The gossip and filthy songs that led to the French Revolution

The Storming of the Bastille, French Revolution painting by Henry Singleton, before 1839
The Storming of the Bastille, French Revolution painting by Henry Singleton, before 1839 - incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo

Robert Darnton’s pre-Revolutionary Paris is a city teeming with talk. Pamphleteers, philosophers, politicians and scientists: they all inject ideas into the bloodstream of the city, ideas taken up in the chatter of ordinary Parisians. The city doesn’t have a daily journal until 1777, so conversation is how people understand what’s going on. Under the Tree of Cracow, a chestnut in the garden of the Palais-Royal, nouvellistes de bouche pass on the day’s news by word of mouth. Bawdy songs about royal mistresses are composed by disgruntled courtiers, and circulated in the streets. Police spies record “bad talk” in crowds and cafés.

In many ways, The Revolutionary Temper is a richly researched, ambitious and fascinating history. It asks a big question in a novel way: people endure all sorts of hardships and oppressions without forcing a change, so what was different in 18th-century France? Darnton seeks the answer not only in the facts but in the subjective experience of events – “how people make sense of happenings”. This is more than a spontaneous “spirit”; Darnton has chosen the word “temper”, we’re told, because it implies not just a mood but also, in the sense of tempering metal, a process of change over time.

Darnton goes back to the primary sources, with the aim of uncovering how the “revolutionary temper” developed over decades and spread through a highly stratified society. He begins in 1748 with the end of the War of Austrian Succession, and suggests that by the end of that century, “the flow of information” had created a “collective consciousness” that overcame what he calls the “givenness of things” – a bias towards the status quo – and thus made revolution possible. We’re told that our focus will be that flow “at street-level”: it will be about “all Paris”, the ordinary people, the crowd. “I will avoid,” Darnton writes, “recounting events… that took place beyond their range of vision.”

This is an enticing premise, and in places, its aims are achieved. The Revolutionary Temper immerses us in gossip and popular songs about the extravagance and immorality of the ancien régime. One song, addressed to Louis XV’s mistress Mme de Pompadour, runs: “Sur nos pas, vous semez des fleurs, / Mais ce sont des fleurs blanches” (“On our path you strew flowers, / But these flowers are white”).

It’s a pun on venereal disease: the ditty causes a scandal. The enthusiasm around Rousseau’s epistolary novel La Nouvelle Héloïse (1762), early in Darnton’s span, resonates with later episodes in which political memoirs are consumed like fiction. Imagination, enthusiasm and laughter are painted as meaningful forces for change. The power of texts that “stir up spirits” is proved by the efforts to suppress them; both books and their authors could be locked away in the Bastille.

Robert Darnton, author of The Revolutionary Temper
Robert Darnton, author of The Revolutionary Temper - Leonardo Cendamo/ Getty Images

Darnton’s attention to language, and “close reading” of how ideas spread and shift, is often delicate and revealing. We see the word “citoyen” emerge and supplant “sujet”, as nation takes precedence over sovereign. Even silences are telling. When crowds fail to greet the new king, Louis XVI, with the customary enthusiastic cries of “vive le Roi!”, the bishop of Senez reportedly remarks: “The silence of the people is the shame of kings.”

There are frequent instances, however, when an explanation of court politics “behind closed doors”, or of a publication which would cost “a lifetime’s wages for a common labourer”, ends with an acknowledgement that most people wouldn’t have been privy to this information. We’re told that “it seems unlikely that many Parisians ever laid eyes on the text”, or “Parisians had little information about the power struggles that occurred behind the scenes”. Occasionally, this can feel like a shrug, and while Darnton implies that events and ideas would diffuse in other ways, we don’t always see that in action.

The Revolutionary Temper draws on a rich array of sources – official edicts, police reports, pamphlets, journals, letters, books – but often favours paraphrase with extensive footnotes over direct quotation. In places, there are surprisingly few other voices to be heard. The sources quoted most extensively are accounts by a small number of relatively prosperous people about what they believe “all Paris” thinks. Darnton explains that his method of uncovering a “collective consciousness” nonetheless works “by inferences and interpretative leaps, supported by the available evidence strung out over an adequate stretch of time”. I sometimes had the feeling of being asked to take his word for it.

Even so, Darnton’s book ends on a striking note, drawing parallels with how more recent “historical” events – from the assassination of John F Kennedy to 9/11 – have brought people together, however temporarily. The French Revolution was fostered, he argues, by a series of such turbulent and emotive events. They not only released “utopian energy”, but did so in an atmosphere that licensed extreme violence as a means of decisively sweeping away the old order. What might have seemed a sudden paroxysm, as Darnton shows, was in fact a long time brewing.

The Revolutionary Temper is published by Penguin at £35. To order your copy for £25, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books