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The Book: The History of the Book in the 17th and 18th Century Europe - Harvard University



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Learn about the role of books during the Enlightenment and how literature emerged as a modern form of culture.With this course you earn while you learn, you gain recognized qualifications, job specific skills and knowledge and this helps you stand out in the job market.

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What you'll learn on the course


Course programme

This module of The Book: Histories Across Time and Space focuses on the physical qualities of books, the role of books in 17th and 18th century France, and the emergence of literature as a modern form of culture.

We will focus on the importance of books as physical objects and the raw material of literature--namely, paper.  By considering the nature of paper and how it was made during the early modern period--from Gutenberg's time to the early nineteenth century--we can begin to understand the character of books and the way they worked.

This module also examines how books fit into the legal and political system of France under the Old Regime during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the French set standards imitated throughout Europe.  Before modern copyright, legal books had privileges, granted by the king, which provided a guarantee of quality as well as certification of   orthodoxy.  To qualify for a privilege, books had to be approved by censors.  Uncensored books, including most of the works of the Enlightenment, were usually produced outside France and circulated in the kingdom through a vast underground distribution system. 

In addition, this module addresses the emergence of literature as a modern form of culture, which can be studied best in eighteenth-century England.  The first copyright law (1710), a high rate of literacy, a booming consumer market, a precocious periodical industry, and entrepreneurial publishing concentrated in London led to the development of a new kind of author--the independent writer. Samuel Johnson epitomized this new phenomenon. This module will allow you to get a close look at him and everything he represented by providing access to the Hyde Collection of Johnson's books and papers in Houghton Library at Harvard.

What you'll learn

  • The importance of books as physical objects 
  • The construction of books 
  • The role of legal books in 17th and 18th century France 
  • The subversive role of illegal books in 17th and 18th century France 
  • The circumstances surrounding emergence of literature as a modern form of culture
  • The early stages of copyright law and an the development of the independent writer

Additional information

Robert Darnton Robert Danton retired in July 2015 as the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian at Harvard University. He has published extensively on the history of books since its emergence as a distinct field of study in the 1960s. Among his books are The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopedie; The Literary Underground of the Old Regime; The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Prerevolutionary France; The Case for Books, Past, Present, and Future; and Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature.