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Skip to 0 minutes and 0 seconds How did the printed word affect politics in the early modern period? And how, in turn, was the world of print affected by political change? There are no easy answers to these questions. But this work might offer some clues. This is one of the most influential newspapers to emerge out of the political maelstrom that engulfed France in 1789, the Révolution de Paris. The coming of the French Revolution had enormous implications for the world of print. State bankruptcy in 1788 and the implosion of royal authority the next year brought an abrupt end to the strict censorship that regulated publishing in France and prompted the publication of over 4,000 political pamphlets in the space of a year.

Skip to 0 minutes and 38 seconds As the French contemplated the crisis that had overtaken them and tried to imagine what their future might be, it seemed, as one bookseller put it, that each day it rains pamphlets and brochures. In the space of a few months, the collapse of the old order created an insatiable appetite for news, an appetite that entrepreneurial publishers were only too happy to satisfy. The Révolutions de Paris was one response to this demand for news. Originally conceived as a one-off account of the extraordinary events that took place in Paris in mid-July 1789, its breathless description of the arming of the Parisian people and the Storming of the Bastille was an instant bestseller. Six editions sold out within a few days.

Skip to 1 minute and 20 seconds And this success inspired its publisher, the bookseller turned pamphleteer Louis-Marie Prudhomme to turn this one-off pamphlet into a weekly newspaper. Plenty of other publishers had the same idea that summer. The Révolutions de Paris was just one of over 140 newspapers launched in France that year, just one of the 2,000 new titles that appeared during the decade that followed. But the Révolutions de Paris was different. Whereas most of these newspapers were small-scale, often one-man operations with print runs in the hundreds, Prudhomme employed a stable of celebrity columnists to write the copy that kept up to 14 presses busy every week. At its peak during the crisis months of 1789, the paper’s print run reached 100,000 copies per issue.

Skip to 2 minutes and 4 seconds While its circulation fell back after that, the Révolutions de Paris remained one of the most popular papers of the revolutionary decade with sales in the region of 10,000 copies per issue. And each of those was probably read by up to 10 people. It was also one of the longest lived papers of the period. At a time when most papers closed within a year, it remained in print for almost five, only closing in 1794 when it finally became too dangerous to publish freely during the Terror, the revolution’s most repressive phase in 1793-94. In an age of amateur enthusiasts, the Révolutions de Paris was a professional operation. It even had a sales manager.

Skip to 2 minutes and 45 seconds But Prudhomme’s professionalism was only one part of this paper’s story. The Révolutions de Paris’ real success lay in its ability to provide an increasingly literate and news hungry public with up-to-the-minute analysis of the unprecedented events taking place around them. Whereas other writers merely narrated events, the journalists from the Révolutions de Paris tried to explain them, too. They combined eyewitness reports with insightful analysis. And unlike most of their competitors, these accounts were regularly illustrated with detailed engravings, like this double-page print of the taking of the Bastille on 14 of July 1789. At once authoritative and engaged, it was both a chronicler and an interpreter of events in uncertain times. It was also unashamedly pro-revolutionary.

Skip to 3 minutes and 37 seconds As this print of heads paraded on pikes suggests, the Révolutions de Paris did not flinch from describing or depicting the bloodshed that defined revolutionary politics from the start. More importantly, it also tried to make sense of that violence, to explain its causes and assess its consequences. As the paper’s editorial line evolved over time, that mission to interpret and explain quickly extended to the revolution as a whole. Whereas other writers described that summer’s disorder as a bewildering succession of incomprehensible events, the sequence of revolutions in the paper’s title, Prudhomme’s writers gradually redefined the experience of revolution as something singular and sublime, an epic making moment that marked the end of one era and the dawn of a brilliant future.

Skip to 4 minutes and 27 seconds In the process, these journalists did not merely chronicle chaos or change. They invented the idea of revolution. In a very real sense, they wrote the script for modern politics.

Reforming the state

We have explored in this video how the newspapers like Les Révolutions de Paris represented politics in the early modern period by describing the extraordinary events that took place in Paris in mid-July 1789.

Dr Joseph Clarke, Assistant Professor and Lecturer in European History, in the Department of History, Trinity College Dublin

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The History of the Book in the Early Modern Period: 1450 to 1800

Trinity College Dublin

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