Salon, salonnières and intellectuals in the Republic of Letters

Among the themes I am researching is the famous Republic of Letters. If you now what it is, skip the next part, otherwise, keep reading. The Republic of Letters is the intellectual community of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries. This international network extensively communicated through letters, journals and salons. At first in the seventeenth-century, members of the Republic of Letters were mostly scientists who wanted to develop and share knowledge. The Republic created, most of the time under a royal patronage the first Academies (e.g. the Royal Society in London and the Académie Française in Paris).

A shift happened during the eighteenth-century: even if prints were still a main tool to  share and disseminate knowledge throughout Europe, the parisians salons became the nervous center of the Republic of Letters. Thus the most prominent members of the Republic were not anymore scholars but the thinkers known as the Philosophers. Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau became important figures in the salons because of their talent, their writings and their fame, but they stayed in it thanks to their witty minds and their sharp tongs. Indeed, the salons were run and attended by parisian elites, which means aristocrats and, to some extent, upper middle class. And during the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, conversation was considered as an art, mastered by most of aristocrats. Facts and rationality were not important anymore, what matter was the pleasure of talking, arguing or flirting with the wittier spirits.

The salons existed to one aim: entertain the visitors. Plays, music, food and drinks were played and served. Therefore, it did not mattered how brilliant were scholars if they did not have an entertaining conversation. On the other hand, philosophers and writers had the proper spirit and were intensively invited to read their writings and then talk with the invited elites. Voltaire, who was the greatest and more famous writer of the Enlightenment, lived at Ferney from the 1750s until his death in 1778. Every time he was going to Paris, the beau monde desperately trying to meet or just see him, especially in the salons.

What about women in this Republic of Letters?

Most of the historians agreed that they had a prominent place in the salons. Indeed, most of the time the salons were hosted by women, the précieuses in the seventeenth-century and the salonnières in the eighteenth (few men did host salons like the baron Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach). Salon was a generic term, not related to the size of the gathering, it included a crowd in a living-room, or a small talk in a boudoir with few invitees. Among the most famous were Madame du Tencin, Julie de Lespinasse or again Madame Geoffrin, all wealthy educated nobles with an entertaining conversation. Their role was not only about hosting and entertaining, but also to gather thinkers and patrons, to help the former to have fundings from the latter. They could also give impressions and feedbacks to the writers.

All of this led Dena Goodman (in The Republic of Letters: a cultural history of the French enlightenment, 1994) to argue that salonnières were the governors of the Republic of Letters and they ‘provided the ground for the philosophes’ serious work by shaping and controlling the discourse to which men of letters were dedicated and which constituted their project of Enlightenment. In so doing, they transformed the salon from a leisure institution of the nobility into an institution of Enlightenment.’ (p.53) A vision not shared by most of the historians, like Antoine Lilti who points out that ‘salon women were never praised for their knowledge and their intellectual achievements but for their social skills, their ability to maintain politesse and harmony, and this was their traditional role in high society’ (in The Kingdom of Politesse: Salons and the Republic of Letters in Eighteenth-Century Paris, 2009, p.10)

In any case, women involved in the Republic of Letters were (and still are) not considered as intellectual. To be fair, most of them were not. They were educated, with a taste for literature and, perhaps, talent to recognize talent. So what about women writers? It is a fact that their number increased in the eighteenth-century, comparing to the centuries before. So where were they in this Republic of Letters? Would I go to far arguing that the citizens of the Republic of Letters prefigured the citizens of the new French Republic in their exclusion of women from their Republic?


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