Anniversary Exhibition Preview: Louis XVI’s Attempt to Reverse Fait Accompli

Ordonnance de police
De par le Roi...Ordonnance de police. Case Wing folio Z 144 .A1, vol. 10, no. 87.

This Versailles police ordinance (“ordonnance de police”), dated July 11, 1789, calls for the restriction of colportage, the sale of seditious printed material deemed responsible for inciting public disquiet. Four days before the fall of the Bastille, taking this measure was a bit like inserting into the pre-hike cadence a demand that the middle linebacker not rush the quarterback. Apart from the irony of prohibiting the dissemination of print with a printed legal notice, this broadside is an expression of the radical opposition between the printed word and autocratic rule. After all, it is no coincidence that “dictator” (to reference a distinctly twentieth-/twenty-first-century word) is etymologically linked to the Latin word for aural speech; totalitarian, autocratic regimes derive their power from the terrible immediacy of spoken commands and trembling oaths of allegiance. The mediation of writing breaks the spell cast by physical interfaces between rulers and their subjects, and occasions all sorts of subversion. Louis XVI’s anxiety over colportage was, of course, particularly well-founded: three days after the ordinance’s issue, the Bastille fell, the revolution began in earnest, and innumerable political tracts and pamphlets flooded the streets of Paris, tens of thousands of which have ended up at the Newberry.