Friday, 29 January 2021

An interview with Jean-Clément Martin

Here is a translation/ summary of an interview with Jean-Clément Martin published last year in the Italian magazine Historia Magistra.  J.-C. M reflects on his career and some of the major themes of his work.

How did you become a specialist on the French Revolution?

J.-C. M:  In 1978 I began work on a thèse d’Etat [an advanced Doctorate] on the wars in the Vendée.  I was a teaching at a lycée in Nantes at the time.  My previous research, under Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, had been a quantitative study of  bankruptcies in Les Deux Sèvres in the 19th century. I found that incidences of bankruptcy did not simply reflect business failure, but were used by the business community to regulate membership and to curb innovation.  Twenty years later I brought this insight to a study of rape in the Vendée in the 19th century based on legal dossiers. In the 1830s and 1840s, rapes were not more frequent, but new social norms encouraged the peasants of the Vendée to denounce individuals who had raped their daughters 10 or 20 years previously.

How did you progress from the Vendée to the Révolution more generally?

J.-C. M: When I took up a post in Nantes in 1978, Le Roy Ladurie advised me to work on the Revolution in Nantes, but the archive proved too disorganised for a single researcher.  A year or so later I was shocked to discover that one of my teachers at the University of Nantes participated in meetings of the Souvenir vendéen and commemorations of the wars in the Vendée; yet his course stopped at the 10th August 1792. I admit that I was also vexed by my own ignorance.

I therefore proposed to Le Roy Ladurie that I would work on the wars in the Vendée and their place in memory.  This was at the beginning of the 1980s, well before the bicentennial commemorations.  "Memory" was organised through conventional means (associations, publications) but many people also observed family rituals in which they commemorated their ancestors from the time of the wars.  As well as using archives and documents, I collected oral traditions.  I spoke to people who were in their seventies in 1980, so born between 1900 and 1910. These people's grandparents would have born between 1850 and 1860, and may have had older siblings born as early as 1840.  This meant that in the 1920s those still living could have met individuals born in 1840 who, in turn, knew individuals born in or just after the wars.


Memory was favoured by the geographic stability of the population.   Intensive dairy farming encouraged strong family structures, often with 10-15 members, centred on the male head of household.  These structures were valued by local notables and curés.  An ethos of self-sufficiency, which asked nothing of the state, placed a positive value on their predecessors' struggle against the Republican government. 

I myself comes from a Vendéen family.  My grandparents left the region and settled in an area which was nearby but very anticlerical. My researches have helped me to appreciate my own family heritage.

In 1984 the Ministry of Culture offered me the opportunity to research  migrants from the Vendée in the region of  Les Landes.  Here I found identical family structures, also similar distinctive  attitudes towards the State, work, numbers of children.  

In a paper in Les lieux de mémoire, edited by Pierre Nola (vol.1, 1984),  I characterised my work as the historical and anthropological study of  "une région-mémoire".

In the meantime I found that I  agreed less and less with what was written about the war itself.  I set myself to read systematically contemporary newspapers.  In 1793, there were risings against the Revolution in a quarter of France, notably in Brittany.  The worst insurrections did not take place in the Vendée.  But everywhere else resistance was crushed.  It is significant that the Frenchmen of 1793 talked about a "war" in the Vendée, a word that was not used elsewhere.

The movement started with the victory of the insurgents against Revolutionary troops sent from La Rochelle in March 1793.  This success was due to the poor preparation of the army. When the news arrived in Paris, it was viewed through perspective of the Girondin-Jacobin conflict; the Jacobins blamed their enemies for the defeat.  Events were read in the Convention as a "war", though the situation did not really justify the terminology:  a competent general with well-disciplined troops could have restored order in a few months.  But the Revolutionaries escalated the stakes; they demanded action which was symbolic rather than realistic:  the whole of French must punish the Vendée.  Hence troops were sent to the region from all around France, that hated each other, were useless, failed militarily and fanned the flames of war.

As long as there wasn't a well-organised central power, the war in the Vendée was allowed to develop. The symbolic edge made the battles more and more important, more bloody, and the political discourse more and more radical.

What were the demands of the Vendéens themselves?

J.-C. M: The Catholic and Royal Armies fought to defend their churches and their property, not to restore the Monarchy, even though they sometimes invoked Louis XVII.  The situation was the same in Brittany, Alsace, the Basque country and the Massif Central;  it was just that the royalist armies were victorious south of the Loire and not elsewhere. In the summer of 1793 the sans-culottes steered the Ministry of War against the Convention, exacerbating the weakness of the Republican armies.

This internal conflict between groups of Revolutionaries is an essential factor, often minimised by certain of my colleagues.  At the outset troops of sans-culottes were sent out who were badly trained and out of the control of the Convention.  The result was extortion, rape, massacre and pillage.

The particular contingencies of the military situation permitted the Vendéens to resist until October, when they were crushed at Cholet.  The sans-culottes at this time lost their power and were no longer able to rival the deputies of the Convention.  In December 1793 the Convention established "revolutionary government", suspending the constitution and the exercise of democracy;  power was centralised and the nature of the Revolution itself changed.

The "classic" history of the Sorbonne insists on the unity of the Revolution and on the will to defend the Revolution, against both external and internal enemies, which came to a peak in 1793.  I do not find this.

My interpretation emphasises the interplay of forces and reappraises the effects of the fall of Robespierre and the start of the Directory.  In 1793 and at the beginning of 1794 the State was contested and the Convention torn between different factions.  However, the war in the Vendée facilitated the elimination of the Girondins, then the sans-culottes to the profit of the Jacobins - who finally also eliminated the "robespierrists".   I thus traced a trajectory which led me to consider the history and  memory of the Revolution as a whole.

Why do you reject the idea of a "genocide" in the Vendée,  when you yourself have shown that there were more victims than previously admitted?

J.-C. M: There was no genocide, even though 200,000 died.  The idea of a genocide in the Vendée has been around a long time, but came to the fore in 1985 when Reynald Secher defended his thesis, directed by Pierre Chaunu.  The media seized on his work up immediately as an absolute revelation disproving the official history, which had long neglected the Vendée.  He was taken up by the press - notably Le Canard enchaîné - and television; on eve of the bicentenary,  it seemed a propitious moment to condemn the Revolution as the antecedent of the gulags, and of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism.

A similar thing happened in Italy on the 150 anniversary of unification;  here "neo-bourbons" historians uncovered a "genocide" by the army of Savoy in Southern Italy, which had not been much talked about before.

It is no coincidence that this talk of genocides began in the 1970s and '80s.  This was the period of crisis in Marxism, of the discovery of the genocide in Cambodia, and of Simon Leys's denunciations of Maoist China.  Hannah Arendt died in 1975 and her theses were taken up, notably by François Furet.  I was still working with Le Roy Ladurie and was close to Furet.  Thanks to him, I was leading a seminar at the École des Hautes Études. on the Counter-revolution. However,  I opposed the thesis of genocide and distanced myself from Furet.  When you look at the sources closely, there is no evidence for a "genocide" which supposes a system to destroy an entire population. The Convention gave funds to  refugees in the Vendée and protected the property of recognised Republicans.  The Revolution wanted only to exterminate its enemies, the "brigands de la Vendée"

I am not contesting the validity of debate over the question of genocide, which is worth posing as it promotes reflection.  There was no genocide, but there were war crimes, even crimes against humanity.  

Can one use the concept of "war crime", which was not admitted at the time?

J.-C. M: History itself is anachronistic.  It is mediated by our present-day concepts.  This worries me less when one notes that military regulations of the period stipulated that soldiers caught committing rape must be tried and executed.  The laws of war at the time anticipated our later preoccupations.

We can speak of massacres, but not of genocide. 

"Le Dernier Panache", a show at Le Puy de Fou based on the life of Charette

To resume the story of my career, in the Vendée I became interested in the Puy du Fou theme park, which was created in 1977.  I myself had been responsible for an exhibition on the memory of the wars  under the regional museum director Francis Ribémont, but I played no part part in Philippe de Villiers's design team. In 1984 Villiers was invited to appear on the programme Vive la crise introduced by Yves Montant: the French public discovered a modern entrepreneur making his mark in the cultural sphere. He gave an image of commercial success.  In 1991, with a colleague who was a sociologist, I published a book on the Puy du Fou [Le Puy du Fou en Vendée, l'Histoire mise en scène (en collaboration avec Charles Suaud), reissue L'Harmattan, 2000].  By this time it had ceased to be the project of an organisation of volunteers and had become a commercial concern with diverse employees.  The book led to several démêlés with the Association du Puy du Fou.

In 1987 I defended my thesis and in 1989 I published a book on the memory of the Vendée which covered the period 1800 to 1980.  I have since updated my study to take account of the fact that after 1989 the situation changed completely, particularly through the influence of Philippe de Villiers in the 2000s.

How do you explain Emmanuel Macron's visit to the  Puy du Fou during his presidential campaign in 2017?

J.-C. M: The message was ambiguous;  Villiers has transformed the local economy of a rural department with modern technological industry.  He is a great communicator and has attracted many celebrities. Macron was certainly testing out the possibility of forging links with the Right.  However for the past two decades Villiers has only been on the margins of Vendéen politics, despite his media importance.  I have not observed any real links between Villiers and Macron.

You have written that the work of the historian requires the exercise of asceticism ["un relève de l’ascèse"]?

The idea that the study of history demands "asceticism" doesn't quite translate into English. J.-C.M. seems to have in mind an combination of intellectual rigour and abstinence from personal bias.

J.-C. M:   Firstly, it is not easy to teach the history of the Revolution.  I have written several works of popularisation and it is extremely difficult to convey complex ideas.  In 1990 school textbooks presented the war in the Vendée with one page devoted to me and another to Secher and the idea of genocide.  A true  understanding of what happened  has taken several decades of publications.  Colleagues in the classic tradition have asked me to give a total death toll for the Revolution, something which  would have been impossible twenty or forty years ago, when such questions were the exclusive preserve of the Right.


Secondly, I have participated in conferences on the Revolution and the Vendée in the widest possible range of political settings, from extreme Left to extreme Right; but I have always used the same vocabulary.  The massacres of the Vendée were neither a genocide nor "legitimate vengence".  My position has satisfied no-one - but  a historian can no doubt never be popular.

Thirdly, technical "asceticism" means one should never arrive at an explanation without considering the full complexity of the evidence.  Thus a public speech must be examined not only for overt content but for context and underlying intent. 

We must always remember that the "mentalities" of the Revolutionary era were very different from our own.  For instance, what were the aims of the sans-culottes?  Were they harbingers of political modernity? Viewed close up, I see individuals defending community interests, with a millenarian perspective which was very archaic.  They had habit of violence and were formed by inherited beliefs.  They  did not belong to the world of the Enlightenment but to the universe of popular tradition.

I found the people of the Vendée to be in fact very similar.  They were archaic, communal in outlook, influenced by superstition, and with no concept of the modern state.  They believed in a "pact" between the people and the sovereign: when the sovereign broke the pact, they rose against him;  it was no more complicated than that. This was not the revolt of one part of France against another: it was a revolt by people who did belong to the nation at all against the Modern French state.  Yet those who opposed them had scarcely more notion of a national community; they too were defending themselves against foreigners.

What is the connection between the Terror and terrorism?

J.-C. M: The word "terrorist" was born in September 1794.  It was used for the followers of Robespierre, the participants in  "the Terror", as defined by the Thermidoreans.  They suffered a brutal repression - at least 2000 were killed in Paris and in the Rhône Valley.  Under the Directory, Left-Wing radicals, viewed as terrorists, were suspected a priori of advocating political violence. Some (Babeuf, Buonarroti) went underground.  After 1796 the Left attempted to recreate Republican circles throughout France.

The word "terrorist" was not use before this time, and it is not known who invented it.  Its meaning changed radically in the 1820s.  This was the period when memoirs of the Revolutionaries were diffused by the Carbonari/Charbonnerie, notably in Italy.  The word "terrorist" was then used for those who tried to "terrorise" public opinion.  A Left-Wing tradition which lasted through the Empire, was favoured by the Hundred Days, continued under the Restoration through  "Republican banquets", then through the Charbonnerie.  All these currents saw themselves as Republicans but not Robespierrists.

As to Robespierre himself, it was not until the 1850s that he began to acquire a positive image, notably through the work of Louis Blanc. Robespierre then became a romantic hero, embodying the idea of individual action.

Thirty years after the Bicentenary, what place does the Revoluton have in political discourse and the teaching of history in France?

J.-C. M: 
The bicentenary itself was a failure.  I had no desire to attend Jean-Paul Goude's parade on the Champs-Elysées.  To me, this pseudo-commemoration was indecent since it stopped short at December 1789.  Mitterand did not want to acknowledge the September massacres of 1792 but he allowed a completely distorted  commemoration of the Battle of Valmy.   The celebrations were adapted by  different agendas.  The Left transformed 
Trees of Liberty into "Trees of Ecology" whilst the Right observed classic Counter-Revolutionary commemorations.  I felt that the result was not really positive.  The great outpouring of books and entertainments on 1789-1790 hasn't had much lasting legacy.  In contrast, I found great significance in the wave of courageous commemorations which took place in the West to remember the wars of the Vendée; these took place without taboo or propaganda - I participated with much conviction.

Ironically, I think that the principal result of the Bicentenary has been a media saturation.  This has  benefited younger scholars, aged between 30 and 40, who can work peacefully on the subject without editorial pressure.  Maps have been redrawn.  Links between European and extra-European historiography have been consolidated.  One unexpected example is in China, where the death of Mao  led to a "normalisation" of scholarship; Chinese historians became interested in the politics of Thermidor at the same time that we did in France!

The interest offered by the study of history is to understand how we live today.  Since 7.11 "Terrorism" has become synonymous with the Twin Towers.  The world, its imagery and symbols change rapidly.  I was involved in the production of Assassin's Creed Unity, which has been played by 10 million people.  Mélenchon, the leader of the Insoumis, took up cudgels against Ubisoft in the name of French tradition.  He has forgotten that this is a game for the worldwide market, created according to American/Canadian expectations - regrettable as that might be.  

And in the discourse of French politicians?

J.-C. M: There is an awareness in political reference that the Revolution gave France not only the "Rights of Man" but also the guillotine.  Only Mélenchon still sees Robespierre as a pure romantic hero. At the other end of the spectrum extreme Royalists count for little, even in the ranks of the Right. 

Are the gilets jaunes the new Revolutionaries?

For me this is just figure of speech.  I am always dismayed when politicians talk about "cahiers de doléances" - these were huge failures in 1789, piled up and never even opened.  Perhaps the gilets jaunes are better seen as part of a French popular tradition of protest?  The people have always opposed "les Messieurs". We are seeing a revolt like that of the Nu-pieds (1639) or, more recently, the Bonnet rouges (1675 or 2013). Analogies with the Revolution just shows a  lack of historical understanding.

The fundamental question posed by the French Revolution, is the relationship between legality and legitimacy. The attack on the Bastille was totally illegal but it was given legitimacy.   In 2019-2020 the gilets jaunes acted illegality, believing they had a legitimacy, which public opinion debates with them. 

The Institut de l'histoire de la Révolution has been closed.  Does this suggest a lack of interest in the Revolution?

The Institut disappeared for administrative reasons, as as result of rivalries between different centres.  What concerned me was the lack of any political move to save it; in fact there was a political preference for the new centre devoted to the Republic at the École des Hautes études. The lack of professional co-operation is worrying. I attempted to create an Institut Révolution-Empire but this initiative failed.  The IHRF Library is protected by influential individuals for the present, but risks dispersal in the future.  Universities concerned with the Revolution spend more time in-fighting than co-operating.  In 2020  output on the Revolution has been dominated by popular histories, novels and comic-books.


Parler de Révolution: entretien avec Jean-Clément Martin réalisé par Alessandro Giacone pour la revue Historia Magistra, 2020, N°32.  [Reproduced  by J.-C. M. on his blog]

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