Something like a parable

Friday No. 6, November 9th, 2018

Fairy tale time! Today I will tell you a strange story of a man who survived all revolutions, of how he did so, what this has to do with my topic of structural forgetting, and whether there is a moral at the end of this story (or not). Only that this time, the story is real.

Revolution No. 1

The protagonist of this tale was a Frenchman – that’s one of the reasons that took me to Paris these days – and went by the name of Louis-Charles Solvet, born in Paris on the 6th Brumaire of the Year IV, or on October 28th, 1795, as you would rather have it. He was the son of Pierre-Louis Solvet (1772–1847), bookseller, and Anne Marie Charlotte Lemoine.[1] In 1812 the young Louis-Charles joined Bonaparte’s imperial army, and until 1813 advanced into a regiment of the imperial guards. In 1814 he quitted service, apparently just in time to survive his first revolution (the guards may not surrender, but quitting seems to have been alright). He began to work as a private secretary, until in 1827 he was able to get a job in the royal French administration. Solvet entered the service of the king as a lawyer at the royal court, and in 1829 had advanced to the post of secretary general of the departement of Oise.

Revolution No. 2

The revolution of 1830 may have cost him his job, but fortunately nothing else besides, as it seems. In any case he felt the need to explain about this first demission from state service in the reports in his personnel record file. Some reports signed by Solvet state as reasons for him resigning “The revolution of 1830 and [that I was] my duty’s lover, what has happened not so rarely.”[2] In other versions, the explicit reference to the revolution of 1830 is dropped, and he only stated “[That I was] my duty’s lover, what has happened not so rarely amidst great changes.”[3] Having however survived his second revolution, he just applied again for a post in the state administration, and obviously got one, for in 1832 he was deputy crown prosecutor in Vassy, and in 1834 in Soissons. So his ‘love of duty’ might well have been a move to explain why he had changed coats so quickly. But there must have been more than a grain of truth in it also; he never married, and his superior’s assessments stated things like “zeal: tireless.”[4]

Assessments from Solvet’s personal file, 1861

Did I mention forgetting?

So far, so good, and a not unremarkable career that Louis-Charles Solvet had already made at that point, being 39 years old by now. But there has not much been about forgotten scholars in the story so far, and I promised there would be. And in indeed there was a connection between the learning which had been produced by the likes of Reland, Braun, Gale, and Renaudot, and the life and times of Solvet. During the 1820s, when he was still a private secretary, Solvet had studied in Paris, graduating in 1827. He had turned his attention not only to law but also to a subject somewhat fashionable at the time, namely Arabic. Obviously he was quite talented, for having studied under Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy (1758–1838) he had not only passed his exams with distinctions but a bit later, in 1829, also published a collected translation of Arabic sources which won some critical acclaim. With this work, entitled “Instituts du droit mahométan sur la guerre avec les infidèles”, ‘Institutions of Muslim law for the war against the unbelievers”, Louis-Charles Solvet had not only joined his two fields of interest. He also had commended himself for higher posts, as one French observer put it.[5] He really had, and his publication directly pinpoints for which kind of posts. When the French holdings secured on the North African coast in the wake of the first French intervention in Algier in 1830 were administratively restructured in 1834, Solvet successfully applied to be posted there. He was appointed judge for the French North African possessions.

Colonial aspirations

In Algier he settled into French colonial society, only that Algeria at this time still was no French colony. France only commanded some outposts. But some of the French in Algeria, as, for instance, a certain Louis-Charles Solvet, saw it as their mission to change this. In 1838 Solvet was listed on the title page of one of his publications as vice-president of the “Scociéte coloniale” of Algiers,[6] a position in which he campaigned for a more thorough French grip on the land. In the same year of 1838, he finally published a second translation, this time from Latin to French: An edition of Adrien Relands “De jure militari mohammedanorum contra christianos bellum gerendum”, which had been published among Relands collected dissertations in 1708.[7] Solvet’s version went as “Institutions du droit mahométan relatives à la guerre sainte” from the government’s press in Algiers, something official permission by the minister of war was necessary for. Solvet had applied for this successfully in 1837,[8] as his translation was intended to be something like a manual for French soldiers, to mentally arm them for the coming colonial war that French expansionists envisioned. They should know what to expect from a Muslim enemy.[9] Whether Reland’s very scholarly and sober philological commentary on Muslim legal provisions for the jihad might have actually been of any help in this case I would consider as highly doubtful. 

Revolution No. 3

But Solvet not only claimed that in a situation such as his – and the French in general – in a foreign country faced with potentially enemy Muslims Reland’s commentary quite naturally resurged from his memory.[10] It really might have been yet one more stepping stone for his administrative career afterwards. For when in 1840 the war that Solvet longed for finally started, he in the wake rose to the post of counsellor at the royal court (in 1842). A position in which he, perhaps not too surprisingly given his former luck in such circumstances, survived his third revolution, that of 1848. Though no longer a royal counsellor he still had his judicial post, and in 1850 was accepted as chevalier de la Legion d’honneur. It is not entirely clear why, because his file has not survived in the records of the Legion, but from his personnel file it seems that his long-time services in the colonial administration were the reason.[11] The family actually had a stroke of luck there, for his almost twenty-two years younger brother Jean-Alphonse Solvet (1817–1896) also was dubbed chevalier de la Legion d’honneur in 1880 for his services to the Paris magistrate as long-time secretaire général of the 7th arrondissement.[12]

Revolution No. 4 1/2 

But back to Louis-Charles Solvet: The coup d’etat of Louis Napoleon in 1852 – which was not really a revolution – he survived, too, only to become president of the chamber of the imperial court of Algiers in 1862. He died in Algiers in 1868, which but deprived him of his chance to finally also survive the fall of the Second Empire.

Did I mention my theses?

This is a story which seems to be a good proof for my general thesis that there is nothing like an innocent reference. If one refers to one’s predecessors, one does that for one’s own benefit, otherwise one would not do so. In the case of Solvet it is clearly visible how he applied his talents and crafts to make those references which fitted the social and political climate of the France of his times, allowing him to rise through all mutations of the French state to the rather high post he held in the end, and gratifying him with seeing his colonial visions fulfilled during his lifetime. It is highly probable that he had picked up his knowledge about Reland during his Arabic studies in 1820s Paris, most probably from his readings of George Sale’s (c.1696–1736) translation of the Coran, as he himself claimed later.[13] A couple of years later in North Africa, he took the opportunity to establish those connections between him and these scholars and their publications which would benefit him, and successfully so.

Solvet’s signature from his 1865 request to continue on his post.

The morale of it all (if there is one)

Now the point of the whole story is that notwithstanding all acclaims which his publications got during his lifetime, today Louis-Charles Solvet has plunged even deeper into oblivion than Reland whom he used to advance his career. Perhaps this became already visible in 1865, when his secretary Pierry filed two requests to the Keeper of Seals, the French minister of the interior, to elevate Solvet from his 3rd grade rank of Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur to the 2nd grade rank of Officier. Pierry explicitly mentioned Solvet’s scientific activities on a par with his contributions to the colonial administration. The superimposed note on the second request only reads: “Spoken with Mr. Lent. Respond negatively.”[14] And although I do have some ideas of why that would be so, I am not sure yet – and neither if there is a morale to the story or not. So feel free to decide that for yourself, and please keep me posted! I will.


[1] Archives Nationales, Paris, LH/2533/33, Dossier du Jean-Alphonse Solvet, p. 5.

[2] Archives Nationales, Paris BB/6 (II)/396, Ministère de la justice: Notice individuelle 1861, 1859, Etat des Services: „Cause de la cessation du service: revolution de 1830 et officii amator mei, ut non raro accidit.“

[3] Archives Nationales, Paris, BB/6 (II)/396, Ministère de la justice: Notice individuelle 1863, Etat des Services: „Cause de la cessation du service: Officii amator mei, ut non raro accidit magna rerum commutatione”, signed Ch. Solvet, Algiers, July 15th, 1863.

[4] Archives Nationales, Paris, BB/6 (II)/396, Ministère de la justice: Notice individuelle 1861, Renseignements confidentiels: “Zèle: infatigable.”

[5] G. T.: 10. Instituts du droit mahométan sur la guerre sainte avec les infidèles, ou Extraits du livre d’Abou-l-hoçain-Ahmed-elKodouri, et de celui de Séid-Ali-el-Hamadani, traduits de l’arabe en français; par Ch. SoLvet. In-8° de 4o p. Paris, 1829; Dondey-Dupré. in: Bulletin general et universel des annonces et des nouvelles scientifiques, publie sous la direction du baron de Ferussac, 13, 09/1829, pp. 11-12; p. 12.

[6] Solvet, Louis-Charles: Voyage à “la Rassauta” [en Algérie], lettre à M. A… député, Marseille 1838, title: “vice-président de la société coloniale d’Alger”.

[7] Reland, Adrien; Solvet, Louis-Charles (transl.):  Institutions du droit mahométan relatives à la guerre sainte. Dissertation de Hadrien Reland, traduite du latin en francais par Ch. Solvet, Algier: Imprimerie du Gouvernement 1838; Reland, Adrien: Hadriani Relandi Dissertationum miscellanearum pars tertia, et ultima, Utrecht: Broedelet 1708.

[8] Archives Nationales, Paris, BB/6 (II)/396, Secretariat du Government des possessions francaises dans le nord de l’Afrique to the Minister of War, August 12th, 1837.

[9] Reland, Adrien; Solvet, Louis-Charles (transl.):  Institutions du droit mahométan relatives à la guerre sainte. Dissertation de Hadrien Reland, traduite du latin en francais par Ch. Solvet, Algier: Imprimerie du Gouvernement 1838, p iii: “enfin qu’elle contribuerait à faire mieux comprendre les préjugés et le genie des peuples que nous avons a combattre.”

[10] Reland, Adrian; Solvet, Louis-Charles (transl.):  Institutions du droit mahométan relatives à la guerre sainte. Dissertation de Hadrien Reland, traduite du latin en francais par Ch. Solvet, Algier: Imprimerie du Gouvernement 1838, p ii.

[11] Archives Nationales, Paris, BB/6 (II)/396, Extrait de la partie individuelle de Mr. Solvet, Conseiller à la cour d’appel de Alger, June 1850.

[12] Archives Nationales, Paris, LH/2533/33, Dossier du Jean-Alphonse Solvet, p. 7.

[13] Reland, Adrian; Solvet, Louis-Charles (transl.):  Institutions du droit mahométan relatives à la guerre sainte. Dissertation de Hadrien Reland, traduite du latin en francais par Ch. Solvet, Algier: Imprimerie du Gouvernement 1838, p. ii.

[14] Archives Nationales, Paris, BB/6 (II)/396, Pierry to Mr. Garde du Sceaux, Algiers, December 12th, 1865.


1 thought on “Something like a parable

  1. Pingback: Non-transitive reference patterns | The Fading of Remembrance

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