150 years ago, in the midst of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune, the besieged population of Paris experienced situations of lockdown and hardship which to some extent resonate with the confinement we have been through recently. During the COVID-19 outbreak, our confinement may have altered some of our eating habits and consumption, but despite initial panic buying, UK supermarkets have still been stocked and food has been plentiful, whereas the circulation of people, goods and provisions to and from besieged Paris was completely impeded.
Cambridge University Library, as well as a number of institutions and museums in the UK, France, Germany and the US, holds an important collection of caricatures of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune, (hand-coloured) lithographs, most of them produced in series. Those focusing on the first siege of Paris include “Souvenirs du siège” (30 prints) and “Paris assiégé: scènes de la vie parisienne pendant le siège” (31 prints) by Draner; the “Album du siège” (39 prints) by Cham and Daumier, and two series by Faustin: “Paris bloqué” (24 prints) and “Les femmes de Paris assiégé (idylles et épopées)” (8 prints). In the context of a research project on 1870-71 Franco-Prussian caricatures, Cambridge Digital Library has already digitised the first of the six volumes of the Cambridge prints, and Cambridge Digital Humanities has funded the photography of the remainder of the collection, due when the library reopens. In the meantime, we can refer to other digitisations of this material, in particular that of Heidelberg University Library.
After the French defeat of Sedan, on 1-2 September and the capture of Emperor Napoleon III, the Second Empire gave way to the Third Republic, initially led by the Gouvernement de défense nationale. The siege of Paris lasted four months, from 19 September 1870 to 28 January 1871. The Prussian army set its headquarters in Versailles, where Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor on 18 January 1871. Several (bloody) attempts of breakout by Parisian forces (who included regular soldiers but whose majority were inexperienced conscripted Gardes nationaux), commanded by Général Trochu, failed. In January 1871, the Prussians attacked the city and submitted it to intense shelling, which ended with the surrender of Paris on 28 January.
Though many of the caricatures deal with military themes, featuring soldiers and the experience of bombing by the Prussians, they also show how under the siege, access to food had become an omnipresent concern. The lack of food supplies is at the heart of the print coloured in shades of green and beige entitled “Le siège de Paris” by Alfred le Petit (1841-1909), issued, like many caricatures, as a supplement to a satirical weekly newspaper, in this case La Charge, which he founded in 1870. The illustration starts with a large man dreaming of a procession of chefs bringing meat dishes (turkey, hog, etc.), a flying clod of butter, and a hen laying a series of eggs. “The dream” contrasts with “the reality”: a butcher selling a cat, a dog’s head, a horse’s foot and a rat; one of his colleagues is offering a horseshoe to a customer (“all that’s left”). As hunger was rife, Parisians had to resort to consuming pets and rodents. Poultry had become such a rarity and prized good that Le Petit portrays a crowd in “contemplation” of a duck and a hen with her chicks. A wealthy man smoking a pipe, wearing a top hat and a stick, proudly carries the rabbit he just bought, provoking interest and envy. People also had to cope with severe inflation, as demonstrated by the speech of a fishmonger, whose stock consists of only six fish. The bottom scene moves on to a more political, anti-German message, evoking another kind of butchery: Bismarck and Wilhelm are literally leading their own troops of sheep (“Les moutons de Panurge” / Wilhelm) to the slaughterhouse. Only that kind of meat (chair à canon / cannon fodder) is still plentiful…
The Album du siège, with black and white lithographs, by the caricaturists Cham and Daumier, is a series of prints first published during the siege of Paris in the satirical illustrated newspaper Le Charivari. It was issued as a collection in the first part of 1871. The illustrated cover by Cham (Amédée de Noé, 1818-1879), printed in red and repeated as a title page, is a fitting introduction to the dark mood and macabre humour of the collection. It is surmounted by a frightening allegory of the city of Paris, crowned by its fortifications, clutching mice and devouring them alive, while keeping a puppy and a kitten in pans. Lower down, an immense crowd is queuing in front of a butchers, while a horse is led by a man holding an ominous blade. At the bottom of the page, a bare-chested baker puts into the oven loaves of bread made of straw. This bleak frontispiece is echoed throughout the series with a number of grim illustrations dealing with food, all by Cham, who is responsible for 29 of the 39 caricatures.
Parisians were literally reduced to eating cats and dogs. Street food reached record lows: in a caricature of Paris bloqué by the young satirical artist Faustin (Betbeder, 1847-1914?) a morose but imposing female street seller offers “dog’s intestines” frying on a portable stove to a doubtful passerby.
The caricatures show Parisians abandoning all pride and crouching in eagerness to obtain food from the streets and even the sewers. Men, reduced to a state of savagery, have to hunt and pray on both cats and mice. In Paris bloqué, “La chasse au dîner”, on the snowy pavement, a young man is about to club a cat, himself preying on a rat. Another print by Cham for the Album du siège shows a line of people “queuing for rat meat” crouching by a sewer.
Faustin, the artist of Paris bloqué, seems to delight in humorous wordplays on the new consumption of pets. In one caricature, a sailor, familiar with dogfish (“chien de mer”), wonders at the sale of a terrestrial dog’s head (“chien de terre”) in the shop-window of a charcuterie (where a horse foot and a rat are also on display). In another picture, a cook climbing on a roof demonstrates, by grabing a horrified cat, how the hunt for “lapins de garenne” (wild rabbits) has been replaced by the hunt for “lapins de gouttière” (those from the gutter).
If eating your pet transgresses a taboo, as in other desperate situations, the spectre of cannibalism emerges in the caricatures. In Paris bloqué, a fair exhibit consists in “Artemis, la belle dijonnaise”, weighing “800 kilos”. Among the onlookers, a soldier comments that her calf would make for a tasty stew. The lady is paradoxically named: contrary to the goddess of the hunt, ferociously guarding her privacy and virginity, she willingly offers her flesh to contemplation (and consumption). The series Paris Assiégé: scènes de la vie parisienne pendant le siège, illustrated by Draner (an anagram for Jules Renard, 1833-1926), was sold by the office of the satirical weekly newspaper l’Eclipse (successor of La Lune), published between 1868 and 1876. In one of its prints, an orator giving a conference at a public meeting advocates “philantropophagie”, moving away from the Hobbesian description of social relations to promote a grand act of solidarity with mankind: the “brotherly mastication of man by man”. To make up for absent provisions, his new commandment, “eat one another”, offers a satirical mix of the Christian message and a heterodox reinterpretation of the Catholic ritual of communion.
In the Album du siège, Cham satirises the new opportunistic faith of a Parisian man.
Access to any kind of bread is enough to justify a religious conversion, as witnessed by this discussion before a church portal:
— You never went to church before?
— There is no queue for the holy bread.
The caricatures used (dark) humour as a way for Parisians to cope with the lockdown, illustrating and dramatising with striking details the day-to-day worries and challenges faced by the besieged population. The eventual surrender of Paris, after four months of siege, in late January 1871, only provided short-term relief. As early as March, the establishment of the rebel radical and socialist Commune who opposed the conservative government of Adolphe Thiers, residing in Versailles, led to a second siege of Paris. It lasted another three months, until May 1871, this time in the context of a civil war…
References: Digitised collections of Franco-Prussian caricatures
Cambridge University Library (vol. 1 of 6 currently digitised)
Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris (legs Quentin-Bauchart)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London