Understanding the real bestsellers of the 18th century

Middlebrow Enlightenment

Disseminating Ideas, Authors and Texts in Europe (1665-1820)

MEDIATE is an ERC-funded digital humanities project, based at Radboud University (The Netherlands), that seeks to study the circulation of books and ideas in eighteenth-century Europe by drawing on a unique database of eighteenth-century library auction catalogues.

Scholars of intellectual history have long focused on a small number of canonical authors and conceptual frameworks in studying societal change during the Enlightenment. Historians of the book have, for their part, tended to privilege radical, subversive or forbidden texts. Yet ever since Daniel Mornet launched the history of the book approach a century ago, historians have recognized that it was authors who were not radical or subversive who produced the best-selling texts of the 18th century. This project aims to push Enlightenment studies in a new direction by moving beyond the present corpus of texts and models that dominate the field, and propose a new conceptual framework that takes as its starting-point the heuristic concept of middlebrow culture.

Developing an interoperative, state-of-the-art database, the MEDIATE project will, firstly, identify not the "high" Enlightenment texts studied by the history of ideas, and not the "low", forbidden texts of book history, but the real bestsellers of the 18th century. To do so, it will create a fully searchable database of eighteenth-century library auction catalogues, in close collaboration with other existing historical bibliometric databases.

Secondly, it will elaborate a typology of this corpus describing its generic traits, intended readers, relation to major political and religious debates, and how readers in different parts of Europe appropriated these texts through translations, reworkings and other uses. Finally, the project examines how historiography came to define the Enlightenment as the work of an intellectual elite, downplaying the impact of middlebrow texts and readers.

The MEDIATE project thus brings a bottom-up approach to intellectual history, using book history data and new digital tools to argue that the Enlightenment was fashioned not only by the progressive intellectuals we know today, but just as importantly, also by a large mass of forgotten, middlebrow bestsellers that need to be adequately studied if we are to truly understand how we "became modern" (or not).