The Information Master

Jean-Baptiste Colbert's Secret State Intelligence System
Jacob Soll

A fascinating inquiry into Jean-Baptiste Colbert's collection of knowledge


Jean-Baptiste Colbert saw governance of the state not as the inherent ability of the king, but as a form of mechanical mastery of subjects such as medieval legal history, physics, navigation, and the price lists of nails, sails, and gunpowder. In The Information Master , Jacob Soll shows how the legacy of Colbert’s encyclopedic tradition lies at the very center of the rise of the modern state.

This innovative book argues that Colbert's practice of collecting knowledge originated in Renaissance Italy, where merchants recognized the power to be gained from merging scholarship and trade. By connecting historical literatures—archives, libraries, merchant techniques, and humanist pedagogy—that have usually remained separate, Soll has created an imaginative and refreshing work.

"Soll tells this story in wonderfully lucid prose, and with a great gift for concision. Colbert emerges from his pages not only as the patron saint of modern bureaucrats, but as a forceful—if somewhat repellent—personality, and as another of the great early modern figures who sought to gain unprecedented knowledge of, and mastery over, the material world."
New Republic

"The Information Master makes a major contribution to our understanding of the uses of knowledge and the mechanisms by which knowledge was harnessed by the early modern state."
—Paul Nelles, Carleton University 

Jacob Soll is Professor of History and Accounting at the University of Southern California and the author of The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert's Secret State Intelligence System. He is a 2011 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, and a 2009 winner of a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. He is also co-editor of the series Cultures of Knowledge in the Early Modern World, together with Ann Blair and Anthony Grafton.

Praise / Awards

  • "The Information Master is well researched and an intriguing read, and by bringing together diverse strands of research from humanism to enlightened despotism adds much to the ongoing debates about the nature of royal absolutism in early modern France."
    —Jonathan Spangler, Renaissance Quarterly

  • "Soll's study is a major piece of scholarship, based on a wide knowledge of primary archival and contemporary printed material and secondary literature...and I commend Soll for his fascinating investigation of Colbert's mastery over information."
    —Christopher J. Napier, Business History

  • "...this slender volume is an engaging case study of the interactions between information and government in early-modern Europe." 
    —Toby Osborne, French History
  • "...essential reading for historians of scholarship and collecting, but it will perhaps be of most interest to those political and administrative historians of seventeenth-century Europe for whom Colbert has so long been a neglected figure and for whom questions of communication and information are now increasingly important." 
    —Nicholas Dew, ISIS: An International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences

Look Inside

Copyright © 2009, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 328pp.
  • 11 B&W photographs.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2011
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-03464-2

Add to Cart
  • $29.95 U.S.

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  • Information, State, Secrecy, Colbert, library science, archives, coup d’état, Louis XIV, Accounting, Finance