Showing posts with label French history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label French history. Show all posts

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Dark excursion

It doesn't seem right to describe my drive up onto the Vercors plateau yesterday afternoon as "dark", because the landscape was covered in a thick blanket of snow, making the trees stand out as a throng of black skeletons, and the sky was filled with eerie blue light.

But my excursion was metaphorically gloomy, because I would be revisiting the village of Vassieux, associated with the Vercors martyrs.

As I often do when I visit Vassieux, I halted for a few minutes in the war cemetery, in front of the simple white cross of 12-year-old Arlette Blanc (whose surname means "white" in French), who symbolizes the tragedy that took place on this lunar landscape in July 1944.

When the Nazi occupation started to make life difficult and dangerous in Grenoble, André Blanc sent his wife and their four children up to his aunt's home alongside Vassieux: an isolated place in the mountain wilderness, which appeared to be perfectly safe. Alas, everybody in the family was slaughtered. In the ruins of the farmhouse, Arlette survived in agony for a week, alongside the corpses of her sisters Jacqueline, 7, and Danielle, 4, and their 18-month-old brother Maurice. She was found by Fernand Gagnol, the young village priest. Today, in the war cemetery at Vassieux, there are white crosses for every member of the Blanc family.

On 13 November 1943, Allied aircraft had dropped a small quantity of metal cylinders containing weapons for the Vercors maquisards. Less than a fortnight later, the Gestapo decided to take steps to annihilate the maquisards. In the spring of 1944, the brave maquisards were filled with hope and optimism. As Bastille Day approached, they even proclaimed, pompously and naively, the restoration of the French Republic in the Vercors. Meanwhile, they had started to prepare a landing field alongside Vassieux, to receive the Allied aircraft and supplies they were expecting. But on 21 July 1944, aircraft of a quite different kind landed quietly and unexpectedly at Vassieux: flimsy Nazi gliders crammed with armed storm troopers.

They rapidly slaughtered everybody in the vicinity, and burned down the village of Vassieux.

Today, Vassieux has been rebuilt, and young families—untroubled by the presence of ghosts—are delighted to live in such a calm and starkly splendid rural environment. Be that as it may, the owner of a cozy café where I dropped in yesterday for a beer told me that 95% of her clients, in the summer season, visit Vassieux to reflect upon the martyrs of the Vercors. Every pilgrimage to this place remains, to a large extent, a dark excursion...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ancient house for sale

In the region where I live, one of the most interesting places is the charming medieval village of Saint-Antoine l'Abbaye.

In the Middle Ages, a knight returned here with a treasure from Constantinople: the relics of the 4th-century Egyptian hermit Saint Anthony, who is generally considered as the inventor of monasticism. The bones of a major saint, in those days, were immensely valuable, since their presence in a place could attract hordes of pilgrims: a permanent source of prosperity. In the village that now bears the saint's name, a great church was erected to house the relics.

Recently, I was contacted by a female friend of a friend who asked me whether I would be prepared to build a website aimed at selling her ancient house in this village, whose façade is seen here:

I believe that the kind of individuals interested in purchasing such an exceptional place (maybe from outside France) would necessarily be enthusiasts of history and ancient buildings. So, I put a certain accent on that aspect of the situation in the website that I've just completed... which you can visit by clicking on the above image.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Military heritage

I came upon the stupid website mentioned in my previous post while I was searching for explanations concerning an exotic word: poliorcetic. No, in spite of the first five letters, it has nothing to do with the disease of poliomyelitis. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology indicates that the adjective poliorcetic, formed from the Greek terms pólis (city) and orkeîn (besiege), concerns the military art of sieges: both how to resist a siege perpetrated by your enemies, and how to besiege them in turn. This etymological explanation also guides you in the pronunciation of the term: poli-orcetic.

Without necessarily recognizing any of the names on this map, you might guess that these sites are significant from a military viewpoint, because they're all located on the hexagonal perimeter of France.

They are the spots where a 17th-century nobleman, military architect and poliorcetic expert, known as Vauban, encircled the land with a system of complex and finely-built defensive fortresses, most of which still exist today.

Prior to my arrival in France in 1962, I had heard of the failed fortifications designed by the politician André Maginot [1877-1932], but I must admit that I knew nothing of Vauban. In France, I've found that most people seem to have heard of Vauban, and many have actually visited one of his fortresses, or at least seen a TV documentary on this subject.

Yesterday, a dozen fortresses built by Vauban were added to the Unesco World Heritage listing.

Some of the great sieges in world history—such as those of the Crusaders, for example—were drawn out over excruciating periods of time. Three centuries will have elapsed before the universal recognition of the legacy of Vauban. As the computerized idiot mentioned in my last blog might say: That's a big seat!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Revolutionary euphoria

This pompous painting by Jacques-Louis David [1748-1825] provides us with an absurdly kitsch depiction of Leonidas the Spartan who defeated the huge army of Xerxes the Persian at Thermopylae in Central Greece. In David's time, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the memory of Leonidas was celebrated in France in much the same way that young people now worship, rightly or wrongly, intelligently or mindlessly, the theme of Che Guevara.

I insist upon this comparison, because we often tend to think of the French revolutionaries as crazy impassioned dreamers, many of whom were destined to soon lose literally their heads. During their brief period of glory, they transformed provincial churches into so-called Temples of Reason, and planted Trees of Liberty.

This morning, at the archives in Grenoble, I was amused to find that births in Year 2 (around 1793) were recorded on thick lumpy and crackly paper (a sensual pleasure for my fingers, not to mention the delicious old inky smell) marked District des Thermopyles.

Bloody hell ! as the local ladies used to say in my uncouth Australia... and still say, I fear. Did the little town of Saint-Marcellin really liken itself to the scene of the great battle of Antiquity between the Greeks and the Persians? Did my humble village of Choranche once become an authentic outpost of a latter-day Thermopylae?

A year later, the revolutionary crackpots of Saint-Marcellin had descended from their ridiculous pedestal, and they got back to labeling their district in the ordinary old way.

In colloquial French (a truly colorful language, largely more inventive and sparkling than any variety of English), a lovely expression can be applied to the citizens of a small French town who suddenly see themselves as reincarnated warriors on mythological battlefields of Antiquity. This kind of pretentious behavior is decried (pardon my Latin) as farting higher than your asshole.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Republican Calendar

French researchers in genealogy or local history inevitably run into a quaint but annoying thing (little known outside France) called the Republican Calendar. Shortly after the French Revolution of 1789, and for a period of fourteen years (from 1792 until 1805), France abandoned the ancient Church-inspired calendar, designated as Gregorian, and replaced it by a rapidly-contrived system with new names for years, months and days. For example, my birthday, on 24 September, is named Chestnut in the Republican Calendar, while Christine's, on 8 January, is Marble. [It's not hard to understand why our marriage couldn't possibly be harmonious!]

The inventor of the new names was a romantic author referred to as Fabre d’Églantine, who joined the revolutionary leaders as a secretary in 1792. [In this concocted name, Églantine designates a wild rose.] An egoistic scoundrel, he was guillotined with Georges Danton on the Republican date of 17 germinal an II [April 5, 1794]. These days, we remember Fabre d’Églantine as the poet who wrote the words of a famous lullaby: Il pleut, il pleut, bergère. It's a love song addressed to a girl who's minding her sheep out in the fields.

It's raining, raining, shepherdess! The singer tells the wet girl that rumbling thunder indicates an approaching storm, and he invites her into the warmth of his house. Recently, in a splendid TV saga entitled Voici venir l'orage [Look, a storm is coming! ], concerning the dramatic flight from Russia of the Jewish ancestors of the French movie directrice Nina Companeez, the words and music of this lullaby symbolized in a moving manner the trials they had to face, first in Bolshevik Russia, and later in Nazi-occupied France.

The revolutionaries of 1789 imagined that their cause and spirit were, not just French, but universal. It's amusing to discover that, in their eagerness to replace the old names of the Gregorian Calendar, they invented terms that are anything but universal, because they're based upon French seasons and agricultural activities. My birthday, for example, falls in the first month of the Republican Calendar, called vendémiaire, which is related to the word vendanges, meaning grape-picking. But Fabre d'Églantine and his friends forgot, or ignored, that, during the month of September in Australia, say, there's not much in the way of grape-picking. All the other names for months are similarly parochial in a naive fashion: October/November is brumaire, evoking autumn mist and fog; July/August is thermidor, evoking hot sunny days; etc. The revolutionaries would have surely been upset by the upside-down maps of the world in which tiny France looks as if it would be crushed if ever the giant African continent happened to "drop down" onto her.

Incidentally, my writer-hero Richard Dawkins refers to the kind of naming anomaly made by Fabre d'Églantine as a case of "unconscious northern hemisphere chauvinism". Here's how he speaks about "consciousness-raisers" in our atheists' bible, The God Delusion:

It is for a deeper reason than gimmicky fun that, in Australia and New Zealand, you can buy maps of the world with the South Pole on top. What splendid consciousness-raisers those maps would be, pinned to the walls of our northern hemisphere classrooms. Day after day, the children would be reminded that 'north' is an arbitrary polarity which has no monopoly on 'up'. The map would intrigue them as well as raise their consciousness. They'd go home and tell their parents — and, by the way, giving children something with which to surprise their parents is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can bestow.

[If only Nicolas Sarkozy were to read Antipodes, if not the books of Dawkins, I'm sure he would promptly "invent" the idea of decreeing that upside-down maps of the world be pinned on the walls of every French classroom.]

Close the Dawkins parenthesis. The Republican Calendar dominates the decade that concerns me in my research about the origins of my property at Gamone. I've always believed that the place once belonged to the Chartreux monks at Bouvantes whose monastery and other possessions were auctioned off between December 1790 and March 1791. It's quite likely that their outlying properties in Choranche were sold during the years that followed, maybe at a time when the Republican Calendar was operational.

In the archives that I've examined already in Grenoble, I was astounded to discover that, in the notes on political events in the Isère department during the three or four years following the French Revolution, there's no serious mention whatsoever of Choranche or even Pont-en-Royans. A possible reason for this curious absence is the fact that, throughout the revolutionary period, this part of the Royans still remained, to a certain extent, under the influence of the ancient Bérenger family, lords of Sassenage. [In medieval times, there was a so-called prince of Pont-en-Royans!] I even came across a parliamentary note about a complaint lodged by the lord Bérenger of that epoch because the revolutionaries had not yet returned various documents that he had apparently lent them. In about 1793, the archives of the commune of Pont-en-Royans were deliberately burnt in the middle of the village. On the other hand, the good lord's precious Sassenage archives concerning the Royans "principality" were saved for posterity in his charming little castle on the outskirts of Grenoble... which means that we're able to consult them today on our computers.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Ave Caesar

At the age of 12, at Grafton High School, I started learning Latin under the guidance of a marvelous teacher named Robert Sinclair... who was present at a delightful gathering of friends, at the home of Cathryn Prowse (née Fuller), when I returned to Sydney in August 2006. Like generations of students throughout the world, I encountered that archaic but lovely language through fragments of a literary work written by a celebrated Roman general and statesman: Gaius Julius Caesar [100-44 BC]. The English title of Caesar's book: Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. Now, this didn't mean much to me, back in Grafton, for the simple reason that I hadn't fully realized that the adjective "Gallic" designated a real place, known today as France. But Caesar's Latin was lucid, and even a Grafton schoolboy in 1952 could understand that the author was a victorious soldier who must have been some kind of a mixture of Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill.

Much later, I discovered the splendid city of Arles, birthplace of Christine's maternal grandfather, Paul Marteau [1896-1976]. I even got around to taking my children there to watch to watch bull fighting in the Roman arena. And I finally realized that this charming city on the banks of the Rhône was closely associated with the ancient Roman named Caesar who came here to fight his famous Gallic Wars.

A few days ago, archaeologists announced that they had found a splendid life-size bust of Caesar in the Rhône at Arles. The marble sculpture was probably created during Caesar's lifetime, around 49-46 BC, when he was founding the Roman colony of Arles. After 56-year-old Caesar was assassinated in Rome by Brutus on the Ides of March, folk in Arles probably decided that it would be wise to dump his effigy in the Rhône... not far from the right-bank neighborhood of Trinquetaille, where Paul Marteau had grown up without ever knowing that Caesar's marble head was lying alongside in the mud. Meanwhile, a string of Catholic popes had reigned at Avignon, and hordes of folk had danced beneath [not upon] the famous bridge. Countless bulls were slaughtered, too, over the centuries, in Caesar's colonial arena. Later, I started learning Latin. Not long after, Christine and I were married, then Emmanuelle and François came into existence. To my mind, it was high time that Caesar's head resurfaced at Arles!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Half a century ago: gestation of a new republic

Exactly fifty years ago, on 13 May 1958, Algiers was agitated. Crowds had gathered to honor the memory of three French soldiers executed by the Algerian FLN party [National Liberation Front], and to express their disapproval of the formation of a government in Paris led by Pierre Pflimlin. Banners in the midst of the crowd declared that Algeria must remain French, while others cried out for the return to power of Charles de Gaulle.

The army joined in the protests, which looked at times as if they might degenerate into a riot. Inspired by a concept of the French Revolution, the general Jacques Massu set up a comité de salut public [committee of public welfare], and called upon the French president René Coty to form a government in a similar spirit of salut public.

This crisis that flared up in Algeria created a context in which Charles de Gaulle finally decided to preside over the destiny of France.

The events of 13 May 1958 are considered as the starting point of the creation of the Fifth Republic.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Victory in Europe Day

Paris had been liberated from her Nazi oppressors during the second half of August 1944. Eight months later, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. Then, on 8 May 1945, the official act of Germany's unconditional surrender meant that Europe could at last celebrate victory. In London and the USA (where Franklin D Roosevelt had died a month earlier), these victory celebrations were massive.

Recently, when my daughter Emmanuelle purchased a flat near the Place de la République in Paris, she obtained a couple of old photo albums that belonged to the lady (deceased) who had lived there. Among these amateur snapshots, there are three interesting images of Paris on May 8, 1945, which are no doubt published here for the first time. [Clicking a blog photo displays an enlargement.]

Five huge flags are suspended from the Arc de Triomphe. [Paris historians might be able to tell us whether the habit of flags under the arch dates from that epoch.] The army truck on the Place de l'Etoile has a white five-pointed star on the door. Is the Jeep a US or a French vehicle? There's a French policeman on a bicycle, surrounded by a couple of civilian cyclists and a midget automobile. On this 8 May 1945 at the hub of France, the ambiance is calm.

On the Place de la Concorde, the atmosphere is subdued. I have the impression that the couple in the foreground were the proprietors of Emmanuelle's flat. The man is wearing some kind of decoration in his lapel, whereas the woman seems to have purchased a poster. They appear to me as Gaullist patriots, happy to realize that Paris is once again their familiar City of Light. Everything in this photo indicates calm and sunny relief.

This photo was taken from the balcony of my daughter's flat in the Rue Oberkampf. The lady is probably the same person seen in the photo on the Place de la Concorde. The building is bedecked with five flags, including those of France, the USA, Great Britain and Russia.

The overall impression gleaned from these images is that Victory Day in Europe, for Parisians, was a solemn and subdued affair.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Saying sorry to indigenous Australians

The antipodean continent chosen by the British authorities as an excellent abode for social outcasts had been inhabited for many millennia by a vast community of Aborigines whose tribal culture and pantheistic religion were exclusively oral.

These innocent and relatively peaceful natives were no match for the European invaders—convicts and settlers—who simply snatched the plains, rivers and mountains away from the indigenous Australians, using violence, if need be. Later, the colonial authorities stole, not only the natives' land, but their children too, in view of an absurd eugenic principle according to which the only survival strategy for this people would consist of educating them in a European context and inter-breeding them with white individuals.

Today, it would appear that the prime minister of Australia is at last about to apologize officially to the so-called "stolen generations" of indigenous Australians, victims of cruel acts perpetrated in the past by white Australians. It's far from easy, of course, to decide upon the most effective and morally just way of making such a formal apology... and this explains, no doubt, why it has taken such a long time for this event to become a reality. We current Australians tend to say, or at least think, that our ancestors, not us, were responsible for these crimes against the Aborigines. So, why should we say we're sorry for acts that we didn't actually commit, personally?

Although the respective situations and tragedies are profoundly different, Australia's forthcoming apology to the Aborigines reminds me of the French government's complex relationship with Jewish citizens and residents of France during the terrible Nazi period. Justifications of a similar kind were advanced for decades to postpone the fateful act that would consist of saying explicitly: The nation, today, is sorry for all that happened!

Whatever we might say concerning the errors and foibles of former president Jacques Chirac, we must give him credit for being largely responsible for this official act of contrition, on 16 July 1995, at the former location of the notorious sporting stadium (the so-called winter cycling track of Paris) where Jews arrested by French police were assembled before being deported to concentration camps. In a fortnight, in the Antipodes, Kevin Rudd will be performing a solemn act of the same order.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

We don't need another hero

The war-time story that I am about to tell has given rise to a controversy in France, which culminated yesterday when schoolteachers were expected—at the request of the president Nicolas Sarkozy—to read out in front of their students the final poignant letter to his parents penned by a young martyr named Guy Môquet.

His father, Prosper Môquet, a French railway-worker and trade-unionist, was the Communist member of parliament for a precinct of Paris. In 1939, since the PCF [Parti Communiste Français] supported the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it was disbanded by the government, and Môquet senior was arrested. A few months later, he was deported by the French authorities to a prison camp in Algeria. Meanwhile, his son Guy, a student at the Lycée Carnot, had become a militant in the PCF youth movements.

Môquet junior distributed Communist leaflets denouncing the treason of French industrial leaders, and advocating the liberation of jailed Communists such as his father. Insofar as a French law of 1939 prohibited Communist propaganda, three French policemen arrested 15-year-old Guy Môquet at the Gare de l'Est métro station in Paris on 15 October 1940, and he ended up at a prison camp in Châteaubriant near Nantes. A year later, he was still imprisoned at that same place when a German commandant was assassinated at Nantes. In the reprisals, Guy Môquet was the youngest of 27 hostages at Châteaubriant who were executed by a Nazi firing squad on 22 October 1941.

Sarkozy's decision—announced on the day of his presidential investiture—instructing teachers to read out Guy Moquet's final letter, on the anniversary of his death, was unexpected and somewhat foolhardy. The French president should have known that, in imposing his conception of the celebration of a hero, he would irritate countless citizens. On the one hand, Communists don't wish to see one of their emblematic figures recuperated, as it were, by a right-wing politician such as Sarkozy. Besides, it's not clear whether the young Communist militant and martyr Guy Môquet should be placed in the category of authentic Résistance fighters... like the five heroic revolver-toting students from another Parisian lycée, Buffon [Jean Arthus, Jacques Baudry, Pierre Benoît, Pierre Grelot and Julien Legros], executed in February 1943 : the subject of an excellent TV film aired, by chance, last night. Finally, many teachers, professional historians and other observers consider that the State has no right to impose its points of view, or promulgate decisions of any kind whatsoever, in the domain of history.

The most profound opposition of all came from intellectuals who pointed out that Sarkozy is confusing two related but fundamentally different concepts: on the one hand, the scholarly pursuit of history, and on the other, the emotional phenomenon referred to, in French, as memory, concerning events that are so recent that their recollection still causes pain. Schoolteachers are expected to handle—as objectively as possible—the first of these concepts: history. Sarkozy's directive, however, lies clearly in the domain of memory: that's to say, relatively recent dramatic events that still hurt... which have no place in history classrooms.

I was shocked when I first heard of Sarkozy's decision, and I was utterly flabbergasted—like countless French people—when it was revealed that Sarkozy's buddy Bernard Laporte, trainer of the national rugby team, was so ridiculously zealous that he mimicked the president's sensitivity by reading out Guy Môquet's letter to the team just before their opening match... which they lost to Argentina. On the other hand, I'm reassured to find that so many French teachers refused intelligently to tolerate Sarkozy's silly brainchild.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


When I was a youth at high school in Grafton, I disliked the concept of so-called prefects. They were a group of elected senior students charged with minimal duties such as making sure that pupils marched into their classrooms in straight lines. The thing I disliked about the prefects concept was that most of us got elected to this silly position, which meant that the few outsiders who weren't sufficiently popular to be chosen as prefects were automatically looked upon as social outcasts. I think, for example, of my classmate Tom Mogan, whose father was the governor of Grafton's notorious jail. Tom was a quiet introspective individual. I got to know him a little through the fact that we were among the few members of a Latin class run by a great teacher named Robert Sinclair [with whom I met up a year ago, when I was out in Sydney]. Tom was not the sort of person who would get elected as a prefect, because he didn't seem to be concerned with all the trivial aspects of school life [such as sport, for example] that provide a context for becoming a popular student. I learned recently that Tom became a Catholic priest, and spent the final years of his life working with destitute Aborigines over in Western Australia.

Here in France, the term préfet [prefect, from the Latin praefectus] is a Napoleonic title bestowed upon individuals who are placed in charge of a region or a département. French prefects are distinguished individuals who have generally been educated in the finest schools of France. Their job consists of representing the authorities of the French republic at a tangible local level, a little like the role of a governor in an imperial colony. It's a fact that French prefects wear exotic old-fashioned military-style uniforms that give them a very serious look. Although their role appears at times to be largely honorific, the work of a French prefect can be difficult and hazardous in certain situations, particularly in the case of local catastrophes, when they have the personal responsibility of managing events. In a nutshell, if something goes hugely wrong [such as a local officially-approved garbage-disposal facility giving out lethal fumes, for example], the entire blame can fall upon the poor prefect.

Funnily enough, soon after my arrival here in the Dauphiné, I discovered that the Isère prefect was a second cousin of my ex-wife, and that the prefect of a neighboring département was a fellow I used to know back at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, when I was an English assistant. In both cases, these former acquaintances had risen to such a superior social status that it was quite out of the question—if ever I had wished to do so—of simply dropping in on them to say hello. [There might be some kind of Shakespearean philosophical implication in that last statement, but I don't know what it is.]

Talking of French prefects, one of the very first fellows to get such a job, here in the Isère département where I live, was a certain Joseph Fourier. From a modest background, this scientist caught the attention of Napoléon within the context of the Emperor's exploratory mission in Egypt. Then, in 1801, Napoléon put him in charge of the tumultuous region around Grenoble in which the flames of the French Revolution had been kindled just fourteen years previously, at the castle of Vizille. At that time, a Grenoble librarian named Jacques-Joseph Champollion [who did a lot of work in cataloging the confiscated library of the Chartreux monks] succeeded in becoming a close acquaintance of the prefect Fourier. This Champollion fellow had a young brother who went on to crack the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics... but that's another fabulous story, to which I shall certainly return, one of these days, in my blog. Getting back to Fourier, I would suppose that he led a rather hectic life, representing the authorities of the newly-created French Republic in the headstrong Alpine city of Grenoble. We might imagine that this arduous and no doubt messy administrative job left the young prefect [33 years old when he arrived in Grenoble] little time for personal activities.

Well, that was not quite the case. The prefect of whom I am talking was of course none other than the celebrated mathematician Joseph Fourier, whose work still remains the daily sustenance of scientists all over the planet. At Sydney University, I was brought up on a basic mathematical diet of Fourier series. Soon, I learned to manipulate the famous Fourier transform, which might be described superficially as a mathematical method for investigating all kinds of marvelous phenomena. For example, back in the early '70s, when I became interested in the themes of music and machines, in an article by a certain James Beauchamp [University of Illinois], I came upon the following exciting assertion: We may now be at the threshold of the discovery of mathematical descriptions for beautiful tones, as they are commonly termed in conventional music. The rest of the article might be described as a celebration of the power of the Fourier transform, executed on a computer, as a means of putting some order into audio data. In his prefectoral offices in Grenoble, Fourier actually carried out physics experiments concerning the propagation of heat that resulted in his formulation of a theory of thermodynamics.

Since the epoch of the prefect Fourier, the world has heard of the clerk named Einstein in a patents office who invented the theory of relativity. Today, we still have cases of extraordinary individuals who exploit their time in mundane jobs to invent marvelous theories [more about that later on]. Meanwhile, a silly speculation: If Joseph Fourier had been a student in my high school in Grafton, like my quiet mate Tom Mogan, would he have been popular enough to get elected as a prefect? Yes, certainly, for one of Fourier's major gifts was his eloquence. The Champollion brothers gave him a nickname, Chrysostom, recalling the illustrious 4th-century Greek saint whose name evokes his legendary golden mouth.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Once upon a time in Paris

In the popular image, on 14 July 1789, the people of Paris stormed the huge fortress jail of the wicked Ancien Régime, called the Bastille, and released hordes of innocent political prisoners... who then went on to set in action the celebrated French Revolution.

The reality was somewhat different. When the rioters finally reached the interior of the decrepit prison, they found seven bewildered inmates who were no doubt thrilled to be offered this unexpected opportunity of stepping into planetary history.

Just for the record, I take this opportunity of pointing out that one of the first prisoners to escape from a Parisian jail during that tumultuous week was an Englishman, Clotworthy Skeffington [1743-1805], 2nd Earl of Massereene, head of the Irish branch of our ancestral family. Some twenty years earlier, during a voyage to the European continent, the eccentric lord had been swindled in a crazy project that was supposed to import salt from the Barbary coast into France and Switzerland. Unable to pay his debts, Skeffington was imprisoned for some eighteen years in several nasty Parisian jails, including the notorious Conciergerie and the Grand Châtelet. By the summer of 1789, Skeffington had spent seven years in a jail known as the Grande-Force (since it used to be the Parisian mansion of a nobleman named Force), located just a stone's throw from the Bastille.

On Monday, 13 July 1789 (the eve of Bastille Day), Clotworthy Skeffington and two dozen fellow inmates escaped from this prison, apparently without any assistance whatsoever from the throngs of Parisian rioters who were taking control of the city.

In 1972, Ulster archivist Dr A Malcomson described "the extraordinary career" of Clotworthy Skeffington in a biography published by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Although I don't belong to the same branch of the family as the Earl of Massereene [my early ancestors remained in England], I was sufficiently intrigued by the case of this eccentric aristocrat to research his history in the French national archives and the police museum in Paris, where I obtained a lot of interesting information that had not been available to Malcomson.

I take this opportunity of quoting a couple of documents on the interesting anecdote of Skeffington's escape from jail on the eve of Bastille Day, which does not seem to appear in French history books.

The book Englishmen of the French Revolution by John Alger [London, 1889] quotes a dispatch from the Duke of Dorset [British ambassador to France] sent from Paris on 16 July 1789, three days after Skeffington's liberation:

His Lordship, with twenty-four others in the Hôtel de la Force, forced their way out of prison last Monday morning without the loss of a single life. His Lordship, who has always expressed a great sense of gratitude for the small services I have occasionally rendered him since I first came to Paris in my present character, came directly to my hotel with six or seven of his companions, the rest having gone their different ways. I, however, soon prevailed upon Lord Massereene and the others to go to the Temple, which is a privileged place, and where he may therefore be able to treat with his creditors to some advantage. His Lordship told me that it was his intention to go thither, but that he thought it right to pay me the first visit.

A detailed account of the happenings of 13 July 1789 is supplied in the autobiography of François Richard-Lenoir, a famous Frenchman whose name is now attached to a boulevard at the Place de la Bastille. At the age of 24, Richard-Lenoir was a fellow inmate of Skeffington at the Grande-Force. Later on, Richard-Lenoir became immensely rich as a cotton merchant. Decorated personally by Napoléon Bonaparte, he has often been described as the richest individual of the entire 19th century. In his Mémoires [published in Paris in 1837], Richard-Lenoir speaks of Skeffington as follows:

We had for companion in misfortune an English lord, Massereene, eighteen years a prisoner. He had married in prison the sister of another prisoner, who had since recovered his liberty. Every morning his wife and brother-in-law arrived as soon as the gates were opened, and did not leave till evening. There was something touching in the felicity of this strange household. Through them we knew of everything that was going on in Paris, and could follow, step by step, the Revolution which was beginning. Lord Massereene especially, who had no hope except in a general overturn, was quite absorbed by it, and almost electrified us for liberty, which, indeed, for us poor prisoners, was only natural. We were not ignorant of what had happened at Réveillon's [evening meal] when, on 13 July 1789, just as we were about to assemble after the opening of the doors in a kind of garden or gravelled court, Lord Massereene suggested to us the forcing of our way out. Whether he was beforehand certain of the impassiveness of the jailers and soldiers, or whether he counted much on our daring, he assured us that nothing was easier, and that a resolute will was sufficient for success. We promptly decided. Arms had to be procured. Lord Massereene pointed out the staircase railings, the bars of which could serve as pikes. We immediately set to work; the railings yielded to our efforts, and all of us were soon armed. The commandant, however, was speedily informed of the revolt; but fear was then gradually gaining on officials, and instead of taking strong measures, he contented himself with ordering us to carry the outbreak no further, otherwise he warned us he should be obliged to use force against us. "So much the better," we exclaimed on all sides. "Kill us, and then you will have to pay our creditors." This reply frightening him, we took advantage of his perplexity to attack the first gate, and passed through without much trouble. There were still three others to force. All the turnkeys had joined the soldiers, but several officers and privates seemed to fight with reluctance. One of them on ordering fire had tears in his eyes. However, we seized on the three gates, part of the outer wall was demolished, and we at last issued, victors, from La Force.

There's a funny ending to this story. After being led by Lord Massereene to the British embassy in the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, where the escapees were served refreshments, Richard-Lenoir says that he decided to make a return trip to the prison to pick up his belongings. Once he got back to the Grande-Force, the prison guards informed him that a Parisian mob had seen the gaps in the outer walls [made, as explained above, by Massereene and his fleeing companions], and members of this mob had simply strolled into the prison and stolen everything they could lay their hands on, including the clothes and other belongings of poor Richard-Lenoir!

Personally, even if Skeffington weren't a vague ancestor, I would still consider this delightful description of his escape from a Parisian prison on the eve of Bastille Day as a more authentic and human tale than the official story about the storming of the great fortress.

PS Genealogical information on the Massereene lineage can be found in chapter 4 of my monograph entitled Skeffington — Patronymic research [access].

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Traces of D-day

June 6, 1944 was surely one of the most illustrious dates in 20th-century world history. Today, 63 years after the allied landings in Normandy, the five beaches retain the glorious code names they received from the combined US and British armies, under the command of Dwight Eisenhower: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.

Traces still remain of the enormous determination of the Nazis to stand firm in Normandy. They placed astronomical quantities of sophisticated explosive devices along the shoreline. French minesweepers and mechanized beach crews are still working non-stop to eliminate this nasty stuff. As of today, it is estimated that a mere 15 percent of mines and unexploded bombs have been detected and destroyed. On French TV this evening, an officer in charge of this work said that explosives experts and naval frogmen will remain engaged in D-day cleaning-up operations in Normandy for another century.