Extracts and reading notes

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger


1Like many of his contemporaries, Montesquieu practiced the most useful taking of “extracts” or reading notes, with which they constituted open or systematic documentary dossiers. But what is more original, and particularly useful to the study of his work, is that he made a particular use of it, through a system of interreferences enough traces of which remain for us to know his work methods better; on the other hand several hundred pages (at least fifteen hundred) of these extracts subsist, which allows us to study them for themselves, the better to understand how and why Montesquieu did these readings. Finally, they appear as the indispensable intermediary between his sources, carefully specified in his notes, and his works.

2In the Lettres persanes, compilers are vigorously castigated (LP, 64 [66]); but that in no way helps us here, since Rica contested the right of compilers to be called authors: like the translator (LP, 123 [126]), the compiler thinks he is creating a new work but merely repeats someone else. But it is something else that Montesquieu is after: assembling a documentary portfolio for himself that stimulates reflection. Does he therefore follow the humanist principles renewed in the seventeenth century? It would be a serious mistake to think so, or to lead others to do so (Dornier 2008; for a fuller demonstration, see the introduction to Geographica, 2007, and Volpilhac-Auger, 1999 and 2003). Does he conform to the recommendations of the Oratorians at Juilly, who advise the assembly of thematic dossiers? To think so leads to missing the essential point of Montesquieu’s procedure, and his principal originality, which could only escape Henri Roddier (1952), who knew nothing of the collections assembled by Montesquieu, inaccessible before 1953, the true publication date of the first extracts of Geographica (see below).

3This portfolio is important: if we carefully follow the work’s internal references and tally the volumes preserved, we come to about eighty extracts of an author or work (from the Qu’ran [Alcoran] to Wansleben, in alphabetical order, in French, in accordance with contemporary spelling), and 28 assorted collections, mainly thematic (“Pièces diverses” but also Juridica and Politica, of two volumes each) – figures which we will consider provisional, so hypothetical is their reconstitution. But are we therefore dealing with compilations? This is long believed, to the point of publishing only very partially, as the 1953 edition directed by André Masson had done, in his volume II, texts from Geographica II that were held to be simple copies, obviously quite reduced with respect to the originals; at that time the only parts published contained a personal comment of Montesquieu’s. Now not only are these comments much more numerous that was then said, but the very writing of these notes filters through manifestly revealing choices: when he reads Father Du Halde’s Description de la Chine (1735), Montesquieu retains only 3%; we notice for example that he points out several times, and sometimes in extensive detail, that the Chinese emperors allowed themselves to be easily fooled by charlatans proposing an immortality potion to them. This reveals that Montesquieu is attentive to all the signs of superstition among a people whom the Jesuits wanted to portray as absorbed by spirituality… This fully justifies the publication of these notes in the edition of the Œuvres complètes: what filled a few dozen pages in 1953 and 1955 will fill more than two thousand in the new edition. Not to mention fragments of reading notes which can be found here and there in the Spicilège

4The first notes which Montesquieu took seem to be on Roman law: this is the Collectio juris, a group of six volumes first published in 2005; it ought no doubt to be accorded a particular status, since it is mainly a working corpus, annotated by Montesquieu during his years of study and early years in the parlement, training himself for the profession. Though it is not very useful for L’Esprit des lois (indeed, these notes date from before 1721, essentially from the period 1709-1713), for which he returns to the original text of the Corpus juris civilis rather than to his former notes, this important collection for the first time allows us to measure Montesquieu’s intellectual formation, at a decisive moment in his career. It reveals a Montesquieu who takes on Roman law, which will leave in him an indelible mark. Another collection, and in fact the only true “compilation”, is the Recueil d’airs, constitued by Montesquieu for the Prince of Wales, and thus destined for a particular use (only its summary is published in Œuvres et écrits divers II, thus in vol. IX of the Œuvres complètes).

5Of the thematic collections only two fragments survive: the most considerable (over seven hundred pages), and the only complete volume, is the Geographica II already mentioned, conserved at the château de La Brède until the dation of Jacqueline de Chabannes in 1994, and since published in its entirety (OC, t. XVI, 2007); it includes extracts from the following works: Addison, Remarques sur différentes parties d’Italie (in fact Montesquieu himself translated Remarks on Several Parts of Italy, 1705); Gaya, Cérémonies nuptiales de toutes les nations; Voyages du nord, tome VIII; Dampier, Voyages autour du monde; La Loubère, Du royaume de Siam: anciennes relations des Indes et de la Chine par deux voyageurs mahométans (trans. by Eusèbe Renaudot); “A few remarks drawn from conversations I have had with M. Ouanges” (=Arcadio Hoangh); Du Halde, Description de la Chine; Abulgazi Bayadur-Khan, Histoire des Tartares ; François Bernier, Voyages; Lettres édifiantes et curieuses; Missions des jésuites au Levant. The only autograph passages are those having to do with the Lettres édifiantes; the others are owing to secretaries E, E', and H (respectively 1734-1739, 1739 and 1741-1742); in other words, all these extracts served directly for L’Esprit des lois (on which more later). Moreover, with exception of two volumes (XXI and XXII) of the Lettres édifiantes that figured in Geographica I, this is just about all of Montesquieu’s available information on China. A particular case: that of the “A few remarks drawn from conversations I have had with M. Ouanges” (“Quelques remarques sur la Chine que j’ay tirées des conversations que j’ai eues avec M. Ouanges”), the only extract to be published in its entirety in the Masson edition, but which has every chance, according to Miguel Benítez, of not being by Montesquieu, as the title seems to indicate, but no doubt by Fréret, Montesquieu having been content to have them recopied, without much intervention on his part.

6We have only the end of the volume entitled Commerce (Bordeaux, ms. 2526/21 à 24, Chabannes dation), which brings in succession, with continuous pagination, Pierre Daniel Huet’s Histoire du commerce et de la navigation des anciens and the last pages of the Dictionnaire de commerce by Savary Des Brûlons. This collection, in the hand of the secretary Bottereau-Duval, is old (this secretary worked for Montesquieu from 1718 to 1731); other extracts, conserved under the same call number (ms. 2526), devoted to various works, belongs to Montesquieu’s last years, when the completion of L’Esprit des lois permitted him to plunge avidly into new readings (a whole section of the Montesquieu œuvre ouverte (1748-1755)? colloquium is devoted to them). We can enumerate the principal titles, of which the details (except for one or two accidental omissions) can be found in the Inventaire des fonds manuscrits relatifs à Montesquieu conservés à la bibliothèque de Bordeaux by Louis Desgraves, the whole filling several hundred pages: Homer (Iliad, Odyssey), Virgile (Georgics), Fénelon (Telemachus); Recueil A, 1745; Bernis, Œuvres mêlées; Hippocrates; Brisson, De regio Persarum, 1595; La Thaumassière, Anciennes et nouvelles coutumes […], 1679; Pierre de Fontaines, Conseil à un ami; Lebret, Ordo perantiquus civilium […], 1604; Gordon, The History of our National Debts and Taxes, 1751; Nickolls [=Plumard de Dangeul], Remarques sur les avantages […] de la France et de la Grande-Bretagne, 1754; Notes on cobalt; Gazette d’Utrecht, 27 février 1750; Suite des Nouvelles d’Amsterdam, 14 janvier 1749; Pline the Elder, ed. Hardouin; Du commerce des Hollandais; Remontrances sur les événements de 1752 entre le roi et les parlements; Dutot, Réflexions politiques sur les finances et le commerce; Édit du roi publié en parlement le 15 décembre 1599; Savary Des Brûlons, Dictionnaire de commerce, articles Vin-Yvoire; P. D. Huet, Histoire du commerce et de la navigation des anciens; Dubos, Les Intérêts de l’Angleterre mal entendus; Gazette d’Utrecht, 25 janvier 1754; Belloni, Dissertation sur le commerce, 1751; Anson, Voyage autour du monde, 1749; Chassipol, Traité des finances […] des Romains, 1740; Sloane, Histoire de la Jamaïque, 1751; Boureau-Deslandes, Essai sur la marine et le commerce, 1743.

7The diversity of all these extracts is striking: economic considerations are combined with a purely esthetic but also historical interest (Homer, Vergil), the constant curiosity for travel narratives (Anson, very hard on the Chinese, appearing in a way as the antidote to the Jesuits, who are very favorable to them), and the search for documents that deliver information constituting the very material of certain chapters of L’Esprit des lois: and so it is that the Conseil à un ami by Pierre de Fontaines, a juridical work from the 13th century, provides the material for book XXVIII of L’Esprit des lois; and in fact it is written in the hand of a secretary (Damours) who worked for Montesquieu in 1748, just at the time when that book was completed.

8And though we can wonder, for just the Commerce volume, whether it is the secretary of Montesquieu himself who took the notes, in all the other cases it is obvious that even if Montesquieu leaves the pen to his secretaries, he is indeed the author of all these extracts. We always observe the same method: a transcription sometimes replicating the original text, but in fact most often refashioned, followed by the indication of page (sometimes omitted, but rarely), and including at regular intervals a personal intervention of Montesquieu’s, always indicated by an asterisk, sometimes dealing with a major issue (on the Jesuits’ partiality toward the Chinese, or the reasons why the Chinese empire lasted so long), sometimes humoristic: thus, with respect to the Traité des finances des Romains [“Treatise on Roman finances”] where it is said that “a grammarian named Daphnis was sold for more than 75,000 livres”: “*That was a lot of money for a grammarian”; further up is a note about “what the author finds very sound *and I very impertinent”. Thus the extract takes the form, in evident fashion as here, or more discreetly elsewhere, as a critical dialogue, and the reading-writing as a work of active filtration, which allows him to extract not only what would be on target and interesting, but what is useful, even utilizable.

9I have studied elsewhere (Volpilhac-Auger, 1999) the manner in which Montesquieu appropriates texts, re-writes and condenses them, not only because they must be resumed to yield an “extract”, but also because he can make an idea more striking, or rather because from a simple observation, rather anodyne coming from the pen of the work’s author, he can extract all the possible meaning. We can study the three phases, beginning with the text of Du Halde, vol. I, p. 380: “[Ven Ti] tilled the soil with his royal hands to ennoble in a way such a hard profession; he had mulberry trees planted in his palace, and raised silkworms, to get the grandees to imitate his example, and he obliged the empress and her ladies-in-waiting to do needlework, to inspire the Chinese ladies to take up a similar occupation.” (“[Ven Ti] cultiva la terre de ses mains royales pour ennoblir en quelque sorte une profession si pénible; il fit planter des mûriers dans son palais, et y fit nourrir des vers à soie, pour engager les grands à suivre son exemple, et il obligea l’impératrice et ses femmes à travailler des ouvrages à l’aiguille, pour animer les dames chinoises à se faire une semblable occupation.”) In Geographica II (fo. 137vo.), this yields: “[He] tilled the soil with his hands to re-establish agriculture, had mulberry trees planted in his palace and had the empress and her ladies-in-waiting work in the silk industry.” And finally in L’Esprit des lois (XIV, 8 note c): “Ven ty, third emperor of the third dynasty, tilled the soil with his own hands, and had the empress and her ladies-in-waiting work in the silk industry, in his palace.” (“Ven ty, troisième empereur de la troisième dynastie, cultiva la terre de ses propres mains, et fit travailler à la soie, dans son palais, l’impératrice et ses femmes.”)

10The work of “condensation” explains the strangeness of expression – for it is unthinkable that the empress had to go outside the imperial palace, even for this occupation: in fact what we have here is a contamination of the preceding sentence. The commentary of Du Halde (“to inspire the Chinese women…” [“pour animer les dames chinoises…”]) appears useless beginning with the reading phase, but above all the sentence structure, which emphasizes the group “the empress and her ladies-in-waiting”, and the very detail of the expression (“do silkwork”) seem equally already fixed. In other examples, it appears that the rhythm and balance of the sentences and the choice of words tend to make of the extract a pre-redaction, closer to the text of L’Esprit des lois than to Du Halde’s, as in the examples given by Françoise Weil in her introduction to Geographica II in the Masson edition; thus the very famous chapter on the spirit of despotism (V, 13) comes from the 11th collection of Lettres édifiantes (p. 315): “Our savages are not accustomed to harvesting fruit from trees; they think it better to cut down the trees themselves: for which reason there are almost no fruit trees near the villages” (“Nos sauvages ne sont pas accoutumés à cueillir le fruit aux arbres; ils croient faire mieux d’abattre les arbres mêmes, ce qui est cause qu’il n’y a presque aucun arbre fruitier aux environs des villages”). In the Geographica, we read: “The savages, in order to harvest the fruit on the trees, cut down these trees themselves, for which reason there are no fruit trees near the villages” (“Les sauvages pour cueillir le fruit des arbres abattent les arbres mêmes, ce qui fait qu’il n’y a pas d’arbres fruitiers autour des villages”), with a later remark in the margins: “This is the image of despotic kings” (“C’est l’image de rois despotiques”). L’Esprit des lois will say: “When the savages of Louisiana want some fruit, they cut down the tree at the foot, and harvest the fruit. Such is despotic government.” (“Quand les sauvages de la Louisiane veulent avoir du fruit, ils coupent l’arbre au pied, et cueillent le fruit. Voilà le gouvernement despotique.”) We are far from the preoccupations of the Jesuit fathers, dismayed by the savages’ incapacity…

11We can even go so far as to say that the collections of extracts explain certain aspects of the composition of L’Esprit des lois: the very brief chapter 8 of book XIV is composed of three paragraphs, which in the manuscript were only two; these are in fact entirely constituted, notes included, from three quotations in Geographica II, two from Du Halde, one from La Loubère. Similarly, in book XIX, chapters 9 to 20 (ten pages in modern editions), which study the mores and manners of nations and their character, in order to see how the “general spirit” is formed, include eight references to works whose extracts figure in the Geographica (Du Halde, Dampier, Lettres édifiantes et curieuses, Lange’s Journal in vol. VIII of Voyages du nord) – a ninth being implicit in a general formulation. There again, the role of extract collection is patent: it seems that Montesquieu writes these passages having it constantly before his eyes – a sign, not that he is copying the source work, but that in reading it he spots the use he will make of it and constructs the work to come, and especially that he rereads the extract to nourish that use. This only make the disappearance of Geographica I, which must have contained, in addition to extracts from Chardin’s Voyage en Perse in ten volumes, the Recueils des voyages qui ont servi à l’établissement de la compagnie des Indes, of which Montesquieu made considerable use; to be sure, this work is never mentioned as having been the object of an extract; but it is hard to believe he would have had such frequent recourse to it had he not read it pen in hand.

12Another revelation about his work method: the working manuscript of L’Esprit des lois (preserved at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France) has incomplete references in its margins, for example: “voi. [for voyez] Geog. p. 128”; and in the printed version there is a reference to the corresponding work, a sign that Montesquieu, or more likely the secretary, went to the designated volume and page, to insert the reference useful to readers, that of the original work – for which reason the page references had been carefully noted in the extact: less to go back to it during a rereading than to produce it as a reference. The manuscripts of the archives of La Brède, certain dossiers of which remain incomplete or even “under construction”, reveal another aspect. Montesquieu had passages of the extracts, copied onto cards which he called bulletins (or “bultins”), with references to them, and never to the original – there again, it is doubtless up to the secretary, in a later phase, to track down the reference that alone will pass into the printed version (see L’Atelier de Montesquieu, p. 17-22). The same passage is sometimes recopied twice, by different hands (with variants due to negligence or to a reading problem), but especially we find grouped together in a folder whole series of cards, in the hand of the same secretary, taken from the same sheets of paper, on the same subject, recopying passages of the same collection of extracts: the volume of Pièces diverses thus provided material for about forty cards devoted to “various destructions” due to fanaticism of cruelty, throughout human history (Ms. 2506/8, L’Atelier de Montesquieu, p. 93-115, reprinted in De l’esprit des lois (manuscrits), OC, t. IV, p. 805-825); fragments of chapters written at an earlier time tell us nothing about what Montesquieu intended to use them for. Only this gesture remains: a systematic rereading that snips the extract into usable fragments, bits of lose or pinned paper, or more prosaically “post-its” that might still be today in the place Montesquieu assigned to them, and could have become essential articulations of developments comparable to those that Du Halde had permitted.

13One point deserves to be noted: the philosopher has no doubt about notes taken several years earlier, and uses them just as they are, manifestly without worrying about the original. Attacked by the notables of Genoa, who had addressed his friend Mme de Tencin to contest the role of their city in the Saint-Georges bank, such as he invoked it in L’Esprit des lois (II, 3), he replied: “About two months ago, on receiving your letter, I went and checked to see whether I was mistaken, and was very relieved when I saw that M. Addison – the man who in all the world knew best what he was saying – passing like me through Genoa, had made that remark” (15 April 1749; OC, t. XX). He says he has himself translated from English the page of the Voyage d’Italie which he now cites; indeed it is the first words of the first extract of the Geographica, just as he had them transcribed between 1734 and 1739 (and doubtless rather toward the beginning of this period). Everything in his letter leads us to suppose that he went back to Addison’s work, which he owned at La Brède where he was then staying – but it is manifest that he did not: there was no need to get the work, page through it and retranslate, since the solution was at hand. In agreement with himself, Montesquieu can reply without hesitation to Mme de Tencin and the contesting Genovese: a sign that for him the extract, which as we have said he pretends neither to objectivity nor to neutrality, in his eyes is never false, inexact or tendencious, since he is in good faith.

14We will pause only for the anecdote on the fact that the intervention of a secretary often has the consequence that the proper names are reproduced in approximate manner, that the text has been dictated (thus “le Kandahar” becomes “le camp d’Haar”, OC, t. XVI, p. 454) or transcribed; fortunately, Montesquieu cared little about retaining the Chineses names that Du Halde offered in profusion (and which the secretary, who obviously is copying a text he is having trouble reading, regularly manhandles); exoticism in this matter seems useless to him: it is better to understand an institution than to provide a name for it, or rather its Gallicized transcription. We will rather note that if Montesquieu had systematically indicated the page numbers, he could have put them for each reference produced in a note. Not having found them, certain critics (beginning with Voltaire) accused Montesquieu of casualness: he might have invented quotations, or based himself on nonexistent texts. Thus the rod “that governs China”, as Du Halde has it, though very favorable to the Chinese (EL, VIII, 21). Contrary to what was long believed, this quotation indeed comes from Du Halde (t. II, p. 134), via Geographica II. Montesquieu had sometimes himself seen to it that the page reference was correct: in the manuscript of L’Esprit des lois there are several references that disappear from the printed version, since they could not be accompanied by a page reference (absent from the Geographica): when in doubt, he rather abstained.

15To conclude, we will insist on the fact that these extracts represent an immense portion of the knowledge on which the work pursued for more than fifteen years was based; they constitute the proof, not only of the veracity of his information, but also of the trouble Montesquieu took to present no fact that was not verifiable. But we must not forget that while conducting these immense readings with such care and critical spirit, while accumulating so methodically all the necessary elements for a future work or one in gestation, Montesquieu also fashioned an intellectual method: selection of sources of information, relating them to each other, extrapolations and further study based on apparently anodyne facts or facts to which the informer attached but minimal importance: it was by constituting the collections of extracts that Montesquieu became the author of L’Esprit des lois.



Geographica II: Bordeaux, bibliothèque municipale, Ms 2057.

Notes de lecture: Bordeaux, bibliothèque municipale, Ms 2526. (Accessible on-line at the address: http://bibliotheque.bordeaux.fr/in/faces/imageReader.xhtml?id=h::BordeauxS_Ms2526_JPEG)

Collectio juris: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, n.a.fr. 12837-12842.

Other extracts scattered through other manuscripts, are mentioned in the Œuvres complètes and in the volume of Extraits et notes de lecture (OC, t. XVII, Rolando Minuti dir.).


Œuvres complètes, André Masson dir., t.II, 1953, p.923-963 (Geographica II, ed. Françoise Weil), et t.III, 1955, p.703-720.

Collectio juris, OC, t.XI et XII (ed. Iris Cox and Andrew Lewis), 2005.

Extraits et notes de lecture: Geographica II, t.XVI (2007, C. Volpilhac-Auger dir., integral edition); XVII (in preparation, dir. Rolando Minuti).


Louis Desgraves, “Les extraits de lecture de Montesquieu”, Dix-Huitième Siècle 25 (1993), p. 483-491, developing the same author’s “Notes de lecture de Montesquieu”, Revue historique de Bordeaux, 1952, 149-151, and reprinted in his Montesquieu: l’œuvre et la vie, Bordeaux: L’Esprit du temps, 1995, 261-273.

Henri Roddier, « De la composition de L’Esprit des lois. Montesquieu et les Oratoriens de Juilly », Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France 52 (1952), p. 439-450.

Cecil P. Courtney, with the collaboration of Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Liste bibliographique provisoire des œuvres de Montesquieu”, Revue Montesquieu 2 (1998), p. 211-245: http://montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?article157

Miguel Benítez, “Montesquieu, Fréret et les remarques tirées des entretiens avec Hoangh”, in Actes du colloque international de Bordeaux pour le 250e anniversaire de “L’Esprit des lois”, Louis Desgraves dir., Bordeaux: Bibliothèque municipale, 1999, p. 111-126, reprinted in OC, t. XVI, p. 419-434.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Du bon usage des Geographica”, Revue Montesquieu 3 (1999), p. 169-178. http://montesquieu.ens-lyon.fr/spip.php?article325

— “Montesquieu en ses livres: une bibliothèque à recomposer”, Bibliothèques d’écrivains, Paolo D’Iorio and Daniel Ferrer ed., Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2001, p. 51-69.

L’Atelier de Montesquieu: manuscrits inédits de La Brède, Cahiers Montesquieu 7, Napoli: Liguori, 2001.

— “L’ombre d’une bibliothèque: la bibliothèque manuscrite de Montesquieu, in Lire, copier, écrire: les bibliothèques manuscrites et leurs usages au XVIIIe siècle, Élisabeth Décultot dir., Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2003, p. 79-90.

— with the collaboration of Helène de Bellaigue, Les Plus Belles Pages des manuscrits de Montesquieu confiés à la bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux par Jacqueline de Chabannes, Bordeaux: William Blake, 2005, p. 13-35.

Christophe Martin, “‘L’esprit parleur’: Montesquieu lecteur d’Homère, Virgile, Fénelon et quelques autres”, in Montesquieu œuvre ouverte (1748-1755)?, Catherine Larrère dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 9, Naples: Liguori, 2005, p. 271-292.

Rolando Minuti, «Montesquieu et le récit de voyage de l’amiral Anson», dans Montesquieu œuvre ouverte (1748-1755)?, Catherine Larrère dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 9, Naples, Liguori, 2005, p.253-270.

Christian Cheminade, «Le Conseil à un ami: Montesquieu, lecteur de Pierre de Fontaines», dans Montesquieu œuvre ouverte (1748-1755)?, Catherine Larrère dir., Cahiers Montesquieu 9, Naples: Liguori, 2005, p.293-303.

Carole Dornier, «Montesquieu et la tradition des recueils de lieux communs», Revue française d’histoire littéraire de la France 108 (2008/4), p. 809-820.

C. Volpilhac-Auger, “Of the proper use of the stick. The Spirit of the Laws and the Chinese Empire”, in Montesquieu and his legacy, Rebecca E. Kingston dir., New York: SUNY, 2008, p. 81-96.