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 circulated legally in France. Many more were smuggled across the mountainous French-Swiss border and then sold “under the cloak” to eager French readers. The STN archives, including more than 50,000 letters, provided copious information on virtually every aspect of the firm’s business. Nothing like it has survived for any other eighteenth-century publishing house.

Darnton not only recognized the importance of the source, but in a very real sense based his career on it, returning to work through the STN dossiers at every available opportunity. And he has demonstrated an uncanny ability to distill his passion for the subject into pages brimming with evocative details about a forgotten world. Darnton’s work puts the reader face to face with porters guiding enormous bales of unbound books over rocky mountain passes; a printer leaving an inky fingerprint on a binding (Darnton even managed to identify him); and an insolvent author desperately firing off book proposal after book proposal while running from possible arrest.

At the start of his career, Darnton devoted particular attention to the authors. He made his name with a series of articles that insisted on the historical importance of the desperate “poor devils” who swarmed around the margins of the French literary world in the 1770s and 1780s. These men hoped to follow the heroic example of the great philosophes who had dared to challenge the established order of things a generation earlier, during what Darnton called the “High Enlightenment.” But by the time they arrived on the scene, the great battles had been won, the choice places in the literary firmament had been occupied, radical energies had waned, and new opportunities had become vanishingly scarce.

In despair, the “poor devils” scrounged for whatever work they could find, frequently turning to pornography, rumor-mongering, and even spying on one another for the police. Noting the presence of many of them in the front rank of revolutionary radicals after 1789, Darnton concluded that their “crude pamphleteering…expressed the passion of men who hated the Old Regime in their guts…. It was from such visceral hatred…that the extreme Jacobin revolution found its authentic voice.”2 This last argument proved difficult to develop further. If some radicals hailed from the milieu that Darnton, with reference to its English counterpart, called Grub Street, many more had been successful professionals who lacked such obvious sources of resentment.


In any case, while the STN archives held correspondence from many poor devils, what they illuminated most vividly were the books that the STN acquired and published. As he worked through the archives, Darnton saw that the Enlightenment, viewed from the ground-level perspective of the STN, looked very different from the version of the subject then popular in universities. In the works of highly regarded scholars like Ernst Cassirer and Peter Gay, the Enlightenment was in its essence a profound revolution of the mind that liberated critical reason from the shackles of religion and rationalist philosophy. A reader properly began, and sometimes concluded, its study by following Rousseau and Kant, Hume and Montesquieu along the deepest currents of their thought. But this “Enlightenment” was to a large extent a retrospective invention that took the works out of the social settings in which they originally circulated.

The STN sold “philosophical books,” but by “philosophical” it meant something very different from what we mean today. One of its catalogs indiscriminately included, under this heading, Rousseau’s Social Contract, slander-filled attacks against King Louis XV, and explicit pornography. In another early article, Darnton drew from this fact an eloquent conclusion: “A regime that classified its most advanced philosophy with its most debased pornography was a regime that sapped itself, that dug its own underground and that encouraged philosophy to degenerate into libelle.”3 Whatever the High Enlightenment may have done to slowly undermine the church and state, the works of slander and pornography savagely scraped away at the reputation and legitimacy of the actual men and women who constituted France’s ruling elites.

Darnton has spent much of his career exploring the issues raised in these early essays. In The Business of Enlightenment (1979), he mined the STN archives to reconstruct the publishing history of the second edition of the Enlightenment’s preeminent work, the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert. He showed that however radical a challenge the original version of the 1750s had offered to the established order, by the 1770s and 1780s this keystone of the High Enlightenment had become effectively coopted by the Old Regime’s conservative, privileged cultural institutions: guilds and academies, censorship and officially approved publishing cartels.

Then in 1995 appeared The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, which turned to the other side of the story: the so-called “philosophical books.” Again drawing primarily from the STN archives, Darnton assembled a list of 720 titles that represented, in his view, virtually the entirety of the underground literature that circulated in the twenty years before the French Revolution. He ranked the titles by popularity, and the resulting “best-seller list” supported his earlier contentions. It was not topped by familiar classics of High Enlightenment thought but by books the world had largely forgotten. There was an early example of utopian time-travel fiction; a book in which characters discussed radical atheist philosophy while engaging in lurid sexual encounters; a book describing Louis XV groveling to a low-born mistress.

Darnton’s prodigious output has extended to many other subjects, but these are the works that have made the greatest impact on the field of history. Indeed, they helped to create what is now a thriving subfield: the “history of the book.” He has become so indelibly associated with eighteenth-century underground literature that a French historian of smuggling once made a revealing mistake, listing “a certain Robert Darnton” as a leading eighteenth-century publisher of “printed gazettes and scandalous pamphlets.”

This work has also generated considerable controversy, some of it collected in a book called The Darnton Debate.4 Several early critics chided Darnton for too quickly concluding that subversive books had the power to change the way readers thought. Others claimed that in concentrating on what he called the “social history of ideas,” he did not take the ideas themselves seriously enough. Scholars who followed Darnton into the STN archives have argued that he should not have generalized from the STN records to the French book market as a whole. The debates, to Darnton’s credit, have often started profound discussions about the influence of authors and ideas in history. Where necessary, he has offered gracious ripostes to his sometimes intemperate critics, but he is not, by inclination, an academic duelist eager for the next fencing match. He wants to get back into the archives.

This is precisely where he takes us with his new book, which uses the STN records to tell the story of Jean-François Favarger. In July 1778 this twenty-nine-year-old sales representative for the STN set out on a five-month trip around much of central and southern France. Stopping both in large cities like Lyon and Marseille and in small towns, he visited scores of booksellers. Armed with the STN’s catalogs, he took orders for books, collected debts, made deals, assessed the reliability of his customers for future business, and conducted market research about the demand for genres, subjects, and individual titles.


Darnton’s account follows Favarger—who featured in several of his earlier works—along this “tour de France.” He uses each section of the trip to highlight a different part of the STN’s business, supplementing Favarger’s records with other material from the archives. He provides copious detail and directs readers interested in yet more of it to his website, which includes thousands of pages of the original manuscript documents. Darnton concludes with a chapter that surveys the overall demand for books—legal and illegal—in France in the decades before the Revolution. Implicitly responding to his critics, he argues that the STN material does in fact “provide a reliable indication of the demand for books” in much of provincial France. He ends with speculations about the connection between these books and the French Revolution.

Although the STN’s business model—which included the sale of banned books and pirate editions—depended on breaking the law in France, Favarger himself was not an ardent foot soldier of the Enlightenment, and ran little risk of arrest during his trip (he did not carry banned books with him). He was a junior businessman conducting what amounted, by eighteenth-century standards, to an ordinary business trip. Within a few years he would leave the book trade to become a successful grocer back in Neuchâtel, and the books he sold seem to have mattered to him, first and foremost, as commodities. One of the French business agents he dealt with sold spices, nut oil, hemp, pumpkins, goose feathers, poultry, and lambskins along with illegal books.

The disregard of these men for the content of the books they sold doesn’t bother Darnton. The “business of Enlightenment” has always fascinated him almost as much as the Enlightenment itself, and this book gives him the opportunity to fully indulge his passion for it. Darnton particularly loves recounting the small, material details of Favarger’s trip. The inns he stayed at were filthy and lice-ridden, and he appears to have hardly ever changed his clothes (in five months, he recorded just two expenses for laundry). At one point he contracted scabies, an unpleasant rash caused by tiny mites burrowing into the skin.

But Favarger’s aches and pains were nothing compared to those of his poor horse. On the road between Toulouse and Montauban, the animal developed swollen glands and nostrils and a strong cough, and started collapsing four or five times a day. Favarger had to lead it on foot, wearing out his boots. In the town of Marmande, after treatment by a blacksmith, the horse ate a good meal of hay and bran, only to spend the next night vomiting it all up. Finally, after several hundred more miles, swellings on its legs burst, and Favarger had to sell it and buy a replacement. Such was life on the road in the eighteenth century.

Robert Darnton
Robert Darnton; drawing by David Levine

Darnton delights in explaining how the illegal book business worked. The STN did not sell bound books but printed sheets (in the eighteenth century, most book buyers took their purchases to their own bookbinder). In some cases, smugglers transported heavy bales of these sheets across the mountains. In others, the STN’s agents hid the sheets of illegal books underneath ones it had permission to import legally into France, often bribing customs inspectors not to look at the bales too carefully. Sheets of pornographic novels could nestle surreptitiously underneath sheets of Bibles. Once across the border, some books went straight to booksellers for resale to the public. The STN swapped others with French publishers for titles it did not itself publish. These “exchanges” were crucial to the business model, allowing the STN to pose as the only supplier its clients needed. “There is no book of any importance that appears in France that we are not capable of supplying,” the firm boasted in 1773.

The business was highly risky. Shipments could be intercepted and confiscated by the French police (and the unhappy smugglers branded and sent to row in the galleys). Shipments could be lost or damaged. The STN’s clients frequently defaulted on their debts to the firm, cheated, went bankrupt, or died still owing money. Favarger spent much of his trip fruitlessly trying to recover money owed to it, and much of the STN archive itself amounts to a litany of woe from clients unable to meet their obligations. After the French state took strong measures to curtail book piracy in 1783, the STN suffered a partial bankruptcy.

The precariousness of the business is one of the most striking features of A Literary Tour de France, but at the same time it raises questions about just how much the STN archive can reveal about the overall demand for books in France. Like most hopeful but struggling businesses, the STN tended to overpromise. It could not always deliver on the orders it took, and its claim to be able to supply any book of importance smacks at least somewhat of marketing hype. As Darnton himself admits with admirable candor, the volume of business the STN did with one unrepresentative and unreliable client led him, in compiling his earlier “forbidden best-sellers” list, to overestimate the sales of slanderous attacks on Louis XV. As Darnton has always been careful to note, the STN did business almost exclusively in provincial France. Its records tell us little about what sold in Paris. And a team of scholars who have compiled an impressive database of the STN’s sales have argued that the French book market was more fragmented than Darnton realized, making it harder to generalize about reading patterns from any one firm’s archive.5

Even with these caveats, however, the STN dossiers give us the best sense we are ever likely to have of what provincial French people wanted to read at the end of the Old Regime. Because the STN pirated so many of its titles, its catalog—informed by the “market research” of agents like Favarger—closely corresponded to its perception, at least, of market demand. And the practice of publishers’ exchanges meant that it could also provide books published by its competitors. In his last chapter, Darnton provides a list of the firm’s best-selling titles, both legal and illegal, based on orders from its most important French customers. It shows a strong demand for novels of all sorts, travel literature, history, geography, science, medicine, law and current events, freemasonry and magic, reference works, self-help manuals, and children’s literature—and also large quantities of pornography, scandal-mongering, and radical philosophy (as well as Protestant religious works—not surprising for a firm from Protestant Neuchâtel).

This list may strike Darnton’s readers as confusingly broad. But of course, then as now people bought many sorts of books, and a single “best-seller list” cannot distinguish between books that amused or instructed but did little to affect people’s way of thinking and books that had a potentially radical impact (just as, on recent American lists, Dan Brown might jostle for a top rank with Thomas Piketty). In his conclusion, Darnton writes, “The statistics on literary demand demonstrate that Enlightenment ideas penetrated deeply into the culture of the Ancien Régime.” These ideas, he continues, gave readers the sense that “an alternate reality was thinkable.” And then, in 1789, “thought would turn into action.” All this is undoubtedly true, but one of Darnton’s predecessors, the great French literary historian Daniel Mornet, came to much the same conclusions in a broad study of eighteenth-century intellectual trends that he published in 1933. And as Darnton himself notes, “Enlightenment ideas” came in many, often contradictory varieties. There was no single, monolithic “Enlightenment project.”

To go further—to understand the effect that the books had—we have to turn to the readers, and here Darnton insists that we have little information: “What went on in those people’s heads when they read books remains a mystery.” In one sense he is undoubtedly correct. Very few eighteenth-century readers explicitly recorded immediate reactions to their reading material. Unlike scholarly readers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they did not fill the margins of the books they read with copious annotations.

But there are other ways to assess the impact of books. Most importantly, French readers were also writers. In the eighteenth century, tens of thousands of them ventured into print, in every possible genre. Thousands more submitted entries to essay competitions run by learned academies. Literate men and women frequently devoted hours a day to writing letters, many collections of which have survived.

The resulting mass of documents provides the best possible evidence of how French people read on the eve of the Revolution. It can be searched for the influence of individual authors and titles—and anyone who has read widely in the period can testify to the huge influence of three giants of Enlightenment thought: Montesquieu, Voltaire, and especially Rousseau. More broadly, it provides copious evidence about eighteenth-century patterns of thought: how readers classified the things they read about, how they understood cause and effect, the things they found funny, the things they considered “natural.” All of this could vary enormously from person to person, but with careful study, large-scale patterns emerge.

These patterns, in turn, give a sense of the overall intellectual circumstances in which individual books were read and understood, and made an impact. Consider, for instance, the scandal-mongering attacks on the royal court sold by the STN. Similar works had appeared in France since the sixteenth century, and had generally served to discredit specific individuals. But in the eighteenth century, readers increasingly came to see luxury and unchecked social inequality as intrinsically unnatural and immoral. In this setting, the attacks took on new meaning, and could lead readers to construct an indictment of an entire social system. Drawing such connections differs both from Darnton’s “social history of ideas” and from older models of intellectual history. It involves reconstructing patterns of discourse within as broad a range of written sources as possible. Scholars of the Enlightenment have been engaged in this work for some time now, and much more remains to be done.

The work Robert Darnton has accomplished over the course of his long career has been essential. Thanks to his heroic mining of the archives, he has reconstructed the contours of the literary world of the French Enlightenment with a precision and vividness never before achieved, and in the process has brilliantly illuminated the colorful, rough-and-tumble business world that brought books to readers. But to understand what happened once those books were opened and read—and to draw connections to the explosion of 1789—we may now have to turn back from archives to libraries, and the vast quantities of eighteenth-century texts that they hold, most of them rarely if ever read. These texts still have an enormous amount to tell us about eighteenth-century minds.