Censorship in eighteenth-century France

An extract from Dave’s article ‘The Old Regime’.

“Censorship, of course, was the norm.  Up until 1699, it had been undertaken by several bodies: the Parlement of Paris, the Sorbonne and the Church as well as by the royal chancellor.  From 1699, however, the chancellor, Louis II Phélypeaux, comte de Pontchartrain, imposed royal authority over all censorship.  Under Pontchartrain and his nephew, Abbé Jean-Paul Bignon, royal censors were charged with examining every publication request in France and issuing certificates of approval (or royal privilege).  Hundreds of books, pamphlets and plays were banned.  Texts would be confiscated and burned and writers, printers, publishers and booksellers fined or imprisoned.  Of the 1,000 people imprisoned in the Bastille between 1750 and 1779, 40% were to do with the book trade.  Voltaire himself was imprisoned there twice during his lifetime.  The Bastille was also used to confine dangerous books in a secure vault.  18 titles authored by Voltaire made their way there, along with works by Rousseau and Diderot.  Predictably, of course, books that were banned were made all the more desirable and popular. Many books and pamphlets, probably more than half, were printed outside France, particularly in Amsterdam and Switzerland, and smuggled back in.

“Censorship, however, was not simply about the imposition of repressive and authoritarian values.  Many of the royal censors themselves, such as Enlightenment author Bernard de Fontenelle, were in favour of open debate about politics, social reform, science and religion.  Historian Raymond Birn (‘Royal Censorship of Books in Eighteenth-Century France’) argues that censors acted more as cultural intermediaries than agents of repression.  There was no clear, fixed criteria for censorship and different censors would have different ideas and agendas which changed over time.  Books would be condemned if they overstepped the line in questioning religious orthodoxy, were poorly written or vulgar.  Scientific writing that lacked intellectual and factual rigour would also not be approved.  And books that highlighted government corruption and hypocrisy, such as those of Voltaire, no matter how elegantly written and accurate, were unlikely to find approval even if the censor was sympathetic towards them as the censors themselves were not immune from punishment.  One overworked censor, Jean-Pierre Tercier, in 1758 mistakenly granted royal privilege to Claude-Adrien Helvétius’s ‘De l’esprit’ (‘On the Mind’) which rejected free will and religious morality.  Needless to say, Tercier didn’t last much longer in his job.”

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