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Pamphlets :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle


There emerged in 1775 a series of grossly scandalous pamphlets attacking the royal family and other public figures. Marie Antoinette was particularly ambushed by these writings, which included pornographic summaries of her reign. It became almost like a game for pamphleteers and revolutionaries to take every average aspect of her life and twist it into a scandal. These pamphlets were usually politically inclined, and portrayed Marie Antoinette as a “spendthrift, libertine, an orgiastic lesbian, and a poisoner and infant murderess” among other libelous accusations.

The unjust publication of these pamphlets is best described by the prince de Ligne, who upon reading the stories about his friend the Queen, observed that

“[if Marie Antoinette] responds to the friendship of a few people who are most devoted to her, they say she’s in love… Her evening walks on the terrace, her rides on horseback in the Bois de Boulogne, even music in the Orangerie, appear suspect. Her most innocent pleasures appear criminal. She is nice to everyone and so is declared a coquette…” (Thomas 46).

An example of a cover of a pamphlet degrading the Queen

An example of a cover of a pamphlet degrading the Queen

One of the most popular pamphlets painting the image of a “wicked queen” was the Historical Essays on the Life of Marie-Antoinette of Austria, Queen of France, to Serve as a History of this Princess (Thomas 48). Perhaps the most intriguing of these writings were founded upon the birth of her son. After finally producing the long awaited heir to the French crown, it is likely that Marie Antoinette sought solace from the public’s opinion of her. Instead, gossip spread claiming that the King was not the paternal father of the child, and speculation as to who the “real” father could be was a popular subject of gossip amongst the pamphlet readership.

The pamphlets also aimed to portray the Queen as someone who had distaste for her subjects, and looked down upon them like an evil Queen would. The peak of the publication of insulting and pornographic pamphlets concerning the Queen was from 1779 and 1783 (Gruder). These pamphlets associated Marie Antoinette’s fictionalized eroticism with hatred and crude intentions. One of the pamphlets portrays the Queen as saying, “I could hardly conceal the violence of my desire and none of the objects of my lust ever escaped my tender loving care” (Thomas 109).

Antoinette came to be so affected by the unfairness of the slander that she nicknamed these pamphlets “these miserable gazettes” (Fraser 165). Despite her frustration with the pamphlets, she chose to remain quiet about their existence in public (Thomas). This perceived indifference of public opinion only further isolated the foreign Queen from the French (Thomas 63).

It is suggested that the visual and oral distribution of these pamphlets led to a distrust of the monarchy (Gruder 255). This creation of distrust is sometimes attributed to the beginnings of the Revolution. Not only did the libels circulate via print, but obscene versus of song were created in conjunction with them (Gruder 258). The spreading of slander in song would be quicker and easier to repeat than would a newspaper article.

The obsession with the Queen at this time became so vast that there were reports of English writers creating pamphlets in an effort to blackmail the French crown, by promising not to print the writings if the French government would buy them (Gruder 258). The pornographic pamphlets were being read in countries outside of France as well (Gruder 260).

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