Revolutionary comfort. The Jacobins must be spinning in their graves…

Air France Revolutionary ComfortThe new campaign that is being launched by Air France to American consumers juxtaposes two incongruous terms: “revolutionary” and “comfort.” This marketing ploy would have been inoffensive, if the artist had not coiffed the model with a revolutionary bonnet rouge complete with cockade, placed her in an gilt chaise, and set the whole scene in the most famous symbol of wealth and privilege: the Versailles gardens. The French revolutionary tradition has sold out in the name of comfort, this ad seems to suggest. Vive le capitalisme?

LePen is not a moderate

Far-right babyAm I dreaming, or did the New York Times just commend the National Front this morning for its “moderation”?
The photo attached, of an adorable cherub holding a French flag at a political rally for Marine LePen, brings back memories of Vichy. Please, New York Times, do not write off the anti-semitism, anti-immigration, and xenophobic politics of the National Front as “moderate.” They are racist, hateful, and detrimental to the republican values that many French people (and their allies abroad) still cherish: that is, universalism, fraternity, and equality.

Making Medical Myths – the Case of Maximilien Robespierre, by Peter McPhee

Reconstructed face of robespierre acc to Philippe FroeschMassive media interest followed the digital reconstruction in late 2013 of Robespierre’s face and a new medical diagnosis by Philippe Froesch of the Visual Forensic Laboratory (Barcelona), a specialist in 3D facial reconstruction, and Philippe Charlier from the medical anthropology and medico-legal team at the Université de Versailles-St. Quentin, France. Their conclusion, reported in The Lancet in December 2013, was that Maximilien Robespierre suffered from sarcoidosis, a crippling auto-immune disorder in which the body’s defences attack its own organs and tissues.[1] He was dying from within before he was killed from without.

In making their claims Charlier and Froesch rely in large part on the evidence I adduced of his illnesses and their symptoms in a recent biography and article.[2] But they ignored my historian’s caution about the use of such evidence, raising troubling suggestions about the willingness of these medical researchers to sacrifice judiciousness for media publicity.

Some evidence seems incontrovertible: Robespierre suffered from a facial twitch; he was short-sighted; he had some smallpox scarring; and he was treated for a varicose ulcer. Most important, across the Revolution from 1790 to 1794 he was forced to absent himself from public life for increasing periods, from a few days to six weeks. There were at least eight such periods. He admitted several times that he was ‘exhausted’. In my recent biography I used this evidence to suggest that his ascetic lifestyle and remorseless workload made this extraordinary revolutionary prone to physical and nervous exhaustion to the point of collapse in 1794. It is well known that he was almost completely absent from public life for six weeks before his final appearances at the Convention on 8-9 Thermidor (26-27 July), but this final collapse was only the most prolonged in a long series, correlated with political crises in which he had been involved.

Other evidence Charlier and Froesch accept as “fact” – his consumption of oranges, his jaundiced complexion, his nosebleeds – may possibly be true but were among later allegations made by bitter enemies, such as Stanislas Fréron. In fact, virtually all the evidence we have about Robespierre’s physical condition derives from after his death and has to be taken with extreme caution since Robespierre was then the victim of a massive hate campaign. This sought to vilify him in many ways, including suggesting that his physical appearance was somehow disgusting or could be deciphered to reveal hidden vices.[3] The medical scientists have not allowed for these prejudices in a way that modern historians would.

Most important, the reconstruction of Robespierre’s death mask is almost certainly based on a fake. The lower part of his jaw had been blown apart by a gunshot (there has always been dispute as to whether this was the result of a botched attempt at suicide or from a shot fired by one of those sent to arrest him). His face was roughly held together by a bandage for about seventeen hours, and this was only torn off as he was about to be guillotined. His remains, and those of his allies, were then rapidly buried. There is no evidence that a death mask was made, and the mask used by Charlier and Froesch is suspiciously devoid of scarring on the jaw.

It is to be regretted that the conclusions drawn by Charlier and Froesch have been seized upon by journalists to make the most preposterous claims about this “monster” and “tyrant,” perpetuating the stereotypes constructed by his enemies immediately after his death in order to make him solely responsible for the excesses of “the Terror.” A properly historical account of his life tells a radically different story.

Notes:

[1] “Robespierre: the oldest case of sarcoidosis?,” The Lancet vol. 382, issue 9910, p. 2068 (21 December 2013).

[2] Peter McPhee, “Crises politiques, crises médicales dans la vie de Maximilien Robespierre, 1790-1794,” Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française 371 (2013): 137-152; Peter McPhee, Robespierre: a Revolutionary Life (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[3] See, for example, Bronislaw Baczko, Ending the Terror: The French Revolution after Robespierre, trans. M. Petheram ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press & Éditions de la maison des sciences de l’homme, 1994); Antoine de Baecque, “Robespierre, monstre-cadavre du discours thermidorien,” Eighteenth-Century Life 21(1997): 203–21; and Colin Jones, “French Crossings : III. The Smile of the Tiger,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Sixth Series) 22 (2012): 3-35. I thank Colin Jones for his advice on writing this brief article.

On Being Revolutionary

Linton Choosing Terrror coverPerovic The Calendar coverTaws Politics Provisional coverWhat does it mean to be revolutionary? That is, what does it mean to exist, to live, to have a real state or existence for a longer or shorter time under a revolutionary regime? Such existential questions run through the exciting new books pictured here in the fields of History (Marisa Linton), French Literature (Sanja Perovic), and Art History (Richard Taws). Perovic tackles the question of being in time quite literally in her study of the schemes invented to tabulate the days, weeks, and months of the period 1788-1805, some of which included astronomical or symbolic information. Taws embraces the conundrum of existence more philosophically by studying transient forms of art (objects such as passports, paper money, playing cards, and prints) that circulated widely during the tumult but have left few traces to our day. As for Linton, the issue of being and non-being comes across viscerally in her biographical portraits of the men who destroyed each other and themselves in the name of the Republic.
– from a forthcoming review essay placed in issue 47.4 of Eighteenth-Century Studies

What do women want? Invisibililty

Riding coat RedingoteSophie Hicks wears Celine 16womens-well-philo-slide-H2S5-slideThe latest version of women’s styles en travesti, exemplified by yesterday’s dour black and white portrait of London architect Sophie Hicks looking stern in Céline, brings to mind the fashion’s most outspoken proponent during the 1780s and 1790s: Marie-Antoinette. While Caroline Weber championed the queen’s “heroic” adoption of equestrian styles in her 2006 book, suggesting that dressing as a man was proof of her strong character and visionary fashion sense, Marisa Linton in her 2013 book reminds us of another reason for dressing like a man: invisibility. As the New York Times article states, “Invisible. That is what Phoebe Philo’s clothes for Céline make you feel. … Simply invisible. A woman in a perfectly cut shirt and a pair of pants. And, oh, what a relief!” What better reason to dress like a man, especially if one needed to sneak out of the castle at night to attend meetings of the Austrian Committee.

Revolution beer, an intriguing newcomer to the market

Revolution beer clenched fists for saleA visit to the website of Revolution beer, brewed in Chicago, makes for an interesting foray into the ambiguities of revolutionary popular culture as it is understood today in the USA. The brewery’s icons, which draw heavily on Soviet propaganda and Maoist imagery (brawny hunks and clenched fists feature prominently), promote the drink primarily as a working man’s brew. The few women included such as on the “Bottom Up Wit T-Shirt,” available through its gift shop, are also defined by their hard bodies and toughness, as her slogan declares: “This working woman don’t drink no girly beer.” But what makes Revolution beer revolutionary? The website tries to make capitalism sound compassionate by stressing the founder’s ties to the neighborhood: “He worked to promote local businesses and manage the Logan Square Farmers Market. While working at the Chamber, he found a cool, old building on Milwaukee Avenue with a nice tin ceiling.” As fellow admirers of the revolutionary spirit, we wish the folks at Revolution Brewing well. But we hope that in the future they might do something really revolutionary with their clout, instead of becoming yet one more trendy product vying for the beer-drinker’s cash. How about it, CEO Cibak?

Re-invigorating Teaching the French Revolution: the role of Lego? by Kate Astbury

devise for Astbury

Kate Astbury has been working with school pupils aged 9 and 10 as part of a scheme to teach them research skills. The pupils had a day at the University of Warwick where they learned how to evaluate historical sources and where they were introduced to the collection of Revolutionary prints held at Waddesdon Manor (see http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/french/research/previousprojects/revolutionaryprints)
The pupils particularly enjoyed hunting for the hidden images of the royal family in prints from the post-Terror period.
They then returned to school to undertake their own research projects. They were asked to
- Work in pairs to take one event or theme of the Revolution and examine how the prints can be used to reflect what people felt at the time
- Present their findings as a story board or a newspaper front page or a news bulletin or an essay.
Pupils from Allesley Primary School, Coventry, produced the stop animation video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xM9en0m87pU ) using Lego figures.
You can see more about the Revolutionary prints in a video made by Dr Astbury: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/knowledge/culture/revolutionprints

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 34 other followers