Of Pamphlets and Profanity

It is a poorly kept secret in Hollywood that profanity and toilet humor can, in a pinch, substitute for wit. If the French Revolution Collection (FRC) is any indication, this secret was well known during the time of the French Revolution.

There are a variety of pamphlets that present collections of vocabulary that generally goes ignored in French class. As it is the very nature of pamphlets to lend themselves to “underground” works, it is unsurprising that the language therein occasionally takes a turn for the grotesque. Considering that, like the underground newspapers of the SDS-era, most of these pamphlets (excluding most of those published by the Imprimerie nationale, the “silent majority,” of the pamphlets in the collection) were published by people holding extreme political views, the sometimes outrageous language should come as no surprise.

Case FRC 20149

One example of this type of pamphlet is Case FRC 20149, which purports to be by “M. Labride, docteur & vétérinaire du Pape.” Ostensibly a response to a petition from 30,000 Catholic citizens of Strasbourg, Labride argues that the petition was in fact published by only one disgruntled priest. He states, “J’ai bien cru qu’il y avoit quelques imbécilles à Strasbourg, mais, foutre, trente mille, oh ! ma foi, ce seroit trop fort.” Most of the pamphlet seems to be an excuse to make bawdy jokes at the expense of the clergy of various départements, including parodies of statements issued opposing the new government’s position towards the Catholic Church.


Case FRC 20640

Case FRC 20640 is a slightly more nuanced example of pamphlets using profanity as a replacement for wit. More accurately, in the case of this pamphlet, the anonymous author uses profanity (such as “quelle est donc cette bougre de bigarrure que nos foutus Alsaciens proposent”) to emphasize their  probably satirical (the final paragraph begins, “Le général La Pique continuera d’endoctriner les bons enfans”) criticisms of the Catholic Church, the aristocracy, and the royalist counterrevolutionaries.

Unfortunately,  we have yet to come across one of the most famous examples of this genre of pamphlet, Les Enfans de Sodome à l’Assemblée nationale, a petition filled with lurid engravings, arguing that the Assemblée nationale constituante, which was in the process of decriminalizing homosexuality and extending marriage rights to non-Catholics, should extend marriage rights to same-sex couples as well. Many of the pamphlets do present legitimate political issues, but (perhaps to avoid potential legal repercussions) present them in an outrageous, over-the top manner. This relatively casual approach to obscenity should come as no surprise – after all, Donatien Alphonse François de Sade was elected to public office during this time.

Potato: friend of man and beast

I’m pretty fond of potato-based foods. However, if I’d been alive in late 18th century France, chances are good that I would have needed some coaxing to eat a potato. In fact, the Commission d’agriculture et des arts published a pamphlet entirely dedicated to encouraging the public to understand the benefits of warming to the potato. Entitled Instruction sur la conservation et les usages des pommes-de-terre, this pamphlet outlines the best ways to preserve and serve potatoes to humans and livestock. Written by a team of authors including Claude-Louis Berthollet, it was produced in the Arras district, and directions are printed on the pamphlet to distribute it in every town in the district so that municipal officials could read it aloud to their citizens.

Case FRC 14550

Assuming that the French government could convince farmers to start growing potatoes, the trouble then became how to store the large quantities of potatoes that would be harvested. The pamphlet authors detail seven different preservation techniques, including this method: blanch unwashed potatoes in salted water, peel and slice them, and heat them in a bakery oven. The results will be so solid and dry that they can be kept “through the centuries” in any location without undergoing any significant changes.

When it comes time to eat potatoes, the authors have this straightforward and economical preparation to recommend: steam them and add a little salt. They helpfully add that the inclusion of “butter, fat, lard, or oil, cream, milk, and honey” wouldn’t hurt if you’ve got some handy. The authors stress one of the key qualities of potatoes, which  is their ability to stretch or replace grains, an important feature to highlight when food shortages were striking the populace. To that end, instructions on how to make potato-based porridge and bread appear in this pamphlet as well.

Humans aren’t the only ones to suffer during a grain shortage, and cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, fish, and horses all could benefit from the addition of potatoes to their feed. Farmers were told to serve raw or cooked potatoes to their livestock, though they were reminded to be sure to cut up the potatoes and let them cool a bit first. One of the major points the authors make is that the addition of potatoes would allow the consumption of other types of fodder to be reduced, while helping the animals to gain weight. The comment for horses is also rather charming, stating that as long they grow accustomed to a mixture of potatoes with hay and oats in equal measure, the horses will stamp their hooves (in eager anticipation, I presume) when they see the containers of potato feed being carried toward them.

Cataloging training (3)

Finally getting into a groove working with the French Revolution Collection (FRC) pamphlets. I think I may have even (almost) mastered the order of the MARC notes fields.  I encountered a bit of newness with this week’s pamphlets including using Antoine-Alexandre Barbier‘s Dictionnaire des ouvrages anonymes to (successfully) find authorship attribution for anonymously or pseudonymously published works and how to create a parallel record in OCLC.  I also came across some interesting topics this week.  Among my favorite pamphlets were those on the prison system in Philadelphia and the gabelle tax. Wikipedia, particularly the French articles, has been extremely helpful in getting a brief overview of French Revolution topics that I had no previous knowledge of.

To reduce dependence on foreign (cooking) oil

Case FRC 10929

De l’huile de faine (Case FRC 10929) was a pamphlet I cataloged early in the project, but it remains a memorable one because I have long been interested in matters culinary. The author, Jacques Antoine Boudin, was a député from the rural Indre region of France who delivered this address to the Convention nationale. Let others discuss France’s widespread financial problems, social inequality, and foreign policy. Boudin had another topic on his mind, or perhaps I should say, in his stomach: beechnut oil.

According to Boudin, olive oil, the oil of choice for consumers, was not in sufficient supply to meet France’s demand, and the oil they did have access to was costly. The time had come to stop impoverishing themselves in order to purchase cooking oil, and to stop paying what he calls a tribute to foreign nations in the form of oil purchases. Boudin wanted to help France make use of an abundant natural resource to help replace this staple of the French diet.

The recent years’ beechnut harvest was apparently impressive, specifically in the Compiègne forest area, formerly the site of royal hunting parties. One key aspect of Boudin’s plan was to allow citizens to forage beechnuts on national forest land, such as that in Compiègne, a practice that had been illegal since an ordinance dating to 1669. However, even beechnuts on private property were either going to waste, or at best being used for pig fodder because of some bad press that beechnuts had been getting since the early 1700s. Boudin says that beechnut oil had a reputation of having an unpleasant taste in addition to reports claiming it caused various health problems. A lifelong consumer of beechnut oil, he heartily refuted those claims and even brought vials of beechnut oil for the members of the Convention nationale to sample.

This pamphlet contains detailed advice on how to harvest, store, and prepare the beechnuts for pressing, as well as a suggested price per bushel. Boudin highlights beechnuts’ advantages over olives, saying that beechnuts are less prone to spoilage while harvesting in humid weather and can be put up in dry storage for a long time prior to processing, like wheat. Boudin also makes some remarkable claims about beechnut oil’s shelf life, stating that it had a “delicate” flavor at five years, and was still edible at 10 or even 20 years and beyond. Luckily for the members of the Convention in attendance that day, the samples he brought ranged in vintage merely from one to three years.

I didn’t glean any indication of beechnut oil’s true shelf life after a brief glance at my trusty Harold McGee reference book On Food and Cooking, so I recommend caution if you are inspired to taste-test a ten-year-old bottle of this oil.

Au revoir!

As the last day of my job at the Newberry, today marks the end of my involvement with the French pamphlet project. Cleaning out my desk over the past week has produced a sort of time capsule from the year and a half that I spent in this position. I found the MARC worksheet I was given my first week (it’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t know what went into the 245 or 300 field of a record!). There were notes from our earliest team meetings, in which we discussed the peculiarities of emphyteusis and eminent domain, annuities and émigrés, and made extremely important decisions about whether to append “Pamphlets” or “Sources” or “History” or “Early works to 1800” to various subject headings (I’m pretty sure the New York Times reported on our decisions). Missing from my notes are the more entertaining parts of our meetings, in which we shared the funniest, weirdest, and most ridiculous pamphlets we had come across lately.

From my desk, I also unearthed scraps of paper on which I had scribbled my questions about cataloging: how much guesswork can we do about where a pamphlet has been printed? What is the difference between the subject headings “Aristocracy (Political science)” and “Aristocracy (Social class)”? What do we do when the information we find in the definitive bibliography of French Revolutionary pamphlets is clearly wrong? How can we tell the difference between variant editions and states? Although there are still no cut-and-dried answers to all of these questions, over time I have learned how to handle a variety of confusing and murky situations, often by using the sacred principle of “cataloger’s judgment” (i.e. “just make a decision and stick with it”).

I’m definitely holding on to the running list of favorite subject headings that I kept during the project. Those that actually ended up in my records include “Rogues and vagabonds,” “Brigands and robbers,” “Swindlers and swindling,” “Sexually transmitted diseases,” and “Illuminati,” as well as fantastic subject strings like “Clergy—Alcohol use” and “Seafaring life—Study and teaching.” Then there are the random ones that I somehow came across in my many searches, subject headings like “Boy with leaking boot (Statue)” and authorities like “Almighty God, 1950-” (he’s alive!). Not on the list, and infinitely more frustrating, are the headings that don’t exist, even though the subjects come up in our pamphlets again and again: payment in kind, the Thermidorian Reaction, political denunciation.

Although I won’t miss the vagaries of Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), I will certainly miss the pleasure of working with such an important and comprehensive collection of documents, as well as such an intelligent and engaging group of catalogers.

Oh, and the pie. I will really miss the pie.

Revolutionary Expense Reports

On 21 nivose an III (10 January 1795), not long after the end of the Reign of Terror, the Convention nationale passed a law dictating that all the représentants en mission furnish a report of their activities, appropriations and expenditures while on mission to the Convention, and to have that report published.

There are around 150 of these expense reports in the collection (so far), and they range from the extensive (30 pages or more, with elaborate tables) to the relatively minimal.

The sheer number of these pamphlets, which were nearly all cataloged fairly early on in the project, made them fairly easy to catalog. Because the décret was passed with a time limit, virtually all of the reports were published in 1795. As they are all on the same topic, published by the same entity, and involved the same government bodies, assigning subject headings and other cataloging paraphernalia was exceedingly simple. The great number of fields that stayed the same between pamphlets enabled us to automate the vast majority of the cataloging process – all that remains to be done is giving the author, the title (nearly every expense report starts with the phrase Compte rendu, but the remaining portion of the title varies considerably between pamphlets), entering the page count and any other physical details, and recording the call number.

Case FRC 11727

As simple as most of the expense reports are, from time to time there comes an oddity – a report filed in the early months of 1796, a pamphlet that includes a narrative of the time spent, or a catalog of “patriotic gifts” received by the representative… or, as in the case of Case FRC 11727, something altogether unexpected, an ephemeral quirk of mandatory publishing.

Case FRC 11727 is only one page long. It has a 37 word title, which takes up most of that page.  The text is only one sentence long: it states that Pierre-Anselme Garrau neither received nor spent any government funds.

Case FRC 11727 detail

In a way, this seemingly superfluous document represents one of the greatest triumphs of the French Revolution – a strong federal government where laws were applied equally to all. Other common themes of the collection reflect the conscious efforts to this end – standardizing the gabelle salt tax, abolishing the lettres de cachet, inherited privileges, and implementing allodial land tenure. Case FRC 11727 shows that these reforms proceeded throughout all levels of government, and resulted in the extra government spending frequently associated with increased bureaucracy.

Cataloging Training (2)

The training and practice cataloging that I completed during my first two weeks have proved to be a great introduction to finding records for items in OCLC and editing them to better describe the items in the French Revolution Collection (FRC). In working through my first portfolio of FRC pamphlets I learned to look for publication information in a colophon, if it is not present in the title information, which pages to check for abbreviated title information, depending on the length of the pamphlet, and became more familiar with several bibliographic reference sources such as André Martin and Gérard Walter’s Catalogue de l’histoire de la Révolution française, also known as Martin & Walter.

Through my training I have become very comfortable with the different standard MARC fields used in FRC records; punctuation in the title entry and physical description fields has become practically second nature now. I am still working on learning the standard order of notes, so that I do not need to constantly reference the FRC Sample Record. The use of a local field [902] has been very helpful in the beginning stages of determining ‘aboutness’ and is a good starting point towards assigning subject headings.

Cataloging training (1)

It’s the beginning of my second week as part of the CLIR French pamphlet project and I’m excited to soon get to work on the pamphlets.  Training is going well; I am quickly remembering everything that was covered in my ‘Organization of Knowledge’ course regarding AACR2R and MARC tags.  The punctuation for the 245, 260, and 300 MARC fields took a day or so to become comfortable with. I am surprised at how many records I come across that still have the older standard punctuation in those fields.  I find myself hoping that an item will have an inscription, bookplate, or stamp that I can note to help trace the provenance of the item, or an ambiguous title that needs to be supplemented with a contents or summary note.

New Project Cataloging Assistant hired

We’re pleased to announce that Jennifer Dunlap has joined our project staff as a full-time Project Cataloging Assistant.  We closed the part-time position without filling it, and plan to post another full-time position at the end of August.

Heads will roll: the trial and execution of Louis XVI

For the past few months, I have shifted gears to work exclusively on cataloging the Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collection. The Louis collection overlaps with the French Revolutionary Collection (FRC) in that it contains pamphlets from the same time and place, but its scope is much more specific: it is composed solely of items related to King Louis XVI’s fall from political grace, from  his 1791 escape attempt and the 1792 seige of the Tuileries to his trial and final moments at the guillotine. The vast majority of the pamphlets are from 1792 and 1793, although a few earlier pieces from 1789 onward report the earliest revolutionary grumblings against the king (referred to increasingly by his many detractors as the “tyrant” or “despot”).

Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collection

The Louis XVI collection came to us already compiled in its present form, consisting of 15 volumes of pink cartonnage bindings filled with loose pamphlets. It has been suggested that the unknown 19th-century compiler may have been a royalist sympathizer due to the high number of pro-monarchy pieces, but the collection includes many vehemently anti-monarchy pamphlets as well. Royalist or not, the mystery compiler was helpful enough to organize the volumes by subject. Earlier volumes revolve around topics such as evidence against the king, dramatic or satirical pieces about his reign and trial, and reflections on his execution. The final seven volumes contain the published opinions of each member of the Convention nationale, who took responsibility for accusing, judging, and sentencing Louis.

The earliest debates about what to do with the deposed king revolved around whether Louis could legally be judged at all, when the Constitution of 1791—held sacrosanct in loyalty oaths taken by all legislators—had declared him inviolable. Yet many legislators dismissed this claim, arguing that prior to being formally deposed in 1792, the king had effectively abdicated the throne when he began engaging in “treasonous activities,” a nebulous collection of unsubstantiated charges ranging from conspiracy with foreign rulers to deliberately causing a widespread famine in France. The abdicated king could therefore be judged like any other citizen: égalité!

Next came the debate over whether the Convention nationale, as a legislative body, was fit to try the king. Many questioned whether legislators serving as judges might violate the separation of powers and blur the line between accuser and judge, given that several Convention members had already made public their opinions on the king’s guilt. If Louis was to be judged like any other citizen, some pointed out, he should be given a fair trial. In pamphlets issued during the trial, several members carefully specified that they were giving their opinions as legislators and not as judges, a role in which they felt unqualified to serve. Others, however, countered that since Louis must be judged for the sake of national security, and since the Constitution had not set forth the proper procedure for trying a monarch, Louis must be tried by the people. And in a representative government, who better to stand in for the voice of the people than its elected Convention?  This appel au peuple, however, was ultimately rejected.

Once Louis was found guilty, the final question was that of punishment. Prompt execution was not a given, but rather the most extreme of several options, among them banishment, extended imprisonment, or a suspended death sentence. In their published pamphlets, the lawmaker-judges argued at length about which punishment was in the best interests of national security, in light of France’s increasingly tenuous relationship with the monarchs of Europe. Capital punishment won out, and Louis was guillotined on January 21, 1793.

Although the Reign of Terror did not begin until the summer of 1793, the Convention’s arguments over Louis’s fate presage some of the justifications later made for the arbitrary political violence of that period. Politicians spoke of national security, democratic principles, terrorists, and the necessity of emergency measures. Impassioned speeches and hyperbolic descriptions of a vulnerable nation beset by traitors and conspiracies resulted in a conviction and execution that were legally questionable at best. While Louis XVI may well have been guilty of many of the charges leveled against him, and not the deceived, unfortunate, or ignorant monarch his defenders claimed him to be, the pamphlets of the Louis XVI collection suggest to me that, even before the Terror, cooler heads did not prevail.