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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


Eyeing the Libraires: Men and Women in the Police Dockets

This paper was given at the Tenth International congress on the Enlightenment, University College, Dublin, July 1999;
and it subsequently was presented as Orest Ranum's "swan song" at the
Johns Hopkins University, fall 1999.

Describing the human face in words is inevitably revealing of the writer's social and cultural pre-suppositions and not-conscious attitudes. In the mid-eighteenth century professional training, philosophical inclination, and literary acuity certainly influenced the purposes for which the describer of the human face put pen to paper. Indeed, a philosopher preoccupied by ideas about the passions might well refract not only specific word choices in his description of the face, but elucidate through those choices a sub-surface meaning that would only be understandable to the reader familiar with writings on the passions. A critic of painted portraiture might choose words having resonances that date back to Le Brun's lectures, an understanding that only readers of Le Brun would grasp. After carefully studying the eyelids, a physician might describe humorial balances or imbalances on the face he writes about.

All these multiple professional, philosophical, and of course, literary approaches to describing the face also owe something to physiognomy, that science of describing and interpreting the human face, whose neo-platonic resonances and Renaissance elaborations provided a descriptive vocabulary for poets and novelists. The relation between the written and the visual physiognomic text, from the writer or the painter, and vice versa, continued to stimulate creative revisionism — a kind of kaleidescopic originality all through the l8th century, and down into the l9th, despite the really quite small vocabulary used for describing the face. The fact that physiognomy continued to evolve, with a really quite stable and restricted vocabulary, is a subject beyond this historian's range, but it is interesting to speculate on the fact, especially when compared to that other distinctive but also highly restrictive vocabulary, that used in the air de cour or sung dances. Some sort of cultural governor on the vocabularies of love and physiognomy allowed for changes in speed and continual variation by exchanging nouns and adjectives, but the number of words stayed just about the same over the Ancien Régime.1

In and among all the difference approaches to writing about the human face there arose a new and distinctive one that would develop ‘scientific' pretensions in the l9th century, namely signalement. I have written up elsewhere the obscure and humble beginnings in order to show it early and continued links to the state. On the pre-printed file cards, or tablettes, as Inspecteur de la Librairie, Joseph D'Hemery called them, signalement appeared along with the name, age, pays, residence, and that wonderful category, histoire.2

Here my purpose will be to present the entire vocabulary of signalement, as it was used by the police to describe the libraires. Next I shall present the relatively few examples of signalement that were recorded about women libraires, after which it may be possible to discern whether or not signalement was or was not a gendered state ‘gaze' on the human.3

In some sense the general aims of the police as instrument of the state were multiple, and in some aspects almost contradictory. It would finally reach administratively down to the individual only in the eighteenth century, as Guillaute's imaginary program of  l749 indicates.4 The illustrations for creating an imaginary police file for every Parisian (and eventually, for every Frenchman), mounted on gigantic wheels, had names and signalement at its power center. In earlier, so-called absolutist centuries, the French government had reached down only to the foyer in its fiscal and recruiting powers. We must think of the state in the l8th century as extending deeper and deeper into the social fabric, competing in the end with a still vigorous church which also at last — through its creation of état d'âme and death certificates — coerced, damned and saved at the level of the individual. The police identification cards made up by D'Hemery and his assistants, are part of a powerful state imaginaire, resting on information about the human face, and body height.

Turning to the descriptive vocabulary of signalement, it is important to note at the outset that while the face is the focal point of the description of the person, height and ,less frequently, estimated weight also play a part. In this very ordering there is a general concept about the social, and about how humans perceive each other. And what about the quite frequent use of the word physionomie, as just a general term for the face? It is tempting to think of it as not indicative of understanding any more than the term expression in rhetoric, as that which comes out from the face to the beholder.5 At this point there seems to be no way of discerning why the term was used about some, and not others. In some instances the adjectives, plus or moins, to give one example, are obviously binary, but the modifier assez suggests measurement or quantity, and not just quality, in the Aristotelian sense.

Of the some sixty female widowed libraires, only seven have signalement descriptions, a much lower percentage than for their male husbands and sons.6 Before looking at these in detail, it is interesting to note that references to clothing appear under histoire not signalement, which suggests that the d'Hemery file card project was to be used for a rather long period of time, and not for purposes of rapid identification to make an arrest.

For the seven libraires-veuves height, hair color, and whether they were stout or not, were the prevalent descriptive features, which suggests that the police still remained reluctant to look with great scrutiny on to the female face. Only one reference includes the term physionomie, and it was followed by the adjective désagréable. What is interesting here, however, is that apart from the agreements of adjectives, there is no indication the persons described are women. With such a small sample it would be presumptuous to try to claim much from this study, but it would seem that if put in the context of understanding state-power relations, signalement was not gendered.

As noted earlier, the d'Hemery file cards also have a little box with the rubric histoire. For the widows whose signalement we have just briefly characterized, it is interesting to note that there is no correlation between the length of the text under history, and the length or descriptive details about their faces and bodies. Indeed, there are some instances where there is no signalement, and a quite lengthy notice under history, and vice versa. But before offering a tentative conclusion, it is interesting to include some of the material under the rubric ‘history.'

Let us meet Amaulry, la veuve, whose signalement is "petite, blonde, et d'une taille assez épaisse. Elle a sa boutique dans le Palais vis a vis la grande salle. C'est une intriguante qui ne se mêle que du plus suspecte, qu'elle fournit principalement a tous les Robins:elle fournissait à M. Tapin. Elle a esté galante et a tiré partie de cet état pour emprunter ou plutôt attraper de l'argent sous prétexte d'acheter des livres. M. Gibert, secrétaire de M. de Malesherbes a été sa dupe. Le 5 juillet elle a estée arrestée et conduite à la Bastille en vertu de l'ordre du Roy du 24 du mois dernier, pour avoir vendu et distributé un livre intitulé Cléon plein de sottises et le pendant d'Apprived [?] Malré cela elle n'a pas voulu me dire ni le nom de l'auteur ni celuy de l'imprimeur, en m'assurant qu'elle ne les connoissoit pas, et qu'il luy avoit été remis par un particulier inconnu, qui luy avoit dit seulement qu'il avoit été imprimé à Lyon. Elle a declaré ensuite que c'était Rigolet , imprimeur à Lyon son beau frère qu l'avoit imprimé, et que c'était le S. Baucheron connu sous le nom de l'Avocat qui lui en avoit remis deux cent exemplaires. Le Baucheron demeure rue des Deschargeurs dans un café au troisième.

For Veuve Bienvenu, age 40, her signalement is given as "Mince, Blonde et haute en couleur." Under the rubric 'history' we find: 'Elle est fille dun fameux rotisseur que je crois estre Crespy. C'est une femme qui a eu beaucoup d'avantures [sic], elle avait meme une primerie clandestine qui a esté saisie; elle a été destituée de son État par arrêt de conseil Elle vend les poesies de récourt, six volumes 30 livres et les Bijoux 10 livres. on prétend qu'elle maronne plus que jamais Le 27 septembre, 1749 elle a pris une boutique en ferme Quay de Conty. "

If there is time for a final example, there is Gandouin, la Veuve, whose shop is on the Quai des Augustins, près le Pont Neuf, and who is described as "Asses Grande, et d'une asses ésagréable physionomie." Under 'history' there is: "C'est une femme fort riche et qui a un fonds d'excellent livres anciens qu'elle vend fort cher. C'est une Arabe et qui achete beaucoup aux Inventaires. Elle a épousé son laquais devenu so garçon de boutique, car quoi qu'elle vit cependant come s'il n'avoit que [illegible] et boutique a un frere qui est laquais pour M. Coli[?] Pompadour[?]."

Understanding the state — in this instance the French state — as distinct from the monarchy in intention and vocabulary, may be advanced by elucidating its ontological and transcendent features. As a being with a history, imagination and vision locked into a self-referential vocabulary, the French State rested on the power of the sign long before the French Revolution altered the descendent direction in its surveillance to the ascendent direction (Walter Ullmann), and perhaps not so temporarily as the Napoleonic experience might lead us to believe. Not seeing the libraires-veuves as women in the vocabulary of signalement suggests that state officials were, as subjects and citizens, bound to see only what they have words for. In Colbert's day, La Reynie wrote of portraits; in Malesherbe's, D'Hemery wrote of signalement. A shift had taken place in the state's powers to see, this during a period often thought to be one in which a somewhat irresolute administration had followed the forceful ministerial creativity of the Sun King's reign. I conclude by suggesting that by ordering, categorizing and applying aesthetic principles to the humble activity of fact-gathering and fact-storing, the Ancien Régime was the harbinger of the strong bureaucratic state of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Orest Ranum
The Johns Hopkins University

A simplified version of the table drawn up for this presentation, follows, as do footnotes:

MALE LIBRAIRES: frequency of signalement
The Head
physionomie honnête   2
physionomie assez commune   2
physionomie désagréable   1
physionomie assez grâcieuse   1
physionomie belle   3
physionomie ronde  1
physionomie spirituelle   1
physionomie peu spirituelle   1
physionomie basse   1
assez belle physionomie   1
fort belle physionomie   2
visage gros   1
visage allongé  2
visage allongé et pâle   4
visage plein de boutons   1
visage extrêmement maigre   1
visage bourgeonné   2
visage plein   1
visage rond et bouffi   1
visage maigre   1
petite vérole   8
greslé  1
taches de rousseur   1
teint livide   1
haut en couleur   5
fort laide   1
joues grasses   1
fort laide de figure   1
quelque trou dans un œil   1
quelque chose dans la vue   1
yeux vifs et riants et ronds   1
barbe et yeux bruns   1
yeux tres gros   1
Hair, Beard, Brows, Wig (and Skin):
brune   11
barbe et sourcils  bruns  7
barbe brune   1
blond   8
blond et court   1
barbe blonde   11
cheveux châtains   3
barbe et sourcils châtains   3
sourcils tirant sur le roux   1
cheveux et barbe gris   1
barbe un peu rousse  1
perruque   2
perruque longue   1
perruque noire   1
The Body
5 pieds   1
5 pieds 2 pouces   10
5 pieds, 3 pouces   15
5 pieds, 4 pouces   4
5 pieds, 5 pouces   2
5 pieds, 6 pouces   6
5 pieds, 7 pouces   1
taille ordinaire   14
petit   13
très petit   1
moyenne taille   1
assez grand   4
fort maigre   1
maigre   2
assez mince   3
mince   2
taille épaisse   1
assez épaisse   2
assez gros   2
gros   2
très gros   1
menu   1
fluet   1
assez mal fait   1
assez bien faite   1
toute contrefaite   1
langue embarrassée   2
assez honnête  1
assez belle prestance   1
WIDOW LIBRAIRES: terms used to describe them:
petite, blonde et d'une taille assez épaisse
mince, blonde et haute en couleur
brune et marquée de petite vérole
asses grande et d'une asses désagréable physionomie
fort laide, toute contrefaite et qu'il faut toujours porter
brune et assez épaisse
brune et assez bien faite


1. Furetière estimates that there are between 400 and 500 words in Quinault's vocabulary for songs.

2. I (Oct. 1986), publications de la Société Diderot), 94-109. The police's printed cards are in B.N See my earlier work on this theme: "Eyeing Parisian Booksellers in 1752: A page in the History of the Policeman's Docket," Essays in European History, ed. by Carolyn M. White (Lanham: University Press of America, 1996), 123-142. See also Robert Darnton, "Les encyclopédistes et la police," Recherches sur Diderot et sur l'Encyclopédie., Mss fr. 22106, 22107.

3. Dictionaries concur on the first appearance of the word signalement, c. 1718, with the first literary reference given by Littré being Beaumarchais's Barbier de Séville, II, 13. The Grand Larousse gives Stendahl as a first literary text. Buffon uses the word to describe and identify birds.

4. Just how D'Hemery's project relates to Guillaute's brilliantly worked out, highly aesthetic vision of the police (illustrated by G. de Saint-Aubin) remains to be worked out. See the edition by Jean Seynec (Paris: Hermann, 1974), passim.

5. Elizabeth Cropper and Charles Dempsey, Nicolas Poussin (New Haven: Yale U.P., 1996): 45-48.

6. As part of her general study of provincial printers in the eighteenth century, Janet McLeod has written: "Printers' widows and the French Crown," a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French Historical Studies, Boston, 1998. The standard work on D'Hemery remains E. Coyecque, Introduction, Inventaire de la Collection Anisson (Paris, 1901, reprinted by Bert Franklin, New York), i-cvi.