The Rise of the Writer

Writer and Public in France: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day

by John Lough
Oxford University Press, 435 pp., $36.00

Le Siècle des lumières en province: Académies et académiciens provinciaux, 1680-1789

by Daniel Roche
Mouton (Paris and The Hague), 2 volumes, 914 pp., $74.50

If the man of letters was not born in Paris, he seems to speak French throughout most modern history; and his battle cries, from écrasez l’infâme to épatez le bourgeois, have echoed from the left bank to the right bank before circling the world. Thanks to the work of John Lough and Daniel Roche, it now is possible to trace the rise of the writer in France and to situate him within an institution that also seems peculiarly French, although it exists everywhere and nowhere—the Republic of Letters.

In Writer and Public in France, Lough concentrates on the writer’s attempt to win financial independence and social standing, a long, hard struggle against supercilious patrons, tight-fisted publishers, and an illiterate public. The most surprising aspect of this story is the staying power of patronage. It is well known that the medieval minstrels lived off scraps from their lords’ tables and that Racine gave up playwriting as soon as he won a pension and a place in court. But Lough shows that writers continued to depend on the rich and powerful until well into the nineteenth century.

Hugo received 2,000 francs a year from Louis XVIII and Charles X. Gautier got 3,000 from Louis Napoleon in addition to an honorific post as a librarian worth 6,000. Flaubert kept body and soul together in his old age from a 3,000-franc librarianship. And even Baudelaire, who declared grandly in 1855 that he would never solicit subsidies—“never will my name appear in the vile papers of a government”—begged the minister of education two years later for a pension and received a miserable 200 francs.

Writers did not liberate themselves completely from patrons until about 1880, when Zola celebrated the advent of the modern cash nexus in literature: “It is money, it is the legitimate gain realized from his works that has freed [the writer] from all humiliating patronage…. Money has emancipated the writer, money has created modern letters.”

Why did it take the writer so long to live by his pen in France? Essentially, Lough argues, because of the underdeveloped character of the literary market.

In 1973, half the Frenchmen over fourteen years of age had not read a book during the past year. Almost a third of the population could not read at all in the 1870s, and nearly two-thirds were illiterate in the 1780s. Literacy rates were far higher in Britain and America during those periods, and so was expenditure on libraries. In 1908-1909, the public libraries of Leeds spent six times as much money on books as those in Lyon, a city of comparable size.

Frenchmen have felt dubious about public education ever since Voltaire warned them that a peasant who took up books would abandon his plough. The Revolution established a system of primary schools on paper in 1793, but it probably disrupted the institutions of the Old Regime so badly that mass education was set back half a century. It took two more republics before the free, compulsory, and secular primary school began producing a critical mass of readers for the Republic of Letters.

The Third Republic represents a turning point in several other respects, according to Lough. It finally freed the press, not merely from censorship, which had plagued the printed word in various ways for three and a half centuries, but also from the insidious restraints of the stamp duty on newspapers and the restrictive licenses for printers and booksellers. The modern system of royalties took hold about 1880. At that point, writers began to cash in on the success of best sellers, because they received a proportion of the receipts from sales instead of a flat fee or a number of free copies in exchange for a manuscript.

Writers also benefited indirectly from an improvement in the lot of publishers after 1880. The Bern Convention of 1886 freed the French book trade from the pirates who had raided it from the Low Countries and Switzerland since the sixteenth century. The cost of printing books fell after the introduction of machine-made pulp paper, the rotary press, steam power, and, in the 1880s, linotype. The number of books printed and the size of the press runs increased throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, reaching a peak in the decade 1889-1899 that was not attained again until the 1960s, if the figures from the dépôt légal are to be believed.

Publishers and writers alike benefited from the expansion of journalism. With the founding of La Presse and Le Siècle in 1836, an era of relatively inexpensive newspapers, financed by advertising rather than subscriptions, came into existence. The feuilleton followed and in its wake a golden age for novelists. By 1840, editors began to bid for the rights to serialize fiction by Balzac, Sand, and Zola as well as that of the masters of the feuilleton, Eugène Sue, Dumas père, and Frédéric Soulié. A cheapening of the genre seems to have set in with the advent of the penny press in the 1860s. But “quality” fiction had two outlets, the newspaper and the book, until World War I brought an end to the belle époque in literary fortunes.

The writer’s status rose with his income. Having been a clown and a vagrant in the Middle Ages, a gentleman amateur in the Renaissance, and a curiosity in the salons of the Enlightenment, he commanded respect and sometimes adoration in the nineteenth century. Today one cannot cross a street in Paris without seeing a plaque to some man of letters or stroll through a park without confronting a poet on a pedestal. The names of schools, squares, and streets proclaim the cult of the writer everywhere in France—an odd phenomenon to anyone from the United States who has bought gas at the Vince Lombardi Service Area of the New Jersey Turnpike or driven through Bob Jones University.

But the pattern will look familiar to anyone who has read Lough’s earlier books. Three of them, published between 1954 and 1978, contain chapters on “the writer and his public,” which Lough has sewn together, with some rephrasing here and amplification there, to form much of the present work.1

There is no harm in an author repeating himself, especially if he is as distinguished and erudite as Professor Lough. But a great deal has been written about writers and their readerships since 1954, and this work poses problems for Lough’s attempt to trace a trajectory from Chrétien de Troyes to Sartre.

Lough cites many of the recent contributions to his subject in his footnotes and bibliography, but he generally ignores them in his text. For example, in his chapter on the seventeenth century, he generously acknowledges his debt to the work of Henri-Jean Martin, Livre, pouvoirs et société à Paris au XVIIème siècle (Geneva, 1969, 2 vols). But the text of the chapter repeats what Lough said in 1954, sometimes word for word. True, it contains an aside about the inadequacy of Martin’s statistics on book production. But it steers around the mountain of material Martin has unearthed on the politics and economics of the book trade, the social position of authors, and the tastes of readers.

In the following chapter, Lough cites Livre et société dans la France du XVIIIème siècle (Paris and The Hague, 1965-1970, 2 vols.), a collection of essays by historians associated with the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris, which is as important for the eighteenth century as Martin’s work is for the seventeenth. Again, however, Lough clings closely to his old argument about the continued importance of patronage and the relative improvement in the writer’s status. The Livre et société historians have moved beyond those questions to a new concern with the general topography of literary culture. By taking quantitative soundings in various sources, they try to show that “inertia” overwhelmed “innovation” in the reading habits of the Old Regime. Their argument may be wrong, but it is too important to be ignored; and it complements the work of Martin, who found that religious literature predominated in the classical age, when half the “writers” were probably clergymen.

The same emphasis emerges in recent studies of popular literature, which Lough acknowledges and then skirts. According to Robert Mandrou, Geneviève Bollème, Pierre Brochon, and Jean-Jacques Darmon, the literary diet of most Frenchmen from the late sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century consisted of chapbooks; and these were consumed orally, at fireside readings, in which the literate few regaled the rest with saints’ lives and the adventures of archaic heroes like the Quatre fils d’Aymon. These cheap pamphlets, known collectively as the Bibliothèque bleue, were generally adapted by type-setters or anonymous hacks from the “high” literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance—that is, they did not have specific authors any more than readers.

Notions of the writer and the reading public quickly become anachronistic, if applied all the way back to the Middle Ages, as Lough does in his first chapter. Albert Lord and others have argued that the chansons de geste should not be understood as texts by authors but as performances by singers, who adapted a fluid repertory to particular audiences. Scribes eventually adapted those adaptations into writing, and printers adapted the scribal versions for the press.

Narrative intended directly for the press proceeded from different assumptions. By fixing texts in standard forms and by multiplying them among readers whom the writer could only imagine, the printing press transformed literature as a mode of communication. Elizabeth Eisenstein has developed this line of analysis in a series of articles, culminating in her recent book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge University Press, 1979, 2 vols.). Lough merely treats the printing press as the beginning of a long process that led to the financial independence of the writer, and “writer” for him means troubadour as well as novelist.

Questions about communication deserve a place in a general study of writers and readers. One need not line up with the supporters of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Tzvetan Todorov, Wolfgang Iser, Wayne Booth, Stanley Fish, or any other fashionable critic to accept the notion that texts can be interpreted as a form of discourse, in which author and audience play prescribed roles. Rabelais leaps onto a stage and harangues you like a barker at a fair. Montaigne chats with you at a fireside. Rousseau manipulates you into the position of a confidant, the only one in a wicked world who can understand and forgive. Voltaire winks knowingly at you from behind impieties. Rimbaud clasps you to his bosom. Flaubert pretends that neither you nor he exists. The postures vary enormously throughout French history; and they deserve a historian, for they provide clues about the ways of experiencing literature in the past.

One way was political, and it bears on the most important role played by writers in French history. While English writers enjoyed wealth and prestige early in the eighteenth century and often turned Tory, their underprivileged counterparts in France tended to become social critics—that is, intellectuals. The rise of the modern intellectual dates from the French Enlightenment, when Voltaire and d’Alembert cleared a path for the philosophes by identifying them with the more respectable category of “gens de lettres.” This strategy succeeded so well that in later generations men of letters played the part of philosophes and stationed themselves in cafes from which they could point an accusing finger at the social order. The “J’accuse” has shaped the role of the writer in the modern imagination and has given it its aura of Frenchness.

Lough does not analyze the ways writers assumed different roles in their work and in public life, and does not mention their ideologies, not even Jansenism or Marxism. Instead, he keeps his sights fixed on a single theme: the rise of the “professional,” or self-supporting, writer from his remote origins in the Middle Ages. In showing how much of that slow ascent is a story of prophets without honor and honors without profit, he has brought together a great deal of interesting information. But he has not advanced his subject far from where it stood in the 1950s.

For a truly important advance, one must turn to Le Siècle des lumières en province by Daniel Roche. Its importance deserves to be underscored, since Roche’s work will not be assimilated easily in this country, because of a peculiar barrier between the writer and the reading public. The difficulty is not that Roche writes in French but that his idiom is statistical. American and British historians have often used statistics, but they have rarely attempted to take quantitative soundings of culture. The French have been quantifying culture for a generation, and Roche’s study of intellectual life in the provinces from 1680 to 1789 represents their work at its most ambitious and its best.

Instead of developing an argument from text to text in the manner of Lough, Roche provides a running commentary in his first volume on a series of tables, charts, graphs, and maps in his second. The reader must shuttle back and forth between volumes one and two, and his task isn’t made easier by the publisher, who has scrambled the references and botched the cartography.

In the end, however, the reader’s trouble will be rewarded, for he will get a view of the entire cultural terrain of the Old Regime. Roche has mapped it all. He reveals the social and geographical location of provincial academies, masonic lodges, schools and universities, concert societies, theaters, reading clubs, bookshops—virtually all the institutions that transmitted the Enlightenment to the literate.

Roche concentrates on the thirty-two provincial academies, and rightly so, for they served as centers for cultural diffusion in the eighteenth century. They cannot be identified directly with the Enlightenment. Many of them were founded under Louis XIV and were meant to extend the influence of the state in the cultural life of the provinces. But in the second half of the century, they began to stir up debates about politically sensitive subjects, such as the increase in beggary and the need for reforming law codes. They did so by sponsoring essay contests, which produced a great outpouring of quasi-political treatises.

Not only did Rousseau write the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences and the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality for the Academy of Dijon, but many future revolutionaries—Robespierre, Marat, Carnot, Barère, Roland, Brissot—tried to make names for themselves in the same way. By rewarding ambitious young writers with highly publicized prizes and electing them as corresponding members, the academies provided one of the few means of making a career in the premodern Republic of Letters.

In studying the academies, therefore, Roche has selected a strategic site at which to examine the convergence of traditional and modern currents of culture. He takes great pains, in the course of this examination, to situate the academies within the surrounding social order. In fact, he surveys the entire topography of urban society in the eighteenth century.

He produces figures on almost everything. For example, he estimates that his thirty-two cities had one priest for every 50-200 inhabitants, one administrative official for every 200-400, one doctor for every 1,000, one teacher in a secondary school or university for every 3,000, and one bookseller for every 1,000-4,500. Evidently Voltaire and Tocqueville were both right: urban France was priest-ridden and overadministered. And Lough was not wrong, although scattered figures on literacy, book sales, and the size of the student population suggest that he underestimated the importance of the reading public.

Roche scatters a great deal of incidental information along with his figures. He tosses off remarks about the cost of a house visit by a provincial doctor, the salaries of professors and the surprisingly healthy state of their universities, the social rivalries imbedded in different masonic lodges, the rising status of the apothecary, the scholarship-boy syndrome within the clergy, the extent of Rousseau’s correspondence with country curates and of Voltaire’s with courtiers, and differences in the social code of “bourgeois vivant noblement” and “nobles vivant bourgeoisement.” The book really serves as an encyclopedia of provincial life under the Old Regime.

But Roche means it to be a contribution to the sociology of culture. He aims it at the heart of a sociological question that has preoccupied historians for the last decade: what exactly was the character of the social and cultural elites of the Old Regime: were they enlightened bourgeois? aristocratic defenders of tradition? or a contradictory mixture of Enlightenment, tradition, bourgeois, and noblemen? The problem is more important than it may seem, for on it hang some general questions about the connections between class and ideology. It also suggests a shift in historical perspective—away from the attempts in the Fifties and Sixties to see society from below and toward a new effort to understand it at the top.

Roche goes beyond the bewigged and powdered gentlemen of the academies to study the larger elite who were known as the “notables” in the eighteenth century and who might be compared with what we call the “superstructure” or the “power elite” today. He found them by looking them up in eighteenth-century municipal almanacs. Although the almanacs have drawbacks as sources, they served as directories for anyone who needed to know who was who and where they could be located within the circles of power and prestige in the cities of the Old Regime. Roche is concerned with the same problem and was able to find supplementary information in the vast literature on local history. He can thus translate the material of the almanacs into a set of statistics, which lead to a surprising conclusion. Half of the notables came from the royal administration and the law courts; a third came from the church. Only 7 percent were businessmen.

The commercial bourgeoisie also looks surprisingly unimportant in Roche’s attempt to subject the entire population of his thirty-two cities to statistical analysis. He finds a significant number of merchants and manufacturers in great commercial centers, like Lyon and Marseilles. But they were outnumbered almost everywhere else by priests and, in some cases, by noblemen. Roche estimates that they made up 1 percent of the population of Dijon, in contrast to the clergy (4 percent) and the nobility (3 percent). In Besançon his estimates run: commercial bourgeoisie, 3 percent; clergy, 10 percent; nobility, 2 percent. In Bordeaux: commercial bourgeoisie, 6-9 percent; clergy, 15 percent; nobility, 1-4 percent.

Of course quantitative conclusions can be only as sound as the data on which they are based. Roche must draw on disparate sources, tax rolls and marriage contracts as well as monographs. Any attempt to picture the social structure of cities throughout a whole country two centuries ago will be distorted here or there. But the general outlines of Roche’s picture seem convincing. And he draws a clear, sharp pattern in the most important section of his thesis, the analysis of the social composition of the academies themselves, which he bases on 6,000 case studies, dredged out of archives everywhere in France.

After allowing for variations from place to place and time to time and sifting his statistics through finer and finer grids, Roche finds once again that the commercial bourgeoisie did not count. Half the academicians were noblemen, from the late seventeenth century right up to the Revolution. The church supplied a fifth of the academicians, although the proportion dropped after 1750. And the academic bourgeoisie was composed almost entirely of commoner clergy, government officials, professional men (doctors far more than lawyers), and rentiers. Merchants and manufacturers hardly appeared in the academies at all.

They made up only 3 percent of the regular members in the provinces and never penetrated the ranks of the academies in Paris. The Académie des Sciences included only a few merchants among its corresponding members, while the Académie française kept them out completely and drew three quarters of its members from the nobility. Although the commercial bourgeoisie flocked into masonic lodges—and Roche compiles some remarkable statistics on the spread of free masonry—it played little part in other cultural institutions, like the Sociétés royales d’agriculture. Roche also finds it underrepresented among the subscribers to literary periodicals, the contributors to the Encyclopédie, and the long list of literary figures published in La France littéraire of 1784. He concludes that the “classe culturelle” had little connection with modern capitalism.

This conclusion challenges what has become accepted wisdom among many historians in France—namely, that the Enlightenment can be identified with the bourgeoisie. In formulating the orthodox, textbook view of the Enlightenment and the academies, for example, Robert Mandrou pronounced, “The eighteenth century truly thinks bourgeois.”2 The 166 pages of statistics, graphs, and maps in Roche’s book provide a clearer view of the bourgeois presence at three levels of urban society. It was small in proportion to the general population, unimportant among the notables, and least important in the academies.

By 1789 a capitalist class had established itself in the economic system of the Old Regime, but it played little part in civic affairs and still less in culture. It entered masonic lodges but it remained outside the academies, and it did not supply many writers or perhaps even many readers to the Republic of Letters. While France’s economy moved sluggishly in the direction of industrialization, her cultural institutions remained under the control of a traditional elite. Yet this elite was open to Enlightenment, an Enlightenment that worked its way through the social order from the top down, instead of rising with the middle class.

In the last part of his book, Roche discusses the content of culture; and here, too, he uses quantitative techniques, counting motifs in the speeches of academicians, tracing the subjects of their essay contests on graphs, and mapping the diffusion of some of their books. His methods and assumptions correspond to those in Livre et société, mentioned above, and to Michel Vovelle’s Piété baroque et déchristianisation, reviewed here on June 27, 1974. In fact, the quantification of culture has gone so far among French historians that it seems worthwhile to say a word about its origins and implications.

In the 1930s, Ernest Labrousse transformed economic history by producing a quantitative analysis of documents arranged in “series,” or commensurable units stretched over long periods of time. During the next three decades, social historians, from the old Georges Lefebvre to the young François Furet, built statistical series into analyses of social structure. Today, a new generation is attacking cultural history in the same way. Pierre Chaunu expressed their program in a manifesto entitled “Un nouveau champ pour l’histoire sérielle: le quantitatif au troisième niveau.”3 Having conquered the first two levels of history, he explained, the quantifiers are now taking over the third—culture.

Chaunu’s formula is cited frequently by current French historians, and it seems to be embodied in recent French doctoral theses, which often follow the format: part I, economics and demography; part II, social structure; part III, superstructure, culture, collective mentalités. Roche does not proceed in that fashion. But in explaining his method (vol. I, pp. 185-189), he invokes Chaunu and sets his argument in the language of levels and statistical series. This approach succeeds spectacularly in his analysis of the cultural elite but not in his treatment of culture itself. Views of the world and sets of attitudes cannot be strung into series and transposed onto graphs. Of course it is possible to count some cultural phenomena, such as book sales, theater performances, and masses said for souls in Purgatory. But the statistics can only serve as symptoms; and once the count is in, the historian must face the task of diagnosing something unquantifiable: shifts in systems of meaning.

Instead of working diagnostically, the French quantifiers argue directly from statistical patterns to patterns of culture. Roche sees Enlightenment in graphs about the subject matter of academic speeches. Michel Vovelle weighs piety by the pounds of candle wax burned in religious ceremonies. Jean Toussaert measures laxism according to the liters of wine consumed at communion. All such attempts to apply the Chaunu formula suggest three false assumptions that are implicit in it. First, that meaning can be measured outwardly in the study of rituals and other cultural forms. Second, that economies, societies, and civilizations (to cite the subtitle of the Annales) can be separated onto different levels, not merely for purposes of analysis but because they exist separately. Third, that cultural phenomena can be explained by demonstrating their “structural” relation to phenomena at the other two levels—essentially, that is, by means of statistical homologies.

Roche ran into the third fallacy when he found that the elite of the Old Regime absorbed progressive ideas, although its social composition remained traditional. The pattern only looks contradictory if one assumes that culture derives directly from social structure. It seems less perplexing if one abandons the notion of levels altogether and assumes that culture permeated every aspect of life in the eighteenth century, the buying of bread as well as the reading of books.

By sticking close to the texts of books, Lough avoids doing violence to the texture of culture. But he does not stray far from the familiar paths of literary history or confront the questions raised by Roche. In the end, therefore, both authors leave one with the feeling that the Republic of Letters still needs to be explored. Lough examines it terre à terre and from text to text. Roche surveys its general outline from the top of a statistical superstructure. Neither method seems adequate, but each is revealing in its own way, not merely about literary life in the past but about modes of understanding in the present.

  1. 1

    An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century France (London, 1954), An Introduction to Eighteenth-Century France (London, 1960), An Introduction to Nineteenth-Century France (London, 1978). Lough also uses material from his excellent monograph, Paris Theatre Audiences in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (London, 1957).

  2. 2

    Robert Mandrou, La France aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Paris, 1967), pp. 168-169.

  3. 3

    Mélanges en l’honneur de Fernand Braudel (Toulouse, 1973), II, pp. 105-125.