Enlightenment Salons: Controversies

The salons arguably constituted the Enlightenment’s “defining social institution”.[1] They were also one of the most central institutions of the Old Regime, a “miniature court”.[2] As Antoine Lilti demonstrates, “The politics of the ancien régime and worldliness appear to have been closely connected… their hybrid nature, between the court society and urban sociabilities… allowed them to occupy that place within the political system of the ancien régime”.[3] Yet we cannot answer the question of what the salons were, without asking who attended the salons. Accounts of the salons often aim to prove that eighteenth-century French salons were extensions of the court (Landes) and aristocratic gathering places (Lilti).[4] Others articulate the salons as the site of “people’s public use of their reason”, the “literary precursor” of the public sphere.[5] Accounts of the salons also frequently privilege a proto-feminist view given the pervasive practice of female salon hostesses or salonnière; Dena Goodman portrays the Enlightenment as a period of “150 years of female governance”.[6] Yet the drive to find a dominant purpose for the salons’ existence has often prevented historians from seeing the diversity and variability of the salons. At stake is a more realistic and accurate picture of French salons, which we seek to provide through a prosopographical approach.

It will come as little surprise that the people who attended leading French salons of the eighteenth century were disproportionately male, aristocratic, and well educated, though the salons remained characterized by mixed-gender sociability, which was, in Lilti’s terms, the “essential criterion of the salon of the ancien régime”.[7] Other findings, however, are more surprising: scientists and visual artists, for example, were rarely documented as attending Enlightenment-era French salons. While salon participants were likely to be titled nobility, active courtiers were rare, suggesting that salons had evolved to be distant cousins of the French court by the 1730s. The male attendees were far more likely than the general population to be published authors, active in academic institutions, and contributors to the Encyclopédie, perhaps the most important project of the Enlightenment. Women were relatively rare; those who did participate in the salons were almost exclusively aristocratic and more likely to have literary accomplishments than the general female population. While these are provisional conclusions based on limited data, they are remarkably consistent across decades of leading French salons. This suggests that the demographics of leading French salons were relatively stable through the Enlightenment era, assembling an elite group of French nationals who knew each other through multiple venues (i.e. correspondence, salons, academies, universities, the church, military institutions, etc). We have referred to this group elsewhere as the “French Enlightenment Network”.[8]

[1] Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca, 1992), 3.

[2] Lilti, The World of the Salons: Sociability and Worldliness in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Oxford, 2015) 26.

[3] Ibid., 233.

[4] On the influence of the French court on the salons, see Joan Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca, 1988). On the continued existence of French salons after the Revolution, see Steven Kale, French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848 (Baltimore, 2004).

[5] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA, 1991), 27

[6] Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994), 11.

[7] Ibid., 22.

[8] For more on the concept and characteristics of the French Enlightenment Network, see Maria Comsa, Melanie Conroy, Dan Edelstein, Chloe Edmondson and Claude Willan, “The French Enlightenment Network” forthcoming in The Journal of Modern History.


What Were Salons?

For some, salons — known at the time as cercles or sociétés — were primarily meant as fora for entertainment, or “bureaux d’esprit,” as they were called by detractors.[1] Lilti, for example, emphasizes the pervasiveness of the practices that he refers to as “worldly” [mondain] across the many salons, or cercles, that all adopted some version of these “worldly practices”.[2] According to this view, salons were not literary or philosophical institutions, but rather institutions of aristocratic sociability in which a range of activities – from theater to games and gossip – were used as a means of entertainment. This suggests that the salons were less the engines of the Enlightenment or the French Revolution, than they were an established institution marked by aristocratic habitus. Goodman on the other hand, defines the eighteenth-century salon as serving a central role in furthering the “ends of philosophy, broadly conceived as the project of Enlightenment,” taking a more restrictive approach and excluding certain gatherings, notably those of Épinay and Genlis, from this category.[3]

Some of these controversies have been exaggerated. Salons — especially the leading Parisian salons — had aristocratic origins; some, nevertheless, served as locales for Enlightenment sociability. The existence of the Enlightenment depended on the participation of a society to engage with and respond to the works by Enlightenment authors; as Edelstein argues, “one of the key sites where this recognition was debated and awarded was the salon”.[4] One of the defining features of the Enlightenment was precisely the advent of not only gens de lettres but also “aristocrats, ministers, educated women, and even some priests…thinking, conversing, writing, and behaving in novel ways”.[5] Since there was significant participation from both literary people and aristocrats, not to mention the gens de lettres who were themselves aristocrats, we can see that the salons had a literary/philosophical function, all while remaining institutions affiliated with, and peopled by, aristocrats and their friends. A demographic approach allows us to remain, at least provisionally, agnostic about the nature and function of the salons. Our objective in looking at individual salons is to ascertain a better idea of who was participating and what the composition of these various circles looked like, in order to gain a more nuanced idea of what it meant to participate in the social institution of the Enlightenment.

[1] The term “salon” as a designation of a social gathering makes its first appearance in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 6th Edition (1835): “Il s’emploie figurément, surtout au pluriel, pour désigner, La bonne compagnie, les gens du beau monde.” This definition is absent from the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 5th Edition (1798).

[2] Lilti, The World of the Salons 125.

[3] Goodman, The Republic of Letters, 9.

[4] Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy (Chicago: 2010), 93.

[5] Ibid., 21.


Our Methods

A few words on our methods: first, we collected potential demographic information on each salon from the most up-to-date and reliable biographies.[1] We then cross-referenced them against our dataset derived from the Oxford Electronic Enlightenment Project, a database of correspondence data from our period.[2] Then, we assigned members of salons to social and knowledge networks, such as the “Nobility”, the “Elite”, those interested in sciences, letters, and philosophy. We then calculated the numbers of each of these demographics in six influential Parisian salons of the eighteenth century (Graffigny, Tencin, Deffand, Geoffrin, Lespinasse, and Necker). It is important to bear in mind that these are samples of members of each salon, as opposed to complete numbers, but we have little reason to believe that the biographers of various salonnières have systematically misrepresented the audiences of the salons. As we shall see, the proportions of various demographic groups are relatively consistent across biographies, suggesting that biographers do provide representative samples of salon guests.[3] By comparing the demographics of various salons, we are able to make some more nuanced generalizations about French salons of the Enlightenment era without essentializing them.[4]

[1] Janine Bouissounouse, Julie de Lespinasse, ses amitiés, ses passions (Paris, 1958); Eugène Asse, Mlle de Lespinasse et la Marquise du Deffand (Paris, 1877); Marie Gougy- François, Les grands salons féminins (Paris, 1965); René de La Croix de Castries, Julie de Lespinasse : le drame d’un double amour (Paris, 1985); Gabriel Paul Othénin de Cléron d’ Haussonville, The Salon of Madame Necker, trans. Henry M. Trollope, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 2011); Maurice Hamon, Madame Geoffrin : femme d’influence, femme d’affaires au temps des Lumières (Paris, 2010); Benedetta Craveri, Du Deffand and Her World, trans. Teresa Waugh (Boston, 1994); English Showalter, Françoise de Graffigny: Her Life and Works (Oxford, 2004).


[3] Since salons were unofficial events with poor record-keeping, week-to-week attendance will probably never be established, even for very famous and well-studied salons. For one thing, biographers tend to merely list members of salons without specifying the dates of attendance, often qualifying individuals as frequent attendees. We can, however, more easily establish the occasional appearance of particular individuals. From these appearances, we can construct the network of a particular salon: the people that attended the salon at least once. Comparing the networks of various salons, we can get an idea, albeit imprecise, of how the networks of various salons compared to each other, the patterns in these networks, and how they connect to one another (which individuals attended multiple salons).

[4] One caveat: a quantitative approach to the salon demographics is of limited accuracy. Although we are able to provide rough numbers for the total number of documented members of each salon and then of demographic groups, we cannot verify all members of salons since there will be many undocumented members or one time attendees who have not entered into the historical record. There are also matters of mood, tone, and etiquette that would make some people or groups dominant over others, regardless of which groups were more numerous.


Demographics of Major Salons

Who participated in Enlightenment-era Parisian salons? Aristocrats and the titled nobility were, indeed, well represented in the salons. Nobles were present in large numbers in all of the leading salons that we studied from the early Enlightenment salons to the high Enlightenment.


Salon Graffigny Tencin Deffand Geoffrin Lespinasse Necker
Total Members 86 57 14 88 61 23
Letters 35% 47% 43% 38% 51% 65%
Nobility 37% 51% 64% 39% 52% 35%
Nobility & Letters 13% 19% 21% 10% 19% 17%
Elite 41% 60% 57% 50% 56% 52%
Elite & Letters 19% 28% 21% 17% 31% 30%
Political elite 16% 37% 14% 30% 40% 26%
Military 10% 7% 7% 9% 15% 4%
Courtiers 3% 14% 7% 10% 10% 9%

* Sources: Janine Bouissounouse, Julie de Lespinasse, ses amitiés, ses passions (Paris, 1958); Eugène Asse, Mlle de Lespinasse et la Marquise du Deffand (Paris, 1877); Marie Gougy- François, Les grands salons féminins (Paris, 1965); René de La Croix de Castries, Julie de Lespinasse: le drame d’un double amour (Paris, 1985); Gabriel Paul Othénin de Cléron d’ Haussonville, The Salon of Madame Necker, trans. Henry M. Trollope, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 2011); Maurice Hamon, Madame Geoffrin: femme d’influence, femme d’affaires au temps des Lumières (Paris, 2010); Benedetta Craveri, Du Deffand and Her World, trans. Teresa Waugh (Boston, 1994); English Showalter, Françoise de Graffigny: Her Life and Works (Oxford, 2004).

“Nobility” made up between a third (Graffigny and Geoffrin) and almost two-thirds (Deffand) of the public named in the biographies of salonnières. The “Elite” — a category which includes famous writers, high-raking statesmen, and notable socialites who attended more than one salon — made up similar or higher proportions of the salons that we studied. The “Elite”, comprising both noble and non-noble eminent individuals, represented a majority in all but Graffigny’s salon. The presence of nobles and elites together in almost all leading salons suggests that high-status members of Parisian high society gathered together in the leading salons, regardless of their status at birth or marriage. The nobles that attended salons did form one larger social network with other elites in Parisian salons.

The world of letters was also well-represented in leading salons. Gens de lettres made up from one third to two thirds of the documented members of salons. But the gens de lettres — published authors, major salonnières, and writers of significant correspondence — were by no means an isolated group. One fifth to a third of the “Elite” group also include gens de lettres. The “Nobility” was slightly less likely to participate in the world of letters, but still one tenth to one fifth of the noble participants in these salons were active in the world of letters. There was thus enough overlap of elite and noble individuals active in the world of letters such that the salon world cannot be easily divided into separate camps.

At the same time, not all-powerful social networks supplied many members to the leading eighteenth-century salons. The military and the court were surprisingly little represented — generally between 5% and 15% of the total number of documented members of Parisian salons. These numbers suggest that being a member of one of these segments of society did not, in and of itself, secure invitations into leading salons. Further, it indicates that eighteenth-century salons were not an extension of the court–at least in demographic terms. The salons, the upper echelons of the military, and the court were populated by nobles but the overlap between these three spheres was not large. Nor was affiliation with government consistently associated with attendance at a leading salon. In Tencin’s, Geoffrin’s, and Lespinasse’s salons, the “Political elite”— diplomats, government officials, and robins — has a strong presence. In other salons, notably Graffigny’s and Deffand’s salons, there were fewer documented political and administrative figures in attendance.



The role of salon hostesses and the presence of women as salon attendees constitute another major demographic question. All salons had more aristocratic women and elite women than they had women engaged in literature — including the great salonnières and published women writers. This suggests that women were admitted to salons based on their social position whether or not they were active in literature. As such, these elite and aristocratic women were important connections for the gens de lettres, providing a critical link to people of power (patronage, royal pensions etc).[1] Indeed, few women were engaged in knowledge production in eighteenth-century France, and only very rarely outside of literature. Women have a relatively consistent presence in all six leading salons that we studied. Madame Deffand’s salon had the largest proportion of women, more than 35%. There was little change in the number of women from the early salons to the later ones. Tencin, Geoffrin, and Lespinasse had fewer documented female participants than Graffigny, Deffand, or Necker. This is surprising because while Geoffrin’s salon was reputed to make entry for women very difficult, many authors mention Lespinasse’s salon as the haunt of “witty women”. What’s more, the salons have been considered platforms through which women, specifically the salon hostess, wielded significant socio-cultural influence, notably as mediators helping men get elected to academies and being granted roles in government. Some salons, Tencin’s and Lespinasse’s in particular, have been considered antechambers to the academies, with considerable influence in elections for vacant seats.[2]

[1] See Roger Chartier 222 Origines de la Rev;

[2] Bouissounouse, Julie de Lespinasse, 155-156



From this — admittedly incomplete — study of the demographics of elite Parisian salons, we can draw a few conclusions. As predicted by Lilti, nobles were consistently present in large numbers, along with other elites, including literary elites, government officials, and philosophes. The salons were also learned: published authors, academy members, and encyclopédistes alike were present in large numbers in salons from Graffigny’s to Necker’s. The evidence of philosophical content is of course much less solid, and science was relatively absent form the salons, both in terms of knowledge and its underrepresentation demographically. Relatively few of the attendees of elite salons published scientific books, although quite a few members of the Académie royale des sciences and the Royal Society were documented as attending the salons. Many more of the members, especially of Necker’s salon, wrote for the Encyclopédie, mostly on less technical subjects (list of subjects). Habitués of elite salons were disproportionally aristocratic, wealthy, and well-connected — to other aristocrats, academy members, the government and, to a lesser degree, the military and the Court. This suggests that salons were, as Lilti has claimed, institutions of aristocratic sociability. They were not however, as Joan Landes has claimed for earlier salons, extensions of the Court, especially not during the eighteenth century. It is not that some elite Parisian salons were connected to the academies and others were venues for light conversation, the so-called “bureaux d’esprit”. The publication records of salon attendees revealed that they were, above all, invested in the literary community, with secondary interests in political economy and philosophy.

Our methodology demonstrates that accounts that attempt to essentialize all Enlightenment salons, or even one particular salon, are unhelpfully reductive. It also reveals some of the bons mots of French intellectual history — for instance, Graffigny and Tencin’s ability to elect academy members — do not hold up to scrutiny. Likewise, salons, like Deffand’s, that are not known for power or the academic achievements of its members may be unfairly devalued. The clearest picture that emerges, however, is of a fundamentally mixed public; with elite figures (generally around 50%) mixing with some higher status but more obscure nobles.

Further, many of the nobles were also elite figures, academics, and published authors. Philosophy became an increasingly polarizing subject in later salons that never split the world of salons into pro and anti-philosophes salons. Enlightenment-era Parisian salons were institutions of elite sociability, mixing the literary elite with an aristocratic public that consistently included some women and never excluded the philosophes. The increasing numbers of philosophes and their allies in the eminent salons studied here point to the emergence of a more philosophical salon in the High Enlightenment. The presence of these more radical figures indicates the polarized atmosphere of the later years of the Enlightenment. In contrast to what we might call a “standard” enlightenment salon with Geoffrin, that welcomed the philosophes while consciously remaining non-controversial,[1] what we see is a new more radical genre of salon, demonstrated by the significant correlation in our data between philosophes attendees, academy membership, and correspondence with major Enlightenment figures. Independent from the court and the military, eighteenth-century French salons were became more philosophical but not less literary or less aristocratic than the salons of the early-Enlightenment.

[1] Lilti 118.

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