Libelle (literary genre)
A libelle is a political pamphlet
A pamphlet is an unbound booklet . It may consist of a single sheet of paper that is printed on both sides and folded in half, in thirds, or in fourths , or it may consist of a few pages that are folded in half and saddle stapled at the crease to make a simple book...

 or book which slanders a public figure. Libelles held particular significance in France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 under the Ancien Régime, especially during the eighteenth century, when the pamphlets’ attacks on the monarchy became both more numerous and venomous. In recent years, cultural historian Robert Darnton
Robert Darnton
Robert Darnton is an American cultural historian, recognized as a leading expert on 18th-century France.-Life:He graduated from Harvard University in 1960, attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship, and earned a Ph.D. in history from Oxford in 1964, where he studied with Richard Cobb,...

 has written on the libelles, arguing for the subversive power that the libelles of the late eighteenth century exercised in undermining monarchical authority.


The word libelle is derived from the Latin libellus, for “small book.” Although originally it was used to describe pamphlets in general, it became primarily applicable to the genre of brief and defamatory attacks on pre-revolutionary French public figures. The 1762 edition of the dictionary published by the Académie française
Académie française
L'Académie française , also called the French Academy, is the pre-eminent French learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Académie was officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. Suppressed in 1793 during the French Revolution,...

 defines libelle as an “offensive work.” The publishers of libelles were known as libellistes.

Format and Style

Libelles varied widely in format and style. Early libelles consisted of either a half-sheet or a single sheet in octavo
Octavo (book)
Octavo is a technical term describing the format of a book, which refers to the size of leaves produced from folding a full sheet of paper on which multiple pages of text were printed to form the individual sections of a book...

 format. Some later libelles, published in the eighteenth-century for example, were book-length. Regardless of their format, the libelles were cohesive in their overblown and sensationalist style; they were full of wordplay, and often employed literary techniques such as metaphor
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., "Her eyes were glistening jewels." Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via...

. The libelles were defiant of authority, and spoke out against prominent individuals.


Libelles were invariably of a political nature, both slanderous and subversive. They proliferated during times of political crises, from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

Religious conflict - 1580s

In the 1580s, during the French Wars of Religion
French Wars of Religion
The French Wars of Religion is the name given to a period of civil infighting and military operations, primarily fought between French Catholics and Protestants . The conflict involved the factional disputes between the aristocratic houses of France, such as the House of Bourbon and House of Guise...

, libelles flourished, with an average of about one occasionnel published per day in Paris. Libelles were published in support of both the Catholic and the Protestant points of view. Catholic libelles were typically pointed at the King, attacking his character, primarily his weak religious beliefs, and portraying him as not only godless, but evil. The Protestant libelles accused the Catholic League
Catholic League (French)
The Catholic League of France, sometimes referred to by contemporary Roman Catholics as the Holy League, a major player in the French Wars of Religion, was formed by Duke Henry of Guise in 1576...

 of treasonously supporting the pope.

La Fronde - 1648-1653

During the civil war known as the Fronde
The Fronde was a civil war in France, occurring in the midst of the Franco-Spanish War, which had begun in 1635. The word fronde means sling, which Parisian mobs used to smash the windows of supporters of Cardinal Mazarin....

, libelles proliferated in France, numbering around 5,000 between the years 1648-1653. During the Fronde, the majority of libelles were directed against Cardinal Mazarin, the chief minister of France. These libelles were referred to as Mazarinades. They ridiculed Mazarin for a wide variety of things, including his low birth, his luxurious proclivities and speculated on his erotic liaison with the Queen Mother, Anne of Austria
Anne of Austria
Anne of Austria was Queen consort of France and Navarre, regent for her son, Louis XIV of France, and a Spanish Infanta by birth...

. One of the most famous of these characterized Mazarin as follows:

These libelles excited concerns on the part of the government. Presumably alarmed by the seditious possibilities of the libelles, the Parlement of Paris issued an ordinance against libellistes, declaring that anyone caught producing such pamphlets would be hanged. This ran the business of libelles underground, and many libellistes relocated to Holland—or affected to on the title pages; there they continued to publish their slander.

Pre-Revolution - 1770s-1780s

Perhaps the most numerous and scathing libelles came out of the two decades prior to the French Revolution
French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...

. Darnton
Robert Darnton
Robert Darnton is an American cultural historian, recognized as a leading expert on 18th-century France.-Life:He graduated from Harvard University in 1960, attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship, and earned a Ph.D. in history from Oxford in 1964, where he studied with Richard Cobb,...

 lists five ways in which the libelles of the 1770s and 1780s differed from their ancestors.
First, the later libelles differed in their scale. Eighteenth-century libelles were much heftier volumes than their single (or half) sheet predecessors. Some libelles of this period ran as large as thirty-six volumes. The fact that such pamphlets were beginning to be compiled into books increased the longevity of the libelles.
Second, the system which distributed the libelles had changed. The publishing industry which circulated eighteenth-century libelles was increasingly vast, and no longer localized.
Third, the way in which the libelles attacked public figures had advanced. In eighteenth-century libelles, the sex lives of the public figures who were attacked were contextualized as contemporary history.
Fourth, the way that libelles conceptualized their victims had changed. Even when earlier libelles attacked Louis XIV, a sense of respect and even deference was implied in the writings. By the 1770s, the way that the libelles conceptualized Louis XV was much less respectful, and implied that the monarch was a mere womanizer, with no interest in state affairs. Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette ; 2 November 1755 – 16 October 1793) was an Archduchess of Austria and the Queen of France and of Navarre. She was the fifteenth and penultimate child of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I....

fared even worse, as the number of pornographic libelles that involved her proliferated into the revolutionary era.
Fifth, later libelles seemed to criticize monarchy as a system, whereas early libelles only attacked individual figures. It was implied in the earlier pamphlets that individual figures, such as Mazarin, were responsible for the State’s problems. With the libelles of the later years, however, the attack was focused against the entire governmental system, and monarchy as a whole.

Further reading

Robert Darnton’s essay entitled “The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France.”

Robert Dawson’s essay entitled “Naughty French books and their imprints during the long eighteenth century.”
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