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Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris

Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris

by Thomas Edward Brennan

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Adding a new dimension to the history of mentalites and the study of popular culture, Thomas Brennan reinterprets the culture of the laboring classes in old-regime Paris through the rituals of public drinking in neighborhood taverns. He challenges the conventional depiction of lower-class debauchery and offers a reassessment of popular sociability. Using the


Adding a new dimension to the history of mentalites and the study of popular culture, Thomas Brennan reinterprets the culture of the laboring classes in old-regime Paris through the rituals of public drinking in neighborhood taverns. He challenges the conventional depiction of lower-class debauchery and offers a reassessment of popular sociability. Using the records of the Parisian police, he lets the common people describe their own behavior and beliefs. Their testimony places the tavern at the center of working men's social existence.

Central to the study is the clash of elite and popular culture as it was articulated in the different attitudes to taverns. The elites saw in taverns the indiscipline and exuberance that they condemned in popular culture. Popular testimony presented public drinking in very different terms. The elaborate rituals surrounding public drinking, its prevalence in popular sociability and recreation, all point to the importance of drink as a medium of social exchange rather than a drugged escape from misery, and to the tavern as a focal point for men's communities. Professor Brennan has elucidated the logic of both elite and popular systems of meaning and found new dignity and coherence in the culture and values of the populace.

Originally published in 1988.

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Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris

By Thomas Edward Brennan


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05519-0


Honor and Public Violence

Violence and crime have characterized the taverns and tavern patrons of eighteenth-century Paris in descriptions of the institution from the old regime to the present. "If a brawl erupts from the effects of adulterated wine fists fly together; the guard comes running, for without it these canaille who had been dancing would kill each other to the sound of a violin. The populace, accustomed to this guard, needs it to be controlled and relies on the guard to end the frequent fights that break out in cabarets." Thus Mercier, in one of his few descriptions of tavern comportment, captured the essence of this vision of a brutal lower class unleashing its aggressions in taverns; elsewhere he portrayed tavern patrons as beggars and thieves roistering on their ill-gotten gains. In addition to the violence endemic to taverns, they harbored dangerous, even criminal customers. His depictions contributed to an image of the tavern that has informed attitudes up to the present. "Tavernkeepers were more than ever [in the eighteenth century] the hosts of thieves and assassins," a pair of historians writing in the nineteenth century assures us, "all the wicked deeds were done in their dens." In particular, "very few cabarets in Paris were not a witness to a theft or a murder" by the notorious band of Cartouche and his men (in the 1720s). "Most cabarets were veritable nests of cut-throats," states an historian of taverns earlier this century, and quite recently Philippe Aries agreed that "the tavern was a place of ill-repute, reserved for criminals, prostitutes. ..." Whether viewed as merely disreputable or down-right criminal, taverns were clearly not a place that Mercier's delicate readers might wish to visit.

Mercier's contemporary, Restif de la Bretonne, treated the reader to a more detailed version of the same thing in his brief essay on cabarets in Les Nuits de Paris. He had entered a cabaret on the rue Arbre-Sec where he heard laughing and singing. After taking a seat in the large and noisy "room of drinkers," he noted the "errand boys, shoe-cleaners, Auvergnats," and others with their wives and children, all seated in the room. "All these people are ugly, gross and hateful from every point of view, but this was because of their misery." With such a promising start he went on to describe a scene that could have come straight out of the boulevard theater. "By their second quart of wine, their heads began to ferment," Restif asserts and he recounts the ensuing quarrels. Practically everyone ends up arguing — wives with husbands, mothers with children, family with family — and the action culminates in a fight. The script was no different than dozens of others written by Vadé or Cailleau or other authors in the poissard genre, though Restif disguised his account as journalism. He employed the same lampooning poissard speech, "J't'assènerai mon poing su'la mine!," and the same patronizing tone, as he discreetly paid for the other customers' drinks on his way out.

The police of Paris expected no better from tavern crowds than did Mercier or Restif. They took every opportunity to condemn taverns for the illegal activities, particularly gambling and illicit assemblies, that they harbored, for the unsavory and dangerous customers they attracted, and for the violence that appeared to have been endemic to such establishments. Parisian police censured taverns for the "clang of epees and of saber blows, the frightful swearing and cries of 'murder' and calls for the nightwatch with which all the neighborhood is alarmed occasioned by the fights and brawls that often break out." "These places have become caverns of debauchery," the jurist Fréminville warned, "which ... occupy Justice in imposing the law on them. ..." He cited ajudgment of the Parlement of Dijon that embodied "all the principles of ancient ordinances" concerning taverns: "people commit in cabarets ... infinite excesses, ... hold offensive discourse, accompanied very often by blasphemy ... fight and mistreat each other, and from that arise an infinity of disorders and lawsuits that ruin families." Like Mercier the police were concerned about the canaille using taverns for their recreation and for refuge. Regular injunctions against "suspicious people and vagabonds" frequenting taverns were reinforced with constant patrols by the police at night and after the curfew.

More than the reputation of a marginal institution is at issue here. The danger and disrepute associated with taverns extended to the customers and their behavior. Mercier's judgment of taverns, an attitude shared by much of his elite audience, effectively trivialized an important aspect of popular culture and its institutions and so managed to blur the line between laboring classes and dangerous classes. Whereas Mercier and Restif portrayed the violence as mindless and indiscriminate, the police described it as depraved and criminal. Nearly all linked it to drunkenness in some way. This equation of taverns with violence, crime, and debauchery forms the basis of an elite rejection of popular culture. Not only did such a portrayal ignore the overwhelmingly peaceful uses of taverns that permitted the daily fellowship of hundreds of thousands of men and women, but it distorted the very nature of the disorder that did erupt, from time to time, in taverns. To rectify this portrayal, the historian must discover evidence from other sources, yet ironically the populace left a record of its own behavior and attitudes in few places other than the very criminal archives that chronicled their misbehavior. To these we must turn then, both to glean information about peaceful sociable behavior and to understand the real nature of popular disorder in taverns. But what better way to begin an analysis of taverns than by confronting the phantoms of plebeian degeneracy that haunt the institution?

If taverns truly offended against law and order to the extent suggested, then Parisians were fortunate indeed to have a police force so well equipped to protect them. The Parisian police provided the state with a precocious supervisory body, the object of both admiration and disapproval throughout Europe. Agents of the police circulated frequently through the city in pursuit of refuse, immorality, sedition, and crime. The police prided themselves in being able to keep track of subversive authors, foreigners, and criminals. They boasted of their knowledge of the Parisian underworld." Police magistrates, the commissaires, also offered help to the rest of the Parisians, taking their complaints and depositions in forty-eight offices located throughout the city. A nightwatch and guard of increasing size and efficiency added their main force to protect those in danger and to bring miscreants before a magistrate. The police's function went well beyond patrolling the streets, of course, but clearly their duties allowed them to deal frequently with public drinking places and with the men and women who went there.

The identification of taverns and their patrons with violence and crime should have left some mark on the judicial records, both in the criminal records and in the files of the commissaires themselves. The extensive judicial archives of eighteenth-century Paris offer a means to analyze this violence and yield, at the same time, an abundance of information about popular culture. These archives can show whether the tavern's disrepute was warranted. There is always the risk with such documents of overemphasizing the disreputable, aberrant aspects of a problem, but there is little choice. Few documents provide such a faithful rendition of the people's own voices or offer such detailed evidence about their daily life.

Without doubt taverns witnessed brawls, drunkenness, fights over cards, thieves and cutpurses, much as the police maintained. Yet paradoxically, the judicial archives of the old regime provide a more balanced verdict of popular behavior in taverns than did Mercier. These archives suggest that violence was certainly a part of tavern comportment, but such violence was neither as frequent nor as indiscriminate as contemporary writers were suggesting. Much of the popular disorder in taverns could not properly be called criminal. Rather the archives reveal the rivalries and tensions of self-respecting people who resorted to violence for reasons of status, reputation, and power. They demonstrate as well the extent to which honor motivated men's behavior in taverns. This depiction does not refute the existence of disreputable taverns or customers, for there are important limitations on what even the police learned about crime, but it does balance the picture. Such a balance may make it possible to see beyond the violence and to discern the peaceful, sociable uses of taverns that violence occasionally interrupted. To do so, it is necessary to understand the nature of violence and crime in taverns and the process by which this crime came to the attention of the judicial system.


The police associated crime particularly with theft, and most of the cases that actually appeared before the criminal courts concerned a robbery. Although taverns were accused of countenancing many kinds of criminal behavior, the court records might suggest that theft was a problem there as well. For when these courts were presented with an incident in a tavern, it was often a theft; and anyone relying on the records of these courts to study popular culture might well dismiss taverns as dens of thieves. Yet the absolute number of such cases was insignificant: scarcely half a dozen per year in the records of the extraordinary criminal court out of 200 thefts heard by that court in most years, and two score cases in the records of the ordinary criminal court out of about 1,000 thefts each year. It is essential, rather, to investigate the massive number of complaints and preliminary cases that never went to court, which survive in the archives of the police commissaires. When considered in the context of all of the incidents taking place in taverns that were seen by commissaires daily in Paris, theft in taverns appears quite unusual. In a sample of 932 incidents in taverns that came to the commissaires' attention (including 95 cases that later went to criminal courts), theft accounted for only 13 percent. Obviously, few Parisians went to taverns expecting to have their purses, or throats, cut. The frequency of theft in taverns was not significant, when compared either with the number of thefts elsewhere in the city, or with other activities in taverns. Whether taverns were actually the headquarters for cutpurses, however, is a different question and one that receives special consideration elsewhere in this study. The point is that they were rarely the scene of such crimes.

The most obvious target of a thief in a tavern was actually the tavernkeeper himself. Although historians looking back from the nineteenth century judged that "it was much less rare to see tavernkeepers lend a hand to crimes than to find themselves victims," the reverse in fact seems to have been the case. Utensils, napkins, mustard pots, and plates were too easy to remove. A café owner found that a silver spoon was missing at the table of two of his regular customers, a pin seller and the man's brother-in-law, a soldier. They insisted that they did not have it, and the soldier became so incensed that he "went out to the street to find some stones" with which to "break everything in the shop." But the owner searched them and found it in the pin seller's pocket, whereupon the man broke down, crying, "I am an unfortunate, I deserve to be killed." Everyone knew that owners were forced to leave their shops momentarily vacant whenever they fetched wine from their cellars, and thieves occasionally profited from the opportunity. Customers enjoyed access as well to a tavernkeeper's domestic space and effects, since the upstairs rooms in taverns could serve as public rooms by day and bedrooms by night.

Of course, some customers stole from each other as well. A laundress drinking with several other women spied one of them pocketing a handkerchief from the basket of clothing and loudly accused her. The other woman desperately asked to be excused, offering to sell her body for the accuser. A customer discovered he had lost his purse and complained to some soldiers with whom he was drinking. They all tried to find it and finally searched each other, only to discover that the victim's own cousin had the purse in his pocket. "You would even take your cousin's money," one of them cried, challenging the thief to a duel. "You are a scoundrel who has debased my company." The thief was killed in the street outside of the tavern. The indignation expressed by the thief's companions was not simply the outrage of the victim but the disapproval of self-respecting men. Although judicial cases concerned with theft in taverns occurred relatively rarely, they remind us that most customers were not thieves and viewed theft with horror.

A master wheelwright named Boucher recognized how sensitive his peers felt about the accusation of theft. He had assembled with several colleagues, men he called friends, at a tavern in their neighborhood. Boucher says they drank some bottles of wine and, "to pass the time more agreeably," and with "unanimous consent," they had played at quoits. At the end of an amicable game, however, Boucher found that he had lost one of the coins with which he had been playing and began to look for it. He emphasized in his testimony that he had looked behind chairs at a distance from the tables where they had been playing and drinking, but one of his companions noticed and asked what he was doing. He claimed that he replied, "It is a coin (an écu of 6 livres) with which I was playing that has become invisible; nevertheless I do not suspect anyone." He did find it on the floor and said to his companions, "You have heard, messieurs, that I did not ask any of you for my écu, nor disturb any of you from the table because we are all honest men [honnêtes gens]." But the master harnessmaker replied "in a tone not at all joking" that Boucher was not an honnête homme. Boucher called him a blackguard [jean foutre] and the harnessmaker "in spite of the company," had gone to complain to a commissaire. Presumably the man complained about abusive language, but he may also have objected to the implied accusation. Certainly a merchant objected to it when he brought suit against a colleague for having "insulted his honor and reputation and accused him of taking a louts d'or," and he demanded a "reparation for the said accusation of theft." Even the suggestion of theft involved men's honor, as Boucher realized.

As many as half of the accusations of property crimes were between people who knew each other, however, and many accusations reveal a history of property disputes. The merchant who complained of having been robbed by a couple with whom he was drinking admitted that his assailants had taken two vests from him for past debts that he owed them. He objected still that "they were wrong to pay themselves in this fashion." The cry of "thief" went up when cardplayers cut through a dispute by grabbing the money on the table, or when a journeyman took his drinking companion's watch from him, "saying he would not have his watch back until he paid for the wine." If the perpetrator thought he had a right to the money, the case might have to be settled before the law. A mirrormaker said he was simply playing a joke on his friends, "to laugh and divert himself," when he hid their clothes as they swam, but they accused him later of robbing them. Friends accused each other of petty theft and were sometimes justified. There seems to have been a certain amount of mistrust, even among friends and acquaintances, that existed just below the surface of comradeship.


Excerpted from Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris by Thomas Edward Brennan. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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