79, rue du Temple (rue Sainte-Avoye), the Hôtel de Montmor was an
important site of scientific activity during the years 1653-1664. There,
in the course of a decade, a small circle of friends came to identify itself
as a scientific academy boasting some 30 members, a constitution,
admission criteria, rules, and a working agenda. By one tradition, the private
patronage of H-L Habert de Montmor (c.1600-1679) was the 'birthplace' of
While the origins
the Montmor group remain obscure, the role of 'Montmor le Riche' as private
patron clearly began in the 1630s. But there is little evidence of a 'Montmor
group' at the Hôtel before May 1653 when Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655)
began to lodge on the second floor. The group that gathered here signaled
the first beginnings of the Académie Montmor. It likely drew members
from the defunct assemblies of Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) and Jacques Le
of the Gassendi Circle (1653-1655) were mathematicians and medical men.
In addition to Gassendi and Montmor, the group likely included Ismaël
Boulliau (1605-1694), Charles du Bosc (d. 1659), Pierre Carcavi (c.1603-1684),
Claude Clerselier (1614-1686?), Gérard Desargues (1593-1662), Guy
Patin (1601-1672), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Pierre Petit (1594?-1677),
Abraham du Prat (1616-1660), G-P de Roberval (1602-1675), J-R de Segrais
(1624-1701), and perhaps Jean Chapelain (1595-1674). Early visitors included
Michel de Marolles (1600-1681) and Balthazar de Monconys (1615-1665).
But the if
'Académie Montmorienne' (1657-1664) grew by stages, the critical
phase was underway by December 1657. At the request of Montmor, Samuel
Sorbière (1615-1670) and Abraham du Prat drafted a short constitution
consisting of nine Rules (see Sorbière to Hobbes, 1 February 1658;
See Below). The goal of the nascent academy was clear knowledge of nature
not a 'parade of wit over useless subtleties.' Meetings would have
a moderator, weekly topics, pre-circulated papers, and discussion guidelines.
Importantly, admission and attendance would be regulated.
Rules, the small group that once surrounded Gassendi slowly transformed itself into
a semi-private Académie. But even in death Gassendi's spirit was
invoked to 'reign in our Assemblée' in order that a 'true method
of philosophizing' be followed. Weekly meetings (Fridays, then Tuesdays)
were attended by an illustrious assembly including Secretaries of State,
Cordons Bleus, and Parliamentarians. Sorbière boasted it would be
difficult to compose a comparable group anywhere.
bickering and doctrinal disputes soon disrupted the meetings. In December
1658 a legendary clash occurred between Montmor and Roberval, ostensibly
over a doctrine of Descartes. The dispute stymied activity for eight months.
If the problem was a tendency to speechify, the solution was to emphasize
experiment. After the summer of 1659, meetings resumed more or less weekly
for almost five years. In June 1664, Huygens pronounced the academy had 'ended forever'
(Huygens to Moray, 12 June 1664).
evidence concerning weekly meetings, membership, and discussion topics
is scarce. But old problems clearly accompanied continued formalization.
Two examples must suffice. In the summer of 1661 Montmor's wife fell ill, and
as a consequence, no meetings were held for three months (Chapelain to
Huet, 17 September 1661). Throughout its existence the Académie
remained a semi-private assembly not a public institution; if its patron
suffered so did its members. But 'membership' clearly took new meaning
during these years. Close reading of correspondence during the period shows
subtle shifts of reference, as early mention of 'nos amis' and 'nos autres
habiles' change to more formal reports on topics and group activities.
Comportment was a constant concern. By 1658 membership in the Académie
Montmor (access, attendance, participation) had achieved greater regularity.
Organizational leaders of the group included Sorbière and Abraham
du Prat, while behind the scenes Jean Chapelain was a constant promoter.
is known of specific discussion topics, a general picture has emerged.
As we have seen, there was concern to avoid the 'vain exercise of the mind
on useless subtleties; rather, one should always propose the clearest knowledge
of the works of God and the advancement of the conveniences of life, in
the arts and sciences that best serve to establish them.' Contemporary
correspondence shows that discourses were read and discussed, and that
the tenor of meetings was sometimes shrill.
and physical demonstration is often discussed, we know little about the
experiments that were made or how they were performed. Topics of record include
Rohault's experiments with the magnet; Thévenot's presentation of
his tubes; P-D Huet's discourse on shattering 'glass drops' brought from
Germany (Huet, Mémoires); Huygens' work with the air pump;
Pierre Guisony's work on vegetation, and Pecquet's dissections. Specific
discussion topics include Chapelain's announcement of Huygens' discoveries
(pendulum clock; Saturn's moon Titan; Saturn's Rings), and formal exchanges
on such topics as the science of motion, rarefaction and condensation,
and the limits of natural knowledge and sources of error. Foreign correspondence
was read and discussed at the close of each session.
Montmor represents in microcosm a critical transition in the organization
of science. Yet, while several members of the group--the 'Montmoriens dissidents'--
called for royal patronage, it would be a mistake to see the Académie
Montmor as the 'birthplace' of the Académie royale. If an impetus
for royal favor was felt in France, it likely came from the Royal Society
of London (1662), and it is likely that questions of ancestry--or at least
family resemblance--point clearly to the French civil service.
Robert A. Hatch