Singing in the streets of Paris: an eighteenth century way to undermine censorship

PCV.— In the following interview, the historian Robert Darnton talks about what he knows better: books and communication in the century of Enlightenment. Based, as usual, in the French experience, the author traces a path through the mechanisms of the book trade, the contribution of pirates and, finally, gives a suggestive idea about the way that  common people undermined censorship singing songs about daily issues. After the video you will find the transcription of the interview.

«In most countries of the continent there where princes, they were absolute regimes. The degree of absolutism was relative to a particular setting. But if you take France as the most important central, most populace country, you had a very elaborate system of censorship, but in addition to that, you had a monopoly of production in the bookseller’s guild in Paris, it had police powers, and then the police itself had specialized inspectors of the book trade. So, you put all of that together and the state was very powerful in its attempt to control the printed word.

By the time you get to the age of the Enlightenment, there’s a highly organized administration of the book trade, so in principle, anything that appears in print has to pass the censorship and be registered to go through an elaborate process, and of course this didn’t work, that the directions set, the organization set up by the state was so elaborate, so baroque in its bureaucracy, that in a sense was counterproductive.

Censorship, you know, varies from regime to regime. We think we know what censorship is, but I would argue that it’s a different thing under different systems. So, the basic idea of censorship in eighteenth century France is the concept of privilege, or private law: a publishers gets the right to publish a particular text that is denied to others, so he has that privilege. That’s different from censorship under Stalin, say, or Hitler.

There is a monopoly of what’s called the Communauté des libraires et des imprimeurs de Paris —the bookseller’s guild in Paris—; it has police powers. Its syndics and adjoint[1], they are called, are obliged to inspect all of the printing houses in Paris. The printers are officially limited to 36 printing shops. And so the guild is supposed to go around from shop to shop and find out what they’re printing, make sure there are no illegal books being printed. No books that contravene privileges, the equivalent of copyright in a sense, etc. So yes, they have powers and they also inspect every single book that is shipped into Paris. The books are stopped at the wall which surrounds Paris, and any shipment marked livres —books— is sent to a special large hall where the bookseller’s guild and an inspector of the police will inspect it.

Essentially, what you have is a centralized administration for controlling the book trade using censorship and also using the monopoly of the established publishers. Against that you’ve got publishing houses, printing presses that surround France in what I call “fertile crescent”: dozens and dozens of them producing books which are smuggled across the French borders and distributed everywhere in the kingdom by an underground system. So, in effect you’ve got two systems at war with one another. And it’s the system of production outside France that is crucial for the Enlightenment. Virtually all of the works that we associate with the French Enlightenment are published in Amsterdam, in the Hague, in Brussels, in Geneva, in Neuchatel, in Basel. These are the places where Rousseau, Voltaire and company get themselves printed.

But these printers also produce other things because they’re in it not simply to spread Enlightenment, many of them are sympathetic to the Enlightenment, they’re in it to make money. So the will satisfy demand, whatever the demand might be.

So the pirates had agents in Paris and everywhere else, who were sending them sheets of new books which they think will sell well. The pirates are systematically doing —I use the word, it’s an anachronism— “market research”; they do it… I’ve seen it in hundreds and literally thousands of letters, they are sounding the market, they want to know what demand is. And so the reaction on the part of the publishers at the centre is, of course, extremely hostile; I’ve read a lot of their letters, they’re full of expressions like «buccaneer» and «private» and «people without shame or morality», etc.

In actual fact many of these pirates were good bourgeois, in Lausanne or Geneva or Amsterdam, and they thought that they were just doing business. After all, there was no international copyright law and they were satisfying demand. If the demand happened to be in France, well, that’s a problem for the French but not for the Dutch or the Swiss.

I must admit, I always hesitate to pronounce on world historical trends. But I’ve spent a lot of time in the archives and you can at least glimpse something that might look world historical from time to time, as you go through various bits of old paper. What is clear is that during the eighteenth century the printed word as a force is just expanding everywhere and we can go into a lots of detailed studies to find out why an how this happens. The population is increasing, the educational institutions are spreading, literacy is going up and there is this new thing we call “public opinion”. The phrase itself is first used in the middle of the eighteenth century —I think the phenomenon existed earlier—, but for the last half of the eighteenth century there is a public that is fascinated with public affairs.

Now, the mechanism for controlling the media —if you want to use that expression, notably the print media— is simply not adequate to controlling this demand. So, everywhere around France, even within France, there are entrepreneurs who take it upon themselves to satisfy this demand, and this can be in the form of clandestine manuscript, newsletters, it can be in a form of fully printed books and there are many other forms, the one that I find most interesting is songs.

It turns out that everyone in the eighteenth century, if you take Paris, had a repertory of tunes in his or her head, as we do today (most of my tunes come from commercials actually). People would improvise new words to old tunes, everyday. And these would be sung in the streets of Paris, sometimes by professionals who had hurdy-gurdys and would simply belt out the last verse tune that everyone knew. And it could be about the king’s mistress, it could be about a minister who is abusing powers, it could be on a whole variety of quite political subjects. This new verse is then picked up because it is a great mnemonic device and the song is been song throughout the streets of Paris. I imagine the streets of Paris —it is just echoing everywhere with songs.

So that is a good example of how in the absence of news media, of proper newspapers as we would called it, a new kind of medium develops that actually does the job of newspapers. I’ve studied hundreds of these songs and I would say they were sung newspapers. There’s no way that an absolutist political system can totally suppress the spread of information, new media adapt themselves to these circumstances, and often they can become even more effective because of the repression. It’s a fascinating process and I think it culminates frankly right on the eve of the French Revolution, so that I would argue not only did this new media system spread the Enlightenment but, I won’t use the word “prepared”, the way for the revolution; it indicted the Old Régime that this power, public opinion, became crucial in the collapse of the government in 1787, 1788

[1] Thanks to Didier Aubert for the explanation on the correct spelling of this word.

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