Hierarchy of Censorship in 1789-1814 France

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During eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century France, with the many changes in ruling bodies, many formal methods and systems of censorship can be seen. For example, privilège and permission tacite during the Ancien Régime, the freedom of the press at the start of the French Revolution, the creation of a censorship office and Directeur de la Librairie, as well as another short-lived freedom of the press during the Napoleonic regime. Punitive methods of censorship, such as exile, imprisonment, execution and also the imprisonment of the written works themselves were consistently present through these eras. Some informal methods of censorship were also consistently seen, such as self-censorship, market forces and editorial censorship. Due to this, it is difficult to ascertain whether there is ‘une censure’ or ‘des formes de censure’. This is also due, in part, to the ambiguity of these words. The word ‘forme’ (2020) can generally be defined as the way in which something materialises or but also the way in which something is structured, like a system. However, the word ‘formes’ (2020) can also be defined as the ways in which the rules of politeness and decorum can be conformed to. In the context of censorship, this could mean how creators conform to, or are forced to conform to, the current ideas of what can be published at any given time. Furthermore, ‘censure’ (2020) has many possible definitions ranging from prior inspection of a publication to determine whether it can and should be published to the body or the system responsible for the inspection or the action of censoring.

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As well as the aforementioned systems and methods of censorship, there is also another aspect that remained constant, arguably prevailing, above all others: fear. That is to say the fear of further, more severe forms of censorship, such as prohibition of work or imprisonment. It could even be suggested that a hierarchy of censorship exists in which each form of censorship is a “level” and the fear of the next, more severe “level” is the way in which the ruling body of France at a given time exercises control over the publication and circulation of printed material and punishes those who attempt to subvert it. In Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. A Birth of Prison, Foucault discusses observation and surveillance, as well as normalizing judgement and examination, as presuppositions to exercising discipline and control (1977, p.170). Contextualising this theory in terms of censorship in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France, it could be argued that fear is a presupposition to exercising discipline and control. That is to say that the governing bodies of France at a given point use the fear of the further “levels” of the hierarchy of censorship, such as banning publications or the imprisonment and execution of authors, in order to control the circulation and publication of ideas and discipline those who subvert it. Foucault also makes reference to another hierarchy in which the notions of observation and surveillance were exchanged for a pedagogical function, in which “pupils” are taught and guided and their mistakes are corrected. Any “troublemakers” are marked down (1997, p.176). This could also be put into the context of French censorship, using the example of Article 17, Chapter V of the Constitution of September 1791 which states that people may be punished for publishing material that intentionally incites criminal behaviour. This example, in part, teaches what can and cannot be published, and any “troublemakers”, that is to say anyone who chooses to publish such material anyway, could be prosecuted and punished. The fear of this acting as an incentive to be compliant and submit to one of the lesser “levels” of censorship, such as self-censoring.

This essay will discuss the existence of ‘une censure’ that can be defined as a system of censorship that functioned as a hierarchy, employing fear as the principle method of controlling the publication and circulation of printed material or whether there was ‘des formes de censure’ that can be defined as multiple systems of censorship. This discussion will take place via an examination of the censorship that can be seen during the Revolutionary period (1789-1799), via examination of examples of the Revolutionary Press, primarily Nouvelles Politiques and Quotidienne, and during the Napoleonic era and the beginning of the Restoration (1804-1814), via an examination of Germaine de Staël’s De L’Allemagne. The main scholar that this essay will look to as an authority of the Revolutionary Press is Jeremy Popkin, due to the volume of his work in this field and his expertise on the right-wing press. The main scholar that this essay will look to as an authority on Staël is J. Christopher Herold, due to the book written about her life.

The Revolutionary Press

The Revolutionary Press was chosen due to the frequency with which newspapers are printed, as this made them a target for censors as, in order to continue to publish, they had to submit to censorship (Censer, 1994, p. 139). Nouvelles Politiques and Quotidienne have been chosen specifically as they were printed with some consistency during the period from 1792 to 1800 (Popkin, 1980, p. 23). While during the Ancien Règime newspapers had to obtain privilège in order to publish a periodical and each edition had to have prior approval before it was printed (Popkin, 1990, p. 17), at the start of the Revolution  the system of censorship had changed. From 1789 to 1791, the Revolutionary Press enjoyed relative freedom (Gough, 1988, p. 44). The Constitution of September 1791 stated in Title 1 that every person had the freedom to write, print and publish without having to submit to pre-publication censorship. Even though the Revolutionary newspapers did not have to have permission in order to publish in this period, this does not mean that they were not subject to any censorship after publication, due to the ambiguity of the liberty given in Title 1 and the fact that it refers only to censorship before publication


According to Popkin, from its inception, Nouvelles Politiques did not show a strong political stance and mainly covered foreign news and the Convention (Popkin, 1980, p. 18). This shows self-censorship as a method of censorship, before any formal method of censorship. It is arguable that this is the first “level” in a singular system of censorship which functioned as hierarchy. It could further be argued that Nouvelles Politiques submitted to self-censorship due to fear, as its owner was previously the owner of Gazette Universelle which was previously banned due to the journée of 10 August 1792 (Gough, 1988, p. 88). Thus, showing evidence of a singular system of censorship which controls circulation of ideas through fear.

Quotidienne showed a stronger political stance and gave full coverage of political activity in Paris (Popkin, 1980, p. 18) and was subject to further “levels” of censorship. For example, in August of 1793, Quotidienne printed an “Address to the French from the leaders of the Catholic and Royal Armies” (Popkin, 1980, p. 19). Because of this, members of staff were imprisoned and the following note to reader was published: “We owe our reader an account of a little incident that may slightly influence the editing of this paper… a few days in jail have permitted us to think things over….” (Popkin, 1980, p. 19). Unlike Nouvelles Politiques, Quotidienne did not submit to self-censorship and, therefore, was subjected to further “levels” of censorship, in the form of punitive methods. After this note, the paper became more neutral in nature (Popkin, 1980, p. 19). This is important because it shows that the paper submitted to censoring themselves due the punitive methods that their staff were subjected to. This supports the argument that there is one system of censorship, that functioned as a hierarchy, using fear to control ideas in the printed format.

Staël also showed evidence of submitting to self-censorship in De L’Allemagne. She followed Nouvelles Politiques example and did not talk about France, as she focused on Germany (Staël, 2008, p. 315). However, Staëlwas still subject to the censorship and was forced to edit certain sections in order to publish because, as the duc de Rovigo, Minister of Police at the time stated, France did not fight a fifteen-year long war for someone as famous as Staël to write a book about Germany and not mention France (Staël, 2008, p. 315).

It is interesting that differing regimes in France not only had different systems of censorship, but also different definitions of what ideas should be censored. That is to say, during the Revolutionary period, Nouvelles Politiques suffered little interference, due in part to its neutral tone on political activity in Paris. Whereas Staël, during the Napoleonic regime, was censored and exiled for not being overtly positive towards France and Napoleon. While it could be argued that there was one system of censorship that exercised control through fear and was constant throughout the Revolutionary period to the Napoleonic regime, this suggests that there were multiple changes to what constituted censorable material. As Nouvelles Politiques remained impartial on matters of Parisian politics and largely managed to avoid being censored, whereas Staël remained silent on France and Napoleon, and was censored.

Suppression of publications

When self-censorship failed, suppression was one of the keys ways in which the Revolutionary Press was censored and controlled during the Revolutionary era. It was also used as a method of censoring Staël’s De L’Allemagne, as will be seen later in this essay. Although after the previous imprisonment of the editors, Quotidienne published with a more neutral tone, it still was subjected to further censorship when it was suppressed in October 1793 (Popkin, 1980, p. 19). Popkin reasons that this was due to the coverage of Brissot’s, an early advocate of freedom of the press (Popkin, 1990, p. 181) and Marie Antionette’s trails (Popkin, 1980, p. 19). From this, it could be argued that there is not one singular system of censorship functioning as a hierarchy, as Quotidienne continued to self-censor by only providing coverage of the trials rather than a commentary (Popkin, 1980, p. 19) and therefore did not subvert the first “level” of the hierarchy censorship but was still subject to further censorship.

This suppression of Quotidienne provided little control in this case, as the owners started a new newspaper under a different title, and Quotidienne became Trois Décades (Popkin, 1980, p. 19). According to Popkin, Trois Décades contained “little controversial material (1980, p. 19). This shows that, even though Quotidienne essentially continued to publish and circulate its ideas, it again submitted to self-censorship by returning to a more neutral tone. This suggests that there was a singular system of censorship that functioned as a hierarchy as Quotidienne began to self-censor after facing a more severe “level” of censorship. This is also important because it suggests that the system used fear to enforce censorship and therefore control of the publication and circulation of printed content. Although, it could be argued that this is not the case as the fear produced from the suppression of Quotidienne was not enough to prevent the editors from starting a new paper.

Despite Nouvelles Politiques’ tendency to submit to self-censorship, it was also not immune to further censorship, as it was affected by the censorship measures of the coup d’état of fructidor (4September 1797). Both Nouvelles Politiques and Quotidienne were banned, effectively ending the circulation of their ideas, their editors were forced into hiding and exile, and Charles Lacratelle, editor of Nouvelles Politiques, was arrested (Popkin, 1980, p. 22). It could be argued that this does not support the idea of one system of censorship as both papers were printing with a “less provocative tone” at this time (Popkin, 1980, p. 21). Even though they were both submitting to self-censorship, they were both subjected to further methods of censorship. However, the measures of this coup d’état did serve to produce an environment where advocation of freedom of the press caused insecurity (Popkin, 1990, p. 175). It could therefore be argued that it caused other publications to censor any ideas of freedom of the press, again showing a singular system where censorship is enforced by fear.

As previously stated, punitive methods of censorship can be seen as part of the coup d’état of fructidor. Interestingly, according to Hugh Gough, punitive methods were more lenient in the provinces than in Paris (Gough, 1988, p. 102), where Nouvelles Politiques and Quotidienne were published. This is evidenced by the events of ventôse II (March 1794), in which the owner of Quotidienne was executed, following a raid on the paper (Popkin, 1980, p. 19). This suggests that more than one system of censorship exists, depending on where in France the works were being published as different punishments were used.

Another aspect that suggests more than one system of censorship is that of the personal connections of those responsible for running the newspapers. While for some periods both Nouvelles Politiques and Quotidienne were publishing with neutrality, Nouvelles Politiques was able to avoid censorship more often than Quotidienne, as evidenced by its aforementioned suppression in October 1793. Popkin argues that Nouvelles Politiques’ connections, for example, its connection to Jacobin deputy provided some protection against interreference from the police, were helpful in avoiding censorship (1980, p. 16). This suggests that there was more than one system of censorship, as those with connections may have avoided censorship, even when publishing in the same tone as those who were subjected to it.

Market forces

Another interesting method of censorship that the suppression of newspapers brings to light is the effect of market force. As stated in the introduction, the effect of market forces is a type of informal censorship that can be seen in the period 1789-1814. The suppression of newspapers caused them to lose their readership, even if they were to continue publishing using a different name. As was the case with Quotidienne which would continue to be published under many names after the coup d’état until 1800 (Popkin, 1980, p. 23). However, an editor of Quotidienne later wrote that the instability of the paper caused it to lose readers (Popkin, 1980, p. 23). Therefore, it is also arguable that the suppression of newspapers, even though they would reappear, was part of the singular system of censorship. If newspapers chose not to censor themselves, they would face being banned and, although they could continue to publish ideas, changing titles would cause them to lose their readership, thereby, not only reducing the circulation of said ideas, but the profit to be made from the business. Thus, if newspapers wanted to continue to have their ideas circulated on a large scale, or on any scale, they would have to submit to self-censorship.

The use of market forces as a form of censorship can also be seen with De L’Allemagne.After it was seized and any copies and all printing equipment were destroyed, Staël’s editor, Nicolle, was forced to file for bankruptcy to the amount of 900,000 francs (Herold, 1959, p. 385). While the destruction of Staël’s publisher’s business may have been an unintentional effect, this served as a message to other publishers who may have published Staël’s work to discourage them from doing so (Herold, 1959, p. 397). Therefore, it could be argued that one system of censorship that relies on fear does exist and extends beyond authors, to publishers as well. However, as previously stated, the consequences Nicolle faced, even though they were useful to Napoleon’s aim, could have been unintentional.

De L’Allemagne

According to Herold, Staël’s De L’Allemagne was an attempt to present information about Germany to an educated, French audience (1959, p. 381). From this work, many examples of censorship can be seen and, as Staël attempted to published during the Napoleonic Regime and eventually did during the Restoration, the way in which censorship functioned during this time can also be seen. For these reasons, and for the wealth of information available, such as correspondence from Staël herself and De L’Allemagne’s censorship reports, De L’Allemagne has been chosen for this essay.

Pre-publication censorship

Moving into the Napoleonic regime, a change in system of censorship can be seen with the return to pre-publication censorship. In 1810, Napoleon set up an office of censorship, under a Directeur de la Librairie, in which works were sent to censors who would then either approve, deny or request certain changes to them, giving authors the opportunity edit their works and prevent problems after publication (Herold, 1959, p. 385). This alone suggests that there was one system of censorship as this was a ratified system that was applied to all authors and all works. Having this system in place supports Foucault’s hierarchy of observation, and therefore the hierarchy of censorship suggested in this essay, as it normalises judgement and examination, allowing them to become presuppositions to control. Therefore, it could also be argued that this singular system functioned as a hierarchy and used fear to control the publication and circulation of content, as not submitting to pre-publication censorship could cause the seizure of works after publication (Herold, 1959, p. 385).

As previously stated, it could be argued that Staël already submitted to the first “level” of censorship, self-censorship, by choosing not mention France or Napoleon (Staël, 2008, pp. 309-310) in  De L’Allemagne, rather than publishing anti-French, anti-Napoleonic work. As it was known at the time, Napoleon expected all artistic works, including books, to show him in a positive light and praise him, as they had once done for King Louis XIV (Winegarten, 1985, p. 17). As Staël had already been ordered to say forty leagues away from Paris for seven years under the Napoleonic regime (Winegarten, 1985, p. 122), it is not inconceivable that she would self-censor in order to avoid the seizure of her work and further punitive methods of censorship. This again shows a singular system of censorship that functioned as a hierarchy and used fear to enforce censorship and control.

The same could be argued for the voluntary submission of her work for examination by the Directeur de la Librairie (Staël, 2008, p. 273) rather than attempting to publish illegally or outside of France. This also shows evidence of a singular system of censorship, one that used fear as a method of control, as Staël abided by the system set up by Napoleon in order to avoid further punitive methods. This is furthered by Staël’s acceptance of changes to the first volume of De L’Allemagne and willingness to correct them (Herold, 1959, pp. 383-384).

However, in spite of this, and the fact that the second volume was approved without change and the third was approved dependant on the deletion of eleven passages (Herold, 1959, p. 389), the duc de Rovigo banned the publication of De L’Allemagne in a letter to Staël dated the 3rd of October 1810 (Welschinger, 1882, p. 359). Furthermore, Staël was exiled to America, given just over a week to leave (Herold, 1959, p. 391). This is important because it suggests that there was more than one system of censorship because Staël was subject to further to censorship, the suppression of her book and exile, even though she accepted the changes suggested by the censors. That is to say, other authors who accepted and made the changes suggested would have been allowed to publish their work.

Three years after the suppression of De L’Allemagne in France, it was published in London, with the original letter banning its publication and ordering her to leave for America from the duc de Rovigo included in the preface (Herold, 1959, p. 391). The publication in England, despite being banned in France, is important as it suggests that the system, or systems as argued in the previous paragraph, of censorship in place at this time did not use fear to control content, as De L’Allemagne was still published. Therefore, its ideas were still circulated, if in England rather than in France. However, due to the fact that it was published in England, rather than illegally in France or in a closer country, the opposite can also be argued. Staël wrote that there was demand for De L’Allemagne from bookshops in Germany (Staël, 2008, p. 263) so she could have printed in there (Staël, 2008, p. 269) without waiting for the censors, but she did not. This is important, as is the duration of time that Staël waited before publishing in England, because it suggests that fear did in fact play a part in controlling the publication and circulation of ideas and, therefore, enforcing censorship.

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Napoleon’s known dislike of women and female intellectuals in particular (Winegarten, 1985, p. 16) must be noted. This is evidenced by the code civil of 1804 which stripped women of many of their rights, for example, Article 213 stated that women must be obedient to their husbands.  Therefore, it may be argued that treatment that Staël and De L’Allemagne received at the hands of the censorship of the Napoleonic era was not representative of the censorship of this period in general. As Herold admits, the system was bias against Staël (1959, p. 385). As with the Revolutionary Press, more than one system can be seen during the Napoleonic era, as here it can be seen the system employed depended on the author, as Staël and De L’Allemagne were subjected to a different, harsher system that other authors were.

In this essay, it has been discussed whether, in the period 1789-1814, there existed ‘une censure’,  one system of censorship and whether that system can be described as a hierarchy of censorship that employs fear as a tool to enforce censorship and control the publication and circulation of ideas, or ‘des formes de censure’,  multiple systems of censorship. It has shown evidence of a singular system of censorship, such as the office of censorship under the Directeur de la Librairie during the Napoleonic regime and the punitive methods of censorship that Quotidienne was subject to for not self-censoring. However, instances in which there was plurality of systems have also been seen. For example, the subjection Staël and De L’Allemagne to a harsher system of censorship than other authors and work at the time. As well as, the laxer system that Nouvelles Politiques was subject to due to the editors’ and owners’ personal connections. Therefore, it could be argued that there were multiple systems of censorship throughout the period 1789-1814.

However, this essay has also shown evidence that the system, or systems, of censorship function as hierarchy, in which fear is overarching force by which control over the publication and circulation of ideas is exercises. This idea is interesting as it is constant over multiple periods of France’s history and, therefore, warrants further investigation. As it can be seen in the throughout the examples in this essay, it could be argued that, while this essay has shown evidence of both multiple systems of censorship and one system of censorship at work, the underpinning of both is that of the use of fear as method of control. In this way, ‘une censure’ existed as a hierarchical system in which control exercised by fear. That is to say, one system that was used differently by multiple ruling bodies who all had different ideas of how censorship should be enforced but enforced it the same way, by using fear to control the publication and circulation of ideas.

Reference list

‘Censure’ (2020) Available at: https://www.larousse.fr/dictionnaires/francais/censure/14086?q=censure#13930 (Accessed: 03 January 2020)

Code civil des français. originale et seule officielle ed. 1804. Paris: L'Imprimerie de la République.

Constitution de 1791. (Available at: https://www.conseil-constitutionnel.fr/les-constitutions-dans-l-histoire/constitution-de-1791)

Censer, J. R., 1994. The French Press in the Age of Englightenment. London: Routledge.

‘Forme’ (2020) Available at: https://www.larousse.fr/dictionnaires/francais/forme/34644?q=forme#34603 (Accessed: 03 January 2020)

‘Formes’ (2020) Available at: https://www.larousse.fr/dictionnaires/francais/formes/34645?q=formes#34604 (Accessed: 03 January 2020)

Foucault, Michel. (1977) Discipline and Punish. The Birth of Prison. Translated from the French by A. Sheridan. London: Penguin Books.

Gough, H., 1988. The Newspaper Press in the French Revolution. London: Routledge.

Herold, J. C., 1959. Mistress to an Age: a Life of Madame de Staël. London: Hamish Hamilton.

Popkin, J. D., 1980. The Right-Wing Press in France, 1792-1800. Chapel Hill: The Univeristy of North Carolina Press.

Popkin, J. D., 1990. Revolutionary News The Press in France, 1789-1799. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Staël, M. d., 2008. Correspondance Générale, vol. 7 La Destruction de De L'Allemagne L'Exil À Coppet: 9 Mai 1809-23 Mai 1812. s.l.:Champion - Slatkine.

Welschinger, Henri. (1882). La censure sous le premier empire avec documents inédits. Paris, Charavay frères. (Available at: http://books.google.com/books?id=aNFnAAAAMAAJ)

Winegarten, R., 1985. Mme. de Staël. Leamington Spa: UK: Berg (Berg women's series).


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