The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe

By James Van Horn Melton | Go to book overview
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Women in public: enlightenment salons

The salon occupied a distinctive place in Enlightenment culture. In contrast to other institutions of the Enlightenment public sphere, it revolved around a woman. True, the salons of Paris, London, Vienna, or Berlin owed much of their renown to the men of letters who frequented them, and the desire to participate in a male-dominated world of letters was precisely what led many women to host a salon in the first place. But no matter howluminous the men in her salon, the hostess was its social and communicative center. In this respect the salon was exceptional in according women such a degree of influence and leadership.

In other ways, however, the salon embodied essential features of the Enlightenment public sphere. First, the development of the salon was marked by a growing autonomy from the courtly world that had given birth to it. Although the salon had developed out of the Renaissance court as a place where men and women gathered to enjoy the pleasures of music, poetry, and polite conversation, in the eighteenth century it evolved into an institution independent from the court. Although court and salon circles might overlap, they became culturally and spatially distinct from each other. Second, the salon, like other institutions of the Enlightenment public sphere, enjoyed a close relationship to eighteenth-century print culture. Despite the centrality of conversation in the salon, its culture was not exclusively oral. Dominated by writers, it was a place where the written word was generated and circulated. Finally, the salon provided the occasion for individuals from different social and professional backgrounds to mingle on relatively equal terms. By eighteenth-century standards salon etiquette was fairly informal. Although salons usually met on appointed days (generally once or twice a week), no special invitations were issued. Conversation inside the salon reflected a reciprocal, egalitarian model of communicative exchange that assumed a willingness to suspend whatever criteria of social distinction may have existed outside it. This suspension of existing hierarchies was already evident in the more aristocratic salons of seventeenth-century Paris, which served to integrate an affluent, upwardly mobile bourgeoisie into the ranks of the 197


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