David Bien: the ancien régime in a new light

Satirical print from 1789 depicting the Third Estate carrying the clergy and nobility on its back. The caption reads: ‘A faut esperer qu’eus jeu la finira bentot’ – ‘Here’s hoping this game’s over soon’. SOURCE: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Satirical print from 1789 depicting the Third Estate carrying the clergy and nobility on its back. The caption reads: ‘A faut esperer qu’eus jeu la finira bentot’ – ‘Here’s hoping this game’s over soon’.
(Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Say the words ‘ancien régime’ and what might spring to mind is an image of Marie Antoinette nibbling on rosewater macaroons and declaring ‘let them eat cake’ while the starving poor of France sharpen their pitchforks at the gates of Versailles.

In our cultural psyche, France’s ancien régime is the age of the Three Estates: the nobility, the clergy, and everyone else. It is the age when wigs, powder and mouches covered up baldness and smallpox scars, when the sprightly minuets of Louis XVI’s court attempted to drown out the cries of the hordes – and when an outward semblance of elegant refinement masked corruption, cruelty and inequality.

It is a period which David Bien, Professor of History at the University of Michigan from 1967-1996, made his own. A quiet radical, he devoted his scholarly career to unravelling its paradoxes and nuances, constructing a multi-faceted portrait of a historical period far more complex than this collection of cultural clichés might lead us to suppose.


Interpreting the ‘ancien régime’: David Bien brings together for the first time in one accessible volume his essays on religious tolerance, policies of ennoblement, and military reform. It offers access to his cogent and sensitive analyses, but also represents an opportunity to re-evaluate questions about the ways in which we read, write and think about history.

David Bien relished the opportunity to let the past speak for itself. His highly original readings of events were hewn from hours of research in the archives. He heard in the rustle of parchment the whisper of the past, and found innovation where one would least expect it, in centuries-old documents. In 1960, his daring new reading of the notorious Calas affair brought him firmly onto the historical scene. In 1761, the scandalous death of Marc-Antoine and the condemnation and torture of his father, Protestant Jean Calas, accused of murdering his son because he intended to convert to Catholicism, appeared to pit the religious establishment in the form of the judges of Toulouse’s Capitoul against Enlightenment thinkers promoting tolerance and religious freedom.

The frontispiece of a late 18th or early 19th century English chapbook, depicting ‘The cruel death of Calas, who was broke on the wheel at Toulouse, March 9th, 1762’

The frontispiece of a late 18th or early 19th century English chapbook, depicting ‘The cruel death of Calas, who was broke on the wheel at Toulouse, March 9th, 1762’

David Bien’s reading ran counter to the accepted narrative, which was largely based on Voltaire’s presentation of the case in his Traité sur la tolérance. Rather than viewing ideas as absolute schools, Bien placed them back into their specific historical context in order to re-evaluate this version of events. He demonstrated that the events in Toulouse were the exception rather than the rule, using judicial records to suggest that many Catholic French judges of the time were actually embracing the ideal of religious tolerance, often presented as the sole preserve of Enlightenment thinkers, in their attitude towards Protestants. Bien invites us to reconsider the writings of thinkers like Voltaire on the Calas affair as carefully crafted pieces of polemic which are indissociable from a wider intellectual project of secularization.

Detail from a portrait of Voltaire, after Maurice Quentin de La Tour c.1736 (Château de Ferney)

Detail from a portrait of Voltaire, after Maurice Quentin de La Tour c.1736 (Château de Ferney)

David Bien’s early work on tolerance in the eighteenth century is perhaps a hallmark of his attitude as a historian. Open-minded and sensitive to the inconsistencies of the past, David Bien refused to be drawn into the polemical clash of theories and schools which wracked the French establishment in the 1970s and 1980s, as Marxist historians grappled with the new revisionist school spearheaded by Bien’s close friend, François Furet. For Bien, scholarly nuance and intellectual rigour came before adherence to a particular school.

When he retired from teaching in 1996, David Bien therefore left behind not a theory but an ethos, which proved inspirational to the next generation of US academics. David Bien’s approach reminds us that, while it may all be in the past, history refuses to play dead.

– Madeleine Chalmers


Interpreting the ancién régime. David Bien.

Edited by Rafe Blaufarb, Michael S. Christofferson and Darrin M. McMahon

Preface by Keith Baker

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, September 2014

ISBN 9780729411448, 320 pages

Sade: compulsion and insight

Les 120 journées de Sodome

Manuscript of Les 120 journées de Sodome

‘The fruit of solitude is originality, something daringly and disconcertingly beautiful, the poetic creation. But the fruit of solitude can also be the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd and the forbidden.’ Thomas Mann’s linking in Death in Venice of beauty, excess and the taboo evokes much of what is characteristic about the ‘poetry’ born of Sade’s solitude. This poetry is most evident in Les 120 journées de Sodome, which Sade began on 22 October 1785 and finished thirty-seven days later whilst imprisoned in the Bastille.

It is not mere provocation to describe a catalogue of horrors as poetry. The relentless dismantling of bodies according to a demented logic creates an effect of abstraction; partly by dint of stylistic repetition, the violence enacted upon the victims makes of them little more than an assemblage of parts to be reconfigured at will.

The Marquis de Sade

Portrait of the Marquis de Sade, by van Loo, c.1760

Yet just as Roland Barthes was wrong to state that ‘écrite, la merde ne sent pas’ (shit does stink, page after page), so these bodies do not belong solely to the abstract; the victims do not stop screaming, and it is the reader’s continued connivance that is responsible. In sharing the author’s bleak and acutely personal delirium (think of those times Sade addresses and corrects himself in the text), the reader confronts ethical and aesthetic challenges that no other literary work offers.

A new possibility to penetrate Sade’s solitude will be available when the famed manuscript of Les 120 journées goes on show at the Musée des lettres et manuscrits from 26 September 2014. Will the sight of an artefact that owes its existence and singular form to harsh solitary confinement prompt new ethical responses? Will one’s reading of the text be altered by the material testimony of imprisonment? How might one’s sympathy for a writer change the way one confronts his fictional violence?


SVEC has published widely on Sade’s work, including Caroline Warman’s Sade: from materialism to pornography (2002:01), William Edmiston Sade: queer theorist (2013:03), and my own Sade’s theatre: pleasure, vision, masochism (2007:02). In this bicentennial of Sade’s death at the asylum at Charenton, the reassessment of his broad range of writing continues in many other ways.

For instance, Michel Delon and Stéphanie Genand have each recently published new editions of Sade’s short stories; Chiara Gambacorti’s new book explores his late historical novels; Nicholas Cronk and Manuel Mühlbacher have edited a volume of essays that offer new approaches to Sade; and Jean-Christophe Abramovici and Florence Lotterie are hosting a major international conference from 25 to 27 September 2014.

One of the characters in Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether states ‘I have been cursed with both compulsion and insight’; if Sade has often been seen as compulsive rather than insightful, the current fizz of scholarly and editorial activity may well modify that view.

Thomas Wynn, Reader in French at Durham University. His translation of Les 120 journées de Sodome, produced in collaboration with Will McMorran (Queen Mary, London), will appear with Penguin Classics in 2015.

French-bashing, French style

In a much-discussed article published last year in Le Monde (13 December 2013), French historian Mona Ozouf argued in favour of honouring the memory of three figures of the French resistance movement by transferring their remains to the Paris Panthéon, explaining that the story of ‘the resistants’ fight against the Nazi occupier is the last great tale of heroism in French history capable of uniting […], in a feeling of shared national pride, all the French people, who are usually so prone to belittling their own country’ (my emphasis).

Statue of Voltaire at the Panthéon (by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1781)

Statue of Voltaire at the Panthéon (by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1781)

Indeed, observers of contemporary France will not have failed to notice that, far from being the preserve of the Anglo-Saxon media, French-bashing is also very commonly self-inflicted. Indeed, it is so widespread that the word has now entered the French lexicon alongside ‘le jogging’ and ‘le camping’.

For some, it has become a full-time occupation: France’s alleged decadence has become the bread and butter of many ‘déclinistes’, those journalists and economists who have carved careers out of preaching doom and gloom for their own country, while others never miss an opportunity to remind their fellow citizens of their country’s unfinest hours, most notably its colonial past and its collaborationist government during the Vichy years. However, it is worth noting that this type of national self-flagellation is not a recent phenomenon: ironically, one of its most eloquent erstwhile practitioners also happens to be one of the most famous and revered of all the residents of Le Panthéon, Voltaire himself.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more scathing piece of French-bashing than Le Discours aux Welches, a text first published in 1764 in a best-selling collection entitled Contes de Guillaume Vadé (which, in addition to the largely uncontroversial ‘contes’ themselves, also contained a number of polemical texts). The Discours is a systematic demolition of any claim to ‘grandeur’ that the French people – ‘les Welches’ – may have entertained throughout their history: the French, Voltaire informs his readers, are a mongrel nation, the product of multiple invasions never successfully repelled, their language is barbaric, vulgar and inadequate, they are arrogant, frivolous and backwards, they lack entrepreneurial spirit and they fear change, progress and innovation.

Most of the basic ingredients of modern French-bashing can be found in this piece, which, unsurprisingly, was not very favourably received in France. So much so that Voltaire felt compelled rapidly to append a Supplément to his Discours aux Welches, where, in an attempt to tone things down and avoid alienating his friends and allies, he offered, by way of conclusion, a broad taxonomy of the French nation as follows: ‘on [doit] donner le nom de Francs aux pillards, le nom de Welches aux pillés et aux sots, et celui de Français à tous les gens aimables’ [1].

Voltaire’s rage against France was fuelled partly by a feeling of frustrated patriotism [2] (in the Discours he mentions the recent loss of French trading posts in India to the English [3] – which dealt a blow to his investments in the Compagnie des Indes) and also by his homesickness for Paris, where he was persona non grata due to the antipathy of Louis XV. It would be grossly unfair and simplistic to portray him as an out-and-out Francophobe [4], but his tortured ambivalence towards France at the time is strangely reminiscent of the kind of conflicted relationship that so many of his fellow countrymen appear to have with their homeland today, as observed by professor Mona Ozouf.

– Georges Pilard

[1] ‘We must call the pillagers by the name of Franks, the pillaged and the foolish by the name of Welches, and all worthy people by the name of French.’

[2] ‘His favourite theme in all humours was “Je ne suis pas français”, except when his vanity prompted him to read us the accounts which he regularly received of real or imaginary victories gained by his countrymen’, recounts Richard Phelps, who had visited Voltaire in Ferney in 1757 (see Memoirs and correspondence of George, Lord Lyttelton, 2 vol., London, 1845, vol.2, p.560). See also Haydn T. Mason, ‘Voltaire, la guerre et le patriotisme’, in L’Armée au XVIIIe siècle (1715-1789) (Aix-en-Provence, 1999).

[3] Interestingly, Britain’s overwhelming success in the Seven years war was ascribed primarily to the country’s very keen sense of patriotism by the French commentariat of the time (see Edmond Dziembowski, Un Nouveau Patriotisme français, 1750-1770, Oxford, 1998).

[4] He offers a spirited defence of French theatre against English competition in Du théâtre anglais, also in the Contes de Guillaume Vadé, previously published in 1761 under the title Appel à toutes les nations de l’Europe (see blog post of 20 September 2013, The world’s a revolving stage).