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Introduction to the ‘Annales de l’Empire depuis Charlemagne’

Voltaire, Annales de l'Empire

The publication of the Annales de l’Empire depuis Charlemagne (Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, volumes 44A-C), and the Précis du siècle de Louis XV (OCV, volumes 29A-C, an eyewitness account of Voltaire’s own era), will complete the full range of first-ever critical editions of Voltaire’s histories, published by the Voltaire Foundation. These works have been somewhat neglected within Voltaire’s œuvre despite making up such a significant proportion of it. The Annales in particular is often thought of as rushed and superficial when placed alongside more substantial works like the Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations and the Siècle de Louis XIV. This series of introductory articles suggests some reasons why we think this lesser-known historical work is well worth revisiting and offers much to enjoy.

Duchesse Louise-Dorothée de Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg

Georg Andreas Wolfgang le Jeune (attribué), Duchesse Louise-Dorothée de Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, 1742-1745, gouache et tempera sur ivoire. © Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein Gotha.

In many ways, the Annales is the most conventional and accessible of Voltaire’s histories. It focuses on one (albeit large) part of the world, the Holy Roman Empire, and relates its major historical events in chronological order, broken up into bite-sized yearly instalments. The Annales was written on the behest of Louise-Dorothée, Duchess of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, in a remarkably short length of time: she suggested the project during Voltaire’s stay in Gotha (spring 1753); he described it as ‘nearly finished’ on 3 September of the same year; and it was published between January and March 1754.

The Annales was explicitly instructive in nature and written with a specific readership in mind:

Charlemagne’s genealogy

An illustration from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel depicting Charlemagne’s genealogy. Charlemagne is in the bottom-left-hand corner.

‘Above all I have endeavoured to make this book useful to young people, I believe this to be true, and I am flattered that it could be necessary to the education of the German nobility.’

[‘J’ai tâché surtout de rendre ce livre utile aux jeunes gens, je le crois exact, et on me flatte qu’il pourrait être nécessaire à l’éducation de la noblesse d’Allemagne.’]

Voltaire, Correspondence and related documents, éd. Th. Besterman, in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.85-135 (Oxford, 1968-1977), letter D5623, to Georg Conrad Walther.

Double-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire

Double-headed eagle with coats of arms of individual states, the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire, by Hans Burgkmair der Ältere (1510).

The work was aimed at young, educated German nobles wishing to practise reading in French while learning about this history of their country, a fact that may explain its more conventional shape among Voltaire’s histories. Rather than tackling the more slippery ideas of the mores, culture and spirit of nations, it sets its sights on the singular concept of empire, with Voltaire seeming to backtrack on his desire in the Essai sur les mœurs to move away from histories of well-trod political and military matters. However, as we shall see, some of the more philosophical aspects of the Essai sur les mœurs are returned to in the Annales, which are not as straightforward as they may at first seem.

Written by Sam Bailey (currently PhD candidate at Durham) during his internship at the Vf.