Sunday 30 October 2022

Videos from the Vendée

The Institut national de l'audiovisuel (INA) has an archive of short videos, "Regard sur la Vendée", which includes a collection on historical themes, introduced by Jean-Clément Martin. The clips on the Wars in the Vendée, some of which date from the 1970s, cast an illuminating light on the development of historiography and commemoration in the region over the last decades.

Olonne-sur-mer : regard sur la Vendée - Histoire de la Vendée (


The Vendée militaire

Video of 6th November 1974

The local historian, Valentin Roussière, outlines the contours of the Vendée militaire on a map and movingly evokes the landscape of his native region.

Regard sur la Vendée (INA video collection): Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne

Introduction by Jean-Clément MartinIn 1974 French television broadcast a series on "The Great Battles of the Past", produced by Daniel Costelle and Henri de Turenne...  One of the episodes featured the Battle of Cholet, which took place on 16th December 1793....The film included both reconstructions of the conflict and interviews with historians.  Valentin Roussière (1910-1983), who features in this clip, was a native of Les Herbiers.  He was a photographer and journalist with the newspaper Le Phare de la Loire.  Between 1935 and 1939 he took thousands of photographs of the Vendée, which constitute an important documentary record.  He was a friend of the Martel brothers [well-known sculptors from the Vendée] and published several books on the contemporary evolution of the region, notably Haut-Pays: les logis de la Vendée and Dieu meurt-il en Vendée? 
TranslationValentine Roussière: This landscape has long been a place of mysteries, as you appreciate when you enter the bocage, with its hedges everywhere.  They give the impression of palisades, as though you are in a Roman camp.  The countryside itself seems rebellious; it seems to watch you, almost to absorbs the people within.  There are oak trees with strange shapes, like gnomes it is said.  The story is told of a bishop who was almost blind. and came across them at nightfall.  He mistook them for his parishioners and, from the door of his carriage, blessed them with grand gestures. Until a few years ago, if they cut back these trees, which are often hollow, they would find skeletons; skeletons with weapons, and  sometimes even with the trace of a sacré-coeur on their coats.  It was clearly here that  the great national drama of our province had occurred, of the Vendée, what they call the Vendée militaire.  What was the Vendée Militaire?  The historical province covered four areas south of the Loire and stretching west to the ocean.  It included the southern part of the departments of Loire-Atlantique and Maine-et-Loire,  the northern part of Deux-Sèvres and the department of the Vendée. That represents a frontier of 100 kilometres; and a population as large as 600,000 inhabitants.

The whole of the documentary on the Battle of Cholet is available on the internet: 

Friday 28 October 2022

The skull of Stofflet

... An unpleasant relic of the War in the Vendée

When I came across this macabre image by chance, I was rather shocked to learn that the skull on display is that of the much-respected Vendean general Jean-Nicolas Stofflet. This  is not some downmarket Ripley's; it is the flagship Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Cholet.  With all the dialogue around history and memory in the Vendée, it seems strange to find so disrespectful an exhibit.  (I suspect part of the explanation is that the skull is on loan to the museum - the family who owns it are said to take an active interest in its display and study.)

Unsurprisingly, there have been protests. In 2015, during a visit by the organisation Souvenir Vendéen  to  Barthélémont, in Lorraine, the birthplace of Stofflet, the mayor Serge Husson, who is  himself a distant descendant of the general, declared his desire to see an end to this "indecent situation".  He wanted to see the skull buried or deposited,  either in Barthélémont  itself or in the memorial chapel near Maulévrier.  

Tuesday 25 October 2022

David d'Angers's veterans


During his stay in Saint-Florent for the inauguration of the monument to Bonchamps in 1825, David d'Angers made a series of sketches of veterans of the Grande-Armée d'Anjou who had gathered for the occasion. His original album of 1825, Portraits de Vendéens par David d'Angers, is preserved in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Angers. The Archives de la Vendée website tells us he planned to create a series of bas-relief, but, if so, the project was never begun.  Each of the 62 drawings is carefully annotated with biographical details, either by  David himself, or in a second hand, probably that of his former drawing master Jean-Jacques Delusse (1758-1833). The result is a rare visual record of a passing generation. 

On view in the church at Saint-Florent

David, it seems, had no political agenda. He was moved by the emotion of the occasion and by his empathy for these tough proud old men.  His interest in the fashionable science of physiognomy underlay his desire to record their features.  According to Victor Pavie, the men responded readily, crowding to his door, eager to share their reminiscences. Years later, Pavie tried to explain how David, a man of convinced Republican views, had come to feel drawn to the veterans:

The Vendean peasants who gathered around the tomb in Saint-Florent in 1825 constituted a people.  David understood this.  As a child from a different school, almost a soldier from another camp,  he could not embrace the Vendée in all its radiant unity - the sanctity of the cause, the martyred devotion.  But he recognised generous and worthy opponents of  Kléber and Marceau. The era of the War in the Vendée was coloured for him with the same Homeric prestige that Gros's brush had lent to the battles of the Empire, but with the resonance of religion and home.  He preferred to call his native province by the name "Vendée". Two days at Saint-Florent, under a sun which lit up the wide vistas and splendid serenity of his homeland, sufficed to bring him in intimate contact with the survivors of the Grand Army.  These brave men posed and chatted to him with a frankness which was both noble and familiar.  Not one aspect  escaped him.  To see him so keen to record with the same crayon, their stories and their features,  they would easily have mistaken him for a partisan - he was indeed an unreserved  admirer of their pride in combat and simplicity in glory.
Oration of M. Victor Pavie, for the inauguration of the bust of David, Angers, 12th March 1863

Monday 3 October 2022

The monument to Bonchamps at Saint-Florent


My father was one of the five thousand prisonners in the church at Saint-Florent, for whom Bonchamps commanded pardon on the point of dying.  In executing this monument I wanted to repay, as far as I could, my father's debt of gratitude.
Note of David d'Angers on an engraving (quoted Jouin, David d'Angers, p.150-151)

Here are a few additional notes on David d'Angers's famous monument to Bonchamps in the Abbey church at Saint-Florent.

The Father

David d'Angers always maintained that he executed the monument in recognition of Bonchamps's humanity, as personally experienced by his father.  Pierre-Louis David (1756-1821) had been a successful decorative sculptor in Angers. He was an enthusiastic patriot and volunteered in the Republican army in 1793.  In a notice written in 1838, David recalled that his father was a daring soldier, who was often entrusted with dangerous missions.  Having been wounded and captured at the Battle of Torfou (19th September 1793), he found himself among the prisoners liberated at Saint-Florent on the orders of Bonchamps. He subsequently retired from active service to a post in army administration, but remained a lifelong ardent supporter of the Revolution, an allegiance which he handed on to his son.

Sunday 2 October 2022

Bonchamps spares the Republican prisoners


Bonchamps "from a contemporary  portrait",
reproduced in Baguenier-Desormeaux,
Bonchamps et le passage de la Loire (1896)
We must not deceive ourselves; - we must not aim at worldly rewards - they would be below the purity of our motives and the sanctity of our cause.  We must not even aspire to human glory;  civil wars give not that.
Words of Bonchamps, reported in the Memoirs of his wife p.7-8.

The Retreat to Saint-Florent

On 17th October 1793 the Grande Armée Catholique et Royale attacked Republican troops at Cholet.  After a terrible battle that lasted thirty-six hours, the Republicans were left masters of the field.

The two Vendean generals, D'Elbée and Bonchamps, had both been seriously wounded.  They were evacuated from the battlefield in full view of their demoralised troops.  D'Elbée, despite sixteen wounds, was carried away by his brother-in-law Duhoux d'Hauterie on horseback.  The faithful soldiers of Bonchamps took turns to bear the stretcher of their beloved chief, who had been hit by grapeshot in the belly.  One of their number Louis Onillon, carried beside them the flag of the division of the Bords de la Loire (See Deniau, p. 57According to the eye-witness account of  Poirier de Beauvais, Bonchamps spent the night at Beaupréau, in the house of a Madame de Bonnet, arriving about nine o'clock in the evening. D'Elbee, who had preceded him there, was taken by ox-cart to a neighbouring farm and subsequently evacuated to Noirmoutier. Bonchamps too stayed only a short time in Beaupréau since by early  morning on the 18th October he was in Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, at the house of Mme Duval in the lower town.    

In the meantime, the defeated Vendean forces began to gather in Saint-Florent, where it had been Bonchamps intention to cross the Loire.  In the absence of the senior commanders, the marquis de Donnissan,  president of the Supreme Council,  took charge of operations and, seconded by the Chevalier des Essarts, sent orders to surrounding parishes to assemble. Estimates have it as many as sixty thousand ragged soldiers gathered in the town, with perhaps twenty thousand women and children.  With them arrived several thousand Republican prisoners under the guard of Cesbron d'Argonne, a fierce veteran of almost 60, until recently the royalist governor of Cholet. The prisoners were shut up in the Abbey buildings or assembled in the surrounding town. They clearly posed an acute dilemma, since they could neither be taken across the river, nor simply left behind to rejoin the enemy forces. The third alternative was clearly to kill them.

Wednesday 28 September 2022

Lescure crosses the Loire

 Jules Girardet (1856–1946).

General de Lescure, wounded, crossing the Loire from Saint-Florent with his defeated army

Oil on canvas, signed and dated 1882. 152 cm x 249 cm.

Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead

Here is a striking image of the conflict in the Vendée to be admired in an unexpected location! 

Girardet's canvas captures the moment when the stricken general Lescure was ferried across the Loire from Saint-Florent, with his wife, daughter and father-in-law.  

Lescure had been shot in the head by a musket ball and seriously wounded at  La Tremblaye on  15th October 1793, just prior to the decisive Royalist defeat at Cholet.  He had opposed the crossing  and declared his wish to die in the Vendée, but in the end he had little choice.  He was carried slowly and painfully by his men on the long retreat of the Vendéan army, to die finally at Laval on 2nd November.  His passage across the Loire is described vividly in the Memoirs of his widow, the Marquise de La Rochejaquelein: 

Wednesday 14 September 2022

Saint-Florent-le-Vieil (2)

 [continued from previous post]


17th-19th October 1793:  The Army of the Vendée crosses the Loire

If Saint-Florent saw the beginning of the conflict in the Vendée, in October 1793 it was to  witness its critical turning-point, as the Royalist forces crossed the Loire and turned West at the start of the Virée de Galerne.  

On the evening of 16th October at Beaupréau, Bonchamps's plan to extend the war to Brittany had been reluctantly agreed by the Royalist leadership.  A detachment under the orders of Autichamp, Bonchamps's aide-de-camp, successfully secured the commune of Varades on the north bank, directly opposite Saint-Florent, and the way now stood open.   However, the catastrophic defeat at Cholet on 17th October, meant that the crossing took place under chaotic conditions. Both  D'Elbée and Bonchamps had been gravely wounded.  The mass of dispirited troops retreated in disarray first to Beaupréau, then in the evening to Saint-Florent.  On the same night, 17th October, the crossing began.  It continued throughout the next day, principally from Saint-Florent, and Cul-de-boeuf a short distance upstream.  Due to the shortage of boats, huge numbers of Vendeans found themselves crowded together on the riverback. Several thousand Republican prisoners who had been brought into the town were famously liberated by order of  Bonchamps, who was taken across the Loire and died at the village of Meilleraie on the evening of the 18th.

The site of the crossing can be surveyed evocatively from the steep hill of Saint-Florent, surmounted by the Abbey church and the wide expanse of the Place d'Armes.  Below, the Loire is broad and shallow, with a flat bank, which must have been far too small to accommodate the press of people gathered on it. According to Mme de La Rochejaquelein there were only twenty or so boats, though there were doubtless other improvised rafts.  A first branch of the river, with dykes and low water levels, could be forded on foot "with water to half-way up the body".  In the centre was the Ile Batailleuse and then the second branch of the river, whilst at the foot of the hill of Varades, yet a third branch had to be negotiated. The horsemen swam across with their horses. The weather was reported to be cold, but without wind to make waves on the river;  elsewhere it was described as "calm" but with a cold wind.There is record of only one woman ,plus  three horses, drowning.

Monday 12 September 2022

Saint-Florent-le-Vieil (1)

 On the way back from Nantes to Dieppe we stopped off at Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, one of the key "places of memory" of the War in the Vendée. The little town, to the north of Cholet, occupies a strategic promontory over the Loire at the entry to the Mauges, later the heartland of the Army of Anjou.  It was here that the war is traditionally said to have begun, on 12th March 1793.

 It was only a flying visit - just enough time to take in the atmosphere and see the famous tomb of Bonchamps  sculpted by David d'Angers.  

12th March 1793:  The War in the Vendée begins

John Haycraft visited Saint-Florent in 1989 in the company of the local historian and ardent Royalist Dominique Lambert de La Douasnerie: 

When we asked Dominique about the start of the insurrection, he took us to the little town of St-Florent-le-Vieil, which is not far south of Angers.  Approaching it from the north bank of the Loire, we could see the houses jostling up the hill to a picturesque church with a spire.  Most of St Florent was burnt in 1793.  However, it was rebuilt shortly afterwards, and still looks much like old prints, standing beyond the flat islands in the river, on which tall poplars stand, their small leaves rustling in the breeze.

We stopped beyond the suspension bridge on the Place Maubert.  "It was here," said Dominique, dramatically, "that the war started."

He looked round at the old houses in the little square. "On Sunday March 12th, 1793, on this spot, the municipal authorities announced that lots would be drawn for conscription, as there were insufficient volunteers for the army.  Hitherto, the Vendeans had accepted the Revolution passively, but they were certainly not prepared to leave their farms and fight on distant frontiers for ideals they detested.  They resented, too, that the municipal authorities and the National Guard were exempt from conscription, and that the burden therefore fell mainly on them.  Protesting, the crowd jostled the officials and several young men were arrested and taken to the local jail.

The Place Maubert  - nowadays truncated by the D752 as it enters the town via a suspension bridge

"The following Tuesday," continued Dominique, "more than 2,000 peasants marched into the town, wearing white royalist cockades.  As the confronted the municipality and shouted to them to suspend the drawing of lots, the National Guard panicked and fired.  The crowd then surged forward, and the Guard fled down the slope, just there, to the river."  We walked through a narrow passageway between an old chapel, now a museum, and an ugly, rectangular cinema, and descended a cobbled path through trees to the banks of the river.  Before us, the Loire flowed swiftly past.   "The National Guards took refuge there, on those islands, and the town was in the hands of the insurgents."

Thursday 8 September 2022

The Vendée - Noirmoutier



In January 1794 the Vendéen general d'Elbée was executed by Republican Troops in the square outside the castle on the "presqu'île" of Noirmoutier.  The memorable painting by Julian Le Blant evokes a scene of almost infinite remoteness and desolation. 

Today Noirmoutier is not like that. It might not be "always sunny" as the tourist website claims, but in late August it is certainly busy; the cars and camper vans were nose to tail along the main road as we drove in.  Fortunately, as it was late afternoon, even more were pouring out in the opposite direction. We did not dare to stop, even to photograph the picturesque salt pans, and it was with some relief that we secured a parking space and abandoned the car.

Wednesday 7 September 2022

The Vendée - La Chabotterie


While the soul of the Vendée is believed to rest at the Memorial of Les-Lucs-sur-Boulogne, its spirit is said to exude from La Chabotterie.  It is the most important site of memory in the département, since it is the place where Charette was taken after his capture, which event marked the end of the Vendée War of 1793.

The presence of the most famous general of the "Great War" haunts this modest, austere-looking manor house, even though he never resided there.  It is impossible to stifle one's emotions when contemplating the scullery table on which the "King of the Vendée" lay wounded, and where we was to spend one of his last nights before being executed by firing squad.  
Philippe de Villiers, quoted in the preface to the English guide to the Logis de la Chabotterie.

We started our second day in the Vendée at the Logis de la Chabotterie, a beautifully restored  manor house at Saint-Sulpice-le-Verdon, about 40 minutes drive south from Nantes.  It was in the nearby woods of La Chabotterie on 23rd March 1796 that Charette, the last of the Vendéan leaders, was finally arrested.  He was then held briefly in the house before being taken to Nantes for execution.

Tuesday 6 September 2022

The Well at Clisson


It was a bright sunny afternoon when we visited  Clisson, thirty kilometres south of Nantes.  Thanks to the sculptor Frédéric Lamot, who took up residence there, the little town was attractively rebuilt in an Italianate style in the early 19th-century.  On a warm August day in the holidays, the atmosphere was relaxed and happy, the views over the river picture-perfect.  It was hard to imagine the dark times of Revolutionary conflict.

It was in the cold early months of 1794 that the "infernal column" commanded by General Cordelier reached Clisson. Almost all the buildings were destroyed, the great medieval castle was ruined and much of the population reduced to sheltering in the surrounding woods.  Only the two ancient bridges across the Sèvre and its tributary the Moine were spared, together with the old covered market which served the Republican troops as a barracks.  

Monday 5 September 2022

The Vendée - Massacre at Les Lucs

 The chapel

After visiting the Mémorial, we crossed the little river and followed the "chemin de la mémoire" up to the 19th-century commemorative chapel, which stands close to the site of an ancient feudal motte.  There is a great sense of peace here on a bright late summer afternoon. 

It was in February to March 1794 that more than 500 people were slaughtered in the surrounding area by detachments of the "infernal column" under the command of General Cordelier.

Sunday 4 September 2022

The Mémorial de la Vendée

After leaving the Historial, we visited the  Mémorial de la Vendée, just a few minutes from the museum, but oddly detached from it.   The experience proved strangely disturbing, especially as we were entirely alone at this point.  

Saturday 3 September 2022

Historial de Vendée - Picture Gallery


In order to ensure a balanced interpretation, the Historial has elected  to separate its presentation of the events of the war in the Vendée from its collection of depictions by later artists.  A gallery, mostly of 19th-century paintings, provides a context to analyse the later "war of the painters".

Whilst David and other artists were propagandists for the Revolution, the Vendée produced almost no contemporary representations of the war.  The insurrection was only celebrated later, by the Restoration, which sought chiefly to glorify the leaders.  Under the influence of Romanticism, Vendeans and Chouans were confounded and presented as Christian knights, ferocious warriors in the midst of grandiose decors.  On the other side, the inheritors of the Revolution, exalted the heroism of Joseph Bara, a symbol of Republican innocence victim of the "fanaticism" of the Vendée.
After the end of the 19th century, with the decline of historical painting, the  Vendéen inheritance was celebrated predominantly in church windows. The region became a stronghold of Catholicism. 

Thursday 1 September 2022

Historial de la Vendée


This summer we spent three days visiting some of the sites of the war in the Vendée, using an airport hotel on the Nantes periphérique as our base.  Our first stop was the departmental museum, the Historial de la Vendée, which is situated about an hour's drive away, in the commune of Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne.

We stopped in a semi-deserted carpark on the edge of an area of parkland which featured several odd grassy hillocks.  The first two, we later found out, were ancient feudal mottes; the third was the roof of the eco-friendly, state-of-the-art museum complex.  You descend down some steps into a massive hall which resembles a multiplex cinema, with seven separate exhibition spaces corresponding to different periods of history, plus a shop, cafe and children's museum.


The Historial was opened in 2006 at the substantial cost of 14 million euros for the museum building alone - though apparently this is only half the average cost of a new museum in France (see Dominique Poulot, 2011).  The architects were Plan 01, a collective of four Parisian firms. The museum is modelled, both physically and conceptually, on the ultramodern Canadian Museum of History in Quebec, with an emphasis on audiovisual and interactive technology. 

The term "Historial" is intended to combine "History" and "Memorial", the idea being that the museum should provide not just a historical narrative but a reflection on the development of collective memory.  This is of course particularly fraught for the war in the Vendée:  Les Lucs, where the museum is located, is the scene of a notorious massacre by Republican troops and the site of the Mémorial de la Vendée built in 1993 under the rightist inspiration of Philippe de Villiers.

What follows is a brief description of the section of the museum devoted to the war.  The lighting was very subdued so excuse the poor quality of the photographs!

Tuesday 12 July 2022

Mademoiselle Charolais "en Cordelier"

After Pierre Gobert, Mademoiselle de Charolais as penitent / Franciscan monk
(94cm x 72cm).  
Auctioned in 2005, current whereabouts unknown. 
Wikimedia [from ArtNet]

The subject of this curious portrait is Louise-Anne de Bourbon-Condé, Mademoiselle de Charolais (1695-1758), the notoriously promiscuous granddaughter of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan. Although portraits in fancy dress of various kinds were popular in the early 18th-century, no-one seems quite certain why she chose to have herself depicted in this singularly inappropriate costume.  (This is distinctly a masculine habit - Franciscan nuns always wore elaborate headdresses.)

Saturday 9 July 2022

The Farmer-General, his wife, her lover and ... a fireplace

Madame de  La Pouplinière by Quentin La Tour, Musée Antoine-Lécuyer, Saint-Quentin, c.1741 [Wikimedia]



 It feels high time to cheer ourselves up with some sexual scandal. One of the century's most talked about liaisons involved the notorious duc de Richelieu and Thérèse des Hayes, the wife of the Farmer-General Alexandre de La Pouplinière. The most sensational feature of this affair was the spectacular discovery by the cuckolded husband of a specially constructed fireplace in his wife's room, which allowed her lover secret ingress from the adjoining house.

Tuesday 5 July 2022

Diderot, Bouret and his dog

Detail from Greuze's L'Enfant gâté (Louvre)

The story of Bouret and his dog has been made famous by Diderot in Rameau' s Nephew:

Rameau's nephew ("Lui") defends his reprehensible life as a social parasite on the grounds of moral determinism and cites Bouret 's innate natural ability in the art of flattery, a skill which has served him well:  "Only God and a few rare geniuses can have careers that keep stretching out before them as they advance".  His incident concerning the dog is one of three, ostensibly well-known,  examples of Bouret's  ingenuity, the others being the "Book of Felicity" and "torches lighting the way to Versailles". The first of these references is clearly to Bouret's famous book in the pavillon du roi,  described in the Correspondance littéraire for March 1764.  Bouret is recorded in 1759 as having stationed torchbearers at intervals along the King's progress from Versailles to La Croix-Fontaine.

According to Rameau's nephew, the  Keeper of the Seals took a fancy to Bouret's little pet dog and Bouret decided to make him a present of it.  He was obliged to go extraordinary lengths  since he had to persuade the animal to accept the minister as his new master. The creature, who was extremely attached to Bouret, was frightened by the minister's bizarre clothing.  Moreover Bouret was under time pressure, for he has only a week to achieve the feat. He had a mask made to disguise himself as the Keeper of the Seals, borrowed the man's wig and voluminous robe, then petted the dog and enticed it with titbits to eat;  reverting to his own identity, he then gave  the animal a beating.  By repeating the exercise from morning to night, the dog was soon persuaded to prefer the minister. Rameau's nephew professes  admiration for this remorseless attention to detail - "Having a mask made to look like him! It's the mask I find so staggering". Genius of this sort is born, not made:  "Who ever gave Bouret any lessons?  No-one. It's nature that forms these rare men.  Do you think the dog and the mask is written down anywhere?" (2014 English edition, p.52-55) 

Saturday 2 July 2022

A Pavilion fit for a King

This portrait, by Louis-Michel Van Loo, is from the collection of the late couturier Hubert de Givency which is to be auctioned by Christie's in Paris at the end of the month. If you have €60,000-€ 80,000 to spare, this glossy, this splendid, rather self-satisfied eighteenth-century gentleman could soon adorn your walls....

Louis-Michel Van Loo (1707-1771) and workshop, Portrait of Étienne-Michel Bouret (1710-1777) in front of the  Pavillon Bouret

Oil on canvas 141 cm x 109 cm. 

[The painting was previously auctioned in December 1994. See the reproductions on Artnet and Wikimedia.]

As it happens, the subject fits in neatly with my current theme of financiers and tax farmers.  He is Étienne-Michel Bouret - perhaps the most absurdly rich and profligate of them all. 

According to Lenotre, Bouret was "le prototype des parvenus".  The most famous of three brothers, he rose from modest origins -  legend he had it he arrived in Paris with only 20 écus - and amassed fortune through transport of salt for the gabelle and later through speculation in the grain trade.   He accumulated even greater wealth through a series of lucrative Royal offices -  General Treasurer to the Royal Household in 1738 and Postmaster General in 1752 - and in 1741 joined the exalted ranks of the Farmer-Generals. 

In an age of ostentatious luxury, Bouret stood out for his extravagance. Biographers estimate that his fortune at its peak could have been reached as much 42 million livres.   Voltaire later maintained that he spent up to 200 livres a day to have fresh seafood relayed by road from Dieppe.(Requête à tous les magistrats du royaume, 1769).  It was above all the scale of his building projects which drew scandalised attention.   He maintained a splendid hôtel in the rue de la Grange-Batelière (later sold to Laborde), and constructed an magnificent "pavilion" at Gonesse  ("What folly!", wrote d'Argenson, who disliked him: "What an insult all this is to the people.").  

Wednesday 29 June 2022

The last Farmers-General

I have had a reasonably long, and very successful career, and I believe that I shall be remembered with regret, even accorded some glory. What more could I want? The events in which I find myself embroiled have probably saved me from the inconveniences of old age.  I shall die in perfect health...
It seems that the exercise of social virtue, service to the nation, a career dedicated to the progress of the arts and sciences, are not enough to save a man from condemnation and death.
Letter of Antoine Lavoisier, written from the Conciergerie shortly before the trial of the Farmers-General (Quoted Grimaux, p.915).

The end of the General Farm

By the end of the Ancien regime, the General-Farm was the most hated institution in the country. It was inconceivable that it could survive the advent of the Revolution, which was accompanied by paroxysm of popular anger and insurrection against indirect taxation. Customs houses were destroyed and greniers à sel burned down, the Farm's employees forced to seek refuge with the army.  On the night of 12th-13th July the hated Wall of the Farmers-General was subject to sustained attack. As collection ground to a halt in the provinces, the Assembly moved to liquidate the Farm.  In August 1789 the Company was ordered to close its books and to continue only on the account of the King.  The gabelles were completely abrogated on 14th March 1790,  the traites  converted in a uniform tariff in October 1790. By early March 1791, the entrées  and aides had been abolished. On 20th March 1791 the tobacco monopoly was cancelled and, on the same day, the Lease Mager of 1786 was declared null and void - the General Farm had officially ceased to exist. (Taylor, p.278-9).

Satire of 1791 The Doyen of the Farmers General, borne aloft by his clerks, makes a final journey to oblivion.   Musée Carnavalet.  Le Doyen des Fermiers Generaux [...] | Paris Musées

Whilst the legislation aroused little enthusiasm within the Assembly. popular passions in Paris continued to run high. Former employees of the Farm accused the Farmers General of having cheated them of wages and pensions.  (Grimaux, p.888).  A succession of  attacks punctuated the radical press. Hébert in the Père Duchesne wished he could be at the headquarters of the General Farm "to contemplate the fat mugs of all those financiers sitting around their green baize....What grimaces all those jackasses will make on realising that they will be forced to part with their beautiful palaces, their handsome country houses, and fine furnishings....(Le Véritable Père Duchesne,  no.33, p.5-6. Quoted Poirier, p.272). 

Friday 24 June 2022

Lavoisier and the General Farm

In his career as Farmer-General, the great chemist Lavoisier, exemplified the professionalism and dedication to public service shared by so many of the Farm's senior administrators in the last years of the Ancien régime.  Far from regarding his involvement with the Farm as merely a source of income,  Lavoisier brought his huge energy and intellect to bear on its problems with every bit as much seriousness and zeal as he showed in his scientific work.  

Lavoisier enters the Farm

 Portrait of Lavoisier by Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Private collection,
see Beretta, Imaging a career in science (2001), p.3-4
At the age of twenty-four, Lavoisier had inherited a personal fortune from his mother,  but was still in need of  income to secure his long term financial independence and meet the considerable expenses of his scientific research.  Shortly after his election to the Academy of Science in March 1768,  a relative of his father's, Antoine Chaumont de La Galazière, the former Chancellor of Lorraine, advised him that one of the Farmers General, the seventy-four year old  François Baudon, wanted to sell his share in the Company.  Lavoisier bought into the Farm, first as adjunct to Baudon, and eventually, on Baudon's death in 1779, as a full Farmer-General. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Lavoisier's scientific colleagues were worried that his new responsibilities would prove too great a distraction,  though the geometer Fontaine quipped: "So much the better, the dinners which he gives us will be much improved" (quoted Grimaux, p.32) 

Nor were the benefits of being a Farmer-General merely financial;  Lavoisier was now marked out for a high-ranking government post - though, in the event, this ambition was never realised:

His administrative career began in 1769; M. de la Galazière succeeded in getting him entry, despite all the objections raised against admitting a young scholar, who had only a year previously been admitted as Adjunct member of the Academy of Sciences. la Galaizière insisted to the abbé Terry that Lavoisier could render service to the State by simplifying parts of the Farm's administration.  Several years later the abbé Terray and the duc d'Aiguillon, who had replaced the duc de Choiseul, congratulated themselves of the administrative services rendered by Lavoisier.  They told M de la Galaizière that they intended to give his young relative the post of  maîtres des requêtes, so that he could become an intendant of finance, with a view to entering the Ministry.  This project was never realised;  Louis XV died and the abbé Terray was replaced by Turgot.
 E. Chevreux, Journal des Savants, November 1859, p.711.

Monday 20 June 2022

Helvétius, philosopher tax-farmer

Portrait of Helvétius from  Ickworth (N.T.)
 studio copy of the full length portrait by
Van Loo exhibited in the salon of 1755.
Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771) | Art UK


Until relatively recently not much was known about Helvétius's career as a Farmer-General, beyond a few lines in contemporary notices and eulogies. However, in modern times two manuscript reports have come to light from Helvétius's tours of inspection as a Farmer,  in the Ardennes and Franche-Comté. The new finds show the seriousness of his commitment to the Farm. According to the editors, Helvétius comes across as a conscientious and able financier, "a commis, serving the interests of his Company"[Desné, 1971] and "an inquiring mind, keen to improve the operation of the Farm, and eager to propose reforms" [Inguenaud, 1986].

This is another reminder, if one is needed, of the complex symbiosis which existed between the philosophers of the Enlightenment and the ruling élite of the Ancien Régime.

Helvétius becomes a Farmer-General

Helvétius came from a distinguished medical family: his father was chief physician to Marie Leckzinska. and was credited with having saving the life of the seven-year old Louis XV in 1717. However, Helvétius's  precocious scholastic achievement suggested a different direction: "His father, whose fortune was mediocre...destined him to finance, as an state which could enrich him and leave him the time to make use of his talents (Saint-Lambert, p.6)  His father was not mistaken  - Helvétius was to become almost obscenely rich; according to Bachaumont, on his death his estate was worth four million livres (Mémoires, 4th October 1772).

The young man was initially sent to work with his maternal uncle,  M. d'Armancourt,  directeur des fermes in Caen.  The historical record from this time preserves only his literary pursuits; he wrote verses, even a tragedy, and, with the support of the Jesuit Yves-Marie André,  gained admittance to the Academy in Caen. (Keim,   p.15-17)

Tuesday 14 June 2022

Tax farmers and Philosophers

There are two conditions of person that have greater weight  in society than in former times, particularly in fashionable social circles.  They are the men of letters and men of fortune....
Not long ago financiers saw men of good birth as their protectors but today they rival them.

Charles Duclos,  Considérations sur les mœurs de ce siècle (1751).  Chapter X, sur les gens de finance.

The gross and ridiculous longer exists in Paris.  This portrait might have been realistic fifty years ago, when Le Sage wrote his comedy "Turcaret";  today our financiers are very refined and likeable, have fine and agreeable houses and no longer resemble the financiers of old. 
Grimm, Correspondance littéraire, 15 June 1753

If the financiers of bygone days merited the scorn and criticism of honest men, those of today merit their esteem and praise, through the integrity of their conduct, their noble sentiments and good manners.
Fréron, Lettres sur quelques écrits de ce temps (1761)

The spirit [of the Farmers General], less absorbed by petty calculations, devoted itself with passion to the cult of the beaux-arts and literature.  They exercised the happiest influence, whether by  encouraging men of letters with pensions or artists by their generous purchases....But, when the Revolutionary torment came, no account was taken of their services to arts and letters.
Alix de Choiseul-Gouffier, vicomtesse de Janzé, Les Financiers d'autrefois (1886), p.24-5

The ambiguities of the relationship between Enlightenment writers and the representatives of state power is well illustrated by the example of the Farmers-General.  By the end of the Ancien régime the Farm and its officials were routinely execrated in a multitude of reforming publications.  Yet as individuals the philosophes often had close ties to the monied élite, and owed debts of gratitude and friendship to members of the Farm.

Sunday 12 June 2022

The Encyclopédie on tobacco

 The account of tobacco manufacture in the Encyclopédie, is based on practice at the tobacco works in Paris, which was adjacent to  the Hôtel de Longueville.  The article was published under the name of the Chevalier de Jaucourt, but was no doubt based on copy supplied an official of the Ferme de tabac.

Jaucourt's informant notes that the manufacture of tobacco products demanded neither complicated machinery nor highly skilled workers; however simple operations require care and attention throughout the process, from the choice of materials to the finished product.

The magasins or warehouses for storage of raw tobacco were designed to offer protection from sunlight and humidity.  They were very large, since newer leaves had to be constantly moved and piled up to avoid uncontrolled fermentation.   

Tobacco was processed into a number of different finished products, each with a particular name and usage. The two most common in Paris were rolls for the pipe and  tabacs "en carotte", that is compressed tobacco for grating.   The article illustrates the steps in manufacture:

1. L' Époulardage 

Two workers sort imported tobacco leaves

The tobacco is transported to the manufacture in wooden barrels called "bocaux".  It arrives as bundles  ("manoques"), ie. handfuls of leaves bound together and tied using a corded leaf at the top.  These have to be separated out and the leaves rubbed clean and graded.  "Époulardage" is jargon de l'atelier for shaking off the dust -  the bundles resembled chickens with flapping wings (see the clip below, from Morlaix in 1986).

Saturday 4 June 2022

Tobacco Manufactories

This post is based on a lecture given in 2011 by Paul Smith, a specialist in industrial archaeology with the Direction générale des patrimoines (see references blow).

Paul Smith explains how the organisation of the tobacco trade into a royal monopoly dictated the structure of the tobacco processing industry and its associated buildings:  

Unusually for this period, the workforce employed by the Tobacco Farm was concentrated in large-scale factories, an organisational preference dictated both by operational convenience and by the need for tight security. The state tobacco monopoly of the 19th century was also to be characterised by large factories, whereas small scale operations were the rule for the period of deregulation during the Revolution.

The manufactures, which were built and maintained directly by the Crown, functioned as symbols of royal authority.  Situated in major ports or urban centres, they represented prestigious architectural projects. Their innovative design anticipated the model factories of Eugène Rolland in the nineteenth century.

Manufacture de tabac Architectes: Jacques Martinet et Jacques V. Gabriel, Le Havre 1728.

Paul Smith begins his discussion  with this view of the interior of one of the earliest of the factories, the manufacture du tabac in Le Havre.  The illustration is is a small vignette from an engraving of 1728 in the Bibliothèque Nationale.  At the tables to the right tobacco leaves are being "spun" or twisted into ropes or "rôlles" -  the basic form in which tobacco was sold in the Ancien Régime.

Already, at this early date, the enduring characteristics of the tobacco industry are apparent - firstly, the large scale concentration of workers and, secondly, the use of child labour: children can be seen under the tables passing up the leaves of tobacco to the ouvriers fileurs.  

Thursday 2 June 2022

The Tobacco Farm

The Ferme du tabac and the organisation of the Tobacco industry

By the  mid century tobacco duties were worth more than 30 million livres a year to the French Crown - some 7% of fixed income -  second in value only to the hated gabelle.  Like the trade in salt, the tobacco trade was administered as a royal monopoly. In 1730, after a period of control by the Compagnie des Indes, Ferme du tabac was incorporated into the "General-Farm".   It was a huge undertaking. To maintain the tobacco monopoly effectively, every aspect of the importation, processing and sale of tobacco had to be overseen.  

This map, which was prepared by Lavoisier in the 1780s,  shows the Tobacco Farm's complex and highly regulated pattern of import and distribution. This level of control was made possible by the centralised organisation of the General-Farm with its specialised committees, directors and inspectors. From 1749 onwards the  Comité du tabac occupied the magnificent 17th-century Hôtel de Longueville, situated in the centre of  Paris between the Louvre and the Tuileries.  From here the authority of the Farm extended directly through much of the Kingdom, with "sous-fermes" in the Lyonnais, Dauphiné, Provence, Languedoc, Roussillon and Lorraine. 

Sunday 29 May 2022

Salt-smuggling - more snapshots from the Breton border

The division of the gabelle into different regions, with extreme and arbitrary price differentials, inevitably made the smuggling of salt an intractable problem.  Smugglers were most active where the pays francs or pays rédimés shared a frontier with the grandes gabelles, above all along  boundary with Brittany.  Salt which sold for two or three livres-per-minot in Brittany retailed for fifty-six or more livres-per-minot  over the border in Maine or Anjou.

According to Daniel Roche, everywhere in France the majority of those convicted of salt tax violations were men; two-thirds were adults under the age of forty.  Smuggling was normally a supplement to other work:  even the few full-time smugglers would be supported by their communities and often did ordinary chores around the villages. They were not the true marginals of society, but poor country folk - day labourers, smallholders, village artisans, petty traders. Ultimately  they inhabited the same world in which the taxed salt and tobacco were consumed.

As long as individuals operated alone and on foot, the money to be made was  modest - around 50% profit might be expected, but the quantities of salt involved were  small - an "artisanal" level of fraud. In the towns and larger settlement, particularly along the Loire, the involvement of  artisans, innkeepers and petty tradesmen  encouraged some larger scale enterprise.  In the 18th century professionals or semi-professional smugglers worked mainly as individuals or  small groups - but occasionally there were armed troops of several dozen men, quasi -military in operation.  The most dangerous operated by night, under cover of darkness. On the Breton border the landscape - with the woods and hedges of the bocages - acted in their favour, making it easy to evade pursuers and to hide the contraband. The territory round the Loire offered sizable urban outlets;  Angers was only 20 km from the frontier of the gabelle.  

See: Daniel Roche, France in the Enlightenment, trans. Arthur Goldhammer  (Harvard U.P.1998) ,  p.348-53.

Figures published by Necker (1784)

According to Necker, during the first three years of the Lease Salzard (1780) an annual average of 2,342 men, 896 women and 201 children were convicted of salt smuggling in the vicinity of Laval and Angers on the Brittany border.  Many more women and children were arrested (or rearrested) but not prosecuted.  Over a thousand horses, and fifty waggons were also seized, and 4,000 domestic raids carried out. The value of illegal salt seized and horses and wagons confiscated amounted to 280,000 livres  [Quoted G.T. Matthews, The Royal General Farms (New York, 1958) p.109]. 

The grenier à sel at Laval

In 1974  Yves Durand and his students carried out a statistical analysis of 4,788 smugglers  tried between 1759 and 1788 by the grenier à sel  in Laval, a centre of the clandestine trade.  These were overwhelmingly petty smugglers.

Saturday 28 May 2022

Smugglers and their dogs

One particularly inventive ruse of 18th-century smugglers was the use of specially trained dogs to carry contraband salt and tobacco.  On 6th June 1734,  Royal Letters patent  prohibited the inhabitants of the  pays des grandes gabelles on the frontier with Brittany from keeping mastiffs ("chiens mâtins" ), on pain of a penalty of 500 livres.  According to the preamble, these dogs were bred in great numbers.  They would be leashed together like  packs of hounds and taken into Brittany, where collaborators would keep them shut up in barns or stables for a few days until they became hungry.  Twelve to fifteen livres of salt would then be attached to the dogs' necks, wrapped up and rolled into collars of waxed cloth.  When the dogs were released at night they invariably made their way back to their masters by the route they had come.  The routes would be varied so that they were difficult to trace.  Sometimes the dog's food  would be deliberately  impregnated with salt so that the animal became maddened with thirst.

Lettres patentes portant défenses aux habitans des provinces limitrophes de Bretagne d'avoir chez eux des chiens-mâtins, à peine de 500 livres d'amende... Registrées en Parlement [à Rennes] le 12 juillet 1734

The dog referred to as a "chien mâtin" was the Belgian mastiff, a breed which is now defunct but was once widely employed as a working dog, particularly to pull carts. Such dogs were large and powerful beasts.

Friday 27 May 2022

Salt smugglers [cont.] - Policing the gabelle

 [...continuing my notes from Bernard Briais's book, Contrabandiers de sel (1984)]


Gardes des brigades des Fermes du roi, 1788, 
Association pour l'histoire de l'administration des douanes

The  Farm was faced with 1200 lieus (c.4800 kilometres) of internal frontiers to police.  Guardposts were ranged along these borders, where possible following the line of the rivers: the Meuse to the east, the Mayenne to the west, the Vienne and the Creuse between Poitou and Touraine. A second or even a third line of guard posts would  provide reinforcement.  The guards could be stationed at crossing points or act as patrols; on the water itself, flat-bottomed pataches were manned at the entrances to the rivers.   Most brigades comprised two to six men, but a few were larger:  in the Bourbonnais, the brigade of La Roche-Bransat, had a captain, a lieutenant and ten cavalrymen; the brigade La Jolivette at Chemilly also had ten men.  The distance between guardposts varied according to the terrain and the level of smuggling activity.   No less than nine brigades were stationed along the Vienne over the nineteen kilometres between l'Ile-Bouchard and Candes, including one on a patache at the confluence with the Loire.

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