Palais des Beaux Arts, Lille/Erich Lessing/Art Resource

An itinerant singer performing while his companion sells trinkets and ballad booklets; painting by Louis Joseph Watteau, 1785

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.


Private Collection/Scala/White Images/Art Resource

The journalist Camille Desmoulins inciting the crowds outside the Palais Royal during the French Revolution; engraving by Pierre Gabriel Berthault

But unlike d’Hémery and his associates, Darnton needs not simply to make a narrative of the clues but also to interpret them in a larger frame. And the frame that most interests him is that of the oral networks of communication. In The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, he created a diagram of a “Schematic Model of a Communication Circuit” in an “early information society.” In Poetry and the Police, he creates an interesting flow chart of the Fourteen, showing the patterns of transmission that allow the poems and songs to crisscross through the public. “Oral communication has almost always escaped historical analysis, but in this case the documentation is rich enough for one to pick up echoes of it,” writes Darnton. The circuits of oral communication are important because they offer a clue to—indeed they constitute—what would come to be known as “public opinion.”

No one doubts that public opinion had a great deal to do with the collapse of the ancien régime and the coming of the Revolution, and the late eighteenth century is often considered the moment when the public sphere and public opinion—the world of public debate on current affairs—emerge as concepts. Once thinkers and publicists begin to evoke the notion of the people as a tribunal that may judge the performance of those running the state, we approach the recognizably modern age of nations. As that keen observer of Parisian everyday life Louis-Sébastien Mercier wrote in 1788, while there are no motions from the House of Commons during public crises in France, “the entire public forms a house of commons, where each person expresses his opinion according to his sentiments or his prejudices.”

Mercier’s public opinion is not the voice of reason celebrated by the mathematician and philosopher Condorcet, but something closer to what pollsters try to measure today. Darnton suggests—he demonstrates more than he argues—that in such cases as the “Affair of the Fourteen,” we have the formation of a public opinion, not that of the philosophers, but a kind of street wisdom that began to have real power. He writes:

It was a force that welled up from the streets, one already conspicuous at the time of the Fourteen and unstoppable forty years later, when it swept everything before it, including the philosophers, without the slightest concern for their attempts to construct it discursively.

As with other of Darnton’s books, here is the polemical point of his new work. To look for the origins of the French Revolution exclusively in the assault on the ancien régime mounted by the philosophes is to neglect the “symbolic world” of ordinary people. It’s not that the songs and poems of the Fourteen were preparing the Parisian mob to storm the Bastille, but that ways of communicating political dissent were in the process of being formed. The iron-fisted approach to the Fourteen’s verses on the part of the police—under command from the highest quarters—suggests how the regime was becoming rigid and unworkable. Alexis de Tocqueville demonstrated in The Old Regime and the Revolution how the ancien régime was too complex for its authoritarianism and too authoritarian for its complexities: it married absolutism to bureaucratic intricacy and redundancy. Darnton’s study makes clear both the complexity and the authoritarianism.

Historians will continue to debate the relative force of the movements that undermined the ancien régime. Darnton’s idiosyncratic and conspicuous achievement has been to supplement attention to the leaders of the Enlightenment with an attempt to uncover the less visible writings, the less audible voices, of the strange fellow described by Mercier as Monsieur le Public. In Mercier’s words, this is “an indefinable composite.”

A painter who wanted to represent it with its true features could paint it as having the face of a personage with [a peasant’s] long hair and a [gentleman’s] laced coat, a [priest’s] skullcap on his head and a [nobleman’s] sword at his side, wearing a [worker’s] short cloak and the red heels [of an aristocrat], carrying in his hand a [doctor’s] bill-headed cane, having an [officer’s] epaulette, a cross at his left buttonhole and a [monk’s] hood on his right arm. You can see that this monsieur must reason pretty much as he is dressed.

We may need Darnton’s parenthetic explanations to put the composite together, but we surely recognize the personage and his mode of reasoning, still with us today.

The historian as detective has for some time now been attached to uncovering what we today derive from surveys, questionnaires, and polls. At its best, as in Poetry and the Police, this microhistorical sleuthing is intellectually gripping and evocative of experiences that we thought were lost to historians. It is sometimes difficult to know how to fit all the small pieces together into the panorama of a society like that of eighteenth-century France, where we appear to encounter contradictions at every turn. Darnton, who masters both the intellectual and the material history of the Enlightenment—as he demonstrated years ago in The Business of Enlightenment (1979), on the publishing history of the Encyclopédie—doesn’t in his new book aim for a grand narrative of how public opinion was constituted in 1749. He is content rather to be suggestive, to retrieve forgotten voices and tunes, and to tease out their pertinence to an understanding of a lost world. Yet since narrative is by its very nature retrospective—a telling of the past from a standpoint in the present—one inevitably listens to the voices of 1749 in a knowledge of what was to come forty years later. We read in the retrospective as well as the prospective shadow of the Revolution.

This Issue

January 13, 2011