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The St Andrews Project

Since 1997, a group of researchers at the University of St Andrews have been engaged on an ambitious bibliographical project: a survey of all books published in French before 1601.
Published on 26 Nov. 2009

French Vernacular Books: Books in French Published before 1601

Since 1997, a group of researchers at the University of St Andrews have been engaged on an ambitious bibliographical project: a survey of all books published in French before 1601. At first we concentrated our attention on books of a religious character: Bibles, works of theology, catechisms, works of polemic and devotional texts. But it soon became clear that in an age of religious strife it was almost impossible to distinguish such books from other classes of political writing and literature. Consequently, in the year 2001 the decision was made to extend our survey to encompass all books, wholly or partly in the French language, whether published in France or abroad. This brought into the project many fascinating categories of books previously ignored, such as architectural and scientific texts, medical books and travel literature, almanacs and legal handbooks. We also offer a comprehensive survey of all vernacular literary texts, whether poetry, prose writing or drama.

Comparing our working method with the great bibliographical projects undertaken for other countries, such as the German VD16 and the STC Netherlands, the St Andrews project has two unusual features. Firstly, we have directed a great deal of our research time away from the largest and best known collections, such as the Biblithèque Nationale in Paris, towards the far less well known collections of the French Bibliothèques Municipales. The French municipal libraries are one of the great unknown treasures of the early book world. Assembled as a result of the Revolutionary decree of 1792 confiscating the property of French religious houses, these marvellous collections are only partly known through 19th century printed catalogues (many woefully inaccurate), and a recent attempt to create a consolidated on-line collection of the largest and most valuable (the Catalogue Collectif de France). But the CCF contains data from only around twenty of the 450 Bibliothèques Municipales with known ancien fonds. The St Andrews project has now contacted all 450, and worked systematically through the holdings of over 300.

Secondly, we have made a special feature of our project a comprehensive survey of collections outside France. No bibliographical project undertaken in France, whether the individual efforts of Renouard, Moreau or the collective endeavours of the scholars involved in the Répertoire Bibliographique du livre du siezième siècle has ever fully seized the potential of the numerous collections of early books spread throughout Europe and the United States. The proliferation of on-line catalogues in the last ten years has made many hundreds of these collections accessible for the first time: many others have been visited in person by members of the project team. By the time of the publication of our bibliography in 2007, we expect to have conducted full or near full surveys of libraries in Great Britain and the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Considerable additional information has also been gleaned from libraries in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Scandinavia and around fifty libraries of the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

All in all, the published bibliography will include data gathered from some 1500 libraries worldwide: information on a total of some 150,000 located copies of around 46,000 bibliographically distinct items. These include many thousands of new editions, or books for which we have located the first known surviving copy. Here, the particular importance of the scope of our search becomes clear. It has already been established through a trial analysis of the data that around 30% of the books we have listed survive only in copies presently located outside France. What is only now emerging is the importance of the large number of small, dispersed collections, particularly those in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. To take one example the library of the Dominikankloster at Retz, Austria, contains only four books that come within our terms of reference. But two are known only through this single copy. This is unusual, but far from unique. Almost all of the 300 collections we have surveyed with fewer than 20 relevant items have at least one book not found elsewhere, or known in only one other surviving copy; collectively, these small collections are therefore of incalculable value.

The importance of our project as a resource for antiquarian booksellers will already be apparent. Given the present state of the published scholarship, there is simply no simple way of accessing a global survey of early French books. A conscientious bookseller?s catalogue entry will note copies in the Paris BNF, the British Library, and well known published bibliographies such as Adams (books in Cambridge libraries), and Mortimer (French books in Harvard). On-line searches may reveal other copies. But the St Andrews project has logged thousands of copies that have simply escaped all previous attempts to locate them. The systematic examination of books has also revealed many previously unknown issues and states, and completely separate editions. This is particularly so of the political and religious pamphlet literature of the latter half of the sixteenth century, but it is also the case that many large and medium sized books, such as substantial and weighty philosophical and literary works in octavo, exist in many variant states and multiple editions. These are all carefully logged in the St Andrews bibliography.

The St Andrews project offers, quite simply, a first ever global view of the world of early French vernacular printing. The project fieldwork will continue until 2007, at which point a short-title catalogue will be published listing all known editions with up to ten locations for each item. Antiquarian booksellers wishing to register an interest in receiving advanced notice of publication should contact the project manager, Dr Alexander Wilkinson, at St Andrews ( Further information on the project, the working method, and libraries surveyed, can be accessed through the project website.

Andrew Pettegree
St Andrews French Book Project

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