Universität Erfurt

Projekt von Matthew McDonald M.A.

Französisch en famille: A History of Bilingualism in Eighteenth-Century Gotha

My Herzog-Ernst research project examines the role of the French language and French culture in eighteenth-century Gotha. The city’s ruling dynasty used the language to access an international market of goods and ideas. Yet French was also a code that distinguished between elites and commoners and reinforced the inequalities that were endemic to the European old regime. This study forms an integral part of my dissertation on the expansion and decline of French as the hegemonic language of eighteenth-century Europe from 1740 through 1815. 

My research begins with a study of Herzogin Luise Dorothea (1710–1767) at the Gotha Schloßbibliothek, which preserves the Herzogin’s correspondence with two of her young sons. These letters show how the mastery of French transmitted social distinction between generations. The Landesarchiv Thüringen-Staatsarchiv Gotha holds additional letters as well as thirteen years of expenditure records and household receipts.  These materials show that a fondness for French luxury goods accompanied Luise Dorothea’s thirst for European ideas. 

I conclude my study with the history of Luise Dorothea’s son Ernst II (1745–1804). His ultimate preference for German over French, reflected in his involvement with the German-speaking Illuminati, may provide clues as to why French declined in prominence through the turn of the nineteenth century. This case study of a dynasty offers a new history of Gotha; but it also seeks to elucidate the connections between the French language, cosmopolitan practices, and international thought in the Enlightenment.


Matthew McDonald is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University. Matthew’s dissertation project on Francophone cosmopolitanism has taken him to five European countries to date with a particular interest in Germany and in Sweden. His research in Berlin, conducted with Univ.-Prof. Dr. Alexander Schunka at the Freie Universität Berlin, was supported by the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst and the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Matthew received a Bachelor of Arts with honors in history at the University of Chicago in 2014. A classical violinist, Matthew has curated historical exhibits for the New York Philharmonic and performs with the group Early Music Princeton.



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