Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The incumbent of Saint-Lyphard

"Saint-Lyphard sous la Révolution", Son et Lumière performed in July 2016.
Lenotre devoted a chapter to the sole survivor of the first noyade,  the abbé Julien Landeau, former rector of Saint-Lyphard, a small town north of the Loire in the marshes of Brière.  The narrative is of interest not only for its testimony to the drowning but for the details of Landeau's subsequent life of hiding in these remote swamplands, where the Revolution was only vaguely understood and impacted little on the daily life of the peasantry.

A native of Queniquen in Guérande,  Landeau had been born in 1745 and ordained in 1770.  At the outbreak of the Revolution, he was vicaire of the parish of Moisdon, but in August 1789 he moved to Saint-Lyphard.  In February 1790 his parishioners unanimously elected him as mayor of the township with his vicaire, Jean Gougeon acting as his secretary and substitute. However, since he declined to take the oath to the Civil Constitution of Clergy, he was obliged after a few months to resign his mayorial office.  In December 1791 the department ordered all non-jurors to be taken to detention in Nantes.  Landeau continued to fulfil his ministry clandestinely, and now went into hiding,  but he was eventually discovered and in February 1793 taken to in the prison of the Carmelites, where he rejoined his brother Jacques, also a priest.   In August he was transferred to the galliot Thérèse, thence to the Petits capuchins, and finally on board the Gloire.  On the fateful night of 16th-17th December he was among the handful who escaped  death in the waters of the Loire:

The abbé  Landeau escapes drowning

At that very hour one of the ninety priests, and one only, having escaped the "drowning," was wandering through the streets of Nantes in terror of being recaptured, and horrified at what he had witnessed. It was the abbé Julien Landeau, incumbent of Saint Lyphard.

When in his turn he had been taken out of the galliot, tied to an old monk and lowered into the lighter, he found that the rope which secured his arm to that of his fellow might easily be unfastened. The two united their efforts, got rid of the manacle, and waited anxiously.

From the motion of the lighter the abbé Landeau soon realised that the heavy craft was going down-stream. He heard the mallet blows which opened the ports; in gushing torrents the waters poured in, gurgling and unceasing, overwhelming in a mass the maddened and unwary victims, lifting them up and dashing them against each other in a terrible hubbub of cries, floating bodies, and suffocation.

The abbé was a skilful swimmer: taking in tow the old man whom the ruffians' choice had made his brother in the death-struggle, he fought his way out of the dreadful turmoil. Groping in the murk of whirling water, and thrusting aside the contorted bodies, he reached a port-hole or scupper, and at length came out on the surface of the river. Lamberty's boat was there, quite close at hand. The priest of Saint- Lyphard's saw the ruffians grappling with their boat-hooks, and holding under water those quivering wretches whom, like himself, a desperate effort had carried out of the lighter, and heard the heavy blows of the oars falling on their heads.

Escaping from the hideous melee, he swam with his right hand, and with the other upheld his inert fellow. Soon he was far away, in the full flow of the Loire, panting with exertion, alone on that heaving expanse. What should he do? Try to reach the bank? Would he not find there other ruffians on the alert, it might be, or timorous fishermen, who would refuse to help him? Or should he swim with the current as long as might be and ground in some osier-bed or on some sandbank, where he might take breath? And afterwards? Would he, for that matter, have strength to keep up so long? The weight of his fellow paralysed his movements. In the icy water, which blinded and choked him, the old monk, groaning at his last gasp, urged the swimmer not to persist, but to save himself alone and let him die. Yet Landeau persevered, though each valiant stroke exhausted him, his strength began to fail, and his burden stopped all progress. He felt the clutching hands of the old man unclasp as he resignedly relaxed his hold, and, yielding to his fate, allowed himself to sink.

Thus lightened, the abbé found relief by floating on his back, and permitted the stream to carry him whither it would, when suddenly through the void and stillness a sound of voices reached his ears. He turned round in the water and saw the outline of a boat gliding through the night, and heard the men who manned it chatting among themselves. He struck out till he came alongside, seized the gunwale, and in an imploring voice begged for help. One of the men, astonished, leant over and asked him who he was.

" A priest that they have just thrown in to drown."

There was a brief consultation between the boatmen, while Landeau, all a-tremble, over-heard their parley.

"Bah' said one," he's a 'black cowl.' There will be enough of his kind left."

"My friends," cried another, "if he were an enemy's dog we should not consent to let him perish. Let us save him. " 

The swimmer was forthwith grappled, drawn from the water and hoisted on board the barge, but scarcely was he seated beside the boat men than these rough men took fright at the half-dead man, dripping, shivering, and at the last gasp. Already the fame of Carrier was spreading baseness, as miasmas spread pestilence. After some debate the boatmen rowed towards the right bank, and landing, left the wretch on the sand, explaining that they had done enough for him, and that he would have to get out of the scrape without their help.

Thus left alone the abbé Landeau tried to find his bearings. In the middle of November the nights are long, and it was still very far from earliest dawn. He saw, however, that he had come to land near the hamlet of Roche Maurice, about a league down-stream from Nantes. Shivering with cold, almost naked, and fainting with hunger and weariness, the first thing he needed was to find a shelter. But to whom could he apply? Would not asking for help mean self-betrayal ?  No matter, he was at the end of his energies; approaching a hovel, he knocked, but the door remained closed. He dragged himself towards another dwelling. There his call was heard, some peasants received him with cordiality, and gave him clothes and food and seated him before a good fire. The abbé began to breathe more freely; little by little the awful nightmare faded away. 

 Dawn was approaching, what should be his next course ? The peasants who had taken him in were growing alarmed; they too were frightened. They were glad, they said, to have succoured him, and would be still more so to keep him, but the villages were infested by patriots, and the next house which he had visited first, but which luckily had not been opened to him, was inhabited by one of the most ardent of these. M. le Curé must understand that, for his own sake as much as for that of his hosts, he could not stay where he was; every one must look to his own safety, so he must leave before day-light. For that matter they would not abandon him, their daughter went every day to Nantes to take the milk of her cows ; she knew a worthy woman there, Mme. Lamy, who, like the abbé, came from Queniguen. No doubt she would be willing to shelter the priest for some days, and would busy herself with placing him in safety.

Sejourn in Nantes

The incumbent of Saint-Lyphard thanked his hosts.  They consented, out of charity, to let him keep a pair of breeches, a jacket, and some clogs; they furnished him with a basketful of vegetables and bade him adieu. Thus accoutred the priest was shown to the door, and with a wary and alert eye, trying to disguise his alarm and affecting the air of a market-gardener on his way to the city market, he took the road to Nantes.

He reached the centre of the town without mishap, was received at Mme. Lamy's at the Port-au-vin, went to earth there, and from his refuge sent a letter to one of his brothers living at Queniguen near Guérande, who came to Nantes, wearing the broad hat, the white jacket and loose breeches of the marshmen of the peninsula, to look for the incumbent, bringing with him an outfit like his own. When, in order to leave the town, they had to pass the guard. the abbé Landeau, on whom that awful night had left its mark in a morbid timidity, took alarm at seeing soldiers grouped by the door of the guard-house. He was taken with a violent trembling that he could not check; he was like to be noticed and questioned, and would not be able to answer. His brother, who had kept his full presence of mind, pretended to be taking home a drunken man. He scolded his companion, pushed him about, gave a great cut with the whip on the quarters of the mule the abbé was riding, and went off at a trot. The two fugitives thus cleared the dangerous passage without mishap.

In Queniguen -  narrowly misses being recaptured

The vicar of Saint-Lyphard spent the whole winter at Queniguen. It is a hamlet lying on the edge of salt-marshes. There he had two hiding-places, one in his brother's house, where he lay smothered under a truss of hay, and the other in a hollow west of the village. At night he went about the country bearing the consolations of his ministry to the faithful.  No one in that secluded spot had an idea of what was going on in France. Save for the patrols, who sometimes turned up unexpectedly to make a search at some farm that had been pointed out to the vigilance of the patriots, no stranger ventured into this haunt of the dead.  Often enough the abbé saw himself on the verge of being taken: he cherished an instinctive and only too well-founded terror of the '' Blues." But none the less he went all over the Guérande district, carrying consolation to the dying or sprinkling the newly born. The record of baptisms was inscribed by means of a nail on a brass plate which was buried in some field, to be recovered in better days.

One evening at Queniguen some peasants were gathered at the house of the curé's brother, to take part in a night mass which he was making ready to celebrate. He had already withdrawn the sacred vessels from their hiding-place and arranged the simple accessories, when some one took alarm at a sound of footsteps in the village. Beware! It was the Guérande National Guard. In a moment the house was surrounded; the peasants hastily put the preparations for the rite out of sight, the candlesticks returned to their place on the chimney-piece, the chalice was stowed on the top of a dresser. As for the abbé, he had rushed to the steps of the barn, reached his usual lurking-place, and slipped under the hay. The soldiers broke into the house, and called loudly for the " calotin " (frocked gentleman) they were harbouring. They rapped the walls with their butt-ends and rummaged the stable, making a great pother and threatening to burn everything. One of them, raising his eyes, saw the chalice perched on the top shelf of the dresser. What a surprise! He said nothing, but casting a glance to see that none of his comrades were watching, gave the incriminating article a shove with the tip of his musket, and hid it behind the bulge of the piece of furniture.

The search of the barn was meanwhile proceeding. The "Blues" sounded the piled-up forage with their sabres or bayonets, whose points more than once touched the fugitive. One of the soldiers discovered his presence in that way. The man slipped in among the hay, making believe to search vigorously, reached the priest, seized his arm, said in a low tone, " Don't stir," and going back to his comrades assured them there was no one there, and that nothing remained for them but to withdraw.

His return to Saint-Lyphard

The abbé Landeau was saved; but he could not reckon on the recurrence of such a piece of luck, all patriots not being so merciful as the National Guards of Guérande. For a long time he had been wishing to make his way to Saint-Lyphard, which he had not seen since his arrest in 1791. He knew that he was beloved there, and could devote himself to his parishioners without too much danger. Two brothers, Charles and Jean Deniaud, offered to receive him. The latter lived in the hamlet of Kerbriant, while the former had a small farm at Kergonan, both places scarcely a league from Saint-Lyphard, and remote from any main road.

Saint-Lyphard is a village of some importance, on the outskirt of the Grande Brière, a vast expanse of marsh, beneath which a druidical forest lies submerged, whose trees still stand unseen, buried in the slime up to their topmost boughs; and still bent, men say, by the breath of the west wind, which has not blown on them for over a thousand years. During two days only of the year the Brièrons— as the dwellers on the shore of this sea of mud are called— are authorised to rummage in the mire and dig out these tree-trunks, twelve or fifteen centuries old, and as hard and black as ebony.  During a week the people of La Brière are also licensed to extract peat from these vast swamps, which they retail in "turf," a fuel in use throughout Lower Brittany. The rest of the time the folks fish in the ponds for leeches, eels, and pike, or busy themselves with rearing geese and cattle. For La Brère is at once a sea and a grazing tract. In winter it is a lake four leagues in length and five in breadth, with little depth of water, without waves or ripples. In fine weather the soil dries somewhat, and sheep and cows can graze on it without sinking in too far. A stranger would run great risk in venturing upon this treacherous surface, but the Brièrons know its geography, and float over it with as much certainty as they can walk; so that it is not uncommon to see one of their punts apparently gliding over a green meadow, while close by comes a pedestrian, staff in hand, who seems to walk on the water. La Brière is like a congealed sea and, so to speak, without horizon. No scenery is more affecting in its melancholy; the eye is disconcerted by this boundless level, whose dimensions it cannot gauge, and which, at eventide, assumes the aspect of a disc of lead bossed here and there with the black gnarlings of heaps of peat.

On the Saint-Lyphard side, at the promontory of Pierre Fendue, it is impossible to tell where solid ground finishes and marsh begins. The "Blues," as may be imagined, did not venture on to this quaking area, which for a native well versed in its treacheries offered the safest of hiding-places. A hundred metres from the verge a man lying on the grass of this watery steppe is invisible. The abbé Goujon [Gougeon], vicar of Saint-Lyphard, who had remained in those parts since the outbreak of the Revolution, thanks to his perfect knowledge of the marsh, had thrown out all pursuers. M. Landeau was delighted to see him once more and to share his life of adventure.

Whenever the approach of a patrol was signalled they took to the marsh, made for a pile of turfs or a field of reeds, crouched there, and remained till the soldiers were gone. In winter the curé went back to the house of the brothers Deniaud, or mayhap sought a refuge less distant from La Brière. One of his parishioners, Jean Lebeau, who had sent one of his boys to the Vendean army, acted as his guide. Followed at a distance by the priest he would go up to a house, knock at the window and ask, " Are there any strange sheep in the fold ?"

Kerhinet historic village
The hamlet of Kerhinet was bought by the parc naturel régional de Brière in the 1970s.  It comprises eighteen traditional cottages, thatched with reeds, together with two abread ovens, a well and a washing place. One of the cottages has a  reconstructed 18th-century interior.

Such was the catchword agreed upon. The peasants answered "yes" or ''no" as it might be; in the latter case the door was opened, and the curé found a refuge for the night either among the hay or in the pig-shed, unless for greater safety they opened for him the double bottom of the manger, usually standing in the living room, and in which they put fodder for the beasts, who from the adjoining stable thrust their horned heads through great holes made in the panel, so as to get at the crib. Some of these old houses are still to be shown at Kerloumet in the Saint-Lyphard district.  They have huge roofs thatched with La Brière rushes, and embellished to the ridge with a pretty plant bearing pink cups and called "birds' vine." They show you also in the village, cheek by jowl with the house of the present vicar, the old vicarage in which the abbé Landeau lived, a decent old cottage built of grey stone and with narrow windows. Not seldom during the course of his roving life must he have cast a glance of regret and longing at that rustic abode which once was his own. He was destined never to enter it again.

Death of the abbé Landeau

Plate from Lenotre
The Terror had long since come to an end, but non-juring priests were still outlawed. Incessant dread, misery, and nights spent in the marsh broke down the vigorous health of the vicar of Saint-Lyphard. He died, tended by his faithful curate, at Charles Demand's on June 24, 1799, aged fifty-five. His flock, who were not unaware of his story and looked on this sole survivor of the drowning of the priests as a miracle, wished ardently to keep his remains in the village cemetery. But Kernogan, where his death took place, is in the district of Guérande, so it was to Guérande that his body would be carried and thrown into the common ditch, according to the regulations then in force. To avoid such profanation they played a last trick with the abbé in his death; they carried his corpse by night to the hamlet of Crutier, scarcely a hundred metres from Kernogan, but forming part of the Commune of Saint-Lyphard.  It was laid, so the story runs, in the bed of an old man at death's door, whom they carried off to Kernogan, where he died. The exchange having been thus effected, the common ditch of Guérande was not deprived of a body, while the cemetery of Saint-Lyphard resumed its rights to that of the abbé Landeau.  Hence it was that the death was announced at Crutier and the priest buried close to his old church. 

Tomb of the abbé Landeau
When in more recent times [in 1872] that church was pulled down and the cemetery removed they laid his honoured remains in the chapel of the new God's acre. That chapel is a sort of grotto, excavated under a bluff surmounted by a Calvary. The abbé Landeau's grave adjoins that of M. Goujon, his curate and successor. From the crest of the bluff, which you mount by a steep path, the eye ranges over the whole of La Brière, which begins at this point. The vicar of Saint-Lyphard — his memory will live as long as men remember the "noyades " of Nantes — lies on the margin of this sleeping ocean, a sea without flood, or tide, or current, as if the element to which Carrier committed his victims here shared the eternal repose of the priest whom the Loire refused to receive.

 Note: It is from the abbé Landeau's own account that the recital of these occurrences has been preserved — a narrative recorded by his nephew, of the same name, incumbent of Muzillac, and published in Notices sur les confesseurs de la foi dans le diocèse de Nantes pendant la Révolution, by the abbé Briand (vol. ii. p. 597 et seq.).


G. Lenotre, Tragic episodes of the French Revolution in Brittany (1912), p.68-82

See also:

"Julien Landeau - Recteur et Maire de Saint-Lyphard", Archives de Saint-Lyphard

Here is a blog with a nice set of photographs of Saint-Lyphard and the surrounding area:

In July 2016 the abbé Landeau was the subject of a son et lumière production created by local author Patrick Roussel.
"Saint-Lyphard sous la Révolution, Son et Lumière  30 & 31 Juillet 2016" [photos]

Monday, 11 December 2017

Lenotre on the "noyades" of Nantes

This year I have grown a little tired of Lenotre's mawkishly sentimental Christmas tales.  Instead, on an altogether more sombre theme, here are some extracts from his classic account of the "noyades de Nantes",  which took place in the winter of 1793-94.  Lenotre's text, translated into English in 1912, remains grimly evocative;  my accompanying notes are summarised  from Jean-Joël Brégeon's modern study Carrier et la Terreur nantaise (2016).

According to Brégeon, the "drownings" - one of the worst atrocities of the Terror - were not the result of a systematic plan.  They arose as "la fuite en avant", a response to complex conditions, which then took on  a momentum of their own.  By the end of 1793 the radicals of Nantes, leaded by the Jacobin proconsul, Jacques Carrier faced organisational crisis as the population of the once-prosperous port swelled with wounded and sick soldiers, republican refugees and, above all,  prisoners from the conflict in the Vendée. The illegal execution of these unwanted and pestilence-ridden "mouths" was an ever-present temptation.

The First noyade

The first victims of the noyades were a hundred and sixty refractory priests. The idea of drowning priests was not entirely novel; it had already mooted in speech by Louis Legendre in the Jacobins, who suggested loading them onto the maries-salopes of Brest and floating them out to sea. 

Following the Law of 26 August 1792, which ordered the deportation of refractories, Nantes was one of the centres in which they were concentrated for embarkation.  The majority were shipped to Spain under the protection of the revolutionary authorities;  only the old and infirm remained in Nantes.  On 25th October 1793, eighty-six detainees were transferred from the former capuchin convent to the Dutch galliot La Gloire, where they were battened down in the hold and confined in the most abject conditions.  With their allowance of 25 sous per day withdrawn, they were reduced to starvation; soon the majority were more dead than alive. Carrier, however, signalled his desire to be rid of these “foutus calotins” altogether.

A "Dutch galliot", illustration from Lenotre.  
A galliot ("galiote") was a large fishing vessel with a square mainsail and two triangular sails forward.
The galliot was moored opposed the Sécherie, a quai surrounded by private warehouses. Carrier’s lieutenant, Lamberty, secured passage through one of these warehouses in order to transfer the priests to a gabare, a flat-bottomed lighter.  A boatbuilder called Baudet was employed to insert hatches so that it could be easily scuppered, supposedly as part of a barracade to protect the harbour. Carrier himself was absent in Angers from 1st to 5th November but his complicity is confirmed by his allocation of funds for the project.

On Carrier's return, Lamberty received an order allowing him free movement with his “gabareau chargé de brigands”. (This order was to be one of the most damning pieces of evidence at Carrier’s eventual trial).

The drowning was carried out on the night of 16th-17th November.  A gunner called Wailly, on one of the pontoons guarding the bridge, testified that he was asked by eight men in a canoe to let pass the lighter which they said had on board ninety “brigands”.  When Wailly refused, the revolutionary Fouquet showed him the order signed by Carrier.  A quarter of an hour later Wailly heard noise and shouts which made him understand what had happened.  

There were three survivors of this first drowning, the rector of Corsept, a priest from the parish of Sainte-Croix in Nantes, and another whose  identity is not certain.  They were picked up by fisherman, only to be returned by the authorities to the galliot, and to perish in the second noyade.  A fourth, Julien Landeau rector of Saint-Lyphard, managed to remain at liberty and lived to leave an account.  Several bodies were washed ashore at Chantenay and Basse-Indre but were hastily buried.

The Second noyade

Again it was Lamberty who was the prime mover.  Preparations took place in a certain amount of disorder, since certain members of the local armée révolutionnaire, “ les Marats” led by Foucauld, set about robbing the ecclesiastics of their meagre personal possessions.  On the galliot  were fifty-eight priests who had arrived from Angers. Transferred to a specially adapted barge, they were taken far from the port to the entry of the estuary; opposiite the pointe d’Indret. This time there were no survivors.  The sources record unseemly quarrels over the pickings:   Foucauld himself took possession of a pair of shoes that he was still wearing at the time of the trial of the Committee; Lamberty complained vocally to Carrier and was awarded the galliot itself in compensation.

Carrier profited from the occasion of Haxo's victory over Charette to write to Paris that the priests had been engulfed by the “revolutionary torrent” of the Loire.   His letter was greeted with applause in the Convention.


The priest are transferred to the galliot La Gloire

The transfer of the priests took place on October 28th.  From the prison in the former couvent des Petits-Capucins  to the Sechérie the way was not long; the sloping gardens of the convent led down to the quay, and it was easy to avoid exposing the pitiable procession to the sympathy of passers-by…….

A mere perusal of the list of captives will enable one to imagine the descent of this band, lengthened out, according to the strength of each : their shaking heads, grey hairs, bent figures, tottering legs. One was a Capuchin of eighty, Father Kermoran ; another in the same decade. Abbé Lemercier, priest of Guérande; a vicar in Nantes, well known by the whole city, Abbé Fleuriau, seventy-nine years of age; the former rector of Gorges, M. Dugast, had also told seventy-eight years.  Two were helpless: Abbées Briand and Lamarre; while another, Abbé Leroy, though young, hobbled on two crutches. Ninety of them in all, carrying under their arms all they owned in small parcels — supporting, helping each other, urged on by the soldiers, hurried by Commissary Viau, who was in charge of the embarkation. Then the mustering of the miserable band along the quay, its difficult scramble into wherries tossed by the waves, the shocks and buffet ings, the transport in groups towards the galliot, up the sides of which awkward shapes are seen from a distance painfully mounting, to be seized by men at the bulwarks, and disappear at once, swallowed by the 'tween- decks. 

The hatches being reclosed, a guard of soldiers was placed on board the galliot. How did the priests live, packed so closely in this floating prison ? Who fed them ? There are signs to show that daring Nantais managed to slip on board and take them victuals ; it is known that at least one woman came habitually to bring food to one of the captives, and assuredly this was not an isolated instance. But officially no further mention is made of them. ….

The  noyade

On November 16th, when night had fully fallen,[Lamberty]  proceeded to the Sechérie accompanied by [his lieutenant] Fouquet. Some men of the Marat Company escorted him, for they had to beware of the soldiers, and had induced adjutant-general Boivin, commanding the town, to withdraw the guard stationed on board the galliot.  Lamberty posted a sentinel at Dame Pichot's wine-shop to watch the quay, and made off with the rest of his band.  Some moments later the hostess later testified that she saw through the night the barge gliding along the water, a broad and deep coffin, which from their “bachots", the boatmen, were guiding towards the galliot. 

They range alongside, and Fouquet, Lamberty, Foucauld, and the others climb on board. How many of them are there ? Who gave the order ? No one knows. It is impossible to unravel from the abundance of testimony how the perpetrators shared the work between them. No picture that we can form for ourselves could exceed the tragedy of that moment, the attitude of these men coming in cold blood and without instructions to commit the craftiest and most deliberate of murders upon this herd of old men, sick and crippled, whom no tribunal had condemned to death. There must have been a warder on the galliot. What pretext did they use to get him to hand over the prisoners ? No doubt a fictitious order of removal. Who had the effrontery to descend first into the 'tween-decks where the poor wretches lay, or to awake and warn them ? We only know that to avert all resistance, however improbable, they had received beforehand, in view of a fresh transfer, an invitation to place their watches, money, and whatever they valued most in the hands of the commandant. These articles, they were assured, would be given back to them at the manor-house of La Musse, at Chantenay, whither they were to be taken.  Thanks to this warning, when the captives saw Lamberty and his myrmidons appear in the 'tween-decks, they told themselves that their transfer was now going to take place. …

Lamberty brought the captives out of the 'tween-decks, two by two. They were searched/ deprived of everything of any value whatever, then tied one to another, and the couple thus trussed was let down into the barge moored alongside the galliot. Then two more were called. It was done politely, with excuses — “ merely as a precaution," they said, "and in no way to incommode them."  

In the " gabare" they fell placidly into three rows. None of them had an inkling of imminent death. Still, when M. Hervé de la Bauche, vicar of Machecoul, took his place, he drew his neighbour's attention to the fact that the flat white stones lying at the bottom of the lighter in the guise of ballast hid holes by which water entered. Another remarked that, as the craft seemed far from sound, they would do well to absolve each other. All thereupon took to their prayers and blessed each other piously. The moon, now at its full, silvered in the distance the broad face of the  river, which the ebb drew in great gurgling eddies towards the sea. 

The cargo was complete. Lamberty, O'Sullivan, and Fouquet, in order to furnish escort to the barge, ensconced themselves with several " Marats " on a wherry, and at once the moorings were severed. Gauthier and Foucaud remained on board the galliot. The heavy pine hull, carried by the retreating tide, got under weigh with the current, towing the wherry in which stood the drowners ready to direct the final manoeuvre : it was about half after midnight.  They were scarcely a few cables' lengths from the galliot when, as the barge and its pilots were passing the floating battery La Samaritaine, a peremptory challenge rung out on the bright night. It came from the deck of the battery, where sentinels were posted. A voice from the boat sent up the reply, " Commander, we are coming on board! "  

Accordingly, the master-gunner of the pontoon — his name was Vailly — saw coming towards him the boat with eight men on board, among them Fouquet and Lamberty. These two  hoisted themselves on board, and the latter, explaining that he was in charge of a barge full of brigands, asked leave to pass. Vailly replied that, embargo being the order of the day, he could let no vessel pass along the river. Fouquet became angry, threatening to cut the insolent gunner to pieces, and protesting that he and his men were authorised to pass anywhere. But Vailly obstinately demanded that such authorisation should be shown him. Lamberty at length drew from his pocket Carrier's order, and the other, on reading it, insisted no longer.^ He and Fouquet then sprang into their boat and bade the rowers catch up the barge. A moment later Vailly, still on the watch, saw the latter pass slowly in the dim light by his battery.^ No sound proceeded from this great ark, gliding down the meandering stream. Doubtless the bound priests were collecting their thoughts and praying. Borne by the stream, it floated down the river in touch with the executioners' wherry. In a few moments it had passed Trentemoult, which is on the left bank ; had left Chantenay on the right, and entered the vast basin above Chevire Island, where the river, spreading like an inlet, is 1700 feet in breadth. This was the suitable spot. 

Lamberty's men, with heavy blows from mallets, then opened the ports ;  the rushing waters burst in torrents into the barge, while at the same time they began to roar at the bottom, displacing the tufa blocks which served as ballast. From the passengers, as yet silent, a clamour arose. The hapless wretches were heard struggling and calling for help. One of the soldiers that manned the boat, being somewhat of a wag, boarded the barge and crept to the centre. The victims, now on their feet, were jostling each other, the water being already to mid-leg. Eager to add insult to the frightful death-struggle which was beginning, the man pretended to bale the water, using as scoop a chestnut-roaster full of holes. The farce over, he came up and got back to his boat which was already sheering off, so as not to be dragged down in the coming whirl, and the barge, now left to itself, logged by the infiowing waters, went its way in the night down-stream, slowly settling down as it went. She was already out of sight when, in the deep silence, a long-drawn cry arose from the horizon where her black outline was vanishing, an outcry of heartrending anguish, which suddenly died down. All was silent, extinguished, swallowed up.

The deed was done ! A few strokes of the oar brought the boat to the spot where the lighter had sunk. Here and there black forms tossed by the eddies still struggled and strove desperately. The boat gave chase to them; a few blows with boat-hooks or with the sweeps, and in a moment or two all was over. As far as eye could see nought floated on the vast reaches of the river. ... 

The drowning had gone off well, though not perfectly ; for there still remained something more to achieve. Thus he learned that three of the priests, having succeeded in undoing their bonds, had escaped death. One had been saved by a fisherman, while the current had carried the other two to the bank.  All three had been picked up by the men of the Imposant and were on board that ship, lying in Lavigne Harbour. The trouble, to be sure, was of the smallest ; the Revolutionary Committee had only to claim the three priests of Captain Laflerie, in command of the Imposant. A fellow named Racau brought them back to the galliot, and all that was necessary was to throw them back into the water next morning. More by token, Foucaud took advantage of his luck to take possession, before the plunge, of the foot- gear of one of them, and thus became master of a good pair of shoes, in which he paraded, and which long served his turn in wear.

There was another hitch more serious. Whether the ports had been too widely opened, or that, being dashed against some sandbank, the fragile hghter had been damaged, that craft had not, as was desired, retained the corpses, but, borne by the current, they were drifting at the mercy of the waves. A fisherman picked up in the tideway a book, a basket, a small box full of butter, and five hats which " lacked the tricolour cockade." ' A drowned man was found on the sand, near the Basse Indre, and instantly buried.^ Another floated as far as Lavau. At Chantenay, on November 19th, the rising tide left on shore the body of an old man about seventy-five, clad in a Capuchin habit, and six others in knee-breeches, cassocks, and black stockings. The body of a man of eighty was recognised as that of M. Fleuriau, incumbent of St. Jean at Nantes. One whom they did not succeed in identifying had the left hand torn off. The victim, seeking to rid him self of his bonds, had only mutilated himself.
These grim jetsoms were noised abroad, and Nantes was no longer ignorant of the drowning ; but as no man protested, this general silence might be taken as approbation, and from that point of view the success of the experiment was complete. 


G. Lenotre, Tragic episodes of the French Revolution in Brittany (1912)

Jean-Joël Brégeon, Carrier et la Terreur nantaise (2016)

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Genocide in the Vendée?

"En matière de terrorisme d'État, la Terreur, c'est nous qui l'avons inventée"
Patrick Buisson
[It is we (ie. the French!) who invented "state terrorism".]  

Last month, the debate over the "genocide" of the Vendee momentarily excited media attention with the appearance of a new book, La grande histoire des guerres de Vendée, by Patrick Buisson, right-wing politician and former advisor to Nicolas Sakozy.  In an interview with France Inter broadcast on 21st November, Buisson put forward his extreme view that the French Revolution must be considered the origin of all totalitarian ideologies. Barère's speech to the Convention of August 1793 was cited as evidence of a Revolutionary will to carry through a policy of systematic dehumanisation and extermination. Buisson readily compared Revolutionary violence against the population of the Vendée to the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, as well as to the Nazi  massacre of civilians at Oradour-sur-Glane. His intolocuteur, Nicolas Demorand, was at times reduced to interjecting an inarticulate, "Mais..."

Patrick Buisson on France Inter, 21st November 2017

Personally, I'm not much interested in apportioning blame for events which happened two hundred years ago;  nor do I think this sort of sweeping comparative analysis adds much to historical understanding.  Here, in English summary, are a couple of well-considered responses to Buisson's thesis. 

The first is a video intereview with Mathilde Larrère, an academic historian who specialises in the study of 19th-century Revolutions and concepts of citizenship.  She is well-known for her presence on Twitter as "la prof qui fait buzzer l'histoire".

"Un "génocide" vendéen?  Mathilde Larrère rectifie Patrick Buisson", post of 24.11.2017
@rrêt sur images, presented by  Daniel Schneidermann

Mathilde  Larrère bases her argument on the complex realities of the Revolutionary context. The Vendée was a civil war.  There were atrocious massacres and the conflict resulted in as many as 200,000 deaths.  But to speak of a Vendéan genocide is an enormous historical error.  France had been at war for almost a year and the military situation was very unfavourable; patriots were aware that defeat would mean the end of all the gains of the Revolution - civil liberty, the Rights of Man, equality, social justice. They faced armed Counter-revolution but also internal opposition, provoked by certain aspects of Revolutionary policy, notably religion.  The levée en masse brought about widespread resistance from the peasantry, but only south of the Loire did this meet with significant success.  Small local bands of rebels were able to organise; nobles, sometimes true Counter-revolutionaries,  took over leadership.  They found themselves in a position to take control of entire towns. The bleus did not have a monopoly of violence. The Vendéans also carried out "massacres", notably at Machecoul in March 1793: where 160 patriots were tortured, raped and killed.

In the discourse of the Montagnards the concept of "the Vendée" brought together disparate elements of resistance;  it was neither a geographical space nor an ethnic group, but a synonym for counter-revolution.  For Barrère it was not the inhabitants of the Vendée as such but the "brigands vendéens" which had to be destroyed. There were decrees put in place which aimed protect non-combattants and Vendéan patriots. (We should be careful too about overinterpreting the term "extermination" which was habitually used in Revolutionary rhetoric.).  The difficulty was in controlling events on the ground;  chains of command were often weak: the ill-disciplined troops of Turreau's "infernal columns" were responsible for much of the indiscriminate slaughter.  Even Westermann's notorious description of the extermination of the Vendéens -  I crushed the children under the feet of the horses, massacred the women etc. -.was not so much a statement of policy as a piece of self-justification.  At Nantes pressure from the Revolutionary Committee led to atrocious repression. The Committee of Public Safety struggled to regain control of its agents.

Don't mention Hitler! :  "Point Genocide Vendéen, Point Godwin...." 
Events in the Vendée cannot, therefore, be explained by the will of central government to exterminate a region or a race.  Rather they were the result of a power vacuum and undirected local action.  There was never an ideological project of extermination.  There was never an order to kill Vendéans as an ethnic group or a religious community, no plan to systematically destroy them.  Although larger in scale, the violence against civilians resembled that which occurred in earlier conflicts, like the Camisard revolt or the Seven Years War.

 Joseph-Jean-Félix Aubert,  Les noyades de Nantes en 1793 (1882)Musée d'art et d'histoire de Cholet  
The concept of genocide, continues Mathilde Larrère, is  founded in a long legitimist tradition of misreading, which dates back to the Restoration and to writers such as Chateaubriand.  At this time the region was covered in monuments and plaques to the dead.  The Catholic church began beatification processes for martyrs and a religious reading of events was constructed whereby the Vendée became an expiatory victim.  Memorial associations sprang up and paintings like Aubert's  Noyades de Nantes depicted Revolutionary violence.  Republics answered in similar vein, making the Republican soldiers into heroes and emphasising the massacre perpetrated by the Vendéans  at Machecoul.  In the meantime there was almost  no serious historical research.

The Massacre at Machecoul.  This Republican painting, of 1884, is also in the Musée de Cholet.  Note the sombre "feudal castle" and the extravagantly dressed royalist sympathisers.
The term "genocide" first appears after the Second World War, but at this stage only in memorials, such as the plaque in Le Mans which refers to a "holocaust".  It was with Secher's 1985 work that the term began to appear in "scientific" discourse.  Sechler never clearly defined what he meant and  was criticised for his misuse of sources, but his views attracted popular attention. He accused the university establishment of hiding facts (when academics were suspected of being gauchists) and was taken up by Philippe de Villiers  who has provided the preface to Buisson's new book. There have been repeated campaigns for formal government recognition. In the meantime, however,  competent historians, such as Jean-Clément Martin, have researched to recover the true complexity of the situation and have concluded that no, we cannot meaningfully talk of "genocide" in the Vendée

The second response is by Loris Chavanette,author of a prize-winning study of the Thermidorians,  Quatre-Vingt-Quinze. La Terreur en procès (CNRS éditions, 2017).

 "Révolution française : un historien répond à Patrick Buisson", interview  from Le Point, 23.11.17.

The starting point of this discussion is more theoretical.  In Loris Chavanette's view it is impossible to approach the subject with total historical relativism, since modern democracy is founded on the philosophical principles of the French Revolution.  Buisson's book is structured around a particular interpretation of the Revolution as "state terrorism". Thus the Revolutionary project of regeneration, which sought to free man from his past, pitted the Parisian bourgeoisie at the head of the Jacobin government against the Catholic peasantry of the Vendée, representatives of the "true France".  The  conflict was "the first ideological genocide" of history,  the Revolutionaries of Year II, "les bourreaux de la Vendée", enemies of humanity and precursors of the  mass crimes of the 20th century. 

This is not correct, says Loris Chavanette. The Revolutionaries of 1789 never theorised violence as a historical necessity. The writers of the Declaration of the Rights of Man condemned arbitrary power and were only subsequently forced into a system of political repression. Moreover, to base the meaning of the Revolution solely on a reading of the Terror of 1793 is "to throw the baby out with the bath water". The Revolutionaries themselves saw the Terror as an aberration. It was they who guillotined Robespierre, Saint-Just and above all Carrier.  In 1795 the Convention condemned the Terror, re-established liberty of religion and offered an amnesty to the rebels in the West.  

Chavanette finishes by remarking that Buisson is in particular error to draw parallels between the war in the Vendée and modern Islamic terrorism.   It is always possible to find points of similarity between instances of government-sponsored violence, but we should respect the difference between religious and politically-driven action.  Islamic terrorism attacks the premises of civilisation itself whereas the Montagnard legislators belonged to the culture of the Enlightenment.

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Dead of Le Mans

In the Vendée the passage of the years has done little to soften the bitter legacy of the Revolution. In 2008 there was a powerful reminder of past conflict when building work in the place des Jacobins, in the centre of Le Mans uncovered the communal graves of more than 150 dead from the battle of 13-14th  December 1793 in which Revolutionary forces routed the remnants of the Catholic and Royal Army. The excavation of the site by rescue archaeologists from INRAP has taken place against a background of controversy: to date the ultimate resting place of the bodies remains undecided.

Pictures of the excavations from the INRP website

Background: The Battle of Le Mans

The Battle of Le Mans took place in the final destructive phase of the War in the Vendée, the so-called Virée de Galerne, in which La Rochejacquelin led his army north in an abortive attempt to rendezvous with the English fleet at Granville, then turned back in a rapid retreat.  Having failed to cross the Loire at Angers on 4th-5th December, the royalists fell back to Le Mans which they took without difficulty on 10th December. The number entering the town is estimated at 40,000 of whom half were non-combattants. On Thursday 12th December, at about midday, a Republican army of 20-30,000 men, led by Marceau, began a counter attack. The barricades raised by the royalists resisted the Republican artillery for only a short time and the following day a general assault was launched. The blancs held up the progress of the Republican army in order to allow the retreat of the main troop towards  Laval. The urban topography, with its narrow streets,prevented a rapid evacuation and many were trapped.  The losses were enormous, perhaps as many as 10,000-15,000 dead, mostly women and children cut down as they fled, with 2-5,000 killed in the fighting, as against a hundred or so Republican casualties. Less than a month later, on 24th December 1793, the Virée de Galerne was to come to a final brutal end with the quasi-total destruction of the Catholic and Royal Army at Savenay.

Jean Sorieul, La bataille du Mans (1852) musée de la Reine-Bérengère, Le Mans
On the day after the battle, the streets of Le Mans were littered with corpses. The Republican troops had left in pursuit of the fleeing Vendéans and the muncipal authorities had already abandoned the town, leaving the population to cope with the devastation.  Fear of epidemics, but also the understandable desire to clear away traces of the conflict as soon as possible, forced them to dispose of bodies quickly. On 14th December a provision administration was nominated to take charge of the inhumations.  A report written in 1798 stated that the bodies were buried within two days in "great pits" in "various places".  Ninety-five carts carried twenty-plus bodies at any one time. The Quinconce des Jacobins was one of the sites chosen;  it probably contained victims from the fighting in the central area (place de la République/ place de l’Eperon) which took place on evening of the 12th to the evening of 13th December..

The findings of the archaeologists

The site was excavated during the course of 2009-10 and the analysis of the remains finally completed in 2016.  In all 159 individuals were uncovered in nine burial ditches, representing 5-7% of an estimated 2500-3,000 dead thought to lie within the walls of the town. The ditches were all rectangular in shape but differed in size, and above all in depth.  The number of burials in each varied from a dozen to over fifty. The evidence testifies to their hurried inhumation. The bodies were disposed of with little care, often piled on top of one another, with no distinction of age or gender. They were covered with a thick layer quicklime, testimony to fear of epidemics, but this was distributed unevenly  and in places was incomplete.

One ditch, broadly circular in shape, is distinguished from the others in that the bodies were laid out with more care, head-to-toe, on two levels.  The remains were those of adult men, with only one woman. Conjecturally, these could be Republican dead or townspeople,  but there is no supporting evidence to corroborate this conclusion.

Remnants of military uniforms have been recovered from two of the pits, including buttons of Republican origin. However, this does not provide identification as enemy uniforms were often salvaged  by the Vendéan troops.. The majority of the bodies were undoubtedly royalists, but the burials in all probability included Republican soldiers and inhabitants of the town as well.

Contemporary reports describe pillaging and massacres by Republican troops determined to "exterminate" the "brigands"; but  plundering does not seem to have taken place systematically. Vestiges of clothing suggest the bodies were at least partially clothed at the time of the inhumation and the finds included personal effects -  a purse containing change and an incised gold cross.  It could well be that fear of disease was an inhibiting factor;  the Catholic and Royal army was reputed to suffer from a form of dysentery, the fièvre brigantine.

The vast majority of individuals were mature adults;  the twenty-three "children" were mostly 10 to 14-year-olds, socially assimilable to adults.  The youngest individual was three or four years old, excluding a foetus in utero.  Men were in the majority: 70 men for 38 women (where sex can be determined).

The findings on trauma are in line with historical details of 18th-century weapons.  There were numerous wounds from blades, particularly sabres, and also impact from fire arms - different types of shot recovered suggest the use of  pistols, light artillery and grapeshoot. In general, fire arm damage was a feature of male skeletons, whereas  female skeletons were more likely to exhibited blows and sabre cuts, often on the head or legs, suggesting non-combattants fleeing the town. Many had suffered multiple wounds of considerable ferocity.

What to do with the remains?

There has been much dispute over a suitable site for reburial. Technically this decision is a government prerogative, but there has been much pressure from memorial societies such as l’Association des descendants de Chouans et de Vendéens and the Vendéens de Paris.  INRAP anthropologist Élodie Cabot, in charge of examining the remains, confessed to Figaro in June 2010 that she felt she was walking on eggshells.

From the first local politicians tended to assume that the remains were exclusively those of the Catholic and Royal Army. On 10th March 2009 the mayor of Le Mans, Jean-Claude Boulard, signalled that, if the bodies were demanded by the Vendéan families, he would not oppose their removal.  Philippe de Villiers, interviewed by Ouest-France, seconded the proposal.  In April 2009 the Catholic blog Le Salon beige also agreed that it was only just that the remains were enterred in the VendéeHowever, Cécile Bayle de Jessé,  president of the association Le Mans Virée de Galerne  pointed out the impracticality of  repatriating the remains, since historical research showed that Army at this date came from a wide area and included  Angevins, Poitevins, Bretons and Normans*.  Her association favoured  inhumation in the former chapel of the Franciscans in Le Mans itself.  Pierre Chevet, the INRAP archeologist in charge of the dig, was a lonely voice when he reiterated that it was not possible to distinguish the royalist dead with certainty.

Plaque in  memory of the "holocaust" of 15,000 victims
massacred in the Battle of Le Mans, Cour d’Assé, Le Mans
In the meantime debate was coloured by the return to the media of Reynald Secher, exponent of the war in the Vendée as "genocide". Secher reissued his 1986 book and in  2011 expanded his thesis in a new work, Vendée, du génocide au mémoricide.  In his view, the discoveries at Le Mans could only confirm the ferocity of Republican vengeance, an analysis echoed for example, in an episode of L'ombre d'un doute, broadcast in 2012, in which Franck Ferrand affirmed without qualification that "the remains are those of Vendéans, combattants of the Catholic and Royal Army" :

Following completion of archeological investigation in 2016, controversy  was renewed.  Hervé de Charette spoke in favour of creating an "ossuary for the martyrs of Le Mans" at  Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, whilst Yves Auvinet, président of the departmental Council of the Vendée, favoured the Historial de la Vendée in Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne. In February 2016, local government representatives commissioned recommendations from Élodie Cabot and from the historian Alain Gérard, an advocate of "national reconciliation". In April 2016 Gérard  came down in favour of either Saint-Florent-le-Vieil or Les Lucs. In the meantime a new society Mémoire vendéenne put forward a project for yet another lieu de mémoirethe chapelle des Alouettes at Les Herbiers.

The matter is now referred to the Ministry of Culture and Communications, and for the moment, at least, the skeletons remain in storage in the INRAP premises at Carquefou near Nantes.


Archeological findings:

INRAP website,  "Archéologie des Guerres de Vendée: les charniers des 12 et 13 décembre 1793" (last modified 19.2.2016)

Elodie Cabot, Pierre Chevet and Sylvie Duchesne,  "La bataille du Mans, apports archéo anthropologiques à l’étude des guerres de Vendée, 10-13 décembre 1793", Antropo 2012 27:p.15-22.

Elodie Cabot, "Les victimes de la bataille du Mans (12-13 décembre 1793). Apports archéo-anthropologiques" Archéopages, 2014 39: p. 32-9.

Controversy over burial:

Paul Chopelin, "Quel destin pour les ossements du Mans?" Société des Études Robespierristes website , post of 28.3.2016.

"Ossements du Mans : les choix de l'historien" Ouest-France, post of 22.4.16
"Ossements du Mans : une consultation dans l’air…", Vendéens et Chouans , post of 3.1. 2017.

General history of the Vendée

Jean-Clément Martin, La guerre de Vendée (1793-1800), Paris, Seuil, 2014.

* The geographical origins of almost 3,000 soldiers of the Catholic and Royalist Army have been studied by  Pierre Gréau in La Virée de Galerne : 18 octobre-23 décembre 1793 , Cholet, 2012