Literary revolution in blue

When the French peasants were revolting — and reading.

Mike Selby

While visiting her parents’ farm in 1837, Eugénie de Guérin witnessed the most astonishing sight she had ever seen. While going for an evening stroll in the French countryside, she stumbled upon a peasant arguing with a priest about the Council of Trent. Guérin was so horrified by what she heard, she almost fainted.

The Council of Trent! Someone had taught the peasant to read.

Had she been more in tune with rural France, she would have known this was not an isolated incident. Throughout the 19th century, country peasants — over 20 million of them — were learning to read. As Guérin’s reaction shows, it hadn’t always been that way.

The poor, deplorable, and often backward conditions of the peasant class were hardly conducive to literacy. Some were functionally literate, with their reading restricted to utilitarian knowledge (crop prices, farm recipes, simple math). Others were semiliterate; they could read but not write. The only book any of a lucky few owned was an almanac, which hung down from the ceiling on a nail, much like a kitchen utensil.

Other than this, books were rare mysteries, often viewed as possessing magical and occult properties. Sickness and injuries were often attributed to someone having read a book. Priests were often consulted, who felt burning the offending book was key to recovery. A healer in northern France was said to be able to cure rabies by having the afflicted swallow various lines or print torn out of a book.

As the 19th century progressed, the ability to read began to sweep across the rural areas of France. And one type of book was preferred above all others: the Bibliothèque Bleue.

The ‘blue’ which described these books referred to the inexpensive and coarse blue sugar paper the books were bound in, and not because of any immoral or sexual content (somewhat ironic, as that is exactly what these blue books were). Although some blue books were almanacs, recipes and religious in nature, the vast majority were of the poorly written erotic romance type.

In fact, the demand became so great for Bibliothèque Bleue that the publishers could barely keep up. It was an odd market though. Blue books did not sell to the illiterate, or the highly literate. The market was restricted to beginning readers only. An odd situation, as the publishers were going to lose future sales as their customers became more and more adept at reading. Yet for the time being, it seemed as if this boom in publishing was unstoppable.

Of course somebody did stop it — those killjoys known as the French government. It remains unclear if the political leaders of France truly objected to the licentious content of the books, or simply that they no longer could control the cultural life of the peasant class. Either way, they began a systematic attack on all fronts, enlisting the most unlikely ally to their cause: the mass murderer Jean-Baptiste Troppman. But that is for next week.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library

Just Posted

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Over 5K jabbed at Interior Health mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

The clinics have made stops in more than 40 communities since launching last week

Kimberley residents were treated to the first Farmers' Market of the season, and the feeling of a return to normalcy. Paul Rodgers photos.
WATCH: Kimberley’s first Farmers’ Market of the season

Kimberley residents enjoyed the first Farmers’ Market of the year on Thursday,… Continue reading

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interior Health COVID-19 cases falling slower than the rest of B.C.

More than a third of provincial cases announced Thursday came from the Interior

Students at Creston Valley Secondary School put together an art installation of a replica residential school room. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Creston students create art installation of residential school room

The replica was decorated with a small bed, school uniform, and notes written with pleas for help

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

Patrick O’Brien, a 75-year-old fisherman, went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search for lost fisherman near Victoria suspended, U.S. Coast Guard says

The 75-year-old man was reported missing Thursday evening

Bruce Springsteen performs at the 13th annual Stand Up For Heroes benefit concert in support of the Bob Woodruff Foundation in New York on Nov. 4, 2019. (Greg Allen/Invision/AP)
Canadians who got AstraZeneca shot can now see ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

B.C. mayor David Screech who received his second AstraZeneca dose last week can now attend the show

New research suggests wolves can be steered away from the endangered caribou herds they prey on by making the man-made trails they use to hunt harder to move along. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Culling cutlines, not B.C. wolves, key to preserving caribou herds: researcher

The government has turned to killing hundreds of wolves in an effort to keep caribou around

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Gary Abbott (left) and Louis De Jaeger were two of the organizers for the 2014 Spirit of the People Powwow in Chilliwack. Monday, June 21, 2021 is Indigenous Peoples Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of June 20 to 26

Indigenous Peoples Day, Take Your Dog to Work Day, Onion Rings Day all coming up this week

Gwen Spencer Hethey with her uncle and mentor Major Frederick Richardson. (Courtesy of Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame)
‘She was a killer’: The B.C. woman who pioneered female sharpshooting

Gwen Spencer Hethey made military men ‘look like turkeys’ says her son

Central Okanagan Grade 12 grads are set to get $500 each after a more than $1 million donation from a Kelowna couple. (File photo)
B.C. couple donating $500 to every Grade 12 student in the Okanagan

Anonymous donors identified as Kelowna entrepreneurs Lance and Tammy Torgerson

Rita Coolidge played the main stage at Vancouver Island Musicfest in 2017. (Black Press file photo)
This year’s Vancouver Island MusicFest to virtually showcase beauty of Comox Valley

Returning July 9 through 11 with more than 25 hours of music performances

Most Read