Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Robespierre in the rue de Saintonge

View of 64 rue de Saintonge, from Google Maps

From October 1789, when the Assembly moved from Versailles to Paris, until July 1791 Robespierre lodged with his friend Humbert in the rue de  Saintonge, a long street which crosses the northern part of the Marais near the Temple.  This was a distance of two miles to the Assembly, a long trudge on foot though fairly swiftly accomplished in a horse-drawn cab.

Very little at all is known about Robespierre's domestic arrangements at this time: even the exact address is uncertain:  In a letter to Buissart, received by him on 9th November 1789, Robespierre informed his correspondent in Arras that his new Parisian address was "Rue Saintonge au Marais, chez M. Humbert, no.30" . It was also to this address that Augustin Robespierre wrote on 20 April 1790.  On the other hand, on 9th August 1791, in his appearance before the tribunal of the VIth Arrondissement, Robespierre gave his address as no. 8 rue de Saintonge. The consensus is that no. 30 and no. 8 were probably in fact the same house, renumbered in the course of the administrative reorganisation of the capital.

Robespierre's biographer Gérard Walter, who visited the house in 1936, conjectured that the room occupied by Robespierre was probably on the third floor, with two large windows opening onto the street.  

According to Charlotte Robespierre, the two friends rarely saw each other and both led a bachelor existence:

When the Constituent Assembly had transferred from Versailles to Paris, after the events of 5 and 6 October, Maximilien and a young man from among his friends whom he liked a lot rented a very modest apartment in the rue Saintonge, in the Marais. This young man had occupations which obliged him to leave early in the morning and kept him out very late, so that he and my brother sometimes went several days without seeing each other. Their household was that of two boys who are almost never home, and who eat in restaurants. Maximilien attended the sessions of the Constituent and the society of the Jacobins, which was called then the society of the friends of the Constitution, assiduously. He enjoyed the pleasure of going to spectacles but rarely.

Almost all the other evidence for Robespierre's private life at this time comes from the memoirs of Pierre Villiers, a penurious journalist and playwright, who claimed to have been Robespierre's unpaid secretary for seven months in 1790 in the rue de Saintonge (He gives the address inaccurately, as no.9, "chez un nommé Imbault" ) Villiers's account, published in 1802, has often been dismissed as unreliable, and it is true that his portrait is influenced by hostile sources, notably the abbé Proyart's La Vie et les crimes de Robespierre.  Nonetheless the details he gives, particularly of the documents with which he dealt, are temptingly circumstantial. Hervé Leuwers notes that that Villiers could well have been in Paris up until November 1790 when he set up his paper Courrier de la Scarpe in Douai.  He also accurately recorded a second visit to Paris by Augustin Robespierre, who, as their correspondence testifies,  lived with his brother in the rue de Saintonge from September 1790 to about March 1791. (Leuwers, Robespierre, p.137)

It is to Villiers that we owe the unverified tales of Robespierre's poverty, his borrowed mourning suit, his nosebleeds, and, above all that tantalising legend of a mistress of twenty-six who adored Robespierre but "whom he treated badly".  Villiers also has a nice, but almost certainly apocryphal, account of an occasion when Robespierre's cab to the Assembly was held up by  a crowd bearing a model of the Bastille: "Pay, said Robespierre and let us get down and go on foot.  A Bastille, all the Bastilles in the world, will not hinder me from going to my post."

Robespierre's friend Humbert

Claude-François Humbert was a native of Vesoul in Haute-Saône,  a merchant, landowner and old school friend of Robespierre's.  He is listed among the members of the Jacobin Club in December 1790 and, according to the Almanach royal for 1792, was commander of the 8th Battalion of the 3rd Legion of the National Guard, "Les Enfants Rouges", stationed in the rue de Saintonge.  Augustin Robespierre later stayed in the house of his brother, a procurateur in Vesoul.  In March 1794 Humbert famously hosted the dinner organised  by Villain d'Aubigny in an attempt to bring about the reconciliation of Robespierre and Danton. (Guests also included Desforges, Legendre and Panis.)

In 1794 Humbert took office as chief of the Financial Bureau for the Department of Foreign Affairs.  A 19th-century history of the Department supplies a few more details:

The successor to Maindouze in the bureau des Fonds was a certain Claude-François Humbert, who had no other qualification than his close friendship with Robespierre.  It was in his house, in the rue de Saintonge, in the Marais, that Robespierre had lodged when he arrived from Versailles. Humbert, was born in Vesoul (Haute-Saône) in 1753, graduated in 1773 entered finance in 1774, and retired in 1786.  From this time on, he dealt in wood and coal and cultivated his lands.  At the beginning of the Revolution he joined the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, where he did not himself play a significant role, but where he established links with most of the prominent men of the Revolutionary party.  It was thus that he was chosen at the end of Ventôse Year II (March 1794) to host the reconciliation between Danton and Robespierre.  This dinner did not, however,  bring about the desired outcome:  "Robespierre stayed as cold as marble" and he remained just as intent upon the sacrifice of Danton.  Humbert, named chief of the Fonds on 1st October 1793 was forced to resign on 26th November 1794.  He claimed that had only accepted the position temporarily out of zeal.
His passport described him as : height five feet six inches, light brown hair and eyebrows, grey eyes, aquiline nose, medium sized mouth, round chin with a cleft.
Frédéric MassonLe Département des affaires étrangères pendant la révolution, 1787-1804 (1877) p. 293

Accounts of the financial arrangement between the two men differ.  Whilst Robespierre's sister implies that  the pair shared the house on equal terms, most sources suggest Humbert, who was presumably well-to-do,  was the official tenant and Robespierre lodged with him.  According to Fréron, the impecunious Robespierre received board and lodging from Humbert without ever paying; he never rendered him any service and in the last six months of his life even refused him entrance to his door.

The house after Robespierre's time

Ernest Hamel, writing in 1865, identified the house with no. 64 rue de Saintonge.  In 1936 Gérard Walter discovered the house empty and in a "worse than lamentable" state, awaiting demolition: 

Anyone who takes the trouble to go inside, will soon see that a hundred and fifty years ago at the time of Robespierre it was a fine house.  The first two floors consisted of large apartments with vast rooms, high-ceilinged and well-lit, the preserve no doubt of well-to-do tenants.  On the third floor were small two-room lodgings, one of which was Robespierre's.  

Let us go in and take a look. The last tenant left six years ago.  The rooms are empty, the fireplaces covered in dust, the wallpaper torn and hanging from the walls.  The floor moves and creaks beneath our feet.  But the two large windows looking out onto the street, let in the same sunlight which greeted Robespierre in the mornings.  Opening them, it is possible to see the top of the Porte Saint-Martin and, over the rooftops in the other direction, the Porte Saint-Denis.   The room is large and rectangular.  It is uncontestably more comfortable and airy than the one he occupied later at the Duplays.  A narrow dark corridor leads to a minute kitchen.  Next to it is a second room which faces onto the courtyard at the back (a little square with a single outbuilding).  This room is small and does not communicate directly with the first one. 
Walter, Robespierre, 1961 ed., p.136-7.

 Today the site is occupied by a modern post office. Some idea of the original appearance can be gleaned from the  two elegant, if run-down, 18th-century buildings on either side (no.62 and 66).


Pierre Villiers, Souvenirs d'un deporté (1802), p.1-6

Stanislas Fréron, "Notes sur Robespierre",  Papiers inédits trouvés chez Robespierre.... vol. 1 (1828).

Georges Michon, "La Maison de Robespierre, rue de Saintonge, à Paris", Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 1ère Année, No. 1 (Janvier-Février 1924), pp. 64-6.[Article on JStor]

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