Arlette Farge

Effusiveness and Torment, The Body as Narrator A History of the People in Eighteenth-Century France Publication date : March 29, 2007

The historian Arlette Farge has delved into the police archives of eighteenth-century Paris to give us this fascinating study of the attitudes, gestures, words and emotional outcries that were recorded following minor street incidents. These descriptions are the raw material from which Farge has created a detailed tableau of eighteenth-century Paris street life.
She shows that the poorest, most deprived citizens had nothing but their bodies to withstand the power of the authorities. Unlike the bourgeoisie, the rich merchant class and the aristocracy, the very poor had no intermediaries to protect their bodies — they had no possessions, no fortune and no trade. Illiterate or with very limited reading and writing skills, these royal subjects relied on oral culture. The information recorded in the police archives is thus our only existing means of direct access to the people of Paris for that period, since all other narratives rely on contemporary descriptions and analyses of the poor by the elite.
Because the poor had nothing besides their bodies, it was against the body that royal power exercised its authority. Politics was inscribed in the body, in the very flesh of the poor, who reacted in various ways: with fervour, exuberance, enthusiasm, and violence, whether ordinary or collective.

This is a flesh-and-blood history of the people of Paris, who, for once, are not depicted through the eyes of the elites. It describes the tense, often extreme relations between the people and royal power in the eighteenth century, and sheds light on the revolutionary movements that would arise later in the century.
Arlette Farge gives us history from a new perspective. Instead of seeking to explain everything, she paints a detailed picture, revealing life in all its facets. In this brilliant book Michel Foucault’s most accomplished disciple shows how authority exercises its power on the body.

Arlette Farge is the author of, most notably, La Plus Belle Histoire du bonheur and of the third volume of L’Histoire des Femmes. She is a research fellow at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and a member of the Centre de Recherches Historiques of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.