A World of Paper: Louis XIV, Colbert de Torcy, and the Rise of the Information State

By John C. Rule and Ben S. Trotter. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014. 704 pp. $49.95 (hardback). ISBN 978-0-7735-4370-6.

Prodigiously researched in archives, this book has much to say about government, the training of bureaucrats, and the use of information by the foreign ministry in France during the last decades of Louis XIV, the “roi-bureaucrate” rather than the “roi-soleil” (14). The word “paper” in the title really means “paperwork.” There is no discussion of the creation, distribution or preservation of paper, while “information” has only scattered attention until more than 300 pages into the text. Colbert de Torcy (not to be confused with his much more famous uncle Jean-Baptist Colbert) followed his father as the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1696 to 1715, the period of the War of the Spanish Succession. His duties also included supervising the post office, itself an important institution of information dissemination and censorship as readers of Robert Darnton will remember.

The great French historian Georges Lefebvre once started a book with a two-page footnote. John C. Rule and Ben S. Trotter content themselves instead with some 241 pages of endnotes. Oddly missing are Roger Chartier and Peter Burke (except for one book), not to mention Anthony Grafton or Darnton, whose influential works could have added more substance and perspective to the discussion of information. Ann Blair and Daniel Headrick make brief appearances. Still, readers of this journal will appreciate that the authors were influenced by James T. Cortada’s study of historical information as presented in Information & Culture.[1] It would appear from the Introduction that Rule started the book as an in-depth study of a budding French bureaucracy and that Trotter added a more contemporary interest in the role of information and the use of written documents.

One information innovation, at least apparently for France, was the librarian Nicolas Clément’s organizing the ministry’s papers first by foreign power and then collating them with the ministry’s own correspondence, all of which enabled the officials to see a file or “negotiation as a contextualized narrative … a radical departure from the ‘monological’ registries” (322). “Organization and accessibility [of information] remained a concern for Torcy and his collaborators” (327). Clément also indexed these documents for easier information retrieval before returning to his position as Royal Librarian. He had done this work during the service of Torcy’s father (foreign minister 1679-1696). Indeed, much of the significant initiative had occurred during an earlier period more compactly examined by Jacob Soll in The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009). That serious and varied historians are taking such interest in information and book history is a welcome development.

Although we tend to think of Louis XIV and his ministers as inhibiting the flow of information, Rule and Trotter show that Torcy and the publication of royal propaganda contributed to the creation of a “public sphere” (338-342). There is, however, little direct analysis of how information changed or did not change actual government decisions as the emphasis is focused on bureaucratic infighting and diplomatic wrangling. Yet the authors insist that “[i]nformation, particularly understood in its context, is a critical asset in administrative turf battles” (398). “Information,” as Jeremy Black has aptly remarked, “is both the context and the means of decisionmaking,” and therefore of vital importance in the study of governments and other institutions.[2]

Torcy in the end was unable to control all the foreign policy information flowing to the throne (372), one back-channel being the king’s second and more-or-less secret wife Madame de Maintenon. Rule and Trotter seem to accept Soll’s contention that Louis XIV did not himself value the benefit of a single over-arching information system as the Colberts would have (144). It would seem that after thirty years of further rule – and another 300 pages of text – the king’s approach to the usefulness and centralization of information remained much as it had been early in his reign. However important it might be for crucial information to be collected and documented, to allow it to remain the preserve of one faction of government made it problematic for royal control.

A World of Paper provides an in-depth but gracefully written study of bureaucratic monarchy and the restricted role of government information as France entered the Enlightenment.


Patrick M. Valentine

East Carolina University

A Social History of Books and Libraries from Cuneiform to Bytes (2012)​

[1]“Shaping Information History as an Intellectual Discipline,” Information & Culture 47 (2012): 119-44.

[2]The Power of Knowledge: How Information and Technology Made the Modern World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 120.