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An Eighteenth-century French Case of Mudslinging

Let’s be honest here: We’ve seen some really nasty anti-Obama stuff come out within the last four years, and we always complain about how nasty political ads are during election season. Sometimes we wonder if a it’s a solely American trait, since there are several past instances of election campaigns getting downright and drag-down nasty.

Which brings us to this little gem that I found doing research for something else. This is from a pamphlet published during the French Revolution, right after the royal family’s attempted flight and subsequent capture in Varennes in late June of 1791. Note how particularly nasty this one is.

La famille des Cochons ramenée dans l'étable (The family of pigs pulled to the stable): Anonymous postcard from 1791 depicting the French royal family as pigs.
The royal family portrayed as animals being taken to the barn. Image via vivelareine.tumblr.com.

The Royal Veto

This animal is about five feet, five inches long. He walks on his hind legs the way men do. The color of his fur is tawny. “¦ not much of a mane; his cry rather resembles the grunt of a pig”¦ the Royal Veto is as timid as a mouse, and as stupid as an ostrich; he is in fact a fat animal, which, it would seem, nature was sorry to have created”¦

The Female Royal Veto

The female of the Royal Veto is a monster found in Vienna, Austria, in the wardrobe of the empress, Maria Theresa. This crowned she-ape probably felt an unnatural urge: no doubt she had herself bedded by a tiger or a bear and brought MARIE-ANTOINETTE into the world.

This monster, aged thirty-three “¦ is lanky, ugly, wrinkled, worn-out, faded, hideous, frightful; but since the nation is stupid enough to feed its tyrants, she eats France’s money in the hope of one day devouring the French, one by one.

The Delphinus

We will say nothing about the Delphinus. We have noticed that there is sometimes a young shoot on a rotten tree”¦ Whose son is the Delphinus? Let’s hope he doesn’t wind up poisoned like his unfortunate brother!

The Royal Madame

This little female [is] no doubt designed”¦ to suck the blood of slaves, already has all her mother’s haughtiness and perhaps her vices as well. It wouldn’t hurt if she were trained in a trade of some kind; instead of a queen, she could very well be a darner of stockings some day.

The Elisabeth Veto

The sister of the Royal Veto is as nasty as she once was pretty. This evil slut would like to see the nation go to the dogs; but she has a share in the tyrant’s food allowance and she earns her keep well”¦ Who does keep her? [1]

First, note how the royal family is portrayed as animals in order to dehumanize them. While the economy of France was decimated and while the people had a right to be angry after two hundred years of tyrannical rule established by Louis XIV, the anger at the royal family was misdirected. There was so much that was irreparably wrong with the French government and institutions at the time that people didn’t know who they should be mad at. The royal family was a prime target for this anger because they were the personifications of the very policies that had brought France to ruin. If people are dehumanized, it’s easier to use them as scapegoats for all of the complex problems in society.

Second, note the amount of misogyny in the translation, particularly directed at Marie Antoinette. The queen herself was used as a scapegoat for France’s financial problems for a very long time, and she seems to be on the receiving end of most of the anger. And the misogyny doesn’t just end there: both Marie Antoinette and Madame Elisabeth’s looks are snarked on as well. Marie Antoinette is called “lanky, ugly, wrinkled, worn-out, hideous, frightful,” while Madame Elisabeth is “as nasty as she once was pretty.” Even young Madame Royale, who was about twelve at the time, isn’t spared. She “already has all of her mother’s haughtiness and perhaps her vices as well,” the vices being Marie Antoinette’s supposed lesbian prevarications, particularly with her two friends the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac. These rumors, of course, have been debunked as false.

The only one who seems to have been spared any of the ire is little Dauphin Louis Charles, who is described as “a young shoot on a rotten tree.” But still there are more swipes taken at Marie Antoinette, as the Dauphin’s paternity is questioned. Marie Antoinette’s friendship with the dashing Count Axel von Fersen was fodder for gossip at the time, and there were rumors circulating that the two were lovers. And Dauphin Louis Joseph, who died of tuberculosis as a child, is the brother referenced as being poisoned. The loss was quite a blow to the royal family, as it was quite close to the death of baby Sophie Beatrix, and it was a known fact that both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were both very deeply affected by both of these.

So even when we complain about how nasty political propaganda can be during the elections, keep in mind that it has always been this way, even in other countries. The important thing is that now the everyday person has access to information that the eighteenth-century French commoner might not have, and it’s each person’s individual responsibility to educate himself or herself about the facts regarding each platform and each claim before forming what is, hopefully, an informed opinion. Of course, there will always be those who still believe the propaganda no matter what information is out there. So this is what we can rely on when it comes to that:

Handwritten paper: Criteria for the proper tactical usage of the phrase "Oh snap!": A flowchart. Bubble reads "Did someone get told?" Answer no leads to "Tell them" with an arrow back to the original question. Answer yes leads to "Oh, snap!"

 

1. Translation source: <vivelareine.tumblr.com>

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