The Illegal Book Trade Revisited

This strand of the project (overseen by Simon Burrows) will examine the scale, structure, scope and nature of the French trade in banned books in the final decades before the revolution. This trade embraced almost all the major works of the enlightenment, as well as a wide variety of clandestine pornographic, anti-clerical and scandalous literature.


Frontispiece, Charles Théveneau de Morande, Le Gazetier cuirassé, ou anecdotes scandaleuses de la cour de France (1771). Image courtesy of Simon Burrows.

The research will explore the geographical structure of the trade and its relative thematic composition, in order to discern the prevalence of enlightenment philosophie in comparison with other illegal genres. It will also examine what books were banned; how firmly they were pursued; which governmental control measures had most impact; and whether the old regime government was successfully clamping down on the illegal sector in the final years of the old regime (as suggested by some evidence from the FBTEE-1 database).

As many studies of the French book trade and enlightenment seek to link illegal works in various genres with the development of critical attitudes towards authority and political and social structures, this revisionist analysis will go to the heart of some of the most active and contested debates in enlightenment and revolutionary historiography, addressing themes that resonate in contemporary contexts.

The research will interpret, record and analyse a comprehensive range of statistical materials on the illegal book trade. The spine of the work will be the confiscation registers (BNF, MS Fr 21,933 and 21,934).

Where the confiscation data is incomplete, these registers will be cross-referenced with customs inspection registers (BNF MS Fr 21,897-21,926), using date and balot [crate] numbers.

This data will be supplemented by the confiscation registers of the Paris Chambre syndicale (BNF, MS Fr 21,935) and the incomplete register for the provincial Chambres (MS Fr 21,927). Supplementary data will be taken from:

  • BNF Arsenal MS 10305: this records c.1800 instances of confiscated books taken for pulping in the Bastille. Some documents from this source have disappeared, but can be consulted in Robert Dawson, Confiscations at Customs (2006). Further data on some books can be gleaned by cross reference to customs records;
  • BNF MS Fr 21,814: this lists, in chronological order, 1200-1500 condemned works, the reasons for condemnation and the penalty imposed upon them;
  • BNF MS Fr 21,928-9: duplicate alphabetical registers of c.1,520 banned works;
  • BNF MS Fr 8132 lists publishing privileges (licences) in force at 15 February 1778 (approx. 1500 entries) and hence is an important source for identifying pirate editions;
  • BNF MS Fr 22,080-1, 22,101, 22,124-9: contain miscellaneous records of book seizures;
  • BNF MS Fr 22,153-4 contains orders to search out and suppress key works; and
  • BNF, Arsenal MS 10,303, which contains miscellaneous records regarding book seizures by the police.

The process for reconstructing the illegal trade will include researching, interpreting and recording data on confiscations and condemnations, identifying the works involved, matching transactions to precise editions when possible; recording reasons and the strength of evidence for identifications; and researching and categorising the books traded. All stages of this process involve interpretative reconstruction of incomplete or truncated data.