Not Just Paris? The Development of the 17th Century French Provincial Book World

Claire MacLeod (St Andrews) won the SSFH Undergraduate Dissertation Prize in 2022. Her dissertation was highly praised by the UG Dissertation Prize panel, who described it as of publishable quality. Below, she summarises her wonderful work on the French Provincial Book World in the 17th century.

The provinces have always played second fiddle to Paris in the history of the French book trade. Since Phillipe Renouard took the first major steps in cataloguing the printers and booksellers of early modern Paris, bibliographies of the provinces have consistently lagged behind.  The predominant understanding of the seventeenth century book world is thus largely Paris-centric, with the provincial story following a tragic decline. The lack of sources as well as the emphasis on the Enlightenment has meant that the story of French book production has, so far, largely been reduced to its repression under the absolutist monarchy and, for the provinces, its subjugation by the Paris guild.[1]

The title page of Madame Guyon’s Le Moyen Court, first published in the provincial town of Grenoble in 1685. While celebrated at the time of publication by the local magistrates, this book would eventually land Madame Guyon in prison.

The seventeenth century was undoubtedly a period of gradual decline, however this dissertation argues the development of the provincial book trade throughout this challenging period reveals not so much an age of ‘anaemia’ as one of stubborn persistence.[2] It builds from the work of Jane McLeod who first sketched the image of the provincial book world as largely self-regulating, and explores the reasons for the provinces’ continued production in spite of the active hostility from both the Paris guild and the state.[3] It draws on data from Malcolm Walsby’s survey of French booksellers, Jean-Dominique Mellot’s extensive work on Rouen, the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC), and the multiple volumes of the Répertoire bibliographique.[4] These sources outline the conditions that made printers and booksellers in the provinces so eager to invite regulations that suited their interests. It also shows howa rich culture of print can be found in the most unlikely places.

This dissertation reveals that the provincial book world was drawn around lines of patronage and institutional support that shaped the output of printers and the stock of local booksellers. The publication of everyday administrative documents was crucial to the livelihood of a small-town printer. This vibrant publishing culture amidst local administrative élites contributed to an active participation in the political and religious controversies of the century. The administrative body of France was fundamentally reshaped by the structure of absolutist government and this created no small tension in provincial communities. Print was a means of shaping opinion and facilitating the social and intellectual lives of the expanding professional classes, and it was deployed to meet a variety of political and ideological ends. In the aftermath of the French Wars of Religion, the culture of print continued to be profoundly shaped by religion. In this way, the provinces took on a multi-faceted character that differed profoundly from the experiences in Paris. With pockets of Huguenot strongholds and a strident Catholic revival multiplying the number of religious books available to the laity, religious culture became increasingly influenced by the circulation of printed material.

The printers and booksellers in provincial France were in large part kept in business by the patronage of the powerful. The crowded market and foreign competition had made it impossible for a printer-bookseller to sustain a business without in some way embedding themselves within the protected structures of an institution or at least a powerful patron. They were incentivized into becoming the mouthpiece of officialdom reflecting in every publication the interests of a corporate body, whether that be the ministerial elite, the nobility, the crown, or the church in its various iterations.

This formal system of patronage might have incentivized the printers in provincial France to be extremely conservative in their output. However, the definitions of sedition, heterodoxy, piracy, and disorder were in constant flux and commercial interests often intersected with official gain. Printing edicts for the King and selling a pirated copy of Molière could both serve an outcome that was congenial to the interests of at least one protective body. In the same way, printing Jansenist breviaries and selling casuist manuals could both fall under the umbrella of legitimate print depending on the dominant power in the region. Moreover, with the changing nature of French politics and religious culture, a perfectly legitimate work could become illegitimate with time.

Print culture in the provinces was thus rich in variations, allowing for pockets of toleration based on relationships and corporate interests that shaped the meaning of print. This changes our view of how absolutist power influenced the French book world. Just as negotiation with provincial clients and brokers was a crucial mechanism of French absolutist government, the control of book production relied on a collaborative relationship with provincial printers and booksellers.[5] This was not an obliteration but a general reorientation of interests and voices throughout the provincial book world—voices that could both reinforce and contest royal authority.

[1] Robert Darnton, The Literary Underground of the Old Régime (Cambridge; London, 1982), p. 185.

[2] The description of the provincial book trade as ‘anemic’ comes from Jacques Quéniart, ‘L’anémie provincial’, in Roger Chartier, Henri Jean Martin (ed.), Histoire de l’édition française: le livre triomphant, (Paris, 1983), p. 282.

[3] Jane McLeod, Licensing Loyalty: Printers, Patrons, and the State in Early Modern France (University Park, 2011), p. 48.

[4] Malcolm Walsby, Booksellers and printers in provincial France, 1470-1600, (Leiden; Boston, 2021), p. 1; Andrew Pettegree (ed.), The French Book and the European Book World, (Leiden; Boston, 2007), p. 15; Jean-Dominique Mellot, ‘Rouen and its printers from the fifteenth to nineteenth century’, in Malcolm Gee and Tim Kirk (eds.) Printed Matters: Printing, publishing and urban culture in Europe in the modern period, (Ashgate, 2002), p. 14; Desgraves, Louis, (et al.), Répertoire bibliographique des livres imprimés en France au XVIIe siècle (Baden-Baden: V. Koerner, 1978-2017).

[5] Sharon Kettering, Patrons, Brokers, and Clients in Seventeenth-Century France (New York; Oxford, 1986)


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