Calvet's Web: Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters in Eighteenth-Century France

By L. W.B Brockliss | Go to book overview

Preface

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED the eponymous subject of this book in 1984, when I was putting the finishing touches to my study of higher education in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the April of that year I paid a flying visit to the archives of a number of the smaller Ancien-Régime universities, and while working in the Médiathèque Ceccano at Avignon discovered the personal papers of a largely forgotten eighteenth-century physician called Esprit-Claude-François Calvet. At the time, I was principally interested in Calvet the medical professor and documents relating to his teaching, but I immediately saw the potential of this collection for further research. Not only was Calvet the first French university professor I had come across in more than a decade who had left papers concerning his day-to-day existence, but these papers were so richly informative about every aspect of his life that they called out to be studied in detail and used as a source for many different aspects of socio-cultural history. In subsequent years, as Colin Jones and I began to prepare our book on early-modern French medicine I visited Calvet’s papers on several occasions in search of information about medical practice in the pre-Revolutionary era. It quickly became apparent, however, that the physician’s correspondence revealed much more about his leisure interests as an antiquarian, natural historian, and bibliophile than it did about his bread-and-butter activities, and that his archive provided an unprecedented opportunity to anatomize a citizen of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters. Long before the medical book was finished, I decided that Calvet’s papers should not just be raided as a source to swell a theme. Rather they provided the building blocks from which to reconstruct the rounded life of a provincial man of letters, a savant who in his day was a local celebrity, frequently visited by tourists, learned and not-so-learned. For the last ten years, then, I have immersed myself in every aspect of Calvet’s existence in an attempt to understand the mind, weigh the wit, and raise the ghost of a man christened Esprit.

A word of explanation is needed about the title of the book. On the most immediate level, the term ‘web’ has an obvious referent. Calvet was at the centre of a small circle of friends and correspondents who exchanged gossip and information. Theirs was an interactive communications network, which may have been geographically restricted and slow, but still anticipates in many ways our modern world of the Internet. On a deeper level, on the other hand, the metaphor is more sinister. Calvet chose his correspondents carefully with a view to intellectual nourishment. He was a spider and his correspondents,

-vii-

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Calvet's Web: Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters in Eighteenth-Century France
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents xi
  • List of Illustrations xiii
  • List of Figures xv
  • List of Tables xvi
  • List of Abbreviations xvii
  • Biographical Note xviii
  • A Note on Terms xix
  • Currency Note xx
  • Introduction the Republic of Letters and Enlightenment 1
  • Chapter One - Esprit Calvet 20
  • Chapter Two - The Intellectual Milieu 69
  • Chapter Three - The Physician 126
  • Chapter Four - The Antiquarian 193
  • Chapter Five - The Natural Historian 242
  • Chapter Six - The Bibliophile 281
  • Chapter Seven - The Revolutionary Climacteric 335
  • Chapter Eight - Conclusion: Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters 390
  • Bibliography 413
  • Index 435
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