We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Rainbow Coffee House group (act. 1702–1730) was a circle of mainly Huguenot intellectuals who met informally at the Rainbow Coffee House in Lancaster Court, off St Martin's Lane in London, where they exchanged books, correspondence, and ideas, and engaged in discussion of philosophical and theological topics associated with the growth of scepticism—‘the opinion that real knowledge of any kind is unattainable’ (Oxford English Dictionary)—in early eighteenth-century Europe. With close links to Paris and to Holland its members formed part of the international network known as la république des lettres for the free exchange of ideas between Catholics, protestants, and those with an interest in unorthodox views.

The Rainbow was in existence from 1702 to 1755, and until about 1730 it was known as a meeting place for many of the French intellectuals who had found their way to London after the revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685, usually via Holland. Some of them had met the Huguenot religious philosopher Pierre Bayle, living in exile in Rotterdam since 1681, and had been influenced by his passionate belief in the need for religious toleration; he also supplied introductions to his acquaintances and fellow refugees in England. Situated close to the Huguenot community in the area of the Strand and Covent Garden, with its chapels at the Savoy and in Leicester Fields, the Rainbow was also near the French bookshops established by Paul Vaillant and Pierre du Noyer in the Strand; these too were meeting places for émigré intellectuals and addresses for their correspondence. Not far away was the Grecian Coffee House in Devereux Street, off the Strand, which was frequented by members of the Royal Society including Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley, and Hans Sloane.

The chief source of information about the Rainbow Coffee House group is the nine-volume manuscript collection in the British Library of letters to its leading member, the Huguenot journalist, editor, and biographer Pierre Des Maizeaux. He promoted the circulation of English scientific and philosophical ideas on the continent through his contributions to French-language periodicals published in Holland, and maintained an impressive network of contacts throughout Europe, with regular correspondents in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague. Many letters are addressed to him at the coffee house, or mention meetings there, and often include messages or enclosures for other members of the group. Much of the correspondence concerns arrangements for the international exchange of books and manuscripts, in which Des Maizeaux played a vital role, arranging for trusted friends to convey sometimes controversial material between England, Holland, Germany, and France at a time when the postal service was expensive and unreliable, and books considered suspect were likely to be confiscated.

The earliest letter addressed to the Rainbow dates from 1707 (BL, Add. MS 4283, fol. 250), but it was probably a regular meeting place for Huguenots before that date; it is clear from a letter written the previous year (8 June 1706) that Des Maizeaux was already the central figure in an informal discussion group. In it the Huguenot mathematician and lawyer Pierre Daval (d. 1763) lamented Des Maizeaux's temporary absence from London:
depuis vostre départ il me semble que tout languit. Plus de cabaret; Plus de joie; Plus de ces conversations dégagées de tous préjugez ou nous nous abandonnions quelquefois lorsque vous estiez parmi nous. Nostre petite société a perdu en vous le lien qui nous unissoit (since your departure it seems to me that everything is dull. No more entertainment; no more enjoyment; no more of those conversations free of all prejudice in which we indulged when you were with us. Our little society has lost in you the link which united us. BL, Add. MS 4283, fol. 37)
Sixteen years later the German philosopher Daniel Maichel (1693–1752) wrote to Des Maizeaux at the Rainbow, where they had evidently met during his visits to London, ‘dans la bonne esperance que j'ai, que vous serez toujours encore un illustre membre de cette savante Societé, qui se rassemble chaque soir dans le Caffé de Rainbow’ (‘in the hope I have that you will still be an illustrious member of that learned Society which meets every evening at the Rainbow Café’; 2 Feb 1722, BL, Add. MS 4285, fol. 60) . In 1723 another German correspondent and intermediary of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Philip Henry Zollman, wrote to Des Maizeaux at the coffee house, sending ‘mes compliments à nos amis du Rainbow’ (‘my greetings to our friends at the Rainbow’; BL, Add. MS 4289, fol. 12) . Numerous letters addressed to the Rainbow during the intervening years from correspondents both in England and abroad confirm Des Maizeaux's regular attendance.

Although there is no precise record of the group's membership, it included several important members of the Huguenot community in London, some of them known for their interest in unorthodox ideas. Religious questioning was at the centre of philosophical debate at that period, with long-held beliefs being undermined by recent scientific developments and new theories about the nature of knowledge. Pierre Coste was a close friend of Des Maizeaux and his translations of John Locke and Newton facilitated the circulation of their work throughout Europe. Michael de la Roche, another close associate of Des Maizeaux, was a journalist and translator who lived just along St Martin's Lane in Hunt's Court; he worked on the first English translation of Bayle's Dictionnaire critique. In his journals he too played a major role in the dissemination of English science and philosophy abroad, and conducted a passionate campaign in favour of religious toleration. Abraham de Moivre, eminent mathematician, fellow of the Royal Society, close associate of Newton, and an important link between English and French mathematicians, was suspected of incrédulité, or scepticism (Maty, 41). Dr Pierre Silvestre (d. 1718) was also a fellow of the Royal Society, and co-editor with Des Maizeaux of the works of Saint-Evremond; John Misaubin was a leading Huguenot physician who lived nearby in St Martin's Lane and gave advice to patients at the Rainbow. French ministers included David Durand, author of a life of the atheist Vanini; César de Missy (1703–1775), who arranged the London publication of Voltaire's Mahomet, banned in Paris; and Armand Boybellaud or Boisbeleau de La Chapelle (1676–1746), pastor and journal editor. Abraham Le Moine was Anglican chaplain to the duke of Portland and also a translator, Pierre Daudé (1681–1754) had studied theology but was not ordained and held a post in the exchequer. Other names mentioned in connection with the Rainbow include John Theophilus Desaguliers, Newton's curator of experiments at the Royal Society; Abel Boyer, author of the best-selling Royal Dictionary; Michael Maittaire, an expert on typography; and Peter Anthony Motteux, a successful journalist, translator, and playwright. Daniel Préverau held a privileged position as chief clerk to Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle, the secretary of state, and was able to receive books and letters sent to Des Maizeaux from abroad. In an undated letter he wrote to his friend:
Il y a près d'un mois que je suis accablé de travail … je n'ay pû trouver un quart d'heure de loisir pour aller fumer ma Pipe au Caffé de Rainbow (For nearly a month I have been so overworked that I haven't been able to find a spare quarter of an hour to go and smoke my pipe at the Rainbow Café BL, Add. MS 4287, fol. 254)
A letter in English from Voltaire, in London in 1727–8, recalls a meeting with Des Maizeaux at the Rainbow (BL, Add. MS 4288, fol. 229). Some work was produced by members of the group in collaboration: for example Newton's Optics was translated into French by Coste with assistance from De Moivre and Desaguliers.

The unorthodox bias of the Rainbow circle extended to its English members. They included Richard Mead, a leading figure in the Royal Society from 1705 to 1754, who was said to have abandoned all profession of religion; a contemporary satire entitled The Two Sosias, or, The True Dr Byfield at the Rainbow Coffee-House (1719) accuses him and his colleague John Freind of having faith only in their own methods of treatment. His library of 10,000 books included many rare and unorthodox works. The freethinking philosopher Anthony Collins addressed many letters to Des Maizeaux at the Rainbow and arranged to meet him there; the Frenchman provided assistance to Collins in his theological research, supplied him with books, and included a French translation of Collins's Philosophical Enquiry Concerning Human Liberty in his Recueil de diverses pieces published in Holland in 1720. John Toland, who coined the term ‘pantheist’ in 1705, was also acquainted with Des Maizeaux, who edited a volume on his life and work in 1726, and he too probably joined in discussions at the Rainbow.

The name of the Rainbow Coffee House was remembered by later French commentators on the European ‘commonwealth of learning’ of the early eighteenth century. A. Sayous referred to
les habitués du Rainbow … très intelligents et familiers avec la langue et la philosophie anglaises. Au café de l'Arc-en-ciel on mettait sur le tapis, avec les bouteilles et les pipes, toutes les questions du jour (the Rainbow regulars … very intelligent and familiar with the English language and English philosophy. At the Rainbow Café they set out on the table, with the bottles and pipes, all the questions of the day. Sayous, 14)
Joseph Texte declared it ‘l'un des premiers bureaux d'information qu'il y ait eu en Europe sur les choses anglaises’ (‘one of the leading sources of information in Europe on English matters’; Texte, 18) and described Des Maizeaux as ‘l'âme des réunions de l'Arc-en-ciel’ (‘leading light of the meetings at the Rainbow’; ibid., 20) . By 1732 the venue had changed and Des Maizeaux was apparently to be found ‘tous les soirs au Caffé de Slaughter’ (‘every evening at Slaughter's’; BL, Add. MS 4284, fol. 155) , another coffee house in St Martin's Lane where letters were often addressed to him in the 1730s, and where De Moivre earned money by solving chess problems. Charles Étienne Jordan visited Slaughter's Coffee House in 1733 and met De Moivre, Daudé, La Roche, and De Missy as well as ‘l'aimable & savant Mr des Maiseaux’ (‘the learned and friendly Mr des Maiseaux’; Jordan, 148) , with whom he later dined at the home of Dr Mead. Pierre Coste tired of coffee-house society—‘ce Rendez-vous de gens oisifs’ (‘this meeting place of idle people’), as he wrote to a Dutch correspondent about 1737 (papiers de La Motte, MS 295/36). Ten years later he, La Roche, and Des Maizeaux had died and De Moivre was over eighty. But they had all helped to create the climate in which the radical thought of the Enlightenment could develop later in the century. One of Des Maizeaux's later correspondents was the young David Hume, asking in 1739 for the Frenchman's opinion of his work (BL, Add. MS 4284, fol. 125), and the intellectual debate stimulated by the Rainbow circle was continued in France through the work of Buffon, Condillac, Diderot, and Voltaire.

Elizabeth Grist


letters to Des Maizeaux, BL, Add. MSS 4281–4289 · Bibliothèque de la Société de l'Histoire du Protestantisme Français, papiers de La Motte, MS 295 · J. Almagor, Pierre Des Maizeaux (1673–1754): journalist and English correspondent for Franco-Dutch periodicals, 1700–1720 (1989) · A. Goldgar, Impolite learning (1995) · S. Harvey and E. Grist, ‘The Rainbow Coffee House and the exchange of ideas in early eighteenth-century England’, The religious culture of the Huguenots, 1660–1750, ed. A. Dunan-Page (2006), 163–172 · J. H. Broome, ‘An agent in Anglo-French relationships: Pierre Des Maizeaux’, 1949 [[PhD diss., University of London]] · M. D. Thomas, ‘The life and works of Michel de La Roche’, 1978 [[PhD diss., University of London]] · H. Shelley, Inns and taverns of old London (1909), 167 · B. Lillywhite, London coffee houses (1963) · M. Maty, Mémoire sur la vie et sur les ecrits de Mr de Moivre (The Hague, 1760) · A. Sayous, Le dix-huitième siècle à l'étranger (Paris, 1861) · J. Texte, Jean-Jacques Rousseau et les origines du cosmopolitisme littéraire (Paris, 1895) · C. E. Jordan, Histoire d'un voyage littéraire (The Hague, 1735)