Controversial Authorship: Voltaire and one of his imitators

By Elise Breton*

Perhaps because of his distinctive writing style, as well as his great popularity, Voltaire was often imitated as an author. Questions of dubious Voltaire authorship were an area of interest for Voltaire scholar J. Patrick Lee, whose library was recently acquired by McGill. In his article “The Apocryphal Voltaire: Problems in the Voltairean Canon,” Lee discusses several such titles that are now held in this new collection to McGill.

Les JesuitiquesAs Lee noted, Voltaire had himself complained about the many works that were wrongly attributed to him [translation ours]:

On ferait une bibliothèque des ouvrages qu’on m’impute. Tous les réfugiés errants font de mauvais livres et les vendent sous mon nom à des libraires crédules. […] On me répond que c’est l’état du métier. Si c’est cela le métier est fort triste.1
[One could make a library with all the works that are attributed to me. Every wandering refugee makes a bad book and sells it under my name to gullible booksellers. […] I am told this is simply the state of the profession. If so, the profession is very sad.]

Among Voltaire’s imitators, the abbot Henri-Joseph Du Laurens was not the least talented. He copied Voltaire’s style so well that many of his works, the most famous being Le Compère Matthieu (of which Lee owned two copies), were attributed to Voltaire by his contemporaries. Other works of Du Laurens held in the Lee Voltaire Collection include editions of Les Jésuitiques, which was also for some time attributed to Voltaire. In this copy we can see that an early reader added “par l’abbé du Laurens” in manuscript on the title page.

Voltaire knew about du Laurens, as he wrote in 1768:

Il y a un théatin qui a conservé son nom de Laurent qui est assez facétieux, et qui d’ailleurs est instruit : il est auteur du compère Matthieu, ouvrage dans le goût de Rabelais, dont le commencement est assez plaisant, et la fin détestable.2
[There is a Theatine, who kept his name of Laurent, who is quite mischievous, and who is actually educated: he is the author of Compère Matthieu, a work in the style of Rabelais, of which the beginning is quite pleasant, and the end odious.]

Relation du bannissement - small
“Perhaps in an ironic revenge for this exploitation of his name,”3 says Lee, Voltaire decided to return the favor: Voltaire’s Relation du bannissement des Jésuites de la Chine is attributed to “l’auteur du Compère Matthieu” on the title page.
These kinds of malicious false attributions of authorship are interesting to track as they are often connected with fascinating stories. And our thanks go to the rare books catalogers, who have to deal with these complicated publishing contexts!

* Elise Breton is an intern in Rare Books and Special Collections from École nationale supérieure des sciences de l’information et des bibliothèques

1. Letter to Damilaville, dated 17 December 1766, in Mémoires secrets (Londres, 1780), VI, 203, quoted in J. Patrick Lee, “The Apocryphal Voltaire: Problems in the Voltairean Canon,” in The enterprise of enlightenment, ed. Terry Pratt and David McCallam, (Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2004), 272.
2. Correspondence and related documents in The Complete Works of Voltaire, ed. Theodore Besterman, (Banbury and Oxford, 1974). Letter no. D14838, quoted in Lee’s “Apocryphal Voltaire,” 268.
3. Lee, “Apocryphal Voltaire,” 268.

Celestial event

In anticipation of tonight’s total lunar eclipse, we went to the stacks and found these beautifully illustrated 17th, 18th, and 19th century astronomy texts.

Blossom (signs of spring)


Eizan, ‘Blossom’ (Colour woodcut) [1810] 375 x 250 mm

‘Blossom’, which depicts a woman seated under a blossoming cherry tree, is one in a series of three prints, Furyu meisho setsu-gekka (Snow, Moon and Blossoms in Celebrated Places). This woodblock print by artist Kikugawa Eizan (1787-1867) is part of the RBSC Japanese Print Collection, available for on-site consultation during opening hours.

Want to know more about Canada’s new saints?

pic_2014-04-04_124817Two major figures from the history of New France were canonized on April 3rd 2014 by Pope Francis: Marie Guyart, better known as Marie de l’Incarnation (1599-1672), and Francis-Xavier de Montmorency-Laval, or François de Laval (1623-1708). Marie de l’Incarnation came to New France as an Ursuline nun in 1639, and helped to establish and run Canada’s first school, and François de Laval was the first Roman Catholic Bishop of New France, arriving in Quebec in 1659.

The library holds many titles both by and about these two historical figures. Especially notable among McGill’s holdings are the published letters of Marie de l’Incarnation, printed in 1681, shown here. The book was published by her son, Claude Martin (1619-1696), who was still a young boy when she left him in France to come to the New World, and many of her letters are to him. Martin had also written, in 1677, a biography of his mother (see en electronic copy).

The life of Marie de l’Incarnation interested her contemporaries, including historian and explorer Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix (1682 –1761). His 1724 biography of her, La vie de la mere Marie de l’Incarnation, can also be consulted in Rare Books and Special Collections.

Both of these titles are part of the Lawrence Lande Canadiana Collection.

Adieu Monsieur Le Goff

Jacques Le Goff (1924-April 1st, 2014) was a leader of the French Annales school of history, paying close attention to social and anthropological questions in his study of the Middle Ages. Author of a vast oeuvre, Monsieur le Goff was a tireless communicator, bringing history to a broad public through his weekly radio show on France Culture, “Les Lundis de l’histoire” which lasted from 1968 until this year.

A giant who encouraged new generations of researchers, students, and all who were interested in history, Jacques Le Goff will be sorely missed.
Nos hommages, Monsieur Le Goff.

Titles by Jacques Le Goff in McGill Library

Charlemagne in pigskin

Among the different kinds of leathers used to bind books, pigskin can often be recognized by a distinctive creamy colour and a hardness that can look almost like plastic. As one of our in-house experts noted about the sixteenth-century binding shown here, “it just screams ‘pig’!”.

16th century German panel-stamped binding

Books from this period were generally acquired unbound, allowing owners to bind volumes according to their tastes and budgets. Sometimes owners bound several books together, and this book is an example. The volume contains two titles: Persicarum rerum historia in xii. libros descripta, a History of Persia by sixteenth-century historian and spy Pietro Bizzarri (dates uncertain); and Rerum Scoticarum historia, a history of Scotland by Erasmian humanist George Buchanan (1506-1582).

This cover decoration is of special note, with its panel stamp of Charlemagne. Panel stamping was popular in sixteenth-century Germany, often with famous historical figures featured in the central panel. Henry Coutts and George Stephen, in their 1911 book, Manual of Library Bookbinding Practical and Historical, comment on this stamp, which was used to decorate several books, as a particularly fine example of the technique. Coutts and Stephen describe the decoration as follows :

The emperor is clad in a rich suit of armour and has an uplifted sword in his right hand, and an orb, surmounted by a cross, in his left. By his side is his helmet surmounted by a radiated crown. Above his head is a shield bearing the arms of Germany, and in the corners are two smaller shields bearing the arms of Aragon, Aragon-Sicily, and Spain. Round the pillars of Hercules at the sides is a ribbon inscribed, PLVS VLTRA, CAROLVS QVINTVS (More beyond. Charles V), and below is a tablet with the inscription, CAROLE MORTALES DVBITANT, HOMO SISNE DEVSVE : SVNT TVA SCEPTRA HOMINIS SED TVA FACTA DEI (O Charles, mortals doubt whether thou mayest be man or God: the sceptre of man is thine, but thy deeds are of God). Books adorned with this stamp on one cover usually have on the other an equally beautiful one of John Frederic, Duke of Saxony, with sword and helmet. (p.189)

Close-up of the central panel, showing Charlemagne.

Close-up of central panel of cover stamp, showing Charlemagne.

The McGill panel is an exact match of that description, and the back cover (though less well preserved and more difficult to make out) seems to show the Duke of Saxony mentioned by Coutts and Stephen, which would be fitting given that Bizzarri’s book was dedicated to Augustus I, Duke of Saxony. The Duke’s coat-of-arms faces the dedication page.

The first owner of this volume is not known (though likely had the initials P.L.D., as seen on the cover), but the book is among those previously in the Aylwin Library, part of the heritage of the Morrin Centre and the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec. The signs of provenance include T.C. Aylwin’s signature and the Aylwin Library stamp. (More about this provenance…)

Traces in McGill collections of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec

Many of the books held at McGill are part of the larger history of Quebec libraries and readers beyond the university. Several of the named special collections held in Rare Books and Special Collections reflect this, and we find local names including Sheila Bourke, Norman Friedman, Rodolphe Joubert, Raymond Klibansky, Lawrence Lande, Max Stern…

But there are many less visible examples. One such can be seen in the dozens of books that were previously owned by the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec (LHSQ).

The LHSQ was founded in Quebec City in 1824 by George Ramsay, 9th Earl of Dalhousie, governor-in-chief of British North America 1820-28. It was open to francophones and anglophones from its beginning, and is the oldest learned society in Canada that is still in existence.

Volumes at McGill previously owned by this library, or likely to have been held by it for a time (e.g. from other libraries known to have been acquired by the LHSQ), date from the 15th to the 19th century on topics ranging primarily across history, literature, philosophy, religion and science. They offer a glimpse of the interests and acquisitions of earlier Quebec readers, and preserve part of the history of personal and institutional collections through various signs of changing ownership and use.

Indications of LHSQ and related ownership.

From 1868, the LHSQ library was housed within Morrin College, now the Morrin Cultural Centre, where it remains today. The library continued to grow through gifts from personal libraries as well as by absorbing other libraries. It had already absorbed in 1866 the libraries of the Quebec Library Association and the earlier subscription library called simply the Quebec Library, formed in 1779.

The LHSQ also took over the supervision, in 1916, of the separate “Aylwin Library” of Morrin College, which had been established some years earlier through the donation of the private library of Quebec lawyer, politician and judge Thomas Cushing Aylwin (1806-1871), an original member of the LHSQ and grandson of Thomas Aylwin (c. 1729-1771), one of the early British settlers in Quebec.

Books from these libraries can be identified in a variety of ways: there are more than two dozen titles with LHSQ-related provenance, identifiable through a variety of provenance evidence types recorded in the notes of catalogue records*. Types of provenance noticed to date are shown below.

*In order to search only the Notes fields of catalogue records for terms like “Literary and Historical Society”, “Aylwin”, “Morrin” or “Quebec Library”, use the Advanced Search of the Classic Catalogue.

Let us know if you notice these signs in books for which the provenance is not recorded!

Oval stamp [1] of the LHSQ
Oval stamp [2] of the LHSQ
Oval stamp [3] of the LHSQ
Round stamp of the LHSQ
French LHSQ bookplate
MorrinStampMorrin College stamp
Aylwin Library stamp
Signature of T.C. Aylwin
Embossed stamp; Aylwin family arms(?)
LHSQ, in manuscript
Manuscript presentation to Morrin College
Quebec Library Association shelf mark style
Quebec Library Association embossed stamp
Quebec Library Association stamp
Quebec Library Association in manuscript
Quebec Library embossed stamp

Politics and scholarly publishing in 1930s Germany: the Eckhart Latin edition

This volume of medieval theology offers a rare window into some of the difficulties encountered by scholars in Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War.


As a young scholar at the University of Heidelberg in the early 1930s, historian of philosophy Raymond Klibansky (1905-2005) planned a critical, multi-volume edition of the Latin works of medieval theologian and philosopher Meister Eckhart (d. 1327). Eckhart’s Latin works were less known than his German writings, and because the more scholastic style of these Latin writings involved formal referencing, part of Klibansky’s aim was to underline to a German audience the range of Eckhart’s influences, including Arab and Jewish thinkers. What may look now like an esoteric subject was at the time deeply political, as Eckhart was viewed by Nazi ideologues like Alfred Rosenberg as a father of Aryan thought.

Several obstacles eventually led to the abandonment of Klibansky’s Eckhart edition project after only the first few volumes were published (Vol. 1; Vol. 2; Vol. 13 [=third]). Reasons for the termination of the project included Klibansky’s dismissal as a Jew from Heidelberg University, the seizure of his papers, his move to England, and obstructive measures taken by German authorities against his use of German-held manuscripts. At the same time, a second team was assembled within Germany to produce a complete edition of Eckhart’s works, in this case with the approbation of the government. This edition, the “Stuttgart edition”, produced the now standard critical edition of Eckhart’s works.


The volume shown here, part of McGill’s Raymond Klibansky Collection, is the third volume of the Stuttgart edition, published in 1936. The text is Eckhart’s commentary on the Gospel according to John (Expositio sancti Evangelii secundum Iohannem), a text that Klibansky and his team had begun preparing but had not published before the project was halted.

The annotations are in Klibansky’s hand, and are extraordinary both in terms of Klibansky’s own habits and on account of their content. Klibansky did not normally annotate his books heavily. Here, however, nearly every page of the introduction and text, about 80 pages, is marked or annotated in some way. He comments, for example, “Consequentia falsa” (p.xii), “Nonsens!…” (p.3), or “Stupidité de note…” (p. 8). Also, strikingly, there are several handwritten instructions for a typesetter—in both French and German—to reorganize bits of text, as if this were a manuscript in preparation for new publication.


This document offers extraordinary access to an author’s scholarly but also emotional response to a contentious publication. The volume has not yet been the subject of detailed study, and can be consulted in RBSC; this particular text is in volume 3, part 1 (3. Bd., Lief. 1).

Learn more about Klibansky and the Raymond Klibansky Collection.

Curiosa raccolta di varie e diversi ucelli

FLAMEN, Alberto
Curiosa raccolta di varie e diversi ucelli
[1650] 12mo. n.p. 100 pl.

plate 37

From An introduction to the literature of vertebrate zoology*: “Not only ‘curious tales about birds’ but altogether a curious and interesting little album of 100 copper-plates, with no text except the legends in Italian furnishing the vulgar names of the subjects. A very rare ornithologic item, not listed in the [British Museum Catalogue (Natural History)].”

This rare item is available to explore online or in person in the reading room.


* An introduction to the literature of vertebrate zoology : based chiefly on the titles in the Blacker Library of Zoology, the Emma Shearer Wood Library of Ornithology, the Bibliotheca Osleriana and other libraries of McGill University, Montreal / Compiled and edited by Casey A. Wood. London : Oxford University Press, 1931.