The pamphlets targeting Marie Antoinette usually came in the form of short stories, a few pages long, depicting some horrible sexual act that denigrated her character. These pamphlets starring Marie-Antoinette did not appear during the first two years of her reign, when public opinion was generally favorable towards her, but soon the pamphlets about her replaced the ones that had been printed about Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress, for years (Goodman 104). The number of pamphlets reached a peak during the queen’s first pregnancy in 1777 and after her son was born. They reflected the public suspicion that, after years of the King being unable to produce an heir, the royal children were illegitimate (Goodman105). Because of this, the number of pamphlets circulating would usually peak when the queen announced a pregnancy.
The pamphlets tended to target Marie Antoinette and her entourage, especially the Comtesse de Polignac. The pornographic aspect of the pamphlets was not unique to this time period: it also occurred during the reign of Louis XIV, “whose amorous exploits were amply chronicled,” and during the reign of Louis XV, centered on his mistresses Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry (Goodman 103). What all these women had in common was a public sentiment against them for appearing too powerful and influential and “using their sexuality to control the king and involve themselves in the politics of the court” (Goodman 244-245).
Thousands of copies of these pamphlets circulated around France and were taken seriously by many readers (Castle 131). The pamphlets introduced Marie Antoinette as the “Monster-Queen,” and after a while, pamphlet consumers accepted this image of Marie Antoinette as a truthful one (Thomas 17). Even though they recognized their exaggeration, pamphlet consumers did believe that the stories within the pamphlets were based on fact (Thomas 19). The stories of Marie Antoinette written in the pamphlets destroyed any image of her as a modest and moral woman, if such an image ever existed of her in France, and succeeded in turning public opinion against her to a larger degree than it already was (Thomas 114).
Both royalist and antiroyalist pamphlets attacked the queen because of who she was and her position at court. As an Austrian, many courtiers disliked her instantly, and members of the royal family such as the Comte de Provence, the king’s brother, and Louis XVI’s aunts, Mesdames, envied her position as queen (Thomas 68). Due to this, most of the material used in the pamphlets actually came from aristocrats who disliked the queen:
“The author of the one of the best known pamphlets, Portfolio of a Red Heel, made the connection explicit, tracing the circuit from courtiers to their valets, who passed the verses on in the market, where they were picked up by artisans and brought back to the courtiers, who then hypocritically professed surprise. The “popular” images of the queen, then, had their origin in the court, not the streets” (Goodman 125).
The Comte de Provence was suspected of instigating several of the pamphlets, especially around the time that Marie Antoinette gave birth to the dauphin (Thomas 64). He was known to resent his older brother’s position and so very likely played a part in the slander against the king and queen (Thomas 63).
Although the pamphlets denouncing the queen most often had pornographic content, they were not meant to be pleasurable to read. Instead, they were supposed to make the reader feel disgust towards the queen and fear of the “death machine between her legs” that “emasculated all the able-bodied men of her realm” (Thomas 113). They emphasized that the people she had sexual relations with in the pamphlets were not her partners, but her victims:
“Reversing the classic scenes of seduction, the woman initiates man into pleasure. She treats him as a sexual slave. When she has gotten her pleasure out of him, she disposes of him like squeezed fruit, kicks him out with her foot, like a dog” (Goodman 111).
The reader should feel pity and indignation for the queen’s victims, while feeling thoroughly convinced of Marie Antoinette’s debauched character and her corruptive influence on the king and the aristocracy.
Once Marie Antoinette was established as the root of corruption at Versailles, the pamphlets, with the support of the populace, demanded her displacement from the royal family and the king (Thomas 68). Earlier pamphlets, before 1789, were more of an admonishment against her behavior and a demand for repentance (Goodman 113). As the pamphlets picked up in severity, they demanded not only her removal from the throne, but also her public humiliation in the form of a public apology, along with her group of friends like Madame de Polignac (Thomas 69-70). After 1789, fewer pamphlets demanded the queen’s repentance, and more demanded her death (Thomas 70). The tone of the pamphlets changed gradually from the nation’s collective laughter at their frivolous queen, to admonishment for her corrupt behavior, to angry demands for her removal from the throne, and eventually, for her execution.
Before the Revolution broke out in 1789, Marie Antoinette generally ignored the pamphlets. She saw them as inconsequential, even amusing at times. She was not extremely concerned with what the pamphlets were saying because she saw their accounts as ridiculous, and probably thought that no one could actually believe them (Thomas 20). Royal authorities took the pamphlet writing more seriously, as they knew how much they affected public opinion, and how much power public opinion could have (Thomas 53).