1. People have complained about a surfeit of information during many periods of history. An almanac of 1772 referred casually to "notre siècle de publicité à outrance," as if the observation were self-evident: Roze de Chantoiseau, Tablettes royales de renommée ou Almanach général d'indication, rpt. in "Les cafés de Paris en 1772" (anonymous), Extrait de la Revue de poche du 15 juillet 1867 (Paris, n.d.), 2. For a typical remark that illustrates the current sense of entering an unprecedented era dominated by information technology, see the pronouncement of David Puttnam quoted in The Wall Street Journal, December 18, 1998, W3: "We are on the threshold of what has come to be called the Information Society." I should explain that this essay was written for delivery as a lecture and that I have tried to maintain the tone of the original by adopting a relatively informal style in the printed version. More related material is available in an electronic edition, the first article published in the new online edition of the American Historical Review, on the World Wide Web, at, and later at the History Cooperative.

2. I have attempted to develop this argument in an essay on my own experience as a reporter: "Journalism: All the News That Fits We Print," in Robert Darnton, The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History (New York, 1990), chap. 5. See also Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York, 1978); and Helen MacGill Hughes, News and the Human Interest Story (Chicago, 1940).

3. Brian Cowan, "The Social Life of Coffee: Commercial Culture and Metropolitan Society in Early Modern England, 1600–1720" (PhD dissertation, Princeton University, 2000); Qin Shao, "Tempest over Teapots: The Vilification of Teahouse Culture in Early Republican China," Journal of Asian Studies 57 (November 1998): 1009–41; Lawrence Rosen, Bargaining for Reality: The Construction of Social Relations in a Muslim Community (Chicago, 1984); Laurie Nussdorfer, Civic Politics in the Rome of Urban VIII (Princeton, N.J., 1992); João José Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, Arthur Brakel, trans. (Baltimore, Md., 1993); Christopher A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (New York, 1996); and Keith Hopkins, Death and Renewal (Cambridge, 1983).

4. Planted at the beginning of the century and cut down during the remodeling of the garden in 1781, the tree of Cracow was such a well-known institution that it was celebrated in a comic opera by Charles-François Panard, L'arbre de Cracovie, performed at the Foire Saint-Germain in 1742. The print reproduced above probably alludes to a theme in that vaudeville production: the tree went "crack" every time someone beneath its branches told a lie. On this and other contemporary sources, see François Rosset, L'arbre de Cracovie: Le mythe polonais dans la littérature française (Paris, 1996), 7–11. The best general account of nouvellistes is still in Frantz Funck-Brentano, Les nouvellistes (Paris, 1905), and Figaro et ses devanciers (Paris, 1909). As an example of how remarks made beneath the tree of Cracow spread throughout Paris and Versailles, see E. J. B. Rathery, ed., Journal et mémoires du marquis d'Argenson (Paris, 1862), 5: 450.

5. Pierre Manuel, La police de Paris dévoilée (Paris, "l'An second de la liberté" [1790]), 1: 206. I have not been able to find the original of this spy report by the notorious Charles de Fieux, chevalier de Mouhy, in Mouhy's dossier in the archives of the Bastille: Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal (hereafter, BA), Paris, ms. 10029.

6. This description relies on the work of Funck-Brentano, Les nouvellistes, and Figaro et ses devanciers, but more recent work has modified the picture of the "parish" and its connection to the Mémoires secrets. See Jeremy D. Popkin and Bernadette Fort, eds., The "Mémoires secrets" and the Culture of Publicity in Eighteenth-Century France (Oxford, 1998); François Moureau, Répertoire des nouvelles à la main: Dictionnaire de la presse manuscrite clandestine XVIe–XVIIIe siècle (Oxford, 1999); and Moureau, De bonne main: La communication manuscrite au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1993). After studying the voluminous text of the nouvelles à la main produced by the "parish" between 1745 and 1752, I have concluded that the copy in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (hereafter, BNF) contains little information that could not have passed through the censorship administered by the police: BNF, ms. fr. 13701–12. The published version of the Mémoires secrets, which covered the period 1762–1787 and first appeared in 1777, is completely different in tone. It was highly illegal and sold widely: see Robert Darnton, The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France 1769–1789 (New York, 1995), 119–20.

7. In the case of France, a vast number of excellent books and articles have been published by Jean Sgard, Pierre Rétat, Gilles Feyel, François Moureau, Jack Censer, and Jeremy Popkin. For an overview of the entire subject, see Claude Bellanger, Jacques Godechot, Pierre Guiral, and Fernand Terrou, Histoire générale de la presse française (Paris, 1969); and the collective works edited by Jean Sgard, Dictionnaire des journaux, 1600–1789, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1991); and Dictionnaire des journalistes, 1600–1789, 2 vols. (1976; rpt. edn., Oxford, 1999).

8. Michael Stolleis, Staat und Staatsräson in der frühen Neuzeit (Frankfurt, 1990); and Jochen Schlobach, "Secrètes correspondances: La fonction du secret dans les correspondances littéraires," in Moureau, De bonne main.

9. Manuel, La police de Paris dévoilée, 1: 201–02.

10. A. de Boislisle, ed., Lettres de M. de Marville, Lieutenant-Général de Police, au ministre Maurepas (1742–1747) (Paris, 1896), 2: 262.

11. On literacy, see François Furet and Jacques Ozouf, Lire et écrire: L'alphabétisation des Français de Calvin à Jules Ferry, 2 vols. (Paris, 1977); on public opinion, Keith M. Baker, "Public Opinion as Political Invention," in Baker, Inventing the French Revolution: Essays on French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1990); and Mona Ozouf, "L'Opinion publique," in Keith Baker, ed., The Political Culture of the Old Regime, Vol. 1 of The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 1987).

12. [Mathieu-François Pidansat de Mairobert], Anecdotes sur Mme. la comtesse du Barry (London, 1775), 215.

13. This and the following remarks about Mairobert are based on his dossier in the archives of the Bastille: BA, ms. 11683, and on his dossier in the papers of Joseph d'Hémery, inspector of the book trade: BNF, ms. acq. fr. 10783. See also the article on him in the Dictionnaire des journalistes, 2: 787–89.

14. "Observations de d'Hémery du 16 juin 1749," BA, ms. 11683, fol. 52.

15. Le portefeuille d'un talon rouge contenant des anecdotes galantes et secrètes de la cour de France, rpt. as Le coffret du bibliophile (Paris, n.d.), 22.

16. BA, ms. 10170. This source, the densest I have been able to find, covers the years 1726–1729. For help in locating the cafés and in mapping them, I would like to thank Sean Quinlan, Editorial Assistant at the American Historical Review, and Jian Liu, Reference Librarian and Collection Manager for Linguistics, Indiana University Libraries, who worked with the staff of the AHR in preparing the electronic version of this address. The detailed mapping, with excerpts from reports on conversations in eighteen of the cafés, can be consulted in the link entitled "Mapping Café Talk," at

17. BA, ms. 10170, fol. 175. For reasons of clarity, I have added quotation marks. The original had none, although it was clearly written in dialogue, as can be seen from the texts reproduced in the electronic version of this essay, at the link entitled "Spy Reports on Conversations in Cafés,"

18. BA, ms. 10170, fol. 176.

19. BA, ms. 10170, fol. 93.

20. BNF, ms. nouv. acq. fr. 1891, fol. 419.

21. Marc Bloch, Rois thaumaturges: Etude sur le caractère surnaturel attribué à la puissance royale (Paris, 1924). On contemporary indignation about the route around Paris, see BNF, ms. fr. 13710, fol. 66. For a sober account of Louis XV's relations with the Nesle sisters (there were actually five of them, but contemporary libelles usually mentioned only three or sometimes four), see Michel Antoine, Louis XV (Paris, 1989), 484–92. My interpretation of political and diplomatic history in these years owes a good deal to Antoine's definitive study.

22. BA, ms. 10029, fol. 129. The incest theme appears in some of the most violent poems and songs attacking Louis XV in 1748–1751. One in the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, ms. 649, p. 50, begins, "Incestueux tyran, traître inhumain, faussaire . . ."

23. These issues have been dramatized most recently in the controversy aroused by the duplicitous mixture of fact and fiction in Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (New York, 1999): see Kate Masur, "Edmund Morris's Dutch: Reconstructing Reagan or Deconstructing History?" Perspectives 37 (December 1999): 3–5. For my part, I would not deny the literary quality of history writing, but I think the invention of anything that is passed off as factual violates an implicit contract between the historian and the reader: whether or not we are certified as professionals by the award of a PhD, we historians should never fabricate evidence.

24. Four editions of Les amours de Zeokinizul, roi des Kofirans: Ouvrage traduit de l'Arabe du voyageur Krinelbol (Amsterdam, 1747, 1747, 1748, and 1770) can be consulted in the BNF, Lb38.554.A-D. All but the first have elaborate keys, usually inserted into the binding from a separate copy, sometimes with manuscript notes. Some notes also appear in the margins of this and the other three works, which also have keys.

25. The following quotations come from BNF, ms. nouv. acq. fr. 1891, fols. 421, 431, 433, 437.

26. BNF, ms. nouv. acq. fr. 10783.

27. BA, ms. 11582, fols. 55–57. See also Mlle. Bonafons' remarks in her second interrogation, fols. 79–80: "A elle représenté qu'il y a dans cet ouvrage des faits particuliers dont son état ne lui permettait pas naturellement d'avoir connaissance. Interpellée de nous déclarer par qui elle en a été instruite. A dit qu'il ne lui a été fourni aucuns mémoires ni donné aucuns conseils, et que c'est les bruits publics et le hazard qui l'ont déterminée à insérer dans l'ouvrage ce qui s'y trouve."

28. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris, new edn. (Neuchâtel, 1788), 1: 282. Mercier also remarked (6: 40): "Ainsi à Paris tout est matière à chanson; et quiconque, maréchal de France ou pendu, n'a pas été chansonné a beau faire, il demeurera inconnu au peuple." Among the many historical studies of French songs, see especially Emile Raunié, Chansonnier historique du XVIIIe siècle, 10 vols. (Paris, 1879–84); Patrice Coirault, Formation de nos chansons folkloriques, 4 vols. (Paris, 1953); Rolf Reichardt and Herbert Schneider, "Chanson et musique populaire devant l'histoire à la fin de l'Ancien Régime," Dix-huitième siècle 18 (1986): 117–44; and Giles Barber, "'Malbrouck s'en va-t-en guerre' or, How History Reaches the Nursery," in Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs, eds., Children and Their Books: A Collection of Essays to Celebrate the Work of Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford, 1989), 135–63.

29. This bon mot may have been coined by Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort: see Raunié, Chansonnier historique, 1: i.

30. One box in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, ms. 10319, contains dozens of these snippets, thrown together helter-skelter, which comment in rhyme on all sorts of current events: the amorous adventures of the regent, Law's fiscal system, the battles of the Jansenists and Jesuits, the tax reforms of the abbé Terray, the judicial reforms of the chancellor Maupeou—set to all kinds of popular tunes: "La béquille du Père Barnabas," "Réveillez-vous belle endormie," "Allons cher coeur, point de rigueur," "J'avais pris femme laide." The repertory of melodies was inexhaustible, the occasions for drawing on it endless, thanks to the inventiveness of the Parisians and the rumor mill at work in the court.

31. BA, ms. 11683, fol. 59, report on the arrest of Mairobert by Joseph d'Hémery, July 2, 1749. The verse on the scrap of paper comes from a separate dossier labeled "68 pièces paraphées." In a report to the police on July 1, 1749, a spy noted (fol. 55): "Le sieur Mairobert a sur lui des vers contre le roi et contre Mme. de Pompadour. En raisonnant avec lui sur le risque que court l'auteur de pareils écrits, il répondit qu'il n'en courait aucun, qu'il ne s'agissait que d'en glisser dans la poche de quelqu'un dans un café ou au spectacle pour les répandre sans risque ou d'en laisser tomber des copies aux promenades . . . J'ai lieu de penser qu'il en a distribué bon nombre."

32. BA, ms. 11683, fol. 45.

33. Maurepas' love of songs and poems about current events is mentioned in many contemporary sources. See, for example, Rathery, Journal et mémoires du marquis d'Argenson, 5: 446; and Edmond-Jean-François Barbier, Chronique de la régence et du règne de Louis XV (1718–1763), ou Journal de Barbier, avocat au Parlement de Paris (Paris, 1858), 4: 362–66.

34. Rathery, Journal et mémoires de marquis d'Argenson, 5: 448, 452, 456. The following version is taken from d'Argenson's account of this episode, 456. See also Barbier, Chronique, 4: 361–67; Charles Collé, Journal et mémoires de Charles Collé (Paris, 1868), 1: 71; and François Joachim de Pierre, Cardinal de Bernis, Mémoires et lettres de François-Joachim de Pierre, cardinal de Bernis (1715–1758) (Paris, 1878), 120. A full and well-informed account of Maurepas' fall, which includes a version of the song that has "Pompadour" in place of "Iris," appears in a manuscript collection of songs in the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, ms. 649, 121–27.

35. Dictionnaire de l'Académie française (Nîmes, 1778), 1: 526: "FLEURS, au pluriel, se dit pour flueurs et signifie les règles, les purgations des femmes . . . On appelle fleurs blanches une certaine maladie des femmes." Rather than a sexually transmitted disease like gonorrhea, this maladie might have been clorosis, or green-sickness.

36. In addition to the references given above, note 30, see Bernard Cottret and Monique Cottret, "Les chansons du mal-aimé: Raison d'Etat et rumeur publique (1748–1750)," in Histoire sociale, sensibilités collectives et mentalités: Mélanges Robert Mandrou (Paris, 1985), 303–15.

37. BA, ms. 11690, fol. 66.

38. I have discussed this affair at length in an essay, "Public Opinion and Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris," to be published sometime in 2001 by the European Science Foundation. Its text, which contains references to a great deal of source material, can be consulted in the electronic version of this essay, on the AHR web site, Most of the documentation comes from the dossiers grouped together in BA, ms. 11690.

39. Marc Pierre de Voyer de Paulmy, Comte d'Argenson, to Nicolas René Berryer, June 26, 1749, BA, ms. 11690, fol. 42.

40. "Interrogatoire du sieur Bonis," July 4, 1749, BA, ms. 11690, fols. 46–47.

41. Vie privée de Louis XV, ou principaux événements, particularités et anecdotes de son règne (London, 1781), 2: 301–02. See also Les fastes de Louis XV, de ses ministres, maîtresses, généraux et autres notables personnages de son règne (Villefranche, 1782), 1: 333–40.

42. My own understanding of this field owes a great deal to conversations with Robert Merton and Elihu Katz. On Gabriel Tarde, see his dated but still stimulating work, L'opinion et la foule (Paris, 1901); and Terry N. Clark, ed., On Communication and Social Influence (Chicago, 1969). For my part, I find Habermas's notion of the public sphere valid enough as a conceptual tool; but I think that some of his followers make the mistake of reifying it, so that it becomes an active agent in history, an actual force that produces actual effects—including, in some cases, the French Revolution. For some stimulating and sympathetic discussion of the Habermas thesis, see Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Mass., 1992).

43. I have located and compared the texts of nine manuscript versions of this song. The first verse, quoted below and reproduced in Figure 10, comes from the scrap of paper taken from the pockets of Christophe Guyard during his interrogation in the Bastille: BA, ms. 11690, fols. 67–68. The other texts come from: BA, ms. 11683, fol. 134; ms. 11683, fol. 132; BNF, ms. fr. 12717, pp. 1–3; ms. 12718, p. 53; ms. 12719, p. 83; Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, ms. 648, pp. 393–96; ms. 649, pp. 70–74; and ms. 580, pp. 248–49.

44. Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., 1960), shows how the rhythms of poetry and music contribute to the extraordinary feats of memorizing epic poems.

45. Unfortunately, the chansonnier Maurepas stops in 1747, but the even richer chansonnier Clairambault extends through the mid-century years: BNF, mss. fr. 12717–20.

46. Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, mss. 648–50.

47. P. Capelle, La clef du Caveau, à l'usage de tous les chansonniers français (Paris, 1816); and J.-B. Christophe Ballard, La clef des chansonniers (Paris, 1717). Most of the other "keys" are anonymous manuscripts available in the Fonds Weckerlin of the BNF. The most important for this research project are Recueil d'anciens vaudevilles, romances, chansons galantes et grivoises, brunettes, airs tendres (1729) and Recueil de timbres de vaudevilles nottés de La Coquette sans le savoir et autres pièces à vaudeville (n.d.). For help in locating this music, I would like to thank Hélène Delavault, Gérard Carreau, and Andrew Clark. Hélène Delavault has recorded fourteen of the songs that circulated in Paris during the political crisis of 1749–1750, and the songs and lyrics are available on the AHR web site.

48. Louis Petit de Bachaumont, the doyen of Mme. Doublet's salon, had a lackey known as "France": see Funck-Brentano, Figaro et ses devanciers, 264.

49. Anecdotes sur Mme. la comtesse du Barry, 167.

50. Anecdotes sur Mme. la comtesse du Barry, 76.

51. Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York, 1995).

52. Despite their official function, few historiographes du roi wrote contemporary history. The exception was Voltaire, whose Siècle de Louis XV reads like a political pamphlet in comparison with his magisterial Siècle de Louis XIV.

53. I have attempted to sketch the long-term history of libelles in Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, chap. 8.