Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Scandalous societies: the "Order of Felicity"

The Marquis de Chambonas - founder of the Order

The "Order of Felicity" was one of a number of secret societies of dubious intent which grew up around the early flowering of French Freemasonry in the mid-century. It was founded around 1740 by Scipion-Louis-Joseph de La Garde, marquis de Chambonas (d.1765), a known Freemason, who is identified as its Grand Master. Chambonas belonged to an ancient noble family from the Auvergne and Gévaudan, with an attractive ancestral château in the Ardèche.  The family was closely allied with the duc and duchesse of Maine, and probably resided mainly at Sceaux, where Chambonas's father was Gentleman of the Bedchamber to the duke. Socially they were on the ascendant

Chambonas fils enjoyed a respectable military career. He was Lieutenant du roi to the Estates of Languedoc and colonel of the régiment du Maine, which in 1736 became the régiment d'Eu. He participated in the battles of Guastalla (1734), Dettingen (1743) and on the eve of Fontenoy was named Brigadier des armées du roi (1744). He finally rose to the rank of Maréchal de camp (1746).

A  youthful marquis is depicted in picture by  Nattier sold at auction in 2010 and which until 1973 hung over the staircase in the Château de Chambonas. It is a fashionable piece, with Chambonas dressed as an antique hunter, not looking terribly military.  It may commemorate his first marriage in 1722 to Claire-Marie de Ligne  - the spear is a symbol of virility and the dog denotes fidelity.  It has to be said, the existence of the Order of Felicity does not inspire confidence in the marquis's wedding vows!
 "Portrait présumé de Scipion Louis Joseph de la Garde par Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766)", post by Alain.R.Truong, 30th April 2012

Chambonas organised his society along Masonic lines and affected a maritime theme. The Order's symbol was an anchor, or an anchor attached to a heart by a green cord. There were three  grades of adherents: mousse (cabin-boy) , patron,  patron salé, and finally chef d'escadre  ("escadre" = a naval squadron).  Four "commissions" ("brevets") survive, issued by Chambonas to his chefs d’escadre; all, like Chambonas himself, were Freemasons; some, were fellow infantry officers.  They can be situated in Paris and  a variety of  provincial towns: Lyon, Valence, Crest, Romans,as well as  Metz, Ay en Champagne, Chalons, Yverdon, Avignon, Nice Bordeaux, and Caen.

Diploma of chef d'escadre signed by the marquis de Chambonas

The Felicity - an "ordre mixte"

The distinguishing feature of the society - and the source of its dubious reputation - was its admission of women. This ties in with similar experiments elsewhere:  Margaret Jacob, the historian of early Freemasonry, suggests that the first Masonic lodges to receive women appeared in the middle of the century, at Marseille, Bordeaux (L'Anglaise) in 1746, at Brioude (Saint-Julien) in 1747; at Iena in 1748 at Copenhagan in 1750 and at the Hague (Loge de Juste) in 1751.  Unlike the later Loges d'adoption, these were mixed gatherings and did not have separate female rites. Significantly,Valentin-Philippe Bertin du Rocheret (1693-1762), who was  Chambonas's chef d'escadre in Ay, was author of an early Apologie for Freemasonry addressed to the "beau sexe" in 1736.

Women received in the mixed Masonic "Order of Mopses", founded c.1740 in Bavaria
Engraving of c.1775

Was the "Order of Felicity" a respectable, if not altogether serious, forerunner of the later Masonic Loges d'Adoption or just an excuse for debauchery?  Later commentators were divided. Among contemporary references, the Mercure de France for May 1746 alludes simply to "the Order of Felicity, a new association that has laws and gatherings which are more gallant than those of the Freemasons".  In a similar vein a letter of March 1746 from the chef d'escadre at Châlons reports that the reception of "tout ce qu'il y a de plus jolies dames et demoiselles" had caused much excitement in the town.  Somewhat more  damning is a Police report for 1745 which denounces a project by five or six seigneurs to enroll actresses from the Opéra, including the famous dancer "la Carton" in the Order which has as its object "to drink well, eat well etc."(presumably with emphasis on the etcetera!).

Writings on the Order

Despite the aura of secrecy, the Order was not short of apologists and publications intended to give a titillating flavour of the goings-on.  Evidence of authorship is not watertight; there is even some question that there may have been two separate "Orders of Felicity".(see the article by Jean-Luc Quoy-Bodin).  The main protagonist was the  journalist Jean-Baptiste Moët, remembered today chiefly as the French translator of Swedenborg. In the 1760s  Moët was to rise to giddy heights in the world of Masonry as General Secretary, Grand Orator then President of the Grande Loge de France. At this time, however, he was a young man of twenty five.
Dictionnaire des journalistes: "Jean Pierre MOET (1721-1806)"

In the pamphlets ascribed to him,  Moët  insists (possibly disingenuously) that the Felicity was not "an Order of the bottle and of debauchery " at least not in its well-regulated branches. Every effort was made not to offend Religion, the State or “bonne moeurs”.(L'Antropophile, p.45)  He defends the admission of women and claims that  the solidarity of the Order depends on "perfect equality".   Women are received as "brothers" since they are "the touchstone of character and good taste”. In ceremonies they are decently covered to prevent jealousies and  avoid lecherous male eyes  (p.49-50).

The sole aim of the Order, says Moët, is happiness:  “The world is my brother and my friend, with a stroke of the pen I want to banish the shadows and reveal without diversion or trickery, the secret of making men as happy as I am."  He advocates a restrained hedonism, "the sweet and agreeable scent of pleasant, easy and benevolent virtue, which captivates all hearts and makes them love their chains.” (Apologie p.33)

The various sources describe a great deal of silly ceremonial and mystic nonsense very similar in tenor to that of the the later Loges d'Adoption.  An anonymous pamphlet of 1748 - sometimes ascribed to the parlementaire Jacques Fleury -  reproduces a speech made by an “orator” of the Order. He has two basic conceits:  the nautical theme of navigation to an “Island of Felicity” and, more ambitiously,  the recovery of the lost happiness of the Garden of Eden.  In a mischievously blasphemous version of Genesis, Adam becomes the first chevalier of the Order and  Eve the first chevalière;  the Reception ceremony renews the original oath of Adam and Eve before the Fall;  thus, we are told, the delights of Eden are regained  under the guidance of "our sublime Grand-Maitre Mr. de Chambonas” (p.30-34)  The speaker makes much of oaths, mysteries and the secret language of signs.  However, the reference to "nos saintes orgies" doesn't seem too sinister; it would appear that the main aim of the "Brothers and Sisters"  is merely to "sing, dance, laugh and drink" (etcetera?)

Apart from its arcane rites the main activity of the Order seems to have been feasting, with members participated in regular dinners which they financed jointly.  They were supposed to converse using coded nautical terms, with fines for non-adherence. Moët was quite happy to reproduce a dictionary of this maritime vocabulary, despite its preoccupation not only with banqueting but with sexual innuendo.  There are titillating references to the  female anatomy -  "promontory" for breasts,  "capstan" for thighs, "dry dock" for belly and the like - to say nothing of "reefing the sails" for lifting up a skirt!   The hierarchy of the Order was also referred to with special passwords based on acronyms; "felicitas" for the chefs d'escadre seems harmless but for patron salé the acronym is of "Fenouil, Orange, Violette, Thym, Renoncule, Épine-vinette" (Spell it out; it is not polite!).  The songs of the Order - again from  Moët - are equally bawdy.  This feels more schoolboy humour than serious debauchery. But added to the component of blasphemy, we can safely conclude that the Order was far from respectable!

The heyday of the Order of Felicity was shortlived. It reached its apogee in the late 1740s and fell swiftly into decline, despite a brief attempt at revival by Chambonas's son in the early 1770s; thus Bachaumont, writing in 1770, dismisses it as "The Order of Felicity which fell into contempt and no longer exists".

List of 18th-century works

Jean-Baptiste Moët(?) Apologie de la Félicité, qui doit servir d'introduction à son histoire, 1746, 26

Jean-Baptiste Moët L'antropophile, ou Le secret et les mistères de l'Ordre de la Félicité dévoilés pour le bonheur de tout l'univers .Arctopolis (Paris), 1746

 Anonymous, L’Ordre hermaphrodite, ou les Secrets de la Sublime Félicité, Au Jardin d’Eden, Nicolas Marin, 1748, 54 p.

Other references

" L'Ordre de la Félicité" in  Musée virtuel de la musique maçonnique    07-Jan-2014
This website also reproduces some songs:    24-Nov-2013    07-Jan-2014

Hugues Plaideux, "Claude Bourgelat, la Franc-maçonnerie mixte et l'Ordre de la Félicité"éd.sci.vét., 2013, 13 : 109-130.
Claude Bourgelat, who was  an 18th-century pioneer of veterinary science, was a member of the Order in Lyon - the article has a good summary of the evidence for the Order.

Jean-Luc Quoy-Bodin"Autour de deux sociétés secrètes libertines sous Louis XV: l'Ordre de la Félicité et l'Ordre Hermaphrodite"Revue Historique  (1986) 276(1): pp. 57-84 [available on JStor]

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