Alicia Montoya

Through studying 18th-century library sales catalogues, Alicia Montoya discovered that at a time when the Enlightenment changed thinking in Europe, religious books were still the biggest sellers. She questions what the impact of the philosophical transformation was amongst the wider population, outside the small circle of the intellectual elite. Has the hegemony of knowledge and reason been overstated?

About the laureate

Alicia Montoya (1972) studied French language and literature at the University of Amsterdam, and African Studies at the University of Leiden, where she was awarded her PhD.

As a postdoctoral researcher she initially worked at the universities of Leiden and Groningen. Since 2012 she has been affiliated to the Radboud University in Nijmegen, and is now a professor of French literature and culture.

She is the founder and director of the Research Centre France-Netherlands, an interuniversity platform for research, education and information about French culture and society.

In 2016 she received a prestigious Consolidator Grant of €2 million from the European Research Council.

Hegemony of faith or science

According to current thinking Europe went through a revolutionary philosophical change in the eighteenth century: the old world view founded very much on religious beliefs made way for a worldview that relied on observation and a society based on individual rights. Experiments proved that nature was governed by laws which were inconsistent with Biblical texts. Reliance on knowledge and reason supplanted the hegemony of faith.

The ‘Enlightenment’ can be seen as the foundation of the modern Western world and its principles, such as the separation of church and state.

Alicia Montoya is questioning this portrayal of European history. Her research into the reading culture at the time of the Enlightenment suggests that the writings of innovative philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza and Rousseau were less well read at that time than is often thought.

Catalogues of booksellers from the period show, for example, disappointing sales figures for the Enlightenment books and pamphlets, whilst religious books barely lost any of their popularity.

By means of a large European research project Montoya is seeking the answer to the question of whether the Enlightenment really penetrated as deeply into society as is often thought. How and to what extent were the middle classes influenced by knowledge of the new thinking? Was their religious worldview actually replaced by an understanding based on reason and science? Or did religion, in fact, simply take on a tint of Enlightenment?