9 Thermidor Year II: the best-documented day in the French Revolution?

La Prise de la Bastille (1789), by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735-1813), Bibliothèque nationale de France. At the centre is the arrest of Bernard René Jourdan, marquis de Launay (1740-1789).

Was 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794) the most copiously documented day of action in the French Revolution? It saw the overthrow of Maximilien Robespierre, most high-profile member of the Committee of Public Safety which had for more than a year ruled through terror – and is one of the pivotal days of action (or journées) around which the Revolution developed. The most influential journée in terms of French national history was 14 July 1789, which saw the storming of the Bastille and which is conventionally viewed as marking the beginning of the Revolution. Another day, 18 Brumaire Year VIII (9 November 1799), witnessed the coup d’état by which Napoleon Bonaparte seized power and effectively ended the Revolution. The overthrow of Louis XVI and the monarchy on 10 August 1792 and the 9 Thermidor journée mark the third and fourth journées which structure the revolution in most historical narratives.

There are numerous accounts all of these individual days, for each was a kind of ‘lightbulb moment’ that stayed in the minds of participants. But in writing my book, The Fall of Robespierre: 24 hours in Revolutionary Paris, I gained a strong impression that the ‘best-documented’ accolade must go to 9 Thermidor. After 18 Brumaire only the heroic Napoleonic narrative was allowed and censorship closed down on discordant stories. There was much to celebrate after 14 July 1789 and 10 August but celebration was not investigation. And what marks 9 Thermidor off from all others is that the day was followed by extraordinarily detailed attempts to recapture exactly what had happened in all parts of the city.

The Execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794, artist unknown (Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Réserve QB-370 (48)-FT 4).

The reason for this was the determination of government to root out and to punish those individuals within the State, in public life and across the city who had supported Robespierre. Actions might relate to events over the previous two years of terror, but the litmus test of what began to be called ‘Robespierrism’ was invariably what individuals actually did on the day of 9 Thermidor. The city government, the Commune, had tried to mobilise Parisians to offer armed resistance to the national assembly in Robespierre’s cause. So the key question was, had an individual shown support for Robespierre and his supporters in the Paris Commune in their attempt to overthrow the government and purge the national assembly? Or did they remain loyal to the national assembly and the rule of law? Those found guilty of ‘Robespierrism’ could face expulsion from public life, imprisonment and even death at the guillotine.

Newspaper reports, political pamphlets and later memoirs invariably contain accounts of the day. Yet this was only the tip of the iceberg. A few days after the event, Paul Barras, the deputy whom the government charged with the security of the city on the night of 9 Thermidor, initiated a punctiliously thorough review of everything that had happened within each of the 48 Parisian sections on 8, 9 and 10 Thermidor.

Exit libertè a la Francois! – or – Buonaparte closing the farce of Egalitè, at St. Cloud near Paris Novr. 10th. 1799, by James Gillray (1756-1815) (public domain).

‘Gather together all details’, he instructed sectional authorities. ‘A fact that seems minor may illuminate a suspicion or lead to the discovery of a useful truth. Inform me of all orders that you gave and all that you received; but above all, be precise on the dates and the hours; you will appreciate their importance.’

(‘Recueille donc tous les détails: un fait minutieux, en apparence, éclaire un soupçon, ou conduit à la découverte d’une vérité utile. Fais-moi part de tous les ordres que tu aurois donnés, de tous ceux que tu aurois reçus; mais surtout précise les heures et les dates: tu en sens toute l’importance.’ Archives nationales W 500, dossier 4. Note the Revolutionary ‘tutoiement’.)

This call engendered nearly two hundred micro-accounts of at least part of the day from vantage points all over the city containing millions of the called-for ‘details’. Many of the individual accounts were broken down for key periods of the day into quarter-hourly chunks.

Apprehension of Robespierre 27 July 1794, engraving by Michael Sloane (active 1796-1802) after a painting by G. P. Barbier (active 1792-1795) (Gallica digital library, public domain).

Besides this capital source, the Convention also set up a special official commission to make a report on the day, which was presented in the assembly exactly a year later. And finally, literally hundreds of individual police dossiers over the next year or so also provide similar micro-accounts of episodes and moments of the day as ordinary citizens were pressed to prove their loyalism.

Most of these extremely rich sources – never before tapped by historians in quite this way – are to be found in the French National Archives, particularly in series relating to policing and judicial affairs. Taken together, they allow us to see the city in close-up during these 24 hours through a mosaic of thousands of narrative micro-fragments, as its inhabitants confronted and grappled with a decision that would affect not only their own futures but also the future of the Revolution.

Studying these accounts, collating them and analysing them at the micro-level not only gives us an extraordinarily vivid picture of a city at a pivotal moment in its history. It also allows us to present a new narrative of the day and a new analysis of what was at stake within it. What emerges – in a way that cuts against conventional narratives – is a profile of a moment at which Parisians took their political futures in their hands and overthrew Robespierre.

Researching and writing the history of these 24 hours, I have often pondered whether there is another day in the whole Revolutionary decade when we can see what was  happening up close at such a moment of drama. Indeed we might even ask: was 9 Thermidor the best-documented day in the whole of the eighteenth century?

– Colin Jones, Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London

Would you survive four radical political changes? Venetians in the early 19th century tried

If you think that you live in a rapidly changing society, consider the people who lived during the revolutionary and Napoleonic period.

Napoleon I as king of Italy by Andrea Appiani

Napoleon I as king of Italy by Andrea Appiani. (Wikimedia commons)

In 1797 the French army led by general Bonaparte brought about the end of the thousand-year-old Republic of Venice. It was a shock for the Venetians, yet they did not know what awaited them. The democratic period inaugurated by the French lasted only a few months, as Bonaparte ceded Venice and its mainland to the Habsburgs. But the Austrians didn’t stay long either. In 1805, after Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, Austria was forced to hand over Venice and its mainland to the Kingdom of Italy, created in 1805 by Bonaparte with himself as king, as Napoleon I. In 1813, after Napoleon’s many defeats, the Venetian mainland was occupied by Austrian troops, while Venice surrendered after a six-month siege. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna sanctioned the return of the Habsburgs, who ruled Venice until 1866. So, if you had been born in Venice in 1770 or 1780, you would have lived under five different regimes!

Il mondo nuovo

Il mondo nuovo (Edizioni Ca’ Foscari, 2019).

What were the effects of these rapid political changes on society? What happened to the ruling classes of Venice and the mainland? Did they maintain their position or did other people rise to prominence? These questions led to my research which is summarized in a book entitled Il mondo nuovo. L’élite veneta fra rivoluzione e restaurazione (1797-1815) (The New World. The Venetian elite between revolution and restoration).

The ‘new world’ in Italian has a double meaning, as it refers not only to the post-1789 era, but also to a precinematic device called ‘mondo nuovo’ (or ‘niovo’ in the Venetian language), a mechanical peep-show, also called panopticon, that could entertain people by illustrating for example what happened during the French Revolution. You can see the device, which was part of the entertainment in Venice’s carnival, in this illustration by Gaetano Zompini (1700-1778), printmaker and engraver. It also features in Giandomenico Tiepolo’s murals at the family villa in Zianigo and was the subject of a decorative porcelain piece by the Frankenthal factory.

Engraving of a panopticon by Gaetano Zompini

Engraving of a panopticon by Gaetano Zompini. (Wikimedia commons)

What will you find in this book? The first section describes the composition of the various governing and administrative bodies during the different political phases. The second section analyses the redefinition of noble status, the connection between kinship and politics (some cases are studied through social network analysis), as well as the informal power of social relations. The latter point is developed through the analysis of the networks of relations of key figures such as Giuseppe Rangoni, head of a Venetian Masonic lodge, and Giovanni Scopoli, director general of public education of the Kingdom of Italy. The last part of the book is focused on moments of crisis and transition phases. It explains how complicated it was being re-employed in such unstable contexts. It was mainly the ‘experts’ who succeeded, while the more ‘politicised’ public officials were purged.

This was the case of Giovanni Battista Sanfermo, judge at the Court of Appeal of Venice and member of a Venetian family who had rallied to the Napoleonic regime. His father, former ambassador of the Republic of Venice, was a councillor of state. In the spring of 1814, during the Austrian siege of Venice, general Seras (1765-1815), an Italian in Napoleon’s service, invited the Venetians to grow vegetables on public land to meet food supplies. Giovanni Battista decided to grow potatoes, earning the nickname ‘Count of Potatoes’. The Venetian people interpreted his act as an attempt to extend the siege, and thus their sufferings: Sanfermo became the symbol of all oppressive aspects of Napoleonic rule, so he had to be punished.

Ponte Santa Caterina, Venice

Ponte Santa Caterina, Venice.

On 19 May 1814 on the bridge of Santa Caterina a straw dummy bearing the motto: ‘death to the potato farmer’, was exposed on a stage. The dummy, which represented Giovanni Battista, had a potato stuck in his mouth and in each of his ears, a potato crown on his head and another potato basket at his feet. Crowds of people rushed there, shouting: ‘death to the potato farmer!’ Once darkness fell, lanterns were turned on and a mock trial was held, ending with a death sentence. Then the dummy was hit with around fifty gunshots, set on fire and dragged along the calle (street) of Santa Caterina. In the meantime, the crowd continued to insult this effigy of Sanfermo. But far from being frightened by this popular outburst, the real Sanfermo continued to walk peacefully along Venetian calli.

Countess Lucia Memmo Mocenigo by Angelika Kauffmann

Countess Lucia Memmo Mocenigo (1770-1854) by Angelika Kauffmann. (Wikimedia commons)

In conclusion, how could you enter the elite? Being noble was not fundamental, but still useful; being rich (especially being a landowner) was important, as well as having skills. As the Venetian noblewoman Lucia Memmo wrote to her son: ‘You should consider that public offices are given to people of every class.’ Hence, he had to study. My book gives more information about Lucia and her husband, Alvise Mocenigo, who built a self-sufficient agricultural-manufacturing town called ‘Alvisopoli’ (‘the town of Alvise’, in Veneto) and much more.

Valentina Dal Cin (Italian Institute for Historical Studies, Naples, and Ca’ Foscari University, Venice)

A free pdf of Il mondo nuovo is available here.

‘All together now’: accessing national theatre before the internet

Since the spread of global lockdowns to combat coronavirus, there has been an explosion of theatre productions that have been made freely available online. From New York to Delhi, from Cape Town to Rome, people have been able to come together and watch theatre in the space of their homes and to delve into the theatrical scenes of other cultures near and far. That’s without mentioning, of course, the prolific social media accounts of national theatres such as the Comédie-Française, the Opéra national de Paris, the National Theatre, or the Nationaltheater Mannheim (to name but four) which are sharing their content and behind-the-scenes snippets with confined spectators.

Tragedy and Nation in the Age of Napoleon

Tragedy and Nation in the Age of Napoleon is the May 2020 volume of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. It offers an exciting new perspective on the Napoleonic state and how it attempted to use theatre to reunite the nation after the Revolution.

Certainly, questions remain about the funding of the arts, and how they will survive the easing of social distancing measures, but more people than ever can access productions (the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night gained nearly 880,000 views on YouTube within a week, far more than the auditorium could hold in an entire run). But before the advent of the internet, how did people come together through theatre? How did they consume it without necessarily being in the auditorium that night? How did it give them a sense of community? How did it spread ideas of a national culture? These are some of the questions that are at the heart of my new book, Tragedy and Nation in the Age of Napoleon.

In what follows, I will briefly touch on three different ways during the Napoleonic period that people across France could relate to what was going on at the Comédie-Française, France’s national theatre for spoken theatre. Although this was a period long before the advent of the internet, people continue to access theatre in remarkably similar ways today.

The first and most prolific medium was the press. Accounts of the Comédie-Française’s performances were reprinted in provincial newspapers so that, whether you were sitting in Bordeaux or Marseille, in picking up the review the reader could engage with the performances that were meant to encapsulate the nation’s identity. Indeed, as today, these reports spread beyond France’s borders and became emblematic of its national culture through publications such as Le Spectateur du Nord (published in Hamburg). This was particularly important for the displaced members of the French population who were unable to return to their homeland after the Revolution.

La Couronne Théâtrale disputée par les Demoiselles Duchesnois et Georges Weimer

La Couronne Théâtrale disputée par les Demoiselles Duchesnois et Georges Weimer (Paris: Martinet, c. 1803). (gallica.bnf.fr / BnF)

The second important vein was through educational books (somewhat akin to today’s textbooks) and cheap editions of the classics which were performed at the Comédie-Française – for the era before PDFs and Kindle editions. These educational books were assembled in Paris, creating an anthology of the highlights of French theatre and literature with extensive introductions and footnotes to offer a guided reading. Indeed, as one publication noted, this was not just useful for the younger generations of the 1810s, but also for those who had lost out on an education during the ancien régime or the Revolution. Similarly, though more independently, publishing houses produced affordable runs of the classics which were well below the price of even the cheapest ticket at the Comédie-Française (just as today it is much cheaper to watch a production on YouTube than pay tens of pounds for a ticket), increasing the accessibility of these plays. This was national education on a large and – at 0.4 francs in one case – relatively cheap scale.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Joseph Karl Stieler, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1828, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen. (Neue Pinakothek München)

Finally, there were the actors themselves, who toured the provinces and the Empire to perform the hits of the Comédie-Française repertoire (either for their own financial gain or because Napoleon ordered them to) – for a comparison to our modern world, we might think about Sir Ian McKellen’s recent tour, which featured a heavy dose of Shakespeare. The Napoleonic period witnessed an increased interest in celebrity: people were intrigued to find out quite how magical a performance by the great actor Talma could be, or who was better in the intense rivalry between Mlles Duchesnois and Georges. Indeed, these performances were accessible to those who could not go to Paris (practically, or because they were exiled), and the existence of many free tickets meant that most ranks of society could try and slip inside the theatre. What is more, these provincial performances were in turn recorded, not just by local critics, but also by some of Europe’s greatest minds, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who saw the Comédie-Française’s performances in Erfurt, or Germaine de Staël, who famously recorded Talma’s provincial performance in On Germany, published in both London and Paris.

People have long been aware of theatre’s educative, morale-boosting, and entertaining effects. Theatre and Nation in the Age of Napoleon considers a time before the birth of the internet, but its questions of how theatre creates a sense of community and spreads national culture remain acutely pertinent to our current world.

– Clare Siviter, University of Bristol

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

That unfortunate movement

Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges, pioneer of women’s rights, here pictured handing Marie-Antoinette a copy of her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne. Engraving by Desrais and Frussotte, c. 1790. (BnF/Gallica)

The French Revolution: A very short introduction was one of the earliest titles to be commissioned in what has become a very successful series – the nearest equivalent in English to the celebrated Que Sais-je? volumes published by Presses Universitaires de France. It appeared in 2001 and has enjoyed very healthy sales, both in English and in translation into a number of other languages. For this reason alone, after half a generation of new research a second edition to bring readers up to date seemed increasingly overdue. The problem with any new edition is how much to change, short of rewriting the whole thing. A lot of new research, though impeccably scholarly, is at a level of detail impossible to reproduce in a short volume, although some can be silently incorporated. A revised bibliography can point in the direction of more. But the most updating that a very short introduction can do is to indicate some overall trends.

The first edition, written in the aftermath of the Revolution’s bicentennial in 1989, was able to conclude and neatly culminate with the great debates among historians and others which that occasion provoked, and which were still echoing when the new millennium began. Historiographical discussions since then have been far less acrimonious and more nebulous. While the mid-twentieth-century obsession with the so-called ‘popular movement’ of the sans-culottes has faded, the Revolution has increasingly been studied as a symptom of deep cultural changes. Feminist scholarship has brought extensive reappraisal of the role of women, and the failure of overwhelmingly male revolutionaries (and historians!) to give them their due.

Toussaint Louverture, hero of Haitian independence

Toussaint Louverture, hero of Haitian independence. Artist unknown, c.1796-1799. (BnF/Gallica)

There has also been renewed interest in links with other contemporary revolutionary movements on both sides of the Atlantic, and above all with the overthrow of black slavery in the former French colony which became Haiti. These changed perspectives are introduced and appraised in the concluding historiographical chapter. With a largely English-speaking readership in mind, the first edition also gave plenty of space to the supposed contrast between a violent, unstable France and a peaceful, evolutionary England. The second edition expands on that perception with more on the clash between Edmund Burke and Tom Paine. Recent years have brought curious echoes of this in the debate over Brexit, reminding us that issues first raised by the French Revolution can still resonate.

And whereas a prime function of an introduction is to impart accurate and reliable knowledge, another is to dispel misinformation. Nothing is more difficult. The world will always want to remember that Marie-Antoinette said, ‘Let them eat cake’ – even though she didn’t, as I emphasise in the book’s very opening pages.

Zhou Enlai: ‘Too early to say?’

Zhou Enlai: ‘Too early to say?’

The world is also in danger of remembering that in 1972 Chinese premier Zhou Enlai declared that it was ‘too early to say’ what the consequences of the French Revolution had been. I invoked this myself in the preface to the first edition. But in the intervening years it has emerged that Zhou was referring to the French upheavals of 1968, not 1789. The second edition makes this clear. Whether it will stop people invoking the old version is perhaps too early to say.

– William Doyle

(‘That unfortunate movement’ – from act I of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, speech by Lady Bracknell.)

Le discours radical en Grande-Bretagne (1768-1789): réformisme anglais ou sortilège à la française?

Tous les 4 novembre, la Revolution Society, une société patriotique de Londres, célèbre la ‘Glorieuse Révolution’ anglaise de 1688, porteuse de liberté religieuse et politique. En 1789, le pasteur Richard Price modifie cette célébration purement anglaise en incorporant à son sermon un éloge vibrant de la Révolution française, couronnement selon lui de la Révolution américaine de 1776 et annonciatrice de paix universelle. Ce sermon mémorable constitue la première prise de parole publique en faveur de la Révolution française en Angleterre et y provoque une immense controverse.

Regardons un instant la caricature de William Dent, brillante illustration du réquisitoire d’Edmund Burke contre le fameux dîner mais que Dent applique à une autre célébration, celle du 14 juillet 1791 à Londres. Quatre hommes dansent autour d’un chaudron, tels les sorcières de Macbeth. Leurs paroles, calquées sur le texte de Shakespeare, annoncent la subversion des institutions et des valeurs. Ils attendent avec impatience de niveler les conditions sociales, mais aussi de s’enrichir grâce au trafic des assignats:

‘Around! around in Chaotic Dance,
We step to tune of free-made France;
And when the Hurly-burly’s done,
And all Ranks confounded in One;
Oh! how we will Sing and Caper,
If Cash we can make with Paper.’

‘Revolution Anniversary or, Patriotic Incantations’, print by William Dent (1791). ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

La monarchie et les corps constitués sont distillés dans ‘l’esprit français’ (à la fois alcool et idéologie enivrante), la couronne renversée annonce la chute de la monarchie britannique. La caricature croque la fine fleur de l’opposition ‘radicale’. On reconnaît Joseph Priestley à son habit de pasteur ainsi que Charles James Fox, bedonnant et hirsute, tribun whig et éternel ennemi du premier ministre Pitt. Un autre pasteur, Joseph Towers, et le dramaturge Richard Brinsley Sheridan les accompagnent: pas des sans-culottes donc, mais un aristocrate, des bourgeois, des hommes de lettres. Priestley tient à la main le pamphlet de Tom Paine sur les droits de l’homme, tandis que les tableaux renvoient à des épisodes traumatiques de l’histoire anglaise, au ‘fanatisme’ et au ‘républicanisme’. Si la caricature renvoie au contexte de la Révolution française, elle est aussi une dissection visuelle du discours radical qui se répand depuis la fin des années 1760 et se fonde à la fois sur les droits de l’homme et sur l’histoire anglaise.

Les radicaux dénoncent l’influence exorbitante de la Couronne et de l’exécutif, le caractère oligarchique et non-représentatif des Communes, la corruption endémique. Ce réformisme parfois modéré explose sous le coup de la Révolution française, d’un nouveau ‘jacobinisme’ anglais et de la réaction conservatrice.

Dans mon livre Le Discours radical en Grande-Bretagne, 1768-1789, j’examine les points communs et les différences entre les divers tenants du ‘radicalisme’ pour montrer que l’unité de ce discours, réformateur et soi-disant loyal mais aux accents parfois révolutionnaires, tient au recours à la tradition historique anglaise combiné à l’appel aux droits de l’homme et à un universalisme des Lumières.

– Rémy Duthille

Apocalypse then

The Contrast.

‘The Contrast, 1793…’ , engraving by Rowlandson, following Lord George Murphy (1793, pub. by S.W. Fores, London). Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF.

The concepts of ‘crisis’ and ‘apocalypse’ have reappeared rather abruptly on our secularized horizons, yet they have never been completely absent: merely, one could argue, in retreat from our prevailing belief in ‘progress’. From meditations on a ‘last man’ in Victorian England to Günther Anders’ writings on the nuclear threat in the 1950s, from eighteenth-century literature on ruins to ISIS today, these themes seem to be inextricably bound up with Modernity and our experience of it.

Crisis, extremes and apocalypse’ is a new research network at the University of Oxford that seeks to shed light on and engage with themes that are more timely than ever. Indeed, these themes have a long history and include events from the French Revolutionary period. After hosting a workshop on ‘Rousseau, Freedom and the French Revolution’ in March, in April the network welcomed Marisa Linton from the University of Kingston to discuss the French Revolution and the ‘politics’ and ‘language’ of virtue in a talk on ‘Robespierre and the politician’s terror’. The Revolutionary era’s diffusion of power and obsession with transparency led all political members to fashion themselves as men of virtue.

Marisa Linton.

Marisa Linton.

As Camille Desmoulins boasted on 14 December 1793 to the Jacobin Club: ‘I was always the first to denounce my own friends; from the moment that I realized that they were conducting themselves badly, I resisted the most dazzling offers and I stifled the voice of friendship that their great talents had inspired in me.’ (Original French: François Aulard, ed., La Société des Jacobins: recueil des documents pour l’histoire de club des Jacobins, 6 vols, Paris, 1889-1897, vol.5, p.559.)

This pursuit of a ‘Republic of virtue’ thus compelled all political members to give constant performances of virtue that threatened to spiral out of control and into violence at any moment: every action was scrutinized and could be interpreted as suspicious, leading to a pervasive fear.

The network will be hosting Marisa Linton once again in late autumn 2017, alongside Olivier Tonneau and Sophie Wahnich, for a workshop on Saint-Just. Visit the network’s homepage or our Facebook page for updates!

– Audrey Borowski

An overview of Marisa Linton’s spring talk

Robespierre cartoon.

‘Robespierre guillotinant le boureau après avoir fait guillot.r. tous les Français… : cy gyt toute la France’, engraving, [Hercy ?], (1794, s.n., Paris[?]). Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF.

Over 220 years since his death, Maximilien Robespierre continues to generate controversy over his role in the traumatic events of the French Revolutionary period known as the ‘Terror’ (1793-1794). Historians have repeatedly sought in Robespierre’s personality and motivation an explanation of the Terror. Marisa Linton argues that such interpretations can offer only a limited understanding: in order to comprehend both Robespierre and the Terror, we need to place his actions within the wider context of Revolutionary politics in the National Convention, paying close attention to the atmosphere in which politics were conducted. Most importantly, we need to take into account the extent to which political choices during the Terror were influenced by intense emotions on the part of the Conventionnels themselves – above all, the emotion of fear.

Marisa Linton uses ‘the politicians’ terror’, a term she first identified and used in her book Choosing terror: virtue, friendship and authenticity in the French Revolution (OUP, 2013), to throw new light both on Robespierre’s role in the Terror, and on the nature of the Terror itself. The politicians’ terror was the form of terror that Revolutionary leaders meted out to one another. The Revolutionary leaders were themselves ‘subject to terror’. This took two forms. Firstly, Revolutionary leaders were liable to arrest under the laws that enabled terror, as successive laws removed their parliamentary immunity and criminalised the ‘wrong’ political opinions. Secondly, they were subject to the emotion of terror. From the outset of the Revolution there was an expectation that Revolutionary politicians should be able to demonstrate authentic political morality (virtue). During the heightened atmosphere of 1793-1794, and against the backdrop of fears that France faced military defeat, any failure of Revolutionary politicians to demonstrate their political virtue could be seen as an indication that they were secret conspirators, motivated by financial and political corruption, and in league with the royalists and foreign powers to undermine the Revolution from within.

Marisa Linton then gave an extended account of the politicians’ terror, before going on to examine its role in one of the most iconic events of the Revolution – the arrest, trial and execution of Georges Danton and his group, the Dantonists, which took place just months before the fall of Robespierre himself. Listen to the full podcast of Marisa Linton’s talk, and look out for the workshop on Saint-Just.

 

Hunting in the shadows of the French Revolution

ose-2016-10-50pcResearching prints of the French Revolution can sometimes feel like ghost-hunting.

Unlike other forms of art, such as paintings, which are usually signed, the majority of etchings are authorless. Sometimes, sheer luck, or the right accumulation of clues, can lead you to an artist – a most satisfying conclusion.

This was the case with ‘Dupuis, peintre’, an artist commissioned twice by the Comité de Salut Public to create prints central to my book, Satire, prints and theatricality in the French Revolution. His identity evaded me for several years. I had several candidates for him, and my original thesis, the basis of my book, included this footnote:

Chûte en masse: ainsi l'étincelle electrique de la liberté, renversera tous les trônes des brigands couronnés (François Marie Isidore Queverdo).

‘Chûte en masse: ainsi l’étincelle electrique de la liberté, renversera tous les trônes des brigands couronnés’, by François Marie Isidore Queverdo (Stanford University Libraries).

‘The identity of Dupuis remains mysterious. He could be issued from an illustrious family of engravers, including Charles and Nicolas-Gabriel Dupuis. He could also be related to the painter Pierre Depuis. Yet again, he could be François-Nicolas Dupuis who exhibited at the Salon from 1795 to 1802. It is probably a coincidence that he is related by name to the scientist Charles François Dupuy, a deputy whose interests were more astronomical and sociological than artistic. The lack of a first name suggests that he was only known as Dupuis, which could be a nickname or a deformation of his original name. Without clear evidence on this matter, there is only speculation. Regardless, he is described as a painter, and that he was trained academically is apparent in the depiction of the Republican in the print “Chûte en Masse” with his anatomically precise legs, as if he’d been first sketched naked before clothes were added.’

trevien_fig1_new

‘Je suis comme le temps au gagne petit’, 1789-1792; etching and engraving on light blue paper, hand-coloured in watercolour and bodycolour; 260 × 185mm; Waddesdon Manor, Rothschild Collection (National Trust), bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957; accession number 4232.1.62.123. Photo: Imaging Services Bodleian Library © National Trust, Waddesdon Manor.

I had however missed a crucial clue in the Comité de Salut Public documents: his physical address, ‘rue d’Orleans, porte St Martin’, which corresponds to the address of Pépin Dupuis, a genre painter who exhibited at the Salon of 1793.[1]

One ghost satisfyingly identified in time for the publication of my book.

There are also more literal ghosts to be found in prints of the French Revolution. In particular, a trend towards ‘hiding’ the profiles of the deceased in prints. A practice we, as twenty-first century viewers, have to train ourselves to look for, but which were quite the trend from the Terror onwards.

If you want to see one example of this, watch this video about Waddesdon Manor’s collection of French Revolutionary prints.

– Claire Trévien

[1] See the Comité de salut public: esprit public, arts, caricatures, costume national. 1793 an III, AF II 66 489 EXTRAIT 1 (ancien dossier 232), Fol.29 (24 June 1794); Description des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture et gravures, exposés au salon du Louvre (Paris : Imprimerie de la veuve Hérissant, 1793), p.87.

Patterns of trauma in post-revolutionary France

As this year’s recipient of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Travelling Award,[1] I was able to extend my stay in the French city of La Rochelle for three weeks of study in their departmental and municipal archives in March of 2015. My research concerned the emotional experience and aftermath of the Revolution there, and specifically the patterns of trauma and emotional reconstruction that took place in the city during the Directory era (1795-1799).

Located just south of the Vendée region, La Rochelle occupied a strategic place. Though initially receptive to the Revolution, especially its early reforms of religion and trade, republican feeling would cool amongst the inhabitants of this largely Protestant city as the Terror took a more radical turn. Serial incidents of physical violence, a profound change to the power relationship between citizens and municipal and national authorities, and material deprivation combined to exert a powerful trauma on the popular psyche. Despite this the city would continue to form a base from which much of the retribution against royalist rebels in staunchly Catholic Vendée was planned and executed, and came to represent a real frontier for the Revolution.

Donald M. Greer, the famous statistician of the notorious Reign of Terror that took place in 1793-1794 bemoaned as early as 1936 that ‘statistics do not, cannot, tell all. Their findings are dark and abstract; they enable us to study only one plane of life, the external and the rational; they give us no glimpse of psychology, no hint of the emotional density and amplitude of moving events’.[2]

Noyades dans la Loire, par ordre du fŽroce Carrier: les 6 et 7

Noyades dans la Loire, par ordre du féroce Carrier: les 6 et 7 décembre 1793, ou 5 et 6 frimaire an 2ème de la République. Duplessis-Bertaux, Pierre-Gabriel Berthault – 1802. BnF.

It is indeed difficult to believe that the extreme physical and ideological warfare waged all over France, which heralded a whole new era of political, social and economic organisation, did not leave a profound psychological mark. Yet whether trauma – and particularly the modern, medicalised concept of post-traumatic stress disorder – can be applied retrospectively by the historian is the subject of wide and well-documented debate.[3]

In my analysis of letters, judicial records and confiscated materials from the years 1795-1799 in La Rochelle, I was able to unearth a distinct narrative of revolutionary trauma, and grapple with the mixed and often contradictory patterns of personal and civic emotional reconstruction that took place in its wake.

One manifestation of the trauma experienced during that period was the peculiar ‘sickness of the Vendée’, a vague part-physical, part-psychological condition that was thought to result directly from the atrocities of war, which became endemic amongst soldiers during the Republican government’s brutal scorched-earth campaign in the region.

Also of particular interest was the bulging cache of confiscated anti-revolutionary documents which deftly manipulated common revolutionary memories to invoke or play on a sense of fear, anxiety or guilt in the reader.

Un sans-culotte instrument de crimes dansant au milieu des horre

‘Un sans-culotte instrument de crimes dansant au milieu des horreurs…’ / Artist unknown; between 1793 and 1795. BnF.

Finally, the curious case of Joseph Darbelet – a murderous local sans-culotte who, in the post-Revolutionary period, was put on trial, imprisoned and then released – provides a fascinating case study into the dysfunctional, swinging extremes of apathy and reactionary vigilantism that came to characterise the justice system during the Directory era in La Rochelle.

The research, both archival and secondary, that I undertook for my short thesis only skims the surface of a rich and quickly developing new field of historical enquiry. I would like to extend my sincere thanks to BSECS and the Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment for their support of my project.

– Emily Honey

[1] See the fourth entry in the ‘Postgraduate and early career scholars’ category.

[2] D. Greer, The Incidence of the Terror during the French Revolution (Cambridge, 1935).

[3] See for instance R. Steinberg, ‘Trauma before trauma: imagining the effects of the Terror in post-Revolutionary France’, in Studies in Voltaire and the eighteenth century 2013:5; D. Fassin & R. Rechtman, The Empire of trauma: an enquiry into the condition of victimhood (Princeton, 2009); P. Higonet, ‘Terror, trauma and the “young Marx” explanation of Jacobin politics’, in Past and Present 2006:191; D. Jenson, Trauma and its Representations: The Social Life of Mimesis in Post-revolutionary France (Baltimore, 2001).

Rehabilitating Marie-Antoinette’s favourite: the princesse de Lamballe

Open any book on the reign of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette or the French Revolution and the reader will invariably find one or two sentences recounting the grisly manner of the princesse de Lamballe’s death during the September massacres.

Print by Verité after a 1782 portrait by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) (print published after 1792). Credit: Gallica / BnF.

Print by Verité after a 1782 portrait by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) (print published after 1792). Credit: Gallica / BnF.

Marie-Thérèse Louise de Savoie-Carignan, the princesse de Lamballe (1749-1792), once a central figure of Marie-Antoinette’s court, is today largely forgotten, reduced to a fittingly sensational anecdote illustrating the bloodshed that ensued in Paris during the last turbulent years of the eighteenth century. The princess’s true character and activities have long been lost in the mawkish narratives peddled by the wave of nineteenth-century biographies that succeeded her death. This sentimental revival of interest in her person was closely interwoven with the propaganda that attended the royalist cult of Marie-Antoinette and has coloured all subsequent interpretations.

My research focuses on the portraiture and patronage of the princesse, and through an examination of the many portraits the princess sat for and her role as patron and collector, I hope to redress these longstanding lacunae and recover something of her former influence and contribution. An accomplished noble amateur, traveller, bibliophile, freemason, salonnière, patron and collector, not to mention the highest ranking courtier in the queen’s household, Lamballe presents an ideal case study, particularly as her widowed, childless, professional and independent status presents a rare alternative to the more orthodox paradigms within her milieu.

The princesse de Lamballe’s chaumière at Rambouillet. Photograph by Sarah Grant.

The princesse de Lamballe’s chaumière at Rambouillet. Photograph by Sarah Grant.

In determining the governing ideologies in the princess’s iconographical programme and by tracing the mechanics of her engagement with different groups of artists and craftsmen, I hope to identify a wider range of motives and cultural meaning than has previously been ascribed to female court portraiture and patronage of this period and to cast further light on the taste of her mistress, Marie-Antoinette.

Thanks to the Voltaire Foundation Travel Grant/BSECS Travelling Award I was able to travel to Paris to visit archives, libraries and critical sites pertaining to the princess. Among these were Rambouillet and the Parc Monceau. English gardens were perhaps the most expansive example of Lamballe’s patronage, and she was almost certainly influenced in this taste by the example of her brother-in-law, the duc de Chartres, with his English gardens at the château de Raincy and Monceau.

2_ParcMonceau_small

The colonnade at the Parc Monceau. Photograph by Sarah Grant.

In 1779-1780 Lamballe’s father-in-law, the duc de Penthièvre, commissioned a jardin anglais for her in the grounds at Rambouillet, his birthplace and favourite residence, at an easy distance from Paris where the princess frequently joined him when released from her duties in the city or at court. This new endeavour took its cue from, and overlapped with, the planning of her mistress and friend Marie-Antoinette’s jardin anglo-chinois in the grounds of the Petit Trianon created between 1777-1781.

– Sarah Grant

Eighteenth-century violence… redux

Representing violence in France, 1760-1820

Representing violence in France, 1760-1820 (Voltaire Foundation)

Talleyrand may have claimed that anyone born after 1789 would never know the ‘douceur de vivre’, but his peachy vision of the eighteenth century has long gone. Violence lurks everywhere in the period – how could it not in an age of vast inequalities?

The century ends, of course, with the bloodletting of Robespierre and Sade’s writing, but even from the first couple of decades the French recognised the thrill and lure of violence. Crébillon père aimed to renew tragedy through an emphasis on visceral savagery, and displayed a particular liking for the theme of infanticide. His son the novelist must have been bemused. In the book I have recently edited, Representing violence in France 1760-1820, contributors delve deep into a range of literary, historical and political sources to analyse the insidious and terrifying nature of violence.

Execution of Louis XVI (artist unknown; public domain image)

Execution of Louis XVI (artist unknown; public domain image)

Violence does not need to be this dazzling – indeed, it is at its most disturbing in its sudden irruption in a moment of calm. Look how Arlequin lunges out of the darkness towards Colombine in Watteau’s Voulez-vous triompher des belles?  No wonder she rapidly covers her bosom when faced not just by that strange mask and that delicate but insistent hand, but by a man who is sliced in two at the middle, as if his desire has sundered him.

Recent fiction has shown little interest for the refined delights of the eighteenth century. Instead, bones and corpses are exhumed, with the resultant miasma seemingly provoking violence and madness in Andrew Miller’s Pure (2011). And all manner of animal and human flesh is eaten in Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet (2013), which concludes just before the narrator knows what it feels like to be cat food…

–Thomas Wynn