Raillery & Revolution: Continued, Post #3

Raillery & Revolution: Part III

      In the last leg of my research, I found that despite the many progressive jokes in the Bibliothèque de Campagne lambasting members of the First and Second Estates, there did exist a few, surprising witticisms which were not that radical. As it turns out, a few witticisms in the series were reactionary, as they made jokes at the expense of women. For instance, in one anecdote the writer amusingly explained the reason for which Jesus first appeared to a woman, his mother Mary, after resurrecting from the dead:

“A preacher preaching before nuns on Easter, & looking for the reason for which the resurrected Jesus-Christ appeared first to Mary, said ingeniously, that it is because God wanted to make public the Mystery of the Resurrection, & that women knowing first a thing so important, that the news would soon be spread everywhere” (Bibliothèque de Campagne).

While the witty statement seemed to praise women who know “thing[s] so important,” it is clear that this amusing anecdote was said in a mocking manner. Instead of praising female figures, the writer jested that women were gossips who caused “news” to be “soon spread everywhere.” This amusing anecdote was not the only witticism that poked fun at women. In another quotation, the writer related: “A Preacher preaching on the Gospel of the Good Samaritan, says: Do not be surprised if this Gospel is long, it is because a woman tells it” (Bibliothèque de Campagne). Yet again, the joke writer related a witty anecdote reflecting negative gender stereotypes, insinuating that women were verbose by stating that the “Gospel is long” since a “woman tells it.” By ridiculing women for being gossips and verbose, it is evident that despite containing some radical notions about the social order in France, the Bibliothèque de Campagne was nevertheless a series catering to an audience, making jokes at the expense of minorities like women in order to gain commercial success— demonstrating that there was still work to be done before a more complete transformation of the social order would occur in the French Revolution.

In addition to teasing women, the writers of the Bibliothèque de Campagne also made jokes at the expense of minority groups. In one such witticism, the writer mocked a tribal group in South America called the Topinambour, stating that:

“The Topinambour cannot write: one day a Spaniard sent five rabbits to one of his friends, and he had written down the quantity of these rabbits. The Topinabou, carrier of this present, ate one; the Spaniard having noticed this, based on the writing on the sheet, made reproaches. The miserable [Topinambour] thought [the Spaniard] had some Divinity in him” (Bibliothèque de Campagne).

In contrast to previous jokes made at the expense of religious authorities or the nobility, this witty anecdote ridiculed a marginalized group for being illiterate. The writer jested that even when the “Topinambour” tried to trick the “Spaniard” by eating one of five rabbits he was sent to deliver, the tribesman failed in his scheme because he did not know that the Spaniard had recorded the number of animals there were by “writ[ing] on [a] sheet.” The crux of the witty statement occured when the writer joked that the Topinambour regarded writing as a superpower, to the extent that the Spaniard appeared to have “some Divinity in him.” Yet again it is apparent that while many witticisms in the Bibliothèque de Campagne challenged the status quo, others did not. On the contrary, jokes like the one about the Topinambour reinforced the social order of the Old Regime which divided people between superiors and inferiors, the literate and illiterate, or in this case, between Europeans and indigenous South Americans.

At first, the presence of both radical and unprogressive jokes may appear contradictory. This contradiction, however, may be accounted for by the writers’ desire to make readers from different classes laugh and subsequently sell books to a wide audience. Given that the majority of the jokes radically opposed the status quo reveals something else important: that in the years that the Bibliothèque de Campagne were released, between 1735 and 1779, pre-Revolutionary France was on the cusp of change. Considering that most of the jokes were radical and a few were unprogressive, it may be deduced that France stood at the crossroads of Enlightenment and reactionary ideas.

Despite the presence of a few reactionary jokes, my thesis still holds: that under the cover of being amusing, the majority of jokes in books like the Bibliothèque de Campagne conveyed subversive ideas which may have contributed to the developing French Revolution. I have discussed this nuanced argument with my faculty advisor, and I am now making the necessary edits to my journal-length article to best communicate this claim. Entering the final days of my project, I am very grateful to my faculty advisor for all of his support throughout this endeavor, to the Charles Center for making this opportunity possible, and to my fellow students who took the time to respond to my blog posts. It has been a pleasure to work on this project since May and to see it come to fruition in the form of a journal-length essay. I am happy that I was able to share my discoveries with you, and I thank you for reading about my thoughts on eighteenth-century French joke books!