Spirit of Books



The "Spirit of Books" : Steps to an in-depth knowledge of book-sales catalogs in provincial France during the Ancien Régime [1]




Dominique VARRY (enssib Lyon)





The historian working on the private libraries of "Ancien Régime" France disposes, according to the periods he studies, of four types of documents, which all present advantages and inconveniences. All, indeed, give only a truncated and necessarily uncomplete vision of books collections on which they are supposed to report. These four types of documents are the following ones :

- domestic catalogs, written for the library owner

- posthumous inventories of property, drawn up by notaries,

- inventories of the revolutionary seizures operated since 1789, drawn up by revolutionnary administrators,

- catalogs of public sales, elaborated by second-hand book-sellers.

These last ones were the first to be studied as a corpus by Daniel Mornet, at the beginning of this century, in an article [2] entitled "Les enseignements des bibliothèques privées 1750-1780", published in 1910 by the Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France. Mornet was wrong when he wanted to conclude from this source on French elites readings at the end of the eighteenth century. Many historians have pointed his error. Among them, Robert Darnton could write [3] :


"Mornet thought he could find an answer by counting titles in five hundred catalogues of private libraries, which had mostly been printed for auctions in the Paris area between 1750 and 1780. He found one lonely copy of Rousseau's Contrat social. Eighteenth century libraries contained a surprisingly small percentage of the other Enligntenment classics, he discovered [...] Moreover, Mornet failed to note that auction catalogues had to pass the censorship before being printed. So his case remains unproved, either right or wrong. Nonetheless, Mornet raised some fundamental problems that have only begun to be faced : What was the character of literary culture under the Old Regime ? Who produced books in the eighteenth century, who read them, and what were they ? It will be impossible to locate the Enlightenment in any cultural and social context until those questions are answered, and they cannot be answered by traditional methods of research [...] "

Since Mornet, many historians have taken benefit of afterdeath inventories, which can enumerate books among a lot of other daily life objects. They know however that such lists take into account only the not too much damaged volumes having a monetary value, and that they remain silent about the licentious or heretical ones, unavowable for the memory the deceased owner. More recently, I personally contributed to the rediscovery of the inventories of seizures operated under the Revolution on the monastic communities, the emigrated and condemned people [4]. Finally, Yann Sordet [5] has just drawn our attention on the " domestic catalogs ", hand-written for the exclusive use of rich library owners. During all these years, the book-sale catalogs lied fallow. In 1974, Christian Péligry [6] had catalogued the collection owned by Toulouse city library. It had originally been set up by Lefranc de Pompignan, and is the one on which Mornet had formerly worked (712 items). More recently other works have dealt with the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale. In 1991, Françoise Bléchet [7] published a catalogue for the years 1630-1750 (395 items). The following period has been the object of Nicole Masson's study, not yet published. Jean Viardot [8] gave a stimulating chapter dedicated to the beginnings of bibliophily in the Histoire de l'édition française. Finally, Michel Marion [9] devoted a little convincing thesis to the eighteenth-century book-collectors by using exclusively the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale. At the same time, other works were in progress abroad. Let us think of Jeanne Blogie's catalogs of the collections kept in the Albert the first Library of Belgium [10]. As Robert Darnton wrote in the article we have already quoted :

" [...] And statistics on reading should be more fruitful than those on writers - if Mornet can be modernized [...] "


Actually, modern technologies allow us to open once more this vast question, in particular nowadays by the constitution of computer data bases. In the United States, the Research Libraries Group administrates a huge database [11] aiming to index all sale catalogs of works of art and rare books from 1599 till now. However, one of the most exemplary bases is the one constituted from Bert van Selm's studies, initiated in 1976 : "Book sales catalogues of the Dutch Republic 1599-1800". This database registers 4124 catalogs and about 9000 copies. It is this example that inspired our own project "The Spirit of books".

This one becomes integrated into a wider project of creation in Lyons of an "Institut d’histoire du livre" associating the City of Lyons, the municipal library of which keeps the second French collection of ancient books after the Bibliothèque nationale, and which also houses a remarkable printing museum. The three other partners are l'Ecole nationale des chartes, implanted in Paris, l'Ecole normale supérieure - Lettres which leaves Fontenay-Saint-Cloud for Lyons in next September, and Enssib, the only school training French head-librarians. The Spirit of books is one of this institution first realizations. The project began by two working sessions respectively held in Paris (Ecole des chartes [12]) and in Lyons (Enssib [13]) in january 1998. These two days have been the occasion to review the sale catalogs knowledge, and to study the way the Dutch database had been constituted. The Lyons meeting aimed to study the possibility to build a data-base registering the resources of Ancien Régime private libraries, in the perspective of new researches on their composition.

Our project associates representatives of the various partners of the "Institut d'histoire du livre", and outside personalities. Its peculiarity is to make work together antiquarian booksellers, librarians from Bibliothèque nationale, Paris Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Lyons and Grenoble city libraries, French and foreign scholars working either in literature or history. As I shall develop it further, it also involves students from Ecole des chartes and Enssib.

A first step of this project would be to index the sale catalogs of the period beginning in 1680, when the book-sales appear and develop in the country, to 1815, which is to say after the French revolution and its confiscations.

To finalize our data entry form, we decided to work first on a reduced sample, composed of the sale catalogs kept in Lyons and Grenoble city libraries. A first survey in these collections allowed the location of 240 catalogs in 376 copies in Lyons, and 194 catalogs in Grenoble. This survey also allowed to notice the presence of 104 common catalogs to both libraries. An important part of them, relating to local sales, seems unknown to the national Libray collections.

Our research, in progress all through 1998, succeeded in a new workshop, on September 29, which confirmed a particular data entry form different from the catalographic MARC format, and inspired from the Dutch example.

A first section is dedicated to the identification of the put on sale library owners. A second section clarifies the conditions of the sale : date and place, private sale or auction sale. The third section is more bibliograhical. It is in fact a material description of the catalog : title, size, number of pages, signatures. The fourth section gives as precise as possible informations on the put on sale collection contents. Finally, a last section lists the various located catalog copies, by giving precisions on the presence of handwritten notes, and of owners' marks.

Possesseur - Owner

Nom - Name: M.le P. de C**.

Résidence - Residence : Lyon

Notes - Notes : "Des motifs essentiels pour les intèressés à la vente de ces livres, nous obligent de taire les noms des personnes qui les avaient recueillis (...)"

(préf.) POSS1

Vente - Sale

Condition de vente - Condition of sale : aux enchères/en détail

Date de vente - Date of sale : le troisième du mois de mars 1755. Ordre journalier : du lundi 3 mars au samedi 29 mars (23 vacations)

Date de début - Date of beginning : 17550303

Date de fin - date of the end : 17550329

Lieu de vente - Place of sale : Lyon

Localisation - Location : dans la même salle où nous vendimes les livres de feu Mr. le P. Basset, c'est-à-dire dans une des maisons de Mrs. les chanoines réguliers de St. Antoine, rue Mercière, en entrant par la première allée après celle qui conduit à leur église au second étage.

Description - Description

Titre - Title : Catalogue des livres de M. le P. de C**. et de feu M. l'abbé de T***. Le prix est de 24 sols.

Adresse - Address : Lyon : Duplain, Pierre aîné et Benoît , 1755

Format - Size : 8

Collation - Collation : xii, 119, [1 bl.] p. (sig. a6 A-P4)

Pagination - Pagination : 132

Précisions - Fuller informations

Genre - Kind : Cat. de vente

Pièces liminaires - Preliminaries : oui

Code - Code : Avis au lecteur/Table des divisions/Table des vacations

Classement - Classification : méthodique "des libraires de Paris" (5 classes)

Prix - Price : non

Nombre d'articles - Number of items : 1560

Notes - Notes : "c'est ici la seconde bibliothèque avec catalogue (la 1ère a été vendue en 1753) que nous nous proposons de vendre en détail au plus offrant et dernier enchérisseur" (préf.) ; l. oubliés ; mat. dom. : Histoire

Exemplaires- Copies

Ex. biblio B.M.Lyon 371377

Prix manuscrits

Exemplaires - Copies

Ex. biblio B.M.Lyon 371371 t.8 (3)

Prix manuscrits

Exemplaires - Copies

Ex. biblio B.M.Lyon B491006

Prix manuscrits/Marque de provenance de l'exemplaire

Provenance - Origin

Adamoli, Pierre/Lyon, Académie

From 1999, this data entry form began to be used at the same moment in Paris and in Lyons.

In Paris, Mrs Annie Charon, professor at the Ecole des chartes, has worked with some of her students on the sale catalogs belonging to Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. Nowadays, several catalogs have been examined and described. But the notices have not yet been retrieved. which will happen in the next weeks.

In Lyons, Mrs de Missolz, a former Enssib student, has examined each of the 240 catalogs kept in the municipal library, and has described them, according to our data entry form. These 240 entries are today available for consultation on a small working base [14]. This one is readable on the enssib web site "Histoire du livre à l'Enssib" [15]. In next September, the same work will begin for the Grenoble city library catalogs.

This work of location and description already allows a better view on books sales in provincial France, while until now only the Parisian case was known. In Lyons, second printing and book-trade place in the French kingdom, the sales have really begun and regularly been held only since the 1740's [16]. They were, first, organized by novelties printers and booksellers, like the Duplain brothers who set up 27 sales from 1740 until the 1770's. From then they have been replaced by Jean-François de Los Rios, a second-hand bookseller who specialized in that kind of business. Other isolated booksellers appear occasionally for one or two sales.

Their mechanism for which the printed catalogs remain exceptional, begins to be revealed, even though numerous shadowy zones remain. For instance, and according to a manuscript note on a catalog, the auction system was introduced in Lyons only in 1753. Before, sales might be done at the price set by the bookseller. It appears too, from handwritten notes of some catalogs holders, that the manuscript prices indications seen on most of the catalogs have in fact been written by the sales organizers, and not, as we trust before, by attending people.

We began tracking down the Lyons sales, not only by the census of the printed catalogs, but also by a systematic indexing of the local periodical press, which appeared in 1750. This investigation allowed to notice that sales with printed catalogs, without being exceptional, were not the general case. The most numerous sales, about which we know only the announcements in the paper entitled Les Affiches de Lyon, resorted to simple handwritten lists of the proposed items. These lists were readable, in one or two manuscript copies, by the bookseller organizing the sale. These facts enable us to shade the presentation of the French sales mechanism that Françoise Bléchet gave in her book. A similar situation probably existed also in Paris. In both cases, one of the major and not clarified difficulties is to distinguish if the catalogs really list books effectively owned by the holders whose names are officially printed on the catalogs title pages. We know that the booksellers did not hesitate to mix books from different origins in the same catalog, in order to make their sales much attractive. The study of Lyons and Grenoble cases allows of course to track down Parisian or foreign catalogs already listed in the national Library. It also allows to discover catalogs of local interest, unknown to the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale. They open new perspectives on the antiquarian book business outside Paris.

Theorically, French eighteenth-century libraries were censored for all illegal books being put up for auction. Nevertheless, some titles may have passed through. Lyons catalogs are also of great interest when they reveal false addresses, especially for the local production. It is well known that Lyons has been, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a major place for the printing of pirated and prohibited books. Such disclosures will be listed and of great help to the historian.

A certain number of Enssib students have contributed, to make these catalogs, and the sold libraries owners, better known. Some of these students studied holders belonging to same social groups : clergy, physicians, members of the Cour des Monnaies [17]. Others tried a comparison between Debure's Bibliographie instructive, and that published under the same title in Lyons in 1777 by François de Los Rios [18]. This latter book is very interesting for us, because it describes copies effectively sold in Lyons, and reveals the beginnings of bibliophily in this provincial city.

A last group [19], harnessed to a thankless but essential task : the Lyons owners identification. This work is particularly difficult when the catalog title pages only name them by their initials, and because their fame remained quite local.

Finally, we may aknowledge that an important aspect of these sales remains unapproachable through our records : the social and fashionable events such sales could be. There is no doubt that Cynthia Wall's conclusions about London auction sales are valid and for Paris and for more modest cities as Lyons and Grenoble, proportionately speaking [20] :


" [...] People show up at an auction to see and be seen [...] The performance and the story, the spectacle and the narrative, seem to promise the drama of social change, but a drama in which the audience members can choose to act. The audience participates - actively or passively, as purchasers or spectators - in a constantly fluctuating and unpredictable exchange of property which often signifies not only the economic dismemberment of the seller's collection, but also of the seller's identity, and which creates for the buyer the possibilities of new worlds [...] The auctioneer must measure cultural values ; but eighteenth-century auction is itself a measure of cultural values [...] " [21]


The book-sale, especially when the owner is still living, but also for the heirs of a deceased library holder, was not only a commercial operation. It was too, for the actors (salesman, booksellers, buyers) and for the spectators registration in a social scale, and in a system of vanities and sociability. Beyond the Lyons case, it is an aspect that would have to appear through the study of the general farmers (Fermiers généraux), a social group well defined, for which we have the four types of catalogs enumerated at the beginning of this paper, and which will be the object of a new workshop, in Lyons, on the next October 7.

This first presentation of a hardly begun venture would only like to draw the researcher attention on the potentialities of that kind of sources, known and used by our predecessors, but which is to read again with new approaches. The Lyons provincial case already corrects some of our certainties. The difficulty will now be to describe as precisely as possible the catalogs contents, so that they become useful to the researcher. As noticed Catherine Volpilhac-Auger [22], in one of our working sessions :


" [...] One can question, in spite of the caution Mornet constantly shows, a part of his presuppositions and his method, it does not there stay less than the idea (to exploit the book-sale catalogs in a systematic way) the generally convincing demonstration is there, even though one would not be able to admit all his results [...] a lot of caution will be needed, a lot of reason, many technique too [...] But at first a lot of imagination is necessary, to give rather than a cape itself, a sky-line. So one can hope, ever without confusing the catalog and the library, the sold library and the real library, the possessed one and the read one, to reach, beyond the letter and the figures, the spirit of books."








[1] - Paper presented at the SHARP Conference, Mainz University, july 3-8 2000.

[2] - MORNET (Daniel), "Les enseignements des bibliothèques privées 1750-1780", Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France, 1910, 17, p. 449-492.

[3] - DARNTON (Robert), "Reading, Writing, and Publishing in Eighteenth-Century France. A Case Study in the Sociology of Literature", Daedalus, Winter 1971, p. 214-256. Republished under the title : "Reading, Writing, and Publishing" as a chapter of The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press, 1982, p. 167-208.

[4] - VARRY (Dominique) ed.., Histoire des bibliothèques françaises. Les bibliothèques de la Révolution et du XIXe siècle, 1789-1914, Paris, Editions du Cercle de la Librairie, 1991.

Idem, "Revolutionary seizures and their consequences on French library History", paper to be presented at the "Lost Libraries" conference, Magdalene College, Cambridge, september 15-17 2000.

[5] - SORDET (Yann), "Une approche des 'catalogues domestiques' de bibliothèques privées (XVIIe-XVIIIe siècle), instruments et miroirs de collections particulières", Bulletin du bibliophile, n° 1, 1997, p. 92-123.

[6] - PELIGRY (Christian), Les Catalogues de bibliothèques du XVIIe, XVIIIe et du XIXe siècles, jusqu'en 1815. Contribution à l'inventaire du Fonds ancien de la bibliothèque municipale de Toulouse... Toulouse, Bibliothèque municipale, 1974.

[7] - BLECHET (Françoise), Les Ventes publiques de livres en France 1630-1750. Répertoire des catalogues conservés à la Bibliothèque nationale, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 1991.

[8] - VIARDOT (Jean), "Livres rares er pratique bibliophilique", Histoire de l'édition française, tome 2 : le livre triomphant 1660-1830, edited by Henri-Jean Martin and Roger Chartier, Paris, Promodis, 1984, p. 446-467.

[9] - MARION (Michel), Collections et collectionneurs de livres au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Honoré Champion, 1999.

[10] - BLOGIE (Jeanne), Répertoire des catalogues de ventes de livres imprimés, II Catalogues français appartenant à la Bibliothèque royale Albert Ier, Bruxelles, Fl. Tulkens, 1985.

[11] - A presentation page on this project is available for consultation at the following address : http://www.rlg.org/cit-sci.html

[12] - Les Ventes publiques de livres et leurs catalogues, working session at the Ecole nationale des chartes, january 15 1998, (fortcoming).

[13] - L'Esprit des livres : nouvelles approches pour l'étude des bibliothèques privées en France 1680-1815, première rencontre jeudi 22 janvier 1998, working paper (http://histoire.enssib.fr/4recherche/Esprit%20du%20livre/crespdulivre.html).

[14] - http://enssibhp.enssib.fr:8080/doris_web/ancien/Livranc.html

[15] - http://histoire.enssib.fr/

[16] - VARRY (Dominique), "Les ventes publiques de livres à Lyon aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles et leurs catalogues", paper presented at the workshop Les Ventes publiques de livres et leurs catalogues, Paris, Ecole nationale des chartes, january 15 1998. (forthcoming).

[17] - BASQUIN (Claire), CHICHA (Céline), COCCOLA (Cécile de), TATAT (Carole), Les Catalogues de vente de bibliothèques du clergé à Lyon au XVIIIe siècle, Villeurbanne, Enssib, june 1999.

PANTALEO (Sandrine), TRAVIER (Valérie), (Didier), Etude des catalogues de vente de trois bibliothèques de magistrats de la Cour des Monnaies, Villeurbanne, Enssib, june 1999.

DELFOUR (Françoise), DESJARDINS (Jérémie), HURINVILLE (Franck), LAUBY (Aurélie), MORIN (Nicolas), Etude des catalogues de vente de trois bibliothèques de médecins lyonnais, Villeurbanne, Enssib, june 2000.

[18] - LOS RIOS (François de), Bibliographie instructive, ou Notice de quelques livres rares, singuliers & difficiles à trouver, avec des notes historiques, pour connoître & distinguer les différentes éditions, & leur valeur dans le commerce ; disposée par François de Los-Rios, libraire à Lyon, A Avignon, chez François Seguin imprimeur, A Lyon, chez l'auteur, 1777, 8°, XVI-207-[1 bl.] p.

BROUSSE (Céline), CHAUTEMPS (Alexandre), François de Los Rios, libraire bibliographe ? Villeurbanne, Enssib, june 1999.

[19] - BERLOTTIER (Sereine), DEPARDY (Clotilde), (EYROI Karine), Les Possesseurs de bibliothèques à Lyon au XVIIIe siècle : une enquête biographique, Villeurbanne, ENSSIB, june 1999.

[20] - WALL (Cynthia), "The English Auction : Narratives of Dismantlings", Eighteenth Century Studies, vol. 31, n° 1, Fall 1997, p. 1-25.

[21] - Idem, p. 20-21.

[22] - VOLPILHAC-AUGER (Catherine), "L'Esprit des livres. Faisons un rêve...", L'Esprit des livres : nouvelles approches pour l'étude des bibliothèques privées en France 1680-1815, première rencontre jeudi 22 janvier 1998, working paper, p. 30-32.


Copyright Dominique VARRY 2000