Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2013 Issue

Le Rat du Châtelet, Of Rats and Men

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Le Rat.

 Just the other day, I came across an unusual book: 51 pages only, complete though incomplete, almost unknown but enjoying a certain popularity among a circle of connoisseurs and, last but not least, written by an anonymous rat.

 

This book is a political satire entitled Le Rat du Châtelet, or The Rat of Le Châtelet. It was published in 1790 by an anonymous writer—the title page doesn’t mention any printer either. A few months after the French Revolution (July the 14th, 1789), it was probably safer this way. Our writer transforms himself into a rat to crawl inside Le Châtelet, the scariest jail of Paris. At the time, this prison—now a mere square—sheltered the most vicious criminals; to such an extent that when the outraged people of Paris freed all prisoners on July the 13th, they made an exception for the 350 inmates of Le Châtelet. Famous people had been incarcerated (some even tortured) there before the Révolution, including François Villon—who allegedly wrote his masterpiece Frères humains inside—, Clément Marot or Louis-Dominique Cartouche. During the troubled times of 1789, the most virulent prisoners were still taken there, so our rat was crawling on thin ice. Let’s follow him into the dark underworld of Le Châtelet.

 

The bottomless pit

 

Traveling Le Châtelet with our rat is like visiting the kingdom of Hades: here, a lamenting ghostly Bankrupt lost in a remorseful loneliness; there, a stinking dormitory full of petty thieves with scabies; over there, some innocent citizens, victims of the guilty zeal of some newly converted revolutionaries. “Alas!” cries out our rat. “In which hands have we left the guides of our peace, liberty and rights? Who are those people, responsible for our safety?” Meet this man who, standing in a public gathering, carelessly uttered a word that sounded offending to the new Parisian Guard. He was called an aristocrat, arrested by a patrol and sent to Le Châtelet where Judge Dubois condemned him to suffer “three days of yoke,” and “to be whipped and marked, then sent to the galleys.” Fortunately, our inmate had connections, his sentence was commuted to a two-year imprisonment—lucky him! These stories might be true, or not. Names quoted in the book do not seem to fit reality, apart from the one Nicolas de Satou, identified as the aforementioned Judge Dubois.

 

It was dangerous to criticize the revolutionary government but crawling rats seldom bite. Refusing to be seen as a petty slanderer, our rat promises to name some monsters of infamy and others freedom mongers... shortly—meaning, in the second part of his diary. “If this first part happily entertains the reader, then his curiosity shall be rewarded by a second part.” Thus speaks the rat in the author’s note. But this second part never saw the light. Why? God only—and probably a little wet rat— knows the answer. Satirical writings were common at the time. Many were printed that were much more virulent. Let’s admit it, our rat wasn’t the most outspoken rodent of his time. But he knew what he was talking about as far as slang was concerned; and that’s the reason why this book is still sought-after nowadays.

 

Slang from Villon to Cartouche

 

At one point, our rat crawls among the rabble. “Was there any regout (problem)?” asks a prisoner to a newcomer. “Yes,” answers the other, “ I was fait (caught) while working the bauche (breaking a house); the marque (housemaid) crible au charron (shouted ‘thief’), bride the lourde of the longue (closed the door of the room), the mistringues (police) aboulent (arrived), they trimbalent (took me) to the cardeuil (police commissioner), they rapiote me (questioned me), but poitou (in vain); I had hidden my peignes (false keys) and my camelotte (booty). I did not reconnoblé (speak).” Some parts of this discussion remain unintelligible nowadays, even to a French-speaking person— and that was exactly the point. “Slang is the language of the purse robbers,” wrote Pierre Richelet in the 1706 Elzevir’s edition of his dictionary. “They express themselves in a way that made them unintelligible to anyone outside their cabal.” As soon as the 13th century, the police identified several slang words such as mouche (fly) for spy, or rossignol (nightingale) for picklock. In 1455, a bunch of criminals called the Coquillards (Scallopers, as they usually wore a scallop to join the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela in order to cheat and steal from them), were arrested. They revealed some of their secret words such as envoyeur (sender) for murderer, or vendangeur (grape-picker) for thief. François Villon had some acquaintances with the Coquillards from whom he borrowed the slang words of Le jargon et jobellin dudit Villon, first published in 1498.

 

Closer to our book, slang enjoyed a peak of popularity after Louis-Dominique Cartouche* was arrested in 1721. A few books were written about the life of this notorious gang leader of Paris that featured slang—the most significant one being the poem Le Vice Puni ou Cartouche (1725), a parody of Voltaire’s La Pucelle by an anonymous author later identified as Nicolas Racot de Grandval, who appended a slang dictionary of some 300 terms to his work. Cartouche was eventually sent to the Abbey-of-climb-it-with-regrets (the gallows, according to the said dictionary), but slang had become fashionable in the Parisian salons, and was more and more used until it was fully recognized by linguists in the 19th century.

 

Since the days of Cartouche, slang has been thoroughly studied and Le Rat du Châtelet is quoted in many serious works on the subject. Was our rat a thief himself? Did he serve some time at Le Châtelet? We will probably never know. The passage of his book related to slang is only four pages long, but happens to be well documented. It also features words such as abouler (to come quickly—still in use nowadays) or loffe (fool, that sounds like the backward-slang for fol—mad). These testimonies are here used in their historical context—that’s what makes them unique, and so valuable.  

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Sense and Sensibility: A Novel, By a Lady,</i> 3 volumes, London, 1811. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Virginia Woolf, <i>Kew Gardens,</i> limited edition, signed by Woolf & Bell, London, 1927. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> <i>[Arabian Nights],</i> Calcutta II version, 4 volumes, Calcutta & London, 1839-1842. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Princess Diana, 6 ALS to <i>Harper’s Bazaar</i> editor, anticipating Christie’s sale of her dresses for charity, 1995-97. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Jane Austen, <i>Emma,</i> first edition, London, 1816. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Hirohito & Nagako, Emperor & Empress of Japan, 2 photographs signed, showing Nagako in kimono & obi bearing the imperial seal. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Princess Diana, 6 autograph letters signed to <i>Harper’s Bazaar</i> editor Elizabeth Tilberis, anticipating Christie’s announcement of a sale of her dresses for charity, 1995-97. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Sarojini Naidu, complete galley proof of <i>The Broken Wing</i> signed with several holograph pages & an autograph letter signed to writer Edmund Gosse, 1916. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Fernando Pessoa, <i>Mensagem,</i> first edition, presentation copy, signed & inscribed, Lisbon, 1934. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Graham Greene, <i>The Basement Room,</i> first edition, Greene’s personal copy, signed with annotations throughout, London, 1935. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b> Abraham Lincoln, partly-printed document signed, call for troops issued during America’s first national draft just days before the NYC draft riots, 1863. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 20:</b><br><i>Les Chansons de Bilitis</i> by Pierre Louÿs, illustrated by George Barbier & F.L. Schmied, Paris, 1922. $8,000 to $12,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Leon TOLSTOÏ. <i>Anna Karenina.</i> Moscou, 1878. First and full edition of the Russian novel, in the author’s language.<br>Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Mark TWAIN. <i>Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's comrade).</i> New York, 1885. First American edition.<br>Est. 5 000 / 6 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Walt WHITMAN. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York, 1856. Second edition gathering 32 poems. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Karen BLIXEN. <i>Out of Africa.</i> Londres, 1937. First edition in the UK, before Danish translation and American release.<br>Est. 1 500 / 2 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Ernest HEMINGWAY. <i>A Farewell to Arms.</i> New York, 1929. First edition with $2.50 on the dust and A on the copyright page.<br>Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Ulysses.</i> Paris, Shakespeare and Company, 1922. First edition published by Sylvia Beach. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Dubliners.</i> Londres, 1914. First edition. Nice copy in publisher’s cardboard. Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Franz KAFKA. 8 novels in German first edition, published in München, Leipzig and Berlin 1916-1931. Est. from 300 / 400 to 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> David Herbert LAWRENCE. <i>Lady Chatterley's Lover.</i> Florence, 1928. Privately printed first edition. Est. 4 000 / 5 000 €
    John STEINBECK. <i>The Grapes of Wrath.</i> New York, 1939. First edition. Nice copy with $2.75 on the cover. Est. 1 000 / 1 200 €
  • <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Harriet Tubman Cabinet Card by H.S. Squyer, Auburn, NY, 1892. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Scarce <i>Events of the Tulsa Disaster,</i> First Edition, 1922. $4,000 to $6,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Unpublished CDV of Frederick Douglass by Benjamin F. Smith, 1864. $3,000 to $5,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> California Imprint of <i>President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation</i> Broadside, 1864. $10,000 to $15,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> John C.H. Grabill Cabinet Card of Buffalo Soldier Wearing Buffalo Coat, ca 1886. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare <i>What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,</i> 2nd Cookbook Published by African American. $6,000 to $8,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Frederick Douglass Walking Stick, 1888. $3,000 to $5,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Only Known Slave Narrative Published Independently in California, <i>Life and Adventures of James Williams.</i> $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Rare First Edition of History of Black Literature, Abbé Grégoire <i>De La Littérature des Nègres</i>. $2,500 to $3,000
    <center><b>Cowan’s Auctions<br>The Road West: The Steve Turner Collection of African Americana<br>February 20, 2020</b>
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> African American Soldier and Medal of Honor Winner Christian A. Fleetwood CDV, PLUS. $8,000 to $10,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries Pennant, 1910 Reno, Nevada. $2,000 to $4,000
    <br>Cowan’s, Feb. 20:</b> Joe Gans Photograph at 1906 Goldfield, Nevada Fight by Percy Dana. $600 to $800

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