The Encyclopédie may well be the most famous (and is certainly the biggest) of those great books much talked about but little read. Probably it never had many readers: encyclopedias usually do not. But it was much nibbled at, consulted, read in. Though never measured and perhaps exaggerated, its cultural impact has been little questioned by either its detractors or its admirers. For good or ill, the Encyclopédie quickly took its place as a milestone in the history of civilization.

This was as Diderot and d’Alembert and its other begetters hoped. The very conception of the work was a conscious step toward the rationalization of human life—which is one view of civilization. The Encyclopédie announced a new epistemology, the doctrine that knowledge and what the era called “philosophy”—the critical, progressive mode of the intellectual life—were not only compatible and combinable, but indissolubly connected. Beyond this it also spelled out specific lessons of an “enlightened” kind. In cross references, satirical asides, transparent parallels and analogies, many articles provided implicit commentary on the abuses of the day (as writers saw them) in the light of “philosophy.”

The resulting scandal gave the work additional repute. Unsurprisingly, later ages in search of the roots of modernity went on seeing what Diderot and d’Alembert did as among the driving forces of human liberation. This vision now persists mainly among liberals and progressives, but it was once shared by conservatives, who deplored it. As early as 1759 the Parlement of Paris saw behind the Encyclopédie a plot against church—indeed, religion—and the state; a royal prohibition (the second) on publication followed. In the same year came the special cachet of Papal condemnation. Nor was this the end of the publishers’ troubles—6,000 volumes of a reprint were later seized by police and walled up in the Bastille. Such persecution settled, for many people, the work’s lasting and honored primacy in progressive mythology.

Nevertheless, for all its traditional importance in the interpretation of modern history as the unfolding of liberty (an interpretation none the less vigorous and persuasive today because it now comes in sociological wrappings), the Encyclopédie gets little scrutiny except from specialists. We tend to take it and its influence for granted, though the extent and nature of that influence remain ill-defined. Given the size and costliness of the original twenty-eight volumes, and given, too, Diderot’s wish for a revised edition (he felt the publisher had corrupted the text without his knowledge), questions about who read it and what they got from it can hardly be regarded as settled.

Professor Darnton has now made a splendid contribution toward exploring these questions by setting out in his new book the publishing history of the later versions of the Encyclopédie. The adjective is explicit: this is the story of the way they came to be published. Yet this seemingly limited approach reveals more of the scope and limits of the Encyclopédie’s influence than any other has done. A huge intellectual, cultural social, and bibliographical territory is traversed by following the story of the printing and distribution of books which were the lineal descendants of Diderot’s creation in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

Publishing history, as told by Professor Darnton, turns out to be much meatier and livelier than might be expected, although without his wide-ranging scholarship the story might have become mere bibliography and antiquarianism. But Darnton was helped, too, by having marvelous material. At the heart of his documentation is a mass of papers left behind by an eighteenth-century Swiss publishing house, the Société typographique de Neuchâtel. They reveal, among much else, an astonishing world of chicanery, privilege, misrepresentation, forgery, plagiarism, smuggling, bribery, and embezzlement.

The proprietors of the STN were ambitious businessmen, would-be profiteers attracted to the enormous killing which might be made from a relaunch of the Encyclopédie. In the end they did not do badly, though less well than they hoped. They became in part the provincial victims of shrewder and more unscrupulous men who knew their way around the world of French publishing. One of these predators was Charles Joseph Panckoucke, a man whose influence and talents had by 1768 pushed him to the fore as a publisher in Paris. In that year he joined a partnership to buy the rights to future editions of the Encyclopédie. They were a prize worth having and their exploitation resulted in five more editions by 1789, as well as other, loosely related, works. The first three do not concern us much; like the original, they were luxury, in folio items. But the next two, smaller and cheaper, were very important. Between them they accounted for over half the 25,000 or so copies of the Encyclopédie in circulation before the Revolution.


The first practical outcome of a lengthy association of Panckoucke with the STN was a quarto edition. The partnership was from the start under strain as Panckoucke’s unfolding plans and ruses forced the STN further and further away from the idea of a simple reprint. But Panckoucke had the whiphand, for he controlled the rights. He finally settled on the quarto format when yet another piratical figure, Joseph Duplain, a Lyon publisher outstanding for his brass-fronted audacity even in a notoriously tough entrepreneurial milieu, announced his intention to publish a pirate quarto edition. Panckoucke persuaded the STN that he and they must publish their own. He arranged to have Duplain’s proposal struck down by decree of the Directeur de la Librairie and then, to make doubly sure, agreed to take Duplain into the deal. Agents began to sell subscriptions in 1777. They had great success: the Encyclopédie was launched as a best-seller.

Popularization next led—it seems almost inevitable in retrospect—to an octavo edition, a deliberate move toward an even wider market. The directors of the STN were stung by their French colleagues’ treatment of them. (The fascinating details of how they reacted take up much of the narrative of Darnton’s book.) They turned to other—and very experienced—Swiss collaborators, who proposed to publish an octavo Encyclopédie at half the price of the quarto—or even less without the volume of plates—in 1778. This completely divided the former unwilling allies: Panckoucke fought violently, but unavailingly, to keep the octavo out of France. He failed, but had been wise to try. Sales of the octavo were spectacularly successful and he had held large stocks of the quarto.

Economies of scale began to be felt. Press-runs became longer and subscription rates dropped to almost a fifth of the original figures (at times the bargain prices smack of desperation). Advertising was cynically unscrupulous; the publishers, Darnton writes, resorted to “half-truths, falsehoods, broken promises, and fake announcements about phony editions.” These worked, as did the trick (still favored by publishers today) of announcing when publication is well underway that there will be more volumes than the subscriber bargained for. Booksellers got free copies, markets were carved up by agreement.

Panckoucke had been defeated over the octavo, but was far from finished with the Encyclopédie. Part of his response was the conception of the final product of the original encyclopedic strain, the Encyclopédie Méthodique. This was the supreme speculation in a life of speculation, the Encyclopédie to end all Encyclopédies, bigger than ever and—unlike the alphabetically arranged original—organized in subject-centered volumes. It brought together Panckoucke’s commercial instinct, his irritated desire to strike back at rivals, and his old and cherished dream of a methodical revision of the great book which would also be a great popular success. The Encyclopédie did not work out like that, but became a monster, far outrunning his plans. It began to appear in 1782. The prospectus specified 42 quarto volumes; in 1789 there were to be 124. Eventually there were about 200 already out (there is some uncertainty about the exact number) when Panckoucke’s daughter, the veuve Agasse, cut off publication in 1832. After fifty years it was a disaster, providing the epilogue to the publishing history of the Encyclopédie and therefore to Professor Darnton’s book.

This bald summary hides an immensely rich and complicated story which can be read with profit in many different ways. One way is simply for the economic and social realities of publishing history which are uncovered in astonishing detail, showing us who did the printing, made the paper, distributed the books, and how they did it. Some of Professor Darnton’s picture will seem oddly familiar to anyone who has had dealings with the French book trade of today and the publishers who ferociously dominate it (but France, as people are always rediscovering, is a very conservative country with long continuities sustaining it). Not surprisingly, the language of war and diplomacy comes naturally to Professor Darnton, who describes how “militant foreign policy” protected markets, and how “pirates” made “nonaggression” pacts. The world of eighteenth-century publishing, with its “raids” and “ransoms,” emerges as Hobbes’s state of war. But huge profits were at stake; as the response to the offer of the first quarto showed, an enormous unsatisfied demand existed for a popularly priced Encyclopédie.

In tapping it, the publishers of the Enlightenment were resourceful and imaginative. Saddled with appalling communications and creaking techniques and systems of distribution, they made big efforts to drum up subscriptions. The sales pitch was often interesting and modern: “ce livre nous dispense de lire presque tous les autres,” said the promoters of the first quarto—as direct an appeal to the self-improver as one could hope to find. By associating learning and progress, they promised a union of qualities still thought by many to be almost irreconcilable. Soon, the presence of an Encyclopédie on the shelf testified to the owner’s taste: possession of it was the eighteenth-century sign of radical chic. Its popularization was the birthday of the uncultured but aspiring avant-garde, the ill-read but confident inside-dopester who has been the publishers’ prey ever since.


The spread of intellectual snobbery to which possession of the Encyclopédie often testified—Panckoucke heard that some of his Lyon subscribers were actually illiterate—was accelerated by the deliberate promotion of successive editions to larger and larger markets. Roughly speaking, the boom in Encyclopédie sales in 1776 lasted until the Revolution. Hostile critics could do no more to stem it than the archaic restrictions of the law—which, in any case, could be exploited as an advantage by the publishers. As a cultural, as well as a commercial and bibliographical, phenomenon, this is impressive. The end-result of so much money-grubbing and litigiousness was a service to humanity. The hidden hand of a benevolent market seems to have worked through self-interest to spread Enlightenment. The fierce competition and well-merited mutual distrust of the greedy generated social benefits. Copies of the Encyclopédie were sold (though in tiny numbers) as far away as Warsaw and Moscow; thus, incidentally to its main purpose, this book helps us to get behind the glittering façade of Catherine the Great’s Russia.

The development of the Encyclopédie idea and influence is also among the major themes embedded in the publishing history explained in this book. As described by Darnton, the impact of the Encyclopédie turns out to be much more complicated and qualified, and much less easy to summarize than the traditional mythology allows. “Enlightenment” benefited, but less simply and ambiguously than might appear. For one thing, the message altered with each package. Diderot’s misgivings about his text licensed his successors to tamper with it. Eighteenth-century publishers had few inhibitions in any case about matching horses to courses and producing a more attractive piece of merchandise by rearranging and altering old material. Professor Darnton reminds us once again that the editorial sanctity of the text is a modern superstition. One early version was announced as an improved Encyclopédie, with its impiety purged and replaced by sound Protestantism. Another was prepared by an Oratorian priest who slipped his own writing (often edifying and pious) into the text, ignored errors he was supposed to correct, and gave, it seems, a strong provincial and Lyonnais flavor to the quarto edition. He cut text and corners. He was not impressed by complaints of inconsistency from Neuchâtel: “c’est du choc des opinions qui sort la lumière,” he offhandedly remarked.

In such matters, not only the original text but the promises made in the publishers’ prospectuses were irrelevant. This also makes it hard to think of a simple encyclopédiste influence methodically diffused by all those cheap editions. Ambiguities persisted. Backers at the court of Versailles who pulled strings to ease publication were as important as ever until 1789 and they were men of the ancien régime. Editorial emendations and “improvements” seem always to have told in a conservative sense, blunting the sharpness of the original.

But, of course, that original itself had been ambiguous. It was not simply a vehicle of enlightenment and skepticism. It sold on its promises of knowledge and it sold to a clientèle of, broadly speaking, aristocratic or would-be aristocratic purchasers. Many of the contributors themselves, noblemen, clerics, lawyers, place-holders, wrote from entrenched positions in the social order against which—we have all been told—this book was a battering-ram. The original Encyclopédie was, in fact, also a child of its time, a true product of an ancien régime ready for something of the sort. And now Robert Darnton provides us with strong inferential confirmation that subscribers to the later versions, too, came not from the supposedly “progressive” commercial and industrial classes, but from that sociologically untidy world of noblemen, clerics, lawyers, placemen, rentiers, professionals—most of them land-owners—who made up the social and cultural elite of the ancien régime. It was the old administrative and governmental centers, the seats of parlements and bishops, not the booming new seaports or industrial nuclei of eighteenth-century France which provided the largest numbers of subscribers to the quarto. Toulouse and Besançon took hundreds of copies, Nantes only thirty-eight and Lille twenty-eight. True, such overall figures are far from the whole story. But a detailed study of the Besançon subscribers shows that even among the Third Estate subscribers (about half the total), the great majority were lawyers, officials, and professional men. Merchants and other businessmen (an awkward category to define) were few: we are back with the traditional directing elites of old France.

This suggests that the continuities which historians of politics and economics have gradually allowed to blur the great traditional dividing line of 1789 may be just as powerful in cultural history. It would be strange if it were not so—the men of the Revolution were men formed by old France. This emerges almost incidentally in this book (as it so often does) from personal biography. Duplain, at first sight, the modern entrepreneur, was a Balzacian character, ploughing through to success, playing a dirty game with dash and skill. When, in the end, he made a fortune, he married a Lyonnais beauty, bought a country estate and an office which put him on the lowest rung of the ladder of noblesse, and took to signing his letters “Duplain de St. Albine”—a model success story of the ancien régime. And, as Professor Darnton acutely observes, this story is in a way an epitome of French capitalism’s commitment (then and later) to limited expansion and investment in status.

As for Panckoucke, héros maudit of this story, he was an equally unpleasant colleague and equally driving and ambitious. But though his psychology was different (and so was the outcome of his career), he too, the great popularizer, is a pre-revolutionary figure. True, he tried to keep up with the times. When he died in 1798 he was not penniless, for, like many others, he had bought nationalized church land in the Revolution. Even the year before he died he was still trying to float new projects. In a characteristic combination of political opportunism and entrepreneurial imaginativeness he proposed to build a toll bridge in Paris to be decorated with the statues of the young Bonaparte and his fellow conquerors of Italy. Still he failed, and his fundamental weakness was that he was being left behind by history. The key to his success had been his skill in operating within the complicated and flexible network of ancien régime publishing. The whole edifice of Encyclopédie publishing was built in the first place on a royal privilege. Panckoucke was an old-style monopolist, making regular payments to ministries for his advantages and vigorously procuring favors from those in power so as to bring rivals to heel. When the Revolution liberated publishing and printing from its old corporate and privileged straitjackets, he was soon complaining about the excessive freedom of Paris journalism—even though he had been prudent enough to switch some of his interests from books to journalism before the Revolution. (He was the proprietor of the Moniteur Universel.)

Panckoucke ran as fast as he could to keep up with a changing world, was a member of the Paris Electoral Assembly, and tried to get elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1791 (perhaps luckily, he failed). But that was as far as he could go. Loudly to proclaim yourself citoyen actif of the first free and representative monarchy, and to advocate increased power for the king and the restoration of respect for nobles and clergy (he thought France might bring back the old titles and coats-of-arms) was not going to get you far as 1792 approached. As for his great conception, the Revolution settled its fate. Soaring paper and printing costs, and falling subscriptions, saddled the Encyclopédie Méthodique with unmanageable burdens before he at last handed it over to his son-in-law.

Like Duplain’s, Panckoucke’s career therefore gives us a little more information with which to map that hazy revolutionary era where the old simplicities about a bourgeois overthrow of an aristocratic order no longer fit. We have to be very careful in categorizing eighteenth-century society, in France as elsewhere. Duplain’s is the simpler case. He climbed steadily toward the goals set by the dominant ethos of his day—a royal office, admission to the purlieus of the court at Versailles, a château, the particule. Money was almost incidental, or, at least, was only a means. Panckoucke, like many other supporters of the constitutional monarchy, sought his satisfactions in slightly more developed possibilities than these (but who is to say what Duplain would have done in the Revolution?). Even he, though, remained committed to the hierarchical France he understood; he never favored or frequented a popular revolutionary society.

The major difference between Panckoucke and Duplain is the deep commitment of the former to the idea of a revised Encyclopédie as well as a profitable one. But in this too he was a man between two worlds, for the Méthodique was, if one of the biggest, still one of the most characteristic products of the ancien régime. It aimed to be comprehensive in coverage and to put everything in its proper and special place, thus anticipating nineteenth-century encyclopedias rather than following the alphabetical model. But its first volumes appeared “avec approbation et privilège du roi” and with an extra-long forty-year currency for this privilege. Specialization, the recruitment of expert authors, and the replacement of “philosophy” by the sciences (they took up about half of the Méthodique)—these were developments of Enlightenment, not a break with it. They might imply deep down a breach with the values of the ancien régime, but they emerged within its structure: the conception of the Méthodique was an expression of the highest achievements of official culture under the old order.

Yet the Encyclopédie in all its versions was nevertheless a great vehicle of Enlightenment. What we need to do, perhaps, is to make an adjustment in our conception of the readiness and receptiveness of the world which awaited it and to grasp that “Enlightenment” had more than one message. That it was faith in systematic knowledge rather than skepticism which was important now seems clear. This is perhaps the most general of the conclusions which this study of publishing history supports and the one which takes the reader furthest away from its rich and fascinating detail. Just once or twice Professor Darnton is not easy to follow through that detail: his book is clearly written, but the argument is dense and sometimes evasive. Nor are all readers likely to get quite the same delight as Professor Darnton does from some of the copious information it provides. (Still one can understand his excitement when, for example, he can not only trace the paper in different gatherings of a single volume to individual paper makers, but can even identify the printer whose thumbprint appears on one sheet.) Of the importance of what he has done, in any case, there can be no doubt. His book, which took him fifteen years to complete, is a major achievement of American scholarship and in the first rank of those which have been transforming our view of French history during the last twenty years.

This Issue

February 7, 1980