Max Planck Society Research Fellowship for Outstanding Women Scholars

Eating the Enlightenment: Food and the Sciences in Eighteenth-Century France

Emma C. Spary

The book project “Eating the Enlightenment” has been substantially advanced during 2000 and 2001. In November and December 2000, an archival visit to the universities of Lausanne and Geneva yielded abundant primary materials from the medical correspondences, journals and papers of Samuel-André Tissot and Théodore Tronchin, physicians to many renowned French women and men of letters. Using these and other primary sources, it was possible to explore the medical and corporeal self-presentations of the philosophes, and to show how medical authority was constructed and used within the Republic of Letters.

A second principal area of research has been the natural history of food and eating in the eighteenth century. A further chapter of the book, “Species, Spices and Places,” which concerns the problematic identity of exotic food plants, has been completed. Based on a wide range of primary materials, published and unpublished, it explores the controversy over attempts in the 1760s and 1770s to naturalise two spice plants in the French colonies: nutmeg and cloves. In this chapter, it was possible to show that, without a stable hierarchy of scientific authority, there was in fact no way for scientific practitioners to agree about the rules defining the botanical and alimentary identity of food plants. Only once social relations had been worked out could botanical relations succeed.

On the same project, two further chapters are currently in the process of preparation. One, “Wild Food,” continues the theme of wild or natural eating, beginning with an analysis of readings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s account of natural man and ending with two separate case studies of “wild children” as the subject of experimentation on the pliability of the senses. The second, “Market Analysts,” concerns the interlinked problems of taste, spirit and innovation. By a study of the marketing activities of distillers and vendors of innovative food products, their status as chemists can be explored; conversely, it is possible to trace chemists’ involvement in producing distilled liqueurs and new alimentary technologies from their published writings. The contemporary critique of bad habits of eating and drinking relied to a large degree upon models of desire, habituation and innovation which were cultivated as part of the persona of a polite tasteful individual and which these distillers and chocolatiers invoked to justify their enterprises.

Finally, some initial work is being carried out for a chapter on “Intestinal Strife” which will investigate a prolonged controversy between physicians of the Paris medical faculty during the 1710s over the mechanism of digestion. Preliminary findings from a detailed study of contemporary journals suggest that the debate was founded not only upon disagreements about the body’s function, but also upon profound theological differences centring on Jansenism. This raises the question of how and why medical explanations became increasingly secularised over the following decades, and also allows an insight into the mechanics of medical disputes in the period.

Other Projects

During the first months of 2001, in a collaborative endeavour with Anke te Heesen, a book of essays by leading scholars on the history and historiography of collecting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was prepared. It has now been published under the title Sammeln als Wissen (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2001). Both editors contributed essays of their own, and a joint introduction to the work.

More recently, a contribution to a project headed by Professor Margaret Schabas and Professor Neil DiMarchi, concerning the history of “Economies in the Age of Newton,” consisted of a study of materia medica and food plants as natural resources in the last years of the reign of Louis XIV and during the Regency in France. A large conference at Duke University, N.C., U.S.A., is planned for the year 2002.

The monograph Utopia’s Garden: French Natural History from Old Regime to Revolution was published at the end of 2000, as was a contribution to a volume of essays edited by Marina Frasca Spada and Nicholas Jardine, Books and the Sciences in History. This latter essay concerned shell collections as examples of the importance of style in scientific publications from the eighteenth century.