Thursday, 28 May 2015

Inside the mind of Robert-François Damiens

Contemporary engraving (Bibl. nat)
Despite  unremitting attempts to unearth a wider conspiracy, his  judges were finally forced to admit that  Robert-François Damiens had acted alone in his ineffectual attempt to stab the King. What was his motivation?  The following is summarised from Dale K. Van's book The Damiens Affair (Princeton University Press, 1984)

There was certainly nothing obvious in Damiens's early life to account for his later dramatic behaviour.  His career was remarkable mainly for its recalcitrant banality.  He had been born in the tiny village of Tieulloy in Artois, the son of a poor labourer called Pierre-Joseph Damiens and his wife Marie Guillemant.  He was thus forty-two years old at the time of his attempt on the King's life, though Damiens himself, like many men of the time, did not know his exact age.  At the time of his arrest he was an unemployed domestic servant of no fixed address.  He had a wife, Elizabeth Molerienne , whom he had married in 1739, and a seventeen year old daughter,as well as a younger brother, also a servant, living in Paris; his aged father and older brother, Antoine-Joseph and a widowed younger sister Catherine remained in Artois, in Saint-Omer.

Following his mother’s death in 1729 the young Damiens had been sent to be raised by his maternal great-uncle, a well-to do grain merchant and cabaret owner  in nearby Béthune.  He had resisted his uncle’s well-meaning attempts to have him educated and subsequently to apprentice him to a local locksmith; he spent a couple of years as an apprentice wig maker or cook, then left Artois for good.  He became servant to a captain in the Swiss regiment and accompanied his master on several campaigns, most notably to the siege of Phillipsburg in 1734.  There is little to substantiate the “official” conclusion that he was unruly from “his tenderest  youth”, still less that he earned himself the epithet of “Robert the devil”.  He himself testified only that he had no taste for study, was possessed of a “youthful levity” and wanted to see the world. 

L'horrible attentat du 5 janvier 1757 Engraving. Château de Versailles
After he contracted a fever at Phillipsburg, he left military life and settled in Paris where he found employment as a domestic servant.  His career was unexceptional, though, in an age when servants were integrated into the household and loyalty expected, he changed masters with discreditable frequency, and attracted criticism for his “impertinances” and “vivacities”. From 1736  to 1739 or 1740 he worked (though not continuously) at the Jesuit College Louis-le-grand in the rue St-Jacques as a [potboy] and lackey.  His final dismissal was blamed on “impertinences he said against the Jesuits”; it probably coincided with his marriage since servants were  normally required to live-in as bachelors.  He appears to have remained on relatively good terms with the Jesuit fathers, particularly Père de Launay who recommended him for a position as late as 1753.  

Engraving by Augustin de Saint-Aubin (Bibl.nat.)
 In the 1740s Damiens went through a rapid catalogue of masters, lasting only a few months with each, punctuated by periods of unemployment. A particular crisis occurred in 1753 and 1754  when he was taken on for two separate periods by Bèze de Lys,a councillor in the parlement of Paris and an ardent Jansenist.  His first engagement was terminated by his master's  imprisonment in the fortress of Pierre-en-Cise in Lyon. Prior to this time there are testimonies to Damiens being a competent and faithful servant; from then on  "impertinences" - implying over-familiarity and rudeness towards his social superiors -  increased. He affected the nickname/pseudonym "Flammand" His family remained loyal, but testified to his erratic behaviour and taste for mystification.  His wife could not even remember with certainty the names of the masters he had served.

On 6th June 1756  Damiens crossed the line into criminality when he stole 240 louis from the last of his masters, the merchant Jean Michel. Up to this point he had no history of theft. Perhaps he was motivated by the financial difficulties of his family in Artois who were engaged in a legal dispute over inheritance at the time.  Certainly he fled  immediately to Saint-Omer where he attempted to lavish money and gifts on his brother and his widowed younger sister.  He is reported to have carried off his brother, a journeyman wool carder, to a local cabaret where began "to spend money as if it were hay". The family,  were having none of it;  informed of the theft, they immediately confronted him.  Damiens went to the apothecary, acquired arsenic and attempted suicide. During the sickness which ensued he constantly refused to restitute the money or to confess to a priest,but railed constantly against the dishonesty and bigotry of the clergy. 
Damien in prison (Bibl.nat)

On July 16th the Châtelet officially ordered Damien's arrest.  Having parted from his brother in Ypres, for the next five months he frittered away his time aimlessly in Flemish and Artesian cabarets and auberges, exhibiting behaviour which today would surely be recognised as psychotic, and which in retrospect was clearly prefigured in his earlier career. He seems to have been tormented by guilt.  He drank heavily, stayed alone in his room, became agitated and upset when approached and on several occasions had himself bled to excess "so the bad blood could get out".  One witness who shared a room with him reported how he had talked to himself the whole night long, and finally barricaded himself in the cellar of a cabaret.  Curiously, the judges placed little emphasis on these evident symptoms of "folly", probably because they were convinced Damiens could not have acted alone and were intent on unravelling a political conspiracy.

In fact, as Dale Van Kley notes, Damiens himself was quite explicit as to his motivation.  Although the judges took little notice, he repeatedly maintained that the reason for his actions was "religion". He claimed, with some plausibility, that his intention had not been to kill the King but to "touch" him and  thereby "prompt him to restore all things to order and tranquility in his States".  He pointed out that he had used a short knife and had made no attempt to repeat his blow.  When asked what he meant by "religion", he explained that the sacraments should not be refused to people who lived holy lives,and coupled this with comments on the poverty and misery of the people. The King should be persuaded "to dispense justice, and cease heeding the pernicious advice of his ministers".  Damiens thus echoed the views of Jansenist magistrates like his former master Bèze de Lys, together with common popular concerns about poverty, taxes and the high price of bread.  Perhaps he formed his "execrable design" in the long hours of waiting for his master in the rooms of the Palais de justice, where he was privy to the loud discourses of "lawyers, councillors and ecclesiastics".   Under torture, he admitted that, when "returning from the Parlement", he had heard a Jansenist remark that, if someone could "hit" the King, the Archbishop of Paris might be prevented from further refusal of sacraments.  Fellow domestics reported he was in the habit of conducting mock trials of the Archbishop. Interest in the religious conflicts of the day were in fact widespread among servants and ordinary people;  lackeys wearing the Archbishop's livery had been so insulted and set upon that they were forced to travel incognito. Damiens stood out mainly in "the degree of his personal and psychotic involvement" (Van Kley, p.).  He reportedly took a keen interest in the unfolding refusal of the sacraments crisis, even during his time on the run in Artois. It would seem he hit upon  the assassination attempt as an expiation for his theft; he would wipe out his personal guilt with a great act of service to the state and "die like Jesus Christ amid pain and torments" (a wish which was amply fulfilled)
In the last days of December Damiens took the mail-coach back to Paris, entering via the barrière Saint-Martin. He made contact with his younger brother and was reunited with his wife, with whom he stayed for a few days in the rue du Cimetière Saint-Nicolas des Champs where she worked as a cook. He left the remainder of the stolen money in a bag in her room where she could find it.  At 11pm on night of January 3rd he boarded a coach to Versailles and the next day found himself a room in an inn on the rue Satory.  On the morning of 5th January, Damiens asked to have himself bled; he left the inn around 10 o'clock in the morning and was noticed at 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon by a guard in the courtyard of the château. The fateful attack on the King took place at 5.45pm.


Dale K. Van Kley The Damiens Affair and the Unraveling of the Ancien Regime, 1750-1770 Princeton University Press (1984)

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