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

Learn about the role of books during the Enlightenment and how literature emerged as a modern form of culture.
This course is archived
Estimated 1 weeks
1–2 hours per week
Instructor-paced
Instructor-led on a course schedule
Cost to Enroll
$50 USD

About this course

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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.


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At a glance

  • Language: English
  • Video Transcript: English

What you'll learn

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  • 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

About the instructors

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