Circulation and reading of the early press according to the signatures of enigmas in the Mercure de France

Article signatures as a source for studying the circulation of periodicals
Who read the press in the early modern period? Answering this question would allow us to better understand the economic workings of burgeoning journalistic enterprises. Identifying former readership enriches our understanding of reading practices in the 17th and 18th centuries, casting light on the contours of the public sphere that emerged during the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, this field of research remains little explored. Most studies of the readership of a specific periodical rely on subscriber lists, which are rare and always partial, since not all readers of a periodical were subscribers. However, readers are omnipresent in the pages of certain press titles. These periodicals published contributions from their readers after they had been selected: letters, essays, poems, advertisements, and other news are often signed with a full name, a pseudonym, or simple initials. This information may be accompanied by the reader’s place of residence and professional activity. The Mercure de France, which began in 1672 under the title Mercure galant and lasted throughout the 18th century, is one of the periodicals that was largely composed by its readers. Studying the signatures on articles therefore means studying the periodical’s readership, or at least the active part of the readership that took up the pen to express itself in the journal.
A database of Mercure de France enigmas
This is the method we are testing in an article published in French in the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the main results of which we summarise hereunder. Our investigation focuses on the enigma signatures that appeared each month in the Mercure de France. An enigma is a riddle composed in verse. It is an ancient literary genre, practised notably in the salons of the 17th century. However, as early as 1677, the journalist Jean Donneau de Visé (1638-1710) had the idea of printing enigmas in the Mercure galant. These literary entertainments met with immediate success. Each month, one or more new enigmas appeared, accompanied by the answers to the enigmas of the previous issue. The Mercure de France continued to feed this section in the 18th century by adding logogriphs and charades, two sub-genres of enigmas in verse. Nearly 7,000 enigmatic poems were published in the periodical before 1800.
These texts, now forgotten, form a literary corpus remarkable for its volume and richness. To promote and study them, we have created a database accessible online as part of a research project supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation. On this site, the enigmas are not transcribed (except for the first verse), but are accompanied by their digitisation by Google Books, Gallica or other digital libraries. The indexing of each text includes data on its title, its solution, and its author. The site offers different browsing modes in the corpus; it lends itself to investigations at the crossroads of the history of French poetry, the history of representations, the history of the press, and the sociology of literary milieus. It also provides various data visualisations. Offering an overview of the corpus, these visualisations reveal the most frequent subjects of enigmas, the evolution of the number of texts published over the years, the geographical distribution of reader-contributors, and the most represented professions.
Reader-contributors: geographical distribution and socio-professional categories
Using this digital tool, we analysed the signatures of the 3,456 enigmatic poems published between 1724 and 1778, a period during which the Mercure de France remained relatively stable in terms of structure and editorial line. Two thirds of the texts have a signature. They allow us to identify a thousand towns or villages from which the enigmas were sent. According to the picture offered by these texts, the overwhelming majority of reader-contributors reside in France. Northern France is more populated and thus better represented, and many readers live along the coasts or the main trade routes of the kingdom. However, as time went on, the Mercure seemed to reach more and more rural, sometimes very remote, places in central and southern France. Paris was the main city supplying the Mercure with enigmas, but this important cultural centre did not overshadow the literary vitality of the peripheral regions. On the contrary, those in charge of the Mercure were keen to open the pages of the periodical to readers in the provinces each month and thus satisfy all their national subscribers.
Four socio-professional groups are particularly well represented among Mercure reader-contributors who composed enigmas. They alone represent more than three quarters of the signatories indicating an activity. The main group is that of churchmen, which has probably been underestimated up to now: abbots, curates, canons, priests, and vicars read the monthly and wrote riddles. Alongside clergymen, men in legal or administrative positions were also numerous readers and contributors, as were military personnel spread throughout France. These groups cover a wide range of professions, from the king’s musketeer to the clerk of notary. Finally, students and teachers played riddles in the Mercure. Their presence can be explained by the fact that the enigma in verse was not only a salon entertainment, but also an educational exercise valued in particular by Jesuit pedagogues.
A large part of this audience came from the wealthy classes. The signatures bring together hundreds of names with particles (such as “M. de V***”, “M. A. de N.”, or “M. le Chevalier de D**”). This observation suggests that the nobility was well represented among the readers of the Mercure, as Daniel Roche had already pointed out in 1978 in his work on Le Siècle des Lumières en Province. On the other hand, artists and craftsmen accounted for only 5% of the signatories, while merchants were even less numerous, and the peasantry was completely absent. These proportions can be explained in part by the degree of education: writing ludic poetry (even if it is mediocre) implies a good knowledge of literary codes and classical versification, the rules of which are relatively complex. However, it must also be taken into account that men with a common job were certainly less likely to publish their professions than, for example, a lawyer in parliament or a cavalry officer. To indicate a profession is to expose a social status.
The female readership
The method we follow is likely to help us reconsider the press-reading practices of women and their place in literary circles. However, this task is complicated by the issue of pseudonyms. On the one hand, some men signed their contributions with a female pseudonym. On the other hand, it is impossible to assess the proportion of women among the anonymous authors. In the Mercure de France, there were many more female signatures at the bottom of enigmas than at the bottom of scholarly essays: the poetic and recreational sections were more likely to include female contributions. Though, even in the case of enigmas, only 12% of texts have a female signature. This data helps to dispel a common misconception that the literary genre of the enigma was more suitable for women and schoolchildren because it had a reputation for being frivolous and entertaining. About enigmas written by women, there is a phenomenon worth pointing out. In the first Mercure galant, female signatures were often pseudonyms that evoked romance or pastoral literature, such as “Shepherdess Caliste”. Between 1724 and 1778, female reader-contributors more often gave their names, but they almost never indicated their possible profession or an activity that would be similar to a professional occupation. Yet in the last quarter of the century, women readers sometimes began to reveal their activities. In the 1780s, for example, “Miss ……” described herself as a “Dancer at the Opera, aged 14 and a half”, while Jeanne-Louise-Philippine de Marbet (1733-1796) presented herself as a woman author and advertised a collection of stories she had published a few years earlier.
With the development of appropriate digital tools, such research could be progressively extended to other types of sections and other periodicals. It would provide a more nuanced understanding of the newspapers’ audiences and allow us to grasp more precisely the interests of each category of readers in terms of media content. We would see in which sections the names of the same reader-contributors reappear and have a better overview of the social profiles of readers, depending on the price, format, content, and political orientation of each title. We would also have a clearer picture of the extent to which the readerships of the various periodicals overlap. Finally, we would be able to monitor the evolution of these audiences over the long term.