Some fifty years ago, the historian of intellectual life Robert Darnton, after finishing his doctoral work at Oxford, was researching the writer and Girondin leader Jacques-Pierre Brissot.

Very much a man of his time, Brissot had composed various political tracts in the 1780s as well as a spicy libel about the Queen of France, called Passe-temps d’Antoinette— Antoinette’s Pastimes (the coyness of the genre’s titles has little changed over the centuries)—earning him a spell in the Bastille. Years later, as a member of the Convention and naively believing that France’s Revolutionary atmosphere was less threatening, he found himself on the wrong side of Maximilien Robespierre, a mistake that earned him a more permanent spell in the grounds of the Chapelle expiatoire after a brief stop at the Place de la Concorde. In happier days,...

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