The book “The Revolutionary Temper” by Robert Darnton explores the state of a nation on the brink of collapse.
The term “ancien regime” is often associated with 18th-century France, portraying a strong and unchanging government characterized by arbitrary power, strict protocols, wealth, and superficial appearances. However, when the revolution occurred in 1789, it shattered this image and allowed for a new beginning. In his captivating book, Robert Darnton reveals that the last 50 years of old France were actually turbulent and unstable, marked by numerous social and political scandals that affected not only the elite, but also ordinary citizens who were concerned about the rising cost of bread.
Darnton describes the “revolutionary temper” as a new adaptable attitude that emerged in France. This does not simply refer to the people being angry and initiating violent protests that ultimately led to the execution of the king and queen in 1793. Instead, Darnton uses “temper” to signify a mindset that has been formed through experiences, similar to how steel is tempered through heating and cooling. In other words, he suggests that between the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748 and the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the French population underwent a series of intense changes, some fiery and others cold, resulting in a subtle but significant shift. This shift broke through 500 years of rigidity and made anything seem achievable.
The Jesuits have long been portrayed in popular culture as a menacing group, fiercely loyal to their leader in Rome while also meddling in various French affairs. However, in 1760, the tide began to change when they were ruled against in a bankruptcy case by commercial courts in Marseille and Paris. As a result, a thorough investigation revealed shocking findings about the Society of Jesus (their official name): they had a penchant for poisoning their enemies, had little regard for theft, especially from the wealthy, and were even discovered to have an excessive supply of coffee in their pantries.
The average citizens of Paris learned about these ideas through idle gossip, pamphlets, and especially through raunchy street songs. As stated by progressive commentator Baron von Grimm: “The common people have been struck with a sense of terror, believing that the Jesuits spend their days discussing murders, assassinations, and other terrible acts with their students.” This process of spreading thoughts, emotions, and beliefs throughout the city and between individuals is the main focus of The Revolutionary Temper. Darnton refers to this as “an early form of communication system” and while he does not dwell on the comparison, it is evident that he is drawing parallels to modern social media. In just five years, the Society of Jesus was forced to leave Paris.
The main criticism against the religious leaders had always been their close relationship with the king, where they would influence him with their religious beliefs while also living lavish lifestyles (including a love for coffee and expensive interior design). According to Darnton, this was ironic because historical evidence shows that the church and the crown did not get along. Louis XV, known for his numerous affairs with “inappropriate” women (such as Mme de Pompadour, who was a schemer, and Mme du Barry, who had worked in a brothel), was naturally irritated by constant reprimands from the clergy. At one point, there were rumors of the Jesuits planning to assassinate the lecherous old man.
In the end, they did not end up needing to do so, as Louis XV passed away in 1774 after a 59-year reign, and the more well-behaved dauphin took over the throne. However, those who believed that things would now go smoothly were mistaken. While Louis XVI did not have mistresses, he did have a wife who turned out to be even more disliked than all the previous questionable ladies combined. Marie Antoinette, also known as “L’Autrichienne” due to France’s recent victory over the Habsburgs in battle, was extravagant with other people’s money. The people of Paris were shocked to discover that in 1781, Her Majesty had acquired diamonds worth 750,000 livres, and her new porcelain dinner service cost nearly a million. To put this into perspective, a skilled worker at the time earned three livres per day, while in 1789, a loaf of bread cost almost a full day’s wages for most unskilled laborers. It is no surprise that during the peak of the financial crisis, ordinary Parisians began calling her “Madame Déficit”.
Throughout history, there have always been female rulers who were criticized for spending excessive amounts of money or for not fitting in with traditional cultural norms. However, during this particular time in French society, both men and women felt they had a more informed perspective from which to pass judgement. In 1783, hot air ballooning became a popular trend, with two daring Frenchmen disappearing into the sky on November 21st in what could be described as a picnic basket. The sight of these men flying 3,000 feet above the earth was astonishing to the people of Paris. As the balloonists traveled, they crossed national borders, including Jean-Pierre Blanchard who became the first person to fly across the English Channel in 1785. It was almost as if one could see all the way to America if they squinted hard enough. At this time, America represented a country that had recently undergone its own exciting revolution and served as a symbol of freedom for those in France who also felt oppressed. However, in their admiration for the Quakers and frontiersmen of America, French commentators overlooked the harsh reality of slavery in the southern states.
At the conclusion of this thrilling book, Darnton accomplishes more than just recounting the state of France during the final years of the monarchy. Since his influential collection of essays, The Great Cat Massacre, in 1984, he has focused on merging the momentum of narrative history with a thorough examination of underlying historical structures. Traditionally, these two approaches have been at odds with each other, but Darnton successfully demonstrates that they can coexist harmoniously. The outcome is profound, captivating, and brings us as close as possible to the intangible concept of collective consciousness.