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


16 thoughts on “Decoding the revolutionaries’ “Private and shameful vices””

  1. It sounds like it could be (but not definitely) part of the eighteenth-century vocabulary surrounding sodomitical activity. I have found in the Bastille archives re: the arrest of sodomites a pretty diverse repertoire when referring to suspected male-male erotic encounters: amour socratique, crime infâme, vice odieux, crime abominable, crime contre les bonnes moeurs. Maurice Lever’s work talks about this as well.

    1. Dear Kenneth,

      Fascinating! Thank you so much. I will look up Lever’s work. It also seems to me, from yours and from other entries below, that ‘vice’ could mean so many things. It makes me wonder if the accusers used a deliberately vague term (and, in fact, if Danton ever said anything against Desmoulins in the first place).

  2. This is intriguing, but I have no evidence that may assist, alas. I have found it interesting to ponder how the salacious personal mockery of the early years of the revolution then became by 1792 vituperative and accusatory as Lynn Hunt, Lever and others demonstrated in studies of Marie-Antoinette, and further embedded in the language of virtue in the deadly factionalism of 1793-94, as Marisa Linton has emphasised.

    1. Dear Peter,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I absolutely agree — it is very interesting to see how something that used to be ‘fun’ in the early years (accusing one’s opponents of this or that digression of an embarrassing, possibly personal nature), became cause for accusation in the year II. Thanks so much! Mette.

  3. As Kenneth Loiselle has noted, contemporaries used a variety of phrases, including colorful circumlocutions, to label same-sex relations between men in the 18th century. See Claude Courouve, Vocabulaire de l’homosexualité masculine (Paris: Payot, 1985); Jean Luc Hennig, Espadons, mignons & autres monstres: Vocabulaire de l’homosexualité masculine sous l’ancien régime (Paris: Cherche midi, 2014).
    The phrase “vice honteux” is used in the article “Pederasty” in the Encyclopedie d’Yverdon, vol. 32 (1774), with reference to the Greeks and Romans, but not in the reports of commissaire Pierre Louis Foucault, responsible for the surveillance of “pederasty” in Paris from 1780 to 1783. By this time the police no longer applied such moralistic language to the men they arrested in public places. Underline public, because the police rarely tracked men down where they lived.
    After the decriminalization of sodomy and other religious, moral, and sexual offenses in 1791, the police continued to arrest men for sexual activity in public. See Michael Sibalis, “The Regulation of Male Homosexuality in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France,” in Homosexuality in Modern France, ed. Jeffrey Merrick & Bryant Ragan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 80-101.
    What strikes me most about the quotation cited by Marisa Linton and Mette Harder = the combination of adjectives, prive and honteux. I don’t know know much about the 1790s, and I don’t know if Saint-Just or Robespierre or Danton considered sex between men a “private” vice, as long as it occurred in private, not illegal, not of public concern, although not strictly “private” in the sense that it involved more than one. Maybe they meant masturbation?

    1. Dear Jeffrey,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to send us your thoughts and these helpful references. I will look up the Vocabulaire de l’homosexualité masculine (Paris: Payot, 1985) and Espadons, mignons & autres monstres: Vocabulaire de l’homosexualité masculine sous l’ancien régime (Paris: Cherche midi, 2014), both of which sound absolutely fascinating. Thank you also for the reference to Homosexuality in Modern France, ed. Jeffrey Merrick & Bryant Ragan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), which, I am sure, many readers of this blog will be interested in!

      I find your observation that “vice honteux” was still used in the 1770s in reference to Greek and Roman “Pederasty”, but not in police reports from the 1780s. Could it be that revolutionary leaders such as Robespierre and Saint-Just were returning to the more ‘moralistic language’ of earlier decades when they referred to Desmoulins’ ‘vice privé et honteux? Could this suggest a certain stiffness/old-fashionedness in them?

      Like you, I have been struck by the combination of ‘private’ with ‘honteux’. Does this indicate ‘private’ sex or, as you suggestion, masturbation? Or does it simply mean that it has nothing to do with revolutionary politics/matters of state? I feel that this specific combination means — and meant — something, but I cannot figure out exactly what.

      Thank you so very much!

      Mette.

      1. Right, Mette. By the 1780s the police no longer moralized about “pederasty” in reports written for their files. During the 1790s politicians used traditional, moralistic language to discredit each other in public statements, in the same way that nouvellistes and libellistes politicized sexuality before the Revolution.
        What puzzles me = the suggestion that the vice in question was irrelevant to the Revolution. If irrelevant, why mention it, contrary to the trend of publicizing and politicizing anything and everything, in the name of virtuous transparency, for polemical purposes during the 1790s? After the decriminalization of many religious, moral and sexual offenses in 1791, both sodomy and masturbation, committed in private, should have been irrelevant, in principle, to the public and to the Revolution. In practice, however. . . . I don’t know the text in question. Are there any clues, in the verbal context surrounding the disingenuous statement, about how to read it? Jeff

  4. Dear Marisa et al., no doubt you might well have already have thought of this, but perhaps the charge refers back to Girey-Dupré’s (false) accusation in February 1792 that Desmoulins had been defending gambling houses (see e.g. Buchez & Roux, vol 13, roughly pp. 170-90). Though the reality had been rather different, the denunciation was nonetheless made public through the former’s article in Le Patriote Français on the 6th: “… que comme citoyen, comme patriote, vous ayez tenté de prouver que les mœurs sont un superflu, à peu près comme Barnave le disait de la liberté, c’est ce qui a droit de surprendre, surtout ceux qui vous ont décoré de l’écharpe municipale.” The whole matter was dragged out in a bit of a back-and-forth as Desmoulins responded in his Brissot démasqué (also extracted in Buchez & Roux), granting it at least some publicity and potentially therefore political currency.

    If his supposed apologies for gambling seem a little light or too early for this later charge, could it then be as simple as a generic accusation in regards to his journalism? I think particularly of the rhetoric deployed in the Convention in January 1794’s early days – framed against Le Vieux Cordelier’s allegedly bipolar reporting, including by Robespierre (initial call for burning copies in the assembly aside, naturally) – which reflect a similar moralising lexicon in their criticisms. Hadn’t Desmoulins also been previously embroiled in a few more general cases of calumny, too, a vice that was (it goes without saying) already in the rhetorical air of the time, and which of course only grew stronger between 1792 and Desmoulins’ trial? Paine’s strong warning against slander to Danton in 1793 explicitly couched it in terms that ring similarly to my ears: “Calumny is a species of treachery that ought to be punished as well as any other kind of treachery … a private vice productive of public evil, because it is possible to irritate men into disaffection by continual calumny who never intended to be disaffected”. Here the twofold discourses of the private/public and treasonous concerns seem to emerge akin in tone to the trial’s indictments.

    Gambling and/or journalism are, admittedly, far from the most exciting possibilities, but I’d always thought that Desmoulins was quite faithful to Lucile, to the extent that a sexually-grounded scandal would be surprising. Not that this rules out, certainly, a default rhetorical turn by Saint-Just to the tropes of carnal immorality as highlighted above. Needless to say, I add this point only as a suggestion for thought.

    1. Dear J.L.

      There are so many interesting suggestions here. Marisa, if I remember correctly, was also wondering about the gambling “affair”, and I think that this remains a strong possibility. I am particularly intrigued by the idea of calumny as a “private vice”. The word “private” has been giving us some headaches, and it is interesting to see it used in this context. It also seems to correspond to Desmoulins’ own sense, in his prison writings, that it was his attacks on particular individuals that landed him in this situation. So, I actually do find your suggestion an exciting possibility, precisely because it makes sense in the circumstances. Desmoulins’ ‘private and shameful’ vice: Calumny, slander, gossip…? Thanks a million, Mette.

  5. Since I’ve just completed a “History of Terror” to be published in Italian this month, I remember well this passage of Saint Just’s speech against Danton. Saint-Just bases his speech on the notes written by Robespierre, as Albert Mathiez has extensively showed in his critique essay (in “Robespierre terroriste”, 1921). Robespierre writes (I’m translating from the Italian version, sorry): “During the last visit of which I’m speaking , he (Danton) spoke with scorn of Desmoulins : he attributed his deviation to a private and shameful vice, but totally unrelated to the revolution”. Then Robespierre cancelled this sentence and wrote, instead of “to a private and shameful vice”, the words “to the crimes of conspirators”.

    So I’m sure that Danton recounted to Robespierre the well-known rumors about Desmoulins’ homosexuality; Robespierre did not completely erased his first sentence, maybe in order to allow Saint-Just to decide independently if use it or not. And Saint-Just, of course, decided to make this reference, sullying Danton for his gossip on a close friend and, at the same time, ruining Desmoulins’ reputation for his “vice”.

    (It’s fantastic for me to see here scholars like Andress and McPhee, whose books I’ve very appreciated and used for my “History of Terror”)

    1. I second what Dave said, Roberto — and thank you for your comments. Perhaps we should pay more attention, then, to Robespierre’s indecision and his ‘crossing out’ of words in this part of the text he prepared? We were also fascinated by this question of the ‘well-known rumours’ about Desmoulins. It is so difficult to find any trace of such rumours in printed or archival texts. Yet they are difficult to disperse, and persist — this is also why we wanted to ask readers of this blog what their thoughts were about this specific accusation of a ‘vice’ made against him. If allegations concerning sexual preferences were made in the context of the Revolution’s political trials, that seems meaningful. Thank you so much! Mette.

  6. Hi, I wanted to second Mette’s comments and thank everybody who responded for your thoughtful, insightful comments and especially for your scholarly generosity and sheer enthusiasm. It started when Mette and I got talking one evening about a question that had long since bugged both of us – the nature of Camille Desmoulins’ secret and shameful vice. Then Dave Andress encouraged me to come into the C21 and post up the blog query. (Mette is already well into the C21 so needed no encouragement). The many scholars who have replied -both on this blog and to us personally – have between them raised so many varying possibilities, and brought to our attention so many promising lines of enquiry, that it will take some time to follow it all up. So many leads there. It makes even me see the potential of a blog for sharing ideas and information. So thanks so much for that, and especially to Adriana and Jeremy, who are shaping up to be such fine young scholars of the Revolution. Of course, none of you claims to give the definitive answer to our question. But that is what makes the study of history so endlessly tantalising, I guess. So Camille Desmoulins and the rest can still keep their secrets from the prying eyes of incurably curious historians.
    Marisa

  7. Hi everyone,

    I’m a History student at Keele University, and I became aware of this discussion after I met Marisa Linton at the Society for the Study of French History conference at the start of this month.

    The blog posts about the ‘bains chinois’ and ‘vices honteux’ allegations, and the responses to these blog posts, have made for some really interesting reading and have given me much food for thought. I’ve been discussing the issues with Marisa via email, and with Adriana Sisko on another blogging site, and Marisa has suggested that I post my responses to this blog too.

    Firstly, I did a bit of research on the ‘bains chinois’ allegations and I came across a contemporary revolutionary text which seems to, in my opinion, be quite suggestive with regards to Parisian bathhouses. In a 1795-6 guide to ‘Paris as it was before the revolution…[for] French and foreign enthusiasts and travelers’, the Bains Chinois below the Quai Dauphin are described as being made up of separate isolated compartments, which could be ‘used in any way that the imagination could produce’. It is said that up to three people could use the same bath at any time. The writer is keen to assert that the male and female baths were separate, but of course this leaves the possibility of same-sex relations conspicuously open to the reader. Here’s the original source: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k102146p/f137.image.r=Guide%20des%20amateurs%20et%20des%20%C3%A9trangers%20voyageurs%20%C3%A0%20Paris.langEN It is therefore certainly possible that Danton’s association of Saint-Just and the bathhouses was meant as an insinuation regarding his sexual activities.

    Regarding Desmoulins’ ‘private and shameful vice’, it is important to consider that the apparent ‘vice’ may have just been a completely unsubstantiated accusation on Danton’s part. We could all be barking up the wrong tree trying to work out what this vice is supposed to be in particular, when it may have just been a vague slanderous statement to present Desmoulins as a generally shady, not-to-be-trusted figure, whilst avoiding calling him an outright traitor to the revolution by emphasising the ‘private’ nature of his apparent vague character flaw.

    Of course, as Marisa mentions in her comment, we will probably not find a definitive answer with regards to what these accusations were intended to imply, and whether these accusations were true or false. Still, I think that these questions are nevertheless well worth investigating.

    When I first began discussing these issues with Marisa and Adriana, I thought about the morality of what we do as historians, and if we should really sit around trying to work out the ‘private and shameful vices’ of the people that we study. However, I came to the conclusion that understanding these alleged ‘vices’ and personal secrets could have important wider implications. Perhaps an awareness of the personal allegations against Desmoulins and Saint-Just, and the possible meanings behind these allegations, could lead us to new interpretations of primary sources. What may on the surface seem like trivial personal issues in these revolutionaries’ lives might in fact be extremely important in filling up the bigger picture.

    Moreover, with regards to suggestions of homosexuality in particular, the idea that prominent revolutionary figures could potentially have had same-sex attractions is important when we remember that today, there are certain traditionalist groups in French society that evoke the French Revolution as part of their arguments and protests against LGBT rights (La Manif Pour Tous provide a prime example of this – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Manif_pour_tous_Paris_2013-01-13_n11.jpg). By considering the possibility of central revolutionary figures having been part of the LGBT group, we challenge this problematic claim to ‘ownership’ of the revolution by right-wing anti-LGBT organisations.

    On another note, it’s been great to see so many historians offering their perspectives on this topic, and especially to see young scholars being encouraged to post our ideas alongside those of experienced academics. Thanks to Marisa in particular for drawing my attention to this blog and suggesting that I post a comment on here.

  8. I am sorry to interfere so late in the conversation (and pardon my bad English by the way) but I was quite busy finishing my thesis lately. Yet I found it really interesting. I am familiar with the work of Tissot on onanism and the vocabulary used to describe it at the time. For instance, I realized it played an important role in the way Louis XVI was portrayed. Actually, the terms “vice privé” would hint for me to onanism rather than to sodomy, because basically sodomy cannot be so private. By the way, Desmoulins and the engraver working for the “Révolutions de France et de Brabant” were very fond of humour on onanism as seen in the engraving of the “Pieds de cochons de Sainte-Ménéhould” or some other puns on the verb “branler”. If the newspaper was reknown for such things, its reputation may have embraced its author finally.
    Regarding the “Bains chinois”, I am wondering if it could not suggest a venereal disease. If you look at articles describing them in newspapers of the time, you can notice that the diseases it could cure are never explicitly mentioned. In addition, in 1789, a medical newspaper, “Annales de médecine, chirurgies et pharmacie” (t.V, p. 515) does not either but it expresses doubts on the fact that the same remedies could work on so different populations than the ones in Europe and in Asia. In it, we find an echo of Sanchez’ critic on the survey of remedies against venereal diseases in China written by Parennin. In 1775, Sanchez did not agree on the fact that syphilis was the same in France and in China. (see the article by Huard and Wong http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/befeo_0336-1519_1966_num_53_1_3759?_Prescripts_Search_tabs1=standard&amp😉

    1. Dear Aurore,
      thanks so much for this! What you say here complicates the picture still further. Absolutely fascinating!
      Marisa

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