From Readers to Revolutionaries

The Shield of Minerva by Léonard Defrance de Liège
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon
Léonard Defrance de Liège: The Shield of Minerva, 1781. The painting was inspired by the Austrian emperor Joseph II’s 1781 edict of religious tolerance. Announcements of works by Enlightenment philosophers are posted on the walls of the bookstore, while the bundles of books stacked outside for shipment to other countries signify the free diffusion of ideas.

In 1789 and for long afterward, in France and elsewhere, a single word often sufficed to explain the origins of the French Revolution: books. Just days after the fall of the Bastille, the radical journalist and politician Bertrand Barère wrote, “Books did it all. Books created opinion, books brought enlightenment down into all classes of society, books destroyed fanaticism and overthrew the prejudices that had subjugated us.”1 Even counterrevolutionaries who saw the Revolution as a catastrophe agreed with Barère as to its cause: it was books or, sometimes, “philosophy”—by which they meant the great movement of ideas we now call the Enlightenment.

No serious historian today would attribute this kind of power to books alone. We recognize that the French Revolution occurred for many reasons. But no serious historian today would discount the importance of books either. This revolution, one of the greatest in history, did not just replace one king with another. It attempted to establish an entirely new regime, grounded in principles that authors had widely discussed before 1789: equality before the law, the sovereignty of the nation, religious toleration, the “rights of man.” Books mattered. But which books? What did the French actually read?

It is safe to say that no historian has done more to answer these questions than Robert Darnton. In a career that has spanned more than fifty years, he has returned to the subject again and again, in a series of works that range from short, luminous essays to thick volumes crammed with the fruits of archival research to, most recently, a remarkably complete and informative website ( He has now provided a new installment, A Literary Tour de France: The World of Books on the Eve of the French Revolution, written in his characteristically lively and engaging prose. It adds valuable new pieces to the puzzle, even as it points to some of the limits of what the sources can tell us. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Darnton advised my doctoral dissertation thirty years ago.)

Darnton’s principal source is astonishingly rich. In 1965, in the public library of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, he came across the business records and correspondence of one of the Enlightenment’s most important publishing houses: the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel. Based outside of France, and therefore beyond the reach of the aggressive French censors and police, the STN printed some of the Enlightenment’s best-known books, most often in pirated editions. Some of these books…

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