Printers of the King (Les Imprimeurs do Roi)

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Starting in the mid-1500s, all printers in France were required to register with a guild (syndic) that forced them to adhere to several strict guidelines in order to lawfully operate and conduct business in France. Chief among these was the requirement to request and gain a document known as the permission of the king (privilège du roi). According to Henri-Jean Martin, this document granted a bookseller permission to print a particular book for between five to ten years. [1]

As to how books were sold in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Henri-Jean Martin tells us that most books were sold unbound, and that booksellers “would display only a small number of bound books in their windows; a customer would have a book bound to order, perhaps in a uniform binding for inclusion on the shelves of his private library [2].”

Despite the surge in demand for books, paper was a difficult and expensive commodity for printers to come by. Martin points out that in the 17th century “Paris got most of its paper from Troyes, particularly from a papermaker called Sébastien Gouault, whose name appears in countless inventories [3].”  Eventually, due to concerns over the quality of paper, most bookseller-printers had to buy their paper from places such as Normany, Auvergne, and Poitou. One of the main suppliers of paper to the Paris bookseller-printers was Pierre Le Goux, who printers such as Cramoisy, Antoine Vitré and Huré used.  

In a royal order dated 23 March 1640 (arrêt de conseil), King Louis XIII declared that all papermakers from Limousin, Angoumois and Saintongue had to break up the cabals and monopolies they formed of papermaking, which was allowing them to charge printers exorbitant prices purposely. He also charged them with foreign sales of paper, which, he argued, was stripping France of its much needed supply for royal publications [4].

A century earlier, in 1551, Jane McLeod points to the decision of the Parlement of Paris enacted the Edict of Chateaubiand, which forbade the import of any books from Geneva and other ‘heretical’ places known to the government as being used by printers to circumvent censorship. All translations of biblical and patristic texts, even those that had been written forty years ago, had to be approved by the Sorbonne for reasons of granting copyright. McLeod also notes that bookshops in Paris and Lyon were inspects twice a year and three times a year respectively [5].

Fast forward to a century later when Richelieu, in 1626, had become “obsessed” with the threat that pamphlet literature posed. As a result, McLeod notes that he “further regulated the printing trades in Paris with a royal edict verified in Parlement that required permission from the king’s council before any publication was undertaken.” She also notes this edict listed the death penalty as a consequence of violation. This led to the Parlement of Paris enacting the Code Michaud in 1629, which severely restricted the activities of printers in France [6]. It is also worth noting here that Paris printers first organized themselves into a formal guild in 1618.

The government and royal officials became far stricter in the 1660s when the recruitment of printers in France was affected. In 1667, McLeod notes that the royal council ‘purged’ the Paris printing industry by enforcing a rule that demanded all printer be “fluent in Latin, able to read Greek, and have two presses” as a way to control the explosion in the number of printers and not enough work to go around [7]

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Les treselegantes & copieuses annales et croniques, des treschretiens & excellens moderateurs des beliqueuses Gaulles

This book is one of the rarest of the French collection at the CRRS. Dating from 1551 and in what appears to be an original binding (although the very first edition of the book shows evidence that it may have been trimmed and rebound from an even larger size), this book is an excellent example of the rising tide of nationalism that swept through France beginning in the 1500s. With more demand rising for books printed in vernacular languages as opposed to Latin, this book, as a history of the Gauls (the French) up until the 1550s, summarized for the reader all of the country's accomplishments, primarily focusing on the monarchy. 

It is notable for being in two volumes, collected in one book, and yet the first volume does not have a title page. After the flyleaf, the text simply begins. This book is also remarkable for its inclusion of at least 60 illustrated woodcuts, featuring decorated woodcut initials as well. The book is still a working copy and is mainly intact but it has suffered from the ravages of time, both with evidence of the crumbling leather over the boards with red chalkiness to the signs of bookworm damage that have infected the wove paper. 

Also worth noting is that the printer of this book, as indicated on the second volume title page, is the famed Arnoul L'Angelier of the L'Angelier printing dynasty in France. Although he never became a King's Printer (Imprimeur du Roi), his work represents some of the finest craftsmanship in French Reformation and Renaissance printing. 


[1] Henri-Jean Martin. Livre, Pouvoirs et Société A Paris Au XVIIe siècle, 1598-1701 (Genève: Droz, 1999), p. 444: "Pour les livres nouveaux, le privilège est accordé en general pour cinq à dix ans, exceptionnellement pour une période plus longue, sans qu’il existe dans ce domaine aucune règle fixe absolue." (English: For new books, the privilege/permission granted five to ten years in general, with few exceptions for longer periods [of rights to publish a book], without which there would be no fixed rules in this industry).

See also: Henri-Jean Martin. Print, Power, and People in 17th-Century France, transl. David Gerard. (Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, 1993), pp. 299-300: “The assigning of exclusive rights and privilege in the printing and sale of a book for a specified period, so preventing others from printing and profiting from the same work, was another aspect of the control system, in France and abroad. Royal policy different in the periods 1598-1630 and 1630-1643 when Richelieu came to power, and Letters Patent granting monopolies reveal a variety of different kinds: firstly, but less usual, a blanket privilege to authors who were deemed trustworthy, for all their works, past, present and future; secondly, privileges in new books, and, rarest of all, privileges in new impressions.”

[2] Henri-Jean Martin. Print, Power, and People in 17th-Century France, transl. David Gerard. (Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, 1993), p. 258.

[3] Ibid

[4] Henri-Jean Martin. Le livre français sous l'Ancien Régime (Paris: Promodis, 1987), p. 138.

[5] Jane McLeod. Licensing loyalty: printers, patrons, and the state in early modern France (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011), 24.

[6] Ibid, 31.

[7] Ibid, 43-44.


Printers of the King (Les Imprimeurs do Roi)