Among the many prophecies about the century we have just entered, we hear a great deal about the information age. The media loom so large in our vision of the future that we may fail to recognize their importance in the past, and the present can look like a time of transition, when the modes of communication are replacing the modes of production as the driving force of history. I would like to dispute this view, to argue that every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that communication systems have always shaped events.
That argument may sound suspiciously like common sense; but if pushed hard enough, it could open up a fresh perspective on the past. I would begin with a simple question: What is news? Most of us would reply that news is what we read in newspapers or see and hear on news broadcasts. If we considered the question further, however, we probably would agree that news is not what happened—yesterday, or last week—but rather stories about what happened. It is a kind of narrative, transmitted by special kinds of media. That line of reasoning soon leads to entanglement in literary theory and the World Wide Web. But if projected backward, it may help to disentangle some knotty problems in the past.
I would propose a general attack on the problem of how societies made sense of events and transmitted information about them, something that might be called the history of communication. In principle, this kind of history could be applied to any time and place. In practice, it must be worked out in case studies. So I would direct the question to my own field of study and ask: How did you find out what the news was in Paris around 1750? Not, I submit, by reading a newspaper, because papers with news in them—news as we understand it today, about public affairs and personalities—did not exist. The government did not permit them.
To find out what was really going on, you went to the Tree of Cracow. It was a large, leafy chestnut tree, which stood at the heart of Paris in the gardens of the Palais-Royal. It probably acquired its name from heated discussions that took place around it during the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1735), although the name also suggested rumor-mongering (craquer: to tell dubious stories). Like a mighty magnet, the tree attracted nouvellistes de bouche, or newsmongers, who spread information about current events by word of mouth. They claimed to know, from private sources (a letter, an indiscreet servant, a remark overheard in an antechamber of Versailles), what really was happening in the corridors of power—and the people in power took them seriously, because the government worried about what Parisians were saying. Foreign diplomats allegedly sent agents to pick up news or to plant it at the foot of the Tree of Cracow. There were several other nerve centers for transmitting “public noises” (bruits publics), as this variety of news was known: special benches in the Tuileries and Luxembourg Gardens, informal speakers’ corners on the Quai des Augustins and the Pont Neuf, cafés known for their loose talk, and stretches of boulevards, where news bulletins were bawled out by peddlers of canards (facetious broadsides) or sung to familiar tunes by hurdy-gurdy players. To tune in on the news, you could simply stand in the street and cock your ear.
But ordinary hearsay did not sat-isfy Parisians with a powerful appetite for information. They needed to sift through the public noise in order to discover what really was happening. Sometimes they pooled their information and criticized it collectively by meeting in groups such as the famous salon of Mme. M.-A. L. Doublet, known as “the parish.” Twenty-nine “parishioners,” many of them well connected with the parlement of Paris or the court and all of them famished for news, gathered regularly in Mme. Doublet’s apartment in the Enclos des Filles Saint-Thomas. When they entered the salon, they found two large registers on a desk near the door. One contained news reputed to be reliable, the other, gossip. Together, they comprised the menu for the day’s discussion, which was prepared by one of Mme. Doublet’s servants, who may qualify as the first “reporter” in the history of France. We don’t know his name, but a description of him survives in the files of the police: He was “tall and fat, a full face, round wig, and a brown outfit. Every morning he goes from house to house asking, in the name of his mistress, ‘What’s new?”’ The servant wrote the first entries for each day’s news on the registers; the “parishioners” read through them, adding whatever other information they had gathered; and after a general vetting, the reports were copied and sent to select friends of Mme. Doublet.
One of them, Mme. d’Argental, had a lackey named Gillet, who organized another copying service. When he began to make money by selling the copies, some of his copyists set up shops of their own; and those shops spawned other shops, so that by 1750 multiple editions of Mme. Doublet’s newsletter were flying around Paris and the provinces. The copying operations—an efficient means of diffusion long after Gutenberg and long before Xerox—had turned into a minor industry, a news service providing subscribers with manuscript gazettes, or nouvelles à la main. In 1777 publishers began putting these nouvelles into print, and they circulated as the Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France, a best seller in the underground book trade.
These examples show that news (nouvelles) circulated through several media and by different modes—oral, manuscript, and print. In each case, moreover, it remained outside the law. So we also should consider the political constraints on the news.
This is a rich and complicated subject, because research during the last twenty years has transformed the history of early modern journalism. Simplifying radically, I would insist on a basic point: information about the inner workings of the power system was not supposed to circulate under the Old Regime in France. Politics was the king’s business, le secret du roi—a notion derived from a late medieval and Renaissance view, which treated statecraft as arcana imperii, a secret art restricted to sovereigns and their advisers.
Of course, some information reached the reading public through gazettes, but it was not supposed to deal with the inside story of politics or with politics at all, except in the form of official pronouncements on subjects such as war and peace. All printed matter had to be cleared through a baroque bureaucracy that included nearly two hundred censors, and the censors’ decisions were enforced by a special branch of the police, the inspectors of the book trade. The inspectors did not merely repress heresy and sedition; they also protected privileges. Official journals—notably the Gazette de France, Mercure, and Journal des savants—possessed royal privileges for the coverage of certain subjects, and no new periodical could be established without paying them for a share in their turf.
Many periodicals existed, many of them printed in French outside France; but if any ventured criticism of the government, they could easily be snuffed out by the police—not simply by raids on bookshops and arrests of peddlers, but by being excluded from the mail. Distribution through the mail left their supply lines very vulnerable, as the Gazette de Leyde learned when it tried and failed to cover the most important political story of Louis XV’s reign, the destruction of the parlements in 1771-1774.
In short, the press was far from free; and it was also underdeveloped, if you compare it with the press in Holland, England, and Germany. The first French daily newspaper, Le Journal de Paris, did not appear until 1777. The first German daily appeared more than a century earlier, in Leipzig in 1660. Yet a substantial reading public had existed in France since the seventeenth century; and it expanded enormously in the eighteenth century, especially in cities and in northern France, where nearly half of all adult males could read by 1789. This public was curious about public affairs and conscious of itself as a new force in politics—that is, as public opinion—even though it had no voice in the conduct of the government.
So a basic contradiction existed—between the public with its hunger for news on the one side and the state with its Louis-Quatorzean forms of power on the other. To understand how this contradiction played itself out, we need to take a closer look at the media that transmitted news and the messages they conveyed. What were the media in eighteenth-century Paris?
It may seem that they barely existed if we compare them to the all-pervasive media of today. The Old Regime, as we imagine it, may appear as a simple, media-free world-we-have-lost, a society with no telephones, no television, no e-mail, Internet, and all the rest. In fact, however, it was not a simple world at all. It was merely different. It had a dense communication network made up of media and genres that have been forgotten—so thoroughly forgotten that even their names are unknown today and cannot be translated into English equivalents: mauvais propos, bruit public, on-dit, pasquinade, Pont Neuf, canard, feuille volante, factum, libelle, chronique scandaleuse. There were so many modes of communication, and they intersected and overlapped so intensively, that we cannot reconstruct the system in its entirety.
But we can study examples of the transmission process. Here is one, something like a modern news flash, which I quote from Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry, a top best seller on the eve of the Revolution:
We find in the manuscript gazette that has often guided us in assembling the materials for our history, an anecdote [about Mme. du Barry] that illustrates the general opinion of the public about her dominance of the king. It is dated March 20, 1773: “There is a report, carefully spread about by some courtiers, which proves that Mme. du Barry has not lost any favor or familiarity with the king, as some had suspected. His Majesty likes to brew his own coffee and, by means of this innocent amusement, to get some relief from the heavy burdens of government. A few days ago, the coffee pot began to boil over while His Majesty was distracted by something else. ‘Hey France!’ called out the beautiful favorite. ‘Look out! Your coffee is buggering off.’ [La France, ton café fout le camp.] We are told that ‘France’ is the familiar expression utilized by this lady in the intimacy of the petits appartements. Such details should never circulate outside of them, but they escape, nonetheless, thanks to the malignity of the courtiers.”
The anecdote is trivial in itself, but it illustrates the way a news item moved through various media, reaching an ever-wider public. In this case, it went through four phases: 1. It began as mauvais propos, or insider gossip at court. 2. It turned into a bruit public, or general rumor in Paris—and the text uses a strong expression: “the general opinion of the public.” 3. It became incorporated in a nouvelle à la main, or manuscript news sheet, which circulated in the provinces, like Mme. Doublet’s. 4. It was printed in a libelle, or scandalous book—in this case, a best seller, which went through many editions and reached readers everywhere.