Historians are often self-described as detectives. Perhaps the most probing discussion of their sleuthing is Carlo Ginzburg’s essay on “Clues”—Spie—and their decipherment. Ginzburg speculates that following the path laid out by clues—connecting bits of evidence on the ground—may go back to the way hunters tracked their prey:
Man has been a hunter for thousands of years. In the course of countless pursuits he learned to reconstruct the shapes and movements of his invisible prey from tracks in the mud, broken branches, droppings of excrement, tufts of hair, entangled feathers, stagnating odors. He learned to sniff out, record, interpret, and classify such infinitesimal traces as trails of spittle.1
And Ginzburg suggests that this is an idiosyncratic form of knowing that takes narrative form:
This knowledge is characterized by the ability to move from apparently insignificant experiential data to a complex reality that cannot be experienced directly. And the data is always arranged by the observer in such a way as to produce a narrative sequence, which could be expressed most simply as “someone passed this way.” Perhaps the very idea of narrative (as distinct from the incantation, exorcism, or invocation) was born in a hunting society, from the experience of deciphering tracks.
On this account, the historian would not be seeking “laws” of history, or even an “explanation” of how things happened, so much as the set of links that allow one to see the interconnectedness of events. As Dr. Watson admiringly exclaims to Sherlock Holmes at the end of one of their cases: “You reasoned it out beautifully…. It is so long a chain, and yet every link rings true.”2 The detective story is one of our tools for making sense of how things fit together in time, and how, in retrospect, we construct the narrative of who or what passed this way.
Robert Darnton cites Ginzburg on clues (as well as R.G. Collingwood’s earlier parallel of historian and detective) in Poetry and the Police, the latest in his impressive probes into the popular culture of ancien régime France, its relation to the business of Enlightening, and, possibly, to the Revolution looming at the end of the century. He has over the years in his many books effectively demonstrated that the subversive writings of eighteenth-century France did not consist simply, maybe not even principally, of the celebrated works of the philosophes but more tellingly included the scabrous underground classics such as the pornographic Thérèse philosophe. At the same time he warned us off the retrospective explanatory vision that sees everything in the century as preparatory to the storming of the Bastille. And in Poetry and the Police, as in The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1995) and the essays of The Great Cat Massacre (1984), he is interested in popular culture and channels of communication in their own right.
Poetry and the Police stands first of all as the exceptional reward of detective work—comparable to Natalie Zemon Davis’s retrieval of what she calls Fiction in the Archives.3 From the archives of the Bastille—the state prison that was full by the end of the reign of Louis XV—preserved in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris, Darnton has unearthed a big box of documents concerning the “Affair of the Fourteen” in 1749. The lieutenant general of police in Paris was instructed to capture the author of an ode, occasioned by Louis XV’s dismissal of his minister the Comte de Maurepas, that called the King a “monster.”
An informant gave a tip about a medical student who had a copy of the poem; he was arrested and spirited away in a waiting carriage to the Bastille, and imprisoned on a lettre de cachet, the extrajudicial arrest warrant that became the very symbol of monarchical abuse of power. In the Bastille, the medical student was interrogated; he implicated a priest who had furnished him with his copy of the poem. This priest, arrested and interrogated, in turn implicated another priest, who implicated a third, who implicated a law student, who implicated a notary’s clerk, who claimed he had the poem from a philosophy student, who said he had it from a classmate. In the end, fourteen persons were imprisoned, and several other politically seditious poems were uncovered along the way—but no one could finger the original author of the ode on the sacking of Maurepas. It was by this point something of a collective creation, the anonymous product of assorted Latin Quarter wits.
Once this chain of persons passing on the poems has been established, other enigmas present themselves. Darnton tracks down the identities of those arrested—they were generally of the educated bourgeoisie. Locked in the Bastille, for some time incommunicado, they had no way of understanding why their offense—possessing or reading doggerel—was considered a state crime. After their release, their careers were compromised, even destroyed by the affair: Pierre Sigorgne, a promising young instructor in philosophy and eloquent expositor of Newtonianism, ended up in exile in Lorraine, unable to pursue his profession; François Bonis, the sometime medical student, lamented that no respectable young woman would marry someone proscribed as an outlaw. Crime and punishment seem grotesquely out of proportion. So, Darnton asks himself, what was going on?
Darnton wasn’t able to find the text of this poem, “Monstre dont la noire furie….” Four other texts picked up by the police dragnet have survived, in various versions. Some are serious public poetry, with traces of Horace and Juvenal in their backgrounds. They denounced Louis XV for his misdeeds and prophesied future retribution. Others were burlesques, or lyrics designed to be sung to popular tunes. If the Latin Quarter provided some, it appears that many came from the court itself, weapons in dangerous games of political maneuver.
Now we close in on an intriguing apparent paradox: much of the doggerel circulating in Paris, Darnton detects, had its origin at Versailles, in court intrigues. The disgrace of Maurepas may in fact have been caused by his own putative authorship of a song, set to a popular tune, that slandered the King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Maurepas not only reported to the King what was circulating in Paris, he attempted to manipulate royal policies through his own compositions. As for Madame de Pompadour, she was the person most often targeted in these poems and songs, many belonging to the genre known as Poissonades, a noun derived from Madame de Pompadour’s unfortunate maiden name, Poisson, that is, fish. The Poissonades deplored her growing power over the King, her extravagance, and her common origins. She was, it seems, fair game for scurrilous satire (the piece perhaps written by Maurepas implies that she is afflicted with venereal disease; many another jibe was about her body—including the accusation that she was flat-chested). Fine for the King to keep a mistress (though this was a very expensive one) but, so the court satires suggested, she should come from the aristocracy.
But Madame de Pompadour was only the most visible evidence of the King’s failings, which were fast turning him from the original epithet Louis le Bien-aimé—the Well-Beloved—into a very unpopular monarch. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, concluding the War of the Austrian Succession, stripped France of the victories it seemed to have won during hostilities. In particular, it promised George II of England that France would expel from its territories le Prince Édouard—Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart pretender to the English throne, defeated during the 1745 uprising known in Scotland as the Forty-Five and since then a royal exile in France. When he was arrested while on his way into the opera at five o’clock in the afternoon on December 10, 1748, this king-napping became a sensational news item—and the subject of popular verse and song contrasting the Scottish prince and the French king, to the latter’s chagrin.
Then there was an unpopular if sensible new tax, the vingtième, which touched the clergy and the nobility, who thought they should be exempt from taxes. Then there was the perennial problem of the Jansenists—those uncompromising Augustinians within the Catholic Church who had been condemned as heretics in 1713 by the papal bull Unigenitus—to which the archbishop of Paris gave new teeth in 1749 by ordering his clergy to refuse the sacraments to anyone who did not confess to a priest who accepted Unigenitus. In addition, the state was incessantly on the verge of going broke.
There were many reasons to believe that, as we now say, the country was headed in the wrong direction. Darnton is exceptionally skillful in identifying all these strands, and exhuming from the Bastille archives summaries of the charges against those accused of mauvais propos: “discourse against the king, Mme de Pompadour, and the ministers”; “bad talk against the government and the ministers”; having “recited in cafés verse against the king and the marquise de Pompadour”; claiming “the king doesn’t give a f—for his people, since he knows they are destitute while he spends huge sums.” Darnton gives interesting brief accounts of some of the identifiable authors of topical poetry, in particular Pidansat de Mairobert, source of many a libelle aginst the King, who when seized by the police had in his pocket a copy of one of the most popular of the ballads, which began “Qu’une bâtarde de catin/À la cour se voie avancée” (“That a bastard strumpet/Should get ahead in the court”), and carried on, downward, from there. A habitué of the Café Procope—a center of Enlightenment talk—Mairobert recited his verses to whoever would listen.
In addition to the copy of “Qu’une bâtarde de catin” in Mairobert’s handwriting preserved in the Bastille archive, Darnton discovers others, with variants, suggesting how such verse was transmitted and modified, embroidered, with subtractions and additions, as it passed through the networks of communication. The poem is a nicely parodic version of Shelley’s claim that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. Like many another libelle or vaudeville, this one was sung to a popular air, part of what collectively might be called a “sung newspaper”—and Darnton is able to track down some of the tunes as well. His book offers a link to a website where one can hear some of them sung by Hélène Delavault, accompanied on the guitar by Claude Pavy.4 Years later, the aphorist Sébastien Chamfort would note that the French state was “an absolute monarchy tempered by songs.”
Darnton as detective pays tribute, if that is the right word, to his precursors, those who first established the traces and the links he follows: Inspector d’Hémery, Commissioner Rochebrune, and their colleagues in the Paris police. They found the poems and songs, the singers and reciters, sometimes even the authors. “Anyone who has frequented the archives of the eighteenth-century police is likely to develop respect for their professionalism,” writes Darnton. As the detective follows in the tracks of the malefactor, seeking to realize his movements, so the historian follows the footprints laid down by the police tracking the prey who would end up in the Bastille or, in one case, in a small iron cage at Mont-Saint-Michel. The stories are grim enough, but following the process of detection can be exhilarating—which I imagine is why we read detective stories in the first place.
1 Carlo Ginzburg, "Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm," in Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, translated by John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), p. 102. The Italian edition is "Spie: Radici di un paradigma indizario," in Miti Emblemi Spie (Torino: Einaudi, 1986). I have modified the Tedeschi translation in places in order to give a more literal rendition. ↩
2 Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Red-Headed League," in The Adventure of the Speckled Band and Other Stories of Sherlock Holmes (Signet, 1965), p. 83. ↩
3 Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford University Press, 1987). ↩
Carlo Ginzburg, “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm,” in Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, translated by John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), p. 102. The Italian edition is “Spie: Radici di un paradigma indizario,” in Miti Emblemi Spie (Torino: Einaudi, 1986). I have modified the Tedeschi translation in places in order to give a more literal rendition. ↩
Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Red-Headed League,” in The Adventure of the Speckled Band and Other Stories of Sherlock Holmes (Signet, 1965), p. 83. ↩
Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford University Press, 1987). ↩