- Orientalism in Louis XIV’s France
Nicholas Dew’s study of the development of ‘baroque orientalism’ gives the reader a glimpse into the workings of the French hommes de lettres who in the second half of the seventeenth-century brought to the European ‘Republic of Letters’ a comprehensive view of the worlds of Persia, Mughal India, and China. The principal actors in Dew’s study are Barthélemy d’Herbelot, Melchisédech Thévenot, and François Bernier. Dew centres his study and the reader’s attention on the importance that royal patronage played in encouraging the acquisition, cataloguing, and translation of ‘oriental’ texts that scholars collected from the distant East as well as from European princely collections. This work was supported by Louis XIV’s principal minister, Colbert, and was seen as important in constructing the glorious image of the sovereign. The most intriguing aspect of Dew’s study is not an examination per se of the individual texts he brings to our attention: d’Herbelot’s Bibliothèque orientale, Bernier’s Voyages, Thévenot’s attempts at publishing Abufeda’s Geography. Rather, what is most interesting is Dew’s detailed description of the different networks of European scholars and their mutual passion for acquiring, sharing, and distributing such texts, which so often needed a transnational collaboration. Dew is particularly good at demonstrating how this cooperation worked through the criss-crossing networks of the ‘Republic of Letters’. From the centre of Paris/Versailles Dew draws out the lines connecting the scholars of Paris to their peers in Florence, Milan, Amsterdam, Oxford, Germany (Leibniz), and Sweden. It is this incredible network across Europe that plays the essential role in Dew’s study. He demonstrates how the different protagonists of early French ‘orientalism’ had to contend with their erudite fellow scholars as well as with the whims and narcissism of their royal patrons. The case of Thévenot is particularly illuminating as Dew traces his journeys between Paris and Florence and his residence at the Medici court. Princes vied for the prestige of their scholarly guests, whose work, it was thought, in turn increased the renown of their benefactors. Colbert worked hard to secure this prestige for Louis XIV, paying handsomely for the manuscripts that his network of agents were instructed to send back from their distant outposts to the ‘bibliothè que du Roi’. These manuscripts formed the basis of the great ‘orientalist’ collections that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars — the creators of modern [End Page 345] ‘orientalism’, in Said’s definition — would use to expand their knowledge of the cultures that spread from the Levant to China. While Dew is good at delineating the limits of the patronage system and at describing the even more complex organization of the ‘public’ academies that eventually replaced royal patrons, one would have liked a more interpretative account of the actual texts that were at the interstice of the elaborate scholarly networks — that is, the objects of the desire and of the rivalries of these pan-European scholars. We get little information about the texts themselves, a task perhaps beyond the interest of the historian, but, since they were instrumental in creating a long literary tradition of ‘oriental tales’ (from Galland onwards), critical for students of literature.