The Wit of French Pamphlets

One thing that has kept me amused throughout this cataloging project has been collecting humorous, entertaining, or witty quotations. As the project ends its final stages, I decided to look back at the lines I felt were worth saving. Sometimes, (as Shawn discussed in her previous post), the item in question has some witty marginalia. More often, whatever it is that caused me to write it down was simply a part of the original document.

Perhaps my favorite example of a manuscript annotation comes from a pamphlet in the French Revolution Collection, the Relation véritable et remarquable du grand voyage du pape en paradis. This pamphlet was part of a vehemently anti-religious series aping Dante’s Divine comedy. The anonymous commentator stated “Il n’y a pas cent ans qu’en France un pamphlet de ce genie eut fait bruler solemnellement son auteur” (Not even 100 years ago a pamphlet of this style would have caused its author to be solemnly burned). The manuscript continues for a while, contemplating how times have changed.

Most of the comments are found in otherwise completely serious pamphlets. The Voyage du comte de Haga, en France is a mostly serious rendition of Gustav III of Sweden’s travels in France under the pseudonym Count Haga. The preface however, simply reads: “Un livre sans préface est une femme de condition sans rouge. Ce principe posé, je dois en crayonner une : la voici.(A book without a preface is like a noblewomen without rouge. This principal stated, I must write one: here it is).

In some pamphlets, I chose to record both a claim and the reader’s counterclaim as they attempted to argue with the author of the pamphlet. For example, in the anti-Jacobin pamphlet Les paradoxes, ou Cinquième dialogue des morts de la révolution, the author of the pamphlet states regarding Charlotte Corday,  Si au lieu d’assassiner Marat au lit de la mort, elle eut enfoncé son coteau dans le cœur de Robespierre, elle n’en eut pas moins commis un crime, mais ce crime eut sauvé 30 mille Français. Robespierre seroit au Panthéon, mais nous aurions 30 mille citoyens de plus.” (If instead of murdering Marat on his deathbed, she [Corday] had planted her knife in the heart of Robespierre, she would have not committed any less of a crime, but this crime would have saved the life of 30 thousand French people. Robespierre would be in the Panthéon, but we would have 30 thousand more citizens). Some former owner took issue with this, adding in their own hand “Le chiffre est peut-être un peu exagère ; n’importe, dans ce nombre il y avait bien quelques partisans du l’ancien régime … ” (The number is perhaps somewhat exagerrated : certainly this number includes some partisans of the Ancien Regime …)

Some of the comments seem like jabs by the publisher to the author, or vice versa. In a note on a playbook for the Grand-bailliage, the editor states “On m’a fourni une très-grande quantité de notes sur les personnages de cette comédie ;  mais je ne suis pas méchant ; & je crois que le public les trouve déjà assez notés” (I was furnished with a very large quantity of notes on the characters in this comedy, but I am not mean, and I believe that the public will find them sufficiently noted already.)

Given the political nature of the French Revolution Collection, there is no shortage of amusing political rhetoric. The title of Case FRC 20391 is “Essai sur quelques changemens qu’on pourroit faire dès-a-présent dans les loix criminelles de France, par un honnête homme qui, depuis qu’il connoît ces loix, n’est pas bien sûr de n’être pas pendu un jour.” (Essai on several changes that can be made up to the present in the criminal laws of France, by an honest man who, since he knew the laws, isn’t completely sure of not being hanged someday)

Sometimes these political sentiments take the form of aphorisms, such as La Pique’s “comme il ne faut pas prendre médecine tous les matins, il ne faut pas non plus d’insurrection tous les jours” (Just as one mustn’t take medicine every morning, one must also not raise insurrection every day, Case FRC 20639) or Faure’s “Sommes-nous les représentans du peuple souverain, ou sommes-nous les représentans souverains du peuple ? ” (Are we the representatives of the sovereign people, or are we the sovereign representatives of the people? Case FRC 18502).

Frequently, the humor is unintentional and derives from the similarities between the author’s rhetoric and the more apoplectic political pundits of the modern age: “C’est mal à propos qu’on donne le nom de citoyens à ces hommes qui, n’ayant rien à perdre, sont disposés à tous les crimes. Les véritables citoyens sont ceux qui ont des posessions, les autres ne sont que des prolétaires ou faiseurs d’enfans, et ceux-ci n’auroient jamais dû être armés, ni voter, que comme en Angleterre. Méprisables soutiens de la licence, clubistes forcenés, Jacobins, que l’amour de la domination aveugle, vous ne serez que trop convaincus de cette dur vérité.” (It is inappropriate to give the name citizen to these men who, having nothing to lose, are disposed towards all crimes. The true citizens are those who have possessions, the others are nothing but proles or baby-makers, and these must never be armed, nor vote, as in England. Despicable supporters of licentiousness, enraged partisans, Jacobins, blinded by the love of domination, you will never be too convinced of this hard truth. Case FRC 14135)

Most of the intentionally humorous comments are not so vitriolic, they use humor as a tool to support their political views or ridicule their enemies. Case FRC 16897 states “On dit: que les jacobins sont des conspirateurs! On dit: ils soutenaient Robespierre. Calomnie atroce! Méchanceté noire! N’est-il pas evident que si nous étions pour Robespierre, le 9 thermidor à huit heurs du soir, nous étions contre lui, le 10 à la meme heure!” (They say that the Jacobins are conspirators. They say, they supported Robespierre. Atrocious slander! Black wickedness! Is it not evident that we supported Robespierre on 9 Thermidor at 8 at night, and we were against him on the tenth at the same time!)

The French pamphlets at the Newberry might not be the world’s greatest source of comedy, but they do serve to contradict the misconception that important historical events are necessarily accompanied by dusty prose or a lack of humor.

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