Les mouches, from les Mouchards.
“In defense of Brissot, it should be remembered that "spying" for the police could take the form of reporting on the mood of certain sections or milieux of the city rather than betraying friends. Spies, often called mouches (a term apparently derived from the name of the no- torious sixteenth-century agent Antoine Mouchy), buzzed like flies around the cafes and public places where gossip was to be gathered.”
In Robert Darnton’s essay about whether Brissot was, as his Jacobin enemies claimed, a police spy, Darnton weighs the evidence and concludes that probably he was. In that parenthesis he affirms a doubtful etymology. It is an interesting case study, this etymology. Voltaire spread the idea that Mouchy, who was not an agent, but a theologian/inquisitor, gave birth to the many maggoted mouchards, or spies – mouches being the word for fly – that buzzed around and gathered information for the police. Abbe Coblet, in the nineteenth century, should have put a stop to this etymological myth. He showed that the mouchard and the mouche were pure Picardy inventions, coming from the found of the French language. Even those who’d doubted the Mouchy etymology had claimed that in Latin, the word musca, fly, was used for police spies. But as Coblet points out, there is a world of difference between those who trap the words you speak and those who trap you. The musca was a gossip, the mouche was a spy whose delicate task it was not only to report the news to the police, but often to “encourage” the news.
Mouchy lived in the sixteenth century, when the religious wars started a whole new era in the secret history, or history of secrets, that exist under our history. It is a sewer of betrayal and tears, and it feeds the tree of death – the gibbet or the guillotine.
Nemesis lives in the sewers.
The other side of the happiness culture is the culture of fear. We cannot dispense with or minimize fear and its production when trying to get a sense of the human limit.
According to V.A.C. Gatrell’s The Hanging Tree, some 30,000 people were condemned to death in England and Wales between 1770 and 1830. 7,000, he estimates, were actually executed. This compares favorably with the estimated 73,000 executed between 1530 and 1630 – the secret religious war – but very badly with the number hung between 1701 and 1750. In the 1820s, Gatrell says, the hanged break down like this: two thirds were hung for property crimes, a fifth for murder, a twentieth for attempted murder, and the same percent for rape and sodomy. By the strange fruit of the tree shall ye know them. As Gatrell points out, while capital punishment was becoming extremely rare in Prussia, Russia, Scotland and Ireland, in England and Wales, it was enjoying a golden age.
Let’s end this post with a quote from George Cruikshank:
“At that time I resided in Dorset Street Salisbury Square Fleet Street and had occasion to go early one morning to a house near the Bank of England and in returning home between eight and nine o clock down Ludgate Hill and seeing a number of persons looking up the Old Bailey I looked that way myself and saw several human beings hanging on the gibbet opposite Newgate prison and to my horror two of these were women and upon inquiring what these women had been hung for was informed that it was for passing forged one pound notes The fact that a poor woman could be put to death for such a minor offence had a great effect upon me and I at that moment determined if possible to put a stop to this shocking destruction of life for merely obtaining a few shillings by fraud and well knowing the habits of the low class of society in London I felt quite sure that in very many cases the rascals who forged the notes induced these poor ignorant women to go into the gin shops to get something to drink and thus pass the notes and hand them the change.”