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French Printed Collections, 1501-1850

Our French printed collections 1501 to 1850 are among the greatest to be found outside France.

At the time of their acquisition in the 1750s, the foundation collections of the British Museum Library were already rich in imprints in French of great rarity or antiquity. This feature was further strengthened when the King's Library and the Grenville Library were acquired in 1823 and 1847 respectively.

Title-page of Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque

Title-page of Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque, by Gabriel Naudé (Paris, 1627), shelfmark: 619.c.3 © The British Library Board

The scale and nature of these collections have defined the principle of acquisition since the middle of the 19th century, which has been to make the French-language holdings as full and representative as possible in order to sustain the needs of research into every aspect of French and francophone culture and history. 

They extend well beyond France to include Belgium, Switzerland and French-speaking Canada. They reflect the evolution of these societies and moreover they reflect the fact that French has also for centuries been an international and research language, and that French publishing has always had much to say about the lives of societies besides itself.

The collections cover the fields of biblical scholarship, religion, literature, public administration, history and politics in the 16th century to the preoccupations of the 18th and 19th centuries: law, political thought, the pure and applied sciences, and economic and commercial development. They also include a substantial body of speculative writings on other worlds, forms of utopia, and the nature of the universe. There is an abundance of material concerning the enduring institutions of the Ancien Régime such as the Parlements, the Monarchy and the Catholic Church, as well as the events which marked it, such as the 'Fronde'.


Of particular note is the Library's collection of mid 17th-century pamphlets known as 'Mazarinades'. Numbering about 4,000, they are on the whole not catalogued separately but can be found by searching the Library's catalogues under the heading 'Mazarinades':

  • 180.a.2-14. (13 volumes)
  • 181.a.1-13. (13 volumes)
  • C.115.b.1-18. (18 volumes)
  • C.115.c.2-18. (17 volumes)
  • Cup.406.j.l. (11 volumes).

Material relating to the Enlightenment is particularly well represented. The holdings of publications of the various French 'Académies' are especially strong, as are runs of periodical literature either in the original edition or as microform copies. There is a complete edition of Diderot's Encyclopédie on the open shelves in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at shelfmark RAR034.1, and a second set can be ordered into the reading room for consultation from the King's Library. This second copy is distributed across the following shelfmarks:

  • 64.g.1-65.g.5. Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné. (17 volumes)
  • 65.g.6-66.g.4. Receuil de planches. (11 volumes)
  • 66.g.5-8. Supplément à l'Encyclopédie. (4 volumes)
  • 66.g.9. Suite du Recueil de planches. (1 volume)
  • 66.g.10,11. Table analytique et raisonn&eacutee des mati&egraveres contenues dans les... volumes in-folio du Dictionnaire.

The holdings also include a set of publications known as the 'French Revolutionary Tracts'. Sometimes known as the Croker Collection, they number almost 50,000 printed items, from leaftlets to multi-volume works, and offer insights into every facet of the French Revolution, its prelude and aftermath. The Tracts are stored in five separate shelfmark sequences:

  • F. (1927 volumes)
  • F*. (197 volumes)
  • F**. (71 volumes)
  • F.R. (600 volumes)
  • R. (693 volumes).

Their contents are described in French Revolutionary Collections in the British Library (London, 1979), reference copies of which are available in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at shelfmark RAR094.30944, and in the Humanities Reading Room at HLR944.04. The French Revolutionary Tracts are complemented by numerous other works, especially memoirs of the early 19th century, which describe and analyse the impact of this Revolution.

Other French-language special collections can be found by consulting the directory of Named Collections of Printed Materials (particularly under the names John Geoffrey ASPIN and Frederic JUSTEN).


Catalogue records for early printed French books appear in Explore the British Library, over the internet in Explore the British Library, and in printed editions of the British (Museum) Library catalogue: details about these can be found on the page Catalogues of Early Printed Materials in the British Library. The following specialist printed catalogues however may also prove useful in identifying material:

  • Short-Title Catalogue of Books Printed in France and of French Books Printed in Other Countries from 1470 to 1600 now in the British Museum (London, 1924). Supplement (London, 1986).
    Copies on the open shelves in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room (RAR094.20944) and Humanities Reading Room (HLR011.440944).
  • A Short Title Catalogue of French Books 1601-1700 in the Library of the British Museum (London, 1973).
    Copies on the open shelves in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room (RAR094.20944) and Humanities Reading Room (HLR011.440944).
  • French Quebec: imprints in French from Quebec 1764-1990 in the British Library (London, Montreal, 1992-93).
    Copy on the open shelves in the Humanities Reading Room (HLR011.241).

Other collection areas within the British Library are also able to offer substantial amounts of material for French studies before 1851, most notably the Maps, Newspapers, and Social Sciences Collections (including Official Publications).

Reference works

The open shelves in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room contain an abundance of printed reference books relevant to the history of printing in France and the other francophone countries. Also relevant are several of the networked CD-ROMs and subscription databases available to researchers in the Library's Reading Rooms. Of particular note are FRANTEXT, Encyclopédie de Diderot et d'Alembert, French Bibliography 15th century- , and Early Encounters in North America.

Outside the British Library, there are many institutions and organisations devoted to the study of early French and francophone culture.


Des McTernan
Early Printed Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7698