Voltaire’s histories

The Histoire de Charles XII, the Lettres sur les Anglais, the Siècle de Louis XIV, the Précis du siècle de Louis XV, the Histoire de l’empire de Russie sous Pierre le Grand, the Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations and the Annales de l’Empire depuis Charlemagne, alongside a multitude of much shorter pieces, are all part of Voltaire’s vast body of writings about history. These works embody his remarkable aim of writing a history of the progress of the human mind and of socio-cultural behaviours from the earliest times to his own day. Voltaire composed these works over a period of several decades, but saw them as combining to create a continuous ‘universal history’.

Voltaire: historian of modernity

Generously supported by a Leverhulme Trust research grant, this research project definitively improved our understanding of Voltaire’s practice as a historian of the early modern period and his own age, his view of the purpose of history, and his influence on his immediate successors (such as Gibbon, Hume and Robertson), and on Enlightenment historiography in general. It includes full critical print editions of Voltaire’s ‘modern history’ texts (that is, the post-medieval volumes of the Essai sur les mœurs, the Siècle de Louis XIV, the Précis du siècle de Louis XV, and the Lettres sur les Anglais), providing firm foundations for future researchers. The precise textual history of each work, from composition until his death in 1778, is intricately traced for the first time, yielding fascinating and important insights into how he conceived each successive edition of his text, as well as how he marshalled and exploited his source material.

The Essai sur les mœurs (2009-2019): ‘is a masterpiece of prose that pioneered many of the foundations of modern historical study. […] This rich, learned edition promises to become the foundation and impetus for a renewed exploration of both its distance and its proximity to our own shifting conceptions of cultural history.’

Saul Anton, H-France Review

An international study day, organised jointly by the Voltaire Foundation and the Centre de recherche du château de Versailles, was held to support the scholars working on the Voltaire: historian of modernity project.

Publication of the Essai sur les mœurs (vol.21-27) has just been completed, as is the case for the Siècle de Louis XIV (vols.11A-13D) and the Précis du Siècle de Louis XV (vol.29A-29C). In other words, it is only now that a full picture of Voltaire as a writer of historical works has emerged, shedding new light on one of the most important aspects of his multi-faceted career.

John R. Iverson, XVIII New Perspectives on the Eighteenth Century

Published within the Complete Works of Voltaire, these are the first ever editions with full critical apparatus, to serve as an indispensable tool for all scholars working on Voltaire as a historian and on Enlightenment historiography in general.


The Siècle de Louis XIV (2015-2019) ‘is a milestone on the road to modern history-writing. Voltaire, the chief publicist of the Enlightenment, wrote his history ‘en philosophe’, concerning himself with the human condition and with man’s progress (or lack of it) towards personal freedom; a preoccupation which later generations of historians have largely inherited.’

J. H. Shennan, Emeritus Professor, University of Lancaster

Voltaire Foundation

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