Of Pamphlets and Profanity

It is a poorly kept secret in Hollywood that profanity and toilet humor can, in a pinch, substitute for wit. If the French Revolution Collection (FRC) is any indication, this secret was well known during the time of the French Revolution.

There are a variety of pamphlets that present collections of vocabulary that generally goes ignored in French class. As it is the very nature of pamphlets to lend themselves to “underground” works, it is unsurprising that the language therein occasionally takes a turn for the grotesque. Considering that, like the underground newspapers of the SDS-era, most of these pamphlets (excluding most of those published by the Imprimerie nationale, the “silent majority,” of the pamphlets in the collection) were published by people holding extreme political views, the sometimes outrageous language should come as no surprise.

One example of this type of pamphlet is Case FRC 20149, which purports to be by “M. Labride, docteur & vétérinaire du Pape.” Ostensibly a response to a petition from 30,000 Catholic citizens of Strasbourg, Labride argues that the petition was in fact published by only one disgruntled priest. He states, “J’ai bien cru qu’il y avoit quelques imbécilles à Strasbourg, mais, foutre, trente mille, oh ! ma foi, ce seroit trop fort.” Most of the pamphlet seems to be an excuse to make bawdy jokes at the expense of the clergy of various départements, including parodies of statements issued opposing the new government’s position towards the Catholic Church.

Case FRC 20640 is a slightly more nuanced example of pamphlets using profanity as a replacement for wit. More accurately, in the case of this pamphlet, the anonymous author uses profanity (such as “quelle est donc cette bougre de bigarrure que nos foutus Alsaciens proposent”) to emphasize their  probably satirical (the final paragraph begins, “Le général La Pique continuera d’endoctriner les bons enfans”) criticisms of the Catholic Church, the aristocracy, and the royalist counterrevolutionaries.

Unfortunately,  we have yet to come across one of the most famous examples of this genre of pamphlet, Les Enfans de Sodome à l’Assemblée nationale, a petition filled with lurid engravings, arguing that the Assemblée nationale constituante, which was in the process of decriminalizing homosexuality and extending marriage rights to non-Catholics, should extend marriage rights to same-sex couples as well. Many of the pamphlets do present legitimate political issues, but (perhaps to avoid potential legal repercussions) present them in an outrageous, over-the top manner. This relatively casual approach to obscenity should come as no surprise – after all, Donatien Alphonse François de Sade was elected to public office during this time.

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