- Rumor, Diplomacy and War in Enlightenment Parisby Tabetha Leigh Ewing
Tabetha Leigh Ewing’s study of public opinion in the Paris region during France’s intervention in the War of Austrian Succession focuses primarily on oral and handwritten reports from the mid-eighteenth century. The book contends that these forms of communication would have allowed more freedom of expression than the heavily censored print media. A wide variety of surviving sources is presented as proof of the concerns preoccupying Parisians at this time. These diverse examples demonstrate how cultural production illustrates the understanding of events by a wide range of people in society, freeing the study from exclusive reliance on official documentation. Ewing traces the history and influence of rumour, using 1740s Paris as a snapshot of its importance to everyone from the poorest labourer to the Crown. Given the state of censorship in official publications, Parisians quickly became accustomed to relying on on-ditsas paths to follow in the search for information. Ewing links military and diplomatic history to rumour, eschewing ‘any systematic attempt to demarcate what truly happened from what people said happened’ (p. 15). The chapters each deal with a different genre of information gathering and dispersal, drawing on numerous sources including letters, gazettes, and police reports, expanding the study beyond the limited concept of rumour into that of public opinion and media. While the author’s research relies heavily on the oral communication of on-dits, readers must keep in mind that Ewing’s sources come to us only because they were deemed worthy of being recorded for posterity. The police reports and gazettes of this time contain significant amounts of information on people speaking both for and against the monarchy, but what was recorded was left to official discretion. This act of choosing to preserve certain statements casts into question the validity of claiming to rely on everyday speech from all levels of society, a problem that is not truly addressed in the work. Ewing’s presentation of the case studies assumes an in-depth knowledge of mid-eighteenth-century French politics: without a strong foundation in the specific events of the 1740s it would be quite difficult to appreciate the illustrations provided. While the author briefly reminds the readers of the main historical and political actions for each chapter, details about informants’ lives and political beliefs often become convoluted, making it difficult to focus on the deeper historical importance of their reports. Nonetheless, in spite of the difficulties occasioned in trying to keep track [End Page 250]of the copious details presented, the readers’ perseverance is rewarded by a thought-provoking study. Ewing’s work is situated in the tradition of cultural history explored by scholars such as Robert Darnton and Roger Chartier, and reminds us that cultural production, no matter the form, can and should be studied at any given point in history.