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Poverty, Crime & Revolution

Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes in Paris During the First Half of the Nineteenth Century

by Louis Chevalier, translated by Frank Jellinek
Howard Fertig, 505 pp., $16.50

The Names of Kings: The Parisian Laboring Poor in the Eighteenth Century

by Jeffry Kaplow
Basic Books, 222 pp., $8.95

The French Revolution, 1787-1799: From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon

by Albert Soboul, translated by Alan Forrest, by Colin Jones
Random House, 638 pp., $4.95 (paper)

The Poor of Eighteenth-Century France 1750-1789

by Olwen H. Hufton
Oxford University Press, 414 pp., $29.00

Having begun in the 1950s to rewrite history “from below” and having dug deeper and deeper into the lives of anonymous masses throughout the 1960s, historians have finally hit the bottom of early modern society. They have uncovered the irreducible, irredeemable poor. Although there are signs of a revival of interest in the rich and powerful, the fascination with the history of poverty is now at a peak.

The books by Chevalier, Kaplow, Soboul, and Hufton represent this trend at its strongest, as it applies to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. Chevalier and Hufton investigate the relations between destitution and crime, while Kaplow and Soboul try to disentangle the connections between conditions of the poor and the revolutionaries. Taken together, their books illustrate the complexity of relating poverty, crime, and revolution; and they also suggest some variations in two historical styles, the Anglo-American and the French.


For the French historian Louis Chevalier, the history of poverty reveals the poverty of history as a record of human experience. Previous historians had made body counts of the poor, but they had never shown how indigence tightened its grip on the population between 1815 and 1848, corrupting both mind and body, and shaping the cultural as well as the biological bases of existence. Chevalier analyzed this dual process in Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes, which has remained one of the most important contributions to social history since it first appeared in French in 1958.

He had uncovered the biological element in an earlier book, La formation de la population parisienne au XIXe siècle (1950), which analyzed the way the city’s population doubled during the first half of the nineteenth century, while its physical and institutional structure remained essentially the same. In his subsequent book, Chevalier moved from demography to urban pathology. He showed how the nineteenth-century population sickened within the shell of the eighteenth-century city, how sewers overflowed, the water supply gave out, housing deteriorated, and disease raged, especially in districts where humanity was densest and poorest. Poverty, he concluded, produced a fundamental inequality before life and death. That is why infant mortality was twice as great in the slums along the rue Mouffetarde as in the mansions of the rue Saint-Honoré, why the cholera epidemic of 1832 decimated poor neighborhoods and spared the rich, why native Parisians tended to be too weak for heavy labor, too sickly for military service, and too undernourished to replace themselves by reproduction.

Their replacements came from the provinces, strange men and women in bizarre costumes, muttering unintelligible dialects as they did the city’s heavy work and dirty work. The Parisian bourgeois saw these outsiders as an alien “race,” the “barbarians within”; for biological inequality was construed in racial terms, by the barbarians as well as the bourgeois. Chevalier suggested that the barricades of 1848 did not merely divide rich against poor but separated two hostile populations in a city whose structure had finally collapsed.

Paris rose again, of course, but only after Haussmann had razed the slums of the center city, after industry had developed around the periphery, after railway supply lines had improved its provisioning, and after some balance had been restored between demographic and economic forces.

More Malthusian than Marxian, this picture of urban decay may look familiar to the modern American reader, although it was original in the 1950s. What still sets Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes apart from other urban histories is its emphasis on culture and collective consciousness. Chevalier interpreted the history of Paris as a dialectic between “facts” and “opinion.” By facts, he meant the objective conditions of life: the density of human beings per square meter in each district; the composition, age structure, and sex ratio of the population; the number of calories in average diets; and the incidence of suicide, infanticide, theft, and murder. Chevalier produced statistics on all those subjects by digging through census data and other sources, including the works of early nineteenth-century social scientists. Although the social science literature had nearly been forgotten, he found it to be so rich that it raised a new question: how did contemporaries make sense of the facts they had uncovered?

When it came to “opinion of the facts,” Chevalier found that the nineteenth-century experts understood the present in the light of the past. To them, as to their forerunners of the Enlightenment, poverty could be reduced to a problem of beggary. Find work for the sturdy beggar and bread for the deserving poor and you would make the problem go away. The nonexperts, however—journalists, novelists, contemporary letter writers—often saw poverty as a fundamental condition of urban life. They watched working men and women sink deeper and deeper into indigence, then strike out in desperation, seizing a purse or clubbing a passer-by or stuffing an unwanted baby down a drain. It seemed to these nonprofessionals that the laboring classes were merging into the criminal or “dangerous” classes and that poverty was assuming a modern form—not beggary but crime.

Chevalier had come to the same conclusion after his great trek through the statistics, and so he concluded further that the connection between poverty and crime emerged in contemporary consciousness long before it dawned on the experts, who remained prisoners of their professionalism until the 1840s. How then did collective consciousness take shape and express itself? Chevalier found ways to formulate this problem in the works of Durkheim and Halbwachs, but where could he find evidence of “collective representations” and “collective memory” as they had actually existed in the past? The most important general assumptions could have been those that went without saying or at least without being recorded.

Chevalier attacked this problem in a very French manner: he reread the French classics. But he reread them in an original way. Instead of sifting social comment from Les Misérables, he looked for passages where Hugo did not mean to pronounce on crime and poverty but was merely telling the story of Jean Valjean. When the great man relaxed his pose of social prophet and slipped out of his role as literary genius, he filled his tale with casual remarks about things everyone knew—things, that is, that the historian has the greatest difficulty in knowing: the feel of the barrière Saint-Jacques where the guillotine was kept, the look of chain gangs leaving the Bicêtre prison for work at dawn, the strange noises that rose from sewers and cellars everywhere, the stench from the monstrous mouth of the drain in the rue de la Mortellerie, and the resonance of the name of that street, where death struck deepest during the cholera epidemic of 1832.

In such observations, in contrast to his unconvincing attempts to describe the professional underworld, Hugo unknowingly articulated attitudes that he shared with his audience. He let the collectivity speak through him, as storytellers have done since the time of Homer. And without intending to do so, he communicated a sense of criminality as a social condition and a mental atmosphere, something that was smothering one half of the population and terrifying the other.

This view of Hugo’s writing sounds suspiciously spiritual, and one’s suspicions mount as Chevalier descends from La Comédie humaine and Les Misérables to Les Mystères de Paris, a book, he asserts, that expressed “the will of the laboring classes themselves as conclusively and surely as if the workmen and artisans of Paris had taken it in turns each day to guide Sue’s pen.” But even if he failed to strip the veil off the collective unconscious, Chevalier revealed a collective and an unconscious element in authorship. He did so by developing an eye for blind spots and by learning to find meaning where none was intended. Although those methods may be peculiar to his way of working, his work belongs to an important genre of literary scholarship. He studied Hugo as Bakhtin studied Rabelais and as Soriano studied Perrault: in order to understand the cultural dimensions of storytelling by following the interplay between author and audience.1

Historians have not made much of Chevalier’s attempt to see the common elements in culture through the texts of great books. Instead, they have tried to study popular culture directly, and their results, so far, do not confirm Chevalier’s view of criminality. After passing through a “picturesque” phase, Chevalier argued, crime became a basic element in working-class life and culture—so basic, in fact, that the laboring classes came to see themselves as dangerous classes and acted accordingly in 1848. But historians of popular literature, from Charles Nisard to J.J. Darmon, have failed to find much social criminality in the primitive paperbacks read (or heard) by nineteenth-century peasants and workers. These “blue books” treated their reader-listeners to crime at its most picturesque: derring-do by Cartouche, Jean Bart, Tiel Ulespiègle, and Gargantua. Another popular genre, the canard, a semifictitious broadsheet, specialized in horrendous crimes, which it announced in enormous headlines:

Un Crime sans Précédent!!!


Par ses Enfants


Not much of a social message here; or in early popular journalism from La Presse (1836) to Le Petit Journal (1863); or in the horror literature rented out for three francs a month in the cabinets de lecture; or in the popular theaters of the boulevards; or in the Catholic and Bonapartist fairyland of the images d’Epinal.

Popular culture probably provided more escapism than anything else for the laboring classes, but it still remains unexplored territory. Despite some suggestive preliminary studies, we lack exact information on literacy; on the production, distribution, readership, and ideological content of popular literature; and on the other popular genres: the chanson, the image, the conte, and the fête. And when everything is catalogued and counted, it still may be true that Chevalier picked up a message implicit in these genres, like the hum one does not hear on the radio.

Even so, the consciousness or subconsciousness of criminality may not have contributed much to the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. Chevalier did not establish clear connections between poverty, crime, and revolution. He ended his book with a call for historians to incorporate his work into political narrative; but that has not been possible, perhaps because the day-to-day violence he analyzed did not feed directly into political explosions. Also, his compassionate but unflattering picture of the laboring and dangerous classes had nothing to please the left, which was anxious to see the revolutionaries become more and more part of the proletariat rather than merely pauperized. And subsequent research on revolutionary crowds has shown that the indigent fought on both sides of the barricades in 1848. In fact, the social composition of the revolutionaries during the June days of 1848, the July days of 1830, and the series of “days” between 1789 and 1795 seems to have been pretty much the same. The street people supplied cannon fodder whenever there was fighting in the streets but they never developed a political consciousness of their own. They probably remained too miserable—too intent on picking through garbage, rags, and pockets—to enroll en masse in revolutions.

  1. 1

    Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, Helene Iswolsky, tr. (Cambridge, Mass., 1968) and Marc Soriano, Les Contes de Perrault, culture savante et tradition populaire (Paris, 1968). For information on other works in this genre, see Walter J. Ong, “The Writer’s Audience Is Always a Fiction,” PMLA vol. 90 (January 1975), pp. 9-21.

  2. 2

    Jean-Pierre Seguin, Nouvelles à sensation: Canards du XIXe siècle (Paris, 1959), p. 169.

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