Colporteurs—The Walking Bookstores


UNDER the dome of the Jandri Glacier, at the top of the Deux-Alpes ski station in southeastern France, a small “museum” opened up some years ago. Among the ice sculptures on display was one that paid tribute to an obsolete mountain trade—it was a sculpture of a colporteur.

For centuries colporteurs went from market to market and from house to house plying the wares that they carried (French: porter) around their neck (French: col). Most people today have never heard of them. Those who have may tend to think of them as petty salesmen of trivial items. In reality, colporteurs have left a legacy that affects the lives of millions of people to this day.

A Closer Look at Colportage

Far from being miserable wretches, many colporteurs were highly organized merchants, distributing the latest goods by way of extensive European networks. Not all colporteurs plied their trade for material gain, however. Some did so to spread their beliefs and convictions. Some even lost their lives doing so.

Apparently the work of colporteurs began sometime during the late Middle Ages. The first ones were mountain dwellers from the alpine crescent, the Pyrenees, and the Scottish Highlands. Many were farm workers who after the harvest was finished would take up the life of an itinerant salesman.

A Frenchman named Jehan Gravier was one of these traveling merchants. In the 16th century, he and his family lived in the mountainous area called La Grave. Doubtless because the farmland was unproductive, he responded to the demand from those in the valley towns for products such as wood, leather, wool, and salt—products from the mountain regions. Colporteurs like Gravier brought these products into town and traded them for haberdashery, combs,  eyeglasses, books, medicine, tobacco, and engravings. In turn, these items would be sold either to city folk or to peasants living far from a store. Some colporteurs covered routes requiring them to travel 12 miles [20 km] a day! In their absence, relatives looked after their fields and families.

Gravier, however, did more than sell trinkets. The records show him to have been in the debt of a certain printer named Benoît Rigaud. This indicates that Gravier, like many other colporteurs, was in the business of selling books. In his day Europe was experiencing the Renaissance, and the book business was booming. Between 1500 and 1600, Europe produced from 140 million to 200 million books. A quarter of these were published in France. Lyons, the country’s economic capital, situated at the foot of the Alps, was a leading center of European publishing and was the foremost publisher of books in French. Gravier thus had an abundant supply for his trade. But while men like Gravier sold books simply for profit, another type of colporteur arose who distributed books strictly for religious reasons.

‘Smugglers of the Faith’

With the advent of the printing press, people began devouring religious books, brochures, and tracts. The Bible was printed first in Latin and then in the common tongues. Millions of copies were printed in Germany, and colporteurs had a share in quickly distributing copies to folk living in the countryside. However, this distribution was not to everyone’s liking.

In 1525 the French Parliament banned translation of the Bible into French and, in the following year, forbade possession of the Bible in the vernacular. In spite of this, Bibles came off the presses by the thousands, and many were smuggled throughout France, thanks to determined colporteurs. One was a young man named Pierre Chapot. He was arrested in 1546 and put to death.

Finally, in 1551, Catholic France took a hard line by banning colporteurs from selling books, since they “secretly” carried books “coming from Geneva,” that is, from Protestants. However, this did not stem the tide. Bibles flowed into France by all possible means. Often small in size, they were hidden in wine casks with false bottoms, in barrels of chestnuts, or in the holds of boats. A courageous man named Denis Le Vair was arrested while transporting a whole barrelful of Bibles. He too was executed. One contemporary Catholic, hostile to colporteurs, acknowledged that because of them,  “in a short time, France was filled with French New Testaments.”

Throughout the 16th century, these ‘smugglers of the faith,’ as one writer calls them, lived in constant danger. Many colporteurs were arrested, sent to prison or the galleys, banished, or martyred. Some colporteurs were burned along with their books. While history reveals only a handful of their names, it was thanks to a whole host of such courageous individuals that most Protestant households were able to acquire copies of the Bible.

Ambulatory Libraries

In the 17th century, the Catholic Church continued to restrict common people from access to the Bible. In its place believers were given books of hours and books on lives of the saints—poor substitutes! * In contrast, the Jansenists, Catholics with “heretical” views, advocated reading the Holy Scriptures. Colporteurs thus participated in distributing the Jansenists’ recently completed translation of the Greek Scriptures (“New Testament”) by Le Maistre de Sacy.

At the same time, a new, inexpensive form of literature began to appear in the colporteur’s knapsack. These books taught many people in France to read, educating and entertaining them, until their disappearance in the 19th century. The French called them the bibliothèque bleue, or blue library, because of the color of their bindings. In England they were called chapbooks; and in Spain, pliégos de cordel. They consisted of tales of medieval knights, folklore, lives of the saints, and so forth. As can be imagined, the colporteur was eagerly awaited, whether, like those from the Pyrenees, he came in summer or, like those from the Dauphiné Alps, he came in winter.

 Interestingly, colporteurs served the needs of both the educated and the uneducated. An 18th-century study of peasants from the Guienne region of southwest France makes this observation: “During the long winter evenings, [the peasants] read the lives of the saints or a chapter from the Bible for half an hour to the gathered household. . . . When there is nothing else, they read . . . the blue library and other nonsense that colporteurs bring annually to the countryside.” The Bible was immensely popular, however, and copies of it could be found even at modest farms.

Organized Networks

Networks of colporteurs developed in the French and Italian Alps, the Pyrenees, and Normandy, in northwestern France. The colporteurs from the Dauphiné Alps alone controlled a quarter of the book market of southern Europe. “The bookselling business in Spain and Portugal, as well as that in many towns in Italy, is in the hands of Frenchmen, from the same village . . . in the Dauphiné Alps,” declared a contemporary bookseller in Geneva.

Apart from the fact that colporteurs were “active, hard-working, and extremely sober people,” their success was also due to their attachment to members of their family, village, and religion. Many of them were Protestants who stayed in contact with those who had gone into exile during the persecutions. Relatives, compatriots, and coreligionists thus constituted efficient networks that crisscrossed Europe. The Gravier family, for example, had a bookselling network that spread over France, Spain, and Italy. Other networks even reached Persia and the Americas.

A Revival of Colporteur Work

In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution dealt a deathblow to family colporteur businesses that had operated for generations. However, the creation of Bible societies rekindled distribution of the Bible as never before. The Catholic Church, however, was still opposed to the distribution of the Bible. Up until the late 1800’s, Bible colporteurs continued to be harassed and prosecuted. Nonetheless, from 1804 to 1909, they distributed six million copies of the Bible in whole or in part in France alone.

The work of educating the public about the Bible was far from finished. In 1881 the magazine Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence (published in the United States) issued a call for Christians to take up the work of evangelists. Their goal? “The spread of the truth, by getting people to read.” By 1885, about 300 evangelists had responded to the call and were in the field. Some traveled far and wide, going to such lands as Barbados, Burma (now Myanmar), El Salvador, Finland, Guatemala, and Honduras. By the time World War I broke out, such evangelists had spread Bible knowledge in China, Costa Rica, England, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Interestingly, in early years full-time evangelists among these Bible Students (now known as Jehovah’s Witnesses) were called colporteurs. Later, the term was discontinued, as it did not accurately describe the prime objective of their work—Bible education. (Matthew 28:19, 20) Moreover, the term did not represent the not-for-profit nature of their activities. Hence, today full-time ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called pioneers.

Last year more than 800,000 pioneers freely distributed Bibles and Bible-based literature. They do so, not for monetary gain, but “out of sincerity, yes, as sent from God, under God’s view, in company with Christ.” (2 Corinthians 2:17) Thus, pioneer ministers today are far more than the walking bookstores. However, they owe much to those early colporteurs for the example that many of them set in zeal and conviction.


^ par. 16 A book of hours contained prayers to be said at the officially appointed hours for honoring Mary.

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Colporteurs brought the latest goods to people’s homes

Colporteurs were eagerly awaited

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© Cliché Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

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The “New Testament” by Le Maistre de Sacy, and a book from the blue library

[Credit Lines]

Far left: © Cliché Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris Left: © B.M.V.R de Troyes/Bbl.390/Photo P. Jacquinot

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Evangelists distributed Bible literature

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Today full-time evangelizers offer free Bible education