Digitizing the Enlightenment

As country after country has gone into COVID-19 lockdown, we have all had to learn to communicate, network, teach, study and relate online in ways unimaginable a few short years – or even months – ago. This phenomenon is just the latest stage in the information-technology revolution and part and parcel of the ongoing development of an increasingly digital society. This revolution has touched almost every aspect of our lives, from how we work, study, shop, relax and even make and maintain personal relationships. But it is also transforming scholarship and the way we conduct and communicate academic research. Thus, it is perhaps apt, and with consummate good timing, that Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment has chosen to subject tag our new volume as ‘History of Scholarship (Principally of Social Sciences and Humanities)’. Yet this is certainly not how we and our collaborators envisaged our project at the outset, nor can any single tag capture the content of our volume and its collaborative agenda in its entirety.

The Digitizing Enlightenment workshop logo

The Digitizing Enlightenment workshop logo, designed by Evan Casey for the Voltaire Foundation, featured on the cover of Digitizing Enlightenment.

Ironically, as we write, Digitizing Enlightenment is also a living movement – or at least a loose network of scholars who meet annually in pursuit of a common agenda. That agenda was born in a series of conversations that took place from 2010, culminating in Dan Edelstein’s post-panel suggestion at the American Historical Association conference at Montreal in April 2014 that we should hold periodic meetings between like-minded digital projects relating to the Enlightenment. The aim of these meetings would be to establish common conventions and digital standards, with a view to linking our resources and realising the enormous and still largely untapped potential of Linked Open Data. Those present for Dan’s suggestion – Simon Burrows, Jeff Ravel, Sean Takats and Dan himself – have all provided chapters for our book, but much of the energy behind Digitizing Enlightenment since has come from Glenn Roe, who Simon had first encountered a month earlier in Australia, where they had both recently taken up academic positions.

It was this fortuitous coincidence, underpinned by the fertile combination of Simon’s professorial establishment funds and Glenn’s energy, together with their mutual contact books, that led to Western Sydney University hosting the first Digitizing Enlightenment symposium in July 2016. Among the projects discussed there, and in our book, were large-scale treatments of Enlightenment correspondences, theatre attendance records, and textual corpora including the mid-eighteenth century Encyclopédie; bibliometric projects were presented on the production and dissemination of literature; together with presentations on mapping and data visualization growing out of these projects. The symposium was so well received that it has been an annual event ever since. It was held at Radboud University in Nijmegen (2017), Oxford (2018), Edinburgh (2019). In 2020, but for COVID-19, it would have been held in Montpellier.

It was not entirely by chance that such a project coalesced around the guiding notion of the ‘Enlightenment’. For the long eighteenth century has been blessed by a number of high-profile and long-established digital projects. These include ground-breaking commercial datasets such as Gale-Cengage’s Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), which features in several of our chapters, semi-commercial projects such as the Electronic Enlightenment and large academic consortiums such as the Franco-American ARTFL project. This made the Enlightenment a natural laboratory for exploring the possibilities and achievements of the Digital Humanities for transforming scholarship on a single historical era. Further, as our book emphases, our discussions built on a long tradition of digital innovation in eighteenth-century studies that can be traced back at least as far as the twin Livre et société dans la France du XVIIIe siècle volumes produced by a team led by François Furet in 1965 and 1970. It might further be added that our over-arching subject material lends itself to digital-historical analysis; the Enlightenment might after all be viewed as the long-run culmination of the intellectual turmoil and – as several contributors point out – information overload unleashed by a previous technological and communications revolution.

Digitizing Enlightenment is the July volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series

Digitizing Enlightenment is the July volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

With this in mind, then, we offer up Digitizing Enlightenment: Digital Humanities and the Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Studies as rather more than a contribution to the history of scholarship. Certainly, we have offered a sample of Digital Humanities c. 2016-2020, as it relates to the technologies available and their application to Enlightenment studies broadly construed. In addition, the first half of the book offers detailed accounts of the origins and development of key Enlightenment digital projects up until that point, accompanied by valuable and sometimes disarming insights on the dangers and delights of digital research from foremost practitioners in the field. These chapters, as well as some later contributions, are helping to reshape some dominant meta-narratives of the Enlightenment, not least by hinting simultaneously at the enduring aristocratic leadership of the French Enlightenment and the extent to which Enlightenment literary production and consumption was infused with religious content. However, our contributors also showcase other ways that Digital Humanities scholarship is in the process of changing the field through the transparency, methodological rigour, and collaborative imperatives that are necessary concomitants of this new kind of research. Finally, the book offers a collaborative roadmap for future digital research – at a moment where, as our final contributor, Sean Takats points out, the Enlightenment is fast losing its privileged position as the most richly digitized century of the modern era. As a corollary, we hope that our volume may be as useful to scholars of other periods as for Enlightenment scholars themselves.

– Simon Burrows (Western Sydney University) and Glenn Roe (Sorbonne University)

Simon Burrows and Glenn Roe are the editors of the July volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, Digitizing Enlightenment: Digital Humanities and the Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Studies, which is the first book length survey of the impact of digital humanities on our understanding of a key historical period and paradigm.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Eighteenth-century studies, Besterman and Voltaire

Edinburgh castle.

Edinburgh welcomed dix-huitiémistes this year for the fifteenth ISECS congress. The Voltaire Foundation’s newest staff member, who joined in April 2019, experienced ISECS for the first time and was impressed by the strong ties in the research community. Meeting many of the OCV authors at the book stand was also a very welcoming and enlightening experience.

In July 2017, 50 years after the idea of the OCV was formed, the Voltaire Foundation published a blogpost summarising its first 25 years. Now, as we approach the end of the print edition, only a little later than hoped (does Achilles ever catch the tortoise?), it is time to look at the next 25 years, from 1993-1994 to 2018-2019, where the dominant theme has been scholarly collaboration.

The Voltaire Foundation at 99 Banbury Road, Oxford.

In 1993 the Voltaire Foundation bought a large Victorian house at 99 Banbury Road, giving much more space than the cramped modern offices it had previously occupied near the city centre. The first OCV volumes published from 99 were by key colleagues who are still being published in OCV, including Christiane Mervaud, with her edition of the Dictionnaire philosophique (vol.35-36) and her introduction to the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (vol.37, 2018), Henri Duranton (vol.21, Essai sur les mœurs, 2018), Ralph Nablow (Le Dimanche and Lettre de Monsieur de La Visclède, vol.77A, 2014), John Renwick (Annales de l’Empire, vol.44, publication in 2019), and David Williams (Corpus des notes marginales: complément, vol.145, 2019). The ISECS conference of this period took place in Münster, Germany, in 1995.

Two members of staff who transferred to 99 are also still publishing in OCV: Janet Godden (vol.29, Précis du siècle de Louis XV, 2019) and Martin Smith (vol.146, 2020). The earliest members of staff to join the VF at the new premises and who are still at 99 working on OCV were Pippa Faucheux (1998) and Nicholas Cronk. The latter joined the editorial board and became Director of the edition in 2000.

News Bulletin for the 1999 ISECS congress in Dublin.

International collaboration continued in other ways. By the time of the ISECS congress in Dublin in 1999, the general editor of OCV was Haydn Mason, soon joined by Nicholas Cronk (current general editor) who took sole responsibility for the series on Haydn’s retirement in 2001.

In 2002 regular annual Besterman lectures were instituted, bringing eminent scholars from the UK and other European countries and the USA to talk on a vast range of subjects related to eighteenth-century studies, from Jesuits in China to the French Revolution, from problems of editing to the progress of plagiarism, from the late Renaissance to digital culture, and many other topics.

In the same year the British Academy commenced its longstanding, ongoing and valuable support for OCV. At the same time, another event of great importance for international collaboration was the signing of the contract to complete the publication of the Corpus des notes marginales, originally a project of the Russian State Library in St Petersburg, and to incorporate it into OCV.

2003 brought the next ISECS congress, in Los Angeles, the first in the USA since Yale in 1975.

In 2005 the OCV in-house team began to expand with Paul Gibbard, who is still contributing from Australia, as author in vol.144 (2018). Our current research editors joined the team from 2006 to 2010, enabling the high-calibre work on the edition to be continued at increased pace and scale. In 2006 the first of the new Corpus des notes marginales volumes (no.6, vol.141) was published, and enhanced re-issues of the first five volumes appeared between 2008 and 2012.

Coffee with M. de Voltaire.

In 2007 the Voltaire Foundation initiated a process whereby a younger scholar is introduced to an established Voltaire scholar to collaborate on the critical edition of a particular text. The first of these partnerships was between Tom Wynn and Haydn Mason, for the Poème sur la loi naturelle in vol.32B. Many more successful collaborations followed.

In the same year important progress was made on the major multi-volume editions within the Complete works: the first of eight volumes of the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie appeared (vol.38), the work of a large team of collaborators, and the Voltaire Foundation also received a five-year AHRC award to support the publication of the nine-volume Essai sur les mœurs project. The first Essai volume would be published in 2009. 2007 was also the year of the twelfth ISECS conference, in Montpellier.

At this time, the Voltaire Foundation also declared a completion date for the OCV of 2019-2020, which would be achieved by publishing six volumes a year, making the edition a roughly fifty-year project, like the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 2009 the Voltaire Foundation continued its support of younger researchers by introducing another newer scholar to a well-established name, in this case Renaud Bret-Vitoz (then in Tunisia, now Professor at the Sorbonne) with Basil Guy (Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley), who co-signed the edition of L’Orphelin de la Chine (vol.45A).

Supporting post-doctoral work on Voltaire, the VF was pleased to welcome Antonio Gurrado, who was awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship for two years to work in Oxford on Voltaire’s religious works of 1776 (vol.79B, published in 2014). By 2010 all the current team of in-house OCV research editors (Gillian Pink, Alison Oliver and Georges Pilard) were working at 99 Banbury Road.

News Bulletin for the July 2011 ISECS congress in Graz, Austria.

Also in 2010, the Fondation Wiener-Anspach, which fosters academic exchanges between the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, provided support for the collaborative research project that was the Essai sur les mœurs edition. The OCV also received the Prix Hervé Deluen from the Académie française ‘in recognition of the fifty-year OCV project publishing the complete and critical works of Voltaire for the first time, so changing the image of Voltaire’.

The following year, 2011, eighteenth-century scholars of the world gathered at Graz for the thirteenth ISECS congress.

In 2013 the Voltaire Foundation began a collaborative blog and benefitted from the first of two MHRA one-year research associateships supporting new scholars: Nick Treuherz, working on vol.83 (published in 2015), followed by Helder Mendes Baiao, working on vol.60A (published in 2015). In 2014 a three-year Leverhulme research grant provided support for the preparation of the introductions to Voltaire’s historical works (Essai sur les mœurs, Siècle de Louis XIV and Précis du siècle de Louis XV, all published in 2019). The following year brought support from the Château de Versailles research centre for the first volume of Siècle de Louis XIV, and Nicholas Cronk received AHRC research support for his work on vol.6 (Lettres sur les Anglais).

The Voltaire Foundation’s stand welcoming dix-huitiémistes at the fifteenth ISECS congress in 2019.

Since the fourteenth ISECS conference, in Rotterdam in 2015, the last few years have seen the fruition of various collaborative projects. In 2016, unidentified texts published for the first time in the Kehl edition appeared in vol.34. In 2017 LVMH started supporting one volume per year (vol.20C, vol.65B and vol.21). In 2017 the Voltaire Foundation’s new website went live, replacing one dating from before 2002! This improvement was instigated by Alice Breathe, who is still contributing from Switzerland. In 2018 Christiane Mervaud’s introduction completed the eight-volume set of Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, and 2019 saw the completion of the eight-volume set of Essai sur les mœurs, the seven-volume set of Siècle de Louis XIV and the ten-volume set of the marginalia.

Theodore Besterman.

Theodore Besterman.

More than fifty years after Theodore Besterman held the first Congress in Geneva, he would probably be moderately pleased with the progress that has been made…

– Clare Fletcher et al.

Voltaire en notre temps : le Cellf et la Voltaire Foundation

Sylvain Menant est professeur émérite à Sorbonne Université, ancien directeur du Cellf, il est, depuis 1988, membre du Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, pour lesquelles il a signé de nombreuses éditions critiques dont celle des Contes de Guillaume Vadé en 2014.

La Voltaire Foundation, à Oxford.

La Voltaire Foundation, à Oxford.

L’acronyme « Cellf » désigne le « Centre d’étude de la langue et des littératures françaises », centre de recherches de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne (fondue depuis le 1er janvier 2018 dans Sorbonne Université) et du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Jusqu’à une période récente, ce centre de recherches était spécialisé dans l’étude des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Son prestige a amené les autorités de tutelle à élargir ses compétences à tous les siècles, sous la direction du Pr Christophe Martin. Cet élargissement n’a en rien nui à l’étude des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, que nous considérons comme « un siècle de deux cents ans »[1], étude qui rassemble de nombreux professeurs, chercheurs à temps plein, chercheurs associés et doctorants. Ils se réunissent dans quelques salles de travail au deuxième étage de la Sorbonne, au milieu des livres et des machines. Par les hautes fenêtres, on aperçoit, juste en face, de l’autre côté de la rue Saint-Jacques, le collège (aujourd’hui lycée) Louis-le-Grand où le jeune Arouet, futur Voltaire, fut élève des Pères jésuites. Le Cellf a célébré cette année son cinquantième anniversaire par un colloque de trois jours où ont été évoquées ses recherches passées, présentes et à venir, complété par des festivités diverses. Il a tenu à associer la Voltaire Foundation à cette célébration ; elle y a été représentée par l’un de ses membres actifs, Gillian Pink, qui a pris la parole ; elle a participé à la mise au point de nombreux volumes tout en préparant une excellente thèse soutenue en 2015[2].

Réunion du Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes

Réunion du Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes de juin 2016. Assis, de gauche à droite: Marie-Hélène Cotoni, Christiane Mervaud, Jeroom Vercruysse; debout, de gauche à droite: Gérard Laudin, Gerhardt Stenger, Nicholas Cronk, John R. Iverson, Sylvain Menant, Russell Goulbourne, François Moureau.

Depuis sa création, le Cellf, par le nombre de chercheurs spécialisés qu’il a accueillis et le nombre de thèses soutenues, par le nombre des publications et des colloques, est le principal centre mondial de recherches sur Voltaire et de formation de jeunes voltairistes. La Voltaire Foundation, devenue un organe de l’Université d’Oxford après avoir été implantée à Genève, est le prestigieux centre d’édition d’une collection complète des œuvres de Voltaire et de travaux critiques sur cet écrivain et son temps. Les deux institutions, de nature et d’objet différents et complémentaires, entretiennent depuis longtemps une féconde et cordiale collaboration. De nombreux chercheurs appartiennent aux deux institutions et y jouent un rôle actif. Symboliquement, le Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire publiées à la Voltaire Foundation tient sa réunion annuelle dans les murs du Cellf, souvent sous la présidence d’un membre de notre laboratoire. Symétriquement, nous sommes nombreux à traverser la Manche pour participer à des réunions de travail ou à des comités, faire des recherches dans les riches fonds de la Bodleian ou présenter une conférence sur tel ou tel aspect renouvelé des connaissances sur Voltaire.

Pourquoi ce titre pour célébrer la collaboration du Cellf et de la VF : « Voltaire en notre temps » ? Loin de nous l’idée de chercher naïvement dans l’œuvre ou la vie de cet écrivain des conseils pour régler les problèmes du monde d’aujourd’hui. Ceux qui crient : « au secours, Voltaire » n’ont lu de son œuvre que des fragments orientés. Tout au contraire, nous avons pour objet depuis l’origine de débarrasser Voltaire des récupérations intéressées dont son œuvre a été l’objet au XIXe siècle, récupération par les monarchistes de ce partisan de l’absolutisme, récupération par les élites de ce contempteur de la « populace » et de cet ennemi de l’instruction populaire, récupération par les sans-Dieu de cet anticlérical. Notre temps est celui d’une approche scientifique neutre du phénomène Voltaire, d’une utilisation des moyens les plus neufs d’approche des textes et des faits, d’une mise à disposition des publics d’aujourd’hui de l’œuvre et de ses arrière-plans. Notre temps est ainsi celui d’une redécouverte d’un Voltaire débarbouillé des lectures partisanes, et enrichi d’une nouvelle et prodigieuse érudition. C’est l’esprit qui anime à la fois les voltairistes du Cellf et ceux d’Oxford.

Leur entreprise est commune depuis le début, et elle commence avant même la création des deux institutions. En 1967 à Saint-Andrews en Écosse, en marge d’une rencontre internationale de spécialistes du XVIIIe siècle, un mécène anglais passionné, Theodore Besterman, lance l’idée de publier une édition complète des œuvres de Voltaire, alors que la plus récente datait de 1875. Besterman, dès ce moment et jusqu’à aujourd’hui au-delà de sa mort, consacre sa fortune à cette entreprise ; il est le fondateur de la Voltaire Foundation. René Pomeau, professeur à la Sorbonne et futur membre important de notre laboratoire dès sa création, fait partie du comité international qui s’engage dans cette tâche immense, qui totalisera environ deux cent volumes. Il recrute des collaborateurs français, surtout parmi ses nombreux élèves, comme Marie-Hélène Cotoni, Jean Dagen, Christiane Mervaud, José-Michel Moureaux, Roland Virolle, une dizaine d’autres, et moi-même. Quand le Cellf est créé, l’équipe des voltairistes, déjà nombreuse, soudée et active, constitue une des pierres angulaires de la nouvelle institution de recherche. Les textes à éditer sont distribués selon les compétences de chacun ; les œuvres les plus volumineuses sont prises en charge en équipe ; les premiers résultats du travail circulent, sont enrichis ou corrigés au passage ; les collaborateurs spécialisés de la Voltaire Foundation contribuent à la chasse aux copies manuscrites, aux vérifications bibliographiques, au relevé des variantes, et assurent une impeccable préparation du texte pour l’imprimeur.

À l’origine, il s’agissait surtout de fournir au public moderne le texte devenu introuvable de l’ensemble des écrits de Voltaire, dont seuls quelques titres, les plus connus, étaient disponibles en librairie. Mais nous étions désireux de partager les découvertes faites au cours de nos recherches d’éditeurs, et conscients des difficultés que présente pour un lecteur moderne, même spécialiste, la foule d’allusions et de sous-entendus dont fourmillent les textes de Voltaire. Bientôt les introductions, les notes, les annexes se multiplièrent, et l’édition est devenue un monument d’une extraordinaire richesse, une somme capable de faire comprendre Voltaire en notre temps, autant que faire se peut.

La Religion de Voltaire.

L’édition, contrairement à toutes celles qui l’avaient précédée, est, on le sait, chronologique. Elle met l’accent sur le lien entre la genèse et la publication des œuvres de Voltaire et ses expériences successives du monde et de la vie. C’est un choix qui crée des problèmes d’édition épineux, mais c’est un choix historique lié aux premières orientations du Cellf et de ses fondateurs. Pour résoudre les contradictions apparentes dans la pensée de Voltaire, que la critique ne cessait de souligner, René Pomeau avait opéré une révolution épistémologique dans sa grande thèse sur La Religion de Voltaire : au lieu d’étudier le système de pensée de l’écrivain, il avait suivi les étapes de son existence, montrant comment sa pensée avait évolué, parfois fluctué, en rapport avec les circonstances. C’est cette démarche que reprenait le projet des Œuvres complètes.

Mais c’est aussi cette démarche qui justifiait un grand projet collectif qui se développa parallèlement et se réalisa tout entier dans les murs du Cellf : une grande biographie renouvelée, intitulée Voltaire en son temps. L’équipe des voltairistes du Cellf réalisa ce vaste travail de 1985 à 1994, de façon largement collective, tous les apports individuels étant préparés par des réunions au Cellf, auxquelles participait parfois le représentant d’alors de la VF, Andrew Brown, et aussi des personnalités comme Jacques Van den Heuvel, André-Michel Rousseau, Jacqueline Marchand. Chaque volume avait son responsable; Jean Dagen et moi, qui devions plus tard diriger le Cellf successivement, avons eu en charge les volumes IV et V. L’ensemble était unifié par une révision de René Pomeau, qui écrivit lui-même par ailleurs d’importants développements. La première édition de ce travail désormais fondamental et partout cité comme la biographie savante de référence fut publiée en cinq volumes successifs à la Voltaire Foundation.

Couverture du premier volume de Voltaire en son temps.

Couverture du premier volume de Voltaire en son temps (Oxford, 1985).

Quand cette biographie fut terminée, les réunions plénières annuelles en juin de l’ensemble de l’équipe ne s’arrêtèrent pas. Nous étions soucieux d’assurer l’avenir des études voltairistes en France et ailleurs. Ces réunions se transformèrent en « journées Voltaire » qui continuent et réunissent les spécialistes de toutes les générations autour des chercheurs du Cellf et les collaborateurs de la Voltaire Foundation, réunis dans une « Société des Études voltairiennes » qui a son siège au Cellf. L’actuel président de la SEV est Nicholas Cronk, directeur de la Voltaire Foundation, marque de notre étroite collaboration. Les « journées Voltaire » sont devenues le cadre d’un colloque annuel à la Sorbonne dont les actes sont ponctuellement publiés aux PUPS, avec le soutien actif du Cellf, dans une revue de bonne diffusion, intitulée Revue Voltaire. Cette année, les 22 et 23 juin, le colloque avait pour sujet « Voltaire du Rhin au Danube » et réunissait de nombreux chercheurs d’Europe centrale. Il était organisé par Guillaume Métayer, brillant chercheur du CNRS au Cellf où il représente la troisième génération de voltairistes puisqu’il a été mon doctorant, alors que j’avais été le doctorant de René Pomeau.

Pendant une dizaine d’années j’ai animé en outre dans la salle Jean Fabre du Cellf un séminaire « Voltaire » hebdomadaire qui accueillait des étudiants avancés, des doctorants de toute nationalité, des étrangers en résidence, et d’autres encore. Ce séminaire très suivi a été honoré des interventions d’éminents spécialistes attachés à d’autres centres actifs, comme André Magnan, président de la Société de Ferney, ou Natalia Elaguina conservateur de la Bibliothèque de Voltaire à Saint-Pétersbourg, qui a été chercheur associé au Cellf ; tous deux ont fait partie de notre équipe « Voltaire en son temps ». Le séminaire « Voltaire » se perpétue au Cellf, notamment ces dernières années sur les œuvres théâtrales et leur réception, sous la direction de Pierre Frantz et de Sophie Marchand, désormais sous celle de Renaud Bret-Vitoz et Glenn Roe, récemment nommés à la Sorbonne et devenus ainsi membres du Cellf.

Dans les années 1960, quand j’ai commencé ma carrière, Voltaire était largement éclipsé, dans la recherche dix-huitiémiste, par Rousseau et par Diderot, qui paraissaient plus tournés vers la modernité. Le Cellf a depuis lors participé à une incontestable révolution. Depuis la création de notre laboratoire, les recherches sur Voltaire y ont été particulièrement fécondes. Dans cette fécondité, le rôle de la Voltaire Foundation a été important, d’abord comme un stimulant parce qu’il fallait que l’édition des Œuvres complètes avance. Elle a si bien avancé, grâce à son maître d’œuvre, Nicholas Cronk, qu’elle est sur le point de s’achever. Si Nicholas Cronk est l’efficace directeur de l’édition, c’est l’un des membres de l’équipe du Cellf, Christiane Mervaud, qui est la présidente d’honneur de l’entreprise. C’est dire notre étroite collaboration. Cette collaboration a porté sur les méthodes, sur les savoirs, sur les interprétations. Si nous proposons à la communauté internationale des chercheurs un Voltaire pour notre temps, c’est que nous nous sommes inlassablement entraidés pour mettre tout le savoir de notre temps au service d’une meilleure connaissance de Voltaire.

– Sylvain Menant

[1] Un Siècle de Deux Cents Ans?, éd. Jean Dagen et Philippe Roger, Paris, Desjonquères, 2004.

[2] Gillian Pink, Voltaire à l’ouvrage, Paris, CNRS éditions, 2018.

Cross-European perspectives on the Enlightenment: academic events at the Voltaire Foundation in early 2018

Avi Lifschitz is the new Academic Programme Director at the Voltaire Foundation. In his first Vf blogpost, he surveys some of the events scheduled over the second and third terms of 2017/18.

Catherine the Great, by Fyodor Rokotov, 1763.

Catherine the Great, by Fyodor Rokotov, 1763.

The main aim of our academic programme in early 2018 is to develop comparative and original views on eighteenth-century European culture in a series of events. Enlightenment – in the singular or plural, preceded by a definite article or left indefinite – has long been treated as a largely Franco-British affair, extending from Newton and Locke to the French philosophes and their acolytes. The Enlightenment Workshop, Oxford’s interdisciplinary research seminar on eighteenth-century culture, seeks to challenge this view by examining Enlightenment phenomena all the way from St Petersburg to London via Austria, Prussia, and further afield in Europe. In 2018 the Workshop will take place at the Voltaire Foundation in both Hilary and Trinity Terms. Its speakers come from a variety of academic institutions: as well as showcasing eighteenth-century research conducted here at Oxford and elsewhere in the UK, we are delighted to host speakers from Hungary, Germany, California and the American East Coast.

Frederic II of Prussia, by Johann Georg Ziesenis, 1763.

Frederic II of Prussia, by Johann Georg Ziesenis, 1763.

While Paul Slack (Linacre College, Oxford) discusses the complex interrelations between seventeenth-century British ideas of socio-economic Improvement and an eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Shiru Lim (UCL) analyses the concept of philosophical kingship by juxtaposing the philosophes’ relationships with Catherine II of Russia and Frederick II of Prussia. Thematically and methodologically too, the Workshop aims to explore the Enlightenment from a variety of approaches. Elisabeth Décultot (Halle) asks whether we can still use the term ‘Enlightenment’ – and with which controversies and semantic fields we engage when we do so.[1] The theological implications of natural catastrophes, explored by László Kontler (Central European University, Budapest), are followed by a paper focusing on street-lighting in eighteenth-century Paris and its wider significance, to be presented by Darrin McMahon (Dartmouth College).

Moses Mendelssohn, after Anton Graff, 1771.

Moses Mendelssohn, after Anton Graff, 1771.

German Enlightenment controversies on art and religion are explored by Katherine Harloe (Reading) and Paul Kerry (Brigham Young University), whereas Caroline Warman (Jesus College, Oxford) turns her gaze to more radical thinkers in an overview of French materialism from Diderot to the Revolution. The famous Parisian salons of the Enlightenment are examined from a fresh perspective by Chloe Edmondson (Stanford University); such venues would not have been hospitable to the subject of Adam Sutcliffe’s (King’s College London) paper, Moses Mendelssohn, who is widely regarded as having launched the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah).

The Enlightenment Workshop concludes on 17 May 2018 with an interdisciplinary discussion of new work on gender in different Enlightenment cultures, published in Anthony La Vopa’s recent book The Labor of the Mind (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).  La Vopa will reply to comments on his book by colleagues from several Oxford faculties: Katherine Ibbett (French), Joanna Innes (History), Karen O’Brien (Head of the Humanities Division; English), and Ritchie Robertson (German).

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, by Martin van Meytens, 1759.

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, by Martin van Meytens, 1759.

This session is not, however, the only reference to the significance of gender for research on Enlightenment Europe in our programme: Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (Münster), author of a new biography of the Habsburg empress Maria Theresa, touches upon this issue (among others) in her discussion of the empress and the Catholic Enlightenment. Her lecture on 26 February 2018 concludes a study day dedicated to recent research across Europe, conducted on the occasion of Maria Theresa’s 2017 tercentenary. The study day, convened by Tobias Heinrich, also includes papers by William O’Reilly (Trinity Hall, Cambridge), Catriona Seth (All Souls College, Oxford), Werner Telesko (Austrian Academy of Sciences), and Thomas Wallnig (University of Vienna). The speakers all aim to provide new perspectives on the empress, who has hitherto been overshadowed by contemporaries such as Frederick II and Catherine II (who are discussed earlier in the Enlightenment Workshop).

The main purpose of these events is to bring together graduate students, staff members, and visiting researchers from various faculties in Oxford, as well as guests from outside the University. This interdisciplinary dialogue might lead, we hope, to the creation of an Oxford salon for the discussion and exchange of invigorating ideas on Enlightenment culture – where there is no need for personal invitations or letters of introduction. All are welcome to attend the Enlightenment Workshop at the Voltaire Foundation, 99 Banbury Road, on Mondays at 5:00 p.m. (Hilary Term) and Thursdays at the same time (Trinity Term).

– Avi Lifschitz

[1] For some of Décultot’s views on Enlightenment historiography, see this recent discussion of the German Enlightenment.

The Œuvres complètes de Voltaire are nearly fifty years old

John Renwick has been a member of the ‘Œuvres complètes de Voltaire’ team since 1970, and of its Conseil scientifique since 1997. Within OCV, he has edited over fifty individual texts, from ‘Amulius et Numitor’ (1711) to the ‘Fragments sur l’histoire générale’ and the ‘Fragments sur l’Inde’ (1773). He has signed the edition of twenty-eight articles in the ‘Questions sur l’Encyclopédie’ and forty-five chapters of the ‘Essai sur les mœurs’, and more than sixty entries for the forthcoming volume 9 of the ‘Corpus des notes marginales’. He is the editor of the major text ‘Traité sur la tolérance’.


In a recent contribution (September 2016), Jeroom Vercruysse, the editor of Voltaire’s mock epic poem La Pucelle and many other texts since, reminds us of how he and a small number of colleagues were invited by Theodore Besterman to start producing a critical edition of Voltaire’s complete works. In it, he remembers – though fleetingly – how those ‘Founding Fathers’ translated their early aspirations into the concrete formulation of editorial policy. He mentions also their early recognition that such a vast corpus of work would require their having recourse to ‘d’autres dix-huitiémistes afin d’assurer la préparation et la publication de textes si divers’. And he concludes his reminiscences with the observation that ‘nous envisageons la sortie des derniers volumes vers 2020’.


His comments could not fail to elicit a positive response from this particular reader, who was one of the early second-generation recruits to be approached by Theodore Besterman (in 1970, I was a mere 31-year-old, the same age as Jeroom at the inception of the Œuvres complètes in 1967) and who, decades later (again like Jeroom), is still intimately associated with the enterprise which he also (just as fervently) hopes to see to its completion in 2020.


It is, however, and more precisely, the comments that Jeroom makes en filigrane about the original editorial approaches that embolden me to return to, and then to expand upon, a topic (that I first treated in 1994 [1]) that now – more than twenty years later – concerns more particularly the constant evolution of the original editorial principles over the fifty years that have intervened since inception in 1968 with the Notebooks, edited by Besterman, then in La Philosophie de l’histoire, edited by J.H. Brumfitt in 1969. Having constantly been a party to a redefinition and an expansion of those editorial parameters, I have been privileged, from beginning to what is now near-end, to witness the refinement of those parameters, a progressive process that has been responsible for making the OCV into what is arguably one of the most significant and thoughtful scholarly ventures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


The fact that it has also transpired to be a ‘formidable aventure intellectuelle’ makes it even more remarkable. How and why this came about is worth charting in a preliminary sketch that will one day (or so it is to be hoped) provide the impetus for someone to turn the whole question into a detailed study, because, in the time-honoured phrase, this topic is surely a beau sujet de thèse.

– John Renwick

[1] See John Renwick, ‘The Complete works of Voltaire: a review of the first twenty-five years’ in Pour encourager les autres. Studies for the tercentenary of Voltaire’s birth 1694-1994, SVEC 320, p.165-207.

A propos des Œuvres complètes ou comment tout a commencé

La toute récente réunion du Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, qui eut lieu à la Sorbonne le 16 juin 2016, est à l’origine de ces réminiscences de Jeroom Vercruysse sur les débuts du projet:

Après un après-midi de travail lors du congrès de la SIEDS de Saint-Andrews (1967), René Pomeau me glissa dans l’oreille: ‘Venez avec moi, Besterman veut nous voir’. Que nous voulait-il? Je connaissais le personnage, il avait publié mon premier article en 1959 et ma thèse l’année précédente. Nous voilà dans un salon de l’Université où nous rencontrâmes Jean Ehrard, Owen Taylor et Samuel Taylor. Besterman, que j’avais déjà rencontré plusieurs fois, ne dérogea pas à ses habitudes quelquefois assez brusques. ‘Messieurs,’ nous dit-il, ‘êtes-vous d’accord pour entreprendre une édition complète et critique des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire?’ La réponse fut unanime, ‘oui’. Un verre de sherry confirma le propos.

Il ne restait plus qu’à réaliser ce projet dont certains collègues avaient déjà rêvé. Mais nous étions loin, moi surtout, le cadet (j’avais 31 ans), d’entrevoir l’ampleur, la durée et la difficulté de l’entreprise. Aujourd’hui, près de 50 années plus tard, la fin du tunnel est en vue. Mais que de chemin parcouru, de difficultés surmontées! Un mois après le congrès nous fûmes invités au célèbre Reform Club de Londres. En hôte parfait, Besterman nous régala d’un repas dans un salon de ce club si fameux. Et nous tînmes ensuite notre première réunion du Comité scientifique que nous étions devenus. Œuvres complètes, critiques, cela allait de soi. Dans quel ordre devaient paraître les futurs volumes? Quelle ligne de conduite serait suivie pour préparer les textes?

OCV team

La réunion du Conseil scientifique des Œuvres complètes du 16 juin 2016. Assis, de gauche à droite: Marie-Hélène Cotoni, Christiane Mervaud, Jeroom Vercruysse; debout, de gauche à droite: Gérard Laudin, Gerhardt Stenger, Nicholas Cronk, John R. Iverson, Sylvain Menant, Russell Goulbourne, François Moureau.

Il suffit de prendre en main l’un des derniers tomes parus: il ressemble comme une goutte d’eau au premier sorti des presses. De nombreuses allées et venues entre Bruxelles, Genève, Londres et Paris (sans oublier les réunions tenues au cours des congrès des Lumières successifs), un courrier abondant, tout cela marcha le plus tranquillement du monde. Le premier volume publié fut La Henriade, dont O. Taylor avait déjà fourni une édition critique dans les Studies on Voltaire; il la révisa, l’adapta aux normes convenues et l’entreprise prit la route. Besterman me confia La Pucelle d’Orléans qui, débarrassée de ses oripeaux séculaires, vit le jour en 1971. Entre-temps chacun des membres du Conseil apporta son écot à l’entreprise. Mais il apparut très vite qu’il fallait recourir à d’autres dix-huitiémistes afin d’assurer la préparation et la publication de textes si divers. Ce ne fut guère une entreprise aisée pour tous les éditeurs, particulièrement pour ceux qui se chargèrent des ‘grands machins’.

Besterman me ‘colla’ les Œuvres alphabétiques. Bien. Je me mis au travail, mais je dus également trouver des collaborateurs qualifiés. Le Comité étendit ses compétences, augmenta ses effectifs, se renouvela car malheureusement il eut à déplorer des décès et des retraits. Une fois les textes attribués, le Comité dut, au fur et à mesure de l’arrivée des copies, procéder à des relectures, formuler des critiques et des suggestions souvent délicates, recourir à de nouvelles compétences. Des milliers de pages passèrent de mains en mains. Tout cela se passa dans une entente parfaite, jamais un mot plus vif que d’autres ne fut prononcé, et près d’un demi-siècle plus tard, je constate que le Conseil scientifique élargi assure toujours bénévolement ses devoirs avec soin, avec compétence et avec rigueur. Nous envisageons la sortie des derniers volumes vers 2020. Plût aux dieux que je sois encore là pour dire simplement ‘enfin’! Utinam dis placet!

– Jeroom Vercruysse, professeur émérite Vrije Universiteit, Bruxelles

‘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.

Besterman’s commitment to the Eighteenth Century is still alive


Theodore Besterman in the late 1940s

I have always been intrigued by Theodore Besterman – the Voltaire Foundation’s founder. At 99 Banbury Road, Oxford – home of the Voltaire Foundation since 1993 – he is commemorated by a black bust sitting at the left end of the mantelpiece in the main room (which was named after him); at the right end of the mantelpiece sits a white bust of Voltaire, and a picture of a stern-looking Rousseau hangs on the wall between them. Our meetings are thus presided over by this august trio.

I had heard the name Besterman in my academic publishing career before joining the Voltaire Foundation, because as a bibliographer, he gave his name to the Besterman/McColvin Awards for reference works (in both print and electronic forms). These are awarded by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).


The mantlepiece in the Besterman Room at the Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

Tristram Besterman has just written a most informative personal memoir about his step-grandfather for the VF website. His account joins Giles Barber’s biography of Besterman as well as Haydn Mason’s history of the Voltaire Foundation.

One of Besterman’s many significant contributions to 18th-century scholarship was to found the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (or ISECS), the ‘umbrella’ organisation for all thirty national eighteenth-century societies worldwide. The VF still provides the secretariat functions for ISECS to this day.

ISECS holds an international congress every four years and the VF will of course be attending the next congress in July 2015 in Rotterdam. We hope to meet up with many of our colleagues, contributors and friends at our bookstand.

The Voltaire Foundation's stand at the Colonial Williamsburg ASECS

There will be plenary lectures given by Dan Brewer and John Robertson (author of OUP’s Very Short Introduction to the Enlightenment, due in September 2015). In 2019 the ISECS congress will be held at St Andrews, which was the location of the first congress, in 1967.

Besterman also started the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series (in 1955), formerly known as Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century (or SVEC for short). After 60 years and over 500 books, it remains the leading series in the area of Enlightenment studies.

We are currently seeking to appoint a new General Editor of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.

The successful candidate would initially work alongside Professor Jonathan Mallinson who is standing down after 13 years. In 2016 he or she would take over as General Editor and be involved in appointing a deputy (who will be francophone if the General Editor is not, and vice versa).

Besterman’s legacy is still very much alive as demonstrated by the VF publications still rolling off the press – a new book in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series every month as well as six new volumes of the Complete works of Voltaire each year (the print edition is due for completion in 2018-2019). The VF’s blog gives an insight into the extended reach of our activities and some of our inner workings and musings – hence this blogpost.

– Clare

VF networking at 2014/15 academic conferences

Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg

In March I visited Colonial Williamsburg where I was ‘personning’ the bookstand at the annual ASECS.

I stayed at the Cedars B&B (rather than the plush conference hotel), and as usual I enjoyed meeting existing ‘friends of the VF family’ (those who already know of and have collaborated with us) and making new VF friends.

A visit to historic Jamestown

A visit to historic Jamestown

Over 900 academics attended to give papers on panels, network, and browse the book display – mostly to capture information for their libraries to order as well as make some individual purchases. Also to do some 18C tourism! My own tourism treat was a visit to the Jamestown settlement.

Other members of the VF team are also out and about this Spring/Summer.

In May, our MHRA Research Associate Nick Treuherz is giving a paper at the Virtue and Enlightenment conference at Reid Hall, University of Kent, Paris, and Nicholas Cronk is the co-organiser of an ITEM study day on Enlightenment manuscripts at the IEA.

In June, we always attend the Journées Voltaire organised by the Société des Etudes Voltairiennes (SEV), this year on the theme of Voltaire: les voyages de l’esprit libre?

In July, part of the final volume in the Correspondence of Mme de Graffigny is the subject of David Smith’s talk at the Graffigny colloquium at the Château de Lunéville, called the Versailles of Lorraine.

The Château de Lunéville

The Château de Lunéville

Also Lyn Roberts will be attending the Society for the Study of French History conference in Durham on the theme of History and the senses.

Looking ahead to 2015

The annual BSECS conference in January at St Hugh’s College, Oxford is on the theme of Riots, Rebellions and Revolutions.

The VF co-funds an annual travel prize.

The Voltaire Foundation's stand at the Colonial Williamsburg ASECS

The Voltaire Foundation’s stand at the Colonial Williamsburg ASECS

Many of us will be attending the next ISECS conference in July in Rotterdam on the theme of Opening Markets, Trade and Commerce in the Eighteenth Century. Founded by Theodore Besterman (who also founded the VF), this will be the 50th anniversary conference (and then for 2019 the ISECS conference returns to Scotland, where it started).

Will you be at any of these events? If so, please do get in touch via the comments or by emailing email@voltaire.ox.ac.uk – as always we’d love to hear from you!


How to solve a problem like papa

Sometimes the Voltaire Foundation’s infamous ‘yellow folders’ throw up complete mysteries! The job of the researcher thus resembles that of the detective. And just as detectives now use technology, the advances of digital humanities allow researchers to investigate cold cases by previously unavailable means.

Housed in the bowels of the VF, the yellow folder is the gathering of potentially useful information compiled over the years in advance of the preparation of a volume of the Complete Works of Voltaire. Volume 83’s folder contained a photocopy of the following verse, a manuscript in the hand of Voltaire:

Pour vous, Papa, j’ai tenté l’impossible

Ma voix est fausse & n’a pu vous chanter

Mes vers sont durs, mais mon cœur est sensible,

Seul avec vous il pourra m’acquitter

The editors of this volume – which is entirely devoted to Voltaire’s undated verse – were thus given to believe these four lines should be considered for inclusion in Voltaire’s undated poetry. Yet the incipit does not exist in any bibliographical source.

A simple Google search for ‘Pour vous, Papa, j’ai tenté l’impossible’ offers no clues. Search engines are of no use for combinations of the other verse either. Until, that is, one accommodates for the imperfections of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) that Google uses to search un-encoded text. As readers of gothic script know, ‘f’ and ‘s’ are often confused – OCR makes this same confusion. So a revised search term of ‘mes vers font durs’ was entered into Google (other search engines are available!) Result!

The verse appeared in the Courier du Bas-Rhin on Wednesday 27 October 1767 (no. 35, p. 278). Here, it is stated that the verse is by M. Dupuis, who ‘présenta ensuite ces vers à M. de Voltaire’ on the evening of the 3rd October 1767, the eve of ‘saint François’, Voltaire’s saint’s day fête (François-Marie).

The verse is thus by Dupuis, who is described in the footnotes of the Courier du Bas-Rhin as a former Cornet of Dragoons. This is Pierre-Jacques Dupuits de Maconnex, later Pierre-Jacques-Claude Dupuits de La Chaux (1739[?]-1805[?]). This Dupuis (also Dupuits, Dupuit) married Corneille’s ‘niece’ – Voltaire’s ‘adopted daughter’ – Marie-Françoise Corneille on 9 February 1763. Voltaire refers to Dupuis as his ‘gendre’ (son-in-law) in the Correspondence (D10956). Thus the ‘Papa’ in the poem is Voltaire, and not Voltaire’s own father.

The only remaining mystery, then, is how this came to be with a collection of autograph poems of Voltaire. The manuscript has an inscription which reads MA635. An expert at the VF identified this as a Pierpont Morgan shelfmark. The extremely helpful staff at the Pierpont Morgan Library (New York) confirmed that this poem was held in a collection with other autograph poems by Voltaire which were recited that evening (and are now published in OCV, vol.63b, p.591). One can only hypothesise that Voltaire was touched enough by the verse his ‘son-in-law’ had composed for him that he thought it worthy of being recorded for posterity, or indeed a report to the Courrier du Bas-Rhin, or other intermediate journal, such as the Correspondance littéraire, where other poems from the fête of 4 October 1767, but not Pour vous, papa, appeared in the edition of 15 October 1767.

And thus the case is closed!

–Nick Treuherz