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Modes de lecture dans l’Europe des Lumières


Thomas Bremer

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1Reading has undergone radical revision in recent years. How did people read in the past? Where, when and why did they read? Who exactly was reading? And how were the manners and purpose of reading envisaged and recorded by contemporaries?

  • 1 For an account of research before 1993, see Chartier (1995) and his numerous bibliographical refer (...)

2These are only some of the questions which have recently attracted increasing attention by researchers in various fields of cultural history and literary criticism. Studies in nearly every European country, from the Middle Ages up to the relatively recent past, have suggested new ways of addressing the interpretation of reading.1 Especially fruitful, however, has been the analysis of the reading culture in the age of Enlightenment which has resulted in a variety of new insights on the practice, as well as the purpose and representation of the reading process.

3Some of the elements which have contributed to that process can only be summarized briefly here.

  • 2 Engelsing (1974); for the discussion see, for example, Darnton (2000): 165 sqq.

4A fact observed all over Europe is the growth in the number of printers, booksellers, publishers — a fact which corresponds to a culture based on written rather than oral communication, as in earlier generations. There has been a controversial discussion about whether one may effectively speak of a “reading revolution”, leading from the paradigm of an “intensive reader” — who reads a few books very often —, to an “extensive” one — who reads an increasing number of books in a more superficial way.2 Many studies in the last few decades have shown that the number of readers increased considerably during the 18th century, that the readership included more women than before and that its social composition became broader. This “new readership” included persons who had been removed from nearly any kind of intellectual life, as for example domestic servants. For the situation in Britain, Jan Fergus shows from the evidence of bookselling records from four provincial cities between 1746 and 1784 that the fifty selected examples of servants ordered above all guides, conduct books and reference works, including books on how to write letters, but that at the same time servants participated in the growth of magazine readership in the provinces as well (Fergus, 1986, 1996). David Prowett for example, son of an innkeeper and servant probably to a draper, subscribed to the A la Mode Magazine for two months in 1777, and then switched to the Lady’s Magazine, whereas others preferred the London Magazine or the Court and City. Even broader individual “reading careers” could be reconstructed in the last decades, as for example in John Brewer’s study on the case of Anna Larpent, daughter of a self-educated British diplomat and fellow of the Royal Society, who read over 440 titles including books, pamphlets, plays and sermons, during the first ten years in which she recorded her reading matter (Brewer, 1996). For the situation in France Robert Darnton gives an account of the reading of Jean Ranson, the Rousseauistic merchant of La Rochelle (Darnton, 1984).

  • 3 For a review of Western Europe including Scandinavia, see Barber/Fabian (1981), for Central and Ea (...)
  • 4 Ibid.: 175; for an all-European study cf. Dann (1981).
  • 5 Censer (1994): 7, 215 ff.; see also Bots (1988) and Sgard (1991).
  • 6 Chartier (2000), ch. 2 and 3, discusses Jürgen Habermas’ study on the public sphere (Strukturwande (...)

5The changes in the bookmarket correspond to an increasing intellectual interest and the economic success of printed communication. The number of printers, booksellers and publishers increased considerably in most European countries, especially in the second half of the 18th century.3 In the same period the leading European booksellers (of which Giles Barber listed a total of 34 in the mid eighteenth-century) acted on an ever increasing international level, so that Barber draws the conclusion that, “the rather specialised Iberian trade aside, virtually every major eighteenth-century European centre is represented” (Barber, 1981: 222). Given this background some apparently astonishing data about book production are much easier to understand. The Société Typographique of Neuchâtel, for example, produced 500 editions on its four printing presses in 20 years and today still holds a well-preserved correspondence of around 250.000 letters (Darnton, 1979). A commercial circulating library like Johan Bell’s “British Library” claimed to house 10,000 volumes in 1771, 31,000 in 1776, 50,000 in 1778 and 150,000 in 1793 (Raven, 1996: 181), and within the “library revolution in eighteenth-century England” (Raven), the twenty circulating libraries operating only in London in 1760 had increased to more than 200 nationwide by 1800.4 The increase in the number of reviews — of titles as well as copies — is a well-known fact. For the French bookmarket, Jack Censer shows the enormous speed with which this process occurred. The number of periodicals available to the reading public in France, that lasted three or more years, increased from 15 in 1745, to 37 in 1765, to 82 in 1785.5 This development may be understood — as Roger Chartier insists6 — as the formation of a new type of public sphere in the sense of Habermas’ well-known thesis, and as a consequence of the restructuring of the whole intellectual field from about 1750. Henri-Jean Martin says the process was like an intellectual acceleration around 1770, when, he writes, “on a le sentiment qu’aux environs des années 1770 la circulation du livre s’accélère à travers l’Europe” (Martin, 1987: 125). And among those who took part in this process Malesherbes, “directeur de la librairie” since 1750, observed in relation to France, that the “epoch of printing” (“l’âge de l’impression”) changed the conditions of exercising power, as it gave the Nation “the taste and the habit of educating herself by reading” (“du goût et de l’habitude de s’instruire par la lecture”; cf. Chartier, 2000: 69). Wide reading, and the discussion of what was read, i.e. written and oral forms of the circulation of ideas in an early form of public space, are among the most outstanding characteristics of the period.

6This is the necessary framework for the contributions of the first of our two volumes on “Reading in Enlightenment Europe” in which the practice, purpose and representation of the reading process of the time have been analysed. In her introductory contribution Elisabeth Défis (Montpellier) deals with the iconotext of reading in 18th century England, i.e. the forms in which the act of reading is interpreted in pictorial representation. Books became part of everyday life in a way that they were included not only in portraits of poets and writers, but also of gentlemen, ladies, children and even families. The contributions by Sandrine Aragon (Montpellier) and Ansgard Danders (Halle) discuss the role of the “new” feminine reader in 18th century France. Can we find positive images of women readers in fiction who read for their improvement without provoking prejudices and reproaches? Aragon analyses examples of lectrices libertines between 1730 and 1760 who find their counterpart in the revolution of the image of women readers in Rousseau around 1760 and lead to an understanding of female reading as an educational design at the end of the century. Danders however shows how novel reading was also a debated subject in theoretical discourses on women in that period. The conflict between the traditional understanding of reading as dangerous and the “enlightened” position in favour of the largest possible distribution of knowledge leads to a compromise which values female instruction, as long as this process does not endanger the traditional relationship between the sexes. The problem is also the basis of Isabelle Brouard Arends’ (Rennes) article. In considering Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse et Madame de Genlis’ Adèle et Théodore and their respective paratexts, she comes to the conclusion that forty years after the appearance of Rousseau’s text, debates about the Rousseauist position are still alive. The figure of the female reader, defined in Rousseau’s paratexts to Émile, is equal to the figure of Julie within the novel, and the social constraints imposed on her are analogous to those of the female reader anticipated in the Second Preface to the text.

7The next two contributions emphasize two further material aspects of the connection between reading and new developments in the book market. Jens Häseler’s (Potsdam) shows how the spread of knowledge leads to important changes in presentation and new strategies in publishing. Along with the traditional form of the monograph, more fragmented ways of communicating knowledge, such as periodicals, dictionaries and encyclopaedias gain ground. The rule of cohesion is replaced by new forms and rules of information, such as the more simple system of alphabetically ordered presentation — a form which leads necessarily to a fragmented, discontinuing and interrupted process of reading. Françoise Weil (Lyon), however, shows the difficulties in distinguishing authorized printings from re-impressions and pirate editions of French texts printed in France, Switzerland and the Netherlands or even exhibiting faked places of publication.

8At the end of our volume are two contributions which discuss the process of reading within and between historically ideological discourses and medical discourses. Christophe Losfeld (Halle) examines the changing place of history as a subject of reading in educational theory during the 18th century. Parallel to a development which understands history, no longer as the result of providence, but as a phenomenon which may be judged by political interpretation, it changes — again under the influence of Rousseau — from a subject of education, above all for princes and young aristocrats, to a topic of discussion on what could be a much broader “éducation nationale.” At the end of our volume, Valerie Le Vot (Paris) discusses the implications of Lesesucht (the addiction to reading), Leseseuche (the plague of reading) and Lesewut (the fury of reading) within German medical discourses of the time, especially in Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland. He is not afraid of the “revolution in reading,” nor does he try to forbid ladies or young men from reading. He tries however to integrate reading into the general rules of a life marked by moderation and balance. At the centre of his reflections stands the individual: it is important to find a dietetic solution that corresponds to his sex, age, and energy.

  • 7 Krauss (1960); cf. also Henri-Jean Martin’s requirement for a “history of reading” in “Pour une hi (...)

9In two well-known articles Robert Darnton has discussed the importance of the history of books as well as the history of reading for the analysis of European Enlightenment Culture. The problematic is well known to researchers approaching literature by way of social or media history. Beside classical books by Martin, Chartier and Roche on different aspects of the history of the book in France, Latin Americanists will know Irving Leonard’s pioneer study Los libros del conquistador (1949), which for the first time analyzed ship registers to reconstruct the importation to the colonies of books prohibited in Spain. Dix-huitiémistes will remember Werner Krauss’extensive article “Über den Anteil der Buchgeschichte an der literarischen Entfaltung der Aufklärung” (On the importance of book history for the literary development of the Enlightenment), published as early as 1960.7 Darnton argues that only the integration of the results of historical research on the book in our interpretation of Enlightenment culture, will allow the recognition of decisive but hidden agents in the formation of the intellectual exchange of the time — for example, audacious printers (and even pirate printers), of shippers and book smugglers crossing the lines of printing prohibition and censorship. They were middlemen who secured the distribution and reception of Enlightenment texts for their readers in France as well as in other European countries. “Little is known”, Darnton writes, “about the way books reached bookstores from printing shops. The waggon, the canal barge, the merchant vessel, the post office, and the railroad may have influenced the history of literature more than one suspects.” (Darnton, 1990:128 f.)

10Darnton himself has shown in twenty years of analyzing the commercial letters of the Neuchâtel based Société Typographique how the Enlightenment and the Encyclopédie were, beside the cultural impact, a commercial business. He puts forward the fact that the smuggling of reprinted textbooks from Switzerland (or better, from Prussia, as Neuchâtel was a Prussian enclave) was the only way for many French speaking readers to get access to new critical texts which could not be distributed legally. Continuing his reflection and focussing on the reader, as final addressee of all distribution processes, Darnton writes, “Despite a considerable literature on its psychology, phenomenology, textology, and sociology, reading remains mysterious. How do readers make sense of the signs on the printed page? What are the social effects of that experience? And how has it varied?” (Ibid.: 131).

11These questions may give some clues for further considerations like those we are glad to present in this and the next volume of the European Spectator which were presented at the Wittenberg colloquium of CIRBEL.



Barber, Giles (1981): “Who Were the Booksellers of the Enlightenment?” in Barber/Fabian (1981), 211-224.

Barber, Giles, Fabian, Bernhard (eds.) (1981): Buch und Buchhandel in Europa im achtzehnten Jahrhundert / The Book and the Book Trade in Eighteenth-Century Europe, Hamburg: Hauswedell.

Bots, Hans (ed.) (1988): La diffusion et la lecture des journaux de langue française sous l’Ancien Régime, Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Brewer, John (1996): “Reconstructing the reader: prescriptions, texts and strategies in Anna Larpent’s reading”, in Raven, Small, Tadmor 1996, 226-245.

Censer, Jack R. (1994): The French Press in the Age of Enlightenment, London/New York: Routledge.

Chartier, Roger (ed.) (1995): Histoires de la lecture — un bilan de recherches. Paris: IMEC/Maison des Sciences de l’homme.

Chartier, Roger (ed.) (2000): Les origines culturelles de la Révolution française [Paperback edition with new Postface, 1. ed 1990], Paris: Seuil.

Dann, Otto (ed.) (1981): Lesegesellschaften und bürgerliche Emanzipation. Ein europäischer Vergleich, München: C.H.Beck.

Darnton, Robert (1979): The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Darnton, Robert (1984): “Readers Respond to Rousseau: The Fabrication of Romantic Sensivity”, in Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History, New York: Basis, 215-256.

Darnton, Robert (1990): “What is the History of Books?”, and “First Steps Towards a History of Reading”, both in Darnton, The Kiss of Lamourette. Reflections in Cultural History, New York/London: Norton, 107-135 and 154-187.

Engelsing, Rolf (1974): Der Bürger als Leser. Lesergeschichte in Deutschland 1500-1800, Stuttgart: Metzler.

Fergus, Jan (1986): “Women, Class, and the Growth of Magazine Readership in the Provinces, 1746-1780”, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 16 (1986), 41-56.

Fergus, Jan (1996): “Provincial servants’ reading in the late eighteenth century”, in Raven, Small, Tadmor 1996, 202-225.

Göpfert, Herbert G., Kozielek, Gerard, Wittmann, Reinhard (eds.) (1977): Buch- und Verlagswesen im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Kommunikation in Mittel- und Osteuropa, Berlin: Camen.

Krauss, Werner (1960): “Über den Anteil der Buchgeschichte an der literarischen Entfaltung der Aufklärung”, Sinn und Form 12 (1960), 1, 32-88, now with critical notes in Krauss, Das Wissenschaftliche Werk, vol. 6: Aufklärung II, Frankreich, ed. Rolf Geissler, Berlin: Aufbau 1987.

Leonard, Irving (1953): Los libros del Conquistador, Mexico: FEC [Orig.Title: Books of the Brave, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1949].

Martin, Henri-Jean (1987): “La librairie française en 1777/1778” and “Pour une histoire de la lecture”, both in: Martin, Le livre français sous l’Ancien Régime, Paris: PROMODIS/Cercle de la librairie, 113-129 and 227-246.

Raven, James (1996): “From promotion to proscription: arrangements for reading and eighteenth-century libraries”, in Raven, Small, Tadmor 1996, 175-201.

Raven, James, Small, Helen, Tadmor, Naomi (eds.) (1996): The Practice and Representation of Reading in England, Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sgard, Jean (ed.) (1991), Dictionnaire des journaux (1600-1789), Paris: Universitas, 2 vols.

Tadmor, Naomi (1996)“‘In the even my wife read to me’: women, reading and household life in the eighteenth century”, in Raven, Small, Tadmor 1996, 161-174.


1 For an account of research before 1993, see Chartier (1995) and his numerous bibliographical references.

2 Engelsing (1974); for the discussion see, for example, Darnton (2000): 165 sqq.

3 For a review of Western Europe including Scandinavia, see Barber/Fabian (1981), for Central and Eastern Europe Göpfert, Kozielek, Wittmann (1977).

4 Ibid.: 175; for an all-European study cf. Dann (1981).

5 Censer (1994): 7, 215 ff.; see also Bots (1988) and Sgard (1991).

6 Chartier (2000), ch. 2 and 3, discusses Jürgen Habermas’ study on the public sphere (Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, 1962).

7 Krauss (1960); cf. also Henri-Jean Martin’s requirement for a “history of reading” in “Pour une histoire de la lecture” (1982), now in Martin (1987).

© Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2006

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