Bastille Day or Fête de la Fédération in 1792

Storming of the Bastille. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Bastille Day or Fête de la Fédération was first celebrated in 1790. It was a day set aside to commemorate the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille that occurred on 14 July 1789. That event ushered in the French Revolution and each year thereafter people celebrated their patriotism for their new republic with a fete.

The second Fête de la Fédération happened in 1791 and was nothing like the first as it was said to have passed without hardly a notice. That was because that year, a few weeks prior to the celebration, the King and the royal family made their ill-fated escape attempt. Unfortunately for them, they were captured at Varennes and brought back to Paris. Continue reading

Severed Heads During the French Revolution

Cartoon or poster of the French Revolution: “Aristocratic Heads on Pikes.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Suppose you see a severed head dripping blood on a pike. What do you feel? Revulsion? Terror? Severed heads were often a common image associated with the French Revolution. Why were they so prevalent and how prevalent were they?

One of the first stories related to severed heads occurred two days before the storming of the Bastille on 12 July 1789. Madame Tussaud reported that protestors arrived knocking on the door of Philippe Mathé Curtius, her uncle and owner of a wax museum called the Salon de Cire. The museum was home to numerous wax figures that included a display of the French royal family dining or rather “exhibited in a ceremony called Grand Couvert [where] “the good  honest people from the country, after visiting the menageries to see the lions, tigers, and monkeys … hastened to the palace to see the king and queen take their soup.”[1] Continue reading

Napoleon’s Brother: Lucien Bonaparte

Lucien Bonaparte by François-Xavier Fabre (1800). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Lucien Bonaparte was Napoleon’s brother and the third son of Carlo Bonaparte and Letizia Ramolino. He was six years younger than Napoleon and born on 21 May 1775 in Ajaccio on the island of Corsica. Lucien, like Napoleon, was educated on France’s mainland. He was educated at the College of Auton (in eastern France), a military academy in Brienne (north-central France), and a seminary in Aix-en-Provence (southern France).

A description of Lucien when was he was young was written by 15-year-old Napoleon to his uncle. Napoleon described Lucien thusly:

“He is 9 years old, and 3 feet, 4 inches, and 6 lines tall. He is in the sixth class for Latin, and is going to learn all the subjects in the curriculum. He shows plenty of good disposition and has good intentions. It is to be hoped he will turn out well. He is in good health, is a big upstanding boy, quick and impulsive, and he is making a good start. He knows French well, and has forgotten all his Italian.”[1]

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Napoleon’s Pleasure-loving Sister Pauline Bonaparte

Pauline Bonaparte by Robert Lefèvre, 1803. Courtesy of Athenaeum.

Napoleon’s pleasure-loving sister Pauline Bonaparte had always been considered somewhat shallow. Perhaps, it was because she had been spoiled as a child and received no formal education. Nothing intellectual ever interested her. In fact, her interests were frivolous and mainly involved her appearance, which generated much excitement with the public each time she appeared:

“Whenever she went to the theatre, every opera-glass was turned towards her. Her entrance into a ball-room was greeted by a long murmur of admiration. Her attire was always carefully studied, and very beautiful … She inspired the wildest enthusiasm.”[1]

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Three Popular Palais-Royal Restaurants of the 1800s

Dining out in Paris. Public Domain.

Between 1770 and 1789 hundreds of restaurants opened in Paris, and, by 1825, it was claimed there were some nine hundred of them in the city. The word restaurant was for many years specific to Paris. However, by the late 1700s, the word had come to represent any eatery and could include an inn, cookshop, or eating house. Despite this blurred and uncertain meaning, some of the best restaurants of the 1800s could be found in the heart of Paris at the Palais-Royal, once owned by Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans. Among these restaurants were three that were said to be excellent. They were the Trois Frères Provençaux, Véry’s, and Véfour’s. Continue reading

Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet: Their Relationship

Madame du Châtelet. Author’s collection.

In 1733, love came knocking at Voltaire’s door in the form of Émilie du Châtelet, the intelligent daughter of Louis Nicolas le Tonnelier de Breteuil. Through an arranged marriage, she had become the wife of an army man named Marquis Florent-Claude du Châstellet-Lomont. The Marquis was frequently absent and considered dull, formal, and cold. In comparison to her husband’s dullness, formality, and coldness, Émilie was dramatically passionate, and the first time she fell head-over-heels in love it was not with her husband. Instead, she was smitten by a French Don Juan named the Count of Guébriant, who unfortunately thought of her as one more notch on his bedpost. Continue reading

France’s First Police Minister Joseph Fouché

Joseph Fouché. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

On 20 July 1799, Joseph Fouché, 1st Duke of Otranto (1st Duc d’Otrante) became the first Minister of Police, but he had not started out to be the head of Napoleon’s security. He was born in a small village near Nantes known as Le Pellerin and was schooled at the college of the Oratorians, a Roman Catholic Society of apostolic life of Catholic priests that was founded in 1611. Eventually, he transferred to Arras and in 1789 began studying for the priesthood when he encountered Maximilien Robespierre, who would go on to become one of the best-known figures of the French Revolution, and their meeting resulted in Fouché becoming a Jacobin. Thus, when the college of the Oratorians dissolved in May of 1792, he gave up the church having never taken his vows. A few months later, soon after the Tuileries was stormed on 10 August, he was elected a deputy in the National Convention and was one of the deputies who voted for the immediate death of Louis XVI. Continue reading

Théroigne de Méricourt and Charlotte Vanhove: The Political Activist and the Actress

Théroigne de Méricourt on the eve of the French Revolution. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Théroigne de Méricourt was a political activist during the French Revolution. In 1793, she composed a series of placards that called for the political involvement of women, and on 15 May 1793, as she crossed the Feuillants Terrace to deliver a speech when female supporters of the Jacobins attacked her. They stripped her naked and beat her so severely she could have died had she not been rescued by Jean-Paul Marat, a political theorist, radical journalist, and icon to the Jacobins.

After the beating, Théroigne was never the same. She suffered from headaches, mental troubles, and erratic behavior. On 20 September 1794, she was certified insane and spent more than twenty years institutionalized. Ultimately, she became a patient at one of the leading mental institutions at the time, the Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris and survived intermittently lucid but constantly speaking about the Revolution. Continue reading

Conjurors and Conjuring in the 1700s

William Hogarth’s a “Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism,” March 15, 1762. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Conjurors and conjuring existed long before the 1700s, and in its simplest form, conjuring was a performance of tricks that appeared to be magical and usually involved some sort of sleight of hand. Well before conjuring became popular in the 1700s, conjuring performances were given in antiquity and in the middle ages. However, there was never an overabundance of conjurors, even in the late 1800s, as one historian noted:

“I have said nothing concerning the manners and habits of conjurors, simply because there is nothing to be said. There are so few conjurors, as compared with circus performers, or members of the theatrical profession, that they do not contract those peculiarities of manner, language, and dress by which individuals of other classes of entertainers may almost invariably be distinguished. Performing singly, and each being (except occasionally in London or Paris) the only conjuror in the town which he is temporarily located, they have few opportunities of association, and those peculiarities which are the product of gregariousness are, in consequence, not developed. The conjuror, again, is very seldom trained to the profession from his youth, … and this being the case, as it has been with all the most eminent performers of legerdemain, they carry into the profession the habits and manners of the section of society in which they are born.”[1] Continue reading

The Asylum Pitié-Salpêtrière in the Georgian Era

Salpêtrière in 1822. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

On the eve of the French Revolution, what had originally been a gunpowder factory and arsenal became the largest hospital and asylum in Europe. It was called Pitié-Salpêtrière. Professor of History Mark Micale noted that “this remarkable hybrid institution housed for over two centuries every imaginable form of social and medical ‘misfit’ from the lowliest sectors of Parisian life.”[1] Because of it strange mixed population, the French writer Albert Camus once referred to it as a “frightful sewer.” Continue reading