Understanding Robespierre, Choosing Terror, and the Road to Thermidor


Two-hundred and twenty-one years after the coup of Thermidor brought about the deaths of Robespierre, Saint-Just, and 106 others, the reasons behind it are still subject to debate. For many commentators the politics, personality, and foibles of Robespierre himself are central to how we interpret these events. I have a strong interest here, for understanding Robespierre has long been an obsession of mine. Back in July 1994, on the two-hundredth anniversary of Robespierre’s death, I spoke at a conference (in Winchester, of all unlikely places), dedicated to the Incorruptible. For some reason (perhaps grounded in English academic culture), few women in the UK at that time were specialists in French revolutionary politics, and I was one of only two women (along with Annie Jourdan) to be deemed sufficiently knowledgeable about Robespierre to be invited to take part. Continue reading Understanding Robespierre, Choosing Terror, and the Road to Thermidor

Private and Shameful Vices – the debate continues

Adriana Sisko of the University of Kentucky, who works on  same-sex relationships in the French Revolution, gives an extended response to the debate opened in the previous post:

This is fascinating, and I’m happy to see a discussion of this nature amongst scholars I admire.

I’ve never read the ‘des bains chinois de Saint-Just’ reference before so I’m very interested to hear more on that. My initial thoughts are that Danton’s claim relates to both 1) the preexisting rumors of Saint-Just having ‘noble blood’ and therefore aristocratic habits…some amusingly mocked Saint-Just by calling him ‘Le Chevalier’; and possibly 2) an insinuation of the sexual debauchery some attributed to public bath houses, as well as the linkage frequently made between aristocratic monetary greed and sexual greed that ‘exceeded’ the bounds of the natural. After all, earlier during the 18th century police monitored public bathhouses based on the fear and assumption that indecency was more likely to take place there. There were of course several bathhouses in Paris. Even during the Revolution there were multiple bathhouses in Paris. I would be interested in confirmation in this, but I’ve read in secondary sources that the history of public baths as places of sexual debauchery and even sodomy dates back to the Middle Ages in France (Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600, by David Higgs). Fun fact, earlier during the 18th century Diderot wrote the following in a confessional private letter of his: “In the public baths among a number of young men, I noticed one of astonishing beauty, and I could not help drawing near him”.

As for Camille’s vices honteux, I have four points I would like to address:

1) It’s important to consider the context. Saint-Just decries Danton as a ‘false friend’, then declares that Danton ‘spoke evil two days ago of Desmoulins’ by attributing these ‘vices honteux’ to him. Saint-Just is calling out Danton for lacking integrity. In their wary political climate a violation of friendship could be a serious and even dangerous misstep. Danton speaking ‘evil’ of Camille would certainly be a violation. This context also offers insight into how much secrecy they thought this ‘private vice’ should have been allowed: that a good friend wouldn’t have spoken of it. This lends even more credence to the idea that the alleged vice might’ve been something seen as quite severe at the time.

2) Robespierre’s half-erased note (where Saint-Just gleaned this reference from) remarked that Camille’s vice was ‘totally unrelated to the revolution’. I’ve read speculation that this vice is related to Camille’s journalism but I highly doubt Camille’s journalism would be seen as entirely unrelated to the Revolution. Therefore, I think the vice at the very least refers to something outside of Camille’s work. Additionally, as Jeremy Teow mentioned, the timing of the ‘vices honteux’ accusation may not line up with the gambling theory. I’ve also read speculation that the vice was simply drinking, but frankly that seems extravagant.

3) Is Camille’s vice a reference to sodomitical activity? I think this is entirely possible however not certain. The ‘vices honteux’ wording possibly matches up with 18th century vocabulary surrounding sodomy, as Dr. Loiselle remarked. On the other hand even if the ‘vices honteux’ reference was intentionally vague this doesn’t negate the possibility that the accusation has a sexual dimension. Some politicians of the time weren’t above making sexual insinuations against fellow politicians when it proved advantageous. For example Chaumette ordered the Marquis de Villette (who’d been harassed and lampooned for years for his alleged lack of sexual morality, involvement with men, etc) to appear before the municipal court after two Paris sections denounced Villette for his writings on the September Massacres. Chaumette claimed that in doing so he was defending good Republican citizens as well as defending broader morality “against a Villette”. Many already saw Villette as immoral due to his alleged anti-physical sexual interests. Chaumette didn’t have spell out the sexual nature of his accusation in order for it to be understood.

It would be interesting if Robespierre and Saint-Just’s references to ‘vices honteux’ were similar. However, if their references were subtle nods toward a preceding reputation of Camille’s for sodomy, it is very puzzling how there have been no traces of Camille’s rumored sexual preferences in archival texts. Certainly there was quite a bit of talk/parody in pamphlets regarding same-sex sexuality between men, as well as between women. The concept of same-sex intimacy was not an unknown by any means. (Ironically rumors that Chaumette felt attracted to men have followed him in history texts for years on the basis of some fairly amorous letters he wrote to a male friend. Interestingly this opens up the possibility that despite whatever one’s own sexual preferences were that didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t ready to ‘out’ somebody else.)

I’ve read a single contemporary claim about Hérault de Sechelles ‘anti-physical passions’ bringing him close to legal reprimanding (Coste d’Arnobat’s ‘Anecdotes curieuses et peu connues sur différents personnages qui ont joué un rôle dans la Révolution’— as discussed in ‘Homosexuality in French History and Culture’ by Jeffrey Merrick, Michael Sibalis). According to Coste d’Arnobat Hérault was able to evade punishment since he was a magistrate (a privilege the ‘rabble’ couldn’t access). Despite this being a contemporary (1794) claim to Hérault’s sexual preferences I have yet to come across other contemporary references and rumors regarding Hérault and sodomy, nor have I read considerable references to Hérault’s potential ‘anti-physical passions’ in historical works. So, while there is a lack of archival backup for rumors about Camille’s sexual preferences, that doesn’t necessarily mean ‘vices honteaux’ lacks a sexual dimension.

4) It’s possible that Saint-Just and/or Robespierre considered sodomy to be a private vice, but a vice worthy of slander nonetheless. It is possible Robespierre felt hesitant to reveal what he referred to as ‘un vice privé et honteux’ judging by his only partially erasing the comment. There were certainly some contemporaries who considered sodomy to be morally perverse but also a private matter. For example Condorcet argued that while sodomy was ‘base’ it didn’t violate anybody else’s rights when committed between two consenting adult men. In a sense Condorcet, while finding sodomy personally repulsive, ultimately deemed sodomy as a private matter that didn’t bring greater harm upon society.

Decoding the revolutionaries’ “Private and shameful vices”

When on 31 March 1794, at the height of the French Revolutionary Terror, Saint-Just denounced Danton, Desmoulins and other deputies, detailing a long series of ‘crimes’, one accusation stood out as rather curious. Saint-Just said that Danton had been a ‘faux ami’ to Desmoulins when he spoke of him with contempt and attributed to him ‘des vices honteux.’ Saint–Just took the accusation from notes made by Robespierre who declared that Danton had attributed Desmoulins’ waywardness to ‘un vice privé et honteux, mais absolument étranger à la Revolution.’ Does anyone have an idea of what this shameful vice of Desmoulins may have been? We have come up with a number of possibilities, but we wondered if anyone else had ideas. Possibly on a similar note, Danton at his trial spoke of ‘des bains chinois de Saint-Just’. We wondered what may have lain behind these allegations and counter-allegations, and particularly whether they might be code for sexual allegations and/or dodgy political deals, aristocratic luxury or an alarming combination of all three? We have found some intriguing information on the Chinese Baths on the Boulevard des Italiens, in the late eighteenth century.

Thanks for any help you can give with this.

Marisa Linton and Mette Harder

A conference paper on revolutionary popular sociability

Popular sociability as a concept and a problem in revolutionary Paris, 1789-1791.

David Andress

Given at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Montréal, Canada, October 2014.

The precise contours of popular sociability in distant periods are, like crime, one of the so-called ‘dark figures’ of history. We know that the lives of ordinary people were full, self-evidently, of interactions, and we can glimpse through the historical record a qualitative flavour of many of them, but a synthetic overview can only come by piecing together a few limited fragments. There were somewhere in the region of half a million people of the labouring and artisanal classes in late eighteenth-century Paris, and we can say an extraordinarily great deal more about many of them than we could half a century ago. Continue reading A conference paper on revolutionary popular sociability

The existential horror of reducing the Great Revolution to a video game…

According to the French leftist standard-bearer Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the act of turning the events of the 1790s into the backdrop for Assassins Creed Unity, the latest instalment in a successful first-person adventure game series, is “a dirty business of instilling more self-disgust and declinism in the French,” adding that it risks leaving the nation with nothing but religion and skin-colour to unite them – with evidently reactionary implications.

While one might be tempted to remark that historians of the French Revolution are now finding out how medievalists have felt all these years, there is no doubt that this game has occasioned lively debate – even before anyone had the chance to actually play it. Continue reading The existential horror of reducing the Great Revolution to a video game…

A conference paper on talking about the violence of revolution

Objects of Study or Agents of History – the continuing academic and moral conundrum of the violence of the French Revolution

David Andress

Given at the annual conference of the Society for the Study of French History, Durham, 11 July 2014

Today I’d like to talk about the question of how we talk about violence in the French Revolution. This is of course a perennial question over the last 225 years. However, it is also one that repeatedly tends to gravitate towards what are, I’d argue, particularly problematic types of answer. Violence in revolutionary situations is fundamental to our understanding of those situations, of their participants, and of their attitudes to the disruption and reconstitution of sovereign power. Too often, however, this direct attention has been, and continues to be, diverted into two opposing over-simplifications: violence as morally repugnant and shocking, on the one hand, and violence as the normalised exercise of power, on the other. Continue reading A conference paper on talking about the violence of revolution

Revolutionary transitions from the eighteenth century to the present