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

The French Actress Charlotte Vanhove

Charlotte Vanhove in her 50s. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Charlotte Vanhove (also known as Caroline Vanhove, Caroline Petit-Vanhove, or Cécile Caroline Charlotte Vanhove) was the daughter of two actors of the Comédie-Française named Charles-Joseph Vanhove and Andrée Coche. Vanhoe was born at the Hague on 10 September 1771, and many people claimed she was destined for the stage from an early age.

Vanhove made her stage debut at the Théâtre-Français at the age of 14 in 1785 and was well-received. She starred in Jean Racine’s Iphigenia, a dramatic five-act play, in the role of Iphigenia. While young, she also performed in the role of the dumb boy in Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s 5-act comedy, L’Abbé de L’Epée. Her performance was so moving spectators cried, and a writer at the time was so touched, he wrote, ” If … she can affect us so deeply without the aid of words, what would she do with them?”[1] Continue reading

Madame Romain or La Belle Limonadière of France

La Belle Limonadière, Courtesy of the National Gallery of Arts, Washington D.C.

Lemonade was a popular drink in the 1700 and 1800s, and of all the lemonade sellers in France, Madame Romain, or La Belle Limonadière, as she was called, was said to be the most popular. La Belle Limonadière was also a Parisian personality known for her striking beauty during the First Empire and the early years of the Restoration. One visitor who saw her in Paris in 1815 described her thusly:

“A complexion like Parisian marble, and black eyes and hair in striking contrast with it. The usual aids of colour to the cheek were not forgotten, but quite what the French call au natural — a word merely meaning something less artificial than the last stage of artifice.”[1]

Continue reading

Princesse de Lamballe’s Shell Cottage: Chaumière des Coquillages

The Princesse’s Shell Cottage at Rambouillet. © G.L. Walton.

The Princesse de Lamballe’s shell cottage, known in French as chaumière des coquillages, was built for her by the Duke of Penthièvre between 1779 and 1780. The Duke was her father-in-law and father to her dead husband, the Prince of Lamballe. The Prince had died of syphilis on 6 May 1768, and her father-in-law, who had lost his wife years earlier in 1754, insisted that the Princess come and mourn at his fine estate in Rambouillet, France.

Rambouillet’s close proximity to Paris and Versailles (about 30 miles southwest) allowed it to serve as an occasional seat of government. Moreover, it was a picturesque spot used by the Duke and the Princess to escape the formality and etiquette of Versailles. It was also the perfect spot to relax as Rambouillet’s forests were populated with game and thick with verdant green glens. Continue reading

French Mouches: Beauty Marks or Patches

Mouches or Example of Patches Worn During Charles I's Reign, Author's Collection
Example of Patches Worn During Charles I’s Reign, Author’s Collection

Smallpox affected women’s complexion in the 18th century. Because smallpox often left pox scars and because women sometimes had acne, moles, or facial defects, it became popular for women to hide or disguise these problems. They did so using patches that were referred to by the French as mouches (flies).

Patching was initially more popular among the French than the English and was popular until about the Regency period. However, the first written mention of patching occurred in the English book Artificial Changeling, written by John Bulwer in 1653. Despite Bulwer’s mention in 1653, apparently mouches, were popular long before as it was “common with the Roman dames in the latter days of the Empire.”[1] Continue reading

Anecdotes about the Court of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte, Author’s collection.

There are many anecdotes about the court of Napoleon Bonaparte. One book, Memoirs of the Court of Napoleon Buonaparte, published in 1819, contained numerous anecdotes and was supposedly written by Madame Durand, a lady of the bedchamber to Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise. Madame Durand was also the widow of General Durand and served Marie Louise for four years.

Here are some of the anecdotes related by Madame Durand and provided almost verbatim: Continue reading

When Napoleon Met and Married Josephine de Beauharnais

Napoleon. Public Domain.

Napoleon would marry twice, but his first marriage was to Josephine de Beauharnais. Josephine was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique, to a wealthy white Creole family that owned a sugarcane plantation. She met Napoleon in late 1795 and within weeks she was his mistress.

Napoleon was quickly intoxicated by her charms and his love letters to her were filled with passion. They contained such lines as “Your letters … make up my daily pleasure,” “The love with which you have inspired me has bereft me of reason,” or “Without appetite, without sleep, without care for my friends, for glory, for fatherland, you, you alone — the rest of the world exists no more for me than if it were annihilated.”[1] Moreover, although Napoleon may have sometimes worried about Josephine’s love for him, he once remarked that she always accompanied him on his journeys and that neither fatigue nor privation deterred her: Continue reading