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.


[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.

More reviews of ‘The Frankenstein of 1790 and other Lost Chapters from Revolutionary France’

In preparation for the roundtable at the MLA annual convention, readers may be interested to consult the following reviews of my book which have appeared in the past few months:

- Laura Mason, in The American Historical Review (2013) 118 (5): 1612-1613.

- Jean-Louis Trudel, in >ReS Futurae</ 3 (2013)

- Sanja Perovic, in French Studies 67, 4 (October 2013): 565-566.

- Nanette LeCoat, on H-France Review Vol. 13 (July 2013), No. 103

- James P. Gilroy, in Histoire sociale/Social history 46, Number 91 (May 2013): 231-233.

- Kelsey Rubin-Detlev, in Journal of European Studies 43 (June 2013): 175-77.

In addition, there are the first reviews, posted on May 13, 2013:
- David Coward, in The Times Literary Supplement (London), May 10, 2013.
- Daniel Sullivan, in The Ernest Becker Foundation Newsletter (April 10, 2013).
- Allan Pasco, in Choice (February 2013).

Battle of the books at MLA

Douthwaite_J_Frankenstein_Astbury book cover

Friday, 10 January, at the Mayfair room in the Sheraton Chicago
Session 237. Revolutionary Afterlives: Why Do We Continue to Care about the French Revolution?
10:15–11:30 a.m.
A special session
Presiding: Margaret Anne Cohen, Stanford Univ.
Speakers: Katherine Astbury, Univ. of Warwick; Julia V. Douthwaite, Univ. of Notre Dame; Mary McAlpin, Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville;
Biliana Kassabov, Stanford Univ.

The literature of the French Revolution generated later developments in fiction and politics, yet it remains unknown. Two new books fill that gap in radically different ways: The Frankenstein of 1790 and Other Lost Chapters from Revolutionary France and Narrative Responses to the Trauma of the French Revolution. This “creative conversation” invites the audience to join speakers in debating the relative benefits to be gained by Douthwaite’s new positivism as opposed to Astbury’s trauma theory.

keywords: Revolution, Fiction, Terror, Trauma, Romanticism

Universalism under Attack: Thanksgiving Reflections inspired by the French

Coq d'indeIt is breath-taking to realize just how different philosophical and political debate is in France as compared to the USA. The contrast rarely emerges with such clarity as in the debate over universalism that is currently shaking the French intelligentsia.

As explained in an admirable article by CNRS historian Sophie Wahnich*, France is currently polarized by two rival views on universalism. On the one hand, there are the proponents of post-colonial studies, often the same people who are held guilty of foisting identity politics in the Hexagon, who charge the nation with hypocrisy. They hold up the 1789 Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen as proof, since its writers promoted universalism without eradicating the injustices and crimes that they were party to, as participants (more or less direct) in an economy built on the slave trade.

On the other hand, there are the die-hard républicains who argue that such anathema is misplaced, because the Revolution’s Declaration of Rights was the watershed moment when the hierarchical, class-bound order of court society was finally revealed for what it was: morally untenable. Universal equality, the Declaration states implicitly, applies to people of color as well as to people born in all socio-economic classes.

Although the French attitude towards the “others” amongst them is complex (and potentially at its nadir at present), the Declaration should not be held up as the enemy, because it has had concrete, positive effects on the creation of national solidarity. Consider the debates inflamed by the persecution of Lt. Colonel Alfred Dreyfus in 1892, and the way statesman Jean Jaurès used the Declaration to defend French Jews such as Dreyfus. Wahnich explains: “Souvenons-nous que Jaurès lorsqu’il doit faire face à l’antisémitisme, rappelle que la Révolution française avait déracialisé l’humanité. Ainsi dans La dépêche du midi du 2 juin 1892 : «Je n’ai aucun préjugé contre les Juifs. […] Je n’aime pas les querelles de race, et je me tiens à l’idée de la Révolution Française, si démodée et si prudhommesque qu’elle semble aujourd’hui : c’est qu’au fond, il n’y a qu’une race, l’humanité.»
True, this solidarity is daily put to test in a country more diverse than ever. But the founding principles are not the enemy.

Wahnich is scheduled to join a public debate about these issues today; we will watch the results with interest.

This debate seems a prime example of how the French maintain a high level of public discussion on important issues of principle. Such abstract, historical discourse strikes most Americans as high-falutin’ talk, less for public consumption than for ivory tower intellectualism. But we eschew such debate at our own risk. Perhaps a bit more talk of principles could curb the alarming rise of hate-speech and hate-crimes amongst us…

Although our nation was also founded on universal principles of equality, special interests have significantly altered the original spirit of the USA.
Consider that most ordinary gesture, repeated by every schoolchild coast to coast, the pledge of allegiance. In July 1942, when the pledge was first approved by the American Congress as a means to bolster national spirit, it went like this: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

That version remained true to the universalistic spirit of the French Declaration of Rights and the US Bill of Rights.

But a mere 12 years later, our pledge departed from its original purpose and became a tool of special interest. Under pressure from groups such as the Knights of Columbus and the Presbyterian Church, and in the hands of a president recently converted to Presbyterianism, the words “Under God” were added. Moreover, they were inserted before “with liberty and justice for all,” thereby suggesting that there exists an order—a moral order, sanctioned by monotheism—superior to universal, legal rights of the American citizen.

As we reflect upon our national identity this week on Thanksgiving, we Americans would do well to look to the French for a bracing reminder of what “for all” is supposed to mean.

* Sophie Wahnich, “Un soupçon sur l’universel,” Libération [section Société] (22 novembre 2013).
Thanks to Olivier Morel from bringing this article to my attention.

Call for proposals, ‘Teaching Representations of the French Revolution’ (MLA book)


Call for proposals, Teaching Representations of the French Revolution

Essay proposals are invited for a volume in the MLA’s Options for Teaching series entitled Teaching Representations of the French Revolution, to be edited by Julia Douthwaite (University of Notre Dame), Catriona Seth (Université de Lorraine), and Antoinette Sol (University of Texas Arlington).

This goal of this collection of essays is to make this field more accessible to non-specialists and to teachers in different settings, from the Humanities class at a community college to the research seminar in a graduate program. The collection of essays will complement traditional sources and include the arts, ephemera, realia, archival material and once popular but now forgotten texts in the classroom. Accordingly, we intend to highlight through a number of settings how the revolutionary heritage lives on in our own vulnerable times. As a glance at any newspaper will reveal, we still live in a world of propaganda, advertisement, political violence, terrorism, revolution, and reaction. The essays in this proposed volume will speak to ways current students will be helped in understanding these things as well as learning about more narrowly focused topics.

The volume is divided into four sections: 1) How to Represent the Revolution: Classic Debates; 2) What Are the Musts of the Revolution (and Why Should Anyone Care)?; 3) Global Reverberations: The Impact of Emigration and Radicalism; and 4) Teaching the Revolution for Diverse Audiences.

We welcome proposals for essays that draw parallels to current events, on the idea of revolution itself, on global reverberations of the French Revolution (Haiti, Russia, Cuba, China, South America and even the recent ‘Arab spring’), on how these later revolutions intersect with literary representations of the earlier one, and essays on the French Revolution in literatures other than French, American and English such as German, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Haitian, or Italian. In short, essays dealing with European, transnational and the global impact of the French Revolution will round out the French and English traditions.

We are particularly interested in pedagogically-oriented essays on ways to integrate the French Revolution into diverse courses, including European Literature, Humanities, language and writing courses for community colleges and liberal arts colleges, along with ways to present difficult material, how to engage students, and how to help students acquire the necessary contexts to understand the volume’s topic. In addition, essays dealing with teaching with translations, finding source materials (written, visual, or musical), and suggestions for ways to use these in the classroom are welcome.

If you are interested in contributing an essay (3,000-3,500 words) to one of these sections, please submit an abstract of approximately 500 words in which you describe your approach or topic and explain its potential benefit for students and instructors alike. The focus of proposed essays should be pedagogical.

Note that if you plan to quote from student writing in your essay, you must obtain written permission from your students to do so. Proposed essays should not be previously published.

Abstracts and CVs should be sent to the volume editors by 1 June 2014. Please send e-mail submissions to Professor Julia Douthwaite (, Professor Catriona Seth (, and Professor Antoinette Sol ( with the subject line “Approaches to Teaching the Fr Rev.” Surface-mail submissions can be sent to Professor Douthwaite at the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556.

The politics of fear, circa 1797: The sans-culottes as bogey-man

Goya_-_Que_viene_el_coco_(Here_Comes_the_Bogey-Man)Exploiting people’s fears for political advantage may seem like a contemporary phenomenon, but while perusing a little-known newspaper of 1797 today, I came across a striking case from those long-ago days. It may seem ludicrous to modern eyes, but one can only imagine the anxiety it aroused among parents in the unstable days of the Directory. Read on to enjoy first-hand the image of the sans-culottes as bogey-man, and keep your children close by, just in case…

“Avis aux pères et mères.”

Il y a quelques soirs, deux jolis enfants de cinq et de six ans, jouant derrière la chaise de leur maman, et seulement à quelque pas d’elle, sur le boulevard du Temple, furent accostés par deux obligeants sans-culottes, qui leur dirent que leur mère les envoyait pour les reconduire chez eux.
Les enfants les croyant, les deux frères et amis s’esquivèrent tenant chacun le leur; puis, à une certaine distance, ayant l’air d’avoir oublié l’adresse, ils la leur demandèrent, et les amenèrent effectivement à leur domicile, où ils se firent bien récompenser de leurs bons services.
Quant à la malheureuse mère, qui s’aperçut à l’instant de la perte de ses enfants, rien ne peut peindre l’état horrible de désespoir où elle fut depuis la fin du jour, jusqu’à ce qu’à onze heures du soir on pût la découvrir au corps-de-garde du boulevard du Temple, qui l’avait recueillie et lui apprendre que ses enfants étaient retrouvés.
On doit ajouter que ces petits incidents sont fort communs depuis quelques temps, et forment une spéculation assez lucrative. Quand les enfants ne peuvent donner leur adresse, on les dépouille, et ils disparaissent… et ce manège odieux se fait sous les yeux du ministère de la police.”

Journal du Petit Gautier, fructidor an 5 (September 1797)

The Bishop of Agra, by Noah Shusterman

Coeur-chouanDuring 1793, at the height of the French Revolution, the Vendée region of western France was the site of one of the eighteenth century’s most bitter and violent civil wars. The Vendée was not the only region that by 1793 was registering its discontent with the government in Paris, but no other revolt would be as bloody or as bitter as the civil war in the Vendée.

The Vendée and its civil war tend not to get much attention in English-language discussions of the French Revolution. This is a shame for any number of important historiographical reasons, but it’s a shame from a reader’s perspective as well: some of the most interesting characters of the Revolution emerged during the Vendéan civil war. Some of the most famous – or infamous, depending on one’s perspective – were the military leaders. Of all the colorful and dramatic characters to emerge in the Vendée, though, the Bishop of Agra might have been the most original of all, a man who was able to recreate himself and take advantage of the revolutionary moment like few others. He had arrived among the rebels in the Summer of 1793, telling the leaders of the army that the pope had sent him to help the revolt. He provided spiritual guidance to the army, leading prayers, blessing the soldiers and their weapons, and leading processions. According to one witness, whenever he entered a town the bells rang out and the peasants were “drunk with joy.” As the Catholic (and pro-Vendéan) historian Pierre de La Gorce wrote, the Bishop of Agra led mass so well that “one could almost pardon him for blessing without the right.”

Processions, masses, prayers – these were common occurrences in the Vendéan army, as the civil war was in many ways a religious war. The region had first turned against the Revolution after the National Assembly had passed a law in 1790 restructuring the Catholic Church in France. That law, and the overreaction to it, had led to the creation of two Catholic Churches in France: a constitutional church supportive of the Revolution, and a “refractory” church that often led the opposition to the Revolution throughout France and that was at the forefront of the Vendéan civil war. Given this religious background, it’s hardly surprising that the rebel armies made religious practice part of their routine. In towns and cities that the rebels took over, they would flock to the churches to pray. They gave religious nicknames to their weapons. Local refractory priests supported the rebel army, travelling with it and at times joining the fighting. All of the bishops from the region, however, had fled France. Having a bishop show up to provide spiritual leadership provided a real boost to the rebel army. That he wasn’t a real bishop was not at first important.

There is a diocese of Agra today, but it’s in India. There’s no place named Agra in France or any other region likely to have a French-speaking bishop. In the eighteenth century, there was no diocese of Agra and therefore no Bishop of Agra, and if there had been a Bishop of Agra, it would have been someone else. As for the man who arrived in the Vendée, his name was Gabriel Guyot de Folleville, and had he not declared himself a bishop he would certainly never have become one. He was not a complete impostor, perhaps: he had been a priest for some time in nearby Brittany, so he was familiar with the rites and capable of leading mass. Many who had met him earlier in the Revolution had found him quite charming. But no, the pope had not sent him to help the rebels. His anti-revolution bona fides weren’t even that strong, as he had first sided with the Constitutional Church, though he had later renounced the oath that had put him on the constitutional side of the schism.

Still, his presence among the rebels made him quite the rock star for a several months. He at one point sat on the rebel army’s leadership council. Some of the priests seem to have had their doubts about him, and it is possible that at some point the military leaders had found out the truth but chose not to disillusion their troops.

VendeansTrekToGranvilleJPGOr not to further disillusion them, anyway. Disillusionment enough would come from the fighting itself. In the fall of 1793, the fighting turned against the previously dominant Vendéan army. The key turning point here was the October battle at Cholet, a city south of the Loire river. Though the rebels had superior numbers, the government troops soon got the upper hand. By this point, many inhabitants of the region were so scared of the revolutionary army that even non-combatants were staying close to the army. So it was this mass of humanity, over 100,000 people, that began fleeing north from Cholet. As if reenacting Moses crossing the Red Sea, they crossed the Loire and began traveling through Brittany and Normandy, away from their home base. It was not inherently hostile territory, but neither was it territory that could have supported so many people even in warmer months. Within two months the fighting was done.

Whether one dates the end of the civil war from the defeat at Cholet in October or the final defeats at Le Mans and Savenay in December, the rebel army never recovered. But crossing the Loire would change things dramatically for the Bishop of Agra. The army had taken a route that brought him close to his old parish, and that was that – the people there recognized him and saw him for the ordinary parish priest he had been.

Guyot de Folleville was guillotined in 1794. Such a death was hardly unique, even if among the Vendéans far more died in fighting and from the resulting depravations than died at the guillotine. Still, if his death was not unique, his life certainly was. The Revolution provided an opportunity for supporters and opponents alike to reinvent their lives. Other people at the time reinvented themselves with more success and other people at the time had larger impacts. Few though, if any, reinvented themselves with more imagination than the Bishop of Agra.

By Noah Shusterman
Assistant Professor
Intellectual Heritage Program
Temple University

Engagement: Pankaj Mishra should give it a try

pankaj_mishra+akrEngagement: what does it mean? I have often noted a disconnect with friends in France on the subject (engagement seems to boil down to intellectual debate in France, where we Americans set our trust in volunteerism and social activism, even if our enthusiasm for mass politics has waned). Based on those exchanges over the years, I thought that the American media had a better grasp of the matter. An article in today’s New York Times Book Review is thus disappointing. Pankaj Mishra claims that “The writer chronicling political events in fiction is most effective when participating in a historical process or movement. No such tonic immersion is available to most contemporary writers, who, as sequestered as ever, must strive alone to transcend the general impoverishment of the political imagination.” This seems incredible to me. Mr. Mishra, according to Wikipedia, divides his time between London and India. And he has found no meaningful way to engage in the contemporary scene?! If those of us who live the American heartland have ways to engage and feel the “tonic immersion” of historical process, why can’t he?
Engagement begins at home. Being a mentor to an at-risk adolescent and teaching language arts to first-generation college hopefuls from the African-American community in South Bend, Indiana, where I live, are two of the ways that I have made meaning out of my life, and discovered the excitement of participating in historical process. I think Mishra has developed an exaggerated sense of history’s unfolding. History is what we make, every day, wherever we are. There is a lot of hope, struggle, and need all around us, and things are happening all the time. I hope for his sake that he finds his way back from self-imposed authorial “sequestration” and joins the living.


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