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120 Days: an itinerary

Thursday, 9 July, 2020

The ‘Things That Matter’ summer school, developed in collaboration with the Universities of Durham, Groningen, and Uppsala, took place on the week beginning 15th June. Due to current circumstances, the course took place online, and I was fortunate enough to be in attendance. Morning sessions focused on the tensions between material objects and their digitisation, the opportunities represented by new and developing technologies and techniques, and what might risk being missed when researchers focus solely on digital sources – a series of questions which appear more relevant that ever in this new age of social distancing and limited travel.

Afternoon sessions were focused on group projects, for which we are asked to trace, examine, and analyse the itineraries of our chosen historical objects. The course participants came from a wide range of disciplines, areas, and indeed countries, which was reflected in the rich and diverse range of objects chosen. My team consisted of myself, Daria Segal (PhD candidate, University of Iceland), and Meggy Lennaerts (Master’s candidate, University of Groningen), and our chosen object was the Marquis de Sade’s infamous Les Cent vingt journées de Sodome manuscript, a literary and historical object which has had a long, varied, and at times scandalous journey.

Manuscript of Les Cent vingt journées de Sodome

Manuscript of ‘Les Cent vingt journées de Sodome’.

The study of the itinerary of the Sodome manuscript seemed to us to be particularly pertinent and timely, especially given its relatively recent declaration as a national treasure. Furthermore, while its travels are well told in editions of the text, the journey of the manuscript is often absorbed as part of the history of the text itself, rather than viewed as the itinerary of a separate, material object in its own right. Of course, the limited study of the materiality of the manuscript is likely largely due to the fact that it has always been in private hands, but its unique form, the author’s intensely emotional and physical relationship to the manuscript, the circumstances under which it was created, and the visceral nature of its contents, mean that a study of the materiality of the manuscript and its itinerary feels fitting, if not essential.

The manuscript began its life in the Bastille, and was written on tightly rolled, tissue-thin paper in miniscule handwriting, in just thirty-seven days. It was left behind when Sade was transferred from the Bastille to Charenton on 3rd July 1789; Sade spent the rest of his life believing it lost. It was not, however, lost; the story goes that it was rescued by a man named Arnoux de Saint-Maximin, although there appears to be little record of why, or indeed who he was, and then sold or given to the Marquis de Villeneuve-Trans. It remained in the Villeneuve-Trans family for three generations, where it was likely seen by very few people; it is mentioned in Henry Ashbee’s 1877 Index Librorum Prohibitorum but as a rumour, rather than a text he had seen first-hand.

In the late 19th or early 20th century, the manuscript was sold to German sexologist Iwan Bloch, who had already published a biography of Sade, and who saw in Sade’s work, and particularly in Sodome, a great source for the study of sexual perversion. Bloch had the manuscript transcribed, and published it in 1904 under the pseudonym Eugène Dühren. After Bloch’s death in 1922, the manuscript’s location is unknown, but it resurfaces again in 1929, when it is bought by Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, a direct descendant of Sade’s. The Noailles were influential patrons of the arts, their circle including, among others, Salvador Dalí, Balthus, and Man Ray, who photographed the manuscript. Under the auspices of the Noailles family, Maurice Heine was allowed to produce a second, more accurate transcription of the manuscript, which was published in the 1930s.

In 1982, the manuscript passed from the Noailles’ daughter, Nathalie de Noailles, to Swiss collector of erotica Gérard Nordmann, although not without scandal; the manuscript had allegedly been stolen from the Noailles family before being sold to Nordmann, although a Swiss court ruled that Nordmann had purchased the manuscript legally and in good faith. After Nordmann’s death in 2004, the manuscript was sold to Gérard Lhéritier, French manuscript dealer and founder of the firm Aristophil, who exhibited it in the Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits. In 2015, however, an investigation was opened against Lhéritier, due to a suspected pyramid scheme fraud. The manuscript, along with others in Aristophil’s collection, was seized by French authorities, and is still being held to this day.

The itinerary of the manuscript of Les Cent vingt journées de Sodome is a rich and complex one, and makes for a fascinating study in its own right. But even a brief examination of the itinerary of the manuscript throws up enriching angles for the study of the text, its reception, and influence, especially as the text only existed in manuscript form for the first hundred years of its life. As our study of the manuscript’s itinerary develops, so too, hopefully, will our understanding of the itinerary of the text and the ideas within. This project, and the ‘Things That Matter’ course, has furnished me with a renewed appreciation of tensions between the material and the digital and the rich potential of emerging software, which can only be of benefit to my other ongoing research, particularly as regards the iconography of Voltaire.

– Josie Dyster, Research Assistant, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

(Josie is a research assistant in the Digital Enlightenment. She is currently building on existing research by Professor Samuel Taylor (St Andrews) to create a digital Voltaire iconography database.)

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