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The Charlatans of the Pont-Neuf

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 January 2009


The charlatans of seventeenth-century Paris attracted customers to view and buy their wares by producing and participating in free theatrical performances in the open air. Some of them worked solo, at ground level or ‘mounting a bench’—hence the term ‘mountebank’. Others, however, worked with sizeable troupes of performers on large stages in busy metropolitan interchanges traversed by all strata of society. This made them public figures, among the best known in France. They worked on the same principle as commercial television: attract people, by means of some sort of entertainment, to focus their attention on one spot, and then take a break to sell them wonderful products at a very low price that will make them young, hard-bodied, and happy.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 1998

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1. Parfaict, Les frères, Histoire du théâtre français, 15 vols. (New York: Burt Franklin, 1968Google Scholar; first published Paris, 1745), IV, p. 240.

2. La Ville de Paris en vers burlesques (Paris, 1655), p. 3. No given name is known for Berthaud (also spelled Berthod). ‘You rendezvous of charlatans/Of cheats, of dummy soldiers/Pont-Neuf, common theatre/Of sellers of ointments and plasters,/ Hangout of toothpullers,/ Of old-clothes dealers, Booksellers, Pedants,/ Of singers of new songs/ Of go-betweens for Damsels,/ Of cut-purses, of Slangsters,/ Of masters of filthy trades,/ Of operators & of Chemists,/ And of chemical Physicians,/ Of subtle goblet players,/ And passers of love-notes.’

3. le Paulmier, Claude Stéphen, L'Orviétan: Histoire d'une famille de charlatans du Pont-Neuf (Paris: Librairie illustrée, 1893), p. 10ffGoogle Scholar; Corsini, Andrea, Medici Ciarlatani e Ciarlatani Medici (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1922)Google Scholar; Coryate, Thomas, Coryats Crudities (London: William Stansby, 1611), p. 274Google Scholar; Tabarin, Jean Salomon, Œuvres complètes de Tabarin, 2 vols., ed. Aventin, Gustave [pseud, of Auguste Alexandre Veinant] (Paris: Pierre Jannet, 1858), II, p. 212Google Scholar; Mic, Constant, La Commedia dell'arte (Paris: Jacques Schiffrin, 1927), p. 177f.Google Scholar

4. De Francesco, Grete, The Power of the Charlatan, tr. Beard, Miriam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939), 4ff.Google Scholar

5. Discours de l'origine des mœurs fraudes et impostures des Ciarlatans, in Tabarin, , Œuvres, II, p. 234ffGoogle Scholar. ‘Covered with the ornament of a mask, and the appearance of some artiste's language which gilds the pill and offers it to a commonly credulous and ignorant people … [this] man without science and without conscience … with laughter and buffoonery sells his drugs.’

6.The Deceits of the Charlatans Revealed’, in Tabarin, , Œuvres, II, pp. 205–17.Google Scholar

7. (Paris: Jean Baptiste Coignard, 1693), II, p. 130. ‘I have heard from some old people that they saw the Comic Theatre of Paris with the same structure, & with the same decorations as those of the Rope-dancers of the St Germain Fair & the Charlatans of the Pont neuf.’ He may be speaking of a theatre of Gros-Guillaume and his companions before they took over the Hôtel de Bourgogne.

8. Le Clair-voyant intervenu sur la response de Tabarin (Paris: Nicholas Morantin, 1619), p. 10.

9. The history is confused; contradictory theories are advanced by Wiley, William Leon in The Early Public Theatre in France (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 71CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Jacques Scherer in his Notice to Tabarin, 's Les Deux Pourceaux and Le Voyage aux IndesGoogle Scholar in Scherer, , ed., Théâtre du xviie siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), p. 1199.Google Scholar

10. Tabarin, , Œuvres, II, p. 11. ‘Sworn students of the University of the Place Dauphine’.Google Scholar

11. Scherer, , p. 1200.Google Scholar

12. Tabarin, , Œuvres, II, p. 401ff.Google Scholar

13. Magne, Emile, Gaultier-Garguille (Paris: Louis-Michaud, 1911), p. 164.Google Scholar

14. Tabarin, , Recueil général des œuvres et fantaisies de Tabarin, 3 vols., (Rouen: David Ferrand, 1632), II, p. 145ffGoogle Scholar; Parfaict, , IV, p. 254ff.Google Scholar

15. ‘It's been a week since I've excremento-pharmacopolized’. Tabarin, , Recueil., II, p. 149Google Scholar. The play is simply called Première farce, but Scherer (234) names it Les Deux Pourceaux (The Two Hogs).

16. Tabarin, , Recueil, II, p. 147Google Scholar; Scherer, , p. 234.Google Scholar

17. (Munich: Eidos Verlag, 1964), p. 209. ‘One is obliged to say …, the Dialogues of Mondor & Tabarin, as impertinent as they may have been, had … more reason & more sense.’

18.Childbed Chatter’; Anon., Recueil général des caquets de l'accouchée (Metz: Nouvain, 1847Google Scholar; first published 1625), p. 93.

19. Juste plainte du sieur Tabarin contre l'un des ministres de Charenton, in Tabarin, , Œuvres, II, p. 476ffGoogle Scholar. ‘I hear him growling, reproaching me for my vocation, which he falsely calls charlatanry. I climb upon the stage for two reasons: first, to exhibit for sale, and to distribute at a very low price, some approved remedies for the cure of several widespread and common illnesses; the other, to entertain the people for free, without offending anybody; and in both of these I dare affirm that people are better off for my drugs and discourses than they are for the sermons of this preacher, who might have learned that comedy has been accepted among all the most educated nations as teaching what is useful in life, and what must be shunned. He ought to know in what terms that great Roman orator spoke of it: that it is an imitation of life, a mirror of custom, an image of truth.’

20. Fournier, Edouard, Variétés historiques et littéraires, 10 vols. (Paris: Pierre Jannet, 1856), VII, p. 104n.Google Scholar

21. Scherer, , I, p. 1201.Google Scholar

22. In Tabarin, , Œuvres, I, p. ixf.Google Scholar

23. ‘His neighbours, who were gentlemen of good and ancient houses, unable to endure as their companion a Pantalone or cajoler of gawking ninnies, a fool who, with his hat metamorphosed a thousand ways, had made so many other fools laugh, killed him one day during a hunt.’

24. ‘He who climbs too high/ Will surely fall.’

25. Tabarin, , Œuvres, II, p. 287fGoogle Scholar. ‘As for Mondor, he has some intelligence and a smattering of letters, and would be capable, if he wished, of a more honourable vocation. […] As for de Combes, he is gross and boorish, he can neither read nor write nor speak, and the small audience that he gets considers him, rightly, to be the most ignorant ciarlatan and the most bold-faced liar that ever mounted a platform.” For another description of Descombes, see the Caquets de l'accouchée, p. 95.

26. Bernier, Jean, Essais de Médecine (Paris: Simon Langronne, 1689), p. 447Google Scholar. ‘The authentic Tabarin, Mondori, & Descombes [were] naturally eloquent people, & so funny that they could cut your purse while laughing.’

27. Scherer, , p. 1200.Google Scholar

28. Paulmier, Le, p. 16ffGoogle Scholar; Boussel, Patrice, ‘Guillot Gorju, médecin, farceur, et homme mal connu’, in Aesculape, 05, 1950, p. 116.Google Scholar

29.The Farce of the Hunchbacks’, in Tabarin, , Œuvres, II, p. 200Google Scholar; see also pp. 157–92.

30. Pp. 409–529; the quotation is from p. 445.

31. Letessier, F., in an article on the word ‘Cabotin’ in Le Français moderne, Vol. 20, 1952, p. 116ffGoogle Scholar, suggest that Cabotin never existed; he finds no mention of any seventeenth-century charlatan by this name before 1858, when Fournier discussed him. Letessier makes no mention of the work cited in the following note.

32. le Duc, Emmanuel Nicolas Viollet, in Bibliothèque poétique, 2 vols. (Paris: J. Flot, 1843), I, p. 518Google Scholar, lists a publication by ‘Le sieur Cabotin, avocat en parlement’ called Commentaire en vers sur les Aphorismes d'Hypocrate, which appeared in Paris in 1665.

33. Fournier, , VII, p. 103ffGoogle Scholar. Paulmier, Le, p. 40Google Scholar, asserts that the Histoire de Barry was written by Cormier's daughter Alison rather than his son; it should be noted, though, that ‘Alizon’ was a name used by male comedians who appeared on stage as women.

34. Probably by Nicolas Marc Desfontaines, published along with Le Vagabond, a translation of de'Nobili, Giacinto's Il Vagabondo (Paris: Jacques Villery, 1694), p. 99Google Scholar. ‘By mounting a stage in the Place du Change to sell his drugs with his buffooneries, as well as his comedies.’

35. Paulmier, Le, p. 28.Google Scholar

36. Fournel, Victor, Tableaux du vieux Paris: Les Spectacles populaires et les artistes des rues (Paris: E. Dentu, 1863), p. 234.Google Scholar

37. Dancourt, Florent Carton, L'Opérateur Barry (Paris: Pierre Ribou, 1705), pp. 4, 9, 34Google Scholar; see also le Paulmier, p. 40ff; Ginisty, p. 18; Lancaster, Henry Carrington, A History of French Dramatic Literature in the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 19291942), IV, p. 812ffGoogle Scholar. For another description of Barry, see Anon., Le Tracas de la Foire du Pré, ed. Sidredoulx, Epiphane [pseud, of Prosper Blanchemain] (Turin: Jules Gay, 1869Google Scholar; first publ. Rouen, c. 1630).

38. Les Sanglots de l'Orvietan, sur l'absence du Cardinal Mazarin, et son adieu (Paris: N. Charles, 1649), p. 3. ‘That gallant and superb actress Clarice’.

39. In Tabarin, , Œuvres, II, p. 213fGoogle Scholar. ‘A notorious and shameless charlatan who called himself il signore Hieronymo … had built himself a theatre in the courtyard of the Palace, which he mounted … to praise and exalt by a thousand lies, boasts, and vain ostentations, the occult virtues and admirable properties of his ointments, balms, oils, extractions, quintessences, distillations, calcinations, and other fantastic concoctions.

‘And, so that there would be nothing lacking in his charlatanry, and that it should be omnibus partibus et numeris absoluta, he had four excellent violinists sitting on the four corners of his stage, who worked wonders, assisted by a notorious buffoon or jester from the Hôtel de Bourgogne named Galinette la Galina, who performed a thousand monkeytricks, acrobatics, and buffooneries, to attract and amuse the people, who approached his theatre in droves, as much to feast their eyes in the contemplation of the buffoon as to content their ears with the sweet harmony and harmonious sweetness of the instruments, and with no other intentions.’

40. A few documents were published by Paulmier, Le, pp. 117ff.Google Scholar

41. Lettres choisies de feu Mr. Guy Patin, 10 vols. (The Hague: Henri van Bulderen, 1715), I, p. 220f (letter of 6 January 1654). Patin speaks of twelve doctors, but Mauvillain, whom he names among them, did not receive his degree until the next year.

42. Paulmier, Le, pp. 22, 48.Google Scholar

43. Plainte du Carnaval et de la Foire S. Germain (Paris: Claude Huot, 1649), p. 4. ‘Paris, where you see so many sluts,/ Buffoons, farce players,/ Where you saw the Orviétan/ Play the Captain so well,/ The two Trivelins, the machines,/ And a thousand novel toys.’

44. Les Sanglots de l'Orvietan.

45. Supplémens au livre des Essais de Médecine (Paris, 1691), p. 75. ‘All these Descombes, Mondors, Tabarins, Barrys & others,… haven't they amassed more goods than an infinity of skilled Physicians?’ ‘Hasn't he risen to the status of a good Bourgeois of Paris, & even quite a good Parishioner?… A bit of patience, & you will see his son at the Procession of the Rector, in the posture of an employee of the University.… And who will be able to tell, by his attitude, his fur, & his scarlet, that this is the Son of Florinde & Spacamond?’

46. Jal, Auguste, Dictionnaire critique de biographie et d'histoire (Paris: Henri Pion, 1852), p. 425.Google Scholar

47. Œuvres de Molière, ed. Despois, Eugène and Mesnard, Paul (Paris: Hachette, 1886), IX, p. 506.Google Scholar

48. Chant III, pp. 391–428 in Œuvres de Boileau (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1869), p. 208f. ‘Study the Court, and know the Town./ Both are ever teeming with models./ Here is how Molière, illustrating his writings,/ Might have carried off the prize in his Art;/ If he had been less the friend of the people in his learned paintings,/ He would not have made his figures such grimacers,/ Nor abandoned the acceptable and refined for the buffoonish,/ Nor shamelessly combined Terence with Tabarin./ In that ridiculous sack in which Scapin wraps itself,/ I no longer recognize the author of the Misanthrope.

The Comic, enemy of sighs and cries,/ Excludes from its verses tragic woes:/ But its function is not to go into a public square/ To beguile the populace with low and dirty words.

‘In the theatre I love a seemly author/ Who, without defaming himself in the eyes of the spectator,/ Pleases by reason alone, and never offends it./ But as for a false jokester, with his gross puns,/ Who has nothing but filth to amuse me with,/ Let him go, if he wants, to mount his two planks,/ To amuse the Pont-Neuf with his tasteless humbug,/ Playing his masquerades for the assembled lackeys.’

49. Despréaux, ou La Satyre des Satyres, Arsenal 8° B.L. 12.223 (no place, no date given), p. 5; reprinted as edited by le bibliophile Jacob (pseud, of Lacroix, Paul) (Paris: Librairie des bibliophiles, 1883), p. 3Google Scholar. ‘I cannot make a demigod of a farceur;/ Of a Pont-Neuf bard I hardly make my Virgil.’

50.The Opening of Carnival Days, or the Maintenance of Carnival’, in Fournier, , II, p. 355.Google Scholar

51. Rudlin, John, in Commedia dell'Arte: An Actor's Handbook (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 23ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar also makes the case for the charlatans' place in the history of commedia.