The Legendary Jean “Chouan” Couttereau

Legendary Jean Chouan
Portrait Presumed to be Jean Chouan by L. de Labarre, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Born on 30 October 1757 at Saint-Berthevin, the legendary Jean Chouan was the nom de guerre of Jean Cottereau, a counter-revolutionary, insurrectionist, and staunch royalist. He was also a man of several nicknames, with “Chouan” a nickname given to him by his father (or it may have come from his imitation of the call of the tawny owl. However, he got the nickname, it meant silent one. There was also the less flattering nickname of “le Gars mentoux” or “le garçon menteur” (the boy liar).

Chouan is legendary because what is known about him was written by royalist partisan Jacques Duchemin des Cépeaux in 1825 at the request of Charles X. The story that Cépeaux reported has many unfounded facts that were further nourished by a small faction of Catholics and royalist-legitimist. Thus, Chouan’s actual role in history remains questionable and is likely more legend than fact.

Some facts that appear to be true are that Chouan’s father, Pierre Cottereau, was a lumberjack who felled trees, stacked and seasoned the lumber, and then made wooden shoes called sabots. His mother was a woman named Jeanne (nee Moyné) Cottereau. The Cottereau’s lived as tenants on a 20-acre farm located half-way between Saint-Ouën-des-Toits and Bourgneuf-la-Forêt in Mayenne, France. Chouan’s father was often absent and his mother was illiterate, which meant the children — Jean, Pierre, François, and René — were largely unschooled. Thus, when Chouan’s father died, Chouan declared himself a sabot maker, but unlike his father, Chouan was not as energetic or as skilled.

Imaginary Portrait of Jean Chouan, 1833, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Imaginary Portrait of Jean Chouan, 1833, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The story goes that in order for the family to survive, they took up salt-smuggling. Salt-smuggling came about because there was a heavy tax on salt in the region. However, different regions charged different rates for the salt tax, and with the disparity between areas, salt-smuggling became a viable means of making a living for the Cottereau family. Salt-smugglers, called “false-salters,” attempted to pass off lightly taxed salt as if it had been heavily taxed. They would purchase salt cheaply in one region, stealthily move it across the border, and then sell it for high prices. The smuggling activities of the Cottereau family and other false-salters soon generated a guerilla war between the smugglers. Moreover, they had to be wary of custom officials because if custom officials caught them, the false-salters could be condemned and deported, or if they were caught armed, executed.

The Cottereaus found salt-smuggling an easy way to make a living because they had extensive knowledge of the countryside in their immediate area. Yet, despite this expertise, they were stopped and nearly arrested on more than one occasion. The thuggish Cottereaus also soon became involved in other shady enterprises that caused them more problems with the law. These shady enterprises resulted in them injuring or maiming many of their neighbors. Thus, to avoid prison time or deportation, they were forced to pay their innocent victims compensation, and the Cottereaus became financially strapped.

Everything came to head when Chouan found himself at the age of twenty-three unable to get out of trouble. He had beaten a man named Marchais, whom he suspected had informed authorities about his salt-smuggling activities. He was also facing another more serious charge. One night at a Saint-Germain-le-Fouilloux inn, Chouan and his friend, Jean Croissant, killed a customs agent by the name of Olivier Jagu by repeatedly hitting him with a billy club. Thus, authorities were desperately searching for them.

To avoid capture, both Chouan and Croissant fled but. However, their flight did not stop officials from trying Chouan in absentia. The result was his execution was ordered, and people were upset enough, the execution took place by effigy. In the meantime, according to Cépeaux, Chouan hid. He joined the king’s army until he was arrested on 18 May 1785. When questioned, Chouan denied killing the customs agent. However, he was sentenced to a year in prison because authorities were having a hard time proving their case: key witnesses were dead, other witnesses recanted, and some witnesses were excused from testifying. A year later, on 9 September 1786, Chouan was released but then rearrested and sentenced to another three years at the Dépôt de Mendicité at Rennes.

Fighting Between the Chouans and the Blues, Public Domain
Fighting Between the Chouans and the Blues, Public Domain

The second time Chouan was released, he took up respectable work as a servant of Marie Le Bourdais, the widow of a cousin, living in Chouan’s home parish of Olivet. The widow’s son was a priest named Alexis Ollivier. In 1789, the French Revolution broke out, and the new National Constituent Assembly passed laws to reform the Church. These reforms eroded the traditional power and prerogatives of the church little by little. The final stroke occurred on 12 July 1790 when the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (Constitution civile du clergé) was passed. It entirely subordinated the Roman Catholic Church in France to the French government.  Of course, Chouan could not remain passive as he abhorred the ecclesiastical reforms and supported the monarchy.

When the decrees against the clergy began to be enforced, Chouan created an organized body and secret society that carried on their enterprises by night. Recruits came from everywhere and together they began to make headway against their enemies as they cried “Vive le Roi.” Initially called the Mainiaux, they became the Chouans or the Chouannerie. They also began to regulate themselves and one person wrote of this group:

“[The Chouans] had their flying tribunals, their judges, their executions, and … spies and suspected persons, were arraigned and heard. Unflinching was the judge, inexorable the verdict as pronounced according to the stern law of reprisals. Such was the fate of the merciless wretches who fell into Chouan hands.”

Chouan’s wild life of smuggling and hunting eminently allowed him to effectively conduct guerilla warfare too. During these turbulent times, the Chouans devised many ways to avoid being discovered and the created numerous ways to protect themselves. They hid in subterranean caverns excavated in the ground called “terriers” and would supposedly at times lie together in these caverns for days:

“[T]he entrance … [was] carefully hidden by a little trapdoor of small entwined branches as to look as if growing. Their friends supplied them with provisions, often scantily … on account of the impossibility of opening the trapdoor when the Blues were near. In these ‘terriers’ they patiently endured … [and] from those ‘terriers’ they emerged to perform exploits at which Bonaparte wondered.”

Tree Near Where Chouan was Said to Have Been Shot in the Chest, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France
Tree Near Where Chouan was Said to Have Been Shot in the Chest, Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France

Although the Chouan’s joined the royalist army in 1793 to fight against the Blues, Chouan’s career was nearing its end. Still he would not die until he saw nearly all his family affected and not before he prophesied the following dire prediction, “There is a fate on the Cottereau,” he said, “not one will escape it; my time is not far off.” Chouan’s prophecy arrived soon enough. It came on a hot summer’s day on 29 July 1794 (some people say it was 18 July 1794) near Laval, France.

“His brother Rene’s wife … called out ‘There are Blues!’ He shot in the leg one who was approaching, and the party could easily have got off, had it not been for his sister-in-law. She was in a weak state of health, and unable to jump the hedge they had to go over, and he turned to protect her. The Blues recognized the great Chouan chief, and concentrated their fire on him … he was shot, riddled rather, in the breast. He died in about twelve hours, with his hands crossed exhorting his friends never to serve, never to love the republic.”

References:

  • Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham, Historic Note-book, 1892
  • Chambers, William and Robert Chambers, Chamber’s Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, 1850
  • Hill, George James, The Story of the War in La Vendée and the Little Chouannerie, 1885
  • Kintail Place, 1886
  • Nutt, Jane A., For King and Country, Or, Kintail Place, 1891
  • Ripley, George and Charles Anderson Dana, eds., The New American Cyclopaedia, Volume 5,
  • Smith, Benjamin Eli, The Century Dictionary, 1895

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