Oyez Oyez, Town Criers are Alive and Well
Oyez Oyez(*), braves gens… Oyez Oyez, good people … forgo texting, twittering and the Internet, in France the Town Crier is back on the streets in full voice or even song.
[(*)Oyez derives from the Anglo-Norman word for listen]
According to the Paris City Hall the profession is being revived with a dual purpose, at least in the inner city: both to pass on information but “primarily to create social bonds”
Town Criers, also known as Bellmen, date from the times of ancient Greece and Rome. The first Town Criers — the Spartan Runners were from the Greek empire. With the spread of the Roman Conquest across Europe, the importance of the role rose until the Town Crier — appointed essentially to spread the news, announce new laws or taxes and promote local events — became a court appointee and in some countries protected by law.
In Europe the post of Town Crier enjoyed its heyday in the Middle Ages. It seems to have been resurrected in the 1960s in Switzerland. In France, the crieur public was revived in 2003 by a Lyon actor. Every Sunday he would take to the streets of the Croix-Rousse quartier to cry out the news, along with other titbits of information people had thoughtfully dropped into a post box outside his home during the week. The actor’s idea soon became very popular and was adopted by several major French cities so that today there are about ten professional criers in France. There are also many freelancers who offer services as a street crier in a ceremonial outfit alongside an Orgue de Barbarie and other street entertainment, for a fee.
In earlier times ‘Criers’, usually suitably costumed as troubadours, were employed by local government or wealthy merchants to carry messages to people who could not read. Citizens gathered to listen to the crier and to interact with him and one another, social bonds were created, says an article on the Paris City Hall website.
Town criers were the means of communication with the people of the town since many could not read or write. Proclamations, local bylaws, market days, adverts, were all proclaimed by a bellman or crier. Criers were not always men, many town criers were women and bells were not the only attention getting device – in Holland, a gong was the instrument of choice for many, while in France a drum or a hunting horn were widely used.
As Anne–Marie Revol noted in a recent programme for France 2: “Don’t be surprised if you hear drum rolls in your quartier it’s the return of the crier. You thought he had gone, well you were wrong, he’s back and in a big way. In rhyme, song or by declamation today’s crier offers news about cultural events in your neighbourhood as well as goods and services, a sort of vocal human broadcast of the area’s smalls ads — the crier is becoming an intermediary in the social life of many neighbourhoods”.
She was referring mainly to Paris where, as a recent report on the France Culture radio station noted, inner city neighbourhoods have changed dramatically with the arrival of immigrants from former French colonies, many with reading and writing difficulties. The street crier is thus a useful source of information and direct help for members of the community in ‘popular quartiers‘ (read run-down neighbourhoods).
So in a quirky tech-reversal, just as city dwellers willingly wire themselves up to and become overwhelmed by, self-centred digital communication – mobiles, texting, email, Internet, Facebook, Twitter etc, town criers are enjoying a revival in France.
This return to community roots appears to have been prompted to some extent, in Paris, by the Fred Vargas novel, “Pars vite et reviens tard” or “Have Mercy on Us All” (published in 2001) which revolves around Montparnasse and an old Breton sailor who has taken up the career of town crier in the early 21st century. The twist is that someone is paying him to read messages that menace the town with the plague. Simultaneously, a symbol to ward off the Black Death appears on apartment doors in various Paris neighbourhoods. Street criers in the capital are not, let us hasten to add, emulating the Black Death bit of Vargas’ book !
In Paris, the association La 20ème chaise (the 20th chair) has saved the ‘endangered species’, to the delight of those who reside in Amandiers, (XXth arrondissement). Brigitte Chabert, director of La 20ème chaise says: “The area is shut-in by buildings, there are few shops and no central cafes. People find they are alone on the street, with nowhere for social interaction with others. The idea (behind the revival of the crieur public) was to facilitate a social bond.”
Brigitte Chabert approached Olivier, a 46-year-old former street entertainer, and tour guide at Père Lachaise cemetery.
“I had stopped being an entertainer because there was no longer any place for it in the streets of this neighbourhood,” says Olivier, who is enthusiastic about the idea of a street crier which he regards as a way of “refurbishing the urban space.” “The street is a complete permanent danger, it can just as easily embrace you as it can hurl things at you. I love this sense of adventure, this unpredictability,” he says. So in Amandiers former street entertainer Olivier, is now ‘official’ crier to the quartier.
Being a crier in today’s’ urban environment is both an arte and a metier. As Olivier put its: “You can’t monopolize the public domain, shouting for too long: you have to strike a balance between being seen and noticed but not disturbing the residents. The street crier’s art is perhaps a little violent, a bit of a forced entry into the public’s conscience so I put myself in the place of say someone who might yell at me from a window if I am making too much noise! ” he says.
Olivier thus keeps moving around the neighbourhood. He is an ambulatory crier, making his point through good timing, finding the right corner, divining the proper moment when people appear to be listening, and thus attracted to the crier’s messages.
He knows its all worthwhile when he, as it were, hits the jackpot. “One day I was making an announcement about an event at the local Berber culture centre. An old man tapped me on the arm in disbelief: ”Oh no that can’t be right, it doesn’t exist, I have never seen a Berber culture centre here!”. The man was a Berber himself so I guided him to the centre which was close to his own home and on in his street, but as he pointed out, he always walked on the opposite pavement! … When I read out for him the sign on the door in Berber, he was flabbergasted and delighted and couldn’t stop thanking me, “says Olivier.
The reincarnated crier’s role is idiosyncratic and, in a modern age where technology is knowledge, even perhaps a form of Luddism: Olivier, with his drum, and in open outcry on the street, in place of the Internet, the digital revolution and television, seems a sort of modern David vs Goliath. But the difference is that in this neighbourhood in particular, for those who don’t read French and have no television — notably incomers of African origin — the street crier is a real source of local information. “The crier, speaks very clearly to them,” says Brigitte Chabert, “they say to us oh it’s just like back in my home village.”
The crier’s role has a further layer according to Brigitte Chabert, more diffuse, less quantifiable, and more humane in the most vulnerable inner city areas. He offers a touch of humour and fantasy and a message that connects with these urban dwellers. The mere presence of the crier acts as a stimulus, an invitation to the residents to be aware of their neighbourhood and to look out for their neighbour. “Often people know or have heard about what I am announcing! They know about a particular event. But the fact that I am there, reminds them that these opportunities are out there for all of them, “says Olivier.
As the fashion for street criers has grown so it has spread and now there is a GUILD OF TOWN CRIERS EUROPEAN CONTINENT” and Gand in Belgium is home to the order “Orde van de Belleman” which in turn was the driving force behind the creation in 1999 of La Corporation des Crieurs Publics d’Europe Continentale. .
Such has been the praise for Olivier’s new role as neighbourhood crier that five recruits have signed up for on-site training with him to learn the secrets of the street crier in the 21st century.
Is a new generation of technology-free knowledge transmission here? Might the street crier signal some sort of technology backlash? Back in 2003 this argument was certainly the rage in some circles: “The defining political conflict of the 21st century is shaping up to be the battle over the future of technology… The rise of neo-Luddism is calling forth self-conscious defenders of technological progress. Growing numbers of extropians, transhumanists, futurists and others are entering the intellectual fray to do battle against the neo-Luddite activists who oppose biotechnology, nanotechnology, and new intelligence technologies.”
Story: Ken Pottinger
Here is the planned itinerary this year of at least one Town Crier doing the rounds in the greater Paris area:
Sainte Sabine (Sarthe), 6 March,
Blois (Loir et Cher), 16 March,
Angers (Maine et Loire) 19 March,
Saumur (Maine et Loire), 8 April,
Blou (Maine et Loire), 17 April,
Surtauville (Eure), 1st May,
Saint Romain la Virvée (Gironde) 6 – 7 May,
Rungis (Val de Marne) 10, 11 , 12 May,
Chateaufort (Yvelines) 22 May,
Saulieu (Côte d’Or), 2 – 3 June,
Caudebec en Caux (Seine Maritime), 5 June,
Pont l’Evêque (Calvados) les 2 et 3 July,
Chahaignes (Sarthe) les 16 et 17 July
Champfremont (Mayenne) 31 July,
La Breille les Pins (Maine et Loire) 7 August,
Saint Ouen l’Aumône (Val d’Oise) 11 September,
Grandchamp des Fontaines (Loire Atlantique) 16, 17, 18 September,
Lizy sur Ourcq (Seine et Marne) 2 October,
Rungis (Val de Merne) les 22, 23, 24 November.