How do you say, ‘Police’?

Friday, May 6th, 2016

“In his monumental four-volume Traité de la Police, published in Paris between 1705 and 1738, Nicholas de la Mare explained that ‘police’ meant the ordering of public space for the benefit of all who occupy it. The word encompassed regulation of the width, length and layout of streets,

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the way they should be signposted, lit, repaired, swept and sprayed with water on hot days; how houses should be built and how they should be lived in so they did not present a danger to anyone (people should not place flowerpots on their window ledges lest they fall and cause injury).

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It stood for laying down precise instructions as to how food was to be produced, transported, processed and sold; how livestock was to be slaughtered and dressed; how and where fish could be caught, with what tackle, and how they were to be salted and preserved;

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how gardens were to be cultivated and what was to be grown in them; how firewood and coal were to be produced and stored; what precautions were to be taken against flooding; how industry was to be carried on in the urban space; how wine shops and eating houses were to be run; how standards of hygiene were to be maintained in brothels and prostitutes checked for disease — in other words, everything necessary to keep the citizens fed, healthy

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and safe. ¶ In the course of the eighteenth century the Paris police extended their brief, building and supervising markets, a stock exchange, a fire service, a veterinary school and a hospital. They regulated every trade, and obliged practitioners to wear their identifying plague. They set up the Mont de Piété,

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a nationwide network of pawn shops that would not cheat the poor. They intervened in family disputes and put away troublemakers and brutal husbands. In the interests of containing the spread of venereal diseases, they classified prostitutes — according to age; who had recruited them, how, when and where; their specialties and their clients — and expended much energies on catching unlicensed ones. ¶ Only rarely did governments extend the concept of ‘police’ to embrace the political.”

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—Adam Zamoyski, in Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Creation of the Modern State, 1789-1848 (2015), quoting also from Richard Cobb’s The Police and the People: French Popular Protest, 1789-1820 (Oxford, 1970)

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