L’Enquête du Régent 1716–1718: Sciences, techniques et politique dans la France pré-industrielle (review)
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L’Enquête du Régent 1716–1718: Sciences, techniques et politique dans la France pré-industrielle. Edited by Christiane Demeulenaere-Douyère and David J. Sturdy. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008. Pp. 1,018. €100.

When Louis XIV finally died in 1715, his great-grandson was crowned Louis XV. He was too young to rule directly, however, and power shifted to Louis XIV’s nephew, Philippe d’Orléans, who, with the blessing of the Parlement de Paris, became the official Regent. Although usually better known for his restructuring of the government and, even more so, for his reputation as a libertine, Philippe also had a predilection for science and technology and was especially keen to apply such knowledge to the service of the state. Thus, not long after he ascended to his new role, Philippe authorized a broad-based examination of the level of technological development in every region in France along with the status of natural resources in those regions. Taking place over a three-year period, this inquiry reached across the entire nation.

Ideally, the information collected would have been used to help complete the ongoing work of the Descriptions des arts et métiers. Instead, the resulting cornucopia of correspondence and memoirs was stored in the Archives de l’Académie des sciences and little used by scholars then or now. In an effort to make available the information gathered at the request of Philippe, Christiane Demeulenaere-Douyère and David J. Sturdy have collected, collated, and annotated all of the materials concerning this important survey. The result is a thousand-page book filled with a wealth of information about early-eighteenth-century France and its natural resources and technological practices.

The book opens with a useful introduction detailing the important players in this drama and establishing the origins and nature of the inquiry. Philippe d’Orléans, for example, was heavily influenced by the academician Guillaume Homberg. However, two other men undertook the work to ensure the success of Philippe’s inquiry. The first was the elusive Abbé Jean-Paul Bignon, who had overseen the reform of the Royal Academy of Sciences in 1699 and remained a key figure in its operations. Second, René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur coordinated much of the correspondence, collected the mineral samples sent to the Academy, and was personally involved in undertaking inquiries to almost all of the different regions.

This survey was modeled after earlier inquiries, most recently that undertaken by the Duke of Beauvillier in which he asked the intendant of each region in France to respond to a questionnaire outlining the state of his province. Réaumur seems to have read many of these reports, especially with respect to natural resources, and used the information he gleaned as a basis for his specific requests for information. Many of the manuscripts collected [End Page 936] here are letters to and from Réaumur, reports annotated “in the hand of Réaumur,” requests by Réaumur for more information on a particular topic, and so on. Thus, while Philippe and Bignon certainly occupied central roles in this inquiry, Réaumur stands out for the level of his participation. In this way, Demeulenaere-Douyère and Sturdy provide a glimpse into the scientific network at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The sheer volume of letters and correspondents with whom Réaumur interacted reveals a wide-ranging web of scientific activity that surely deserves to be studied in greater depth.

After their introduction, the editors provide one version of the original inquiry followed by the resulting manuscripts and correspondence organized chronologically by region. This is the largest part of the book and here curious readers can find out about the manufacture of steel, local wood products, coal and various metals and precious stones and how they were mined, forges, mills, dyeing processes, and so on. The third main part of the book reprints documents analyzing the mineral samples sent to the Academy as part of this inquiry. An appendix provides a complete and detailed list of the contents of the relevant cartons housed in the Archives de l’Académie des sciences. Three...