Medlar Flower

Images from the Turn of a Century 1760-1840, A Portrait of Art, Literature and Eloquence in Québec

The conquest of literature and eloquence (1760-1791)

The American Revolution and the printed word

Revolutionary unrest put printer and journalist, Fleury Mesplet (1734-1794), in touch with merchant and author, Pierre du Calvet (1735-1786), and American journalist, inventor and politician Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). A Frenchman settled in Philadelphia, Mesplet came to Montréal with the American Army in 1775. In 1778, he founded a printing shop and a newspaper, The Gazette du commerce et littéraire (Commercial and Literary Gazette). He was soon put in prison for his revolutionary ideas and seditious practices. A Montréal merchant since 1758, du Calvet supported the Americans in 1774. He met Franklin during the latter's stay in Montréal in 1776. Suspected of treason, du Calvet spent almost three years in prison (1780-1783). These events motivated him to contribute to Mesplet's Gazette and, in 1784, to publish an Appel à la justice de l'État where he denounced the autocratic nature of governor Haldimand's administration and formed the basis for the first Canadian constitution.

Many have liked to think that Fleury Mesplet is the subject of this portrait even though there is no basis for the identification of either the artist or his model, only the will to put a face on Montréal's printing hero. A sign of mourning, the large black veil behind the head suggests that it could be a posthumous portrait. The black clothes and white band could have belonged to a clergyman, a magistrate or a literate man. The bookshelves, with their numerous copies of books of equal dimension suggest a book shop rather than a library. The seven shelves may allude to Freemasonry since both Mesplet and Beaucourt were members. In the open book, the index is pointing to "Montréal 1794", the date and place of Mesplet's death as well as that of the painter, François Beaucourt, born at Laprairie and active in France, Philadelphia and Montréal.

The preceding information was found at Université du Québec à Montréal


Women in the 18th-century Lyons book trade

Dominique VARRY
enssib(Lyon)

4) The smugglers - Les passeuses

There are some occasions in which we can wonder what real role some women played. I would like to present the Mesplet's case, in which three printing journeymen wives were arrested on the Guillottière bridge, on august 29th 1747, carrying prohibited books hidden under their skirts. The case has not been completely cleared up, and we ignore its legal issue. For three women arrested, how many others succeeded in introducing forbidden books in the city? We cannot prevent us from wondering whether these women acted on their husbands employer's order, or secretly for their husbands, or may be on their own in order to get some money. Far away from the anecdote, and in spite of the archives silence, the case appears as revealing of an usual practice. Let us say that it is also, in a certain way, linked to Canadian history.

On november 22nd 1747, Jean Tisseur customs officer testified in front of the Lyons Presidial judges that on august 29th, at 8 in the evening, three women coming from the Guillotière suburb had been interrogated at the customs office, on the Rhone bridge, to know whether they did not try to enter prohibited goods. After a negative answer, the witness noticed that each of them had parcels hidden under their skirts and in their pockets. He recognized that these goods were Latin printed sheets of a prohibited and injurious book printed in Avignon. The three women declared to be called Evillot, Servet and Mesplex, all living in Lyons and working to bind books. They added that they were coming from a tavern of La Guillotière called « the round Table», where they had received the printed sheets, in order to bring them to Lyons and to bind them. The three women were immediately jailed.

Two of them only were stooges, and were released after three weeks in prison. The first was Françoise Jutet, aged about thirty, wife of a printing journeyman named Antoine Ecullioz. The second was Antoinette Girard, aged 53, wife of a binding journeyman called Jean Servet. She might have been a relative of the third one and of the Avignon printer François Girard, but we have no proof of that.

The most responsible, the one who admitted to have organized the affair, though she pretended to be unable to read and write, was of another stamp. She confessed that « though her husband was a printer [in fact, a printing journeyman], she did not take a hand in anything in his job, and that she had not felt the consequences of her act...» She added that the carter told her that her brother-in-law [the Avignon printer François-Prothade Girard] would be pleased to have the copies available as soon as possible, and that, for such a purpose, she had to avoid bringing them to the syndical chamber, where they could stay for a long time. While her associates were released, she remained in prison. We ignore the end of this affair, and her possible sentencing.

This woman was Antoinette Capeau, aged 45, silk-reeler, wife of a printer journeyman from Mercière street named Jean Mesplet. She was too the sister of Marguerite Capeau, wife of the Avignon printer François-Prothade Girard. He was the publisher of the seized publication entitled De suprema romani Pontificis auctoritate, hodierna Ecclesiae gallicanae doctrine [sic].

Let us first notice the links between two important places for piracies : Lyons and Avignon, the latter being under pontifical domination and escaping the French legislation. Let us then consider the Mesplet family. Antoinette Capeau's husband was Jean Mesplet, born in Agen. Lagrave, his son's Canadian biographer writes that he was a printer, but it is a mistake. He settled in Lyons in 1738, and worked till his death in 1760 as a printer journeyman, or at the best as a foreman. He never owned any print workshop. We know three of their children. Two of them are noteworthy. There is few to say about Marguerite, born in Lyons in 1738. The eldest daughter, Charlotte-Marie-Thérèse Mesplet, was born in 1726, in an unknown place. She died in Anvers in 1802. She had married, in 1760, Jean-François de Los Rios, and received for the occasion a dowry of 3 000 pounds from her Avignon aunt. Her husband born in Anvers is well-known as a Lyons antiquarian bookseller, auction sales organizer, and prohibited books provider. The couple left Lyons for the Low Countries in 1798, or about. But the most well-known member of the family was the son, Fleury Mesplet. Born in the Accoules parish of Marseilles in 1734, and after a printing apprentice training in Lyons, he became, from 1755 to 1759, the manager of his aunt Capeau's workshop in Avignon, after François-Prothade Girard's death. Although he is unknown to René Moulinas' study of the Avignon presses, he has been this workshop real runner during these years. He settled in London in 1773. After having been jailed for reasons unknown to us, he was sent to Québec. He died in Montréal in 1794. He had married in 1765 Marie Mirabeau, born in 1746, who died too in Montréal in 1789. He had opened there a new printing workshop, and published on June 3rd 1778 the Gazette du commerce et littéraire pour la ville et district de Montréal, the first French Canadian paper. Today, a slab affixed on a house of the rue Mercière, the printers street, reminds his memory in Lyons.

The preceding information was found at histoire du livre à l'enssib

Note by Jim Mesplay: Apparently this author did not know how Fleury Mesplet arrived in Québec.


Looking at Libraries: The Montreal Gazette

By Donna MacHutchin

History: The Montreal Gazette newspaper library has been in existence since 1950, but the paper was born in June, 1778 - we must be doing something right.

The newspaper emerged out of attempts by American revolutionaries to drum up sympathy for their cause with Canadian colonists - mostly French, who were at the time living under British rule. Benjamin Franklin sent a French printer, Fleury Mesplet, who had been in his employ in Philadelphia, to Montreal. Mesplet started the Gazette to further the American cause, but a contingent of Americans sent to attack British forces in Montreal was beaten back and Mesplet was on his own. He and the paper flourished, as trade boomed and the city grew.

The preceding information was found at ibiblio


The Montreal Gazette

1778 Montreal Gazette

The Gazette is one of the oldest newspapers on the North American continent. Founded by Fleury Mesplet in 1778, it began as a French-language paper, became bilingual in the late 1700s and ultimately changed to an English-language newspaper in 1822.

The preceding information was found at The Montreal Gazette