This article approaches reading by comparing the views of police officers and physicians in eighteenth-century France. Both had a vested interest in readers as part of their professional duties. Contrary to expectations, anxiety about reading cut across the ideological divisions of the Enlightenment. When we situate the police perspective on the dangers of reading in this broader conversation, we see their repressive activities in a new light. What distinguished their views from those of doctors, who targeted reading as a public health problem for medical intervention, was not their conviction that reading required regulation but their understanding of fiction and its effects. The police located the dangers of reading outside the text, not inside it. Reading fueled conversations, speculations, and the production of more texts. By contrast, the doctors warned about the absorptive powers of fiction and moved the danger zone inside the individual's imagination. This analysis suggests that attitudes toward reading revealed doubts about the human capacity for self-government that guided both royal officials and men of science in their diagnosis of social life.
Cet article propose de comparer les perspectives policières et médicales sur la lecture au dix-huitième siècle. Les policiers et les médecins considéraient que la protection des lecteurs faisait partie de leur devoir professionnel. Contrairement à ce que l'on pourrait croire, la lecture suscitait une angoisse que partageait l'ensemble des Lumières. En introduisant le discours policier dans cette conversation plus large, on y apporte un nouveau regard. Ce qui a distingué la police n'était pas sa conviction qu'il fallait surveiller la lecture mais sa théorie de la fiction. Selon elle, le danger se trouvait hors du texte parce que la lecture inspirait la discussion et l'écriture. Du leur côté, les médecins dénonçaient l'absorption à l'œuvre dans la fiction et situaient le danger au fond de l'imagination individuelle. Cette analyse démontre que les débats autour de la lecture étaient liés à l'émergence des principes de subjectivité et de liberté modernes.
In late June 1746 Lieutenant General of Police Claude-Henri Feydeau de Marville reported that Paris was abuzz over the disgrace of Madame d'Andlau, lady-in-waiting to the king's fourteen-year-old daughter, Princess Adélaïde. Initial speculation that d'Andlau had offended the royal mistress, Madame de Pompadour, was dispelled by Father Pérusseau, who discovered the truth during confession and alerted the king. According to Marville:
The cause of Madame d'Andlau's disgrace is now public news at court, and there is no mystery about it. She was supplying some very bad books to Madame Adélaïde, such as Le portier de Chartreux, Tanastès, and other similar titles. It had been remarked for some time now that the princess preferred the pleasures of reading to those of the hunt and that she was careful to hide her books. This behavior aroused suspicions. . . . Everybody is outraged by Madame d'Andlau and thinks she deserved more serious punishment than exile. There is no doubt that this adventure could hurt Madame Adélaïde.1
Tongues were wagging, and news of the embarrassing incident soon reached foreign courts.2 Everybody agreed that it was better for a young princess to spend her days hunting than reading novels, especially the racy titles in question. Moreover, the princess set a bad example, as attested by a courtier who noticed a copy of a pornographic work, La tourière des Carmélites, in the apartment of the Duchess of Chartres a few days later. When the gentleman rebuked the lady for reading such a dangerous book, she retorted that “she could certainly read it, since Madame Adélaïde, who is just a girl, had read it before her.”3 Marville suggests a consensus at court about the need to protect women from exposure to dangerous books. Was this a police fantasy designed to legitimate repression, or did it capture a widespread conviction?
It is hard to square Marville's account with our vision of either the police or the public in the age of Enlightenment. In these same decades, one finds the following endorsement of reading in the Encyclopédie by Leiden medical graduate Louis de Jaucourt: “I will not lay out the myriad benefits engendered by reading. Suffice it to say that reading is indispensable for embellishing the mind and forming judgments; without reading, the most beautiful mind dries up and withers away. Nevertheless, reading is a struggle for the majority of men.”4 Jaucourt then cites examples of men who avoid reading, including military officers, gamblers, financiers, and ministers. Unlike the furtive female pleasures disparaged by Marville, Jaucourt extols the man who withdraws to his study with a book: “It is also in this latter fashion that reading is most useful; to gather the fruit in its entirety, one needs silence, calm, and meditation.”5 At first glance, the views of the police chief and the philosophe could not be further apart. Yet, underneath their differences, the two men agreed that reading played a critical role in preparing or perverting individuals for their roles in society.
Marville and Jaucourt were part of a broader conversation about reading prompted by the material and cultural changes that propelled the Enlightenment in France. Doctors, philosophes, and moralists embraced reading as an instrument of education and progress. Yet reading entailed risks as Louis Bollioud-Mermet, a minor man of letters, observed: “Just as wisely ordered reading instructs the mind, so, too, ill-conceived or scattered reading depraves it.”6 Three decades later, in the midst of revolution, the Dictionnaire de l'Académie française warned that “the debaucheries of reading and the mind are no less dangerous than those of the senses.”7 Throughout the eighteenth century the promotion of reading always included warnings about abuse.
The preceding observations remind us that reading was viewed as an activity and an appetite in the eighteenth century. The understanding of reading, its attractions and its consequences, encompassed the mind and the body through the faculties of imagination and digestion. Both vitalist medicine and sensationalist philosophy emphasized the role of external stimuli on physiological and cognitive activity. For police officers, doctors, and philosophes, reading required training, supervision, and controls. Yet reading lacked the temporal and material constraints of other leisure activities regulated by the crown, such as theaters, brothels, and gambling dens. Although the police could monitor sites of collective reading like cafés, they could not contain the spread of silent and solitary reading. This task fell to their counterparts in the fields of medicine and morality, as seen in the campaign against masturbation and the invention of new pathologies.8
When we compare the police to doctors, who targeted reading as a public health issue, we see that what distinguished their views was not their conviction that reading required regulation but the assumptions that guided their practices. This comparative analysis reveals a continuum of prescriptive discourses grounded in different epistemologies and professional identities. Acknowledging these overlapping concerns about reading alerts us to underlying ambivalence about human nature and progress that guided the Enlightenment as much as the monarchy in eighteenth-century France.
. . .
The Enlightenment bequeathed this debate about reading to subsequent generations, including our own. As Jaucourt's article on lecture demonstrates, reading symbolized freedom from ignorance and oppression in a polity predicated on information control. This agenda guided the Revolution's early commitment to a free press and public education.9 Starting in 1789, revolutionary leaders credited the philosophes for galvanizing the nation to action.10 Alexis de Tocqueville in the mid-nineteenth century and Daniel Mornet in the early twentieth privileged the dissemination of enlightened ideas to explain both the outbreak and the outcome of revolution in France.11 More recently, Jürgen Habermas moved reading to the center of his model of the public sphere. For Habermas, liberal subjectivity emerged within the intimate sphere of the bourgeois family and the public spaces of commercial society. In both instances, the spread of print through newspapers, letters, diaries, and novels enabled new forms of self-reflection and sociability.12 For Habermas, reading fostered the critical thinking that prepared royal subjects for citizenship. Each of these models cites reading to link progressive ideas and political actions. Yet where can historians find evidence to support this assertion, given the invisibility of readers in the archives?
As Roger Chartier and Christian Jouhaud warn, “Texts do not inscribe themselves in readers as if they were made of soft wax.”13 Yet the temptation to do so is strong, since we depend on the police, who used that very expression to describe the ways texts imprinted themselves on readers. Moreover, when the police interrogated printers, authors, and peddlers, they focused on the mechanics of textual production, not the finer points of interpretation. One way around this methodological impasse entails using the evidence to illuminate the police rather than their prey.
Although they were not close readers, the police had assumptions about readers and reading that guided their daily work. By comparing the views of the police and their medical counterparts, I offer one example of how to historicize theories of textual danger and what such analysis reveals. This effort to identify the danger zones requires that we narrow the scope of inquiry in time, space, and genre. By shifting our gaze earlier in the century, we escape the distortion of the pending revolution. This midcentury vantage point highlights a crescendo of anxiety that converged on the novel, a protean and popular form that left no commentator indifferent. Both the police and the physicians sensed that fiction reconfigured relations between readers and texts that had significant social and political consequences. Moreover, fiction encouraged new ways of reading not just texts but the world that produced them. Many of these assumptions about the moral and physiological effects of fiction had emerged in debates about the novel at the end of the seventeenth century. Thus our investigation of reading and danger in the Enlightenment begins with a glance back to this controversy.
Fear and Fiction
Under Louis XIV the crown extended its control over information and artistic expression to consolidate authority and instill obedience. The crown pursued this agenda through policing and censorship, as well as the founding of academies for the sciences and the arts. Louis XIV used the media to promote his reign but kept statecraft shrouded in mystery. The control of information targeted form as well as content—artists in all fields had to adhere to the king's style, whether in portraiture or in typography.14 Members of the elite found refuge from ceremonies of power in private gatherings dedicated to intellectual exchange and gallant conversation. The novel emerged within these aristocratic and feminine salons to challenge the crown's instrumental use of literature. It quickly became a lightning rod for culture wars between ancients and moderns that flared at the turn of the century.15
Critics used the term novel to designate a range of prose forms that included fairy tales, oriental tales, romans à clefs, pseudomemoirs, travel literature, and erotica. In all instances, the novel subverted principles of secrecy, hierarchy, and control that defined the monarchy's cultural policy. It invited speculation and generated discussions that extended beyond the narrow circle of readers who had access to a given text, as Geoffrey Turnovsky demonstrates in his contribution to this forum. Since novels were entertaining, and therefore popular, critics blamed them for misleading the ignorant and corrupting morality.16 The experimental techniques critics denounced appealed to moderns who saw fiction as a vehicle for reaching a large audience. All the major philosophes wrote novels, and production soared in the first half of the eighteenth century despite official efforts to repress it.17 In response to accusations of artifice and immorality, authors championed realism and empiricism. The tide turned in 1760, when French taste gravitated away from fiction toward political economy, jurisprudence, and natural science. Nonetheless, the popularity of novels divided critics down through the revolution.
The 1730s and 1740s marked a high point in French novel production, and Chancellor d'Aguesseau directed the police to crack down, which drove it underground.18 We get a sense of the stakes involved in 1736 when the Jesuit preacher Charles Porée delivered his annual public sermon in Latin on the dangers of novels. Porée's text gained traction when François Granet published a French version of the speech in his compendium of Discourses on the Novel.19 Porée denounced the novel for debasing taste and corrupting morality. Young and female readers were most vulnerable due to their weakened reasoning capacity: “Novels not only paved the way for the vices to enter their young hearts; they deprived women of their most precious virtues, simplicity, modesty, and propriety.”20 Most troubling for Porée, “novels reverse the natural order, they make women independent of men, they make them the supreme arbiters of everything, they deify them; how could a woman guard her modesty in the midst of so many honors?”21 Porée alerts us to the link between the novel and female insubordination that fueled these attacks. These moral concerns acquired medical ammunition with the discovery of fibers and the publication of Albrecht von Haller's Dissertation on the Sensible and Irritable Parts of Animals in 1753. Haller argued that children and women had more sensitive fibers than men and that this difference made them more susceptible to stimuli such as reading. These assumptions about gender differences and fears of unsexing traversed the discussion of reading in the eighteenth century and reinforced the case for regulation.22
Where critics blamed novels for moral corruption, fans defended them for providing moral instruction. As Germain-Hyacinthe Romance de Mesmon proclaimed, “The multitude of situations found in novels supplement our own deficits of experience, . . . and only novels strike me as capable of providing the various outcomes needed to complete the study of man.”23 These goals required narrative techniques to engage and move readers. Madame de Lafayette used interior monologues to get inside a character's head and capture the conflicting dictates of duty and desire. By collapsing the distance between readers and characters, Lafayette encouraged readers to identify with characters. For critics, this emotional connection led readers to mistake fiction for real life and inevitably produced dissatisfaction. These fears were not confined to reactionaries but also haunted sensationalist thinkers like Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, who cited novel reading as an example of how solitude and an overstimulated imagination could unhinge a person's mind.24 Reading nourished the brain with external stimuli but could also derail it.
This glance at debates about the novel alerts us to assumptions that framed the discussion of reading and danger in eighteenth-century France. First, the identification of the novel with women as authors and readers to reinforce the charges of moral corruption: novels privileged the passions as motors of history at the expense of reason. Second, the association with experimental narrative strategies that blurred the boundary between fiction and reality: critics and admirers concurred that novels led to disillusionment with the real world and real people. Finally, the debate about the novel was ultimately a debate about readers and reading. Unlike most of the available printed information, novels embraced partial truths and multiple, often conflicting, perspectives. By encouraging readers to think, discuss, and judge for themselves, they were necessarily subversive within a polity predicated on secrecy and control of information.
Although scholars have studied censorship and its politicizing effects, few ask whether the police had a theory of reading to guide their activities. Although it seems obvious what material they would find seditious and why, we cannot always decipher their logic. For example, they prioritized obscure titles whose subversive charge escapes us while ignoring texts later enshrined as radical. This gap reminds us that their theory of what made reading dangerous differs from our own. At the same time, their role as intermediaries between royal censors and public opinion makes their perspective invaluable.
Starting in the sixteenth century, the crown wrested control of censorship from competing institutions, including the Sorbonne faculty, the Parlement of Paris, and the church. The king appointed a directeur de la librairie, who oversaw a bureau of censors with expertise in different fields. The lack of consistent guidelines meant that censors varied widely in their evaluations of texts. Nonetheless, royal censors prided themselves on their ability to identify erroneous or offensive texts that endangered the public interest. The director decided, on the basis of their reports, whether to grant a privilege that authorized publication; if necessary, he negotiated with other institutions. In principle, no text could be published without preliminary review, but the system had loopholes.25 The problem of closing them fell to police inspectors and their informants.
By the eighteenth century the crown had a specialized unit within the police force to track public opinion and regulate the book trade. Unlike royal censors, police officers had a background in jurisprudence, not in letters, theology, or science. In fact, they often relied on others to read for them, as seen in the following report from Inspector Dadvenel, who discovered a forbidden text, La nouvelle Babylone, being peddled to select clients in cafés: “I don't know, Monsieur, whether you have seen this book, but people who have read it assure me that it treats the good and bad qualities of the king, the tax farmers, and ministers, that the author spares nobody based on rank or family. He also shows how they got their offices.” Dadvenel promised his superior that he would “do his best” to procure a copy of the book to assess its danger.26
The lieutenant general of police worked closely with the chancellor and the keeper of the seals to monitor the underground market in literature, sending daily reports on rumors, gossip, and prohibited texts.27 Like physicians who defended patients against quack remedies, the police protected readers from seditious or specious texts. They took their cue from the crown, which used both repression and propaganda to control the supply chain. This policy was explicit in moments of crisis such as the War of the Austrian Succession, which dragged on from 1740 to 1748. In March 1746 Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marquis d'Argenson sent Marville a German text from Frankfurt and told him to publish a French translation: “The topic it treats is very interesting, and I think it would be good to see it distributed widely. To this effect, I am requesting that you have it printed in Paris as soon as possible. . . . As for the rest, I will rely on you to make sure that this text gets into circulation quickly.”28 Three months later d'Argenson justified his decision to deny permission to reprint a panegyric to the king by Sieur Le Mercier: “This work, which was dedicated to me without my knowledge, seemed to me rather mediocre, and I see no use in printing a second edition.”29 In this case, quality, not content, determined the minister's decision and police response.
In the 1740s and 1750s the police noticed an uptick in production of what they called “novels with keys or applications.” These hybrid texts, which I call faux fictions, blended political news, court gossip, and fictional forms to engage readers. The winning formula attracted recognized authors such as Crébillon fils and Denis Diderot, as well as obscure figures like Marie Bonafon, Louis de Boissy, and the Chevalier de Rességuier. These texts had commercial appeal, since they promised to explain the mysteries of state in a time of war and political unrest. The stories may seem silly to us, but the police took them seriously. They imprisoned authors, printers, and peddlers while confiscating all the copies they could seize in their raids. They were disturbed when authors admitted to “reading a lot” and “having their head filled with what was being discussed” when asked what had inspired them to write.30 These exchanges confirmed that neither the police nor their prey considered these faux fictions fictional.31
To understand this perspective, we need to recognize that the police relied on extratextual factors to gauge danger. As readers worked through the faux fictions, they connected characters and plot to context and causality. Reading had measurable and aggregate effects that derived from current affairs and material forms, not abstract signifying processes. In early May 1740 an inspector reported on an anonymous text that was causing a stir: “Everyone is talking about a booklet in circulation that deals with the king's parties in his private apartments; they say that the author is very bold because he depicts the king and his favorites in an unflattering light, that he aims to instill contempt for His Majesty not only in his subjects but also in any foreigners into whose hands a book like this falls.” The memo characterizes the book as an allegorical novel that mocks the king and insults his courtiers. The author “describes what goes on in the king's private parties with gentlemen and ladies of the court . . . and he invents insulting nicknames for each character.”32
The inspector offers a surprising conclusion that echoes Marville's account of d'Andlau's disgrace in 1746: “In regard to the king, they say that the author does not stray from the respect owed His Majesty, beyond saying that this prince passes his life too voluptuously for his own good. I can assure you that the majority blame the man who could write such a book . . . and insist that such a writer deserves punishment. . . . I must report as well that many people are saying that we are going to have a war.”33 In presenting his assessment, the inspector evokes a tense political climate: France stood on the brink of the War of the Austrian Succession with an aging minister, Cardinal Fleury, at the helm and an untested king. The public was hungry for news, international and domestic, none of it forthcoming in the official press.34 The vacuum of information was filled by this underground text, which reinforced rumors of royal debauchery to undermine confidence in Louis XV's military leadership.35
This account emphasizes the author's intention to tarnish the king among readers at home and abroad. Clearly, the international situation weighed heavily as a risk factor when the police assessed textual danger. The police worried about the mobility of information across borders and beyond the text as France prepared for war. Moreover, the inspector used public reactions (“the majority”) to justify repression. He reassured his superiors that people were more outraged by the author's impudence than by the king's excesses. The report gives no indication whether the inspector had read the text in question, but on some level it does not matter.
The preceding report suggests that the danger of the anonymous text lay in its capacity to make public and incite discussion about topics normally hidden from view.36 Moreover, the police were convinced that reading and conversation led to writing, a view they shared with others including the conservative critic, abbé Armand Pierre Jacquin, who observed, “The bane of our century is the desire to become an author.”37 In particular, reading instilled literary aspirations in the wrong people, those who lacked education, talent, or a pedigree. These fears were confirmed by authors like Marie Bonafon, a chambermaid at Versailles who in 1745 wrote a satirical novel, Tanastès, in which “it was easy to detect insulting allusions to the king, the queen and other prominent individuals.”38 Bonafon used a fairy tale setting and disguised names to address concerns about Louis XV's character that surfaced when the king brought his mistress, the Duchess of Châteauroux, to the battlefront. The king fell ill, banished his mistress in preparation for the last rites, and then miraculously recovered. Bonafon did not break this news, but she gave it a narrative arc and a moral plot to question royal judgment in a time of war.
This case alarmed the police, since Bonafon drew on intimate knowledge of court politics to construct her tale. At first the police refused to believe that she had worked independently, asserting that the novel contained “knowledge of things that exceeded her station.” They assumed that she was taking the blame for her aristocratic employers. Bonafon, however, insisted that she had worked from her “imagination,” inspired by current events and court gossip.39 When pressed by Lieutenant General Marville, she explained that, “since she read a lot, she had acquired a taste for writing. . . . Moreover, she hoped to earn some extra money on the side, that nobody had taught her the rules or furnished memoirs; . . . she had worked alone.”40 Her response confirmed the fatal chain that led from reading through imagination to authorship.
Bonafon explained that when she shared her manuscript with Nicolas Mazelin, a fellow servant, he offered to find her a publisher. After reading it, he remarked that “one could make some dangerous applications to the king's illness from this work.”41 At this point she hesitated, but, since she needed the money, she went ahead and reassured herself that “the public would not pay any attention to the allusions.”42 She never expected readers to push the applications as far as they did.43 Underneath her efforts to minimize her crime, the police glimpsed the truth: Bonafon knew that the public was hungry for news about the king and that her faux fiction could profit from it.
Marville was convinced that proof of criminal intention lay in Bonafon's decision to supply a handwritten key to identify characters in the novel. The key destroyed the alibi of fiction that Bonafon had used to excuse her crime. The key was a marketing tool, a reading aid, and a symbol of authorial intention. It would haunt the police for years. In June 1747 Inspector Dadvenel alerted his superiors that he had discovered the widow Amory, a bookseller in the Palais de Justice, selling copies of “Tanastès with the key” along with other prohibited titles to her clients.44 By then Bonafon was imprisoned in a convent in the Bourbonnais and had forsaken her literary ambitions. Nonetheless, Marville's successor, Nicolas René Berryer, instructed Dadvenel to buy the text for him to review. For the police, the key confirmed both Bonafon's guilt and their assessment of what constituted the danger of this text.
At first Bonafon denied providing a written key. She acknowledged that she had identified characters for Mazelin, who had taken notes as she read aloud. He used these notes to pitch the novel to potential publishers. She insisted that the key was never intended for readers. During her second interrogation Bonafon claimed that she was upset when she discovered copies of her novel with a key in the Dubuissons' bookshop at Versailles. Marville was unconvinced and pressed her to confess. Finally, in Bonafon's third interrogation Marville cornered her with incriminating testimony from one of the Parisian peddlers, Maillard. She admitted to writing out a key that she gave to Mazelin for Maillard but insisted that “this key was meant for him only to help him understand the text, but he should under no circumstances share it with anyone else.”45 Once he had secured her confession about the key, Marville demolished her defense:
She was told that it was not credible according to what she just told us, that in sending the key for Tanastès to Maillard she told him not to share it with anyone. This key was made to facilitate sales of the book, and the book had been sent to Maillard for him to sell it.
She said that her intention had not been for Maillard to distribute copies of the key, and that she had given it to him exclusively so that by understanding the text he would be in a better position to explain it to potential buyers.
She was told that between supplying a key in writing and providing a verbal explanation of the book there is little difference, and that we are convinced that she agrees with us.
She said that she concedes the truth of our argument.46
This dispute about the key reveals official assumptions about what constituted the danger zones in and around texts.
Jean Goulemot suggests that, in a culture premised on secrecy, readers looked for truths in fictions.47 This assumption nurtured the development of allegorical fictions, fairy tales, and romans à clefs. As another hapless author, the Chevalier de Rességuier, acknowledged about his “crazy desire to draw portraits” that landed him in jail, “Applying them to current affairs renders them criminal.”48 The police were obsessed with Bonafon's key because it directed readers to “apply” the text to politics, to find secrets of state in a faux fictional world. The key prevented readers from approaching fairy tales as fictions, since they prompted connections to current events and prominent individuals. Moreover, it opened the text to interpretations that could be discussed and debated.
For example, Bonafon split the fictional Louis XV into two kings, one good (Tanastès) and one bad (Agamil), to account for the real king's erratic behavior. It was hard for readers to keep track of the two kings, who were constantly trading places. The novel ends on an ambivalent note when Tanastès drinks a potion consisting of Agamil's ground-up body, thereby ingesting his vices: “This ambiguous character, a mixture of good and evil, was in fashion at the time; thus, after considerable agitation, he was able to take his place among ordinary men.”49 What did it mean to excuse a king by assimilating him to ordinary men? Bonafon leaves readers uncertain about the future. Her novel was not a puzzle to be solved, as Robert Darnton argues, that compelled a standard reaction in readers.50 Quite the opposite: Bonafon's key encouraged a critical and subjective reading of current affairs. She used the key to instruct readers how to read her text, not what they should take away from it.
The police targeted authors and publishers in their efforts to protect readers from harmful texts, especially novels, that eroded respect for authority by revealing what should remain hidden. The information became dangerous through the forms in which it circulated and the context in which it was read. From the police perspective, reading was a contagious activity that led to chatter, debates, and the proliferation of texts. Authors like Bonafon encouraged this dependence on context to illuminate their texts and augment sales. One senses that the work of repression did not involve close reading either for the lieutenant general or for the police inspectors who reported to him. The police focused on demand, discussion, and context as indices of danger rather than on textual analysis.
The police shared concerns about reading with their medical counterparts, but they identified different symptoms and effects. Although both saw reading as undermining the boundary between fiction and reality, they did so from opposite perspectives. The police denied the absorptive properties of fiction and assumed that readers knew the fictions were not fictional. They located the dangers of reading not inside but outside the text. Authors like Bonafon and Rességuier encouraged readers to use fiction to access and understand politics. The novels sparked conversations that extended beyond the page. By contrast, the medical diagnosis of reading warned of the absorptive powers of fiction and its consequences. The doctors moved the danger zone inside the individual's imagination.
If policing represented the crown's effort to maintain public order through information control, medicine intervened to protect public health. Many of the medical articles for the Encyclopédie reflected the vitalist theories of the Montpellier faculty. The vitalists rejected mechanical views of the human body in favor of a fluid entity composed of fibers that transmitted information to the brain and other organs.51 The distinct properties of fibers, irritability and sensibility, accounted for health and disease as well as temperament or disposition.52 In this model, mind and body were linked through their dependence on external stimuli or environment. Thus vitalism converged with sensationalism and the philosophes' project to reform society.53 The expanding market in medical publications included manuals on sex, hygiene, and diseases such as masturbation, the vapors, bibliomania, and nymphomania.54 These texts were written in French, not Latin, and offered scientific advice to a nonspecialist audience.55
This medical revolution was propelled, in part, by the rehabilitation of the passions in moral theory, sexual science, and political economy. While priests fulminated against the sins of the flesh, doctors and philosophes embraced sex as a natural source of pleasure that secured the survival of the species. Nonetheless, the promotion of pleasure made men and women responsible for managing their appetites without the constraints of traditional morality or material scarcity. Health offered secular arguments that aligned pleasure, fertility, and moderation as seen, for example, in Encyclopédie articles written by the Montpellier-trained physician Ménuret de Chambaud, a close friend of Diderot.56 For these reasons, morality and medicine joined forces to prescribe regimes for managing desire starting at puberty and culminating in marriage. The medical arguments aligned Christian teachings with demography to harness pleasure to reproduction.57
Within the constellation of appetites that drove individual action, reading emerged as “a problem of public hygiene in the eighteenth century.”58 Doctors blamed urbanization, commerce, and leisure for the spread of reading, and its consequences included infertility and rejection of marriage. Like sex, reading was prone to excess: indulgence led to diminished satisfaction, isolation, and self-destruction. For eighteenth-century physicians, reading was implicated in sexual development and disorder through the faculty of imagination. These arguments echoed the critics who denounced the novel for inflaming the imagination and reversing gender roles.59 The medical discussions of reading confirmed fears about cultural degeneration and population decline that grew over the century. Medical authors cited erudite sources but also their experience with patients, many of whom consulted by letters that could be published to substantiate doctors' warnings and remedies. Reading was simultaneously the disease and the cure.
Samuel Tissot, the Montpellier-trained Swiss doctor whose treatise De l'onanisme transformed masturbation into an epidemic, also devoted an essay to reading. In his 1768 Essay on Diseases Incidental to Literary and Sedentary Persons, Tissot examined the physical hazards of the scholarly life.60 This popular text went through twenty-three French editions between 1767 and 1868. Although the ideas were not original, as Tissot himself acknowledged, he was the first doctor to offer a synthesis in French, English, and German for a nonscientific audience.61 He sensed the anxieties of his age and the appeal of therapeutic writings backed by medical expertise. Through simple equations, he illustrated how reading jeopardized vital functions like digestion, motor skills, and reproduction.62
Reading was symptomatic of the physical and moral degeneration associated with modern life. For Tissot, nature designed the human body for action, and “therefore health is inseparable from action.”63 Tissot used the same vocabulary that he applied to masturbation to diagnose the dangers of reading. He clarifies that he was not “attacking those who devote themselves to study but warning them of the dangers of excess.”64 He emphasizes the addictive quality of reading and its dire consequences: intensive study makes one “melancholy, anxious, obsessed with death” and leads to “failing attention, loss of memory, palpitations, insomnia.”65 In the 1769 French edition of his text, Tissot quotes a letter from a fifty-year-old female patient who offered her case as a deterrent for readers: “I was born with a healthy constitution, but starting in my early youth I spent part of the night reading; by the time I was eighteen, I found myself in a state of despondency that marked the start of my troubles, which included inflammations and insomnia whose effects I still feel. . . . At present, I continue to suffer from these problems.”66 Tissot warned that, without diagnosis and therapy, excessive reading led to madness and death. Although he recognizes that readers derive pleasure from books, he urges moderation. When the imagination grows dependent on reading for stimulation, it becomes hard to satisfy.67
Reading not only triggered masturbation but caused impotency and therefore population decline.68 Reading diluted the male seminal fluid and diminished libido, impeding the natural sexual economy between men and women.69 Moreover, reading encouraged isolation, which was dangerous, since “retirement from all human society is likewise hurtful to them; for man, whom Nature made for man, She intended also should be benefited by society.”70 In his prescriptions Tissot evokes the rising tides of individualism that threatened to wash away the grounds for society. Tissot summons friends to tear the scholar away from his books: “If learned men become over exhausted, they must lay aside books and study and go live in the country and restore their bodies. . . . Let them become what men were designed for by nature, plowmen or gardeners.”71 Here Tissot echoes the antiurban themes of contemporary political economists and demographers by extolling the benefits of rural life and physical labor. For Tissot and his peers, the male scholar illustrated the effeminizing effects of commercial society and their impact on marriage, fertility, and the species. Given such stakes, Tissot advocated strong remedies to reverse the trend.
Tissot's two treatises overlapped, since he identified reading as the primary trigger for masturbation in men and women. Reading and masturbation alike rendered men impotent and women indifferent to the “legitimate pleasures of marriage.”72 One of Tissot's contemporaries, another Swiss doctor named Bienville, reinforced these concerns about reading and fertility by focusing on women. Bienville invented the pathology of nymphomania to describe a condition of insatiable desire triggered by reading novels.73 It is important to recall that the link between reading and sexual dysfunction arose within an enlightened sexual culture that embraced desire as healthy and natural.74 Physicians promoted marriage as a salutary way to manage libido for men and women. Within this sexual economy, scarcity was as hazardous as excess. These assumptions led them to criticize social norms and institutions that thwarted desire, especially for women. As Bienville observes, “There are no moral means capable of imposing silence on nature.”75 According to this logic, reading often began as compensation for frustrated desire.76
Bienville classifies reading, and novels in particular, as a practice that perverted desire from its natural course in a pathology that escaped detection even by trained physicians.77 His approach reflects how doctors, philosophes, and moralists used women's bodies to gauge cultural degeneration.78 These debates targeted female readers as curious, defiant, and debauched. Textual pleasures were synonymous with sexual pleasures in medical discourse, since both stimulated the imagination. Women's more delicate constitutions served their roles as wives and mothers but also predisposed their taste for lascivious and sentimental novels.79 If women failed to find partners, they became like Tissot's studious men, “consumed by melancholy, prefer isolation and silence, and sometimes talk to themselves.”80 The male scholar and female nymphomaniac shared the same medical profile, and reading was the cause of their maladies. For Bienville, the only cure for nymphomania was marriage, since it replaced illusory desires with the tangible joys of motherhood.81
Like Tissot, Bienville used case histories to illustrate the link between reading and disease. The example of Julie displays his methods and his targets. Julie was the beautiful and well-educated daughter of noble parents. At the age of twelve she began to feel the stirrings of desire, which she hoped to satisfy through marriage. Yet her parents had a different agenda: “Ah! The cry of nature had started a revolution inside her! She heard it, felt it, and understood it all too well not to obey it. But, alas, it was another cry that her parents heard; interest, honor, spoke to them and delayed them from providing the natural remedies to their daughter's pressing needs.”82 Her parents rejected suitors while they searched for a mate of suitable rank and fortune. According to Bienville, Julie “was not constituted to vanquish this unfortunate penchant,” since she had sensitive fibers and a fiery imagination.83
In this vulnerable state, Julie fell prey to the “fatal assistance and dangerous advice” of her chambermaid Berthin, who saw Julie's plight and secretly procured “a selection of the most tender, the most lascivious, and the most voluptuous novels” to divert her. This decision sealed Julie's fate:
This reading was like a magnifying glass that gathers the sun's rays to target one part and set it on fire; her imagination was the inflamed part that quickly spread a new and more intense fire to her heart. Until now, Nature alone had spoken; but soon illusions, chimeras and extravagant thoughts took over; her eyes devoured lascivious and voluptuous images that succeeded in chasing from her heart those sentiments of decency, piety, chastity, and respect that Nature had upheld until then, and that she might never have vanquished without the help of art: she finally acquired the unfortunate strength to embrace that dreadful maxim, nothing is more beautiful or sweet than to submit to one's deepest desires.84
Unable to marry Saint Albin, a man of noble birth but lacking in fortune, Julie follows the advice of Berthin, who recommends masturbation. Julie initially finds relief with her new habit but soon grows withdrawn and despondent. Her parents notice her weakened condition and send for a doctor, who fails to diagnose the disease. Without proper medical intervention, Julie deteriorates, and her mortified parents send her to a convent, where she dies.
There are several interesting themes in Bienville's case history. First, the dangerous practices of reading novels and masturbating are introduced to Julie by a servant, recalling d'Andlau's role in corrupting Princess Adélaïde. This anxiety about shielding pubescent girls from corrupting influences reinforced the argument that mothers should devote themselves to child rearing and that censured them if they did not. Second, Bienville criticizes the conventions of arranged marriages that ignored the stirrings of desire in favor of financial or social interests. Julie's parents refuse to let her marry a man of insufficient means. For Bienville, reading substituted for missing parental affection and provided relief for sexual frustration. Finally, the novels unhinged her imagination and broke down her natural inhibitions. As one moralist observed, the female imagination was like a mirror that reflected everything but created nothing.85 Women absorbed and were absorbed into what they read. Julie turned to the “art” of fiction to escape the material and moral obstacles that impeded her desire.
This comparison of Tissot and Bienville highlights assumptions that shaped medical views of readers and reading in the Enlightenment. Unlike the police, who saw danger arising in the movement from the page to the world, doctors worried about the page leading away from the world. Both doctors cautioned readers about the absorptive powers of fiction and ensuing detachment from tangible objects and relations. These ideas resonated in an era that cultivated introspection and self-reflection. In his Confessions Jean-Jacques Rousseau diagnoses himself through the lens of these medical theories: “So, in the end, the fictions I succeeded in building up made me forget my real condition, which so dissatisfied me. My love for imaginary objects and my facility in lending myself to them ended by disillusioning me with everything around me, and determined that love of solitude that I have retained ever since that time.”86
If reading isolated men and rendered them impotent, it had equally serious consequences for women, who turned to novels to escape social constraints and maternal duties. As the Montpellier-trained physician Pierre Roussel warned in his compendium of sexual science: “The reading of novels is even more dangerous for women, because by presenting them with men whose form and traits have been embellished, they inevitably lead to disappointments and a void that they cannot reasonably hope to fill.”87 By all accounts, fiction instilled in its readers dissatisfaction with the conditions of real life and led them to withdraw from social interactions and obligations. Reading inflamed the imagination and perverted desire; it sapped the foundations of civic and domestic life. According to these doctors, the reading epidemic threatened the survival of the species.
. . .
These excerpts from a broader conversation about reading reveal intersections between proponents and opponents of enlightenment in France. Although the policing and medical discourses moved in opposite directions, they shared concerns about the dangers of exposure and the individual's capacity for self-government. The social and political project of the philosophes rested on the ability to make reading an engine of human progress. In his Encyclopédie article on the roman, Jaucourt acknowledged the risks but also summoned authors to use fiction to inspire “love for good morals and virtues.” The potential impact was enormous, since “everybody is capable of reading novels, and almost everybody reads them.”88 Yet even proponents of reading advocated surveillance of who read, what they read, and why. Both the police and the physicians had a vested interest in controlling the use and abuse of texts to protect individuals and society.
This comparison suggests that reading exemplified the problem of self-government that propelled the Enlightenment in France. Books, and novels in particular, represented the pleasures and dangers of commercial society and individual autonomy. Like other appetites, reading was prone to excess unless restrained by morality or regulation. The police perspective looks different when viewed in light of medical and philosophical discussions. They approached the problem of reading from a prefictional stance in which a text served as a conduit between reader and reality.89 Reading disrupted an information economy predicated on scarcity and secrecy by making visible, and therefore available, what should be hidden. Reading created new forms of sociability, unlike the traditional ones that could be policed. By contrast, physicians railed against the absorptive powers of fiction in their diagnosis of abuse. They warned about physical deterioration, mental delusions, and emotional withdrawal. The comparison highlights two poles on a spectrum of concern that traversed French culture in an age of media transformation and politicization. We can hear echoes of these concerns in contemporary debates about the impact of information technology on escalating violence or social isolation.
The preceding analysis demonstrates the importance of historicizing theories of danger that arise in response to new media at different times and in different places. We must resist the temptation to see reading or danger as terms whose meanings are stable, obvious, or familiar. Most studies of censorship focus on identifying content that triggers repression. Yet form may outweigh content in the assessment of risk, as I have argued here with the examples of faux fictions and licentious and sentimental novels in mid-eighteenth-century France. The two views located danger in texts that reconfigured the relationship between readers and society either through engagement or through retreat. In both cases, the text receded in these theories before other anxieties about minds and bodies, politics and morality, freedom and discipline. The evidence tells us not how people read but how different authorities in eighteenth-century France assessed the power of texts and sought to contain it. Marville's report on public reactions to Madame d'Andlau's disgrace may not have been a police fantasy, after all, but a glimpse of the fear and fascination that surrounded reading in the age of Enlightenment.
The author thanks Kathryn Edwards for her unwavering commitment to this forum and the anonymous reviewers for the journal, whose incisive feedback improved the final product.
Boislisle, Lettres de M. de Marville, 3:8.
Petitfils, Louis XV, 464.
Boislisle, Lettres de M. de Marville, 3:9.
Diderot and d'Alembert, Encyclopédie, s.v. “lecture.”
Diderot and d'Alembert, Encyclopédie, s.v. “lecture.”
Bollioud-Mermet, De la bibliomanie, 41.
Dictionnaire de l'Académie française (1798), s.v. “débauche.”
Laqueur, Solitary Sex.
See Walton, Policing Public Opinion.
Roger Chartier offers an overview of this interpretation in Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, 67–91.
Mornet, Les origines intellectuelles de la Révolution française; Tocqueville, Old Regime and the French Revolution.
See Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 27–56.
Chartier and Jouhaud, “Pratiques historiennes des textes,” 76.
Burke, Fabrication of Louis XIV; Fogel, Les cérémonies de l'information; Jouhaud, Les pouvoirs de la littérature; Ranum, Artisans of Glory; Sabatier, Versailles, ou la figure du roi; Soll, Information Master.
DeJean, Ancients against Moderns, 50–66, 98–116; Norman, Shock of the Ancients, 55–62, 137–44.
DeJean, Tender Geographies, 157.
May, Le dilemme du roman au XVIIIe siècle; Weil, L'interdiction du roman et la librairie, 137, 151.
For the impact of d'Aguesseau's crackdown on the novel, see May, Le dilemme du roman au XVIIIe siècle, 78–105; Minois, Censure et culture sous l'Ancien Régime, 200; and Weil, L'interdiction du roman et la librairie, 26–64.
Weil, L'interdiction du roman et la librairie, 127–29.
Porée, “Discours sur les romans,” 106.
Porée, “Discours sur les romans,” 107.
On fiber theory and female readers, see Bérenguier, Conduct Books for Girls in Enlightenment France, 22; and Wenger, La fibre littéraire, 212–19. On fears of unsexing, see Corbin, L'harmonie des plaisirs, 152; Diaconoff, Through the Reading Glass, 1–54, 151–90; Nye, “Introduction,” 237; and Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology, 225–57.
Romance de Mesmon, De la lecture des romans, 8. Donatien Alphonse François de Sade makes a similar argument in Idées sur les romans.
Goldstein, Post-revolutionary Self, 55.
Birn, Royal Censorship of Books, 37–44, 56–58. See also Negroni, Lectures interdites; Minois, Censure et culture sous l'Ancien Régime; Roche, “La censure”; and Roche, “La police du livre.”
Archives de la Bastille (henceforth AB) 10300, Sept. 27, 1747, fol. 281.
For a sense of this relationship, see Boislisle, Lettres de M. de Marville.
AB 10300, Mar. 24, 1746, fol. 117.
AB 10300, June 12, 1746, fol. 159.
These phrases come from police interrogations of Marie Bonafon (AB 11482, fol. 55v) and the Chevalier de Rességuier (AB 11733, fols. 15–16). Both cases are discussed in Darnton, “Mademoiselle de Bonafon”; and Graham, “Fiction, Kingship, and the Politics of Character.”
Paige, Before Fiction, 30.
AB 10167, fol. 99v, report dated May 3–4, 1740.
AB 10167, fol. 102, report dated May 7–9, 1740.
Ewing, Rumor, Diplomacy, and War, 19–43; Farge, Subversive Words, 26–36, 137–39.
See, e.g., AB 10158, reports for 1728. Also see Kaiser, “Louis le Bien-Aimé and the Rhetoric of the Royal Body,” 142–43, 160–61; and Kaiser, “Madame de Pompadour.”
Pierre Bourdieu emphasizes that “publication ruptures censorship” in Bourdieu and Chartier, Pratiques de la lecture, 231.
Jacquin, Entretiens sur les romans, 97.
AB 11582, fol. 20.
Boislisle, Lettres de M. de Marville, 3:100.
AB 11582, fols. 55–56, first interrogation of Marie Bonafon by Lieutenant of Police Marville, Aug. 29, 1745. For a full analysis of the Bonafon case, see Darnton, “Mademoiselle de Bonafon”; and Graham, If the King Only Knew, 56–95.
AB 11582, fol. 55v.
AB 11582, fols. 55–56, first interrogation of Marie Bonafon.
Boislisle, Lettres de M. de Marville, 3:100.
AB 10300, fol. 201, June 13, 1747.
AB 11582, fol. 116, third interrogation of Marie Bonafon by Lieutenant of Police Marville, Oct. 9, 1745.
AB 11582, fol. 116, third interrogation of Marie Bonafon.
Goulemot, “Les pratiques littéraires ou la publicité du privé,” 392–96.
AB 11733, fols. 52–53, letter to Louis XV dated Dec. 16, 1750.
Bonafon, Tanastès, 155.
Darnton, “Mademoiselle de Bonafon,” 113; Darnton, Devil in the Holy Water, 80–101.
Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology, 20.
Brockliss and Jones, Medical World of Early Modern France, 427–33; Wenger, La fibre littéraire, 39–42.
For the influence of the Montpellier school, see McAlpin, Female Sexuality, 23–49; Rey, Naissance et développement du vitalisme; Williams, Physical and the Moral, 20–66; and Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology, 13–79.
See Arnaud, L'invention de l'hystérie; Laqueur, Solitary Sex; and Rousseau, “Invention of Nymphomania.”
See Brockliss and Jones, Medical World of Early Modern France, 416–17, 473–79; and Quinlan, Great Nation in Decline, 19–52.
Rey, Naissance et développement du vitalisme, 261–69.
Blum, Strength in Numbers, 39; Corbin, L'harmonie des plaisirs, 37–96; Laqueur, Solitary Sex. For the medical discussion of puberty and sexual development, see McAlpin, Female Sexuality, 23–50.
Wenger, La fibre littéraire, 206.
Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology, 97. Also see Wenger, La fibre littéraire, 205–26; and Nye, “Introduction.”
Chartier discusses Tissot's text, which originated as an inaugural lecture at the College of Medicine in Lausanne (“Man of Letters,” 176–78). Tissot first published his text in Latin in 1766.
Vila, “Sex, Procreation, and the Scholarly Life,” 241. Similar arguments about the medical dangers of excessive reading, the susceptibility of women, and the need for restraint emerged in England; see Johns, Nature of the Book, 381–408.
For example, Tissot writes, “The more intensely any man thinks, the slower he digests food” (Essay on Diseases, 25).
Tissot, Essay on Diseases, 56.
Tissot, Essay on Diseases, 53.
Tissot, Essay on Diseases, 31–32.
Tissot, De la santé des gens de lettres, 63.
Tissot, Essay on Diseases, 23.
For the eighteenth-century obsession with population decline, see Blum, Strength in Numbers, 11–20. On the links between masturbation and impotency, see Corbin, L'harmonie des plaisirs, 151–72; and Laqueur, Solitary Sex, 185–247. On French fertility politics, see Tuttle, Conceiving the Old Regime.
Tissot, Essay on Diseases, 75.
Tissot, Essay on Diseases, 84.
Tissot, Essay on Diseases, 157.
Tissot, L'onanisme, 61.
Bienville, La nymphomanie.
For the rehabilitation of sex in Enlightenment medicine, see Corbin, L'harmonie des plaisirs. Michel Foucault links this shift to the emergence of biopower (Introduction, 177–91).
Bienville, La nymphomanie, 153.
Bienville argues that married women risked nymphomania if their husbands proved inadequate or indifferent as lovers (La nymphomanie, 15). Widows used to regular sex were vulnerable, because for women the expectations of pleasures must not exceed access to it.
See Bienville, La nymphomanie, 77–88, for the case of Lucille from Lyon and how reading novels “nourished the poison in her veins” (80).
See Diaconoff, Through the Reading Glass; McAlpin, Female Sexuality; and Wenger, La fibre littéraire, 146–50.
Wenger, La fibre littéraire, 156. As Alexandre Wenger observes, “By perturbing the imagination and female sensibility, reading saps the fragile foundations that prepared them for their destined role in society.” Also see Bienville, La nymphomanie, 16.
Bienville, La nymphomanie, 19.
Bienville, La nymphomanie, 93.
Bienville, La nymphomanie, 157.
Bienville, La nymphomanie, 159.
Bienville, La nymphomanie, 164.
Thomas, Essai sur le caractère, 113–14.
Rousseau, Confessions, 19–20.
Roussel, Systeme physique et moral de la femme, 41–42.
Diderot and d'Alembert, Encyclopédie, s.v. “roman.”
Paige, Before Fiction, 30.