Paris and Chartres

Everyone knows the cathedral of the city of Paris as “Notre Dame,” but there are approximately sixty French cathedrals dedicated to some aspect of “Our Lady.” One of these is Chartres, probably the most famous French cathedral after Paris.

Chartres Cathedral from the southeast. Wikipedia.

My friend Mark Skocyzlas has just visited Chartres Cathedral, and tells me that it suffered, in 1836, a fire similar to that of Notre-Dame de Paris this past week. According to Wikipedia, “the old lead-covered roof, with its complex structure of timber supports (known as ‘the forest’) was destroyed by fire. It was replaced with a copper-clad roof supported by a network of cast iron ribs, known as the charpente de fer (‘iron frame’). At the time, the framework over the crossing had the largest span of any iron-framed construction in Europe.”

“Charpente de fer,” Chartres Cathedral. Wikipedia.

A view of the interior of the roof space, which looks like a twenty-first century airport concourse, but in fact dates from the early industrial age. Presumably it is also more fire resistant, and a model for what could be done with Notre-Dame de Paris.

I confess that I don’t much care for calls that the rebuilding of Notre Dame should “reflect today’s multicultural France.” It’s a medieval Gothic cathedral, and remains a locus of Christian worship! That it is also a tourist attraction is of distinctly secondary importance. Please, let’s save the starchitect glass pyramids and “crystals” for other, less significant buildings.

Church Buildings

I was as shocked as anyone by the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday. How could such a thing happen to such a famous building? You would think they would have taken better precautions to prevent it, and I really hope that no foul play was involved. But it is good to remember that over a long enough timespan the likelihood of such disasters happening approaches 1, and that all ancient buildings have been repeatedly damaged and renovated over the course of their existence – at its most extreme it’s like the hammer that has had three new handles and two new heads. And happily, Notre Dame’s roof might be gone, and the spire toppled, but the building retains its structural integrity, so rebuilding the lost parts should be easy enough.

Artist Daniel Mitsui said it well in a speech he made in 2017, an excerpt of which he posted yesterday to Facebook:

And earlier on this blog I wrote that:

As a historian I am interested in sacred space, but as a Christian I don’t care much for it. Christianity is wherever two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name. Christianity derives from the Bible and Church tradition, and you can have these anywhere. Whenever people designate a particular place or object as being essential to their faith, they are just asking for trouble – what happens when you lose control over it? Your entire life’s purpose then becomes getting it back, at the expense of everything else that matters.

Having said all that, I don’t believe in the gratuitous destruction of Christian monuments, and when I denigrate fighting over sacred space, I mean specific coordinates on the earth’s surface, e.g. the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, or the Temple Lot in Independence, Mo. I do believe that one’s built environment reflects something about one’s values. In the very early days Christians worshiped in people’s homes, and some sects continue this practice (e.g. the Amish – who have adopted plenty of other ways of publicly expressing themselves). But church buildings have been an integral part of Christian practice since before Constantine, and most religious universities have a chapel on campus somewhere for the use of the university community. Even if they don’t use it all that much, the fact that it exists at all is a statement: this university is affiliated with a Christian denomination.

This is Blanche Hagan Chapel at Reinhardt University, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. When I first arrived at Reinhardt, the college chaplain was directly responsible to the president, and she presided over a weekly chapel service on Thursday at 12:30. This was a dedicated time: no classes or meetings were scheduled against it, and all members of the college community were welcome to attend. This situation is very much in accord with my view of things – Christian practice at a college should include all its members: students, faculty, staff, and friends. Alas, this situation was not to last – the chaplain is now under the Dean of Students, and weekly chapel is now “Tuesday Night Fellowship” which takes place in the Student Center. TNF is an informal affair with lots of guitars and not much liturgy, aimed primarily at the students, for whom the chaplain serves as a sort of youth pastor.

I don’t have anything against this sort of thing but I don’t see why we can’t have both a weekly student service and a weekly corporate service, for all the other members of the Reinhardt community.

Not to worry, Hagan Chapel still gets used on Sundays. The local UMC congregation gathers for worship there… for now. Two years of negotiations between the congregation and the university over cost-sharing have apparently broken down, and this week the university has told the congregation that it must agree to a new set of terms, or face eviction. Rumors flew that Reinhardt was hoping to take the steeple off the chapel and use the building for some other purpose, although today these were vigorously denied.

So that’s a relief. Whatever happens to the Waleska UMC, we will still have a proper chapel on campus for use on those formal occasions when we need one, and for expressing our Christian identity at all other times.

Addendum. I am a big fan of Daniel Mitsui, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in 2013. Check out his home page, or his Facebook presence

Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635) was a French navigator, cartographer, and explorer, who is commonly designated “The Father of New France” for his role in founding that particular colony in 1608. He died and was buried in Quebec City – but the exact location of his grave is currently unknown, and has become a holy grail of sorts for archaeologists. A recent article in the Globe and Mail (hat tip: Robert Black) rejoices in the discovery of a seventeenth-century palisade at Quebec, but laments that Champlain’s grave is still unfound. From the article:

Records suggest Champlain died on Christmas Day in 1635, and his remains were moved to a chapel that was later burned to the ground. A Jesuit text from 1642 refers to a priest who was buried alongside the founder and another friend, but there is no record of where that burial took place.

“It is likely the remains were moved, but nobody knows when or where,” Mr. Lavoie said.

Serious efforts to find the tomb began in the mid-1800s. Scientists began “digging left and right” to find Champlain, he said, but without success. More recently, an archaeologist who shared the name of former Quebec premier Rene Levesque led a series of digs in the 1980s and 1990s that proved equally fruitless.

Mr. Lavoie believes the location of the original “Champlain chapel” to which his remains were moved has been found in the old city. Mr. Lavoie believes there’s a good chance Champlain could be lying somewhere beneath Quebec City’s basilica, either on his own or in a common grave.

But the search for the founder’s remains are at a standstill, and even if found, they would not be easy to identify. Champlain fathered no children and left no descendants, which eliminates the possibility of DNA matching. To confirm the identity, researchers would have to match up remains with what little that is known about Champlain physically — for example traces of the arrow wounds he suffered during a 1613 conflict with the Iroquois.

Robert comments:

Champlain was a Protestant, was he not? And the prevailing theory for many decades has been that he and other Protestants were buried apart from later cemeteries (and therefore, not under the Basilica). If anything his remains have for a very long time thought to be buried under the Anglican cathedral, either the car park or the outbuildings.

I did not know this. Wikipedia claims that:

He belonged to either a Protestant family, or a tolerant Roman Catholic one, since [Champlain’s birthplace of] Brouage was most of the time a Catholic city in a Protestant region, and his Old Testament first name (Samuel) was not usually given to Catholic children.

A note elaborates:

According to many modern historians… Champlain could have been born a Protestant. Professor [Alain] Laberge [of Laval University] suggested that Champlain’s Protestantism would have been downplayed or omitted from educational materials in Quebec by the Roman Catholic Church, which controlled Quebec‘s education system until 1962.

I discover that the Champlain monument in Orillia, Ontario, which I remember seeing as a kid, has been removed for restoration – perhaps indefinitely, given concerns expressed “over the monument’s representations of Indigenous peoples raised by members of the public and by Indigenous communities.”

“Lazy, Arrogant Cowards”

From the Telegraph (hat tip: Chris Berard):

Lazy, arrogant cowards: how English saw French in 12th century

A twelfth-century poem newly translated into English casts fresh light on the origin of today’s Francophobic stereotypes.

Although it is meant to be an ‘entente cordiale’, the relationship between the English and the French has been anything but neighbourly.

When the two nations have not been clashing on the battlefield or the sporting pitch they have been trading insults from ‘frogs’ to ‘rosbifs’.

Now the translation of the poem has shown just how deep-rooted in history the rivalry and name-calling really is.

Written between 1180 and 1194, a century after the Norman Conquest united England and Normandy against a common enemy in France, the 396-line poem was part of a propaganda war between London and Paris.

Poet Andrew de Coutances, an Anglo-Norman cleric, describes the French as godless, arrogant and lazy dogs. Even more stingingly, he accuses French people of being cowardly, and calls them heretics and rapists.

It has taken David Crouch, a professor of medieval history at Hull University, months to complete the translation of what is one of the earliest examples of anti-French diatribe.

The poem was written at a time when Philip II of France was launching repeated attacks on Normandy, taking advantage of in-fighting within the English royal family.

Prof Crouch says that the poem is of great interest to historians because of its “racial rhetoric”, which was deployed by Anglo-Norman intellectuals in support of their kings’ bitter political and military struggle.

Extracts from the poem may be read at the link. I have enjoyed hearing Prof. Crouch present at Kalamazoo. It’s interesting how this is an example of the antiquity of ethnic animus; it’s not as if it was invented yesterday and then projected onto the past.

Guédelon Castle

Wikipedia.

Something interesting (hat tip: David Winter):

Guédelon Castle is a de novo castle construction project located in TreignyFrance. The object of the project is to build a castle using only the techniques and materials used in the Middle Ages. When completed in the 2020s, it should be an authentic recreation of a 13th-century medieval castle.

In order to fully investigate the technology required in the past, the project is using only period construction techniques, tools, and costumes. Materials, including wood and stone, are all obtained locally. Jacques Moulin, chief architect for the project, designed the castle according to the architectural model developed during the 12th and 13th centuries by Philip II of France.

Construction started in 1997 under Michel Guyot, owner of Château de Saint-Fargeau, a castle in Saint-Fargeau 13 kilometres away. The site was chosen according to the availability of construction materials: an abandoned stone quarry, in a large forest, with a pond close by. The site is in a rural woodland area and the nearest town is Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, about 5 km to the northeast.

Pirates and the Metric System

From Taking Measure, a blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (via Slate Star Codex), an interesting historical anecdote offering a reason why the United States did not adopt the metric system.

Pirates of the Caribbean (Metric Edition)

September 19, 2017
by Keith Martin

To save his own life, Joseph Dombey had an idea. As two pirate ships surrounded the ship he was on in the Caribbean Sea in 1794, Dombey scrambled below deck, disrobing as he went. He appropriated the outfit of one of the ship’s many Spanish sailors and prayed that he had picked up enough of their language during his trips to South America to blend in. Dombey shouldn’t have been in this position. In fact, he shouldn’t have been in the Caribbean at all. None other than Thomas Jefferson himself was expecting to meet with Dombey in Philadelphia at that very moment.

Dombey’s fate that day arguably delayed the adoption of the metric system in the United States by almost a century and left us as one of the few countries in the world still using non-metric units for our everyday measurements.The marauders now swarming Dombey’s ship were a particular breed of pirate: British privateers— the state-sponsored terrorists of the 18th century. These waterborne gangs had the tacit approval of the government in London to harass and plunder other countries’ maritime commerce and keep part of the spoils as their profit.

After seizing control of the ship, the pirates came across a sailor speaking Spanish with a curiously French accent—Joseph Dombey. A French physician and botanist acting under orders from the French government, Dombey had left the port city of Le Havre, France, weeks earlier for Philadelphia and the meeting with Jefferson, the United States’ first secretary of state and future president. But storms had pushed Dombey’s ship off course and deep into pirate territory.

France had supported the United States against the British in the War of Independence, and now they intended to build closer economic ties with the new American nation. Dombey was to negotiate with Jefferson for grain exports to France and to deliver two new French measurement standards: a standard of length (the meter) and a standard of mass called, rather ominously, a grave, to be considered by the U.S. for adoption. (The grave would be renamed the kilogram a year later in 1795.)

In many ways, Dombey was an excellent choice for this mission. Having already been on several trips to South America to collect botanical specimens, he was an experienced trans-Atlantic traveler. His knowledge of plants would also be of help in his agricultural trade negotiations with Jefferson. And Dombey’s scientific training as a physician and botanist gave him an understanding of the importance of accurate weights and measures, so it was highly likely that he would be able to convince Congress to adopt the new French standards, which would later come to be known as the metric system.

Despite his qualifications, Dombey lacked one important attribute: luck. His previous trips had all ended in failure. He had spent two years in Peru collecting plants that could be usefully cultivated in France, only to have the shipment captured by the British. A second collecting trip, this time in Chile and in collaboration with Spain, fell apart over a business dispute, with Spain keeping all the valuable specimens. But Dombey’s voyage to Philadelphia would turn out to be his most disastrous.

Upon learning his true identity, the pirates imprisoned Dombey on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Unfortunately, Dombey died before they were able to ransom him to the French, and the units of measure in his charge never made it into Jefferson’s hands.

Some historians view this event as a tragic missed opportunity whose consequences we are still living with today. When the U.S. became an independent nation, it inherited an inconsistent collection of traditional British weights and measures. Congress was aware of the flaws with its British measures, and a congressional committee was formed to recommend solutions. Thomas Jefferson, an admirer of French scientific ideas, lobbied for a measurement system similar to that of France. But Congress didn’t adopt it, and the British-influenced system took hold in the U.S. instead. However, If pirates hadn’t intercepted Dombey on his way to Philadelphia, the situation might be very different today.

More at the link.

Trade ya!

Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, has given his permission for the famous Bayeux Tapestry to visit England for the first time ever (or rather, for the first time since it was manufactured at Canterbury in the eleventh century, if you subscribe to this theory). Some believe this is an attempt at enticing the Brits to abandon Brexit. If so, perhaps the notice that Winchester has offered to loan the Winchester Round Table to France in response is an attempt at diffusing this. Anthropologically, the Brits will have met their obligation to reciprocate with a similar loan, and they can proceed with Brexit otherwise. (Although Councillor Roy Perry claims that it is only to get the Bayeux Tapestry displayed in Winchester and not in London.) My thanks to Chris Berard for the link.

The Winchester Round Table is not really from King Arthur’s reign, of course. It was fashioned during the reign of King Edward I (1272-1307), and painted during the reign of King Henry VIII (1509-47) – thus the famous double “Tudor” rose at the center. It is on display in Winchester Castle. A good book about it is Martin Biddle, King Arthur’s Round Table: An Archaeological Investigation (Boydell, 2000).

Wikipedia

Jeannie Rousseau de Clarens

From the New York Times:

Jeannie de Clarens, an amateur spy who passed a wealth of information to the British about the development of the V-1 and V-2 rockets during World War II and survived stays in three concentration camps for her activities, died on Aug. 23 in Montaigu, southeast of Nantes, France. She was 98.

The death was confirmed by her son, Pascal.

In 1943 Jeannie Rousseau, as she was then known, was an interpreter in Paris for an association of French businessmen, representing their interests and helping them negotiate contracts with the German occupiers. She was young and attractive. She spoke flawless German. She was a favorite with the German officers, who were completely unaware that the woman they knew as Madeleine Chauffour had been reporting to a French intelligence network, the Druids, organized by the Resistance.

Getting wind of a secret weapons project, she made it her mission to be on hand when the topic was discussed by the Germans, coaxing information through charm and guile.

“I teased them, taunted them, looked at them wide-eyed, insisted that they must be mad when they spoke of the astounding new weapon that flew over vast distances, much faster than any airplane,” she told The Washington Post in 1998. “I kept saying, ‘What you are telling me cannot be true!’ I must have said that 100 times.”

One officer, eager to convince her, let her look at drawings of the rockets.

Most of what she heard was incomprehensible. But, blessed with a near-photographic memory, she repeated it in detail to her recruiter, Georges Lamarque, at a safe house on the Left Bank.

In London, intelligence analysts, led by Reginald V. Jones, marveled at the quality of the information they were receiving from Paris, notably a startling document called the Wachtel Report. Delivered in September 1943, it identified the German officer in charge of the rocket program, Col. Max Wachtel; gave precise details about operations at the testing plant in Peenemünde, on the Baltic coast in Pomerania; and showed planned launch locations along the coast from Brittany to the Netherlands.

Relying on this information, the British organized several bombing raids against the plant, which delayed development of the V-2 and spared untold thousands of lives in London.

In “1940-1944: The Secret History of the Atlantic Wall” (2003), the historian Rémy Desquesnes called the Wachtel Report a “masterpiece in the history of intelligence gathering.” When Mr. Jones asked who had sent the report, he was told that the source was known only by the code name Amniarix, and that “she was one of the most remarkable young women of her generation.”

Read the whole thing.

Vive la Révolution!

For Bastille Day (July 14), let us take symbolic tour of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution of 1789 is often billed as “the birth of modern politics” and the Jacobins who took it over “the first modern political party.” Indeed, they shared more than a little in common with the Bolsheviks who took over Russia in 1917. It wasn’t enough to have a regime change; both the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks felt they had to remake their respective countries from the ground up. There came to be a “revolutionary” way of doing everything! In this way did the the French Revolution differ from the American Revolution that inspired it. For the Americans to dissolve the political bands that tied them to the British crown was psychologically easy enough, given that 3500 miles of ocean separated the two; the Americans adopted a new flag and national emblem, and rejected anything monarchial, but left pretty much everything else about their society intact. The situation was rather different in France, given that the government, and its numerous supporters, were all right there, and ready to make alliances with neighboring powers hostile to the revolution. Thus there was a greater imperative to extirpate everything associated with the ancien régime, through terror if necessary.

France’s original experiment with republicanism ended in 1804 in favor of Napoleon’s empire, and the country reverted to monarchy in 1815. Another dynasty took over in 1830, which in turn was ousted in 1848 in favor of another republic. Then followed (from 1852) another empire, which fell in 1871 in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. Since that time, France has been consistently republican, so many of these revolutionary symbols are now respectable (and unremarkable) state symbols. Some of them did not stick, however. All of them were highly political when they were first introduced. If there was any principle in operation at the time, it was that anything monarchial, Catholic, or medieval was out, and anything republican, classical, or “enlightened” was in. Things like…

mariannes

Philatelic Mariannes (author’s collection).

Allegorical female figures. In Latin (and in French), most abstract nouns are feminine, so it is easy to imagine “Justice” or “Hope” as female figures. The revolution saw the increased use of these – the idea was to avoid saints like Joan of Arc, Louis IX, or Denis. The seal of the First French Republic (1792) featured “Liberty”; in 1830, Eugène Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People (see below). Eventually a female figure representing France acquired the name “Marianne” and is now an integral part of French symbolism. A young woman is even elected as a model Marianne on a regular basis by all the mayors of France. She’s everywhere!

frenchcocks

French stamp (author’s collection); emblems of the French national rugby league team, ice hockey team, rugby union team, and football team; Le Coq Sportif logo (Wikipedia)

Rooster. Another classical reference. The male chicken is a “gallus” in Latin, which was also the name of the Roman province of Gaul, which became France after the Franks settled there. The rooster itself is watchful, and will preserve the revolution. After Marianne, the coq gaulois is the most common animate symbol of France today. (Certainly the fleur de lys, that sacred symbol of French royal power, was right out!)

delacroix

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830), detail, via Wikipedia.

Bleu-blanc-et-rouge. I understand that the French tricolor actually dates from the early days of the revolution, when people thought that a constitutional monarchy was still possible. White was the Bourbon color, and red and blue the colors of Paris, so the idea was that the three colors represented an alliance between the monarchy and the citizenry. The three colors survived the execution of Louis XVI, however, and as a cockade identified the revolutionary National Guard. A tricolor flag of vertical stripes soon followed. It has been France’s national flag continuously since the July Monarchy of 1830.

135_C

Tympanum of a state-owned French church, via Wikipedia.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. The three colors of the revolutionary flag are often linked to the three words of the revolutionary motto, which is perhaps why this motto won out over others in use at the time. Any man of the Enlightenment would recognize “liberty” and “equality” as ideals; the fact that the motto goes on to embrace “fraternity” is probably a testament to the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his mystical concept of the General Will. (Many people have pointed out that the motto ends up contradicting itself – are you at liberty to drop out of your fraternity?)

79760_sealfrench_lg

Seal of the First French Republic, 1792. From Clip Art Etc.

Fasces and Phrygian cap. These were two more revived classical symbols beloved of the revolutionaries. A fasces consists of a bundle of rods bound around an axe. It was a ceremonial object borne before the consuls in republican Rome, and is thus a symbol of republicanism (although it isn’t as popular as it once was, given that it’s also a symbol of fascism). The Phrygian cap was worn by Phrygians and others in the ancient Near East; through confusion with the pileus, cap worn by freed slaves in Rome, it came to be a symbol of freedom. Marianne wears one, often with a tricolor cockade; sometimes the cap is shown lifted aloft on a pole.

Inscription_Eglise_Ivry-la-Bataille

Inscription (1792-1794) on a church at Ivry-la-Bataille, via Wikipedia.

Cult of Reason. Nothing better illustrates the anti-clericalism of the revolutionaries than their sponsorship of the Cult of Reason as a replacement for Roman Catholicism. Churches across the land, including Notre Dame in Paris, were transformed into Temples of Reason, and a national Festival of Reason celebrated on 20 Brumaire Year II (see “Revolutionary Calendar” below). As the name implies the religion was dedicated to the pursuit of philosophy, and the object of its worship was “the people.” This was too much for everyone to stomach, and Robespierre himself sponsored a competing Cult of the Supreme Being, which at least acknowledged the existence of a god of sorts. After Napoleon’s concordat with the Catholic Church in 1801, he banned both cults.

Panthéon,_Paris_25_March_2012

Le Panthéon national, via Wikipedia.

Panthéon. Another aspect of the revolutionaries’ anticlericalism was their expropriation of the church of Ste. Geneviève in Paris and its transformation into a mausoleum for national heroes, such as Voltaire and Rousseau. This Panthéon (a nice classical reference there) has reverted to being a church on a couple of occasions and a cross remains on the dome as a memento of the building’s original purpose, but it is still in use today as a secular French hall of fame (the most recent interments were in 2015). Foucault’s Pendulum, proving the rotation of the Earth, was first demonstrated in the Panthéon in 1851.

map_departments

A map of the départements of 1798. From Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution.

Départements. The thing about the ancien régime is that its traditional geographical subunits (Aquitaine, Burgundy, Brittany, etc.) were also the titles, and private fiefdoms, of various dukes and counts. Such particularism, and anything smacking of aristocratic privilege, could not be welcome in the new France. So the revolutionaries divided the country into 83 départements, each one to be governed by a civil servant known as a prefect and each one named, neutrally, after a local river or some other geographical feature. The capital of each département was to be no more than a day’s ride from any settlement in it, as a security measure. It remains the fundamental administrative division in France, even if people might still claim to be from “Champagne,” “Normandy,” or some other traditional area.

metric

“Use of the New Measures,” woodcut from eighteenth century France (detail), via Wikimedia Commons.

Metric System. This one is still in use; in fact, it’s one of the most successful of all the products of the Revolution, exported to Europe and then to the world. Only eccentric places like the USA hold out against it. One can understand the revolutionaries’ desire for a uniform system of measurement, given the multiplicity of different systems within France prior to 1789 (although why the Bourbons, with all their absolutist power, didn’t manage to impose one on France themselves, has always been a mystery to me). It is very much a product of the Enlightenment, in which everything is Logical. The base units are derived from nature, and relate to each other, and a uniform set of prefixes indicate by which power of ten we are to multiply the base unit. A gram, the base unit of mass, is equal to one cubic centimeter of water, which itself represents one milliliter of liquid measurement. Zero degrees centigrade is the freezing point, while 100 is the boiling point. A thousand meters is a kilometer, a thousand grams is a kilogram, a thousand liters a kiloliter. All very rational – although sometimes twelve is actually an easier number to work with, in that you can divide it in half, and then in half again, and also in thirds. Also, what’s easier to say, a “mile” or a “kilometer”? And a yard may be all of three inches shorter than a meter, but the one is allegedly derived from the length of the king’s arm, while the other is one ten-millionth the distance from the North Pole to the Equator. I can’t help but think that the former is intuitive and human centered, while the latter is abstract and inhuman. (Or perhaps I have just lived too long in the United States…)

20757171

Personifications of the autumnal Revolutionary months of Vendémiaire (“vintage”), Brumaire (“mist”), and Frimaire (“frost”), from Journal d’un Ségoleniste.

Revolutionary Calendar. Like revolutionaries everywhere, the Jacobins claimed they were living in a new era, and designated 1792, the year of the abolition of the French monarchy, as Year One. They also reorganized the calendar so that there were twelve months of thirty days each, with an extra five or six intercalary days dedicated to revolutionary virtues like “talent,” “labor,” or “honors.” Every other day of the calendar was dedicated to a fruit, vegetable, animal, or tool, and the months themselves were given descriptive names like Messidor (“harvest,” June-July) or Nivôse (“snowy,” December-January). No longer would people be celebrating the saints’ days of the old calendar! This innovation did not stick (Napoleon revived to the Gregorian system in 1806), although the names of some of the months live on, as in Lobster Thermidor, Emile Zola’s Germinal, or Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. An interesting website has more information, and a calendar converter.

Clock-french-republic

French decimal clock from the time of the Revolution, via Wikipedia.

Decimal Time. This one was even more bizarre. That there are sixty seconds in a minute, and sixty minutes in an hour, and twenty-four hours in a day, was displeasing to some people. Metric is based on powers of ten, so the revolutionaries sponsored a decimal system of time measurement whereby each day had ten hours, each hour had 100 minutes, and each minute 100 seconds. This was deprecated in 1795.

Guillotine. Everyone knows about this instrument of the Reign of Terror (although it was only one of several methods of execution that the Jacobins employed). The irony is that the guillotine was actually considered humane, and a social leveler to boot. In the ancien régime, commoners got hanged, while only aristocrats were entitled to decapitation. The trouble is that often the hanging victim did not die instantly, while the executioner of nobles sometimes required several sword strokes to finish the job. The guillotine was not going to miss, and provided an instant, painless death no matter what social class you were from. It remained the preferred method of capital punishment in France until the abolition of the death penalty in 1981.

Sans-culottes. Men did not always wear trousers in the western world; certainly in the eighteenth century, if you had any sort of position to keep up, you wore breeches – trousers that stopped just below the knee, with hose covering the remainder of your leg. Only the lower classes wore trousers that went all the way down to the ankle. But insofar as the Revolution was about lifting those people up, it became briefly fashionable for everyone to wear pantalons. It was certainly a good idea during the Terror, when any hint of association with the old ways could spell death. “Sans-culottes” means “without breeches” and refers to radicalized members of the working classes who were some of the revolution’s most fervent supporters, although their ideas were more about equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity and they were marginalized following the Thermidorian Reaction (1794). (Apparently the fashion arbiter Beau Brummell introduced trousers to London society during the Regency [1811-20], making them safe for the upper class to wear.)

legionhonor

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806), detail showing collar of the Legion of Honor, via Wikipedia.

Legion of Honor. This was a Napoleonic innovation, meant to replace the chivalric orders of St. Michael (1469) and of the Holy Spirit (1578), sponsored by the French monarchy. The Légion d’honneur, in good republican form, was meant to recognize talent, merit, and achievement, not birth. It has survived all subsequent vicissitudes of French politics and remains the pinnacle of the French honors system.

marseillaise

From the blog of 98.7 WFMT.

The Marseillaise. This song was composed in 1792 after the declaration of war against Austria and declared the revolutionary anthem in 1795. It derives its name from a group of volunteers from Marseilles who sang it as they traveled to Paris. You know the tune – it opens the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” strains of it are heard in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and it is played by the man with the tape recorder up his nose in the Monty Python sketch. The lyrics are pretty violent – the enemy is coming to “slit the throats of our sons and companions,” so we must fight back and “let an impure blood soak our fields”! It was deprecated by Napoleon and banned by the nineteenth-century monarchs, but restored to official status in 1879 and remains France’s national anthem.

Jean-Pierre Houël, Prise de la Bastille (1789), via Wikipedia.

Finally, there is Bastille Day itself, or as the French call it, la Fête nationale. There were many events in the fateful year of 1789, including the convocation of the Estates-General (May 5), the Tennis Court Oath (June 20), the Great Fear (July-August), and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (August 27). But the one that everyone remembers, and that stands in for everything else, is the Storming of the Bastille on July 14. The Bastille was a prison in Paris that had come to symbolize royal tyranny, and following the dismissal of the reformist Finance Minister Jacques Necker on July 12, the Parisians stormed it. Ninety-eight attackers and one defender died in the battle; afterwards, the governor of the Bastille had his head removed and paraded around on a pike. The prisoners – none of whom was actually political by that time – were freed, and the building quickly reduced to rubble.

The elevation of July 14 to its current status of premier national holiday came about in 1880, in the early years of the Third Republic. I do not know why this event of all that took place in 1789 became so important – I guess, as with the Marseillaise, that violence shows you’re serious.

UPDATE: I suppose a better reason is that the destruction of a physical barrier, like in Berlin on November 9, 1989, is psychologically satisfying. Here is a photo of a model of the Bastille, made from one of the bricks of the Bastille, presented to Washington by Lafayette, on display at Mount Vernon.

Photo: Anne Good.

Links

• From the BBC:

Secrets of French Diplomacy