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  • Confiscations at Customs: Banned Books and the French Booktrade during the Last Years of the Ancien régime
  • Robert P. Holley
Confiscations at Customs: Banned Books and the French Booktrade during the Last Years of the Ancien régime. By Robert L. Dawson . Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2006. xv, 315 pp. € 100 (paper). ISBN 0-7294-0881-7.

Robert L. Dawson's stated goal for Confiscations at Customs: Banned Books and the French Booktrade during the Last Years of the Ancien régime is "to concentrate the main thrust of the research on two related manuscripts. . . . Those two ledgers cover [End Page 112] what initially happened in Paris to importations and confiscations from 1778 to 1789" (2). He of course includes much more than these limited objectives, since "many other original sources will also pass in review" (2). He also gives a brief history of censorship before this period as well as documentary evidence on the end of customs review in the early years of the French Revolution.

Dawson describes the customs review in all its complexity. Customs officers were required to identify all book shipments before they entered Paris and then send them to the Chambre syndicale for inspection. The inspectors had several choices. The most objectionable books were destroyed, most often shredded at the Bastille, although some copies were requested by nobles or high-ranking officials for their private collections. The inspectors returned others to their senders. They allowed book dealers to pick up those that permanently or temporarily passed inspection. In some cases, they gave tacit permission with the understanding that the books could later be fully approved or condemned after a more thorough review. There was yet another intermediate category where the books could be discreetly sold but not displayed, advertised, or listed in catalogs. The decisions were not permanent and could change over time, most often toward less censorship as the liberal forces gained greater power on the eve of the Revolution.

Content was not the only reason for confiscations. The local book trade held a quasi-monopoly on publishing and sales in Paris, although Dawson notes that Parisian publishers were not able to meet reader demand. The inspectors often seized books to which a local book dealer had exclusive rights and either sent them back to original publishers or gave them to the Parisian publisher who held the rights. Dawson discusses in some depth publishing centers outside of Paris, where labor costs were lower and that had their own system of confiscations. Since Parisian customs officers treated foreign publications somewhat more liberally, the provincial publishers often used fictitious imprints and mimicked the typography of foreign publishers.

Dawson believes that the customs officials were a hard-working lot but that the system broke down under the weight of its complexity and the increasing number of publications to be reviewed by the end of the period. Even with the centralized system of royal government, customs and the French book trade had to deal with contradictory decisions that could be changed by pressure from various sources, including the conservative Catholic hierarchy. Dawson at times expresses surprise at what got through and what was confiscated and believes that these inconsistent decisions helped undermine royal authority.

This volume can also serve as a case study in using primary source materials in archival collections. Dawson takes great care to present his methodology in examining the two principal registers and in coordinating information from additional multiple sources. He recounts the difficulties in reading handwritten documents and in interpreting what he found such as suspected errors in the register entries. He makes no claims that his is the definitive work on the subject and expects that much additional information could be found in unexamined documents. He is also blunt about how the archival repositories have sometimes hindered his research. He is particularly unhappy with the Bibliothèque nationale de France for limiting the number of daily requests for primary sources and for not allowing him to consult original documents when a microform copy is available, since the microform version is often not clear enough to indicate erasures, changes of handwriting, and other important textual details. [End Page 113]

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-3033
Print ISSN
2164-8034
Pages
pp. 112-114
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-31
Open Access
No
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