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Paris: The Early Internet

The book, Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry, is a scurrilous biography of the royal mistress pieced together from bits of gossip picked up by the greatest nouvelliste of the century, Mathieu-François Pidansat de Mairobert. He went around Paris collecting tidbits of news and scribbling them on scraps of paper, which he stuffed into his pockets and sleeves. When he arrived in a café, he would pull one out and regale the company—or trade it for another item collected by another nouvelliste. Mairobert’s biography of Mme. du Barry is really a scrapbook of these news items strung together along a narrative line, which takes the heroine from her obscure birth as the daughter of a cook and a wandering friar to a star role in a Parisian whorehouse and finally the royal bed.

Mairobert did not hesitate to vent his political opinions in telling his story, and his opinions were extremely hostile to Versailles. In 1749 a police spy reported that he had denounced the government in the following terms:

Speaking about the recent reorganization of the army, Mairobert said in the Café Procope that any soldier who had an opportunity should blast the court to hell, since its sole pleasure is in devouring the people and committing injustices.

A few days later, the police hauled him off to the Bastille, his pockets bulging with poems about taxes and the sex life of the King.

Mairobert’s case, and dozens like it, illustrate a point so simple that it has never been noticed: the media of the Old Regime were mixed. They involved an interpenetration of oral, written, and printed modes of communication; and they reached a mixed public. The most difficult ingredient in this mixture for the historian to isolate and analyze is oral communication, because it usually disappeared into the air. But fortunately for the historian, if not for the French, the Old Regime was a police state—“police” being understood in the eighteenth-century manner as municipal administration—and the police appreciated the importance of public opinion. They kept track of it by posting spies wherever people gathered to discuss public affairs—in marketplaces, shops, public gardens, taverns, and cafés. Of course, spy reports and police files should not be taken literally, because like all documents they have built-in biases. But they provide enough information for one to see how oral networks functioned. I shall draw on them in order to discuss two modes of communication that were especially effective in eighteenth-century Paris: gossip and songs.

First, gossip. The papers of the Bastille are full of cases like Mairobert’s: people arrested for mauvais propos or insolent talk about public figures, especially the King. And the spy reports reveal the character of more casual conversations among people who were simply passing the time of day, discussing current events. I have studied reports on 179 conversations in 29 cafés between 1726 and 1729. Most were written in dialogue, like the following:

At the Café de Foy someone said that the king had taken a mistress, that she was named Gontaut, and that she was a beautiful woman, the niece of the duc de Noailles and the comtesse de Toulouse. Others said, “If so, then there could be some big changes.” And another replied, “True, a rumor is spreading, but I find it hard to believe, since the cardinal de Fleury is in charge. I don’t think the king has any inclination in that direction, because he has always been kept away from women.” “Nevertheless,” someone else said, “it wouldn’t be the greatest evil if he had a mistress.” “Well, Messieurs,” another added, “it may not be a passing fancy, either, and a first love could raise some danger on the sexual side and could cause more harm than good. It would be far more desirable if he liked hunting better than that kind of thing.”

As always, the royal sex life provided prime material for gossip, but the reports all indicate that the talk was friendly. In 1729, when the Queen was about to give birth, the cafés rang with jubilation:

Truly, everyone is delighted, because they all hope greatly to have a dauphin…. In the Café Dupuy, someone said, “Parbleu, Messieurs, if God graces us with a dauphin, you will see Paris and the whole river aflame [with fireworks in celebration].” Everyone is praying for that.

Twenty years later, the tone had changed completely:

In the shop of the wigmaker Gaujoux, this individual [Jules Alexis Bernard] read aloud in the presence of sieur Dazemar, an invalid officer, an attack on the king in which it was said that His Majesty let himself be governed by ignorant and incompetent ministers and had made a shameful, dishonorable peace [the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle], which gave up all the fortresses that had been captured…; that the king, by his affair with the three sisters, scandalized his people and would bring down all sorts of misfortune on himself if he did not change his conduct; that His Majesty scorned the queen and was an adulterer; that he had not confessed for Easter communion and would bring down the curse of God upon the kingdom and that France would be overwhelmed with disasters; that the duc de Richelieu was a pimp, who would crush Mme. de Pompadour or be crushed by her. He promised to show sieur Dazemar this book, entitled The Three Sisters.

What had happened between those two dates, 1729 and 1749? A great deal, of course: a flare-up of the Jansenist controversy, a running battle between the parlements and the crown, a major war, some disastrous harvests, and the imposition of unpopular taxes. But I would like to stress another factor: the end of the royal touch.


Let me tell you a story. Call it “The Three Sisters.” Once upon a time, a great nobleman, the marquis de Nesle, had three daughters, one more beautiful than the other, or at least all of them ready and eager for sexual adventure. The first, Mme. de Mailly, slept her way right up to the throne. She so bewitched the King that he refused to renounce her in order to undergo the traditional Easter ritual of confession, penance, and communion in 1739. And because he remained unshriven, he could not conduct another ritual, an important one, which affirmed his sacred power: touching his subjects to cure them of scrofula, the “king’s evil.”

Eventually, the King tired of the first sister and replaced her with the second, Mme. de Vintimille. She satisfied him completely, but she died after childbirth in 1741. So the King took up with the third, Mme. de Châteauroux, the most beautiful of all. He loved her so much that he brought her with him to the front at Metz during the War of the Austrian Succession in 1744. But then he fell ill, so deathly ill that his doctors abandoned him to the priests, who gathered at his bed to conduct the most important ritual of all: extreme unction. If he did not confess his sins, renounce his mistress, and take the last sacrament, they warned, he would burn in hell forever. The King gave in. He sent Mme. de Châteauroux back to Paris, and then—miracle!—he recovered. All France rejoiced. He returned to Versailles…and then he thought it over. The priests had been terribly insistent. Mme. de Châteauroux was terribly beautiful…. So he summoned her back to his bed; but before she could get there, she, too, took sick and quickly died.

What is the moral of this story? For Parisians, it revealed the hand of God at work in history. The King’s sins were so great—not just adultery but incest, for that is how the French construed fornication with sisters—that they would bring down God’s punishment on all of France. That was the conclusion reached by Bernard after declaiming The Three Sisters in the shop of the wigmaker Gaujoux.

For historians, the lesson has to do with ritual and the royal person as elements in a power system. After this incident, Louis XV ceased coming to Paris, except for unavoidable occasions. He lost touch with his people. He also lost the royal touch. Never again did he cure scrofula by touching the sick lined up in the Great Gallery of the Louvre. The Metz crisis had revived hope that he would recover his spiritual potency—he had touched more than two thousand diseased subjects after his coronation in 1722—but its denouement, the death of Mme. de Châteauroux, and the succession of mistresses that resumed with the installation of Mme. de Pompadour in 1745, signaled the end of Louis’s effectiveness as a mediator between his people and their angry God. The breakdown in ritual produced a rupture in his legitimacy, of the moral ties that bound him to his subjects. It was the end—or at least the beginning of the end—of the roi-mage, the sacred, thaumaturgic king known to us through the work of Marc Bloch.

That conclusion, I admit, is much too dramatic. Desacralization or delegitimation was a complex process. It did not occur all at once but rather by fits and starts over a long time span. Nonetheless, the story illustrates the way events, rituals, and attitudes all fed into the news, because this is the story that was discussed in the wigmaker’s shop. The discussion took the form of mauvais propos, or bad-mouthing the King, after a public reading of a printed text, The Three Sisters, one of many scandalous books, or libelles, being pursued at this time by the police.

The others—Tanastès, Les Amours de Zeokinizul, roi des Kofirans, Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de Perse, Voyage à Amatonthe—all follow the same story line, which I summarized in the synopsis that I just recounted. And they all drew on “public noises,” or rumors, in working up their plot. Tanastès, for example, was written by a chambermaid from Versailles, Marie Madeleine Bonafon. When the police finally got her in the Bastille and started interrogating her, they could not believe their ears: a woman, a working-class woman, who had written a political novel? How could it be? Surely someone must have written it for her or provided her with all the material in the form of memoirs. She answered stoutly that she had done it all herself:

Replied [I am quoting from the police account of her interrogation] that no memoirs had been given to her, that she had composed her book by herself, that in fact she had fashioned it in her imagination. Agreed, however, that having her head full of what people were saying in public about what had happened during and after the king’s illness, she had tried to make some use of it in her book…

Political writing was not restricted to the male elite. It penetrated deep into society. But the point I want to stress is that it also belonged to oral as well as printed modes of communication: it incorporated talk when being written and it touched off talk when being read. From “public noise” to print to “public noise” again, the process built on itself dialectically, accumulating force and spreading ever wider.

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