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Listen to “An Electronic Cabaret: Paris Street Songs, 1748–50” for songs from Poetry and the PoliceAudio recording copyright © 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.
In spring 1749, François Bonis, a medical student in Paris, found himself unexpectedly hauled off to the Bastille for distributing an “abominable poem about the king.” So began the Affair of the Fourteen, a police crackdown on ordinary citizens for unauthorized poetry recitals. Why was the official response to these poems so intense?
In this captivating book, Robert Darnton follows the poems as they passed through several media: copied on scraps of paper, dictated from one person to another, memorized and declaimed to an audience. But the most effective dispersal occurred through music, when poems were sung to familiar tunes. Lyrics often referred to current events or revealed popular attitudes toward the royal court. The songs provided a running commentary on public affairs, and Darnton brilliantly traces how the lyrics fit into song cycles that carried messages through the streets of Paris during a period of rising discontent. He uncovers a complex communication network, illuminating the way information circulated in a semi-literate society.
This lucid and entertaining book reminds us of both the importance of oral exchanges in the history of communication and the power of “viral” networks long before our internet age.
Darnton (The Case for Books), a professor at Harvard and author of several books, writes wonderfully about the development of communication. Even as literacy was improving in the 18th century, communication was primarily oral, and could be a runner, a smoky fire, or a drum. Songs and poems were the newspapers for the illiterate and memorization was their flash drive. Yet censorship still existed, and in 1745, Paris police, in an operation called In L'Affaire des Quatorze, rounded up 14 men circulating some especially nasty songs about Louis XV, his policies, and his mistress. These songs, malicious intrigues likely originating in Versailles, spread from the court to servants to peddlers to Parisian markets. They were added to, re-written, and enhanced by each singer and then finally heard at court, marking the birth of the politically motivated public opinion. Darnton reproduces these songs and others, providing helpful notes; he even created a website of these songs, which can be downloaded to your MP3 player.