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The Information Master

Jean-Baptiste Colbert's Secret State Intelligence System

Jacob Soll

Publication Year: 2009

Colbert has long been celebrated as Louis XIV's minister of finance, trade, and industry. More recently, he has been viewed as his minister of culture and propaganda. In this lively and persuasive book, Jake Soll has given us a third Colbert, the information manager. ---Peter Burke, University of Cambridge "Jacob Soll gives us a road map drawn from the French state under Colbert. With a stunning attention to detail Colbert used knowledge in the service of enhancing royal power. Jacob Soll's scholarship is impeccable and his story long overdue and compelling." ---Margaret Jacob, University of California, Los Angeles "Nowadays we all know that information is the key to power, and that the masters of information rule the world. Jacob Soll teaches us that Jean-Baptiste Colbert had grasped this principle three and a half centuries ago, and used it to construct a new kind of state. This imaginative, erudite, and powerfully written book re-creates the history of libraries and archives in early modern Europe, and ties them in a novel and convincing way to the new statecraft of Europe's absolute monarchs." ---Anthony Grafton, Princeton University "Brilliantly researched, superbly told, and timely, Soll's story is crucial for the history of the modern state." ---Keith Baker, Stanford University When Louis XIV asked his minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert---the man who was to oversee the building of Versailles and the Royal Academy of Sciences, as well as the navy, the Paris police force, and French industry---to build a large-scale administrative government, Colbert created an unprecedented information system for political power. In The Information Master, Jacob Soll shows how the legacy of Colbert's encyclopedic tradition lies at the very center of the rise of the modern state and was a precursor to industrial intelligence and Internet search engines. Soll's innovative look at Colbert's rise to power argues that his practice of collecting knowledge originated from techniques of church scholarship and from Renaissance Italy, where merchants recognized the power to be gained from merging scholarship, finance, and library science. With his connection of interdisciplinary approaches---regarding accounting, state administration, archives, libraries, merchant techniques, ecclesiastical culture, policing, and humanist pedagogy---Soll has written an innovative book that will redefine not only the history of the reign of Louis XIV and information science but also the study of political and economic history. Jacob Soll is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University and the author of Publishing The Prince: History, Reading, and the Birth of Political Criticism (University of Michigan Press, 2005), and winner of the 2005 Jacques Barzun Prize from the American Philosophical Society and a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship. Soll edited a special issue of Journal of the History of Ideas titled "The Uses of Historical Evidence in Early Modern Europe"; has cofounded the online journal Republics of Letters; and is editor, along with Anthony Grafton and Ann Blair, of the series Cultures of Knowledge in the Early Modern World. Jacket illustration: Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683), Philippe de Champaigne, 1655, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Wildenstein Foundation, Inc., 1951 (51.34). Photograph © 2003 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Cultures of Knowledge in the Early Moder

Title Page

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Historians are often nagged by the suspicion that they could have spent more time studying their subject. The French scholar Prosper Boissonnade noted with no irony that he had studied Jean-Baptiste Colbert for thirty-six years "without overlooking any source of information." He expressed fears that his work was

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1. Between Public and Secret Spheres

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pp. 1-12

In 1698, the Cambridge-trained naturalist and royal physician Martin Lister wrote an account of his trip to Paris. Lister described birds, hedges, flagstones, housing materials, architectural and antiquarian treasures, and French traditions, clothing, and diet. He measured the wheels of carriages, "not above two Foot and a half...

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2. Colbert's Cosmos

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pp. 13-33

The ancien régime was just that: a government born of myriad ancient and often disparate traditions, knotted together like ivy so old it is impossible to discern the original root. The French government had no manual or single written constitution. It was the sum of layers of legal sediment that manifested itself in the stacks of feudal...

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3. The Accountant and the Coups d'État

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pp. 34-49

In another time and place, the Colberts might have been patricians in the mold of the Medicis. Jean-Baptiste Colbert came from a merchant banking family from Reims, the great cathedral and cloth town, and capital of the Champagne region. Seventeenth-century France, however, was not Renaissance Italy, and bourgeois patricians...

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4. Royal Accountability

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pp. 50-66

In 1663, Colbert gained the official title of controller of finances. In this period of peace between 1662 and 1671 Colbert reformed financial administration, increasing state revenue by more than one-third and managing to keep deficits slightly above revenue. He began improving revenue through the royal Chambre de Justice, tax...

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5. The Rule of the Informers

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pp. 67-83

Scholars of the early modern state such as Ernest Lavisse and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie have long painted Colbert as the inventor of a modern type of government in which one minister centrally managed various branches of government. Colbert could order that a massive factory be built in a swamp, and it happened. He could...

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6. Managing the System

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pp. 84-93

In 1670, Colbert sent his eighteen-year-old son, the marquis de Seignelay, to the port of Rochefort. There, alone with his father's cousin, Colbert de Terron, the intendant of the port, Seignelay was to complete an apprenticeship in administering a naval port. Like an intendant, he possessed a set of written orders from his father: work from...

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7. From Universal Library to State Encyclopedia

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pp. 94-119

In 1666 Colbert found a new home for the itinerant and neglected Royal Library. A block from his house on the rue Vivienne, Colbert bought the Hôtel Beautru. It was here that he settled the Royal Library. In the Plan Turgot of 1739, Colbert's house on the corner of the rue de Richelieu and the eponymous rue Colbert is clearly...

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8. Jean-Baptiste Colbert's Republic of Letters

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pp. 120-139

The fact that Colbert mixed the worlds of state administration and scholarship so closely makes it hard to define exactly what he created. Were his intendants and agents bureaucrats in a modern sense? Or were they subservient versions of the humanist secretaries that had filled the ranks of papal and Italian administrations since the late...

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9. The Information State in Play

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pp. 140-152

In 1679, Nicolas-Joseph Foucault, now the intendant of Montauban, went to the town of Pamiers, in the County of Foix on the edge of the Pyrenees in France, to censor the local bishop, François-Étienne Caulet, who had refused to recognize the royal régale. In 1673, Louis XIV had made his declaration of the right of...

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10. The System Falls Apart, but the State Remains

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pp. 153-167

Jean-Baptiste Colbert fell ill on August 20, 1683, in great pain and with a fever, and died September 6. While some rumored that a partial disgrace had led to his illness, his autopsy revealed a "giant stone" in his kidney, blocking his ureter. No one expected him to disappear from the scene so suddenly. Indeed, he himself had not made...


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pp. 169-242


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pp. 243-268


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pp. 269-277

Image Plates

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E-ISBN-13: 9780472025268
E-ISBN-10: 0472025260
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472034642
Print-ISBN-10: 0472034642

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Cultures of Knowledge in the Early Moder