- France and Beyond: Legal and Stealthy Book Publishing
In the field of book history, censorship studies occupy a place midway between authorship and readership. Alongside what some might think to be a more [End Page 439] intriguing focus on clandestine publishing and subversive distribution of printed works, the role of censorship as an intervening factor in the flow of books appears to be a more accessible area of research for scholars, since that licensing record is often available in official depositories. Raymond Birn’s book, which traces the character of censorship in France over the course of the eighteenth century, is a goldmine of data from the bibliothèque Nationale (Paris). He tells who the censors were, what their standards were for authorizing or denying permissions in advance of publication, and, no less important, explores who were the authors and readers of the new Enlightenment texts. The volume itself is slender (half made up of notes, bibliography, and lists of manuscripts and books examined by royal censors); but it is a rich compendium to which scholars will refer in future research. Portions already have been published in French.
Royal Censorship is unique in showing how in France early in the eighteenth century, the Crown moved to take from the Church, the parlements, and the university the prerogative of monitoring print production. Birn touches on censorship as then practiced in other European countries (Hapsburg Austria, Russia, Holy Roman Empire Germany, Spain and the Low Countries), but the Jesuit/Jansenist wrangle at the Sorbonne, among other challenges to authority, made the French Crown particularly aware of the advisability of controlling what was made available to readers. by means of prepublication licensing and thus guaranteeing police protections for approved books, the Crown could encourage writers favorable to its interest and silence those who might threaten its authority. If only postpublication censorship existed, with dangerous books released and only then subject to review, the public would witness scandal and divisiveness. but the Crown could also in this way protect France’s own printing industry from inroads by publishers in other countries.
Birn’s book teaches several lessons about Enlightenment France. Its focus on royal censorship suggests how France, perhaps in spite of itself, was responsible for advancing new thinking. In addition to producing important philosophes and developing a print industry eager to profit, France, by means of this system of censorship, allowed cutting-edge works to enter the public domain. Unlike Spain, with its Inquisition set-up, France did not insist so much on religious orthodoxy. Instead, criteria—often flexible—were established according to a wish for public utility and a preference for open discussion across the professions.
Birn particularly focuses on C.–G. Malherbes’s benevolent role as directeur de la librairie from 1750 to 1763. In those years, censors read manuscripts and books ranging from belles-lettres, history, jurisprudence, and theology to mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, and medicine. They could condemn a work or issue verdicts, such as privilège (permission in which the censor identified himself and delivered a review); permission tacite (permission often given orally in which the censor remained anonymous, a kind of tolérance); or prohibé. Birn shows how the categories for judging were unstable, and that what was approved, tolerated, or prohibited was not clear. Thus censors were often timid readers, their work also complicated by the fact that they were frequently members of the country’s academies, afraid of offending other members by rejecting their works. Stylistic demurrals were often excuses for not engaging with a work’s thought; whether its tone was moderate or immoderate frequently determined approval or disapproval. For example, censors who were theologians were not anxious to engage publicly in disputes over faith and morality. This leeway, particularly at the level of tacit permissions, allowed works to be published with suggestions for revision which...