Saturday, 27 January 2018

Nantes: Memoirs of a sans-culotte

Daguerrotype of Souvestre from 1852-4

The Mémoires d'un sans-culotte bas-breton does not really date from the Revolution.  It was written by the 19th-century novelist Émile Souvestre, a native of Morlaix in Finistère, and published in instalments in the Revue des Deux Mondes during the 1830s.  We can probably take with a pinch of salt Souvestre's claim in his preface that he  based his work on the "unpublished notes of his father" and the "gossip of old men".  However, whilst the Mémoires is clearly not history, it is not simply a  work of fiction either.  Souvestre appeals to the example of Thierry and Michelet and explains that he wants to create an imaginative reconstruction of the "torn pages of history"; in particular he wants to illustrate the distinguishing features of the Revolution in Brittany.  The result  is a curious mixture of folk memory, popular imagination and half-digested reportage.

Here is a translation of some extracts in which Carrier himself appears - already transmogrified into the monster of myth...Our hero, Baptiste, is a young man of good family.  Whilst committed to the Revolution, in reality he is more bourgeois moralist than authentic sans-culotte.   It is 1793 and Baptiste finds himself reluctantly diverted to Nantes: the date is 20 Nivôse and the town is en pleine terreur. 

XLI. -  Arrival in Nantes - Carrier

I had heard rumours in Rennes of the energetic measures undertaken by the Representative Carrier: but I did not realise their gravity and I was not too worried.  The first effect of danger is to bring men together in close association; but, at a certain point, they separate and concern themselves only with self preservation. The crisis was so terrible in the area, that no-one looked beyond their own doors. Every town, beseiged by hunger, war, and repression, was like a sick man struggling in his agony and caring little what went on elsewhere.  Death seemed so close, that people grew accustomed to it, and waited for it, for others as well as for themselves.  In the midst of the political convulsions which shook France, it was an ordinary everyday occurrence...

From a distance, the executions in Nantes seemed nothing out of the ordinary; the large numbers were explained by the multitude of Vendéan prisoners; the sufferings of the brigands were regarded as just reprisals for their ravages and cruelties.

Too much indignation, misery and desire for vengeance had amassed in people's hearts for them to show mercy.  There was not, in all of Brittany, a family of patriots that had not lost someone in this impious war; each Vendéan head that fell represented an offering to the memory of a loved one or a promise of security to those who were still alive.  Today, when hatred is as weak a passion as love, such sentiments might seem ferocious; impartiality comes easily to those who have not suffered;  for myself, I admit that I shared the anger of my comrades, and the punishment of royalist excesses scarcely touched me.

And so, I left for Nantes, without misgivings and without fear;  I was far from anticipating the spectacle that awaited me there.

One often hears speak of the miseries of that town in the Terror;  and through them one of the most obscure members of the Convention has gained his place in history.  Leperdit, Champenois, Audaudine, Gabart, Thomas, Bancelin - all these names have been forgotten, whilst that of Carrier  lives on!  His name  is branded on the conscience of a generation. The others were  men of loyalty courage and devotion, in a time when loyalty, courage and devotion were commonplace; but Carrier was among  the elite of the wicked, embodying in his person all the excesses of the epoch.

The port of Nantes. After M. Ozanne, 1776
If I live for a thousand years I will never forget my arrival in Nantes. It was towards evening, I had just sighted the town half obscured by the mists of the Loire; I was hurrying on my horse, when suddenly I heard loud sharp gunfire, followed almost immediately by the discharge of a cannon. I stopped in astonishment; there was a long pause then the guns fired again, followed by the cannon. The noise evidently came from the town;  it could be an unexpected attack by the Vendéans or an insurrection;  I was debating what to do, when a volunteer passed.
- Are they still fighting?  I cried out to him.
He looked at me in astonishment.
 - What?  Can you not hear the gunfire?
He shrugged and smiled: Those are brigands,  having their evening prayers recited to them... 
- But the cannon?  
Ah!..That is the Representative's idea for speeding things up. 
- So they are carrying out  a lot of executions, then?
 - As many as they can. Any means of killing is good for Carrier...You have only to continue and you will encounter the royalist carcasses on your way.  With these words, the volunteer went on, and I resumed my path as though in a dream.

I found that the faubourgs remained much as they had been left by the Vendéans after the siege; it was as though the enemy had just retreated.  Houses, without doors or windows, borne the furrows of cannon balls or were peppered with shrapnel holes. Some, further from the road, had their roofs half caved in and their walls blackened.  Others were just piles of debris over which brambles already grew. In the distance I glimpsed  on the threshholds,  a few women with miserable items of food and dishevelled men who looked on with a haggard look.

Near the Erdre I met a band of children carrying a pile of bloody clothing that they were fighting over.  Night had come; To cut short my journey, I avoided the quais and went via the place du Département.

My heart was constricted by an inexpressible sadness, and I was going along deep in thought without looking around, when suddenly my horse threw itself to one side with a whinny of fright; it had trampled on a corpse.   I went past quickly, but it came up against a second, then a third, then yet more. I tried to make it go on, but it wouldn't.  I got down; as I did so, my foot made contact with something that gave way under it; it was the body of a child.  I looked around in horror; the whole area was covered with the dead;  blood flowed in streams like water after a storm.  The air was filled with an unspeakable smell;  I felt cold to the marrow;  My horse still refused to move; I was hesitating what to do when I heard  barking in the distance, growing louder and approaching rapidly. A pack of dogs threw themselves at the place;  I saw them pass close by me, disperse among the corpses, then disappear...

[He eventually escapes, and flies in panic, to the hotel where he has arranged to stay.]

August Raffet,  Defeat of the Vendéans before Nantes in 1793, 1834. Musée Carnavalet

XLII. - Pinard. - The Compagnie Marat

[The next day our hero visits a tavern, le Café du vrai Sans-Culottes in search of a certain Dufour, whom he has arranged to meet in Nantes.]

It was a low, smokey building, on the shutters of which some scribbler had crudely drawn a guillotine sporting a Phrygian bonnet, with the epigram  LIBERTÉ, FRATERNITÉ.   From a half-open door came the chink of  glasses and bursts of laughter and swearing, accompanied by a sour acrid odour.  I went up to the window but because of the  condensation I could only distinguish vague forms moving around;  I made up my mind to enter.

I had just closed the door behind me and started looking around for citizen Dufour, when I heard my name being called behind me.  I turned round and saw a man in a carmagnole jacket who took me by the hands;  I was amazed: it was Pinard! 

[The infamous Nantes Revolutionary invites Baptiste to join his table.]

They made room for me and I was forced to sit down.  Pinard got me a drink.
- Come on, Cincinnatus! he cried; Cheer up, and drink to the death of priests!

I had to drink.  I was ill at ease, not sure what sort of company I was in, but, knowing Pinard as I did, I feared the worst.  I didn't stay in any doubt for long.

- So, have you come to see how we do business here?  he asked, pouring himself some punch.

I explained to him briefly what had brought me to Nantes; but he wasn't listening to me; he sipped his drink and stared into the bottom of his glass.

- Circumstances are difficult, Cincinnatus, he continued, with the seriousness of a drunk.  True patriots like us suffer cruelly: we work day and night in vain;  there are so many brigands in the prison, we can never bring them all to justice....There is just not enough time.

- That's right, said a man with a red beard who was drinking in front of us with a morose air;  but there is time to undress them,  shoot them,  club them to death!... Too much time if you ask me.

Pinard leaned towards me.

- That's Ducou, he whispered to me, indicating the drinker with a sweep of his arm.
-When  time presses, said another, we try to work quickly;  but the miserable president Tronjolly, wants to give everyone a hearing; as if  we need proof to send aristocrats to the national razor!..
- That's Goullin, said Pinard to me in a low voice;  the most worthy of us all.

- Do you known that this evening more brigands are being sent to the château d'Aux? asked Ducou.
-The château d'Aux? I repeated....But I have just come from there and I didn't see any prisoners.
There was general laughter.
- Wonderful, cried Pinard; he doesn't get the joke! The château d'Aux, idiot, is the Loire; "château d'eau", get it?
I made a gesture of horror, which he took for a movement of impatience.

- Come on, he said amicably, don't worry Cincinnatus;  it is a pleasantry that we make to the prisoners when we take them out to the baignoire nationale. Why shouldn't we amuse ourselves?  At first, they used to think that they were being taken to England or Spain; so Carrier called our baths "vertical deportations"!  One day I will take you to the Entrepôt; you will see how we make those priests gulp water...

[Lamberty, who is among the group,  has a list of newly proscribed citizens, among whom is Baptiste's landlady;  he hastily sends her a note.]

- How long have you been here, citizen?  Goullin asked me.
- Only a few hours
- Then you cannot know what is happening...The true Montagnards are masters everywhere; we are knee-deep in dead bodies and pretty women.
- You must do him the honours, said the little man with the red beard.....Lamberty, take him to the Entrepôt, where he can choose a brigande to suit his fancy.
- Unless the citizen is like Pinard, who calls himself "the women's enemy" and thinks only to kill them.

Pinard was about to answer, when the door opened; six new sans-culottes entered.
- Look, it is Chaux and the others, said Lamberty.
- That's good, cried Ducou, I thought that you were on an "extraordinary mission"
- The wretched committee prevented us, replied Chaux;  I was furious thinking that you were there.
[..One of the newcomers, a "giant of a man" had the ear of one of the prisoners nailed to his hat.]
-  Watch out,  cried Chaux, he is an inspector of livestock:  we will end up eatingVendean disguised as salt beef.
- Why not?.... A surgeon of my acquaintance proposed to the Convention that we tan the hides of our enemies to make them into trousers for the grenadiers...

[Baptiste has had enough by now;  he makes his excuses and exits as quickly as he can.]

Interior of a Revolutionary Committee (engraving for sale on

XLIII. - The Prisons of Nantes

[The next day Baptiste and Dufour go to Le Bouffay in search of their friend Benoist who is being held prisoner there.]

We went together to Le Bouffay.  When we arrived  I noticed that the square was crowded with people, eating, working or talking peacefully.  There were benches with names on as  in a church, and others that were hired out by the hour.  The guillotine stood in the middle on a huge tank covered with a reddish coloured canvas. My companion told me that this  had been put in place following complaints from  shopkeepers whose premises had been flooded with blood.

- You can see, he told me, that this is a place for meeting and gossiping; people gather round the guillotine; they come in families....The women bring their needlework as if they were visiting a neighbour, servants bring children out on walks.   It isn't vengance that they seek, but thrills; it is a circus where the sovereign people watches Christians die. Those that march bravely to the ladder are applauded, those that tremble are whistled at.  Apart from a small minority, there is neither hate nor anger in this crowd: they are either connoisseurs who come to judge, or the curious who come for amusement.

We arrived at the prison; it was agreed without too much difficulty that we should be taken to the cell of Citizen Benoist.

We followed the gaoler Lagueze along a long dark corridor. On either side could be heard muttering voices and confused groans.  Finally Lagueze opened a door for us, and said: Here.

I tried to enter but a gust of fetid air suddenly engulfed me and I felt so weak I was forced to support myself against a wall.  Dufour took me by the arm and suggested we go back. I refused and staggered forward. Everything floated before my eyes as in a dream;  I saw vaguely, stretched out on the bare ground or on a layer of straw, men, women, children; none of them seemed to move.  However, at the end of the room, I caught sight of someone who stirred. Fresh air came in from a semi-blocked up window.  I felt revived.

At that moment I recognised Benoist; and I ran to him.
- Have you come for me?  He asked us.

[They discuss Benoist's situation]
"Look around, he added indicating the long line of immobile bodies that I had already noticed;  there are only four of us who are still left alive.  There, on the litter of straw, all the space is taken up by the dead!... Those who arrive tonight or tomorrow will be forced to lie on top of corpses, and will serve in their turn, in a few days, as beds for the next arrivals.  The gaolers themselves can no longer open the cells without dying.  Those who used to take away the bodies now refuse, knowing that they will catch the sickness that killed them. A while ago, forty prisoners accepted the task in exchange for their liberty; thirty perished and, once the prisons were cleared, they guillotined the rest....And do you know what they give us for food?  Half-a-pound of bread mixed with straw and a half-pound of rice that they refuse to cook.  They often forget for to give out anything for two days at a time.  We are sold water; I have seen children  die of hunger and thirst before my very eyes.
- And is there any means of deliverance?   I asked.

- None.  Attractive women think they can escape death by giving themselves to Carrier;  but his bed, like Cleopatras, surrenders its secrets only for one night, and in the morning the Loire engulfs all.  There remains prostitution, but even that is  uncertain.  The prisons of Nantes have become bazaars where old women have bought the right to recruit for their hidious industry.  They meet with easy success, for fear is even more corrupting that gold.  They tempt the honour of young girls by promising them life, but often they last for only a short time; once their beauty is gone, they are given over to the bourreau.

[They discuss means of liberating Benoist.  Dufour suggests that he simply does not answer when his name is called.]
- Do they even know who they are killing? he continued shrugging his shoulders;  our prisons are cattle yards where those for the slaughter are taken by chance.  If a prisoner isn't there at the moment his name is called, the noyeurs pass on (they are always in a hurry to catch the tides) and the next day they have forgotten him!...What saves a man now, isn't legal right, dedication, or courage;  but the chance occurrence of a badly written name or a list carried off in the wind...

[With this they are obliged to leave their friend]

XLIV.- A supper party chez Carrier

[Baptiste is persuaded by Pinard and Goullin to come with them to dine with the Representative.]

Carrier lived at the extremity of Richebourg. His house was carefully guarded and we had to make ourselves known to the sentry to be allowed in.  We found the Representative on the landing with a young girl who was pleading with him.
- You love aristocrats, he said; but I love pretty women; I've told you the condition for your brother's release from prison; one favour deserves another!
So saying, he tried to take her hands;  the young woman shrank back.
- I do not want to make one evil into two, she said with noble dispair. 
- In that case, go to the Devil, cried Carrier brutally;  I don't like blonds anyway!
We arrived at that moment...
- Well, cried Goullin, if it isn't the little Brevet; is she still coming to ask if she can take bread to her brother?  Alas, let me do that service, she said, turning, hands clasped, towards Carrier.
 - Indeed, continued Goullin, give her permission; it is only fair that her brother eats today, since yesterday he had so much to drink ....  The girl turned her head with a cry; Goullin and Pinard began to laugh.
- Is it true? she stuttered, Michel!...have-you drowned him?
- I would have offered him clemency, you imbecile! said Carrier shrugging his shoulders.
She gave a cry and held out her arms for support.  I would have caught hold of her, but Carrier restrained me.
- Let this prude be thrown out, he said, and let the guard poke his bayonet into the belly of anyone who comes to ask me for any more favours;  I am shutting up shop for today.

[For the story of Perotte Brevet, see Pieces remises... à la Commission des vingt-un (1796), p.23]

With these words, he ushered us into the salon, where I found  most of those that I had seen already at the cafe du vrai Sans-Culotte.  I was then presented to Carrier....

Taking my companions to one side, he began to talk confidentially with them.  I took the opportunity to take a closer look at him.  He was a man of about thirty-five, tall but awkwardly built.  His black hair, stuck to his temples, parted to reveal an olive coloured face; his forehead was low; his eyes round and nervous; his nose hooked, his lips invisible.  Although he looked to be a strong man, he had about him something cautious and cowardly, which the brutality of his manners failed to conceal.  Whatever way you looked at him, he seemed always in profile; the former lawyer could still be seen in the bourreau.

They told us that dinner was served and we moved into the adjacent room, where several women were already present.  Pinard pointed out to me the two mistresses of the Representative, Madame Le Normand and Angélique Caron. The latter made a striking impression on me: I have seldom seen a woman more beautiful, and none at all who seemed to me as seductive....Between her and the beings who surrounded her, there was  all the gulf between a fallen angel and Caliban.  To see her among those brutes with the faces of men, with her natural distinction...she might have been a Regency marquise amusing herself by dining among the hangman's lackeys.

...The conversation of Angélique Caron was lively, original and wide-ranging.  Hers was one of those minds that they call "fluid"; it penetrates everywhere like water, but lacks form and solidarity:  a person with this nature is dangerous, since they plunge easily into corruption, and are condemned without being hated...She spoke to me with sincere emotion about her childhood, her interests and her dreams for the future...

- These debates tire you, she said...Buried in Brittany you do not know how cowardly and cruel the enemies of the Republic have shown themselves to be;  you cannot hate them as we do.
- I hate those who are cruel and cowardly; but today so many innocent people are mixed in with the guilty!
- The duties of those who hold power are terrible.
- Is it ever possible to deflect their rigour?
- Rigour is necessary.
- Yet I have been told that there is a voice here which  pleads for mercy and likes to get what it asks for.
Angelique looked at me and said:  Who do you want to save?
- A sincere patriot.
- Our friends are always that, she said smiling....

I rejoined the guests.  Their number had grown singularly.  There were several generals with epaulettes made of wool, as was the custom of the time;  members of the departmental government in wooden clogs;  judges from  the Revolutionary Tribunal without waistcoat or cravat.  Most were smoking, playing cards or drinking.  Some were chasing half naked women, who escaped from them laughing; one could hear swearing,  chinking glasses, obscene songs and the noise of kisses;  one might have supposed it an Amsterdam cabaret.

In the middle of this tumult, an ugly and surly woman sat knitting in a corner.  I asked who she was.

- That's the Representative's wife, Pinard replied;  a really awkward woman.  If I was Carrier I would have got rid of her long ago; but she is like a knitting turkey - he doesn't notice her. On that subject, where is Carrier?  With  Citizen Caron I bet....

XLV.- The noyades

[They go with Madame Benoist to rescue their friend who is about to be drowned]

We found armed men at the base of the staircase into Le Bouffay, who prevented us from passing.
- What is going on?  I asked. - We are taking some prisoners for a dip, replied the  sergeant.....
At that moment the prisoners started to come down between two columns of soldiers;  they were almost naked and each woman was tied to a man.  There were young girls among them whose modesty survived and who lowered their heads; there were old men who staggered at each step; children scarcely taller than the knees of the bourreaux, who were crying!  All went slowly down the great staircase, with groans or snatches of prayer.  An odour of dead bodies, the same as I had smelt in the prison, went before them.  Torches reflecting off the pikes and bayonets lit the spectacle from afar....

[They find that happily Benoist is not among the condemned]

Robin and his companions left Le Bouffay carrying loads of precious objects taken from the miserable people who were about to perish.  We retreated into the shadows so that they could not see us.  The armed men made for the Loire, and we could see torches burning in the middle of the river;  soon came the sound of axe blows; a terrible cry rose then died almost immediately ...The torches had disappeared.

[They manage to secure Benoist's release and hastily, with great relief, leave Nantes. }

Émile Souvestre, Mémoires d'un sans-culotte bas-breton (1843 ed.)

Bianchi Serge, Review of a new edition of the Mémoires published in 2004, Annales historiques de la Révolution française, no.335 (2004): p. 227-229

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