Jump to: navigation, search

Alicia C. Montoya

The French Enlightenment seen from Eastern Europe:
Reassessing the impact of the writings of Madame Leprince de Beaumont


According to the traditional view of the Enlightenment, this was basically a French-led movement of secularization and social reform, spearheaded by the progressive, male Parisian philosophes that laid the intellectual bases for our modern, secular worldview. However, recent scholarship has begun to question this teleological narrative. In particular, scholarship increasingly foregrounds the role of other religious players, too, during the intellectual debates that marked the long 18th century. Among these religious players, this paper proposes, were a number of women authors, whose full impact can only be understood when viewing them within a transnational perspective.

This paper proposes, then, that if we look at the Enlightenment from the viewpoint of reception rather than production, a very different picture emerges. As an example, I take one of the French authors whose works were most widely disseminated in Eastern Europe, as suggested by print runs and library catalogues: Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. In her pedagogical works, she proposed a version of what has been termed “the moderate Enlightenment” that sought to reconcile reason with faith. They were enormous international bestsellers, not only in France and other countries most often associated with the Enlightenment movement, the Netherlands, Germany, and England, but also in Eastern Europe, including most notably Poland and Russia. Not only were Leprince de Beaumont’s works enjoyed by private readers, but they were also widely adopted in schools. Despite her Catholic background, the ideal of reasonable faith she propagated clearly had a broad, supra-confessional appeal, as is revealed by reader responses from very different national and confessional contexts.

In reassessing the impact of the religious writings of Madame Leprince de Beaumont, this paper will focus on two interrelated issues. The first is the striking contrast between French and eastern European receptions of her works. While, in France, particularly following the hardening of anti-clerical discourse after the Prades affair, her works were, at best, dismissed offhand by the leading intellectuals, or at worst, branded reactionary, in the rest of Europe her works placed her solidly in the mainstream of intellectual debate, in particular with respect to the central notion of natural theology.

Secondly, I focus on how these works illustrated ideals of social utility, participating in contemporary societal and political debates, i.e. actively engaging in the public sphere. In short, I argue that when viewed from eastern Europe, the Enlightenment’s most representative authors may have been not Voltaire and the radical philosophes, but rather, more accessible women authors such as Madame Leprince de Beaumont. This, in turn, leads us to ultimately question what we mean by “the” Enlightenment.

AsK, September 2012

Personal tools