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The full title of this book is Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris.

Darnton examines the Affair of the Fourteen, an incident in 1749 in which Parisian police were ordered to track down the author of a subversive poem. Louis XV had recently dismissed the Compte de Maurepas, who had been the comptroller of both the navy and the king's household, and it was not a popular dismissal. Poetry in favor of Maurepas and against the King and his mistress Madame de Pompadour was circulating throughout Paris, which was illegal. The specific poem in question was brought to police notice by a spy, who also gave the name of a man who had a copy of it; the police proceeded to arrest that man, question him as to where he'd gotten the poem, arrest the man whose name he gave and question him, and so on. Eventually fourteen men were arrested and imprisoned as part of the poem's chain of transmission, none of whom was actually the author; one other man went into hiding, but then gave himself up and traded information for his safety. The author may have been protected by one of the detainees, or may have been unknown to any of them, or there may indeed have been no author and the poem may have arisen from the numerous additions and subtractions of oral vocal tradition before being written down by somebody or other at some point.

The thing that Darnton finds interesting is that, because of the police records, we have a clear notation of who each man was (mostly abbés, minor clerks, and students), where each says he got the poem, and in which form each man had it (memorized, copy obtained from someone else, copy transcribed while hearing the poem, copy written from memory), as well as any tiny changes in wording. (It's also interesting and worth noting that everyone arrested did either have a print copy or was able and willing to recite the poem. Subversive poetry was not punishable by death, but prison was a dangerous environment, and one got out of the Bastille much faster by cooperating with an investigation. Eventually all of them wound up exiled to the provinces, which was financially ruinous but not deadly.)

In short, we have here a record of the actual modes of transmission of samizdat poetry. This does not often happen. Darnton uses this record to examine the political role of subversive poetry in Paris at that time, the reasons for the crackdown against it, the speed and reach between classes of the poetry communications network, and the rise of public opinion, a concept which was just coming into existence at that time-- the phrase 'public opinion' begins to be used towards the end of the eighteenth century. The overarching question of the book is whether to take a Foucauldian view of public opinion, which means that in meaningful ways it didn't exist until it existed as a discourse, or whether to take it as an unconscious force which nonetheless existed and had influence, but was only just beginning to emerge due to technological advances. Darnton pretty much splits the difference.

This is a well-researched, well-contextualized, interesting and quick read-- unsurprising, as Darnton is the leading historian of France in the English-speaking world and has a list of awards and honors several miles long. This is exactly the caliber of unusual and illuminating work one expects from him, although I am rather confused by the book's internal organization scheme, if there is one. But it provides vast quantities of information in a short space and provokes thought in multiple avenues. And you don't need to speak French (though you will get more out of the appendices and endnotes if you do; but everything major is translated).

Also, it has the best bonus materials of any book in basically ever, which I now get to share with all of you. You see, subversive poetry was quite frequently set to popular music, which made it memorable and more easily spread around, and the most popular tunes of eighteenth-century France were collected in volumes of sheet music called chansonniers. Some of these volumes were reference works and some were sold in the street by street musicians; many have survived. Darnton has deduced from the refrain structure of the subversive poems he examines which poem goes with which tune, and has had the Parisian singer Hélène Delavault record them, with guitar.

Free downloading and listening, with program notes and texts appended, of Hélène Delavault singing incredibly scurrilous things about Madame de Pompadour and the War of the Austrian Succession to popular and catchy tunes of the day: here you go.


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