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23 September 2016: Printing In A Time Of Revolution

Here at Rooke Books we have a large collection of interesting and exciting texts. There is a curious and fascinating detail to the title page of one of our French sets. The same text carries two wildly different dates. One is MDCCCVI – the year 1804. The other is XIII - the year thirteen.

There is an intriguing story behind this detail, which begins with the French Revolution.

It is an interesting fact that the fall of the Ancien Régime was enabled by printing technology. The printed word allowed for new ideas to spread throughout the whole country, allowing the revolution to become a national movement. The newly free presses of Paris were the beating hearts of the young republic, and their legacy survives even to this day, both in our own democracies, and in the books that have been inherited from this time.

However, one of the most remarkable acts of this republic is now largely forgotten. In 1792 the revolutionary government decided to abolish the old calendar, with its royal and clerical associations. A new and rationalised one was to be adopted, alongside the new legal system and the new decimal system. It was decided that the calendar should begin retrospectively with 1789 – which would be year one of the revolutionary era.

The date XIII is the year thirteen of that revolutionary calendar. However, interestingly the calendar we have been referring to was abolished in its twelfth year. It was abolished by the great counter revolutionary, and by then emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. As this calendar was already abolished by 1804 it seems that the publisher, Herhan, may have been making a small political point by printing the year thirteen.

It seems plausible that the printing presses which drove the revolution were rather reluctant to see its spirit crushed. After all, prior to the revolution, French printing houses mainly produced large multi-volume works within the classical, ecclesiastical, and legal tradition of the Ancien Régime. 1789 saw an explosion of a different sort of media, including pamphlets, journals, and almanacs. While books slowly made their return as the political situation began to stabilise, the revolutions effects were lasting. Over its course, the number of printers in Paris quadrupled, and the number of booksellers and publishers tripled. The industry had, in a very real sense, been liberated.

As the freedom of the press was slowly strangled by the young Emperor, is it possible that in this book there is a remaining ember of resistance and loyalty to the revolutionary idea of Liberté?

 


 

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