Bohemianism and Counter-Culture

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Balzac (pictured at left) and other literary figures described Bohemia as the "country of youth." Most of the famous artistic and literary figures that emerged from Bohemia had lived in this world when they were young students. The factors that influenced the association between youth and Bohemia include:


  • Demographic change in Paris during the 18th and 19th centuries affected the distribution of wealth and the lives of many young, aspiring parisians.


  • The traditional European view of youth as agents of change was synonomous with the Bohemian phenomenon: the rejection of social and political order. Although Bohemians were not activists by will, many became involved in political dissent during the momentous uprisings of the 1830's, advocating liberty and freedom of expression.


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This image appeared in the illustrated version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, 1862

This image is a good representation of down and out youth. It shows Marius, one of Hugo's characters, as a bohemian living in poverty. The poor living conditions are evident from the old furniture and the drab looking room. The youth's contemplative and tired posture give the impression of someone who does not know where he belongs or what will become of him.

Demographic Change: Mid-18th century marked the beginning of a period of rapid population growth all over Europe. The birth rate kept growing until the population of people ages fifteen through thirty had reached an all time high. This growth put economic pressures on society, for population was expanding faster than industry. There was a great deal of competition for jobs, especially professional positions. (Seigel, 21) It is likely that many of these unlucky, marginalized young people fed the population of bohemia.

This situation seems fitting to how Balzac identified bohemia: "youth waiting for society to make a place for them." (Seigel, 20) As Murger pointed out, Bohemia was supposed to be a phase of life, a temporary period of rebellion and intellectual contemplation before becoming an accepted member of society.

Marius, a character from Les Miserables is a good representation of a young student waiting to find his place in society. Click here to read more about one of Hugo's representations of youth in Bohemia.




Ideologies of Youth: Europeans traditionally viewed youth as a "separate stage of life." (Seigel, 19) Aristotle described the importance of youth in political change. In the Middle Ages unmarried people in their late teens and twenties tended to form their own distinct groups with their own defining culture. In the 19th century, these preconseptions contributed to the concept of youth as the agents of social and historical change.


Politics: Bohemians in general chose to ignore political issues. As Houssaye recounted in his memoires, "We [bohemians] neither attacked nor defended the law; we had simply placed ourselves outside legal bounds." (Knepler, 32) However, circumstances led great dissatisfaction to build in the Latin Quarter after the Revolution of 1830 and the reinstatement of the Bourbon dynasty. Romantisism had grown up in Paris during the previous decade, and the monarchy's rigidity and reactionism aroused increasing hostility. As author Seigel observes, "the conservative policies of the new regime gave new life to the connection between cultural innovation and political dissatisfaction." (27) Some non political Bohemians began to criticize and denounce the regime through their art. For example, in 1832 Petrus Borel became one editor of a paper called La Liberte Journal des Arts; it's articles demanded that the government abolish official institutions and restrictions and also called for "the broadest and most complete liberty in the arts." (Seigel, 27) Although it was short-lived, political protest became more widespread during the mid-1830's.


Thus, Bohemia became the "country of youth" because there were too many students and young people for society to accomodate, and because it was in many ways natural for young people to rebell against norms and convention, as well as authority.