Among the many prophecies about the century we have just entered, we hear a great deal about the information age. The media loom so large in our vision of the future that we may fail to recognize their importance in the past, and the present can look like a time of transition, when the modes of communication are replacing the modes of production as the driving force of history. I would like to dispute this view, to argue that every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that communication systems have always shaped events.

That argument may sound suspiciously like common sense; but if pushed hard enough, it could open up a fresh perspective on the past. I would begin with a simple question: What is news? Most of us would reply that news is what we read in newspapers or see and hear on news broadcasts. If we considered the question further, however, we probably would agree that news is not what happened—yesterday, or last week—but rather stories about what happened. It is a kind of narrative, transmitted by special kinds of media. That line of reasoning soon leads to entanglement in literary theory and the World Wide Web. But if projected backward, it may help to disentangle some knotty problems in the past.

I would propose a general attack on the problem of how societies made sense of events and transmitted information about them, something that might be called the history of communication. In principle, this kind of history could be applied to any time and place. In practice, it must be worked out in case studies. So I would direct the question to my own field of study and ask: How did you find out what the news was in Paris around 1750? Not, I submit, by reading a newspaper, because papers with news in them—news as we understand it today, about public affairs and personalities—did not exist. The government did not permit them.

To find out what was really going on, you went to the Tree of Cracow. It was a large, leafy chestnut tree, which stood at the heart of Paris in the gardens of the Palais-Royal. It probably acquired its name from heated discussions that took place around it during the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1735), although the name also suggested rumor-mongering (craquer: to tell dubious stories). Like a mighty magnet, the tree attracted nouvellistes de bouche, or newsmongers, who spread information about current events by word of mouth. They claimed to know, from private sources (a letter, an indiscreet servant, a remark overheard in an antechamber of Versailles), what really was happening in the corridors of power—and the people in power took them seriously, because the government worried about what Parisians were saying. Foreign diplomats allegedly sent agents to pick up news or to plant it at the foot of the Tree of Cracow. There were several other nerve centers for transmitting “public noises” (bruits publics), as this variety of news was known: special benches in the Tuileries and Luxembourg Gardens, informal speakers’ corners on the Quai des Augustins and the Pont Neuf, cafés known for their loose talk, and stretches of boulevards, where news bulletins were bawled out by peddlers of canards (facetious broadsides) or sung to familiar tunes by hurdy-gurdy players. To tune in on the news, you could simply stand in the street and cock your ear.

But ordinary hearsay did not sat-isfy Parisians with a powerful appetite for information. They needed to sift through the public noise in order to discover what really was happening. Sometimes they pooled their information and criticized it collectively by meeting in groups such as the famous salon of Mme. M.-A. L. Doublet, known as “the parish.” Twenty-nine “parishioners,” many of them well connected with the parlement of Paris or the court and all of them famished for news, gathered regularly in Mme. Doublet’s apartment in the Enclos des Filles Saint-Thomas. When they entered the salon, they found two large registers on a desk near the door. One contained news reputed to be reliable, the other, gossip. Together, they comprised the menu for the day’s discussion, which was prepared by one of Mme. Doublet’s servants, who may qualify as the first “reporter” in the history of France. We don’t know his name, but a description of him survives in the files of the police: He was “tall and fat, a full face, round wig, and a brown outfit. Every morning he goes from house to house asking, in the name of his mistress, ‘What’s new?”‘ The servant wrote the first entries for each day’s news on the registers; the “parishioners” read through them, adding whatever other information they had gathered; and after a general vetting, the reports were copied and sent to select friends of Mme. Doublet.


One of them, Mme. d’Argental, had a lackey named Gillet, who organized another copying service. When he began to make money by selling the copies, some of his copyists set up shops of their own; and those shops spawned other shops, so that by 1750 multiple editions of Mme. Doublet’s newsletter were flying around Paris and the provinces. The copying operations—an efficient means of diffusion long after Gutenberg and long before Xerox—had turned into a minor industry, a news service providing subscribers with manuscript gazettes, or nouvelles à la main. In 1777 publishers began putting these nouvelles into print, and they circulated as the Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France, a best seller in the underground book trade.

These examples show that news (nouvelles) circulated through several media and by different modes—oral, manuscript, and print. In each case, moreover, it remained outside the law. So we also should consider the political constraints on the news.

This is a rich and complicated subject, because research during the last twenty years has transformed the history of early modern journalism. Simplifying radically, I would insist on a basic point: information about the inner workings of the power system was not supposed to circulate under the Old Regime in France. Politics was the king’s business, le secret du roi—a notion derived from a late medieval and Renaissance view, which treated statecraft as arcana imperii, a secret art restricted to sovereigns and their advisers.

Of course, some information reached the reading public through gazettes, but it was not supposed to deal with the inside story of politics or with politics at all, except in the form of official pronouncements on subjects such as war and peace. All printed matter had to be cleared through a baroque bureaucracy that included nearly two hundred censors, and the censors’ decisions were enforced by a special branch of the police, the inspectors of the book trade. The inspectors did not merely repress heresy and sedition; they also protected privileges. Official journals—notably the Gazette de France, Mercure, and Journal des savants—possessed royal privileges for the coverage of certain subjects, and no new periodical could be established without paying them for a share in their turf.

Many periodicals existed, many of them printed in French outside France; but if any ventured criticism of the government, they could easily be snuffed out by the police—not simply by raids on bookshops and arrests of peddlers, but by being excluded from the mail. Distribution through the mail left their supply lines very vulnerable, as the Gazette de Leyde learned when it tried and failed to cover the most important political story of Louis XV’s reign, the destruction of the parlements in 1771-1774.

In short, the press was far from free; and it was also underdeveloped, if you compare it with the press in Holland, England, and Germany. The first French daily newspaper, Le Journal de Paris, did not appear until 1777. The first German daily appeared more than a century earlier, in Leipzig in 1660. Yet a substantial reading public had existed in France since the seventeenth century; and it expanded enormously in the eighteenth century, especially in cities and in northern France, where nearly half of all adult males could read by 1789. This public was curious about public affairs and conscious of itself as a new force in politics—that is, as public opinion—even though it had no voice in the conduct of the government.

So a basic contradiction existed—between the public with its hunger for news on the one side and the state with its Louis-Quatorzean forms of power on the other. To understand how this contradiction played itself out, we need to take a closer look at the media that transmitted news and the messages they conveyed. What were the media in eighteenth-century Paris?


It may seem that they barely existed if we compare them to the all-pervasive media of today. The Old Regime, as we imagine it, may appear as a simple, media-free world-we-have-lost, a society with no telephones, no television, no e-mail, Internet, and all the rest. In fact, however, it was not a simple world at all. It was merely different. It had a dense communication network made up of media and genres that have been forgotten—so thoroughly forgotten that even their names are unknown today and cannot be translated into English equivalents: mauvais propos, bruit public, on-dit, pasquinade, Pont Neuf, canard, feuille volante, factum, libelle, chronique scandaleuse. There were so many modes of communication, and they intersected and overlapped so intensively, that we cannot reconstruct the system in its entirety.


But we can study examples of the transmission process. Here is one, something like a modern news flash, which I quote from Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry, a top best seller on the eve of the Revolution:

We find in the manuscript gazette that has often guided us in assembling the materials for our history, an anecdote [about Mme. du Barry] that illustrates the general opinion of the public about her dominance of the king. It is dated March 20, 1773: “There is a report, carefully spread about by some courtiers, which proves that Mme. du Barry has not lost any favor or familiarity with the king, as some had suspected. His Majesty likes to brew his own coffee and, by means of this innocent amusement, to get some relief from the heavy burdens of government. A few days ago, the coffee pot began to boil over while His Majesty was distracted by something else. ‘Hey France!’ called out the beautiful favorite. ‘Look out! Your coffee is buggering off.’ [La France, ton café fout le camp.] We are told that ‘France’ is the familiar expression utilized by this lady in the intimacy of the petits appartements. Such details should never circulate outside of them, but they escape, nonetheless, thanks to the malignity of the courtiers.”

The anecdote is trivial in itself, but it illustrates the way a news item moved through various media, reaching an ever-wider public. In this case, it went through four phases: 1. It began as mauvais propos, or insider gossip at court. 2. It turned into a bruit public, or general rumor in Paris—and the text uses a strong expression: “the general opinion of the public.” 3. It became incorporated in a nouvelle à la main, or manuscript news sheet, which circulated in the provinces, like Mme. Doublet’s. 4. It was printed in a libelle, or scandalous book—in this case, a best seller, which went through many editions and reached readers everywhere.

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.

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.

This Issue

June 29, 2000