By Sam Young (@samyoung102)
Le Cochon Noir is a booklet of anticlerical songs produced in Marseilles in 1902 by the songwriter Eugène Besson. [i] Though humorous in tone, Besson’s songs are sharp in their condemnation of the Catholic clergy. Priests are ridiculed throughout as gluttons (the title song refers to a cleric’s black robes), liars and sexual predators. Indeed, the book even includes a parody of the French national anthem (‘La Marseillaise des Capucins’), in which downcast monks leave the now enlightened France in search of more gullible congregations.
Besson’s songbook takes on historical significance when viewed in the context of the French Third Republic (1870-1940), which by 1902 was still struggling to establish itself in the face of both external and internal opposition. On the surface, the songbook’s savage anticlericalism seems to mirror the Republic’s own ongoing legislative campaign to limit the power of the staunchly anti-republican Catholic Church. [ii] However, Besson was arrested in 1907 on an obscenity charge relating to Le Cochon Noir – specifically the song ‘La Mangeoire’ (‘The Trough’), in which he refers to priests as ‘les Sodomistes’ (literally ‘Sodomists’). The songwriter had unwittingly fallen foul of a simultaneous state campaign against public immorality, linked to a widespread paranoia among elites that the new Republic’s survival relied on the moral strength of its citizens. [iii] Facing a hefty fine, Besson may not have appreciated that he stood at a point of conflict between two major insecurities inherent to France’s republican project in the early twentieth century: one a fear of the ‘external enemy’ of Catholicism, the other of moral weakness within the population itself.
[i] Archives Nationales (France), Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, BB/18/6168.
[ii] ‘L’essentiel de la loi du 9 décembre 1905 de séparation des Églises et de l’État’, République Française (19 February 2021), <https://www.vie-publique.fr/fiches/271400-la-loi-du-9-decembre-1905-de-separation-des-eglises-et-de-letat> [accessed 5th November 2021].
[iii] For more information, see: Childers, Kristen Stromberg, Fathers, Families, and the State in France, 1914-1945 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003).
Image credit: author’s own.