A conference paper on revolutionary popular sociability

Popular sociability as a concept and a problem in revolutionary Paris, 1789-1791.

David Andress

Given at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Montréal, Canada, October 2014.

The precise contours of popular sociability in distant periods are, like crime, one of the so-called ‘dark figures’ of history. We know that the lives of ordinary people were full, self-evidently, of interactions, and we can glimpse through the historical record a qualitative flavour of many of them, but a synthetic overview can only come by piecing together a few limited fragments. There were somewhere in the region of half a million people of the labouring and artisanal classes in late eighteenth-century Paris, and we can say an extraordinarily great deal more about many of them than we could half a century ago. We can say, for example, that a few miles down the road at Versailles, there was as early as the 1740s a common chambermaid, Marie-Madeleine Bonafon, who not only heard and understood the gossip of Court society, but wrote and published novels about it. Robert Darnton and Lisa-Jane Graham have introduced us to Bonafon and others who took it for granted that they had the right to commentate on public affairs on a daily basis, whether in prose, poetry or song, and entered into elaborate games of cat-and-mouse with the authorities who tried to stop them.

When we thus find in August 1789 a male servant responding to the denial of civil rights to domestiques with this outburst:

that all the bourgeois guard and all the people who wore the uniform were all f—ers  and that 10,000 domestics were capable of f—ing over all the f—ers who wore the blue coats . . . and that there were 60,000 domestics in Paris who could unite with the workers of various conditions and they would see all these f—ers hide at home with their f—ing coats…

For which he was sentenced to two years in jail, we might presume we are seeing the birth of a ‘popular movement’ built on a foundation of resistance to socio-economic subordination.

Alas, things are never that simple, though in the records of the police they are frequently quite colourful. The woman who declared to a local police official on 12 May 1791 that she was ‘a bit of a whore but an honest woman otherwise’, and who with her friends announced that ‘since the liberty they could go about in the night-time as in the day’ before roundly and obscenely abusing the official, had a very different view of the benefits of the revolution than, say, the leadership of the Cordeliers Club.

One of the central problems of historiography on this subject has been a strong tendency to vanguardism – finding individuals and groups who promote and articulate views that are closest to the ones historians feel ‘popular movements’ ought to embrace, and putting them forward as, if not the whole picture, then certainly the part of it meriting most attention. There are a number of issues with this, but not least of them is that it simply too often involves papering over ambiguous historical evidence. Thus the Société fraternelle de l’un et l’autre sexe, that met in 1791 downstairs from the elite Jacobin Club, contained amongst its membership the young domestic cook Constance Evrard, whose friendship with the future radical Enragé leader Pauline Léon, and bitter rant at the National Guard for the Champ de Mars Massacre, was highlighted, quite deservedly, in George Rudé’s Crowd in the French Revolution. The Société also included ‘two women of colour’, whose names appear lost to history, but who in the aftermath of the Flight to Varennes the previous month had boldly declared the necessity to strip the city of signs of royalty. Their fate, however, was not to be lauded, but to be expelled from the Société in August, having seen their club leadership publish a denunciation of them in the press, after reporting ‘indignation’ at the proposal to the police authorities themselves. There are clear limits to the idea of such ‘popular societies’ as the hosts of a radical oppositional sociability.

To contextualise all of these examples better, we need to consider what general understanding we can have of late eighteenth-century urban life. It is one in which, for example, Albert Soboul’s view of artisanal workshops as sites of patriarchal control, or Rudé’s notion of ‘bourgeois’ ideas percolating downwards, need to be substantially revised. Studies such as those of Darnton and Graham that I’ve already mentioned, and of Arlette Farge and David Garrioch, illuminate the extent to which there is a pre-existing political culture of popular life in prerevolutionary Paris. They show that between the state and the street, there was a constant interplay of critical commentary, in which certain material preoccupations, such as Steven Kaplan’s ‘Famine Plot Persuasion’, were understandably significant but only partial foundations for a much wider direct engagement that constantly hovered at the edge of sedition.

Other studies, such as Michael Sonenscher’s foundational Work and Wages, and more recently Clare Haru Crowston’s work on credit and fashion, show that socio-economic realities of the era pulled the content of popular sociability in two competing directions. Much of the more political commentary could be thought of as solidaristic, framing the population as a group defined by three unifying factors: compelled subordination to the royal state, collective interest as necessitous consumers in the effective management of the food-supply, and resistance to nefarious conspiracy by outsiders against their safety and health as consumers.

The solidarity of the consuming subject, which of course plays such a central and undeniable role in the upheavals of 1789, is however undermined by the life of the productive subject. Some aspects of this are matters of broad group prejudice – it is well-documented, for example, that journeymen artisans felt it was incumbent on their honour to detest the pretentions of male domestic servants, and the feeling was reciprocated, frequently with blows. Others are more individualised. The long working-day of the artisan classes, often noted at 14 or even 16 hours, was regularly punctuated by sociability that was frequently alcoholic, but which also dealt with important matters of business. Such discussions frequently hinged on the matter of credit, a critical and expansive term that embraced a modern sense of credit-worthiness, but also enfolded a whole series of wider judgments about trust and moral merit. Conversations about credit, moreover, were as likely to be about doing down the reputation of rivals as seeking impartial views or promoting one’s own credit.

Unlike the stereotypical picture of the artisan guild structure, employment markets were radically unstable, cut across by cycles of infighting within guilds, aggressive but sporadic legal enforcement of privileges, and constant conflict over the geographical and practical boundaries of the privileged and the unprivileged spheres of manufacture. As all economic relations were sustained in motion by intricate webs of deferred payment that nonetheless frequently tore, these situations exposed workers to penury, masters to ruin, and all to the need to reforge relationships, or skip out on dysfunctional ones, sometimes at a moment’s notice.

In this sense, almost all economic actors amongst the popular classes can be understood to have both an individualised perspective, and individualistic agency, at odds with both pessimistic accounts of subjection and narratives of emergent class-consciousness. To complicate the picture still further, we also have to recognise that relations with state authorities were not solely about criticism and repression, but were often highly productive in themselves of claims to individual and joint agency and entitlement.  Many aspects of even unskilled labour, such as in the ports and the markets, were policed by longstanding relationships sustained and licensed by official authorisations, and thus had defensible boundaries of exclusion for which official support could be invoked.

Journeymen artisans, cutting across purely individualistic strategies, had acquired a manipulative repertoire of strike action, collective litigation, and invocation of administrative authority, that served them well in a number of notable labour disputes in the approach to Revolution, even while a legislative agenda from the 1770s onwards had tried to strip them of rights. Meanwhile, the consciously paternalist presence of the absolutist state reached down to the streets through the person of the neighbourhood commissaire au Châtelet, with a quartier in which he could literally know every street-corner and bar. Active use of this institution by individuals of every class, both as a direct vehicle for judicial dispute resolution and as a more intangible forum for the public airing of claims about honesty and dishonesty, was woven into the fabric of everyday neighbourhood life. The city was thus a network of jurisdictions and privileges, attuning people to the opportunities and risks of clinging to or breaking from forms of authority and identity.

Popular responses and expectations from 1789 onwards were partly shaped by the remarkable continuity of policing institutions, that flowed over almost seamlessly from the Old Regime to the new, despite a vigorous language of journalistic and political denunciation of former abuses. From a continued flow of déclarations de grossesse, that gave unmarried women legal agency against seducers and assailants, to complaints about trivial disputes, and more significant and political denunciations, the expectation of being policed operated as a complex interlocutor of the idea of political autonomy and claims of agency – as in the case of the Société fraternelle. But in the revolutionary context this has effected a transformation from an expectation of being policed against one’s interests to one of having those interests upheld by authority.

Here we approach the crux of the matter, because out of the ‘dark figure’ of the overall pattern of popular sociability during the time of the Constituent Assembly, there came to light a quite extraordinary range of political interventions, both peaceful and violent, individual and sometimes massively collective.  Micah Alpaugh has recently pointed out that one can read the processes of Parisian popular political activity as a rich repertoire of non-violent mobilisations. The foul-mouthed domestic servant of August 1789 was part of a series of demonstrations that interspersed economically sectional concerns with a clearly-understood ‘revolutionary’ adaptation of rituals of popular piety, and which in the following month escalated into demands for political action about the ongoing subsistence crisis. In this sense, the famous women’s march on Versailles of October was one peak event amongst a wider pattern of many, as circumstances conspired to ramp up momentum from static protest, to marching on the Hotel de Ville, and beyond.

Aspects of the Versailles march need to be remembered, however, in counterbalancing Alpaugh’s focus on non-violence. There was, evidently, no sense in which we can speak of Parisians as having a principled commitment to that notion – two decapitated royal guards and a number of violently assaulted conservative deputies attest to that. But the mix of symbolic assertions of popular demands, and the sometimes fatally violent assertion of popular will, is important to retain. The move from discussion and debate to mobilisation, demand and action is not the move from ignorant passivity to incoherent disorder that hostile commentators frequently depicted. Yet at the same time, demonstrations that became violent, and violent manifestations of political will that flared abruptly to life, could occur in noticeable short-term cycles that linked otherwise diverse issues.

Thus in the days around 22 May 1790, when the National Assembly finally resolved a bitter debate over the power to declare war, there were a series of assertive actions by crowds against royalist print-shops and publications, including the violent seizure of such texts and images, and public bonfires to destroy them. On the 24th and 25th, there were then two separate incidents in which at least three and possibly four individuals – apparently common thieves – were killed by crowds, having been dragged from the hands of escorting National Guards, on the reported pretext that one had said he could buy his way out of prison. This sudden flare of significant, ugly violence, that nonetheless conveyed clear political concerns about the corruption of the prisons and courts, then dissipated.

On 24 January 1791, there was a ‘massacre’ of several civilians by National Guards working in support of the customs-barrier around the city; this led three days later to a mass trespass and defiance of the guards working at the barriers by hundreds of people. In the same heated atmosphere of 27 January, a man suspected of being a police spy was chased through the streets of the Faubourg Saint Antoine by a crowd who scorned the harangues of municipal officers appealing for calm, and demanded he be strung up. National Guards had to shield the victim all the way to the Châtelet prison before their pursuers dispersed.

A few weeks later on 22 and 24 February, there were completely peaceful mass-mobilisations around the Tuileries palace by crowds anxious about the reported departure of royal family members – on the 22nd, a large group even ‘escorted’ the king’s brother from the Luxembourg to the Tuileries. On the 28th of that month thousands of working men from the Faubourg Saint Antoine mobilised to break up refurbishment works in the Chateau de Vincennes, after rumours that it was to be used for nefarious political purposes; and simultaneously thousands of others mobilised once more around the Tuileries, counter-demonstrating against hundreds of young noblemen who had flooded the palace after alarms and counter-alarms spiralled towards fear of either royal escape or massacre.

I highlight these examples because they do not even touch on the major well-known crises of popular action, but demonstrate nonetheless that actual or potential killings, by both crowds and the forces of order, interspersed with action against property, and with a near-modern pattern of manifestation, were a month-by-month possibility and frequent reality in revolutionary Paris.

The context of sociability out of which sudden or meditated action condensed remains, for the most part, dark to us, but in and around the Palais-Royal the police records allow us to see some of the potential mechanisms at work. Accused and accusers in the almost daily charges of incendiary speech that dot the archive manifest a highly individual capacity to judge and condemn others’ views, with very little clear sense that certain opinions are the province of one or another social class – except that all incendiary activity is linked, implicitly or explicitly, to the assumed conjunction of marginality and aristocratic deception.

On one particularly agitated afternoon, 15 July 1790, with hundreds of people in the Palais-Royal gardens, including scores of National Guards who had attended the previous day’s Festival of Federation, four men were arrested in separate incidents for complaining about the king’s conduct on the 14th. They were, by background, apparently respectable – a young-ish clerk, an elderly bourgeois, and two middle-aged professionals, an architect and a barrister. Who, exactly, had said what in the swirling and fervid groups of conversationalists dotting the gardens was not entirely clarified by interrogation. What does stand out is that, on the one hand, at least three of the four had been directly threatened with violence – witnesses spoke of cries for a ducking in the fountains, but also of a number of people waving drawn swords, and the difficult rescue of one individual from what was becoming an ugly mob. On the other hand, many of the witnesses coming forward, to preserve order on the ground, and also to offer testimony afterwards, were of humble origin – a journeyman wigmaker, a hatmaker’s labourer, and a tailor were heard alongside Guard officers, a merchant and a lawyer.

The so-called ‘groups’ that made up the thronging conversation of these gardens had been an object of apprehension by authorities and commentators alike since the first days of the Revolution – fear of outbursts had occasioned attempts at draconian policing, which failed so badly that the local administrators seem to have been genuinely fearful of being ordered to try again. Pamphleteers made dark prognostications of the troubles that might come from unregulated rumour-mongering, and floated schemes to promote assemblies of accredited patriots to vet and denounce false news. This was an iconic site for the freedom of speech that was associated with the most radical dimensions of revolutionary activism. Yet it was also a site where, as these examples show, a ‘popular’ revolutionary sociability was both plebeian and bourgeois, and productive of speech whose actual intentions, inflammatory, radical, patriotic, moderate or reactionary, are only sometimes unambiguous – to us now, and evidently also to listeners then.

What is also evident in the concerns and rhetorics of the Palais-Royal and elsewhere is the continuing fundamental attention to the issues that drove solidaristic concerns under the Old Regime – primarily that potentially conspiratorial actions linking high and low, royal movements and shadowy outsiders, might threaten the well-being and the lives of the general population. The extent and scope of these concerns, and the way in which they point forward to the well-known subsistence rhetoric of the sans-culotte movement, is particularly ironic when juxtaposed to the fate of agitation on behalf of particular producer interests.

One aspect of public mobilisation  that was unambiguously plebeian was the movement in early 1791 to secure the position of skilled workers in the aftermath of the abolition of the guild system. Following the establishment in late 1790 of a mutual-aid society amongst printworkers, attempting to counteract a frenetic deskilling process in their exploding industry, many other crafts clashed with employers, authorities, and press opinion, until succumbing to legislative suppression with the Le Chapelier Law of 14 June 1791. The printworkers showed a predictably lively capacity for publicity, issuing their own newspaper, and a set of ‘regulations for the typographical corps’, which also declared its authorship by the ‘general assembly of representatives’ of the workers, blending corporate and revolutionary idioms seamlessly. These workers, evidently meeting, discussing and acting collectively, ran a months-long campaign of political lobbying that flirted repeatedly with threats of official suppression. Carpentry workers, meanwhile, organised a full-blown trade assembly at the Archeveché palace, and a series of acrimonious pamphlet exchanges with employers through the spring of 1791, continuing even when forcibly removed from their meeting-hall by the city authorities.

The plebeian sociabilities involved in these campaigns transcended tavern conversation into what is recognisably trade unionism, running a gamut from formal delegations, to alarmingly rowdy street-demonstrations, and allegedly violent intimidation of other workers. Alongside the carpenters, there is evidence that stonemasons, blacksmiths, hatters and cobblers also became engaged in more or less collective actions, and that even the unskilled workers on outdoor relief joined in with delegations and petitions for wage-rises. The passage of the Le Chapelier Law did not stop workers meeting – no fewer than seventeen carpenters were locked up after a police raid on 18 June, those being the ‘undomiciled’ and therefore more socially-dangerous portion of a larger meeting. The following month, a meeting of hatters planning to despatch strike-funds to fellow-workers in Lyon was broken up, with eighteen men spending several weeks in prison as a result. What is perhaps most noticeable about these events in a political context is that the workers attracted virtually no support from the press or popular societies – acting positively in one’s own economic interest, rather than in a generalised defence of the revolutionary people, was not recognised as legitimate conduct, and indeed was frequently criticised on those exact grounds.

In conclusion, then, and for further discussion, I would propose three aspects of Parisian ‘popular sociability’ in this early revolutionary period as key. The first is that it was undoubtedly a phenomenon of far greater breadth than has been captured by traditional vanguardist narratives, and that, out of that ‘dark figure’ of unidentifiable daily interactions, a remarkable range of mobilisations emerged. The second is that it is impossible to draw any sharp and definitive distinction between violent and non-violent, and thus implicitly ‘unsophisticated’ and ‘sophisticated’ popular responses and understandings of their context, whether on a large or small scale. And the third is that, perhaps most curiously of all, as we look ahead into the years of the Republic, we see that the language of productive interests and of active economic agency will continue to be submerged beneath attitudes to the ‘subsistence question’, which are in fact amongst the strongest continuities from the daily life of the Old Regime. It is not, as Albert Soboul once thought, that the sans-culottes failed to reach forward to an understanding of the workers’ situation, but rather that they chose a vocabulary and an agenda which suppressed evidently existing potential for such a grasp. To put the evidence of popular sociability alongside the conduct of the so-called ‘popular movement’ is to see a mystery in need of further explanation.


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