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. Review of “The Revolutionary Temper: Paris, 1748-1789” by Robert Darnton – Examining the Influence of Print in Shaping Power during the French Revolution.


Changes, similar to financial failure, occur in two manners: gradually, then suddenly. According to Robert Darnton’s book The Revolutionary Temper: Paris, 1748-1789, the French Revolution was no exception. Most historical accounts of the time period focus on the famous storming of the Bastille prison on July 14, 1789 by outraged Parisians, a symbol of oppressive royal rule. However, Darnton, known for his innovative and unconventional approach to history in works like The Great Cat Massacre, challenges this traditional narrative. Instead of asking what caused the revolution, through examining economics, ideology, and key figures, The Revolutionary Temper poses the question of what drove the revolutionaries themselves – and turns to the streets for answers. Going back 50 years before 1789, Darnton traces the shift in values that led average Parisians to believe that the will of the people could overcome the power of kings, despite all they knew.

In 1748, the prevailing concepts that emerged in 1789 seemed nearly unimaginable. The French society of the old regime was a perplexing blend of both medieval and modern elements, with a political system that can be described as “a patchwork of overlapping and incompatible components”. The king held all sovereignty (with the details of government kept confidential), and power was dispersed. The various social groups in Paris – including aristocrats, clergy, lawyers, and workers – vied for economic advantages, legal rights, and the favor of the monarchy. This society was held together by a complex system of mutual obligations, guided by tradition, and reinforced by grand parades, festivals, and elaborate public ceremonies. However, beneath this spectacle, there was constant conflict.

The revolution of the 18th century was not caused by conflict, but by communication. This was mainly due to the development of a public sphere in Paris, made up of semi-literate individuals who gathered on street corners and in coffee shops to engage in discussions. In his book, “The Revolutionary Temper”, Darnton highlights the importance of this “information society” where pamphlets, gossip, and songs played a significant role in shaping popular consciousness. This community spanned horizontally across the common people of Paris and vertically among politicians, intellectuals, and troublemakers in the city. The “nouvelles”, similar to primitive newspapers, were at the center of this imagined community and were highly sought after for their controversial content. As France faced war, economic depression, and war once again, these writers had no shortage of material to report on.

Darnton organizes his historical analysis by examining how different events, such as wars, operas, trials, and riots, were perceived by the emerging literary culture centered around the nouvelles. He delves into the specific challenges that contributed to the decline of the ancien regime, including conflicts within the church between Jansenists and Jesuits, the efforts of Enlightenment thinkers to challenge censorship and promote a scientific worldview, and the Physiocrats’ proposals for solving economic issues that were causing social unrest. Additionally, the American Revolution influenced fashion trends and sparked a desire for radical political transformation.

Darnton states that while the people of Paris believed they were experiencing a modern era, the decline of the monarchy’s power within the public was not primarily due to the influence of Enlightenment beliefs, but rather due to Louis XV’s fervent pursuit of new romantic partners. Affairs among the royal court were not uncommon, but the intensity of Louis’s pursuit resulted in him being banned from receiving Catholic communion. The publication of news stories about Louis’s infidelity caused the entire nation to be judged and, over a period of four decades filled with scandal, brought him down to the same level as his subjects.

As respect diminished, the secrecy surrounding the old ruling system also crumbled. Ministers, concerned about potential unrest among the people, began releasing pamphlets to justify their actions and dispel rumors spread by the news sources. The public, eager for information, took notice – one pamphlet by lawyer Nicolas Bergasse was so popular it was rented out page by page. As criticisms and counterattacks emerged, there was a subtle but significant shift in power and sovereignty. The competition for readers became a battle for political legitimacy. The once inseparable entities of king and nation were now in opposition. And as crises worsened, the power shifted to the written word. By 1789, Darnton’s concept of an “imagined community” had materialized into a collective revolutionary mindset. The rumor mills and cafes, along with the news sources and pamphleteers, had unknowingly become the breeding ground for a new world. “The Revolutionary Temper” is a book that skillfully reframes the French Revolution – and Darnton’s combination of rigorous scholarship with eloquent brevity and wit is truly remarkable.

Source: theguardian.com