Authors and Climbers

Anthony Grafton

  • Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680-1750 by Anne Goldgar
    Yale, 295 pp, £25.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 300 05359 2

The sight that confronted the French Protestant d’Origny Delaloge when he left his London house at nine o’clock one morning in 1707 struck him as out of the ordinary. A fellow Huguenot, wearing a blond wig, a black suit with a damask vest and a hat with a rose on it, stood before the house and addressed him, first in English and then in French. He identified himself as Jean Le Clerc, the celebrated philologist and theologian from Holland who had edited the complete Latin works of Erasmus, produced a widely read periodical and written the first systematic modern manual of critical method, the Ars Critica. Explaining that he was travelling incognito, he nonetheless managed to reveal that he had come to occupy a chair in Oriental languages at Cambridge, his Latin inaugural lecture in his pocket. When Delaloge, who clearly found him impressive, invited him to dinner, Le Clerc spread himself in literary gossip, talking freely of the publishing houses and periodicals to which he enjoyed access. He even tried to appropriate a manuscript by Delaloge, which he promised to print in the Bibliothèque choisie. Only when foiled in this effort did Le Clerc finally leave, and even then he behaved oddly, insisting that he would walk after his puzzled host had called him a coach.

In the days that followed Le Clerc appeared at the houses of other ministers, who received him warmly and fed him well. Politely, the distinguished foreign savant invited his benefactors to a fine dinner at an inn in Romford, where he lavishly returned their hospitality. But when the bill came, he had vanished, leaving his fuming guests to pay up. The internationally famous scholar had apparently unmasked himself as a vulgar conman.

The grubby final chapter of this episode confirmed what Delaloge already suspected. This ‘Le Clerc’ was not the literary celebrity he claimed to be, but an impostor: a former monk named Frédéric-Auguste Gabillon. While in England Gabillon not only fooled the clergy, whose readiness to extend charity perhaps resulted from a professional deformation: he also succeeded at the harder task of cheating a bookseller out of a substantial amount of money, and misbehaved in public in ludicrous ways, making wild offers to the Queen, the Bishop of London and the Hanoverian envoy. The episode deeply pained the genuine Le Clerc, whom Delaloge and others kept apprised of the situation. Though in public he professed to feel only amusement at his impersonator’s antics, in private he organised a propaganda campaign to ensure that his name would not fall into discredit.

The story is typical of the dozens of anecdotes that enliven Anne Goldgar’s erudite, provocative and sometimes problematic book. It takes place in a peculiarly fascinating setting, the world of the French Protestant intellectuals who went into exile throughout Europe after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. The Le Clerc story suggests the extent of the personal and intellectual networks these industrious, attractive refugees spun. By implication at least, it conveys something of the inexhaustible energy they lavished on making contacts, soliciting manuscripts and winning publicity. Finally, and most important, it gives a sense of the larger thesis Goldgar puts forward. She holds that many intellectuals of the late 17th and early 18th centuries saw the framing of standards for good personal and scholarly conduct – and the prevention of violations of good form – as their central, overwhelmingly important task. Squelching such examples of blond ambition as Gabillon seemed to them more urgent, and perhaps more important, than sorting out the nature of the physical universe or the status of Biblical authority.

Both the black-coated, industrious Huguenots and their calf-bound, erudite writings circulated from darkest Berlin to coldest Scotland. In due course they became, if not the sole founders, at least the main pillars of the late 17th-century Republic of Letters. This was a sort of literary European Union, which drew its citizens from every civilised country, used French as its literary écu – and took Holland, land of tolerance and good publishers, as its capital. Within this efficient and cosmopolitan country of the mind, communications were remarkably good. The stock of a young author from a small provincial town in Brandenburg or Zeeland, once he published in the right places and attracted the benevolent attention of the journals, could rapidly become a known quantity on the bourses of celebrity from Posnan to Portsmouth. He would then have the power to offer favours to other men of letters, and the right to make claims in his turn on their friendship and hospitality: the false Le Clerc did both in London.

The communications networks of the Republic of Letters carried powerful charges. Intellectuals of very different origins and interests – like John Locke and Giambattista Vico–cared deeply about the French versions and summaries of their ideas which could bring them to, or distort them for, a European public unwilling or unable to read English and Italian. Unfortunately, like more modern literary circuits, those of the Republic of Letters often shorted. Prominent scholars refused to conduct their polemics in the courteous manner dictated by good taste. Young upstarts behaved bumptiously towards their elders and betters – or even, like Gabillon, appropriated their identities. Nonetheless, this French-speaking, Europe-wide literary community existed for decades and continues to command the interest of literary and intellectual historians. Its citizens included the great philosopher and dictionary-maker Pierre Bayle as well as his enemy Le Clerc. Its new language of reasoned criticism eventually developed into the polemical medium in which the philosophes of the Enlightenment waged their wars against superstition and l’infâme. The Republic of Letters–as Paul Hazard argued long ago in a classic book – provided the stage on which the crisis of the modern European mind was enacted.

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