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In spring 1749, François Bonis, a medical student in Paris, found himself unexpectedly hauled off to the Bastille for distributing an “abominable poem about the king.” So began the Affair of the Fourteen, a police crackdown on ordinary citizens for unauthorized poetry recitals. Why was the official response to these poems so intense?
In this captivating book, Robert Darnton follows the poems as they passed through several media: copied on scraps of paper, dictated from one person to another, memorized and declaimed to an audience. But the most effective dispersal occurred through music, when poems were sung to familiar tunes. Lyrics often referred to current events or revealed popular attitudes toward the royal court. The songs provided a running commentary on public affairs, and Darnton brilliantly traces how the lyrics fit into song cycles that carried messages through the streets of Paris during a period of rising discontent. He uncovers a complex communication network, illuminating the way information circulated in a semi-literate society.
This lucid and entertaining book reminds us of both the importance of oral exchanges in the history of communication and the power of “viral” networks long before our internet age.
In 1749 Parisians feasted on a half-dozen poems that ridiculed Louis XV for being humiliated in foreign affairs by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle as well as in the royal bed by an ignoble mistress. The king ordered a crackdown on unauthorized poetry recitals, and the police rounded up fourteen suspects, mostly students, clerks and priests, and gathered evidence. The investigation is the subject of Robert Darnton's fascinating Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris. As Darnton retraces the steps of the police, he branches off into explorations of the world of ordinary people under the ancien régime and the formation of public opinion in an oral culture. He also has a polemical aim. "The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past," he writes, "even a sense that communication has no history" before the days of television and the Internet. Darnton deflates that illusion by showing how poems seeped into the public sphere as they passed through oral and print media: first copied on scraps of paper, then dictated by one person to another, then memorized and sung to an audience. For Darnton, poetry was an information network long before networks were news.
— John Palattella
Poetry and the Police [is] the latest in [Darnton's] 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...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...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.
— Peter Brooks
Thought-provoking and uncannily relevant...Darnton demonstrates that even in a semi-literate society, information can travel far and fast. He challenges us to re-examine our assumptions about today's new and "unprecedented" information universe...This book can be read in two ways. Historians will likely delight in the details and the diagrams provided by Darnton, who tips his hat to the impressive record-keeping of the French police. But others will be more interested in larger questions about how communications networks spread ideas and information. As the Internet continues to pose challenges to authoritarian regimes around the world, and opportunities to dissidents, Darnton's lively and erudite [book] offers valuable insights for our own time.
— Emily Parker
We are given a vivid sense of how songs were circulated and performed on the streets of Paris...By improvising new words to old tunes, Parisians were able to disseminate news rapidly...By highlighting the existence of such a wonderful array of songs, Darnton has opened up another rich vein of research in the eighteenth century.
— Nicholas Hammond
Darnton again offers solid history and a very good read.
— A. H. Pasco