The little market town of Blérancourt in the department of Aisne in Hauts-de-France in northern France is gearing up to celebrate the 250th anniversary of its most famous son, Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, born on 25th August 1767. Last Saturday (17th June), the festivities kicked off with the planting of a Tree of Liberty on the Place du Général-Leclerc, situated right outside the surviving gateway to what was once the feudal château which dominated the village (now the museum of Franco-American co-operation). 13th July will see the reopening of Saint-Just's childhood home, now a museum to his memory.
Association pour la sauvegarde de la Maison de Saint-Just
Newspage reports of the fire
Full details of the architecture of the house and its restoration can be found on the Association website, including a video featuring Bernard Vinot:
In this more recent video, from 2016, part of a France3 series on "famous houses", Bernard Vinot, and mayor Patrick Laplace visit the maison as it is today and discuss their plans for the future. (It is curious to see the memory of Saint-Just evoked in this peaceful provincial setting, by such pleasant and mild-mannered middle-aged men - And yes, Patrick Laplace really does describe the enfant terrible of the Convention as "un peu James Dean"...)
Saint-Just in Blérancourt
Blérancourt was Saint-Just's family home for the greater part of his short life. It was here that he composed his first works, tradition has it in the little bower ("chaumille") by the stream in the grounds. As Norman Hampson emphasises, the record of his early life is necessarily "a matter of births, deaths and marriages". He was born in Decize, the son of a retired cavalry officer. When he was nine the family moved to Blérancourt where his father, Louis Jean, paid 6,000 livres for one of the most substantial houses in the little town (the grounds and dependencies were much more extensive in those days ). His pension, combined with rents from 50 acres of land, would have situated the family firmly, if modestly, among the local elite. After Louis died in 1777 his widow struggled to maintain their social status and no doubt placed most of her hopes in her only son. In 1779, when he was twelve, Louis-Antoine was sent to board at the Oratorian College at Soissons. In September 1786, in a spectacular escapade, he absconded to Paris with a quantity of the family silver and his mother was obliged to have him tracked down and imprisoned (in Saint-Lazare) for six months. On his return he is thought to have worked as a clerk to a Soissons solicitor and enrolled as a law student at the university of Reims, but never proceeded as a degree. Instead he sought literary fame - his first substantial work, the Organt, a mock-heroic poem after Voltaire, was published in spring 1789.
The outbreak of the Revolution was now to change dramatically the life of this restless and ambitious young man.
|Louis-Jean de Saint-Just de Richebourg, father of the Conventionnel; pastel|
Musée National de la Coopération Franco-Américaine, Blérancourt
The dynamic of local politics was provided by the control of a few wealthy landowners, foremost among them Louis Antoine Gellé, the agent of the absentee seigneur. The young Saint-Just is said to have been thwarted in his suite for Gellé's daughter Thérèse who married a local notary, Emmanuel Thorin, in 1786 (in 1793 she was to abandon her husband and follow Saint-Just to Paris). In 1775 during the guerre de farines Gellé had faced down a stone-throwing crowded in the marketplace and prevented them from imposing price controls. The events of 1789 afforded a chance of redress. Emmanuel Descaine, who in February 1790 married Saint-Just's elder sister Louise-Marie-Anne, drafted Blérancourt's cahier des doléances which complained of appropriation of common land, recommended that farmers be allowed to cultivate no more than 150 hectares, and asked for the crown to take over the property of the local monastery.
By Summer 1790 the radicals gained control in the municipal elections. Saint-Just became "lieutenant-general" of the local National Guard in which capacity he attended the Fête de la Fédération in Paris on 14th July. He demonstrated his political ambition by becoming a prominent agitator at local assemblies, writing to Desmoulins that he looked forward to joining the National Assembly in due course. The archives record his involvement in various unsuccessful tussles to gain control of electoral assemblies to the Legislative Assembly in course of 1791. Rumours that Blérancourt was to be deprived of its market provided the occasion for a first obsequious letter to Robespierre.
By time of elections to the National Convention Saint-Just was twenty-five and of age. In Blarencourt conspicuously few citizens voted and the radicals carried the day: Saint-Just was chosen as one of the commune's electors, gaining 164 votes out of only 177 cast. This initial victory was confirmed at the actual election of the departmental deputies in Soissons. The two sitting members were returned, followed by two international celebrities, Tom Paine and Condorcet. Saint-Just came fifth with 349 votes out of 600.
Bernard Vinot's researches suggest that, despite his personal ambition, Saint-Just expended much genuine energy in furthering his ideas for social justice during the years in Blérancourt; his friends insisted, even after his death, when it became dangerous to defend him, that he did not spare himself in his concern for his poorer neighbours, tramping over the countryside to consult them and representing them in legal tussles with the local seigneur. He had, comments Vinot, "a goodness that all his comrades appreciated" (though his enemies perhaps a little less so?)
After his election to the Convention, Saint-Just was to return to Blérancourt only once, briefly, in the Spring of 1794, when he spent a night in the family home during one of his missions to the Armée du Nord.
Bernard Vinot, Saint-Just (1985)
Vinot's findings are followed in the English account by Norman Hampson, Saint-Just (1991), chpt.1.
For a more chatty version:
Lenotre, "Saint-Just at Blérancourt" in Romances of the French Revolution [1908 transl.]