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  • MARK CURRAN (a1)

Robert Darnton's acclaimed 1995 work on the late eighteenth-century francophone illegal book trade, The forbidden best-sellers of pre-revolutionary France, has become one of the most cited and studied texts in its field. The culmination of thirty years' archival research and reflection, it roots Darnton's previous case-study-driven articles and monographs in a wide-ranging empirical survey of the order books of the Swiss printer-booksellers, the Société typographique de Neuchâtel. It claims to offer readers a picture of what illegal books went into bookshops everywhere in pre-revolutionary France. The first fruits of the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe project, a digital humanities initiative that has created an on-line database revealing the STN's entire trade, this article challenges Darnton's interpretation of the nature and utility of the Neuchâtel archive. It demonstrates that the STN's order books are an unreliable gauge of general French demand. It goes further. It argues for a nuanced polycentric understanding of the eighteenth-century Francophone book trade, and outlines a bibliometric digital humanities pathway that might lead us there.

Corresponding author
School of History, Queen Mary, University of London, Mile End Road, London, E1
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The research presented here draws upon the Simon Burrows and Mark Curran, The French book trade in Enlightenment Europe Database (2012), a digital resource housed at the University of Leeds and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The database is accessible at The current author would like to thank Simon Burrows, the project's Principal Investigator, and the other members of the team – Sarah Kattau, Henry Merivale, Vincent Hiribarren, and Louise Seaward – for their invaluable input. References to the dissemination of Société typographique de Neuchâtel traded works made in this article, unless otherwise stated, are taken from this resource as published 8 June 2012.

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1 Darnton's most recent publications, which count amongst those little discussed below, include The devil in the holy water, or the art of slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon (Philadelphia, PA, 2010) and Poetry and the police: communication networks in eighteenth-century Paris (Cambridge, MA, and London, 2010).

2 See Jeanprêtre, Jean, ‘Histoire de la Société typographique de Neuchâtel, 1769–1798’, Musée Neuchâtelois, (1949), pp. 70–9, 115–20, 148–53; Guyot, Charly, ‘Un correspondant parisien de la Société typographique de Neuchâtel: Quandet de Lachenal’, Musée Neuchâtelois, (1936), pp. 20–8, 64–74; Rychner, Jacques, ‘Les Archives de la Société typographique de Neuchâtel’, Musée Neuchâtelois, (1969), pp. 99122; Darnton, Robert, ‘The Grub Street style of revolution: J.-P.Brissot police spy’, Journal of Modern History, 40 (1968), pp. 301–27; Darnton, Robert, ‘The High Enlightenment and the low-life of literature in pre-revolutionary France’, Past and Present, 51 (1971), pp. 81115.

3 Darnton, Robert, The literary underground of the old regime (Cambridge, MA, and London, 1982), p. vi.

4 Most notably, it won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism in 1995.

5 Darnton, Robert, The forbidden best-sellers of pre-revolutionary France (New York, NY, and London, 1995), p. 60.

6 Mason, Haydn T., ed., The Darnton debate: books and revolution in the eighteenth century (Oxford, 1998); Popkin, Jeremy, ‘Review: The forbidden best-sellers of pre-revolutionary France, The corpus of clandestine literature in France, 1769–1789 by Robert Darnton’, Journal of Modern History, 69 (1997), pp. 154–7.

7 Cook, Malcolm, ‘Review: The forbidden best-sellers of pre-revolutionary France by Robert Darnton, The corpus of clandestine literature in France, 1769–1789 by Robert Darnton’, Modern Language Review, 92 (1997), pp. 190–1.

8 Darnton, Forbidden best-sellers, p. 60. Darnton remarks that his sample ‘underrates a few books published at the very end of the period'.

9 See, for example, Darnton, Robert, The corpus of clandestine literature in France, 1769–1789 (New York, NY, and London, 1995), pp. 5, 199.

10 Ibid.

11 Darnton, Forbidden best-sellers, pp. 52–7.

12 See especially Baker, Keith Michael, Inventing the French Revolution: essays on French political culture in the eighteenth century (Cambridge, 1990).

13 Mornet, Daniel, ‘Les enseignements des bibliothèques privées (1750–1780)’, Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France, 17 (1910), pp. 449–92.

14 It is not, however, the only such surviving archive. Between Henri-Albert Gosse's letterbooks, Marc-Michel Rey's correspondence, the overview accounts of the Cramer brothers, the archives of the Luchtmans of Leiden and Veuve Desaint of Paris, and the records of several other Dutch publishing houses, much scope still exists for expanding our understanding of eighteenth-century print culture through the close study of primary sources.

15 Darnton, Robert and Schlup, Michel, eds., Le rayonnement d'une maison d’édition dans l'Europe des Lumières: la Société typographique de Neuchâtel 1769–1789 (Neuchâtel, 2005).

16 Munck, Thomas, The Enlightenment: a comparative social history, 1721–1794 (London, 2000), p. 96.

17 See Darnton, Corpus, pp. 194–7.

18 See, for example, Bibliothèque publique et universitaire de Neuchâtel (BPUN) MS 1177, fos. 177–8, Malherbe to STN, 30 Sept. 1772. Malherbe forwarded a letter from his client ‘Desbordes’ which reminded the STN of their boasts.

19 Darnton, Forbidden best-sellers, p. 23.

20 An extensive project methodology will be published in the current author's forthcoming monograph Selling enlightenment (London, 2014). Various summary methodologies accompany the online database, see n. 1 above.

21 Desbordes requested, amongst other titles, d'Holbach's La contagion sacrée and Le Christianisme dévoilé. The STN did eventually trade in both of these works, but not until after 1775 when Genevan editions became available.

22 For a discussion of anti-Marie-Antoinette libels published during the 1780s, or rather their absence, see Burrows, Simon, Blackmail, scandal, and revolution: London's French libellistes, 1758–1792 (Manchester, 2009), pp. 147–70; Gruder, Vivian R., ‘The question of Marie-Antoinette: the queen and public opinion before the revolution’, French History, 16 (2002), pp. 269–98.

23 Trawls through world library catalogues using various OPACs and aggregators have revealed nothing that might correspond to this title and several others. Nor did Darnton manage to identify these works using more traditional bibliographical sources.

24 Darnton, Corpus, pp. 28, 252.

25 See Curran, Mark, ‘Mettons toujours Londres: enlightened Christianity and the public in pre-revolutionary francophone Europe’, French History, 24 (2010), pp. 4059.

26 In order to eliminate unrepresentative works like those by Rilliet, as well as a body of semi-legal (largely Protestant) literature that raises different questions about the nature of legality, these ‘best-seller’ tables are based on works included in Darnton, Corpus.

27 Schlup, Michel, ‘La Société typographique de Neuchâtel (1769–1789): points de repère’, in Schlup, Michel, ed., L'édition neuchâteloise au siècle des Lumières: la Société typographique de Neuchâtel (1769–1789) (Neuchâtel, 2002), pp. 61105.

28 A good indication of the numbers of such catalogues that have survived can be found in Lesage, Claire, Netchine, Ève, and Sarrazin, Véronique, eds., Catalogues de libraires, 1473–1810 (Paris, 2006).

29 For evidence of the STN voyageur Durand l'aîné procuring orders in person from catalogues see BPUN MS 1145, fos. 189–376. For the distribution of illegal catalogues by agents see, for example, BPUN MS 1177 fos. 168, 171–2, Malherbe to STN, 19 Aug. 1772.

30 In the first six months of 1777, for example, the STN counted the catalogues of nouveatés 19–31 as current. See BPUN MS 1103, fos. 19–360.

31 Darnton, Robert, ‘La STN et la librairie française: un survol des documents’, in Schlup, , ed., L'édition neuchâteloise au siècle des Lumières, pp. 211–32.

32 Darnton, Corpus, pp. 231–4.

33 For an overview of the affair see Schlup, 'Points de repère', pp. 72–5.

34 Samuel Fauche traded as an independent bookseller in Neuchâtel. He was an original director of the STN, but was forced out over a separate illegal books scandal in 1772.

35 The Genevan bookseller Barthelemy Chirol's 25 Apr. 1783 shipment to the STN, viewable in the FBTEE database, serves as a good example of this type of ordering.

36 Darnton included a transcribed version of the catalogue in Corpus, pp. 235–47, claiming that ‘no doubt’ the STN composed it from their stock holdings. See also Darnton, Robert, ‘Entre l'éditeur et le libraire: les étapes des ventes’, in Darnton, and Schlup, , eds., Le rayonnement d'une maison d’édition, pp. 343–74.

37 Le Fébure de Saint-Ildephont, Guillaume-René, Le médecin de soi-même, ou méthode simple et aisée pour guérir les maladies vénériennes, avec la recette d'un chocolat aphrodisiaque, aussi utile qu'agréable (Paris, 1775).

38 On the STN's networks see Frédéric Inderwildi, ‘Géographie des correspondants de libraires dans la deuxième moitié du 18e siècle: la Société typographique de Neuchâtel, Cramer et Gosse à Genève', Dix-huitième siècle, 40 (2008), pp. 503–22; Curran, Mark, ‘The Société typographique de Neuchâtel and networks of trade and translation in eighteenth-century francophone Europe’, in Thomson, Ann, Burrows, Simon, and Dziembowski, Edmond, eds., Cultural transfers: France and Britain in the long eighteenth century (Oxford, 2010), pp. 257–67.

39 Darnton, Corpus, p. 199.

40 Over 90 per cent of the works that the STN sold either issued from their own presses or were sourced from French-speaking Switzerland.

41 Dawson, Robert L., Confiscations at customs: banned books and the French booktrade during the last years of the Ancien Régime (Oxford, 2006), pp. 243–76.

42 On printing in the Swiss Romande, see especially Bonnant, Georges, Le livre genevois sous l'Ancien Régime (Geneva, 1999). On reasons for the decline of Dutch printing after 1750 vis-à-vis their competitors, see van Vliet, Rietje, ‘Print and public in Europe, 1600–1800’, in Eliot, Simon and Rose, Jonathan, eds., A companion to the history of the book (London, 2009), pp. 247–58.

43 The STN's significant book-swapping relationships were: Neuchâtel – Samuel Fauche; Lausanne – François Grasset, Jean-Pierre Heubach, Jules-Henri Pott and Company, Société typographique de Lausanne; Berne – Société typographique de Berne; Geneva – Isaac Bardin, Jean-Samuel Cailler, Jean Abram Nouffer (including his various partnerships), Claude Philibert, and Barthélemy Chirol.

44 See Curran, Selling Enlightenment, forthcoming.

45 On political manoeuvres, including the importance of journals to this market, see Burrows, Blackmail, scandal, and revolution; Popkin, Jeremy, News and politics in the age of revolution: Jean Luzac's Gazette de Leyde (Ithaca, NY, 1989); Selwyn, Pamela E., Everyday life in the German book trade: Friedrich Nicolai as bookseller and publisher in the age of enlightenment, 1750–1810 (University Park, PA, 2000).

46 The differences between the STN's networks, and those that can be derived from the account books of the Luchtmans of Leiden are striking. Important works published largely in the northern zone – most of the baron d'Holbach's campaign of anti-religious propaganda, for example – appear to have been little available in French-speaking Switzerland. See Curran, Mark, Atheism, religion and enlightenment in pre-revolutionary Europe (Woodbridge, 2012), p. 62.

47 Rigogne, Thierry, Between state and market: printing and bookselling in eighteenth-century France (Oxford, 2007), pp. 208–12.

48 See Bonnant, Le livre genevois sous l'Ancien Régime.

49 On the trading of STN works at the Leipzig fairs, as well as the society's wider trade in Germany see Freedman, Jeffrey, Books without borders in Enlightenment Europe: French cosmopolitanism and German literary markets (Philadelpia, PA, 2012).

50 See Schlup, Michel, ‘Un commerce de librairie entre Neuchâtel et La Haye (1769–1779)’, in Berkvens-Stevelinck, C., Bots, H., Hoftijzer, P. G. and Lankhorst, O. S., eds., Le magasin de l'univers: the Dutch republic as the centre of the European book trade (Leiden and New York, NY, 1992), pp. 237–50.

51 See, especially, the FTBEE database registered shipments to Pierre Gosse junior and Daniel Pinet during the early 1770s and those made to Delahaye and company in Brussels during 1782 and 1783.

52 The STN traded just 16,542 copies identifiable as Belgian, British, Dutch, or French.

53 Darnton, Robert, The case for books: past, present, and future (New York, NY, 2009), pp. 61–4. The essay was first written in 1999, and confirmed as a project currently in the pipeline in 2010.

54 Recent projects trying to understand the ‘geography of the book’ tend to cite chapter 6 of Febvre, Lucien and Martin, Henri-Jean, L'apparition du livre (Paris, 1957) as their modern inspiration. For examples of their type and philosophy see Ogborn, Miles and Withers, Charles W. J., eds., Geographies of the book (Farnham, 2010); Moretti, Franco, Atlas of the European novel, 1800–1900 (London, 1998); and Fleming, Patricia and Lamonde, Yvan, History of the book in Canada (Toronto and London, 2004), including its associated online databases. Extending these ideas, the Cultures of Knowledge project based at the University of Oxford proposes ‘intellectual geography’ – intellectual history rooted meaningfully in geographical space.

55 Darnton, Forbidden best-sellers, pp. 61–2.

56 Only Bonthoux, Charmet, Desauges, and Rigaud, Pons & Company sent letters to the STN after 1785. Rigaud, Pons & Company's final delivery from the STN was on 26 May 1784 and Bonthoux's on 8 Mar. 1785. The Veuve Charmet's penultimate envoi, a lone copy of the final volume of Raynal's Histoire philosophique, was made on 20 July 1785. Her final order, on 16 July 1788, was of largely inoffensive material and is unrelated to Darnton's orders.

57 Darnton, Forbidden best-sellers, p. 192.

58 Illegality here has been defined by the broadest measure available through the FBTEE database: inclusion in Darnton, Corpus, Jospeh II's 1788 Index, Poinçot's Inventory of the Bastille of 1789, or indications in STN dossiers. For further explanation see Burrows and Curran, FBTEE database.

60 For example, the STN's trade with the United Provinces represented only 2.79 per cent of total shipments over the period.

61 The issue of volumetric inefficiency, of course, was less striking in the luxury book trade, where margins were wider. The STN, and indeed the Swiss printers in general, however, dealt in few such books (in the STN's case their printings of the Encyclopédie and Description des arts being notable exceptions).

62 See, especially, Hont, Istvan, Jealousy of trade: international competition and the nation-state in historical perspective (Cambridge, MA, 2005).

63 First published in 1771, the STN did not handle a single copy of Morande's work until 31 May 1790 when Louis Fauche-Borel (also a Neuchâtelois book trader at the time) handed them five copies.

64 See Curran, Atheism, religion and enlightenment, pp. 28–37.

65 During the 1770s, Voltaire and d'Holbach were the STN's 1st and 9th best-selling authors with, respectively, 13,601 and 2,645 books sold. During the 1780s, by contrast, Voltaire was 16th, with 1,954 sales and d'Holbach 147th, with just 203 sales.

66 See, for example, the unresolved conflict between the ‘mountain-pass’ smuggling emphasized in ‘A clandestine bookseller in the provinces’, and the ease with which the French authorities ruined the Swiss trade through regulatory changes, as described in ‘Reading, writing and publishing’, both in Darnton, Literary underground, pp. 122–47, 167–94. The inconsistency also appears unresolved in Darnton, Forbidden best-sellers, pp. 18–21.

67 For a summary of French book trade regulations around this time see Barber, Giles, Studies in the booktrade of the European Enlightenment (London, 1994), p. 172.

68 BPUN MS 1110 fo. 916, STN to Mauvelain, Troyes 24 Oct. 1784.

69 See BPUN STN MS 1110, fo. 335, STN to Amable Le Roy, 27 Dec. 1786; fo. 336, STN to Veuve Barret, 27 Dec. 1786; fo. 336, STN to Grabit, 27 Dec. 1786.

* The research presented here draws upon the Simon Burrows and Mark Curran, The French book trade in Enlightenment Europe Database (2012), a digital resource housed at the University of Leeds and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The database is accessible at The current author would like to thank Simon Burrows, the project's Principal Investigator, and the other members of the team – Sarah Kattau, Henry Merivale, Vincent Hiribarren, and Louise Seaward – for their invaluable input. References to the dissemination of Société typographique de Neuchâtel traded works made in this article, unless otherwise stated, are taken from this resource as published 8 June 2012.

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