Literary revolution in blue

When the French peasants were revolting — and reading.

Mike Selby

While visiting her parents’ farm in 1837, Eugénie de Guérin witnessed the most astonishing sight she had ever seen. While going for an evening stroll in the French countryside, she stumbled upon a peasant arguing with a priest about the Council of Trent. Guérin was so horrified by what she heard, she almost fainted.

The Council of Trent! Someone had taught the peasant to read.

Had she been more in tune with rural France, she would have known this was not an isolated incident. Throughout the 19th century, country peasants — over 20 million of them — were learning to read. As Guérin’s reaction shows, it hadn’t always been that way.

The poor, deplorable, and often backward conditions of the peasant class were hardly conducive to literacy. Some were functionally literate, with their reading restricted to utilitarian knowledge (crop prices, farm recipes, simple math). Others were semiliterate; they could read but not write. The only book any of a lucky few owned was an almanac, which hung down from the ceiling on a nail, much like a kitchen utensil.

Other than this, books were rare mysteries, often viewed as possessing magical and occult properties. Sickness and injuries were often attributed to someone having read a book. Priests were often consulted, who felt burning the offending book was key to recovery. A healer in northern France was said to be able to cure rabies by having the afflicted swallow various lines or print torn out of a book.

As the 19th century progressed, the ability to read began to sweep across the rural areas of France. And one type of book was preferred above all others: the Bibliothèque Bleue.

The ‘blue’ which described these books referred to the inexpensive and coarse blue sugar paper the books were bound in, and not because of any immoral or sexual content (somewhat ironic, as that is exactly what these blue books were). Although some blue books were almanacs, recipes and religious in nature, the vast majority were of the poorly written erotic romance type.

In fact, the demand became so great for Bibliothèque Bleue that the publishers could barely keep up. It was an odd market though. Blue books did not sell to the illiterate, or the highly literate. The market was restricted to beginning readers only. An odd situation, as the publishers were going to lose future sales as their customers became more and more adept at reading. Yet for the time being, it seemed as if this boom in publishing was unstoppable.

Of course somebody did stop it — those killjoys known as the French government. It remains unclear if the political leaders of France truly objected to the licentious content of the books, or simply that they no longer could control the cultural life of the peasant class. Either way, they began a systematic attack on all fronts, enlisting the most unlikely ally to their cause: the mass murderer Jean-Baptiste Troppman. But that is for next week.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library