Campus News

'Le Grand Siècle' Exhibit Chronicles 17th-Century French History and Culture

Story posted December 12, 2005

Medailles...du règne... includes engravings of all the commemorative coins minted during Louis XIV's reign and narratives of the events the coins commemorated -- just one part of the huge propaganda machine meant to elevate the King's image. Due to historical inaccuracies, the preface in the first edition was suppressed after appearing in just 65 copies. Bowdoin owns both the 1702 and 1723 editions, each with the armorial supralibros of Louis XIV and Louis XV respectively.

From gilded volumes once owned by France's King Louis XIV to a 300 year-old cookbook describing how 17th-century French chefs made ice cream and soufflés, the exhibition "Le Grand Siècle" presents a fascinating collection of rare 17th-century books and maps that document a significant period in the shaping of French history and culture. The exhibition, comprising items from the Bowdoin College Library's special collections, is on view on the second floor of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library on the Bowdoin campus through January 23, 2006.

"This exhibition communicates the extraordinary richness and complexity of the period the French refer to as 'Le Grand Siècle,' so called because of the major role it still plays in how the French think about their culture today," says Katherine Dauge-Roth, Assistant Professor of Romance Languages at Bowdoin. "The College's collections from this key period include some of the most significant foundational texts in the areas of literature, religion, education, diplomacy, exploration, maritime and international law."

Among the exhibits highlights:

  • Medailles sur les principaux événements du règne de Louis le Grand, avec des explications historiques (1702 and 1723 editions), commemorating events from Louis XIV's long reign. The supralibros, or gold coat of arms stamped on the covers, indicate the volumes were once in the possession of Louis XIV himself.
  • Journal des Sçavans selections (1665-1786), the first scientific journal ever published, and a major source for understanding scientific advances of the time.
  • Several texts that include maps and vivid descriptions of the exploration and colonization of North America by the French, including Description de la Louisiane, nouvellement décourverte au sud-oüest de la Nouvelle France (1688), by Louis Hennepin, who explored the Mississippi River with La Salle. The volume features the first appearance in print of the name "Louisiane."
  • A first edition of Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697), a text usually regarded as inaugurating the Enlightenment period.
  • Huguenot texts testifying to the period's continuous religious turmoil, including volumes from Histoire de l'Édit de Nantes (1693-95), by exiled Protestant clergyman Elie Benoist. The Histoire is considered one of the best sources for the history of the Reformation in France.

    This unsigned manuscript about ice-cream making (ca. 1700) gives instructions for refining and pearling sugar, the freezing process, and making numerous ices and soufflés.

  • L'art de faire les glaces (c. 1700) describes how 17th-century French cooks made many flavors of ice cream and sorbet, including cherry, coffee, violet and rose. The manuscript offers a rare look into the creative cooking of the period that established France as the culinary leader of Europe, a prestige it still holds today.

Several of the volumes included in the exhibition are from the family library of the College's founder, James Bowdoin III (1752-1811), and from the Susan Dwight Bliss Fine Bindings Collection.

"Le Grand Siècle" was originally mounted at the Bowdoin Library for the annual conference of The Society for Interdisciplinary French Seventeeth-Century Studies (SE17), hosted by Bowdoin this fall under the direction of Katherine Dauge-Roth. Leading scholars in the field attended the conference, and many considered the exhibition to be a highlight.

"It testifies to the breadth and depth of our holdings here," says Dauge-Roth. "During the SE17 conference, many of my colleagues from far larger academic institutions expressed surprise - and jealousy - at the outstanding resources we have here at the Bowdoin Library."

Dauge-Roth also points to the Library's George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives as being one of several invaluable teaching resources at the College.

This map of the Mississippi and its tributaries by Louis Hennepin is part of the 1688 edition of Description de la Louisiane. Its contents are viewed as generally accurate.

"[Special Collections and Archives Director] Richard Lindemann has shared his knowledge and the terrific resources of Special Collections with my students many times over my years at Bowdoin, and those experiences are always exciting for them," she says. "These visits bring the material alive, since students get the rare opportunity to see and touch 'the real thing,' whether we're examining the transition from manuscript to print texts or paging Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie.

The exhibition "Le Grand Siècle" can be viewed whenever Hawthorne-Longfellow Library is open. Admission is free.

For more information, including holiday hours, call 725-3280 or visit

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