Modern history


Suppose a courtier had a hankering for banned publications: the juicy gossip sheet English Spy put out by Pidanzat de Mairobert from London; Rousseau’s Confessions; Linguet’s Memoirs of the Bastille; the Abbé Raynal’s incendiary attack on European colonization, the History… of the Two Indies. Where would he go to find them? Not far, for just at the foot of the ramp from the terrace of the palace at Versailles was a bookstall belonging to M. Lefèvre where, at the right time and for the right sum, a choice selection of all these items could be acquired. With a direct line to one of the most prolific printers of forbidden books, Robert Machuel of Rouen, and a wife from the bookselling dynasty of the Mérigot, Lefèvre seemed assured in his position as tolerated hawker on the very doorstep of royal power. But in 1777 he overstepped the mark by actually dealing in pornographic pamphlets that libeled the Queen – perhaps the famous Anandria, in which she was depicted in lesbian love triangles. He was duly arrested and on release from the Bastille ended his career in the safer profession of toy-shop owner.

Startling as it may seem, the court and the high nobility were prime customers for the works that did most to damage their own authority. The town of Versailles had a number of shops where the most professional hawkers (colporteurs) unloaded their stock. Delorme, for example, who used Dunkirk as a port of entry for his books, had his own outlet at Versailles and he was by no means alone. The appetite of the court for daring literature – both political and erotic – may be gauged from the fact that similar outlets were located at towns to which the court seasonally moved, in particular Compiègne, Fontainebleau and Saint-Cloud. In an only slightly less direct manner, the immunity of the great aristocratic families from search and seizure meant that the colporteurs used them shamelessly to smuggle their goods. The coachman of the Duc de Praslin was a virtual colporteur in his own right and in 1767 six bales of clandestine books were discovered in a wagon bearing the arms of the Maréchal de Noailles. Even the King’s youngest brother, Artois (who as Charles X was to take such a censorious line with seditious literature), was said to be protecting hawkers of libels.

These stories seem to vindicate de Tocqueville’s view that the old regime brought about its own undoing by irresponsibly flirting with ideas it only half understood, but which it found diverting: the literary equivalent of the Figaro syndrome. To counter-revolutionary writers, looking back on the disaster of 1789, the proliferation of seditious and libelous material seemed even more sinister, evidence of a conspiracy hatched between godless followers of Voltaire and Rousseau, Free-masons, and the Duc d’Orléans. Was not the Palais-Royal after all one of the most notorious dens of iniquity, where even the police were forbidden from pouncing on peddlers of literary trash?

Understandably, modern historians have steered clear of anything that could be construed as subscribing to the literary conspiracy theory of the French Revolution. Having failed to discover in libraries of the time the work officially canonized by the Revolution –Rousseau’s Social Contract – they have largely set aside the concept of the upheaval as the product of dangerous reading habits. Robert Darnton’s discovery of a rich seam of literary muck – an indiscriminate jumble of pornographic libels, vitriolic satire and radical political theory – has reinstated the corrosive importance of risky publications. But while it is quite true that the producers of much of this material directed their most withering fire at the grandees of the literary and political establishment, it would be misleading to see them altogether as “outsiders.” On the contrary, it was from within the well-fortified camp of aristocratic radicalism – the Palais-Royal or the courtyard of the Palais de Justice – that their broadsides took aim. And it was not the disconnection, but the connection between the world of monied patronage and fiery polemics which made the damage to the dignities of the old regime so serious.

In its initial euphoria, the Revolution abandoned all forms of censor-ship and control over publication. The explosion of printed information that resulted was so phenomenal that, by contrast, the old regime is bound to seem deprived. In fact, the last decade of the monarchy witnessed a proliferation of ephemeral literature of all kinds – newspapers, literary journals, brochures and pamphlets, printed ballads and poems. This transformation of the press must have done much to create the news-hungry and politically receptive public whose allegiance revolutionary journalists fought to acquire and hold.

Before the mid-1770s, political news could only be had from abroad. Inside France two journals were officially licensed: the Gazette de France and the Mercure de France, a descendant of the literary journal founded in the 1630s. The Gazette produced a largely mythical view of the monarchy, proceeding through undisturbed ceremonies and uncontentious administration; the Mercure was filled with harmless essays from the polite world of the academies and belles-lettres. The major source of reliable foreign news was the Dutch gazettes, of which much the most important was the biweekly Gazette de Leyde (Leiden Gazette). Similar newspapers were published in other Dutch towns like Amsterdam and Utrecht, in the papal enclave of Avignon and just over the frontiers in Geneva or Cologne. Packed with reports of military and political events in virtually every major state in Europe and in North America, they represented themselves as both topical and reliable, avoiding the casually gathered anecdote or hearsay. More important, as Jeremy Popkin has pointed out, they published in full the great manifestos of “opposition politics” in France: the remonstrances of the Parlements and the Cour des Aides. By giving these prominence, the Luzac family (like so many other publishers, a branch of the Huguenot dispersion), who edited the Gazette de Leyde, made no secret of their support for an antiabsolutist view of the French constitution. Despite this, not only were the gazettes tacitly tolerated in France, but they were allowed openly to advertise their places of sale throughout France, solicit subscriptions and use the royal mail to distribute the papers. The best estimate of the circulation of the Gazette de Leyde puts it at about four thousand, by eighteenth-century standards a considerable number.

The man who did most to turn the newspaper business from a minor branch of polite letters into a modern commercial enterprise was the formidable publisher Charles-Joseph Panckoucke. Brought up in Lille by his father, who was an author and a bookseller in his own right, Panck-oucke turned to writing and translation before moving to Paris in 1760. There he bought two substantial bookselling and publishing houses, and got a further entree into the literary world by marrying the sister of one of its perennial nonentities, Suard. In no time at all Panckoucke became the great mogul of the Paris book trade. Taking unheard-of pains with his authors, traveling to see Voltaire at Ferney and Buffon at Montbard, he pampered their egos and, at a time notorious for fraud and piracy, tried to assure them a decent income, in some cases even producing advances.

As a newspaper operator Panckoucke was equally bold. He put out two powerful and important papers, the Journal de Genève and the Journal de Bruxelles, and in 1774 hired Linguet to edit the latter. Predictably, in response to Linguet’s habit of throwing acid in the faces of all the intellectual and political luminaries of the day, the circulation shot up, reaching some six thousand. But Panckoucke, always torn between commercial acumen and a yearning for respectability, found Linguet’s deadly sniping at some of his own favored authors too much to take, and got rid of him after two years, replacing him with one of Linguet’s favorite targets, La Harpe. From London, Linguet then began his own paper, the Annales Politiques et Littéraires, which set new standards in sardonic vituperation, but which was also full of lively pieces on the arts and science. Equipped, rather surprisingly, with the permission tacite that protected it from prosecution while not openly giving it respectability, no less than seventy-one issues of the Annales were published between 1777 and Linguet’s incarceration in the Bastille in 1780. All of them were distributed in Paris by a wealthy cloth merchant, Lequesne. Linguet’s biographer thinks that the circulation may have risen as high as twenty thousand.

Not satisfied with his foothold, Panckoucke created the first daily paper, the Journal de Paris, essentially a listing of daily events together with short reviews and dispatches, making his brother-in-law Suard editor and co-owner. The Mercure de France was next, in 1778, and it was in this paper that the drastically altered aspect of the press was most apparent. From being a dull and starchy journal, the Mercure expanded to forty-eight pages, and boasted a great miscellany of items: standard news reports from European and American capitals and digests of the gazettes, but also popular songs (music and verses printed), puzzles and riddles, reviews of music, theater and literature. In the May 8, 1784, number The Marriage of Figaro was given sixteen pages of review all to itself. It was a winning formula, and the circulation of the Mercure rose to some twenty thousand on the eve of the Revolution. If a contemporary’s own estimates of the ratio of circulation to readership is correct, then it seems possible that Panckoucke’s paper had a readership of over a hundred and twenty thousand at the time it was reporting in grim detail the final debacle of Louis XVI’s government. “This review,” observed one commentator, “has spread everywhere, to the commoner as well as the noble, in the salons of the aristocracy as well as the modest household of the bourgeois, delighting equally both court and Town.” Nor was this just a Parisian phenomenon, since over half the copies of the Mercure were sold in the provinces.

There were other forms of publicity to cater to the eager literary appetites of the French. Muckraking reviews like the Correspondance Secrète (ascribed to Métra) and the Mémoires Secrètes circulated in manuscript form and dwelt lingeringly on the sexual politics of the court or scandals involving money and, if at all possible, the clergy. And while it is impossible to gauge their circulation, the printed English Spy (or The Correspondence of Milord All-Ear with Milord All-Eye), exported from London, repeated many of the same stories and achieved wide currency in the sensational climate of the 1780s.

It is hard to avoid the impression that the world of “low” literature in the reign of Louis XVI was like an empire of ants: columns of energetic and determined couriers bearing precious objects to their several destinations. Certainly France swarmed with these purveyors of gossip and ideology, packing, bribing and hurrying as they traveled on well-established routes and networks. Canals and rivers were crucial to their transport. Some began by using storage depots in the more out-of the-way ports like Agde on the Mediterranean and Saint-Malo on the Breton coast, and then carefully made their way upstream in prudent stages. Smuggling out of Avignon, surrounded by French territory, was trickier, but fishing boats on the Rhone were used to take bales of books and papers downstream to Tarascon and Arles. Another route connected with the royal canal at Toulouse, from which the transports could go west towards Bordeaux. Others worked the eastern frontiers from Strasbourg to Dunkirk, trying to avoid the big customs posts at Sainte-Menehould, at the entrance to the Champagne, and Péronne, at the gate to Picardy.

In any event one may assume that the colporteurs did their job well enough, for Lyon, Rouen, Marseille, Bordeaux and most of the major cities were all well stocked with ostensibly “forbidden” works. In Paris, they could be had not only in the Palais-Royal but from stands on the Pont Neuf and the quais – the ancestors of the modern bouquinistes. Though expressly prohibited, vendors hawked books in the lobbies of theaters and at the Opéra, and did the rounds of cafés and fairs with parcels under their arms. Others used the simplest possible forms of display – spreading out their wares on a cloth in full public view on the street. Some of the vendors became well known, even powerful, like Kolman, Prudent de Roncours, and Pardeloup, and some of the most formidable were women, notably la Grande Javotte, who sold from a stall on the quai des Augustins, and her partner the Widow Allaneau, still going strong well into her seventies.

There was an extraordinary degree of complicity on the part of the authorities in all this trafficking. Girardin, for example, the vendor who specialized in violent libels against the Queen, operated with impunity from the cul-de-sac de l’Orangerie at the heart of the Tuileries. The courtyard of the Hôtel de Soubise (now the National Archives) was another semipublic place crowded with subversive literature, and before the Jacobins and the Cordeliers were revolutionary clubs they were religious houses with a difference since they too entertained the ubiquitous colporteurs. Linguet’s Annales, with their no-holds-barred attacks on courtiers, academicians, Panckoucke, and Farmers-General, were subject to just one censor: the lieutenant-général of police in Paris, Lenoir. And he proved to be a largely complaisant critic.

Why? Lenoir may well have enjoyed the spectacle of professed reformers and critics of the monarchy themselves undergoing a good dousing at the hands of Linguet (who still represented himself as a devoted albeit cranky royalist). But there is also reason to believe that he thought it useful to know what was going on in the wilder fringes of opinion, rather than drive it underground. In other words, in common with many other levels of official authority he had come to accept the fact of public opinion, and rather than be its helpless target, preferred, as much as he could, to be its manipulator. Others like the Duc d’Orléans and his son the Duc de Chartres may have been still bolder in seeing opinion, gossip and libel as a weapon useful in embarrassing their immediate opponents. Short-term tactical advantage, then, obscured completely the long-term dangers posed by the cultivation of this fickle world of opinion. As they jockeyed for position in public esteem, the patrons of innuendo and scandal still assumed their own position rested on the bedrock, whereas in fact it was slipping into quicksand. It was impossible to sustain the general principle of unquestioned deference while it was being sabotaged daily, in the particulars of personal attacks on the court, the ministry, the Church, the academies and the law.

Nor were those who toyed with Pandora’s box aware of how broad the constituency for polemics and propaganda had become. From within the drawing room of a grand seigneur who was unwrapping pink-ribboned parcels of forbidden books, the traffic of opinion must have seemed safely circumscribed: a matter of Paris fashions, here today, gone tomorrow. But the retaining walls of polite opinion were rapidly weakening. “Paris reads ten times more than a century ago,” reported Mercier, and the change was a function of the number of readers as well as the volume and variety of matter. From studying signatures of wills Daniel Roche has discovered astonishing figures for adult literacy in the capital at the end of the old regime. In Montmartre, for example, where 40 percent of the testators belonged to the artisan or salaried classes, 74 percent of men and 64 percent of women could sign their names. In the rue Saint-Honoré–a fashionable street, but one where a third of the residents belonged to the common people – literacy rates stood at 93 percent. In the artisanal rue Saint-Denis, 86 percent of men and 73 percent of women made out and signed their own contracts of marriage.

In other words, literacy rates in late eighteenth-century France were much higher than in the late twentieth-century United States. It was only in the pools of unskilled, day-wage labor – market porters, construction workers, stevedores, chimney sweeps and coachmen, many of them immigrant workers from the provinces – that illiteracy predominated. By contrast domestic servants, who also came from the countryside, were virtually all literate, able to read their contracts of employment. The “little schools” promoted by the Catholic missions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had evidently done their work well. Around 1780, according to Roche, 35 percent of all wills made by the popular classes contained some books as did 40 percent of those in the shop keeping and petty trades.

What this population read, of course, did not necessarily connect them with the fast tides of public opinion. There is no doubt that religious and devotional literature remained most widespread, followed by the fantasies and fairy stories called the “Blue Library” and cheaply available from the Pont Neuf stalls and the fairs of Saint-Laurent and Saint-Germain. But if they were not drinking directly at the well of Rousseau, there were many examples of popular literature that imparted the same messages: of innocence corrupted, the wickedness of urban money and the brutality of power. There is no doubt, for example, that Restif de Bretonne, who laced with detailed sexual adventures his own stories of country boys and girls going down the urban drain, was a huge success among simple as well as sophisticated readers.

And it was unbound literature – almanacs and the posting of notices and placards – that would have increasingly connected the common people of the French towns with the world of public events. Every morning in Paris forty bill stickers would paste the city with news of battles won or lost; edicts of the King and the government; public festivities to mark some auspicious event; timely indications about the transport of ordure or the removal of graves. At moments of crisis they would be defaced or (illegally) supplanted by notices parodying government orders or pillorying ministers. And the exuberance of their visual broadcasting system was matched by the flamboyance of the oral world of the Parisian, tuned as it was to a whole universe of songs. The subsequent importance of the “Marseillaise” or the “Carmagnole” as revolutionary anthems can only be understood if the universal passion for songs in Louis XVI’s France is appreciated. Songs were sold by strolling vendors on the boulevards, bridges and quais and were sung at the cafés, their themes spanning a whole universe from the predictable airs of songs of courtship, seduction and rejection, to others that caroled the sons of Liberty in America, the profligacy of the court, the impotence of the King and the naughtiness of the Queen.

The empire of words – spoken, read, declaimed or sung – at the end of the old regime stretched out to very far-flung boundaries. While it was at its most excited in Paris, it was by no means an exclusively metropolitan phenomenon. There may have been nothing quite like the Palais-Royal in the provinces, but traveling hawkers, adventurous booksellers and eager customers all ensured that both the newspaper press and the market for clandestine works were as lively in Bordeaux, Lyon, Rennes, and Marseille as in the capital. There too could be found the other communities of discussion: Masonic lodges, literary and scientific academies, the sociétés de pensée and musées on which local elites prided themselves. And if some took care to retain distinctions of rank that corresponded to formal social divisions, they almost invariably opened themselves to the corresponding members, whose sense of being simultaneously included and rejected in these intellectual fraternities sharpened their public conscience.

And in realms beyond words – in open-air spectacles; in Rousseau’s little opera, still playing in the 1780s; in the tear-soaked canvases of Greuze – the phalanxes of citizens were lining up. Indeed their individual and collective personalities were, by the mid-1780s, already constructed. They were devotees of Nature, tender-hearted, contemptuous of fashion, scornful of the ostentation of the mighty, passionate in their patriotism and enraged at the abuses of despotism. Above all they were apostles of public virtue who saw a France on the verge of being reborn as a republic of friends. And it was with their arms linked, their pens busily scratching letters and their lungs rehearsing speeches and songs, that this army of young citizens watched as their government fell apart.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!