Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris

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Overview

Listen to "An Electronic Cabaret: Paris Street Songs, 1748–50" for songs from Poetry and the Police

Audio recording copyright © 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

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.

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Editorial Reviews

The Nation

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

New York Review of Books

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

New Republic online

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

Times Literary Supplement

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

Choice

Darnton again offers solid history and a very good read.
— A. H. Pasco

The Nation - John Palattella
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.
New York Review of Books - Peter Brooks
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.
New Republic online - Emily Parker
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.
Times Literary Supplement - Nicholas Hammond
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.
Choice - A. H. Pasco
Darnton again offers solid history and a very good read.
Publishers Weekly
Darnton (The Case for Books), a professor at Harvard and author of several books, writes wonderfully about the development of communication. Even as literacy was improving in the 18th century, communication was primarily oral, and could be a runner, a smoky fire, or a drum. Songs and poems were the newspapers for the illiterate and memorization was their flash drive. Yet censorship still existed, and in 1745, Paris police, in an operation called In L'Affaire des Quatorze, rounded up 14 men circulating some especially nasty songs about Louis XV, his policies, and his mistress. These songs, malicious intrigues likely originating in Versailles, spread from the court to servants to peddlers to Parisian markets. They were added to, re-written, and enhanced by each singer and then finally heard at court, marking the birth of the politically motivated public opinion. Darnton reproduces these songs and others, providing helpful notes; he even created a website of these songs, which can be downloaded to your MP3 player. (Nov.)
The Guardian - P. D. Smith
Our much vaunted information society is not new, argues Darnton...Darnton turns detective in this fast-moving account of a 1749 police investigation into a poem critical of Louis XV. The 'Affair of the Fourteen,' as it became known, began with the arrest of a medical student who had recited the poem. Interrogated in the Bastille, he revealed the source of the poem. This man was also arrested and interrogated. Soon 14 'purveyors of poetry'--priests, students, clerks and even a professor--were arrested. But despite this the authorities never identified the author of the poem. It was, suggests Darnton, 'a case of collective creation'--what we might now term a crowd-sourced work. This fascinating study reveals that the streets of Paris were buzzing with news of public affairs.
Library Journal
In this concise and thought-provoking study, eminent scholar Darnton (Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor & Director of the University Library, Harvard; The Devil in the Holy Water; or, The Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon) 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 were 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. VERDICT 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 Hélène 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.—Brian Odom, Pelham P.L., AL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674066045
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 9/3/2012
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian at Harvard University.

Hélène Delavault studied at the Paris Conservatoire and The Julliard School, has sung in operas and operettas, and has also created her own cabarets, including an exploration of the world of bawdy songs in eighteenth-century France.

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