Dangerous Liaisons: How 18th Century France Made The Modern Media Circus

| , | March 4, 2024

Anyone who has lived through the past 30 years knows, without doubt, that this is the technological age and that the media and Silicon Valley has it’s claws on the pulse of this generation and all that are to follow. We are the information age, and what is to come will undoubtedly be heavily influenced by the ever powerful social media.

In fact, many would claim that our means of communication have replaced the means of production as the singular most important driving force in the modern world—but I’m here to dispute that theory. However much it is shaping today is no different from the shaping of ages past; what historical period was not its own information age, in it’s own way? [1]

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While you may debunk the superiority of my theory for sounding remarkably like common sense, instead consider this: if we push it hard enough, it can open up a new perspective of the past, and we can most certainly begin with a look at today. What do we consider to be news? Is it what we read in newspapers, or hear on network television broadcasts? If we consider the topic even deeper, the news is not actually about what happened in the past, but rather the stories about what happened—a narrative, if you will, sculpted and fine tuned, by each special media that churns it out. And if you look at it that way, what you’ve got is a way to see clearly a tangled and sometimes confusing past. [2]

What can be called “the history of communication” is how I intend to unravel how societies made sense of news; the hunting and gathering of information, it’s idea of what’s important, it’s processes to revealing the story, can reveal a huge piece not just about the story, but about the experiences of the times. Take for instance the coffeehouses in Stuart England, tea houses in China during it’s early republican phase, marketplaces in today’s Morocco, runner networks in the Mogul Raj of India,  poetry from the street in 17th century Rome, slave rebellions in 19th century Brazil, and even the bread and circuses of the great Roman Empire. [3]

But rather than compiling all the examples on historical record, instead we should consider a particular time and place: The Old Regime in France, and in particular, Paris around 1750. This particular time period and place was difficult to discover news because the government did not allow what we consider to be news; reading newspapers, profiles of public affairs and prominent figures, simply did not exist.

For the time, to discover what was really going on, one went to the tree of Cracow. A large, leafy chestnut tree, it was the heart of Paris by way of the Palais-Royal Gardens. At the time, no doubt, it had acquired it’s name from the intense discussions that took place underneath its branches during the time of the War of the Polish Succession (1733-1735), and although the name suggests rumors, it was a place of intelligence. News mongers flocked here; spreading information about current events and the goings on of the Crown by word of mouth. They claimed to know such tales from private sources (personal letters, servants, eavesdropping were popular sources of the time) about what was really happening among the powerful of the time.

But whether it was immediately true or not, the people in power took them seriously, because the government of France worried about what the Parisians were saying. It was common for foreign agents and informers to frequent the tree, either to pick up the latest news, or to plant it there for spreading. Throughout Paris there were other hotspots so to speak: benches in the Luxembourg gardens, speaker’s’ corner on the Quai des Augustins, cafes and boulevards where peddlers were known for incorporating the latest into song. In Paris, at any given time of the day, to hear the news you simply walked out into the street, and tuned in. [4]

This was not enough for all Parisians; to satisfy the appetite some had for information, they proceeded to sift through it all by comparing notes, pooling information and meeting in groups to decipher what was really happening. The salon of Mmw. M.-A.L. Doublet, known simply as “the parish,” was a group of well connected people in the Parlement of Paris or the court of Versailles, and all them, gathering once a week in the salon in the Eclos de Filles Saint Thomas, to sift through it all. When members, “parishioners,” entered the salon, they gathered to read two lists, one of truth and one of rumor, to dissect during the meeting. One of Mme.

Doublet’s servants would prepare a menu of discussion for the agenda, and was, in many regards, the first reporter in the history of France, as he went from door to door every morning, in the name of his mistress, “What’s new?” [5] This servant would write the first entries of the daily news and then the “parishioners” read them, adding additional information they were aware of, and after a general consensus, reports were copied and sent to a select few of Mme. Doublet’s acquaintances. Having fallen into the hands of one of Mme. Doublet’s particular friends, J.G.Bosc du Bouchet, the news report transformed into a copying businesses, where one original shop created more shops, with subscribers gladly paying six livres per month to hear the latest from Paris. By 1750, multiple editions of Mme. Doublet’s report was circulating, and the news service rapidly churned out these nouvelles in print, Memoires secrets pour servir a l’histoire de la republique de lettres en France, which became a bestseller in the underground book trade. [6]

As anecdotal as they may have been, the nouvelles (news) that circulated through several different mediums—oral, manuscript, and print—remained outside the law, and therefore, in a certain sense, politically constrained to an extent. However, this research, which has been conducted in the last twenty years has made its mark on the history of modern journalism [7] and a basic point that I have to insist on is this: information about the inner dealings of the system was not for public record and was not intended to be circulated in the Old Regime. Politics were reserved for the king alone— “le secret du roi” —which had been built on theories of the medieval and Renaissance view, that statecraft was a secret art for sovereigns and their political advisors alone. [8]

Of course the Parisians weren’t completely in the dark about state affairs; some information was known by the reading public through journals and gazettes but it was not intended to include the goins on of insider politics, or with politics at all. All printed publications during the time were subject to clearance by the baroque bureascracy that involved almost 200 censors, and the censors were inforced by a special police branch, who subsequently, also inspected the book trade. The inspectors were not only reressing heresy and sedition, but they also protected the privileges of the royals, certain subjects, and no new periodical was able to be established without paying for their spot. When the revolutionaries looked back at the history of the ress, they saw nothing but useless gossip before 1789. Pierre Manual on the Gazette de France:

A people that wants to be informed cannot be satisfied with the Gazette de France. Why should it care if the king has performed the ritual of foot-washing for some poor folk whose feet weren’t even dirty? Or if the queen celebrated Easter in company with the comte d’Artois? Or if Monsieur deigned to accept the dedication of a book that he may never read? Or if the Parlement, dressed in ceremonial attire, harangued the baby dauphin, who was dressed in swaddling clothes?

The people want to know everything that is actually done and said in the court—why and for whom the cardinal de Rohan should have taken it into his head to play games with a pearl necklace; if it is true that the comtesse Diane appoints the generals of the army and the comtesse Jule the bishops; how many Saint Louis medals the minister of war allotted to his mistress for distribution as New Year’s presents. It was the sharp-witted authors of clandestine gazettes [nouvelles à la main] who spread the word about this kind of scandal. [9]

These comments, written after a recently liberated press, exaggerates the state of journalism under the Old Regime because many periodicals existed, many were printed outside of France in French, and sometimes did include information about political events (especially the liberal reign of Louis XVI). But, to be fair, there was no criticism of the government due to being easily snuffed out by the police; raids on bookshops, arrests, excluding of mail were common retributions for speaking out or printing anything that wasn’t approved. Since distribution was conducted through the mail, the periodicals were left very vulnerable, which the Gazette de Leyde discovered when it tried and failed to cover the most important news occurrence in Louis XV’s reign—the destruction of parliaments from 1771 to 1774.

So while a version of newspapers existed, they included very little actual news, and the public had very little trust in what they did print, even when the French journals came from Holland. The general lack of faith was expressed in a report by a police spy in 1746:

It is openly said that France pays 2,000 livres [a year] to Sieur du Breuil, author of the Gazette d’Amsterdam, which is vetted by the French representative at The Hague. Besides that, France gives 12,000 to 15,000 livres to Mme. Limiers, who does the Gazette d’Utrecht. This money comes from the revenue of the gazettes, which the postal service sells for 17 sous 6 deniers [per copy] to David, its distributor in Paris, and which he sells to the public for 20 sous. When the gazettes did not appear as usual yesterday, it was said that the minister had had them stopped. [10]

What should we take away from this? That the press was far from the free, democratic institution we come to think of today, and it was severely lacking compared to its contemporary counterparts in Holland, England, and Germany. The first French daily, Le journal de Paris, did not exist until 1770—the first German daily newspaper appeared over a century earlier, in Leipzig, in 1660—while French readers were a voracious bunch since the 17th century, and even more so in the 18th century. While nearly half of all adult males in France could read by 1789 (a vast number for the time) and the public was curious about public affairs, there was no voice in the conduct of the government. Therefore, a basic hypocrisy existed, between the information seeking public and the mum absolutist power of the state. To understand the outcomes of such a circumstance, we must first look at the media itself, and the “news” they spread.

When we think of media, we have a habit of comparing it to today’s world; the Old Regime must have been simple, being media-free, compared to our hectic modern times with telephones, television, email, Internet, and everything else. But 18th century France was not simple at all, only different. It had an intricate communication network designed out of media and genre that we no longer use and cannot be translated into English: mauvais propos, bruit public, on-dit, pasquinade, pont-neuf, canard,feuille volante, factum, libelle, chronique scandaleuse. There were infinite modes of communication and they interlocked on so many levels that we can hardly understand how they operated.

For example, take the book, Anecdotes sur Mms. la comtesse du Barry. It was a sultry biography of the royal mistress that was pulled together from pieces of gossip picked up by the best and most famous nouvelliste of the century, Mathieu-Francois Pidansat de Mairobert. Travelling all over Paris, he collected the news, scribbling it on scraps of paper, and hiding them within his person, before heading to cafe to share the news and trade tidbits with other nouvelliste. Therefore the biography was little more than news items that had been strung together to form a narrative, one of which began with her humble birth to a cook and a friar, traced along her time as a star in a French whorehouse, and ended with her gracing the royal bedchambers. [13]

Throughout this narrative, Mairobert was not shy with his opinion. It was particularly harsh on Versailles and police reported that he had denounced the government saying: “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.” [14] Not many days later, the police took him to be imprisoned in the Bastille, his pockets full of notes and details about taxes and the private life of the King.

The case of Mairobert, and many others like it, illustrates a point so obvious that it hasn’t ever been pointed out: the media of the Old Regime were different. The messages that were transmitted were spoken, written, printed, pictured, and sung, and what can be discovered here is that the most difficult thing for historians to analyze is oral history, because it often doesn’t have a written counterpart. As semi-permanent as this seemed to be however, contemporaries took it seriously and were knoen for commenting on it in letters and diaries how news travelled by word of mouth: “A vile courtier puts these infamies [reports of royal orgies] into rhyming couplets and, through the intermediary of flunkies, distributes them all the way to the marketplace.

From the markets they reach artisans, who in turn transmit them back to the noblemen who first wrought them and who, without wasting a minute, go to the royal chambers in Versailles and whisper from ear to ear in a tone of consummate hypocrisy, ‘Have you read them? Here they are. This is what is circulating among the common people in Paris.’” [15]

Fortunately for historians the Old Regime was a police state, and the police very much appreciated the importance of public opinion. They kept scrupulous attention on it by posting spies wherever people would gather to discuss current affairs, from marketplaces to public gardens, and while spy reports and police files cannot be taken on merit alone due to their built-in bias, the archives of the police do reveal enough to see how the oratory networks functioned, and two modes of communication stand out more than the rest: gossip and song.

First we will dissect gossip, which by the papers of the Bastille, show that cases like Mairobert’s (people arrested for insolent talk about public and royal figures), were very common. While the sample group may be biased since the Bastille was unaccustomed to arresting people who spoke favorably of public and royal figures, the spies of the police would, however, recount overheard discussions about all sorts of subjects that intrigued the Parisians, and especially during the early years of Louis XV’s reign, the talk was favorable. The sample I have studied comes from varied Parisians cafes at the time (though not all 380 cafes that Paris had at the time) and is compiled from the most important paths of communication. Most reports were written in dialogue, as such:

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.”[16][17]

As was common during the time, the secrets of the royal bedchamber provided excellent subjects for gossip, and everything the reports indicate show that the talk was friendly. In 1729 when the queen was nearing childbirth, the cafe’s were abuzz with celebration: “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.” [18] When on September 4th, when the dauphin was born, the Parisians were ecstatic because there was an heir on the throne and a grand feast in the Hotel de Ville with fireworks was to be presented by the King, which is what the Parisians wanted from their king, spies report: “One of them said [in the Café de Foy], ‘Parbleu, Messieurs, you could never see anything more beautiful than Paris yesterday evening, when the king made his joyful entry into the Hôtel de Ville, speaking to everyone with the greatest affability, dining to a concert by two dozen musicians; and they say the meal was of the utmost magnificence.’” [19]

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Twenty years later however, the tone of public had dramatically changed:

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. [20]

The change in town was greatly attributed to what had happened socially and politically between 1729 and 1749; the Jansenist religious controversy, power struggles between parliament and the crown, war, famine, and a few unpopular taxes. But in addition to these, it seemed, the crown had lost its royal touch.

The story of The Three Sisters was quite a popular tale of the time, and much more a narrative of court life than a bedtime fable. The three sisters, daughters of a French nobleman, all found themselves playing mistress to the king until untimely death took them. It was the last sister, the most ambitious and the most beautiful, who cause the most trouble, when the king took her to war with the Germans and fell deathly ill. At the urging of the priests, he denounced his mistress, became miraculously better and then came home to continue his good health, and pick up his mistress once again. For historians, this tale however is a clue that the moral ties between king and subjects was very frayed in France by the mid 1740’s, and the king even built ways around visiting the Parisians at all. He stopped touching the sick who lined up to be cured of the King’s Evil, or scrofula, at the Great Gallery of the Louvre, as he had always done, and this was the beginning of the end of the roi-mage, the sacred image of a benevolent king known to his people. This, was the downfall of his royal touch. [21]

While this may seem an overly simplified version, and one based largely on the affairs of the royal bedchamber, I agree, but it did occur all at once or with one event—the downfall of the relationship between the key and his people deteriorated slowly, and the story of the sisters was just one way his lack of attentiveness to his subjects was spread through the consciousness of Parisians by way of news by the middle of the century.

Modern America may in fact call the tale of the three sisters very little more than soap opera, but for 18th century Parisians, it was the spread of current events—the king’s brush with death, the disgrace of his mistresses, particularly Mme. Châteauroux, the happiness for the king’s recovery, and then the disgrace when he went back to his sinful ways, which on top of adultery, seemed to have a ring of incest about them, having three mistresses who were sisters. Spys reported back during 1744: “Businessmen, retired officers, the common people are all complaining, speaking ill of the government and predicting that this war will have disastrous consequences. Clergymen, especially the Jansenists, take that view and dare to think and to say aloud that the evils that will soon overwhelm the kingdom come from above, as punishment for the incest and irreligion of the king. They cite passages from Scripture, which they apply [to the present circumstances]. The government should pay attention to this class of subjects. They are dangerous.” [22]

What the people worried about was that the sin of adultery and incest combined would bring down God’s wrath on the crown, and also the kingdom. Having been crowned by holy oil, Louis XV was concerned to have sacred power, curing souls suffering from scrofula by touching them, but to cure his subjects he was required to go to confession and take communion, two things the priests would not allow him to do unless he renounced his mistresses, and after 1738, he refused to renounce them and began to openly exhibit his adultery. After that date, Louis XV never again took communion and never again touched the sick. This manifested itself in a wig maker’s shop, by a man named Bernard, when the Three Sisters came out into the open and the people began to believe that Louis was no longer an effective mediary between his people and their vengeful God.

While an original copy of the three sisters was unable to be found, the storyline is visible in many texts produced during the same time, meaning that if the original no longer exists, then at the very least, the story, condemning the king for his sins, all do. Titles such as Les amours de Zeokinizul, roi des Kofirans, Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de Perse, Tanastès, conte allégorique, and Voyage à Amatonthe, all recount a true synopsis of the “the three sisters” and the current events of the time. [23] [24]

Unsophisticated literature of this type may seem very different from what we consider to be newsworthy in modern times, but by 1750 the public conveyed the same thoughts: that through the king’s sins, the presence of his mistresses, and the manipulation of the mistresses by power-hungry courtiers (Richelieu anyone?), everything in the kingdom was going south. Police reports of the time recount gossip on Mme. de Pompadour in 1749 [25]:

Le Bret: After running down Mme. de Pompadour by loose talk in various locales, he said that she had driven the king crazy by putting all sorts of notions in his head. The bitch is raising hell, he said, because of some poems that attack her. Does she expect to be praised while she is wallowing in crime?

A subject, Jean-Louis Le Clerc, made the following remarks as well: That there never has been a worse king; that the court, the ministers and the Pompadour make the king do shameful things, which utterly disgust his people. And Francois Phillipe Merlet, another citizen, was equally unamused: Accused of having said in the tennis court of Veuve Gosseaume that Richelieu and the Pompadour were destroying the reputation of the king; that he was not well regarded by his people, since he was driving them to ruin; and that he had better beware, because the twentieth tax could cause some mischief to befall him.

These sentiments should not be surprising, because the discussion of public affairs and private lives of the time were one in the same, and that’s how they found themselves in print, in as many different versions of “the three sisters” as it took to reinforce the public opinion. The process began to build on itself dramatically, with more gossip coming from new books and new books continuing to promote gossip. It is with these that we are allowed to suppose that by 1750, Paris had resolutely turned against the king.

Now let’s consider songs, since they had a large impact as well, and were also an important medium for spreading the news. The Parisians most commonly composed verses and limmericks about current events to add to popular tunes of the time, such as “Malbrouch s’en va-t-en guerre (same tune as “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”), and were used as mnemonic exercises. For a society that was mostly illiterate, these songs were more effective for spreading news than perhaps the sophisticated salons and journals, as the majority of the population was unable to be accessed by the masses. As Louis-Sebastian Mercier remarked: “No event takes place that is not duly registered in the form of avaudeville [popular song] by the irreverent populace.” [28]

Some songs originated at court, where artisans and poets gathered for the pleasure of the king, but they all reached the commoners, and the commoners would willingly sing back. Workers and merchants would compose songs and sing them at work, adding new lines as it please them. Charles Simon Favart, the greatest contemporary lyricist in Paris, was one of these kinds, composing songs and creating popular melodies while he kneaded dough in his father’s bakery. Along with his friends—notably Charles Collé, Pierre Gallet, Alexis Piron, Charles-François Panard, Jean-Joseph Vadé, Toussaint-Gaspard Taconnet, Nicolas Fromaget, Christophe-Barthélemy Fagan, Gabriel Charles Lattaignant, and François-Augustin Paradis de Moncrif—he composed ballads and drinking songs in Cafe Du Caveau, where they made the rounds at pubs, then leaked into the streets, only to show up in popular theatres. One could say that the whole country could be said to be “an absolute monarchy tempered by songs.” [29]

And these song spread faster than the Plague, gaining new phrasing with each singer, who scribbled new verses on pieces of paper to be hid on the body, exactly the same way as the nouvelliste. Police stopped suspected seditious singers as readily as nouvelliste as well, commanding them to “Empty your pockets.” [30] This was usually a fruitful venture when it concerned Pidansat de Mairobert, who was seized and sent to the Bastille, where words to a popular song attacking Mme. de Pompadour, among others, was found in his upper left vest pocket. [31]

Mairobert was the modern version of a starving artist, describing himself as “”an absolute monarchy tempered by songs.” [32] However, he frequented the company of Mme. Dounlet’s salon, and was often among other song collectors who frequented the highest echelons of court. This included the company of the comte de Maurepas, the minister of the navy and the king’s household, who often regaled Mairobert’s songs to Louis himself, endearing him to the king with laughs and songs that made fun of Maurepas himself and ridiculed his enemies. [33]

This proved to backfire however when, on April 24, 1749, the king dismissed Maurepas from his governmental duties and exiled him. What had caused the downfall everyone asked, and it wasn’t ideological opposition, policy, or even principle, but one song in particular, written to “Quan le peril est agrable”: [34]

Par vos façons nobles et franches,

Iris, vous enchantez nos coeurs;

Sur nos pas vous semez des fleurs.

Mais ce sont des fleurs blanches.

Or to the modern readers:

By your noble and free manner,

Iris, you enchant our hearts.

On our path you strew flowers.

But they are white flowers.

While this may make very little sense to the today’s reader, for the insiders of Versailles it was very obvious. The song had Pompadour act as Iris and concerned the private dinners Louis held within his chambers which were supposed to be intimate and free from gossip. Of the three witnesses of this party, Maurepas was the only one capable of turning it into song and whether or not he was the actual composer, it produced such strong sentiment from the king that he was denounced and sent from Versailles. And this white flower song was not the only song of hostile verse of 1749—it was the general mood during the first six months of the year in all verse and the tide did not end up changing back to one of jokes and happy manner. [36]

With the influence of the king, the comte d’Argenson, minister of war, organized a campaign to end the gossip songs. Not long after the official order, one inspector received a note from an agent: “I know someone who had a copy of the abominable verse against the king in his study a few days ago and who spoke approvingly of them. I can tell you who he is, if you want.” [37] This earned the agent a year’s salary and set up a manhunt for all poets, songwriters, and nouvellistes through a network of oral communication and message in 18th century Paris. [38]

In the end they traced a verse through 14 people and the Latin Quarter, earning the operation the name “The Affair of the Fourteen. [39], and while imprisoning 14 poets in the Bastille, never uncovered the true author. In fact, there may be no original author, as it was common of the time for songs to be as much of a collective creation as the news. The interrogations though, concluded the sort of setting that were modes of transmission, as one of the captured said he copied one of the first verses from overhearing conversation of a friend and a priest: “The conversation turned on the subject matter of the gazettes; and this priest, saying that someone had been so wicked as to write some satirical verses about the king, pulled out a poem attacking His Majesty.” [40] But whether sung or remembered from memory the verses were copied on scraps and carried and swapped or other verses, which found their ways into journals and gazettes and were voraciously consumed by the public:

“The eagerness of the public to seek out these pieces, to learn them by heart, to communicate them to one another, proved that the readers adopted the sentiments of the poet. Madame de Pompadour wasn’t spared, either . . . She ordered a drastic search for the authors, peddlers, and distributors of these pamphlets, and the Bastille was soon full of prisoners.” [41]

Moreover, the communication modes was complicated and took place in many different places by many different mediums. [42] But to go back to the particular song in question, which was popularized by the Fourteen, “Qu’une bâtarde de catin,” was typical of the ballads that had held the highest public appeal among the Parisians. With each verse satirizing a different public figure [43], it was soon spread that the king was a man who cared little for his people, and only filled his day with drink and sex as the kingdom went to hell. Covering all the major issues and political events between 1748 and 1750, the Parisians were not necessarily signers of talens, but instead signers of the news. [44] Ultimately, “Qu’une bâtarde de catin” became so long and full of legitimate news and commentary that it could be understood as a sung newspaper of the time.

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What can be taken from this notice is not a firm conclusion, but rather enough thoughtful provoking that the connections of the media and politics of France can led up to rethinking the connections of media and politics today. Although it is not always best to use history to teach lessons, the Paris of Louis XV undoubtedly gives a perspective on how we can view the situations of our modern governments and how the media is an influence of public opinion. How do most people orient themselves with the news? Not by analyzing issues unfortunately, but from a variety of our own news folklore.

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  1. People have complained about a surfeit of information during many periods of history. An almanac of 1772 referred casually to “notre siècle de publicité à outrance,” as if the observation were self-evident: Roze de Chantoiseau, Tablettes royales de renommée ou Almanach général d’indication, rpt. in “Les cafés de Paris en 1772” (anonymous), Extrait de la Revue de poche du 15 juillet 1867 (Paris, n.d.), 2. For a typical remark that illustrates the current sense of entering an unprecedented era dominated by information technology, see the pronouncement of David Puttnam quoted in The Wall Street Journal, December 18, 1998, W3: “We are on the threshold of what has come to be called the Information Society.” I should explain that this essay was written for delivery as a lecture and that I have tried to maintain the tone of the original by adopting a relatively informal style in the printed version. More related material is available in an electronic edition, the first article published in the new online edition of the American Historical Review, on the World Wide Web, at www.indiana.edu/~ahr, and later at www.historycooperative.org.
  2. I have attempted to develop this argument in an essay on my own experience as a reporter: “Journalism: All the News That Fits We Print,” in Robert Darnton, The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History (New York, 1990), chap. 5. See also Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York, 1978); and Helen MacGill Hughes, News and the Human Interest Story (Chicago, 1940).
  3. Brian Cowan, “The Social Life of Coffee: Commercial Culture and Metropolitan Society in Early Modern England, 1600–1720” (PhD dissertation, Princeton University, 2000); Qin Shao, “Tempest over Teapots: The Vilification of Teahouse Culture in Early Republican China,” Journal of Asian Studies 57 (November 1998): 1009–41; Lawrence Rosen,Bargaining for Reality: The Construction of Social Relations in a Muslim Community (Chicago, 1984); Laurie Nussdorfer, Civic Politics in the Rome of Urban VIII (Princeton, N.J., 1992); João José Reis,Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, Arthur Brakel, trans. (Baltimore, Md., 1993); Christopher A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (New York, 1996); and Keith Hopkins, Death and Renewal(Cambridge, 1983).
  4. Planted at the beginning of the century and cut down during the remodeling of the garden in 1781, the tree of Cracow was such a well-known institution that it was celebrated in a comic opera by Charles-François Panard, L’arbre de Cracovie, performed at the Foire Saint-Germain in 1742. The print reproduced above probably alludes to a theme in that vaudeville production: the tree went “crack” every time someone beneath its branches told a lie. On this and other contemporary sources, see François Rosset, L’arbre de Cracovie: Le mythe polonais dans la littérature française (Paris, 1996), 7–11. The best general account of nouvellistes is still in Frantz Funck-Brentano, Les nouvellistes(Paris, 1905), and Figaro et ses devanciers (Paris, 1909). As an example of how remarks made beneath the tree of Cracow spread throughout Paris and Versailles, see E. J. B. Rathery, ed., Journal et mémoires du marquis d’Argenson (Paris, 1862), 5: 450.
  5. Pierre Manuel, La police de Paris dévoilée (Paris, “l’An second de la liberté” [1790]), 1: 206. I have not been able to find the original of this spy report by the notorious Charles de Fieux, chevalier de Mouhy, in Mouhy’s dossier in the archives of the Bastille: Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal (hereafter, BA), Paris, ms. 10029.
  6. This description relies on the work of Funck-Brentano, Les nouvellistes, and Figaro et ses devanciers, but more recent work has modified the picture of the “parish” and its connection to theMémoires secrets. See Jeremy D. Popkin and Bernadette Fort, eds., The “Mémoires secrets” and the Culture of Publicity in Eighteenth-Century France (Oxford, 1998); François Moureau,Répertoire des nouvelles à la main: Dictionnaire de la presse manuscrite clandestine XVIe–XVIIIesiècle(Oxford, 1999); and Moureau, De bonne main: La communication manuscrite au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1993). After studying the voluminous text of thenouvelles à la main produced by the “parish” between 1745 and 1752, I have concluded that the copy in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (hereafter, BNF) contains little information that could not have passed through the censorship administered by the police: BNF, ms. fr. 13701–12. The published version of theMémoires secrets, which covered the period 1762–1787 and first appeared in 1777, is completely different in tone. It was highly illegal and sold widely: see Robert Darnton, The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France 1769–1789 (New York, 1995), 119–20.
  7. In the case of France, a vast number of excellent books and articles have been published by Jean Sgard, Pierre Rétat, Gilles Feyel, François Moureau, Jack Censer, and Jeremy Popkin. For an overview of the entire subject, see Claude Bellanger, Jacques Godechot, Pierre Guiral, and Fernand Terrou,Histoire générale de la presse française (Paris, 1969); and the collective works edited by Jean Sgard, Dictionnaire des journaux, 1600–1789, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1991); andDictionnaire des journalistes, 1600–1789, 2 vols. (1976; rpt. edn., Oxford, 1999).
  8. Michael Stolleis, Staat und Staatsräson in der frühen Neuzeit (Frankfurt, 1990); and Jochen Schlobach, “Secrètes correspondances: La fonction du secret dans les correspondances littéraires,” in Moureau, De bonne main.
  9. Manuel, La police de Paris dévoilée, 1: 201–02.
  10. A. de Boislisle, ed., Lettres de M. de Marville, Lieutenant-Général de Police, au ministre Maurepas (1742–1747)(Paris, 1896), 2: 262.
  11. On literacy, see François Furet and Jacques Ozouf, Lire et écrire: L’alphabétisation des Français de Calvin à Jules Ferry, 2 vols. (Paris, 1977); on public opinion, Keith M. Baker, “Public Opinion as Political Invention,” in Baker,Inventing the French Revolution: Essays on French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1990); and Mona Ozouf, “L’Opinion publique,” in Keith Baker, ed., The Political Culture of the Old Regime, Vol. 1 of The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 1987).
  12. [Mathieu-François Pidansat de Mairobert],Anecdotes sur Mme. la comtesse du Barry (London, 1775), 215.
  13. This and the following remarks about Mairobert are based on his dossier in the archives of the Bastille: BA, ms. 11683, and on his dossier in the papers of Joseph d’Hémery, inspector of the book trade: BNF, ms. acq. fr. 10783. See also the article on him in the Dictionnaire des journalistes, 2: 787–89.
  14. “Observations de d’Hémery du 16 juin 1749,” BA, ms. 11683, fol. 52.
  15. Le portefeuille d’un talon rouge contenant des anecdotes galantes et secrètes de la cour de France, rpt. as Le coffret du bibliophile (Paris, n.d.), 22.
  16. BA, ms. 10170. This source, the densest I have been able to find, covers the years 1726–1729. For help in locating the cafés and in mapping them, I would like to thank Sean Quinlan, Editorial Assistant at the American Historical Review, and Jian Liu, Reference Librarian and Collection Manager for Linguistics, Indiana University Libraries, who worked with the staff of the AHR in preparing the electronic version of this address. The detailed mapping, with excerpts from reports on conversations in eighteen of the cafés, can be consulted in the link entitled “Mapping Café Talk,” at www.indiana.edu/~ahr.
  17. BA, ms. 10170, fol. 175. For reasons of clarity, I have added quotation marks. The original had none, although it was clearly written in dialogue, as can be seen from the texts reproduced in the electronic version of this essay, at the link entitled “Spy Reports on Conversations in Cafés,” www.indiana.edu/~ahr.
  18. BA, ms. 10170, fol. 176.
  19. BA, ms. 10170, fol. 93.
  20. BNF, ms. nouv. acq. fr. 1891, fol. 419.
  21. Marc Bloch, Rois thaumaturges: Etude sur le caractère surnaturel attribué à la puissance royale(Paris, 1924). On contemporary indignation about the route around Paris, see BNF, ms. fr. 13710, fol. 66. For a sober account of Louis XV’s relations with the Nesle sisters (there were actually five of them, but contemporary libelles usually mentioned only three or sometimes four), see Michel Antoine, Louis XV (Paris, 1989), 484–92. My interpretation of political and diplomatic history in these years owes a good deal to Antoine’s definitive study.
  22. BA, ms. 10029, fol. 129. The incest theme appears in some of the most violent poems and songs attacking Louis XV in 1748–1751. One in the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, ms. 649, p. 50, begins, “Incestueux tyran, traître inhumain, faussaire . . .”
  23. These issues have been dramatized most recently in the controversy aroused by the duplicitous mixture of fact and fiction in Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (New York, 1999): see Kate Masur, “Edmund Morris’sDutch: Reconstructing Reagan or Deconstructing History?” Perspectives 37 (December 1999): 3–5. For my part, I would not deny the literary quality of history writing, but I think the invention of anything that is passed off as factual violates an implicit contract between the historian and the reader: whether or not we are certified as professionals by the award of a PhD, we historians should never fabricate evidence.
  24. Four editions of Les amours de Zeokinizul, roi des Kofirans: Ouvrage traduit de l’Arabe du voyageur Krinelbol(Amsterdam, 1747, 1747, 1748, and 1770) can be consulted in the BNF, Lb38.554.A-D. All but the first have elaborate keys, usually inserted into the binding from a separate copy, sometimes with manuscript notes. Some notes also appear in the margins of this and the other three works, which also have keys.
  25. The following quotations come from BNF, ms. nouv. acq. fr. 1891, fols. 421, 431, 433, 437.
  26. BNF, ms. nouv. acq. fr. 10783.
  27. BA, ms. 11582, fols. 55–57. See also Mlle. Bonafons’ remarks in her second interrogation, fols. 79–80: “A elle représenté qu’il y a dans cet ouvrage des faits particuliers dont son état ne lui permettait pas naturellement d’avoir connaissance. Interpellée de nous déclarer par qui elle en a été instruite. A dit qu’il ne lui a été fourni aucuns mémoires ni donné aucuns conseils, et que c’est les bruits publics et le hazard qui l’ont déterminée à insérer dans l’ouvrage ce qui s’y trouve.”
  28. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris, new edn. (Neuchâtel, 1788), 1: 282. Mercier also remarked (6: 40): “Ainsi à Paris tout est matière à chanson; et quiconque, maréchal de France ou pendu, n’a pas été chansonné a beau faire, il demeurera inconnu au peuple.” Among the many historical studies of French songs, see especially Emile Raunié,Chansonnier historique du XVIIIesiècle, 10 vols. (Paris, 1879–84); Patrice Coirault,Formation de nos chansons folkloriques, 4 vols. (Paris, 1953); Rolf Reichardt and Herbert Schneider, “Chanson et musique populaire devant l’histoire à la fin de l’Ancien Régime,” Dix-huitième siècle 18 (1986): 117–44; and Giles Barber, “‘Malbrouck s’en va-t-en guerre’ or, How History Reaches the Nursery,” in Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs, eds.,Children and Their Books: A Collection of Essays to Celebrate the Work of Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford, 1989), 135–63.
  29. This bon mot may have been coined by Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort: see Raunié,Chansonnier historique, 1: i.
  30. One box in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, ms. 10319, contains dozens of these snippets, thrown together helter-skelter, which comment in rhyme on all sorts of current events: the amorous adventures of the regent, Law’s fiscal system, the battles of the Jansenists and Jesuits, the tax reforms of the abbé Terray, the judicial reforms of the chancellor Maupeou—set to all kinds of popular tunes: “La béquille du Père Barnabas,” “Réveillez-vous belle endormie,” “Allons cher coeur, point de rigueur,” “J’avais pris femme laide.” The repertory of melodies was inexhaustible, the occasions for drawing on it endless, thanks to the inventiveness of the Parisians and the rumor mill at work in the court.
  31. BA, ms. 11683, fol. 59, report on the arrest of Mairobert by Joseph d’Hémery, July 2, 1749. The verse on the scrap of paper comes from a separate dossier labeled “68 pièces paraphées.” In a report to the police on July 1, 1749, a spy noted (fol. 55): “Le sieur Mairobert a sur lui des vers contre le roi et contre Mme. de Pompadour. En raisonnant avec lui sur le risque que court l’auteur de pareils écrits, il répondit qu’il n’en courait aucun, qu’il ne s’agissait que d’en glisser dans la poche de quelqu’un dans un café ou au spectacle pour les répandre sans risque ou d’en laisser tomber des copies aux promenades . . . J’ai lieu de penser qu’il en a distribué bon nombre.”
  32. BA, ms. 11683, fol. 45.
  33. Maurepas’ love of songs and poems about current events is mentioned in many contemporary sources. See, for example, Rathery, Journal et mémoires du marquis d’Argenson, 5: 446; and Edmond-Jean-François Barbier, Chronique de la régence et du règne de Louis XV (1718–1763), ou Journal de Barbier, avocat au Parlement de Paris(Paris, 1858), 4: 362–66.
  34. Rathery, Journal et mémoires de marquis d’Argenson, 5: 448, 452, 456. The following version is taken from d’Argenson’s account of this episode, 456. See also Barbier, Chronique, 4: 361–67; Charles Collé, Journal et mémoires de Charles Collé(Paris, 1868), 1: 71; and François Joachim de Pierre, Cardinal de Bernis, Mémoires et lettres de François-Joachim de Pierre, cardinal de Bernis (1715–1758)(Paris, 1878), 120. A full and well-informed account of Maurepas’ fall, which includes a version of the song that has “Pompadour” in place of “Iris,” appears in a manuscript collection of songs in the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, ms. 649, 121–27.
  35. Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (Nîmes, 1778), 1: 526: “FLEURS, au pluriel, se dit pourflueurs et signifie les règles, les purgations des femmes . . . On appelle fleurs blanches une certaine maladie des femmes.” Rather than a sexually transmitted disease like gonorrhea, this maladiemight have been clorosis, or green-sickness.
  36. In addition to the references given above, note 30, see Bernard Cottret and Monique Cottret, “Les chansons du mal-aimé: Raison d’Etat et rumeur publique (1748–1750),” in Histoire sociale, sensibilités collectives et mentalités: Mélanges Robert Mandrou (Paris, 1985), 303–15.
  37. BA, ms. 11690, fol. 66.
  38. I have discussed this affair at length in an essay, “Public Opinion and Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris,” to be published sometime in 2001 by the European Science Foundation. Its text, which contains references to a great deal of source material, can be consulted in the electronic version of this essay, on the AHR web site, www.indiana.edu/~ahr. Most of the documentation comes from the dossiers grouped together in BA, ms. 11690.
  39. Marc Pierre de Voyer de Paulmy, Comte d’Argenson, to Nicolas René Berryer, June 26, 1749, BA, ms. 11690, fol. 42.
  40. “Interrogatoire du sieur Bonis,” July 4, 1749, BA, ms. 11690, fols. 46–47.
  41. Vie privée de Louis XV, ou principaux événements, particularités et anecdotes de son règne (London, 1781), 2: 301–02. See also Les fastes de Louis XV, de ses ministres, maîtresses, généraux et autres notables personnages de son règne(Villefranche, 1782), 1: 333–40.
  42. My own understanding of this field owes a great deal to conversations with Robert Merton and Elihu Katz. On Gabriel Tarde, see his dated but still stimulating work, L’opinion et la foule (Paris, 1901); and Terry N. Clark, ed., On Communication and Social Influence (Chicago, 1969). For my part, I find Habermas’s notion of the public sphere valid enough as a conceptual tool; but I think that some of his followers make the mistake of reifying it, so that it becomes an active agent in history, an actual force that produces actual effects—including, in some cases, the French Revolution. For some stimulating and sympathetic discussion of the Habermas thesis, see Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Mass., 1992).
  43. I have located and compared the texts of nine manuscript versions of this song. The first verse, quoted below and reproduced in Figure 10, comes from the scrap of paper taken from the pockets of Christophe Guyard during his interrogation in the Bastille: BA, ms. 11690, fols. 67–68. The other texts come from: BA, ms. 11683, fol. 134; ms. 11683, fol. 132; BNF, ms. fr. 12717, pp. 1–3; ms. 12718, p. 53; ms. 12719, p. 83; Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, ms. 648, pp. 393–96; ms. 649, pp. 70–74; and ms. 580, pp. 248–49.
  44. Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), shows how the rhythms of poetry and music contribute to the extraordinary feats of memorizing epic poems.

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