Rolando Minuti


1Toward the end of 1713, Father Pierre Nicolas Desmolets, the Oratorian librarian, loaned Montesquieu a large collection of notes and fragments on various subjects, the author of which is utterly unknown. It had been given the Latin title Spicilegium, a term used in the 17th century in particular, especially to designate collections of notes (scientific or philological) or of unpublished documents; very famous was, for example, the Spicilegium of French writers of the Benedictine Luc d’Achery, published between 1655 and 1677. Montesquieu, a young Bordeaux lawyer who had begun enlarging his circle of interests and maturing, in the Parisian cultural milieu, his intellectual personality, made much of this collection, so rich in various sometimes spicy curiosities. He took it with him to Bordeaux and decided, before restoring it to Father Desmolets, to entrust two secretaries to copy it in its entirety, to use it as the first part of one of his own notebooks, for which he continued to use, translating the Latin word into French, the title Spicilège. He took care, however, to distinguish precisely his own part from what was owing to the anonymous author, in a notice he added at the beginning of the notebook (item no. 1) and at the end of what one could call the “Desmolets anthology” (no. 203); which did not prevent him from intervening directly in the first corpus of over two hundred entries to add titles or mentions, to make small corrections or insert personal annotations, distinguishing them, in keeping with his custom, with an asterisk (as is explicitly recalled in the notice of no. 1). It is thus with no. 204 that Montesquieu’s Spicilège really begins, on which he continued to work probably at the end of 1715, and which he continued to develop and correct until the end of his life.

2The anonymous Spicilegium – or “Desmolets dossier” (“recueil Desmolets”) – is indeed very different from the rest of the work. The total absence of information about its author makes its composition difficult to analyse; nevertheless, we can tell the dates of the works to which that author refers and the periodicals he uses and sometimes copies from. The most recent works to which he refers (the published theses of E.-F. Geoffroy and G.-C. Fagon, Lucas’s Voyage au Levant, the first and third Instruction pastorale of Fénelon, the Manifest of the Elector of Bavaria), and especially the summaries of reviews in the Journal des savants and Mémoires de Trévoux – the only periodicals the author seems to be interested in – allow us to fix the date of composition of this notebook between 1703 or 1704 and the first half of 1705. The notes for the most part are limited to reproducing, sometimes quite unmethodically, original texts, and denote a real curiosity, but also a disorganized one, with respect to scientific news, classical culture, certain aspects of religion and mythology, and a few anecdotes bearing on French men of letters and a few historical questions. Even if the anonymous author adds few personal notes, which could reveal his intellectual personality, we note all the same significant features of his mode of working. He avoids, in general, taking marked positions especially on the most delicate questions from the political or religious point of view, and limits himself to a few skeptical or dubious remarks. Jansenism, for example, does not particularly interest him but engages his sympathy, characteristic of the Oratory culture, from which probably came this writer who is a friend of Father Desmolets, expressed in a nuanced fashion, almost disguised when he summarizes the position of Fénelon and the debate that followed (nos. 41 and 43). Also worthy of note are his critical remarks on quietism and the Trappist order (nos. 121 and 127). But despite his prudence and moderation, he does not disguise his repulsion towards the Inquisition and its methods (no. 122), a tyrannical authority (nos. 33, 35, 58, 59, 60), superstitions (nos. 133, 150, 165) and astrology (nos. 55, 68), mysticism and ascetics (nos. 121, 127). Beyond curiosity for an anthology of information often collective in haste and without any clear plan or dominant intention, that is what could particularly have attracted the attention of Montesquieu.

3Probably beginning at the end of 1715, Montesquieu continued the Spicilège, with the help of one of his secretaries who have remained anonymous, secretary C, who also copied a part of the second part of the “Desmolets anthology” (entry nos. 2-92 were done by secretary B). The rest is dictated to secretaries C and D (abbé Bottereau-Duval), until 1728: an important moment in the material history of the Spicilège, when Montesquieu left for three years of travel, a capital period in his intellectual formation. So as not to be separated from his collection of notes, he added to the pages already written a considerable series of blank pages (which material examination of the manuscript clearly shows), had it all bound in one volume, and took with him in his travels this fat “notepad”. Then he himself transcribed his notes, which testify to highly varied conversations, meetings, readings and observations. Upon his return to France, it was secretaries E, H, and I and P (Damours) and, in less sustained fashion, secretaries K and O, who continued the transcription, Montesquieu writing less and less himself. The long interval between the hand of I (1743) and the beginning of the hand of P (1748) corresponds to the most active period of the writing of L’Esprit des lois, during which he ceased to supply the Spicilège and fed, but sparingly, the collection of Pensées (on which secretary L, absent from the Spicilège, was working). The accomplishment and publication of the great work, however, did not constitute the conclusion of Montesquieu’s research: he continued to stay abreast of new publications that could deal with items of interest to L’Esprit des lois, as well as political or economic events (following the gazettes especially), and he thus took up his anthology again to add notes, summaries, anecdotes. The last fragment, incomplete, of the Spicilège (no. 782), which summarizes a few sections of Lacurne de Sainte-Palaye’s Mémoires sur l’ancienne chevalerie, published in 1753 but perhaps known earlier in manuscript, shows that up to about 1750 Montesquieu continued to enrich the Spicilège (see OC, t. III, p. lxxv and note 276). Even if he took notes on separate sheets, he was careful subsequently to glue them to the end of the Spicilège, adding a note to recall the continuation of a previous summary. The corrections, additions of notes, titles or reminders in the margin, of clippings from gazettes or newspapers (an operation that did not follow a precise chronological order) were frequent but cannot always be dated with certainty; they show the care with which Montesquieu updated a collection that occupied a not negligible place in his vast project.

4It is thus in the form of a large, sheepskin-bound volume that the manuscript of the Spicilège has come down to us. Purchased by the Bordeaux library, which thus saved it from the dispersion that befell other manuscripts of Montesquieu at the auction of February 1939, it is presently preserved in its patrimonial collections (Ms 1867). After the publication of a selected series of entries from the Spicilège by Henri Barckhausen in 1899-1901, it was only in 1944 that André Masson gave a first edition (Un carnet inédit: le “Spicilège”, Paris: Flammarion, 1944). Yet it was still a partial edition including twenty-six extracts from the “Desmolets anthology”, only a brief summary of other fragments (summary extracts from works and the press), which according to him bore no sign of personal reflection. The Spicilège was still incomplete in vol. II of his edition of Montesquieu’s Œuvres complètes (1950), despite the presence of a more considerable series of fragments from the “Desmolets dossier”; it was only with the Desgraves edition (1991) that it was published in its entirety. Still, it was not until 2002, with the new edition of the Œuvres complètes published by the Voltaire Foundation, that the first critical edition was available.

5In the first part of the Spicilège, the anonymous author of the “Desmolets anthology” had above all emphasized, as we have said, a few questions under scientific discussion, anecdotes, and classical literature, using extracts from the Journal des savants and Mémoires de Trévoux as privileged sources. These (and the fact is remarkable) then disappear almost completely, Montesquieu clearly showing his preference for the Dutch gazettes and the Gazette de France, giving much greater room to contemporary political events. With respect to the Dutch gazettes, in particular he used the titles Gazette de Hollande and Gazette d’Amsterdam to refer to the same journal, the Gazette d’Amsterdam, which he began to consult in 1716 and continued to use almost systematically until 1747, when he also began to read and summarize the Gazette d’Utrecht (1747-1749). When he could no longer obtain the Dutch gazettes, which gave detailed information on political and economic reality in western and eastern Europe, he had recourse to the famous (French) Gazette of which borrowing appear in the Spicilège from 1721 to 1738.

6Montesquieu was able to add to extracts from the periodical press in French, during his stay in England, summaries and clippings from English journals and pamphlets, like the Craftsman, the most important country opposition journal to the Walpole government, directed by Bolingbroke and Pulteney – Montesquieu took notes on the Craftsman between 1730 and 1731 (nos. 515, 525, 525b, 533, 534, 537) – or the Cato’s Letters of Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, one of the most influential texts of radical English thought at the time (no. 309). Other journals, sometimes not identifiable, informed him on current political events. By adding to these extracts those of the Nouvelles de la République des Lettres (nos. 113, 228, 420, 747), a few Mercure Galant (nos. 555, 638) and other less important ones, we can conclude that almost one-sixth of the Spicilège is composed of borrowings from newspapers. Interest in current events is therefore one characteristic of this work.

7Montesquieu accorded the same importance to direct testimony and to conversations. Beginning with no. 331, a series of important articles begin with “I have heard it said”; so many suggestions, reflections or information on political and cultural events collected from very many people encountered in the course of his travels. Several times he quotes his source directly; for example he often quotes Cardinal Melchior de Polignac (nos. 489a, 492, 494, 495, 498, 501, 502, 503, 507, 512, 750), whom Montesquieu had known in Rome, or James Fitz-James, duc de Berwick (nos. 431, 432, 433, 455, 571, 600, 614, 700, 703, 704, 750, 758, 759), the natural son of James II exiled in France, an influential person at court and direct source of many interesting anecdotes, or Father Jean-François Fouquet (nos. 481, 483, 484, 490, 508), also met in Rome and an important source of Montesquieu’s ideas on China. But in other cases he limits himself to a general reference, which often entails problems of identification and dating since the summaries of conversations do not follow a linear chronological succession, and the memory of the conversations is often mixed into their direct transcription.

8A not-negligible series of fragments (nos. 250, 264, 328, 340-344, 617, 654, 687), finally, is devoted to medical or pharmaceutical questions which demonstrate Montesquieu’s constant curiosity with respect to scientific questions (a youthful passion that had not entirely disappeared) and his aptitude for practical experimentation. Yet Montesquieu’s Spicilège must not be thought to be a simple collection of scattered information, a collage of notices on the most diverse subjects where the direct presence of Montesquieu’s reflection would not be clearly detectable. Fragments concerning religion give, from this point of view, particularly interesting information. An attentive reader of the Bible, Montesquieu took many notes concerning especially the Old and New Testaments, and in his notes Bayle’s criticism is explicit: thus the influence of the notion of eternity on men’s acts (no. 415) and, more generally, the “impiety” of the author of the Dictionnaire historique et critique (no. 488). Montesquieu clearly distances himself from the arguments used by the partisans of atheism and attempts to refute them systematically (no. 511). But he also recognizes the real difficulties in advancing new ideas on physics and the organization of the universe without exposing himself almost inevitably to accusations of atheism (no. 565, on the Newtonian system); what had, contrariwise, given a useful tool to the atheists themselves “by making it appear that atheism is so natural that all systems, however different, tend towards it” (“en faisant croire que l’athéisme est si naturel que tous les systèmes, quelque différents qu’ils soient, y tendent toujours”). We can find similar examples, which mix more or less extended personal reflections with simple reading notes or notes of conversations, throughout the Spicilège. But we must recognize the essential difference between this collection and that of the Pensées, where personal elaboration is much more considerable. But then why did he begin (doubtless around 1720) a separate notebook?

9Montesquieu was overseeing the repartition between the two, as witness a crossed-out note in the Spicilège regarding the performance in 1723 of Houdar de La Motte’s Iñès de Castro (no. 335), which appears, with added remarks, in Pensées (no. 143). But is that because of the subjects in question? It is clear that, for the history of these two manuscripts, the beginning of the period of travel had a fundamental importance. Montesquieu’s decision to take the Spicilège, the writing of which was already well advanced, along with him, to make it into – by adding a considerable number of blank pages – a notebook of direct annotations, accentuates the character as a collection of brief notes (of readings or conversations) which thus becomes a distinctive mark of this collection. The dossier of Pensées, on which Montesquieu worked particularly when he returned, using earlier notes, thus maintained and developed the function of project for more personal, perfected or extended reflections, or fragments from his research. In certain cases, if the notes he continued to take in the Spicilège seemed to him worthy of examination or development, he crossed out his notes and took them up more extensively – as in the case of Iñes de Castro – in the pages of Pensées (see entry no. 646, crossed-out, in the Spicilège, on smallpox inoculation, which is taken up in Pensées, no. 1217). So two parallel notebooks, arising from the same trunk of the Spicilège, which acquired an autonomous and ever more diversified life, even if they maintain strong resemblances and close relations.

10One cannot find in the Spicilège an outline of the great works published by Montesquieu. The passages he borrows literally in L’Esprit des lois are indeed few in number (on currency rates, nos. 231, 462, 463: EL, XXII, 10); on Japan (nos. 523, 524: EL, VI, 13; VI, 18; XXIII, 12); on cruelties towards the Jews (no. 637: EL XXI, 20); on republics (no. 539a: EL, XI, 6 et XXIX, 19). His most evident characteristic is the constitution of a deposit of information, useful materials for ends we do not always know (sometimes for projects which were never completed, like the history of Louis XIV), with a particularly attentive eye on contemporary political reality, curious of anecdotes about eminent political or cultural personages, a project and reflections, often consulted and always maintained in good order, which furnished many useful elements for better appreciating the intellectual personality and work method of the author of L’Esprit des lois.



Bordeaux municipal library, Ms 1867.


Pensées et fragments inédits de Montesquieu, Bordeaux: Gounouilhou, 1899-1901 (ed. Henri Barckhausen).

Œuvres complètes de Montesquieu, André Masson ed., t. II, 1953, p. 691-919.

Pensées. Le Spicilège (ed. Louis Desgraves), Paris: Robert Laffont, coll. “Bouquins”, 1991.

Spicilège, edited by Rolando Minuti and annotated by Salvatore Rotta, OC, t. XIII, 2002.

Introductions to the above editions, Masson, t. II, p. LXVII-LXXVI ; OC, t. XIII, p. 3-80.