The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon

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"Slander has always been a nasty business, Robert Darnton notes, but that is no reason to consider it an unworthy topic of inquiry. By destroying reputations, it has often helped to delegitimize regimes and bring down governments. Nowhere has this been more the case than in eighteenth-century France, when a ragtag group of literary libelers flooded the market with works that purported to expose the wicked behavior of the great. Salacious or seditious, outrageous or hilarious, their books and pamphlets claimed to reveal the secret doings of kings and their mistresses, the lewd and extravagant activities of an unpopular foreign-born queen, the affairs of aristocrats and men-about-town as they consorted with servants, monks, and dancing masters. These libels often mixed scandal with detailed accounts of contemporary history and current politics. And though they are now largely forgotten, many sold as well as or better than some of the most famous works of the Enlightenment." Darnton here weaves a tale so full of intrigue that it may seem too extravagant to be true, although all its details can be confirmed in the archives of the French police and diplomatic service. Part detective story, part revolutionary history, TheDevil in the Holy Water has much to tell us about the nature of authorship and the book trade, about Grub Street journalism and the shaping of public opinion, and about the important work that scurrilous words have done in many times and places.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this complement to his NBCC award–winning Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, Harvard librarian Darnton chronicles in scholarly detail (with 74 pages of notes) and well-selected illustrations the role of libel and slander in 18th-century France. He focuses on the political force of books, pamphlets and periodicals written by expatriates in London, Grub Street–type journalists who destroyed reputations and helped bring down governments. But he also shows how they created meaning and myths for the common people, revealing the wicked, privileged and lewd lives of kings, aristocrats, monks and ministers as well as their servants, mistresses and dancing masters. These anecdotes were distributed for political reasons, inventions that titillated and inflamed the public. They had such titles as Secret Memoirs, The Parisian Police Unveiled and The Private Life of Louis XV (the king's body “corrupted by pox and sapped of its virility”). Although the names and events are sometimes overwhelming, the tale is an intriguing one, and Darnton, our leading historian of the book, is the man to tell it. 47 illus. (Dec.)
Library Journal
This is another brilliant addition to the corpus of works produced by one of the world's most eminent historians of 18th-century France. Darnton (Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor & director, Harvard Univ. Lib.; Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France) provides a detailed examination of the French literature of libel in the years of the French Revolution. The libelle, he explains, was a distinct genre and an enormous business that focused on exposing the scandalous and scurrilous ways of public political personalities. The attacks took a variety of forms—anecdotes, puzzles, biographies, caricatures, verbal portraits, and news reports. Rather than simply describing or summarizing such texts, however, Darnton interweaves a discussion of the writings, authors, subjects, and readers, as he traces how the targets of slander changed with the shifts in political climate. He also uses police archives and diplomatic records to describe the counter-institutions of the so-called book police—censors, spies, inspectors, and double agents. Most important is his assessment of why the whole "smutty subject" matters, combining historical, sociological, and anthropological analysis to explain the role libel played in creating a political and revolutionary culture where public opinion mattered. VERDICT Not likely to be accessible to general readers, this work is recommended for scholars of 18th-century French history and for university libraries.—Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ
From the Publisher
"The tale is an intriguing one, and Darnton, our leading historian of the book, is the man to tell it."—Publishers Weekly

"Darnton's bravura demonstration of how Old Regime slander was grafted onto the main stem of Revolutionary political culture is one of the highlights of his engaging book. . . . The libellistes seem to have been most effective when their work fitted in with wider political and ideological trends. But their writings certainly complicated and dramatized questions about the limits of free speech as it was used for personal vilification and innuendo. Those were questions with which the Revolutionaries wrestled and never resolved. And they are with us still, and not only in the blogosphere."—Colin Jones, New York Review of Books

"In political slander everything is of the moment, and only someone as immersed as Darnton is in the particularities of eighteenth-century publishing, politics and cultural life could possibly do justice to its noisome unruliness. . . . The reader gets a taste of the thrill of the chase not just from the text but also from a number of telling illustrations taken from the illicit publications themselves. The return on Darnton's investment of time, energy and determination is extraordinary."—Lynn Hunt, London Review of Books

"This is a book for experts on eighteenth-century France; but it is also lucid and scurrilous enough to have much wider appeal. The spectacle of a public figure cut down to size by revelations—true or false—about her or his private life is a literary genre that continues in rude health when more refined forms of writing—literary fiction, criticism and poetry, for example—threaten to become obsolete. Readers will find much to titillate and shock in the slanders that brought les grands of eighteenth-century France to their knees. But there is also a contemporary resonance to consider: as our own voracious yellow press goes from strength to strength and life-writing converges on celebrity biography, the more defamatory the better selling, what can the history of slander and libel teach us?"—Ruth Scurr, The Nation

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812241839
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/23/2009
  • Series: Material Texts Series
  • Pages: 552
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the Harvard University Library.

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Table of Contents


1. The Armor-Plated Gazetteer
2. The Devil in the Holy Water
3. The Parisian Police Unveiled
4. The Secret Life of Pierre Manuel
5. The End of the Line
6. Bibliography and Iconography
7. Reading

8. Slander and Politics
9. The Book Police at Work
10. A Double Agent and His Authors
11. Secret Missions
12. Hugger-Mugger
13. Entrapment
14. The View from Versailles
15. The Devil in the Bastille
16. Bohemians Before Bohemianism
17. The Grub Street Route to Revolution
18. Slander into Terror
19. Words and Deeds
20. Postscript, 1802

21. The Nature of Libels
22. Anecdotes
23. Portraits
24. News

25. Revolutionary Metamorphoses
26. Sex and Politics
27. Decadence and Despotism
28. Royal Depravity
29. Private Lives and Public Affairs


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