Le Siècle de Louis XIV en alphabet

Page 438 from Voltaire's Siecle.

Voltaire, Le Siècle de Louis XIV, 1re éd. (Berlin, 1751), t.2, p.438.

Il est de ces textes du corpus voltairien qui passent relativement inaperçus aujourd’hui, malgré leur succès au dix-huitième siècle. C’est le cas du ‘Catalogue de la plupart des écrivains français qui ont paru dans le siècle de Louis XIV, pour servir à l’histoire littéraire de ce temps’, de même que des autres listes, d’‘Artistes célèbres’, de ‘Maréchaux’, de ‘Ministres d’État’, des ‘Souverains contemporains’, faisant partie du Siècle de Louis XIV, publiés cette semaine dans le tome 12 des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire.

L’époque de Voltaire était friande de listes. Il n’y a pas que le fameux Mille e tre du Don Juan de Da Ponte et de Mozart: depuis le Moyen Age, on compile toutes sortes de biens, de figures, d’objets et de concepts à l’usage des gens de lettres, des marchands, des orateurs, des juristes, etc., pour soulager la mémoire et pour s’y retrouver dans les méandres de la culture. L’auteur du Dictionnaire philosophique est aussi exemplaire de cette pensée par liste, qui cherche à cataloguer, non tant pour compiler à l’infini comme dans les Cornucopiae de la Renaissance, mais au contraire, selon un esprit à la fois pratique et synthétique, pour rendre le savoir compréhensible et portatif. La chronologie de Hénault (le Nouvel Abrégé chronologique de l’histoire de France, 1749) dont la forme pour un lecteur moderne peut sembler un peu bizarre, se vendait pourtant très bien au dix-huitième siècle.

Sébastien Le Clerc le vieux (1637-1714) d’après Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), Louis XIV, protecteur des arts et des sciences, château de Versailles, inv.grav 16.

Loin d’être une vaine addition érudite de noms propres, le ‘Catalogue des écrivains’ et les autres listes servent à ‘illustrer’ le Siècle de Louis XIV, et ceci aux deux sens du terme: il s’agit à la fois d’exemplifier la thèse que Voltaire développe dans le chapitre 32 du Siècle, ‘Des beaux-arts’, selon laquelle Louis XIV est un grand monarque parce qu’il a encouragé les arts et les sciences, et de mettre en lumière le lustre de son règne, apogée de l’esprit humain, qui supplante tous les autres siècles par l’excellence (et l’abondance) de ses productions d’esprit. La forme du catalogue permet aussi à Voltaire de prendre quelque liberté par rapport au récit officiel du Siècle, offrant la possibilité de jeux de renvois et de polyphonie.

Au fil des rééditions, Voltaire amplifie ses listes: il ajoute de nouvelles entrées, il développe aussi des anecdotes piquantes, cite des vers inédits, répond à des journalistes, polémique avec ses contemporains. S’il n’est pas le premier à avoir produit un dictionnaire des grands hommes du Grand Siècle (Charles Perrault, l’auteur des Contes de ma mère l’Oye, a aussi publié des Hommes illustres en 1696), Voltaire se distingue nettement de ses devanciers, en particulier par le style de ses notices. Faisant rarement dans l’hagiographie, l’historien de la littérature du dix-septième siècle cherche souvent, au contraire, à en souligner les particularités, voire les bizarreries.

Frontispiece

Gérard Edelinck, frontispice des Hommes illustres qui ont paru en France durant ce siècle de Charles Perrault (1696).

On connaît bien Nicolas Boileau, le satiriste traducteur de l’Art poétique et du Traité du Sublime, mais beaucoup moins ses frères, dont Jacques Boileau: ‘Docteur de Sorbonne: esprit bizarre, qui a fait des livres bizarres écrits dans un latin extraordinaire, comme L’Histoire des flagellants, Les Attouchements impudiques, Les Habits des prêtres. On lui demandait pourquoi il écrivait toujours en latin. C’est, dit-il, de peur que ces évêques me lisent; ils me persécuteraient’ (OCV, t.12, p.62-63). L’évêque Bossuet est certes un prédicateur respecté, auteur des Oraisons funèbres et du Discours sur l’histoire universelle; mais on raconte, à tort bien sûr, qu’il a vécu marié avec une certaine Des-Vieux, et qu’un certain auteur plaisantin, St Hyacinthe, serait issu de ce mariage scandaleux… Le peintre Jean Jouvenet, élève de Le Brun, ‘a peint presque tous les objets d’une couleur un peu jaune’: c’est qu’‘il les voyait de cette couleur par une singulière conformation d’organes’ (p.212).

Il n’y a pas que des noms célèbres dans les listes consacrées aux auteurs et aux artistes qui ont marqué le siècle de Louis XIV: Voltaire cherche aussi à faire œuvre de mémoire, et s’assure que la postérité n’oublie pas le nom de ces petits poètes, historiens érudits, chroniqueurs, traducteurs, dont la muse ou le labeur ont aussi contribué à faire du Grand Siècle le ‘chef-d’œuvre de l’esprit humain’.

Voltaire à Chabanon, 16 avril 1768, D14955).

Voltaire à Chabanon, 16 avril 1768 (D14955).

Le nom de Voltaire, qui a écrit ses premiers poèmes alors que le vieux roi était toujours en vie, aurait dû selon toute logique figurer dans le ‘Catalogue des écrivains’. Modestie oblige, il n’y est pas, mais ce n’est pas sans clin d’œil: en effet, après la dernière notice, consacrée à Voiture, Voltaire écrit: ‘Ce n’est pas la peine de pousser plus loin ce catalogue’…

– Jean-Alexandre Perras

If Voltaire had used Wikipedia…

At the Voltaire Foundation we’ve recently had the opportunity to work with the University of Oxford’s Wikimedian in residence, Dr Martin Poulter. He has helped us to build some new content for our website as well as contributing to our mission to promote the work of Voltaire. In this blog post, he explains a bit more about the project.

Sharing open knowledge about Voltaire’s histories

To raise awareness of Voltaire as a historian, we used three tools:

  1. Histropedia: a free tool for creating engaging, interactive visualisations
  2. Wikidata: a free database and sister site of Wikipedia that drives Histropedia and other visualisations
  3. Wikipedia: the free multilingual encyclopedia.

As well as holding data about people, publications, and events, Wikidata acts as a cross-reference between the different language versions of Wikipedia, showing which concepts are represented in which languages. By querying Wikidata, we could count how many language versions of Wikipedia had an article on each work by Voltaire. This showed, as expected, a large imbalance: forty languages for Candide versus three for the Essai sur les mœurs, for example. The current number of articles for each work is shown by the size of the bubbles below.

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Creating interactive timelines

The timelines are built from three things:

  1. Wikipedia articles (that open on double-clicking the entry in the timeline)
  2. Publication dates and titles from Wikidata
  3. Images (in the case of books, usually title pages) that are hosted in the Wikimedia Commons repository (another sister site of Wikipedia).

We added articles, data and images to what was already present on these sites. Since Wikimedia sites are open and free, this content is available for reuse by other sites and applications. For instance, the images have been tagged by their year, language and subject so as to appear in searches and image galleries (for example for books in French or books from the eighteenth century).

A custom Wikidata query showed works by Voltaire with their publication dates, helping to identify works lacking a date. We added new entries for some works that were absent, including most of the historical works.

The timeline of Voltaire’s works uses a custom database query to bring all this content together. The timeline does not by any means include all of Voltaire’s works, but more will appear in future as their details are added to Wikidata. As well as each work’s title, publication date and image, the query returns the type of work; poems, plays, fiction and so on. This is used to colour-code the timeline. Clicking on the drop icon in the top left brings up a list of types. Readers can select the type they are interested in to filter the results shown in the timeline, for example to show only the histories. To make the histories especially visible, we added title page images from public domain sources or the Voltaire Foundation’s own collection.

As well as the timeline of works, we used Histropedia to create a companion timeline for ‘An explorer’s guide to the Siècle de Louis XIV ’. Instead of a database query, this one is driven by a fixed list of people and events, all of whom already had articles in English Wikipedia. The resulting timeline is the sort of thing that we like to imagine Voltaire might have produced, if he’d had access to Wikipedia while researching his monumental history of the reign of the Sun King. We’re sure he would have been unable to resist adding to Wikipedia a few articles of his own…

Creating and publicising Wikipedia articles

We created English articles on The Age of Louis XIV, Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, Annals of the Empire and Précis du siècle de Louis XV. These are not intended to be comprehensive, but to give basic facts about each work, to indicate why each work is important and to cite printed editions and relevant online resources, such as the explorer’s guide.

One way we drew readers to these new articles was to make links from elsewhere in Wikipedia, naturally including the Voltaire article which gets 3670 hits per day. Another was to use the Did You Know (DYK) process: new articles, of sufficient length, can be submitted for review. If they pass a check of accuracy and quality, an interesting fact from the article, linked to the full article, appears on the front page of English Wikipedia for twelve hours, exposing it to potentially millions of people. The articles on Essai sur les mœurs and The Age of Louis XIV were both submitted to DYK, getting 1584 hits and 1070 hits respectively during their times on the front page. The attention inspired another Wikipedian to create a Turkish article on the Essai, bringing the total number of Wikipedia articles on the Essai to five.

The four new English articles get about fifty views per day, or 18,000 per year. They have been checked and approved by other Wikipedians, and the individual facts within them are cited, so can be expected to remain in Wikipedia from now on.

Someone who has just read an article is open to reading a related article. In usability research, the end of an article is termed a ‘seducible moment’ for this reason. Wikipedia uses navigational templates (blocks of related links) to take advantage of these moments and direct readers to articles on the same theme.

We expanded English Wikipedia’s navigational template for Voltaire works, and, since French Wikipedia lacked a template, we created one. This links to all articles about Voltaire works and the article about Voltaire, greatly increasing the number of incoming links to each. We left instructions for French Wikipedians on how to embed the block in future articles.

Comparing article hit rates before and after the change, we estimate that the French navigational template increased views of its articles by about 2,000 per month, or 24,000 per year.

– Martin Poulter

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Gossip meets history at Versailles

The Fountain of Apollo, Park of Versailles, France (Wikimedia)

The Fountain of Apollo, Park of Versailles, France (Wikimedia)

‘Louis XIV was so magnificent in his court, as well as reign, that the least particulars of his private life seem to interest posterity.’

So wrote Voltaire in his account of the reign of Louis XIV, published in 1751. It’s still true today, apparently – a bit of a fuss has been made in the past few weeks about a BBC drama series called Versailles. Set during the reign of the French Sun King and controversially made in English, it seems to be aimed at the audience for the historical romp genre (The Tudors, Rome), with plenty of see-through dresses and glossy hair.

Noémie Schmidt plays Henriette (underneath), wife of Philippe and mistress of Louis (above). A scene from the BBC series Versailles. Image Daily Telegraph.

‘Noémie Schmidt plays Henriette (underneath), wife of Philippe and mistress of Louis (above).’ A scene from the BBC series Versailles. Image and caption: Daily Telegraph.

The show itself seems to be pretty much what you’d expect from the genre. Every lurid allegation of life at court which has surfaced over the past 300-odd years has been trussed up and ornamented, to choruses of ‘for shame!’ from the Daily Mail, while familiar faces on the media history circuit are produced to give academic credibility to every unlikely-sounding anecdote. An affair between the king and his sister-in-law? His brother’s homosexuality and transvestism? Queen Marie-Thérèse, famous for her Catholic piety and lack of interest in carnality, giving birth to a dark-skinned, apparently illegitimate baby? The programme makers are playing a mischievous game with us: simultaneously wanting us to gasp in horror while reassuring us of their interest in historical veracity. No need to bother with plausibility, then – (alleged) truth despite its implausibility is the trump card here.

Siècle de Louis XIV, 3 vol., 1768, vol.2, p.274.

Siècle de Louis XIV, 3 vol., 1768, vol.2, p.274.

We have a rich supply of this gossip, partly because of the success of Louis XIV at keeping his nobility within the confines of his enormous palace at Versailles. Quite a few of them kept almost daily diaries detailing who was rumoured to be sleeping with whom, pregnancies, illnesses, squabbles… Voltaire included several chapters of anecdotes in his Age of Louis XIV, which he introduces with the observation: ‘We had rather be informed of what passed in the cabinet of Augustus, than hear a full detail of the conquests of Attila or Tamerlane.’ And who wouldn’t? Voltaire’s chapters of anecdotes represent the private history of the king and his entourage as people, in contrast to the previous twenty-four chapters of public events: wars won and lost, peace treaties, alliances and so on. Voltaire deliberately carves out a space in his monumental history of the reign for these ‘domestic details’, but he also warns the reader to weigh up the sources when deciding when something is true or not. Although he admits that they are ‘sure to engage public attention’, in a later edition he adds a marginal note at this point: ‘Beware of anecdotes’.

The real domestic details are ultimately unknowable, of course, but anyone can and does imagine what might have happened in a bedroom, a birthing chamber, a salon. The temptation to fill in the gaps and invite a 21st century audience to experience this private space in simulation is, I think, what has proved so tantalising both to the creative impulses of the script-writers and the voyeuristic ones of the audience.

– A.O.

Voltaire and the gardens of Versailles

Voltaire had known the Palace of Versailles since his thirties, when he prepared a divertissement there to celebrate Louis XV’s marriage in 1725. Some twenty years later he was a frequent visitor as Royal Historiographer. Yet when one consults Michel Baridon’s definitive Histoire des jardins de Versailles (Arles, 2003), one finds surprisingly few references to the philosophe.

The reason is not far to seek. Voltaire’s view of the Palace, particularly during his time as Historiographer, is highly ambivalent, often verging on distaste or worse. Despite (or even because of) the emoluments he was receiving from the King, he felt himself ‘enfourné dans une bouffonnerie’,[1] where, as ‘bouffon du roi à cinquante ans’, he is involved in futile occupations ‘avec les musiciens, les comédiens, les comédiennes, les chanteurs, les danseurs’, or otherwise rushing to and fro between the capital and the Château. ‘Je cours à Paris pour une répétition, je reviens pour une décoration’.[2] Many a modern-day commuter would sympathise. Though the fêtes are sometimes even more spectacular than in Louis XIV’s time,[3] it all amounts simply to ‘des feux d’artifice dont il ne reste rien quand ils sont tirés’.[4] In the Italian language that he reserves for many of his intimate letters with Madame Denis, he expresses himself unreservedly; Versailles is ‘un paese che io abhorrisco. La corte, il mundo, i grandi, mi fanno noia’ (‘un pays que j’abhorre. La cour, le monde, les grands m’ennuient’).[5]

But, more relevant to our enquiry here, what did Voltaire feel about the gardens themselves? Did he sometimes gaze in wonderment upon, say, the Grand Canal or the two Trianons? If he did, he seems not to have left any record. Perhaps the closest we can get to an answer is what he tells his friend Cideville about how he spends his time journeying between Versailles and Paris: ‘je fais des vers en chaise de poste’.[6] No trace of ‘recueillement’ there! Versailles meant nothing but work, with the occasional theatre or spectacle as diversions. Specific mentions of these gardens are rare in his works. Comment upon the Ingénu’s walk there, ‘où il s’ennuya’,[7] is trenchant. A letter to Thiriot includes them, but only metaphorically, when he comments in relation to the tragedy Sémiramis that ‘ses jardins [the heroine’s] valaient bien ceux de Versailles’.[8]

But in Le Siècle de Louis XIV, where Voltaire seeks to encompass every aspect of the reign, he cannot afford to omit any reference to the Versailles gardens. However, details here too are scarce. The architect Jules-Hardouin Mansard ‘ne put déployer tous ses talents’ at Versailles, for ‘il fut gêné par le terrain, et par la disposition du petit château’.[9] In a generic conclusion about ‘l’art des jardins’, nothing is said about Versailles, though the designer Le Nôtre is cited ‘pour l’agréable’ as too is La Quintinie ‘pour l’utile’.[10] The antithesis appears to be set up for aesthetic rather than objective purposes. Earlier, discussing the 1680s, he links up Versailles with Marly in a broadly dismissive comment: ‘la nature forcée dans tous ces lieux de délices, et des jardins où l’art était épuisé’.[11]

Pierre Aveline l’ancien (1656-1722), Vue générale de la ville et du château de Versailles, du côté des jardins, château de Versailles, INV.GRAV 92. © Château de Versailles

Pierre Aveline l’ancien (1656-1722), Vue générale de la ville et du château de Versailles, du côté des jardins, château de Versailles, INV.GRAV 92. © Château de Versailles

But are there any conceivable allusions to Versailles in any discussion of gardens in general? Here too material is scanty, even in the ‘contes’. But one work stands out: Candide, exceptional in this as in so many other ways. The tale contains no fewer than five different gardens:[12] Thunder-ten Tronckh; Eldorado; Pococurante’s palace and the old Turk’s ‘vingt arpents’, leading up to Candide’s ‘petite métairie’. For our purposes, most of these can be quickly disposed of. The Westphalian château is an ‘anti-jardin’, based on spurious concepts. Pococurante’s domain is an exercise in disillusion; a garden does exist, but it contains no more than ‘des colifichets’. Tomorrow its owner plans to start work on it, but prospects do not sound auspicious, as Martin realises; its ‘lendemain’ belongs to the same perspective as Godot.

But the other three are somewhat less skeletal. The Turk’s domain is purely pragmatic, and capable of delicious luxuries. Candide’s ‘petite terre’ copies these principles with apparent success, though the ending is shot through with irony. But neither of these evokes any suggestion of Versailles. Only with Eldorado may one discern some recollections of the great Château. Much emphasis is laid upon wealth and abundance of many kinds, some of this stress on luxury recalling similar accounts in Le Mondain. More piquantly, the King is intelligent, witty and socially adept; memories of Versailles hover. But once again, physical details are remarkable by their scarcity. While we know that the size of the Palace portal is precisely 220 x 100 feet, we know nothing about its substance: ‘il est impossible d’exprimer quelle en était la matière’. Irony predominates here, as everywhere else in Candide. Physical description is no more than its handservant.

– Haydn Mason

[1] Voltaire to the d’Argentals, 18 January 1745.

[2] Voltaire to Cideville, 31 January 1745.

[3] Voltaire to Mme Denis, 2 December 1745.

[4] Voltaire à Podewils, 8 March 1745.

[5] December 1745.

[6] See note 2, above.

[7] L’Ingénu, chap.9 (Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford, vol.63c, p.247-48).

[8] 10 August 1746.

[9] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, in Œuvres historiques, ed. R. Pomeau (Paris, 1957), p.1219-20. Baridon makes no mention of this.

[10] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, p.1220.

[11] Le Siècle de Louis XIV, p.930-31.

[12] A useful article has appeared on this topic: P. Henry: ‘Sacred and profane gardens in Candide’, SVEC 176 (1979), p.133-52. The present study addresses a more limited aspect.

‘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.

Picturing the reign of Louis XIV

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud.

In 2015, the tercentenary of the death of Louis XIV, the VF is delighted to be launching our publication of Voltaire’s seminal Siècle de Louis XIV, critical edition by Diego Venturino of the Université de Lorraine. We are very proud to be doing so with the generous support of the Centre de recherche du Château de Versailles.

As part of our partnership, we are doing something completely new for OCV and the VF in producing an illustrated edition of the Siècle. Each chapter will benefit from at least one image from the rich collections of the château de Versailles, the full extent of which are rarely seen by the public.

Valérie Bajou, specialist curator at Versailles came to Oxford in the autumn, bringing with her an entire filing cabinet (almost!) full of the results of her research. Alongside the VF team, and with valuable input from our scientific editor, Diego Venturino, we compiled a shortlist for each of the thirty-nine chapters of Voltaire’s text. We had to work within certain technical constraints, and so concentrated on engravings (for better quality reproduction in black and white), prioritising portrait format over landscape to fit with the dimensions of the book, and preferring contemporary representations to more recent renditions.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Benoist.

Attrib. Antoine Benoist (1632-1717), Portrait de Louis XIV, lead pencil, sanguine and white chalk © Château de Versailles, Dist. RMN / © Jean-Marc Manaï.

We tried not to simply show a succession of portraits of famous people, including in addition allegorical prints, depictions of battles and even diagrams. Some chapters gave us more trouble than others: we found plenty to choose from in those chapters dealing with the Sun King’s many military successes; but, unsurprisingly, rather less choice for chapters such as number 21, ‘Suite des disgrâces de la France…’ We found a beautiful and very human drawing of the king in extreme old age which contrasts wonderfully with the famous Rigaud portrait of him resplendent in full-wigged, red-heeled glory.

Chapter 7, ‘Louis XIV gouverne par lui-même’, finds an echo in an engraving with the legend: ‘Le Roi mon maître gouverne lui-même, il voit tout, il entend tout, il ordonne de tout’. We were keen to include some images of Versailles itself, whose construction was a major part of the Sun King’s life’s work and legacy, and we were thrilled to discover a rather daring image of his mistress, Mme de Montespan, legs and bosom bare…

Painting by Pierre Le Pautre.

Pierre Le Pautre (1652-1716), Le Roi mon Maître gouverne lui-même, il voit tout, il entend tout, il ordonne de tout, 1669, burin et eau-forte © Château de Versailles.

It has been such a pleasure to discover the treasures of the Versailles image collection, and a privilege to work with all the knowledgeable people there who are helping us to make this edition one of the most beautiful so far in the OCV series.

– AO

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 gallica.bnf.fr / 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.