Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech

By Charles Walton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
The Culture of Calumny
and Honor

A good reputation is all the more necessary to a prince in that he who enjoys one can
do more with his name alone than those who are not esteemed can do with armies.

—Cardinal de Richelieu, Testament politique, 1640

A well-timed libel can produce a revolution. It can change and govern minds and
irremediably destroy a man.… We are surprised that the famous Naudé said noth-
ing about it in his book on Les coups d’États.

—Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet, Théorie du libelle, ou, l’art de calomnier avec fruit, 1775

To be injured by speech is to suffer a loss of context, that is, not to know where
you are…. Exposed at the moment of such a shattering is precisely the volatility of
one’s “place” within the community of speakers; one can be “put in one’s place”
by such speech, but such a place may be no place.

—Judith Butler, Excitable Speech, 1997


The Meaning of Calumny

“There is no greater crime than calumny.” Thus wrote the author of Le véritable tableau de la calomnie in 1649 during the Fronde, expressing a view held widely in Old Regime France.1 In his treatise on injurious speech in 1776, the jurist François Dareau declared, “All that is the worst in crime can be found in calumny.”2 The jurist Daniel Jousse had already claimed in 1771 that it constituted “a kind of murder to attack the honor and reputation of someone, which are held to be dearer than one’s life.”3 Further, the Church believed that one’s individual reputation, like one’s physical life, was so sacred that it withheld the sacrament of Communion to calumniators and murderers alike.4 Indeed, calumny was frequently equated with murder and often said to be more egregious. The author of Le véritable tableau de la calomnie argued, “Ruining a man’s reputation is more evil than taking bread out of

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