The Historical Journal

Research Article



Queen Mary, University of London


Robert Darnton's acclaimed 1995 work on the late eighteenth-century francophone illegal book trade, The forbidden best-sellers of pre-revolutionary France, has become one of the most cited and studied texts in its field. The culmination of thirty years' archival research and reflection, it roots Darnton's previous case-study-driven articles and monographs in a wide-ranging empirical survey of the order books of the Swiss printer-booksellers, the Société typographique de Neuchâtel. It claims to offer readers a picture of what illegal books went into bookshops everywhere in pre-revolutionary France. The first fruits of the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe project, a digital humanities initiative that has created an on-line database revealing the STN's entire trade, this article challenges Darnton's interpretation of the nature and utility of the Neuchâtel archive. It demonstrates that the STN's order books are an unreliable gauge of general French demand. It goes further. It argues for a nuanced polycentric understanding of the eighteenth-century Francophone book trade, and outlines a bibliometric digital humanities pathway that might lead us there.


School of History, Queen Mary, University of London, Mile End Road, London, E1 4NS


*  The research presented here draws upon the Simon Burrows and Mark Curran, The French book trade in Enlightenment Europe Database (2012), a digital resource housed at the University of Leeds and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The database is accessible at The current author would like to thank Simon Burrows, the project's Principal Investigator, and the other members of the team – Sarah Kattau, Henry Merivale, Vincent Hiribarren, and Louise Seaward – for their invaluable input. References to the dissemination of Société typographique de Neuchâtel traded works made in this article, unless otherwise stated, are taken from this resource as published 8 June 2012.