Sunday, 24 April 2016

Armand Arouet, Voltaire's Jansenist brother

 "I  have two fools for sons, one in prose and the other in verse"
Attributed to François Arouet, father of Voltaire: 
 (Duvernet, Vie de Voltaire p.35)

"I used to have a Jansenist brother;  his ferocious manner gave me a distaste for 'the party'"
Letter of Voltaire to the marquis d'Argens, August 1752

Armand, brother of Voltaire

It is a fascinating, if little known, fact that Voltaire's elder brother Armand was a fanatical Jansenist.  Frustratingly, we know very little about him; Voltaire's writings amount to several million words but he is almost entirely silent on the subject of his family. Most of the information available derives from the researches of  Auguste Gazier who in 1906 published an article in the Revue des Deux Mondes entitled  "Le frère de Voltaire".

Armand Arouet was born on 22 March 1685, the oldest surviving child of François Arouet, a notary in the Châtelet court and Marie-Marguerite Daumard the daughter of a minor official of the Parlement of Paris. He was baptised on 5th April in the church of Saint-Germain-le-Vieil on the Île de la Cité.  His sister Marguerite-Catherine was born in December 1686 followed almost nine years later, in February 1694 by the youngest child, François-Marie, the future Voltaire.  In September 1696  Arouet père bought the hereditary office of receveur des épices (judicial fees rather than "spices") in the Chambre des Comptes and moved the family into substantial lodgings in the complex of buildings which made up the Palais de Justice.  He was well-to-do; he paid 240,000 livres for his post, over a thousand times the annual wage of a manual worker.  He owned two houses in Paris, one in the rue Saint-Denis and the other in the rue Maubué, as well as a sizeable property in the country at Gentilly. In 1709 he married his daughter to another wealthy magistrate, Pierre-François Mignot.  As well as his official post, François Arouet clearly had a substantial private legal practice; he is known to have administered the finances of the duc de Saint-Simon and at the time of his death held a promissory note from the duchesse These connections probably account for Armand's surprisingly illustrious godparents: his godfather was no less a person than Jean du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, the nephew of Cardinal Richelieu and his godmother was the aforementioned duchesse de Saint-Simon, Charlotte de l'Aubespine.  It is often remarked that Voltaire's godparents were notably less illustrious - a fact interpreted by René Pomeau and others as evidence of  his supposed illegitimacy.  Of the shared childhood of the two brothers, no echo remains, apart form a single letter of January 1744 addressed to Voltaire in which a certain Mlle Jonquet is mentioned as having cajoled the youthful Armand into having some teeth pulled. (see Bestermann, Voltaire, p.30)

Portrait from the Musée Lambinet  of a young man in clerical dress, for some reason "presumed to be Voltaire". There is no evidence to suppose it is Armand Arouet either, but intriguing nonetheless!  [Bridgeman Art Library]
It is one of the minor mysteries of Voltaire studies that Armand was sent to be educated by the Oratorians at Saint-Magloire, whereas Voltaire in 1704 attended the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand. The rising tide of anti-Jansenist opinion is often cited in explanation, but would be nice to know a little more about the circumstances, especially since Saint-Magloire was not a school but a seminary. In 1709 both brothers attended the marriage of their sister Marguerite-Catherine;  Armand, then aged twenty-four, was described in the register as a tonsured cleric living at Saint-Magloire. (see Gazier p.616-7). In later years he liked to be known as "the abbé Arouet". However, there is no suggestion of a religious career; Armand inherited his father's office;  the Royal Almanach lists Arouet, père et fils, as officials of the Chambre des Comptes without interruption until Armand's death in 1745.

 There was little love lost between the two brothers. The earliest mention of Armand in the works of Voltaire is in an Épître dating from 1721, in which he claimed that his Jansenist brother ("mon janséniste de frère") wanted him dead.  By this time Voltaire had published Oedipe and  his freethinking credentials were well established. On 2nd January 1722 the brothers attended their father's funeral together at the church of  Saint-Barthélémy on the Île de la Cité; the acte de decès  gave the address for both as their father's apartments in the Palais.  In all probability they quarreled further over the inheritance. Voltaire contested the will: his father had divided his estate between the children but François-Marie was only to receive the interest, with capital sum held in trust until his thirty-fifth birthday. Presumably it was Armand who acted as trustee. We hear no more  until 14 June 1727, when Voltaire wrote from Wandsworth to his friend Thiériot in English, warning him not to tell Armand about his prospective return to France and his plans to have the Henriade printed: brother, especially, is the least proper person to be trusted with such a secret, not only on account of his indiscreet temper, but also of the ill usage I have received from him since I am in England : I have tried all sorts of means to soften, if I could, the pedantic rudeness and the selfish insolence with which he has crushed me these two years. I own to you, in the bitterness of my heart, that his insufferable usage has been one of my greatest grievances.  

And the Convulsionnaires

Armand was not merely a Jansenist sympathiser but an active supporter of the Convulsionnaires.  Something of his involvement  was pieced together by Auguste Gazier from a collection of manuscript Notes historiques  (not otherwise identified?) . There are also a number of references in Mongeron's La vérité des miracles; several sources mention Armand Arouet as a regular correspondent of Montgeron and a financial contributor to the Jansenist sanctuary at Treigny, but there is no further information available on the internet.  Voltaire owned a collection of notes in his brother's hand on the Convulsionaries  which subsequently found their way to the Hermitage (Longchamp & Wagnière, Mémoires sur Voltaire 1826, vol.1, p.24; presumably these no longer exist.)

It seems that Armand was probably initiated into the Convulsionist movement by a cousin. "Monsieur Archambault, gentilhomme de Meaux, de l'illustre famille des Archambault "described as a "good soul" who gave himself wholeheartedly to the Convulsionist cause.  Archambault died in his seventies in about 1765, having "exercised" for more than thirty years, with the only interruption two years from 1738 to 1740 in the Bastille (see Gazier, p.624. According to Montgeron there were in fact two Archambault brothers Louis-Antoine and Amable François-Pierre, both holders of the office of écuyer)

Jacques-Louis de Rochebouët
[ Château de Versailles]
Convulsionist meetings took place right on Voltaire's doorstep on the Île de la Cité.at the house of the curé of Saint-Germain-le-Viel, Jacques de Rochebouët.   Rochebouët was allowed to remain in charge of his parish unmolested from 1729 to his death in 1743 despite being a partisan of convulsions "à grands secours" in which participants were violently beaten and subjected to a range of physical tortures.  It was at his house that the miraculous cure of Madeleine Durand, a young girl  from Orléans with a horrible mouth cancer,  memorably illustrated by Restout, was said to have taken place in 1733.  Montgeron reproduces a  certificate signed by Armand Arouet and dated 8 June 1736, in which he describes how she repeatedly cut her tumour with a knife, then staunched the flow of  blood using water from the diacre Pâris's well.(La vérité des miracles, vol.3: Pièce justicatif, XV).  In another passage Montgeron recounts the case of la petite Aubignan who miraculously straightened and elongated her withered leg by beating it with a stick: the assistants were astounded; among them  M. de la Croix, the archdeacon and M. Arouet, both of whom were beside themselves ["en étaient tout hors d’eux-mêmes"]  (p.628-9)

Armand Arouet's name is also associated with Marie Sonnet, also known as la Salamandre, a well-known Convulsionary who displayed apparent invulnerability to fire. She would regularly fall into a trance over a burning fire or walk on red-hot coals.  Montgeron reproduces a certificate dated 12 March 1736, testifying to a miraculous roasting in which she remained over the fire "long enough to roast a piece of mutton or veal".  Armand is one of a number of illustrious signatories including a doctor of the Sorbonne, a canon from Bayeux, three bourgeois of Paris, Montgeron himself, Boindin, seigneur of Boisbessin, and the two brothers Archambault.("Idée de l'état des convulsionnaires", p.32; in La vérité des miracles, vol.2)

La petite Aubignan in action - plate from La vérité des miracles, vol. 3, possibly by Restout.

Relations with Gabrielle Moulère

Information from Gazier's Notes historiques provides a little more circumstantial detail. It included an alphabetical catalogue of people involved in l'Oeuvre de convulsions which devotes a dozen pages to "Monsieur Arouet, Armand, known as "The Brother with the ring" ["Le frère à la bague"]  and also Brou" .(Nothing further is know about these intriguing sobriquets; he was also referred to more straightforwardly as frère Armand, sometimes also frère Ésaü.  See Dedieu, "L'agonie du Jansénisme",Revue d'histoire de l'Église de France (1928) p.189 nt.) Much of the material comes from an unpublished Journal by Gabrielle Moulère, the famous convulsionary "à grands secours".  It is to Gabrielle that we owe the only assessment of Armand's character other than Voltaire's. She thought him mentally unstable and unreliable in his support for the cause; he vacillated wildly between extreme piety and doubt:

M. Arouet was older than Voltaire by ten years:  he had a peculiar mind ("un esprit singulier"); sometimes extreme in his devotion, at other times, not knowing what to think.  It was the same with regard to the miracles of the convulsions and everything else; in everything he was peculiar.  He succeeded Monsieur his father in the commission or charge of receveur des épices in the Chambre des Comptes.  This father said of his two children:  I have two sons who are both madmen;  one is mad for devotion and the other is mad over verses and the theatre. (quoted  Gazier, p.623)

It seems that Armand was first introduced to Gabrielle by Archambault in mid-May 1735. She started a penitential fast for "the Brother with the ring"; he and several others  witnessed her subsequent prolonged trance (Gazier, p.631-2)  On 30th October 1738 she was arrested and sent to the Bastille, then on 17th December transferred to the Salpêtrière. She was only sixteen years old. She was to die in prison on 29th March 1748 at the age of twenty-six, after nine years in captivity.  Armand seems to have developed an obsession with her. The manuscript relates how he tried to bribe a priest with a donation for the poor if he would only reveal her confession. On another occasion he set off for the Opéra, but at the last minute had his coachman take him to the Salpêtrière where Gabrielle was incarcerated; he was then overcome with remorse. There are also hints of associations with other young women in Convulsionnaire circles. Gabrielle and her companions did not regard him as trustworthy. He would absent himself from their gatherings, only to return abruptly asking them to pray for him. His cousin Archambault kept an eye on him and accompanied him whenever he found him in an unbalanced frame of mind. (Gazier, p. 633)

The fire at the Chambre des Comptes (October 1737)

On Saturday 26th October 1737 between two and three in the morning, a fire unaccountably broke out the Chambre des Comptes in an unoccupied room.  A cold wind fanned the flames and, since the court was in recess, it took two hours to find anyone with the necessary authority to summon help. In the end the conflagration lasted three days, several of those fighting the fire lost their lives, and the the buildings surrounding the hôtel of the Premier Président were completely destroyed.  The flames also consumed the greater part of the court's archives.  Question were naturally asked about how the such a blaze had begun.  Barbier insinuated that the Jansenists had started the fire to avenge Montgeron, who had just been sent to Avignon; a suspicious fire had occurred in the Hôtel-Dieu just three days after his arrest:."M. Arouet, receveur des épices in the Chambre des Compte, lived in the location of the room.  He is a great Jansenist; he is himself a decent man ("très-honnête homme"); but he keeps company only with Jansenists; there is a certain priest whom he thinks is a saint, who is a hot head, capable of such a piece of wickedness.  For my part, I would have arrested all those who were living or lodging in the vicinity of the room, drink-sellers, caretakers, servants and all the rest, and I would find out everyone who had entered on the evening before the fire...."(Barbier, Journal vol.3, p.103) [Who is the priest Barbier mentions?  I am not sure, though Armand had been advised against harbouring the notorious marquis de Blaru not long previously.]

View of the Chambre des Comptes in the later 17th century.

The account of the fire in Gazier's manuscript Notes historiques hints more explicitly at Armand's involvement.

While M. de Montgeron was in the Bastille, the lieutenant of police Hérault had the first edition of his work burned in the moat.  Several Convulsionaries were heard to say publicly: "They have burned the papers of God; God will burn theirs".  It was at about that time that a fire started in the Chambre des Comptes, without anyone being able to discover the cause. But it was noticed with amazement that the apartment of M. Arouet, trésorier, in the midst of blazing building, received no damaged.  During the fire, a convulsionary was in the apartment of this gentleman spreading soil from the tomb of M. de Pâris. (Gazier p.631)

An annotation in Montgeron's volume 3 repeats the story and observes that the convulsionary expressly predicted that the apartment would remain unharmed (p.346 - editorial note). We can only presumably she was successful in imparted the divine gift of incombustibility!  Armand was subsequently arrested but nothing was ever proved against him.  (See Desnoiresterres, p.136) 

In one of the few letters to mention his brother, Voltaire wrote to the abbé Moussinot from Cirey in December 1737 expressing his relief that Armand's lodging and furniture had not been destroyed in the fire as first reported. Perhaps Voltaire had heard rumour of Armand's liaisons with Gabrielle Moulère and her friends since he wanted to discover whether or not he might have married secretly (which would have affected his own project to marry off his niece,the elder Mlle Mignot): "They say that he is heavily involved with in the affair of the convulsionaries ("fort intrigué dans l’affaire des convulsions"). What fanaticism!  Do not have anything to do with such horrible follies!"   In a subsequent letter Voltaire commented that he had accepted his niece's rejection of his proposed suitor with good grace, so that she might appreciate "la différence de mon caractère avec celui d'Arouet".


From this point on Armand Arouet slips almost entirely from view, though his involvement with the Jansenist cause seem to have continued much as before.  After the death of Rochebouët the convulsionaries perhaps transferred more of their activities to his apartment in the Chambre des comptes; ,Montgeron reports two miracles taking place there in 1744 and 1745.  Both involved the administration of sword blows, to which the recipient was rendered miraculously invulnerable.  At the beginning of 1745 an "officer of distinction", a sceptic, was set set upon by four convulsionaries with a sword; he felt the points of the sword but was not wounded (p.724)  A more convoluted story, certified on the following page, involved a former Chef des travaux à l'Armée du Roi, who had fallen and hit his head, then been miraculously cured by sword blows administered by "sisters Félicité, Madeleine, Taïs and  Fanchon Le Moine, who were at M. Arouet's at the time"(p.724-5)

Armand died in his rooms in the Chambre des Comptes on 18th February 1745 at the age of almost sixty, probably from complications of a bad leg;  the funeral was held the next day in the Church of Saint-Barthélémy where Arouet père  lay buried.  Voltaire was his inheritor and signed the acte de décès: " Francois Marie Arouette (sic) de Voltaire, bourgeois de Paris, demeurant rue Saint-Honoré, in the parish of Sainte-Madeleine" (signed "f.m. arouet de voltaire").  In Voltaire's correspondence for 1745 there is no mention.


Louis Basile Carré de Montgeron, La vérité des miracles opérés par l'intercession de monsieur de Paris  vol.3(1747)

A. Gazier, "Le frère de Voltaire", Revue des Deux Mondes, vol.32 (1906) 615-

Gustave Desnoiresterres, Voltaire et la société française au XVIIIe siècle  Vol. 2: Voltaire au Château de Cirey. (1868).

The novelist Jean-Claude Bologne has written a fictionalised  biography of Armand,  Le frère à la bague (1999).

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