Defending the 12th century since the 14th; blogging since the 21st.

Catholicism, Conservatism, the Middle Ages, Opera, and Historical and Literary Objets d'Art blogged by a suburban dad who teaches law and writes stuff.

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Who was Cacciaguida? See Dante's PARADISO, Cantos XV, XVI, & XVII.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution -- I

This is the most famous study of the French Revolution to come out in the post-War era, maybe in all the 20th century. I don't have a cite for that proposition, but if anyone thinks any French Revolution book of the modern era has had more influence, I'd like to hear about it.

Citizens makes it impossible to cling to Jeffersonian romances about the French Revolution. Not that I ever did that (not after reading A Tale of Two Cities in sixth grade, at any rate), but some do. In fact, as five seconds'-worth of Googling shows, the people who want to do for the Terror what David Irving does for the Holocaust are making themselves heard.

Holocaust/Terror analogies are not the least bit inapt. As will become clear, the Terror was the first-ever exercise in industrial-scale human killing, and the use of chemical killing agents, though not feasible at the time, was discussed.

One of the silliest criticisms of Citizens is that the Bastille doesn't fall until page 300-whatever. Well, genius-man, that's because Schama has a few things to say about the political and economic culture out of which the Revolution arose, without which, he suggests, we will misunderstand the Revolution.

Schama is very interested in the role of symbols in politics and history. (That doesn't make him a "symbologist," any more than the subject of the book makes him a French Revolutiologist. Academic micro-titling is a pastime of those who try to write learnedly of what they know nothing about. This concludes today's excursus on Dan Brownology.)

In pursuit of that scholarly agenda, Citizens actually opens in 1830, after the Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire were both long gone, and the Restoration was petering out. The reason for starting here is that the Restoration, or at least its Bourbon phase, ended swiftly and relatively peacefully, largely because of symbols.

When Louis XVIII was set up on the restored throne in 1815, he dispensed with traditional French royal ceremony. But after his death in 1824, his brother and successor, Charles X, took the opposite tack: coronation at Rheims Cathedral, and anointment with the "the Sainte Ampoule, an oil which according to universal belief had been miraculously brought from heaven by an angel, or a dove, for the baptism of Clovis."

From here, I'll let Schama take up the tale of the deposing of Charles X in 1830, with the starring role it gives to symbols and the memories they evoke. The emphasis added is mine, as are additions in square brackets.
There was much to provoke popular anger in 1830. A trade depression with its automatic high bread prices and unemployment had caused groups of angry artisans to assemble in the faubourg Saint-Antoine to listen to journalists and orators denounce the government. But what triggered their emotions and fired their determination was the exposure of revolutionary mementos like holy relics: the tricolor that was flown again from Notre Dame; bodies bayoneted by royal troops, paraded in their bloodied winding sheets through the streets as an incitement to revolt.... The "Marseillaise" sounded again, the red hats of liberty (no more anachronistic in 1830 than in 1789 [being supposedly based on hats worn by manumitted slaves in ancient Rome]), were thrust onto unwigged heads and rust ten-pound cannon were again hauled over the cobbles. A Duc d'Orléans once more plotted (this time successfully) to be the beneficiary of the demise of a Bourbon king. Even Maréchal Marmont, charged with the defense of Paris, seemed imprisoned in this historical reverie. On seeing the allegiance of the military disintegrate he could find nothing better to say to his king than to repeat, verbatim, the words of the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt to Louis XVI on July 15, 1789: "Sire, this is not a riot, it is a revolution." But while Louis had completely failed to grasp the significance of transformed political vocabulary, Charles X knew precisely what these words pretended. He had read the script. He had read the histories. Even his fate was preordained to repeat not Louis' but his own conduct in 1789, for he had been quick to depart then, and he was even quicker now.