Robert Darnton and the historiography of the Enlightenment  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Causes of the Enlightenment

Perhaps more than any other historian of the French Enlightenment, it is Robert Darnton who most radically changed Enlightenment historiography to reflect a history from below. Consider, for example, the following citation from The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982), his microhistoric account of French publishing just before the French Revolution:

“Perhaps the Enlightenment was a more down-to-earth affair than the rarefied climate of opinion described by textbook writers, and we should question the overly highbrow, overly metaphysical view of intellectual life in the eighteenth century.”

In The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, Darnton examines the underbelly of the French book industry in the eighteenth century, examining the world of book smuggling and the lives of those writers (the “Grub Street Hacks”) who never met the success of their philosophe cousins. In short, rather than concerning himself with Enlightenment canon, Darnton studies “what Frenchmen wanted to read”, and who wrote, published and distributed it.

Similarly, in The Business of Enlightenment. A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie 1775-1800, Darnton states that there is no need to further study the encyclopedia itself, as “the book has been analyzed and anthologized dozen of times: to recapitulate all the studies of its intellectual content would be redundant”. He instead, as the title of the book suggests, examines the social conditions that brought about the production of the Encyclopédie. This is representative of the social interpretation as a whole – an examination of the social conditions that brought about Enlightenment ideas rather than a study of the ideas themselves.




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