The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon

When I received a tip in my mailbox about The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon I was beyond excited!  A book all about the art of slander? For our purposes, I could not think of a topic better suited!

Author Robert Darnton investigates the process of spreading slander during the 18th century, from harmless riddles to full libels, as well as the motives which led authors to do so, whether they be entertainment for friends or means of a quick fortune.

The book is written in four parts, each packed with fascinating material, mini biographies, police follies, and descriptive passages that open up an underground world.  Darnton uses vivid examples of the gossip in print at the time, however, you will find the process of actually producing those illegal texts and having them successfully circulate just as interesting.  It is a full and comprehensive study of a specific world within 18th century France, where libel was created, shared, sold, and hunted.

The duchesse de Bouillon was faced with a particularly incriminating libel called Les Petit Soupers et les nuits de l’Hôtel Bouillon. Filled with deliberate details of an intriguing and depraved private lifestyle, the libel paints the duchesse and her associates in the most unflattering light. Such libels were policed, but when money and bargains can be made, who could anyone really trust? Treachery abounds and the various sides of underground publishing are exposed. Key-players are introduced, including their motives in the game.

Darnton’s objectives are history first, followed by devices used and effects of production. Who were the fathers of eighteenth century slander?  We are introduced to La Gazetier cuirassé, (a best-seller) the author of which stands behind the safety of "anonymous". Later authors would use anonymity for extortion of the noblesse. The libels were filled with amusing features such as puzzles, obscure codes for names and even lewd images of well known personages. The resulting publications were often very crude in language yet hours of entertainment for the audience.

As pointed out in the chapter Royal Depravity, there were many in the audience who believed fabrications they read. In the case of Antoinette, the results were far from favorable. Even when the topic was about the duchesse de Polignac and Colonel C___, the effect produced was a general feeling of disgust toward the Queen!

To express the unforgiving light these publications shed on Antoinette, Darnton quotes Essais Historiques Sur La Vie De Marie-Antoinette D'autriche, Reine De France : “Our [Antoi, lil Po and the comte d’Artois] three interlocked bodies composed the most rare and interesting combinations. Debilitated by our pleasures, exhausted with fatigue, we took time out only in order to mock the misery of the people…”

You may not want to sit down and read this one from cover to cover. I did not, and if you find you can, I suggest giving yourself a few days to let the information absorb.

Title: The devil in the holy water or the art of slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon
Author: Robert Darnton
Paperback: 552 pages
Publisher: Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (October 30, 2009)


  1. It sounds fascinating!

  2. Sounds great. I'll check it out.

  3. Sounds like FOX news forefather. Thanks for sharing you have a great weekend.

  4. A book truly at home here!

  5. It sounds great! Maybe not for back to back reading but certainly alot of interesting info in there I'm sure. Thanks:)

  6. Oh. My. GOSH! I HAVE to have this book, thank you SO much for telling us about it! oooh my mom is going to DIE over this! :D

  7. The scandals of the past seem more interesting to than those of the present day. They have stood the test of time.