School of English

18th Century Seminar: The Scale of Two Cities, The Dispute about the Geographical Dimensions of London and Paris in the 1720s

Tuesday 3rd June 2014 (18:00-20:00)

This talk considers a previously unexamined dispute about the geographical dimensions of early 18th century London and Paris. The controversy was framed by several questions that were central to Enlightenment debates about the nature of the city as a locus of human experience; the relationship between space, population and civilité; the relative merits of the cities of classical antiquity and those of the early 18th century; and the possibility of devising an accurate comparative measurement of area when the shape of the earth itself was still uncertain. The dispute, which was conducted in French and English in the pages of the Histoire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, involved three main participants: the astronomer-cartographer Guillaume Delisle (1675-1726), the mathematician-astronomer Jean-Jacques Dortous de Marain (1678-1771), and the lawyer-mathematician Peter Davall (?-1763), all of whom were French. Delisle and Dortous de Marain were prominent members of the Paris Academy of Sciences, the later serving briefly as its Permanent Secretary, while Davall was a French Huguenot exiled in London who later served as one of the Royal Society’s secretaries.

As this implies, this seemingly esoteric and rather technical dispute was informed by a distinctively French perspective of a wider European debate about the development of great cities under different political and religious conditions, specifically those that prevailed in Catholic, absolutist France and Protestant, Hanoverian England. The inconclusive resolution of the dispute had a discernible impact on subsequent attempts to depict Paris and London cartographically, notably through the well-known ‘bird’s eye’ oblique perspective map of Paris developed by Louis Bretez (?-1736), generally known as the ‘Plan Turgot’, published in 1739, and the equally renowned map of London prepared by John Rocque (c. 1709-1762), another exiled Huguenot, published in 1746.

All are welcome, no need to book!

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