What was there to laugh about during the Terror?

A new colleague joins us at the Revolution Network, and introduces himself below: welcome, Jacob!

Laughter as a Political Strategy in the National Convention

My name is Jacob Zobkiw and I have recently been awarded a PhD for my thesis entitled ‘Political Strategies of Laughter in the National Convention, 1792-1794’ at the University of Hull. Having just discovered this fascinating blog thanks to Marisa Linton, I thought it might be appropriate to introduce my work to the community and offer a few thoughts regarding the motivations behind laughter in the Republic.

With the inception of the National Convention on 21 September 1792, the deputies were presented with an exigent problem: without a constitution or a sovereign ruler acting as a safeguard, how could they legitimise, not only the Republic (a particular challenge, considering France had been ruled by the Capetians since 987), but also their own individual authority? The issue was further complicated by a political culture that placed emphasis on selfless sacrifice while overt demonstrations of ambition were condemned. One possible route for patriots to justify their right to represent the people was the appeal to public opinion, which involved convincing and persuading the political audience of their own integrity. Several strategies were available to deputies to achieve this: historians have identified political rhetoric and styles of speaking, dress, emotional sensibilité, the appropriation of theatrical genres and the cult of antiquity as just a few ways in which deputies could craft an individual identity, engage with the public, and contest the authority of others. To this list we can also add laughter.

Although laughter in the Revolution has been a focus for historians, very few have ventured beyond 1792 in their examinations. I think there is a general belief among scholars that the republicans rarely laughed because they were faced with mounting crises that only a serious and severe demeanour could explain. Certainly, some deputies maintained that vituperative laughter contravened the preferred feeling of sensibilité, and was a relic of the past more applicable to the frivolous and malevolent aristocrat. Yet, considering there were over 700 politicians in the Convention competing to be heard and implement their own vision of the future, it was perhaps inevitable that the ideal parliamentary conditions of harmony and uniformity envisaged by many soon gave way to insults, mocking laughter and accusations, as patriots used any means available to them to get ahead in the factional disputes which dominated the period.

Indeed, laughter played a multifarious role in the Convention and was certainly more ubiquitous than exhibitions of tears and solemnity. In just over 22 months, laughter occurs on 394 separate occasions according to the records of the Archives Parlementaires: this equates to nearly 18 times per month (more than the rate of laughter recorded in the National Assembly). Moreover, while laughter was sometimes represented by deputies as a form of pity so as to assure the public that those who laughed were still in tune with their feelings, its function was rather more oppressive: laughter was often employed to police debates, discredit unwanted opinions, and to denounce others. Initially, the most frequent recipients of laughter were the prominent Montagnards who, frustrated with the barrage of ridicule they suffered in the Convention, represented such laughter as having been artificially orchestrated by their opponents. Some voiced their irritation to the Jacobin club, such as Chabot who was tired of the “rire sardonique” of Brissot, while Marat denounced the “vils folliculaires, tremblants de frayeur de voir déchirer le voile, s’empressent d’aller au-devant l’opinion publique en semant le ridicule à nos dépens”.

Surprisingly, given the serious role the narrative of conspiracy played in revolutionary culture, it was the denunciation that generated the most laughter from the Convention in the first year. “Est-ce amusant!” complained Marat, when his accusation that Brissot was leading a conspiratorial plot from within the Ministry of the Interior was received with mockery. “Oui! Oui!” came the cry from the benches. In his memoirs, the Girondin François Buzot defended himself from accusations that the satirical remarks made by himself and his allies were divisive in light of an ideology that placed emphasis on unity. As he remarked, many denunciations were absolutely ridiculous; consequently all he could do was laugh: “est-ce ma faute si le sarcasme est dans les mots dont je me sers, lorsque tout est atrocement ridicule dans les faits que je décris.”

The Montagnards were not averse to using laughter for their own needs. In the midst of the Terror, laughter was the typical stoic response to failure, such as with the disheartening news that Toulon had opened its gates to the British; at this moment the Convention was overcome by “un rire d’indignation” according to one newspaper. There was, however, satisfaction taken in the retributive violence enacted on the populace when the city had been recaptured, as one deputy reported: “Le moyen était violent. Mais quand il y a urgence, il faut bien s’en servir. (Rires).” Laughter also held a practical purpose in demarcating the rules of a political edifice that was constantly changing. During the Terror, there were certain moments when deputies felt they had to laugh because to refrain from doing so was dangerous; failing to enjoy the plight of the Girondins in prison, for example, could attract the unwanted attention of the sans-culottes.

The personal dimension of politics from September 1792 to July 1794 is for me, one of the most compelling aspects of the French Revolution, and one that has also become a central focus in current debates on the revolutionary trajectory, as historians look to trace attitudes and ideas that developed out of the Revolution itself, and not just those that formed it. The Conventionnels were politicians – as well as ideologues – and operated to outmanoeuvre each other, all the while denying ever having undertaken such unscrupulous actions. Added to this potent mix was the fact that many of the deputies were friends in a former life and knew personal and potentially harmful details about each other. Insider knowledge was a weapon to publicly humiliate a former friend-turned-enemy.

Consequently, unveiling the real or imagined private practices of suspect individuals – especially practices that were alien to, or atypical of, the prevailing culture – was a useful strategy intended to leave unfortunate victims open to the ridicule and mockery of the public. This approach developed from a wider plan of intimidation, and can be initially seen with the treatment of Minister of the Interior Roland, who due to his powerful position became a favourite target for mockery by the Montagnards. They focused on the Minister’s relationship with his wife, Marie-Jeanne, who was represented as the true power within the ministry, while Roland himself was seen as a cuckold lacking the masculine virtue required for a man of his position. These jokes and ridiculous denunciations, inveighed the Minister in 1793, were repeated so often that the weak-minded believed them. His successor, Dominique Joseph Garat, was also ridiculed in the Convention, this time for his friendship with the discredited physiologist Pierre Cabanis, although his reluctance to fully support the Montagnards was the probable motivation behind the laughter. Garat himself believed that his personal friendships were scrutinised to show his ridiculousness: “parce que cela est niais, je suis coupable”. Laughter was a form of denunciation in the Terror and deputies were encouraged to “accueillez la vérité d’un rire dédaigneux” in order to cast suspicion on the claims of others. Conspirators by definition were ridiculous; if a denunciation provoked laughter at the accused then that made it all the more authentic. The enemy was to be treated with the laughter of scorn rather than the tears of pity.

What I have hoped to show in this introduction, therefore, is not just that the Republicans frequently laughed, but that laughter played an important role in the political culture of the Revolution, serving to enforce and contest the legitimacy of the Republic and its proponents. It was a psychological weapon and developed into a prominent tool to keep order, eventually becoming one way in which to justify the ideology of Terror. Laughter, it seems, was a serious business in the Republic.


7 thoughts on “What was there to laugh about during the Terror?”

  1. Most of what little I know of humor in this era comes from the film Ridicule, which argued that wit or esprit was socially important at the end of the Old Regime. Could Jacob comment on the accuracy of that portrayal, and whether such wit became stigmatized as aristocratic after 1789?

    1. Richard, thanks for your comment.

      The culture of wit and laughter that seemingly enveloped courtly life in the old regime – as represented in Ridicule – has been a fertile ground for historians. According to Anne Richardot, the language of le bel esprit served as a form of light censorship in order to strengthen cohesion among the aristocrats and to avoid contentious political subjects. Aristocratic wit also functioned as the ‘salt’ of conversation to enliven social occasions (See Richardot, Le Rire des Lumières. Paris: H-Champion, 2002). As the masking of feelings and control over the body was a key feature of the court, wit was a useful weapon to politely unveil the pretensions and ambitions of an opponent, especially since the system encouraged the jostling for position to secure the patronage of the king. The film depicts the importance of wit in achieving this, though I am sceptical about the crueller acts, such as an aristocrat urinating on his opponent (although someone who specialises in court culture may enlighten me?!).

      Wit and laughter also played a role in preserving noble morals and customs against the rise of social inferiors and outsiders. In the film, the protagonist, Ponceludon de Malavoy, is humiliated because of his outsider status. Aristocratic laughter, or le rire sardonique, as it was known, was a weapon of contempt. In the early Revolution, aristocrats advocated the use of satire as a strategy to preserve the French language in the face of absurd new ideas. Antoine de Baecque traces the rise and fall of la faction satyrique in the Revolution, and examines how these aristocrats, led by Rivarol with the pen and the Viscount Mirabeau in the Assembly, used satire to unmask the pretentious language of Revolution (See de Baecque, Les Éclats du Rire: La culture des rieurs au XVIIIe siècle).

      To answer your second question, aristocratic wit in the Revolution is indeed stigmatised for various reasons. First, the language of le bel esprit had a lot to do with wordplay, epigrams and puns, and often contained inside jokes that were suitably opaque so that outsiders could not understand them. In contrast, the patriots claimed that the language of the Revolution was to be transparent and straightforward so that all could contribute to the democratic process. It was hoped language could be perfected so as to reveal the natural order of things without confusion or ambiguity; linguistic advancement was connected to social progress. The embroidered language of wit and persiflage was considered devious and dishonest.

      Second, eighteenth-century writers frequently iterated the view espoused by Aristotle: laughter, a property unique to humankind, expressed the thoughts of man and revealed the true nature of his spirit. The sardonic laugh, free form any moral cause, appeared through a tortuous process within the body, compelling some medical practitioners to warn of its debilitating corporeal effect. Those that cruelly laughed at the sufferings of fellow beings were considered to be of a base disposition. “Je ne fais pas plus d’épigrammes, car elles supposent le plaisir de piquer par une critique” wrote Madame Roland. However, this compassionate argument soon loses its value in the Terror.

      Determining whether a laugh or a style of humour was aristocratic or patriotic in the Revolution became a matter of viewpoint. Revolutionaries often warned the public about the smirking aristocrat in their midst, yet, at the same time, laughter was a valuable weapon, so revolutionaries were keen to represent their laughter as patriotic and not aristocratic. This is evident during the trial of the king, wherein many satirists were incarcerated, such as Charles Villette, Gautier de Syonnet and Nicole de Ladevèze. The Montagnards and Commune justified these arrests on the grounds that they had produced aristocratic satire. Conversely, the Girondins portrayed these writings as patriotic.

  2. What laughter there was in the Convention certainly bears a resemblance to the use of ridicule in the Ancien Regime. However, there was nothing healthful or beneficial or particularly clever about the derogatory laughter and sarcasm employed by the deputies against their opponents.
    As I have noted in my recent book, “Provincial Patriot of the French Revolution: Francois Buzot, 1760-1794,” his nature tended toward the melancholy and austere, even in better times.

    1. Thanks for your comment Bette. There is a more positive type of laughter that I don’t really touch upon, which was free from sarcasm and had no intended victim. It served to build bonds between patriots while acting as a pedagogical tool to denote the new rules of society.

      But I largely agree with your assertion. I also think that some deputies who were laughed at in the Convention harnessed ridicule to present themselves as victimised heroes, garnering them a degree of sympathy from the revolutionary audience.

  3. Echoing an earlier comment, the question of types of laughter is very important – was there an ancien régime laughter dismissed in favour of a republican version? What part did the ‘rire sardonique’ play? This aspect of revolutionary life, both within and beyond the Convention, is tantalising for historians of revolutionary culture. It also raises questions about the part played by emotions in this period of upheaval.

    Readers and commentators might also note this upcoming conference on humour and power:


  4. This is a very odd but fashinating point of view. I remember well the laughters during Vadier’s account on the affair of Catherine Théot. Many reports underline the sarcasm used by Vadier and the laughters aroused in the National Convention for his speech. Surely it was a way to hit Robespierre and his regime. Have you discussed this episode in your thesis?

    1. Thank you Roberto for your comment. I also find the Vadier speech both fascinating and important.

      Briefly put, Vadier’s speech on 27 Prairial is an anomaly for two reasons. Before it, no laughter had been heard in the Convention for over a month due to the pervasive fear felt after the downfall of Danton. Second, during Vadier’s delivery there were sixteen separate bursts of laughter –the most in response to a single speech in the Convention. This is even more laughter than the jubilant September 1792 days. Vadier’s tone was cold and grave; he was, after all, denouncing a supposed plot concocted by religious fanatics who had prophesised the coming of a saviour (unmistakeably Robespierre, although Vadier never said this explicitly). But the content of the plot was ridiculous, causing the deputies to laugh, and Robespierre’s link with the monk Dom Gerle implicated him further.

      The speech, as you say, was designed to hit Robespierre. But Vadier was clever. He linked Robespierre to a conspiracy without ever naming him. He also discredited the religious ideas that were so important to Robespierre’s conception of virtue by ridiculing them (although Vadier claimed that he had not meant to cause laughter but merely unveil a conspiracy). The follies of religious superstition had always been a topic for mirth in the Convention and Vadier exploited this. The laughter also temporarily unnerved Robespierre who, rather carelessly, denounced the “sarcasmes grossiers et des plaisanteries hébertistes” of those who ridiculed the Supreme Being, thereby implicating all who had laughed in the Convention.
      In the subsequent period after Vadier’s speech, laughter was heard frequently in the Convention, probably because of the upturn in fortunes on the military front. This type of laughter was discouraged by Robespierre, who saw such jubilant scenes as evidence of leniency, apathy and weakness; he saw it as the drunkenness of victory which blinded people to the interests of the patrie. Yet, as Vadier responded on 8 Thermidor, bursts of laughter were to be lauded because “les victoires que la république remporte sont aussi le fruit de la compression des ennemis de l’intérieur.” Therefore, in this context, uttering laughter was more than just a way to humiliate Robespierre; it was an outright act of defiance, rejecting Robespierre’s wish that the Convention be severe and serious, and therefore rejecting Robespierre’s own claims to authority.

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