Histoire mondiale de la France [Global History of France]
edited by Patrick Boucheron
One of the bombs dropped during the current presidential campaign in France is Histoire mondiale de la France, an eight-hundred-page tome surveying 40,000 years of French history. A collaborative work written by 122 academics and directed by Patrick Boucheron, a distinguished medievalist at the Collège de France, it hardly seemed destined for the best-seller lists when it was published in January. But the French have snapped it up: 70,000 copies have been sold as of mid-March and sales are still going strong. After several decades of somnolence, academic history is a hit.
Fake news is hardly new. The production of fake, semi-false, and true but compromising snippets of news reached a peak in eighteenth-century London, when newspapers began to circulate among a broad public. In 1788, London had ten dailies, eight tri-weeklies, and nine weekly newspapers, and their stories usually consisted of only a paragraph. In fact, the equivalent of today’s poisonous, bite-size texts and tweets can be found in most periods of history, going back to the ancients.
One of the many cartoons published in homage to the cartoonists and journalists assassinated on Wednesday in the office of Charlie Hebdo showed a gravestone with the inscription “Died of Laughter.” No one is laughing these days in Paris. In fact, the massacre raises questions about laughter itself.
Reading is an essential aspect of censoring, not only in the act of vetting texts, which often lead to competing exegeses, but also as an aspect of the inner workings of the state. Not only did censors perceive nuances of hidden meaning, but they also understood the way published texts reverberated in the public. Despite its ideological function, the reworking of texts often resembled the editing done by professionals in open societies. To dismiss censorship as crude repression by ignorant bureaucrats is to get it wrong.