Detail map of Paris, Île-de-France, France Overview map of Paris, Île-de-France, France

A: Paris, Île-de-France, France

The "First Printer of National Liberty" Issues the Printing Manual for the French Revolution the Year Before He is Guillotined

Antoine François Momoro

In the later 18th century printers made incremental changes to the traditional hand press. In Printing Presses, History and Development (1973) p. 43 James Moran states that the press visible in the lower corner of this portrait of Momoro is that designed by Philippe-Denis Pierres, printer in ordinary to the King of France, and first described by Pierres in Description d'une nouvelle presse de l'imprimerie (1786).

In 1789 the printing industry in Paris exploded. In the first few years of the French Revolution the industry was swept by a new generation of small printers, most of them former printing-shop workers or small book dealers who seized the opportunities opened by the declaration of freedom of the press and commerce, bought a few hand presses, and entered into the fast-paced world of revolutionary cultural agitation through the production of political ephemera. In 1793 French printer, bookseller and politician Antoine-François Momoro published Traité élémentaire de l’imprimerie, ou le manuel de l’imprimeur. Because of Momoro's revolutionary political connections, his work has been called the printing manual for the French Revolution. It was intended to put practical knowledge of printing within the reach of a wide audience, and thus to encourage the proliferation of printing. Written in an informal style, it remains "the single best source of 18th century printing shop slang." The famous profile cameo portrait engraving of Momoro, shown in front of bookcases and with his type case and printing press, characterizes him as "Premier Imprimeur de la Liberté nationale."

"The Paris bookseller François Momoro was thirty-three years old when the Revolution began. He had arrived in Paris from his native Besançon in 1780. In 1787 he was admitted as a bookseller by the Paris Book Guild. His bookshop stocked a mere eleven titles, which he estimated in 1790 to have a total value of 19,720 livres. Momoro was one of the myriad of small Parisian book dealers with little hope of advancement within the Old Regime book guild. But with the declaration of the freedom of the press in August 1789 Momoro's career prospects suddenly opened up before him. Embracing the revolutionary movement wholeheartedly, he quickly opened a printing shop at 171 rue de la Harpe and boldly declared himself the 'First Printer of National Liberty'. Within a year he had added four presses, ten cases of type, and a small foundry for making type characters; his business assets now totaled 30,108 livres. In the publishing and printing world Momoro was still a very small fry. But he was soon to make a big name for himself in ultrarevolutionary politics.

"Momoro understood the power of the press, and he believed in unleashing its revolutionary potential. . . . He also used his press to launch a career in radical revolutionary politics, soon becoming the official 'Printer for the Cordeliers Club.' His printing business evolved along with the revolutionary politics of the Parisian sections, serving as a propaganda machine, first for the Cordeliers Club and then, by the winter of 1794, for the Hébertists. He produced pamphlets, minutes of meetings of the Cordeliers, and handbills and posters for several of the Parisian sections, and he also did a significant business by sending the publications of the Paris Cordeliers out into the provinces to be read before the tribunals of provincial clubs.

"When he was arrested in February 1794, the police inventoried his commercial stock. With the exception of a few sheets of a Manuel du républicain —found literally under the presses—Momoro's entire stock consisted of pamphlets, handbills, and, most important, sectional posters. His business was devoted exclusively to, and depended almost entirely on, the printed ephemera that sustained the revolutionary political life of the Paris sections. . . . (Hesse, Publishing and Cultural Politics in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1810 [1991]).

Momoro became radicalized during the Revolution and made powerful enemies, which eventually resulted in his arrest as an agitator, and decapitation by the guillotine in March 1794:

"After working for the fall of the Girondists in the struggle between the Commune and the Convention, he participated in attacks on DantonRobespierre (whom he accused of modérantisme), and the Committee of Public Safety. Pushed onwards by a report by Saint-Just to the Convention denouncing the "complot de l’étranger" woven by the Indulgents and Exagérés, the committee decided on the arrest of the Hébertistes on 13 March 1794. The Revolutionary Tribunal condemned Momoro to death, and he loudly replied "You accuse me, who have given everything for the Revolution!" He was guillotined with Hébert, RonsinVincent and other leading Hébertistes the following afternoon, 4 Germinal, Year II (24 March 1794)" (Wikipedia article on Antoine-François Momoro, accessed 03-05-2014).

Momoro was one of the very few printers who were victims of repression during this period of the revolution.

"Those arrested were principally journalists and men who had a political role like the printer Momoro who was condemned to death in the year II (1793-1794), not because he was a printer but because he was a political militant and a support of Hébert. An examination of the archives of the Revolutionary Tribunal and of the registers of arrests kept in the police archives (Cartons 1 to 12, AA) yields the following figures : 8 printers and booksellers condemned to death, 14 acquitted by the Revolutionary Tribunal; 13 sentenced to prison. Since there were more than four thousand printers and booksellers in Paris during the Revolution (figures taken from P.Delalain’s census), we can speak of a relative clemency on the part of the tribunals. This situation may be explained in great part by the refusal of printers and bookmakers to get politically involved. After all, most of them considered books and prints to be a means of earning their living and bringing in profit. But if we consider that journalists belonged to the same group as booksellers and printers because they often edited their own newspapers, then the figures change and give a much more terrible image of the repression: 19 condemned to death, 11 liberated, 18 acquitted.

"These figures are given by J.D.Mellot, E.Queval and V.Sarrazin in « La liberté ou la mort ? Vues sur les métiers du livre parisien à l’époque révolutionnaire », Revue de la Bibliothèque Nationale, N°49, Autumn 1993, pp.76-85" (Lise Andries, CNRS Paris, "Radicalism and the book in Paris during the French Revolution," undated, accessed 03-10-2014). 

 The first edition of Momoro's manual appeared in 1793 and was reissued with a cancel title in 1796, two years after Momoro was guillotined.

Timeline Themes