Born in 1774 in Paris, Cécile-Aimée Renault arrived at the foot of the guillotine on 17 June 1794 in what is now the Place de la Nation. It all began one day when the 20-year-old seamstress presented herself at the home of the Duplay family, where Maximilien Robespierre was temporarily staying. She asked to speak to him, and as she was young and appeared harmless, she was ushered into his anti-chamber. She waited for a long time and was eventually told that he was unavailable and that she should leave. She replied:
“A public man … ought to receive at all times, those who have occasion to approach him.”
Because Renault would not leave and because she became insistent that she needed to see Robespierre, a guard was called. He conducted a search and supposedly discovered she was carrying two small knives. Although the knives were hardly large enough to kill anyone, it was decided she had intended to murder Robespierre and was taken before the Committee of Public Safety where she was asked to explain herself. Eventually, the committee learned her name and that she was the one of seven children and the daughter of a paper maker, who was a royalist supporter. Continue reading →
Voltaire was a controversial man who possessed immense talent and whose versatile and prolific writings criticized religious dogma and intolerance. In fact, it was many of his ideas that lit the way for the Age of Enlightenment. However, Voltaire’s light that had shone so bright for so many years began to dim soon after he returned to Paris in February 1778, having been absent from Paris for 25 years.
It began around the end of April when Voltaire complained he was suffering from severe pain in his lower abdomen. To gain relief, he took wine and quinine. A few weeks later, Voltaire was tired and knew he would not be able to attend a meeting he had scheduled for Monday. However, to make sure his voice was heard, he stayed up and worked most the night on Saturday, 9 May, aided by excessive amounts of coffee to prevent himself from falling asleep. Continue reading →
Born Marie-Anne Victoire Gillain on 9 April 1773 at Versailles, Marie was educated by nursing nuns at a nunnery located about 29 miles from the center of Paris in a commune called Étampes. There she displayed medical skill, and, in fact, her skills were strong enough she attracted the attention of Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Élisabeth. Unfortunately, when the French Revolution broke out, the nunnery was destroyed.
After the nunnery was destroyed, Marie began studying anatomy and midwifery, but then, in 1797, Marie married Louis Boivin, stopped her medical studies, and had a daughter. Unfortunately, Madame Boivin’s husband died, and to support herself, she returned to her medical studies at the Parisian teaching hospital, Hôtel-Dieu, in the Hospice de la Maternité in 1796. Hôtel-Dieu was the largest public hospital in Paris at the time and considered one of the most well-respected obstetric hospitals, renowned for its school of midwifery. Continue reading →
Grace Dalrymple Elliott was considered a great beauty in her times, but a bad omen accompanied her birth in 1754. She had been educated in France at a convent, returned to Scotland, and met and married Sir John Elliot,* a respected physician. Yet, despite being married, she fell in love with a Lord Valentia, whom she ran away with in 1774. Elliot was bitter over the affair and divorced her. Soon after her divorce, Grace found herself back in France at the convent, but convent life was not for her, and after a short stay, she returned to England.
It was around this time that the Prince of Wales saw a miniature of Grace. The miniature so enamored the Prince that when Grace arrived in England, he met her. He found to his delight a warm-hearted, well-mannered, and fascinating young woman. His interest in her also resulted in them having an affair and a daughter, who was born on 30 March 1782 and baptized at St. Marylebone as Georgiana Augusta Frederica Seymour.
Voltaire (born François-Marie Arouet) was a French Enlightenment writer, philosopher, and historian who became well-known for being outspoken and for his witty satirical writings. In his writings, he attacked the Catholic Church, advocated for civil liberties, and criticized French institutions. Voltaire also produced a variety of works that included everything from plays and poems to novels and historical works. To better understand Voltaire, it is helpful to know something about his personality. His personality can best be explained by his contemporaries and associates, who, over the years, shared many stories about his temperament and character. Here are some of the best Voltaire anecdotes.
The Duke of Orleans was the French regent to young Louis XV from 1715 to 1723. During this period, one satirical verse that Voltaire wrote accused the Duke of incest with his own daughter. The Duke became so angry with Voltaire, he ordered him imprisoned at the Bastille. However, after the Duke saw Voltaire’s tragedy Oedipus (Œdipe), he was so moved, he ordered Voltaire’s immediate release. Upon Voltaire’s release the Duke was waiting and said, “Be more prudent for the future, Voltaire … and I’ll watch over your fortune.” As Voltaire was quick-witted and quick-tongued, he could not resist and replied:
“I humbly thank your royal highness … but I shall consider myself greatly honoured by your generosity, provided you don’t furnish me with the same board and lodging again.” Continue reading →
Marie-Madeleine Guimard was a celebrated French ballerina who dominated the Parisian stage for almost thirty years. She was born on 27 December 1743 and was the love child of Anne Bernard and a manufacturing cloth inspector named Fabien Guimard. She joined the Comédie-Française at the age of fifteen and made her debut at the Opéra on 9 May 1762 as Terpsichoré, the muse of dance.
It was hard work to be a dancer. This was because at the Opéra, “the discipline and organization … was at the time … like a regiment; the dancers form[ed] several classes, promotion [was] difficult; the work … very hard … and the salary … very small.” Despite all the challenges, Guimard excelled. She was said to be “much admired for her extraordinary grace in dancing and pantomime,” and she was described as “exquisitely graceful and fascinating.” In addition, Guimard’s dancing abilities were “characterised by Noverre as the poetry of motion, and in such ballets as ‘Les caprices de Galathée,’ composed expressly for her … she was generally allowed to be inimitable.”
There are many anecdotes about the woman known as Madame de Staël. Born Anne Louise Germaine Necker in Paris, France, but of Swiss origin, Madame de Staël’s father was Jacques Necker, a prominent Swiss banker and statesman who also served as the Director-General of Finance under King Louis XVI of France. Her Swiss mother was named Suzanne Curchod and was a no-nonsense woman who had no regard for practical jokes.
Madame de Staël and her father had an extremely close relationship. Part of their closeness was because they were compatible intellectually and had many traits in common, but they also loved the ridiculous. Their love the ridiculous is demonstrated by the following anecdote that happened one morning.
During breakfast, Madame de Staël did everything to get her father’s attention without her mother seeing, but not matter what she did she was unable to obtain even a glance from her father. Fortunately, Madame Necker was called out of the room. While she was absent, Madame de Stael’s threw her napkin through the air, her father caught it, and tied it around his head. He then began dancing around the table. Madame Necker’s footsteps put and ended to their fun as both Necker and his daughter “hastened back to their chairs like truant school-children, forgetting to observe that they were betrayed by the father’s wig, [still sitting on top of his head].” Continue reading →
The pioneering French midwife, Angélique du Coudray, gained fame in the 1700s. She was born in 1712, the same year as the King of Prussia (Frederick II, known as Frederick the Great) and the Enlightenment writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Little is known about Coudray’s early years. However, at twenty-five she graduated from the College of Surgery École de Chirurgie in Paris and completed her three-year apprenticeship that allowed her to become an accredited midwife.
Soon after Coudray’s graduation, schools began to bar women from gaining instruction in midwifery. Surgeons also began to expanded into the birthing field and this further reduced the medical community’s willingness to train female midwives. Women were upset and began to petition that they be allowed to receive proper instruction to become midwives.
Coudray was among those who supported female midwives. She argued that if proper training was not given to female midwives, midwives would continue to practice untrained and might cause harm to their patients. Moreover, she declared that without training, there would be shortage of midwives. Continue reading →
Luigi Lablache was a famous bass singer born in Naples on 6 December 1791. His father, Nicola Lablache, was a merchant from Marseilles and his mother an Irish woman named Franziska Bietak. Lablache displayed an unusual inclination for music at an early and captured the notice of Joseph Napoleon, who took an interest in the 12-year-old after Lablache’s father became a victim of the French Revolution.
Because of Lablache’s talents, Napoleon also procured a place for him at the Conservatorio della pieta de’ Turchini in Naples. However, Lablache was interested in the stage and decided that he didn’t want to devote himself solely to music. This resulted in him run away five times from the Conservatory and gaining employment at local theatres. Because of Lablache’s antics a royal law was issued that put an end to Lablache’s escape. The royal law stated: Continue reading →
The love affair between Marquis de Lafayette and Diane of Simiane began after Diane married Charles-Francois of Simiane, Marquis of Miremont. Charles-Francois was the son of François Louis Hector of Simiane and Marie Esther Emilie of Seveyrac. He had served in the American Revolutionary War with the famous French nobleman and general, the Count of Rochambeau, who had played a major role in helping the thirteen colonies win independence during the American Revolution. Continue reading →