Tag Archives: Reign of Terror

Jean-Paul Marat “le vampire le plus remarquable de la République francaise”

Pamphlet BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 52 no. 10 is a satirical treatment of the life and politics of Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793)  entitled- Vie criminelle et politique de J.P. Marat, se disant l’Ami du peuple, adoré, porté en triomphe comme tel, et après sa mort, projeté saint par la jacobiniaille, ou, L’homme au 200,000 têtes, le vampire le plus remarquable de la République francaise .

Case BX4060.A1 S25 ser. 1 v. 52 no. 10

Marat was a physician and scientist who became an important figure of the revolution as a politician and journalist and was elected to the National Convention in 1792.  He was a staunch defender of the sans-culottes and an advocate for violence against the “enemies of the people.” He is often credited for inciting the violent September massacres  during which a large number of the prisoners in Paris were murdered.  In his journal, l’Ami du peuple, Marat attacked both the supporters of the monarchy and conservative revolutionaries, the Girondins.  This tension between the radical and conservative revolutionary factions would become even more heated after Louis XVI was tried and executed and lead to the fall of the Girondins in May and June 1793.  On 13 July 1793 Marat was assassinated in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, a Girondin sympathiser.

Marat’s assassination made him a martyr for the revolution.  His assassination became an important theme for artists of the revolution and political pamphlets celebrated his memory.  It wasn’t until after the fall of Robespierre and end of the Terror that public opinion about Marat began to change and many of his busts and sculptures were destroyed. 

Death of Marat by David

The author of Vie criminelle et politique de J.P. Marat seeks to show his readers the ‘truth’ about Marat, saying:  it is time to raise the veil which has covered this odious skeleton and establish the memory of this vampire thirsty for blood.  (Il est temps de lever le voile, qui jusqu’alors à couvert ce squelette odieux, et d’etablir la mmoire de ce vampire altr de sang.) The author calls out Marat for being the ‘provocateur of legal murders’ (“le provocateur des assassins juridiques“) .

The pamphlet provides a loose biography of Marat – telling of his days as a physician in Metz distributing his ‘pills and ointments,’ entry into the political arena, and assassination, while railing against his political policies and condemning him as a “secret friend of despotism…hypocrite partisan of tyranny.”

One particular paragraph that I particularly enjoyed falls towards the end of the pamphlet and speaks to those who uphold Marat as a sainted figure of the Republic:

“Jacobins adore Marat if you want; make a sainted shroud of his bloody shirt, relics of his bathtub, diadems of his old crown, a gospel of his journals or his monarchical constitution, you are free: the Indians adore the excrement of the grand lama, they are unsavory meals enough, everyone has his fancy, it is necessary to let each have, however absurd, what one must.  But no one will force me to adore the image of a dead man that I have believed to be an assassin or insane.”

(Jacobins adorez Marat, si vous voulez; faites un saint-suaire de sa chemise ensanglantée, des reliques de sa baignoire, des diadêmes de sa vieille couronne, une évangile de ses journeaux ou même de sa constitution monarchique, vous êtes libres: les indiens adorent bien les excremens du grand lama, ils en sont même des repas assez ragoûtans; chacun à sa fantaisie, il faut la laisser à chacun, quelle qu’absurde qu’elle soit. Mais on ne peut pas me forcer d’adorer l’image d’un mort que j’ai cru un assassin ou un insensé.)

The other aspect of this pamphlet that drew my attention was the frontispiece which depicts three eras of Marat’s life (les tois epoques de la vie de Jean Paul Marat projette saint par la jacobinierie). The first image is captioned with the text “Marat a Metz vendant des phioles en 1787. ” The second, “Marat sortant du tribunal porte en triomphe,” and the third “Son buste traine dans l’egout Mt. martre par la jeunesse repubne.” 


Frontispiece: "Les trois epoques de la vie de Jean Paul Marat"


A day in the life, or, The subject kaleidoscope

One of the pleasures of cataloging the French Revolution Collection (FRC) is the daily encounter with a wide variety of subjects.  Of late, many of us are working on portfolios that consist almost entirely of legislation. These are generally one- to two-page affairs promulgating laws; they are the end product of all those projets de decret and rapports we’ve cataloged for so long.  Unlike the bulk of those proposals and reports (and other materials like plays, sermons, what have you)–which are organized alphabetically by author and can therefore have large swathes of pamphlets on similar subjects–the laws are organized numerically, giving a cross-section of what was on the mind and the docket of the government in a given period.

Laws from the portfolio Case folio FRC 9712-9756

Laws from the portfolio Case folio FRC 9712-9756

Since these pamphlets tend to be short and their structure is formulaic by definition, the cataloging experience can be topically kaleidoscopic. For fun, recently, I decided to jot down the gist* of every item I worked on for a day.  What follows is my highly unscientific gloss of a portion of FRC 10330: a portfolio of 107 individual decrees issued by the Convention nationale in the spring of 1793.

  • Cadavers and air quality (exhalaisons funestes)
  • Founding of the Tribunal revolutionnaire
  • Gunpowder and saltpeter import/export
  • Customs officials–salaries
  • Paris must sell flour cheap to bakeries
  • Guards troops for the Convention nationale, Tribunal de cassation, Ministère de la justice
  • Notaries… refugee property/acts
  • Certificates of residence
  • Abolition of the Maison royale de Saint-Louis
  • Death penalty for proposing subversive land tenure legislation
  • Émigré‘s property and aliens
  • Public welfare
  • Annexation of territory (Belgium and Germany)
  • “Payeurs de la guerre” are not to be drafted
  • Municipalities must plant the fallow land of émigrés
  • Restitution
  • Hotel de la monnaie de paris — inventory and mint
  • Planting unsowed émigré land
  • Slight emendation to some previous law
  • Legislators who were judges but left some decisions unsigned must figure out how to get that taken care of
  • Decrees against émigrés — civil death, etc.
  • Military enlistment, measures against desertion and illegal arms sales
  • Service du genie–recruiting from Ecole nationale des ponts et chaussées
  • Lifting embargo of Hansa town ships and abolishing privateering of same
  • Inventories for former civil listers and royal households
  • Sedition and punishment for printers, colporteurs, etc.
  • Freight tax on grain from Italy suspended
  • Passports of recognized foreign diplomats not suspended
  • Government sale of royal and church property
  • Repealing the law prohibiting legislators from being pamphleteers
  • Weapons industry employees exempt from draft
  • Transportation of rags; import tax on foods and other merchandise
  • Covering operating and maintenance cost for buildings and establishments from the former civil list
  • Where grain is too expensive, it will be supported with public funds lifted from the wealthiest
  • Argenterie–turning confiscated Belgian silverware into coin
  • Founding the Comité du salut public

This small sampling offers up some of their preoccupations: keeping people fed, dealing with the draft, filling the coffers, quashing sedition.  And, of course, alongside the quotidian and the bureaucratic is the momentous: the founding of the Tribunal revolutionnaire (Case folio FRC 10330 no. 19) and the Comité du salut public (Case folio FRC 10330 no. 54)–those embodiments of the Reign of Terror.

Decrets relatifs a la formation d'un tribunal criminel extraordinaire

Case folio FRC 10330 no. 19

Decrets relatifs a la formation & composition d'un comite de salut public

Case folio FRC 10330 no. 54

What these pamphlets lack in panache, they make up for in surprise encounters like these.  Taken collectively, they give a Cook’s tour of the halls of French government.

*Fear not, librarian friends: the Library of Congress Subject Headings in the actual records pass muster.

Stamps and devices in the French Revolution Collection

As part of the terms of our “rapid cataloging” project for the French Revolution Collection, we catalogers do not typically describe ornamentation on the pamphlets. Title vignettes as well as head- and tail-pieces tend to go unmentioned, in part because they occur frequently on French publications from this time period. However, I have seen several instances of stamps or unusual printed devices that I thought worth tracking in the catalog.

Case FRC 12299

Stamp description: Trefoil with crown and scepter.
Case FRC 12299 “Rapport fait par Jean-Alban Lefiot, député du département de la Nièvre, d’une mission qu’il a commencé à remplir…”

This stamp appears at the end of the pamphlet text, and is consistent with the content, which focuses on counterrevolutionaries among the French government employees. It uses iconography that is readily attributed to the two social classes of the Ancien Régime attacked by the Revolution: the trefoil for the clergy and the scepter and crown to represent royalists.

Case FRC 13411

Case FRC 14585

Case FRC 15495

Stamp description: Reclining woman holding a caduceus, “45 cent.”
Case FRC 13411 “Hÿmne à J.J. Rousseau,” Case FRC 14585 “Le mouvement français,” and Case FRC 15495 “Hymne en mémoire des succès de la République.”

This stamp appears on three different pamphlets, each in differing levels of legibility. Since the stamp includes a reference to a price (45 cent[imes]) and all three pamphlets were issued from the same publisher/bookseller (or music seller in this case), this stamp appears to be a price stamp, perhaps from the time of issue. The main figure is a reclining woman bearing a caduceus. Based on typical iconography, this could be a representation of the goddess Iris, who served as a divine messenger among other things, though this would be a fairly grand way of heralding an item’s cost. Below, I include a processed version that layers the stamp images to reconstruct a clearer view.

Processed reconstruction of Case FRC 13411 and Case FRC 14585

Stamp description: Republican Colossus.
Case FRC 14181 “Discours prononcé par P.C.L. Boudin, député par le département des Ardennes…” (published in Paris) and Case FRC 14188 (the same title, published in Nîmes)

Case FRC 14181

Case FRC 14188

You are perhaps familiar with the modern French government’s use of “Marianne” as a national symbol. A similar female figure representing Liberty was also used during the early stages of the French Revolution, but during the radical-leaning Reign of Terror (1793-1794), members of the French government wanted a more powerful image. Lynn Hunt’s 1983 article, “Hercules and the Radical Image in the French Revolution” gives a lengthy history about the revolutionary French government’s selection of a representative figure during the Terror. Artist Jacques-Louis David was in charge of designing the figure, and he settled on a colossal Hercules to be used as an image for the government’s seal and also as a large piece of public sculpture. Hunt indicates in her article that she had not found an extant example of the seal having been cast. I think our pamphlets might contain examples of that very seal, which closely resemble Augustin Dupré’s sketch for the engraving that appears in Hunt’s article. Our examples of the device include a Hercules figure (carrying his characteristic club) who holds two smaller figures in his hand. Hunt describes these two figures as being miniature versions of Equality (holding a balance) and Liberty (with a Phrygian cap).

Heads will roll: the trial and execution of Louis XVI

For the past few months, I have shifted gears to work exclusively on cataloging the Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collection. The Louis collection overlaps with the French Revolutionary Collection (FRC) in that it contains pamphlets from the same time and place, but its scope is much more specific: it is composed solely of items related to King Louis XVI’s fall from political grace, from  his 1791 escape attempt and the 1792 seige of the Tuileries to his trial and final moments at the guillotine. The vast majority of the pamphlets are from 1792 and 1793, although a few earlier pieces from 1789 onward report the earliest revolutionary grumblings against the king (referred to increasingly by his many detractors as the “tyrant” or “despot”).

Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collection

The Louis XVI collection came to us already compiled in its present form, consisting of 15 volumes of pink cartonnage bindings filled with loose pamphlets. It has been suggested that the unknown 19th-century compiler may have been a royalist sympathizer due to the high number of pro-monarchy pieces, but the collection includes many vehemently anti-monarchy pamphlets as well. Royalist or not, the mystery compiler was helpful enough to organize the volumes by subject. Earlier volumes revolve around topics such as evidence against the king, dramatic or satirical pieces about his reign and trial, and reflections on his execution. The final seven volumes contain the published opinions of each member of the Convention nationale, who took responsibility for accusing, judging, and sentencing Louis.

The earliest debates about what to do with the deposed king revolved around whether Louis could legally be judged at all, when the Constitution of 1791—held sacrosanct in loyalty oaths taken by all legislators—had declared him inviolable. Yet many legislators dismissed this claim, arguing that prior to being formally deposed in 1792, the king had effectively abdicated the throne when he began engaging in “treasonous activities,” a nebulous collection of unsubstantiated charges ranging from conspiracy with foreign rulers to deliberately causing a widespread famine in France. The abdicated king could therefore be judged like any other citizen: égalité!

Next came the debate over whether the Convention nationale, as a legislative body, was fit to try the king. Many questioned whether legislators serving as judges might violate the separation of powers and blur the line between accuser and judge, given that several Convention members had already made public their opinions on the king’s guilt. If Louis was to be judged like any other citizen, some pointed out, he should be given a fair trial. In pamphlets issued during the trial, several members carefully specified that they were giving their opinions as legislators and not as judges, a role in which they felt unqualified to serve. Others, however, countered that since Louis must be judged for the sake of national security, and since the Constitution had not set forth the proper procedure for trying a monarch, Louis must be tried by the people. And in a representative government, who better to stand in for the voice of the people than its elected Convention?  This appel au peuple, however, was ultimately rejected.

Once Louis was found guilty, the final question was that of punishment. Prompt execution was not a given, but rather the most extreme of several options, among them banishment, extended imprisonment, or a suspended death sentence. In their published pamphlets, the lawmaker-judges argued at length about which punishment was in the best interests of national security, in light of France’s increasingly tenuous relationship with the monarchs of Europe. Capital punishment won out, and Louis was guillotined on January 21, 1793.

Although the Reign of Terror did not begin until the summer of 1793, the Convention’s arguments over Louis’s fate presage some of the justifications later made for the arbitrary political violence of that period. Politicians spoke of national security, democratic principles, terrorists, and the necessity of emergency measures. Impassioned speeches and hyperbolic descriptions of a vulnerable nation beset by traitors and conspiracies resulted in a conviction and execution that were legally questionable at best. While Louis XVI may well have been guilty of many of the charges leveled against him, and not the deceived, unfortunate, or ignorant monarch his defenders claimed him to be, the pamphlets of the Louis XVI collection suggest to me that, even before the Terror, cooler heads did not prevail.

Pamphlets as artifacts

On a basic level, handling a piece of history dating back to the 1790s or earlier is awe-inspiring. These pamphlets were not necessarily intended to stand the test of time—they were printed and distributed rapidly, and much of the content addresses volatile events in contemporary politics. Through handling these documents, I have really gotten a sense of their importance as a medium for the continuous dissemination of information, misinformation, propaganda and political discourse. They include everything from personal defenses against libelous accusations (especially frequent—and dangerous—during the Reign of Terror) to the opinionated speeches of legislators who were not given floor time (as they often indignantly note on the first page) and took their words to press instead. There are biting satires of prominent figures, lyrics to patriotic songs, and elaborate justifications for the mounting political violence of the time period. These are supplemented and contextualized by the less striking but equally important pamphlets on taxation, legislation, mortgages, public finance, and more. Many of the pamphlets deal with highly specific subjects, what might even be called the minutiae of the French Revolution, but when taken together they form a more comprehensive picture of the time period.