Arts & Culture

Darnton looks at the ‘art and politics of libel’ in 18th century France

5 min read

Government censors in pre-Revolutionary France were so hypervigilant that under their watchful eyes no one with anything significant to say dared publish their works in their own country. The solution was to publish abroad and smuggle the contraband books into France where they were soon snapped up by eager readers.


Among the French writers who most aroused the censors’ ire were a group of expatriates based in London making their living by libeling members of the French court and sending their scurrilous works across the English Channel.

Robert Darnton, the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the Harvard University Library, discussed these significant but rarely studied writers in a talk Oct. 23 titled “Bad Books: The Art and Politics of Libel in Eighteenth-Century France.”

A cultural historian who has pioneered the field known as the history of the book, Darnton is the author of such volumes as “The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France,” “The Literary Underground of the Old Regime,” “The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History,” and “George Washington’s False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century.”

A former New York Times reporter, Darnton was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1982, and in 1999 he was named a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, the highest award given by the French government, in recognition of his work. He was the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of European History at Princeton University until coming to Harvard in July 2007.

In his talk, Darnton examined four books in detail, which he said represent only a small fraction of the libelous writing of the period. The books have rarely been studied, although, according to Darnton, they contain valuable insights into the politics and social mores of the period.

The first book, written by the pseudonymous “Iron-plated Gazetteer,” appeared in 1771, during the waning years of the reign of Louis XV. The book’s elaborately engraved frontispiece is a visual puzzle full of hints about the scandalous material to be found within, Darnton said. For example, the initials DB, so floridly written that they are nearly illegible, appear above a picture of what looks to be a barrel of excrement crowning a statue of the king. The barrel is intended to suggest Madame du Barry, the king’s mistress, a frequent target of the London-based libelers.

Another of the book’s targets was the Duc d’Aiguillon, a powerful member of the government who had disbanded the French parlement and replaced it with a tribune of judges of his own choosing. The notion behind the frontispiece illustration was that the iron-plated gazetteer could expose the misconduct of these powerful figures without himself suffering injury.

The tone of the book is playful and teasing, Darnton said, and in some instances the author even seems to poke fun at himself, as when he includes a mock-serious footnote that asserts that “half this article is true.”

A second book purported to be the secret memoirs of Madame du Barry. The book was written by Charles Morande, who then offered to destroy every last copy if the French government would give him a large sum of money. The government agreed and sent the writer and politician Pierre Beaumarchais to London to negotiate. Morande finally accepted the sum of 32,000 livres, a huge amount at the time. With his newfound wealth, Morande gave up writing libel and became an undercover agent for the government.

A similar incident occurred some years later when another libeler claimed to have produced a scurrilous exposé of Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI. This time the price was 17,000 livres. Only two copies now survive, held in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Subsequent attempts by bumbling government spies trying to ferret out the identities of the libelers and either kidnap them or bribe them to destroy their works sound like farce today. Subjects of repressive monarchy, these spies were often baffled to discover that their literary adversaries could actually claim rights under British law.

“They kept bumping up against these strange customs of the English like habeas corpus, trial by jury, and freedom of the press,” said Darnton.

The nature of French libel changed drastically during the Revolution, Darnton said. The books took on a humorless, self-righteous quality, reflected even in the austere typography and artwork, “more David than Boucher.”

One prominent libeler of the Revolutionary era was Pierre Manuel, who claimed that his exposé of the tyranny of the French monarchy was based on an examination of police archives. Manuel took part in the storming of the Bastille and became a deputy to the National Convention in 1792. However, by refusing to vote for the execution of the king, he put himself on the wrong side of the Terror and was guillotined. He later became the subject of a libelous pamphlet, which portrayed him as a traitor and criminal.

In these works of the Revolutionary era, Darnton said, “There are no puzzles and no wit. It’s all about corruption, and it’s deadly serious.”

According to Darnton, the “bad books” of 18th century France are part of a long tradition that is still very much alive. “Primary Colors,” by Joe Klein, an insider’s look at the Clinton administration, is part of the genre, he said.

But such works can also tell us a great deal about the historical times that produced them.

“There’s a lot to be learned from the study of this literature. It may be trashy, but it played an enormous part in the politics of France, both in the palace of Versailles and the streets of Paris.”