Sunday, 30 March 2014

Denis Monnet - working-class hero?

Although he is scarcely more than a name, working-class Lyon has long celebrated the life of the "virtuous canut" Denis Monnet.   Pierre Charnier,  leader of the early 19th-century workers' movement and founder of "Mutuellisme" chose to live in the same quartier, rue Peyrollerie, now the Quai Pierre Scize. In 2011 Monnet was commemorated on the Left-wing Lyonnais website REBELLYON (great pun!) - see refs. below.

It is no doubt convenient to have a popular Revolutionary hero other than politically-loaded (and in any case pretty crazy) Joseph Chalier.  The only problem is, Denis Monnet was on the wrong side.  He was not a Jacobin; he fought for the Lyon Federalists (and therefore the bourgeoisie) and was guillotined in November 1793 when Revolutionary forces regained control of the city.  He was executed "unjustly" say the modern commentators;  but are they right?

The Australian historian Bill Edmonds has researched Monnet's career thoroughly and offers  an answer to this question.  The following is a summary of his findings:

Monnet's early life 

There is almost no information.  Monnet was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1750 and apparently had some legal training before becoming a silk weaver, but under what circumstances we do not know.  He had qualified as a master weaver by 1786 so at this point he had been in the profession for at least five years.  He was poor, for in 1790 he did not pay sufficient tax to qualify as an éligible in the Lyonnais municipal elections.

In November 1786, following the August protests, Monnet was arrested and accused of seeking to revive agitation by circulating appeals for another strike and by providing a "rallying point" for the weavers.  After two months' imprisonment he was released without being brought to trial but was now firmly identified as a spokesman for the weavers' cause. 

Monnet and the early Revolution in Lyon

1789 was the highpoint in the struggles of the weavers of 18th-century Lyon.  In February the Grande Fabrique, in common with other guild organisations, was designated as a primary assembly for elections to the Third Estate. The master weavers took advantage of their superior numbers to exclude merchants from their delegation of electors; they howled down the opposition and returned only weavers, "above all the most turbulent ones"- among them Denis Monnet. (see Wahl p.55-57)  Their representation was subsequently whittled down, but a new spirit of confidence prevailed and demands were renewed for a just and binding tarif.  Monnet and a few associates organised a protest lobby, drew up petitions and in April even travelled to Versailles to press the weavers' case, with the result that by the end of 1789 they succeeded in clawing back the legal framework for a tarif guaranteeing better wages. The "Patriot" municipality which unseated the municipal oligarchy in 1790 was also sympathetic.  On May 5th 1790  Monnet was elected by acclamation to preside over a meeting of thirty-five maîtres-fabricants which took place in the Cathedral, expelled merchants from the corporation and chose him as their m

"Even if one considers silk workers only as mechanical instruments in the manufacture of cloth, abstracted from their quality as men; even if they are treated as domestic animals, they must still be given subsistence if one does not want soon to be frustrated of their work!" (p.26)

Mémoire of the silk-weavers of Lyon, 1790 - probably composed by Denis Monnet.

Monnet's later Revolutionary career 

From1790 onwards the suppression of the guilds and the onward momentum of Revolutionary politics tended to subsume the interests of the silk weavers in the wider popular struggle.  Monnet remained committed to the Revolutionary cause.  In December 1790 he created a stir and gained credence with the Lyon "patriots" when he denounced a supposed counter-revolutionary conspiracy - apparently he had been approached to entice his "followers" into rebellion on the mistaken grounds that workers in a luxury industry would see salvation in the royalist cause.  Meanwhile he was active as president of the Port Saint-Paul sectional assembly, campaigning against the octrois and demanding harsh penalties for those who protested against the Civil Constitution of the Clergy "on the vain pretext of religion".  A pamphlet printed by the popular society of the Saint-Vincent section praised him as champion of the silk workers and guardian of national liberty.

At this time too Monnet was drawn into more elevated Revolutionary circles as the protegé of  François Billemaz, juge de paix,  friend of Roland, and leading light in the patriot club movement, who engaged him as his secretary and published a lengthy eulogy of his civic virtues.  In November 1791, with the Rolandists in the ascendant, he was elected as a notable to the municipal council.

Despite the subsequent shift away of popular support , Monnet remained loyal to the Rolandists.  Having  lost all office for a time, he re-emerged as president of the Port Saint-Paul section, where in May 1792 he secured the election of  anti-Jacobin candidates onto a new sectional comité de surveillance

According to Bill Edmonds, Monnet's viewpoint challenges the simplistic identification of "Federalism" as a bourgeois or anti-populist movement. His example was not in fact so unusual but reflected the division and complex conflict which cut across the popular movement and resulted in the spread of  anti-Jacobinism to nearly a third of the sections of Lyon by February 1793The documents reveal Monnet's horror of Jacobin revolutionary improvisation, of uncontrolled popular violence and confiscatory taxation, and his identification of Lyon's troubles with the arrival of Chalier.  In his eyes, the Rolandists represented respect for constituted authority and a fruitful  co-operation between elected magistrates and popular societies.  In Lyon it was the Federalists rather than the Jacobins  who were the champions of sectional permanence and direct democracy.  No doubt the Federalist ideal masked an element of bourgeois control over the municipality, but there were also genuine popular gains such as the democratisation of the National Guard - culminating in the election of a weaver Joseph Juillard as commandant-général in March 1792.

In June 1793 Monnet was was active in the arrest of supposed "Jacobins" and in the collection of weapons for the rebel army.  He backed the "Federalist" cause and served it even after 12th July when the Convention outlawed all those who had held civil or military posts in the insurrectionary government.  With such a record, Monnet's death sentence as an enemy of the Revolution was a mere formality

Denis Monnet was executed on 27 November 1793 (8 frimaire Year II)  He was 43 years old.


Bill Edmonds, "A study in popular anti-Jacobinism: the career of Denis Monnet" French Historical Studies vol.13(2) 1983 p.215-51. [on JStor]

See also:
Bill Edmonds, "The rise and fall of popular democracy in Lyon, 1789-1795" (pdf) p.248-9

David L. Longfellow, "Silk weavers and the social struggle in Lyon during the French Revolution, 1789-94", French Historical Studies, vol.12(1) 1981 p.1-40. [on JStor]

Maurice Wahl, Les premières années de la Révolution à Lyon, 1788-1792 (1894)

Articles from REBELLYON, a Lyon-based "anti-authoritarian" web-journal:.
5th May 1790: the canuts decide to govern themselves!
27th November 1793: the virtuous canut Denis Monnet is guillotined.

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