Cosmopolitanism as transcending the private and the public

This post follows my previous post that presented a biography of Joseph-Honoré Rémy.

Analysing this 1770 pamphlet, Le cosmopolisme, I find a certain view of cosmopolitanism that seeks to transcend the private and the public realms. There are two main points in which this is done. First, with the rhetorical strategy of the ‘cosmopolite’ author inserting himself in a transnational space. Second, with the content of this cosmopolitanism that seeks to inform private and political virtues.

Cosmopolite

The author is anonymous, but is presented as an Englishman and a cosmopolite. As an Englishman, he inserts himself as a private citizen of a foreign country in the French public realm by taking part in the celebration of the union of the two European powerhouses that are France and Austria. He then criticises heavily his ‘own’ homeland, England, for waging brutal wars. He calls England for a partnership with France now allied with Austria, a partnership in which only commercial and trade competition are allowed.

Dictionnaire de Trévoux 1771

As a ‘cosmopolite’, the author is exercising a different function. The word is very loaded at the time. It appeared in the French dictionary in 1690, but became popular in the second half of the eighteenth century. The 1721 edition of the ‘Trévoux’ dictionary defines a cosmopolite or cosmopolitain. The 1771 edition adds that the current usage is now in favour of cosmopolite and not cosmopolitain. It denotes both a person traveling or for whom no place is foreign, and a philosopher (with an allusion to Diogenes of Sinope).

In this understanding, several author have penned their work using the word ‘cosmopolite’. The author who contributed the most to make it famous is Louis-Charles Fougeret de Monbron (1706-1760) who published Le cosmopolite, ou le citoyen du monde in 1750. The opening lines are very famous and Lord Byron used them as epigraph to his poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’:

The universe is a kind of book of which one has read only the first page when one has seen only one’s own country. I have leafed through a large enough number, which I have found equally bad. This examination was not at all fruitless for me. I hated my country. All the impertinences of the different peoples among whom I have lived have reconciled me to her. If I had not drawn any other benefit from my travels than that, I would regret neither the expense nor the fatigue.

Fougeret narrates his travels in search of ‘man’, knowledge, and a true homeland. Reflecting upon the countries and its inhabitants in a cynical fashion, Fougeret concludes that his original homeland, which he hated, is not so bad after all.

This philosophical reflection upon the whole world and the whole humankind in a political setting led to a development of a certain kind of cosmopolitan ideal. Many authors had been appalled by the atrocities committed during the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century. In particular, legal scholars had criticised the lack of legal structure to prevent barbaric acts and protect the individual in international wars. The eighteenth century also saw its share of wars with the Seven Years’ War in particular. The development of the slave trade and the treatment of the inhabitants in the colonies also contributed to developing ideas of natural rights and other criticisms of the current political and legal state of world affairs. Rousseau, who had re-edited and commented upon Saint-Pierre’s Plan for Perpetual Peace, famously wrote about the ‘grandes âmes cosmopolites’ in his 1755 Discours sur l’origine et les fondemens de l’inegalité parmi les hommes.

Cosmopolisme

The first sense of cosmopolitanism was related to the travelling cosmopolitan. In a medical book written in 1775 about bathing waters, the authors write the expression ‘cosmopolitisme’ in italics because it did not exist in the dictionary, in order to describe the action of travelling. The authors warn against the potential risks of excessive travelling and lack of any restraint in experiencing new things, as the exact opposite of the fears, superstitions and restraints of the past, which surrounded the use of bath waters and prevented medical research to see their benefits on health. ‘Notre liberté, notre fureur d’aller, notre cosmopolitisme en tout genre, peuvent devenir excessifs & entraîner bien des inconvéniens’.[1]

A word that appears in parallel with ‘cosmopolitisme’ is ‘cosmopolisme’, which had equally two meanings attached to it. The relation between travelling, the act of ‘cosmopoliter’, and potential health risks are reiterated with the expression ‘cosmopolisme’ as the psychological condition of confused identity that the all too frequent traveller would fall victim of:

COSMOPOLISME. Il faut aimer un lieu ; l’oiseau lui-même qui a en partage le domaine des airs, affectionne tel creux d’arbre ou de rocher. Celui qui est atteint de Cosmopolisme, est privé des plus doux sentimens qui appartiennent au cœur de l’homme.

Qui croirait que l’on peut exercer à Paris le Cosmopolisme, encore mieux que dans le reste de l’univers.
COSMOPOLITER. Parcourir l’univers.[2]

In this sense, cosmopolitanism is related to the act of travelling, but also the reflection that the cosmopolitan, the traveller, experiences when encountering other populations, cultures, and mores: a reflection upon humankind—the universal and the particular.

The earliest eighteenth-century record of ‘cosmopolitisme’ I could find is in a 1756 critique of Rousseau’s Discours sur l’inégalité by Italian mathematician and astronomer Giovanni Francesco Mauro Melchiorre Salvemini di Castiglione (1708—1791). It is also the first reference to a philosophical conception. It is not exactly clear what the author means by ‘cosmopolitisme’ as it is referred to in passing:

Je ne m’arrêterai point à détailler les avantages de la communauté des biens. Ce sujet a été traité par plusieurs auteurs estimables, lesquels l’homme corrompu par les richesses n’a reproché qu’une pauvreté vertueuse & un cosmopolitisme trop profondément raisonné.[3]

This excerpt is taken from a general discussion about ownership. It seems that, in this context, this ‘cosmopolitisme’ is a consideration about the general equality among men in the state of nature, which would justify a ‘community of goods’ to some philosophers, against whom even a corrupt man would only reproach a ‘virtuous poverty’ and a ‘too deeply reasoned cosmopolitanism’. It may be a direct reference to Rousseau’s mention of ‘les grandes âmes cosmopolites’ as quoted above.[4]

However, the first formulated conception of cosmopolitanism is Le cosmopolisme by Joseph-Honoré Rémi (1738—1782), priest in Toul, Meurthe-et-Moselle, and lawyer at the Parlement de Paris. Rémi participated to the first volume on ‘Jurisprudence’ of the Encyclopédie méthodique, project which was meant to be an extension to Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie.[5] Rémi wrote this pamphlet for the wedding of Louis XVI. There are several relevant excerpts for cosmopolitanism, which I will here quote and comment:

Pourquoi le Cosmopolisme est-il donc si rare sous cette planette ? A peine a-t-il un sens parmi nous : la plupart de nos langues si riches en mots honteux & barbares, n’ont rien qui peigne les premiers sentimens de l’homme social. Un sourire risiblement dédaigneux est la récompense de quiconque ose parler d’humanité aux nations. Noble & touchante humanité ! à ton foyer s’allume & s’épure dans nos ames le feu sacré des vertus privées & des vertus politiques (6) ; mais on t’abandonne, on te méprise, on t’insulte avec orgueil, on encense d’odieux Simulacres, & tes temples sont déserts. Nous avons des Maîtres pour enseigner à nos enfans les langues des nations qui n’existent plus ; en est-il un seul destiné à leur apprendre celle de la nature ?[6]

The endnote (6) is explained later in the book with a quotation of Fénelon:

 (N°.6.) Page 25. « J’aime mieux ma famille que moi-même ; j’aime mieux ma patrie que ma famille ; mais j’aime encore mieux le genre humain que ma famille [sic: patrie] ». Telle étoit la morale de ce Fénélon, qui dans une Cour où l’égoïsme national étoit honoré des plus glorieux titres, osa prêcher éloquemment le Cosmopolisme, & érigea à l’humanité un monument digne du siécle de l’Encyclopédie. Le sentiment associé à la raison, n’a jamais rien produit d’aussi noble & d’aussi attendrissant que le Télémaque.[7]

‘Cosmopolism’ is, for Rémi, related to the ‘first sentiments of social man’, which is to say that when man in the state of nature meets another man, he experiences a feeling, which is one of humanity for meeting with another human being. This feeling of humanity is about recognising one another as members of the same species, the same community of human beings, rather than from different communities. Rémi juxtaposes this natural feeling of love towards humanity, ‘cosmopolism’, to another artificial feeling, negative this one, of egoism towards one’s nation. Nation should here be understood as ‘state’, or more rightly ‘kingdom’. This ‘national egoism’ proclaims the superiority of advancing national interest at the cost of human interest. What Rémi alludes to here with ‘national egoism’ are the wars led by Louis XIV in the name of absolutism, whose policies Fénelon criticised.

Fénelon

This feeling of humanity, for Rémi, warrants virtues (‘private virtues’, and ‘political virtues’). According to the dictionary, virtue is a disposition of the soul to do good and avoid evil.[8] So, for Rémi, ‘cosmopolism’ is the doctrine of doing what is good and avoiding what is bad for humanity, both in the private and public (political) spheres. Fénelon is cited as a leading figure of this movement of thought with his work Telemachus, combining sentiment and reason, that is to say humanity as a feeling and a rational argument for the love of other fellow human beings in the world. Telemachus is ‘worthy of the century of the Encyclopaedia’, the work of reference for reason.[9]  This may be for Rémi a reference to how Telemachus, in the novel, fights morally, thanks to his wisdom, the excesses of passions—both his and others’—that lead kings to wars and destroys the lives of his and other’s peoples. Mentor helps him throughout but leaves him with the freedom of choice over his actions. The novel is therefore perceived as an ode to liberty.[10]

Telemachus listening to Mentor
Charles-Joseph Natoire. Télémaque écoutant les conseils de Mentor, 1740, Troyes, Musée des Beaux-Arts.

The reference to Télémaque in a pamphlet published for the wedding of Louis XVI, who was then fifteen, is certainly a way of hoping that the young king will follow the pedagogical advice set in the book that Fénelon intended for the education of the dauphin of France, Louis Duke of Burgundy (1682—1712). In search of his father, Telemachus goes to hell and visits Tartarus where he sees bad kings agonising; he then visits the Elysian Fields, where good kings, who govern their people wisely, rest in bliss.[11] Telemachus is considered a work of ‘republican monarchism’ because it ‘combines monarchial rule with republican virtues’.[12] It is a ‘classical republicanism’ that Fénelon develops in Telemachus, that is to say republican virtues from Ancient Greece and Rome. These republican virtues are the interest for the common good and disinterest for riches, or selfish and artificial gains and rewards by the court. In general, the ‘country’ is opposed to the ‘court’ in classical republicanism, as Pocock notes.[13] In Telemachus, Fénelon displays similar ‘classical republican’ virtues. Bétique (Boetica) is a country described in book seven. There, the inhabitants are free and equal, live in accordance with nature, and are disinterested although gold and silver abound since they are of no use for the common good and corrupt. Edelstein’s interpretation of Boetica is that it is not an ‘utopian’ place in the same sense as More’s Utopia or Bacon’s New Atlantis because it is meant to be an example for contemporary society, and is not thought in isolation but with international contacts and with the prospect of perpetual peace.[14] Moreover, Edelstein argues that it is a republican state because the basic political structure is participative, the inhabitants are free and equal, they are ready to fight to defend their liberty, and they shun luxury and corruption in favour of peace, union, and liberty, by wisely using their ‘right reason’.[15]

Considering Rémi’s argument, it seems that a relevant passage in Fénelon’s Télémaque is in book 9, when Mentor addresses various Greek kings after they decided to make peace and avoid waging war:

Tout le genre humain n’est qu’une famille dispersée sur la face de toute la terre. Tous les peuples sont freres, & doivent s’aimer comme tels. Malheur à ces impies qui cherchent une gloire cruelle dans le sang de leurs freres, qui est leur propre sang. La guerre est quelquefois nécessaire, il est vrai : mais c’est la honte du genre humain qu’elle soit inévitable en certaines occasions. … Quiconque préfére sa propre gloire aux sentimens de l’humanité, est un monstre d’orgueil, & non pas un homme : il ne parviendra même qu’à une fausse gloire ; car la vraye gloire ne se trouve que dans la modération & dans la bonté.[16]

Shortly after, Mentor suggests that the Greek kings meet in an assembly every three years to renew their alliance and discuss matters of common interest. Mentor emphasises that being united is the only way to make Greece prosper inside and stronger outside.[17] In other words, Mentor suggests that the kings organise a sort of commonwealth or res publica.

Fénelon makes another direct reference to a ‘universal republic’ in book 17. Mentor advises king Idoménée on how to settle an international dispute between him and another king using arbitration. Mentor then takes a hypothetical example of a republic that the king would consider with horror if there were no laws and no legal institutions, but where each family would use violence against their neighbours to make their own justice, and asks Idoménée rhetorically:

croyez-vous que les Dieux regardent avec moins d’horreur le monde entier, qui est la République universelle, si chaque peuple qui n’y est que comme une grande famille, se croit en plein droit de se faire par violence justice à soi-même sur toutes ses prétentions contre les autres peuples voisins?[18]

Through Mentor, Fénelon argues for a ‘universal republic’, which does not mean a world state with a republican democratic government, but a state of law in international affairs, the same way there is a state of law inside a given ‘republic’. It is an argument against absolutism in that Fénelon emphasises that kings are not above the law, not even regarding internal state affairs. Fénelon’s argument is as much the need for legal settlement in international affairs—and thereby the reduction of wars—as it is the observation that the human race is one ‘family’ and therefore ought to be under a common law.

To Rémi, cosmopolisme is associated with the language of nature, of the very first feelings that men had when becoming social creatures. In other words, in the golden age of the state of nature before the social contract was formed, as described in natural law theories:

Cet heureux sentiment que la Nature inspire aux Individus de même espece ; Instinct sacré dont le Législateur des Chrétiens voulut faire un mérite à l’homme, en l’érigeant en vertu, & la plaçant à la tête de son code immortel ; la Fraternité combattue par les maximes de l’intolérance, & avilie par le fanatisme du zèle, n’a commencée à rentrer dans ses droits que depuis la renaissance des Lettres. Elle doit la gloire dont elle jouit, aux efforts des Cosmopolites. Ramenée par eux dans l’Europe, sous les noms de Bienveillance & d’Humanité, cette vertu pourra s’annoncer à nos neveux comme la fille du malheur & de la Philosophie.[19]

Fraternity—the feeling of being related and belonging to the same family—is a natural instinct that God—the legislator for Christians—inscribed as the first and most important law. Rémi is here referring to love as God’s law, particularly love towards fellow man: ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:39). Rémi then goes on to argue that intolerance and fanaticism have been the enemies of fraternity, and it is only with the ‘renaissance of letters’ and the ‘efforts of the cosmopolites’ that fraternity was brought back. There is no doubt that Rémi refers here to the Republic of Letters, and the fight by ‘la petite troupe des philosophes’ led by Voltaire against religious intolerance, revealed religions, and in favour of humanitarian considerations (see the opening of Candide).[20] It is also exactly the same meaning of the word ‘cosmopolites’ that Rousseau used when writing about ‘quelques grandes âmes cosmopolites’, as seen above.[21] Rémi refers to the same thing: state wars that entail murders and other atrocities that are revolting to reason and nature, but that, nonetheless, are rewarded with the highest honours. It is in that sense that Rémi concludes that this virtue of fraternity, which the cosmopolites brought back in Europe under the names of ‘benevolence’ and ‘humanity’, is the ‘daughter’ of ‘misery’ and ‘philosophy’. The ‘cosmopolites’, the philosophers, reflected upon the calamities of wars due to ‘national egoism’, to produce works of morality and ethics for humankind.

We can take several elements from Rémi’s writings on what seems to constitute cosmopolism for him: nature, humanity, reason, sentiment, the Encyclopaedia, liberty, fraternity, individuality, belonging to the same human species, a sense of equality, and elements of classical republicanism. ‘Cosmopolism’, for Rémi, is the doctrine that ‘cosmopolites’ professed, that is to say the rational natural feeling of fraternity among individuals, because they belong to the same species, against any divisive passions or thoughts, such as national egoism, intolerance, or fanaticism.

If in Rémi’s view, there is sufficient material to form an -ism out of cosmopolitan views on the international order, this does not mean that there was a widely accepted view that ‘cosmopolisme’ actually existed. As Mercier’s Néologie shows, ‘cosmopolisme’ was a new word even as late as 1801. It is not possible to ascertain historically a fixed understanding of ‘cosmopolisme’ or ‘cosmopolitisme’ in the eighteenth century. It is however possible to witness in eighteenth-century writings the rise of a philosophical consciousness of cosmopolitanism. Rémi’s general cosmopolitan sympathy is however not offering any concrete system to achieving this goal, besides an appeal to the king’s good will in foreign affairs, and a prayer to God to enlighten kings.[22] The Revolution will mark the apex of cosmopolitanism considered as a political philosophy.

‘Cosmopolitisme’ only enters the dictionary (Littré) in 1873.

[1] Bordeu et al., Recherches sur les maladies…, 65.

[2] Mercier, Néologie, 1:131.

[3] Castillon, Discours sur l’origine de l’inegalité, 164.

[4] Rousseau, Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité, 138–9.

[5] s.n., Encyclopédie méthodique. jurisprudence.

[6] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 24–25.

[7] Rémi, 73–74.

[8] Dictionnaire de l’Académie françoise.

[9] Fénelon, Télémaque.

[10] Dédéyan, Télémaque; Cuche, Le Télémaque de Fénelon.

[11] Fénelon, Télémaque, vol. 2, book XIX, 395.

[12] Riley, ‘Fénelon’s “Republican” Monarchism’, 78.

[13] Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, 401–22.

[14] Edelstein, The Terror of Natural Right, 58.

[15] Edelstein, 59–60.

[16] Fénelon, Télémaque, 1: 230.

[17] Fénelon, 1: 231.

[18] Fénelon, 2: 483-4.

[19] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 19–20.

[20] Voltaire, Candide.

[21] Rousseau, Discours Sur l’origine de l’inégalité, 101.

[22] Rémi, Le Cosmopolisme, 64.

[23] Mallet du Pan, Mercure Britannique, 4:461.

Joseph-Honoré Rémy and his 1770 pamphlet ‘Le cosmopolisme’

SEMFS Conference

On 8th-10th September 2021, the Society for Early Modern French Studies held its annual conference ‘Public and Private/Public et Privé’ online. The Centre for Privacy Studies was co-organiser, and several PRIVACY scholars presented their work. Assistant Professor Lars Cyril Nørgaard presented his research on private penitence. PhD-candidate Bastian Felter Vaucanson presented his research on spiritual intimacy in the correspondence between Mme Guyon and Fénelon. Professor Mette Birkedal Bruun was the keynote speaker with a presentation of the Centre for Privacy Studies and her research on the vocabularies of privacy and the private. I presented my original research on privacy based on my previous work on cosmopolitanism (my PhD thesis at the EUI, an article on cosmopolitan rhetoric, and a chapter on 18th-century French cosmopolitanism). My paper focused on a little known work of cosmopolitanism published in the second half of the eighteenth century in France. I analysed this work in relation to the uses of the vocabularies of ‘cosmopolite’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’, and demonstrated how cosmopolitanism transcended conceptions of the private and the public.

Marriage of Louis and Marie Antoinette 1770

In 1770, an anonymous pamphlet was published with the title Le cosmopolisme. It was written on the occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin Louis and Marie Antoinette. In the forewords, someone pretends to be the translator of a work written in English by an Englishman, whom he calls a ‘cosmopolite’. In reality the whole pamphlet is written by someone not yet known in the Parisian literary circles, but who would then make a career. His name was Joseph Honoré Rémy.

My research on Rémy shows that there is very little secondary literature on him. The only work I could find is the database of journalists in the Dictionnaire des journalistes, which is online. There is a list of primary sources where Rémy is mentioned, and it presents a summary of his life.

In this post I present a biography of Rémy. In my next post I will present my analysis of Rémy’s Le cosmopolisme as a cosmopolitanism transcending the private and the public realm.

Biography of Rémy

Joseph Honoré Rémy (also spelled Rémi) was born in Remiremont in 1738 and died in Paris in 1782. After studying philosophy and the humanities he decided to pursue an ecclesiastical career and studied theology. He never received his tonsure and became only abbot in Toul. The rest of his life he would be known as ‘l’abbé Rémi’ (abbot Rémi). However, he had little interest in church matters. He wished to become a man of letter (homme de lettres). Therefore he went back to Paris. He followed lectures in law and befriended practitioners until he himself could practice as barrister at the Parlement de Paris.

He was a member of a Freemason Lodge called ‘Les Neuf Soeurs’, established in 1776 to gather artists and scientists. Since the statutes of the Lodge obliged its members (in particular lawyers, doctors, and surgeons) to assist the poor and the needy, and a general duty of humanity, I think it explains why Rémy was known to defend cases free of charge in favour of victims of injustice who were too poor to hire a barrister. In my paper I add new knowledge to Rémy’s biography with my research on this lodge.

Logo Mercure de France

Rémy worked as the right hand of famous publisher Charles-Joseph Pancoucke (1736-1798) and wrote many articles and reviews as editor of his Mercure de France, the most important magazine in pre-revolutionary France.

Rémy participated several times to the Académie’s oratory prize with several eloges: unsuccesfully in 1769 with an Eloge de Molière, but received an accessit (certificate of merit) in 1771 for Eloge de Fénelon, and an honorable mention in 1773 with Eloge de Colbert, which was published. He won the prize in 1777 with Eloge de Michel de l’Hopital. It created a controversy with the Sorbonne’s Faculty of Theology, which censored the work.

The same year Rémy published Le cosmopolisme, he published a “translation” of what is supposed to be a sequel to Edouard Young’s (1683-1765) Nights, which had been translated into French in 1769. Young’s Les nuits was popular, and Rémy wrote under the pseudonym of “un mousquetaire noir” a satiric version of what he considered a bathetic work. In 1772, Rémy published a collection of various legal works under the title Le code des François. He also wrote several articles for the Rémy wrote several articles Répertoire universel et raisonné de Jurisprudence and collaborated to editing the complete works of Voltaire.

When Rémy died in 1782, he was working on an encyclopedic work that was thought as adding to the existing Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert. His collaborator finished editing the first volume on “Jurisprudence” of the Encyclopédie méthodique following Rémy’s work, and also used Rémy’s research for the second volume.

In my view, Rémy was an important figure of the Parisian literary scene, as can be inferred from multiple mentions of him, and especially his death, in the Mémoires secrets. He was at the centre of many literary circles and was known to be an erudite. Therefore, I consider his early pamphlet Le cosmopolise, as capturing his Zeitgeist regarding eighteenth-century French cosmopolitanism.

In my next post I will present my analysis of this cosmopolitanism based on Rémy’s pamphlet Le cosmopolisme.

Health care under suspicion? Early modern scandals and the creation of fear

During my research on the oral history of my own community in Southern Brazil about health and healing practices in the first half of the twentieth century, I remember hearing from my interviewees that, “back in the day”, the hospital was a place that you would go to die. Less than a matter of precarity – which could be the reality of several facilities -, people would only go to the hospital as a last resort. Fractures, diseases, and other ailments were first taken care of by local healers and home remedies. It was not necessarily a lack of trust in the medical help, and more a culture of taking care of one another within the community whenever possible. That perception of the hospital had changed by my parents’ generation, but it stuck to me how health care could be seen in a myriad of ways depending on the cultural, economic, and historical context.

This idea came back to me while I was studying the suspicion over acts of charity by nobles — particularly noblewomen — in the court of Louis XIV, and I noticed that there was this apparent concern over charitable acts at the hospitals. As we can imagine, hospitals in this context were different from what we know today. As Susan Broomhall explains in her chapter The Politics of Charitable Men, early modern French hospitals were institutions that, beyond health concerns, offered poor relief to “passers-by, paupers, the sick, aged, children, the elderly and mentally ill, as well as the first line of response in epidemics” (p. 137). Hospitals at the time were mostly secular institutions, which depended a lot on charity efforts. Institutions led by noblewomen offered not only monetary support but also caring staff to the hospitals. However, rarely these women would do the work themselves — they were primarily responsible for sending maids and nurses to attend to the patients and paupers. These efforts were seen as part of their responsibility as pious Christians and were commendable, both among peers and the population at large. Hospitals were meant as a safe haven for the most disenfranchised people. But scandals could always shake that image.

Infirmary of the Hospital of Charity, 17th-century illustration. This hospital in Paris, France, was founded by the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God in the 17th century. Members of this Roman Catholic order are seen receiving and tending to patients. This religious hospital was demolished in 1935 to make way for the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris. This artwork, from around 1639, is by French artist Abraham Bosse (c.1602-1676). METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

The conviction of Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers in 1676 shook life in court, particularly due to the direct involvement of the nobility in poisoning plots. She was accused of poisoning her father and her two brothers as well as plotting to poison her sister and sister-in-law, all with the help of her lover, the army captain Godin de Sainte-Croix. This not only instigated the poisoning paranoia in court but also put acts of charity under scrutiny. How could people separate between sincere generosity and public masking of nefarious private intentions?

The figure of the poisoner imposed upon Madame de Brinvilliers was carefully constructed in trial — both the testimonials of witnesses and the annotations of the interrogations stress the depravity of her character. In addition to the poisonings, she was accused of having committed incest, having illegitimate children, maintaining several love affairs, having abortions, and mistreating servants, among several other offences. She was also described as unwilling to perform charitable acts, going so far as actively resenting them. In the records, Madame de Brinvilliers was said to have wanted to poison her sister because her donations to charity were depleting the family’s fortune. This portrait of Madame de Brinvilliers seems to carefully oscillate between destroying her individual reputation while trying to preserve the charitable ideal for noblewomen. However, the accusations against her brought forth a new fear involving acts of charity.

Portrait of the Marquise after her imprisonment by Charles LeBrun

Rumours had spread that Madame de Brinvilliers had been performing acts of charity for nefarious purposes.  Accounts described how she would visit paupers in public hospitals under the guise of charity in order to experiment with her poisons. According to these rumours, she added poison to patients’ food or distributed poisoned pastries to the poor, subsequently analysing the effects in order to calculate the exact quantities of poison to be used later on her family. These rumours not only reflect a fear of the misuse of charity and its effects on vulnerable subjects but also reveal a different anxiety — the fear of human experimentation.

Ravaisson, Archives de la Bastille, vol. 6, 396.

At the time, the norm was that only royal practitioners were allowed to perform experiments on human beings, and even then, only on convicted criminals. Alisha Rankin, in her recently released book The Poison Trials, adds nuance to the developments in human experimentation, showing how antidote tests on humans spread across continental Europe during the sixteenth century. This fear of underground activities using vulnerable people for experiments or rituals was crucial for legal developments during the Affair of the Poisons. This much larger scandal involved plots for murdering Louis XIV and reinforced the idea that “pious noblewomen” enacting charity could be more dangerous than it seemed. 

If even the king was not safe, what can be said about the paupers at the hospital? In a moment of political crisis, even the very few resources available to the poor were seen as potentially untrustworthy. However, with the sources at hand, it is not possible to say how much the Affair of the Poisons actually impacted people receiving the relief efforts at the hospital and how they evaluated their own safety, or how much of it was more of a reaction from the authorities projecting onto their situation.

It is important to mention that there was no conclusive evidence of poison experimentations at the hospitals made by noblewomen, and according to the investigation led by the police chief la Reynie, the suspicion was sustained by rumours. However, that does not mean that experiments at hospitals did not take place. These experimentations tended to be with less deadly substances than poison, usually testing the extent of the efficacy of certain medications. In the eighteenth century, William Withering, for example, was outspoken about only administering his digitalis preparation for dropsy to his paying customers after carefully testing on his charity patients.

An Account of the Foxglove, and Some of Its Medical Uses, p. 2.

The fear of experimentation becomes more than granted when looking at early modern colonial experiences. Londa Schiebinger’s book Secret Cures of Slaves shows how colonial relations and the knowledge circulation within the Atlantic trade impacted medicine as we know. Her nuanced approach can be found in this illuminating piece for The Conversation, detailing how experimentation took place in colonial environments.

This broader contextualisation of the flow of medical knowledge in the Atlantic world made me thing of Brazilian natives communities, which in the early modern period were brought to Europe as curious specimens, and have taken the brunt of epidemics across centuries. Many missions sent to their territories used the disguise of care to exploit their people and their land. With the challenges they have historically faced, it would be understandable for them to be fearful of current relief and vaccination efforts in the thick of the Covid pandemic. This assumption, however, does not coincide with what we have heard from representatives of the indigenous communities themselves. About the Covid vaccinations taking place in Brazilian indigenous communities, the president of the Mainumy association, Arlete Viana dos Santos Guajajara actually declared that these efforts bring hope to the community, despite the distortions created by fake news in Brazil:

“For me and I believe also for many relatives, the arrival of this vaccine within indigenous territories is a sign of hope that our people will live longer. Because this damn disease has already killed many, many of us. So, for us, it is a great hope to have our people alive for a longer time. It is a pity that there is a lot of fake news. There are people who think they are living just to spread these fake news, both in Brazil and around the world. So, this ends up getting in the way of the issue of vaccination within the territories. But, as leaders, we have this role of actually articulating and denying these fake news within the territories. How can we do that? Calling relatives, talking and explaining how the vaccine works. Anyway, doing our part for the good of our entire population, because this vaccine is our hope for survival.”

Picture by Thales Renato Ferreira – Prefeitura de Sao Leopoldo
(https://www.jornalnh.com.br/noticias/especial_coronavirus/2021/01/20/sao-leopoldo-ja-aplicou-350-doses-da-vacina-contra-a-covid-19.html)

The indigenous experience in Brazil is varied, and opinions will of course differ, but Guajajara’s quote reminded me of how easy it is to project fear onto a community that might be dealing with a situation in very different terms. This brought me back to the charity patients amid the poisoning fear, for whom I have not found a voice to echo here until now. To what extent this fear created by political unrest of the poison scandals affected them? Was the fear of human experiments something that they harboured themselves or something that the authorities latched upon at the height of the investigations? But more importantly, how these more vulnerable communities took care of each other in such times of suspicion and political crisis?

Although we are left with more questions than answers, I think it is an important exercise to bring history together with the present struggles. By looking at the past, we can see how challenging situations developed, how people responded to them, and what pitfalls can be avoided. By looking at the present, we historians can also be reminded that the past is made of multiple voices, and sometimes it is too easy to run on assumptions if we do not make an effort to listen to the whispers amidst the shouting.

Charity as Healing: Dealing with Demonic Possession in Seventeenth-Century France

Last October, the Centre for Privacy Studies organised a symposium in collaboration with the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles, called “Conspicuous Privacy: Charity in Versailles under Louis XIV”. The idea behind this event was to tackle the conflicting role of charity in the court of Louis XIV. Charitable acts were expected, as a Christian duty, to be performed humbly in private. However, at the same time, they were used as a tool for ostentation and political manoeuvre. As the event description puts it: “There is an apparent paradox between the normative privacy of charitable acts, and the public flaunting of these acts that happened in reality.”

My presentation at this event focused on how charity could be understood as public masking of private intentions during the Affair of the Poisons. Madame de Brinvilliers, a noblewoman involved in a poisoning plot, was said to pretend to perform charity at the hospital in order to experiment the efficacy of poisons on the paupers. Hospitals were a central focus of charity, but they were also a place where people were extremely vulnerable, which exacerbated the anxieties of the time – such as the fear of poisoners. In such a context, the charity that was closely associated with healing could also be considered suspicious or dangerous.

Adam Elsheimer ( 1598 ). Wellcome Images L0015276

While working at the hospitals and healing the sick was considered an important charitable act, charity was also seen as a form of healing. Nobles would donate to religious institutions asking for prayers or masses to heal a loved one. Good actions were seen as purifying the soul, and therefore, acted to cleanse one’s body. I am very curious about this tangled reciprocity between charity and healing. Could this be a useful tool to explore how charity existed in this threshold between private duty and public performance?

Interestingly, cases of possessions were among the ailments that could require charity as healing in early modern France. One of the most well-known cases of possession in seventeenth-century France was the one involving the Ursuline nun Jeanne des Anges. In the 1630s, the superior of the Ursuline convent in Loudun was said to be possessed by several demons, having to undergo numerous exorcisms. Jeanne became notorious for her suffering at the hands of demonic forces and for her faith throughout the laborious process of trying to remove them.[1] In her memoir, charity is shown as being a key part of her battle against the demons:


“One night during my prayer, as I prayed to Our Lord to let me know his will on this subject, I was told internally that I had to fight this demon by acts of charity, patience, and submission; with those, I would get over it.”[2]


After having all demons expelled from her body, Jeanne made pilgrimages that attracted a broad public. The notoriety of this case fostered a cult-like following of the nun who went through so many miraculous exorcisms. She began to act as a miracle-worker, and  her fame allowed her to meet Richelieu and King Louis XIII.

Scene from Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s movie “Mother Joan of the Angels”, also known as “The Devil and the Nun”, from 1961.

She became a consultant in cases of possession or ecstasies, as her intimate experience with exorcisms would enable her to identify which effects had a divine origin and which were of demonic influence. In the records of these consultations, Jeanne continued to stress the role of charity in dealing with cases of possessions and illusions. After examining the case of a nun from a convent in Pontivy who was having visions, Jeanne had divine revelations, in which a voice said that the woman was under a dark influence. The angelic voice also pointed out the need for charity to save the woman from the devil.

The charity referred here seems to be two-fold. One the one hand, there was the need for charity towards the woman, in the form of spiritual guidance by the priests and nuns around her. On the other hand, there was the need for charity by the nun, as the engagement in charitable acts would help to keep her illusions away. Jeanne also dedicated herself to charity after her exorcisms in order to make sure that the supernatural evils could not return to her body.

This seems to indicate that there is a different private dimension to charity. Beyond being a Christian duty, charity appears to have a direct power within the body, being intimately related to control over one’s own personhood in the face of supernatural challenges.

In the future, I aim to compare healing as charity and charity as healing from Catholic and Protestant examples to see how it can help us understand the interplay between health, faith, and privacy in the early modern period. For now, I am pleased to inform that the event “Conspicuous Privacy” will result in a published special issue! More information will follow here on the blog and on PRIVACY’s website.



[1] More information on the whole phenomenon of the possessions of Loudun can be found in Michel de Certeau’s “The Possession at Loudun”. Sarah Faber also described in amazing detail the events surrounding Jeanne in particular.

[2] “Une nuit, pendant mon oraison, comme je priais Nostre-Seigneur de ma faire connoistre sa volonté sur ce sujet, il me fut dit intérieurement que je devois combattre ce démon par les actes de charité, de patience et de soumission, et, qu’avec cela, j’en viendrois à bout.” (Soeur Jeanne des Anges, supérieure des Ursulines de Loudun, XVIIe siècle : autobiographie d’une hystérique possédée, d’après le manuscrit inédit de la bibliothèque de Tours. Paris : G. Charpentier et Cie, 1886, p. 148.)