Nicolas Le Floch, chasing crime in eighteenth-century Paris

Sometimes I write here about historical subjects and their presentation on television. It is much rarer to find an example of the reversed, a television series which becomes the subject of historical debate. French scholars will organize a one-day symposium about the series running since 2008 on France 2 featuring Nicolas Le Floch, a police commissioner in eighteenth-century Paris. The call for papers at Calenda attracted my attention, thanks to the Frühe Neuzeit blog for Early Modern history. Is it typically French that I cannot find here the date of the event which no doubt will take place in Paris, and only the deadline of the call for papers, October 31, 2012? In this post I will inform you about the series, the books behind it, and the aims of the symposium.

The Maigret of the Enlightenment?

Nicolas Le Floch -Jerôme Robart - photo France 2

Nicolas Le Floch works in Paris during the reign of Louis XV (1715-1774). His first appearance is in 1761, during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) between France and England. Le Floch works for De Sartine, the lieutenant-general of the French royal police force. Not only this war, but also royalists opposing the Jansenists and the Jesuit order form the background of the various stories and events in the series.

The French series is actually based on a number of novels by Jean-François Parot. On the website of France 2 he explains his view about the idea of a series around an imaginary police commissioner. Parot does not want to recreate a faithful picture of Paris in the eighteenth century, but he admits that a number of details help us imagining the surroundings in which Le Floch worked. The website proceeds with a number of maps of Paris, presents a number of dishes and recipes mentioned in the various installments as in the original novels, gives even a glossary of words and terms used in the series, and introduces you also to various prostitutes figuring in the series. The website amounts to a veritable portal around Nicolas Le Floch, including merchandise, a forum and a photo gallery, an overview of all installments and a page on Facebook. The signature tune of the lavishly produced series, a nice pastiche of late eighteenth-century music, is as memorable as that of a Maigret series!

Jean-François Parot has created his own website on Nicolas Le Floch. His novels featuring Le Floch have been translated into English, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Japanese. Inevitably some elements shown on the series website return here, too. Even if you dislike detective series you can enjoy the maps of Paris and the images of buildings which feature in his stories. One of the strengths is the careful list of credits for the images used on the website. This “Sources iconographiques” section is really instructive. Getting the credits for images right is not a task easily accomplished.

Law and fiction

The French scholars preparing the colloquium Fiction policière et série télévisée : Nicolas Le Floch, un “expert” au temps des Lumières do not keep Parot’s novels and the fictionalized crime series at a wide distance, but view it as an opportunity to ask questions about the way the series has been created. The first four installments followed more or less Parot’s novels, the following four are not directly founded on them. The central question helps to look at Le Floch from a wider perspective than just checking the historical correctness of the situations depicted and the details adduced. What was the position and role of police officers like Le Floch? How did one perceive his job? What status did someone charged with his tasks really have? For this series it will lead to looking at his cooperation with inspector Bourdeau, Sanson, the hangman, and his chef, Le Sartine, and more general the way he moves in public society, both in high circles and in the Paris underground. Other themes will be the relation between fictionalization for television and faithfulness to historic facts and surroundings, the freedom (“franchise”) of fictional persons and the freedom in developing a series, the use of language, and the choice of venue and public for the series: is France 2 the only possible channel for this series? The producers of the series have bought the right to create new adventures for Le Floch as they see fit.

Personally I would like for example to discuss the uses of music in this and similar series, stylishly composed for the series or existing period music. Remembering some of the BBC television series recreating novels by Jane Austen the art of getting things also musically right merits attention, too.

Natalie Zemon Davis published in 1987 her study Fiction in the archives. Pardon tellers and their tellers in sixteenth-century France. In order to get a lettre de rémission, a pardon for their crimes, suspected criminals had not only to tell the truth but more importantly a convincing story. The series with Le Floch is a challenge to legal historians to tell the story of crime and persecution in eighteenth-century Paris as imaginatively, vigorously and utterly compelling by the sheer force of truthful historic representation as novelist Parot and the creators of this French historic crime series have thus far succeeded in doing. The call for papers at Calenda points to several new French studies on history and fiction.

Even if you would prefer to label Nicolas Le Floch under the heading of Law and Humanities, it is a reminder that “doing the real thing”, research into criminal history during the Ancien Régime, will ultimately lead to an interpretation, a representation or reconstruction of a particular part of the past. Any paper, article, book or video presents not the past itself, but a view of the past guided by your questions, views and background. Scholarly research, too, creates an image of the past. We had better learn to use images creatively, too, instead of depreciate and deplore such series. Those who have followed Downton Abbey on television will remember how legal historians were asked to scrutinize the representation of the entail featured so prominently in this series. Readers of Austen’s Pride and prejudice have met with the entail, too, and this list can be easily expanded.

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