Geographica II

Rolando Minuti


1In the rich workshop of the author of L’Esprit des lois, of which we still have much unpublished material and many manuscripts, the readingt extracts and notes occupy a considerable place. Even if the references and annotations on works he had consulted are not absent from the best-known and largest collections of fragments, the Pensées and the Spicilège, Montesquieu had constituted several private collections of which we have no more than the titles – Anatomica, Juridica, Mythologica et antiquitates, etc. – based on his summaries of readings and annotations on the works he had read the most.

2From this viewpoint the collection Geographica II, a large manuscript of 337 sheets now preserved at the Bordeaux municipal library (ms. 2507) without doubt retains a particular importance, since it is the richest collection of Montesquieu’s notes and extracts about travel literature and other texts having particularly to do with the Asian world – almost all the other volumes having disappeared. What we have, at the title itself indicates (Geogra Tom II on the spine of the binding) is the second volume, the only one extant, of a collection that was doubtless much richer, and of which we can at most reconstitute the table of contents, with ten or so titles (OC, t. XVI, p. 415-417), on the basis of Montesquieu’s cross-references in the Pensées (nos 1810 and 1846), or in other fragments that belong to the ensemble of manuscripts of the château of La Brède (ms 2506) that were recently transferred to the Municipal Library of Bordeaux: this vol. I included reading extracts from Chardin’s Voyage en Perse, from Kaempfer’s Histoire du Japon, from Perry’s État présent de la Grande Russie, of Tournefort’s Relation du voyage du Levant, of Wansleben’s Nouvelle relation […] d’un voyage fait en Égypte, of Frézier’s Relation du voyage de la mer du Sud, and of two collections (XXI and XXII) of the Lettres édifiantes.

3This second collection of Geographica has been revealed to the public thanks to Françoise Weil, in the second volume of the Masson edition of Montesquieu’s Œuvres complètes (Nagel, 1953); yet that was a very partial edition that made no attempt to transcribe the whole manuscript, and was limited to only the passages where the presence of an observation of Montesquieu, revealed by an asterisk, appears directly, as well as a complete ensemble entitled: “A few remarks on China which I have drawn from conversations I have had with M. Hoange” (“Quelques remarques sur la Chine, que j’ai tirées des conversations que j’ai eues avec M. Hoange”), which the title seems to designate as properly derived from Montesquieu’s own thought. The new edition (OC, t. XVI, 2007) furnishes the full collection, which contains many more passages introduced by the asterisk than the 1950 edition would lead one to suppose; it also appears that Montesquieu’s mode of intervention consists, as Françoise Weil had already made evident in her 1953 introduction, of an interpretation-rewriting, which constitues a pre-redaction of what we will find in many pages of L’Esprit des lois (Volpilhac-Auger, 1999) – for the Geographica are the very supply-line of the masterwork. Finally, it turns out (Benítez) that the “Quelques réflexions…” were not derived from Montesquieu’s conversations with Hoang, but were copied by Montesquieu’s secretary on the basis of the work of the academician Nicolas Fréret, who had a deep and attentive knowledge of Chinese culture, who had had close relations with the Chinaman Arcadio Hoang, the interpreter of the king’s library and charged by abbé Bignon with writing a dictionary of the Chinese language (Montesquieu himself had known him in Paris before 1713: Spicilège, no. 368). Montesquieu’s intervention (again identified by an asterisk) is only occasionally apparent for particular points, and many ideas developed in this text are radically foreign to him. Analysis of the hands of Montesquieu’s secretaries and the dates of publication of the works used allow us to situate, if not the readings, at least the transcription of the Geographica between 1734 and 1742. During this period Montesquieu was reading and annotating several works that were useful to him for illustrating the variety of causes that together help explain the variety of mores and laws in the various known societies and cultures. Works that deal for the most part with the extra-European world and in particular have to do with China; more than one hundred fifty pages are devoted to reading extracts of Du Halde’s Description de la Chine, one of the privileged sources, and several dozen to extracts of the Lettres édifiantes, in addition to the extracts of volumes XXI and XXII of that same collection which Montesquieu had included in Geographica I. We also note extracts from Addison’s Remarques sur différentes parties d’Italie, Gaya’s Cérémonies nuptiales, Bernier’s Voyages, La Loubère’s Description du Siam, Renaudot’s Ancienne Relation des Indes et de la Chine, Dampierre’s Voyages autour du monde, Abu’l Ghazi’s Histoire généalogique des Tatars, vol. VIII of Voyages du Nord (the first seven volumes were inserted in the collection labelled Commerce, only a few pages of which are extant), which complement this rich repository of notes, to which Montesquieu frequently referred, even if only in very uneven manner according to the works – but in any case massive with respect to China.

4Its relation with Montesquieu’s major work is one of the most interesting aspects of this text, and gives us many useful indications for better understanding his work methods. Even if he was careful to distinguish his own remarks from the extracts themselves with an asterisk, many elements, and especially direct confrontation with the pages of the works utilized, incline us to consider his reading notes as different from simple summaries, and to place them at a more advanced level of elaboration. Sometimes indeed they are real rewritings of a text he had before his eyes, an analysis that already had its basis in the problematics which we find in L’Esprit des lois, and for which Montesquieu sought examples and elements of verification; rather than a heterogeneous repertory of cards, it is thus rather a workshop of elaboration that developed in parallel with L’Esprit des lois and prepared its composition, in addition to the aspect already mentions of a genuine “pre-redaction of the major work” (Catherine Volpilhac-Auger 1999, p. 177). So it is his books of Geographica notes, to which he returned numerous times to integrate, correct, or add observations, that Montesquieu directly utilized at the timje when he was drafting the final text of the major work, often referring to his own collection of extracts rather than to the original texts, and sometimes composing entire chapters of L’Esprit des lois from examples he found there (e.g., XIV, 8, or XIX, 9-20).

5We know moreover that Montesquieu scorned compilers (LP 64 [66]), and the work method that is revealed to us by the Geographica testify to a style that never, even in the extracts, foregoes elaboration and personal intervention. This work did not end with the publication of L’Esprit des lois: it continued in what we can consider as a logical continuation of the Geographica collections with other extracts and summaries, written with the new edition of his great work in mind, which was to be published posthumously in 1757-1758. The collection of texts present in dossier 2526 at La Brède (among the manuscripts transferred in 1994 to the Bordeaux library, thanks to the Jacqueline de Chabannes donation), which for example includes the extracts of Sloane’s Histoire de la Jamaïque or Anson’s Voyage autour du monde (in press, OC, t. XVII; see the article “Extracts and reading notes” in this dictionary), is another important document from a workshop of reflection and research that proves to be active and richly suggestive to the end.



Bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux, ms. 2507. (Accessible on-line at the address: )


Geographica, in Montesquieu, Œuvres complètes, Paris: Nagel, André Masson ed., t. II, 1953, p. 923-963 (ed. Françoise Weil) ;

OC, t. XVI, 2007, 437 pages, Catherine Volpilhac-Auger ed.; editions, introductions and notes by Sylviane Albertan-Coppola, Miguel Benítez, Rolando Minuti, Ursula Haskins, Catherine Volpilhac-Auger.


Françoise Weil, Geographica, Introduction, Paris: Nagel, 1953, p. LXXVII-LXXXIX.

Cecil P. Courtney, with the collaboration of Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Bibliographie chronologique provisoire des œuvres de Montesquieu”, Revue Montesquieu 2 (1998), p. 211-245.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, «Du bon usage des Geographica», Revue Montesquieu 3 (1999), p. 169-179.

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

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “L’ombre d’une bibliothèque: la bibliothèque manuscrite de Montesquieu”, Lire, copier, écrire: la compilation et ses usages au XVIIIe siècle, Élisabeth Décultot ed., Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2003, p. 79-90.

— “On the Proper Use of the Stick: the Spirit of the Laws and the Chinese empire”, Montesquieu and his legacy, Rebecca Kingston ed., Albany: Suny Press, 2009, p. 81-96.

Bibliographical reference

Minuti Rolando , « Geographica II », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :