Exploring Parisian archives thanks to the BSECS/Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment Travel Award

Tabitha Baker is a 3rd-year PhD student at the University of Warwick and V&A Museum. Her thesis is entitled ‘The Embroidery Trade in Eighteenth-Century France’ and is an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership project supervised jointly by Professor Giorgio Riello (Warwick) and Professor Lesley Miller (V&A).

On a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1903, Beatrix Potter was shown an elaborately embroidered French velvet coat from the 1780s. Inspired by the sparkling embroidery which had retained its brilliance for over a century, an illustration of the coat was to appear on page 12 of her children’s story, The Tailor of Gloucester. The coat was later displayed in 1987-88 as part of the Beatrix Potter exhibition at the Tate Gallery, and remains a stunning example of eighteenth-century court dress. Eighteenth-century French embroidered clothing in the collections of the V&A and museums around the world is displayed for its technical excellence and beauty. Yet these objects are also the products of a deeply hierarchical and complex luxury trade, the socio-economic intricacies of which have been little studied to date.


Ensemble (coat), France, 1780s. 1611&A-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum.

My research examines the relationship between the consumption and professional production of fashionable embroidery for clothing and furnishings in eighteenth-century France (c.1660-1791), with a particular focus on Paris and Lyon. By using archival sources alongside surviving embroidered objects from museums in the UK, France and the US, I investigate how embroidery techniques changed over time, how the trade functioned in different cities, and the nature of the professional embroiderers’ clientele.

Embroidery was a well-established trade in France by the time the ‘Beatrix Potter’ coat was produced, readily supplying the luxury clothing and furnishings market in the major cities of France and elsewhere in Europe. Due to their dealings with elite customers who were in a position to command long cycles of credit, it was not uncommon for professional embroiderers who ran large workshops to find themselves in precarious financial situations and succumb to bankruptcy.

The BSECS/Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment Travel Award enabled me to go to France in June 2017 to undertake detailed research on the bankruptcy records of the professional embroiderers of eighteenth-century Paris. At the Archives de Paris, I discovered more about their customers, orders, prices and delivery timeframes. This led me to analyse more fully the working practices of professional embroiderers during this period, including how long it took to produce and deliver to the client different types of embroidery, and how the cost of producing embroidery varied over the course of the eighteenth century.

Waistcoat, France, 1730s

Waistcoat, France, 1730-1739. 252-1906. © Victoria and Albert Museum.

An item such as this waistcoat (left), elaborately embroidered in coloured silk and silver threads and which can be seen today at the V&A, is one example of the fashion for luxuriously embroidered clothing at the royal court and the types of commissions taken on by the professional embroiderers of Paris. The order books that I have been working on at the Archives de Paris suggest that embroidery in gold and silver, popular amongst members of the French nobility, could have cost anything between 800 and 2500 livres to purchase, and such orders were placed with embroiderers at the top end of the occupational hierarchy, usually embroiderers to the king and court.

Due to their economic and social standing, customers of this calibre were able to purchase expensive luxury products such as these waistcoats on a long credit cycle, meaning that products would not be paid for in full until months or even years after the receipt of the product. Embroiderers who supplied the wealthy nobility were therefore caught up in a credit cycle, and were often owed great sums by their clients, as can be seen in many of the bankruptcy files.

Thanks to the generosity of BSECS and the Besterman Centre for the Enlightenment, my findings from this period of research have enabled me to make significant progress on my examination of the structure of the professional embroidery trade and how the embroiderers’ occupation reacted to a fluctuating consumer market. A close analysis of how embroidery was consumed in France during the eighteenth century, and the effects this consumption had on the structure of the French embroidery trade, will, I hope, contribute to a greater understanding of the relationship between elite consumption and the French luxury trades.

– Tabitha Baker

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).