“Every Joke is a Little Revolution”: Raillery & Revolution in Pre-Revolutionary France, Continued

       A few weeks ago, I came across the incisive observation made by George Orwell that “every joke is a little revolution” (Keane). As has become clear through my research, jokes like those in the Bibliothèque de Campagne do indeed resemble “little revolutions” because they rail against the status quo, conveying radical ideas about members of the First and Second Estates.

My investigation of radical humor in this series has further demonstrated that countless jokes challenged the First Estate comprised of clergymen. In a chapter titled “On Clergymen,” the writer lambasted preachers for hypocrisy. When discussing these religious figures, the writer stated:

“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).

Here, the writer jested that the Jacobin priest should not disparage other preachers who “do not do what they say,” since the former was hypocritical himself, failing to heed the advice he prescribed to his own congregation as he “says [his] sermons, but it is not [him] who does them.” By underscoring that preachers “do not do what they say,” the writer attempted to weaken the authority of the First Estate, casting doubt in the minds of readers about organized religion. This anecdote therefore challenged the status quo, because it attacked Christianity in France, whose state religion was then Catholicism and whose rulers had historically governed by divine right (Taylor). Portraying the weaknesses of a religious figure may have encouraged middle-class readers to think differently about the social order ruled by the revered clergymen of the First Estate.

Apart from attacking the First Estate, joke writers also criticized the Second Estate extensively, targeting members of the upper class like the “monsieur” and the financiers. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, men called “Monsieurs” held titles of honor in the French royal court (Encyclopedia Brittanica). It was likely the distinguished status of the “monsieurs” that made this figure the target of jokes. In one such joke, the writer declared:

“M. de Bautru having been sent to Spain, went to the Escorial, where he saw the library; and during a meeting he had with the librarian, he noticed that he was a very badly dressed man. Then [Bautru] saw the King… and remarking on the choice he made for his librarian; [Bautru] told [the king] that he noticed [the librarian] was a rare man, and that his majesty could make him the Superintendent of Finances. Why, said the King, Sire, added Bautru, since he has not taken your books, he will not take anything from your Finances” (Bibliothèque de Campagne).

Here, the author cast more aspersions on nobles, including the French Monsieur de Bautru and the Spanish Financier. The witty anecdote commenced by mocking the intelligence of M. de Bautru, who upon seeing the Escorial library remarked only that the librarian man was “very badly dressed,” instead of admiring the fine books in Spain’s premier palace. The joke then segwayed into a denunciation of financiers. While the joke took place in Spain, an ally of France at the time, one can deduce that the writer chose to set the joke in another country in order to more freely criticize France’s social hierarchy. With this liberty, the writer presented the financier as greedy and untrustworthy, underscoring that unlike the librarian, the financier will “take anything from [the king’s] Finances.” The writer continued this denunciation by stating that the librarian, who had no financial experience whatsoever, would be the perfect person to replace the most senior financier in Spain called the “superintendent of finances,” because he “has not taken your books, [and therefore] he will not take anything from [the Spanish king’s] Finances.” In the space of just three sentences, then, the writer prompted the reader to imagine an alternative ruling class in which the honest librarian would wield power instead of the ignorant, greedy, and untrustworthy noble— a reversal of the social order that would unravel in the French Revolution.

As can be seen in the witty statements above, my thesis has proved to be promising: that 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. I have discussed this thesis and the evidence for it extensively with my faculty advisor, and I am now nearing the completion of the journal-length article that I set out to produce about my findings. As I enter the home stretch of my project, I look forward to refining the analyses I have made (like those included above), streamlining my concluding paragraph, and making final edits to my paper. Thank you for reading, and check back in soon to read my conclusions about eighteenth-century French humor!

Sources Consulted:

Bibliothèque De Campagne, Ou Amusemens De L’esprit Et Du Coeur. Vol. 23. Paris, France, n.d., 212; my translation.

Keane, John. “Every Joke Is a Little Revolution.” The Conversation. Accessed August 4, 2018. http://theconversation.com/every-joke-is-a-little-revolution-6990.

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.


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