Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The coat of a regicide

Vêtement du régicide Damiens, 1757,
Paris, Archives nationales
This coat belonged to the would-be regicide Robert-François Damiens, who was spectacularly executed in 1757 following an ineffectual attempt to stab Louis XV with a penknife. It was one of the items included in the exhibition La Bastille ou "l'enfer des vivants" held at the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal - home to the archives of the Bastille -  in November 2010-February 2011.  The coat was conserved with the judicial papers relating to Damiens's trial in the Archives judiciaires, once housed in the Palais de Justice and now part of the National Archives.  Lady Morgan saw them on a visit to the Palais in 1829-30:
"Close to the papers of the trial of Damiens, in an old box, was his coat, the coat he wore when he was dragged from his dungeon, to be_______but there is no dwelling on such subjects.  In the same box was the rope by which the Count de _____(I forget the name) escaped the Bastille  What singular relics!"
 France in 1829-30.vol.2, p.56.

Also included in the exhibition were Damien's rosary and a set of four assorted knives belonging to members of his family - who were arrested, interrogated and presently banished, although they could not be implicated in Damien's crime.

Chapelet du régicide Damiens, 1757 Archives nationales

La Bastille ou "l'enfers des vivants" exhibition press release & video:

Virtual visit

Other pictures:

On the archives of the Bastille

The horrible showpiece execution of the pathetic Damiens for the grand crime of lèse-majesté is a dark blot on the "century of light".There is a famous description by Michel Foucault in the opening pages of his Discipline and punish, which you can read if you so wish; here it is in English translation:
"1757: Robert-Francois Damiens, disciplined and punished"  Executed today,  post of March 28th 2008

Here are the wise comments of Professor Jack McManners:
"It is the historian's duty to go back, sympathetically, into the minds of former generations.  But there are areas of their thought where we cannot penetrate except to record without comprehension, areas opaque to our understanding, where sympathy dies.  It is difficult to make the effort of the imagination and accompany the men of the past on their way to a public execution - on the way to the Place de Grève in Paris in 1757, for example, to see Damiens slowly pulled to pieces by horses because he he had lifted his hand against the King.  It is more difficult still to accompany the women of quality who had hired strategic windows for the occasion and, we are told, proved to be less squeamish than the men....Sensitive people were sickened by this ritual of terror.  Louis XV himself was sunk in gloom on the day of the execution, and spent the afternoon praying for his would-be assassin.  The comte Dufort de Ceverny spent the day away from Paris with his wife and two friends (whose names he gives "to pay tribute to their humanity") with instructions that on his return no one should speak of what had happened.  The pious duc de Luynes shuddered at the part he had had to play in the trial and condemnation.  But not one voice was raised to say that Damiens should be executed in a less outrageous fashion." Death and the Enlightenment, 1985 (p.383-4)

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