- The Stakes of Enlightenment: Censorship and Communication in Eighteenth-Century France
The book trade in eighteenth-century France is brought into sharper focus in the four books reviewed here. Written by pioneers in the field of French book history Birn, Darnton, and Dawson, and by Darnton’s student Rigogne—well recognized in his own right today—these works stand as a corpus of inquiry that merits collective reflection, particularly in light of the rapidly advancing response of digital humanities projects to the evolving field of the book trade in the work of Simon Burrows and Mark Curran. (See The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europedatabase [2012, reviewed by Nancy Vogeley in ECS46.3 (2013): 439–43]; and Curran, “Beyond the Forbidden Bestsellers of Prerevolutionary France,” The Historical Journal56 (2013): 89–112.) As scholars become increasingly aware of the ways in which the conceptualization of quantitative results as well as qualitative [End Page 69]analysis determine our conjectures about the movement of print and the ideas it espoused, we keep an eye on both sets of data as we consider these studies.
In particular, these four volumes tackle the issue of censorship in eighteenth-century France through a series of case studies that, when contemplated together, offer a far more nuanced view of the constraints and politics of book production and movement. They also expand a line of research on the system of privileges and censorship expertly treated by Jack R. Censer and Jeremy D. Popkin in the edited volume Press and Politics in Pre-Revolutionary France(1987). Just as the latter exposed the intricate power relations between the periodical press and the old regime and how they enabled political culture and the public opinion that shaped it to emerge and grow, these four studies explore similar relations in the production and circulation of print culture.
La censure royale des livres dans la France des Lumièrescommits to print four lectures on royal censorship in Enlightenment France presented by Raymond Birn at the Collège de France. Published with a preface by Daniel Roche which deftly outlines Birn’s engagement with questions of censorship and control as agents of lumières, this volume constitutes both a succinct history of royal censorship and a provocative rethinking of its role in forging enlightenment. Birn’s introduction immediately delivers by reflecting upon the dual-edged sword that was the Vatican’s Index librorum prohibitorum. Instead of limiting access, Birn argues, the Indexactually functioned as a catalyst in bringing the work of the philosophes to the attention of the reading public—who, after all, he reminds us, is ultimately the most important purveyor of enlightenment. He also warns against the tendency to consider the Indexmonolithically, emphasizing enlightened Pope Benedict XIV’s recasting of papal censorship away from the wholesale condemnation of any particular author, or the obsession with a few words or sentences deemed problematic by some, to focus instead on a particular work for its overall message.
Having set the stage for a new reading of censorship in eighteenth-century France, Birn’s series of lectures raises any number of censorship commonplaces in order to test their validity in the face of fresh archival research and a rereading of how censorship operated. Birn’s work, in fact, ushers in an important change in thinking about censorship and how primary sources on censorship should be read. It provides an interpretive approach that is fully corroborated by the other books under review here, particularly those by Dawson and Rigogne, both of...