From Digital Humanities to Cultural History: The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe

AHA Session 234
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Ontario Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Dena Goodman, University of Michigan
The Future Is Here: Digital Methods in Research and Teaching in History
Jeremy D. Popkin, University of Kentucky

Session Abstract

This panel will be of wide interest for teachers and specialists working on the enlightenment history and literature, book history and the history of eighteenth-century France, as well as those interested in digital humanities. It both showcases an important new inter-disciplinary digital research tool for research and teaching in these areas and addresses important and enduring historiographical issues.

This panel will offer a revisionist account of the French ancien regime illegal book trade, utilising the best available source: the accounting records of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN). The STN archive is widely known to historians of the period, particularly through the path-breaking work of Robert Darnton on illegal bestsellers in pre-revolutionary France, but due to the difficulties of locating records concerning individual books and authors, its full potential for historians specialising in eighteenth century history has not been realised. The session summarises key insights from an AHRC-funded digital humanities project, led by Professor Simon Burrows, that has prepared a publicly available database of the STN records. Housed at the University of Leeds (England), the database tracks the origins and dissemination of over 400,000 discrete ‘books’ traded by the STN across Europe between 1769 and 1794.

The panel will suggest that, building on the existing work on the STN, digital data offers the chance to develop a more methodologically rigorous, internationally comparative, and chronologically and geographically nuanced overview of the late eighteenth century book trade in general, and a better contextual understanding of the underground book trade in particular. Individual papers will argue that: Robert Darnton’s STN-based study Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France rests on partial data, while in the process questioning his assumptions and conclusions about the STN’s clients, markets and representivity (Curran); the illegal book trade must be seen in the context of the French government’s attempts to police extra-territorial publishing (Seaward); and that, despite these caveats, a close, chronologically and geographically / internationally comparative study of the banned literature traded by the STN can radically revise our understanding of the illegal sector and its wider historiographical implications (Burrows). Simultaneously, panelists will demonstrate the uses and pitfalls of the database, a major new scholarly resource that will be of interest to scholars in many fields of eighteenth-century historical and cultural research.

The commentator will be Jeremy Popkin, a leading authority on the print culture, public sphere and public opinion in old regime France. Dena Goodman, another French specialist and leading authority on the enlightenment, public sphere and gender history will be in the Chair.

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