An institutional memory?

Saturday, January 18th, for Friday No. 16

Histoire de l’Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, Vol. 1, 1717, title page.

In one of my last posts I suggested that none of my four exemplary cases has been able to profit from a memorializing attempt by his institution. Today I would like to examine one case a bit closer, which is that of Eusèbe Renaudot and the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres he was a member of from 1691until his death in 1720. The academy was an institution very actively publishing their member’s efforts. They not only regularly printed research contributions – dissertations – by their members to various subjects in their own journal, the Mémoires de litterature, tirés des registres de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles lettres, but also every couple of years published quite massive volumes recording the institutional processes and progresses made in form of the Histoire de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres series, which began in 1717 and only terminated with volume 51 in 1843. And as if this were not enough, in 1740 the historian Claude Gros de Boze (1680–1753), together with the savant Claude-Pierre Goujet (1697–1767) and using materials by Paul Tallemant (1642-1712), compiled a history of the academy up until this time in three volumes, theHistoire de l’Academie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres depuis son etablissement, avec les eloges des academiciens morts depuis son renouvellement, published in Paris.

Commemoration done

There would have been plenty of room, therefore, to commemorate the abbé Renaudot. Yet, if one takes a closer look at these materials, the form in which this commemoration took place turns out to be quite interesting. Starting with the most obvious point, there was no eloge on his behalf when he passed away in 1720, but only in 1729 with the 5th volume of the Histoire de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres. This is easily accounted for by the notorious delay of the Histoire volumes in wrapping up the events within the academy. The 1729 volume explicitly only dealt with the years 1718 – 1725;[1] so he was no exception in this. This span of nine years between the publication of the eloge and the actual death is however quite long. It becomes even more pronounced if one takes into account that the following five volumes did not mention Renaudot at all, and he only appeared again within the series in the 11th volume of 1740 – which in itself comes as no surprise because this was the index volume to the preceding ten. From then on, until volume 16 of 1751 there would be no notice of Renaudot in the Histoire series either.

Having a complementary look at the second series of proceedings the Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres produced, the Memoirs, is, unfortunately, a bit more complicated. They are digitally available in very good scan quality via Hathi Trust, yet not fulltext searchable – and it would take quite a while to read through over 70 volumes of around 500 pages each, so I have to restrict my findings to the tables of contents in this case for the time being. Nevertheless, these are quite instructive. Although the first volumes to move beyond Renaudot’s lifetime were seven to nine (covering 1718–1725), there are only four dissertations by him in all of the first nine volumes, two in both volumes two and three,[2] which basically means that he ceased publishing on behalf on the academy before 1710; and obviously there was no posthumous material published after 1720. [But as long as I haven’t done an analysis of reference to him at the intratextual level, this is not necessarily indicative of his overall presence in the epistemic community formed by the academy’s members.]

Commemmoration achieved?

Now one might argue that this was just what was to be expected as someone who was thirty years dead by then would in all likelihood not be able to play a large role in the current affairs of the academy. He perhaps should not turn up there at all. But it is a bit more complicated than that, as the 1751 volumes 16 and 17 of the Histoire series show upon inspection. Renaudot was mentioned thrice in them, once in no. 16 and twice in no. 17. The first instance was a reference to the correspondence between Bernard de Montfaucon (1655–1741) and Jacob Gronovius (1645–1716) which had once been triggered by a Renaudot letter.[3] The other two instances of reference to Renaudot quoted some of his work on the history of the Eastern churches within a dissertation about the Assassins.[4] And then there was silence – at least for another ten volumes.

But before I turn to the reappearance of Renaudot in volume 26 of the Histoire de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres series, let me jump back to the year 1740 and have a look at the other history of the academy, de Boze’s Histoire de l’Academie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres depuis son etablissement, avec les eloges des academiciens morts depuis son renouvellement. As if to make up for the delay in publishing the eloge on the abbé, this second history also contained it,[5] as well as some references to Renaudot in its records of the academy’s workings.[6] 1740 thus serves as first peak year of institutional references of the Academie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres to its former member, the abbé Renaudot. But as already said, with that obligation fulfilled, there was nothing said about him anymore apart from the three rather peripheral references in 1751.

Collateral commemoration

This only changed with the 26th volume of the Histoire de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres series of the year 1759, in which Renaudot was referred to in a particular context,[7] which I, not incidentally, already wrote about on this blog from the perspective of the other party. It was the dispute between John Swinton (1703–1777) and Jean-Jacques Barthélemy (1716–1795) about the honour of having been the first to be able to correctly interpret the Palmyrene inscriptions. There is nothing contemporary in the Memoirs series, which is due to the fact that this series over the years had built up even more delay in publication than the Histoire – the proceedings for the years 1749-1760 were only printed in 1771. The Barthélemy version of the decipherment of Palmyrene[8] does have certain advantages over the Swinton version, one of these being that Barthélemy unlike his English colleague and/or competitor referred back not only to Adrien Reland and Jacob Rhenferd (1654-1712) as Swinton had done but also to Eusèbe Renaudot and Gijsbert Cuper (1644–1716) who both were included in his account for good reason. Renaudot had studied the inscriptions himself and then decided it was not worth the effort given the situation at his time; and Cuper had been instrumental in providing the additional inscription brought forward first by Rhenferd and later Reland.

To assume that this was what brought Renaudot back into the reference flow once again would certainly be very far-fetched. I would rather like to argue that Barthélemy represents a general trend here, the trend towards antiquarian topics the likes of which Renaudot had been dealing with which brought him back into the focus of the academy’s members now. Unlike in the years between 1729 to 1740 and 1741 to 1758, Renaudot was referred within the Histoire series now on a regular basis, even if with rather low frequency. From the 1790s onwards the remarks become increasingly critical,[9] but they are still there.

So what can be seen from these patterns of references? Although the institution the abbé Renaudot belonged to had done him the customary honours of memorialization, it had done so a bit belatedly, and without lasting effects. The modest Renaudot comeback since the middle of the 1750s, more than 30 years after his death, had nothing to do with the commemorative efforts undertaken by the academy but was due to an external event outside the institution’s control.


[1] Histoire de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres, Vol. 5, Paris : Imprimerie royale 1729, title page: “depuis l’année M. DCCXVIII. jusques & compris l’année M. DCCXXV.”.

[2] Mémoires de litterature, tirés des registres de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles lettres, Vol. 2, Paris : Pancoucke 1722 [reprint], pp. 318-342, 343-360;  Mémoires de litterature, tirés des registres de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles lettres, Vol. 3, Paris : Pancoucke 1722 [reprint], pp. 152-184; 236-245.

[3] Histoire de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres, Vol. 16, Paris : Imprimerie royale 1751, p. 326.

[4] Histoire de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres, Vol. 16, Paris : Imprimerie royale 1751, p. 146, 148.

[5] De Boze, Histoire de l’Academie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres depuis son etablissement, avec les eloges des academiciens morts depuis son renouvellement, vol. 2, pp. 188 – 222.

[6] De Boze, Histoire de l’Academie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres depuis son etablissement, avec les eloges des academiciens morts depuis son renouvellement, vol. 1., p. 16, 45, 122, 128 ; vol. 3, p. 404, 451.

[7] Histoire de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres, Vol. 26, Paris : Imprimerie royale 1759, pp. 61, 581.

[8] Jean-Jacques Barthélemy: Réflexions sur l’alphabet et sur la langue dont on se servoir [sic] autrefois a Palmyre (12 Février 1754), in: Histoire de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres, Vol. 26, Paris: Imprimerie royale 1759, pp. 577–597.

[9] Cf. Histoire de l’Académie royale des inscriptions et belles-lettres, Vol., 45, Paris: Imprimerie Nationale 1793, p. 178, and Vol. 49, Paris: Imprimerie Impériale 1808, p. 106.


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