Get the latest
Recent Posts

License to Print in the Name of the King

“To the King, the French Constitution, and the laws of the realm…”

Brevet de libraire: au nom du roi … accordons au Sieur Jourdan (Augustin)
France. Ministère de l’intérieur: June 27, 1828
Z145 A83 F73 1828

“What is a printing house and what does it comprise?” This was often the first question, of many, that was posed to aspiring printers in eighteenth-century France. In those days, if you wanted to become a printer you had to be accepted not only by the Guild, but also by the royal court. In addition to a rigorous test that included composing a page of text from a manuscript copy — repeated several times and in different sized fonts — one had to provide a plethora of documentation: education certificates, baptismal records, affidavits confirming your experience and lineage, and numerous references. Such were the requirements for obtaining a printing or bookselling license, as outlined by a royal decree made in 1777. These procedures represented the development of the French monarchy’s policy of licensing and (consequently) determining those who held the several hundred positions that were authorized in the realm.

For centuries, the book trade was subject to authority of both political and religious bodies. Because it was difficult to avoid engagement with such factions, printers were often vulnerable to persecution, especially during times of social upheaval, and relied on wealthy patrons for protection. Control was established in two well-known ways: by censoring works well in advance of publication, or by granting monopolies to certain favored printers. In France, licensing officially began in 1667, when King Louis XIV’s minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, declared a ban on any and all new printers in provincial towns that had not first received special approval. A large body of legislation was then designed to control both domestic printing and the import of books from abroad. For any book trade infractions, a printer or seller may have been tried, punished, fined, and even expelled from their trade, their shops searched and their books seized.

Printers in some towns saw great advantages to be gained from the royal licensing policies. They viewed themselves as one of the “pillars of monarchy” and went to great lengths to ensure that the laws were being implemented. In turn, the state offered them privileges, which confirmed their newfound status and wealth. In other towns, the licensing requirements went largely unnoticed or explicitly ignored. There was, of course, Denis Diderot, who refused to accept the authority of political power or religion in questions of the intellect or of art. Diderot mocked the entire system, claiming that writers were never happier than when their books were banned, because that only gave them higher prices and more sales. The sentiment was even echoed by Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, the director of the book trade from 1750-1763, when he famously said that anyone who reads only what is legal is a century behind the times. But not all had the courage to go against the state.

Brevet d’imprimeur en lettres: au nom de l’Empereur… accordons à Mr. Barnier (Jean Justin Etienne)
France. Ministère de l’intérieur. Bureau de l’Imprimerie et de la Librairie: April 30, 1858
Z145 B44 F73 1858

Throughout the eighteenth century, the number of printers was greatly reduced. Whether by persuasion, negotiation, bribery, or repression, printers could be seen actively lobbying for their own regulation. A special administrative office was established to handle the centralization of all book trade matters — the Bureau de la Librarie. By the reign of Louis XVI, the last King of France, the bureaucratic procedures had been standardized and extended to booksellers as well as printers. On the eve of the French Revolution, however, newspapers and pamphlets began flying off the presses throughout all the towns and provinces, without any preliminary authorization. With such an act of mass defiance, the government was powerless and unable to exert any control.

The Constituent Assembly, in their Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, declared that “the free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man; every citizen then can freely speak, write, and print, subject to responsibility for the abuse of this freedom in the cases determined by law.” On September 3, 1791, the Constitution submitted to the king specified: 

  • Article 17. No man can be questioned or prosecuted on account of writings which he shall have caused to be printed or published upon any matter whatsoever, unless he may have intentionally instigated disobedience to the law, contempt for the constituted authorities, resistance to their acts, or any of the acts declared crimes or offenses by the law.
  • Article 18. No one can be tried either by civil or criminal process for written, printed, or published facts, unless it has been recognized by a jury: 1st, whether there is an offense in the writing denounced; 2d, whether the prosecuted person is guilty.

Although the leaders of the Revolution were often militant journalists, the fall of the monarchy broke the balance of power among political factions. From that point on, what was deemed “criminal” was any opposing position to the regime of the moment and its politics.

Brevet d’imprimeur en lettres: au nom de l’Empereur… accordons à Mr. Imbert (Etienne Jules)
France. Ministère de l’intérieur. Division de l’Imprimerie, de la Librairie et de la Propriété littéraire: December 24, 1866
Z145 I87 F73 1866

French society remained traditional during the periods of Restoration. The electoral body was singularly small, peasants still made up the overwhelming majority of the population, and the liberal bourgeoisie was prevented from wielding power. Despite this, the century following the fall of Napoleon saw incredible political instability. From 1814-1873, every head of state spent part of his life in exile. Every regime was the target of assassination attempts. Even in peaceful times, governments changed every few months. In less peaceful times, political deaths, imprisonments, and deportations were rampant. In total, some forty-two laws, containing 325 separate clauses regulating the press were in force, having been passed over a period of seventy-five years by ten different governments. The tight control of the printing trades remained in force until July 29, 1881. On that day, the Press Law was passed under the French Third Republic, stating at the outset the principle that “printing and publication are free.”

These three certificates, printed and signed on vellum, represent official licenses to print and sell books “in the name of the king.” The first is dated 1828 and assigned to Augustin Jourdan, who pledged fealty to King Charles X, and to the laws of the realm, in order to become a bookseller in Auch. The second is dated 1858 and assigned to Jean Justin Etienne Barnier, who pledged fealty to King Louis-Philippe, to the French Constitution, and to the laws of the realm, to become a printer in Bedarieux. The third is dated 1866 and assigned to Etienne Jules Imbert, who pledged fealty to Napoléon III, to the French Constitution, and to the laws of the realm, in order to become a printer in Issoudun.


1 Comment
  • Alexander Jolley
    Posted at 16:56h, 06 September Reply

    “Anyone who reads only what is legal is a century behind the times.” — this is such a great quote, and I love that book banning became profitable for the businesses. It seems crazy that governments had such a monopoly on what information was legal or not. It really makes me appreciate the “wild west” nature of media today, for better or for worse.

Post A Comment