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Sceptic of the week – Charles Philipon

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For a period of time during the mid-nineteenth century, openly carrying a pear around the streets of Paris could get you arrested. It all began in 1830, soon after the accession of King Louis-Philippe, when Charles Philipon, a little-known artist, launched a satirical magazine, in which he likened the head of the monarch to a pear. Outraged, the King tried to suppress Philipon’s efforts by ordering his courtiers to buy up every copy of the magazine (possibly not the most effective method of discouraging a fledgling publisher).

When this didn’t work, Philipon was put on trial for having ’caused offence to the person of the King’. Philipon openly mocked the proceedings, urging his prosecutors to go further, and arrest every pear tree in France for disrespecting the corrupt and authoritarian monarch. A six-month prison sentence seems to have done little to deter him – between 1831 and 1832 he was reportedly prosecuted 16 times for his reckless and seditious pear-likening activities – but this only seems to have brought more publicity to his campaign.

As time went on, writes historian David Hopkin:

Other newspapers, even government ones, found it impossible not to mention pears. Puns proliferated, as did pear-shaped graffiti. Fanny Trollope, visiting the Latin Quarter in 1835, found ‘Pears of every size and form… were to be seen in all directions.’ They were also all over the walls of prisons. In 1834 there was even a shop specialising in wax pears. Through the press the language of pears reached the provinces, Philipon claimed they were springing up all over the country.     

Louis Philippe was finally overthrown in the revolution of 1848 – but the mockery didn’t stop there. More than 150 years on, says Hopkin, Philipon’s taunts continue to echo. “Even among historians Louis-Philippe cannot rid himself of this tiresome fruit; it is simply impossible to write about him without the image of the pear floating into one’s mind, the very symbol of an unloved and unlovable monarch”.

Thanks to Philipon, France’s tyrannical monarch will forever be known as “Louis-Philippe, the pear-shaped king”.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 24, 2008 at 5:15 pm

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