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Does Enlightenment differ around the globe?  Or is it the same, but just in different countries?  Or is it something else?

ben_franklin-1Benjamin Franklin was influential in America, England, Scotland, and France, for his political activism and for his advances in physics.

Many of the leading universities associated Enlightenment progressive principles were located in northern Europe, with the most renowned being the universities of Leiden, Göttingen, Halle, Montpellier, Uppsala and Edinburgh. These universities, especially Edinburgh, produced professors whose ideas had a significant impact on Britain’s North American colonies and, later, the American Republic. Within the natural sciences Edinburgh’s medical also led the way in chemistry, anatomy and pharmacology. In general the universities and schools of France and most of Europe were bastions of traditionalism and were not hospitable to the Enlightenment. In France the major exception was the medical university at Montpellier.

The history of Academies in France during the Enlightenment begins with the Academy of Science, founded in 1666 in Paris. It was closely tied to the French state, acting as an extension of a government seriously lacking in scientists. It helped promote and organize new disciplines, and it trained new scientists. It also contributed to the enhancement of scientists’ social status, and considered them to be the “most useful of all citizens”. Academies demonstrate the rising interest in science along with its increasing secularization, as evidenced by the small number of clerics who were members (13 percent).

The presence of the French academies in the public sphere cannot be attributed to their membership; although the majority of their members were bourgeois, the exclusive institution was only open to elite Parisian scholars. They did perceive themselves to be “interpreters of the sciences for the people”. Indeed, it was with this in mind that academians took it upon themselves to disprove the popular pseudo-science of mesmerism.  However, the strongest case for the French Academies’ being part of the public sphere comes from the concours académiques (roughly translated as ‘academic contests’) they sponsored throughout France.

L’Academie francaise revived a practice dating back to the Middle Ages when it revived public contests in the mid-17th century. The subject matter was generally religious and/or monarchical, and featured essays, poetry, and painting. By roughly 1725, however, this subject matter had radically expanded and diversified, including “royal propaganda, philosophical battles, and critical ruminations on the social and political institutions of the Old Regime.” Controversial topics were not always avoided.

More importantly, the contests were open to all, and the enforced anonymity of each submission guaranteed that neither gender nor social rank would determine the judging. Indeed, although the “vast majority” of participants belonged to the wealthier strata of society (“the liberal arts, the clergy, the judiciary, and the medical profession”), there were some cases of the popular classes submitting essays, and even winning.   Similarly, a significant number of women participated – and won – the competitions. Of a total of 2 300 prize competitions offered in France, women won 49 – perhaps a small number by modern standards, but very significant in an age in which most women did not have any academic training. Indeed, the majority of the winning entries were for poetry competitions, a genre commonly stressed in women’s education.

The increased consumption of reading materials of all sorts was one of the key features of the “social” Enlightenment. Developments in the Industrial Revolution allowed consumer goods to be produced in greater quantities at lower prices, encouraging the spread of books, pamphlets, newspapers and journals – “media of the transmission of ideas and attitudes”. Commercial development likewise increased the demand for information, along with rising populations and increased urbanization. However, demand for reading material extended outside of the realm of the commercial, and outside the realm of the upper and middle classes, as evidenced by the Bibliotheque Bleue.  Of course, the vast majority of the reading public could not afford to own a private library. And while most of the state-run “universal libraries” set up in the 17th and 18th centuries were open to the public, they were not the only sources of reading material.

All across continental Europe, but in France especially, booksellers and publishers had to negotiate censorship laws of varying strictness. The Encyclopédie narrowly escaped seizure and had to be saved by the person in charge of the French censure. Indeed, many publishing companies were conveniently located outside of France so as to avoid overzealous French censors. They would smuggle their merchandise – both pirated copies and censured works – across the border, where it would then be transported to clandestine booksellers or small-time peddlers.

 Readers were far more interested in sensationalist stories about criminals and political corruption than they were in political theory itself. The second most popular category, “general works” (those books “that did not have a dominant motif and that contained something to offend almost everyone in authority”) likewise betrayed the high demand for generally low-brow subversive literature. Nevertheless, the Enlightenment was not the exclusive domain of illegal literature, as evidenced by the healthy, and mostly legal, publishing industry that existed throughout Europe. “Mostly legal” because even established publishers and book sellers occasionally ran afoul of the law. The Encyclopédie, for example, condemned not only by the King but also by Clement XII, nevertheless found its way into print with the help of the Malesherbes and creative use of French censorship law.

But many works were sold without running into any legal trouble at all. Borrowing records from libraries in England, Germany and North America indicate that more than 70 percent of books borrowed were novels; that less than 1 percent of the books were of a religious nature supports a general trend of declining religiosity.

The target audience of natural history was French polite society, evidenced more by the specific discourse of the genre than by the generally high prices of its works. Naturalists catered to polite society’s desire for erudition – many texts had an explicit instructive purpose. But the idea of taste (le goût) was the real social indicator: to truly be able to categorize nature, one had to have the proper taste, an ability of discretion shared by all members of polite society. In this way natural history spread many of the scientific development of the time, but also provided a new source of legitimacy for the dominant class.

Outside ancient régime France, natural history was an important part of medicine and industry, encompassing the fields of botany, mineralogy, zoology, meteorology, hydrology and mineralogy. Students in Enlightenment universities and academies were taught these subjects to prepare them for careers as diverse as medicine and theology.  The many scientific and literary journals (predominantly composed of book reviews) that were published during this time are also evidence of the intellectual side of the Enlightenment. In fact, Jonathan Israel argues that the learned journals, from the 1680s onwards, influenced European intellectual culture to a greater degree than any other “cultural innovation.”

The first journal appeared in 1665– the Parisian Journal des Scavans – but it was not until 1682 that periodicals began to be more widely produced. French and Latin were the dominant languages of publication, but there was also a steady demand for material in German and Dutch. There was generally low demand for English publications on the Continent, which was echoed by England’s similar lack of desire for French works. Languages commanding less of an international market – such as Danish, Spanish and Portuguese – found journal success more difficult, and more often than not, a more international language was used instead. Although German did have an international quality to it, it was French that slowly took over Latin’s status as the lingua franca of learned circles. This in turn gave precedence to the publishing industry in Holland, where the vast majority of these French language periodicals were produced.

Israel divides the journals’ intellectual importance into four elements. First was their role in shifting the attention of the “cultivated public” away from “established authorities” to “what was new, innovative, or challenging.” Secondly, they did much to promote the “‘enlightened’ ideals of toleration and intellectual objectivity.” Thirdly, the journals were an implicit critique of existing notions of universal truth monopolized by monarchies, parliaments, and religious authorities. The journals suggested a new source of knowledge – through science and reason – that undermined these sources of authority. And finally, they advanced Christian enlightenment that upheld “the legitimacy of God-ordained authority”—the Bible—in which there had to be agreement between the biblical and natural theories.

 Kathy Kiefer

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