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Sophie Turner

Art, prophecy and the black market of books in the National Library’s French collection 

7. March 2024

Over the course of year-long survey a French cultural historian identified a remarkable number of rare books and publications from the National Library’s holdings.

Over the last year Dr. Sophie Turner, a former Oxford University researcher and lecturer, has been researching the National Library’s collection of French books. Dr. Turner has turned her focus onto the rare books collection only to be confronted with some remarkable findings, even as the research could only be done on the library’s digital catalogues as the physical archives remain packed away for the duration of the National Library’s reconstruction. „We were lucky enough to gain a true French collection expert’s look into out collections. The National Library is overjoyed at the wealth of materials Dr. Turner identified“ stated Ruth Hiie, a specialist of old books at the National Library of Estonia.

This is the first in-depth study of the collection. Of the nearly 9000 works in the collection, 300 have been identified and described. In addition to the main books, one manuscript, some journals, albums and engravings are described. The study has highlighted a number of works that are rarely found in Western European libraries.

Traces of a black market for books

The printing of the Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s marked the beginning of the printing revolution and the start of a powerful book industry in Europe. The successful industry was accompanied by a lucrative clandestine market. Two of the oldest works in the National Library’s French collection, dating from the late 16th century, illustrate the development of the early black market. Only some 150 years into the history of the printed book in Europe, the marks of the vibrant black market are clear on one of these prints. The 1593 “History of Wars in Italy”, probably printed in Geneva, significantly leaves its city of origin unstated to improve its prospects on the neighboring French market. Smuggling took place along the current French border, and the study identified such traces on many of the books in the collection. The black market was so lucrative that in the second half of the 18th century, around 50% of French books were printed abroad for sale on the European market or smuggled back to France (reference: Rogier Chartier and Henri-Jean Martin).

The banned books’ collection

While the smuggling business could include all kinds of books, there was one category especially prone to end up only on the black market – banned and scandalous books. Within the National Library’s collection a number of these books were identified. Many books in the French collection were ostracised because of the strict political and cultural norms of the time, particularly for criticisms of the monarchy. The 1772 book titled “L’An 2240” is one of the earliest examples of utopian fiction and describes a future Paris with the powers of the monarchy abolished. At the height of the reign of Louis XV the book was obviously banned, but remained a best-seller across Europe, gaining prophetic fame as the French Revolution abolished the monarchy less than 20 years after the publication. Also in the National Library’s collection is Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “Emile” which was banned just days after its publication due to its heretical content. The book was then ritually burned in public and Rousseau was sent into exile. De Sade’s violent and sexual texts shocked readers at the time of publication and remained banned in Europe until the mid-20th century. It is after all Marquis de Sade’s name, that “sadism” derives from. As the earliest edition of Sade’s work in Estonian memory institutions, this edition of “Crimes d’amour” from 1800 could be highly valuable.

An artist from the Louvre collections

One of the treasures from the collection are the artworks by celebrated seventeenth-century French etcher and engraver Jacques Callot. He is most praised for his very small scale etchings and drawings. Series like the valuable “Lux Claustri” seem to potentially be full sets. An appreciation for Callot’s work has started to gain tract in recent years through publications and exhibitions. The identified etchings can also be found in prestigious art museums, such as The Louvre, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum.

Images of Lux Claustri from the Metropolitan Museum’s page.

The truth remains hidden until the National Library’s reopening

The National Library’s French collection has been full of unexpected findings, but leave much to look forward to in continuing research. “Even though the analysis found many surprising pieces in the National Library’s archives, a full assessment of each books state and background can only be given once the physical archives are re-opened” Dr. Turner emphasized.  

The French findings also led to wider questions about how these books ended up in Estonia and  through which collections tey arrived here. The 9,000 works constitute a remarkable collection for understanding the role of French culture in our society and the books’ journey to the treasure troves here.  

The National Library’s collections await the reopening of the underground storage rooms in the main Tõnismäe building in 2027.