The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon by Robert Darnton (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) is a dense, detailed and utterly captivating history of French libelous publications in the second half of the 18th century. In pre-Revolutionary France, where publishing was tightly controlled (by 1789 the government employed nearly 200 censors, Darnton reports) these anonymous texts (described as "slanderous, tendentious, wicked, indecent, and very good reading", p. 4) were important enough (and sold so well!) to warrant significant attention from those at the highest levels of power in the French government.
Darnton's book, he writes, is designed to "explore this body of literature and the subculture that generated it" (p. 5). He adds "The study of slander in eighteenth-century France is particularly revealing because it shows how a literary current eroded authority under an absolute monarchy and became absorbed in a republican political culture ...." (p. 6-7). He begins by offering close visual and textual readings of four interconnected libels, which enable him to trace the trajectory of the genre and provide a useful case study of the cast of characters, conventions used by the authors, &c.
The examples Darnton chooses couldn't have worked better: stretching across the time period under consideration, they offer a wide range of authorial and typographical choices, and allow him to branch out for interrelated expositions at well-paced intervals. This section of the book is accompanied by excellent complementary illustrations, which enhance the text particularly well.
Following the case studies, Darnton reaches more deeply into various components of the story. His examination of the London colony of French libelers and the efforts by the French authorities to put an end to them reads like a thriller novel, complete with undercover agents, (sometimes double and triple agents); bribes; blackmail efforts; attempts to rewrite English law, &c. Darnton's interest in the smuggling industry (which got the printed libels into France) is obvious, and his enthusiasm is infectious.
But Darnton doesn't limit himself to the stories. His strengths as one of the greatest interdisciplinary historians of the book are on full display here: he offers a close bibliographical reading of the ingredients of libels themselves (basically gossip, despotism, and depravity; also, the pages on plagiarism remind me of Lawrence Lessig's "remix" idea), the publishing industry which brought these libels into being, works toward an understanding of how the libels were received by the reading public (strong conclusions are not possible here given the lack of evidence, but he is able to reach some tentative conclusions), and delves deeply into the political and social history of France to point out the important ways in which these texts served to undermine the Ancien Regime. By attacking the personalities of those in power (up to and including the king and queen themselves), and feeding the hunger of the news-starved people for information, the example of these libels, he concludes, help us "understand how authoritarian regimes can be vulnerable to words and how well-placed words can mobilize the mysterious force known as public opinion" (p. 445).
This book also offers various points of focus for future study: Darnton points out Les Bohemiens, the fascinating novel and utterly forgotten Shandyesque novel written by imprisoned libeler the Marquis de Pelleport (anybody up for translating? [update: never mind, Penn's published it - good for them!), and his contrast between the English reaction to libel and the French is certainly fascinating, among others.
Not a light read, but well worth the effort.