Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Parisby Robert Darnton
Darnton has ably mined the available evidence surrounding the 1749 investigation and string of arrests for sedition known as the "Affair of the Fourteen" and produced a remarkable analysis of a subversive Parisian public discourse that openly attacked the king, his mistress, new taxes, and an unpopular peace treaty. Darnton lucidly reconstructs a world where… See more details below
Darnton has ably mined the available evidence surrounding the 1749 investigation and string of arrests for sedition known as the "Affair of the Fourteen" and produced a remarkable analysis of a subversive Parisian public discourse that openly attacked the king, his mistress, new taxes, and an unpopular peace treaty. Darnton lucidly reconstructs a world where information traveled through poems and songs set to familiar melodies; he reminds us that our world of instant communication, tweets, and 24-hour news cycles is not as distinctive as we may believe. With rich end matter that includes the lyrics of poems and songs as well as a link to a superb recording of some of the songs by cabaret artist Helene Delavault, this interdisciplinary piece is highly recommended for serious students across the humanities as well as readers with an interest in 18th-century French culture and politics.
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.
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 Enlightenmentas he demonstrated years ago in The Business of Enlightenment (1979), on the publishing history of the Encyclopédiedoesn'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.
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.
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.
Darnton again offers solid history and a very good read.
A. H. Pasco
- Harvard University Press
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Meet the Author
Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor, Harvard University, and Director of the University Library, Harvard University.
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