Abstract: Eighteenth-Century French Women and Humor

During the eighteenth century, a series of books called the Bibliothèque de Campagne ou Amusement de l’Esprit et du Coeur swept across France. This light-hearted series was enjoyed particularly by literate French women, and included poetry, romance novels, adventure stories, and joke books. One notable female reader who owned this series was Queen Marie Antoinette. Biographer Stefan Zweig called Marie Antoinette an “average woman… a lay-figure decked in queen’s robes” and argued that had it not been for her royal status and the French Revolution, she would not have become so influential. If Marie Antoinette did indeed represent the “average woman” and wield great influence, then her reading choices may shed light on what she found funny, but more importantly, what many other eighteenth-century literate women also considered humorous. According to historians Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg, humor is crucial for providing “key[s] to cultural codes and sensibilities of the past.” By examining humor in the Bibliothèque de Campagne, I intend to to glean more information about the humor, values, and literary tastes of literate women. 

I will produce a 20-30 page academic paper describing my analysis of humor in these books and what it may reveal about pre-Revolutionary French literate women. My first objective in analyzing these books is to break ground on a previously neglected area of scholarship—literate eighteenth-century French women reading humorous texts. This little-discussed series will add a new dimension to histories of women and literature. Secondly, I plan to address sociological questions about the series, examining its publishing history to gauge its popularity and readership. Finally, I intend to use the Bibliothèque de Campagne to look at the bigger historical picture of mentalities. I aim to follow historian Robert Darnton’s advice, that “when we cannot get a… joke, or a ritual, or a poem, we know we are onto something. By picking at the document where it is most opaque, we may be able to unravel an alien system of meaning.” Heeding Darnton’s advice, I will test whether or not I find humor in the witty anecdotes of the Bibliothèque de Campagne and what that reveals about a past that can, at times, seem “alien.”