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The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, 1769–1794. Mapping the Trade of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel

edited by: Simon Burrows, Mark Curran, Vincent Hiribarren, Sarah Kattau, Henry Merivale

Leeds, University of Leeds, 2012

Reviewer: Professor Robert Darnton (Harvard University Library)

Simon Burrows proclaims the database that he and a team of researchers from the University of Leeds published last June as ‘a wonder to behold’, and indeed it is wonderful. Entitled The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, 1769–1794. Mapping the Trade of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel, it draws on account books of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN) to show where and when books were sold across the entire European continent.

By clicking through drop-down menus, the user can trace the dissemination of individual works and compare the relative importance of genres and authors. Graphs show variations in sales over time, and maps illustrate patterns of geographical diffusion. A beautifully designed network of links makes it possible to check the identity of the books themselves, often including their place and date of publication. Statistical tables provide information about best-sellers on many levels – throughout Europe, in particular countries, and town-by-town. A user can click happily through all this material, following leads and developing hypotheses to be tested by further research. The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe (FBTEE) represents four years of intense team work. It is a prodigious accomplishment and a joy to use.

The pleasure is compounded by admiration for the rigor of the work and for its potential relevance to some important historical questions. Do you want to calculate the impact of Voltaire and Rousseau? To measure the diffusion of works about the American Revolution? To analyze the literary diet of readers in Sweden, Italy, Russia or France on the eve of 1789? Click around in the FBTEE. Its authors do not interpret their findings for you. (They plan to do so in follow-up studies.) They simply make them available – in rich profusion, online, and free of charge.

The FBTEE’s finest feature is its maps. Color-coded and carefully demarcated according to different boundaries, they make it possible to enjoy a broad overview of trade patterns and to zoom in to individual sites, where one can assess the relative importance of factors such as trade routes, political barriers, and cultural institutions. The design and engineering, done by Vincent Hiribarren, builds on a tradition that goes back many years to the ‘laboratoire cartographique’ of the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, but it belongs to the current flourishing of the digital humanities – that is, the study of cultural data that can be aggregated on a large scale, broken down into pertinent units, recombined to bring out hidden relations, and expressed visually, thanks to the latest advances in information technology.

The FBTEE also involved a vast amount of artisanal labor in the archives. Burrows’s main collaborator, Mark Curran, spent many months transcribing titles from the STN’s account books and identifying them. His work constitutes an important contribution to bibliography, both by connecting manuscript references to actual publications (a daunting task) and by making well-informed inferences about particular editions. To combine traditional research of this kind with sophisticated computational analysis is an impressive achievement – all the more so considering the scale of the study: 413,000 sales of 4,000 different editions of books to 2,895 clients scattered across Europe. The computers generated enough data points to fill the map of Europe with black dots. Can we therefore enjoy an unobstructed view of the French book trade in Enlightenment Europe?

Burrows and his collaborators clearly think so, although they refrain from attaching general arguments to their statistics. Their web site generously makes their research available to others while they prepare to incorporate it in further works of their own. Having studied the STN’s accounts myself, I can confirm that the Burrows team made excellent use of them. The richest account books, called brouillards, journaux, and mains courantes, cover the period from 1769 to 1787. They have gaps, but inventory records, known as rencontres, can be used to plug many of the holes. Further data can be derived from the livres de commissions, wonderful ledgers that record orders and shipments on facing pages, although they do not have information about all of the activity that Burrows and his collaborators call ‘events’ – e.g. the acquisition of works by the STN.(1)

Unfortunately, the documentation thins after 1787. Despite the existence of one journal, which includes entries from 1790 to 1797, there is not enough information to construct a significant pattern of trade from the outbreak of the Revolution until December 31, 1794, the terminal point of the FBTEE study. The statistics from the 1780s also pose problems, because the STN’s business was vulnerable to political and economic factors. Strong measures taken by the French government virtually closed the French market to Swiss publishers in June 1783. The STN then fell back on its non-French trade, but for a variety of reasons it suffered a partial bankruptcy (suspension of payments) in 1784. After reorganizing and refinancing its business, it cut back severely on production and concentrated on selling off the enormous backlog of its inventory. It commissioned a sales agent named Durand to travel through Italy and central Europe in 1787–8, flogging its wares at greatly reduced prices. The record of his transactions provides some indication of books that reached distant markets, but many of those books were known in the trade as ‘drogues’ or ‘gardes-magasin’ – that is, works that had piled up and remained unsold for many years in the warehouse. Moreover, the FBTEE team identified only a minority of the books that Durand sold – 40 per cent of the sales he arranged during his tour of Austro-Hungarian territory. By 1789 the STN had ceased printing books, and its business amounted to little more than an effort to run down its inventory. Burrows and his collaborators found no sales for 1789 and only a trickle for the next five years; so they did not come up with enough data to measure the book trade all the way to 1795. Even at its height in the 1770s, the STN cannot be considered the ‘Amazon’ of the 18th century, as Burrows claims. But it seems churlish to object to inadequacies in data accumulated with so much care and effort. Even if one limits the FBTEE statistics to the period that runs from June 1769 to June 1783, when they are most revealing, they offer a wonderfully rich vein of information about the book trade.

What to make of them? Judging from videos and some preliminary articles linked to the web site, Burrows and his collaborators worried about one principal problem, the representativeness of the STN’s business, and they concluded that it could indeed be taken as representative of the book trade in general … to a certain extent. Unfortunately, that extent cannot be determined, because no comparable archives exist. The FBTEE team had to limit themselves to one source, the account books of the STN. But they combed through it so thoroughly and subjected their methods to so much self-criticism that their findings command respect. They took my own work as a starting point and subjected it, too, to some healthy criticism. In the interest of promoting a dialogue, I would like to discuss some key issues where our arguments run parallel and diverge.

In The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, I argued that the STN’s function as a wholesaler in addition to that of a publisher meant that it disposed of a ‘floating stock’ available to all of its allies among the publishing houses that surrounded France in a fertile crescent that extended from Amsterdam and Brussels through the Rhineland and Switzerland into Avignon, which was then papal territory. Those publishers furnished France and all of Europe with cheap, pirated editions of books published in France and with books that could not pass the French censorship. Although they competed, they often cooperated. The STN made formal alliances with the Société typographique de Lausanne and the Société typographique de Berne to produce joint pirated editions, and it developed confidential relations with many other publishers. When it printed a book, it often traded a large proportion of the edition for a choice of works available from the stock of friendly fellow publishers. It also worked out deals to tap their stock when one of its clients ordered a book that it did not keep in its warehouse. As a result, it could sell a great many of the works in current circulation, and its sales pattern suggested trends in the book trade as a whole. The FBTEE group accepted this argument, but they asserted that it applies only to Swiss houses, since publishers in the Low Countries and the Rhineland could have developed a very different floating stock among themselves. I agree, and I should not have implied that the STN’s network of alliances extended far beyond Swiss territory, although it traded intensely with publishers and wholesalers like Pierre Gosse Junior of The Hague, Clément Plomteux of Liège, and J.-L. Boubers of Brussels.

My own attempt to wrestle with the problem of representativeness actually took a different direction. Although the STN occasionally sold books to individuals, those sales were so scattered and exceptional that one cannot trace consumption beyond the level of booksellers. In rare cases, notably the marketing of the Encyclopédie, there is enough information to sketch a sociology of readers.(2) But the STN marketed nearly all of its large and varied stock to other booksellers, both wholesalers and retailers. Unfortunately, many of its clients ordered only a few books and then ceased to trade with the STN, because they found the transport costs too heavy, the service too slow, and the price too high, or because they could get more favorable terms from other suppliers, who operated from a closer location on the shipping routes. As a consequence, the STN’s account books are full of transactions from dealers who placed only one or two orders – often ‘pour essai’, as they put it in their letters – and then stopped. Many customers ordered only one book, such as the Encyclopédie, a best-seller that the STN published as a partner in an international consortium, and never ordered another. Other customers drew most of their stock from other suppliers, and turned to the STN only when it offered some unusual ‘nouveauté’ (a trade term that meant a new publication, often of an exceptional kind, such as a pamphlet about current events). Sales of such small quantities to such occasional customers cannot furnish a statistical profile of their trade, and they cannot be aggregated to form an accurate picture of the book trade in general. Unlike the FBTEE team, I decided that I could produce representative statistics only from booksellers who placed a large number of orders over a considerable stretch of time. Therefore, I restricted my study to steady customers of the STN, whose businesses could also be assessed qualitatively by reading their correspondence.

I also limited my statistical sampling to France and to the illegal trade within the French market. Those limitations are, I agree, unfortunate. After a great deal of work in documents outside as well as inside the STN archives, I was able to distinguish which books were treated as unambiguously illegal by the French authorities; but I could not measure their importance in relation to the book trade as a whole. The STN dealt so heavily in illegal works that its relations with its principal clients in France can serve as an index to France’s illegal book trade. But it did not stock and could not procure all the books in existence in the market for French literature from 1769 to 1789. Much as I wanted to argue for the representativeness of its archives, I concluded that the papers of one publisher could not be taken as a measure of publishing in general. I claimed only to provide a reliable analysis of a particular sector of the trade, but by doing so I was able to draw on other sources – police raids on book stores, confiscations in the Paris customs, and references in specialized catalogues of forbidden books – in order to assess the STN’s business against other indicators of the diffusion of forbidden books. By trimming my research strategy in this fashion, I believe I came up with valid, if limited, results.

That strategy, however, looked inadequate to the FBTEE group for another reason: I measured the demand for books as indicated by orders from booksellers rather than their supply as demonstrated by records of sales in the STN’s accounts. To be sure, a sales transaction has a satisfyingly definitive character: money, if only in the form of a promissory note or a bill of exchange due to expire in 12 or 18 months, is exchanged for a commodity. One can treat a sale as an indication that a physical book reached a particular place at a certain time. True, the STN’s customers often shipped back books that they did not want – not because ‘returns’ were permitted in the 18th-century trade, as Burrows and his collaborators claim, but because the copies were so defective that the STN’s customers refused to accept them, or because, as often happened, the STN slipped into its shipments ‘nouveautés’ that had not been ordered in the hope that its clients would buy them. The only case I have found when the STN permitted a bookseller to return unsold copies concerned Johann Conrad Deinet of Frankfurt. After tortuous negotiations related to his practice of ordering too many books and paying for too few of them, the STN permitted him to sell its works ‘en commission’ – that is, to pay for those he sold and to return the rest.(3) Such arrangements were extremely rare. Nothing like the modern practice of returns existed in the French book trade – or, I believe, in the early modern book trade anywhere.

Aside from the question of returns, the principal difficulty in assessing sales has to do with customers who did not represent a stopping point in the diffusion process but relayed books to other locations that cannot be determined. A large proportion of the STN’s clients were fellow wholesalers whose distribution systems were as great or greater than its own. Its most important client in the Low Countries, Pierre Gosse Junior of The Hague, sold most of his books in France and England, yet his sales appear on the FBTEE map at the location of The Hague. The key client of the STN in German-speaking Switzerland was the Société typographique de Berne, which disposed of the books it received from the STN primarily at the Frankfurt and Leipzig book fairs, where they were loaded on barges and wagons for distribution throughout central and northern Europe. The dissemination of those books cannot be mapped from the STB’s account, and this problem is especially important in the case of publisher-wholesalers with whom the STN dealt by means of swapping sheets.

The exchange trade was so important for the Neuchâtelois that they isolated it under a special rubric in their account books – comptes de changes as opposed to comptes d’argent. They exchanged books heavily with dealers in Avignon, a great center of pirate publishing, and Lyons as well as Geneva and Lausanne, the main sites of their exchange trade. In tracing sales, Burrows and his collaborators came up with valuable information: 39 per cent of the STN’s business went to Switzerland, as opposed to 37 per cent in France and 24 per cent in the rest of Europe. But those figures do not prove that the STN’s commerce was primarily a Swiss affair. They indicate, on the contrary, that the STN’s books circulated widely to destinations that cannot be known, because they passed through intermediaries who sold them to other dealers who cannot be identified. Despite their look of pointilliste precision, therefore, the maps in the data base provide only a very approximate picture of the dissemination of literature.

Could not the same objection be directed against an argument based on demand rather than supply? Yes, if the demand were measured according to orders placed by large wholesalers like Heubach in Lausanne, Gabriel Grasset in Geneva, and Jean-Jacques Flick in Basel. But I restricted my statistical analysis to French dealers who supplied local and regional customers and whose business can be assessed qualitatively by the letters they wrote and the letters that were written about them, both by local informers and by sales reps (commis voyageurs) of the STN. If the dealers placed only one or two orders with the STN, I excluded them from my statistical samples, because one cannot see a general pattern by connecting the dots formed by a small number of data points.

True, the STN often failed to fill the orders that it received. The livres de commission reveal that supply did not always match demand, although the two coincided quite well on the whole. Therefore statistics based on orders (expressed both in the booksellers’ letters and in the livres de commission) do not give a precise picture of diffusion. They express demand. But literary demand is a significant measure of taste and interest. The STN’s sales were restricted to books it had in stock or could procure from other publishers. The orders from its customers included whatever they wanted. Admittedly, many booksellers limited their orders to titles they found in the STN’s catalogues and prospectuses. But many more included references to works that had come to their attention from their commercial correspondence, ‘annonces’ in periodicals, and rumors passed through the professional grapevine.

Information was a crucial element in the book trade, but booksellers often got it wrong. In reading their orders, one has to allow for very approximate spelling – e.g. the innocent-sounding Portraits des Chartreux ordered by Veuve Baritel of Lyons, who actually wanted the pornographic Histoire de dom B….., portier des Chartreux. In very rare cases they may have heard about works that were rumored to be in the pipeline but were never published – for example, Les moines après les chiens, a supposed sequel to Le chien après les moines (Amsterdam, 1784) which I have not been able to locate. Such aberrations notwithstanding, I believe that my statistics represent the demand in France for forbidden books in general, despite some of the bias inherent in the trade of the STN.

I fear that statistics based on sales are not equally representative. Aside from the problem of aberrations concerning dealers who bought too few books for their purchases to be taken as a profile of their trade, there is a further difficulty, which concerns the STN’s ability to supply its customers. Like other publisher-wholesalers, it distinguished two kinds of books in its stock: livres de fonds (its own editions and a few works that it acquired in large quantity from allied houses) and livres d’assortiment (small numbers of works, usually acquired by exchanges). The latter often gave out. As complaints from customers testify, the STN might sell a half dozen copies of a work in its assortiment stock and then be unable to satisfy the demand for dozens more. Just as the STN sold books that dealers had not ordered, it failed to sell books that they did order. Better, I believe, to study demand, as limited to steady customers of the STN, rather than supply, as scattered among all the clients who appeared, however fleetingly, in the STN’s record of its sales.

The attraction of the statistics produced by the FBTEE group is not so much that they concern sales as that they cover such a vast territory. To be sure, other historians have mined the STN archives for information about the diffusion of French literature outside France. Germany has been studied by Jeffrey Freedman, Italy by Renato Pasta and Anne Machet, Poland by Marie Béguin-Knoepfler, the Austrian Netherlands by Jeroom Vercruysse, Russia by Eric Berthoud, and the Iberian peninsula by François Lopez. The role of the STN in Switzerland itself can be appreciated from the work of Charly Guyot, Jacques Rychner, Michel Schlup, Silvio Corsini, Georges Andrey, Eddy Bauer, Olivier Burri, Clorinda Donato, and Jean-Daniel Candaux. What Burrows and his collaborators have added to this literature is statistics aggregated in such a way as to map the diffusion of everything the STN sold.

To illustrate the diffusion of a single work, the web site presents a map showing the sales of S. A. A. D. Tissot’s Onanisme, a treatise on the supposedly dangerous effects of masturbation, which fascinated and horrified many readers in the 18th century. Spain and Portugal are represented by six copies sold in Lisbon, Poland by seven sold in Warsaw, and the Netherlands by six sold in Amsterdam. Can such small numbers represent the diffusion of a popular book throughout an entire country? Did readers in Stockholm (28 copies sold) have more interest in sexual practices than those in Copenhagen (two sales)? And was there no interest at all in great cities that bought no copies from the STN: London, Rome, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Madrid, Vienna, and Prague? To measure the diffusion of this book, one would have to dispose of larger statistics based on the sales of other publishers and wholesalers, but unfortunately they do not exist.

The search for more significant statistics can take the user to the website’s list of the ten best-selling books, which aggregates figures from all of Europe for the entire period 1769–94:

Planta gagnant sa vie en honnête homme: 16,787 copies

Tableau de Paris: 14,076 copies

Destruction de la Ligue: 10,188 copies

Mémoire apologétique des Genevois: 8,428 copies

Abrégé de l’histoire sainte et du catéchisme: 6,815 copies

Géographie par Ostervald: 6,397 copies

Bible: 5,323 copies

Contrat conjugal: 4,164 copies

Mon bonnet de nuit: 4,043 copies

Collection complète des œuvres de Madame Riccoboni: 3,843 copies


The work that stands out at the top of the list is a 72-page pamphlet that the STN printed for Théodore Rilliet de Saussure, who was involved in a scandalous court case in Geneva. It can be considered a ‘vanity’ edition (apparently the STN also produced a second edition that was shipped to Rilliet’s family and eventually destroyed), and it seems unlikely that readers outside of Switzerland ever heard of it. The next two books were by Louis Sébastien Mercier, who was indeed a popular author, but his works occupied a disproportionately important place in the STN’s stock, because it printed and reprinted them many times. The FBTEE team could not identify the fourth most important best-seller, but the account books show that it was actually a pamphlet entitled Pièces importantes à la dernière révolution de Genève, which the STN printed for some Genevan radicals during the mini-revolution in Geneva of 1782. The fifth book was an STN edition of an apologetic Protestant work by Jean-Frédéric Ostervald, an ancestor of the STN’s director, Frédéric-Samuel Ostervald. Jean-Frédéric also produced an important, annotated edition of the Bible, which the STN reprinted and sold widely to Protestants. This ‘Bible d’Ostervald’ probably accounted for most of the sales lumped together as ‘Bible’ in the seventh place of the list. The work in the sixth place was probably an STN edition of the schoolbook that Frédéric-Samuel Ostervald published in 1757 under the title Cours élémentaire de géographie ancienne et moderne et de sphère. Best-seller number eight was a rather obscure but interesting legal treatise on the annulment of marriages by Jacques Le Scène-Desmaisons. It was also an STN edition, as were the last two works, one by Mercier and the other by the popular author of sentimental novels, Marie-Jeanne Laboras de Mézières known as Mme Riccoboni. Considering the preponderance of STN editions and the parochially Swiss subjects of many of the books, the best-seller list does not serve very well to identify the tastes for all French books everywhere in Europe. It does not contain any works by well-known philosophes, a strange result for research intended to reveal cultural patterns in ‘Enlightenment Europe’.


The list of best-sellers for Paris, the capital of the Enlightenment, looks equally odd:

Contrat conjugal: 4,141 copies

Tableau de la monarchie française: 2,000 copies

Description des arts et métiers: 1,616 copies

Testament politique de l’Angleterre: 1,558 copies

Vérité (de la): 1,544 copies

Philosophe du Port-au-Bled: 1,276 copies

Observations sur la littérature en France: 1,255 copies

Mémoire apologétique des Genevois: 1,200 copies

Théorie des lois criminelles: 1,062 copies

Inceste avoué à un mari: 1,050 copies


This list contains many of the same titles as those on the best-seller list for all of Europe. Planta gagnant sa vie en honnête homme is absent, but it is replaced by Inceste avoué à un mari, a similar work on the Genevan court case that the STN also produced for Rilliet de Saussure. All of the books on the list were printed by the STN, and several can be considered ‘vanity’ editions. Four of them – Testament politique de l’Angleterre, De la Vérité, Observations sur la littérature en France, and Théorie des lois criminelles – were commissioned by Jacques-Pierre Brissot, who had great trouble disposing of them and paid only a fraction of his printing bill. The second book on the list, Tableau de la monarchie française, was printed by the STN for Louis Valentin de Goesman, an adventurer best known for his polemics with Beaumarchais. It was the first volume of a multi-volume defense of Bourbon absolutism, which Goesman never completed. Whether he sold any copies of that volume seems doubtful. He planned to incorporate it in other multi-volume works that he attempted unsuccessfully to sell to other publishers under four different titles. His correspondence with the STN, which merits a study in itself, provides a wonderful case of literary skullduggery, but the sales attributed to him in the account books cannot be taken as evidence about the diffusion of political works. The third work on the best-seller list was the STN’s most important enterprise, a 19-volume reprint of the Description des arts et métiers published for the French Académie des sciences by Moutard, a powerful Parisian bookseller. Although the STN augmented its edition with new material compiled by Ostervald’s son-in-law Jean-Elie Bertrand, Moutard managed to get it banned from France as a pirated work. After long negotiations, the STN reached a settlement with him, and therefore most of its edition was eventually shipped to Paris. The remaining two works on the list, Le Scène Desmaison’s Contrat conjugal and Mercier’s Philosophe du Port-au-Bled may have sold fairly widely in Paris, but it seems odd that the Parisian best-sellers did not include any works by popular authors such as Raynal and Linguet, not to mention Voltaire and Rousseau.

Despite many attempts to establish relations with relatively marginal Parisian booksellers such as Pyre, Cugnet, Monory, Costard, and Saillant, the STN was never able to sell many of its books in Paris. The Parisians generally refused to do business with a publisher whom they viewed as a pirate, and the powerful dealers who dominated the Parisian guild mobilized the police to defend their market from intruders. In fact, the one bookseller who handled a fairly large number of STN books, Pierre Desauges, a marginal retailer located near the Palais de Justice, probably operated as a spy for the police and helped engineer confiscations of its shipments. The STN retailed some of its books directly through its own agents, notably Quandet de Lachenal, but it never cracked the Parisian market, and its uneven sales cannot be taken as typical of diffusion in Europe’s most important city.

Data drawn from its trade in other cities are more revealing, particularly in cases where dealers placed large and regular orders. Charles Guillaume Muller of Saint Petersburg, J. J. Weitbrecht of Saint Petersburg, and Christian Rüdiger of Moscow bought hundreds of books, usually once a year to replenish their stock before the Baltic froze. Statistics of their purchases suggest the character of the French literature that reached Russia, occasionally even by wagon over frozen roads. It seems to have been largely pedagogical. Of the ten works bought most often by the dealers in St. Petersburg, three were school books and four could not be identified. Of the top ten in shipments to Moscow, eight were schoolbooks or books for children – valuable information but disappointing for anyone interested in the diffusion of the Enlightenment. At the other extreme of the map, the ten works bought most often by booksellers in Lisbon were mainly medical. They included three treatises by Tissot, along with two Latin texts and two plays but no works that can be associated with the Enlightenment.

The user interested in the Enlightenment can consult the list of authors whose works sold best throughout Europe. There at last one comes upon Voltaire. He occupies third place among the top ten, just behind Rilliet de Saussure and just above Brissot and Ostervald. Rousseau does not make it onto the list, nor do Montesquieu, Diderot, Raynal, Mably, Condillac, or any other famous philosophes, including non-French authors such as Adam Smith, Hume, Beccaria, Lessing, and Kant. It would be misleading, however, to conclude that they did not reach readers, because the list favors authors of books published by the STN. As in all the other ranking lists, it contains built-in distortions, which result from a decision to aggregate all sales together and to treat them in the same manner – that is, to lump STN editions and ‘vanity’ editions published by the STN with books that the STN acquired in smaller numbers from other publishers. Livres de fonds should not be given the same statistical weight as livres d’assortiment.


When faced with the counter-intuitive results of their research, the FBTEE team made diligent efforts to correct them; and to their credit, they built a corrective mechanism into the structure of the web site. Therefore, if you want to identify the top ten best-sellers in all of Europe without including works produced by the STN, you can select ‘option’ on the toolbar; click ‘edition type’ on the drop-down menu; deselect ‘STN editions’, ‘STN commissioned editions,’ and ‘STN editions published in cooperation with others;’ click ‘update preferences;’ and go back to ‘rank’ on the toolbar. You can then study a best-seller list purged of the bias caused by STN editions. It looks much less erratic:

Mémoire apologétique des Genevois: 8,428 copies

Psaumes: 2,888 copies

Collection complète des œuvres de M. Dorat: 2,201 copies

L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante: 2,006 copies

[Unidentified Durand tour works]: 1,905 copies

Le Nouveau Testament: 1,631 copies

Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry: 1,489 copies

Magasin des enfans: 1,381copies

Lectures pour les enfans: 1,378 copies

Œuvres de Rousseau: 1,312 copies


Of these, two must be eliminated – the top best-seller, because it was actually Pièces importantes à la dernière revolution de Genève, an STN edition, and the works in fifth place, which cannot be identified. The Psalter and the New Testament were editions intended for Protestants, and they suggest the importance of the Huguenot network for the STN, although they cannot be taken as evidence for the diffusion of French books in general. It is interesting to find two children’s books, Magasin des enfans and Lectures pour les enfans, on the best-seller list, although they, too, represent a niche rather than the general market. The remaining five works probably corresponded pretty well to the taste for French literature throughout Europe – and, I would add, to demand as well as to supply. Claude-Joseph Dorat, an enemy of the philosophes, was known for his frothy poems and plays, all of them forgotten today. His popular novel, Les Malheurs de l’inconstance, is a good example of the light literature that sold well at the end of the Ancien Régime. Mercier’s utopian novel, L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante and Pidansat de Mairobert’s scandalous biography of Mme du Barry, Anecdotes secrètes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry certainly were best-sellers. So were Rousseau’s works, which the STN sold in editions that varied from only a few volumes to a 31-volume set. One philosophe therefore made it to the best-seller list, although the list itself contains too many peculiarities to be representative of the literary diet that was actually consumed by readers.

In short, ‘Enlightenment Europe’ as seen by the statistics of the FBTEE is a Europe without much Enlightenment. Perhaps that view is valid. Most literary history is written from the perspective of a corpus of classics that are taken to be typical of their time, and the history of books provides a way to correct the anachronism built into that approach. It may be, therefore, that the works of Dorat, Mercier, and Pidansat de Mairobert had more readers than those of Voltaire, but it is impossible to know by consulting the FBTEE. Its statistics fail to resolve the difficulties in studying the diffusion of literature, but they are full of fascinating information, especially for researchers who want to explore niches, such as the market for Protestant works and children’s books. The FBTEE team waded through a vast collection of difficult documents. They emerged in the end with some results that challenge standard views of literary history, and they are to be congratulated for making their findings available free of charge on a beautifully designed web site for anyone to consult in order to agree, disagree, and carry the inquiry further.

  1. See John  Jeanprêtre, ‘Histoire de la Société typographique de Neuchâtel, 1769–1798, Musée neuchâtelois (1949), 70–9, 115–20, and 148–53 and Jacques Rychner, ‘Les Archives de la Société typographique de Neuchâtel’, Musée neuchâtelois (1963), 1–24.Back to (1)
  2. See my The Business of Enlightenment.  A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie 1775-1800 (Cambridge, MA, 1979), chapter six.Back to (2)
  3. See the excellent study, based in large part on the STN archives, by Jeffrey Freedman, Books Without Borders in Enlightenment Europe.  French Cosmopolitanism and German Literary Markets (Philadelphia, PA, 2012), pp. 92–113.Back to (3)


Author's response

On behalf of the FBTEE team, I would like to thank Robert Darnton for his detailed, insightful and glowing – nay scorching – review of our work. Such effusive praise, though far from uncritical, is all the more generous because we are old sparring partners. My past work, whilst admiring of and inspired by Professor Darnton’s scholarship, offers uncompromising challenges to some of his own most cherished and valuable heuristic interpretational contributions to 18th-century history – above all, desacralization theory and the Grub Street explanation of the French revolution’s origins.(1)

Equally, as he rightly identifies, the FBTEE project was based on the premise that a statistical approach to the STN [Société typographique de Neuchâtel] archive based on supply of books would prove more rewarding than his own pioneering demand-based approach. This premise is something he questions in his review and invites me to discuss, but before I do so, we ought to recognise two things. First, that our complex digitally-based approach has only become technologically feasible in the last few years. Any implied shortcomings emerging from a comparison of his methods and those of the FBTEE project are thus inherently unfair. His monumental scholarly project, moreover, was more path-breaking in the print era than the FBTEE project is today. Second, that ideally studies of the book trade should consider both supply and demand side evidence. That users of the FBTEE database can actually do this for one small sector of the trade – sales of (highly) illegal literature to France – is down to Professor Darnton himself. With characteristic enthusiasm he granted us permission to include statistics from his Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1996) and Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France, 1769–1789 (1995) on an open source basis. The FBTEE project shares and salutes his commitment to open source access and sees it as essential to the future of academic research in our area.

To appreciate the nature of the FBTEE project and why it adopted its chosen approach, a little history might be useful. I first realised the possibilities and advantages of databasing the STN’s account books in 2004, when working on my book Blackmail, Scandal and Revolution: London’s French Libellistes, 1758–1792 (2006). I had visited Neuchâtel periodically since 1990 to examine the STN’s correspondence files, but on my 2004 trip I adopted a different approach. I had become convinced that the famed pre-revolutionary pornographic pamphlets against Queen Marie-Antoinette probably did not circulate before 1789. Although the police and regime had bought up copies of the first and last of these pamphlets and stored them in their secret dépôt in the Bastille, I had noticed that even book dealers with good contacts in the trade never managed to get to see let alone purchase such pamphlets prior to the revolution.(2) However, this conclusion presented a problem. Since I was intent on proving a negative proposition, I needed to examine every likely source of counter-evidence.

The rolling stock inventories of the STN were one such source, and they particularly interested me because Professor Darnton’s own statistics recorded several orders for anti-Marie-Antoinette libelles. All came to the STN from a single bookseller – Bruzard de Mauvelain.(3) I was therefore delighted to discover that the STN stock inventories contained no mention of the Essais historiques sur la vie de Marie-Antoinette d’Autriche, Reine de France [Historical Essays on the Life of Marie-Antoinette of Austria, Queen of France] and the Passe-tems d’Antoinette [Antoinette’s Amusements], nor indeed the Amours et aventures du Visir Vergennes [Love-Life of the Vizir Vergennes] or Amours de Charlot et Toinette [Love Life of Charlie and Toinette]. Later, I was even able to trace how Mauvelain got to hear rumours of the existence of some of these publications, some of which were probably never printed. So I had clear evidence of works which, despite showing up in a demand side project, had not been available to the public and in some cases probably never existed. And because an extensive literature implicated such pamphlets in the origins of the revolution, this discovery was significant, at least on a historiographical level.(4)

Examining the STN’s rolling stock inventories (rencontres du magasin) led to a second revelation. Whereas Professor Darnton’s survey had concentrated on the demand side only, the rencontres also revealed where the STN’s stock came from. So did some of the STN’s other accounting records. It would therefore be possible to conduct a survey not only of STN sales (or to be more precise their dissemination of books), but also where their stock originated.(5) Might this allow us to find where their ‘floating stock’ came from?

But the biggest attraction was, as Professor Darnton indicates, one of scale. Whereas he and others who had based their work on client correspondence (and sometimes on the STN’s order books) tended to deal with the books ordered from just one country, we would cover the publisher’s entire trade with all of Europe.(6) Using the latest digital technologies my team would finish what Professor Darnton had begun. It was a mouth-watering prospect. So in the spring of 2006 I organised and funded a pilot project, taking my former student Dr Mark Curran with me. The FBTEE project was born.

The FBTEE project’s supply side approach did not necessarily imply any disrespect for demand-side approaches. In fact, Darnton’s approach almost certainly gives a better picture of raw demand – recording any book ordered, not just what the STN could supply. Nevertheless, just what factors shaped the ‘demand’ for the STN’s books is not always clear – why did a particular client choose to order a particular book from them and not François Grasset in nearby Lausanne, for example. Was it down to habit, scale of stock, trust, imprint details, or advertising in newspapers or catalogues, for example? All of these things could distort demand-side statistics. Moreover, as the Marie-Antoinette libelles had shown, supply and demand did not always match up. Indeed, while I would agree with Professor Darnton that there was no formal system of returns, the steady trickle of books returning to the STN silos from other booksellers – equating to about 2.5 per cent of unit sales – appears to involve more than just rejected nouveautés and damaged goods (which in any case were usually sent to the STN’s profit and loss account).(7) Taken in isolation, both supply and demand side approaches to our archive throw up similar sorts of methodological difficulties. Thus beyond their respective ancillary advantages, the question really at issue between them is a philosophic one. What is more important in cultural history: supply or demand? What people desire to read or what they actually get to read?

The issue is significant, because although the STN claimed in its sales patter that it could supply almost any book from anywhere, this was untrue. The reality was that they traded primarily in a limited stock of (mostly) Swiss editions. They appear to have only dealt in about 7 per cent of titles published in Europe during the 1770s and 1780s. So what did book-dealers do faced with this reality? Many prudently limited themselves to ordering what was in the STN’s catalogues, and perhaps asking them also to send any ‘nouveautés’ they may have published too. Others added speculative orders for works that they had been unable to find in their usual suppliers’ catalogues, probably more in hope than expectation. But given the costs and time-lags involved in postal communication; the organisational effort required; and the risks of overstocking, it seems likely that they neither ordered the same work from multiple suppliers simultaneously nor wrote to a succession of dealers until they found what they were after. If the STN could not supply something, that would often be the end of the matter. So what was ordered and what was received often diverged significantly. This is evident to the naked eye in the STN’s order books, which show both what was ordered and what was supplied. Indeed, if we look at orders alone, we might still convince ourselves that pre-revolutionary France was awash with scandalous anti-Marie-Antoinette literature.

There is thus a strong case for approaching the book trade from the supply side. But, as Professor Darnton’s review highlights the FBTEE project has faced a number of methodological and intellectual challenges in presenting and interpreting our data. Much of this review is concerned with discussing how we have dealt with these challenges. The most significant is the issue of how far the insights drawn from just one Swiss archive can be said to be representative.(8)

One analogy I have drawn to help users envisage the trade of the STN is to suggest that it was an of its day. Darnton is not the first to criticise this throw-away line, which comes from in an introductory video explaining the project.(9) His objection is certainly valid if we conceptualise Amazon in terms of market share, omnipresence and product range. But the image was intended for a less specialised audience, and my intention was to indicate that the STN was a mail-order book dealer, selling its wares via the post internationally across a whole continent. On this level, I think the analogy is still helpful, even if it is not perfect. As the database hopes to reach a wider audience (it has had over 2,400 unique visitors to date), I hope I will be pardoned by my most expert critics. However, if the STN was a smaller operation than, it was not insignificant in scale. In its heyday the STN traded in perhaps 1–1.5 per cent of all the copies of French works printed in Europe: this volume alone suggests a certain representativeness. Equally, my survey by subject of the types of work it sold, suggests that it sourced most types of work in broadly similar proportions from its Swiss, French and other European suppliers. Again this hints at a fundamental representativeness.(10)

Further work on other bookseller’s accounts may clarify this point. This is possible despite Professor Darnton’s assertion that there is no way of determining the extent of the representativeness of the STN archive ‘because no comparable archives exist’. For while the STN archives may be uniquely rich in terms of the variety of documentation available, and particularly the extent of the correspondence they contain, they are not the only archive to contain booksellers’ accounts similar to those we have used. Among other archives that have been brought to my attention, we might consider the Luchtmann’s archive in Leyden, which is available in microform; the Veuve Desaint’s archive in Paris; and a number of others in Belgium. Others probably exist forgotten and gathering dust in attics or archives. Exploiting these other archives may prove more challenging than using the STN archive, because it may be more difficult to cross reference data on clients, places or book titles. But it should not prove impossible.

This brings us to the wider question that Darnton raises – the need for cross-referencing to other types of source if we wish to build up a fuller, more representative picture of the dissemination and reception of books in the 18th century. There can be no arguing with this statement, and once again Darnton has blazed part of the trail himself. In The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France, 1769–1789 (1995), he listed how many times each title appeared in records of police and customs seizures, and in the handful of surviving manuscript catalogues of livres philosophiques [philosophic – i.e. highly illegal – books]. This work served as a kind of ‘scientific control’ and validation for his STN based figures of demand.

From its inception, the FBTEE project has recognised the importance of trying to include similar ‘control’ data. I always envisaged as only a first stage in this work. The task now is to extend the work in a coherent manner, and one that maintains some semblance of data integrity. FBTEE has already used data from the STN’s own catalogues, but what if we could add to our booksellers’ data, statistics on how many times works appeared in booksellers’ catalogues, private and circulating library catalogues? These are bulky and problematic sources, but if the technical challenges can be overcome, such a study could uncover a mass of data on pan-European circulation patterns. We could also supplement our data with more easily obtainable information on the publication of book reviews; newspaper advertisements; mentions of books in private correspondence; or publishing permissions granted in various jurisdictions? We can catalogue a title’s appearances in various indices of banned books including the Papal Index (some of this index-based work is already done in the FBTEE database) or incorporate police and customs data, drawing on the bibliographic work of Professor Darnton and Robert Dawson.(11) By expanding the range of ‘events’ listed in the database, we can include all these types of data and more. It is a huge collaborative project, but the prize seems enormous – a unique and uniquely comprehensive window on late Enlightenment culture, its reception and dissemination. We might also hope to inspire similar work on other times, other places.(12)

Such projects obviously require painstaking detective work. This brings me to the most curious statement in the whole review, and it concerns one of our greatest triumphs. Professor Darnton states with evident disappointment that we only managed to identify 40 per cent of the works sold by the STN’s agent Durand on his tour. But Durand recorded his orders in a numerical code, corresponding to numbered titles on a list. Only by finding and recognising that list would it be possible to crack the code. My former research assistant, Dr Mark Curran, indeed found what one previous researcher had dubbed the ‘Rosetta stone’. But like the real Rosetta stone, it was incomplete. It was split into three parts, and we only have parts one and two. I leave it to Dr Curran to explain his discovery and how he positively identified it in his forthcoming book.(13) Suffice it here to say that the evidence is not drawn from the STN archives, and was not obviously connected to the STN. This too is important. Mark’s discovery may help us to explain why the STN documentation, particularly correspondence, dries up from 1787.

Thus, if I agree with Darnton that it is disappointing that we have so little data from 1789 onwards – and this was indeed the great disappointment of the project – at least we may be able to explain why. Moreover, contrary to the established view that after 1785 the STN were just running down their stock, significant numbers of new titles appear in their accounts. These include Charles Théveneau de Morande’s notorious 1771 libelle, the Gazetier cuirassé [Armour-plated Gazetteer], which the company refused to sell throughout the ancien régime period.(14) They also included, for the first time, anti-Marie-Antoinette libelles such as Madame de La Motte’s Mémoires or the Essai historique sur la vie de Marie-Antoinette.

There are also problems with interpreting the data concerning individual cities. Much depended upon the nature of the clients that the STN attracted in each place. Professor Darnton rightly singles out Paris as an anomalous market. The dominance of the Parisian booksellers, who held monopoly publishing privilèges for many of the works that the STN pirated, naturally limited and shaped the STN’s trade there. Significant publishing houses there were reluctant to become involved with foreign interlopers. As a result the STN’s Parisian trade was concentrated in commissioned editions, most notably those printed for the budding philosophe and future revolutionary Jacques-Pierre Brissot; editions for their own agents to distribute; and trade with minor local players.(15) The STN also seldom took many copies of books from Paris, as legal monopolies inflated costs, and they could usually source cheaper Swiss pirated editions of nouveautés. However, the STN’s agents in Paris did source single copies of hard to obtain books for favoured local customers, including doctors searching specialised medical texts. They also acquired newly printed works for the STN to consider pirating. It should also be noted that the STN had a bit more success at nearby Versailles, where the bookseller Poinçot became an important client, placing orders for over 18,000 books in 43 orders.

Paris was not the only market the STN failed to crack. In 1770 their agent Samuel Roulet identified the largest London booksellers and tried to persuade them to place orders. None of them ever did so, though a couple corresponded with the STN. Instead the STN traded with a number of small-time London-based retailers and hawkers – fly-by-nights and marginal operators who frequently defaulted or disappeared. However, some of its books probably wound up in the hands of the Genevan exile bookseller David Boissière, who began trading shortly after Roulet’s visit. He was soon recognised as the leading foreign bookseller in London, with a catalogue of around 3,500 titles. Boissière worked in partnership with Pierre Gosse fils in the Netherlands, who supplied him with works published on the continent, some of which can be traced through Boissière’s undated (c.1775) catalogue.(16) In Dublin, by way of contrast to London, the STN managed to acquire only a single customer, but he was Luke White, a bookseller and property speculator so successful that he was elevated to the peerage. Between 1779 and 1785 the STN despatched over 1,000 books to White in ten orders, including 13 copies of the third (quarto) edition of the Encyclopédie, which the STN produced in partnership with other publishers. Among the works White requested most were other major multi-volume works, notably Mercier’s Tableau de Paris [Portrait of Paris], Rousseau’s Oeuvres. He was clearly catering for a different segment of the market to the STN’s London clients, and this appears to explain Professor Darnton’s oft quoted discovery that the [third edition of the] Encyclopédie sold almost as many copies in Dublin as London.(17)

The example of London and the Boissière-Gosse nexus reinforces Professor Darnton’s point that it is hard to reach the level of end-users of the books sold by the STN. Most of its stock went to other booksellers and wholesalers, so we cannot be sure where a given copy ended up. Thus, as he points out ‘Despite their look of pointilliste precision’ our maps ‘provide only a very approximate picture of the dissemination of literature.’ This objection is not unique to our work on the STN, of course: indeed, Professor Darnton faced a similar problem mapping the sales of the Encyclopédie.(18) The life history and movements of a single book between printers and publishers, wholesalers and retailers, and then successive owners, can seldom be reconstructed in their totality with any degree of confidence. But what we can do is try to filter out books that went to wholesalers, who likely sold them beyond their immediate region, from those sold to smaller retailers, hawkers and private customers, who either kept the books they bought or sold them locally. Whilst Darnton attempted something similar by selecting only retail dealers for his study of Forbidden Bestsellers, the FBTEE database is able to harness the potential of a digital humanities approach. Through its ‘Client type’ option menu, it gives users the power to isolate or exclude ‘Swiss wholesale clients’, ‘Foreign wholesale clients’ or indeed other ‘Swiss book trade clients’ and ‘Foreign book trade clients’. This is only one of eight option menus that allow users to filter our data to minimise some of the biases Professor Darnton has identified. They can for example exclude STN vanity editions by excluding ‘Commissioning clients’ in the ‘Client type’ menu or ‘Commissioned STN editions’ in the ‘Edition type’ menu. They can limit their searches by ‘Client gender’, ‘Original languages’ of publication, or various ‘Markers of illegality’. Such restrictions can also be used cumulatively to create highly specialised data sets in response to sophisticated questions.

The option menus also allow us to get closer to some interesting niche markets and, occasionally, the end consumers of books. It is possible, for example, to isolate unit sales for 4, 267 books sold across the counter at the STN’s Neuchâtel printing house by selecting ‘Counter / cash sales’ from the ‘Client type’ option menu. Although a few of these sales involved bulk purchases, the majority did not, and they therefore allow us to assess something of the literary tastes in the STN’s home town. The impression given by these figures is that in general the reading tastes of the townsfolk were conservative, parochial and pious. For example, the between October 1773 and May 1782 the STN sold 163 copies of a Recueil des passages du Nouveau Testament qui servent à établir les vérités et les devoirs de la religion chrétienne [Collection of Passages from the New Testament which Reveal the Truths and Duties of the Christian Religion] over the counter. Some of these sales were job lots probably destined for local schools, Bible classes or Pastors – 36 copies on 16 November 1776; 28 sales on 4 January 1779; 24 on 1 May 1782; and a handful of other sales of 12 or 13 copies each. But on 24 instances the STN sold a single copy of the work, and on four more it traded just two copies. This suggests that as well as being considered useful by the clergy, it enjoyed a genuine popularity among their flocks. Many similar examples could be cited. Historians seldom get such a detailed and precise view of the reading habits of a single community. Although we must remember that travellers occasionally bought at the counter, too, most purchasers were probably local. The works they bought were read predominantly in the Neuchâtel region.

Equally, it seems likely that works destined for far flung and remote parts of Europe were usually intended for local consumption. Books sent to the formidable-sounding Elsa Fougt, bookseller to the Swedish court, are likely to have remained in the hands of the Swedish nobility. Her seasonal pattern of ordering a handful of copies of 100s of titles reinforces this conclusion. Likewise, books going to Lisbon, Moscow, St Petersbourg or Pest likely stayed in the region. In fact, beyond Switzerland, few clients ordered in sufficient numbers and according to patterns which suggest they were wholesaling STN products. We have identified just four clients in this category, some of whom, like Pierre Gosse or Virchaux, Professor Darnton has already mentioned. Another, Paul Malherbe of Loudun, supplied a regional but not an international market through a network of ‘colporteurs’. The recipient of a large one off dumping of otherwise unsellable, mostly illegal, works, his trade statistics have the potential to distort considerably our view of the clandestine market. The nature of his trade has also been noted by Professor Darnton.(19) J.-L. Boubers and Plomteux, who Darnton also mentions, certainly traded with the STN, but not in sufficient numbers for us to treat them as ‘foreign wholesalers’. Boubers, however, is treated as a ‘Commissioning client’ on account of his sponsorship of the first edition of the Baron d’Holbach’s Système de la nature [System of Nature], which the STN published on his behalf in 1771.

It is also possible through the database to get to some rudimentary figures of reading by social or professional group. This may not amount to a full-scale contribution to the ‘sociology of reading’, but it is suggestive. Again some caution is necessary with the statistics. Clients’ professions are mostly taken from the BPUN’s card indices and the magnificent typed Répertoire géographique [Geographical Handlist] of the STN’s correspondents, which draws on data in the archive.(20) Thus a merchant who dabbled in the book trade may only be described as a marchand rather than a libraire. Likewise some individuals are listed under multiple professions so double counted. Others, often commissioning clients, ordered multiple copies of a single text, implying not all were for their own use: the Protestant pastor Pomaret, who commissioned the STN to publish several of his own works for use in the small town of Ganges is a good example. Nevertheless, if we look at the acquisitions of Protestant clergymen in general, the impression is that most of their reading is serious, professional, and religious in character. The purchases of Catholic clergymen among the STN’s client base gives a very different impression. Since they included many worldly abbés and literary figures, this is perhaps unsurprising – besides, the STN dealt in few explicitly Catholic religious works. It would be fascinating, nevertheless, to learn what the philosophically-minded abbé Lesenne intended to do with the ten copies of Intolérance ecclésiastique [Ecclesiastical Intolerance] that he purchased from the STN. Was this novel, which attacked the intolerance of the Lutheran clergy, intended for circulation among friends in the Roman Catholic clergy?

The answer can be found in Lesenne’s correspondence with the STN – or in Jeffrey Freedman’s Books without Borders in Enlightenment Europe: French Cosmopolitanism and German Literary Markets (2012). Freedman reveals (p. 214) that Lesenne intended to circulate the book among fellow anti-clerical clergymen. For researchers with similar questions, the STN database provides archival guidance. It offers for the first time a digitised catalogue of both the STN’s in-correspondence (for which researchers were previously reliant on the Répértoire géographique and a supplementary card index), and the out-correspondence, about half of which survives in bound volumes. The STN indexed these volumes for their own use, but this information was only available by consulting the documents themselves. With the advent of the FBTEE database we have, for the very first time, a complete electronic indexing of the correspondence.

Armed with the digital tools I have described, and the data from clients big and small, it seems possible to make some tentative suggestions about the place of Enlightenment in the book trade of the STN. Moreover, while acknowledging that it was a single publishing house, the filtering tools the database offers allow us to look beyond many of its biases; the predilections of its directors and customers; and the shortcomings of the archive. Perhaps Professor Darnton is correct to suggest that this is ‘an Enlightenment Europe without much Enlightenment’. But I beg to differ. Enlightenment is to a large degree in the eye of the beholder, and the database offers multiple paths by which it can be studied.

Professor Darnton’s review takes Voltaire as a proxy for the Enlightenment. However, with the exception of their edition of the Questions sur l’encyclopédie [Questions on the Encyclopédie], the STN published very little of the Voltaire material they sold. It was mostly produced by Gabriel Grasset in Geneva, Voltaire’s preferred publisher, who was well placed to pump his output directly into France.(21) So Voltaire is arguably under-represented in the STN archive. But there are other measures of the penetration of the Enlightenment in the database, particularly through our keyword taxonomic system for categorising books. It offers ‘Philosophie’ as a catch all for works conforming to a Peter Gay style anti-clerical and anti-Christian reformist Enlightenment.(22) 273 works accounting for 12.29 per cent of the STN’s outward trade carried this keyword, which is tightly drawn and closely defined. Many among Voltaire’s works, even, are excluded from the category. But the database also offers the increasingly uncontroversial category ‘Christian Enlightenment text’ for works conforming both to a more moderate Enlightenment perspective, vaunting or celebrating reason while at the same time as offering a Christian worldview.(23) 83 works accounting for 2.3 per cent of the STN trade bear this keyword. The two terms are mutually exclusive and indicative only, but between them they account for almost one-sixth of all works the STN traded. This seems significant, particularly as the criteria for associating such works with the Enlightenment are so narrowly drawn. Would we really expect such works to take up a greater proportion of the trade of a general publisher? Probably not, for many of the works that the STN peddled were mundane genres or dealt with mundane topics. The FBTEE database gives us an unparalleled insight to what those works were.

As we might expect, much of the everyday trade of the STN consisted of works far removed from the Enlightenment described above: school text books, religious literature, and literary works, often of an ephemeral nature, destined for a popular market. Certainly the vast bulk of literary works, comprising 24 per cent of the STN’s total unit ‘sales’, have not been categorised as ‘philosophie’. Works we have identified as ‘School Books’ accounted for 7.65 per cent of unit sales; traditional forms of religious works for around 7 per cent more. These include Scripture or digests of scriptures, which accounted for 2.8 per cent of total sales; catechisms (1.9 per cent); sermons (1 per cent); Christian conduct manuals (0.9 per cent); devotional manuals (0.12 per cent). In all, these categories alone account for almost two-fifths of the STN’s sales.

Browsing the keyword combination ‘History’ ‘AND NOT’ ‘Philosophie’ reveals that 46,565 books known to have been distributed by the STN, accounting for 11.26 per cent of sales, fit that category; a further 23,725 works (5.73 per cent of the total) carry the keywords ‘Travel’ ‘AND NOT’ ‘Philosophie’. The overlap between all these categories is small. Taken as a whole, non-philosophic literary works, history, religious works, school books, and travel literature account for over half of all books distributed by the STN. To these we can add many other categories of book offering little scope for the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas as defined in narrow terms above – ephemeral political pamphlets; works on economics, finance and agronomy; instructional manuals and reference works; general scientific and geographical works; conduct manuals and pedagogical treatises, and so on.

And yet, the problem seems here to be with our definition of the Enlightenment. If we try to reduce the Enlightenment to a series of closely defined beliefs or attitudes, it quickly becomes hard to pin down. If we limit ourselves to a select group of writers, we may miss the processes of popularisation by which ideas spread. In fact, we turn back the clock to before Professor Darnton’s own clarion call for a literary history from below.(24)

If instead we envisage the Enlightenment as a process involving particular literary and cultural and intellectual practices, as well as the dissemination of ideas, we can take much broader insights from the FBTEE database. For example, the reference and scientific works described above as part of the Enlightenment project of systematising and disseminating knowledge. The economic texts, geographical surveys and travel literature are part of a process of identifying, evaluating and exploiting resources, both human and physical, on a global scale. Such observations are hardly controversial.

More interesting, perhaps, is the enriching insight we can gain into the forms ‘Enlightenment’ might take. One of Professor Darnton’s most important contributions has been to show how Enlightenment ideas had strange bedfellows – often quite literally. Most memorably, perhaps, he has shown how the pornographic novel Thérèse philosophe [Theresa the Philosophe] used philosophic conversations in the boudoir to promote a materialist view of the universe – and hence the seductive argument that physical pleasure in the here-and-now is the be-all-and-end-all of human existence.(25) But the STN archive also shows that ‘Enlightenment’ ideas and practices thrived alongside more traditional values, often in a single work or the oeuvre of a single author. Alongside the important scientific works, political novels and poetry of Albrecht von Haller, the STN also traded his Lettres sur les vérités les plus importantes de la révélation [Letters on the Most Important Truths of the Divine Revelation] and a few dozen copies of the Lettres de feu Mr. de Haller contre M. de Voltaire [Letters of the late Mr Haller against Monsieur de Voltaire], which offered an enlightened Christian apologetic attack on Voltaire’s La Bible enfin expliquée [The Bible Explained at Last]. Equally, when the conservative religious polemicist abbé Augustin Barruel penned the epistolary novel Les Helviennes [The Helviennes] to defend Christianity from its philosophe critics, he was embracing a literary strategy and form associated with his adversaries to reach an increasingly enlightened public.

We can also find in the archive books – mostly ‘books of secrets’ – treating the medieval pseudo-science of alchemy. The STN distributed some 544 copies of them, together with 1800 copies of works on freemasonry, its rites and mysteries. Over 300 more concern the charlatan, freemason, mystic and alchemist Cagliostro. In terms of total sales, these genres may seem like marginal subjects, but their existence is revealing of the popularity of both pseudo-science and occult knowledge. Yet even these improbable sounding topics can all be linked to Enlightenment. Margaret Jacob long ago argued for the importance of freemasonry as a democratic training ground and Enlightenment sociable forum; while even the (re)publication of books of secrets and alchemical texts, whatever their failings, can be seen as part of the systematisation and propagation of agricultural, medical and scientific knowledge. Finally, in Cagliostro, The Last Alchemist, we have a figure who brings together many of these threads, and whose final discrediting and exposure in print might be seen as a triumph of Enlightenment rationalism.(26)

Thus the STN database can, I think, serve as entry point into the intellectual world of the Enlightenment, in its rich diversity and contradictions. It allows us to follow the networks of print and exchange and assess – according to a range of criteria – which of the works traded by the STN were important and where. By careful application of the database tools – the options menus which restrict searches to types of books or client; the functions allowing us to limit searches by time and place – it is possible to analyse the trade in new ways and create samples which are ‘more representative’ for particular purposes than the totality of the data, thereby compensating for many of the issues Professor Darnton has identified as problematic. We have left it for users to explore the data and options for themselves – while providing them with multiple ways of looking at issues such as geographic space or subject taxonomy. Professor Darnton’s review gives an exciting sense of the rich potential our approach offers, opening up the STN records in ways unimaginable when he first started working the archive.

In rounding off my response, I would like to offer Professor Darnton two final words of thanks. The first is for his forensic efforts in singling out and praising the work of the younger scholars who contributed so much to the FBTEE team. He rightly singles out the impressive work of Dr Vincent Hiribarren in preparing the project maps, work carried out on a minimal budget since at the outset of the project we had been told the work we required was not technically feasible. Initially hired merely to conduct GIS and, later, visualisation work, Vincent was the hour again in late 2011, when my two other staff members moved on. He then took over responsibility for some final editing of content and finishing and upgrading the user interface. Credit for the original interface design belongs to Amyas (‘Henry’) Merivale, whose ‘beautiful network of links’ make it, in Professor Darnton’s words, ‘a joy to use’. Less visible is Sarah Kattau, whose original and painstaking work translated the original design brief into the project’s data structures and data editor. It was her work, rather than the project per se, that our website describes as ‘a wonder to behold’, but if Professor Darnton wishes to extend this praise to the entire database, none of us will quibble. Finally, there is my ‘main collaborator’, Dr Mark Curran, who bore the brunt of the grinding toil of transcribing, interpreting and recording the archival data, much of it drawn from dry and voluminous accounting records. The resulting bibliographic data, as Professor Darnton rightly identifies, is a monumental and important contribution to bibliography. Every scholar who uses our resource owes a great debt to all these individuals.

Finally, I wish to thank Professor Darnton for identifying our enigmatic Mémoire apologétique des genevois as the Pièces importantes à la dernière révolution de Genève [Documents Important to the Recent Genevan Revolution].(27) The database will be upgraded shortly in the light of this data and this will also be an opportunity to insert one or two other corrections. Fortunately we can remedy digital errors more easily and quickly than printed ones. It will be a pleasure to do so.

  1. Professor Darnton’s views on desacralization and Grub Street were most memorably set out in Robert Darnton, ‘The Grub Street style of revolution: J.-P. Brissot, police spy’, Journal of Modern History, 40 (1968), 301–27 and Robert Darnton, ‘The high enlightenment and the low-life of literature in prerevolutionary France’, Past and Present, 51 (1971), 81–115. His most recent exposition can be found in Robert Darnton, The Devil in the Holy Water or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon (Philadelphia, PA, 2010). For my critique see Simon Burrows, ‘The innocence of Jacques-Pierre Brissot’, Historical Journal, 46, 4, (2003), 843–71; Simon Burrows, Blackmail, Scandal and Revolution: London’s French Libellistes, 1758–1792 (Manchester, 2006) and my review essay on The Devil in the Holy Water, <> [accessed 21 November 2012]. Darnton’s vigorous riposte, entitled ‘The devil in the details’ is at <> [accessed 21 November 2012].Back to (1)
  2. Burrows, Blackmail, Scandal, and Revolution, esp. ch. 5. My work on the Marie-Antoinette libelles was prefigured by Vivian R. Gruder, ‘The question of Marie-Antoinette: the Queen and public opinion before the Revolution’, French History 16, 3 (2002), 169–98.Back to (2)
  3. For his statistics see Robert Darnton, The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France, 1769–1789 (New York, NY, and London, 1795). On Mauvelain see also: Robert Darnton, ‘Trade in the taboo: the life of a clandestine book dealer in prerevolutionary France’ in The Widening Circle: Essays on the Circulation of Literature in Eighteenth-Century Europe, ed. Paul J. Korshin (Philadelphia, PA, 1976), pp.11–83.Back to (3)
  4. The historiography on the Marie-Antoinette pamphlets is discussed at length in the introduction to Blackmail, Scandal and Revolution.Back to (4)
  5. The term ‘Sales’ is used throughout this article to refer to the dissemination of books by the STN. While most sales involved commercial distribution, a proportion of the books traded by the STN were distributed free of charge to censors, friends and political figures as gifts or as a legal requirement; others were technically ‘swapped’ against other merchandise; and yet others were ‘commissioned’ against payment by their authors. The STN archive does not always make clear the underlying nature of any given transaction.Back to (5)
  6. Le Rayonnement d’une maison d’édition dans l’Europe des Lumières: la Société typographique de Neuchâtel 1769–1789, ed. R. Darnton and M. Schlup (Neuchâtel, 2005) and bring together much of the scholarship. See also Jeffrey Freedman, Books Without Borders in Enlightenment Europe: French Cosmopolitanism and German Literary Markets (Philadelphia, PA, 2012).Back to (6)
  7. In total, for the periods covered by our statistics, 10,416 units were returned as against 410,074 units sent out. This represents 2.54 per cent of known sales. Approximately 650 units were returned by Deinet, the bookseller who arranged a large scale ‘return’ to whom Professor Darnton refers in his review.Back to (7)
  8. For reflections on the STN’s representativeness in relation to the FBTEE database, see Simon Burrows and Mark Curran, ‘How Swiss was the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel? A digital case study of French book trade networks’, Journal of Digital Humanities, 1, 3 (2012); Simon Burrows, ‘French banned books in European perspective’ in Experiencing the French Revolution, ed. David Andress (forthcoming, Oxford, 2013).Back to (8)
  9. See also Jeremy D. Popkin’s review of the FBTEE database for the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies <> [accessed 21 November 2012].Back to (9)
  10. See Burrows, ‘French banned books in European perspective’ and Simon Burrows, Enlightenment Bestsellers: The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, Vol. II (forthcoming, London, 2013).Back to (10)
  11. See especially Robert Dawson, Confiscations at Custom:Banned Books and the French Book Trade during the Last Years of the Ancien Régime (Oxford, 2007).Back to (11)
  12. Team member Vincent Hiribarren is already planning a project on apartheid era South Africa using our technologies. Other projects have also begun scrutinising our data structures. We will be pleased to assist them.Back to (12)
  13. Mark Curran, Selling Enlightenment: The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, vol. I (forthcoming, London, 2013). Dr Curran’s book from the project is concerned with the business side of the STN’s bookselling; my own volume will examine the content of books and the discourses and ideas disseminated by the STN.Back to (13)
  14. The Gazetier cuirassé was considered so toxic that Samuel Fauche’s attempts to trade in the work using the STN’s crates led to the break-up of his partnership with the STN: see Michel Schlup, 'La Société typographique de Neuchâtel (1769–1789): Points de repère', in L'Edition neuchâteloise au siècle des Lumières: la Société typographique de Neuchâtel (1769–1789), ed. Michel Schlup (Neuchâtel, 2002), pp. 61–105.Back to (14)
  15. On Brissot’s dealings with the STN: Robert Darnton, J.-P. Brissot and the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (1779–1787) (Oxford, 2001).Back to (15)
  16. Works sold to Gosse by the STN between 1772 and 1774 which resurface in Boissière’s catalogue include the STN’s edition 1772 folio Bible; Emer Vattel’s Le Droit des gens (1773); the comte d’Espagnac’s Histoire de Maurice, comte de Saxe and La Liturgie ou la manière de célébrer le service devin, comme elle est établie dans les églises de la principauté de Neuchâtel et Valangin (1772).Back to (16)
  17. Hugh Gough, ‘Book imports from continental Europe in late eighteenth-century Europe: Luke White and the Société typographique de Neuchâtel’, Long Room, 38 (1993), 35–48; Robert Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775–1800 (Harvard, MA, 1979), p. 309. Darnton in fact offered various caveats to his statements, believing that the Quarto edition reached London by indirect means via Panckoucke in Paris.Back to (17)
  18. See note 17 above.Back to (18)
  19. Darnton, Forbidden Bestsellers, p. 16.Back to (19)
  20. The handlist, whose full title is Société typographique correspondants: répertoire géographique is now available on line <> [accessed 21 November 2012]Back to (20)
  21. Andrew Brown, ‘Voltaire et Gabriel Grasset’ in Voltaire et le livre, ed. François Bessire et Françoise Tilkin (Ferney-Voltaire, 2009), pp. 63–91.Back to (21)
  22. Gay’s position is set out above all in Peter Gay, The Enlightenment, an Interpretation (2 vols, New York, NY, 1966–9).Back to (22)
  23. On the Christian enlightenment see particularly Helena Rosenblatt, ‘The Christian Enlightenment’, in Enlightenment, Reawakening and Revolution, ed. Stewart J. Brown and Timothy Tackett (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 283–301; Mark Curran, Atheism, Religion and Enlightenment in Pre-Revolutionary Europe (Woodbridge, 2012).Back to (23)
  24. See Darnton, ‘The high enlightenment and the low-life of literature’.Back to (24)
  25. Darnton, Forbidden Bestsellers, pp. 90–107.Back to (25)
  26. The Last Alchemist is the title of the American edition of Iain McCalman’s superb biography, The Seven Ordeals of Count Cagliostro (London, 2003). I cast some new light on the discrediting of Cagliostro in A King’s Ransom: the Life of Charles Théveneau de Morande, Blackmailer, Scandalmonger and Master-Spy (London, 2010), pp. 157–68.Back to (26)
  27. John Jeanprêtre,’Histoire de la Société typographique de Neuchâtel 1769-1798’, Musée Neuchâtelois (1949), 70–9, 115–20, 148–53. This work also exists as a 22-page booklet: the reference appears at p. 13 therein. I thank Professor Darnton for supplying the reference.Back to (27)