Rue de la Harpe (Paris)

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A particular aspect of urban psychological history is a continuous fascination with crime. City dwellers are obsessed with acts of violence. Every age has expressed worries about escalating evil. The issue of law and order has always been a concern. Politicians make a career out of such anxieties. And yet, at the same time, we devour crime stories, real or fictional, in whatever form these are presented. Crime is a never-ceasing attraction to the public at large. It dominates television programming, ‘good stories’ sell newspapers, and the thriller remains the most popular literary genre. From early civilization onwards acts of cruelty have been recorded in the annals of mankind, be it the Celtic sacrificial ritual of head-hunting or the medieval visions of hell.

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Death in early history was violent – not a blissful transition from life to heaven, but an event of pain and horror, either through some form of epidemic disease or through the continuous evils of war and armed conflict. Murder and theft were rampant. Punishment was brutal, but did not stop villainy. Paradoxically, out of this mixture of fear and fascination a new figure arose – that of the criminal folk legend. Robin Hood is the best known outlaw in English folklore and the first criminal to be acclaimed a hero by poets and artists. Stories about crime during the seventeenth century seemed to address the insecurities of the age. Printed ballads, periodicals, reports of crimes, pamphlets taking the side of defendants or prosecutors, last dying speeches, accounts of executions, all became popular literature. By the early eighteenth century, these genres had contributed to the development of criminal biographies, the novel and satirical print. The market for criminal accounts was buoyant. It was not unusual for a condemned person to sell his biography to the highest-bidding prospective author. The expansion of detailed information about cases of wrongdoing meant that more sensationalist accounts became increasingly implausible as readers could compare these tales with more explicit accounts in newspapers and elsewhere. Changing standards of morality led to a toning down of the more lurid sexual details found in early publications and by the 1770s some of the more racy publications were in decline. Even so, throughout the nineteenth century terror continued to be an audience-puller. However, there was crime and there was the myth of crime and the two are often difficult to separate.

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‘The history of the world, my sweet – is who gets eaten and who get to eat’, is an often quoted line from Sweeney Todd in discussion with Mrs Lovett. Anxiety of crime was a dominant aspect of metropolitan life during the nineteenth century, but the red spectre of revolution was an almost obsessive fear. During the 1790s cannibal and eating imagery became part of the English artistic and literary iconography in response to the French Revolution. In Europe it was widely alleged that the Jacobins and the Terrors of the 1790s had plunged Europe into collective savagery. Rejecting Rousseau’s theory of natural man, critics declared that primitive man is a ferocious brute. The aim of civilization, contrary to all revolutionary beliefs, was not a return to the state of nature but to escape from it. The Jacobins had destroyed all social restraints and transformed society into a barbarian horde.

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After the massacres of September 1792, James Gillray portrayed a family of Paris ‘sansculottes’ feasting upon dismembered bodies. Radical Tory journalists associated with Fraser’s Magazine adopted this set of images and gave it new social meaning during the restless 1830s and 1840s. Thomas Carlyle was closely connected to the magazine. He made its imagery his own. Thomas Malthus had introduced the unnerving notion of food scarcity into contemporary thinking, but he did not project the spectre of cannibalism when he outlined imminent struggles for survival. In Sartor Resartus (1831) Carlyle introduces a character named Heuschrecke, an apostle of Malthus, who suggests the prospect of cannibalism. Carlyle depicts a world ‘by its too dense inhabitants, famished into delirium, universally eating one another’.

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The Rue de la Harpe is a quiet cobblestoned and residential street in the Latin Quarter of Paris, running in a south-easterly direction between the Rue de la Huchette and the Rue Saint-Séverin. Only a few buildings that date from before the Haussmann era have survived. During the nineteenth century the name of the street send shivers down people’s spine. It was associated with crime and cannibalism.
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In 1800, Minister of Police Joseph Fouché supposedly documented a series of murders undertaken in the street by a local barber and baker. The two are cited as the first serial killers. Becque would murder his victims for the contents of their pockets and Mornay disposed of the bodies by mincing and cooking them in his meat pies that were renowned throughout Paris for their flavour. The men were tried and found guilty at the Palais de Justice in 1801. In a punishment seen to fit the crime, they were torn to pieces on the rack rather than executed by guillotine. Their fate influenced the tale of barber Sweeney Todd of Fleet Street and his baker accomplice Mrs Lovett. In 1825, Tell-Tale Magazine published ‘A Terrible Story of the Rue de la Harpe’. In this tale, the barber murders a country gentleman and steals a string of pearls before delivering the corpse to his mistress, a chef renowned for her delicious ‘pâtés en croûte’. The duo are discovered when the victim’s dog leads the police to a cellar heaped with the skeletal remains of three hundred people. On 21 November 1846 The People’s Periodical and Family Library began serializing Edward Lloyd’s eight-part story entitled ‘The String of Pearls’ which was set in 1785 and concerned Sweeney Todd, a barber in Fleet Street who murdered wealthy clients for their valuables by throwing them through a trapdoor into a cellar. His neighbour Mrs Lovett cut up the bodies and turned them into tasty pies.
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Todd apparently tried to murder Mark Ingestre for a string of pearls, but the latter survived and Sweeney Todd confessed his crimes. Before the serial had ended, a stage version of the story dramatized by the playwright George Dibdin Pitt began a long run at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton. In that version Todd gained his stage catchphrase: ‘I’ve polished him off’.The phrase has entered the English language. In 1850, Edward Lloyd published an enlarged The String of Pearls as a stand-alone ‘penny-blood’ serial. Both the preface to the 1850 edition and the bills for Pitt’s play insisted that the Todd story was based on fact. A further serial was published by Charles Fox in 1878, by which time Todd had become the ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’.
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The legend gained further embellishments. No. 186 Fleet Street became established as Todd’s residence, an identification encouraged by the discovery of human bones under the cellar during building work in the late nineteenth century, supposedly those of Todd’s victims. Todd remained part of popular culture in the twentieth century and was the subject of several films. By the 1930s ‘The Sweeney’ had become Cockney rhyming slang for the Metropolitan Police’s flying squad, and in the 1970s it provided the name for a famous television drama series. The original French story, however, smacks of being an urban myth and the supposed book by Fouché is impossible to trace.

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Rue de la Harpe has made its presence felt in the history of the Revolution, or more precisely: in the annals of the revolutionary press. Paris bookseller Antoine-François Momoro was thirty-three years old when the Revolution began. He had arrived in Paris from his native Besançon in 1780. He was one of many small Parisian book dealers with little hope of advancement under the restrictive Old Regime. With the declaration of the freedom of the press in August 1789, however, his prospects looked a lot brighter. Embracing the revolutionary movement, he opened a printing shop at no. 171 Rue de la Harpe and declared himself the ‘First Printer of National Liberty’. In 1793, he composed and published a treatise on printing, the Traité élémentaire de l’imprimerie, which was intended to put the practical knowledge of printing within the reach of a broad audience. To this day, it remains the most complete source of eighteenth-century printing shop slang. Momoro used his press to launch a career in radical revolutionary politics, soon becoming the official ‘Printer for the Cordeliers Club’. When he was arrested in February 1794, the police made an inventory of his stock which consisted exclusively of pamphlets, handbills and posters. His business was totally devoted to the printed ephemera that sustained the Revolution. Economically, he made a good living out of his activities. The Revolutionary Tribunal heard repeated depictions of Momoro as a greedy opportunist who was notorious for shady dealings. In the first four years of the Revolution his business in printing revolutionary propaganda expanded perhaps as much as twofold. His career, however, was not untypical.

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In 1789 Parisian printing exploded. The Revolution triggered an unprecedented political discourse throughout the country which was reflected in a substantial increase in published materials. During the first few years of the Revolution the industry was overrun by a new generation of little printers, most of them former printing-shop workers or small book dealers, amounting to something like a four-fold increase in the number of printers and a tripling of the number of booksellers and/or publishers. They seized the cultural space opened by the declaration of freedom of the press, and through the production of political ephemera took part in recording and shaping revolutionary events. Paris suddenly became the world’s largest centre of newspaper production. The Revolution was also a revolution of the press. Printing became an essential part in the struggle over public opinion which contributed to the formation of a new democratic political culture. Just as the press served as more than just a chronicle of events, the position of the journalist was transformed as well. He took up the role of critic, denouncer, and commentator. He was an engaged participant, actor, and witness, fuelling the course of events. The link between Revolution and the development towards democratization of the printed word is further emphasized by the career of typographer and encyclopaedist Pierre Leroux, who was the inventor of the term ‘socialism’.
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Born in 1797, Leroux attended the École Polytechnique, before joining a printshop and start a career in publishing. He founded the Globe newspaper in 1824 and, with George Sand, the Revue Indépendante in 1841. Moving to Boussac, he set up his own publishing house and attracted a small community of disciples and readers. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1848, and formally honoured by the Commune upon his death in 1871. To combat ignorance was one of the main aspirations of nineteenth century socialism to which general access to printing and publishing was of crucial importance. Socialism was born with a printers’ tag around its neck. Momoro had used his press as a call to arms and an instrument for the expression of subversive criticism. Pierre Leroux, using print as his medium, spoke words of liberation and spread ideas of democracy and social justice. Newspapers and pamphlets to him were a source for political education and instruction.

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John Baskerville came from a different angle, a non-conformist and atheist he was above all interested in the presentation of the text, the quality of the letter, and the layout of the page. Ironically, it was the French Revolution that safeguarded his legacy. He settled in Birmingham in 1726. Having made his fortune in the lucrative ‘japanning’ business (an early form of enamelling), he secured a lease on eight acres ground to the north-east of the city which he named Easy Hill, and built himself the house in which he lived for the rest of his life. At some point before 1757, he was joined there by Sarah Eaves (née Ruston), a married woman with a son and two daughters whose husband Richard had fled the country because of fraud. About 1750 Baskerville began his career as a printer and type-founder. Influenced by the work of Italian Renaissance printers, his guiding principles were simplicity and clarity. His page layouts were minimalist, they tended to be completely typographic, allowing his letterforms to stand on their own. Baskerville died at his house at Easy Hill in January 1775. Sarah Eaves was a resourceful character in her own right. For a number of years she managed the type-foundry herself. In December 1779 she concluded a sale of the printing firm with the cosmopolitan figure of Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a principal participant in the Société Typographique et Littéraire which was established in order to produce the complete works of Voltaire at a printing office set up for this purpose at Kehl, a German town located on the right bank of the Rhine directly opposite the city of Strasbourg. To the edition of Voltaire in eighty-five volumes (issued in 1784/89) was added one of the works of Rousseau.
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The news that Baskerville’s types were being used at Kehl attracted the attention of Piedmont dramatist Vittorio Alfieri, the ‘founder’ of Italian tragedy. Alfieri, like Lord Byron, was both an aristocrat and a revolutionary. A friend of Beaumarchais, he was in many ways typical of the eighteenth century enlightened cosmopolitan European. His plays communicate an intense hatred of tyranny and despotism. Inevitably, he became a proponent of the French Revolution and enthusiastically embraced the American cause for independence. Baskerville would have been delighted to learn that Alfieri ordered from Beaumarchais the printing of several of his works.

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Charles-Joseph Panckoucke was one of the most successful newspaper editors and publishers of his age; among his authors were such distinguished figures as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Buffon. At the outbreak of the Revolution, Panckoucke’s newspapers were virtually the only ones with the privilege of publishing political news. On 24 November 1789, he founded the Gazette Nationale ou Le Moniteur Universal, a daily newspaper which became the official journal of the French Revolution. Baskerville’s association with Enlightenment radicalism is emphasized by the fact that his types were used to print the Moniteur. For some years the journal’s imprint read, ‘imprimé … avec les caractères de Baskerville’. From his base in Birmingham, Baskerville provided the Revolution with a letter of liberation.

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