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Blackmail, Scandal and Revolution, London's French libellistes 1758-1792 - Simon Burrows

Kirsten Dunst in Marie-Antoinette

Review by Gerald Levy

IN AN age when pornography has become mainstream, it may not be surprising that there developed what has been called the theory of the pornographic cause of the French Revolution.

This came in two parts. First, factual. We were told that there was a massive amount of pornographic pamphlet literature distributed in France in the 10 years or so before 1789.

This principally satirised the Queen, Marie-Antoinette (pictured above, as depicted by Kirsten Dunst in the recent movie), attributing to her promiscuous bi-sexual activities, vividly illustrated – nothing was left to the imagination. Second, explanatory.

It was contended that this massive distribution of anti-monarchical pornography served to make royalty appear less sacred, and so caused, or at least facilitated, the attack on the French monarchy in the Revolution itself.

For many years, Simon Burrows has conducted an enquiry as to whether the factual foundation of this theory is true. The result is that he has established by hard work that the circulation of porno-pamphlets – called libelles – was far narrower than used to be believed.

His attack has two main wings. First, he looks at the authors of these pamphlets – the libellistes. Most of them lived in London, and they were a decidedly unappetising crew. For the most part, they were not revolutionaries, or even radical in sympathy. Their game was not to lampoon the Queen nor or create a climate of opinion ripe for revolution. They were mere blackmailers. They produced pamphlets not to sell them but to get the authorities to buy them up so as to prevent their being sold. No wonder few were distributed.

The second wing of his attack to is to ascertain how many pamphlets were actually distributed by looking at the records of printers, and by trying to find copies in French houses and libraries. Very few copies have been found. Further, there are no translations of these libelles into English, which is what one would have expected from a widely distributed French pamphlet of this kind.

At the end, it is clear that a substantial quantity of pornographic literature of one kind or another ridiculing Louis XV and his allegedly ex-prostitute mistress, Mme du Barry, and also Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI, was distributed, but the extent of such distribution is left unclear. Nor does the book deal with the extent of manuscript and oral attacks on the sexual conduct of the Queen. But one thing at a time!

Mr Burrows has shown that, contrary to received opinion, pre-revolutionary France was not flooded with pornographic libelles about Marie-Antoinette. Not the biggest point in the world, perhaps, but history is constructed out of building blocks of fact, and Mr Burrows has established that one block is far smaller than has been generally believed.

This is a first-class piece of research, using some sophisticated techniques. The book is well-produced, but a cover price of £50 suggests that publishers have plumped for an exclusively academic-library market.