A Literary Tour De France

The World of Books and Booksellers

The world of books in pre-Revolutionary France was endlessly varied and rich—rich, that is, in human and literary material. As an economic system it remained mired in the corporate structures that had developed in the seventeenth century: a guild of printers and booksellers that dominated the trade from Paris, a pre-copyright legal system based on the principle of privilege, a royal administration to direct censorship and resolve internecine disputes, inspectors of the book trade charged with enforcing regulations—about 3,000 edicts and statutes during the eighteenth century—and, outside the creaky, baroque institutions of the Bourbon state, a vast population of professionals who supported themselves by getting books to readers.

Avignon Orleans Blois Loudun Poitiers La Rochelle Bordeaux Toulouse Montpellier Marseille Nimes Lyon Bourg-en-Bresse Pontarlier Neuchatel Dijon Besancon Belfort
To browse Bookseller locations using the map, click on city names.

Booksellers existed in all major towns, and they came in all stripes and colors. A few patriarchs ruled over the trade from provincial centers. Around them lesser figures built up businesses, cashing in on the expansion of demand from the mid-century years and struggling to survive in the tougher conditions of the 1770s and 1780s. On the outer edges of the legal system, marginal dealers scraped together a living as best they could in the capillary system of the trade. Small shopkeepers who occupied a legal place on the market or pretended to do so by extracting certificates (“brevets de libraire”) from local authorities, private entrepreneurs with no claim to legality, nomadic dealers (“marchands forains”) who manned stalls on market days, binders who sold books on the sly, peddlers of all varieties, some with a horse and wagon, others who hawked their wares on foot—these scrappy, ragged middlemen (and women: many of the toughest dealers were wives and widows) functioned as crucial intermediaries in the diffusion of literature. But literary history has taken no notice of them. In fact, they have disappeared altogether in the past. One purpose of this website is to bring them back to life.

Another is to discover what they sold. As I have argued in earlier publications, the question of what books reached readers and how readers read them opens up larger issues about the nature of communication and ideological ferment. I do not pretend to resolve those problems by making information available on this website, but I hope to provide enough material for readers to understand how literature penetrated into French society on the eve of the Revolution.

Provincial retailers and Foreign Publishers

In order to do so, I intend to concentrate on the provincial dimension of the book trade. French history tends to be Paris-centric, yet less than three per cent of France’s population lived in Paris during the eighteenth century, and the provincials consumed the great majority of books. They received some of their supplies from Paris, but more often they filled their shelves with works produced outside France; for as soon as a book began to sell in the capital, it was pirated by publishers who operated outside the kingdom. “Piracy” is misleading as a term, although it was used liberally in the eighteenth century, because the foreign houses operated outside the range of the privileges granted by the king of France. Within the kingdom, privileges functioned as a primitive variety of copyright. Along with less formal authorizations known as “tacit permissions,” they went only to books approved by a censor. The foreign publishers could reprint French books without concern for their privileges, and they could publish works that would never pass the censorship in France. Owing to economic conditions, especially the cost of paper, they also could turn out both kinds of books more economically than their French competitors. As a result, a fertile crescent of publishing houses grew up around France’s borders. It extended from Amsterdam and Brussels through the Rhineland to Switzerland and down to Avignon, which then was papal territory. These publishers, many dozens of them, produced almost the entire Enlightenment and, I would say, the greater part of the current literature (books in all fields, except professional and religious works, chapbooks, and ephemera) that circulated in France from 1750 to 1789. They conquered French markets by diffusing their works through a vast distribution system, some of it underground, especially in border areas, where smuggling was a major industry, but most of it along the ordinary arteries of commerce, where the middlemen plied their trade, turning whatever profit they could get.

Sources: the Archives of the STN

This vast world, swarming with colorful characters, remained largely hidden from the French authorities in the eighteenth century and from scholars ever since. Book historians have uncovered corners of it by consulting archives generated by the state authorities in Paris—the papers of the Bastille, the papers of the Chambre syndicale de la Communauté des libraries et des imprimeurs de Paris, and the related Collection Anisson-Duperron in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. But the state had a limited perspective. In fact, the officials in charge of the book trade (in the Direction de la librairie beneath the Chancellor of France) had little knowledge of what really went on outside the city walls of Paris and the “chambres syndicales” or headquarters of the official booksellers in a few other cities. To enjoy a broad view of the whole system, it is necessary to work through provincial archives and especially the papers of the foreign publishers. The latter, however, have almost entirely disappeared—except in one case: the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), a Swiss publishing house across the border from the Franche Comté, which did a huge wholesale trade everywhere in the kingdom while producing its own editions.

The papers of the STN, supplemented by the material available in Paris and the provinces, contain thousands of letters from everyone connected with the book industry—authors, publishers, printers, paper millers, type founders, ink manufacturers, smugglers, wagon drivers, warehousemen, traveling salesmen, literary agents, reviewers, readers, and especially booksellers in virtually every town in France. Many of these persons turn up in other sources such as bankruptcy papers and police records. It is sometimes possible, therefore, to see them from several perspectives and to offer a multi-dimensional view of their activities. Other kinds of documents in Neuchâtel—account books, shipping records, registers of orders, the pay-book of the foreman in the printing shop—reveal other aspects of the trade. By studying all of them, one can understand how the entire industry functioned as a system—and how it misfunctioned, broke down, and was repaired by the book professionals as they attempted to make supply meet demand.

During the period covered by the STN archives, 1769-1789, the legal constraints on the trade kept shifting in response to changing policies. The ministries in Versailles, which also were constantly changing, issued a steady stream of decrees, redesigning measures against piracy, creating new guilds, extending the authority of the book police, revamping procedures for inspecting imports, and raising or lowering taxes on paper. The STN followed all these changes closely and adjusted its strategy in accordance with the information it received. Its papers, supplemented by the archives in Paris, therefore reveal the shifting rules of the game in the publishing industry, and more important, they show how the game was played.

The Rationale of This Website

To do justice to such a subject requires many years of research and many pages of exposition. I have worked in the STN archives off and on since 1965 and now have read nearly all of the 50,000 letters they contain. Of course, the papers in Neuchâtel cannot be taken as typical of publishing and the book trade in all respects. While making allowances for their peculiar character, I have supplemented them by reading through all the collections in Paris for the period 1769-1789. Along the way, I have published the results of investigations into various aspects of the subject, but now I have reached a point where I want to bring the richest material together and to make it available to other scholars and readers intrigued by the subject. That prospect, however, raises a problem: I have accumulated so much information during nearly a half century that I might overwhelm my readers with details or bore them to death. It cannot be compressed within the covers of a printed book. Therefore, with the help of research assistants and professional technicians, I am presenting it on this open-access web site.

By browsing through the site, readers can create a trail of their own through the documents while pursuing topics that interest them. They also can consult many of the essays I have written about the STN, book history, and related issues in the general fields of cultural history and the social history of ideas. And if they would like to follow a path already prepared for them, they can click through the following material in an order that constitutes a literary tour de France.

Favarger's Tour de France

The tour actually took place. In July, 1778, an intrepid clerk of the STN, Jean-François Favarger, climbed on a horse and set off on a five-month trip, which took him through an enormous area of southern and central France. As he traveled he inspected every book shop along his route. He reported on the booksellers, their trade, and his travels in letters sent to the STN, and he also kept a diary. Taken together, these documents provide an extraordinary view of the world of books in prerevolutionary France. Moreover, most of the booksellers that Favarger met have dossiers of their own in the STN archives. I have selected eighteen of them along with the dossiers of some smugglers and middlemen. Therefore, the reader can follow Favarger’s progress while consulting relevant dossiers for deeper sources of information at each stop of his itinerary. To do so, the towns and the transcribed letters of the booksellers in them should be consulted in the following order:

Pontarlier:Faivrebookseller and smuggler104 letters
Bourg-en-Bresse:Robert, Gauthier, et Vernarel booksellers34 letters
Lyon:Revolshipping agent and smuggler125 letters
Montpellier:Rigaud, Ponsbooksellers99 letters
Fontanelbookseller26 letters
Nîmes:Buchetbookseller57 letters
Gaudebookseller51 letters
Marseille:Caldesaiguesbookseller15 letters
Mossybookseller48 letters
Toulouse:Sensbookseller12 letters
Bordeaux:Bergeretbookseller28 letters
La Rochelle:Paviebookseller29 letters
Poitiers:Chevrierbookseller17 letters
Loudun:Malherbebookseller124 letters
Blois:Lairbookseller26 letters
Orléans:Couret de Villeneuvebookseller23 letters
Letourmybookseller7 letters
Dijon:Capelbookseller13 letters
Besançon:Charmetbookseller179 letters
Lépagnezbookseller79 letters