The northern French city of Lille was once a great centre of lacemaking. In the eighteenth century, lace manufacture was the dominant occupation for women. The lacemakers’ feast held annually on 9 May – the ‘Fête du Broquelet’ or ‘Feast of the Bobbin’ – continued to be the city’s major holiday into the first decades of the nineteenth century. The women and girls from the different lace workshops and schools took a jaunt out to the taverns and parks of the surrounding villages; the drinking and dancing continued for several days. But by the mid-nineteenth century, even as the city’s rapid industrialisation covered those same villages and parks with textile factories and rows of workers’ tenements, the number of lacemakers declined until, by 1851, there were only 1,600 listed in the census. Yet, even as she disappeared from Lille’s working-class quarters, the lacemaker became a symbol of the city, and the designated transmitter of its memories and traditions.
It was a song, more specifically a lullaby, which brought about this transfiguration. ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ [The little child] was first performed in 1851 by its author and composer, Alexandre Desrousseaux. It is in the voice of a lacemaker, coaxing and threatening her child to try to get him to sleep so she can get on with her work. It would be hard to exaggerate the success of this text (originally titled ‘L’canchon dormoire’ or ‘lullaby’): it was without contest Desrousseaux’s most famous work – he is often described as ‘the father of Le P’tit Quinquin’ – and Desrousseaux was himself the most famous of Lille’s many dialect poets and songwriters. That success was almost immediate: over 100,000 copies of the song were sold between 1853, its first publication, and 1890. It could be heard in all the bars and cafés of the city, and by 1854 newspapers had already labelled it ‘The Marseillaise of the Lille worker’. ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ gave his name to shops, a newspaper, a make of biscuit, a brand of pencil, and dozens of other commercial uses, not just in Lille but across France. More recently it was the title of a French TV mini-series, directed by Bruno Dumont which was set in northern France. There are several continuations of the song (some by Desrousseaux himself) as well as numerous parodies, while the tune has been endlessly borrowed. There are recordings of reggae, punk and military band versions. When a monument to Desrousseaux was erected in Lille in 1902, his bust was accompanied by the child and his mother, complete with lace cushion. In 1953 there were national, indeed international celebrations to mark the centenary of publication of the ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’.
Desrousseaux (1820-1892) grew up in Saint-Sauveur, a working-class quarter of Lille: his mother had herself been a lacemaker, but was later a shopkeeper, while his father made braiding. Young Alexandre worked in a variety of textile factories and then as a tailor’s apprentice before being conscripted into the army in 1840. However, he had already started to make a reputation as a musician, selling his own songsheets to the crowds during Lille’s carnival. In the eighteenth century Lille had been home to a thriving dialect literary culture, with songs and plays composed in Picard, and often featuring lacemaker characters. Antoine Cottignies (known as ‘Brûle-Maison’) and his son Jacques were the most famous practitioners, and their works were still familiar in the early nineteenth century. Desrousseaux was determined to revive the glory days of Picard literature: almost everything he composed was in dialect. Song clubs were a vibrant feature of working-class culture in Lille and other industrial cities, and dialect was often the preferred medium as more directly expressive of workers’ concerns (although the most famous piece to emerge from these clubs – Eugène Pottier’s socialist anthem ‘L’Internationale’ which was, for many years, the national anthem of the Soviet Union – was composed in standard French). Desrousseaux himself, thanks to his military career and his growing musical fame, was taken under the wing of the deputy mayor of Lille, Arthur Gentil-Descamps, and so climbed the social ladder into the ranks of the middle classes as a municipal functionary. However, he did not lose the common touch.
‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ was apparently born from observation. Walking through the city to visit his mother in cour Jeannette-à-vaches, Desrousseaux overheard a lacemaker, desperate to finish her order, attempting to quieten her crying child with promises of cakes and toys. However, Desrousseaux also adapted the scenario in order to incorporate other elements of Lille’s traditions and working-class culture. This idea was apparently suggested to him by Auguste Charles Arnold, the editor of the Gazette de Flandre. Arnold felt that the Lille workers, overwhelmed by the changes brought on by mechanisation and, in particular, the mass migration from across the Belgian border, needed to be reminded of their own history, and to draw strength from their traditions. Desrousseaux, who would go on to write an important book on the Moeurs populaires de la Flandre française (popular customs of French Flanders), took seriously his role as a folklorist: ‘Many of my songs could be considered as studies of our celebrations and pastimes, both public and private.’ ‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ contains references to the ‘Ducasse’, Lille’s main fair in August/September, and the puppet shows which were a mainstay of popular entertainment in northern French towns, with at least one theatre on almost every street. Saint Nicholas also appears for, as elsewhere in northern Europe, his feast day on 6 December was the main season for gift-giving. In Lille he was accompanied on his visits to children, both good and naughty, by a donkey who carried the gifts but who also carried whips to punish. Thus the lullaby of desperate worker became a survey of working-class entertainments.
Desrousseaux borrowed the voice of a lacemaker, though more often elderly, for several other songs which detailed this plebeian cultural and municipal history, such as ‘Le Broquelet d’autrefois (souvenirs d’une dentellière)’ [The Feast of the Bobbin of Yesteryear (memories of a lacemaker)] and ‘la vieille dentellière, souvenirs et regrets’ [the old lacemaker, memories and regrets]. Other songwriters also used a lacemaker character to make comparisons between the past and the present. For instance in 1908 Adolphe Desreumaux used this character to protest against the influx of Belgian migrant workers to the suburb of Wazemmes in his ‘Sou’vnirs d’eun vielle dintellière’ [Memories of an old lacemaker]. Thus the lacemaker became the Sybil of Lille’s oral and popular history.
‘Le P’tit Quinquin’ works because it mimics genuine folk lullabies which often combined saccharine tunes with texts that reeked of despair. Indeed, travellers passing through the city have assumed that it was a traditional folk lullaby rather than the work of a male author. Desrousseaux’s lacemaker is simultaneously tender and desperate. Grinding poverty lurks in this text: a child crying for three-quarters of an hour was probably hungry, his good clothes were already in the pawn shop. Promises of gingerbread and toys may not work on little Narcisse because they are implausible, whereas the threat of chastisement seems more concrete.
There are numerous recordings available, but most seem intended for a nursery audience (in which the dialect is softened or entirely absent). Desrousseaux’s original listeners were adult males, and to appreciate the proper effect one really needs to hear it sung by happy bands of Lille OSC fans. But in the absence of such an encounter, we recommend the version sung by Raoul de Godewarsvelde, who was born in the same quartier as Desrousseaux, and which is available on youtube.
Below we provide the original text, and a rough English translation,.
Dors mon p’tit Quiquin, mon p’tit poussin, mon gros raisin
Ainsi l’autre jour une pauvre dentelière,
‘Et si tu me laisses faire une bonne semaine,
‘Nous irons dans la cour, Jeannette-aux-Vaches,
‘Et si par hazard son maître se fâche,
‘Alors serre tes yeux, dors mon bonhomme,
‘Le mois qui vient, c’est la fête de St Nicolas,
Ni les marionnettes, ni le pain d’épice,
Dors mon p’tit Quiquin, mon p’tit poussin, mon gros raisin
|Sleep my little child, my little chick, my juicy grape,
You’ll make me suffer if you don’t sleep before tomorrow.
Thus the other day, a poor lacemaker,
‘And if you let me do a good week’s work
‘We’ll go down to the yard, Jeannette-aux-Vaches,
‘And if by chance the puppetmaster gets angry
‘So close your eyes, sleep little man
‘Next month, it’s Saint Nicholas’s day
Neither the puppets, nor the gingerbread
Sleep my little child, my little chick, my fat grape,
 9 May remembers the translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas from Myra to Bari, an important feast in the Orthodox Church but less usually so in the Catholic Church.
 André Mabille de Poncheville, L’industrie dentelière française spécialement en Flandre : Enquête dans la région de Bailleul (Valenciennes: Librairie Giard, 1911), p. 67.
 For a good biography and exploration of Desrousseaux’s work see Éric Lemaire, Le chansonnier lillois Alexandre Joachim Desrousseaux et la chanson populaire dialectale (DELEM, 2009). Most of the information in this post comes from this source.
 Adolphe Desreumaux, Mes chansons et pasquilles patoises. Etudes de moeurs lilloises (Lille: J. Hollain, 1908), p. 17-18
 Countess Evelyn Martinengo-Cesaresco, Essays in the Study of Folk-Songs (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1914), p. 253.
 The implication is that the clothes are in pawn. Desrousseaux himself worked for the municipal pawn shop.
 The ‘Ducasse’ was Lille’s major fair, held at the end of August – beginning of September.
 6 December.