Voltaire and the Jacobites

Battle of Culloden

An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745 (The Battle of Culloden), by David Morier, 1746, image Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire had long-running and complicated relationships with the Jacobites, the supporters of the exiled Stuarts, the Catholic dynasty which was overthrown and replaced by the Protestant William of Orange in 1688. Towards the largest Jacobite émigré community in France, the Irish, he showed the same lack of sympathy that he extended to Ireland in general.  He was much better disposed towards the Scots Jacobites, as shown in the description of the ’45 rebellion included in his Précis du Siècle de Louis XV.  In the course of that famous uprising, Voltaire had gone so far as to write a manifesto for Bonnie Prince Charlie (grandson of the deposed James II), although his motives had more to do with a desire to ingratiate himself with the French government than with affection for the Stuarts.  He later befriended the Scottish Jacobite exile Field Marshall Keith, whose eulogy he wrote in 1758.  He was less positive towards the Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsay, a Scots convert to Catholicism and follower of Fénelon who once tutored Prince Charles Edward Stuart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’).  Voltaire sniffed at Ramsay as a plagiarist.

Whatever his reactions to individual Jacobite exiles, Voltaire never dismissed Jacobitism as backward or despotic.  His positive attitude may have been shaped by his early friendships with Viscount Bolingbroke, an exiled Tory minister who was attracted to Jacobitism at various phases of his long career, and bishop Atterbury of Rochester.  Bolingbroke welcomed Voltaire to his house at La Source near Orléans in December 1722.  The Viscount admired the young French poet, but warned him to restrain the influence of his imagination.  Bolingbroke also consulted Alexander Pope on the merits of Voltaire’s pirated epic, La Ligue, the first version of La Henriade.  The image of King Henry IV of France presented in that poem may have appealed to Bolingbroke, who had tried in vain to persuade the Stuart claimant, James III, to change his religion in order to gain a throne.

Voltaire may not have met Atterbury before 1728, but he knew of him through his close correspondent Thieriot, who was friendly with the exiled Tory bishop and Jacobite conspirator.  In spite of his orthodox Anglican piety Atterbury was fascinated by Voltaire.  Two of Atterbury’s French literary associates, the abbé Granet and the abbé Desfontaines, translated into French works that Voltaire wrote while living in England.  Desfontaines included a brief tribute to Atterbury in his translation.

Henry St John (1678–1751), 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, Baron St John of Lydiard Tregoze, by Jonathan Richardson the elder, image Lydiard House.

Voltaire’s English friends did him little good during his sojourn in England from 1726 to 1728.  Bolingbroke had already returned to his homeland, and to opposition politics.  Through the newspaper The Craftsman he became the chief critic of ‘ministerial despotism’.  For his part, Pope was about to publish the Dunciad, a stinging attack on the Walpole administration.  Although Voltaire tried to work his way into governing Whig circles, and received a grant of £200 from George II’s personal revenues in 1727, he kept making the wrong political connections.  Much of his last year in England was spent in the houses of the Tory Earl Bathurst, an associate of Atterbury, and the Earl of Peterborough, a retired general who was disdained by the Whig establishment. Peterborough introduced Voltaire to Dr John Freind, a Jacobite physician who had participated in the Atterbury Plot of 1722.  These were not men who could do Voltaire much good with the government.  Although he was able to publish La Henriade by subscription, Voltaire had little success in finding wider patronage in England.  Tellingly, although he met the Duke of Richmond, a leading Whig Freemason, he was not initiated into the Masonic brotherhood, unlike Montesquieu and the Chevalier Ramsay.

After his return to France in 1728 Voltaire’s friendship with Atterbury became closer.  In 1731 he placed a glowing reference to ‘the learned bishop of Rochester’ into his play Brutus, which was dedicated to Bolingbroke.  Atterbury’s former secretary, the Nonjuror Thomas Carte, smuggled copies of La Henriade into France in 1728-1729, which he distributed through Desfontaines.  Carte, a friend of Ramsay and admirer of the abbé de St Pierre, was engaged on a Latin edition of Jacques Auguste de Thou’s history of the French religious wars.  Voltaire idolized de Thou.  Jacobites like Carte and Atterbury, and ex-Jacobites like Bolingbroke, were beginning to see themselves as defenders of constitutional liberty against the rule of tyrannical ministers and greedy ‘moneyed men’.  Voltaire may have appealed to them as a champion of free expression and an enemy of despotism.

Voltaire’s own account of England in his Lettres sur les Anglais (later known as Lettres Philosophiques), published in English in 1733 as Letters concerning the English Nation, rejects the anger of his Tory and Jacobite friends by praising the freedom, tolerance and prosperity of the Whig regime.  Doubtless Voltaire was trying to gain the favour of the pro-Whig administration of Cardinal Fleury.  He may also have been encouraging his disgruntled English acquaintances to accept the changes that had happened in their own country.  Yet he also gave the only truly political voice in the book to a Jacobite Member of Parliament, William Shippen.  In evoking a speech by Shippen praising ‘the Majesty of the English People’, Voltaire may have rendered a small gesture of respect to the principles of those alienated Tories and Jacobites from whom he would never entirely disassociate himself.

– Paul Monod, Middlebury College


Voltaire and the one-liner

To mark the publication at Oxford University Press of his new book ‘Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction’, a contribution to their Very Short Introductions series, Nicholas Cronk has written the following post about the wit and wisdom of Voltaire for the OUP Blog.

Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Cronk is published by Oxford University Press.

As we mark Voltaire’s 323rd birthday – though the date of 20 February is problematic, – what significance does the great Enlightenment writer have for us now? If I had to be very very short, I’d say that Voltaire lives on as a master of the one-liner. He presents us with a paradox. Voltaire wrote a huge amount – the definitive edition of his Complete works being produced by the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford will soon be finished, in around 200 volumes. And yet he is really famous for his short sentences. He likes being brief, though as a critic once remarked, “Voltaire is interminably brief.”

Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, is full of telling phrases. “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?” asks Candide in Chapter 6. The expression “best of all possible worlds” comes originally from the philosopher Leibniz, but it is Voltaire’s repeated use of the phrase in Candide that has made it instantly familiar today. Another saying from the novel was an instant hit with French readers: in Chapter 16, Candide and his manservant Cacambo, travelling in the New World dressed as Jesuits, fall into the hands of cannibals who exclaim triumphantly: “Mangeons du jésuite” (“Let’s eat some Jesuit”): the Jesuits were highly unpopular in France at this time, and the expression instantly became a catch-phrase.

One French expression from Candide has even become proverbial in English. In 1756, the British lost Minorca to the French, as a result of which Admiral Byng was court-martialled and executed. Voltaire has fun with this in Chapter 23:

‘And why kill this admiral?’
‘Because he didn’t kill enough people,’ Candide was told. ‘He gave battle to a French admiral, and it has been found that he wasn’t close enough.’
‘But,’ said Candide, ‘the French admiral was just as far away from the English admiral as he was from him!’
‘Unquestionably,’ came the reply. ‘But in this country it is considered a good thing to kill an admiral from time to time, pour encourager les autres.’

Painting of Voltaire by Bouchot.

Voltaire. After a painting, by Bouchot No. 539. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire’s other writings are equally full of pithy and memorable short sentences, which often help him drive home a point, such as this, from his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie: “L’espèce humaine est la seule qui sache qu’elle doit mourir” (“The human species is unique in knowing it must die”).

Other lines, like this one from his poem about luxury, Le Mondain, “Le superflu, chose très nécessaire” (“The superfluous, a very necessary thing”) are all the more memorable for being in verse. Voltaire’s facility for producing snappy phrases is even there in his private correspondence, as this letter to his friend Damilaville (1 April 1766): “Quand la populace se mêle de raisonner, tout est perdu” (“When the masses get involved in reasoning, everything is lost”).

And one phrase that still resonates with us comes from a private notebook that Voltaire surely never intended to publish: “Dieu n’est pas pour les gros bataillons, mais pour ceux qui tirent le mieux” (“God is on the side not of the heavy battalions, but of the best shots”).

Then there are the ones that got away, the one-liners he never actually said – ‘misquotations’ in the parlance of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Hardly a week passes without a newspaper quoting “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire’s rallying cry of free speech is central to our modern liberal agenda, so it’s a bit awkward that he never actually said it. The expression was made up in 1906 by an English woman, biographer E. B. Hall. But she meant well, and we have collectively decided that Voltaire should have said it. Another advantage of Voltaire’s one-liners is that they provide great marketing copy, and a quick search on the web reveals that many of them are for sale, on t-shirts, shopping-bags, and mugs. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is especially popular, in French as well as English – which explains my favourite t-shirt: “Je me battrai jusqu’à ma mort pour que vous puissiez citer erronément Voltaire” (“I will fight to my death so that you can quote Voltaire incorrectly”).

Luckily, wit is contagious. There is a famous one-liner in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, when the servant Figaro imagines addressing his aristocratic master: “Vous vous êtes donné la peine de naître, et rien de plus” (“You took the trouble to be born, and nothing more”). This has become so celebrated that we have forgotten that Beaumarchais was only improving on a less snappy one-liner he had found in one of Voltaire’s more obscure comedies. George Bernard Shaw, a self-styled follower of Voltaire, has fun with misattributed sayings in Man and Superman:

Tanner: Let me remind you that Voltaire said that what was too silly to be said could be sung.
Straker: It wasn’t Voltaire. It was Bow Mar Shay.
Tanner: I stand corrected: Beaumarchais of course.

And so we go on inventing Voltaire. Another dictum that has recently gained wide currency on the web is this: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

Now regularly attributed to Voltaire, this saying seems to originate with something written in 1993 by Kevin Alfred Strom, an American neo-Nazi Holocaust denier, and not a man who obviously exudes Voltairean wit and irony. But once you become an authority, it seems, all sides have a claim on you.

The one-liner can seem a good way of encapsulating a truth: “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” (“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”).

Voltaire knew he was on to a winner with this line, from a poem of 1768 (the Epître à l’auteur du livre des trois imposteurs), and he re-used it often in later works. Another much-repeated phrase occurs at the end of Candide. When the characters finally come together, after umpteen trials and tribulations, all argument is silenced with the words “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (“We must cultivate our garden”). Is this a precious nugget of wisdom, neatly encapsulated? Or is it just another “Brexit means Brexit”, a trite phrase meaning anything and nothing? But that, of course, is another use of the one-liner: to maintain suspense, while bringing down the curtain at the end….

– Nicholas Cronk

This post first appeared on the OUP Blog.

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.


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


Leibniz: before and after Pangloss

Writing in 1751, Voltaire celebrated and yearned for the vibrancy of the previous decades when Europe had seemingly experienced an intellectual renaissance. This golden age, the ‘Age of Louis XIV’, as he came to term it in his eponymous historical work (the Siècle de Louis XIV), had surpassed all previous centuries in terms of the various discoveries and institutions it had helped foster in the sciences and the arts. These, unlike political matters, would stand the test of time and forever attest to the capacities of human reason.

During this period, Voltaire wrote, ‘the human mind made the greatest progress’ [1], ‘[acquiring] throughout Europe greater lights than in all the ages that preceded it’, mainly through the tireless and often anonymous labours of several geniuses who, spread across Europe, ‘[had] enlightened and comforted the world during the wars that spread desolation through it’. This ‘Republic of Letters’ had gradually imposed itself throughout Europe, oblivious to the religious and political schisms that had torn it apart: ‘The arts and sciences, all of them thus received mutual assistance from each other, and the academies helped to form this republic […] the truly learned of every denomination have strengthened the band of this great society of geniuses, which is universally diffused, and everywhere independent’.

Even though this network’s influence had considerably waned in Voltaire’s time, it had subsisted over the years bringing comfort to mankind over the ‘evils which ambition and politics scatter through the world’.

G. W. Leibniz, copy of a portrait by an unknown artist, originally produced for Johann Bernoulli 1711 (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek)

G. W. Leibniz, copy of a portrait by an unknown artist, originally produced for Johann Bernoulli 1711 (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek)

Ironically enough for the future author of Candide (1759) and creator of the infamous character Dr Pangloss, it was none other than the German thinker Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), ‘perhaps a man of the most universal learning in Europe’, who had animated the universal network of communication that underpinned the intellectual revolution that had taken place decades earlier. Indeed, through Leibniz’s intervention, ‘there never was a more universal correspondence kept between philosophers than at this period’.

Already as a young man, steadily expanding his network of correspondents, Leibniz prided himself on having entered into literary commerce with many of the most learned scholars in Europe. In a letter of August 1671 to Peter Lambeck, historian and librarian at the Imperial Court in Vienna, he highlights the wide geographical distribution of his network, listing the most notable names according to country – Athanasius Kircher and Francesco de Lana in Italy, Otto von Guericke and Hermann Conring in Germany, the royal librarian Pierre de Carcavi, Louis Ferrand, and others in France, Henry Oldenburg and John Wallis in England, Johann Georg Graevius and Lambert van Velthuysen in the Low Countries, and so on.

Leibniz chose his correspondents purposefully. By establishing an epistolary commerce with the secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, in 1670, at an early stage in his career, Leibniz sought entry into the leading scientific institution of his day. Moreover, he was successful in this enterprise, producing within a year a new physical hypothesis dealing with many of the concerns of the London virtuosi at the time.

In the case of Antoine Arnauld, he sought to subject his philosophical ideas to the scrutiny and criticism of one of France’s most astute thinkers who was also a leading Catholic theologian. Since Leibniz was, alongside his various other projects, seeking to bring about Christian reconciliation, he was additionally able to test the acceptability of his irenic theses to the Roman Catholic Church through his discourse with Arnauld.

As with Arnauld, Leibniz first met the scholar Simon Foucher during his momentous stay in Paris from 1672 to 1676. He valued the sagacity Foucher had displayed in his opposition to Malebranche’s philosophy and used the medium of their correspondence to air some of his own fundamental metaphysical ideas. Foucher for his part kept Leibniz, now living in provincial Hanover, abreast of intellectual news from Paris and in particular of members of his French circle of friends – scholars such as the churchman Pierre Daniel Huet, the editor of the Journal des savants, Jean Gallois, and Melchisédech Thévenot, an important figure in the foundation of the Académie royale des Sciences.

Already in his new physical hypothesis, Leibniz had declared the improvement of the human condition to be ‘the sole aim of philosophy’. His groundbreaking work in diverse fields such as mathematics (where alongside Newton he was the inventor of the calculus), logic, engineering, geology, and the biological sciences, and his promotion of the need for scientific academies in Berlin, Dresden, Vienna, and St Petersburg in which theoretical investigations could be combined with practical considerations, all fall within the overall compass of improving life. The Berlin Academy bears to this day the Leibnizian motto ‘Theoria cum praxi’.

Title page of Essais de Theodicée, Amsterdam, 1710

Title page of Essais de Theodicée, Amsterdam, 1710

While Voltaire’s scathing criticism of his philosophy, particularly the doctrine put forward in the Théodicée that this is ‘the best of all possible worlds’, appeared difficult to answer against the backdrop of natural disasters such as the Lisbon earthquake (1755), much of Leibniz’s scientific and technological thought has been of tremendous prescience and significance – although sometimes only identified as such comparatively recently. His work on a calculating machine based on the binary system anticipated our modern day computers, his ideas on insurance and fiscal policy were designed to ensure a greater degree of protection and justice for the population, mathematical papers on determinants and combinatorics were years ahead of their time. And as his extensive surviving papers and letters are steadily edited in the critical Academy Edition, more wonders of this nature are expected.

– Audrey Borowski and Philip Beeley

[1] All quotations are from the Siècle de Louis XIV, chapter 34, ‘Des Beaux-Arts en Europe du temps de Louis XIV’. Translations are from The Works of M. de Voltaire. Translated from the French, by T. Smollett, T. Francklin and others, 36 vol. (London, 1761-1765), vol.9 (1761), p.152-62.

Voltaire’s three birthdays and a feast day

A seventeenth-century drawing of the Church of Saint-André-des-Arts where Voltaire was christened in November 1694. The church was demolished in the nineteenth century. Source: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b103027821/f1.item.r=église%20saint%20andré%20des%20arts

A seventeenth-century drawing of the Church of Saint-André-des-Arts where Voltaire was christened in November 1694. The church was demolished in the nineteenth century. Source: Gallica.

In November 1694, François-Marie Arouet, later to make his name as Voltaire, was christened at the Church of Saint-André-des-Arts in Paris – and there any certainty surrounding his earliest life ends.[1]

The official version, based on a now lost parish register, is that he was born the day before his christening, in Paris, to Marie-Marguerite and François Arouet. The dates of his birth and christening are usually given as 21 and 22 November 1694.[2] When the young François-Marie was arrested in May 1717 for writing verse against the regent, he stated that he was twenty-two, from Paris, and that his father was ‘payeur de M. de la chambre des comptes’.[3] Voltaire signed at least three official documents between 1749 and 1776 which give his date of birth as 21 November.[4]

An alternative story is that Voltaire was born nine months earlier, on 20 February 1694, at Châtenay outside Paris, the illegitimate son of Marie-Marguerite and a certain Rochebrune or Roquebrune. Voltaire had a clear preference for this less mundane version of events, except that he himself does not ever seem to have claimed to have been born anywhere but Paris. His letters to Antoine Deparcieux of 17 June 1768 or to his very close friend d’Argental of 18 May 1774 refer to Paris as the town where he was born. In his 1769 Epître à Boileau he states that he was born near the Palace of justice.[5] It was Condorcet, in his 1789 biography for the Kehl edition, who first named Châtenay as Voltaire’s place of birth. Voltaire’s earlier biographer, Duvernet, merely stated that he was not born in the parish of Saint-André-des-Arts. Whether or not Voltaire was born in Châtenay, where Arouet senior later bought a house, he certainly lived there in 1718 after leaving the Bastille and being banished from Paris, and it was here that he first signed a letter ‘Arouet de Voltaire’.

Photograph taken by Eugène Atget in Châtenay in 1901. Note the niche on the roof with a bust of Voltaire and the words ‘Voltaire né à Chatenay’. Source: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b105194234/f1.item

Photograph taken by Eugène Atget in Châtenay in 1901. Note the niche on the roof with a bust of Voltaire and the words ‘Voltaire né à Chatenay’. Source: Gallica.

The same building on Google maps. The words words ‘né à Chatenay’ have disappeared from the niche. Source: https://www.google.co.uk/maps/@48.7663855,2.2793327,3a,60y,163.07h,84.58t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1skRIGFHN1JFI9tqw7n9kq-Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

The same building today. The words ‘né à Chatenay’ have disappeared from the niche. Visit Châtenay with Google maps.

Very little is known about Voltaire’s putative father. Rochebrune is described as a ‘chansonnier’ (song-writer), socialising around 1710 with the literati of the day.[6] Voltaire refers to himself as ‘Rochebrune’s bastard’ in a 1744 letter to his old friend the duc de Richelieu.[7] In the summer of 1753, when he was suffering from ‘dropsy’, he told his niece Mme Denis in two separate letters that he could remember Rochebrune in the same state, unable to even write a song, that Rochebrune died of dropsy and that he himself has reason to believe that he took after him.[8] A second-hand report of a conversation between Voltaire and his nieces in front of ‘one or two guests’ in 1756 has him asserting that D’Alembert must be Fontenelle’s son as surely as he himself is Rochebrune’s.[9] When his nieces protest, Voltaire retorts that ‘it did more honour to his mother that she had preferred a man of wit such as Roquebrune, a musketeer, officer and author’, to her husband, ‘who was a very ordinary man’.

Published in 1776, two years before Voltaire’s death, the autobiographical (though written in the third person) Commentaire historique does not touch upon his possible illegitimacy, but does give two possible dates of birth, without settling for either: ‘Some maintain that François de Voltaire was born on 20 February 1694; others that it was on 20 November that same year [i.e. a day earlier than generally assumed]. We have medals of him that bear both dates; he told me several times that when he was born no-one thought he would live; and that having been given a private emergency baptism, the ceremony of his baptism was deferred by several months’. In manuscript notes to various copies of the Commentaire historique, Voltaire’s secretary Wagnière claims to have seen an ‘extrait de baptême’ recording Voltaire’s birth on 20 November and his christening on 21 November.[10]

Waechter’s 1770 portrait medal of Voltaire gives his date of birth as ‘le XX février MDCXCIV’ (National Museum of Finland). Voltaire objected to the long pointy nose (letter to Collini of 4 September 1770). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:F._M._Voltaire,_France,_1770,_G._C._Waechter_-_National_Museum_of_Finland_-_DSC04062.JPG

Wächter’s 1770 portrait medal of Voltaire gives his date of birth as ‘le XX février MDCXCIV’ (National Museum of Finland). Voltaire objected to the long pointy nose (letter to Collini of 4 September 1770). Source: Wikimedia commons.

The medals referred to must be the ones designed by Georg Christoph Wächter in 1769 and 1770. Interestingly, there is no mention in the correspondence of a wrong date of birth on the earlier medal (I am still searching for an example of it). The second version certainly gives Voltaire’s preferred date of 20 February 1694.

However, Voltaire did write at least seven letters between 1765 and 1768 bemoaning a print portrait that gave his date of birth as 20 November 1694. On 20 February 1765 he wrote to his friend Damilaville: ‘Today I am entering my seventy-second year, for I was born in 1694, on 20 February and not on 20 November as ill-informed commentators like to say’. He wrote in similar terms to to his former secretary Collini that same day and to the duc de Richelieu a week later. He repeated this claim to Damilaville on 10 May: ‘There is, they say, an engraving after the bust by Lemoine, that looked fairly like me a few years ago. It can be found at Joulin’s, quai de la Mégisserie; it is true that the print lies a bit; it has me being born on 20 November 1694 and I was born on 20 February’; and again on 20 February 1767. It was the duc de La Vallière’s turn the next day and D’Alembert on 23 March 1768. Unfortunately, as with the Wächter medals, I have been unable to find a version of this engraving giving Voltaire’s date of birth as 20 November 1694. Perhaps a kind reader will point me in the right direction…


‘François, Marie, Arouet, de Voltaire. Né a Paris le 21 Novembre 1694. Gravé par Aug. St Aubin d’après le buste fait par J. B. Lemoyne. Se vend à Paris Chez Joulain Quai de la Megisserie.’ Did an earlier version give the date 20 November?

On 1 January 1777, Voltaire was still railing against his official date of birth, this time to d’Argental: ‘Were it true according to a damned baptismal certificate that I was born in 1694 in November, you would still have to grant me that I am in my eighty-third year’.

Faced with such a profusion of dates, one could do worse than pick a completely different one on which to celebrate Voltaire. Nick Treuherz has already written on this blog about a short poem penned for Voltaire’s feast day, ‘la saint-François’, on 4 October 1767. The Correspondance littéraire described the celebrations: poems, plays, fireworks, dinner and a ball at which the patriarch reportedly danced until two in the morning.

– Alice

[1] This blog post is deeply indebted to the great biography Voltaire en son temps in which anyone interested in this subject can find further information.

[2] This date of birth is frequently accepted without question. See for example the OUP blog post on ‘Voltaire’s love letters’.

[3] See ‘Interrogatoire du sr Harrouet fils prisonnnier à la Bastille 21 may 1717’, published as an appendix to Theodore Besterman’s edition of Voltaire’s correspondence (D.app.5.III).

[4] ‘Voltaire buys annuities on the tobacco monopoly, 1749’ (D.app.94); ‘Voltaire gives a power of attorney, September 1773’ (D.app.385.IV); and ‘Voltaire and Wagnière given certificats de vie, October-November 1776’ (D.app.475).

[5] ‘Dans la cour du palais, je naquis ton voisin’ (OCV, vol.70A, p.210).

[6] In the 1738 Vie de Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Rousseau: ‘Il y avait alors à Paris un café assez fameux, où s’assemblaient plusieurs amateurs des belles-lettres, des philosophes, des musiciens, des peintres, des poètes. M. de Fontenelle y venait quelquefois, M. de La Motte, M. Saurin, fameux géomètre, M. Danchet, poète assez méprisé, mais d’ailleurs homme de lettres et honnête homme, l’abbé Alazy, fils d’un fameux apothicaire, garçon fort savant, M. Boindin, procureur général des Trésoriers de France, M. de La Faye, capitaine aux gardes, de l’Académie des sciences; M. son frère, mort secrétaire du cabinet, homme délié et qui faisait de jolis vers, le sieur Roy, depuis chassé de l’Académie des inscriptions et du Châtelet, où il était conseiller, mais qui avait quelques talents pour les ballets, le sieur de Rochebrune, qui faisait des chansons; enfin plusieurs lettrés s’y rendaient tous les jours. Là, on examinait avec beaucoup de sévérité, et quelquefois avec des railleries fort amères, tous les ouvrages nouveaux. ¶On faisait des épigrammes, des chansons fort jolies. C’était une école d’esprit, dans laquelle il y avait un peu de licence’ (OCV, vol.18A, p.38-39).

[7] ‘Je crains bien qu’en cherchant de l’esprit et des traits, / Le bâtard de Rochebrune / Ne fatigue et n’importune / Le successeur d’Armand et les esprits bien faits’ (Voltaire to the duc de Richelieu, 8 June 1744). Curiously, Richelieu seems also to have thought himself illegitimate. See Voltaire’s letter to Mme de Fontaine of 8 January 1756, and his letters to Richelieu of 10 October and 3 December 1769.

[8] Letters of 15 July 1753 and 11 August 1753. Twenty-five years later, at the end of his life, Voltaire was still describing dropsy as a family illness. See his letter to Théodore Trochin of 27 February 1778.

[9] Letter from Jean Louis Dupan to Suzanne Catherine Freudenreich of 15 August 1756.

[10] To be published in OCV, vol.78B.

Of Voltaire’s London years and the Lettres sur les Anglais

Thanks to support from the AHRC for the publication of one of the iconic texts of the Enlightenment, Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques, a.k.a. Lettres sur les Anglais (1733, published in English the same year under the title Letters concerning the English nation), the Voltaire Foundation launched both online and offline events this summer.

First page of the preface to the Letters concerning the English nation (London, 1733), the first edition of Voltaire’s text to be published.

First page of the preface to the Letters concerning the English nation (London, 1733), the first edition of Voltaire’s text to be published.

On 27 September Professor Nicholas Cronk gave a talk entitled ‘Voltaire in London: Cultural life in the 1720s’, hosted at the Handel House Museum in London. Handel lived at 25 Brook Street in Mayfair from 1723 to 1759; Voltaire, for his part, was lodging at a rather less smart address in Soho in the latter part of the 1720s. We do not know if Handel and Voltaire ever met, but both men made significant contributions to the cosmopolitan cultural life of London in the 1720s.

Voltaire was in his early thirties and already a well-known poet when he came to London to launch a subscription to publish La Henriade, an epic poem glorifying King Henri IV of France, which touches upon the evils of religious fanaticism, among other topics. Originally, he had hoped to get permission to have it published in France with a dedication to the young Louis XV, but the subject matter of his poem was such that permission was not granted. Voltaire decided to go to London to have it published by Huguenot printers, free from censorship, and the book was dedicated to Queen Caroline.

Voltaire settled at the White Perruke on Maiden Lane in Soho, in a Huguenot area of the capital where French was widely spoken and which extended to Spitalfields. He stayed in London for two and a half years and taught himself English. He was a regular visitor at the Drury Lane theatre, where he discovered Shakespeare. He read Gulliver’s Travels in English and attended an early performance of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera.

Voltaire read Addison’s Spectator, a publication whose tone and format was to prove a big influence on his own Lettres philosophiques. He met Pope, Gray and Swift, and was instrumental in popularizing Newton’s ideas in France. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1743.

(Bodleian Library, University of Oxford)

(Bodleian Library, University of Oxford)

Interestingly, an exhibition of waxworks organised on the Strand not long after Voltaire’s death featured an effigy of ‘that justly admired French genius’ who had been ‘in his lifetime an intimate friend to Pope, Congreve and Young’ – testament to the lasting impact of his stay in London many decades earlier.

Thanks to the AHRC grant, the Voltaire Foundation also commissioned Oxford DPhil student Cameron Quinn to write ‘Stories around the Lettres sur les Anglais’ for our website. This resource provides background information about the Lettres and their importance as a seminal text for the Enlightenment, and sheds light on the reasons that drove Voltaire to spend two years of his life in England; it also gives an overview of the political, as well as economic and cultural, situation in England during the years Voltaire lived here.

Thematic pages focus on several key topics that were important for society in general or to Voltaire in particular at the time the Lettres were written, and they also offer links to relevant websites. The themes covered are immensely varied in scope; they include, among others, religion, poetry, the Newtonian revolution, the English adoption of the practice of inoculation, and the question of the soul.

These webpages can be a resource for those without much prior knowledge of the wider historic or cultural contexts of the time, or of the issues at stake.

We hope our readers will enjoy this ‘rough guide’ to the Lettres sur les Anglais and the historical context in which they were written!

– Clare Fletcher

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

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

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

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

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

Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet.

Nicolas-Charles-Joseph Trublet.

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

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

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

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

– Ruggero Sciuto

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