Catherine Volpilhac-Auger

1The imaginary or ideal library is a veritable topos of philosophical process or the expression of taste in the 18th century; the one evoked by Montesquieu in Lettres persanes (Lettres [‣]-[‣]), certainly inspired at least in part by the library at the Abbaye de Saint Victor in Paris, tends rather to describe the modern world (it contains neither ancient history nor law, which is surprising in a jurist imbued with Antiquity) and to criticize the genres and forms in fashion among his contemporaries. But here we will deal rather with real libraries where Montesquieu could feed his curiosity and material for the enormous documentation that constitutes the bedrock of his works.

2The Bordeaux Academy owed to Jean-Jacques Bel, who willed his books to it when he died in 1738, a considerable augmentation in its documentation: open to the public three days each week, and of course to academicians, it soon had its own “librarian” in the person of President Barbot, and especially all the erudite Italian Filippo Venuti (beginning in 1742). The manuscript catalogue of its collections should by all means be published. But Montesquieu, who when in Bordeaux called on the libraries of friends like Barbot, lived much of the time in Paris: he also borrowed books from the Royal Library: of this the registers preserve the record, carefully mined by Iris Cox, notably for the years 1747-1748. He would sometimes borrow, for extended periods, via his friend Pierre Desmolets, book from the Library of the Oratoire on the Rue Saint-Honoré: they were still at La Brède after his death. There subsist extracts or reading notes (published in vols. XVI and XVII of the Œuvres complètes) of works that he had seen at some point but did not own: thus he constituted for himself an “ideal” library, adapted to his purposes, but especially much larger, than the rich library of La Brède, which his financial means did not permit him to enlarge greatly. It is not the library of a collector, who invests in books for their rarity, despite what some have made bold to assert, with a false understanding of the notion of “rarity” in bibliophilia, and unaware of all we know about this library (Barria, 2011): it is a study library – even if it includes twenty volumes or so that had belonged to Malebranche (whose influence in Juilly was great) and three to Montaigne.

3This will be our principal focus, even if one must not see in it, as we have said, the sole source of a documentation which necessarily varied in different periods of Montesquieu’s life. The immense room in the château de La Brède, all the walls of which are covered with cabinets (though most of them date from the nineteenth century), still bears the motto chosen by Montesquieu himself: Assidue veniebat (‘he came here often’). The catalogue of its books was carefully composed in the years 1728-1731 (thanks to his secretary Bottereau-Duval) and has been published – it is complemented by the inventory after death of Montesquieu’s Paris home, published with the Catalogue, but which includes only 68 titles for about 700 volumes – but more important is that a large number of these works (about 2000 volumes for a little over 1500 titles) is now held at the Bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux since the dation mandated by Jacqueline de Chabannes in 1994 permitted the transfer of all the books held until that time at La Brède. Others had been dispersed in 1926 or are relocated by chance through sales; their description is given in the catalogues, which allow for completion of these lists and more precise identification of the works that had been “lost”.

4Thus it is possible to analyze a library of more than 3000 volumes which Montesquieu inherited in large part from his uncle, Jean-Baptiste de Secondat, and from his paternal family (Dubernet), which explains its relative age: many works from the 16th and 17th centuries, or the early 18th, whereas the most recent (and those we can be sure date from the time of Montesquieu’s life), as well as the most innovative, from Telliamed (1748) to Rousseau’s Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1751) or Buffon’s Histoire naturelle (1749), are mostly in the Parisian home; the catalogue of La Brède, on the other hand, hardly grows at all after 1735. Consultation of the books themselves leads to no revelations: marginal annotations are rare (in a Recueil de harangues de l’Académie française and Guisnée’s Algèbre, nos. [‣] et [‣] in the Catalogue). But an analysis of the whole shows that the library, well stocked in law and theology (respectively 80 and 100 pages in the catalogue, out of 600), and as much so in works from Antiquity, rarely in French translation, often in Latin translations of Greek authors (he did not read their language); it favors, moreover, a culture more Latin than Greek (which is hardly surprising), in which history occupies an considerable share, and is open to the sciences, thanks to the presence of works on mathematics and music, purchased after 1719, and therefore incontestably by Montesquieu himself, or anatomy (works purchased after 1730). What also comes through is a classical culture, that of the solid values of the 17th century, which is his as well, no doubt, as his uncle’s; but a personal taste is perhaps also affirmed for personal relations: Montaigne’s Essais are present in the edition of 1595, but also in the edition of 1727 (Catalogue, nos. [‣] et [‣]), edited by Pierre Coste, one of his friends and correspondents. The collection of La Brède also includes a certain number of works probably purchased in England in 1730-1731; but only a careful examination of the bindings in particular would permit us to ascertain more about them. A collection of geographical maps remains unexplored. On the other hand we risk never learning anything about the “Veneres” or curiosa: no copies having been found, and those pages of the catalogue having been providentially removed…

5How did Montesquieu work in his library – and going on from there, how should one use the Catalogue? First by not considering that every book owned is a book acquired and/or read by Montesquieu; presence at La Brède constitutes a strong presumption that such was the case, but never an absolute certainty. Moreover the library often offers several editions of the same work; only a count of all the quotations accompanied by a bibliographical indication or page notation would permit identification of the one which has been used – at least at the moment when Montesquieu cited it. The considerable differences that exist between modern editions of historical or philosophical texts and the editions prior to the 19th century in any case prompt us to go back systematically, if not to those that Montesquieu owned (all are not available everywhere), at least to contemporary editions. We do not necessarily find the key to his documentation this way: when Montesquieu compiled collections of extracts, like the one which has been preserved under the name Geographica II, it is to them he returns rather than to the originals. But it is striking to observe how dependent Montesquieu is on his sources; the care with which he recorded their references in the notes to L’Esprit des lois shows clearly that these are part of his demonstrative arsenal. And when he writes: “I have often studied men […]” (“J’ai souvent examiné les hommes […]”, preface de L’Esprit des lois), it is to contact with books that he owes this experience, to the reading of innumerable relations of voyages, historical works, etc., which no doubt constituted for him the most living part of his library. If Montesquieu liked living at certain times away from Paris, it was to devote himself to the land of La Brède, but certainly also to affront, among his books, the challenge of this “infinite diversity of laws and mores”.

6Account needed to be taken of this vast movement of information, of impregnation but also of critical distantiation; such is the purpose of the “Virtual library of Montesquieu” project, composed of two complementary parts: an electronic version of the Catalogue that permits all possible requests and circulation across the rubrics, while offering access to digitalizations of editions identical to those it possessed; and a data base which presents, for the works conserved in Bordeaux but also across the world, advanced bibliographic descriptions, while making links with Montesquieu’s mentions of them or the use of works that can be deduced from his texts: beyond “physical” volumes the hope is to reconstitute Montesquieu’s entire culture. This data base will constitute the structuring and initial element of a vast electronic editorial project of Montesquieu’s Œuvres complètes, a sign that the Catalogue is at the heart of the those works, as the library is at the heart of the château de la Brède.


Jean Ehrard, Le XVIIIe siècle, 1720-1750, Paris: Arthaud, 1974, p. 20-22.

Iris Cox, Montesquieu and the History of French Laws, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, SVEC 218 (1983), p. 86-87.

Louis Desgraves et Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, with the collaboration of Françoise Weil, Catalogue de la bibliothèque de Montesquieu à la Brède, Cahiers Montesquieu 4, Naples: Liguori, 1999, notamment p. 18-26.

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

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger with the collaboration of Hélène de Bellaigue, Les Plus Belles Pages des manuscrits de Montesquieu confiés à la bibliothèque de Bordeaux par Jacqueline de Chabannes, Bordeaux: William Blake and Co, 2005, p. 13-17.

— Introduction to Geographica, OC, t. XVI, 2007.

Barria, Eleonora, “La Biblioteca italiana de Haym, le guide d’acquisition de Montesquieu en Italie”, Studi francesi 163, 2011, p. 80-86.

C. Volpilhac-Auger, « Lire dans les Pensées de Montesquieu », in Les Art de lire des philosophes (colloque de Lyon, 2011), Delphine Kolesnik et Alexandra Torero-Ibad dir., Laval, Presses de l'université de Laval, 2014, p. 127-135.

Bibliothèque virtuelle de Montesquieu, Catherine Volpilhac-Auger dir., 2016.