Robert Darnton: Poetry and the Police

TUE, NOV 2, 2010 (55:38)

Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Libraries, discusses his new book Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris. In spring 1749, Francois Bonis, a medical student in Paris, found himself unexpectedly hauled off to the Bastille for distributing an “abominable poem about the king.” So began the Affair of the Fourteen, a police crackdown on ordinary citizens for unauthorized poetry recitals. Why was the official response to these poems so intense? In Poetry and the Police, Robert Darnton follows the poems as they passed through several media: copied on scraps of paper, dictated from one person to another, memorized and declaimed to an audience. But the most effective dispersal occurred through music, when poems were sung to familiar tunes. Lyrics often referred to current events or revealed popular attitudes toward the royal court. The songs provided a running commentary on public affairs, and Darnton traces how the lyrics fit into song cycles that carried messages through the streets of Paris during a period of rising discontent. He uncovers a complex communication network, illuminating the way information circulated in a semi-literate society.

+ BIO: Robert Darnton

Robert Darnton is a former professor of European History at Princeton University, and current Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the Harvard University Library. The founder of the Gutenberg-e program, he is the author of many books, including most recently George Washington’s False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century, as well as the 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award–winning The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Prerevolutionary France. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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