The poissarde or fish seller has a long and interesting history. The market women of Paris had a special relation to the king since the Middle Ages when Saint Louis granted destitute women the exclusive privilege to sell retail goods and especially fish at designated sites in city markets. Biblical teachings led the French to consider fish a particularly pure species and so, thanks to the 138 fast days dictated by Catholic dogma, fish sellers were a crucial supplier of ritualized sanctity: being a harangère was a lucrative job. Since the reign of Louis XV, market women travelled twice a year to meet with the king at Versailles and they also appeared on special occasions such as royal marriages or births. But the nature of their politics—or even the existence of a dominant political consciousness among these people—remains unclear. As Pierre Ronzeaud has noted, the figure of the foul-mouthed harangère or herring-monger was already a well-known topos in the Mazarinades of the 1650s; in these texts the women’s socio-economic realities were buried under a cartoonish vulgarity that proved remarkably impervious to change. A similar ventriloquism runs through revolutionary-age pamphletry. True, the market women’s absence from festivities on the eve of the Assumption in 1787, when they had been expected to present flowers and compliments to Queen Marie-Antoinette, provoked anxiety at court. A police injunction two days later forced them to comply. It is also true, as Carla Hesse reminds us, that a number of market women expressed their displeasure with King Louis XVI in early 1789 by participating in a performance of the Souper de Henri IV at a Parisian theater and drinking a toast to Henri IV. While such incidents suggest that the women’s traditional bond to the crown was under pressure, economic considerations, as well as the poissard literary tradition, point to a more complex situation.
This complexity comes to the fore when a poissard text is translated into English. What modern-day English dialect or idiom can render the occasionally vulgar rough-and-tumble words of Parisian fish sellers of the past? In Summer 2009, I hired Sonja Stojanovic [now a PhD candidate at Brown U, as of 2014] to translate Le Falot du peuple (The People’s Lantern, ca. 1792-93)*. Her solution to the problem of dialect was to render the market women’s speech in a Cajun-inflected English, with the help of Robert Hendrickson’s Whistlin’ Dixie: A Dictionary of Southern Expressions (1993). I think that the results are great! Here is an excerpt to whet your appetite for Chapter One, “From Fish Seller to Suffragette” of my book-in-progress, A Revolution in Fiction…
The People’s Lantern, or dialogues of Miz Salmon, Fishwife, on the trial of Louis XVI, trans. Sonja Stojanovic
Miz Salmon: Hey, ol’ Ma, how you been? For eight days now, you’re in a sull and avoiding me; come on, let’s go grab a drink: for having not the same opinion, do we have to eat each other up?
Tender Ma: What do you want, Miz Salmon, you’re rich, you, you ain’t caring; ifn this sells or not, don’t matter to you. Anyways, regardin’ poor Louis XVI, I’m frettin’ & I don’t dare say nothin’ yet; but you, it is all from the contrary, it gives you such a tone in this market, you’ve become the loud and big one, & this on account of you screamin’ your lungs out against poor Louis XVI. But tell me, Miz Salmon, everwhat did he do to you to not abide him like that?
Miz Salmon: But my child, to me he ain’t done nothin’; but they lay it to him, the cause of this all, that he has made them prices raised, that he made bread ‘n fish go missin; in short, that the 10th of August he wanted to have us all killed, & that it is him who is stirrin’ up all the Prussians, & who has all our menses killed. You see I ain’t wrong when we have rage against him.
Tender Ma: Hey ol’ neighbor, you made my heart bloom in talking to me like that heart-to-heart but ifn you have a moment, I’ll soon, in reason, have brought you to your senses & you’ll see.
Primo uno & first off, my dear friend, he’s maybe the cause of the actual’s wrangle, & that’s without wantin’ it, & through a good motive …
* Le Falot du peuple, attributed to C. Bellanger, repr. in Dialogues révolutionnaires, ed. Malcolm Cook (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1994), 73-81.