Sir Edward Spears tells the story of Winston Churchill in a bathrobe bursting on a group of French officers in the breakfast room of the Château du Muguet early in the morning of June 12, 1940, when the French and British governments were about to meet in a desperate effort to stop the fall of France: “An apparition which they said resembled an angry Japanese genie, in long, flowing red silk kimono over other similar but white garments, girdled with a white belt of like material, stood there, sparse hair on end, and said with every sign of anger: ‘Uh ay ma bain?’ ” There was something reassuring about the bad French. Civilization may have been hanging in the balance, but the prime minister wanted his bath.
English French often has a refreshing, no-nonsense quality to it. In fact, French history with an English accent can be more original than the native variety. It tends to be ironic and empirical, well informed and disabused, attentive to facts and suspicious of theory, especially the fashionable theories that drift across the Channel from the Left Bank.
Of course, the British response to France has been too complex to fit into a single pattern. After Burke and Carlyle had taught generations of Englishmen how to disapprove of French history, Richard Cobb and Theodore Zeldin showed them how to identify with it. But between those extremes runs a strain of professionalism that has been especially influential for the understanding of the French Revolution, whether viewed from the right, as in the work of Alfred Cobban, or from the left, as in the writings of George Rudé.
This strain goes back to J.M. Thompson (1878-1956), a clergyman turned don, who left his mark on a distinguished line of historians trained in Oxford: Norman Hampson, Richard Cobb, John McManners, Albert Goodwin, and John Roberts. Thompson insisted that his students stick close to the evidence, a key term in the British historian’s lexicon, which the French sometimes misread as positivisme. Although he never ventured into the archives and rarely even crossed the Channel, Thompson published a documentary history of the French Revolution that became an almost Biblical text in Oxford. His influence is still felt in questions that he set for tutorials and that have been handed down from tutor to tutor for half a century: Why did the Revolution break out in July 1789? Why did the attempt to create a constitutional monarchy fail? What was the difference between the Girondins and the Montagnards?
Norman Hampson inherited those questions and dealt with them so successfully in a series of books and articles that he now stands at the head of Thompson’s line of descendants. His latest book, Will & Circumstance: Montesquieu, Rousseau and the French Revolution, shows the English historical intelligence at its best. It addresses a classic problem: what was the connection between the ideas of the Enlightenment and the politics of the Revolution? In order to reduce the problem to manageable proportions, Hampson limited his inquiry to political theory and restricted the theorists to two: Montesquieu and Rousseau. Then he selected four revolutionaries—Brissot, Marat, Robespierre, and Saint-Just—and surveyed their writings, looking for influences of the philosophes before and after the outbreak of the Revolution.
This procedure could of course seem arbitrary. The ideas of two philosophers refracted through the pronouncements of four politicians might represent only a fraction of revolutionary ideology; and in cutting his subject down to size Hampson might have trimmed all the flesh off it. But he turns those objections aside with disarming frankness in his preface. He is a historian, not a theorist, he explains. Better to leave discourse on method to the French and get on with the story. It is a good story, so well told that we want to sit back and enjoy the ride.
In Part I, we cruise through the works of Montesquieu and Rousseau. Hampson identifies the former with the first of his two master themes, “circumstance”—that is, a sociological view of politics, which concentrates on the constraints in every system yet allows for enough play between contending institutions to leave room for liberty. Rousseau represents the counter theme of “will”—a determination to bring about social justice by making conditions conform with principles, even if it should come to forcing men to be free. According to this formulation, Montesquieu inspired the moderate, constitutional phase of the French Revolution (1789-1791) and Rousseau provided the ideology of the Terror (1793-1794).
This is a familiar version of eighteenth-century political thought, which owes much to lessons learned in the twentieth century. As developed by J.L. Talmon and others, it makes Montesquieu into the founder of liberalism and Rousseau into a prophet of socialism or even totalitarianism. Hampson does not conceal his indebtedness to Talmon or his worries about “recent political controversies in England.” He writes as an unrepentant liberal, with no nonsense about engagement vs. value-free Wissenschaft or other Continental notions.
Yet he peppers the story with so many amusing details that it retains its eighteenth-century flavor. It never falls into a simple formula, because Hampson finds an admixture of determinism and voluntarism in each of his philosophers and mixed versions of their philosophies in all of his politicians. In fact the permutations and combinations accumulate so rapidly that all distinctions blur, and the variations of revolutionary ideology appear as much of a muchness.
The blurring begins in Part II, where Hampson sketches the careers of his revolutionaries up to 1789, treating them collectively as “spokesmen for their generation.” Unfortunately, he does not question the concept of a generation, although it is a very loose idea that has touched off some important theoretical discussion.1 His quartet certainly did not belong to the same age group. Marat, the oldest, was twenty-four years older than Saint-Just, the youngest. In fact, Saint-Just was too young to have had a prerevolutionary career at all. Hampson therefore dropped him from Part II and inserted the writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier in his place. Mercier did not become a leader of the Revolution, however, so he had to be jettisoned in Part III, which concerns the revolutionary era, and Saint-Just took over his slot. This juggling somewhat spoils the before-and-after comparisons of Parts II and III; and it does not strengthen the generational argument, because Mercier does not fit in with the other three. He was born in 1740, eighteen years before Robespierre and fourteen before Brissot.
It is not clear why Hampson selected those four men to represent all the ideological tendencies of the Revolution when he could have chosen so many others. His group did not take much part in the Revolution outside the years 1792-1794. Consideration of some leaders from the earlier phase, like Mirabeau and Barnave, or from the later phase, like Barère and La Révellière-Lépeaux, would have extended the argument beyond a narrow band of Girondins and Montagnards. True, the biographies of those other men are relatively well known, but then so are those of Hampson’s group. He did not turn up any new information about them. His book merely offers a new interpretation of old material.
The interpretation emerges clearly in Part III. Brissot, the frustrated man of letters; Robespierre, the high-minded provincial lawyer and perpetual winner of second prizes; Marat, the slightly mad scientist; and Saint-Just, the youthful fire-eater, all threw themselves into the Revolution, and all adopted pretty much the same ideological position. Yet they belonged to different camps. Brissot led the right wing of the Convention in 1792–1793; Robespierre and Saint-Just led the left; and Marat belonged to the lunatic fringe until his assassination in July 1793 made him appear as a martyr in the cause of party-line Jacobinism.
Hampson accepts the revisionist argument that now seems to prevail among historians of the Revolution: the dramatic conflict between the left (Montagnards) and the right (Girondins) in 1792–1793 did not correspond to social and economic differences among the revolutionary leaders. He then carries that argument to a new extreme: the revolutionaries did not have any ideological differences either. A close reading of their speeches and newspaper articles turns up the same amalgam of Montesquieu and Rousseau that can be found in their prerevolutionary writings, except that the Rousseauistic element became dominant after the overthrow of the monarchy in August 1792. Brissot and Robespierre entangled themselves in the same logic derived from the same source, Rousseau’s Social Contract. If the general will is organic and indivisible, anyone who expresses it speaks for the entire sovereign people, and anyone who opposes him must be an enemy of the people. That logic left no room for party conflict and ultimately condemned both the men who made the purges and their victims.
What then distinguished Brissotism from Robespierrism or all the other isms contending in the Terror? Nothing, says Hampson—except politics. But then politics was everything during the French Revolution. In the press of circumstances, some groups adopted programs and made alliances that pitted them against other groups pursuing other strategies. Brissot and the Girondins fell back on a conservative, anti-Parisian policy. Robespierre and the Montagnards threw their lot in with the sans-culottes and concentrated power in the Committee of Public Safety. The differences may have been a matter of life and death but not, Hampson claims, of ideology.
What then is ideology? Hampson seems to feel that that question, too, may be safely left to the theorists and that he could find what he was looking for by looking for it. He searched through the documents in the Thompsonesque manner and came up with plenty of references to Montesquieu and Rousseau along with enough inflated rhetoric to make all the revolutionaries look silly. But nowhere did he discover a line of demarcation that would separate right from left. The conclusion seemed clear: it was impossible to “impose any sort of pattern on the whole chaotic business.”
That sounds reassuringly skeptical—a sober dose of British empiricism administered to French polemics. But however chaotic this French business may seem to us, it made some kind of sense to the people who lived through it. If they did not agree, they shared a feeling that they were arguing over something meaningful. What were the terms of the argument? What was the idiom of politics in the 1780s and 1790s?
That way of putting the problem might have led Hampson to confront theoretical questions about political discourse. Terms like “discourse” now generally offend the English ear. They sound voguish or downright French. Indeed, Michel Foucault has taken out a patent on discours, and it has bounced around the Left Bank for years. But if it seems impossibly threadbare and foreign, the Anglo-Saxon historian could consult some theorists from his own tribe: Quentin Skinner or John Pocock or John Dunn. They have shown that the traditional history of ideas suffers from a fatal tendency toward anachronism. Ideas are not autonomous “units” of thought, as Arthur Lovejoy claimed in his classic formulation of method and theory in the history of ideas, The Great Chain of Being. They inhere in language and give off meaning through linguistic exchanges shaped by expectations and conventions.
One cannot isolate a concept like will or a philosopher like Rousseau in order to trace lines of influence, because Rousseau’s concepts belonged to the general idiom of politics in eighteenth-century France. He had helped to form that idiom, but so had hundreds of other philosophers, preachers, pamphleteers, and street-corner orators. The politicking and speechifying took place in debates over specific questions involving particular institutions, above all those of the Church, the parlements, the royal administration, and the court. Historians need to take account of that context and to trace its transformation after 1789. If they merely chase after references to the philosophes, they may separate “ideology” from “politics” in a way that does violence to the contemporary understanding of things.
It seems, in short, that English empiricism will not provide a way around that insidious French trap, the question mal posée. Hampson fell into it, not because he asked an inappropriate question but because he framed it badly. Like Churchill he made a good point but got the idiom wrong. His example gives one pause; for if such an excellent historian can make such a fundamental mistake, what is to become of anyone else who raises similar questions? We may take heart from historians of an earlier generation, like Elie Carcassonne and Robert Derathé, who wrote broad contextual studies of the thought of Montesquieu and Rousseau. Younger historians like Keith Baker and Dale Van Kley promise to go even further by reconstructing the entire political culture of the Old Regime. Nonetheless, the history of ideology seems to be mined. If we venture into it, we may muddle through in British style, by keeping close to the evidence, but it might be wise to look up from time to time in case some sudden burst of theory from the French should illuminate the whole landscape.
Daniel Roche writes French history in the French manner, tilted slightly toward the Left Bank. Like Hampson, he has covered vast stretches of the eighteenth century, but he has done so with the use of statistics, sociology, and in this, his latest book, anthropology. Journal de ma vie is the autobiography of a Parisian glazier named Jacques-Louis Ménétra. Roche edited it from a manuscript in the Bibliothèque historique de la ville de Paris and followed it with a 150-page commentary, which is probably the best account ever written of working-class life in prerevolutionary Paris.
Ménétra’s story reads like a historian’s dream come true. It fits perfectly into the current picture of Old Regime demography (Ménétra married at twenty-seven and had four children of whom two died in infancy). It also conforms to the standard view of the sans-culotte (Ménétra worked with his hands but earned enough to support a family as an independent artisan). And best of all, it is told in Ménétra’s own words. It conveys his own understanding of what it meant to grow up in Paris, where he was born in 1738; to tramp around provincial shops on a journeyman’s tour de France; to settle down as a Parisian master with a shop and family of his own; and to live through the great events of the Revolution as a militant in his local Section.
It seems astounding that such a document should turn up after being buried for nearly two centuries. But three other working-class autobiographies from the Old Regime have come to the surface during the last few years,2 and others may still be lying undiscovered in archives and attics. The autobiographical urge extended far deeper in French society than we had ever suspected.
So did literacy and exposure to all sorts of literature. Ménétra mentions as a matter of course that he learned the three R’s and singing in parish schools. Paris had about five hundred free elementary schools—one for every twelve hundred inhabitants—in the eighteenth century. In a previous book, based on notarial archives, Roche found that 98 percent of the domestic servants who left wills were literate; and of them, two-thirds owned writing desks complete with inkstands, pens, and papers kept on file.
Ménétra and his companions on the tour de France were always writing letters—to keep in touch with their families, to woo their girlfriends, and to find out about jobs in shops farther down the road. When Ménétra tramped, he sometimes carried a book in the sack slung over his back. When he settled in a town, he improvised songs and staged skits with the other workers. Back in Paris, he spent many evenings in the boulevard theaters and sometimes went drinking with vaudeville stars like Gaspard Taconnet, an author of poissard farces, and Pierre Gourlin, a popular harlequin. Literature and the written word were part of his daily life, so it does not seem incredible that he should have put his life into writing.
But how did a man of the people understand autobiography in the eighteenth century? Ménétra did not follow any obvious model. In fact, he broke with literary convention by refusing to divide his story into chapters and paragraphs or even to use punctuation. Instead of addressing an explicit audience, he dedicated his text to himself (“a mon esprit“) and filled it with allusions and expressions that make no sense today. Thus the Journal de ma vie makes difficult reading. Roche helps us over the hardest parts with some well-placed footnotes, but the story comes from an almost inaccessible world. That is what makes it so fascinating—as strange and mysterious in its way as Rousseau’s Confessions.
The comparison with Rousseau is difficult to avoid, although Jean-Jacques rose to the top of Parisian society while Ménétra remained in obscurity, a layer or two from the bottom. According to Ménétra, the two men crossed paths. They took a few walks around Paris together in 1770 and once stopped by the Café de la Régence to play checkers (Rousseau won). Both of them came from humble homes (Rousseau’s father was a watch-maker). Both lost their mothers as infants. Both had troubled relations with their fathers and spent much of their youth on the road. Both confessed.
But where Rousseau wallowed in guilt, Ménétra boasted. Like Jean-Jacques, he had left a string of illegitimate children behind him, but he was proud of it. He, too, had a weakness for a “maman,” but his ran a whore house. He was also surrounded by conspirators, but he beat them off with a broom handle. Ménétra swaggered through life with such zest that his Journal reads like Rousseau turned upside down and rewritten in the language of the workingman: the confessions of a titi parisien.
It can also be read as a tall tale. At the outset Ménétra announces, “I am going to write about all my pranks.” The theme of joking—fredaines, niches, espiègleries—runs throughout the narrative and provides Ménétra with a way of organizing it. He presents his life as a series of pranks, which all demonstrate the same happy conclusion: no matter what he does, he comes out on top. He outwits the mamans and wins free bed and breakfast in the best brothels of Paris. He seduces the wives of his friends and thus restores domestic tranquillity to some frustrated households. He bamboozles the intendant of Bordeaux and thereby saves his companions from being drafted into the army.
Ménétra triumphs over everything. Small in stature but a “Hercule en amour,” he seduces all the girls, wins all the fights, rescues all the drowning children, puts out all the fires, dupes all the yokels, confounds all the priests, and even buys a surprising share of successful lottery tickets, using the proceeds to regale his friends in the finest taverns and houses of pleasure in Paris. Ménétra is so successful, in fact, that he seems too good to be true.
Much of the Journal is patently false. As Roche points out, Ménétra could not have exchanged greetings with the folk hero-bandit Louis Mandrin in 1762, because Mandrin had been executed in 1755. It seems equally unlikely that Ménétra led 500 members of his workers’ association, the Compagnonnage du Devoir, against 750 of the rival Gavots in a pitched battle near Angers, leaving seven dead and fifty-seven wounded. Journeymen on the tour de France certainly brawled among themselves, but not on such a scale and probably not without leaving some trace of their disturbances in the archives.
That Ménétra made up some of the incidents in his narrative is clear from his account of a murder in one of the inns on his route. Shortly before his arrival, he recounts, the innkeeper’s son returned after twenty year’s absence in the army. Instead of revealing his identity, the son took a room and gave his parents a purse full of gold for safekeeping over the night. They could not resist the opportunity for sudden wealth. So they killed him in his bed, only to discover from word that arrived on the next day that they had murdered their own son. The tale came from a common canard or broadside that had been hawked throughout the country in various editions since 1618, but Ménétra incorporated it in the story of his life as if it had happened under his nose.
How much make-believe did he weave into his Journal? One cannot say, but its unreliability as fact seems less important than its artistry as fantasy. If Ménétra was a sort of eighteenth-century Walter Mitty, he gives us a chance to see what eighteenth-century dreams were made of.
He took a great deal of his material from the popular literature of his time, which featured the sort of thing that he passed off as everyday occurrences on his travels: hideous crimes, encounters with ghosts, black magic, dramatic rescues, practical jokes (the funniest at the expense of priests), and orgies (the juiciest in nunneries). Ménétra’s favorite genre was the sexual yarn. It gave him a chance to assert his own prowess, because he always cast himself as the seducer; yet it often seems to come straight out of Boccaccio or from the oral equivalents of the Decameron that circulated among the storytellers of the Old Regime.
The journeymen swapped stories on the road and in the inns patronized by their compagnonnage. They often slept two to a bed with several beds to a room and exchanged burlesque “confessions” before dozing off. Sometimes, like Ulysses, they spun yarns before well-born hosts. For example, after repairing windows in one château, Ménétra spent an evening at the seigneur’s table: “He took pleasure in getting us to recount all our pranks and everything we had done on our tour de France. I told a few stories for them. The seigneur and his wife laughed until the tears ran down their cheeks.”
The Journal seems to be an extension of these bull sessions, translated awkwardly into writing in 1764, when Ménétra returned from his last tour of the provinces and drafted the bulk of the manuscript. In sections written later, he provided information about his life after 1765, when he set up his own shop in Paris. But he devoted most of the text to the period that he considered his happiest, the seven years that he spent on the road with occasional forays back to the boulevards at home.
Ménétra narrates his tour de France as a series of seductions, strung out in geographical order: the plump widow in Vêndome, the saddler’s wife in Tours, the delicious servant girl in Angers, and the nuns in Agen who at first made him wear a bell as a warning signal while he repaired their windows and then, once he had got beneath their skirts, took to knitting him stockings. The travelogue is marked off with bedroom farces. Thus the story of the old prude in Lyon, who though deaf is “still fresh”: Ménétra blows out the candle and “took her by assault” just before a knock announces her husband. As he enters, Ménétra hides behind the door, “happy invention.” The wife sends the husband to fetch a new candle. Then Ménétra scrambles into his breeches and dashes to safety, dodging the old man on his way down the stairs.
Part boulevard parade, part Boccaccio, part dirty joke, the stories suggest that Ménétra was above all a storyteller, a working-class Casanova or Leporello. But he drew on his experience, and it was something more than one long romp through boudoirs and haystacks. The text often works against itself, so that behind the braggadocio our hero looks small, weak, and lonely—the very opposite of the eighteenth-century he-man whom he shows up front.
If we put together the biographical information interspersed between the jokes, we see that Ménétra, like most Parisian babies, spent his first years with a wet-nurse outside the city. His mother died before he reached the age of two. When his father and grandmother came to visit him one day, they found him begging outside a church. The wet-nurse had taught him to imitate a deaf-mute in order to pick up some extra pennies. He returned with his grandmother and lived with her until the age of eleven. Then he moved in with his father, who had acquired a new wife, and learned the glazier’s craft. Little Jacques-Louis also learned how to dodge blows and to sleep under the bridges of the Seine when his father became too violent.
The brutality increased as the boy turned into an adolescent and the father, widowed for the second time, took to drink. In one brawl, the old man broke the son’s jaw. In another he dislocated a leg, and the son drew a knife in a third. It was time to leave home. After drifting from shop to shop in Paris for a few years, Ménétra left on his tour de France, aged eighteen. After his return, he married a girl with enough of a dowry to help him establish his own shop. And soon he was quarreling with his own children, a boy and a girl, just as his father had quarreled with him.
Ménétra narrates the whole cycle in a matter-of-fact way, without self-pity or guilt, but in doing so he undercuts the notion of life as a laugh. In the end it turns out that he has been disowned by his father, betrayed by his comrades, deserted by his wife, and abandoned by his son, who ran off to another shop as soon as he learned the trade. What has become of all the women? We wonder; and we notice that Ménétra almost never mentions them by name, not even his wife. They make an impressive string of conquests—fifty-two seductions before his wedding and a dozen afterward, not counting liaisons with prostitutes—but they are interchangeable, like the faceless nuns and farmers’ daughters of jokes. In looking back over them, Ménétra thinks of the glazier’s widow he had left in Nîmes, who had offered him her heart as well as her bed. Had he been wrong to run away from the opportunity to link his life with hers? Had he missed something all along—namely, love? “I knew love only as pleasure and not as perfect friendship.” Perhaps ultimately the joke was on him.
This second aspect of the Journal, the anxiety beneath the swagger, makes us feel that we have come in contact with a believable human being, someone like ourselves. But we do not close the book with a reassuring refrain, homo sum, ringing in our ears, because a third element in Ménétra’s narrative makes it strangely disturbing. It constantly brings us up short against things we cannot fathom—everything from expressions beyond the range of our dictionaries (what is so insulting about saying “bougie à l’huile” to a monk?) to behavior outside the scope of our experience (why does Ménétra take such delight in poking a cat in a cage and in stealing chickens from a Jew?).
We cannot even get most of Ménétra’s jokes. What is so funny, we wonder, about the scene in Bayonne that seemed hilarious to him: half-naked prostitutes shut in an iron cage and dumped into a river? Where is the charm in the “charming farce” that he encountered in Lyon: a nobleman rounds up all the hunchbacks of the city and forces them to share a meal while being served and serenaded by equally deformed townsmen? Why does Ménétra find it impossible to contain his laughter when his boss stumbles while carrying a load of glass panes above his head?
As he wasn’t wearing a wig, his head went right through the panes, and he was collared; the bits of glas tore into his neck; the slightest movement caused him excruciating pain.… I couldn’t prevent myself from bursting into laughter and telling him he should have worn a hat.
Laughter does not echo unambiguously across the ages. When it reaches us from the distant past, it makes us sense the gap between our ancestors and ourselves rather than our common humanity. Ménétra’s jokes are usually cruel, and they often suggest that he expressed the brotherhood of man through the spoliation of women. In a typical “prank,” he and his pal Gombeaut raped a girl whom they had found making love with her boyfriend in the woods outside Paris. Each of them took a turn while the other held the boyfriend at bay, using a sword that he had left in the grass. This feat consummated a pact that the two friends had made over a bottle of wine a few days earlier. “We are great friends, but we must become brothers,” they declared. So they sold their silver shoe buckles and spent the proceeds on a night together with a whore.
Now the male animal may not have abandoned bestiality, but I doubt that he behaves like that today, or at least that he would boast about it. The peculiar character of Ménétra’s boasting calls for an explanation. We might, for example, glimpse an element of class conflict behind it. Ménétra and his fellow workers made a specialty of cuckolding their bosses: that was the funniest joke of all. When he arrived in Auch, Ménétra transmitted some venereal disease to the wife of his “bourgeois,” as the workers called their master. She passed it on to her husband, who, thinking it had come from another source, took his problem to Ménétra. Our hero was as skilled in folk medicine as in the arts of love. So he cured the grateful couple and left town with the blessing of the bourgeois, who never suspected that he owed his disease to his doctor.
We might also explain the pranks as variations on the theme of social and economic advancement. In the glazier’s trade, as in many other skilled crafts, masterships were restricted in number and transmissible through widows. As the masters grew old and died, their widows took up with journeymen, who in turn took over the shops. Ménétra bragged that he could have fornicated his way to the top of many businesses on his tour de France. When one of his mates broke up with a master’s wife, Ménétra took him to a tavern and consoled him with a proposition: “I’ll buy her from you for a bottle of wine and a salad.” After sharing the food and later the woman, they considered themselves “brothers.”
That episode suggests another explanation: male bonding. The fellow travelers often expressed their fellowship by sharing women. They even felt united by venereal disease, which made them accomplices in a common dirty joke. After seducing a cook. Ménétra discovered that he had come down with a case of the clap that was also afflicting two of his drinking partners. Having traced it to the same source, they proclaimed laughingly that they, too, had become “brothers”; and they toasted their fraternity in the tavern before undergoing a mercury treatment together.
But whatever sociological gloss you apply to the text—class rivalry, social mobility, or peer-group solidarity—it remains irreduceably strange. Ménétra lived in a world so saturated with violence and death that we can barely imagine it. We may have had some hard knocks in the subways of New York or the throughways of Los Angeles, but how many of us encounter corpses on our daily rounds? Ménétra ran into them all the time being fished out of the Seine, exposed on gibbets, and carted through the streets after fights or funerals. When he woke up one morning in an inn frequented by his compagnonnage, he found that his bedmate was dead. When his mate got up to urinate in another inn, he tripped over a corpse that had been stashed under the bed before their arrival.
Ménétra begins his life story by remarking casually that two of his three siblings died at their wet nurses—a common experience according to the historical demographers. He goes on to recount all sorts of violent incidents. A friend blows off his nose while playing with firecrackers. Two others blind themselves. A cousin kills a scullery maid in the kitchen while toying with a pistol. A fellow worker, sotted with drink, falls asleep by the Pont Neuf and kills himself by tumbling into the Seine. Another drinking partner dies after downing a bottle of poison that he mistook for brandy. A woman in an apartment upstairs quarrels with her husband and jumps out the window, impaling herself on the wrought-iron sign of the shop below. The body count of the journal looks nearly as impressive as the toll of seductions.
Ménétra probably inflated it in the course of the storytelling, but his rhetoric is significant in itself. It shows that he assumed familiarity with death on the part of his readers and that he drew on the macabre element in the popular culture of his time. For example, he relates the crimes of La Giroux, a notorious murderess, in a manner like that of the broadsides sold at her execution. Indeed, he describes buying a broadside himself and then adds a characteristic touch: during her last moments he worried that she would inculpate him by revealing that he had had her maidenhead. Ménétra reports the crimes and punishment of the Duhamel gang in similar fashion, dwelling on the most sensational details. “The monster Duhamel” killed his mistress, grilled her heart, and ate it. “During his interrogation, he boldly said to the lieutenant-criminal of police, ‘Monsieur, if you had tasted it but once, you could never get enough.’ ”
Many other elements of popular culture shape the narrative. Like most Parisians, Ménétra was fascinated with the public hangman, Henri Samson, who supposedly possessed extraordinary healing powers owing to his familiarity with death. When Ménétra fell into a kind of paralysis, “Monsieur Henri” put him back on his feet by administering a potion brewed from the body of a freshly executed criminal.
Whenever Ménétra consumes food in the journal, he is doing something significant—curing a disease, seducing a woman, cementing a friendship, or finding a job. The tavern was more important than the church in the culture of his craft. It provided a fraternal atmosphere for the ceremonies of the compagnonnage. Ménétra ate and drank his way through many rites of passage and even invented one of his own, a burlesque version of baptism and the Eucharist. It was such a hit, he claimed, that the leaders of the compagnonnage took it seriously and reprimanded him for flooding their association with schismatic “journeymen of the crust.”
He also acted in earnest as a master of ceremonies. His production of the glaziers’ feast of Saint Luke in Lyon seemed in retrospect to have been the high point of his life. He had all the glazier’s shops hung in flowers and all the journeymen decked out in grey suits with white gloves and stockings, their hair curled and done up in white ribbons. They paraded through the streets carrying bouquets and the insignia of their craft to the sound of violins and oboes. Then, for nearly a week, they ate, drank, and danced. The cost came to three hundred days’ worth of labor, but they did not worry about it because they did not calculate time and money as modern workers do. Instead, they believed in excess—overeating, heavy drinking, extravagant spending, profligate wenching, hard brawling, big talking, and belly laughing.
All these attitudes fit together in a plebeian culture that was essentially Rabelaisian. While the upper classes snickered over Voltaire or wept over Rousseau, the working men, and perhaps many of the women, lived in a rowdy world that Rabelais had captured in writing two centuries earlier. Mikhail Bakhtin has shown that popular Rabelaisianism had a revolutionary edge to it. Could it have been the source of the ideology Ménétra brought into the Revolution?
We cannot answer that question definitively, because Ménétra wrote only a short and garbled account of his experience as a sans-culotte. He saw the Terror at street level, where party lines disappeared in neighborhood feuds and politics degenerated into règlements de compte. Robespierre and the others do not appear in his narrative, but the people swarm through it—the common people, masters and journeymen alike—storming the Bastille, marching on the Tuileries Palace, leaving to face the invading armies at the border. This popular revolution did not derive from the Enlightenment, but it realized some of the principles that Ménétra had assimilated under the Old Regime. We can hear the future sansculotte in the orator who toasted his fellow glaziers at the feast of Saint Luke in Lyon: “My friends, today we are all comrades together, and we all act in unison.”
Similar ideas can be found in the Social Contract. But to understand the way they resonated in the revolutionary Sections of Paris, we need to go beyond Rousseau to Rabelais. Liberty and equality appear in Gargantua and Pantagruel as a festive throwing-off of constraints and sharing of the good things in life—the values that the sans-culottes expressed as liberté sans gêne and égalité dans les jouissances.3 Seen in the light of Rabelais, Ménétra can help us grasp the third component of the sans-culotte trinity, the one that seems most alien today: fraternity. Ménétra did not learn brotherhood from books but from drinking and wenching his way around a tour de France. His kind of fraternity could be violent and cruel, but in the supreme test of 1793-1794 it bound the common people together in a common effort not merely to fill the belly and rescue the republic but to save a way of life.
Because that way of life was transmitted on the road and in the tavern by men who did not write books, historians have had trouble tracking it down. They usually reconstruct the past from what they find in libraries. As professor succeeds professor, a pattern spreads from book to book. The process is probably healthy and in any case is inevitable. But sometimes in the course of it the life goes out of history—until a voice is heard with the accent of authenticity, whether Parisian or Churchillian.
Daniel Roche has not merely added a book to the shelf. He has made a new life accessible, one so strange and yet authentic that it challenges our understanding of what it meant to be a man two centuries ago.
June 28, 1984
See Alan B. Spitzer, “The Historical Problem of Generations,” The American Historical Review, vol. 78 (1973), pp. 1353–1383. ↩
Alain Lottin, Vie et mentalité d’un Lillois sous Louis XIV (Lille, 1968); Nicolas Contat, Anecdotes typographiques, Giles Barber, ed. (Oxford, 1980); and Valentin Jamerey-Duval, Mémoires, Jean Marie Goulemot, ed. (Paris, 1981). ↩
See Albert Soboul, Les Sans-culottes parisiens en l’an II (Paris, 1962). ↩