Short History of the Satirical Representations in France

Je Suis Charlie
Je Suis Charlie

The month of January 2015 will forever be remembered in France as the month of the terrorist attacks: the first one of the satirical magazine Charlie-Hebdo and the second one of the Hyper Cacher store in Paris.
The “reasons”, details and implications of these atrocities as well as the display of unity of the French people and the world leaders in condemning these barbarities were – still are- extensively presented by the media.
Toulouse is Charlie
Toulouse is Charlie

The purpose of this article is to present some notes about the history of the satirical representations in France.

The “animalization” is probably the oldest form of caricature but become widespread during the Middle Ages. In a religious society prone to superstition the “animalization” symbolizes and stigmatizes the human vices by representing them – mostly in religious context – as donkeys, goats, pigs and monkeys. These representation populate religious sculptures and texts but given the fact that the books are not widespread at that time, the holders of true satire in Middle Ages are the jesters and minstrels.

Around the beginning of the 15th century the process of wood engraving is developed making the image for the first time replicable and more affordable.
The oldest satirical engraving in France dating probably from 1499 is called “Switzerland’s Reversal of the Game” (“Revers du jeu des Suisses”) and is a parody to the serious historic event of the conquest of the Kingdom of Naples by the French. The work represents all the stakeholders of the affair King Louis XII of France, Henry VII of England, Pope Alexander VI, the Doge of Venice, the Queen Isabela (Spain) and the Swiss representatives, all playing cards around a table. Supported by the Netherlands and England, the Swiss who had announced the intention to oppose the campaign of Louis XII did not however put any serious obstacle to the French expedition.

Switzerland's Reversal of the Game
Switzerland’s Reversal of the Game

The invention of the printing process by Gutenberg around 1440 will in turn contribute, among other things, to the development and spread of satirical works.
During the Religious Reformation of the 16th century, Catholics and Protestants alike made use of their printing presses to disseminate their ideas. These printed manifestos are many times accompanied by striking illustrations aimed to insult and ridicule the author’s opponents through irreverent caricatures.
The most outstanding French satirical written work of the time is the “Satire Menippée” published in Tours in 1594. The work richly illustrated is a ridicule of the Ultra Catholic League and Spanish pretensions during the Wars of Religion in France hence its subtitle ” Vertu du Catholicon d’Espagne” – ” The beneficial effect of Spanish Catholicon” – “Catholicon” being an invented Spanish universal remedy.
However the undisputed leader of satire during the French Renaissance is Francois Rabelais, a Franciscan and Benedictine monk, whose work “Gargantua and Pantagruel”, combine classical erudition with the most ill-mannered popular humor.

The term “caricature” appears in the seventeenth century, and comes from the Italian word “caricatura” which means to distort or to exaggerate.

If during the 18th century the caricatures appear timidly in the press,the Revolution and the Empire give cause to many politically oriented satirical works many under the influence of English artists.

The 19th century is the golden age of the satire that becomes an important element in the broadcasting of the political ideas. The first satirical French newspaper called simply “La Caricature” was created by Charles Philipon in 1830.

With the great law of liberalization of the press of 29th of July 1881, the cartoon is experiencing unprecedented growth in a context of explosion of the press.

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