Raillery & Revolution in the Bibliotheque de Campagne, ou Amusemens de l’Esprit et du Coeur

Raillery & Revolution in the Bibliothèque de Campagne, ou Amusemens de l’Esprit et du Coeur

     In an article on humor studies, scholar Jessica Milner Davis relates that jokes have historically been believed to “promote amusement, provoke laughter and relieve classical melancholia” (Davis 6). Humor has indeed served to amuse people and alleviate their melancholy, but it has had other purposes too. After spending several weeks transcribing, translating, and analyzing jokes in the twenty-third and twenty-fourth volumes of the Bibliothèque de Campagne, ou Amusemens de l’esprit et du coeur, I have arrived at the conclusion that humor has served the other important purpose of raising questions about the status quo. I believe that it was jokes, often rife with critical social commentary, that likely provoked the French reading public to think differently about class and religion. Under the cover of being amusing, jokes in books like the Bibliothèque de Campagne conveyed subversive ideas which may have contributed to the fomentation of the French Revolution.

     Scans of jokes in the Bibliothèque de Campagne from Marie Antoinette’s private library suggest that these volumes were intended for the average French literate person. The target audience can be identified in the preface of the twenty-fourth volume, in which the publisher’s aim was reportedly to enable readers “…to make a reputation for [themselves] in a certain world & to pass for a man who has a profound knowledge of ancient and modern History” (Bibliothèque de Campagne ou Amusemens de l’esprit et du coeur). By presenting the books as enabling readers to “pass for a man who has a profound knowledge” and to subsequently “make a reputation” for themselves, the publisher suggests that the target audience was not the educated, elite men but the common French reader. More specifically, the jokes were likely geared toward literate French women, given that the Queen Marie Antoinette acquired several volumes of the popular series and considering that the publisher was a woman named Veuve de Nicolas-Bonaventure Duchesne. By presenting “modern History” in accessible, subversive jokes, writers of the Bibliothèque de Campagne may have sought to propagate Enlightenment concepts like individual liberty among the literate middle class, encouraging this group to dismantle the social hierarchy of pre-Revolutionary France.

     So what were the jokes that possibly persuaded literate, middle-class French readers to “make a reputation for themselves” and revolt against the monarchy? Through my research thus far on the Bibliothèque de Campagne and regular conversations with my faculty advisor, I have repeatedly identified jokes which relate to issues of class. For instance, in a section of volume twenty-three titled “Satire,” the anonymous writer states, “I do not see anything more ridiculous than dedicating a book of devotion, a moral treaty to a financier, and a scientific work to a lord in the court… it is necessary that there be some relationship between the book and the person to whom it is dedicated” (Bibliothèque de Campagne ou Amusemens de l’esprit et du coeur). Like many of the jokes, this quotation is short and to the point, making a critical social commentary about aristocrats in just a couple of sentences. Considering the eighteenth-century France’s strict social order consisting of three clearly defined estates, such a social commentary was radical. Here, the writer criticizes members of the upper class by mocking financiers and lords in the court. The author attacks the upper-class financier’s religiosity and morality, stating that it would be “ridiculous” to dedicate a book of devotion or a moral treaty to a financier. Likewise, the author also ridicules the intelligence of other people in the upper class, namely members of the court, asserting that it would be laughable to dedicate a “scientific work” to a “lord” because a correlation must exist between a book and the “person to whom it is dedicated.” By questioning the morality and intelligence of such upper-class individuals as a financier or a lord in a joke, the writer undermined the authority of the ruling elite during the Ancien Régime. Through this joke and others like it, the writer thus prompts the reader to challenge the prevailing class system separating the elite nobility and clergymen from the commoners, a social order that would unravel during the coming French Revolution.

     Apart from using jokes to criticize the nobility, writers featured in the Bibliothèque de Campagne also employed humor to lambast religious figures. Similar to the aforementioned joke ridiculing a financier and a lord, another joke in the series from a chapter titled “On Clergymen” condemns preachers for being hypocritical, as the writer states:

“A Priest of the Jacobin order, & a Bachelor of Sorbonne… told me the other day… All the preachers do not do what they say, you are wrong, said I while looking at him, to be among those who disdain [the preachers]; since without looking any further from these mountains, the example of this, is you; it is you who says your sermons, but it is not you who does them” (Bibliothèque de Campagne ou Amusemens de l’esprit et du coeur).

     In this witty quotation, the writer jests that the Catholic, Jacobin priest should not disparage the Protestant preacher since the former is reportedly being hypocritical himself as he fails to heed the advice that he prescribed to his congregation in his own sermons. The joke thus weakens the authority of both Catholic and Protestants alike, casting doubt in the minds of readers about organized religion. Like the joke concerning the financier and lord, this witticism challenges the status quo, but this time because it attacks Christianity in France, whose state religion was then Catholicism and whose rulers had historically governed by divine right (Taylor). Portraying the weaknesses of religion through jokes may have further motivated middle-class readers to envision a different type of society and in turn lash out against social institutions.

      In the coming weeks, I look forward to making more analyses like those included above, continuing to discuss the jokes regularly with my faculty advisor, and incorporating my conclusions into a final research paper. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for more of my findings about eighteenth-century French humor!

Sources Consulted:

Bibliothèque de campagne, ou Amusemens de L’esprit et du coeur. Vol. 23, Paris, Veuve Duchesne.

Davis, Jessica Milner. “Review Article: Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg, A Cultural History of Humour from Antiquity to the Present Day.” International Journal of Humor Research, vol. 13, no. 3, July 2009, pp. 353-62.

“The French Revolution.” Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org/groups/66. Accessed 8 July 2018.

Taylor, Tristan. “The Influence of the Catholicism Before, During, and after the French Revolution.” Washington State University Libraries, 28 Aug. 2014, history.libraries.wsu.edu/fall2014/2014/08/28/the-age-of-enlightenment-and-its-global-effects-in-the-16th-18th-century/. Accessed 5 July 2018.

 

Comments

  1. achiggins says:

    Hi Olivia,

    I really admire how thorough your research has been! Translations and critical analysis of old documents like the Bibliothèque de Campagne must make for laborious work. But, it’s the nitty-gritty of what the best historians do, which is to be commended.

    After reading this post, I began to wonder what else the major sources you’re studying could tell us about the French middle-class. Do all the jokes that employ social commentary critique the higher estates? Or, do they also tell us something about how literate society viewed the peasantry in Enlightenment France?

    On another note, I think it has been well-established that Marie Antoinette was a very intelligent person. To that end, could you comment on why she would have had this book in her library? I find it interesting that a book likely intended for the middle-class, and possibly segments of the upper-class, would find itself in the Queen’s collections. Surely its critiques of the upper-class wouldn’t have avoided her eye?

    I’m very eager to hear how your research progresses in the coming weeks. I hope the humor makes it less tedious!

    – Aaron

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