Sunday 28 December 2014

On the subject of champagne ...and oysters

This famous picture of a post-hunt oyster lunch by Jean-François de Troy, dated 1735 and now in musée Condé Chantilly, was originally commissioned for Louis XV’s private dining room.  It is probably the first painting to depict the drinking of champagne; if you look closely, you can see the cork mid-air. The man who opened the bottle is still holding the knife that was used to cut the string that held the cork in place. In these early days of champagne, glasses were drunk in a big gulp and then turned over in a bowl to allow the sediment to drain out. (A technique for ridding the fizzy wine of troublesome sediment was only perfected by Veuve Clicquot in the 19th century).


Amy Azzarito, "Past & present: Champagne" on DesignSponge [website]

"Le déjeuner d'huîtres de Jean-François de Troy (1735)",Présentation de l'oeuvre par Nicole Garnier, conservateur général du patrimoine
Portail pédagogique: CRDP/Domaine de Chantilly (2011) [video] [accompanying pdf.]

Friday 26 December 2014

Marie-Antoinette's "bol-sein"

In August Kate Moss celebrated her 40th birthday in suitably newsworthy fashion with a champagne coupe modelled on her left breast, after the so-called bol-sein of the "fun-loving" Marie-Antoinette.

The 18th-century bol-sein referred to was not in fact a champagne glass but a milk cup, part of a service in porcelain commissioned from the designer Jean-Jacques Langrenée at the Manufacture Royale de Sèvres in 1787 for Marie-Antoinette's "pleasure dairy" at Rambouillet.  The service was "Etruscan" in style and the concept loosely based on Greek "mastos" cups.  A deep, milky white porcelain bowl was set in a footed stand in the shape of goat's heads, finished at the bottom with a mound of clay in the unmistakable shape of a human nipple. The emphasis is on natural fecundity rather than sexual titillation - and the effect is to say the least disturbing.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

A Sans-culotte Christmas

Légendes de Noël 

Another Christmas and another story translated from G. Lenotre.

In this tale, "Le petit Noël de quatre sans-culottes", four French Revolutionary soldiers find themselves, somewhat improbably, in Bethlehem on Christmas night.

Illustrations are  by Paul Thiriat from the 1911 edition of the Légendes de Noël which is available on Gallica.

There were four of them!  Four from the “Faubourg Antoine”, that volcano, now extinguished, which formerly, at almost regular intervals, spewed onto Paris torrents of revolutionary lava.
One morning in August 1792 they had followed the crowd to the Tuileries;  they had enjoyed themselves at the sack of the palace; they had  stabbed the mattresses of “le gros Capet” with their pikes; fired at the gods enthroned in Olympia on the painted ceilings; broken a few mirrors; and, like children, had  shaken the eiderdowns of the palace through the high windows of the gallery of Diana, to “make it snow”.

They cared little for politics, but this had not stopped them a few days later, in September, from being there at the prison massacres; not that they had killed anyone but  just “watched”, onlookers filled with joy at the novelty of the spectacle.  Then,  to the sound of drums and the canons on the Pont-Neuf,  they had  joined the  volunteer batallions and marched off, still singing, laughing and joking, to the Army of Champagne.   There they had been with the corps of the traitor Dumouriez, sleeping during the day, marching at night, without discipline, good soldiers only in battle.
The chance fortune that had brought them together persisted; together they had joined  the Army of the Alps and were part of the legendary bands that were  unleashed  by the “little Corsican” on Lombardy;  having left barefoot, thin and impoverished, they had returned from the campaign well shod, fat and comfortably off.  No-one knew better than they did how to take advantage of circumstances and profit from windfalls; they were nicknamed the “Parigots”.  They had long since forgotten the names that their parents had given them and adopted ones suited to the times: the first called himself “Nonidi”, the second “Décius”, the third “Tournesol” and  the last “Pimprenelle”, all names taken from the Revolutionary calendar.

Monday 22 December 2014

Robert Darnton on popular song

Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer Professor and director of the University Library at Harvard, is social historian of the Enlightenment and expert on "information societies" both old and new.  One of his many interests is popular song. Some recordings of songs first appeared in his "Early Information Society" project, an early venture into digital history by the AHR in 2000 now, alas, disappeared from the web. (Regrettable not only for the songs, but its cool map of Parisian cafés featured in 18th-century police reports).  Material about the songs, however, has been reworked in various contexts, lately in Darnton's 2012 book Poetry and the police.

For those who want to hear the music, Professor Darnton has given a number of public lectures - what he has coined his "Cabaret lectures" - with accompanying songs performed by French mezzo-soprano Hélène Delavault. Here is a short clip from Harvard, uploaded in 2009.


You can hear the full version of a lecture here:

Complete podcast of the Cabaret Lecture delivered at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2008

Some of the songs can also be found online at:

"An Electronic Cabaret: Paris Street Songs, 1748–50", A supplement to Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris by Robert Darnton
Performed by Hélène Delavault and Claude Pavy (in 2010)  on the Harvard University Press website.

Hum.  No wonder the French revolted......

On: Poetry and the police (2012)

Poetry and the Police: : Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Harvard University Press, 2012)

"In spring 1749, François Bonis, a medical student in Paris, found himself unexpectedly hauled off to the Bastille for distributing an “abominable poem about the king.” So began the Affair of the Fourteen, a police crackdown on ordinary citizens for unauthorized poetry recitals. Why was the official response to these poems so intense?

 Robert Darnton follows the poems as they passed through several media: copied on scraps of paper, dictated from one person to another, memorized and declaimed to an audience. But the most effective dispersal occurred through music, when poems were sung to familiar tunes. Lyrics often referred to current events or revealed popular attitudes toward the royal court. The songs provided a running commentary on public affairs.  Darnton traces how the lyrics fit into song cycles that carried messages through the streets of Paris during a period of rising discontent. He uncovers a complex communication network, illuminating the way information circulated in a semi-literate society."

See also: Robert Darnton - "Poetry and the Police: : Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris"  Lecture for the launch of the new book, delivered in Harvard Bookstore in Sept 2012

Sunday 21 December 2014

Letter of the abbé Raynal to the Assembly

I had the fortitude long ago to talk to kings of their duty: allow me now to talk to the people of their errors.....

On 31st May 1791 the National Assembly was read a sharply critical open letter by the abbé Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, anti-colonialist, friend of Diderot and now solitary survivor of a previous generation of thinkers.

Up to this point Raynal had been lauded by the Revolutionaries. In 1789 he had been elected to the Estates-General by the Third Estate of Marseilles  though he had refused to take his seat on grounds old age.    Brissot's colleague Louis-Pierre Manuel identified him, with Rousseau, as one of the "fathers of the Revolution". A pamphlet published in the summer of 1789 presented a dialogue between Linguet and Raynal, in which "Raynal" articulates the case against royal absolutism. The Parlement of Paris's various pre-1789 edicts suppressing his Histoire philosophiques des Deux Indes were annulled on 15 August 1790 as a result of which the King found himself obliged to rescind a royal prohibition of nearly twenty years standing.

Two previous letters by Raynal, one written as early as December 1789 - a "perfidious diatribe" said Brissot -  had been largely ignored and convenient doubts cast over their authorship. But this time the  Raynal himself, aged 78 and visiting Paris after long absence, submitted his new letter to the Assembly in person two days prior to publication. The proposed reading was greeted with cries of "yes, yes" from the assembled deputies. They were soon to be pulled up short by the criticism offered them.

 A full translation of the letter is given below. Raynal had welcomed the liberal achievements of 1789-90: the Declaration of the Rights of Man; toleration; the dismantling of privilege, but now sought to safeguard royal prerogative and the sovereignty of the Assembly. He begins by firmly repudiating the idea that the Revolution was the logical outcome of Enlightenment thought: he is appalled that by defending liberty against arbitrary power he may have given rise to licence.  The philosophes never had to apply their notions to practical politics: "We never held up the bold conceptions of philosophy as rigorous rules to direct the acts of the legislature; neither can you, attribute to any error on our part, what has resulted from a false interpretation of our principles." 

He condemns what he sees as a drift to anarchy and   infraction of individual liberty, in particular the usurpation of legitimate authority by the clubs "where coarse and ignorant men presume to decide on all political questions."  He censures Marat and his like who have taken advantage of  a free press to subvert popular morality; they are like a volcano spewing lava which may destroy the whole nation;  the people, says Raynal presciently,  "laugh and dance over the ruins of their own morality, on the very brink of the abyss in which their hopes may soon be swallowed up"

In his studies of Revolutionary ideas Jonathan Israel identifies the reading of Raynal's letter as "one of the supreme moments of the philosophical drama infusing and shaping the Revolution" (Democratic Revolution, p.935).  It came at a critical point in the crystallisation of factions within the Assembly and cut across the attempt of the deputies to define their intellectual antecedents.  On the eve of the reading Voltaire's ashes had been transferred to the Pantheon.  Now Raynal articulated clearly the  gulf between the aspirations of the Enlightenment - civil liberty, toleration, the dismantling of privilege - and the emergent programme of the Left.  Amid the general uproar, Robespierre attempted  damage limitation, stepping in rapidly to beg indulgence for Raynal on grounds of age, and referring him to the judgment of "public opinion". But he was unable to halt the wave of controversy which followed, and was further fulled by the publication of the letter on 10th December. The Left wing press reacted with hurt indignation and genuine incomprehension. The letter had "provoked the astonishment of those who honoured Raynal as a defender of liberty, those who cherished Raynal as their friend, a champion whom the people revered and tyrants feared (Goujon, Lettre à l’Assemblée nationale, 1791). Raynal was accused of being manipulated by the "aristocratic" faction; Sainte-Beuve, with some justification, identified the political agenda of Raynal's associates, the moderates Clermont-Tonnerre and Pierre Malhouet. Likewise in a letter published in the Moniteur on 5th June) André Chénier expressed his profound disillusionment and sense of betrayal.

Here is the text in English, in a translation first published in 1791:

Letter of the abbé Raynal to the Legislative Assembly,  Dated 10 December 1790, Read to the Assembly on 31st May 1791 

I RETURNED  to this capital, after a long absence, with my heart and my attention attached to you; and you would now see me at the feet of your august assembly, if my age and infirmities would permit me; if I could speak to you without being too much affected by the great things which you have achieved, and those which still remain for you to achieve, before you can establish, in this agitated country, the peace, the liberty, and the happiness, which you hope to procure for us.

Do not imagine, Gentlemen, that I am one of those who are insensible to the indefatigable zeal, the talents, the knowledge, and the courage which you have displayed in the course of your immense labours: but a sufficient number of pens have been already employed on this subject, and your title to the esteem of the nation has been sufficiently impressed upon men's minds. As for me, whether I am considered in the light of a citizen using a citizen's right of petitioning, or whether, giving free scope to my gratitude, you will permit an old friend of liberty to make the return due to you for the protection with which he has been honoured, I entreat you not to reject important truths. I had the fortitude long ago to talk to kings of their duty; allow me now to talk to the people of their errors; and to the people's representatives of the danger with which all are threatened.

I am deeply concerned, and I avow my concern to you, at the disorders and the crimes which have spread affliction over this empire. Alas! is it then possible that I must reflect with horror upon my having been one of thosei who, by shewing a generous indignation against arbitrary power, have perhaps furnished arms to the hand of licentiousness? and shall religion, law, royal authority, and public order, call upon philosophy and reason to restore the bonds which united them to the great society of the French nation - as if our efforts to reform abuses, and restore the rights of the people, and the duty of the prince, had broken these bonds of union?  No, they were never broken by us: we never held up the bold conceptions of philosophy as rigorous rules to direct the acts of the legislature; neither can you, attribute to any error on our part, what has resulted from a false interpretation of our principles. And yet, ready as I now am to descend into the darkness of the tomb, and to quit this immense family, whose welfare I have so ardently desired, with what do I see myself surrounded?  With religious troubles, civil dissensions; contentions in some, audacity and fury in others; a government enslaved by popular tyranny; the sanctuary of the law environed by turbulent men, who now dictate to , and now brave, legislation; soldiers without discipline; chiefs without authority; ministers without means, a king, the first friend of his people plunged into the bitterness of anguish; outraged, menaced, striped of all authority; and the public power existing only in clubs, where coarse and ignorant men presume to decide on all political questions.

Such, Gentlemen, be assured of it, such is the true situation of France;and I am perhaps the only man who would dare to tell you the unwelcome truth: but I dare, because I feel it to be my duty; because I verge upon my eightieth year; because I shall never be accused of regretting the ancient system; because the sighs I breath for the desolation of the Gallic church, will never be supposed to come from the heart of a fanatical priest; because, while I regard the re-establishment of legal authority as ourr only means of salvation, I shall never be thought the partisan of despotism - never be thought to crouch and expect favours from it; and because, when I arraign before you those writers who have set the kingdom in a flame and perverted the minds of the People, I shall never be accused as not knowing the value of the liberty of the press.

Alas! I was full of hope and joy When I beheld you laying the foundation of public felicity, pursuing all abuses - proclaiming all our rights and subjecting to the same laws, to one uniform system, all the different parts of this empire. My eyes were  filled with tears when I perceived the vilest and most profligate men employed as instruments of an expedient revolution; when I saw the holy affection of patriotism prostituted to iniquity, and Licentiousness marching in triumph under the ensigns of liberty. Terror was mingled with my just concern, when I found all the springs which constitute the grand machine of government broken and shivered; and impotent barriers substituted for the necessity of an active and restraining force.

Every where have I sought for the traces of that central authority which a great nation deposits in the hands of the monarch for its own security; but no where is, any part of that authority to be found. I have sought for the principles that protect all kinds of property, and I have seen no shadow of them anywhere. I have sought to discover under what habit reposes personal security, the liberty of the individual; I have only seen the still increasing audacity of the multitude, expecting, demanding the signal of destruction, which the factious are ready to give and the lovers of innovation, no less dangerous than the factious.

I have attended, Gentlemen, to those insidious voices which inspire false apprehensions in order to draw your attention from real danger; and whose endeavour is, by instilling the most fatal suspicions, to make you pull down, one after another, every pillar of monarchical government.

Above all I have trembled when, observing in their regenerated life this people that desire to be free, I have seen them not only disregard the social virtues, humanity and justice, the only basis of true liberty, but even receive with avidity new buds of corruption, and suffer new causes of slavery to spring up around them.

Oh, Oh, Gentlemen, what concern dol feel at seeing in the midst of the capital, in the very focal point of all knowledge, a seduced people receiving the most criminal proposals with ferocious joy; smiling at accounts of assassination; singing songs of triumph for their crimes as for so many victories; stupidly provoking enemies to the revolution ; sullying it by their complaisance; shutting 'heir eyes to all the evils with which it is replete. For they know not, unhappy peoplel they know not that in one single crime lie hidden the feeds of infinite calamities; they laugh and dance over the ruins of their own morality, on the very brink of the abyss in which their hopes may soon be swallowed up.  Such a spectacle of joy excites my deepest emotion.

Your indifference, Gentlemen, to this horrid perversion of the public mind, is the first, perhaps the only, cause of that change of sentiments which has taken place with respect to you; and which has made the pure homage paid to your first labours give way to the adulations of corruption, and to murmurs stifled only by fear.

But with whatever fortitude the approach of my last hour may inspire me; whatever duty may be imposed upon me by that love of liberty which I avowed before you existed; I still experience, while addressing you, a degree of respect, a kind of awe, of which no man can divest himself when holding an immediate intercourse with the representatives of a great people.

Ought I to conclude here? or shall I proceed, and speak to you as posterity will speak of you?  Yes, Gentlemen, I believe you worthy of being addressed in such a style.

I have meditated all my life on those ideas which you adopted in the regeneration of the kingdom.  I reflected upon them at a time when, opposed by all the social institutions, by all the interest and by all the prejudices of my country my system appeared to me under the seducing form of a harbour where alone I could find consolation. I was not then called upon by any motivelto weigh the difficulty of reducing it to practice; or the dreadful inconveniencies attached to such abstractions, when invested with that power necessary to command both men and things; and when the passions of men, and the resistance of things, are the elements which it is necessary to combine.

Those consequences which it was neither necessary or possible that I should foresee, under the circumstances .and at the time in which I wrote, the circumstances and the time in which you acted commanded you to consider and provide for; and this I think it my duty to say you have not sufficiently done.

By this single but continual fault, you have vitiated all your labours; and have reduced yourselves to such a situation, that inevitable ruin can perhaps only be prevented by returning through the same paths by which you have advanced, or at least by advising such a retrograde course to your successors.

Are you afraid, Gentlemen, of drawing upon yourselves alone all that hate which is now directed against the altar of liberty? Such an heroic sacrifice, believe me, would not be less grateful to your minds, from the recollection that it might have been avoided.

How exalted are those men, who, leaving their country to enjoy all the good they can procure it, take and assert to themselves alone the reproaches merited for real serious evils, but for which evils they have only circumstances to accuse! I believe you worthy, Gentlemen, of this honourable fate; and the belief that you are so, induces me without reserve to bring before you in review, the defects which you have mixed in the French constitution.

Called upon to be the regenerators of France, you should have considered what parts of the ancient system could be usefully preserved; and moreparticularly what parts ought on no terms to be abandoned.

France was a monarchy. Its extent, its wants, its manners, and its national spirit, were so many invincible obstacles which must for ever prevent the admission of the republican form of government, without a total dissolution of the state.

The monarchical power was become vitiated from two causes: the one was, its basis being surrounded with prejudices; and the other, its limits being only marked by partial resistance.

To purify the principles of this power by establishing the throne on its proper foundation, the sovereignty of the people; and to fix the bounds of its authority, by placing them in the national representation; was the task you had to perform; and you believe that you have accomplished it.

The energy and the continuance of the constitution depend on the equilibrium of these two powers;  in the organization of them, you should have guarded against the bent of popular opinions; you ought not to have been influenced by the prevail:ing opinion, that the power of the Monarch should be repressed, and the rights of the people extended. By weakening, in a disproportionate degree, that which tends to annihilation; and strengthening, beyond due measure, that which will naturally increase, you must expect to experience the dreadful result of a king without authority and a people without a curb.

In suffering yourselves to be led astray, by wild opinions, you have favoured the influence of the populace, and multiplied, to infinitude, the number of popular elections. Have you forgot, Gentlemen, that the Frequency of elections and
the short continuance of power in the hands of the same men, must relax the springs of government? Have you forgot that the force of government ought to be in proportion to the number of those whom it has to quiet and protect?

You have preserved the name of king: but, in the constitution you have framed, a king is not only useless, but dangerous; for you have reduced his influence to the share he can obtain by corruption. You have, as it were, invited him to contend with a constitution, which continually reminds him of what he is not and of what he may be.

This, Gentlemen, is a vice inherent in your constitution: a vice which must speedily destroy the whole system, if you and your successors do not hasten to extirpate it.

I shall not say any thing to you concerning those faults i the new establishment, which may result from accidental circumstances; you must yourselves discover them.  but why will you suffer an evil to exist which may destroy you?  Why, after proclaiming universal liberty of conscience, will you permit the priests to be overwhelmed with persecutions, because they will not obey your religious opinions?

How can you allow, after consecrating the principles of personal liberty, an inquisition to exist within you bosom which serves as a model and a pretext for all the inferior inquisitions, which a factious inquietude has disseminated through every part of the empire?

How can you remain unalarmed at the audacity and the success of those writers who profane the name of patriotism; who, more powerful than your own decrees, destroy

continually what you have erected?  You are desirous of having a monarchical government; these writers are unremittedly employed in rendering it odious: you seek to establish the liberty of the people; they aim at making them the most ferocious tyrants; you endeavour to regenerate public manners; they proclaim the triumph of vice, and impunity to the blackest offences.

I shallI shall not say any thing, Gentlemen, concerning your plan of finance. God forbid that I should augment the inquietudes, or diminish the hopes of the nation: the public fortune is entirely in your hands ; but be assured that there will be neither taxes, credit, certain receipts,
or a fixed expenditure, where the government is not powerful or respectable.

But what form of government could bear up against the new domination of clubs ? You have destroyed all the corporations; and these most colossean and most formidable of all aggregations are towering above your heads, and destroying all power but their own.

All France is, at this time, divided into two classes. The good men, the men of moderation, are dispersed, mute, petrified with consternation; while men of violent spirits rush into close contact, electrify each other, and form those tremendous volcanos which vomit so much flaming lava.

You have made a declaration of rights; and that declaration, defective if you meant to reconcile it with  metaphyfical abstractions, has diffused the seeds of anarchy throughout the French empire.

Hesitating perpetually between the principles, which a false shame will not allow you to modify, and the circumstances which force exceptions from you, you always do too little for public utility, and too much according to your own doctrine. You are frequently inconsequential and impolitic, when you endeavour most to be neither the one or the other. Thus, though you have perpetuated the slavery of the blacks, your decision, respecting the people of colour, has given an alarm to commerce, and endangered your colonies.

Believe it, Gentlemen, none of these observations escape the friends of liberty. They demand back from you the depofit of the public opinion, of which you are onlythe organs ; organs that have no longer their true character.

Europe regards you with astonishment. Europe, which may be shaken to its foundations, by the propagation of your principles, is indignant at their extravagance. The silence of her Princes may be the silence of fear; but aspire not, Gentlemen, at the fatal honour of rendering yourselves formidable, by immoderate innovations, as dangerous to you as to your neighbours. Consult once more the annals of the world: call to your assistance the wisdom of former ages, and see how many empires have perished by anarchy: it is time to put an end to that anarchy which is desolating our country: to stop the career of vengeance, seditions, and insurrections; and to restor us to peace and confidence.

You have but one way of attaining this salutary end: revise your decrees; reunite, and by that means, retore the powers enfeebled by disjunction; confide to the king all the force, necessary for ensuring the power of the laws; and above all, protect the liberty of the primary assemblies, from whence faction has driven all wise and virtuous citizens.

Do not imagine, Gentlemen, that the re-establishment of the executive power can be the work of your successors: no, they will come to the assembly, with less strength than you possess; and they will have to subdue that popular opinion, which you have established. It is therefore you, Gentlemen, who must re-create what you have yourselves destroyed; or suffered others to destroy.

You have established the basis of liberty, as it is established in every rational constitution, by ensuring to the people the right of making laws, and of levying taxes; but anarchy will soon overwhelm these eminent rights, if you do not place them under the protection of an active and vigorous government; and despotism awaits us, if you renounce for ever the tutelar protection of royal authority.

I have collected all my strength, Gentlemen, to speak to you in the austere language of truth. Pardon, as the effect of my zeal and my patriotism, whatever may appear too free in my remonstrances; and be sassured of my ardent wishes for your glory, as well as of my profound respect.




Jonathan I. Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: philosophy, revolution, and human rights, 1750-1790, O.U.P. (2011), p.934-6

________, Revolutionary ideas: an intellectual history of the French Revolution from 'The Rights of Man' to Robespierre' Princeton University Press (2014), p.157-8.
Stanley Loomis, Paris in the Terror, July 1793-July 1794, Jonathan Cape (1964), p.63-5.

Tricentenaire de la naissance de l'Abbé Raynal 12 avril 1713 - 6 mars 1796, Assemblée nationale official website

For  the original French text  of the open letter:

Wednesday 17 December 2014

The death of Gabrielle Danton

Claude-André Deseine, bust of Antoinette Gabrielle Charpentier Danton, plaste, 1793. Musée des Beaux-arts, Troyes.


Plaster patiné, Musée de la Révolution française de Vizille.

The death of Danton's first wife Gabrielle Charpentier and his extravagant reaction to it, is part of the myth of his emotion larger-than-life character.   But what exactly happened?

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Important chairs 4 - the chair in which Rousseau died

I've managed to find another chair!  This one belonged to Rousseau and is on show at the Abbaye de Chaalis, where a smart new "Espace Rousseau" was opened in 2012 to mark the Rousseau tercentenary. It is described as an armchair ("fauteuil"), though the word suggests something rather more comfortable and upholstered.  It is said to be the chair in which Rousseau died.

The chair - along with various other bits of personal paraphernalia, notably Rousseau's inkwell, collar and walking stick - belonged to the collection of the marquis Louis-René de Girardin,  In May 1778 Girardin and his wife had offered the philosopher a home at nearby Ermenonville  where they had created "natural" gardens inspired by his writing. Sadly Rousseau did not live long to enjoy his sanctuary.
Greuze, Marquis de Girardin with the bust of Rousseau
Abbaye de Chaalis

On 2nd July 1778, having returned from his habitual morning walk, he was enjoying coffee in the company of Thérèse Lavasseur when he suddenly complained of tingling on the soles of his feet, a sensation like cold water running down his spine and pains in his chest. He was then seized with a violent headache. He was put to bed but subsequently attempted to get up, fell to the floor unconscious and never recovered. Rumour spread that Rousseau had taken poison or shot himself, but the autopsy revealed massive cerebral bleeding as a result of a stroke or, as modern opinion tends to believe, the repeated falls that he had previously suffered.

A contemporary account of Rousseau's death, based on the testimony of Thérèse Lavasseur, briefly features a chair, presumably this one:

His wife wanted to give him some medicine; he said that it was impossible in his present state of weakness.  However, having helped him onto his bed, she gave it to him, but he couldn't keep it down;  she wanted to slip a flat bed pan under him.  "What!", He said, "Do you think me so weak that I can't get up?".  He made an effort and, throwing himself to the bottom of the bed, got into his chair. His wife proposed a cup of soup, he drank a little then gave it back to her....When she turned away to put the cup on the side, he fell down on the floor, dead.  Believing that he had fallen over in weakness, she threw herself on him to pull him up.  She tried to put him back on the chair but seeing him motionless, she gave a cry and fainted....

Georges Gazier,"La mort de J.-J. Rousseau récit fait par Thérèse Levasseur à l'architecte Paris  à Ermenonville"  Revue d'Histoire littéraire de la France 1906, 13(1) p.107

"The Last words of J.J. Rousseau" engraving by Heinrich Guttenberg after Jean Michel Moreau  (1741–1814) .

"Espace Rousseau" on the Abbaye de Chaalis website
"La Collection Jean-Jacques Rousseau" (virtual visit) Chaalis Rousseau tricentenary minisite.

Sunday 7 December 2014

The secret child

Joseph, comte de Solar, engraving by Lemoine
In June 1775 the abbé de l'Épée claimed to have discovered through use of sign language that one of his impoverished pupils from the Bicêtre hospital was the abandoned heir of a noble family.  A chance visitor to one of his public demonstrations recognised the child as Joseph, the deaf eldest son of the late comte de Solar from Toulouse. It was discovered that Joseph had last been seen travelling with his tutor, a young law student named Cazeaux, who reported that the boy had died of smallpox on the journey, at Charlas.  On the face of it, it seemed clear that Cazeau had abandoned the child in order to facilitate a love affair with his widowed mother.

Cazeaux was duly arrested, taken to Paris and thrown into a dungeon.  The identity of the abbé de l'Épée's pupil seemed established for, like the original Joseph, he had an extra tooth in his upper jaw.  Yet Cazeaux protested his innocence and, before his trial, the famous lawyer Élie de Beaumont, defender of Jean Calas,  produced a sensational defence; Cazeaux was known to have left Toulouse on September 4th 1773 by which date "Joseph" had already been committed to Bicêtre, having been discovered in Picardy the month before.  Cazeaux's lawyers protested bitterly that his arrest was based only on the abbé de l'Épée's interpretation of signing.

Cazeaux's release was followed by an investigation in Toulouse with Joseph present.  The child which Cazeaux had buried was exhumed and found to be aged 8-10 years, with the same extra tooth.  The judges arrived at the extraordinary verdict that Cazeaux was innocent but that the deaf boy was indeed the comte de Solar.  However, in 1791 Cazeaux and Joseph's sister Caroline, who stood to lose her inheritance, successfully appealed the decision and "Joseph" was finally discredited.

The episode was the subject of a play by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, The abbé de l'Épée, which opened in at the  Comédie-Française in December 1799 and enjoyed a success second only to the Marriage of Figaro itself. The play was revived at Gallaudet University Theatre in Washington in 2011.  There have been a couple of TV dramas, one by the BBC in 1991 and in 2006 a Franco-Belgian production, L'enfant du secret by Serge Meynard, both of which featured a deaf lead actor.

Excerpt from "The Count of Solar", TV film by Tristram Powell, BBC 1991 (on Vimeo):


This account is taken mostly from:
Nicholas Mirzoeff, "Signs and citizens: sign language and visual sign in the French Revolution" in The consumption of culture 1600-1800 (2013), p.283-4. Extracts on Google Books:

I can't find any footage from L'enfant du secret (2006): YouTube has an interview with the lead actor:
See also:

Thursday 4 December 2014

Pierre Desloges, deaf-mute writer

The very first time in history we have the published words of the deaf is in 18th-century France: a  letter by Saboureux de Fontenay in 1768 and in 1779 a book written by the bookbinder Pierre Desloges, part autobiography, part a defence of signing. 

The essential context for Desloges's book was the controversy over the status of sign language. Though fundamental to deaf pedagogy, the issue drew a wider audience, relating as it did to the nature of language itself. The abbé de l'Épée became a well-known figure in 1770s and 1780s when he gave public lessons before an array of distinguished philosophers and scientists.

De l'Épée was an early champion of signing which he saw as the "maternal language" of the deaf; the role of the instructor was to learn the natural language of signs himself,  then to teach his pupils how to "translate" their natural idiom into written and finally spoken French.  His posthumously published Dictionary was not, as one might expect, a compendium of signs but a book of explanations intended to build on an existing vocabulary. In his lessons he himself was a "living Dictionary" interpreting the meaning of words through "methodical signs artistically combined". This approach was open to attack because of its lack of precision, but was almost universally approved, then as now, by the deaf community.

Lesson with abbé de l'Epée - 19c painting in the INJS 

The debate over signing fed easily into philosophical quests for a universal "natural language" which became topical in the 1760s.  De l'Épée himself entertained the fantasy of erecting sign language into a global idiom, with accompanying reversion to the Christian values of honesty, simplicity and directness. In 1775 Condillac in the first volume of his Cours d'études, offered  a theory of the origin of language and a method for teaching grammar, both of which were grounded  in a language d'action a along the lines of the abbé's "methodical signing".  Among the deaf, however, there were dissenting voices. Jacob Pereira and his deaf student Saboureux de Fontenay argued for the greater efficacy of dactylologie (finger spelling) to articulate French words. So too Desloges's adversary, the abbé Deschamps, a teacher of the deaf in Orléans, who felt that signing offered limited comprehension of ideas and saw the difference between men and animals as resting essentially in "la parole".
In the 1770s the abbé Alexis Copineau, canon of the church of St.Louis du Louvre and a friend of de l'Épée,took over the defence of signing for the deaf; he championed the idea of a "mimic language" which could be developed along the lines of signing  as a meta-language. It was in all probability Copineau who ghosted, or at least heavily edited, Desloges's Observations, which was published by his associate, the Jansenist bookseller,Benoît Morin.  The basic theme of Desloges's book was superiority of signing -  and the abbé de l'Épée's "methodical signing" in particular.  For Desloges, signing was the natural idiom of the deaf, as he has it "my own language". Moreover, with Copineau he claimed that signing is actually preferable to verbal communication and should be learned by all. 

The most interesting part of Desloges's work is undoubtedly his account of experience as a deaf individual and  his hints at the existence of an informal Parisian "deaf community" in the 18th century.  Almost all the details of his life come from the book itself:

Pierre Deslogues was born in 1747 in the village of Grand-Pressigny near Tours where his father was a tax-collector. At the age of seven he contracted smallpox, as a result of which he lost his teeth and became deaf-mute:

.The two accidents of deafness and mutism occurred at the same time and, so to speak, without my realizing it. During my illness, which lasted nearly two years, my lips became so slack that I can close them only with great effort or the assistance of my hand. In addition I lost all my teeth; it is chiefly to these two causes that I attribute my mutism. Beyond that, it happens that when I try to speak, air escapes and the sound I make is just inchoate. I can utter long words only with great hardship, by constantly breathing in new air which, again escaping, makes my pronunciation unintelligible to strangers. One can reproduce my speech fairly accurately by trying to speak with the mouth open, without closing lips or teeth. 

 He relied on writing and a vestigial ability to speak until the age of twenty seven when he learned sign language for the first time. He recalled that even his parents did not believe he was capable of learning a trade and his relatives, friends and neighbours treated him as though he was "beastly, imbecilic and insane".  At the age of only nineteen, he escaped to Paris where he managed to earn a living as a bookbinder and paper-hanger. It was only eight years later that he finally learned how to sign.  He was taught not in class but by the unschooled deaf servant of an actor at the Comédie-Italienne.  Desloges was emphatic that the sign language which the  abbé de l'Épée had developed already existed informally; it was "the natural language of the deaf, a "useful art" that the Parisian community of deaf laborers had established between themselves through "common sense and the company of their own kind".

For a time Desloges was adopted by the Parisian intelligentia. who admired in him a noble savage who had formed his ideas exclusively through empirical observation and rigorous logic. He met with the celebrated secretary of the Académie des sciences, Condorcet and published essays in the Mercure de France and Journal encyclopédique.  In the Salon de la correspondance a strange silent written debate was staged between Desloges and Saboureux de Fontenay.
Later, like the deaf sculptor Deseine, Desloges became an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution.  In July 1789 he published an anonymous Letter to the electors of Paris from a deaf and mute French citizen in praise of the patriotic conduct of the French Guards.  The conservative abbé de l'Épée in the Journal de Paris was at pains to point out that he did not know Desloges personally or share in his sentiments. It would appear, however, that, far from ushering in a new era of hope, the Revolution  brought destitution for Desloges. In a manuscript letter of August 25 1790 addressed to the Keeper of the Seals he signs himself "Desloges, deaf and mute, good pauper of Bicêtre" and describes how "very cruel" circumstances had reduced him to living in that notorious institution.  He had just sent an address to the National Assembly soliciting a school and hospice for the deaf and mute.  As a result of his efforts on behalf of the Institution des Sourds-Muets, he was eventually awarded the sum of 300 livres by the Convention.

Desloges reappears again in the historical record only briefly in late 1793 (Year II)  when, as "the republican Esope-Desloges, deaf and mute, inhabitant of Bicêtre", he published an Almanach de la raison dedicated to the Jacobins, "who are waging a courageous war against prejudices and superstition".  His appeal to natural language now has a certain note of anti-intellectualism: he notes that he has left errors in the text, but  has thereby  given to youth "a idea of the natural religion of the honest man" who owed his education entirely to "nature".


The debate on sign language:
Sophia Rosenfeld, A Revolution in language: the problem of signs in late eighteenth-century France (2003), p.103-6, note, p.311.

Renate Fischer, "Abbé de l' l'Épée and the living dictionary" p.13-26.
Deaf History Unveiled: Interpretations from the New Scholarship ed. John V. Van Cleve (1993)

On Pierre Desloges:
Translation of the Observations d'un sourd et muet in The Deaf experience: classics in language and education ( Gallaudet, 2006)

Anne T. Quartararo, "Pierre Desloges and the early deaf community", excerpt from Deaf identity and social images in nineteenth-century France ( Gallaudet, 2008)

F.Legent, "Pierre Desloges sur Internet"  Nantes ORL [website]

Yann Cantin, "La communauté sourde avant l'abbé de l'Épée, vu par Pierre Desloges"[seminar paper, 2012]

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