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RSE medal win is first for a Modern Linguist

Professor John Renwick reflects on winning the RSE Sir Walter Scott Medal for his work on Voltaire and Marmontel.

Professor John Peter Renwick, one of the world’s leading experts on the French Enlightenment, has been awarded the Sir Walter Scott Medal by the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE).

Photo of John Renwick

The Medal recognises what the RSE notes as a “monumental and ground-breaking contribution” to the 140-volume Complete Works of Voltaire (Oxford, 1969-2021), and Renwick’s key role in the “scholarly resurrection of the highly significant figure, Jean-François Marmontel” (1723-1799).

John Renwick was John Orr Chair of French at the University of Edinburgh for over a quarter of a century from 1980 until his retirement. He has been an Emeritus Professor in French in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures (LLC) since 2007.

In this article, he tells us how he came to be an expert on Marmontel and Voltaire, and what the RSE Medal means to him.

Miracles are worked by boundless enthusiasm

“I am very conscious that this is the first occasion that a Modern Linguist has ever received the Sir Walter Scott Medal”, Renwick says.

“Given the RSE’s citation, I am tempted to think that such recognition would have appeared remote to those colleagues who - in the beginning - told me (to my retrospective amusement) that my projected research topic (a rehabilitation of Marmontel’s reputation which had been seriously damaged in academia a century earlier) was a total waste of time”.

“I also wryly think that my tutor in Oxford, who (I suspect) was not impressed by my assiduity, would have been bewildered to see me ‘recognised as one of the world’s leading experts on the French Enlightenment’. The answer to the enigma is simple: miracles are worked by boundless enthusiasm, and an ability to be constantly excited by one’s project(s)”.

Having been warned that, with Marmontel, I would be ‘wasting my time’, I can now legitimately say to young scholars in LLC: beware of advice…however well-meaning. Always follow your instincts and your enthusiasm.

John Renwick, Emeritus Professor in FrenchWinner of the RSE Sir Walter Scott Medal 2021

A new departure

Over the course of his career, Renwick authored a critical bibliography of Marmontel from 1800 onwards; scholarly editions of the writer-historian’s Memoirs and Correspondance; numerous studies dealing with significant aspects of Marmontel's career; and an extensive research collection funded by, and housed in, the University of Clermont-Ferrand.

He says “If Marmontel once had few friends, I provided an increasingly receptive academic community with all the basic research tools that would help to justify the beginnings of his rehabilitation”.

“It was, in fact, in Clermont - where I was then teaching - that a new departure came about in my still early career: my discoveries regarding the resounding (but then forgotten) campaign (1766-1768) that Marmontel and his ally Voltaire had pitted against the forces of reaction, brought me to the attention of Theodore Besterman, the Founding Father of the Oxford Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, who, in 1970, invited me to join his editorial team. My resultant enthusiasm led thereafter to a volume of editorial work on my part that only grew with the years.”

Exciting electronic developments

Renwick has been one of the mainstays of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Complete Works of Voltaire), a project of the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford. His editorial work over 50 years has produced some 55 critical editions of major Voltaire works (like, for example, his celebrated Traité sur la tolérance or his Histoire du Parlement de Paris).    

He says “If that monumental edition has given scholars the opportunity to present everything written by Voltaire in the most meticulous manner, accompanied by many novel insights, the most exciting developments came, however, twenty years ago with the advent of those electronic resources: Tout Voltaire and Google Books which have revolutionised many aspects of our exegesis.”

“Tout Voltaire has, for example, allowed us to search the totality of Voltaire’s writings and to reclassify his extensive re-use of his own material (for years branded as a lack of creativity, even proof of senility) as a highly sophisticated procedure of reinvention. Google Books, meanwhile, has allowed the identification of those historical sources used by Voltaire in his own historical works, thus greatly assisting an even more sophisticated and novel analysis of his mentality, and working habits.”

Find out more about Professor John Renwick

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Related links

Read the RSE press release on its 2021 medal winners