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Voltaire: historian of modernity

Generously supported by a Leverhulme Trust research grant, this research project will improve definitively our understanding of Voltaire’s practice as a historian of the early modern period and his own age, his view of the purpose of history, and his influence on his immediate successors, such as Gibbon, Hume and Robertson, and on Enlightenment historiography in general. It will include full critical print editions of Voltaire’s ‘modern history’ texts, providing firm foundations for future researchers. Read more about the project from the Leverhulme Trust newsletter: Voltaire, historian: constructing contemporary history in the Enlightenment.

Background of the research project

The set of scholarly critical editions of Voltaire’s ‘modern history’ texts – the post-medieval volumes of the Siècle de Louis XIV, the Précis du siècle de Louis XV, the Lettres sur les Anglais, and the Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations – is under way, under the direction of a team of specialists. These editions will place the works in the context of Voltaire’s remarkable aim of writing a history of the progress of the human mind and of socio-cultural behaviours from the earliest times to his own day. They will also show how he marshalled and exploited his source material, and relate what he says in these works to material on the same subjects elsewhere in his writings.

Voltaire composed these works over a period of more than twenty years, but saw them as combining to create a continuous ‘universal history’. The precise textual history of each work, from composition until his death in 1778, will be intricately traced for the first time, yielding fascinating and important insights into how he conceived each successive edition of his text.

An international study day, organised jointly by the Voltaire Foundation and the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles, was held to support the scholars working on the Voltaire: historian of modernity project.

Published within the Complete Works of Voltaire, these will be the first-ever editions with full critical apparatus, to serve as an indispensable tool for all scholars working on Voltaire as a historian and on Enlightenment historiography in general.


The Essai sur les mœurs (2009-2017): ‘is a masterpiece of prose that pioneered many of the foundations of modern historical study. […] This rich, learned edition promises to become the foundation and impetus for a renewed exploration of both its distance and its proximity to our own shifting conceptions of cultural history.’

Saul Anton, H-France Review

The Siècle de Louis XIV (2015-2017) ‘is a milestone on the road to modern history-writing. Voltaire, the chief publicist of the Enlightenment, wrote his history ‘en philosophe’, concerning himself with the human condition and with man’s progress (or lack of it) towards personal freedom; a preoccupation which later generations of historians have largely inherited.’

J. H. Shennan, Emeritus Professor, University of Lancaster