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Political pornography - smutty sedition

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Political pornography - smutty sedition

The use of pornography for political purposes dates back to ancient times, and it is still around today: pictures of George W. Bush or Osama bin Laden involved in degrading sexual acts are not uncommon. The use of material like this was most intense - both in terms of content and quantity - during the French Revolution. The royal family, members of the aristocracy and the government were the usual targets of these novels, pamphlets and cartoons; but minor politicians, officials, judges and soldiers could also be featured. Some political pornography could be quite mild, poking fun at individuals or caricaturing their appearance - most, however, were vulgar and demeaning, suggesting impotence, promiscuity, sexual deviancy, incest and bestiality. Marie-Antoinette, or l'Autrichienne (the 'Austrian bitch') was the most frequent object of ridicule, followed by her husband, usually shown as weak and hen-pecked by his domineering wife. In the example shown (right) the queen is worshipping the gigantic penis of one of her lovers, probably the king's brother; the penis appears in the form of an ostrich, a play on words on Antoinette's nationality.

Much of this material was actually produced outside of the country, mainly in England and Holland, since creating it in France would have been a serious crime (the state operated a policy of censorship throughout most of the 1780s). Mirabeau himself spent almost a year in prison for writing satire about a high-ranking aristocrat he disliked, and there were strict sentences for those caught distributing or even just possessing this propaganda. By the mid 1780s the royal gendarmerie were fighting a losing battle however, as thousands of items of political pornography were in circulation; most examples seized by the police were logged and destroyed, but demand was too high so they were quickly replaced by new items. Some smutty stories and pictures fetched quite high prices for their entertainment and titillation value. 

Some of the most blatantly falsified forms of political pornography were the libelles (French, 'libels'). These were broadsheets, pamphlets or books that purported to tell 'the true story' behind the crown, the royal family and certain aristocratic targets. They presented themselves as journalism or even as history ... and to support their claim to authenticity they were usually accompanied by excerpts of official or personal correspondence that claimed to be authentic (of course, almost all were wild invention). New libelles claimed to represent the content of a new cache of letters by or about the royals, previously unknown and acquired through an unnamed source. With no official accounts available of what transpired at Versailles, the general public lapped up this seemingly endless window into the royal and aristocratic courts.

The impact of political pornography might seem slight, but it was a significant contributor to the decline of royal authority. The circulation of this material eroded respect and affection for the royalty, particularly in Paris, fuelling events like the women's march on Versailles. In a crude fashion it also supported the anti-monarchist writings of the Enlightenment philosophes: the very concept of monarchy and aristocracy - its members engaged in decadent behaviour and sexual misconduct - was being undermined. 

All text © Steve Thompson 2006
To reference this page: Thompson, S. vcehistory info (Internet) at Today's date (last access)

Key points:

  • Political pornography is illegal and usually false material targeting individuals, particularly royalty

  • It was extremely popular in the 1780s, becoming more available and more crude, especially about Marie-Antoinette

  • Its impact was to reduce respect and affection for the monarchy, smoothing the path for revolutionary ideas

Revolutionary ideas

There were many revolutionary ideas that underpinned events in France. Many of these had become popular during the Enlightenment and had previously found voice in the American Revolution of the 1770s; however some were unique to or emphasised more in France. The idea of equality, for example, was a direct response to the unfair social structure. Liberty, equality, fraternity became the famous catch-cry of many of the revolutionaries, but it is simplistic to leave any examination of France's revolutionary ideas resting solely on those three.

Members of the Third Estate considered themselves to be an oppressed group, politically, socially and legally. Though he rarely did so, the king could issues lettres du cachet upon his political opponents and imprison them without trial in the Bastille or other state prisons; feudal overlords forced peasants to leave their homes to fulfil the hated corvee (unpaid labour on the overlord's own estate or on public works such as roads); the seigneurial and ecclesiastical courts could impose the death penalty for a range of offences, without right of appeal other than to the king; torture was used quite commonly to interrogate suspects and witnesses. Yet despite this apparent brutality the people of France were, relatively speaking, better off than those in most other parts of Europe. Most historians suggest that the French Revolution was driven more by political, economic and ideological factors than a response to violent feudal oppression, yet liberty ... freedom from abuse by government and the powerful ... remained a significant ambition for many participants. Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke had expressed radical but popular arguments in favour of 'natural rights': that every person was born with the inherent right to life, liberty and property.

There is a stronger case to be made for equality. The French social structure was bitterly unfair: the first two estates were virtually exempt from personal taxation, while the nobility controlled positions of authority, ministry and bureaucracy through venality. For the rising bourgeoisie, who were eager to rise into positions of influence, this was a source of annoyance; many favoured a meritocracy where your ability, effort and talent (rather than your family or titles) determined your position in society. This was particularly true of the wealthier bourgeoisie who possessed more than the less-affluent nobility. The middle-class was also denied political representation and participation, though this was similarly true of the Second Estate. Concepts of equality and an enterprising talent-based society were reinforced by the success of the American Revolution and its own ideas and documents, like the Declaration of Independence. In the Third Estate it is undoubted that many peasants, workers, artisans and sans culottes felt unfairly exploited and less than amply rewarded by their bourgeois employers. In the radical phase of the revolution the sans culottes were thus motivated by the desire for political equality (a universal franchise, not the bourgeois-preferred system of 'active' and 'passive' voters) and greater economic equality, such as wage protection and price maximums. 

Loosely described as 'brotherhood', fraternity became the third arm of the revolutionary triad. The French translation is actually egalitie from which we derive the term 'egalitarianism', meaning a belief in social, legal and political equality. Other connotations are more altruistic, such as 'concern for your fellow man' or possessed of a social conscience. Fraternity was undoubtedly expressed more in the revolution's more idealistic months, such as 1789 when the bourgeois National Assembly was churning out positive but idealistic reforms and documents like Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. As France dissolved into faction, counter-revolution, civil war and disorder, fraternity was forgotten in favour of protecting other revolutionary principles.

Popular sovereignty
This idea clearly separates feudal autocracy from representative democracy. Previously the king was 'sovereign' and was thus thought to both represent and wield absolute political authority. This idea was rigorously examined and queried during the Enlightenment, and found wanting. Philosophes like Rousseau and Sieyes suggested that the real political authority of a nation lay in the hands of 'the people', who formed a clear majority; government, kings and ministers ruled on behalf of the people, not over the people. There was no inherent authority in government, which could only stay in control while it enjoyed the support and backing of the people. The Third Estate, being by far the largest section of France's population, were the real possessors of sovereignty. Sieyes' pamphlet, 'What is the Third Estate?' articulated this idea clearly. When the Third Estate broke away from the Estates-General in mid-1789, it was a clear sign that they had accepted this idea as fact.

When the Third Estate separated from the Estates-General and met to swear the Tennis Court Oath, their pledge was to remain united until France had a constitution in place. Their desire for a written political framework was no fluke: it was based on the success of the Americans and their own written constitution, and marked a decisive turning-point in the relationship between governments and the governed. Fed up with the whims and broken promises of kings and ministers, many wanted a legislated written framework that clearly articulated the extent and limits of power. Almost all nation-states today have constitutional documents that underpin their governmental structure (only Great Britain, New Zealand and Israel do not, although their 'constitution' is said to be written in common law, precedent and convention). Constitutions protect the people from the excesses of rulers, articulate exactly what government and its offshoots can and cannot do, are rigid enough to provide stability but also flexible enough to be changed when the situation demands. Of course it could be said that France's constitutionalism was a failure, because the nation has had a dozen different constitutions since 1789, including three during the revolution (1791, 1793 and 1795).   

'Life, liberty and property' were the three 'natural rights' espoused by Enlightenment philosophers such as Rousseau and John Locke. As far as property goes, this was the undeniable right to acquire wealth, land or possessions through one's own efforts, and to keep them safe from theft and seizure. The bourgeoisie who dominated the National Assembly of 1789-91 demonstrated strong interests in protecting and enhancing their capacity to acquire property: the Constitution of 1791 banned guilds and workers' associations, restricted the franchise (right to vote) to a much smaller 'propertied' class, and stabilised economic conditions and procedures. Other reforms, such as the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, also benefited the bourgeoisie, albeit indirectly (e.g. the sale of church lands).

Religion became a battleground of the revolution, particularly after 1789. Religion had previously been a focus for the philosophes, particularly Voltaire, who criticised the excesses and profiteering of the church and the higher clergy. The bourgeois National Assembly proclaimed freedom of religion where it didn't impact on 'public order', and in 1790 launched an amazing attempt to create a virtually nationalised Catholic Church by setting and paying wages, declaring clerical appointments by election, and compelling all clergy to swear an oath of allegiance to the state. Church lands were confiscated and sold, the profits going to the state but the lands (not surprisingly) purchased by bourgeois speculators. These attacks on the church, which would have been unthinkable only two or three years earlier, divided the revolutionary cause instead of drawing more followers to it. The conservative, faithful peasantry in some areas even responded with counter-revolutionary violence (eg. the Vendee in 1793). Atheism, a fascination with classical mythology and Robespierre's rather bizarre 'Cult of the Supreme Being' all alienated many French from the revolution.

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