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Jean-Dominique Mellot on policing the Parisian book trade

  • Date recorded: 28 Jun 2018

  • Duration: 59:36

'This police file appears as a remarkable document about the Parisian book trade in the Age of Enlightenment but it is also a fascinating testimony about police intelligence work'

– Jean-Dominique Mellot

About this video

Presenting the 2018 Foxcroft Lecture, Jean-Dominique Mellot takes a fascinating look at 17th-century Paris, an age of absolute monarchy and regal cultural monopoly.

Mellot takes us back to 1667 and the reign of Louis XIV, when the world's first modern police force was established. Led by the lieutenant général de police de Paris, the police were empowered to investigate and dictate what was written, printed and even said in public.

In the ensuing decades, successive lieutenants surveilled the book trade as a way of keeping on top of potential threats to the establishment. Their policing activities included the gathering of information via spies and informers, the use of identification sheets, and the creation of files on men and women of letters.

In 1749, Joseph d’Hémery, a young inspector in the book police – police du livre – began to document his information-gathering activities. He published the results of his recordkeeping for the years 1749 to 1752 in Historique des libraires et imprimeurs de Paris 1752 (BnF, 2017).

Mellot takes a detailed look at D’Hémery's book, which featured a listing of book guild members and masters, printers and booksellers, including those who were considered suspect and watched by Parisian police. D’Hémery collected his data from diverse sources: gossip, interrogations, spies' denunciations and information passed on by writers, journalists, printworkers, clandestine booksellers, peddlers and bookbinders.

The records reveal the kind of information that was considered useful by police at the time, including name, age, place of birth, physical description, address and personal details. Jean-Dominique Mellot ends his lecture by nothing that these details were collected to be shared with spies or informers, focusing on the two main book centres in Paris: rue Saint-Jacques in the Latin Quarter and place de la Cité near Notre Dame.

This free lecture was held at the Library on 28 June 2018.


Jean-Dominique Mellot is the Chief Curator at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), Paris, and a specialist in the history of books, publishing and cultural practices in the 17th and 18th centuries.