Robert Darnton – Two Information Systems at War, in 18th Century France

Robert Darnton – Two Information Systems at War, in 18th Century France

In most countries
on the continent There were princes,
they were absolute regimes, The degree of absolutism was
relative to a particular setting, But If you take France as the most important
central, most populace country, you had a very elaborate system of
censorship, but in addition to that, you had a monopoly of production
in the bookseller’s guild in Paris, it had police powers and then the police itself had
specialised inspectors of the book trade so you put all of that together and the state was very powerful
in its attempt to control the printed word. By the time you time you get
to the age of the Enlightenment there’s a highly organised
administration of the book trade, so in principle anything that appears in print
has to pass the censorship and be registered, to go through an elaborate process, and of course this didn’t work that the directions set, the organisation set up
by the state was so elaborate, so baroque in its bureaucracy that in a sense it was
counterproductive. Censorship, you know, varies from regime to regime. We think we know
what censorship is, but i would argue that it’s a
different thing under different systems, so the basic idea of censorship
in 18th century france is the concept of privilege
or private law, a publisher gets the right to publish
a particular text that is denied to others, so he has that privilege. that’s different from censorship
under stalin, say, or hitler There is a monopoly of what’s called
the booksellers guild of paris. it has police power; its syndics and aguane are
obliged to inspect all of the printing houses in paris and printers are officially limited
to 36 printing shops. And so the guild is supposed to go
around from shop to shop and find out what
they’re printing, make sure there are no illegal
books being printed. No books that
contravene privileges the equivalent of copyright in a sense etc.
So yes they have powers and they also inspect every single book
which is shipped into paris. the books are stopped at the wall
which surrounds paris and any ship which is
marked ‘libri’ books is sent to a special
large hall where the booksellers guild and inspector
of police will inspect it. Essentially what you have is a centralised administration for
controlling the book trade using censorship and
also using the monopoly of the established publishers against that you’ve got
publishing houses, print presses that
surround france in what i call a
‘fertile crescent’ dozens and dozens of them producing
books which are smuggled across the french borders and distributed everywhere in the kingdom
by an underground system, so in effect you’ve got two systems
at war with one another. And it’s the system of production
outside france that is crucial for the
enlightenment, virtually all of the works that we associate
with the french enlightenment are published in Amsterdam,
in the Hague, in Brussels in Geneva,
in Neuchatel, in Basel these are the places where
Rosseau, Voltaire and company get
themselves printed, but these printers also
produce other things because they’re in it not simply
to spread enlightenment, many of them are sympathetic
to the enlightenment they’re in it to make money. So
they will satisfy demand, whatever the demand might be… the pirates had agents in paris and everywhere else, who were sending
them sheets of new books which they think will sell well, the pirates are systematically
doing market research in hundreds and thousands of letters,
they are sounding the market, they want to know
what demand is the reaction of publishers at the centre
is of course extremely hostile, I’ve read a lot of their letters; they’re full of expressions
like buccaneer and private and people without
shame or morality etc. in actual fact many of these pirates
were good bourgeois, in Lausanne or, Geneva
or, Amsterdam and they thought, that they were
just ‘doing business’. after all there was no
international copyright law and they were satisfying demand.
If the demand hapend to be in france well, that’s a problem
for the french, but not for the
dutch or the swiss I must admit,
I always hesitate to pronounce on
world historical trends. But i’ve spend a lot
of time in the archives and you can at least
glimpse something, that might look world
historical from time to time, as you go through
various bits of old paper. What is clear is that
during the 18th century that the printed word as a
force is expanding everywhere and we can go into a
lots of detailed studies to find out why an
how that this happened The population is increasing, the
educational institutions are spreading, literacy is going up and there is this
new thing we call ‘public opinion’. The phrase itself is first used in
the middle of the 18th century, I think the phenomenon
existed earlier, but for the last half
of the 18th century there is a public that is
fascinated with public affairs, now the mechanism
for controlling the media if you want to use that expression
notably the print media is simply not adequate to
controlling this demand. So everywhere around france,
even within france, there are entrepreneurs who take it
upon themselves to satisfy this demand and this can be in the form of clandestine manuscript newsletters, it can be in a form of fully printed
books and there are many other forms the one that I find most
interesting is songs. It turns out that everyone in the
18th century, if you take paris, had a repertory of tunes in his
or her had, as we do today. most of my tunes come
from commercials actually People would improvise new words to old tunes,
everyday. And these would be sung
in the streets of paris, sometimes by professionals,
who had hurdy-gurdys and would simply belt out the last
verse tune that everyone knew. And it could be about
the kings mistress, it could be about a minister
who is abusing power, it could be on a whole variety
of quite political subjects. This new verse is then picked up
because it is a great mnemonic device and the song is been song throughout
the streets of paris. I imagine the street of paris – it is just
echoing everywhere with songs. So that is a good example of how
in the absence of news media of proper newspaper, a new
kind of medium developed, that actually does
the job of newspapers I’ve studied hundreds of these songs and I would say, they were sung newspapers. There’s no way that an
absolutist political system can totally suppress the
spread of information new media adapt themselves
to these circumstances, and often they can become even more
effective because of the repression. It’s a fascinating process
and it culminates frankly right on the eve of the france
revolution, so that i would argue, Not only did this new media system
spread the enlightenment but, I won’t use the word
‘prepared’, the way for the revolution it indicted the old regim that this power, public opinion,
became crucial in the collapse of
the government 1787-1788. Subtitles by the community


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