Round about the rue Mercière



Round about Rue Mercière : the people of the 18th century book trade in Lyon[1]


Dominique VARRY
Enssib, Lyon



Second printing centre of the Ancient Regime French kingdom, Lyon glorious period was the sixteenth century, yet the most studied and well known. The following centuries are generally considered as a wasting period, aggravated by the preponderance of the parisian book-trade. This opinion has to be shaded. It has been our purpose since 1992, through a prosographical investigation, taking part in a national inquiry dedicated to the Bookfolk. Our aim is to publish, as soon as possible, our biographical material, and a monograph about the printing and book-trade world of Lyon in the 18th century. This paper would simply present our first results. If they do not scatter the impression of general waste, they prove a stirring life.


I) The inquiry


Our investigation is part of a national inquiry called « Gens du livre » = Bookfolk in the 18th century. It is directed by the Institut d'Histoire moderne et contemporaine of the National scientific research center (CNRS). Frédéric Barbier has dealt with the North of France, this region will be the first volume of a series to be published by Klincksieck. In the foreword he gave to this first volume, Robert Darnton has pointed out what he considers new trails for the history of the book [2]

Frédéric Barbier and Sabine Juratic are now working on Paris. Lyon will be the inquiry third part. Other researches have begun on Montpellier and Normandy. The work consists in gathering as much as possible information on the private and professional life of people dealing with book printing and trade. In the case of Lyon, we have included the revolutionary years, which were so awful for the city. Nowadays, we have gathered information on 683 persons. They are distributed as it follows :


Number of cases


1,1 %

Cabinets de lecture
0,4 %

Playing cards makers

4,4 %


0,8 %


3,3 %


11 %


7,4 %

Type casters

Fondeurs de caractères
1,3 %


21,1 %


23,9 %

Binders and Gilders

21,1 %


3,3 %

100 %


These 683 people include 618 men (90,48%), 61 widows (8,93%), and only 4 alone women (0,59%).
It will not be possible to publish all the biographical notices on paper, but all of them will some day be available on the world wide web. The gathered sample may appear to be important. In fact, we have met border problems between some crafts, and we have chosen to gather as much as possible information, though we might some day be obliged to restrict the studied corpus. Our archival examinations took place in Lyon, Paris, and Neuchâtel. In Lyon, we have worked in the town archives, in the departmental archives (especially for parish registers, justice files, and notorial papers). We have also worked, at the town library, on local almanacs and newspapers, the local printed production, and the library card indexes. In Paris, we have worked mostly at the national Library and at the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, on the Anisson collection, on the Bastille archives, and on masonic lodges papers. Lastly, we also have examined the archives of the Neuchâtel typographical Society, the well-known STN, in search for correspondents from Lyon, after 1769 [3].

These papers have given us plenty of precise information, and advertising materials, unknown to the French archives visited.
But some groups remain hard to study. Such is for instance the case of printers companions, an always stirring group. They only appear occasionally in workshops inventories, or for a marriage contract. Nevertheless, we have discovered an affair which happened in 1718-1719. Eight companions were condemned to a fifty pounds fine for having created a secret and forbidden brotherhood [4]. A list of forty one names was seized, but we are far from the sixteenth century strikes studied by Nathalie Davies.

II) A closed world
Since the 15th and until the 19th century, Lyon printing and book-trade has been concentrated in the heart of the city, in the « presqu'île», the peninsula between the Saône River and the Rhône, especially in the « Rue Mercière», and in the streets of its immediate neighbourhood : rue Tupin, Halles de la Grenette, Quai de Retz... Today, each building of the Rue Mercière houses a restaurant. In the Ancient Regime, there were the printers and the booksellers workshops. In the storeys were the printed leaves warehouses, the binders rooms, the masters and companions lodgings. All around them, were settled the neighbouring crafts : papermakers, typecasters, companions of all kinds... In this little world, everybody lived closer to his colleagues and competitors, from a generation to another.
The workshops number had been reduced by the royal authority. Since 1739, the printers have been 12, and the booksellers 24. One of the typical features of the 18th century is the partition between booksellers and binders. Since a royal decision of august 1686, the two guilds had to separate, and binders were no more authorised to sell books, as they did before. In Lyon, this separation happened in 1717, but till the end of the century, the binders used to call themselves « libraire-relieur-doreur», in spite of the legislation. The opposition between the two professions lasted through the whole century. The binders guild composed of an average of 50 masters and widows owning a workshop, about 25 masters and companions working for the previous workshop owners. But there were almost 60 masters sons, waiting for a place, and often obliged to take another job.
In a 1767 memorandum [5], the binders wrote :

« La politique des relieurs, disent les libraires, est de se maintenir en petit nombre pour avoir lieu de se faire augmenter les prix...
La plupart des maîtres n'ont que très peu ou point d'ouvrage quelques uns ont été obligés par cette raison de changer de métier, d'autres enfin [n'] ayant d'autres ressources que dans ce talent, sont sur le point d'abandonner la ville pour se réfugier ailleurs...»

The binders used to limit the recruiting. In 1702, they were authorised to take no apprentice. This opportunity was renewed in 1708, 1717, 1719, and 1721. In 1723, each master was obliged to take an apprentice. Then it was said that the binders had not taken any apprentice for forty five years. But it is impossible to prove such an assertion. Yet in 1747, the booksellers requested this decision application, which is a sign that it was not really applied.
All through these years, the booksellers denounced the binders'attitude :

« ... avidité de quelques maîtres relieurs qui voudroient imposer la loi aux marchands libraires et les obliger par la disette des ouvriers à payer les ouvrages beaucoup au-delà de leur juste valeur...»

In fact, the closing was the same by the printers and booksellers. Since the statute of 1676, they had been obliged to a four years apprenticeship, and to four other years of companioning in Lyon, before obtaining a mastership. Their guild was directed by a « syndic» and two assistants (« adjoints»), elected every two years. Their number had been reduced in 1739, and the places were reserved to local masters'sons. The workshops transmission obeyed to elaborated wedding and inheritance strategies. In 1701[6], there were 32 printers and booksellers, 32 simple booksellers, 47 binders, 184 companions and 24 apprentices. In 1763 [7], the printers were 12 and the booksellers 24, the companions about 90. In 1789, they were only 13 active printers and 14 booksellers. The number of binders is unknown in 1763 and 1789.
Such a situation consequence was the continuance of dynasties through the whole century. Among the most important may be quoted the Bruysets, the Périsses, the Duplains, the Molins, the Baritels... and others. Some of them, among the most important, belonged to the freemasonry [8] . Jean-André Périsse-Duluc, who had been « syndic» from 1776 to 1790, and became deputy to the General Estates, belonged to the sect of the « Illuminés martinistes de Lyon», and was very close to Jean-Baptiste Willermoz [9], with whom he exchanged an important correspondence, now at Lyon municipal Library [10].
The Revolution allowed a renewal : seven masters (a quarter of the whole) were killed during the siege or in the following executions. Newcomers settled in the town. They came from little cities of the neighbourhood : Bellay, Bourg-en-Bresse, Vienne, Montélimar... Of the 15 printing workshops created between 1789 and 1799, 6 diseapeared after a few years. It was the same for 4 of the 12 new booksellers. At the beginning of the 19th century, the situation was almost the same than before : 16 printers and 10 booksellers.
The number of presses is also significant. In 1701, they were at least 90, and the most important workshop, owned by Valfray, had six of them. In 1763, the presses were only 51, of which about 30 were working. At the top, Aimé Delaroche owned 11 of them.
Another instance of this closing may be pointed about the relationships between Lyon and foreign countries. In the 16th century, the city was an important international market, well-known for its fairs and connections with Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. A century later, the fairs had declined, but a few booksellers, like the Cardons, still had an important foreign market. In his 1698 Mémoire sur la généralité de Lyon, the local intendant [11], wrote that only two firms, which names are not given, had a foreign trade, especially with Spain and Spanish colonies. 1748 was the year of the bankruptcy of the last firm which had such an activity. It belonged to the three Deville brothers : Jean, Pierre and Roch. Roch was settled in Madrid where he retired. Pierre became the king's printer Valfray's clicker (« prote»). Jean remained bookseller in Lyon. Among their debtors, 62 lived in the iberic peninsula : 12 in Madrid, 6 in Barcelona, 8 in Lisbon, 6 in Coïmbra. We also know two Mexican debtors [12]. In fact, and despite a heavy customs legislation, the main relationships linked Lyon to Spain, Italy and Switzerland. But the main part of the exchanges was made with French printers and booksellers, especially those of Paris and Rouen [13]. At the end of the century, the main foreign relationships were with Italy and Neuchâtel. The Lyon printers and booksellers certainly were customers of the STN, but they also supplied it with permitted and prohibited printings, as we shall see.
Such a fall may partly be explained by Paris preponderance, which constrained the Lyon printers to piracy

(« contrefaçon»).

III) The piracy and prohibited book evasion
We do not really know what the eighteenth century Lyon book production was. The Lyon municipal Library card indexes, some bibliographies on the way, such as Pierre Conlon's Le siècle des Lumières, may help us to have a first glimpse. We can hope that the Bibliothèque nationale de France project of « rétroconversion» will soon give us a broader knowledge of what this reality was. We already know that Lyon book production and trade were concentrated on religious titles, and ancient works the privileges of which were over. But we may be aware of the fact that these informations will remain partial. We shall never know how many piracies and prohibited books, with false addresses of London, Gibraltar, and so on... were produced in the city. The fact is they were numerous. The preponderance of Paris, which monopolized novelties and fashioned authors, but also ancient best-sellers, obliged Lyon to a two faces attitude for survival.
On the one hand, Lyon printers and booksellers presented a face of respectability, proposing allowed mostly religious editions. On the other hand, most of them had to deal with piracy and prohibited printings.
Their involvement in piracy since the seventeenth century has been pointed by some authors [14], but increased later. As it is shown by a seizure which happened in 1694 [15], the printers used the local monasteries, especially the Jacobins and the Franciscan friars, as warehouses. It is even said that a coffin of a chapel burial vault was used to hide books.
In his 1698 Mémoire sur la généralité de Lyon, the local intendant [16], wrote :

« ... les imprimeurs et libraires de Lyon sont dans une espece de necessité de contrefaire les livres de Paris, et de pratiquer les contraventions qu'on leur reproche et sans lesquelles ils mourroient de faim.»

A few years later, in 1702, Hilaire Baritel sent a long memorandum to the royal administration [17] denouncing the fact. He wrote that, excepted Anisson, Posuel, Borde, Arnaud, Thiolly, Amaulry and himself, all his colleagues resorted to piracy.
Until the decrees of august 1777, piracy went on and increased. The local authorities, and especially the « Inspecteur de la librairie», aware of the situation and acting as their fellow-citizens protectors, managed to impede, sometimes for years, the Parisians' complaints.
In fact, the police knew the offenders, and visited the good places when an affair happened. But the repression was soft. We have studied a dozen of resounding cases of prohibited books [18]. The same people were recidivists : Degoin in 1727 and 1734 ; Rigollet in 1732, 1748, 1760 and 1761[19] ; Taupin Dorval in 1761 and 1762 [20] , Réguillat in 1761 and 1767... In the best case, they were condemned to a low fine, or as Taupin Dorval who published pornography, they left the city for a while until the case was forgotten. Two printers have been deposited. It did not prevent them from continuing their job. Such was the case of Jean-Baptiste Réguillat, who printed the Contrat social in 1762. After having been sentenced, he used his mother as a figure-head. The most important case happened in 1734, when fifteen bales of protestant prints from André Degoin were seized at the Beaucaire fairs. At the same moment, he was printing a prohibited Voltaire's Henriade in Lyon, under the false address of London [21]. A perquisition in his different warehouses allowed the discovery of about three thousands prohibited protestant books. He was sentenced by default, one year later, to the galleys for life. But he had fled, and disappeared for ever.
Second offence and relative impunity seem to characterize either piracy or prohibited printings. This is why, at the end of the century, Lyon became an important relay for the STN activities [22].
About a hundred people of Lyon corresponded with the STN. Among them were 26 printers and booksellers. The others were factors, suppliers, or simple customers. Robert Darnton has already pointed the importance of the city of Lyon in his book on the Encyclopédie [23]. In fact, Lyon supplied Neuchâtel in paper, printing types, candles, binding skins, and also authorised and prohibited books. Some of the correspondents had family links with the Switzs, like the Lyon bookseller Berthoud, a cousin of Fauche, who signalled the STN the ways to introduce books in Paris and Lyon, without any problem. Lyon became a turn-table for the entrance of protestant books for the southern cities of the kingdom, and for all kinds of prints to be sent to Paris, Rouen, and other places. But Lyon also supplied the STN in prohibited books immediately put on the European market. Among many instances, Bernard Flandin proposed in 1776 [24] copies of Académie des dames, Thérèse philosophe, and Chandelle d'Arras. This situation implies, in my opinion, a new glance at the STN activities [25], which could not have occurred without Lyon support.

Our work is far from being achieved. The biographical material gathered authorises a more precise reconstitution of Lyon book world in the eighteenth century. Our predecessors [26] had insisted on his decline. It is a fact, but it has to be tempered. More or less, the most part of our people were involved in piracy and prohibited books. The vision we can now have is the one of an extremely vivid, crawling, and agitated life, always on the thread of the prohibition and the permit. We do hope that this study will allow a rehabilitation of Lyon as the second printing and bookselling place of the kingdom at the time of French enlightenment.



LAMBERT-D'HERBIGNY’s opinion on Lyon’s Booktrade in his Mémoire sur la généralité de Lyon [27] :


« La librairie de Lyon doit estre considérée par raport aux pays etrangers, et au dedans du royaume ; autres fois ce commerce étoit florissant en l'une et l'autre manière, maintenant ce n'est rien a l'égard du dedans, et fort peu a l'égard du dehors.
Il n'y a que deux maisons de libraire qui fassent le commerce de l'etranger, le principal est avec l'Espagne et les Indes Espagnolles, l'impression y étant peu en usage tant a cause de la paraisse naturelle de cette nation sur toutte sorte de travaux, qu'a cause de la rareté et cherté du papier que les Espagnols sont obligéz ou de Gennes ou de la Rochelle.

Les livres qui s'impriment pour les Espagnols ne sont guere propres que pour eux, et sont presque tous livres scolastiques de jurisprudence ou de medecine composez par des autheurs de leur pays ou des Italiens, le bon marché en fait un des plus grands mérites, on en taxe mesme le prix en Espagne par cette raison il se faut bien garder dans ces impressions de s'attacher a la beauté, soit du caractère, soit du papier, c'est en quoy la librairie de Lyon souffre, parce que payant les doannes et tous les droits des matieres qu'elle employe, et ces matieres les plus viles et de moindre valeur payant autant que les bonnes les libraires lyonnois ne peuvent plus faire aux Espagnols le bon marché qu'ils demandent et qu'ils trouvent chez les Venitiens et les Genois, lesquels depui trente ou quarant ans font une grande partie de ce que Lyon faisoit autres fois, les libraires pretendent que jusqu'à ce temps la ils avoient joüy des exemptions dont joüissent les libraires de Paris pour tout ce qui est destiné a leur art.
Pour ce qui est des livres de france il ne s'en imprime guere de nouveaux a Lyon par ce que les autheurs sont payez bien plus grassement par les libraires de Paris. Il ne sçauroit non plus s'en imprimer danciens a cause des continuations des privileges, et par là les imprimeurs et libraires de Lyon sont dans une espece de necesité de contrefaire les livres de Paris, et de pratiquer les contraventions qu'on leur reproche et sans lesquelles ils mourroient de faim.»

Copyright Dominique VARRY 1997




[1] - Paper presented at the Society for the History of Authorship Reading and Publishing conference, held at Magdalene College, Cambridge, July 3rd-8th 1997.

[2] - DARNTON (Robert), « Nouvelles pistes en histoire du livre», Revue française d'histoire du livre, n· 90-91, 1er et 2ème trimestres 1996, p. 173-180.

[3] - VARRY (Dominique), « La diffusion sous le manteau : la Société typographique de Neuchâtel et les Lyonnais», L'Europe et le livre. Réseaux et pratiques du négoce de librairie XVIe-XIXe siècles, sous la direction de Frédéric BARBIER, Sabine JURATIC, Dominique VARRY, Paris, Klincksieck, 1996, p. 309-332.

[4] - Lyon Municipal Archives : FF 020, placard, 2nd may 1719.

[5] - Devers family archives.

[6] - Bibliothèque nationale : mss NAF 399 : 1701 inquiry.

[7] - MOULÉ (L.), « Rapport de Cl. Bourgelat sur le commerce de la librairie et de l'imprimerie à Lyon en 1763», Revue d'histoire de Lyon, 1914, tome XIII, p. 51-65. (Bibliothèque nationale : mss FF. 22128, f· 291-302).

[8] - Jean-Marie 1 Barret (1731-1786), Jean-Marie 2 Bruyset (1749-1817), his brother Pierre-Marie Bruyset (1745-executed in 1793), Aimé Delaroche (1715-1801), his son-in-law Jacques-Julien Vatar (1727-1777) and his grandson Aimé Vatar-Delaroche (executed in 1793), Claude-André Faucheux (1741-executed in 1793),Jean-André Périsse-Duluc (1738-1800). Two of the newcomers who settled in Lyon during the Revolution also belonged to the freemasonry at the beginning of the XIXth century : Michel-Alexandre Pelzin (1751-1828), and Jean-Baptiste Kindelem.

[9] - JOLY (Alice), Un Mystique lyonnais et les secrets de la franc-Maçonnerie. Jean-Baptiste Willermoz 1730-1824, Paris, Demeter, 1986.

[10] - Lyon City Library : mss 5430.

[11] - LAMBERT-D'HERBIGNY, Mémoire sur la généralité de Lyon, manuscrit, 1698, p. 257-259 (Lyon, Gadagne Museum).

[12] - GARDEN (Maurice), Lyon et les lyonnais au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Belles-Lettres, 1970, p. 378.

[13] - CHARTIER (Roger), « Livre et espace: circuits commerciaux et géographie culturelle de la librairie lyonnaise au XVIIIe siècle», Revue française d'histoire du livre,1971, n· 1, p. 77-108.

[14] - ROUBERT (Jacqueline), « La situation de l'imprimerie lyonnaise à la fin du XVIIe siècle», Cinq études lyonnaises, edited by Henri-Jean MARTIN, Genève-Paris, 1966, p. 77-111.PARGUEZ (Guy), « Essai sur l'origine lyonnaise d'éditions clandestines de la fin du XVIIe siècle», Nouvelles études lyonnaises, Genève-Paris, Droz, 1969, p. 93-130.

[15] - GAY (Jean), Saisie de livres prohibés faite aux couvents des jacobins et des cordeliers à Lyon en 1694, Turin, V. Bona, 1876.

[16] - LAMBERT-D'HERBIGNY, Mémoire sur la généralité de Lyon, manuscrit, 1698, p. 257-259 (Lyon, Gadagne Museum).

[17] - Bibliothèque nationale : mss FF 22011, tome 1, documents 201-203.

[18] - VARRY (Dominique), « Le livre clandestin à Lyon», paper presented at the conference « Censure et clandestinité aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles», held at the university of Paris XII-Val de Marne, 25th april 1997. To be published in La Lettre clandestine, n· 6, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 1997.

[19] - VARRY (Dominique), « Voltaire et les imprimeurs-libraires lyonnais», Voltaire et ses combats. Actes du congrès international Oxford-Paris 1994, sous la direction de Ulla KÖLVING et Christiane MERVAUD, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 1997, tome 1, p. 483-507.

[20] - VARRY (Dominique), « De la Bastille à Bellecour : une 'canaille littéraire', Taupin Dorval», Le Livre et l'historien. Etudes offertes en l'honneur du Professeur Henri-Jean Martin, réunies par Frédéric BARBIER, Annie PARENT-CHARON, François DUPUIGRENET DESROUSSILLES, Claude JOLLY, Dominique VARRY, Genève, Droz, 1997, p. 571-582.

[21] - Bengesco n· 372, Bibliothèque nationale. Catalogue n· 1697.

[22] - VARRY (Dominique), « La diffusion sous le manteau : la Société typographique de Neuchâtel et les Lyonnais», loc. cit.

[23] - DARNTON (Robert), The Business of Enlightenment. a Publishing History of the Encyclopédie 1775-1800, Cambridge (Mass.), Belknap Press and Harvard University Press, 1979. French translation : L'Aventure de l'Encyclopédie. Un best-seller au siècle des Lumières, Paris, Perrin, 1982.

[24] - Neuchâtel, Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire, mss 1151, f· 81.

[25] - VARRY (Dominique), « Pour de nouvelles approches des archives de la Société typographique de Neuchâtel», to be published in a book in the honour of Robert Darnton, at the Voltaire Foundation, Oxford.

[26] - VINGTRINIER (Aimé), Histoire de l'imprimerie à Lyon de l'origine jusqu'à nos jours, Lyon, 1894.
GROSCLAUDE (Pierre), La Vie intellectuelle à Lyon dans la deuxième moitié du XVIIIe siècle, Paris, 1933.
TRENARD (Louis), Commerce et culture. Le livre à Lyon au XVIIIe siècle, Lyon, Albums du crocodile, juillet-août 1953.

[27] - LAMBERT-D'HERBIGNY, Mémoire sur la généralité de Lyon, manuscrit, 1698, p. 257-259 (Lyon, Gadagne Museum).