Now, months after the Los Angeles riots, a question drifts unanswered. It is not the familiar query—What caused the explosion?—but something more elusive: What did it mean? Commentary came almost as quickly as coverage on television, but it dwelled on the social and economic conditions of South Central Los Angeles and the anarchy in the streets, leaving other questions hanging: Could the riots be understood as something more than mindless violence? Were they saying something? Could they be read?

The notion of reading riots has now become a central concern in the efforts of historians to make sense of collective violence. The historical literature hardly provides a key to unlock the mysteries of Los Angeles, but it suggests ways of thinking about the riots and of putting them in perspective. It has flourished especially in France, where it has passed through three stages.

First, in the nineteenth century, Hippolyte Taine and Gustave Lebon advanced the notion that crowds developed psychologies of their own, which swallowed up individuals and operated outside the constraints on ordinary behavior. When applied to actual uprisings, this theory degenerated into Dickensian descriptions of revolutionaries run amok. But it fed into the study of “collective representations” and “collective mentalities” which emerged as a peculiar French genre in the early twentieth century.

Georges Lefebvre’s small masterpiece, The Great Fear of 1789, opened up the second phase in this strain of scholarship by demonstrating that crowd behavior expressed identifiable social grievances even when it seemed to be most irrational. Following the example of Lefebvre, George Rudé built the study of social and economic protest into a general account of the great “days” or uprisings that determined the course of the French Revolution until the army replaced the crown as the ultimate force in politics in 1795.

Although Rudé furnished precise information on the composition of the crowds and the economic circumstances of their action, he tended to describe the “days” as automatic responses to rising prices: when the cost of bread became unbearable, the people took to the streets. To E.P. Thompson, studying plebeian protests in England, this consumer-reaction model of behavior seemed inadequate. He examined the behavior patterns in themselves, for what they expressed by means of gesture and ritual; and he found that they articulated concepts of a “moral economy” or an implicit code of justice embedded in the folkways of the laboring poor.

Thompson’s example stimulated a group of American historians—Natalie Davis, Steven Kaplan, William Reddy, and Louise Tilly—to search for similar expressive patterns in the French sources. This third phase of research produced a rich literature on collective violence of many kinds; and it reinforced indigenous strains of French scholarship, not merely the older study of mentalités collectives but also a newer concern, inspired by the work of Michel Foucault, for the way power relations are built into modes of sorting out experience and construing reality.

The French also found inspiration in the work of another philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, which challenged them “to read behavior as a text”—that is, to concentrate on what collective action was saying rather than to reduce it to causes located in the social and economic order. By this time, the main route into an understanding of riots seems to have taken a curious detour through philosophy. Not that historians gave up notions of causality or closed the books of Foucault and Ricoeur with the conviction that they could not interpret crowd behavior without making themselves over into semiologists and phenomenologists. Rather, they came around to the view that the older varieties of social history had to be supplemented with newer notions of how human beings invest their actions with meaning. To be adequately understood, they concluded, riots must be read.1

The latest attempt to read a riot is a short book with a long and rather misleading title, The Vanishing Children of Paris: Rumor and Politics before the French Revolution, by Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel. It concerns the most famous and violent of the disturbances that convulsed Paris during the reign of Louis XV: an uprising of the poor against the police in May 1750 after word had spread that undercover agents were abducting children in order to clear the streets of vagrants. The book will hardly help to decode the violence in Los Angeles, but it is a remarkable work, the best in the French tradition since Lefebvre’s Great Fear; and it offers a starting point for anyone who wants to understand rioting as something more than mindless nihilism.

The Parisian riots baffled the French in 1750 as much as those of Los Angeles have puzzled Americans today. Seen from a safe distance—in the elegant townhouse where the Parisian lawyer E.J.F. Barbier kept his diary or the country estate where the Marquis d’Argenson recorded his observations of events—the violence appeared pointless. It broke out in the poorest sections of Paris, in the Right Bank slums between the Bastille and the Tuileries, and it seemed to amount to nothing more than smashing and looting by the rabble. Strange rumors had circulated about kidnappings by the police. So the mob vented its worst fury on policemen—notably a sub-officer (exempt) named Labbé, whom it pummeled to death and dumped in a pool of blood before the residence of the lieutenant general or chief of police, Nicolas-René Berryer.


Seen by the homeless crouched in doorways and by the laboring poor from fourth- and fifth-floor garrets, the violence looked different. Exactly how they saw it can never be fully known, because the poor did not keep diaries. But the documentation is rich enough for Farge and Revel to piece together a convincing picture of what happened and what it meant to the participants.

Fortunately, most of the pieces had already been recovered from the archives by earlier researchers, notably A.P. Hérlaut, Charles Romon, and Paolo Piasenza. The originality of Farge and Revel consists in their way of assembling the puzzle. Instead of producing a clear narrative from an Olympian height, they have tried to recapture the confusion at street level, somewhat as a foot soldier experiences a battle.

May 23, 1750, in the market of the Quinze-Vingts off the rue Saint Honoré: the butchers’ apprentices call out to the saleswomen, “Clear out, girls; trouble’s on the way!” Most of the women run for cover; a few stop to scoop up an armful of produce; Adrienne Boucher, a fishmonger with some experience of popular revolts, hides the knives she uses to gut her wares in the bottom of a basket. A flash of red: Labbé’s coat, or perhaps his bloodied forehead, and he is gone. Then cries from the pack in pursuit: “It’s a spy of Poussot [a notoriously tough police inspector].” The crowd bursts into the market, overturning stalls and barrels. Just as suddenly it, too, disappears. The market looks as though it had been hit by a tornado, while flash points of violence explode further down the street, at the Quinze-Vingts tenement, and before the church of Saint-Roch.

Having seized its quarry several hours later, the crowd does not kill Labbé, at least not at first. It drags him to the local police headquarters commanded by Superintendent de la Vergée, and demands justice. Labbé’s crime, in the eyes of the Parisians, was an attempt to arrest a child for vagrancy near the Pont Marie earlier that morning. This incident had touched off a riot, one of six in the center city on May 23, and the wild chase along the Right Bank.

La Vergée tries to calm the crowd, which shouts back that Labbé must be interrogated, charged with kidnapping, and taken to prison. Understanding the need to perform this ceremony publicly, in full view of the rioters, La Vergée begins the interrogation, but before it can proceed his guards force the crowd out of the courtyard and into the street, closing the portecochère behind it. An urchin climbs back into the courtyard. A guardsman takes aim at him. A shot rings out, followed by more shots, then volleys from both sides. No one knows exactly who began the shooting or how many victims it claims; but for all the swirling dust and blood, one thing is clear: the people are engaged in a pitched battle with the police.

At this point, La Vergée runs for cover. Then, during a lull in the fighting, a self-appointed mediator steps out from the crowd and offers terms to the guards: they can either surrender Labbé or be massacred. Badly out-numbered, the guards give up the victim, and this time the rioters execute justice of their own. They kick and beat him in the street and smash his skull with a paving stone. Then they carry the corpse in triumph to the residence of Berryer, which serves as headquarters for the entire police force. After dumping it in front of the main gate, they prepare to storm the building. But a detachment of troops arrives in time to save the situation, and the crowd scatters, shouting and looting through the streets.

The execution of Labbé was only one of a dozen explosions of popular violence on May 22–23. Thanks to an inquiry conducted afterward by the Parlement of Paris, it can be reconstructed in detail, but the details often contradict one another. None of the witnesses admitted to participating in the bloodshed; and everyone blamed someone else, mostly gangsters and rabble, although plenty of shopkeepers and artisans had joined the fray. In sifting through the documents, Farge and Revel concluded that no account could be entirely trusted and that the event became transformed with each telling.


They went further. They argued that the action and its interpretation were interconnected from the beginning. There was no such thing as a pure event, because what people did and what they understood evolved in tandem from minute to minute. Every gesture, no matter how brutal, conveyed a message. Performance and meaning were improvised together across a random series of incidents. And they made sense, despite their impromptu character, because they were derived from the same implicit script.

“Script,” “scenario,” “sign,” “text,” “code,” “discourse”—the book abounds in buzzwords. In fact, the terminology has been softened in the English edition, perhaps because the translator wanted to avoid offending pre-modernist, Anglo-Saxon ears. But the French title of the book, Logiques de la foule (logics of the crowd) deserves to be taken seriously. Farge and Revel argue that crowd violence expresses an underlying logic, which can be recorded by the historian despite the confusion of events. That is what makes their book so interesting: it is a bold attempt to read a riot hermeneutically.

Farge and Revel prepare the ground by some careful social history. They establish that central Paris, like central Los Angeles, had a long history of rioting—at least seventy-three disturbances from 1711 to 1766. The violence was linked with poverty and immigration. During the disastrous last years of the reign of Louis XIV, a “floating population” of poor had drifted into Paris, living by beggary, prostitution, and crime. Some of the poor gathered in gangs, like the bande Cartouche and the bande Fanfaron. Although they hardly behaved like heroes from the myth of Robin Hood, the gangsters won some sympathy among the indigenous poor of Paris, who appreciated their defiance of the police.

The police themselves got a mixed reception from the common people. Neighborhood commissaires (superintendents like La Vergée) commanded respect. They lived among the people, and their residences served as centers for mediating disputes and distributing information. But the locals detested a newer breed of policemen, the inspecteurs, who had begun to roam the streets after 1708. Instead of becoming integrated in neighborhoods, the inspectors operated citywide, concentrating on special missions such as the eradication of vagrancy. Like plainclothes detectives today, they traveled incognito, and they employed legions of spies (mouches) backed by hard-knuckled foot soldiers (archers) when they needed to resort to force.

As the population of beggars increased in the central neighborhoods—according to one estimate it shot up from 9,000 at the beginning of the century to 15,000 in 1750—the inspectors made various attempts to sweep it from the streets. The most notorious, dramatized in Manon Lescaut, was deportation to the French colony along the Mississippi. Such measures did not always arouse opposition from the inhabitants of the poor neighborhoods, who were often glad to be rid of their street people—until the archers began carrying off their own sons and daughters. As they were paid by the piece, the police did not worry about fine distinctions between the homeless and the local poor.

The abuses led to a violent anti-police riot in April 1720. Then new waves of beggars hit Paris, propelled by bad harvests, notably in 1725–1726, 1738–1741, and 1747–1748. Finally the king indicated his determination to get tough by appointing as chief of police Nicolas-René Berryer, a man who was toughness itself: “insolent, hard, and brutal,” according to the adjectives showered on him in the underground press. Berryer took a new royal ordinance against vagrancy in November 1749 as a license to hunt anything ragged in the streets. Once again paid by the piece, his men carried off a great many children of the local laboring poor, dumping them in prisonlike poor houses, where they remained for months or even years; and once again, in May 1750, the poor neighborhoods rose in revolt.

Given those circumstances, the riot seems easy enough to explain. Why search for further explanations in hidden texts and codes? Although Farge and Revel do not confront that objection openly, they probably would reply that circumstances do indeed account for riots; but to give a full account, one must pay attention to what is being said in the rioting. The patterns of behavior in 1750 show symmetrical notions of order and disorder, justice and injustice.

By dragging Labbé before their local commissaire, the people in the Quinze-Vingts neighborhood sought to right a wrong. Having caught a bad cop in what they took to be a crime, they demanded justice from a good cop—with all the usual rituals of interrogation and arrest. It was only when the performance at La Vergeé’s headquarters deviated from the script that the crowd took justice into its own hands. Then, instead of leaving Labbé’s body in the streets they deposited it in front of a second symbolic site, the supreme police headquarters of Berryer. The gesture seemed to say: “Here is your henchman; now we are ready to do the same to you.” Berryer got the point: he exited ignominiously out the back door.

So the Parisian people triumphed. They righted what was, in the plebeian understanding, a wrong by turning the tables on the authorities and restored order by acting out their own convictions on how justice should be administered in the street. The character of their violence in action stood out clearly the following night, when the crowd reassembled beneath the window of Labbé’s mistress and executed a cat, duly prepared by a parody of the last sacraments and tossed on a bonfire to cries that all police spies should suffer the same fate.

The spies and commissaires had acted on the authority of the King, who had proclaimed his intention of establishing another kind of order in the street. So the crowd’s protest extended beyond the immediate issue of the kidnappings to the severity of the police in general and even to the authority of the King. Now, it must be admitted that historians tend to see sedition in everything that preceded 1789. Arlette Farge has rightly resisted this temptation in her latest book, a study of rumors and popular protests in eighteenth-century Paris.2 But reports of evil rumors (mauvais propos) show a growing tide of disaffection toward Louis XV between the peak of his popularity in 1744, when all of France said Te Deums for his recovery from an illness, and the assassination attempt on him by Robert-Francois Damiens in 1757.3 Can one conclude that the script implicit in the theatrical violence of 1750 contained an attack against the monarchy?

We have only a few scraps of evidence: brief remarks in the diaries of Barbier and d’Argenson, a reference in the correspondence of Madame Pompadour, and three or four allusions in documents written a decade or more later. But they all connect the riot (known at the time as an émotion populaire or “popular emotion”) with a fantastic rumor (a bruit public or “public noise”). Word had spread among the common people that the police were kidnapping children in order to bleed them and that the blood would go into a bath to be taken by the King or one of his relatives in order to be cured of leprosy. Bleeding, blood baths, princes of the blood royal, all of it mixed up with “popular emotions” and “public noises” as well as the price of bread—such is the stuff of which the history of riots must be made.

Farge and Revel nailed down enough of this material to make a credible argument. They found adequate instances of similar reports—a Russian prince who arrived in Paris with a blood cure for leprosy, a prince in Lyons who had children kidnapped and butchered in order to replace his missing arm—to confirm that such stories actually circulated. Then they turned up complementary themes in folklore and myth. Herod’s massacre of the Innocents placed the King at the heart of a mythology of infanticide; Constantine provided a prototype of the ruler as sinner and leper; Louis XI, the supremely wicked king of folkloric history, gave rise to tales of royal disease treated with the blood of children; and medical lore supplied many examples of children’s blood (pre-pubescent and therefore pure or “cool”) used to treat leprosy (a hot-blooded disorder).

Here was a script fit for a king like Louis XV—immoral, arbitrary, lazy, and cruel, according to the gossip and graffiti of Paris. After 1745, the King refused to visit the city. “Why should I show myself to this nasty populace, which says I am a new Herod?” he reportedly objected. However extravagant, the Herod mythology expressed the depth of Parisians’ alienation from the monarchy. When they rioted in 1750, they opened up a gap between themselves and their king that was later covered over but never really healed.

Popular justice and royal justice opposed each other across that great divide. In some respects, each looked like the mirror image of the other, because each claimed to restore a moral order that the other had destroyed. The King was criminal in the eyes of the people, the people in the eyes of the King. Instead of chaos, then, there was a pattern to events, a symmetry as cruel and clear as the patterns in the beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denny.

Despite their obvious differences, one can pick out plenty of similarities between Los Angeles in 1992 and Paris in 1750: the previous histories of rioting, the settings of poverty, the influx of immigration, the prevalence of homelessness, the influence of gangs, the resentment of oppression, and the provocation of police, who made a show of force and then, with the threat of confrontation, withdrew. If George Bush will not do as Louis XV, Daryl Gates would make a credible Berryer. And the folklore of the blood bath is no more extravagant than the myth about AIDS as an epidemic unleashed by whites to destroy blacks.

But even if they run parallel, the comparisons do not lead anywhere, because the past does not provide pre-packaged lessons for the present. The rioters of Paris inhabited a mental world that differed completely from that of the rioters in Los Angeles; and the history of rioting demonstrates the need to understand mentalités in all their specificity rather than to search for general models. Riots have meanings as well as causes. To discover what they mean, we must learn to read them, scanning across centuries for patterns of behavior and looking for order in the apparent anarchy that explodes under our noses. We have a long way to go; but if we ever get there, we may be able to make sense of what has seemed to be the most irrational ingredient of our civilization: “popular emotion.”

This Issue

October 22, 1992