Little Red Riding, of the Brothers Grimm, is really French, 17th century. The Huguenots brought folk tales to Germany when fleeing the prosecution of Louis XIV. Folk tales are historical documents. They have evolved over many centuries. There was a golden age of folklore research in France between the years of 1870 and 1914. Folklore is a nineteenth century neologism. Oral traditions have enormous staying power. Continuities in form and style outweigh variation of details.
Village life, being a peasant, was a struggle in early modern France. Marriages lasted an average of fifteen years, terminated by death. The peasants lived in a world of stepmothers and orphans. The tales present a Malthusian picture. In the 1690's plague and famine decimated northern France when Perrault wrote 'Tom Thumb'. Wishing takes one form, the wishing for food. Meat is an extravagance. Fulfillment of the wish takes place in the everyday world. It is not an escape fantasy, but survival. In the tales daughters must be married off and sons may explore life on the road. There may be no land, no food, no work. There was danger on the road. English tales tend to be whimsical, French tales bawdy, realistic, comical, German tales supernatural, violent. French folk tales told the peasants how the world was put together and how to cope with it. In France, despite the distinction of social rank, there was a common stock of tales.
The apprentice printers, who staged a cat massacre, delighted in performing the affair again and again--copies. Masters loved cats and, therefore, apprentices hated them. In the second half of the seventeenth century there was an oligarchy of printing masters. It was difficult for journeymen to rise to the rank of masters. The wail of a cat could mean witchcraft, cuckoldry. Killing the mistress's cat was a metonymic insult. The cat massacre was put into writing by Nicholas Contat. In the massacre one of the apprentices imitated a cat.
A description of a French city, Montpellier, was written in 1768. The anonymous writer had an obsession with completeness. A sense of place is fundamental to our sense of orientation in life. The bourgeois was the owner of the modes of production and acquired class-consciousness. Except in Lille and a few other areas, a self-conscious industrializing class was absent prior to the Revolution. Thinkers belonged to the traditional elite. Montpellier was an administrative center. It had a commercial oligarchy. It was underdeveloped and wealthy people dominated the social and cultural life. It had a music academy and there was interest shown in science and technology. There were cabinets containing private natural history collections and private libraries. The ideal of the honest man had, in 1768, a bourgeois coloring.
The author relates that a police officer in Paris, Joseph d'Hemery, inpected the book trade and the men who wrote books. In five years, 1748-1753, he wrote five hundred reports. Clergymen constituted twelve percent of the authors. Seventy percent came from the third estate. Ten percent were doctors or lawyers. Thirty six percent were journalists, tutors, librarians, secretaries. Many careers went from the garret to the gutter. Everyone in the files was seeking or dispensing protection. The police did not question influence peddling. Police agents picked up sedition talk. Diderot was singled out for atheism.
Rousseau described reading and experienced it. He saw literature as an element of a power system. Rousseau initiated a new conception of an author--Prometheus. LA NOUVELLE HELOISE was probably the best seller of the century. Readers believed that Jean-Jacques had made them see deeper into the meaning of their lives. In thinking of how people read five centuries ago, it may be important to keep in mind the distinction between extensive reading and intensive reading. Rousseau taught readers to digest books and literature became absorbed in life.
The notes at the back of the book are interesting and varied.