Friday 19 January 2024

A little-known heroine of the Nancy Affair

It is a curious footnote to the story of Désilles to discover that a second person was credited with heroism the "Nancy Affair" - and that this was a woman, indeed a "woman of the people":  the wife of the Concierge at the Porte Stainville.  Here she is in Le Barbier's painting, serving the cause of peace by determinedly pouring a bucket of water over one of the cannons:

There is only one known engraving wholly devoted to this little-known figure, a plate from Volume 5 of Prudhomme's  Révolutions de Paris, dated 11th September 1790 (No.62, p.462):

Title: Porte de Stanislas, à Nancy : la femme Humberg, concierge de la porte de Stanislas à Nancy, voulant empêcher qu'on tira un canon, qui étoit à la dite porte prit un seau d'eau et le renversa sur la lumiere, malgré les oppositions des canonniers : [estampe] / [non identifié]
Publisher :  Bureau des Révolutions de Paris (Paris)
Publication date :  1790

The caption translates:  The Stanislas Gate in Nancy: the wife of Humberg, concierge of the Stanislas Gate, wanting to prevent the firing of a cannon in front of the said gate, took a bucket of water and tipped it over the firing pan, despite the opposition of the gunners.  
[Pupil (1976)  A29, fig.13 and p.87) 

The Siege of Nancy [Pupil (1976), A28]
As Pupil notes, as with Prudhomme's earlier plate of Désilles (A28), the engraving shows no knowledge of the topography of Nancy.  The Gate where the action took place is  named Porte Notre Dame in one engraving and Porte Stanislas in the other;  in both it appears as part of a medieval wall rather than a new monumental arch.

No Christian names for the woman are ever supplied, but she is more usually referred to as "Humbert" rather than Humberg.

The subject may perhaps have been more popular than this one engraving suggests.  Pupil also inventories a painting mentioned
 in a letter of 1910 as on sale at the galerie Duchemin in Paris. The canvas, which measured about 80cm by 50cm, showed the concierge's wife, together with a magistrate, surrounded by soldiers of the Châteauvieux (A30).  

Who was la femme Humbert?

 Attention was first drawn to the existence of our heroine by the local historian Paul Dumont in  the bulletin of the Lorraine Archaeological Society for February 1910 (see reference).  

Dupont points out that, in all likelihood, the immediate source for Prudhomme's image was the eye-witness account by the cavalry officer Léonard, published only a few weeks after events in Nancy - note that this text too refers mistakenly to the Porte Stanislas.  On p.143 we read:

If men have acquired the right the gratitude of their country, a women whose name should be remembered by posterity, merits it no less.  Towards half-past-three, as the army of M. de Bouillé approached the gates of the town, the wife of the concierge of Porte Stanislas [sic], Madame Humbert, noticed that the soldiers who guarded the gate were preparing to light the cannons.  After trying in vain to dissuade them, she did not fear to take action.  Since she realised that her strength and entreaties were of no avail against such maniacs, she went inside, fetched a pail of water, and threw it over the pans of the cannons. Her courage astonished the soldiers who contented themselves with giving her verbal abuse; they were unable to use their artillery pieces until the very moment after the attack on the gate had already begun.
Relation exacte et impartiale de ce qui s'est passé a Nancy le 31 août et les jours précédents, par M. de Léonard, officier au Regiment du Mestre-de-Camp-Général de la Cavalerie.  Prefaced by a letter dated 18th October 1790. p.143. 

Dumont also refers to a number of archival documents.  Among them are two petitions addressed to the citizens of Nancy and its suburbs, requesting financial support for the concierge and his wife.  Appended are a total of 145 signatures, mostly from prominent citizens of Nancy.  The text, which is very similar in both cases, reads as follows:
Let us not forget to honour virtue when it is shown by a poor man; let us hasten to improve his lot when he has contributed effectively to saving his Country.  This debt is no less sacred.  We speak of Sr Humbert, the caretake of the Porte Stainville. We speak still more of his wife....

On the morning of the 31st four pieces of artillery were ranged under the porte Stainville, one of which, a 24-pounder, was positioned in the little door next to the caretaker's lodging.  At about two o'clock a man in gunner's uniform noticed this emplacement; he spoke to Humbert's wife and asked where her children were?  In my basement - Take them elsewhere; if the gun goes off the gate and your house will be blown sky-high. The frightened mother fetched her children and took them to a safer house.  Humbert remained at the gate and refused to leave.  Once assured of her children's safety, his wife came back to share with him the danger of perishing under the rubble.  M. Delort, arriving at the gate, saw the soldiers ready to fire;  he cried "These are our friends, not Turks;  they do not intend any harm".  When he found his exhortations were useless, he placed his head in front of one cannon whilst M. Desisles [sic] seized hold of another.  A soldier who saw his comrades hesitate before such heroism, took a taper, went into the caretaker's house and lit it.  Humbert's wife, who was more agile than her husband, poured water on the pan and returned to throw more on her fire;  Humbert seized the soldier's taper and threw it away; the angry man came up and pushed him; at that  moment he was fired on and his blood spurted over Humbert and his wife.  M. de Bouillé's troops entered the city and battle was engaged.  Several officers and soldiers of the Royal Liégeois regiment were wounded.  Humbert and his wife took them in; their children's bedding and all their linen served as bandages; their house was a refuge for seven persons, to whom they gave every care.

Citizens - here are the facts: what virtues!  You see a tender mother watching for the safety of her children; nothing extraordinary in that, I give you; but then she returns to face danger beside her husband. In this she shows great courage and a fine example of conjugal devotion.

Next, you see this woman stand in the way of the soldier who was going to light the 24-pounder. In this way she saved the life of a large number of Frenchmen who would have been killed, and saved her country from the fury of the troops maddened by desire for vengeance, bloodlust and pillage.

The destruction of the gate was not the only danger that the two citizens ran.  They acted to save us under musket fire from two sides. Three soldiers from Nancy were killed; one of them covered Humbert and his wife in his blood.  They exposed themselves to the same risks and survived only by good luck.

It is interesting to note that Madame Humbert's sponsors, writing in 1790, still tend to think of heroic virtue as the preserve of the educated classes:

As you see, this virtuous couple merit praise for their great courage... and, in addition, for the humanity  they showed in  collecting and tending the wounded, without regard for themselves or their children... They now languish in poverty and their meager possessions have disappeared in the crisis.  Their poverty is an offence against good citizenship....All virtue has an equal right to recognition; if there is any bias it should be in favour of the poor, who have not imbibed with their mothers' milk the principles which determine great actions....
Translated from P. Dumont(1910) p.31-32.

The petitioners go on to note that, although Humbert had been in post for two years, he is still waiting for an official warrant in order to claim his salary and has been obliged to subsist on payments received from traffic passing through the Gate.  We learn that he has four children in all to support, one of them only a baby. 

 Associated with the petition are three depositions from soldiers, who certify that they had witnessed Madame Humbert douse the 24-pounder.  (Spelling was obviously not their strong point, even in the case of lieutenant Bonviller, the former marquis d'Aulnoy; the third man has been reduced to giving a signed oral statement.):

It would seem that the efforts of the petitioners did bear at least some fruit.  In a  letter dated 29 November 1790 the comte de Saint-Priest in Paris writes to informs Bouillé that the Queen herself had heard about the actions of la dame Humbert  and wished reward the bravery of a person of her own sex. She forwarded a sum of 1200 livres from her personal coffers for and would request that the woman be added to the list of persons eligible for a pension from the Public Treasury. (Dumont , p.35-36)

Other depictions

If you look carefully, you can spot Madame Humbert in several other  illustrations of the Nancy Affair:

Detail from a gouache in the Musée Lorrain. [Pupil (1976) A23]

Here she is  with her bucket in the foreground of the gouache from the Musée Nancy (Pupil A23) and, below, in a rare early plate by the local engraver Hoerpin [See Pupil (1976), A24].

 Devotion of M. Désilles at the Stainville Gate in Nancy, engraved by Hoerpin

An engraving after Jean-Louis Prieur, which appeared in the Tableaux historiques de la Révolution française (1791 to 1804) introduces for the first time the sentimental figure of Mme Humbert's child.  Le Barbier has clearly borrowed his infant from this popular plate.

Nancy Affair / Death of Désilles. Engraved by Pierre-Gabriel Berthault  after a drawing by Jean-Louis Prieur [Pupil (1976) A15]

As always, ephemeral figures like Madame Humbert disappear rapidly from the historical record. We learn that Humbert himself received 300 francs from a subscription opened in favour of the dead and wounded, which produced 6, 425 livres 16 sols in all.  But, sadly, according to François Pupil, in 1792 our heroine was still waiting to be compensated for her troubles. (See Pupil, p.102; I haven't managed to find more details ).


Paul Dumont, "Sur un episode peu connu de l'affaire de Nancy, Bulletin de la Société d'archéologie lorraine (Feb.1910), p.28-36.

François Pupil, "Le dévouement du chevalier Desilles et l'affaire de Nancy en 1790: essai de catalogue iconographique", Le Pays lorrain, 1976, p.73-110.

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