Guest Lecture Prof. Robert Darnton: A Report

On June 14th Professor Robert Darnton gave a guest lecture at the University of Utrecht, titled “Mlle Bonafon and the Private Life of Louis XV: Communication Networks in 18th-Century France”, which was announced on this weblog as well. I attended this lecture, and although it was very much focused on the (book)historical practice of the “libelle” and  “chronique scandaleuse”, some points were made that may be relevant or at least interesting from the point of view of socio-historical linguistics  and especially social network analysis.

In eighteenth-century France, with its widespread state censorship, people turned to alternative sources for news. News was in fact spread mainly through lower class women, servants, who went door-to-door to collect news and gossip for their mistresses, who then talked together about this news in their salons. News in eighteenth-century France can be thought of as spreading through social networks by means of what can be said to be peripheral members of these networks and was then spread by the early adopter, the central member of the network cluster, in her salon, to the other network members.

Lacking official news sources (the state-approved newspapers did not print any news worth talking about, nor did the newspapers printed abroad for the illegal French market) eighteenth-century French people got the news from what prof. Darnton termed public noise. Eighteenth-century scandalous publications (romans-a-clef and other censored books) and the public noise worked to reinforce each other. Gossip and popular literature at that time did not reveal what was actually happening, but what people perceived to be true. In a way eighteenth-century pre-revolutionary works can be said to be more than an accumulation of anecdotes; these publications are part of a greater narrative in which the texts can be seen as manifestations of the (discourse) community of eighteenth-century France.

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