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Emma Prevignano (Cambridge): Working for the Long-Term in Times of Crisis: The Metric System Project during the French Revolution (1790–1796)

During the first months of the French Revolution, a group of reformers and scientific experts resolved to replace the vast variety of systems of weights and measures in use across France with the metre and its derived units. They embarked on the project, aware that completing it would require a long time and an unforeseeable amount of resources. These were scarce commodities in years of warfare, economic crisis, and political instability, yet all governments succeeding one another during the revolutionary decade granted some form of support to the reform of weights and measures. Metrology was a marginal topic in late eighteenth-century public discourse, yet the metric system project offers a rare example of continuity in years of extraordinary uncertainty. This paper investigates how a small circle of reformers, headed by Claude Antoine Prieur de la Côte d’Or managed to keep the enterprise alive. In the first part, it explores how they succeeded at convincing governmental bodies of the importance of the reform through narratives blending tradition and progress, general common sense and expert opinion, universal good and contextual benefits. In the second part, the focus moves onto the working strategy of the Temporary Agency of Weights and Measures, active between April 1795 and February 1796. The organisation was charged with overseeing all activities related to the introduction of the new units and had to maximise speed and efficiency whilst minimising costs. Moving in a fast-changing context, it trusted more a network of individual experts reminding the Republic of Letters than state administrative structures.


Felipe Moraga (Wisconsin-Madison): Threatening Fiction: News Reports of Sightings of Ghastly Creatures in Seventeenth-Century Spain


The latter part of the 16th Century was a time of distress for Spain. Society was becoming poorer and sickness was ravaging the country. Meanwhile, the printing press began the production of thousands of Spanish pre-periodical printed news articles with a topic even more terrifying: sighting reports of monsters of all shapes and sizes.

These news delved into the uncanny, presenting giants and hybrid creatures that supposedly had been spotted in neighboring areas. These broadsheets came with an engraving of a hideous monster and were disseminated around cities and towns. They were then consumed by members of all social classes, who would read them with shock and astonishment, and actually believe that a giant with three breasts, wings and a sword tattoo had appeared in nearby areas. These pamphlets were the beginning of fake news.
 
The published news on monsters helps the modern reader comprehend how Premodern societies understood and coped with uncertainty and tragedy. Monsters were thought to appear in times of crisis and be bearers of bad news themselves. However, in spite of this, the same news articles and treatises on teratology claimed that these same monsters were beings sent by God with a forecast, with cryptic prophecies on their bodies that humans were meant to decipher in order to understand what was about to come, to be better prepared for a future tragedy. 
 
My presentation focuses on the study of this phenomenon: the role monsters played in printed news about disasters. Monsters, as complex and contradictory entities that appeared in times of crisis to bring uncertainty and clarity, tragedy and understanding. 


All welcome, this seminar is free to attend but booking is required.

Please note that bookings for this seminar will close 24 hours in advance to allow the meeting link to be distributed.