‘Frondeurs’ and fake news: how misinformation ruled in 17th-century France

Terms such as 'post-truth' suggest that misinformation and misleading reports are new phenomena - but that's not the case. Linda Kiernan, a French History lecturer, explains how fake news took hold in 17th century France.

'Frondeurs' and fake news: how misinformation ruled in 17th-century France
A portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Image: Public Domain

We are in the midst of a information revolution, matched perhaps only by the printing revolution of the 15th century and the reading revolution of the 18th. The digital revolution has made writers, commentators, and publishers of us all – and we can reach potential audiences of millions at the touch of a button.

This level of reach would have been unfathomable in the 17th century, when a thousand copies was considered a huge print run. However, 17th-century readers faced some of the same problems we encounter today.

The challenge of finding unbiased, accurate reportage of relevant political issues was as daunting in the 1640s as it is now. We are told we live in a “post-truth” era – which suggests that there has, at some stage, been a golden age of truth. In fact, consumers of news have always been subject to the perils of misinformation or propaganda – it’s by no means the first era of fake news.

Our media today combines more information with faster distribution than ever before. However, acceleration like this has happened previously in times of intense political upheaval. During the 1640s and 1650s Western Europe stumbled out of the Thirty Years War only to be plunged straight back into revolts, civil wars and regicide. During this intense period the medium of print was pushed to new limits.

Across France and England, royalists, frondeurs (political rebels), roundheads and cavaliers faced off not just on the battlefield but through the art and wiles of the pamphleteer. They presented clearly antagonistic and contradictory versions of the “truth”, purposefully offering dramatically different views of their actions for or against the state.

French letters

In France, news travelled in a variety of ways – through pamphlets, affiches, which were posted around cities, and billets – small card-sized reports that could be hidden or discarded quickly in the event of arrest. Low literacy rates did little to slow the spread of this news, particularly in urban areas. News was relayed (and redrafted) often by word of mouth – the social media of the age.

Colporteurs peddled songs and stories on the streets, often scribbled down on notes, or sung aloud to an already well-known tune. Making the message memorable was half the battle – the other half could be covered by the outlandish or scandalous nature of the material.

Cardinal Mazarin was a particular target of malicious gossip.

One of the best-known examples of seditious material during this decade was that of the Mazarinades during the French civil wars during the early years of Louis XIV’s reign. These pamphlets, primarily attacking Louis XIV’s prime minister Cardinal Mazarin, levelled charges of everything from corruption and treason to incest and sodomy and other sexual misdemeanours against the Italian cardinal.

The outlandish and extreme claims made by this particular set of pamphlets have echoed in the political sphere over the past year. Probably the best-known recent example of “fake news” was the Pizzagate case, in which a pizza parlour in Washington DC was targeted as a supposed hub of a paedophile ring led by high-ranking Democrats – leading to a shooting at the restaurant when one conspiracy theorist went to investigate further. This conspiracy theory shared a number of characteristics with Mazarin’s treatment, not least in that they both raised the issue of child abuse – conflating sexual disorder with political corruption is an old trick.

Not all readers were (or will be) misled. Many were exposed to a multitude of viewpoints, gaining a balance at least from a wider consumption of material, sometimes handed to them on the street, or simply listened to as they went about their daily business.

Coureurs and coureuses (male and female “runners”) sang the latest news on the street and were hard to avoid – indeed these “songs-of-news” were better known as the original “vaudevilles”, literally “what goes around the city”. In the same way, any discerning internet surfer today can find a huge range of competing viewpoints – but the packaging of news online now presents a different set of problems.

Falsehood flies

Distinguishing between misinformation and disinformation is challenging. This leads to the charge of “fake news” being levelled at almost all outlets – Donald Trump’s habit of accusing the mainstream media of lying has become a particular feature of his administration. This raises an urgent question: if the political establishment continues to undermine the value of the press and to erode its integrity by lumping investigative journalism with unsubstantiated rumour, what measures to control freedom of expression and means of communication will government deem justifiable?

The latter decades of the 17th century were characterised by severe repression of the press, especially effective in Louis XIV’s France where many were persecuted for writing and publishing seditious material. Many fled the country, or published on the borders around France.

In England rumour continued to weave political magic or havoc depending on one’s perspective, not least in episodes such as The Popish Plot in the 1670s – the widely believed “fake news” that Jesuits were planning to do away with Charles II in favour of his Catholic younger brother James – but it tended to be a much safer place to be a journalist or pamphleteer, despite considerable political and religious tensions.

The role of the press during this period certainly gave commentators cause for concern. Jonathan Swift displayed his usual healthy cynicism when he noted that: “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.” But we can also take heart from the 1644 work Areopagitica, Milton’s timely treatise on the importance of the freedom of expression:

For who knows not that Truth is strong … she needs no policies, nor strategems, nor licencings to make her victorious, those are the shifts and the defences that error uses against her power.

The ConversationThe advice of that age endures now – let falsity and deception serve as unavoidable counterpoints to what is accurate. They underline the necessity of identifying what is fake, disputing what is wrong, and the imperative of pursuing the truth.

Linda Kiernan, Lecturer in French History, Trinity College Dublin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.