The Utopian Mayeux: Henri De Saint-Simon Meets the Bossu a la Mode

By Menon, Elizabeth K. | Canadian Journal of History, August 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Utopian Mayeux: Henri De Saint-Simon Meets the Bossu a la Mode


Menon, Elizabeth K., Canadian Journal of History


During the July Monarchy, a fictional hunchback dwarf named Mayeux (fig. 1) became a popular commentator on political and social life in France.(1) Much like England's John Bull, Mayeux represented the silent majority of the French population, which was dissatisfied with the past but afraid of the future. Artists and writers quickly seized upon the popular icon of Mayeux to interpret for their audience the significance of the trois glorieuses. As a popular icon, Mayeux's image appeared in lithographic prints, books, pamphlets, journals, plays, and song sheets, and he was immortalized in the form of statuettes, candlesticks, and other decorative art objects. In prints and literature Mayeux was used both to poke fun and to provoke awareness of political and social issues. His repeated appearance in serials and novels appealed to a wide audience that eagerly followed his thoughts and adventures. Although he was an unlikely "hero," the hunchback dwarf was uniquely qualified to address issues critical of the July Monarchy, from government censorship of the press to intimate relations between the sexes, to the utopian social system of Henri de Saint-Simon. The artists and writers who created Mayeux strategically imbued him with an appearance and motivations that would make him function as a popular hero for the French public after the July Revolution.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Charles-Joseph Travies (1804-1859), J. J. Grandville (1803-1847), and Honore Daumier (1808-1879) were among the many artists who drew Mayeux. Dozens of anonymous authors wrote about him or were influenced by this phenomenon. The list includes Eugene Sue (1804-1857), who based his character La Mayeux in Le Juif errant on this well-known figure.(2) Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) featured Mayeux in two of his earliest articles in La Silhouette and La Caricature.(3) In Les Miserables, which takes place during the July Monarchy, Victor Hugo (1802-1885) noted that "Paris a un Esope qui est Mayeux."(4) Hugo was likely influenced by Mayeux's popularity when developing his protagonists Quasimodo for Notre Dame de Paris (1831) and Triboulet for Le Roi s'amuse (1832), and he specifically featured the hunchback in his Chansons des rues et des bois (1865).(5) Both Champfleury (1821-1889) and Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) described the Mayeux character as a "type" within the history of caricature while Theophile Gautier reviewed the theatrical production Les Caravanes de Mayeux in 1843. By the time Edmond de Goncourt (1822-1896) recalled Mayeux in his Journal in 1883 and in 1885, any person with a hunchback could be called a mayeux.(6)

One index of Mayeux's popularity is that his image appeared in nearly three hundred different lithographs. In 1831 alone, 25 per cent of the entries in the Autorisation d'estampes avec ou sans texte contained at least one print of Mayeux.(7) In that same year, a crucial period in the development and use of Mayeux, more than forty thousand books and pamphlets were printed featuring him as the central character. More than thirty articles about Mayeux of supposedly "written" by him were published in journals such as Le Figaro, Le Temps, La Silhouette, La Caricature, Le Charivari, Le Siecle, Le Corsaire, and La Charge from 1830 to 1833. The journals Mayeux and Le Veritable Mayeux each circulated two thousand copies per issue.(8) Again in 1831, five different theatrical productions featured Mayeux as a central character or included him in a supporting role. Careful examination of current productions listed in the Courrier des Theatres reveals that in the first half of 1831, scarcely a night went by when a production featuring Mayeux was not performed.

Mayeux's origin can be traced to a long line of hunchbacks, court fools, and clowns in European culture. A prevalent ancestral figure is doubtless found in the writings of Rabelais. Mayeux, as a nineteenth-century icon, might be viewed in terms of updating Rabelaisian tradition -- still linking popular culture, verbal and visual caricature, scatological imagery and the psychology of laughter, though in more restrained and less poetic terms.

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