Sunday, March 18, 2018

Credulity in 18th Century Paris by Arlette Farge


Let there be no mistake: this pursuit of rules and rationalities is not a means of ignoring hate and anger, violence and cruelty, irony and unreason. It would be imposturous to erase men’s fury, and ignorant not to present the situations which produced it, for the failure to take account of deceit and dishonor would be to give way to na├»ve populism. The history of a society is also the history of the clash that exists between its instinct for survival and desire for union and collaboration with its taste for destruction and ashes. The Parisian people of the lived off this clash.

The contours of the population outlined here show it forever on the look-out for what might prove threatening to it and in search of whatever might strengthen it. It was looking for an equilibrium at the heart of the fragility by which it was almost totally defined and its behavior and decisions are indications of its response to a precariousness which permanently threatened its stability.

Not being taken for a fool was one of its passions or rather one of its necessities, and thus the whole of its intelligence was put into not being abused or deceived. From this came its taste for news and gossip; its desire to know and understand; to give things a name; and the speed with which it circulated its information. Behind the effervescence, the bustle and the emotion can be found a seriousness and much understanding. History  owes it to itself to seek out and, without attempting to define it, take hold of this fragile life and thus lend it sense and weight.

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In Paris no one needed an invitation to get together or go off in a group; the natural corollary of living outdoors* was the permanent attraction of whatsoever was happening and whatever presented itself before one’s eyes or ears or called for one’s attention in one way or the other.

Thus the Parisian inhabitant is never indifferent to what is going on around him. The least little novelty is likely to make him pause on his way. Take, for instance, the example of a man who had his head in the air and is looking intently at some object or another. You are bond to see several others stop immediately and turn their eyes in the same direction thinking that they will see whatever he is looking at. Little by little, the crowd will grow, each of them asking the other what they are looking at. All it needs is for one poor canary to escape and perch on a window-sill for the whole street to be blocked by a crowd. The moment he flies from one lamp to the next, shouts and cries will go up on all sides, windows will open and there will be faces at each. The brief and momentary independence of one small bird will become a spectacle of general interest.

If a dog were to be thrown in the river, the banks and bridges would be covered almost immediately with people, some of them concerned about what might happen to it and others saying it must be saved, watching it closely in whatever direction the current happens to take it. This spirit of curiosity is not necessarily lacking in sensitivity; it is not unknown for instance for people to separate two combatants and for men to harangue them so fiercely on the advantages of peace and harmony that they would settle their grievances on the spot. (1)


It is easy and, in fact, customary to interpret this kind of up and run behavior as evidence of the immaturity of the crowd with their taste for the fortuitous and the accidental. Chroniclers, contemporaries, the literati of the period and modern historians have all described these irrational impulses of the crowd and its inability to separate the real from the imaginary, allowing itself to be carried along willy-nilly to whatever speechifying or spectacle might be on offer.

Scientific progress also had a hand in putting all sorts of odd inventions within the bounds of possibility and, whilst religion was becoming less satisfying, there was still the possibility of acts of God with their power to incite or punish,. And so  from time immemorial one has been led to believe that the crowd or common herd has submerged its fears and ignorance by submitting to immature systems of relationships with reality which were no more than pure fancy, thus providing obvious proof of the need for constant control of these potentially dangerous excesses and enthusiasm.

Strangely enough, it was a work by Nicholas Ledoux on the city and urbanization (something of a utopian dream) which expressed another view of these continual gatherings of Parisians and what it was about the daily goings-on that attracted them so much.

For Ledoux, festivities were not so important if everyday life were sweet and pleasant. The real value of the festivity was in the fact that ‘the community had the opportunity to contemplate itself and rejoice in one another.’ It is an approach well worth considering and singling out from some of the other well-worn tracks. What better way of re-appropriating for oneself not only one’s essence but also one’s meaning than by seeing for oneself, and by being oneself the spectacle of one’s perceptions of self and one’s own attempt to make sense of events. The King’s celebrations or punitive events offered the people an opportunity for consensus. The taste for freaks and curiosities (the expressions of the period), evinced different attitudes, among them a desire to offer one’s pronouncements on the significance to the day’s events. Furthermore, there was a feeling that the experience of the many lent sense and meaning to whatever was seen or heard, thus making it possible not only to gain a collective grip on reality but also, and why not, a potential mastery of events such as one need never wait for the meaning to be attributed or suggested by those who knew, controlled, commanded or governed.

This unfailing attraction for the strange and the improbable was referred to in the texts of the period as ‘credulity.’ It was a recurrent theme to be found as much on the pens of justices as in the texts of ministers or writers. The people had to be gullible: this was the basis on which the elites needed to act and react an assessment which they quite often ‘worked on’. Because it was so apparent to everyone, popular credulity was itself the subject of vast analysis. The difficulty of questioning it is that there is a permanent risk of being tricked by the initial position of ‘looking at’ or of the desire to dissect things up into small parcels of meaning. Even if every precaution is taken to distance oneself as much as possible from this position, other risks arise, most notably in the subtle shifts and shades of vocabulary employed and it is this surreptitious betrayal by mean of language that is perhaps even worse.

However, one thing is certain –popular credulity is not an entity in itself; nor does it constitute anything objectively capable of defining, once and for all, the essence of a social group. It is an opinion and that is an entirely different story; it suggests relationship, made by others, between a form of action and a mode of being, but learning unfortunately does not usually preoccupy itself with its own received ides or its stereotypes and archetypal assumptions. That the people were obviously gullible was useful more often than not as a point of departure for other forms of reasoning shored up by this principle, which is no principle at all. That credulity was a form well suited to the intelligence and social arrangements of the aristocracy, for, example, is vey rarely taken into account – or very rarely analyzed in these terms.

Credulity, as one knows, was far from being the prerogative of a single social group and the kind of peculiar events and curiosities which the people enjoyed so much and which are so complacently related by chroniclers and archivists of the time were in fact central to a complex system of beliefs that were more or less shared by those of different social spheres. It as not really until the eighteenth century that the break with  a common basis of belief took place, thereby marking the appearance of an elitist culture which strove to distinguish itself from the people and the weight of past archaism. It was a rupture which is relatively recent. It is more apparent in its desire to maintain a distance and instigate a definitive separation between the upper and lower ends of the social hierarchy and and more convincing in its strategy for the installation of cultural supremacy than in the actual content of its knowledge. Although cultural unity may have been breaking down, abundant traces remain, clearly measureable in the beliefs and activities of the elites, as well as in their treatises.

Even the Encyclopedie found itself grappling with fascination for tye extraordinary; and not even its reasoned attempts managed to refute what was, and still is, a common vision of the world.

Furthermore, life in the city (particularly between society and the authorities), saw the emergence of a number of variations and combinations as to what ought, and ought not, to be believed. The field of play might include, for instance, phenomena that were purely intended to incite; deliberate construction of events to make them believable; sudden attempts to repress and control what came to be termed ‘sheer fantasy’ where previously it had been considered ‘news’ or novelty; all this helped give ‘credulity’ a number of facets and thus enabled it to engage in a  field of activity which was both productive and destructive and in which the ordinary people and the elites played their part, each echoing the other. For the elites as well as the mob were equally keen partners in their enthusiasms for the extraordinary, the sensational, the ‘scientific’ (or at any rate, the ‘hitherto-unheard-of’) but in the treatises and discourses of the great and mighty responsibility for credulity is assigned to the backward and boorish masses. It was rare for the elite to perceive its own taste for these same items; and when it did, it did so badly. It was even worse a seeing the ambiguous nature of its own conduct in the thick of an event in which its own complicity helped render it an object of credulity.

It is possible to gain some idea of this complexity from some of the famous events of the century and some have already been analyzed from this perspective; one need only think, for example, of the phenomena of mesmerism, or the ecstatics in the cemetery of the church of Saint Medard. There were also some small events that were so insignificant that contemporaries did not think to write about them but which  nevertheless reveal, at a most basic level, an overview of the whole social scene. Because they were so small and unimportant one might believe that they were entirely the upshot of popular emotion and only relevant to that particular type of credulity, but not so – even the least of these rather strange and peculiar little affairs can conceal within it a set of mechanisms which provide a rich picture of the social world as whole with its hierarchies, challenges, disruptions and acts of common faith.

In 1756, the story of a little girl of none and a half- Madeleine Ernault ( claimed by her parents to have been molested and made pregnant by the bar hand at a wine venders)- was to arouse a great deal of astonishment and one can find traces of it in the judicial archives, The story was such that she managed to mobilize around her the police, the aristocracy, the medical bodies and the people. The bizarre nature of the phenomena, the tender years of the child, the occurrence of something that had hitherto been unheard of, and the obvious references to sexuality, all helped set up certain ideas and beliefs and led to the printing of accounts and spread various rumors which were effectively taken in hand by the police. The field of play might well be tiny but in so far as the archives allow us to make sense of it, it was in fact immense. First, there was the event itself- everyone believed it. It was true. Then it turned out to be false. As one follows the route from belief to rumor and then to error, one can see the complex social tangles which shatter the simplistic assertions which so confidently establish a clear divisions between people and elite, rational and irrational, truth and error, news and rumor.

[The women of the neighborhood we the first to detect the lie, long before the elites, including the medical establishment who went on believing long after any birth was to be expected under normal circumstances.]



* For the mass of Parisians there was little privacy. What we would call tenements were crowded, workshops were public spaces,  street vendors ubiquitous, cabarets popular meeting places, festivals and parades common.

(1)L.-S. Mercier, Tableau de Paris, 12 vols. (Amsterdam, 1782-6),  ch. ‘Melange des individus’

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