Authors and the Police

 The following 500 reports constitute a survey of every author the Parisian police could identify between 1748 and 1753.  They include all the great writers of the Enlightenment along with a large population of minor figures who have disappeared from literary history.  Aside from their value for biographical studies, they provide systematic information about the status of writers, literary careers, the state’s concern for literature, and the police themselves.

The Nature of the Police Reports

Exactly why and how the police assembled such an extraordinary set of files is uncertain.  The manuscript, three large folio volumes in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (nouvelles acquisitions françaises, 10781-10783), has only a title page with one phrase, “Historique des auteurs,” written across it and no preface or explanatory remarks.  Arranged in alphabetical order according to the last names of the authors, the reports show a surveillance system at work on a large scale and a determination to organize information in a thorough, orderly manner.  
The texts contain enough self-referential remarks to indicate that they were assembled from a variety of sources, such as interrogations in the Bastille, notices by spies, neighborhood gossip, and items in literary reviews.  Although they were written in a professional hand, they were not addressed to any person or authority within the French administrative system.  On the contrary, they have phrases that suggest they were meant to be consulted by the person who drafted them; and that person was Joseph d’Hémery, the police inspector in charge of the book trade (inspecteur de la librairie).  The reports can be traced to d’Hémery’s papers now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and they contain updated additions written in his easily identifiable hand.  He seems to have built up dossiers on individual writers and then to have used that material, which does not survive except in a few cases, while composing the reports, which he probably dictated to an official in the service of the police.  As he began his long career as inspecteur de la librairie in 1748, it seems likely that the reports served as a way for him to organize information that could be useful in the performance of his duties.  He also assembled a complementary set of files about 273 booksellers and printers, which have exactly the same format (Bibliothèque nationale de France, manuscrits français 22106-22107.) 

Ideological Danger?

Each report was written on a printed form divided into six categories, marked off by bold type: name, age, birthplace, description, address, and “histoire” or personal story.  The use of a standard, printed form indicates an attempt to be rational and systematic in policing literature.  It illustrates the process of bureaucratization, which was transforming the archaic structure of the Bourbon state at a time when the term “bureaucratie” was first coming into use.  Yet the reports have a subjective element.  D’Hémery often expressed sympathy or scorn for the writers he described, and he made comments about the quality of their writing.  Montesquieu, d’Alembert, Fontenelle, Duclos, and even Rousseau appear in a very favorable light.  Although the reports mention the first stages in the publication of the Encyclopédie at several points, they do not treat the Enlightenment as a distinct phenomenon—and certainly not as a threat to the state. 

Literary Surveillance

To be sure, d’Hémery was a police inspector, and he inspected literature for signs of danger.  He put Diderot down as “un garçon plein d’esprit mais extrêmement dangereux.”   At that time, 1748, Diderot was an obscure scribbler, 35 years old.  “Garçon” indicated his status in the eyes of the police, and “dangereux” probably referred to the irreligious character of his early publications, which were the main theme of the report.  As far as one can tell, d’Hémery remained solidly committed to the church, the state, and the values they embodied.  But his running comments on writers do not suggest an ideological sentinel sniffing out sedition.  They show a responsible, well-informed police officer going about his job.  That job cannot be compared with a modern police “beat,” nor can the reports be read as if they offer a transparent window onto the realities of literary life more than two centuries ago.  They show literature as it appeared to the police and as it inhered in a culture peculiar to the Ancien Régime. 

 Supplementary Information

Although some of the reports have been cited in biographical studies, notably Jeunesse de Diderot (1713-1753) (1939) by Franco Venturi, the entire corpus has never been published.  For a detailed discussion of them, see my The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), chapter 4, which also aggregates the information they contain in statistical tables.  They are transcribed here in full with the French modernized.  Each report is followed by a brief biographical note based on 15 standard sources and dozens of other works—bibliographies, biographies, printed collections of documents, and specialized studies of many kinds.  The biographical notices are intended to identify the authors, to include a minimal amount of basic information, and to provide references that can be followed up by anyone who wants to do further research.  In many cases the information is incomplete or uncertain, as d’Hémery acknowledged by leaving blank spaces in the printed forms.  The spelling of names and the titles of books are sometimes inconsistent.  Eighty-five of the authors cannot be identified at all.  Nonetheless, so much excellent work has been done on the eighteenth century—particularly in the editions of the correspondence of Voltaire and Rousseau and in biographical dictionaries such as the Dictionnaire des journalistes—that it is possible to compile information in a systematic way.


Therefore, with the help of two research assistants whom I would like to thank here, Laura Meek and Cynthia Gessele, I combed through the sources and extracted information that appears after the text of each police report in the same order: name, including variations; date and place of birth; names and occupations or titles of father and mother; date and place of death; education; career (occupations, offices, honors); prison record, if any (dates and reasons of internment); and publications (only a few examples).  The notices end with a list of the sources from which the information was derived, using abbreviations for the 15 standard works; indications of whether the author appears in editions of the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot; and occasionally some supplementary remarks.


The 15 standard works are abbreviated as follows:

Bach: (Bachaumont, Louis Petit de—a conventional attribution, although he may not have contributed anything to this publication, which was written primarily by Mathieu-François Pidansat de Mairobert and Barthélemy-François-Joseph Moufle d’Angerville),  Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France, depuis 1762 jusqu’à nos jours ou journal d’un observateur, par feu M. de Bachaumont, 36 vols., London : Adamson, 1778-89.
Cior: Cioranescu, Alexandre, Bibliographie de la littérature française du dix-huitième siècle, 3 vols., Paris : Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1969.
Rous: Correspondance complète de Jean-Jacques Rousseau, edited by R. A. Leigh, 45 vols., Geneva : Institut et Musée Voltaire and Oxford : The Voltaire Foundation, 1965-86.
Grimm: Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique de Grimm, Diderot, Raynal, Meister, etc., edited by Maurice Tourneux, 16 vols., Paris : Garnier Frères, 1877-82.
Des: Des Essarts, Nicolas-Toussaint Le Moyne, Les Siècles littéraires de la France, ou nouveau dictionnaire historique, critique, et bibliographique de tous les écrivains français, morts et vivants jusqu’à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, 7 vols., Paris : An VIII-An X.
DBF: Dictionnaire de biographie française, Paris : Librairie Letouzey et Ané, 1929-  .
Did: Diderot, Denis, Correspondance, edited by Georges Roth and Jean Varloot, 16 vols., Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1955-70.
Er: Ersch, Johann Samuel, La France littéraire, contenant les auteurs français de 1771 à 1796, 5 vols., Hamburg : B. G. Hoffman, 1797-1806 ; reprint, Geneva : Slatkine, 1971.
FB Funck-Brentano, Frantz, Les Lettres de cachet à Paris, étude suivie d’une liste des prisonniers de la Bastille (1659-1789), Paris : Imprimerie Nationale, 1903.
FL: La Porte, Joseph de and J. Hébrail, La France littéraire, ou almanach des beaux-arts, contenant les noms et les ouvrages des gens de lettres, des savants, et des artistes célèbres qui vivent actuellement en France, 7 vols., Paris : Duchesne, 1755-84.
Lar: Larousse, Pierre, Grand Dictionnaire universel, 17 vols., Paris : 1866-90.
Mic Michaud, J.-F., L.-G. Michaud and E.-E. Desplaces, Biographie universelle, ancienne et moderne, 45 vols., Paris : A. Thoisnier Desplaces, 1843-65.
Q: Quérard, Joseph-Marie, La France littéraire, 12 vols., Paris : Didot, 1827.
Sg: Sgard, Jean, Michel Gilot and Françoise Weil, Dictionnaire des journalistes (1600-1789), Grenoble : Presses universitaires de Grenoble, 1976.
Volt: Voltaire’s Correspondence, edited by Theodore Besterman, 107 vols., Geneva: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1953-65.

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Parisian Police Reports on Authors