Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The Dictionary of Trevoux.

A learned friend, in his very agreeable “Trimestre, or a Three Months’ Journey in France and Switzerland,” could not pass through the small town of Trevoux without a literary association of ideas which should accompany every man of letters in his tours, abroad or at home. A mind well-informed cannot travel without discovering that there are objects constantly presenting themselves, which suggest literary, historical, and moral facts. My friend writes, “As you proceed nearer to Lyons you stop to dine at Trevoux, on the left bank of the Saone. On a sloping hill, down to the water-side, rises an amphitheatre, crowned with an ancient Gothic castle, in venerable ruin; under it is the small town of Trevoux, well known for its Journal and Dictionary, which latter is almost an encyclopædia, as there are few things of which something is not said in that most valuable compilation, and the whole was printed at Trevoux. The knowledge of this circumstance greatly enhances the delight of any visitor who has consulted the book, and is acquainted with its merit; and must add much to his local pleasures.”

A work from which every man of letters may be continually deriving such varied knowledge, and which is little known but to the most curious readers, claims a place in these volumes; nor is the history of the work itself without interest. Eight large folios, each consisting of a thousand closely printed pages, stand like a vast mountain, of which, before we climb, we may be anxious to learn the security of the passage. The history of dictionaries is the most mutable of all histories; it is a picture of the inconstancy of the knowledge of man; the learning of one generation passes away with another; and a dictionary of this kind is always to be repaired, to be rescinded, and to be enlarged.

The small town of Trevoux gave its name to an excellent literary journal, long conducted by the Jesuits, and to this dictionary — as Edinburgh has to its Critical Review and Annual Register, &c. It first came to be distinguished as a literary town from the Duc du Maine, as prince sovereign of Dombes,1 transferring to this little town of Trevoux not only his parliament and other public institutions, but also establishing a magnificent printing-house, in the beginning of the last century. The duke, probably to keep his printers in constant employ, instituted the “Journal de Trévoux;” and this perhaps greatly tended to bring the printing-house into notice, so that it became a favourite with many good writers, who appear to have had no other connexion with the place; and this dictionary borrowed its first title, which it always preserved, merely from the place where it was printed. Both the journal and the dictionary were, however, consigned to the care of some learned Jesuits; and perhaps the place always indicated the principles of the writers, of whom none were more eminent for elegant literature than the Jesuits.2

The first edition of this dictionary sprung from the spirit of rivalry, occasioned by a French dictionary published in Holland, by the protestant Basnage de Beauval. The duke set his Jesuits hastily to work; who, after a pompous announcement that this dictionary was formed on a plan suggested by their patron, did little more than pillage Furetière, and rummage Basnage, and produced three new folios without any novelties; they pleased the Duc du Maine, and no one else. This was in 1704. Twenty years after, it was republished and improved; and editions increasing, the volumes succeeded each other, till it reached to its present magnitude and value in eight large folios, in 1771, the only edition now esteemed. Many of the names of the contributors to this excellent collection of words and things, the industry of Monsieur Barbier has revealed in his “Dictionnaire des Anonymes,” art. 10782. The work, in the progress of a century, evidently became a favourite receptacle with men of letters in France, who eagerly contributed the smallest or largest articles with a zeal honourable to literature and most useful to the public. They made this dictionary their commonplace book for all their curious acquisitions; every one competent to write a short article, preserving an important fact, did not aspire to compile the dictionary, or even an entire article in it; but it was a treasury in which such mites collected together formed its wealth; and all the literati may be said to have engaged in perfecting these volumes during a century. In this manner, from the humble beginnings of three volumes, in which the plagiary much more than the contributor was visible, eight were at length built up with more durable materials, and which claim the attention and the gratitude of the student.

The work, it appears, interested the government itself, as a national concern, from the tenor of the following anecdotes.

Most of the minor contributors to this great collection were satisfied to remain anonymous; but as might be expected among such a number, sometimes a contributor was anxious to be known to his circle; and did not like this penitential abstinence of fame. An anecdote recorded of one of this class will amuse: A Monsieur Lautour du Chatel, avocat au parlement de Normandie, voluntarily devoted his studious hours to improve this work, and furnished nearly three thousand articles to the supplement of the edition of 1752. This ardent scholar had had a lively quarrel thirty years before with the first authors of the dictionary. He had sent them one thousand three hundred articles, on condition that the donor should be handsomely thanked in the preface of the new edition, and further receive a copy en grand papier. They were accepted. The conductors of the new edition, in 1721, forgot all the promises — nor thanks, nor copy! Our learned avocat, who was a little irritable, as his nephew who wrote his life acknowledges, as soon as the great work appeared, astonished, like Dennis, that “they were rattling his own thunder,” without saying a word, quits his country town, and ventures, half dead with sickness and indignation, on an expedition to Paris, to make his complaint to the chancellor; and the work was deemed of that importance in the eye of government, and so zealous a contributor was considered to have such an honourable claim, that the chancellor ordered, first, that a copy on large paper should be immediately delivered to Monsieur Lautour, richly bound and free of carriage; and secondly, as a reparation of the unperformed promise, and an acknowledgment of gratitude, the omission of thanks should be inserted and explained in the three great literary journals of France; a curious instance, among others, of the French government often mediating, when difficulties occurred in great literary undertakings, and considering not lightly the claims and the honours of men of letters.

Another proof, indeed, of the same kind, concerning the present work, occurred after the edition of 1752. One Jamet l’aîné, who had with others been usefully employed on this edition, addressed a proposal to government for an improved one, dated from the Bastile. He proposed that the government should choose a learned person, accustomed to the labour of the researches such a work requires; and he calculated, that if supplied with three amanuenses, such an editor would accomplish his task in about ten or twelve years, the produce of the edition would soon repay all the expenses and capital advanced. This literary projector did not wish to remain idle in the Bastile. Fifteen years afterwards the last improved edition appeared, published by the associated booksellers of Paris.

As for the work itself, it partakes of the character of our Encyclopædias; but in this respect it cannot be safely consulted, for widely has science enlarged its domains and corrected its errors since 1771. But it is precious as a vast collection of ancient and modern learning, particularly in that sort of knowledge which we usually term antiquarian and philological. It is not merely a grammatical, scientific, and technical dictionary, but it is replete with divinity, law, moral philosophy, critical and historical learning, and abounds with innumerable miscellaneous curiosities. It would be difficult, whatever may be the subject of inquiry, to open it, without the gratification of some knowledge neither obvious nor trivial. I heard a man of great learning declare, that whenever he could not recollect his knowledge he opened Hoffman’s Lexicon Universale Historicum, where he was sure to find what he had lost. The works are similar; and valuable as are the German’s four folios, the eight of the Frenchman may safely be recommended as their substitute, or their supplement. As a Dictionary of the French Language it bears a peculiar feature, which has been presumptuously dropped in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie; the last invents phrases to explain words, which therefore have no other authority than the writer himself! this of Trevoux is furnished, not only with mere authorities, but also with quotations from the classical French writers — an improvement which was probably suggested by the English Dictionary of Johnson. One nation improves by another.

1 It was always acknowledged as an independent state by the French kings from the time of Philip Augustus. It had its own parliament, and the privilege also of coining its own money.

2 The house in which the Jesuits resided, having the shield of arms of their order over its portal, still remains at Trevoux.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53