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Paris: The Early Internet

Now let’s consider songs.1 They, too, were an important medium for communicating news. Parisians commonly composed verse about current events and set it to popular tunes like “Malbrouck s’en va-t-en guerre” (“The Bear Went Over the Mountain” in America), which everyone carried around in their heads. Songs served as mnemonic devices and powerful vehicles for spreading a message, like commercial jingles today. Some songs originated in the court, but they reached the common people, and the common people sang back. Artisans improvised songs at work, adding new verses as the occasion arose. Charles Simon Favart, the greatest songster of the century, began putting words to tunes as a boy, while kneading dough in his father’s bakery.

He and other wits from the poorer sectors of Paris—Gallet, Fagan, Panard, Fromaget, Taconnet, Collé, Vadé—turned out vast quantities of popular songs, which could be heard everywhere in the streets, in certain taverns like the Caveau, and in popular theaters—at the Foire Saint-Germain, along the boulevards, and ultimately in the Opéra Comique. At a more plebeian level, ragged street singers, playing fiddles and hurdy-gurdies, entertained crowds at the Pont Neuf, the Quai des Augustins, and other strategic locations. Paris was suffused with songs. In fact, Parisians described their whole system of government as “an absolute monarchy tempered by songs.”

In such an environment, a catchy song could spread like wildfire; and as it spread, it grew—inevitably, because it acquired new phrasing in the course of oral transmission and because everyone could join in the game of grafting new stanzas onto the old. The new verses were scribbled on scraps of paper and traded in cafés, just like the anecdotes diffused by the nouvellistes, and they could easily be memorized by the large number of persons who could not read. A hit song attacking the King and his ministers could be a serious affair. So when Parisians began singing an especially nasty ditty about Louis XV in the spring of 1749, the government organized a general crackdown. The police received an order to arrest the author of a song that began with the words “Monster, whose black fury…,” the monster being the King. That was their only clue, but it was all they needed to set to work.

From the lieutenant general to the inspectors and from the inspectors to their spies, the word went out; and eventually a reply came in, scribbled on a scrap of paper: “I know someone who had a copy of the abominable verse against the king in his room a few days ago and who spoke approvingly of them. I can tell you who he is, if you want.” Just two sentences, without a signature, on a crumpled piece of paper, but they earned the spy twelve louis d’or, the equivalent of nearly a year’s wages for an unskilled laborer; and they set off an extraordinary manhunt, which produced the richest dossiers of literary detective work that I have ever encountered; for the original song belongs to a whole repertory of political verse that was cascading through the streets of Paris. By following the police as they followed the verse, one can reconstruct an oral network which diffused news and commentary in the form of poetry and song. (See diagram on facing page.)

After a good deal of huggermugger, the police arrested the person who had possessed a handwritten text of the song, a medical student named François Bonis. In his interrogation in the Bastille, he said he had got it from a priest, who was arrested and said he had got it from another priest, who was arrested and said he had got it from a third priest, who was arrested and said he had got it from a law student, who was arrested and said he had got it from a clerk in a notary’s office, who was arrested…and so on down the line, until the trail gave out and the police gave up, fourteen arrests from the beginning: hence the title on the dossiers, “The Affair of the Fourteen.”

They never found the original author. In fact there may have been no distinct author at all, not because Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault have told us that the author is dead, but because people changed phrases and added verses in the process of transmission. And while the police tried to follow the song to its origin, they discovered that its path crossed the paths of five others, one more seditious than the next and each with its own chain of diffusion. The words were memorized, declaimed, read, and sung. They circulated on scraps of paper hidden in pockets and sleeves; they were transcribed and stored in manuscript journals known as chansonniers; and ultimately they were printed in books, notably Vie privée de Louis XV, which became a best seller in the underground trade. Taken together, they created a field of poetic impulses, bouncing from one transmission point to another and filling the air with “public noises,” a cacophony of sedition set to rhyme.

Some of this noise flowed down to Paris from the court. But much of it welled up from the people—not just students, lawyers, and priests, as in the Affair of the Fourteen, but also artisans, servants, and shopkeepers.

As an example I would cite one last case from the police archives, the dossier of Mme. Dubois. Her greatest problem in the obscure life that she led as the wife of a clerk in a textile shop on the rue Lavandières was Monsieur Dubois, her husband, an insufferable lout. One day after a particularly nasty quarrel, she resolved to get rid of him. She wrote a letter under a false name to the lieutenant general of police, saying that she had come upon a suspicious character reading a poem aloud to someone in the street. When they saw her, they dropped the poem and ran. She picked it up and trailed the reader to his residence in the rue Lavandières—the room of M. Dubois. Mme. Dubois had invented the story in the hope that the police would throw her husband into the Bastille. But after sending her letter, she thought better of it. He was indeed a lout, but did he deserve to disappear down an oubliette? Seized by remorse, she went to the weekly audience of the lieutenant general of police, threw herself at his feet, confessed all, and won a pardon. The case ended there, but the poem survives in her dossier; and it contains all the standard themes about Louis XV’s sex life and misgovernment.

There are dozens of songs on these themes scattered through the manuscript collections in various Parisian libraries. One chansonnier contains 641 songs from the period 1745-1751. Moreover, the same song often appears in several different collections; so by comparing versions, one can follow its evolution as Parisians added new stanzas about the latest events. I have found nine versions of “A Bastard Strumpet”—that is, Mme. de Pompadour—which seems to have been a big hit, especially among the Fourteen. They vary in length from six to twenty-three stanzas, and they cover all of the items that people were gossiping about, according to the spy reports. The song functioned like a tabloid newspaper set to music.


What did the public make of it? How did it all come together in the shaping of that mysterious force we refer to casually as public opinion? Those are the most difficult problems in the history of communication, because, despite an abundance of reception theory, we have little evidence about how reception actually occurred. For my part, I confess that I have no solution to those problems, but I may have found a way for us to get around them, at least in this instance, by means of a detour.

Let’s consider once more the report about the coffee spilling. It appeared in Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry, a top best seller from the prerevolutionary years. How can we know what eighteenth-century readers made of it? We have no record of their reactions. But we can study the way the text works, the manner in which it fits into the book, and the book’s place in a corpus of related texts, which provided the basic fund of information about current events and contemporary history to the general reading public.

I would begin with the key phrase, “La France! Ton café fout le camp.” It would have sounded particularly shocking to eighteenth-century ears, because “La France” evoked a particular meaning in the social code of the time. Lackeys were often called by the province of their origin. So by shouting out “La France” in an unguarded moment, du Barry was calling the King her lackey. She did so in a spectacularly vulgar manner, one that could be taken to reveal the plebeian nature beneath her courtly veneer; for “fout le camp” was the language of the brothel, not the court. Similar outbursts of vulgarity occur throughout the book. In fact, they constitute its central theme. Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry was a classic libelle, organized according to the formula that I mentioned earlier: from the brothel to the throne. Du Barry sleeps her way to the top, using tricks she picked up in the whorehouse to revive the exhausted libido of the old king and thus to dominate the kingdom. She is a sluttish Cinderella and therefore different from all previous royal mistresses—or all since Mme. de Pompadour, née Poisson—who, whatever their morals, were at least ladies. This theme is summed up by a song—one of many songs printed in the text—which includes the phrase:

All our lackeys had her
When she walked the streets.
Twenty pence was quite enough
To make her accept at once.

A second leitmotif that runs throughout the book is the degradation of the monarchy. At every point, the narrative dwells on the profanation of royal symbols and the person of the King himself. The scepter, it says, has become as feeble as the royal penis. This was strong language for an age that treated kings as sacred beings directly ordained to rule by God and invested with the royal touch. But Louis had lost his touch, as I explained earlier. Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry compounded that loss by presenting him as an ordinary mortal—or worse, as a dirty old man.

At the same time, it invited the reader to enjoy the frisson of seeing into the innermost chambers of Versailles, into the secret du roi itself, even to observe the King between the sheets. For that is where the great affairs of state were decided—the fall of Choiseul, the partition of Poland, the destruction of France’s judicial system by the chancellor Maupeou, everything that would have warranted a banner headline, if there had been headlines, or newspapers with news. In each case, as the story went, du Barry filled the King with drink, dragged him to bed, and got him to sign any edict that had been prepared for her by her evil counselors. This kind of reportage anticipated techniques that would be developed a century later in yellow journalism: it presented the inside story of politics in Versailles; it pictured power struggles as what-the-butler-saw; it reduced complex affairs of state to backstairs intrigue and the royal sex life.

That, of course, was hardly serious history. I would call it folklore. But it had enormous appeal—so much, in fact, that it is still alive today. I found the coffee-spilling episode—with the wrong mistress but the right emphasis on her vulgarity—in a French-Canadian comic book.

Instead of dismissing political folklore as trivial, I would take it seriously. In fact, I believe it was a crucial ingredient in the collapse of the Old Regime. But before leaping to that conclusion, I had better retreat to familiar territory: the trade in forbidden books, which I studied in my last round of research. By statistically reconstructing the trade of booksellers scattered throughout the kingdom, I concluded that a huge corpus of scandalous literature reached readers everywhere in France.2 Five of the fifteen top best sellers were libelles and chroniques scandaleuses—that is, scurrilous accounts of life among the elite of the court and the government. The libelles often have impressive literary qualities, although they never qualified as literature and have been forgotten today. Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry made it to the top of the best-seller list because, among other things, it was very well written. Pidansat de Mairobert knew how to tell a story. His text is funny, wicked, shocking, outrageous, and a very good read.

It also looks impressive physically. It comes packaged in an imposing, 346-page tome, complete with a handsome frontispiece and all the appearances of a serious biography. The other libelles are often more elaborate. They contain footnotes, appendices, genealogies, and all sorts of documentation. The Vie privée de Louis XV provides a four-volume history of the entire reign, more detailed and better documented—for all its scurrility—than many modern histories. The Journal historique de la révolution opérée…par M. de Maupeou runs to seven volumes; L’Espion anglais runs to ten; the Mémoires secrets to thirty-six.

These books charted the whole course of contemporary history. In fact, they were the only map available, because political biography and contemporary history—two genres that provide the backbone of our own best-seller lists—did not exist in the legally permitted literature of the Old Regime. They were forbidden. Contemporaries who wanted to orient themselves by relating the present to the recent past had to turn to libel literature. They had nowhere else to go.

How did that process of orientation take place? If you read your way through the entire corpus of libelles and chroniques scandaleuses, you find the same traits, the same episodes, and often the same phrases scattered everywhere. The authors drew on common sources and lifted passages from each other’s texts as freely as they traded scraps of news in the cafés. It was not a matter of plagiarism, because that notion hardly applied to underground literature, and the books, like the songs, hardly had individual authors. It was a case of rampant intertextuality.

Despite their baroque profusion, the texts can be reduced to a few leitmotifs, which recur throughout the corpus. The court is always sinking deeper into depravity; the ministers are always deceiving the King; the King is always failing to fulfill his role as head of state; the state’s power is always being abused; and the common people are always paying the price for the injustices inflicted on them: higher taxes, increased suffering, more discontent, and greater impotence in the face of an arbitrary and all-powerful government. Individual news items like the coffee spilling were stories in themselves. But they also fit into narrative frames of whole books, and the books fit into a meta-narrative that ran through the entire corpus: politics was an endless series of variations on a single theme, decadence and despotism.

True, I don’t know how the readers read those books, but I don’t think it extravagant to insist on a quality of reading in general: it is an activity that involves making sense of signs by fitting them in frames. Stories provide the most compelling frames. Ordinary people often find meaning in the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world around them by telling, hearing, and reading stories. The general readers in eighteenth-century France made sense of politics by incorporating news into the narrative frames provided by the literature of libel. And they were reinforced in their interpretations by the messages they received from the other media—gossip, poems, songs, prints, jokes, and all the rest.

I have reached the end of my argument, and I realize that I have not proven it. To drive it home, I must push it in two directions. First, further back into the past. The corpus of libelle literature from the 1770s and 1780s grew out of an old tradition, which goes back beyond the Huguenot propaganda against Louis XIV, beyond the mazarinades, and beyond the pamphleteering of the religious wars to the art of insult and rumor-mongering developed in the Renaissance courts. From Aretino onward, this tradition changed and grew, until it culminated in the vast outpouring of libelles under Louis XV and Louis XVI.

Those libelles in turn provided a frame for the public’s perception of events during the crisis of 1787-1788, which brought down the Louis-Quatorzean monarchy. That is the second direction in which I would take the argument. But to explain how that happened, I will have to write a book, showing how the crisis was construed, day by day, in all the media of the time.

So I am issuing promissory notes instead of arriving at a firm conclusion. But I hope I have said enough to inspire more work in the history of communication and also to provoke some rethinking of the connections between news, the mass media, and politics in general—even politics today. Perhaps there are some continuities between the Paris of Louis XV and the Washington of Bill Clinton. How do most Americans situate themselves in the political confusion of the year 2000? Not, I fear, by analyzing issues, but from our own variety of political folklore—that is, by telling stories about the private lives of our politicians, just as the French regaled themselves with the Vie privée de Louis XV. How can we make sense of it all? Not merely by reading our daily newspaper but by rereading the history of an earlier information age, the eighteenth century, when the king’s secret was exposed in front of the tree of Cracow and the media knit themselves together in a communication system so powerful that it proved to be decisive in the collapse of the regime.

  1. 1

    An electronic version of this arti-cle contains a digitized recording of the songs discussed here, along with reports from police spies on café conversations and relevant maps of Paris. The address is www.indiana. edu/~ahr.

  2. 2

    See Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Bestsellers of Prerevolutionary France (Norton, 1995).

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