a ‘better world’ through language, I began to think more about the continued influence of the Enlightenment on modern-day thought. It is crucial to understand eighteenth-century attitudes and theories such as Buffon’s about nature in order to see better the assumptions made in Western societies about the environment and its relationship to people. These are not only assumptions about dominating, taming, and taking control of nature for the good of human survival, industry, science, and culture. There is also the underlying belief that the relationships between humans and the natural world are intrinsically part of a story. They must be made to fit into and justify the arc of an inevitable narrative with a clear beginning, end, structure, and chain of causality linking all parts together (examples of such narratives and how to approach their study are examined in the recent publication Anthropocene Reading, for instance). The language of this story was, for Buffon, a series of keys that would eventually unlock the meaning of the past and the implications or predictions for the future.

Cover of Hanna Roman, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 2018).

The underlying motifs of Buffon’s story were the slow death of nature as it lost its initial heat and energy, and the opposing, active force of humankind as it worked to hamper this heat death by conquering nature and changing, taming, subduing it. Buffon in fact begged for global warming: he encouraged people to cut down forests, to burn fallow land, to dry up swamps. This idea became part of the narrative of industrialization in Western culture, and it is still present as society considers what it has done to the world and how to mediate the world’s end. Buffon’s narrative is an upsetting one – but it raises the issue of the value of a story, of the necessity of inventing a new narrative of nature to which to aspire, and of the uses, implications, and dangers of fiction in the modern sciences.

– Hanna Roman

[1] ‘Quelle différence y auroit-il entre la lecture d’un ouvrage où tous les ressorts de l’univers seroient développés, & l’étude même de l’univers? presqu’aucune.’ Denis Diderot, ‘Encyclopédie,’ Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert, ARTFL Encyclopédie Project, Ed. Robert Morrissey (Chicago, n.d.), vol.5, p.641 (my translation).

[2] Buffon, ‘Des époques de la nature’, in Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière: supplément, vol.5 (Paris, Imprimerie royale, 1778), p.53.

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. The author Hanna Roman is an Assistant Professor of French at Dickinson College. She is interested in the discourses of scientific knowledge in Enlightenment France, and her new research focuses on the languages of theology and natural history in works of eighteenth-century geohistory.

Hanna Roman discusses the importance of understanding the link between language and nature in 18th-century France in her book, The Language of Nature in Buffon’s ‘Histoire naturelle’, the latest volume to be published in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Green Wigs? Ecology and the Long Eighteenth Century

Elizabeth Blackwell, ‘The Clove, Carophyllus aromaticus’. Plate 338 from volume 2 of Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the Most Useful Plants (London, 1739). (Historic Maps Collection, Dept. of Rare Books & Special Collections, Princeton University Library.)

Without a doubt, the Restoration era always exceeds students’ expectations. Students arrive with images in their heads of powdered wigs and royal ceremonies; they leave savoring the frankness, liveliness, and relevance of playwrights Aphra Behn, Susan Centlivre, George Farquhar, and John Dryden (All of Love and Amphitryon especially). Generic expectations circumscribe and limit.  But as Dryden describes, poets capture an idea or image in language and activate the senses their readers, creating a pulsating conduit between them and the objects represented. Dryden insists that his aesthetic forms, in his case heroic drama, initially obtrusive, merge with what he depicts. In the period after the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne, the ‘care and labour of Rhyme is carry’d from us, or at least drown’d in its own sweetness, as Bees are sometimes bury’d in their Honey.’ Literary forms serve as porous borders that foster interaction and vibrancy, melting into the things they represent once this exchange has been activated.

How did literature overcome what had become stale Renaissance constructs and respond to contact and exchange across the Americas, Africa, and Asia? The premise of Nature and the New Science is that natural systems shape poetry, philosophy, geography, and politics. After the era I define, writers increasingly fix nature as something to be sought rather than always and everywhere an ambient condition of human life. But from 1665-1726, nature operated as the medium through which the British sought the unknown, interpreted contact with others abroad, and allowed them to explore the self and adapt to new political and economic realities.

Because so many aspects that define our contemporary world took root in the period, the study of the long eighteenth century remains paramount to understanding seemingly intractable problems as well as institutions we’ve grown to cherish. A few examples include: Western conceptions of the East, global interdependencies, the lives of servants and women, treatment of indigenous people, and the (still) undervalued contributions of women writers. We often characterize the era as charting the ‘rise’ of large-scale processes – the rise of the nation-state; the rise of the novel; the rise of the modern subject; the rise of democratic republicanism, the rise of capitalist economies – obscuring the originary conditions of these movements. In this book I am concerned with the literature that remains in dialogue with various processes, phenomena, places, and beings.

Various initiatives encourage cross-fertilization across academia, governmental organizations, and industry. My own university is in the process of uniting its Colleges of Arts and Sciences into one unit, giving me the opportunity to create interdisciplinary classes like ‘The Literature, History, and Science of Spaceflight’.  The period under discussion can serve as the lingua franca, enabling increased dialogue among academic units. It is a commonplace to point out that in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century disciplinary silos were nonexistent, but what remains understudied is how different areas of study remain tethered, how they need one another to define themselves.

I should know. Earning degrees in both Aerospace Engineering and English and working at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU-Boulder and, later, at Stanford University on satellites called QuickSCAT and Gravity Probe B, I viewed engineering and English as complementary disciplines. Likewise, the ‘New Science’, which emerged in the seventeenth century, promised to illuminate natural phenomena through the use of reason and special instruments, encouraging detailed inquiries into physical systems. The methodology resembles the practice of close reading a literary text: life appears when one appreciates the minutia. At the same time, the practitioners of the New Science recognized the object of study was inseparable from the device through which one grasped it, as did those who sought innovation in poetic form.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

While receptivity to their surroundings unites the authors studied here from Margaret Cavendish and Milton to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Daniel Defoe, the book observes a gradual diminishment in the writers’ attunement to natural processes as a means to discernment. They succumb instead to constructs of national identities characterized by borders and attendant socio-economic systems. Behn, for instance, ties technology to its capacity to intertwine people and sites rather than displace them, and for Dryden, the kinship between the English and nature enabled circum-oceanic travel. But by the end of the period I trace, only auditory sensations (the haunting cries of animals) remind Robinson Crusoe of vestigial affiliations among all beings.

In the Anthropocene, we struggle with the effects of how human activity changed the climate and environment. Conceptualizing the world through natural systems will not directly reverse rising oceans and carbon dioxide levels. The literature from the period, however, remains vital in that it reminds us that we cannot compartmentalize environmental degradation. It links human and natural systems, helping to perceive this crisis and to reconcile the separation between the two that led to it.

– Denys Van Renen

The above post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press. The author, Denys Van Renen, is Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is the author of ‘The Other Exchange: Women, Servants, and the Urban Underclass in Early Modern England’ and co-editor of ‘Beyond 1776’. He has a critical edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals forthcoming.

Micromégas: objet littéraire non identifié

Le tome 20c des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, tout juste sorti des presses, comprend entre autres textes le conte philosophique Micromégas. Publié en 1751 mais mûri pendant de longues années (ses origines remontent à ‘une fadaise philosophique’ à propos d’un certain ‘baron de Gangan’ que Voltaire avait envoyé au futur Frédéric II de Prusse en juin 1739), c’est incontestablement l’un des chefs-d’œuvre de Voltaire, dont le succès ne s’est jamais démenti depuis sa publication (l’astronome américain Carl Sagan le cite même comme l’une de ses sources d’inspiration).

Citoyen de Sirius banni par ‘le muphti de son pays’ pour ses propositions ‘sentant l’hérésie’, le géant Micromégas parcourt l’univers, et échoue sur Terre en compagnie d’un habitant de Saturne rencontré en chemin. Croyant tout d’abord la planète inhabitée en raison de la taille minuscule de ses habitants, les deux visiteurs finissent tout de même par établir le contact avec des Terriens membres d’une expédition scientifique, et une conversation s’engage.[1] Le lecteur assiste alors en compagnie de Micromégas et de ses interlocuteurs à une sorte de tour d’horizon des connaissances scientifiques de l’époque.

Titre de départ d'une édition de Micromégas de 1778

Romans et contes de Monsieur de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, Société typographique, 1778), vol.2, p.15.

Riche d’un contenu scientifique pointu (en tout cas pour l’époque), Micromégas joue sur les tensions qui animent le débat entre les théories scientifiques cartésienne et newtonienne – Voltaire, on le sait, avait largement contribué à faire connaître Newton en France avec ses Elements de la philosophie de Newton, composés en 1736-1737, période où a probablement germé dans son esprit l’idée du conte qui allait devenir Micromégas. Mais c’est également la tension entre poésie et science, et entre imagination et vérité qu’explore Voltaire dans son conte. Il ne s’agit pas simplement de mettre en récit des idées philosophiques, mais plutôt d’élaborer une fiction prenant pour thème la quête de la vérité. Dans cet objet littéraire hybride fait de science et de philosophie, Voltaire met littéralement en œuvre la méthode expérimentale héritée de Locke et de Newton.

Récit de science-fiction, fable, à la fois conte et règlement de comptes de l’auteur avec certains ennemis personnels, commentaire sur la société de son temps, le texte propose aussi une réflexion sur la place de l’homme dans l’Univers, entre deux infinis. Comme souvent chez Voltaire, la simplicité du style, la limpidité de la narration et la concision du récit dissimulent maints niveaux de complexité et des subtilités insoupçonnées au premier abord.

Loin de n’être qu’un conte philosophique certes très plaisant et qui prône les valeurs voltairiennes de tolérance et de lucidité, Micromégas revêt également une importance unique en tant que texte scientifique ‘déguisé’ en conte.

[1] On reconnaîtra facilement Maupertuis et les membres de son expédition polaire dans la petite équipe découverte par Micromégas. Témoin de l’actualité scientifique de son temps, Voltaire s’était enthousiasmé pour le voyage du savant en Laponie au cours des années 1736-1737, voyage qui contribua à confirmer la théorie de Newton selon laquelle la Terre était aplatie aux pôles.

Georges Pilard et Karen Chidwick

The ‘Smile Revolution’ in Enlightenment Paris

Portrait of Isabelle de Charrière by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, 1766 (WikiArt)

Portrait of Isabelle de Charrière by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, 1766 (WikiArt)

‘What can one say of a person who has suffered so much with heroic courage… the most horrible pains in the mouth, in the neck and on the brain; and who after nearly fifteen months spent peacefully without any suffering now despairs that her teeth, which look beautiful are not good at all; and who at every moment thinks she will lose them; who dreams of this at night; who looks at them a hundred times a day; who imagines one is good for nothing when one does not have perfect teeth; and who is amazed at the thought of finding friends, lovers, a husband…’ [1]

The hysterical despair about the state of her mouth expressed by the Swiss-Dutch writer, 25-year-old Isabelle de Charrière, was a not uncommon Enlightenment reaction. With the entry of sugar into elite and even popular diet over the course of the eighteenth century, toothache could claim to be the mal du siècle. This was all the more anxiety-producing because the smile was becoming in the public sphere the badge of relaxed unstuffy sociability and of healthy virtue. And the new smile of sensibility featured white teeth. Rousseau’s Julie and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa had shown how it should look. So, more graphically, did Madame Vigée Le Brun: her white tooth smiling portrait displayed at the Salon in 1787 (and still viewable in the Louvre in our own day) caused something of a rumpus in the stuffy art establishment.

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun: self-portrait with her daughter, Jeanne-Lucie (The Louvre)

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun: self-portrait with her daughter, Jeanne-Lucie (The Musée du Louvre)

As I show in my book, The Smile Revolution in eighteenth-century Paris, the emergence of the smile of sensibility owed something to scientific innovation as well as to cultural trends. Modern dentistry emerged at precisely this time, with Paris as its most brilliant champion. The crude tooth-puller of yore now gave way to the dental surgeon who focused on tooth conservation rather than extraction. New technologies of tooth maintenance and beautification emerged too, not least the humble toothbrush, which offered individuals a way of keeping Isabelle de Charrière’s nightmare at bay. A toothbrush was soon to be found in the nécessaire of every woman of sensibility, and many a man of feeling too.

A ‘Smile Revolution’ appeared to be in the offing in late eighteenth-century Paris. It would take the Revolution of 1789 – and particularly the Terror – to destroy it. Despite this initial outing, the white tooth smile would only conquer western civilisation in the twentieth century.

– Colin Jones

[1] Isabelle de Charrière to Constant d’Hermenches, 6 May 1765.

An eighteenth-century horsehair toothbrush

An eighteenth-century horsehair toothbrush

Further reading: C. P. Courtney, Isabelle de Charrière (Belle de Zuylen) (ISBN 978-0-7294-0439-6).

Isabelle de Charrière, brilliant letter-writer and gifted novelist, is now recognised as one of the most fascinating literary figures of her time. In this lively and comprehensive biography, Cecil Courtney chronicles her life by making full use of the original sources, notably Belle’s extensive correspondence with many of the leading figures of her time.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Who’s got the last laugh now?


Maupertuis by Robert Levrac-Tournières and Jean Daullé, 1741 (Paris, BnF)

One of the bitterest and most famous of the many quarrels that Voltaire was involved in during his long life was the one that pitted him against Maupertuis from 1752 onwards. The quarrel started while both men were living at Frederick the Great’s court, Maupertuis as the president of the Académie de Berlin and Voltaire as Frederick’s personal guest.

The details of the dispute itself are too intricate to be exposed here but can be found in Voltaire’s Histoire du docteur Akakia, a collection of texts which were both a response to and a continuation of this quarrel. The dispute eventually saw the king of Prussia himself intervene on behalf of the president of his Académie, and damaged almost irreparably the friendship between Voltaire and his crowned admirer. The quarrel also seriously damaged Maupertuis’s reputation as a scientist, as Voltaire conducted a relentless campaign of denigration aimed at both his enemy’s character and writings, which continued well after his foe’s demise in 1759.

The wit and sarcasm deployed by Voltaire against Maupertuis overshadowed the latter’s undeniable contribution to the scientific advances of his century and the visionary aspect of some of his writings. Among Voltaire’s recurring targets for mockery is the idea proposed by the scientist that drilling a hole to the centre of the Earth would be of enormous interest to science.[1] For all of Voltaire’s scathing gibes at what he repeatedly described as the fanciful notions of a madman, modern science has now vindicated the much-maligned Maupertuis, not his formidable detractor, as can be seen in an article published in The New Scientist. Similarly, the hypothesis that some celestial bodies might contain diamonds which the scientist formulated in his Œuvres and which Voltaire dutifully ridiculed does not sound that far-fetched to modern-day astronomers.

No doubt Maupertuis would have welcomed these new developments, more than two and a half centuries after his scientific intuitions were so mercilessly and relentlessly mocked by Voltaire.

Georges Pilard

[1] in his Œuvres de M. de Maupertuis (1752).