The Worst Excesses: How to Tell Your French Revolutions Apart

“Then he gets involved in a French Revolution, but not the big famous one, a little later one you thought you didn’t know anything about.” —Forbidden Broadway Vol. 2, “More Miserable.”

We’re going to solve this problem right now. 

An Army of Lawyers Cannot Fail: “The French Revolution”

France was in debt, partially from supporting the American Revolution, but also because the nobility and the church were exempt from taxation: a thing which never happens anymore. Louis XVI couldn’t tax the wealthy because the nobility controlled the parlements. So the Revolution began with a revolt of the nobles: the nobility refused to honor the king’s attempts to levy taxes unless the Estates General were called, knowing that they would dominate such a meeting. 

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“The Tennis Court Oath at Versailles” Jacques-Louis David (1791)

Instead, the Third Estate protested the meeting’s structure. On June 20, 1789, they signed the Oath of the Tennis Court, declaring themselves the National Assembly and vowing to draft a constitution.

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“The Marquis de Launay, gouverneur de la Bastille, Foulon….drawn from life” Anne-Louis Girodet (1789)

On July 14, a mob of Parisians stormed the Bastille. Rioters dragged out De Launay, the prison’s governor, and beheaded him, parading his severed head through the city on a pike. Elsewhere, Foulon de Doué, the Controller-General of Finances whose appointment sparked the riots, was lynched and beheaded. Foulon was famous for suggesting “if the people are hungry, let them eat grass,” his death is described in A Tale of Two Cities:

…Foulon who told the starving people they might eat grass! Foulon who told my old father that he might eat grass, when I had no bread to give him! Foulon who told my baby it might suck grass, when these breasts where dry with want! O mother of God, this Foulon! O Heaven our suffering! Hear me, my dead baby and my withered father: I swear on my knees, on these stones, to avenge you on Foulon! Husbands, and brothers, and young men, Give us the blood of Foulon, Give us the head of Foulon, Give us the heart of Foulon, Give us the body and soul of Foulon, Rend Foulon to pieces, and dig him into the ground, that grass may grow from him! With these cries, numbers of the women, lashed into blind frenzy, whirled about, striking and tearing at their own friends until they dropped into a passionate swoon, and were only saved by the men belonging to them from being trampled under foot. […] Once, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; twice, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; then, the rope was merciful, and held him, and his head was soon upon a pike, with grass enough in the mouth for all Saint Antoine to dance at the sight of.

Résultats: The National Assembly established a constitutional monarchy against the wishes of the king, who tried to flee. Most men over 25 could vote for “electors” by paying a tax; the electors, who paid a higher tax, selected legislative deputies. They also selected bishops and priests. All clergy were required to swear a loyalty oath to the state. 

In popular culture: Everywhere. Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, because politics are better with fraught queer love quadrangles. A Tale of Two Cities is The Woman in White with guillotines. The vampire farce Bite Me! is in print now. The French comic Petit Miracle tells the adventures of Denis, the son of a nun and a decapitated man, who can detach his head from his body. All 40 episodes of cross-dressing shoujo epic The Rose of Versailles are on Hulu. In Farewell, My Queen, one of Marie-Antoinette’s readers takes the place of her supposed lover, Yolande de Polignac, so that the latter may escape to safety.


What’s the Point of a Revolution Without General Copulation: The Reign of Terror 

Image: The Death of Marat, Jacques-Louis David (1793) 

This was the international, we-will-assist-all-peoples-wishing-to-recover-their-liberty, let’s-go-to-war-with-all-of-Europe, let’s-kill-the-king phase of the French Revolution. On August 10, 1792, a mob stormed the Tuileries and imprisoned the royal family. The insurgents invalidated the constitution and provided for the election of a new National Convention. They murdered some 1,100 prisoners in the subsequent September Massacres, including the Princesse de Lamballe, rumored to have once been one of Marie-Antoinette’s lovers. A mob carried Lamballe’s head to the Temple on a pike, demanding that the queen be made to kiss her girlfriend; only at the last minute were they persuaded to march their trophy through the streets instead.

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James Gillray, “Un petit souper, à la parisienne : – or – a Family of sans-culottes refreshing, after the fatigues of the day” (20 September 1792)

What about the Committee of Public Safety? Yes, this was the phase with the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre & co. established a program of revolutionary trials to defend the Republic against internal enemies. Some 40,000 people died during the Terror. At Nantes, refractory clergy were subjected to “vertical deportation,” i.e., mass drownings in which prisoners were forced onto barges which were deliberately sunk in the Loire. There’s still some question as to whether the famous “Republican marriages,” in which a priest and a nun were stripped naked and bound to one another before drowning, actually took place.

Résultats: The First French Republic. Universal male suffrage. Divorce was in, slavery was out, the state was dechristianized, and compulsory heterosexuality was enshrined as a republican virtue. 

In popular culture: The Scarlet Pimpernel is the name of a humble English wayside flower; but it is also the name chosen to hide the identity of the best and bravest man in all the world, so that he may better succeed in accomplishing the noble task he has set himself to do. Marat/Sade. Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian for the cultural afterlife of Marie Antoinette. Leslie Dick’s The Skull of Charlotte Corday is about, guess what. “Thermidor,” collected in the Sandman volume Fables and Reflections, is a story about smuggling Opheus’s animate disembodied head out of Paris while Robespierre slides from power. Unchallenged at work? The French Revolution Digital Archive has 12,000 images to browse through. But who has a job, no one has jobs anymore. Sit in your mother’s, girlfriend’s, husband’s house; sit in the apartment you can’t afford; look at pictures like this. Perhaps you could take up knitting.  


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