Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Revolting French

Louis XVI was in for a run of bad luck when he ascended the throne in 1774. For a start, the country was heavily in debt after being involved in various wars, including the American War of Independence. Secondly, he married Marie-Antoinette, but didn’t get around to consummating the marriage for seven years as neither of them knew what they were supposed to do. Thirdly, of course, he got his head chopped off.

Louis was undeservedly considered weak and stupid (although his diary entry for July 14th 1789 did read Rien– that is, ‘Nothing happened’) yet he tried his best to sort out the country’s dire financial state. In the years leading up to the Revolution, the Royal coffers were filled from the taxes of the poor: they paid taxes to the king, to the church and to the lord of the manor, as well as taxes on wine, salt and bread. The nobility and the clergy were exempt and when Louis attempted to tax them, they refused. Understandably, the peasants were upset.

As if that wasn’t enough, the crops failed and there was a shortage of bread – the staple food. The inevitable revolt began - not in Paris but in Grenoble. When the king sent a garrison to deal with the disgruntled Grenoblois, the inhabitants climbed on to the roofs in the rue Voltaire and hurled tiles at the soldiers. The day was known uninspiringly as ‘The Day of the Tiles’ and immortalized by the painter Alexandre Debelle.

It was followed by an assembly of representatives of all but the poorest segment of French society, in a nearby castle at Vizille. They demanded that the king convene the Estates-General (representatives from the nobility, the clergy and the bourgeoisie) in order to vote on the matter of taxes. The bourgeoisie – who did pay taxes – felt they were being unfairly treated and when they realized the king had no intention of implementing fiscal reform, they broke away and formed their own National Assembly. Finding themselves locked out of the assembly rooms, they held their first meeting in an indoor tennis court in the Palace of Versailles. Here they swore an oath to remain together until a constitution for France had been drawn up. It became known as Le Serment du jeu de Paume or The Tennis Court Oath and it was truly a revolutionary act. The king no longer had absolute power.

The spirit of revolution spread through France. In the countryside, peasants and farmers revolted by attacking the manors and estates of their landlords. They became known as the sans-culottes. This did not mean that they walked around without any trousers on but rather that they wore long trousers and not knee-breeches, like the upper-classes. In Paris, on July the 14th 1789, citizens stormed the city’s largest prison, the Bastille, looking for munitions. Much has been made of this event - in fact, July the 14th is known, at least in Britain, as Bastille Day even though it commemorates la Fête de la Fédération which took place a year later. But the Bastille was a cushy prison and held principally aristocratic prisoners (Voltaire was sent there twice). They had comfortable cells and lacked for nothing. The dramatic-sounding Storming of the Bastille freed just seven inmates – two of whom were insane. It was purely a symbolic gesture albeit a bit of an anti-climax …

The nobles fled. In 1791, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette tried to escape but were caught. Some say it was because Louis tried to buy something in a shop and was recognised by the shopkeeper from his portrait on the coins; others say that Marie-Antoinette’s expensive scent gave them away. Whatever the reason, they were arrested and sent back, where Louis was forced to pledge his allegiance to the French Constitution. A year later, he was sent to the guillotine for treason.

Ironically, the guillotine was named after a humanitarian doctor, Joseph Guillotin. A member of the new national assembly, he recommended in a speech that executions be performed by a beheading device which he argued was quicker and less painful than the traditional methods of hanging or beheading by sword. Even though he did not invent the device, his name became linked with it. After his death in 1814, his children tried unsuccessfully to have the device's name changed. When their efforts failed, they were allowed to change their name instead.
The guillotine became the must-have accessory. Children were given toy guillotines with which to behead their revolutionary Barbies and women wore guillotine earrings. As a fashion victim, Marie-Antoinette would probably have worn them herself had she not had her own head sliced off. Her last poignant words were to her executioner: “Monsieur, I beg your pardon,” she said, having stepped on his foot, “I did not do it on purpose.”

In 1793, the Revolutionary Calendar was established, briefly replacing the Gregorian one. The year was divided into months consisting of three weeks of ten days which were named after various crops and flowers. Now, instead of getting one day off every seven to go to church, the people had to make do with one day in ten to attend a 'temple of reason', which is what the churches were rechristened, after the new ‘Cult of Reason’ which had replaced Christianity. Predictably, the English considered the new calendar highly amusing and gave their own names - reminiscent of Snow White’s vertically challenged companions - to the calendar months . They called them: Wheezy, Sneezy, Freezy, Slippy, Drippy, Nippy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety. Thankfully, the calendar was abandoned in 1805…

As for Grenoble – an attempt was made to change its name to Grelibre , thus replacing the ‘noble’ with ‘free’, rather like the American attempt to rechristen French Fries as ‘Freedom Fries’. This did not catch on, of course, because it just sounds silly.

As Sellars and Yeatman would say, the French Revolution was a Good Thing because without it, the French would not have wooden pencils, divorce, liberty, equality, fraternity or liquid bleach. Or fireworks. I rest my case.


Dee said...

Gigi, at the moment I can't think of anything erudite to say, but once again a well written and entertaining post.

If my brain kicks into gear after a coffee I'll come back. ;)

I do love the title. I can just see the google hits now. lol

Anonymous said...

Some interesting anecdotes. I especially liked the one about the Revolutionary Calendar which I'd never heard of before.

Anonymous said...

That was very interesting. Your posts are so well written and informative that I don't think the epithet 'terrible' teacher is appropriate.

Tinsie said...

Great post, as usual. Keep them coming!

Madame K said...

Wow, thanks for the ultra compact history lesson.

But what I really want to know is what time do the "Feu d'artifice" begin?

Anonymous said...

Happy Bastille Day!

Meilleurs voeux!!