Rare collection of Voltaire manuscripts makes its way to McGill University

This estate gift, entrusted to McGill by Professor Peter Lambert-David Southam, includes handwritten documents written by Voltaire himself
Published: 18 October 2023

The McGill University Library is now home to a rare collection of materials related to the prolific Enlightenment period philosopher, Voltaire (1694-1778).

This estate gift, entrusted to McGill by Professor Peter Lambert-David Southam, is a treasure trove of historical handwritten documents, some written by Voltaire himself, consisting of letters, poems, essays, memoirs, notes, legal documents, trial testimonies, and architectural drawings – many of which have never been published before. It offers a unique window into the life and mind of Voltaire.

“The collection adds immense depth and richness to McGill’s already formidable holdings on the Enlightenment Period and Voltaire, now making McGill’s holdings one of the most important Voltaire repositories of books and manuscripts in North America,” said McGill University librarian and Curator of Enlightenment Collections, Ann Marie Holland.

The Jacqueline Lambert-David Voltaire Manuscript Collection includes 1,500 pages of handwritten manuscripts related to Voltaire, one of the most celebrated authors, philosophers, satirists, and provocateurs of the French Enlightenment. It is a vast and diverse collection of 290 manuscripts representing 1,500 pages of text consisting of private, diplomatic, judicial and administrative letters; literary and historical manuscripts; and precious documents relative to the life and times of Voltaire.

An invaluable historical treasure

The history of this collection traces its origins back to Voltaire's estate in Ferney-Voltaire, France, and has been nurtured by four generations of the Lambert-David family, eventually culminating in Professor Peter Southam's decision to entrust this invaluable historical treasure to McGill University.

Although all periods of Voltaire's career are represented, the Lambert-David Collection notably enriches our understanding of the period during which Voltaire lived at his property the Château de Ferney as of 1760 through to 1778.

“Ferney was a bustling place,” said Holland. “Guests from all over Europe paid Voltaire a visit at his Chateau, including Englishmen out on the Grand Tour.”

These papers tell us about the day-to-day life of the first European literary celebrity, adds Professor Nicholas Cronk, Director of the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford. Professor Cronk is giving a lecture on the Voltaire manuscripts on Wednesday, October 18.

“McGill Library possesses many, many treasures, and among them, one of the greatest research collections of Voltaire’s books and manuscripts anywhere in the world,” he said.

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