Librarians, learned journals and men of action

A bit of a tangent for News Networks, this, occasioned by a note in an early learned journal. The run of the Journal des Sçavans in Archbishop Marsh’s library in Dublin appears to have belonged to its first keeper, Elie Bouhéreau. Bouhéreau was a remarkable man in many respects, but more of him anon.  The Journal des Sçavans is well known as the first learned periodical, its first issue beating by a couple of months Henry Oldenburg’s Philosophical Transactions (which consoles itself with the distinction of being the first scientific journal – the Journal des Sçavans took the republic of letters more generally as its remit).  Both were immediate successes, both survive down to the present under largely the same title (with a few hiccups along the way, in each case) and each borrowed extensively from the other.   Their status as rivals and analogues was pointed out from the beginning; Sir Robert Moray (one of three candidates for the title of first President of the Royal Society, depending on what criteria you use) wrote to Christiaan Huygens in Paris to tell him that Oldenburg had shown a copy of the first issue of the Journal at a meeting of the Society.  (Intriguingly enough, Moray refers to it as the “Gazette des Sçavans”, not the “Journal”.)  He added that Oldenburg had produced “a sample of a similar project, but much more philosophical in nature” which would eschew legal and theological matters.

The remark proved prescient – the Journal ran for barely three months before its repeated endorsements of gallican positions led to its being shut down by the government following a complaint from the papal legate.  It was revived in 1666, when it appeared weekly; thereafter its periodicity was extremely erratic for most of the next ten years, varying from a handful of issues per year up to 1674, to an average of fortnightly or better in the late 1670s and early 1680s.  Oldenburg had problems of his own to face – wars on the continent that disrupted his correspondence, plague, fire, and a spell of incarceration – but by and large he kept the Transactions up to its intended monthly periodicity (with exceptions usually made for July and August, or August and September, when the Royal Society took its annual recess.)

Neither was exactly a news periodical, but it’s worth noting that news and the structures of news discourse had an important influence on both – something that has been partly forgotten in the subsequent emphasis on the ways in which they represented something new.  Moray’s renaming, for instance, is suggestive; whether intentionally or by Freudian slip, “gazette” associates the new publication with Théophraste Renaudot’s Gazette de France.  The implication is that weekly periodicity gives rise to expectations of a certain kind of discourse (and Moray knew that the Journal was intended to appear more often than monthly, since his reference to Oldenburg’s nascent Transactions acknowledges that they will ‘only’ appear once a month).  Like the Gazette, the Journal was under the direct patronage of the government; it was the subject of a privilege, intended to grant its author a monopoly; and it touched often on political or theological matters.    The Transactions, for its part, presented surprisingly little that would now be recognizable as scientific research papers.  Oldenburg, occasionally fêted as the world’s first scientific editor, might be more aptly remembered as the world’s first scientific journalist, pulling together from his role as Secretary to the Royal Society and the vast correspondence he kept up across Europe a snapshot of contemporary goings-on in natural philosophy.  The letter-extracts, second-hand reports, and promotional extracts of books in which Oldenburg had a financial stake as editor or translator (notably by Robert Boyle) represent a very large proportion of the whole of the early journal, and formally presented research rather less than is sometimes thought.


The picture above shows the 27th of June 1672 issue of the Journal. Bouhéreau’s note remarks on the fact that he’s been informed, almost two years after the fact, that the issue that was supposed to come between this and the next extant issue of July 25th “is not to be found, the author not wishing it to be printed”.[1]  I’d like to think that Bouhéreau made this note in 1674 when he got Abraham Tessereau’s letter, because it would speak well of his bibliographical curiosity some time before he became keeper of Marsh’s Library.  Bouhéreau knew there was a missing issue not because of an unexplained gap in the periodicity of the Journal­ – it was too erratic for that, and individual issues weren’t numbered  – but because there is a gap in the pagination.  An issue was earmarked for that gap, and perhaps even printed, but was withdrawn or suppressed before it could reach the public, and at any rate does not survive.  (The rest of the visible text is a book review of a treatise on the airs, waters, soils and places of England, as well as of the habits and temperaments of the English, printed in England but written in Latin; this section is a translation of the review section of the Philosophical Transactions for March of the same year.)  The reason for the non-appearance of this issue is not clear – Bouhéreau’s note indicates that it was the will of the publisher, although in a French context that could as easily indicate the interference of Colbert, Louis XIV’s chief minister, as a decision by Jean Gallois, who was the principal author of the Journal in the 1670s.

Bouhéreau is, or ought to be, a hero to librarians everywhere; a dedicated bibliophile, a skilled cataloguer, on the surviving evidence, and a man of action.  Exiled from his hometown of La Rochelle for his Protestantism, he successfully smuggled his books out of the country into England and, eventually, Ireland, where they were eventually donated to Marsh’s. (In this he had the help of the English ambassador).  He followed the books soon after; lest anyone think his priorities were a little off, he also arranged the escape of his family, and subsequently, it’s reported, returned to France to rescue his youngest son, whom he hadn’t managed to smuggle out in the initial attempt.[2]

[1] News Networks has the present Keeper of Marsh’s, Dr Jason McElligott, to thank for bringing the note to our attention and supplying the image.

[2] For an account of Bouhéreau, see Muriel McCarthy, ‘Elie Bouhéreau, first keeper of Marsh’s Library’, Dublin Historical Record 56 (2003), 132-45.

One thought on “Librarians, learned journals and men of action

  1. Pingback: News Networks V: Venice | Early Modern News Networks

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