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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 November 2011


Under the generic title, ‘French Crossings’, this Presidential Address explores the history of laughter in French society, and humour's potential for trangressing boundaries. It focuses on the irreverent and almost entirely unknown book of comic drawings entitled Livre de caricatures tant Bonnes que mauvaises (Book of Caricatures, both Good and Bad), that was composed between the 1740s and the mid-1770s by the luxury Parisian embroiderer and designer, Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, and his friends and family. The bawdy laughter that the book seems intended to provoke gave it its nickname of the Livre de culs (Book of Arses). Yet despite the scatological character of many of the drawings, the humour often conjoined lower body functions with rather cerebral and erudite wit. The laughter provoked unsparingly targeted and exposed to ridicule the social elite, cultural celebrities and political leaders of Ancien Régime France. This made it a dangerous object, which was kept strictly secret. Was this humour somehow pre- or proto-Revolutionary? In fact, the work is so embedded in the culture of the Ancien Régime that 1789 was one boundary that the work signally fails to cross.

Presidential Address
Copyright © Royal Historical Society 2011

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1 Wille, G., Mémoires et journal, ed. Duplessis, G. (2 vols., Paris 1857), i, 440Google Scholar. On another occasion Wille notes the two men being together again in ‘un festin’ where ‘nous sommes restés assez longtemps à table de fort bonne humeur’. Ibid., 578. (Note that the editor mistakenly takes this second reference to be to Charles-Germain's brother Augustin.)

2 Livre de caricatures tant Bonnes que mauvaises, Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, c. 1740 – c. 1775, 187 × 132mm, Waddesdon Manor, Classmark 675. It is currently located in the library of Waddesdon Manor, Bucks. In conjunction with colleagues from Waddesdon Manor, Juliet Carey and Pippa Shirley, and research assistant, Emily Richardson, I have recently completed an AHRC grant devoted to this volume. Note that to make references more manageable, I have included references to particular images in the text using Waddesdon Manor's classification. The digitised images plus critical commentary – may be accessed on Waddesdon's website: see the Waddesdon Saint-Aubin Project at For all that follows, the curatorial commentary for each image mentioned is recommended.

3 Advielle, Victor, Renseignements intimes sur les Saint-Aubin, dessinateurs et graveurs d'après les papiers de leur famille (Paris, 1896)Google Scholar, contains the fullest account of Charles-Germain's life and draws on autobiographical and biographical fragments described below, n. 5.

4 Advielle, Renseignements intimes, has until recently offered the best description of the lives of Gabriel and Augustin. For Gabriel, see now Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, 1724–1780, ex. cat. The Frick Collection, 30 Oct. 2007 – 27 Jan. 2008, Musée du Louvre, 28 Feb. – 26 May 2008 (Paris, 2007). More generally, cf. Dacier, E., Gabriel de Saint-Aubin. Peintre, dessinateur et graveur (1724–80), l'homme et l'œuvre (2 vols., Paris, 1929–31)Google Scholar, which contains much material on the brothers.

5 Receuil [sic] de plantes copiées d'aprés [sic] nature par de Saint Aubin, dessinateur du Roy Louis XV, 1736–1785, by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, 365 × 245mm, Oak Spring Garden Library, Upperville, Virginia. See also Tomasi, Lucia Tongiori, An Oak Spring Flora: Flower Illustrations from the 15th Century to the Present Time: A Selection of Rare Books and Manuscripts in the Collection of Rachel Lambert Mellon (Upperville, VA, 1997)Google Scholar, and Adrien Moreau, ‘Recueil des plantes de Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin’, L'Art, 73–8 (1903), 129–34. It is from the Recueil des Plantes that the description of Charles-Germain's character evoked in the first paragraph of this paper derives.

6 Mauriès, P., Les papillonneries humaines (reprint edn; Paris, 1996)Google Scholar. Charles-Germain also was involved with brother Gabriel in preparing a pornographic novel in the mid-1740s. For details on this and on other biographical data, see Juliet Carey and Colin Jones, ‘Introduction’, to eadem, idem and Richardson, Emily, eds., Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin and his ‘Livre de culs’ (forthcoming Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford, 2012)Google Scholar.

7 de Saint-Aubin, Charles-Germain, L'Art du brodeur (Paris, 1770)Google Scholar. The text and accompanying illustrations have been reprinted as The Art of Embroidery, translated and annotated by Nikki Scheuer (Los Angeles, 1983).

8 The reference is in the autobiographical fragments in the Recueil de plantes.

9 See above, n. 4, and also Rosenberg, Pierre, Le Livre des Saint-Aubin (Paris, 2002)Google Scholar, for the Louvre volume.

10 For the book's history, see Carey and Jones, ‘Introduction’. This collection comprises essays on the work from very wide-ranging and divergent perspectives. The Goncourts provide the only substantial comment on the work before the present day: see their L'Art du XVIIIe siècle, 3rd edn (Paris, 1882).

11 This in a loose-leaf page located in the Livre de caricatures at Waddesdon Manor. It is in the hand of Pierre-Antoine Tardieu, the husband of one of Charles-Germain's grand-daughters, who inherited the book in the early 1820s and seems to have been party to a number of family traditions.

12 Jones, Colin, ‘Presidential Address: I. Tales of Two Cities’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 20 (2010), 126CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 To focus solely on eighteenth-century France, particularly recommended on laughter, from a list which could be much extended, are Richardot, Anne, Le rire des Lumières (Paris, 2002)Google Scholar; ‘Le rire’, ed. Andries, Lise, XVIIIe siècle, 32 (2000)Google Scholar; de Baecque, Antoine, Les éclats du rire: la culture des rieurs au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 2000)Google Scholar; Goldzink, Jean, Les Lumières et l'idée du comique (Fontenay-aux-Roses, 1992)Google Scholar; idem, Comique et comédie au siècle des Lumières (Paris, 2002); and Bourguinat, Elizabeth, Le siècle du persiflage, 1734–1789 (Paris, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For slightly earlier periods, see Ménager, Daniel, La Renaissance et le rire (Paris, 1995)Google Scholar, and Bertrand, Dominique, Dire le rire à l'âge classique: représenter pour mieux contrôler (Aix-en-Provence, 1995)Google Scholar. Very useful general works include Minois, Georges, Histoire du rire et de la déraison (Paris, 2000)Google Scholar; Favre, Robert, Le rire dans tous ses éclats (Lyon, 1995)Google Scholar; Bertrand, Dominique and Gély-Ghedira, Véronique, eds., Rire des dieux (Clermont-Ferrand, 2000)Google Scholar; Biondi, C. et al. , eds., La quête du bonheur et l'expression de la douleur dans la littérature et la pensée françaises (Geneva, 1995)Google Scholar; and Lever, Maurice, Le sceptre et la marotte: histoire des fous de cour (Paris, 1983)Google Scholar. For a helpful comparative angle, see Verberckmoes, Jan, Laughter, Jestbooks and Society in the Spanish Netherlands (Basingstoke, 1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique, article ‘rire’.

15 Vicki Bruce, Recognising Faces (1988), 23.

16 Berger, Peter, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (New York, 1991), xivGoogle Scholar.

17 Voltaire, Lettres philosophiques.

18 Bergson, H., Le rire: essai sur la signification du comique (Paris, 1900)Google Scholar; for Freud, see esp. his The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious (1905).

19 Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, ed. P. Ekman, 3rd edn (1998). Besides the introductory material by Ekman in this edition, see too Ekman, What the Face Reveals, 2nd edn (Oxford, 2005); idem, Emotion in the Human Face, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 1982). Ekman appears to have never failed not to laugh at a historical joke

20 Robert Darnton, ‘Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin’, in his The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984).

21 Louis Poinsenet de Sivry, Traité des causes physiques et morales du rire, relativement à l'art de l'exciter (Amsterdam 1768; reprint edn, Exeter 1986, ed. W. Brooks).

22 The Cato example is given in Joubert (see references at n. 24): 228.

23 Poinsenet de Sivry, Traité des causes physiques, 9.

24 Joubert, Laurent, Traité du ris (Slatkine reprint, Paris, 1970)Google Scholar. See the English translation (with a helpful introduction): Joubert, Laurent, Treatise on Laughter, ed. and trans. de Rocher, G. David (Alabama, 1980)Google Scholar; and de Rocher, G. David, Rabelais's Laughers and Joubert's Traité du Ris (Alabama, 1979)Google Scholar.

25 The works in the series appeared from 1532 to 1564 (Rabelais had died in 1553).

26 Joubert, Traité du ris, 221. Following this cue, one later author maintained that four Galenic humours – melancholic, bilious, phlegmatic and sanguine temperaments – could be exactly mapped on to the different forms of laughter: hi-hi, hé-hé, ha-ha and ho-ho. Ibid., Épître, no page number.

27 Joubert, Traité du ris, 221.

28 Ibid., 225ff.

29 Joubert, Taité du ris, 160–1.

30 M. Cureau de La Chambre, Les caractères des passions (2 vols., Paris, 1658), i, 58.

31 Joubert, Traité du ris, 52.

32 René Descartes, Traité des passions (1649).

33 Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres (17 vols., Geneva, 1754–72), xiv, 298ff.

34 See the excellent Guédron, M., L'art de la grimace: cinq siècles d'excès de visage (Paris, 2011)Google Scholar.

35 Dr. Albert Haller's Physiology; Being a Course of Lectures upon the Visceral Anatomy and Vital Oeconomy of Human Bodies, 2nd edn (1772), i, 346.

36 ‘Sis problemes du chatoulemant’, in Joubert, Traité du ris, 201.

37 A. Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine of Eighteenth-Century France (1998); L. Wilson, Women and Medicine in the French Enlightenment: The Debate over ‘Maladies des Femmes’ (1993).

38 Hobbes, Thomas, The Elements of Law Natural and Politic, ed. Tonnies, F., 2nd edn (1969), 42 (original 1634)Google Scholar. Cf. Skinner, Quentin, ‘Hobbes and the Classical Theory of Laughter’, in idem, Visions of Politics, iii:Hobbes and Civic Science (Cambridge, 2002)Google Scholar.

39 Bossuet in his Maximes et réflexions sur la comédie (cited in Richardot, Le rire des lumières, 37).

40 Goff, J. Le, ‘Jésus a-t-il ri?’, L'Histoire, 158 (1992), 72–4Google Scholar.

41 Thiers, Jean-Baptiste, Traité des jeux (Paris, 1686)Google Scholar, cited in Minois, Histoire du rire, 305–6.

42 Beam, Sara, Laughing Matters: Farce and the Making of Absolutism in France (Ithaca, NY, 2007)Google Scholar; cf. Minois, Histoire du rire, 307ff.

43 Cited in Minois, Histoire du rire, 369.

44 Cf. Jones, Colin, ‘The King's Two Teeth’, History Workshop, 65 (2008), 7995CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

45 Shaftesbury cited in Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (2006), 169. Gatrell provides an excellent account of this optimistic whiggish reading of laughter, targeting Hobbesian pessimism.

46 Voltaire, L'enfant prodigue (1738), preface, no page numbers.

47 Werner Hofmann, Caricature from Leonardo to Picasso (1957), offers a good introduction to the origins of caricature, as, more recently, do Donald, Diana, The Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III (New Haven and London, 1996)Google Scholar, introduction; and T. Porterfield, ed., The Efflorescence of Caricature, 1759–1838 (2010). See too Gombrich, E. and Kris, E., Caricature (Harmondsworth, 1940)Google Scholar; and Gombrich's two essays, ‘The Cartoonist's Armoury’ (in idem, Meditations of a Hobby Horse (1963)) and ‘The Experiment of Caricature’ (in idem, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1959)). Although many publications have been devoted to specifically French traditions of caricature, these tend to cut off at the end of Louis XIV's reign only to restart at the opening of the Revolution in 1789. Few texts concern caricature during the early and middle decades of the eighteenth century. One exception, which does cover the period of the Saint-Aubin drawings is Blum, André, ‘L'Estampe satirique et la caricature en France au XVIIIe siècle’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 52 (1910), 379420, 53 (1910)Google Scholar, 69–87 – which, however, has scant mention of Charles-Germain.

48 Lavin, Irving, ‘Bernini and the Art of Social Satire’, History of European Ideas, 4 (1983), 365420CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and idem, ‘High and Low before their Time: Bernini and the Art of Social Satire’, in Modern Art and Popular Culture: Readings in High and Low, ed. Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (New York, 1990), 18–50.

49 Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française, 4th edn (1762) (‘Caricature, s.f. Terme de peinture, emprunté de l'italien. C'est la meme chose que Charge en peinture’). Word searches in Frantext (USA: ARTFL) reveal less than a score of hits. These include Mirabeau's L'ami des hommes, Diderot's Essais sur la peinture, Voltaire's Correspondance and Mercier's Tableau de Paris.

50 Encyclopédie, ii, 684.

51 On these issues of authorship, materiality and use, see Colin Jones and Emily Richardson, ‘Materiality and Archaeology’, in Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, ed. Carey, Jones and Richardson.

52 On such ‘laughing groups’, see de Baecque, Les éclats du rire.

53 Pierre-Antoine Tardieu, husband of Charles-Germain's grand-daughter, who inherited the book in the 1820s, added captions explaining the jokes. The Rameau example is a case in point – though sometimes he got the jokes wrong. Jones and Richardson, ‘Materiality and Archaeology’.

54 On censorship, see esp. Minois, George, Censure et culture sous l'Ancien Régime (Paris, 1995)Google Scholar; de Negroni, Barbara, Lectures interdites: le travail des censeurs au XVIIIe siècle, 1723–1774 (Paris, 1995)Google Scholar; and essays by Roche, Daniel, Darnton, Robert and Birn, Raymond in Robert, Darnton and Roche, Daniel, eds., Revolution in Print: The Press in France, 1775–1800 (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1989)Google Scholar. On the censorship of visual material, see ch. 3, ‘Censorship of Caricature before 1830’, in Goldstein, Robert Justin, Censorship of Political Caricature in Nineteenth-Century France (Kent, OH, and London, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

55 The English tradition is superbly encapsulated by Gatrell, City of Laughter. For post-1789 France, see esp. Cuno, James, ed., French Caricature and the French Revolution, 1789–99, ex. cat., Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Wight Art Gallery, University of California (Los Angeles, 1988)Google Scholar; de Baecque, Antoine, La caricature révolutionnaire (Paris, 1988)Google Scholar; and Langlois, Claude, La caricature contre-révolutionnaire (Paris, 1988)Google Scholar. For the pornographic tradition, see Darnton, Robert, The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon (Philadelphia, 2010)Google Scholar.

56 Joubert, Traité du ris, ch. 2, ‘Des fais ridicules’, 16ff, and ch. 3, ‘Des propos ridicules’, 29ff.

57 Ibid., 26.

58 Cf. 675.3, 675.305.

59 On this point, see the discussion in Colin Jones, Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress (2002), 141.

60 Cf. Perrin Stein, ‘The Vase as a Site for Satire’, in Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, ed. Carey, Jones and Richardson.

61 Bakhtin, M., Rabelais and his World (Cambridge, MA, 1968)Google Scholar.

62 See e.g. 675.75 and 675.111 for direct Rabelaisian citations. For a generally ‘Rabelaisian’ spirit, cf. 675.72–3 and 675.271.

63 The Saint-Aubins derived much of their material on the topic from the antiquarian work, Mémoire pour servir à l'histoire de la fête des fous published by the antiquarian, du Tilliot: Jean-Bénigne Lucotte du Tilliot, Mémoire pour servir à l'histoire de la fête des fous (Lausanne and Geneva, 1751). There had been an earlier 1741 edition. For related drawings, see 675.161, 675.372.

64 De Baecque, Les éclats du rire, esp. ch. 1, ‘Le Régiment de la Calotte, ou les stratégies aristocratiques du rire bel esprit (1702–52)’.

65 Ibid., 44.

66 There is a good account of the episode in Lever, Evelyne, Madame de Pompadour (Paris, 2000), 145ffGoogle Scholar. See too Robert Darnton, Public Opinion and Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris,, especially sub-section entitled ‘Court Politics’. Further examples can be found in Marie André Alfred Emile Raunié, Chansonnier historique du XVIIIe siècle . . . Recueil Clairembault-Maurepas. . . (10 vols., Paris, 1879–84), esp. vii: ‘Le règne de Louis XV: Madame de Châteauroux et Madame de Pompadour, 1743–1763’.

67 As was the case, it must be said, with Rabelais.

68 See as follows: Bosch, 675.102; Callot, 675.11; Della Bella, 675.27; Poussin, 675.379; Watteau, 675.26 and Boucher, 675.303. These are only single examples; in some cases there are multiple quotations. Besides the pastoral style and evidence of heraldry (e.g. 675.2, 675.181), there is a lot of chinoiserie throughout. Charles-Germain's papillonneries and his botanical drawings are also referenced (675.163; 675.320; 675.160).

69 For shop-signs, 675.358; for street traders, 675.348; for the post, 675.347.

70 For the Encyclopédie, 675.162 and 675.313; for the Académies, 675.266, 675.341 and 675.355; for La Mettrie, 675.202; plus many on Rameau, including 675.239 and 675.241.

71 Cf. 675.24, 675.330.

72 Milliot, V., Les cris de Paris, ou le peuple travesti: les représentations des petits métiers parisiens (XVIe–XVIIIe siècles) (Paris, 1995)Google Scholar.

73 E.g. 675.17.

74 E.g. 675.98, 675.232. Cf. Munhall, E., ‘Savoyards in Eighteenth-Century French Art’, Apollo, 87 (1968), 8694Google Scholar.

75 For Vestris, 675.380; for Heinel, 675.102; for Le Kain, 675.283; and for Sedaine, 675.353, 675.360. For plays, see too 675.142, 675.222–3, 675.352, 675.384. On Charles-Germain's theatrical links, see Ledbury, M., Sedaine, Greuze and the Boundaries of Genre (Oxford, 2000)Google Scholar; idem, ‘Theatrical Life’, in Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, ed. Carey, Jones and Richardson.

76 For Lauraguais, 675.176; for Castel, 675.302. See also 675.175 for the panic about the ‘Beast’ of the Gévaudan, and 675.377 for the papal conclave of 1774. The latter images are rare for being outside the Paris–Versailles axis which frames the volume as a whole.

77 Charles-Germain's autobiographical fragments in the Recueil des plantes reveal that his father forbade him to go to Lyon as a youth to learn silk design; and that he only made trips outside the city in the early 1770s to Flanders and Provence.

78 For the 1757 campaign, 675.354; Damiens affair, 675.262–263; Jesuits, 675.354; Jansenist issues, 675.357.

79 Lever, Madame de Pompadour; Jones, Madame de Pompadour.

80 The documents on the settlement of the estate, discussed in Advielle, Renseignements intimes, are located at Archives Nationales, ET liv 1029; and the 1780 will at ET xi 736. Much of the detail on Charles-Germain's relations with Madame de Pompadour come from the fragments in the Recueil de plantes.

81 Other anti-Pompadour drawings include drawings at 225, 316–17, 322, 328, 339, 359.

82 Cf. 675.235.

83 675.165, 675.359. On the latter drawing, see Juliet Carey, ‘The King and his Embroiderer’, in Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, ed. Carey, Jones and Richardson.

84 Making a god of money, 675.308; greedy financiers, 675.294; ministers, 675.103, 675. 121, 675.318; Jesuits, 675.277, 675.354; and parlements, 675.357.

85 See above, p. 8.

86 The desacralization thesis is laid out in Merrick, Jeffrey, The Desacralisation of the French Monarchy in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge, 1990)Google Scholar; and Kley, Dale Van, ‘The Religious Origins of the Revolution, 1560–1791’, in Campbell, Peter R., The Origins of the French Revolution (Houndmills, 2006), 160–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See too the critique of Engels, Jens Ivo, ‘Désigner, espérer, assumer la réalité: le roi de France perçu par ses sujets, 1680–1750’, Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, 50 (2003), 96126CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and idem, ‘Beyond Sacral Monarchy: A New Look at the Image of the Early Modern French Monarchy’, French History, 15 (2001), 139–58.

87 Ginzburg, Carlo, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, English trans. (Baltimore, MD, 1980)Google Scholar.