La Gazette d’Amsterdam: Miroir de l’Europe au XVIIIe siècle

For more than twenty years, Pierre Rétat has played a leading role in promoting scholarship on the role of the periodical news press in eighteenth-century French culture. This volume, a collaborative effort under his direction by a team of French, Dutch and Swiss scholars, most of them veterans of many previous research efforts in the field, provides a ‘global history’ of one of the period’s major international French-language gazettes, from its origins in the period of the Huguenot exodus under Louis XIV to its demise during the revolutionary period a century later. A CD-ROM reprint of the full run of the Gazette d’Amsterdam, produced in conjunction with this volume, is an important new resource for research on the period.

The unique importance of the French-language gazettes published in the Netherlands beginning in the seventeenth century and imitated in other European countries starting in the 1730s was first recognized by the great nineteenth-century press historian Eugène Hatin and has been amply confirmed by recent research. The Rétat team’s monograph joins earlier works on the Gazette de Leyde, the Courrier d’Avignon, and the Courier du Bas-Rhin.[i] This volume does not just fill in another gap in scholarship, however. Previous studies had concentrated on the last decades of the eighteenth century; La Gazette d’Amsterdam concerns a paper that dominated the European press field in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Rétat and his collaborators show that the division of labor between the officially authorized Gazette de France and the foreign-based press, often interpreted as a response to the growing independence of public opinion after 1750, actually took shape during the reign of Louis XIV, with the active encouragement of the French government, and they demonstrate the importance of the Dutch gazettes in French politics throughout the first half of the eighteenth century.

The earliest known French-language newspaper published in Amsterdam appeared in 1620, eleven years before the foundation of Renaudot’s Gazette in Paris, but the enterprise that would be known throughout Europe as the Gazette d’Amsterdam was only founded in 1691, after a period in which the Dutch authorities had tried to suppress such publications to avoid provoking Louis XIV. Descendents of the paper’s founder, Jean Tronchin Dubreuil, a French-speaking Protestant born in Geneva who had spent many years in France, continued to own the paper until 1794, assuring its institutional continuity; its longevity was only surpassed by that of the Gazette de Leyde, founded in 1677. Although Tronchin Dubreuil had been imprisoned in France, the paper he founded in Amsterdam was not part of a Huguenot crusade against the Sun King. He quickly adopted the formula that would assure the paper’s prosperity down to the 1750s: that of serving as an outlet for material that the French government was willing to tolerate, but that did not fit into the rigid formulas by which the Gazette de France was bound. The Gazette d’Amsterdam was thus in no sense a subversive or contestatory publication. The French government provided it with information, and it was never banned in France; at times, collaboration between the editor and French diplomats in the Netherlands was so close that they shared their copies of source material such as the English newspapers.

For nearly six decades, this system functioned to the mutual satisfaction of the Tronchin Dubreuil family, the French government, and the Amsterdam municipal authorities, who profited handsomely from the license fee the paper paid. Close study of surviving collections suggests that, before 1700, readers did not distinguish clearly between the various competing gazettes d’Hollande, which were treated as a sort of generic genre, but that in the early eighteenth century they began to be separated from each other. Its preponderance in surviving collections indicates that “the Gazette d’Amsterdam is without doubt the great international gazette of the first half of the eighteenth century,” as Rétat concludes (127). The cost of a subscription was extremely high, however, and Rétat and Denis Reynaud estimate that its press run probably never exceeded 1250, a fraction of what the successful international papers of the later eighteenth century achieved (80). To this must be added the circulation of several reprint editions, put out in Geneva, Avignon, Venice, Bordeaux and La Rochelle. The Geneva edition had an official privilege and probably appeared with the permission of the Tronchin Dubreuil family. The Avignon and Venice versions both served as stepping stones to the creation of an independent local press; as Gilles Feyel—who contributes chapters on advertising and on the French government’s economic regulation of the press to this volume–showed some time ago in the case of the reprints of the Gazette de France, such enterprises were an important stage in the spread of newspaper publication.

Newspapers have their own life cycles, and the Gazette d’Amsterdam entered into a period of decline by the 1750s. As Feyel shows, the French government decided in the 1750s to counter the increasingly outspoken competitors of the Gazette d’Amsterdam by drastically reducing postal rates and allowing all foreign papers to circulate openly in France; the hope was that the lure of expanded sales in the kingdom would make editors more circumspect, even at the cost of undercutting the Gazette d’Amsterdam’s privileged position. In the early 1760s, the minister Choiseul also decided to reinvigorate the Gazette de France in the hope of winning readers away from the foreign gazettes. The results were disastrous for the staid Amsterdam paper, too strongly identified with French government interests; it lost ground to the Gazette de Leyde, which had distinguished itself by its support for the parlements during the refusal-of-sacraments controversy, although Annie Rivara’s article in this volume suggests that the difference between the two papers’ content was not that great. By 1789, the Gazette d’Amsterdam had declined into insignificance, even though its coverage of the French Revolution is not without interest, as Christophe Cave shows. Unlike the Gazette de Leyde, the Amsterdam paper did not manage to profit from the Revolution’s return to aggressive news management, and it seems to have ceased publication altogether in 1796.

The Rétat team’s volume thus demonstrates that the French public had access to a dependable and reasonably accurate account of current events that went well beyond the officially authorized domestic press all through the eighteenth century, and that the dual press system developed with the active support of the French government, which relied more on carrots than on sticks to manage the journalists beyond its borders. The multi-faceted approach made possible through collaborative research has allowed the authors to overcome the relative paucity of archival sources about the Gazette d’Amsterdam, much less well served in this respect than the Gazette de Leyde or the Courrier d’Avignon. The volume is well integrated and gives a clear picture of a major periodical’s rise, influence, and decay.

The twelve CD-ROMs produced in conjunction with this project should become a major resource for scholars working on the political history, not only of France, but of all of Europe, especially in the first half of the eighteenth century. Each issue of the paper is reproduced as a separate document, accessible with Adobe Acrobat softwear. The images are clear and easily readable, and an index on each disk makes it simple to access specific issues by date. Drawing on collections from several different sources, Rétat’s team has assembled a complete run of the paper, something that does not exist in any library.

[i] Jeremy D. Popkin, News and Politics in the Age of Revolution: Jean Luzac’s Gazette de Leyde (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989); René Moulinas, L’Imprimerie, la librairie et la presse à Avignon au XVIIIe siècle (Grenoble, 1974); Matthias Beermann, Zeitung zwischen Profit und Politik. Der Courier du Bas-Rhin (1767-1810) (Leipzig, 1996).