Patron’s Choice: The Life and Times of A. J. Weed

This week, we are pleased to feature a guest post from researcher Charles Morrill. Mr. Morrill is an independent scholar researching the creation of Thomas Jefferson’s polygraph by Charles Willson Peale and John Isaac Hawkins. He is also a guide at Jefferson’s home, Monticello.

Contemporaries called Arthur J. Weed the “shop man” of the University of Virginia physics department, but he was much more. True, he was a machinist, a woodworker, and also a photographer, but he was even more than those things as well.

He was a scientific-instrument maker from upstate New York who often lived in the basement of Rouss Hall, the building that housed the university physics department in the years between the great wars of the last century. He could make, machine, or build just about anything. For years he quietly worked to advance physics; medicine; and frequently on his own time, and with his own money, the science of detecting earthquakes.

He came up with a type of strong motion seismograph used by the U.S. government for many years, and machined the precise parts that allowed U.Va.’s physics department to do important work in the 1930s.

The students called him “old Weed,” but never to his face. He came to U.Va. around 1920, a slender, middle-aged man who sported a “Mr. Chips” head of white hair and round glasses that probably made him look Edwardian by the standards of the Jazz age.

He didn’t seem to mind.

Arthur J. Weed at work.( Digital image from glass plate negative by University of Virginia Digitization Services.)

Arthur J. Weed at work.(MSS 12558. Digital image from glass plate negative, by University of Virginia Digitization Services.)

In fact, Weed seems to have been as amused by the students as they were of him. He once told Professor Frederick Lyons Brown that students used to measure the acceleration of gravity by dropping a brick down an open stairwell at Rouss Hall and timing it with a stopwatch.

“But,” said Weed. “This practice was discontinued when one boy became flustered and dropped the watch and tried to time it with a brick.”

He loved photography and cats. He worked for the university hospital too, taking high-quality microscopic images so students could learn the processes of disease.

And he loved the university itself, constantly photographing its buildings, sporting events, and graduations. He seems to have stuck with glass-plate negatives for most of his life. Special Collections has nearly two hundred photographs taken by Weed, nearly a hundred on extremely fragile thin glass plates: cats, the lawn, his wife Emma, more cats, vacations, and always another shot of the Rotunda in the spring, in the summer, in the fall, and in the winter.

He captured Monticello in its first few years as a public museum before much restoration. Weed did his part for that effort too. That’s how I found out about him.  In 1922, he restored Jefferson’s polygraph, or copy machine, for U.Va.

The University of Virginia's polygraph, which is on long-term loan to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. (MSS ****. Image courtesy of Monticello.)

The University of Virginia’s polygraph as it looks today, almost a century after Weed’s restoration work. The polygraph is on long-term loan to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and is seen by nearly a half-million visitors yearly on the house tour. (Image courtesy of Monticello.)

“The polygraph has just been restored to a working condition in the workshop of the Rouss Physical Laboratory at the University of Virginia by the mechanical A. J. Weed,” the Washington Post reported on May 28, 1922.

UVA subsequently loaned the machine to Monticello in 1947. It remains on view for visitors in Jefferson’s “cabinet” or study.

Weed lived in more humble surroundings, and stuck to a simple bed in the basement of Rouss Hall. He apparently commuted home to Washington D.C. on weekends until the early 1930s when he and his wife Emma bought a house on 17th Street in Charlottesville.

And it was in the depths of Rouss Hall that Weed worked to perfect his great love: the strong-motion seismograph.

Though seismographs had been around for decades in Weed’s time, instrument makers tended to make them ever more sensitive. Trouble was, if an earthquake actually took place next to such a device it could not record anything meaningful. At the suggestion of an engineer he’d heard at a lecture, Weed worked at devising instruments tuned to “hear” and record strong vibrations on the theory that they might be of use to those who designed bridges and buildings in earthquake zones.

He was, of course, absolutely right.

“Mr. Weed has designed an instrument easily portable and capable of making an accurate record of stresses and strains in a building shaken by a quake,” the Associated Press reported on May 4, 1932. “It is set with a hair trigger that releases with the first tremor. For the next two minutes a record of the quake intensity is traced upon a smoked glass plate.”

Weed also worked on his own larger more sensitive seismographs, some taller than an adult person, wonderful pieces of machine work and theory, one bedded deep in the ground beneath Rouss Hall.

Weed and one of his seismographs, undated. (MSS ****. Digital image from glass plate negative by University of Virginia Digitization Services.)

Weed and one of his seismographs, undated. (MSS 12558. Digital image from glass plate negative, by University of Virginia Digitization Services.)

The early 1930s saw Weed working with U.Va. Physics Professor Jesse Beams to develop the ultracentrifuge described by both in Science magazine (June 10, 1931). Looking like some gleaming child’s top on steroids, the instrument ultimately spun a half-million revolutions per minute. Years later Beams took the idea to the Manhattan Project during World War II as one method for separating different types of uranium.

Both Beams and Weed posed for photos with their device in the 1930s. One, the intent young professor, the other his machinist and something more.

On April 15, 1936, Weed gave a lecture titled “Some Experiments With Soft Cast Iron Magnets”  at the University’s Physics Journal Club in Rouss Hall, where he’d spent some of the best years of his life.

He finished speaking, collapsed, and died of apparent heart failure.

The University buried him in a lovely quiet spot at the northeast corner of its cemetery. Emma moved back home to upstate New York but lies in Charlottesville next to Arthur today. No one got around to engraving the date of her death on their headstone.

By the 1960s the U.S. government had phased out most Weed strong-motion seismographs in California. One or two may remain in museums.

Someone once said we stand on the shoulders of giants and I think that’s true. But, I also think it’s true that we stand on the shoulders of quiet photographers and cat-loving machinists with a passion to build and to help.

Arthur Weed, **** Weed, and a furry canine friend at home, undated. (MSS ****. Digital image from a glass plate negative, by University of Virginia Digitization Services.)

Arthur Weed, Emma Weed, and a furry canine friend at home, undated. (MSS 12558. Digital image from a glass plate negative, by University of Virginia Digitization Services.)

Patron’s Choice: Finding Buried Treasure in Edward Le Roy Rice’s “Monarchs of Minstrelsy”

This week we are pleased to feature a guest post by Jessica Showalter. Showalter was a Lillian Gary Taylor Fellow at the Harrison Institute in 2013. She is a doctoral candidate in the Literature & Criticism program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Below, Jessica explains why she ended up spending two weeks of her fellowship studying two books that she had expected to peruse for perhaps an hour.

I suppressed a squeal when I opened Copy 1 of Edward Le Roy Rice’s Monarchs of Minstrelsy (1911). The book is a 350-page early history of minstrel shows, the ubiquitous nineteenth-century pop culture phenomenon which combined song, dance, and comic sketches based on racist stereotypes. The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library holds two annotated copies of Monarchs of Minstrelsy. Although I had examined a digitized copy on Google Books a few months before coming to Charlottesville, I figured the annotations might be worth a glance.

Newspaper clippings pasted into the front matter of Monarchs of Minstrelsy. (PN2071 .B58 R52 1911, Copy 2, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas M. Valentine. Image by Molly Schwartzburg.)

Newspaper clippings pasted into the front matter of Monarchs of Minstrelsy. (PN2071 .B58 R52 1911, Copy 2, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas M. Valentine. Image by Molly Schwartzburg.)

Imagine my surprise when I surveyed the extent of the annotations—the books resembled scrapbooks. Newspaper clippings about minstrel performers were crammed into any available white space. Many of these newspaper stories were new to me, even though I had examined minstrelsy-related articles in digitized nineteenth-century newspaper databases. Many newspapers have not yet been digitized, and may never be.

One clipping told the story of Charlie Bensel, a minstrel performer who was shipwrecked in Peru en route to California during the Gold Rush. Finally arriving in San Francisco with only his banjo, Bensel exchanged music for food until he found a job in the mines. Later, Bensel started a minstrel company that toured China. Another clipping about the minstrel William Blakeney reported that he performed in Australia, India, Japan, the South Seas, and England during the 1870s. These kinds of stories helped my quest to track down the international routes of traveling minstrel performers for a chapter in my dissertation, Hemispheric Minstrelsies: Race, Nation, and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Performance.

In addition to pasted-in newspaper clippings, these copies of Monarchs of Minstrelsy were peppered with penciled notes supplementing the book’s biographies of minstrel performers. The book’s unidentified owner visited the graves of many of these minstrels to fact-check Rice’s biographies. For instance, a note on page 15 in Copy 2 edits the famous performer Frank Brower’s birthday—according to his tombstone, he was born November 30th, not November 20th.

•Image 2: An annotated page of Monarchs of Minstrelsy. (PN2071 .B58 R52 1911, Copy 2, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas M. Valentine. Image by Molly Schwartzburg.)

• Image 2: An annotated page of Monarchs of Minstrelsy. (PN2071 .B58 R52 1911, Copy 2, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas M. Valentine. Image by Molly Schwartzburg.)

Sometimes, these marginal notes describe the condition of the gravesites, noting whether they were well-kept or neglected and overgrown. In cases where visits were impractical, the book’s owner corresponded with cemetery managers via mail and inserted the correspondence in one of the copies of the book. One letter from 1913 confirms the location of Charles Backus’ grave in Rochester, NY; another letter from 1915 confirms the burial of Harry (Henry) B. Macarthy in San Francisco. Copy 1 even includes a letter from the American Consul in Moscow about the performer Charley Sutton Leman’s burial.

Correspondence regarding the burial of Harry B. McCarthy may be found pasted into the front matter of Monarchs of Minstrelsy. (PN2071 .B58 R52 1911, Copy 2, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas M. Valentine. Image by Molly Schwartzburg.)

Correspondence regarding the burial of Harry B. McCarthy may be found pasted into the front matter of Monarchs of Minstrelsy. (PN2071 .B58 R52 1911, Copy 2, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas M. Valentine. Image by Molly Schwartzburg.)

The scrapbooked clippings and penciled annotations provided many minute details that will enrich my dissertation research, and as a whole the two books pushed me to speculate about how history is made. The book’s owner did not just passively read these accounts but engaged in fact-checking and revision, creating a personalized historical record. The marked up copies of Monarchs of Minstrelsy preserve a snapshot of a messy, contested history in progress. Plus, these scrapbooked copies reminded me of the importance of consulting physical texts in addition to electronic resources. Yes, a digitized copy allowed me to prime my research from home, but the Small Special Collections Library’s two idiosyncratic copies offered unique information, while also illuminating how just one reader repurposed a book according to his or her own objective.

The cover of one of the two heavily annotated copies of Monarchs of Minstrelsy in Special Collections. (Image by Molly Schwartzburg.)

The cover of one of the two heavily annotated copies of Monarchs of Minstrelsy in Special Collections. (Image by Molly Schwartzburg.)

Patron’s choice: Eliza Keating’s letters to her publisher T. H. Lacy, Fall 1855

This week we are pleased to feature a guest post from U.Va. English Department doctoral candidate Ann Mazur. Ann contacted us earlier this year with a purchase request and we happily obliged. Here, she tells us how this purchase has contributed to her dissertation. Thanks, Ann!

As a Ph.D. student in English literature, I am currently completing my dissertation, The Nineteenth-Century Home Theatre: Women and Material Space. My project aims to recover the nineteenth-century parlour play, an important dramatic outlet to Victorian middle-class women. The parlour play, or home theatrical, was a dramatic performance staged most often within the home, though sometimes plays were also performed at schools or at other venues to raise funds for charities. As the nineteenth century progressed, home theatricals largely replaced earlier forms of home entertainment such as tableaux vivants (“moving pictures”) and charades. Most theatricals lasted around fifteen to thirty minutes, though occasionally they are lengthier.

I argue that in the years from 1860 to1900, the parlour play became more popular among the middle-classes and was especially significant for women. Other literary scholars have shown that women who wrote for the public stage faced immense obstacles and prejudice. Likewise, Victorian public stage actresses had to battle an association with prostitutes. In contrast, the parlour play permitted women to both write and act freely.

One of the difficulties of my project—though this has simultaneously made it more exciting—is tracking down the ephemeral parlour play. Home theatricals were often printed in book collections of plays and in fragile pamphlets. Many libraries have not thought to save this popular entertainment, and I’ve often had to turn to the tireless services of Interlibrary Loan to find plays on microfilm, microcards, and less often, in the form of the real physical pamphlet or book. I have found some items only in the listings of rare booksellers, and as a result have built my own personal collection of parlour plays. In searching, I made an exciting find: a set of three letters written by mid-century parlour playwright Eliza Keating to her publisher T. H. Lacy, concerning the publication of her Acting Charades. All evidence in my research pointed to women having an easier time writing for home theatre, but here was a woman’s actual voice offering real details about this process.

Eliza Keating's signature on one of the 1855 letters (MSS ****)

Eliza Keating’s signature on one of the 1855 letters (MSS 15628. Image by Elizabeth Ott)

The letters date from the early stage of Keating’s home theatre writing career, as most of her plays date from the 1860s. They are not long, but they reveal her often thoughtful, shrewd, and persuasive business sense in dealing with her publisher. In the first and third letters, she offers suggestions to Lacy about the printing process and pricing. In the first, she writes, “I was thinking that three shillings might repay – particularly if it were stitched in a pretty cover of fancy paper – binding we might dispense with.” In the third letter she states, “I think you do quite right to make the volume of Charades as cheap as you can – for people now like to have a great deal for their money[.] My copies I can sell at the price you mention.” In this letter she includes a postscript noting her further hopes for the timing and color of publication, evidently persuaded by Lacy that binding rather than stitching would suit her work: “Would it be possible to get the volume published by Christmas – I hope they will be bound in bright-colours – as they sell better – Can you give me an idea of the price – perhaps half a crown would pay.” While Keating from the start appears eager to engage in discussions of design and pricing, the continued correspondence suggests that Lacy was an encouraging correspondent.


This passage from the letter dated October 10, 1855 includes the only underlinings that appear in Keating’s letters to Lacy (Image by Elizabeth Ott).


A passage from the letter dated November 29, 1855 (Image by Elizabeth Ott)

The letters also disclose the role of actual parlour performance in Keating’s own life. Often, her friends are cited as performing her own work. In the first letter she writes: “I shall be enabled to have many copies subscribed for among my own friends – as the Charades were all got up by them – and people are fond of seeing in print – the nonsense they perpetrated in private.” In the third letter, discussing the appropriate order for her plays in the table of contents, she explains that her own personal copy of her plays “is briefly among my private friends.” Having no copy before her, she writes: “I presume the names of the Charade [sic] are very evident – Blue-Beard – Phaeton – Cataline / Guy Fawkes – I forget the order in which they come.” While copies of Blue-Beard exist, I have yet to find any of the other three plays tantalizingly listed here.

Keating’s second letter makes one curious about other details of her life. She acknowledges having received the “100 copies” forwarded by Lacy, and writes she “should have acknowledged the receipt of them ere this had I not met with an accident which for some time incapacitated me from writing.” To this letter, she adds: “P.S. I directed my friend Mr. Thirlwall to call in Wellingborough for a copy of my Charades – which you will add if you please to my account –.” I suspect she is referring to Connop Thirlwall (1797-1875), who, according to the Dictionary of National Biography was “historian and bishop of St. David’s,” just thirteen miles from Wellingborough. While Keating so kindly offers to add Thirlwall’s book to her own account, I also wonder whether a sort of name-dropping might have come into play here.


Keating alludes, somewhat mysteriously, to an “accident” in this undated letter [1855] (Image by Elizabeth Ott).

If you are interested in learning more about Eliza Keating, stay tuned for the full dissertation-turned-book. Keating is featured in Chapter Two, “A Parlour Education: Reworking Gender and Domestic Space in Ladies’ and Children’s Theatricals,” where I compare her fairy-tale theatricals written for adult performers with Florence Bell’s later 1890s fairy-tale plays written for children. My introductory chapter, the last of my dissertation to be written, discusses Keating’s letters to T. H. Lacy. Thanks to the Small Special Collections Library for making this possible!

Patron’s Choice: Sex, Celebrity and Scandal in the Amélie Rives Chanler Troubetzkoy Papers

This week we are pleased to feature a guest post from Donna M. Lucey, author of Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age and Photographing Montana 1894–1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron and media editor for the online Encyclopedia Virginia being produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

In this post, Donna Lucey provides some favorite high-points of using the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collection Library for her 2006 biography Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age.


If there is one verity in life, it is this: SEX AND CELEBRITY AND SCANDAL SELLS. And those commodities pop up in the strangest places—take, for instance, the hushed, staid precincts of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.  Who knew that sex would be lurking inside MSS 8925 of the Amélie Rives Chanler Troubetzkoy Papers? But open the oversized box of images attached to that number, and there she is—the voluptuous nude Amélie Rives in all her glory, lying on a divan in a kind of post-coital bliss, her eyes closed, her luxuriant mane of hair undone.  And what can one say about that curvaceous figure of hers? Some hyperbole had to be involved in that, right?  Who would draw such a thing in the 1890s?  In fact, Amélie herself created it.  She drew it on a Sunday in August—August 21, 1892, to be precise—the very day her paramour from London, Lord George Curzon (future Viceroy of India), arrived at her family’s ancestral Virginia estate, Castle Hill.  Her husband, John Armstrong “Archie” Chanler, an heir to the Astor fortune, was conveniently in New York City at the time….  Well, such are the secrets that the Special Collections Library harbors amid its underground treasures.

Nude photo of a reclining Amelie Rives Chanler, drawn by the subject. (MSS 8925. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Self portrait of a reclining Amelie Rives Chanler. (MSS 8925. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

I was working on a joint biography of Amélie and poor, deluded Archie, when I came upon that revealing image.  Archie and Amélie were the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald of their day—with literary fame, fortune, and madness mingled in equal doses.  Amélie was a Virginia blueblood of the grandest sort—in her great-great-grandfather’s time, Jefferson and Madison were habitués of Castle Hill; Robert E. Lee was her godfather—but she scandalized the entire nation when her first novel, The Quick or the Dead?, was published in 1888.  The book dared to suggest that women had sexual feelings.  Nothing by today’s standards, but the novel featured lots of “soughing” rain and wind, and heaving bosoms, and even passionate kisses (“Jock! kiss me!”). The book was reviled by critics and clergymen across the country—and sold 300,000 copies. A celebrity was born. In a supposedly secret ceremony, the notorious author married her Astor heir; but—thanks to an obliging Amélie—the press covered the event and trumpeted it in newspaper headlines across the country.  Gossip columnists parsed the couple’s every move and utterance.  Amélie loved the attention (note that nude portrait again—she actually had copies of it made); but Archie thought HE deserved the attention.  He was, after all, an ASTOR. It was a marriage from hell, but Archie adored Amélie and continued to support her even after she dumped him and wed a penniless artist/aristocrat named Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy.

Frontispiece and title page of The Quick or the Dead by Amelie Rives, from Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, April 1888. (Taylor 1888 .T76 Q8. Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers. Photograph by Donna Stapley)

Frontispiece and title page of “The Quick or the Dead?” by Amelie Rives, published in full in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, April 1888. (Taylor 1888 .T76 Q8. Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers. Photograph by Donna Stapley)

John Armstrong Chaloner (Chanler) seated on a horse, 30 September 1912. (Holsinger Studio Collection. Image by U.Va. Digitization) Services)

John Armstrong “Archie” Chaloner (Chanler), seated on a horse, 30 September 1912. (Holsinger Studio Collection. Image by U.Va. Digitization) Services)

Photograph by Fred Hollyer of Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy sketching, 1 August 1894. (MSS 2532. Photograph by Donna Stapley)

Photograph of Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy by Fred Hollyer, 1 August 1894. (MSS 2532. Photograph by Donna Stapley)

One astonishing story after the next tumbles out of the voluminous papers dealing with both Archie and Amélie at Special Collections. You couldn’t make up Archie’s life: his creation of a mill town in the wilderness of North Carolina; his fascination with the occult; his betrayal by über-architect Stanford White and by his own family, who committed him to an insane asylum for the rich in White Plains, New York; his escape from Bloomingdale Asylum after nearly four years of incarceration; his re-emergence in Charlottesville where, in a famous lunacy trial, he was declared sane in Virginia—but he remained “insane” everywhere else; his killing a man in his own dining room (he was acquitted of the deed but paid for the victim’s funeral and had a six-pointed metal star placed on the dining room floor to commemorate the event); his nearly twenty-year struggle to have himself declared sane in New York and reclaim control of his fortune.  Archie was finally victorious, but thereafter fell into madness, turning into a recluse at his Virginia estate. His renown was secured, however, when he coined the famous line “Who’s Looney Now?” and cabled it to reporters.

So sex and celebrity and scandal, Gilded Age style, lie simmering in those archival boxes.

Portrait of John Armstong Chaloner or "Archie." 4 May 1918. (MSS 9862. Holsinger Studio Collection. Image by U.Va. Digitization Services)

Portrait of John Armstrong “Archie” Chaloner (Chanler). 4 May 1918. (MSS 9862. Holsinger Studio Collection. Image by U.Va. Digitization Services)

Four Years Behind the Bars of "Bloomingdale" or The Bankruptcy of Law in New York by John Armstrong Chanler, 1906. (PS3505 .H2 F6 1906. Gift of John Staige Davis. Photograph by Donna Stapley)

Title page of “Four Years Behind the Bars of ‘Bloomingdale'” (1906), John Armstrong Chanler’s scathing account of being placed by his family in “Bloomingdale Asylum,” White Plains, New York. (PS3505 .H2 F6 1906. Gift of John Staige Davis. Photograph by Donna Stapley)


Patron’s Choice: Language Battles in the Douglas H. Gordon Collection of French Books

This week we are pleased to feature a guest post from Nicholas Shangler, Lecturer of French at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia.

Dr. Shangler graduated with a Ph.D. in French from the University of Virginia this past May 2013.  While in graduate school, he worked with rare books as a student employee in Digital Curation Services at the University of Virginia Library, and while doing so, found a series of books by Henri Estienne that would become central to his dissertation work.


During my first semester of graduate school, I quickly realized that I needed a part-time job.  Serendipitously, Digital Curation Services was seeking someone to assist with the digitization of the Gordon Collection, an impressive holding of primarily sixteenth century French books, at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.  I didn’t know it then, but that job would influence the course of my graduate career and beyond, leading me to specialize in Renaissance literature.  The digitization process involved perusing the books in the Gordon Collection, selecting one, and scanning it page by page.  Although admittedly tedious at times, the process allowed me to spend hours each day becoming acquainted with fascinating materials more profoundly than I ever would have otherwise.  Many of the works are not exactly canonical, affording me a richer experience of Renaissance French culture and literature than I’d previously been exposed to in classes.

A section of the Gordon Collection of French Books stacks. (Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

A section of the Douglas H. Gordon Collection of French Books stacks. (Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Douglas H. Gordon bookplate. (Photograph of Petrina Jackson)

Douglas H. Gordon bookplate. (Photograph of Petrina Jackson)

One curious work that I spent some time considering was Deux dialogues du nouueau langage françois (1578) by Henri Estienne.  It intrigued me with its descriptions of French words being chopped in half and “stuffed” with Italian words (inserted between the two ends of the original French words).  What?!  Then the author claimed that the French language descended from Greek, not Latin.  Clearly this guy was crazy.  I put it down and chose other works to digitize.  But apparently it stuck with me.  Five years later, while drafting my dissertation prospectus on French language innovation in the Renaissance, I recalled these strange dialogues.  I returned to Special Collections and paid Monsieur Estienne a visit.

Deux Dialogues (Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Henri Estienne’s Deux Dialogues du Nouveau Langage Francois, 1578 (Gordon 1578 .E78. Douglas H. Gordon Collection of French Books. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

France and Italy experienced a mutual cultural and linguistic intertwining beginning in at least the early medieval period.  The influence of the Italians intensified with the marriage of the French prince, Henri II – son of François I – to Catherine de Medici, in 1533.  The ascension of Henri II to the throne in 1547 brought increasing numbers of Italians not only into France, but into the folds of the French Court.  Many courtiers embraced the growing Italianism and affected a language heavily characterized both by Italian words and by French words recomposed so as to incorporate fragments of Italian.  However, a number of prominent voices discouraged their French countrymen from having anything to do with the Italians, urging instead greater respect for French national culture.  Among those who began to protest against the intrusion of Italianism in France, and particularly with regard to language, a certain Parisian printer distinguished himself by his fervor and for his compelling articulation of the argument in support of the purity of French.

Henri Estienne (1528-1598) was destined to participate in the battle over language.  The son of Robert (1503-1559), a renowned printer and scholar, Estienne developed from a young age a curiosity and love for languages and books.  He mastered Latin, Greek and Italian, and devoted a significant amount of work to translating, editing, publishing and/or collating essential classical texts.  During the final two decades of his life, from the mid-1570s until his death, Estienne undertook two original editions of the Greek New Testament accompanied by his own critical commentary.

Henri Estienne’s polemic against the Italianized French employed by French courtiers appears in three separate but related works.  Together they form a sort of trilogy, each attacking various aspects of the central problem.  The first, Traicté de la conformité du language françois avec le grec (1565), denies the superiority of Italian by belittling its roots.  Estienne claims in his preface that the Italian language owes a far greater debt to French than does French to any Italian heritage.  He supports his argument by advancing the idea that French descends directly from Greek and has more in common with Greek than any other language.  Since everyone universally recognizes Greek as the greatest language in history, French must therefore be the second greatest.  Italian, on the other hand, is but the paltry progeny of Latin.  Estienne decries the recent linguistic inventions of the Italianizing courtiers and instead longingly praises the true French language “pure and simple, showing nothing of artifice, nor of affectation: that which Sir Courtier has not yet changed according to his tastes, and which has nothing borrowed from modern languages” [“pur et simple, n’ayant rien de fard, ni d’affectation: lequel monsieur le courtisan n’a point encore changé à sa guise, & qui ne tient rien d’emprunt des langues modernes.”] (Estienne, Conformité, preface, Vvo)

(Typ.E77 1565E. Stone Typography Collection. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Henri Estienne’s Traicte de la Conformite du language francois auec le Grec, 1565. (Typ.E77 1565E. Stone Typography Collection. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Estienne continues the attack where he left off with the 1578 publication of the Deux dialogues du nouueau langage françois.  The book opens with a series of poems that set the stage for the debate to follow.  In the first of the two dialogues, Estienne posits an exchange between a character named Celtophile (“lover of France”), whose role is to prosecute the case against the Italianized French, and Philausone (“lover of Italy”), who frequents the Court and is charged with defending the practice.  Naturally the jury is rigged in favor of Celtophile, with the accused found guilty even before the opening gavel.  The two interlocutors find themselves at an impasse at the close of the first dialogue.  They agree to reconvene the next morning to continue their discussion, and to go together to consult a third party, Philalethe (“lover of Truth”). Over the course of the second dialogue the topic of their argument gradually progresses to whether French or Italian, considered separately rather than in their blended form, is the greater language.  Once Philalethe joins the conversation he promptly dismantles all of Philausone’s reasoning, according an unconditional victory to the French language.  Still, Philausone refuses to concede.  The book ends with Philalethe promising to demonstrate further the dominance of the French language at a later time.

Keeping Philalethe’s promise, the following year – 1579 – Henri Estienne published De la précellence du langage françois, which he dedicated in the preface to King Henri III.  Though this work stands as a sequel to the Dialogues, Philalethe disappears and Estienne offers the book in his own voice using his real name, opening with a poem entitled “H. Estiene aux François.”   Here he broadens the scope of his attacks, no longer limiting himself to rebutting the use of Italianisms at Court.  Alluding to his own Conformité, he reiterates his claims of the self-sufficiency of French with regard to other languages, particularly Italian.  Most of Estienne’s logic is unsound.  He persists in relying upon his fallacious etymologies relating French to Greek, that he first sketched out in the Conformité, and then states that any words that seem equivalent between French and Italian are the result of Italian borrowing, rather than a common Latin heritage.

(Gordon 1579. E78. Gordon French Book Collection. Image by Digitization Services )

Henri Estienne’s Project du Livre Intitulé De la Precellence du Language Francois, 1579. (Gordon 1579. E78. Douglas H. Gordon Collection of French Books.  Image by Digitization Services )

Estienne ridicules the changing pronunciation of certain words, and presents his vision of the resulting confusion of words and objects in ways that give his reader to understand the gravity of the situation.  For instance, in the Dialogues, he condemns the changed pronunciation of oi into e.  The examples that he chooses – including “françois” (Frenchman) to “français” and “roine” (queen) to “reine” – underscore the danger of allowing the courtiers’ language to insinuate itself into the formerly pure French.  Not only does the new form of the word for “queen” risk signifying a frog instead, but the pronunciation of the very word indicating national belonging is changing.

Such a world is unstable and proved frightening to Estienne.  Estienne suggests even from the outset that the new words and those who are using them in new ways are already changing France itself.  The Dialogues opens with the poem, “The Book to the Readers” [“Le Livre aux Lecteurs”], which offers the warning that there are those for whom “in everything novelty is beautiful, / So much so that they are making us a new France” [“en tout la nouveauté est belle, / Tant qu’il [sic] nous font une France nouvelle”] (Estienne, Dialogues).  These worries transcend a mere discussion of language, and extend into the realms of politics and society.  Estienne’s works suggest that changes in language will precipitate changes in reality.  Although his focus is ostensibly linguistic, his motivations spring from deep political concerns about the future of his native France.

I suppose Henri Estienne would be relieved to know that the French language I was studying when I discovered his works in 2004 ultimately survived the encroachment of Italian.  His works and the many others of that era housed in the U.Va. Special Collections are all perfectly comprehensible to French speakers of today, despite the occasional variation in spelling and usage.  However, browsing current French-language social media posts online, I suspect that there would still be fodder aplenty for a reincarnated Estienne to pen yet another series of polemical treatises, though the target would no longer be Italian.  As it happens, in 1964, René Étiemble published Parlez-vous franglais?, a work linking patriotism and linguistic purism in which he approvingly references Estienne and cites passages from the Précellence du langage françois.  Indeed, these old rare books continually prove to be far more relevant to modern ideas than one might first imagine.

Nicholas Shangler (Photograph by )

Nicholas Shangler (Photograph by Sarah Reynolds-Shangler)