French dissing, the scandalous literature that liberated a country

Robert Darnton has spent many years nudging us toward an
understanding of this reality. Most recently he’s instructed us that
18th-century French publishing had a well-known category, libelles,
which covered many books that delighted newly literate readers by
undermining the authority of the monarchy and the Church.

helped create the demand for liberty. They were a major factor in the
monarchy’s collapse. On shaky moral grounds, they founded French press

In the 18th century, libel was a French industry. The
books Darnton explores sometimes told the truth and sometimes spread
vicious lies. Still, for decades they provided the only available
information on the great public figures of France. Newspapers came late
to France, much later than to Germany and Britain, because the monarchy
didn’t allow them. Paris got its first daily in 1777; Leipzig had one in

French education was over-producing frustrated writers. To
be published lawfully in France a book had to be scrutinized in advance
by a team of 200 censors in a government department. (Being French, they
objected to failures of style as well as offences against the regime.)

publishers escaped censorship by moving to foreign cities and smuggling
home their rebellious books. London became a busy centre of French
writing and publishing, much of it defamatory.

Unsurprisingly, the
favourite victim of libellers was Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI.
She was a foreigner from a traditional enemy, Austria, therefore a
suspect in any international plot. She was a spendthrift and a gambler,
therefore a burden on the royal treasury. Early in her marriage the king
was said to be impotent; the libellers claimed she looked everywhere
else for sexual satisfaction.

She received, as Darnton says, far
more than her share of calumny: “The avalanche of defamation that
overwhelmed her between 1789 and her execution on October 16, 1793, has
no parallel in history.” In her last years she was the subject of about
150 books, some of them excoriating her “in language so extreme as to
defy belief.”


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