November 19, 2010

Lecture: Blogging, Now and Then (250 years ago)

It is fun to think about the connections between Perez Hilton's posts about Lady Gaga and a paragraph man's description of the Duchess of Devonshire's latest ridiculous fashion triumph.  Naturally, when we heard of Robert Darnton's approaching lecture on the topic, Heather and I were sure to attend!  The whole lecture did not take this path, however, we steered into a more bibliophile tone of discussion: the genetic make up of the publicationsᶦ (blogs and scandalous publications of the 18th century).

The eighteenth century publication which related all the personal details you might want to know about a celebrity could have been published as a 'Vie Privee'.   An example Darnton used was Vie Privee De Louis XV; a four set volume published in 1781 as a biography of the late king.

The biography was actually filled with anecdotes of a scandalous nature, it describes the private life of the king.  These anecdotes were supposed to be true and previously undisclosed facts.  The volumes would be read, the content absorbed, and the information shared amongst others.  Could the comparison be made about picking up this set of volumes in the eighteenth century and subscribing to your favorite gossip blogs and/or saving a search about 'Paris Hilton'?  Maybe.  Back to the anecdotes!

So the anecdotes are the little tidbits of gossip.  Here is one:

"He [Duke of Orléans] deplored her death rather as a lover in despair than as an afflicted father."
on his daughter's death from Vie Privee De Louis XV

This small piece of scandalous information may have been collected around town.  Perhaps it was scribbled down on a piece of paper, and later made its way into a pamphlet of gossip.  When the author of the Vie Privee sat down and began his biography, his sources for many of these data-sized facts came from the previous gossips.  He pulled information from various sources and like brickwork, laid them into each volume, one bit after another.  I think he had enough style to ease transitions and make an easily readable work.  But essentially, his gathering of the data, and compiling it into a format French readers were used to was all they needed to understand the content.

Darnton discussed the fact that there were various levels of readers.  Those whom where sophisticated enough could process the information presented in one of these volumes and deem its weight and truth.  Some of the readership was so intelligent on the subject they could put the facts into the context of which they were written, and figure out what member of court could have come up with such a fact and what their motive would have been.  Others took the facts presented in each volume at face value, and the rumors carried on to entertain many.

Perhaps historical gossip blogs are the modern hybrid of these vehicles and methods of sharing such delicate and juicy information!

If you are interested in Darnton's study of gossip in the 18th century I recommend his recent book: "The Devil in the Holy Water or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon"
Read my review here.

The idea of DNA of these gossip filled books offered by a commenter at the lecture.


  1. Looking forward to reading this book. I finally bought it based on your earlier review, but it hasn't yet worked its way to the top of the pile.

  2. @Vinery let me know what you think of it!