French salon, by Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier, 1812 / Musée national des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau
Six Ways That the Enlightenment Mattered
La Liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty Leading the People), by Eugene Delacroix, 1830 / Louvre Museum
I’m going to talk about the Enlightenment and the cultural concomitants of the French Revolution, and how people began to imagine an alternate sense of sovereignty in the nation.
I’m going to do four things today. I’m going to first talk about your basic outline of what difference the Enlightenment made, followed by — with reference to my good friend Bob Darnton’s work, The Social History of Ideas — and look at surprising ways that Enlightenment influence was felt. I’m not talking about the big-time people like Rousseau and Voltaire, but the Grub Street hacks. Then I’m going to talk a little bit about the public sphere, taking two examples. One from the work of David Bell and one from the work of Sarah Maza, in which you can see this emergence of this possibly different way of viewing sovereignty residing in the nation and not in a king. Then look again at what difference, in a very strange way, the Enlightenment made in all of this.
First, the kind of classic stuff, just to review for you. If you had to summarize six ways that the Enlightenment mattered, you might list them like this. First of all, without question, Enlightenment thought — although the Enlightenment thinkers disagreed on many things, and a few were atheists, but not many, most were Deists and believed that God was everywhere — the Enlightenment did weaken the hold of traditional religion, particularly the role of the Catholic Church as a public institution in France. Of course, if you read in high-school French or wherever Candide, which is blatantly antireligious, of Voltaire, you’ll see the most extreme example of that.
Secondly, and related to this, Enlightenment thinkers taught a secular code of ethics, one that was divorced from religious beliefs. That they were engaged with humanity. They loved humanity. They thought people were basically good, and this shouldn’t be just a valley of tears awaiting eternal life, and went out to make such claims.
Third is that they developed a critical spirit of analysis not to accept routine tradition. Truths that were passed down from generation to generation, particularly those passed down by the religious establishment and — not to accept routine tradition, such, for example, routine hierarchies. This was part of their spirit of analysis.
Fourth, they were curious about history and believed in progress. They were convinced that France had a special role to play in this. To be sure, the Enlightenment was to be found in many places in Europe, and in what became the United States. Paris particularly played a central role in that.
Fifth, that they differentiated absolutism from despotism. In order to understand what happens in this remarkable series of events in 1789 and in subsequent years, as I said before, there weren’t ten people in France who considered themselves republicans, that is who wanted a republic in 1789 and how it was that two or three years later, in 1793 it became easy for the majority of the population to imagine a life without any king at all.
Sixth — and here’s the role of the Grub Street hacks, of the third division of Enlightenment thinkers that I’ll talk about in just a few minutes — they heaped abuse against what they considered to be unearned, unjustified privilege, and — how can one put this — disrespected the monarchy and the nobles who hung around the king. One can say in hindsight, because we know what happened next, that the Enlightenment helped prepare the way for the French Revolution and that the French Revolution transferred power, transferred authority to people who were very influenced by the Enlightenment. The classic example which I will give, because I enjoy talking about him so much and he is important, is Maximilian Robespierre, who in many ways was a child of the philosophes.
The Spread of Enlightenment Thinking through the Public Sphere: Academies, Masonic Lodges, and Salons
The Three Philosophers, by Giorgione, 1508 / Kunsthistorisches Museum
As you know, the philosophes, which is such an important word in French, became a word in English. The philosophes were the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Robespierre, born in Arras in the northern part of France and now what is the Pas de Calais, was very much influenced by Enlightenment thought. As the twelve of the Committee of Public Safety sat around that big green table making decisions that affected the lives of lots of people in France, Enlightenment influence was certainly there. The Enlightenment stretched across frontiers. I think there’s a map in the second edition of the book that you are kindly reading where you can find copies of Diderot’s famous encyclopedia. You could find it in South Africa. You could find it in Moscow. You could find it in Philadelphia. You could find it in New York. You could find it in papal Rome. You could find it all over the place.
One thing that’s interesting is that twenty or thirty years ago, when I was starting out, when people did what they used to call intellectual history, intellectual history was the big ideas. You call it the Via Regia of history, where you’ve got one idea moving along and it hooks up with another idea, and then a third idea comes as a result of that idea. It’s rather like traditional art history where you try to discover where it is that Pizarro got his red ochre as a color, or where such and such a Baroque painter got the idea of painting cherubs in a certain way.
In the very early ’70s, my colleague, retired a long time, a great historian Peter Gay, coined the phrase “the social history of ideas.” Ideas, too, have a history. Who understood Rousseau? Who read Voltaire? Who read the Encyclopedia of Diderot? How do we know how these ideas were used? He called for the social history of ideas. A number of people, including Bob Darnton who is now at Harvard, but taught at Princeton for decades and who turned out the finest historians of old regime France, took this very seriously. So did another friend of mine, Danielle Roche, who did work on the académies, which I’ll discuss in a while.
They began to look at how Enlightenment ideas got around. How did copies of Candide, which was illegal in France, censored. How did these things turn up in France? Let me just say a couple things about this. Enlightenment ideas really came into elite popular opinion, in what we call the public sphere — that is, people who are interested in ideas, and people who became interested in politics — in really three major ways in France. There are equivalents of these in other place. The Scottish example because the Scottish Enlightenment is very important. You can read about it in the book. One of these will be quite clear there. First, through, académies. An academy was not a university. It has nothing to do with a university. They still exist. I’m a member of one of these academies, an obscure one in the Ardèche.
An academy was a group of erudites, sometimes including clergy, many nobles, many bourgeois people of education. The population that was literate increases in Western Europe decidedly in the eighteenth century. They would get together and discuss ideas. They had contests where people who wanted to make a little money would answer a question put out by the académie. They would write responses to questions about science, religion, and big ideas. Robespierre wins one of these contests. These académies meet in smaller rooms than this, but they discuss ideas. These ideas are putting in sharp analysis, or re-evaluation, the role of the church as an institution. They have to get around some way. People have to know about them. The academy is one way this happened.
Mother Lodge building in Kilwinning, North Ayrshire, Scotland, built in 1599
A second one, moving to number three, are Masonic lodges. Masonic lodges still exist. There’s one, I don’t know if it’s still active, but there’s a big Masonic building out on Whitney on the right. I think it became an insurance building. One of the horrors of my seventh grade life was having to be dragged off to the dancing school in Portland, Oregon, which met in a large building which was a Masonic lodge. Masonic lodges begin in Scotland. They are secularizing institutions that the members mostly all agree, agreed in the eighteenth century, that the church’s public institution role is too important. Masonic lodges talk about these ideas as well. They talk about Rousseau, Diderot, Montesquieu, and all of these people. This is a second way in which these ideas get out.
The third is the salon. There’s another French word that’s so important it became an English word. A salon was a gathering of pretty elite people, but interested in the life of the mind. They were hosted by hostesses, again, the role of women in the Enlightenment. I give you in the book the example of Madame Geoffrin, which was the classic one. People would come together to eat, to drink, and to discuss ideas. When British guests came to Paris, the salons, they said, “All they do is eat and drink. They spend all their time eating and drinking, and they don’t discuss ideas that much.” In fact, they did.
There’s still a wonderful place in Paris called the Palais Royal where you can go, and on very hot days — in the eighteenth century, in the 1770s, you can imagine people meeting there talking about the ideas of young Enlightenment hotshots, those people who have become part of the canon of western civilization. This is another way where these ideas get along. Young, would-be philosophes on the make coming up from the provinces, what they want to do is be introduced to one of these hostesses so that they will be invited to trot out their intellectual wares at one of these gatherings. These are concrete examples of the way that these ideas got around. People didn’t pay any attention to this before about thirty, thirty-five years ago. Danielle Roche’s book on the académies, two huge volumes not translated, are really marvelous in all of that. That’s something to keep in mind.
The Enlightenment among the Grub Street Hacks
A copy of The Grub Street Journal lies at the writer’s feet, in William Hogarth’s The Distrest Poet. Set in a garret, the print has been described as a study of a typical Grub Street writer. / Wikimedia Commons
The high Enlightenment really ends in 1778, traditionally. That’s a textbook kind of date. But it does matter, because that’s when Voltaire and his great enemy, Rousseau, both die. After that, there are no more Montesquieus, or Voltaires, or the big-time all stars of the philosophes. There aren’t any more. But there is this next generation of would-be philosophes, people who could think and write and who want to hit the big time. They see that Voltaire made big bucks, big francs, big livre writing. They want to be like him. They want to be like Voltaire. They want to be like Rousseau, his archenemy who paced around his little farm called Les Charmettes in Savoy outside of Chambéry, and who hated Voltaire. They really couldn’t stand each other. But he also hit the big time.
What the Grub Street hacks, Grub Street refers to a street in London where lots of would-be writers and writers who are peddling their wares hung around. These Grub Street hacks, the third division of people who want to have the kind of entry into the salon life to put forth their ideas. They live on the top floor, where the poorest people live. They’re dodging their landlords all the time. They don’t have enough money to pay. A lot of them live in Paris around now around Odéon. It doesn’t matter if you know Odéon at all, but they live right around that part in the Latin Quarter, but more in what now is the Sixth Arrondissement, and they write.
But what do they write about? They need to make money. The big news here, as Darnton discovered, is they write pornography. They write scatological pornography. They write what they call in French libelles. They write broadsides, really, denouncing the royal family, denouncing the queen above all. Indelibly called “the Austrian whore” by her many detractors, who are omnipresent. They write against what they think is unearned privilege, the kind of censorship that they see is keeping them from hitting the big time. The point of Darnton’s many wonderful books is that in the long run, although these people were the Grub Street hacks, Voltaire denigrated them as the canaille, the rabble, the scribblers, jealous, eager, anxious, hungry — is that their attacks on the regime and against the unearned privilege, as they saw it, helps erode belief in the monarchy, and helps suggest that the monarchy itself and the people hanging around the monarchy at Versailles is lapsing into despotism.
So, they do make a difference. Let me give you an example. This is sort of a classic one. Imagine you’re a bookseller in Poitiers. Poitiers is a very nice town full of lovely old romance churches in central western France. You are writing to Switzerland to order books that you want to sell to people who have ordered books, for example. He writes the following letter: “Here is a short list of philosophical books (books written by the philosophes) that I want to order. Please send the invoice in advance. They include: Venus and the Cloister, or, The Nun in the Nightgown; Christianity Unveiled (that could be the subtitle, too); Memories of Madame la Marquise de Pompadour; Inquiry on the Origins of Oriental Despotism; The System of Nature; Teresa the Philosopher; Margot the Camp Follower.
This is not exactly the stuff of Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, and these other people. But yet, those who penned such things imagined that they were philosophes and wanted to have the same kind of impact that Voltaire and the others had. These were la canaille, the kind of rabble of Grub Street. Why was he writing Switzerland to begin with? Again, this is the question of how do these ideas get around? One of the things that the Grub Street hacks didn’t like is that you’ve got censors. You’ve got paid censors who work for the government who say, “This can’t be published” or “Un-uh. You shouldn’t have published that baby. That wasn’t a good idea.” The result is, in a system in which privilege, of which monopolies, of which guilds controlled the production and distribution of almost everything, that book-selling and book-printing are monopolies controlled by the state.
Neuchâtel mit Tour du Prison und Kathedrale / Photo by Roland Zumbühl, Wikimedia Commons
So, if you’re a Parisian printer, unless you’re risking being thrown in the slammer, the slammer (that’s not a real word in French, obviously), you can’t print this stuff out in Paris. So much of the Enlightenment literature is published in — you’ll not be shocked to know — you already know this, Amsterdam, or in Brussels, in the southern Netherlands, or Switzerland. Bob Darnton, when he was a young professor, before that a young graduate student, he hit the jackpot. A lot of the stuff was printed in Switzerland in Neufchatel, and he got hold of the archives of this printing company. He was able to do the social history of ideas. Who bought what?
By the way, before the Ryan Air or any of these places, how do you get all of this stuff from Switzerland, where there are big mountains, into France? How do you get it to Poitiers? How do you get it there? Again, you have to look at the way that this stuff is distributed. The ideas, we’ve already seen how they were distributed, but how literally do you get these books, these bouquins, these pamphlets, these brochures from Switzerland or the equivalent, from Amsterdam or Brussels — that’s easier, a flat country is a little different than mountains — into France?
Well, in France, as in the German states, as in Italy, there were peddlers. There were peddlers. They would go on the road and they had — like a medicine ball in a gym, they’d have these huge leather bags. They’d be stuffed with all sorts of things — pens and pins and — I think I mentioned this is another context — and religious literature, but also hidden at the bottom, beneath the religious literature, they are smuggling into France Enlightenment literature. They have drop-off points. They go over the Jura Mountains, that’s not so easy to do, and they take them to a city like Chaumont in the east, or Metz or Nancy. Then somebody else carries the stuff all the way. Avoiding the police around Paris, the gendarmerie, the maréchaussées as they were called then, this stuff, Margot the Camp Follower ends up pleasing this drooling guy in Poitiers, who can buy it from his bookstore.
You can really follow not only Diderot’s encyclopedia — and how do we know where Diderot’s encyclopedia ended up, by the way? Well, for example, people who leave wills, that’s how we know about literature in the nineteenth century, because the libraries in estates would be detailed, so we know what books people had. In the eighteenth century we have a tremendous proliferation of ideas, of reading, of literacy, and of ways of discussing these ideas. I’ve already mentioned three of them there, but if you look at the case of Britain, you’ve got the coffeehouses. Coffeehouses follow the mania of coffee. Coffee comes from where? The colonies. So, coffeehouses are part of this sort of globalization of the economy, but also the globalization of ideas. This stuff all kind of fits together.
Again, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Diderot and the others would be just horrified to think that anybody intellectual would be mentioning some of these Grub Street hacks along with them, because they didn’t accept them and nor were they of the same quality at all. Some of these guys, by the way, there’s one who I mention in the book, a guy called Brissot, B-R-I-S-S-O-T, who becomes an important leader of a faction in the Revolution called the Girondins, from around Bordeaux, who are against the Jacobins. More about that later. Brissot is broke. How is he going to pay the landlord? He has no idea. Where is he going to get his next drink? What does he do? He works for the police. He works as a police informer on the other would-be philosophes, on the Grub Street hacks. How do we know this? Darnton found the dossier in which Brissot is being paid off by these people.
What are other ways that we know how many of these characters there were? There were about 200 to 300. I don’t remember exactly. Why? Because they want money. On one hand they say, “I don’t like this censorship, it’s keeping people from recognizing my true genius.” On the other hand they write little sniveling letters saying, “I am a writer and a very good one, indeed. Therefore, I merit a state pension.” They write these letters to the various equivalents of ministries, saying, “Please give me some money, because I am a really wonderful writer and instead of repressing my work, you should be saluting my genius.” They write clammy letters like that, that you find in the archives. We piece this stuff together gradually.
Desacralization of the French Monarchy
Portrait of Voltaire ( François-Marie Arouet) by by Nicolas de Largillière, 1724 / Palace of Versailles
What would Voltaire think of this? Here is one of these pamphlets that’s denouncing the high-livers out at Versailles. “The public is warned that an epidemic disease is raging among the girls of the opera, that has begun to reach the ladies of the court and that has been communicated to their lackeys. This disease elongates the face, destroys the complexion, reduces the weight, and causes horrible ravages where it becomes situated. There are ladies without teeth, others without eyebrows, and some are now completely paralyzed.” People want to know what it is. It’s obviously a venereal disease. He’s obviously exaggerating the — who knows? I don’t know — but the results of such a malady.
What he’s doing is he’s suggesting that what’s really going on at Versailles is lots of people — how do I put this politely? — hooking up all over the place at the petites réunions, while they’re dressing up as peasants, or whatever, and that the result is very demeaning for the French state and for the French monarchy. So, does this have an effect? It does. It really does. It contributes to what has been called the desacralization of the French monarchy. It is very hard to argue that God has put absolute monarchs on earth to bring people better lives if you’ve got these people — and ordinary people did not get into Versailles, unless they were among the 15,000 lackeys working there. Lackeys would be the term given by the people who employed them. You didn’t know. You had to surmise. You had to guess what was going on.
I’ll give you a couple of examples in a while, and I’d better hurry up and do this, in which you can kind of see how this works. I’ll give you kind of a spectacularly interesting example, at least I think so, at the end. By the way, just as an aside, during the French Revolution Louis XVI decides to get the hell out. He and Marie Antoinette, improbably, dress themselves up as ordinary people. They’re not people who have to set the alarm clock usually. They get up at 3:00 in the morning and they get into this large carriage that’s been stuffed with silver and foie gras and all sorts of other things. They hightail it toward what is now the Belgian frontier, but they get further and further behind. You can read about this when you get to that chapter. It’s an interesting story.
Finally, they get recognized. She is not a governess, she is the queen. One of the people that first realizes this is the king has actually caught a glimpse of the king himself by looking through the fence at Versailles at the time of a wedding. He sees the king. There aren’t photographs. He recognizes the king’s nose. He gets down on his knees and says, “Sire, you are the king.” This guy can no longer pretend that he’s a mere hanger-on assisting a Russian baroness. It’s all over but the shoutin’ at that point. What these people do is they helped break down this sense of automatic respect for the monarchy as an institution. Of course, the fact that they can’t stand Marie Antoinette who, rightly or wrongly, is accused of all sorts of things.
This is racing ahead of the story, but Louis XVI was a big-time cuckolded guy. His wife was seriously sleeping around while he was taking apart and putting back together clocks, which he liked to do in the big house when his wife is out in the bushes, to put it crudely. I forgot this is being televised. Anyway, take that back. Can you erase that, please? Anyway, what these people do is over the long run this helps erode respect for the monarchy, and helps us explain why it was in 1789 you could imagine a world without a king and a world without a queen. When they bring them back, they bring the old boy and his wife back from Varennes, which is in the northeast of France, the National Guard turns their backs in serious disrespect to the carriage, and they hold their guns upside down. At that point, that’s la fin des haricots, the end of the green beans, as the French say, for the king.
Legal Briefs on the Despotism of the Monarchy: The Law as a New Source of Sovereignty
Portrait of Cornelius Jansen, professor at the Old University of Louvain / National Portrait Gallery, London
But this process started earlier. The third-string hacks of the Enlightenment had something to do with it. Let me give you a couple of examples also from other friends, but really good serious work has been done in the last twenty or twenty-five years. Rocketing right along here, let me give you another example of this relationship of the public sphere to imagining a new source of sovereignty, that is the nation, and give you an example of how that works. This comes from the work of David Bell, who is my colleague and still very dear friend who teaches at Johns Hopkins. This is from his work on lawyers in the eighteenth century.
We’ll give you an example of how this fits together. It fits into the Enlightenment stuff, because if Enlightenment literature was censored and sometimes hard to get hold of, though an encyclopedia was tolerated and then not tolerated and then tolerated again, what Bell’s work on lawyers demonstrates is the way in which lawyers and legal briefs help get these ideas around as well. Because you could not censor legal briefs. To give you just an aside, don’t worry about this now. In the case of imperial Russia in the late nineteenth century you had big-time censorship by the police. In fact, when there were these political trials, lots of what was said in the courtroom got around as well and couldn’t really be censored in the way that ordinary publications could. You had this same sort of effect there.
Let me give you a couple examples. They’re complicated examples, but don’t worry about them. The first would be from this very strange not really heresy, but I guess the Catholic Church considered it a heresy called Jansenism. I remember once coming in to do the equivalent of this lecture and having to look at my own book for a good definition of Jansenism that I must have found once, because it’s so obscure. There was a bishop who didn’t think he was obscure, but a Belgian bishop called a Jansen who thought that the Catholic Church was becoming too over-mighty, and full of Baroque masses and huge expenses for archbishops who weren’t doing a damn thing. He imagined another kind of religion and became very ascetic. Somebody once called them Calvinists who went to mass. They were still Catholic, but they didn’t believe in this high Baroque church.
Jansenism was in 1715 or so. Then it comes back in the 1760s or 1770s. It’s extremely boring stuff. Louis XIV didn’t think it was boring. He sent out the troops to burn down Jansenist abbeys, the big one was called Port-Royal outside of Paris. He thought that this was a threat to the Galician Church, which was sort of the alliance of the Catholic Church with the monarchy in France. Rather like Carthage, they were supposed to plow salt into the land and all this business. So, they wage war on these Jansenist people, who were rather like Calvinists in many ways. But the only point of that is that there are lawyers who begin to defend the Jansenists and begin to see the actions of the king vis-à vis this persecuted religious minority as despotic.
When lawyers are publishing legal briefs — and there’s enough references in the book, so you can put this together, but I just want you to see the point. When they begin to publish legal briefs defending the Jansenists against these kinds of attacks, these are published by thousands of them. They can’t be censored. They begin to suggest at a time in the eighteenth century, particularly after mid-century when we can already begin to speak of French nationalism, at least among the elite at the time of the Seven Years’ War, 1756-1763, thus the Seven Years’ War. It begins to suggest two things. That monarchies can behave despotically, going beyond the accepted limits of absolute rule, and that the nation, this idea of the nation is being betrayed by bad governments. If this doesn’t sound like the French Revolution, then nothing else will. Those are very important defining moments.
The same things happen also in the 1760s and 1770s, with various attempts to liberalize the French economy that I describe in the book. The king’s attempt to dispense with the parlements, which were really noble law courts that were provincial. You can read about this. But the same thing happens. This is the point. These lawyers begin turning out these legal briefs that imply the same two things: that absolute monarchy is risking stepping over the lines of the acceptable and behaving in a despotic way, and that there is something called the nation in which nobody would have imagined that classes were all equal — the discourse of liberty, fraternity and equality is a hell of a long way away — but that the traditional rights of the nation are being betrayed by the monarchy and that things isn’t so good at Versailles.
Palace of Versailles / Wikimedia Commons
Again, trying to look ahead and see what happens in 1788 and above all, 1789, which is one — I’m not a big guy on dates in history and having to remember all these dates. But 1789, like 1917, that’s a big one. That’s a big one. But in order to also understand the emergence of a radical republic and the execution of the king, one has to see that the nation becomes invested with a sense of moral quality that makes it not impossible to imagine a world without kings. And, so, lawyers, who are called barristers, play a major role in all of this.
Again, this has to be seen in the context of a century in which more and more people can read. The literacy rate in a country like France is still well below fifty percent, maybe forty or forty-five percent, something like that. More men could read than women. Not only literacy increases among the elite, but the amount of things that are published and the amount of newspapers that are published expands dramatically. A point of reference would be in Britain, you can read about this, the campaign of John Wilkes, who was sort of a rascally character. But Wilkes — and the number forty-five becomes virtually illegal, because forty-five was the number of a newspaper in which Wilkes and his supporters essentially call out the British political system.
Again, we’re talking mostly about Western Europe, and literacy is much higher in the Netherlands and in Northern France and in Northern Italy and in England than in other places. This is part of this cultural revolution. It’s important to see the role of this, because in orthodox Marxist interpretation you had to have the ever-rising bourgeoisie, the rising in the fourteenth century. There they are again in the sixteenth century. They’re like some sort of runaway bread or something like that. In the nineteenth century there they are, the bourgeois century. I’ll give a lecture on the bourgeoisie, because they do indeed rise. Nonetheless, a kind of class analysis can’t be completely thrown out. Classes did exist and people had a sense of themselves as being members of a social class. It was not immutable — these boundaries were more fluid in Britain than in other places, but still are important.
Sensational Royal Affairs: The Erosion of Monarchical Prestige
Portrait of King Louis XVI by Antoine-François Callet, 1789 / Palace of Versailles
But now for the last thirty years, people have paid more attention to the cultural concomitance of revolution and what difference Enlightenment ideas made, and what difference the emergence of a sense of the nation and the infusion of politics with a sense of right and wrong and morality. It’s an important part of all this. In the last twelve minutes and thirty seconds that I have today, let me give you another example of this. I think this is a fascinating — it’s so fascinating I can’t find it. Let me give you an example. This is drawing upon an excellent book by Sarah Maza. It’s a very well-known episode, but it shows you and ties together the sense of the nation along with the impact of this sort of third generation of Enlightenment hacks after 1778, to understand their role in the erosion of a sense that the monarchy was immutable in representing the rights of the nation, even if that construct was just coming into being.
In this book called — what’s it called? — Private Lives and Public Affairs. Maza takes a couple of cause célèbres. Cause célèbre would be like one of the things that you find in the tabloids in Britain or the U.S. I don’t read that stuff, so I really can’t give any good examples. But one of these actors and actresses you always see running around, or whoever this person is, Brittany Spears, or something like that. A singer or actress, I don’t know what she does. But anyway, something like that, that people focus their attention on these people. They sort of dominate, if you will — this is almost an insane comparison, but the public sphere in that they’re in the news all the time.
And, so, what Maza did about the same time that David Bell was working on the role of lawyers in the eighteenth century is that she took a couple of these examples, and shows the way in which private affairs that were kind of sleazy and not too cool — but were sensational — helped bring these threads together and contributed to kind of erode the prestige of the monarchy. This fits into the sense that I’ve already given you that was extremely pervasive, particularly around Paris is that a lot of things that went on at Versailles weren’t so good. The 10,000 nobles who were clustered around Louis XVI and particularly his wife were undermining the authority and the prestige of the monarchy, and that wasn’t a good thing.
An incident called “The Diamond Necklace Affair” is illustrative and mildly amusing, not more than that. It also involves this Palais Royal place in Paris before. A woman called Jeanne de Saint-Rémy — the name doesn’t matter at all — was a poor noble. She claimed descent from the royal family. She had a pretty good education. She had important protectors. She marries an officer of rather dubious noble title, who was called, quite forgettably, the Marquis de la Motte. He met the fifty-year-old cardinal called Louis de Rohan, whose name I should have put on there, R-O-H-A-N. He was from a very famous old family called Rohan Soubise. The national archives used to be and now they’re adjacent to it in this fabulous old — why don’t they ever have things that work in here? It’s just unbelievable. I can’t find anything to write with.
The family called Rohan Soubise — there’s this wonderful, wonderful palace or chateau in the Marais, which is still there. This cardinal is on the make. He’s very, very wealthy. He’s a cardinal. That’s why he’s wealthy. Or he’s wealthy because he’s a cardinal. He thinks he’s snubbed the queen. He wants to be one of the people who helped make important decisions, but he thinks he’s alienated the queen, that this is standing between him and the power that he thinks he should have. He writes missives to the queen begging her to forgive him. He’s met this guy, de la Motte. They begin sending forged replies from the queen that suggest that the queen now is listening, and maybe all is forgiven and it’s going to be okay.
They have this idea. There’s a famous jewel that had 647 flawless gems, worth 1.5 million pounds, which is a whole lot of money in those days and still now. Louis XV had commissioned it for one of his mistresses and then backed down because it was too expensive. In 1788 the necklace was offered to Louis XVI for Marie Antoinette, but he turned it down, saying the realm needs more ships than it does more jewels, which was reasonable enough. They con this old, fairly horny cardinal into showing up at dusk at the Palais Royal and introducing him to the queen herself, whom I guess he’d met once. But it’s dusk and his eyesight isn’t that good. What they do is they find this prostitute, of which there were about 25,000 in Paris at any one time, who looks vaguely like Marie Antoinette.
Portrait of Cardinal de Rohan / Louvre Museum
This cardinal, de Rohan, thinks that his ship has come in, that everything is going to be okay. This purchase order has been forged, supposedly signed by the queen, and the real jewels are delivered. Then, of course, it’s broken up into pieces and sold on the street for zillions of francs, sold on the black market in London and in Paris. But there’s a problem here, because the word gets out what has happened. And de Rohan, who has really been made a fool, there’s no doubt about it. But it’s more serious than that, because that he has done is he could be accused of lèse majesté, which is the ultimate kind of insult, plotting against the queen by identifying her prostitute as the queen herself.
To make a very long story short, the monarchy, humiliated by all of this — the cardinal is saying mass in his fancy robes in some cathedral, probably Saint-Eustache, but I’m not sure. It might have been Notre-Dame. I don’t know. Well, Saint-Eustache isn’t a cathedral. But anyway, he’s in his robes. The police come in and arrest him. What happens then is they put him on trial. He is not a terribly loveable guy or — not someone to be very much admired. By an incredible series — or not an incredible series, but an almost logical playing out of what I’ve been saying, the lawyers who defend him and the crowds who salute him portray him as a victim of a regime that is crossing the line between absolutism and despotism.
He is a cardinal and he becomes the darling of the people. Poor old Jeanne, this noble, she and her boyfriend get branded and sent off to the galleys, et cetera, et cetera, predictably enough. But the parlement of Paris acquits the good cardinal, and he emerges from the palace of justice or the parement — still now on the Ile de-la-Cité, the largest of the then three but now two islands in the Seine in Paris — to popular acclaim, saying that justice and the interests of the nation have been served by his acquittal. What this sleazy, unsavory incident does is it helps continue the desacralization of the French monarchy.
Again, lawyers and the people who see themselves as representing the interests of the French nation are, in their own imaginary, and in their own mental construction, and in the eyes of people who follow these events in legal briefs and in newspapers — the guy who’s acquitted is seen as somebody who had been done wrong to by a monarchy that has gone too far. That exactly, not much more than a year later, is what is going to play out in the French Revolution itself.
To conclude, Voltaire, de Rohan, Montesquieu, who you’ve been reading and these folks have big-time impact on the way we look at the world around us. They had an impact on those people who would become the organizers of the revolution and indeed, the leaders of France and their children, their successors in the nineteenth century. But lawyers, part of this culture of increased public sphere that was Western Europe in particular but also parts of the rest of Europe, too, in the eighteenth century, had a role in all of this, and that by 1789, not in any kind of inevitable process, a revolution was not inevitable, but the sense that the monarchy had gone too far and that there was something called the nation out there, was in the public sphere and the results of all of this would be there to see in 1789.