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Royal letters patent (1701)

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Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900)
Identifier: f_1701


Commentary on Royal Letters Patent for the regulation of the book trade (1701)
Frédéric Rideau

Faculty of Law, University of Poitiers, France


Please cite as:
Rideau, F. (2008) ‘Commentary on Royal Letters Patent for the regulation of the book trade (1701)', in Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer,


1. Full title

2. Abstract

3. Censorship and reorganization of the book trade at the end of the seventeenth century

4. At the mercy of the Parisian booksellers...

5. The limited effect of the royal regulations

6. References


1. Full title
Letters patent and decree of the King's Council of State for the regulation of the book trade


2. Abstract
Following the general rulings (arrêts) of 1665 and 1686, and coming before the Code de la librairie of 1723 (f_1723), the regulations of 1701 constituted a new important step towards the centralization of royal policy in the area of press control. Significantly, as a result of this piece of legislation - which remained a symbol of the lobbying power of the Parisian booksellers against their provincial counterparts - the flexibility which local authorities had until then had to authorize the circulation and publication of books was suppressed to the benefit of Paris.


3. Censorship and reorganization of the book trade at the end of the seventeenth century
In France, counterfeiting at the end of the seventeenth century had become the general rule because of the renewals and prolongations of privileges that were accorded mainly to the Parisian booksellers.[1] At the beginning of the eighteenth century, great provincial cities such as Lyon and Rouen, which still played a significant role in the publishing field, were collecting only 10% of the privileges issued by the Crown. After 1660 counterfeiting had apparently been able to develop more systematically.[2] In a certain way, therefore, the provinces were able to offer genuine competition, and this permitted the regional booksellers to save their business, although even this was not enough to prevent a progressive decline from the second half of the seventeenth century onwards. As Jean Quéniart has noted, the royal administration, always eager to control the publishing industry as effectively as possible, did its utmost to limit these "provincial ambitions". Besides, Paris, more than ever, remained predominant in the domain of letters, and the majority of authors ended up establishing themselves there "sooner or later": "it is quite difficult, in these conditions, for the provincial printer to obtain a manuscript whose potential interest and clientele are likely to transcend the provincial sphere".[3] The implementation of censorship (and the cultural policies of the State), which had been relaxed to some extent towards the end of Cardinal Mazarin's rule and the during the early years of Louis XIV's reign, was resumed with fresh vigour by Colbert from the beginning of the 1660s onwards. The number of printing shops, in particular, was reduced by orders from above.[4] The appointment in 1699 of a new Chancellor, Pontchartrain, helped to consolidate further the measures introduced by Colbert, notably by the creation of a Bureau de la Librairie, headed by the abbé Bignon (the Chancellor's nephew), and by improvement of the censorship system (in particular, of the quality of the censor corps). Already by 1700, the Nouvelles de la république des Lettres, printed in Holland by Bayle, was commenting on this most recent reorganization of the French book trade: 

"It is argued that from now on there won't be so many bad books appearing here [in Paris] any more, thanks to the good order and discipline which the Chancellor has decided to impose on the [field of] printing. For he has entrusted the Abbé Bignon with examining, and arranging to have examined, all the manuscripts which the booksellers have in their hands, so that those which are now worth the effort of being printed may be confiscated from them."[5]

Finally, as a consequence of the 1686 regulations (f_1686), in particular, extensions of the term of duration of privileges favoured almost exclusively the Parisian guild. Many of the works which should normally have fallen into the public domain remained protected by privileges, as witnessed again by the Abbé Blondel in 1725 (f_1725a), and, more generally, by the development of a significant counterfeiting industry in the provinces, as well as by how towards the end of the seventeenth century trading in ‘legitimate' publications was very much at a low ebb in the provinces. Nevertheless, those books that did finally make it into the public domain could be printed on the provincial presses by means of relatively simple formalities and at little cost, as this did not require securing an authorization or privilege sealed with the Chancellor's seal, but merely a simple publication permit from the local authorities.[6] Even so, this basic opportunity, despite being so crucial for the provincial booksellers, was also to be drastically restructured to their disadvantage.


4. At the mercy of the Parisian booksellers...
The preamble of the regulations of October 1701 (registered at the Parlement in January 1702) listed, as was customary for legislation of this kind, all the abuses that had crept into the book trade since the last decree. In this sense, Article 1 reiterated the obligation, as a matter of principle, of not sending to press any work without having first obtained a permission bearing the "sealed letters of the Grand Seal". The new act remained silent on the question of the prolongation of privileges - something that could potentially be interpreted to the advantage of the Parisian booksellers. Moreover, the purview of the new legislation (in Article 2), was clearly very likely to provoke a certain agitation amidst the provincial book trade, since it considerably reduced the power of local magistrates (juges de police) to authorize publications. Henceforth these judges could no longer grant permits for any works other than brochures and pamphlets whose impression did not exceed "the scope of two sheets, printed in Cicero font". In other words, as Séguier would later put it, the royal patent letters of 1701 took away "from the provincial judges the competence to issue publication permits for works by classic authors or for those whose privileges had expired."[7] The central administration of the book trade thus tightened up its grip on the publishing industry in the provinces. Similarly, as a result of the expedient of registration formalities which were henceforth to be carried out in the capital, the Parisian booksellers acquired a greater power of surveillance over their provincial colleagues. The new legislation thus seemed to grant "a new and considerable advantage" to the printers and booksellers of Paris, and even as late as 1776 the booksellers of Lyon and Rouen could still feel the bitter consequences of the 1701 act. For after pointing out that before the "ruinous epoch launched by the surprise patent letters of 1701" it had been sufficient "for the provincial booksellers to vouch before their local judges that a particular privilege had expired, in order for them to obtain legal permission [from the judges] to print those books that were covered by it", they added, with regard to how permissions issued by the Keeper of the Seals had replaced the earlier publication permits granted by local judges: "From then on the Parisian booksellers, having gained full control of the field, no longer had to show any consideration towards the provinces". In short, these were royal letters "with which they [the Parisian booksellers] finally managed to slaughter their victims" .[8]


Thus, the provincial printers and booksellers suspected their counterparts in Paris of having elicited this new regulation by various more or less surreptitious manoeuvres (they could not be more explicit, of course, in attacking the royal Administration). "A number of Parisian booksellers" were considered by their provincial colleagues to have had a hand in "devising" this legislation, but the latter had been able to "acquit themselves admirably with the help of the ruthless means traditionally used by their corporation".[9] There was at least some consolation perhaps in ascribing the new legislation to "surprise" or "underhand" tactics on the part of the Parisian guild.[10] These accusations of manipulation, of lobbying, even of corruption, would recur many times subsequently in the course of the eighteenth century, as we may see from the Abbé Blondel's memorandum. [11]


In reality, as mentioned earlier, the new legislation was quite coherent with the broader sweep of Colbertian policy, and even entailed some deliberate sacrifices on the part of the Administration. Colbert maybe felt that there definitely was a need for regulations that would be more favourable to the provincial booksellers, since it was known that they were "exposed to the inquisitorial methods of the Parisian libraires, who, by means of privileges which they obtain from the Chancellery, are able to hold all the others in the Kingdom in such a state of dependence that these have to choose between dying of hunger or risking punishment [by undertaking counterfeit publications]." All the same, even after these worrying conclusions reported by Courtilz de Sandras, the royal administration seemed to admit that control over the publishing industry remained a priority of State [12].

It remains a fact that the royal patent letters of 1701 could not resolve the conflict between the booksellers of Paris and those of the provinces. On the contrary, they helped to intensify it. Besides, they did not lead to any significant decrease in reprinting activities.


5. The limited effect of the royal regulations
One of the characteristics of the royal regulations concerning censorship and the book trade is how difficult they actually were to implement. In Rouen, for example, the second most important centre of the provincial book trade, the patent letters of 1701 do not seem to have diminished the flow of prohibited books. Despite Article 2 the number of applications for privileges did not increase - no doubt because the city's booksellers and printers, in the light of their experiences with their Parisian counterparts, did not harbour any illusions about the outcome of their attempts to obtain royal publication permits. [13]


Not only did reprinting and the circulation of prohibited books continue: in fact, the patent letters themselves were also "vividly" contested.[14] According to the royal government, the Lyonnais were the only provincial booksellers to complain and refuse to accept such reasonable regulations. Chancellor Pontchartrain sent them this reply in December 1702: 

"... You have no right to complain about this decree, given that everyone else in the country has recognized that it is to their advantage. For us to be favourably inclined towards your demands, it would be necessary that you should at least have distinguished yourselves in the past by an exceptional scrupulosity in fulfilling all the previous regulations, of which you did not complain. But, no, far from this being the case: there is no other city in the Kingdom where these regulations are flouted with such impunity and where so many offences are committed as in yours! Every day I receive fresh complaints about this, as you will surely be aware of. You must strive to improve your reputation in this respect, to correct the dissoluteness which has crept into your trade; and only then - when you have restored order and decency, and I am satisfied on your account - only then will I to some extent temper the rigorousness of the law in your favour and find a way of doing justice to your demands."[15]

The obligation to respect the exclusive rights awarded on the strength of the royal seal would be subsequently be reiterated on a number of occasions, as, for example, in 1715. [16]


The regulations of 1701 were part of a more comprehensive attempt, following the appointment of Pontchartrain in 1699, to reorganize the printing industry and book trade. After carrying out a survey of the printing shops in the provinces, the royal Administration, for the purposes of more effective control and in line with the regulations passed in the second half of the seventeenth century, was determined to limit the number of printers. This reduction, which had already affected Paris - to the tremendous benefit, of course, of the publishing houses which were allowed to remain - would extend to the whole of provincial France in 1704.[17] For Roger Chartier, the decline in the number of printing shops and printers "which set in during the first half of the eighteenthcentury clearly reflected the consequences of Louis XIV's policy in concentrating all printing activity in the capital".[18]


The royal patent letters of October 1701 remained a fateful and symbolic piece of legislation in the mind of the provincial booksellers, for they were at the heart of an increasingly bitter conflict with the Parisian guild. From their perspective, the Administration's decision to give such importance to privileges and permits bearing the Grand Seal - whilst the number of extensions granted for these privileges, always to the benefit of the Parisian booksellers, had been increasing steadily ever since the second half of the seventeenth century (see f_1686) - was like handing a manifestly unjust gift to the Parisian guild. As it turned out, the 1723 regulations (f_1723) would not be any more favourable to the provinces.


6. References

Histoire de l'édition française, ed. by R. Chartier and H.-J. Martin, vol. 2 (Paris: Fayard, 1990)

Colbert, J.-B.(Courtilz de Sandras), Testament Politique de Messire Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Ministre & Secretaire d'Etat, où l'on voit tout ce qui s'est passé sous le Regne de Louis le Grand, jusqu'en l'année 1684. Avec des Remarques sur le Gouvernement du Royaume (The Hague: 1694)

Laboulaye and Guiffrey, La propriété littéraire au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: L. Hachette & Co., 1859)

Minois, G., Censure et culture sous l'Ancien Régime (Paris: Fayard, 1995)


[1] On this point, see, in particular f_1686.

[2] H.-J. Martin, L'édition parisienne au XVIIe siècle. Quelques aspects économiques, in Le livre français sous l'Ancien Régime (Promodis: Edition du cercle de la librairie, 1987), 52.

[3] J. Quéniart, "L'anémie provinciale", in Histoire de l'édition française, ed. by Roger Chartier and Henri-Jean Martin, vol. 2 (Paris: Fayard, 1990), 360. [" il est bien difficile, dans ces conditions, à l'éditeur provincial d'obtenir un manuscrit dont l'intérêt et la clientèle soient susceptibles de dépasser largement le cadre local "].

[4] See H.-J. Martin, "La prééminence de la librairie parisienne", in Histoire de l'édition française (Paris: Fayard, Cercle de la Librairie, 1990), 343.

[5] Reported by Georges Minois, Censure et culture sous l'Ancien Régime (Paris: Fayard, 1995), 139. ["On prétend qu'il ne paraîtra plus ici [à Paris] désormais tant de méchants livres, par le bon ordre que M. le chancelier a résolu de mettre aux impressions. Car il a chargé l'abbé Bignon d'examiner et de faire examiner tous les manuscrits que les libraires ont entre les mains, afin d'en retirer ceux qui ne vaudront pas la peine d'être imprimés."]

[6] Quéniart, 360.

[7] Séguier, compte rendu, in Laboulaye and Guiffrey, La propriété littéraire au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: L. Hachette & Co., 1859), 564. Séguier was advocate-general at the Parlement of Paris, and had the complicated task of defending the decrees of 30 August 1777. ["aux juges de province la faculté de donner des permissions pour les auteurs anciens ou pour ceux dont les privilèges étaient expirés"]

[8] Introduction of Gaultier's memorandum (Mss. Fr. 22073, n° 144: f_1776). ["funeste époque des Lettres-Pattentes surprises en 1701"] ; ["aux Libraires des Provinces de certifier devant les juges des Lieux, de l'échéance d'un Privilege, pour obtenir d'eux la Permission légale d'imprimer les Livres qui en étoient l'objet] [Dès-lors les Libraires de Paris devenus maîtres du terrain ne garderent plus aucune mesure envers les provinces"] ; ["lesquelles ils égorgerent enfin leurs victimes"].

[9] ibid.

[10] The provincial booksellers had already expressed themselves in the same manner about the regulation of 1723 in a memorandum of 1774 (Mss. Fr. 22073, n°141, fol. 317) : "The [Ruling] of 28 February 1723 which was drawn up exclusively for them, on their request, and which they have arranged to make binding for the book trade and the printing industry across the whole Kingdom, through the Council's decree of 24 March, 1744, without consulting the syndical chambers of the provincial guilds, provided them with a pretext for disregarding the mandatory prohibitions of the Regulations in this respect." ["Celui du 28 Février 1723 qui n'a été rédigé que pour eux, sur leurs sollicitations et qu'ils ont fait déclarer commun à toute la Librairie et Imprimerie du Royaume, par Arrêt du Conseil du 24 Mars 1744, sans que les Chambres syndicales des Provinces aient été consultées, leur fournit un prétexte pour mépriser les défenses impératives des Reglements à cet égard."]

[11] Cf. Mémoire sur les vexations (f_1725a): "As there is nothing left that could restrain or check them, as they are wiling to use false reports to take by surprise the Religion of the Council and the magistrates of the police, and as they try to corrupt the lesser officials through bribes, the result is that legitimate complaints against them have no chance of getting through, and it is to the public that one is forced to address oneself." ["Puisque rien n'est plus capable ny de les contenir, ny de les réprimer, qu'ils surprennent la Religion du Conseil et des magistrats de Police par de faux mémoires, qu'ils tachent de corrompre les subalternes a force de largesses, que l'accès est fermé de tous cotez aux plaintes qu'on a droit de porter contre eux, c'est au public que l'on est obligé de s'adresser."]

[12] Testament Politique de Messire Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Ministre & Secretaire d'Etat, où l'on voit tout ce qui s'est passé sous le Regne de Louis le Grand, jusqu'en l'année 1684. Avec des Remarques sur le Gouvernement du Royaume (The Hague: 1694), 497-99. Indeed, Colbert seems to have also believed that reducing the number of printing presses would enhance the quality of books : "There is one thing only which may prevent you from introducing a regulation that would be so justified and useful. Namely, Your Majesty may have good reason to wish to get rid of a certain number of booksellers in their country. The libellous pamphlets which have been circulating of late do incline one to the view that the bookseller's profession is more dangerous than beneficial for the State. So when there are fewer of them, it will be easier to know where this sedition is coming from. Thus, it may perhaps be necessary to reduce their number to such a low level that they themselves will feel forced to look for other employment. For there is no need to have such a great number [of printers], and the sciences and belles lettres of this nation will surely be able to prosper without [too many printers]." 

[13] See J.-D. Mellot, "Le livre interdit à Rouen", in Histoire de l'édition française, 368.

[14] Séguier, 564-65 (f_1769).

[15] Letter cited by Séguier, 565. ["...vous n'avez point à vous plaindre de cet arrêt, pendant que tous les autres reconnaissent qu'il leur est avantageux; il faudrait au moins, pour vous faire écouter favorablement, que vous distinguassiez par une régularité singulière dans l'exécution de tous les anciens règlements, dont vous ne vous plaignez pas; mais bien loin de cela, il n'y pas de ville dans le royaume où on les viole plus inpunément, et où l'on commette plus de contraventions que dans la vôtre; j'en reçois tous les jours de nouvelles plaintes que vous ne pouvez ignorer. Travaillez à réparer sur cela votre réputation, corrigez-vous des déréglements qui se sont glissés parmi vous dans ce genre; et quand vous aurrez rétabli la règle et le bon ordre, et que j'aurai lieu d'être content de vous la-dessus, je modérerai quelque chose en votre faveur de la rigueur de la loi, et je trouverai moyen de vous donner satisfaction"]

[16] Mss. Fr. 22072, n° 56, fol. 253: "Decree of the Privy Council of State of the King, which renews the bans on printing in the Kingdom any books or booklets, without privileges or permissions." ["Arrest du Conseil d'Estat Privé du Roy, qui Renouvelle les Deffenses d'imprimer dans le Royaume aucuns livres ni livrets, sans Privilege ou Permission."] The King clearly had the regulations of 1701 in mind, especially Article 2, regarding the powers of local judges. These measures would be renewed on 16 December, 1715. The decree stipulated that "His Majesty, having been informed that non-compliance with the aforementioned Regulations has given rise to the circulation in the Kingdom of a great number of books against religion, the State, and public decorum" [Sa Majesté étant informée que l'inexécution desdits Reglemens donne lieu à repandre dans le Royaume un grand nombre de Livres contre la Religion, l'Etat et les bonnes mœurs], has ordered again, following the advice of the Keepers of the Seals, that "the abovementioned decrees and patent letters of 7 September and 2 October, 1701, together with the mentioned Ruling of 16 December, 1715, are to be executed in accordance with their letter and spirit." ["lesdits Arrets et Lettres et Lettres Patentes des 7 Septembre et 2 Octobre 1701 Ensemble ledit Arrest du 16 Decembre 1715 seront executez selon leur forme et teneur."]

[17] Quéniart, 361.

[18] R. Chartier, "La géographie de l'imprimerie française au XVIIIe siècle" in Histoire de l'édition française, 371. ["opéré dans la première moitié du XVIIIe siècle, marque clairement les effets de la politique louisquatorzienne qui concentre dans la capitale l'activité d'imprimer"].


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