Sunday, 19 November 2017

Joseph Le Bon, Terrorist (cont.)

Le Bon, Engraving by Bonneville
Lebon was carried away with a holy fury against the inertia that bogged down Revolutionary measures.  He disbanded his tribunal and filled it with sixty bougres à poil. Those arrested were closely incarcerated.  The heads of aristocrats fell like hail.  Le Bon busied himself ceaselessly with acts of accusation....
Letter of the public prosecutor Darthé to Lebas, 19 March 1794.

In northern France by mid-1793 there was mass emigration by nobles and priests, and foreign armies were only a few miles from towns like Arras and Cambrai.  It was Le Bon who was sent as Représentant-en-mission with the daunting task of imposing government control in the area.  In August-September, following the fall of Valenciennes on 28th July, he undertook a first mission in the Pas-de-Calais and Nord, during which he conscripted 6,800 men to crush the  uprising known as the “Petite Vendée”.  

On his return to Paris he became briefly a member of the Committee of General Security but by the end of October 1793, at the instigation of the Committee of Public Safety, he returned to the Pas-de-Calais.  Following the decrees of 14 Frumaire, he enjoyed virtually unlimited powers. As well as ensuring provisioning of the army and ensuring security, he was charged with purifying the local administration - "gangrenous with indifference or moderatism" - and with carrying out the Revolutionary programme of class war and sequestration.

Place de la Comédie, Arras
Louis Jacob,  Joseph Le Bon, v2, plate IV
In March 1794 he overhauled the Revolutionary tribunal in Arras, replacing the judges, advocates and juries with his own nominees. Arrests multiplied, on Lebon's initiative, but also on that of Saint-Just and Lebas who were the representatives with the Armée du Nord. The tribunals in Arras and the frontier town of Cambrai were allowed to function autonomously even after  decree of 27 Germinal, which theoretically transferred jurisdiction over all those accused of conspiracy to Paris. The prisons filled with suspects. In Arras the guillotine occupied ithe little square in front of the new théâtre à l’italienne in the judicial quarter, where it would have been clearly visible from the Maison Robespierre.

In all 391 people were executed in Arras between February 1794 and February 1795, with a further 148 executions at Cambrai. The vast majority condemned do not seem to have been active counter-revolutionaries or political opponents but ordinary respectable citizens.  They do not even profile clearly as "class enemis":  according to Auguste Paris, of those guillotined in Arras only 88 were priests, nobles or army officers; 211 were soldiers, merchants, advocates, farmers or labourers, and 93 women, In addition, by the end of June 1794  the prisons of the Arras were bulging with 1,328 "suspects" among them Le Bon's one time ally, the former mayor Dubois de Fosseux.

MS register of persons guillotined in Arras, February 1794-February 1795.  Archives du Pas-de-Calais.

Such figures earned Le Bon a well-deserved reputation for excess and lurid stories of his blood-thirsty behaviour abounded.

His reputation for savagery was undoubtedly compounded by his sense of theatre and his flair for the unfeeling bon motCeremony and symbol were always integral to the Terror, but Le Bon used them to maximum effect.  Added to incarcerations and executions, the popular accounts are full of strangely trivial and sadistic instances of harassment:  a young woman walking on the remparts of Montreuil,  arrested because her appearance was "too elegant for a Sunday" ,  others detained (though often subsequently released) for not wearing cockades, for reading novels, for answering back too freely.  

In a review article in 1934 Georges Lefebvre, the great radical historian, gave his considered judgement.  He emphasised that Le Bon did not personally initiate all the arrests and executions, although the tribunals acted with his sanction.  The context needs to be considered:  the Revolutionary government of the region  - its origins,the role of the Representatives, their relations with the various Revolutionary bodies and the detailed functioning of the Revolutionary Tribunals; also Le Bon's relationship with the Committee of Public Safety.  

Until his entrance into the Convention and even until his second mission to the Pas-de-Calais, Le Bon showed a moderation which contrasted curiously with the violence later imputed to him. In September 1792, as mayor of Arras, he had the agents of executive power arrested; he was accused of rejecting the decree on the indivisibility of the Republic, and hesitated to allow the formation of a departmental guard.  He was also said to have wanted Louis XVI deposed rather than executed. In March 1793, like Dubois de Fosseux, he supported new elections to the Convention to deal with the Revolutionary crisis.

Even after the Law of 14 Frimaire, Le Bon operated in an anarchical situation.  Unlike Carrier, he always took care not to overstep his powers and consistently asked for advice from the Committee of Public Safety; for instance when he moved into Cambrai he did so at the demand of Saint-Just and with the approbation of the Committeee.

However, in Lefebvre's view, Le Bon had an inherently unstable personality; he agrees with Darthé that he seems suddenly to have swung into extremism:
As far as I can judge, Le Bon was energetic to the point of being impulsive and was at the same time very succeptible to the influence of his surroundings.  The incident at Beaune which brought about his expulsion from the Oratory seems proof; from this, it is possible to understand how at the end of 1793 and during Year II, he found harmony with the exalted mood of the sans-culottes.(p.171)

Did he misuse his power? Lefebvre noted that the Le Bon's thought processes need careful unravelling.  Like Saint-Just and Lebas, Le Bon feared the development of counter-revolutionary conspiracy behind the lines of the Armée du Nord.  He also prosecuted straightforward crimes: desertion or peculation.  But there was also in his mind a third category of criminal, who undermined the Revolution by words, letters, demonstrations, and also through their religious opinions;  for Le Bon, as for Saint-Just, it was  necessary to "terrorise" such elements and reduce them to inaction. How, asks Lefebre, other than by the desire to spread fear,  can the execution of old men and the arrest of young girls be explained? 

To understand is not to exonerate. Although Le Bon acted in concert with the Revolutionary tribunal, it seems clear from the experience of Representatives elswhere, that he could have used his influence to moderate its judgments. 
His disinterest and his conviction that he acted for the safety of the revolutionary nation, cannot be doubted. But the question is whether his impulsive temperament allowed him to exercise in his terrible functions, the sang-froid, the gravity, the judgment, that was required.  I doubt it and it is this which later singled him out as a scapegoat.

Georges Lefebvre,  Review of Louis Jacob, Joseph Le Bon, 1765-1795: la Terreur à la frontière.  Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 1932, No.62, p.170-6 [on JStor]

Pas-de-Calais, Histoire et patrimoine, "Quelques aspects de la Révolution dans le Département du Pas-de-Calais", 16 November 2015.
Archives du Pas-de-Calais, "Un document à l'honneur - L'Ogre et la Veuve"

Note on Biographies of Le Bon

The main source of information on Le Bon is still the overtly hostile account by Auguste Paris:

Auguste Paris, La Terreur dans le Pas-de-Calais et dans le Nord : histoire de Joseph Le Bon et des tribunaux révolutionnaires d'Arras et de Cambrai, 1864
(2 vols)

Le Bon's son Émile produced an apologetic biography and edited some of his private correspondance: 
Émile Le Bon, Joseph Le Bon dans sa vie privée et dans sa carrière politique (1861)

Louia Jacob produced a biography in the 1930s and edited Le Bon's defence from his trial.

Louis Jacob, Joseph Le Bon, 1765-1795: la Terreur à la frontière (Nord et Pas-de-Calais) 1932

Various accounts are brought together in a free e-book,  Le Conventionnel Joseph Le Bon: textes oubliés, edited by Jacques de Loris.

The only modern treatment of Le Bon in English that I have found is the chapter in Joseph F. Byrnes, Priests of the French Revolution era (2014) cited in the previous post.  This concentrates mainly on his early career.  There is a modern biography in French: Ivan Gobry, Joseph Le Bon:  La Terreur dans le nord de la France (Paris, 1991).  This is described by Brynes as "a popular text built on Paris".


Le Bon's appearance and personal style 

Plate auctioned by Mitchells of Cockermouth Cumbria in 2015.

Le Bon's passport description:
Height five feet six inches, light brown hair and eyebrows, high forehead, average nose, blue eyes, medium-sized mouth, smallpox scars
Cited in Louis Jacob, Joseph Le Bon, vol. 1, p.63

The actress Louise Fusil wrote her memoirs in 1841. She was detained at Bologne during the early part of Le Bon's mission.  After an interview with him, she was forced to attend a patriot ball with her four-year-old daughter - the proconsul was "fond of children" - but then released and allowed to travel safely to Paris. 
Joseph Le Bon was of medium height and good build;  his expression, though pleasant and agreeable, had something sly and diabolical about it.  His style of dress was almost coquettish: he wore a fine grey carmagnole jacket and brilliant white linen; the collar of his shirt was open, and he wore a deputy's sash. His hands were well manicured and they say that he wore rouge.  What a bizarre mixture of ferocity and desire to please 
Louise Fusil, Souvenirs d'une actrice, p..204.

Prud'homme wrote an early account of the "crimes" of Le Bon, published in 1797.  Here he describes  Le Bon's entrance into Cambrai surrounded by members of his "redoubtable tribunal" 
Their costumes and murderous weaponry added to their air of barbarism and to their terrifying reputation
The arrest of several women without cockades, heralded their arrival.  A house had been requisitioned and fitted out for the Representative and his entourage.  Here Lebon, stretched himself out nonchalantly in an armchair, threw his authorisation papers on the table and said, "You know me no doubt".  His lackeys meanwhile searched the room.  Everywhere they found emblems of Royalty, a harmless rosette on a light become a fleur-de-lys; an old map of England stuck behind a picture, royal arms still visible - all excited their fury and cries of"A la guillotine!". Lebon, rattling his sabre threateningly, paced the room and uttered fearful oaths and imprecations against the Administration.....(p.343-4)
Prud'homme, Histoire générale et impartiale des erreurs, des fautes et des crimes commis pendant la Révolution française (1797), vol. 2 p.343-4

The language of Terror

Once he arrived in the departments of the Nord, Le Bon seemed to be seized with a murderous monomania.  "The guillotine awaits it quarry (son gibier)" he said to  the Committee of Public Safety, and Billaud-Varenne replied, "You have unlimited powers; deploy all your energies".  Armed with this open mandate, he set to work.....He maintained an active correspondence with Paris and one remains struck with sad astonishment that an assembly which represented the government of a great country could read without indignation missives where each phrase was stained with blood.  On 26th November 1793, Le Bon wrote to the Convention: "  I am progressing in a fine manner: twenty-four hours do not pass without me sending to the Revolutionary tribunal two or three gibiers de guillotine".  The sinister word is repeated endlessly  in the dispatches of the terrorist.  "Today Mme de Moderne sneezed in the guillotine's bag; - the aristocrats resist even under the blade of the guillotine;  - these messieurs, relatives and friends of the emigres, overwhelm the guillotine;  the guillotine continues to roll at full speed in Arras;  until now you have only had miserable, thin aristocrats, tomorrow I will give you one that is big and fat, a fine head for the guillotine"
Summarised from Histoire de Joseph Le Bon, par Auguste Paris, 1864, 2 vol.
 Revue des Deux Mondes, 1873 vol. 106: 667-8.

The theatre of the guillotine 

The location of the guillotine was not judged favourable for the enjoyment of the ravishing spectacle of watching heads fall, and so the instrument of death was tranported to the Marché au poisson.  Here the facade of the theatre was well-placed;  from the balcony it was possible to preside over the executions and make speeches if necessary;  Le Bon himself accompanied the transfer of the guillotine, and, indicating with the end of his sabre the desired position, he made this sacriligious and ironic allusion :  Super hanc patram aedificabo ecclesiam me.
Related by the Arras theatre director Dupré-Nyon, but probably originating from Fréron. At his trial Le Bon denied the truth of this anecdote:
I never ordered or advised that the guillotine should be set up in one place rather than another.  I could never see it from where I lived;  it was set up permanently in Arras before I arrived. 
Quotes from Hector Fleischmann's  essay, "La comédie à Arras sous la Terreur", reproduced in Le Conventionnel Joseph Le Bon, p.233  

 Eugène Vidocq, criminal and later detective,deserted the army and fled to his native Arras in 1793, Here, according to his supposed memoirs, he witnessed the guillotine at first hand. The fact that Le Bon read an army bulletin in the middle of an execution is repeated in several sources.
 Penetrating the crowd, which was thronging in the dark and winding streets, I soon reached the fish-market. Then the first object which struck my sight was the guillotine, raising its blood-red boards above the silent multitude. An old man, whom they had just tied to the fatal plank, was the victim; suddenly I heard the sound of trumpets. On a high place which overlooked the orchestra, was seated a man, still young, clad in a Carmagnole of black and blue stripes. This person, whose appearance announced monastic rather than military habits, was leaning carelessly on a cavalry sabre, the large hilt of which represented the Cap of Liberty; a row of pistols ornamented his girdle, and his hat, turned up in the Spanish fashion, was surmounted by a large tri-coloured cockade: I recognised Joseph Lebon. At this moment his mean countenance was animated with a horrid smile; he paused from beating time with his left foot; the trumpets stopped; he made a signal, and the old man was placed under the blade. A sort of clerk, half drunk, then appeared at the side of the " avenger of the people," and read with a hoarse voice a bulletin of the army of the Rhine and Moselle. At each paragraph the orchestra sounded a chord; and when the reading was concluded, the head of the wretched old man was stricken off amidst shouts of "Vive la republique!" repeated by the satellites of the ferocious Lebon. I shall never forget, nor can I adequately depict the impression of this horrible sight. I reached my father's house almost as lifeless as the miserable being whose agony had been so cruelly prolonged; and then I learnt that he was M. de Mongon, the old commandant of the citadel, condemned as an aristocrat.
Memoirs of Eugène Vidocq (1829) p.21

Le Bon addresses an individual about to be guillotined in Arras
plate from  Prudhomme's Histoire générale et impartiale des erreurs.

From the Memoirs of an Englishwoman living in Arras at the time of the Terror. 

I have already noticed the cruel and ferocious temper of Le Bon, and the massacres of his tribunals are already well known...
As he was one day enjoying his customary amusement of superintending an execution, where several had already suffered, one of the victims having, from very natural emotion, averted his eyes while he placed his body in the posture required, the executioner perceived it, and going to the sack which contained the heads of those just sacrificed, took one out, and with the most horrible imprecations obliged the unhappy wretch to kiss it:  yet Le Bon not only permitted, but sanctioned this, by dining daily with the hangman.....

When any of his colleagues passed through Arras, he always proposed their joining with him in a "partie de Guillotine", and the executions were perpetrated on a small square at Arras, rather than the great one, that he, his wife, and relations, might more commodiously enjoy the spectacle from the balcony of the theatre, where they took their coffee, attended by a band of music, which played while his human butchery lasted.
 A Residence in France during the years 1792, 1793, 1794 and 1795 (New York, 1798), p.136-7; the author is identified as Charlotte Biggs (d.1827).

We saw you in Cambrai, surrounded by your barbarous band of fellow assassins,  stretch yourself out like a ferocious sultan on a large armchair at one end of the table;  and opposite you was the executioner....He set the tone for the company;  you laughed, you provided a chorus of laughter for his bloodthirsty jokes, and during the whole meal you talked only of the guillotine, and the facility of the executioner."
A.-B.-J. Guffroy, Les Secrets de Joseph Le Bon... ; p.173-4. 

[At his trial Le Bon admitted that the Arras executioner, Pierre-Joseph Outredebanque, had been one of the party which travelled from Arras to Cambrai and that he had been allowed to share their table despite "a certain repugnance".  But he categorically denied that he ever had dinner with him in Arras.]

One holiday, Lebon took himself to the execution site, where, thanks to his barbaric tast, an orchestra played next to the scaffold.  "Young ladies, he said to those there, do not always listen to your mothers;  follow the voice of nature and abandon yourselves to the arms of your lovers."
As a result of his suggestions, a troup of young children gave themselves over to the most licentious conduct.  Their atheism and neglect of duty earned them the monstrous praise of the Proconsul.....Already familiar with blood, some of them had little guillotines with which they amused themselves executing birds and mice....
Prud'homme, p.350-51.

Le Bon's victims

Of what crimes were they guilty, these miserable people that the machine dispatched by the dozen?  The records of the tribunal of Arras still exist for us to find out. A brave peasant shelters the servant of a curé; another "claims to avoid the services of Constitutional priests"...; another has said "He who laughs last laughs longest".   Joseph Delattre, "speaks to no-one and fears no-one"; Mme de Monaldy "devalues assignats".  To the guillotine! said Joseph Le Bon, to the guillotine!  Louise Fouquart, seated at her door, nurses a baby of three months. An official notes that she is not wearing a cockade, an offence punishable by guillotining.  You have guillotined plenty of others, she replies.  That night the head of the miserable mother fell beneath the blade of the guillotine.  Le Bon's deputy Carlier, who was present, remarked that it was amusing to see milk flow at the same time as blood.
Summarised from Histoire de Joseph Le Bon, par Auguste Paris, 1864,2 vol.
 Revue des Deux Mondes, 1873 vol. 106: 667-8.

 Lebon only wanted a dozen families to remain in Cambrai.  This would be enough in his view to sustain the town

p.350.   Lebon, to deter petitioners, had a notice put on his door:  "All those who come to request the release of detainees will be sent to prison themselves".  And indeed, all those who tried to do so, suffered this fate.
Prud'homme, p.348/ 350 

 St. Vincent dePaul Image Archive
Citizen Fontaine is condemned as a pious anti-revolutionary, who kept hidden under a heap of straw a pile of brochures and newspapers imbued with the most unbridled royalist spirit, who has further refused the oath, and who has even insulted the district commissioners by saying that there are no more devils left in hell since they are all busy on earth.  Citizens Gérard, Lanel and Fantou are sentenced as her accomplices.
Condemnation of Mother Madeleine Fontaine, of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, aged 71, executed with three of her nuns in Cambrai in June 1794.  The nuns, who went to the guillotine singing “Ave Maris Stella” , were beatified in 1920.

The Popular Society was chosen to vet those detained in the prisons.  They constructed an elevated walkway where the prisoners were paraded.  Le Bon presiding, asked members of the Society to identify those who were rich, noble or the agent of an emigre... They acknowledged the social virtues of citizen Landa, but unfortunately he was rich: bring me ce bougre-la, said Le Bon.   The Proconsul asked a priest to make him see the devil.  Nuns were addressed in obscene language.  Young girls were charged with aristocracy becanse they were too modest to attend the orgies in the Temple of Reason....
Prud'homme, p.365

The author of the History of the Prisons gives the finishing touch, by the following traits, to the hideous picture of the barbarity of Lebon and his creatures towards the defenceless sex:
A woman named Duvigne was walking for the benefit of her health on the ramparts of Arras, in company with her daughter. They were reading the novel of Clarissa Harlowe. Lebon perceived them, and at first fired a pistol to alarm them. He then approached them, and commanded the mother to give him the book which she was reading. Her daughter remarked that there was nothing of a suspicious nature in it; whereupon he struck at her with his clenched fist, and knocked her down. He afterwards searched the workbags of both, but, finding nothing suspicious in them, he forced the daughter to undress herself, in order that he might make a stricter search. After having placed her in the most indecent situation, he degraded his character to such a degree as to conduct these females to prison himself. As, however, they were without reproach, he was obliged to release them the next day.
A young girl who did not know Joseph Lebon, met him. He asked her whither she was going?' What is that to you?' she replied. The proconsul felt indignant that he should be treated with so little respect. The consequence was, that the girl herself, her father, mother, and brothers, were incarcerated the next day, and all of them were condemned to death and executed.

He had a young girl of seventeen years of age publicly exposed for not having danced with the patriots. She was then in prison.

He published a decree prohibiting women and girls from decorating themselves on Sunday, under pain of imprisonment. He decreed, at the same time, that the houses of the municipal officers who should not see to the execution of his will should be razed to the ground.
Note from Louis-Eugène Poirier, Horrors of the prisons of Arras. 

A Revolutionary vision

The theatre, instead of being a brilliant foyer of patriotism and a gathering place for virtue, seems plunged in the obscenity and triviality of the Ancien regime.  At the very moment when citizens should be fired up with the love of liberty, they are invited to performances of Les Fouberies de Scapin etc.  This will happen no longer!
Declaration of Le Bon (quoted by Fleischmann)

The town theatre was soon submitted to his surveillance;  he established himself as censor of dramatic works, and disfigured them by the cuts he made...He would often arrive in the middle of a play, throw himself on the stage, draw his sabre and wave it furiously.  The audience soon departed from the arena of this gladiator.  He habitually filled the interval with discourses to the people on the Agrarian Law and the education of children.....
Prud'homme, p.352

The Agrarian law was the attraction he used to woo his Popular Society.  "San-culottes, he cries, you have lived in hovels long enough; you shall have the beautiful hotels of guillotined aristocrats. Finding the Revolutionary law too lenient...he incited the people to inform :

"Saus-culottes," said he one day, "fear not to denounce, if you wish to leave cottages. It is for you the guillotine acts. Without the guillotine you would die of hunger.  The Sans-culottes will take the place of the rich" 
Prud'homme, p.353.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Joseph Le Bon, the making of a Terrorist

What complex mixture of circumstance, conviction and psychology went into the making of a Terrorist?  Joseph Le Bon, former priest and notorious buveur de sang, orchestrated the Terror in the Pas-de-Calais.  As with so many Revolutionaries, there is little in his early history to presage his later extremism.

Le Bon's pre-Revolutionary career

Le Bon the young Revolutionary: a romanticised
 19th-century engraving by Delpech
Guislain-François-Joseph Le Bon (or Lebon), like Robespierre a native of Arras, was born in the parish of Saint-Aubert on 25th September 1765.  His father was a minor legal officer in the Conseil d'Artois.  Like Robespierre too, he was educated at the local Oratorian college, then, having decided on a religious vocation, he completed a year's novitiate at the famous Collège de Juilly in Paris.  In October 1783 he was sent to teach at the Oratorian college in Beaune, where he became Professor of Rhetoric in 1789.  He was ordained a priest (auspicious enough by Talleyrand) in Christmas 1789.

Le Bon's 19th-century biographer Auguste Paris* records a couple of recollections from his college days. According to one - possibly authentic - memory, the youthful Le Bon was volatile in mood, sometimes  "silent and withdrawn as a Carthusian", at other times wildly gay and voluble.  The second witness, a former professor from Juilly, conceded that he possessed a good memory and was an able orator, not without judgement and taste, though too vain to be liked by his fellows.(p.7-8)  By all accounts he was a successful schoolmaster:  at Beaune he taught the various age groups "in a brilliant manner"  and was adored by his pupils "to the point of fanaticism" (letter cited p.8).  Those who knew him at this time agree that he was "devoted to his state, submissive to the rule and sincerely religious" (p.9)  Shortly after ordination, he even aspired to become a missionary.  From the first his religious outlook was coloured by the Rousseauism of the age.  To a young correspondant he commended virtue based on duty and attention to the love and mercy of God, rather than ostentatious displays of piety.  Throughout 1790 he continued to sign himself "Priest of Jesus Christ".
*Auguste Paris, La Terreur dans le Pas-de-Calais et dans le Nord : histoire de Joseph Le Bon et des tribunaux révolutionnaires d'Arras et de Cambrai,  vol. 11864

The Constitutional Priest

Although at first first critical of local Revolutionary activities, Le Bon was soon won over to enthusiastic support.   A personal turning point came in May 1790 when, with his encouragement, a group of students from Beaune absconded to Dijon to take part in a patriotic festival.  Faced with a reprimand, he  threatened to leave the order and tore off his distinctive Oratorian collar in a fit of temper.  He later retracted but on 9th June he was excluded from the Oratory.

 Auguste Paris quotes a letter of Le Bon dated 4th June 1790.  Awaiting the verdict of the Oratorian Fathers he affirms his continuing affection for "a Congregation where I have always drawn the principles of justice and wisdom". However, slightly more ominously, he asserts that his primary allegiance is to "virtue": 
Alone  with God and my conscience, I only feel more clearly, that virtue is the greatest good, and fortune has no hold over a true Christian.  At all times, virtuous men have been the victims of persecution. (cited Paris, p.6)

By this time he was heavily involved in Revolutionary politics.  He became an influential member of Beaune's Society of the Friends of the Constitution and hoped to be elected to the Legislative Assembly.  Meanwhile at the end of May 1791 he took the oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and was named constitutional priest for Levernois.  Under pressure from his family (his mother, already unstable, reacted hysterically to his oath-taking), he accepted the living of Neuville-Vitasse a short distance south of Arras.  By all accounts, he found the cure of souls little to his taste and spent most of his time reading, writing or preaching politics.

Le Bon seems to have shown notable tolerance and good humour in dealing with his refractory predecessor, Martin Lebas, who continued to live among his former parishioners.  He told him they were both priests:  
"It matters little to the Supreme Being that we do not agree over words, provided we both strive to glorify Him by our conduct"; 
"People are entitled to their own viewpoints: we cannot force anyone's belief;  persuasion, not force, brings people to truth" (See Bryne for the quotes).

By summer 1792 he was denying the sacraments and doubting the utility of the priesthood altogether: 
I am not unhopeful that I can lead my parishioners to pray directly to the Divinity, without the perfidious and funeste aid of any priesthood.  
At about this time he put aside his soutane and began wearing a wig.

Nonetheless, at his trial Le Bon emphatically refuted the charge of promoting atheism:  
I have always distinguished between the Divinity and the priesthood;  I have found the majority of revolutionary maxims in the Gospels, which, from beginning to end, preach against riches and priests 
(quoted Louis Jacob, Joseph LeBon, vol. 2, p.96-7).

The Revolutionary

Portrait of Le Bon(?) by Dominique
Doncre, Musée Carnavalet
From August 1791 Le Bon was active in the Society of the Friends of the Constitution in Arras and became known as a leader among the Arras radicals. Throughout his career he was a close ally of Robespierre.

By 1790 Robespierre already knew him well enough to address him with the familiar "tu".  In a letter dated 4 June 1791, found among Robespierre's posthumous papers, Le Bon calls him "mon brave ami", asking him to present to the Assembly the case for ecclesiastical marrage and the abandonment of distinguishing clerical dress.

During his trip to Arras in the Autumn of 1791 Robespierre and his brother dined with Le Bon at Neuville-Vitasse.  The coincidence of views between the two men is clear.  According to one anecdote, their intense discussion of politics was not to Augustin Robespierre's taste (McPhee, Robespierre, p.105-6;  Paris, vol. 1, p.39).  

On 5th November 1792, Le Bon married his cousin Marie-Élisabeth-Joseph Régniez. 

In September 1792, he was elected as a substitute to the Convention and took up the post of mayor of Arras in a purged municipal administration.  He was subsequently elected administrator of the Department. In June 1793,  following the arrest of the Girondin Antoine-Guillain Magniez, he finally took his seat in the National Convention as a deputy.

To be continued.


Joseph F. Byrnes, Priests of the French Revolution: saints and renegades in a new political era (2014), p.137-142

"Qui était réellement Joseph Le Bon ?", ARBR, post dated 3 May 2017

Pas-de-Calais, Archives, "25 septembre 1765 : naissance de Joseph Lebon, député du Pas-de-Calais à la Convention nationale",  post dated 20 September 2017

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Robespierre, bird lover

Robespierre's fondness for birds, throughout his life, is a trivial but telling piece of evidence for his essential gentleness. Without the all-invasive trajectory of the Revolution, so at least the theory goes,  there might have been a different Robespierre, a private man enjoying ordinary 18th-century pleasures, rearing his birds in the back garden. 

The birds of his childhood

.According to the vicious pen of the abbé Proyart, Robespierre from earliest childhood preferred birds to people:"Pigeons and sparrows, which he kept in an aviary, were his one pleasure;  he was with them ceaselessly in his moments of recreation" (La Vie et les crimes de Robespierre, p.4).  His sister Charlotte, however, used the birds to insist on his caring character. In a famous anecdote she related how Robespierre had been given the sparrows and pigeonswhilst living with his grandparents in the rue Ronville; during his sisters' visits he would place them very gently into their cupped hands.  Charlotte and Henriette once asked to borrow one of these birds, care for it at their aunts' house and return it safely the following week.  Robespierre was hesitant, but they were persistent, begging, promising to look after it, so he agreed.  Inevitably, the bird was left in the garden, a storm blew up and it died.  Robespierre was furious:  "At the news of this death, Maximilien’s tears flowed, he piled reproaches on us that we had only too well merited, and swore that he would no more confer any of his dear pigeons on us." He was as good as his word, for when he went away to school,  he duly entrusted his birds to "a person from whom he did not fear the same negligence".

A gift of canaries

In the famous Lettre des serins, of 22 January 1782,  Robespierre gallantly thanked Charlotte's friends, Mademoiselle Dehay, for the gift of three, unexpectedly spirited, canaries. 

 I have the honour of sending you a report upon an interesting subject. Such homage may be rendered to the Graces themselves when to their other fascinations they join the gift of being able to think and feel, and when they are alike worthy of conferring happiness and of mourning disaster.
Talking of so important a subject, shall I be pardoned, Mademoiselle, if I speak of canaries?  No doubt I shall be if the canaries are interesting; and coming from you, could they fail to be? They are very pretty, and, being bred by yourself, we expected them to be the most gentle and sociable of canaries.  What was our surprise when, upon approaching the cage, they threw themselves against the bars with an impetus which made us fear for their lives!  They recommence this performance every time they see the hand that feeds them.  What plan of education did you adopt for them, and how have they acquired this savage character?  Do the doves that the Graces rear for the chariot of Venus display this wild temperament?  Such a face as yours should surely have familiarized without difficulty your canaries with the human face.   Or is it that, after seeing yours, they cannot tolerate any other?  I beg of you to explain this phenomenon.  Meanwhile, with all their faults, we shall always find them lovable.  My sister begs me to express her thanks for your kindness in sending her this present, and to assure you of the affection with which you have inspired her.
 I am, with respect, Mademoiselle, your very humble and very obedient servant,
De Robespierre.
Arras, June 22, 1782.

The manuscript of the letter, which had formed part of the collection of the English poet and politician, Richard Monckton Milnes (1809-1885), was sold by Christie's in Paris in 2011,  The French Ministry of Culture exercised its right of pre-emption and the town of Arras, with the aid of the National Archives, purchased it for 12, 500 euros.  It is now housed in the médiathèque in the palais Saint-Vaast.

Christie's, Paris. Sale of 29 November 2011.  Lot 136:  Robespierre, autographed letter.

Valérie Oddos, "Une lettre galante de Robespierre acquise par la ville d'Arras", CultureBoxFranceTVInfo, post of  6 December 2011.

Birds of the Revolutionary years

According to police report of 1790 or 1791, Robespierre remained "un grand amoureux des pigeons";  whose eyes would water when there was talk of shooting birds as game.  He shared his interest with Humbert in the rue Saintonge:
This friend is a great love of birds, as is M. de Robespierre;  they have raised several hundred birds in a fine aviary; these gentlemen are skilled bird-keepers even if they are not deputies of the first rank

The presence of birds is also attested at the Duplay's house. Robespierre's room contained, according to John Millingen, "several cages of singing birds".

Robespierre's parrot

 Robespierre is known to have owned an Indonesian parrot, a lori or perroquet tricolore, called Jacquot,  said to have been given to him as a baptism present, and which he kept with him in the rue Saint-Honoré.   Parrots are well-known for their longevity: after Robespierre's execution, the parrot was rescued by Elisabeth Lebas  and outlived its master by many years.  Here are the recollections of her neighbour, the doctor Amédée Latour:

I was able to converse between 1838 and 1839 with a  famous parrot who had been the friend of Robespierre. He belonged to Mme the widow Lebas...whom I had the honour of seeing often in her little house in Fontenay-aux-Roses, where she would make the sign of the cross when she pronounced the name Robespierre...As to her parrot, when one said "Robespierre", it replied Hats off !  Hats off! (Chapeau bas!  chapeau bas!)  It sang the Marseillaise with perfect diction and Ça ira  like a Jacobin.  It was - and perhaps, thanks to its diet of grain, still is - a parrot sans-culotte , the like of which can no longer to be found. Mme Lebas recounted  with great emotion how she had managed to save this precious psittacus  after Thermidor.  It had been seriously compromised.  After the arrest of Robespierre and Lebas, in the course of a long domiciliary inspection,  every time the name of Robespierre was pronouned the parrot would repeat its refrain, Hats off ! Hats off! The government agents had grown impatient and were about to wring its neck, when Mme Lebas, as quick as lightning,  grabbed the bird,opened the window and set it free.  The poor parrot flew from window to window, until it found a charitable person to open up for it; a few days later Madame Lebas was able to regain possession of this last friend left to her by Robespierre, the only one perhaps, besides his elderly mistress, who has remained faithful to his memory.
Anecdote from the journal  L'Union médicale, 1861

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Robespierre in the rue de Saintonge

View of 64 rue de Saintonge, from Google Maps

From October 1789, when the Assembly moved from Versailles to Paris, until July 1791 Robespierre lodged with his friend Humbert in the rue de  Saintonge, a long street which crosses the northern part of the Marais near the Temple.  This was a distance of two miles to the Assembly, a long trudge on foot though fairly swiftly accomplished in a horse-drawn cab.

Very little at all is known about Robespierre's domestic arrangements at this time: even the exact address is uncertain:  In a letter to Buissart, received by him on 9th November 1789, Robespierre informed his correspondent in Arras that his new Parisian address was "Rue Saintonge au Marais, chez M. Humbert, no.30" . It was also to this address that Augustin Robespierre wrote on 20 April 1790.  On the other hand, on 9th August 1791, in his appearance before the tribunal of the VIth Arrondissement, Robespierre gave his address as no. 8 rue de Saintonge. The consensus is that no. 30 and no. 8 were probably in fact the same house, renumbered in the course of the administrative reorganisation of the capital.

Robespierre's biographer Gérard Walter, who visited the house in 1936, conjectured that the room occupied by Robespierre was probably on the third floor, with two large windows opening onto the street.  

According to Charlotte Robespierre, the two friends rarely saw each other and both led a bachelor existence:

When the Constituent Assembly had transferred from Versailles to Paris, after the events of 5 and 6 October, Maximilien and a young man from among his friends whom he liked a lot rented a very modest apartment in the rue Saintonge, in the Marais. This young man had occupations which obliged him to leave early in the morning and kept him out very late, so that he and my brother sometimes went several days without seeing each other. Their household was that of two boys who are almost never home, and who eat in restaurants. Maximilien attended the sessions of the Constituent and the society of the Jacobins, which was called then the society of the friends of the Constitution, assiduously. He enjoyed the pleasure of going to spectacles but rarely.

Almost all the other evidence for Robespierre's private life at this time comes from the memoirs of Pierre Villiers, a penurious journalist and playwright, who claimed to have been Robespierre's unpaid secretary for seven months in 1790 in the rue de Saintonge (He gives the address inaccurately, as no.9, "chez un nommé Imbault" ) Villiers's account, published in 1802, has often been dismissed as unreliable, and it is true that his portrait is influenced by hostile sources, notably the abbé Proyart's La Vie et les crimes de Robespierre.  Nonetheless the details he gives, particularly of the documents with which he dealt, are temptingly circumstantial. Hervé Leuwers notes that that Villiers could well have been in Paris up until November 1790 when he set up his paper Courrier de la Scarpe in Douai.  He also accurately recorded a second visit to Paris by Augustin Robespierre, who, as their correspondence testifies,  lived with his brother in the rue de Saintonge from September 1790 to about March 1791. (Leuwers, Robespierre, p.137)

It is to Villiers that we owe the unverified tales of Robespierre's poverty, his borrowed mourning suit, his nosebleeds, and, above all that tantalising legend of a mistress of twenty-six who adored Robespierre but "whom he treated badly".  Villiers also has a nice, but almost certainly apocryphal, account of an occasion when Robespierre's cab to the Assembly was held up by  a crowd bearing a model of the Bastille: "Pay, said Robespierre and let us get down and go on foot.  A Bastille, all the Bastilles in the world, will not hinder me from going to my post."

Robespierre's friend Humbert

Claude-François Humbert was a native of Vesoul in Haute-Saône,  a merchant, landowner and old school friend of Robespierre's.  He is listed among the members of the Jacobin Club in December 1790 and, according to the Almanach royal for 1792, was commander of the 8th Battalion of the 3rd Legion of the National Guard, "Les Enfants Rouges", stationed in the rue de Saintonge.  Augustin Robespierre later stayed in the house of his brother, a procurateur in Vesoul.  In March 1794 Humbert famously hosted the dinner organised  by Villain d'Aubigny in an attempt to bring about the reconciliation of Robespierre and Danton. (Guests also included Desforges, Legendre and Panis.)

In 1794 Humbert took office as chief of the Financial Bureau for the Department of Foreign Affairs.  A 19th-century history of the Department supplies a few more details:

The successor to Maindouze in the bureau des Fonds was a certain Claude-François Humbert, who had no other qualification than his close friendship with Robespierre.  It was in his house, in the rue de Saintonge, in the Marais, that Robespierre had lodged when he arrived from Versailles. Humbert, was born in Vesoul (Haute-Saône) in 1753, graduated in 1773 entered finance in 1774, and retired in 1786.  From this time on, he dealt in wood and coal and cultivated his lands.  At the beginning of the Revolution he joined the Society of the Friends of the Constitution, where he did not himself play a significant role, but where he established links with most of the prominent men of the Revolutionary party.  It was thus that he was chosen at the end of Ventôse Year II (March 1794) to host the reconciliation between Danton and Robespierre.  This dinner did not, however,  bring about the desired outcome:  "Robespierre stayed as cold as marble" and he remained just as intent upon the sacrifice of Danton.  Humbert, named chief of the Fonds on 1st October 1793 was forced to resign on 26th November 1794.  He claimed that had only accepted the position temporarily out of zeal.
His passport described him as : height five feet six inches, light brown hair and eyebrows, grey eyes, aquiline nose, medium sized mouth, round chin with a cleft.
Frédéric MassonLe Département des affaires étrangères pendant la révolution, 1787-1804 (1877) p. 293

Accounts of the financial arrangement between the two men differ.  Whilst Robespierre's sister implies that  the pair shared the house on equal terms, most sources suggest Humbert, who was presumably well-to-do,  was the official tenant and Robespierre lodged with him.  According to Fréron, the impecunious Robespierre received board and lodging from Humbert without ever paying; he never rendered him any service and in the last six months of his life even refused him entrance to his door.

The house after Robespierre's time

Ernest Hamel, writing in 1865, identified the house with no. 64 rue de Saintonge.  In 1936 Gérard Walter discovered the house empty and in a "worse than lamentable" state, awaiting demolition: 

Anyone who takes the trouble to go inside, will soon see that a hundred and fifty years ago at the time of Robespierre it was a fine house.  The first two floors consisted of large apartments with vast rooms, high-ceilinged and well-lit, the preserve no doubt of well-to-do tenants.  On the third floor were small two-room lodgings, one of which was Robespierre's.  

Let us go in and take a look. The last tenant left six years ago.  The rooms are empty, the fireplaces covered in dust, the wallpaper torn and hanging from the walls.  The floor moves and creaks beneath our feet.  But the two large windows looking out onto the street, let in the same sunlight which greeted Robespierre in the mornings.  Opening them, it is possible to see the top of the Porte Saint-Martin and, over the rooftops in the other direction, the Porte Saint-Denis.   The room is large and rectangular.  It is uncontestably more comfortable and airy than the one he occupied later at the Duplays.  A narrow dark corridor leads to a minute kitchen.  Next to it is a second room which faces onto the courtyard at the back (a little square with a single outbuilding).  This room is small and does not communicate directly with the first one. 
Walter, Robespierre, 1961 ed., p.136-7.

 Today the site is occupied by a modern post office. Some idea of the original appearance can be gleaned from the  two elegant, if run-down, 18th-century buildings on either side (no.62 and 66).


Pierre Villiers, Souvenirs d'un deporté (1802), p.1-6

Stanislas Fréron, "Notes sur Robespierre",  Papiers inédits trouvés chez Robespierre.... vol. 1 (1828).

Georges Michon, "La Maison de Robespierre, rue de Saintonge, à Paris", Annales historiques de la Révolution française, 1ère Année, No. 1 (Janvier-Février 1924), pp. 64-6.[Article on JStor]