The Republic of Letters
The term “Republic of Letters” was coined in 1664 by Pierre Bayle in his journal Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres. Towards the end of the 18th century, the editor of Histoire de la République des Lettres en France, a literary survey, described the Republic of Letters as being:
In the midst of all the governments that decide the fate of men; in the bosom of so many states, the majority of them despotic … there exists a certain realm which holds sway only over the mind … that we honour with the name Republic, because it preserves a measure of independence, and because it is almost its essence to be free. It is the realm of talent and of thought.
The Republic of Letters was the sum of a number of Enlightenment ideals: an egalitarian realm governed by knowledge that could act across political boundaries and rival state power. It was a forum that supported “free public examination of questions regarding religion or legislation”. Immanuel Kant considered written communication essential to his conception of the public sphere; once everyone was a part of the “reading public”, then society could be said to be enlightened. The people who participated in the Republic of Letters, such as Diderot and Voltaire, are frequently known today as important Enlightenment figures. Indeed, the men who wrote Diderot’s Encyclopédie arguably formed a microcosm of the larger “republic”.
Many women played an essential part in the French Enlightenment, due to the role they played as salonnières in Parisian salons, as the contrast to the male philosophes. The salon was the principal social institution of the republic and “became the civil working spaces of the project of Enlightenment”. Women, as salonnières, were “the legitimate governors of [the] potentially unruly discourse” that took place within. While women were marginalized in the public culture of the Old Regime, the French Revolution destroyed the old cultural and economic restraints of patronage and corporatism (guilds), opening French society to female participation, particularly in the literary sphere.
In France, the established men of letters (gens de lettres) had fused with the elites (les grands) of French society by the mid-18th century. This led to the creation of an oppositional literary sphere, Grub Street, the domain of a “multitude of versifiers and would-be authors”. These men came to London to become authors, only to discover that the literary market simply could not support large numbers of writers, who in any case were very poorly remunerated by the publishing-bookselling guilds.
The writers of Grub Street, the Grub Street Hacks, were left feeling bitter about the relative success of the men of letters and found an outlet for their literature which was typified by the libelle. Written mostly in the form of pamphlets, the libelles“slandered the court, the Church, the aristocracy, the academies, the salons, everything elevated and respectable, including the monarchy itself”. Le Gazetier cuirassé by Charles Théveneau de Morande was a prototype of the genre. It was Grub Street literature that was most read by the public during the Enlightenment. According to Darnton, more importantly the Grub Street hacks inherited the “revolutionary spirit” once displayed by the philosophes and paved the way for the French Revolution by desacralizing figures of political, moral and religious authority in France.
The book industry
The increased consumption of reading materials of all sorts was one of the key features of the “social” Enlightenment. Developments in the Industrial Revolution allowed consumer goods to be produced in greater quantities at lower prices, encouraging the spread of books, pamphlets, newspapers and journals – “media of the transmission of ideas and attitudes”. Commercial development likewise increased the demand for information, along with rising populations and increased urbanisation.However, demand for reading material extended outside of the realm of the commercial and outside the realm of the upper and middle classes, as evidenced by the Bibliothèque Bleue. Literacy rates are difficult to gauge, but in France the rates doubled over the course of the 18th century. Reflecting the decreasing influence of religion, the number of books about science and art published in Paris doubled from 1720 to 1780, while the number of books about religion dropped to just one-tenth of the total.
Reading underwent serious changes in the 18th century. In particular, Rolf Engelsing has argued for the existence of a Reading Revolution. Until 1750, reading was done intensively: people tended to own a small number of books and read them repeatedly, often to small audience. After 1750, people began to read “extensively”, finding as many books as they could, increasingly reading them alone. This is supported by increasing literacy rates, particularly among women.
The vast majority of the reading public could not afford to own a private library and while most of the state-run “universal libraries” set up in the 17th and 18th centuries were open to the public, they were not the only sources of reading material. On one end of the spectrum was the Bibliothèque Bleue, a collection of cheaply produced books published in Troyes, France. Intended for a largely rural and semi-literate audience these books included almanacs, retellings of medieval romances and condensed versions of popular novels, among other things. While some historians have argued against the Enlightenment’s penetration into the lower classes, the Bibliothèque Bleue represents at least a desire to participate in Enlightenment sociability. Moving up the classes, a variety of institutions offered readers access to material without needing to buy anything. Libraries that lent out their material for a small price started to appear and occasionally bookstores would offer a small lending library to their patrons. Coffee houses commonly offered books, journals and sometimes even popular novels to their customers. The Tatler and The Spectator, two influential periodicals sold from 1709 to 1714, were closely associated with coffee house culture in London, being both read and produced in various establishments in the city. This is an example of the triple or even quadruple function of the coffee house: reading material was often obtained, read, discussed and even produced on the premises.
It is extremely difficult to determine what people actually read during the Enlightenment. For example, examining the catalogs of private libraries gives an image skewed in favor of the classes wealthy enough to afford libraries and also ignores censored works unlikely to be publicly acknowledged. For this reason, a study of publishing would be much more fruitful for discerning reading habits.
Across continental Europe, but in France especially, booksellers and publishers had to negotiate censorship laws of varying strictness. For example, the Encyclopédie narrowly escaped seizure and had to be saved by Malesherbes, the man in charge of the French censor. Indeed, many publishing companies were conveniently located outside France so as to avoid overzealous French censors. They would smuggle their merchandise across the border, where it would then be transported to clandestine booksellers or small-time peddlers. The records of clandestine booksellers may give a better representation of what literate Frenchmen might have truly read, since their clandestine nature provided a less restrictive product choice. In one case, political books were the most popular category, primarily libels and pamphlets. Readers were more interested in sensationalist stories about criminals and political corruption than they were in political theory itself. The second most popular category, “general works” (those books “that did not have a dominant motif and that contained something to offend almost everyone in authority”), demonstrated a high demand for generally low-brow subversive literature. However, these works never became part of literary canon and are largely forgotten today as a result.
A healthy, legal publishing industry existed throughout Europe, although established publishers and book sellers occasionally ran afoul of the law. For example, the Encyclopédie condemned not only by the King, but also by Clement XII, nevertheless found its way into print with the help of the aforementioned Malesherbes and creative use of French censorship law. However, many works were sold without running into any legal trouble at all. Borrowing records from libraries in England, Germany, and North America indicate that more than 70 percent of books borrowed were novels. Less than 1 percent of the books were of a religious nature, indicating the general trend of declining religiosity.