Modern history


The Jacobin Republic wore two expressions: the bullying scowl of the Terroriste and the serene countenance of its official icons. In the parts of France touched by federalism, or reluctant to yield up their grain to the cities, the Terror arrived as a disruptive and brutal presence. A représentant-en-mission such as Claude Javogues, who operated in the Loire, was capable of sudden acts of violence, punching people in the face whom he suspected or simply disliked. Riled up, drunk, or both, he could use his unchallenged powers in the department to stage elaborate humiliations or subject local officials to torrents of abuse. A petition from some farmers that incurred his displeasure was torn to shreds and then trampled underfoot by his horse, after which Javogues set about the farmers with the flat of his saber. Having kept a line of prisoners from Montbrison (renamed, after its conquest by the Republic, Montbrisé– Broken Mountain) waiting two hours in the snow, he told the judge of the Revolutionary Tribunal, “How I will relish the pleasure of having all these buggers guillotined.” In the town itself, he said, “One day blood will flow like water in the streets after a great downpour.”

At Saint-Etienne, Javogues presided over a public session of the municipality, convened to impose “revolutionary taxes” on the better-off citizens, while mauling pretty girls placed next to him and emptying thirty bottles of beer and wine. When one of the public made a comment on the arbitrary nature of the taxes, Javogues shouted to the officer of the guard, “Sacré mille foutre! Arrest that bugger over there so that I can have him shot.” At a woman, described in the shocked report as “une vieille fille” and who protested that she had been assessed at more than her whole fortune, he launched into an obscene tirade. “You’re a bitch [garce], a whore, you’ve screwed more priests than I have hairs on my head; your cunt’s so big I could get all of myself in there,” and more in this vein.

Javogues’ behavior was extreme, even by the standards of the anarchic period of the Terror between September and December 1793. To the more prim Jacobins who would eventually bring him down, it may have seemed especially scandalous, since he was hardly someone who had grown up in the gutter. His father had been a lawyer and a conseiller du roi at Montbrison, where he had a house in one of the richest quarters of town. Like so many given sudden power in the autumn of the year II, Javogues obviously enjoyed playing the role of hometown avenging angel, throwing dirt in the faces of the local bourgeois and peasants. Others from backgrounds of real hardship used their new position to exact specific revenge from those who they felt had been the authors of their misery under the old regime. Nicolas Guénot, for example, who had been employed in the terrible work of floating logs down the Yonne to the wharves and sawmills of Paris, became an agent for the police organ of the Convention, the Committee for General Security. In that capacity he sent a number of well-to-do merchants he discovered from his old neighborhood in Paris to the tribunal, before he himself was arrested.

Often the bark of these men was a good deal worse than their bite. But the mercurial, arbitrary manner in which they exercised their jurisdiction still seemed outrageous to politicians in Paris whose image of the Jacobin Republic was intensely moral. To such puritans as Robespierre and Saint-Just, the drunken rampages of such men as Javogues disgraced revolutionary authority so badly that they supposed that the latter must be working for the counter-revolution. The situation was particularly galling since, while Javogues had his hands inside the shirts of citizenesses (sometimes in public), the custodians of official Jacobinism were trying to make an icon out of the republican breast: fecund, innocent and generous. Boizot’s La France Républicaine, for example, is a secular reworking of traditional images of the Virgin Mary in which the exposure of the breast signified her intercession before Christ on behalf of the sinful. In the Jacobin version, the exhibition is an emblem of egalitarian inclusiveness. The equality of “all Frenchmen” regenerated by the nurturing breasts of the Republic is symbolized by the strategically hung carpenter’s level, while the dawn of freedom is represented by another traditional Gallic emblem, the rooster.

Jacobin iconography was a reprise of all the standard themes of prerevolutionary sensibilité: domesticity, the purity of rustic labor, the mutual benevolence of liberty and prosperity. In a typical version of this idyll, an idealized sans-culotte family, the plow by their side, stand before two incarnations of France. Beneath the benign light of the ubiquitous eye of surveillance, industry, symbolized by the beehive, is represented as the source of the horn of plenty, spilling its fruits on the ground while the Republic holds the standard devices of liberty and equality along with the Rights of Man.

As trite and repetitious as these images were, they represented a systematic attempt by the propagandists of Jacobin culture to build a new, purified public morality. The nation would not be truly secure until those whom it comprised internalized the values on which it had been reconstructed. Inheriting from Rousseau (albeit in garbled form) the doctrine that government was a form of educational trust, the guardians of the Revolution meant to use every means possible to restore to a nation corrupted by the modern world the redemptive innocence of the presocial child. On the ruins of monarchy, aristocracy and Roman Catholicism would sprout a new natural religion: civic, domestic and patriotic. Songs and public festivals, necessarily held out of doors, would bring together citizens in communities of harmony. Theater would become more participatory, drawing audiences into its inspirational histories. But it was to images, in their broadest sense, that the Jacobin evangelicals paid special attention. Fabre d’Eglantine, for example, Danton’s poet friend (and accomplice in peculation), used sense-impression theory from the Enlightenment to convince the Convention that “we conceive nothing except by images: even the most abstract analysis or the most metaphysical formulations can only take effect through images.”

There was, then, an organized endeavor to replace the visual reference points of the old France with a whole new world of morally cleansed images. The public Salon of 1793, for example, featured, along with David’s two martyrologies, innumerable paintings in which domestic and patriotic virtues were fused. The “Woman of the Vendée,” for instance, in many versions, blows up herself and her family rather than surrender powder to the “brigands.” Child-heroes became important, among them the “young Darruder,” who picked up his father’s weapon on the field of battle and charged the enemy with it. At the level of popular art, tradesmen were encouraged to exhibit their patriotism by displaying “civic boards” outside their shops in place of the traditional signs. Even playing cards were subjected to this épuration, the queen of hearts being transformed into “Liberty of the Arts” while the king was a sans-culotte general.

The most serious attempt to create a new “empire of images,” in Fabre’s arrestingly modern term, was the invention of the revolutionary calendar. This was also an attempt to reconstruct time through a republican cosmology. The special commission appointed to make recommendations was a peculiar mixture of literary men such as Fabre, Romme and Marie-Joseph Chénier and serious scientists such as Monge and Fourcroy. Together they saw the reform as an opportunity to detach republicans from the superstitions they thought embodied in the Gregorian calendar. Their efforts were directed especially at the rural world, to which the vast majority of Frenchmen still belonged. In keeping with the cult of nature, the twelve months were to be named not just after the changing weather (as experienced in northern and central France) but in poetic evocations of the agricultural year. The first month (which necessarily began with the founding of the Republic in late September) was the time of the vendange, the wine harvest, and thus was calledVendémiaire. The voluptuous incarnations of Salvatore Tresca’s calendar illustrations would, they calculated, make a happy change from St. Mark, the patron of the vineyard. Fabre was explicit about detaching the cultivator from the superstitions by which he sought the blessing of priests for his crops and livestock. There would be no more of the nonsense by which the Church said, “It is through us your granaries are full; believe us, obey and you will be rich. Disobey, and frost, hail and thunder will blacken your crops.” The frontispiece to Millin’s Annuaire Républicain made explicit the vanquishing of the old Gregorian tyrannies by the simplicity of rural husbandry.

Fabre and the commission were not content just to provide a new nomenclature. Each of the twelve months – for example, Brumaire, the misty month; Frimaire, the cold month – was divided into three ten-day units, the décadis, and each of those days was also renamed. In place of the daily associations of the old sacred calendar, Millin’s almanac provided objects of bucolic virtue for daily contemplation. These consisted of crops, vegetables, fruit and flowers on weekly days, an agricultural implement on the tenth-daydécadi and an agricultural animal every fifth day. For the third décade of Fructidor – the transition between summer and autumn – the calendar, for example, prescribed:

eglantine rose




CRAYFISH (fifth day)

Seville orange





Each object listed in this calendrical veneration of nature was, Fabre said, “more precious in the eyes of reason than some skeletons found in the catacombs of Rome.”

After twelve months, each of thirty days, there would be five remaining days left in the year, named by Fabre sans-culottides, and, lest he seem too deferential to the section militants, he provided an implausibly erudite justification. Ancient Gaul, he claimed, had been divided into Gallia braccata – the breeched half, which was (of course) the region around Lyon; and unbreeched Gaul, which was the rest of ancient France. So that, as historical good fortune would have it, the free Franks were already in some sense sans-culottes. The five days would be devoted to festivals, respectively, of talent (génie), industry, heroic deeds and ideas (opinions). This restructuring of republican time was to be completed every four years by a great occasion of patriotic games and athletics, held on the “day of the Revolution” (presumably, August 10).

Though it seems unlikely that the peasants appreciated the replacement of Sunday and “Saint Monday” by the single décadi, coming as it did once every ten days, rather than every seven, the revolutionary calendar was one of the more enduring elements of republican culture, surviving by twelve years the fall of the Jacobins. But although it became accepted as a rather innocuous element of the new France, its introduction was an integral part of a much more aggressive program of iconoclasm. Three days after the calendar had been voted in the Convention, Thuriot told the Jacobins, “It is time, since we have arrived at the summit of the principles of a great revolution, to reveal the truth about all types of religions. All religions are but conventions. Legislators make them to suit the people they govern… It is the moral order of the Republic, of the Revolution, that we must preach now, that will make us a people of brothers, a people of philosophes.”

In practice, however, dechristianization owed less to these high-flown principles and more to the anticlericalism, especially violent in Paris and the Midi, that had played a crucial role in radicalizing the politics of the Revolution. It was carried to the departments by the agents of the Terror who fanned out in the autumn of the year II to bring orthodoxy to disaffected regions of France. They were supported by local Jacobin militants who had either been harassed during the federalist ascendancy or who simply enjoyed showing off their anticlerical zeal. The arméesrévolutionnaires were, predictably, the agents of the most chaotic and brutal attack on clerical culture. Their Parisian headquarters on the rue Choiseul was dominated by theater people: such actors as Grammont and such playwrights as Ronsin, who brought virtually all of the Montansier troupe into the staff with them. They had a long tradition of loathing the Church, which had constantly interfered with the stage and which they had enjoyed pillorying since 1789.

But the most unruly demonstrations of dechristianizing zeal probably happened more or less spontaneously. When a regiment of the army, two thousand strong, arrived at Auxerre en route to Lyon, for example, the cannoneers smashed in church doors and mutilated images and statues of saints. A crucifix was taken from the chapel of Mary and paraded about upside down for citizens to spit on. When a local quarryman refused to do this, one of the soldiers cut off a part of his nose with his saber. On arriving at Clermont-Ferrand, a gang of soldiers, many of them ironworkers from the section du Luxembourg, whose officer called them his “Vulcans,” went directly to the cathedral and

there with terrible vigorous blows they swooped on St. Peter, smashed Saints Paul, Luke and Matthew… all the angels and the archangel Raphael himself, the winged fowl of the celestial band, the beautiful Mary, who bore three children while remaining a virgin…

More orderly forms of dechristianization were provided by such représentants-en-mission as the ex-Oratorian priest Fouché, who undertook a particularly enthusiastic campaign in the Nièvre, where he stripped cemeteries of all religious symbols and posted on the gates his famous dictum “Death is but an eternal sleep.” Such campaigns often began with formal resignations of the constitutional clergy, accompanied by public declarations of their “fraud” and folly. In the Hérault, for example, Jean Radier, the curé of Lansargue, announced that since he now knew that “the occupation of priest is contrary to the happiness of the people, retards the progress of knowledge, and impedes the march of the Revolution, I hereby abdicate and throw myself into the arms of society.” Along with these formal renunciations there were often marriage ceremonies for ex-priests (sometimes involuntary) and, especially in the Midi and the Rhone Valley, burlesque charivaris in which donkeys were dressed in a bishop’s robes and miter and led through the streets. Sometimes mannequins of the Pope would be burned after a similar ceremony of ridicule. Like much else in the violent popular politics of the Revolution, these inversion rites were not fresh inventions but traditional practices crudely modernized for the purposes of the day.

The churches themselves were often stripped of all sacerdotal objects. There were, in any case, urgent practical reasons for this despoliation. Church bells were needed for the arms foundries, gold and silver for the Republic’s treasury, though a great deal of the latter certainly found its way into the pockets of the dechristianizers. But there was also pure vandalism on a massive scale. Altarpieces were slashed, stained-glass windows broken. In Amplepuis, in the Haute-Beaujolais, a liberty tree replaced the crucifix in the crossing of the church. In many other places devotional manuals and hymnals were burned in great bonfires, together with the plaster and wood saints found on every road crossing, crackling and melting in the flames like inanimate victims of an auto-da-fé.

The climax of this extraordinary onslaught on Christian practice occurred in the second week of November. A delegation including Anacharsis Cloots and Léonard Bourdon went to see Gobel, the constitutional Bishop of Paris, got him out of bed and obliged him to abdicate in the Convention the following day (November 7). Letters were read, including one from the curé of Boissise-la-Betrand in the Seine-et-Marne that began, “I am a priest, a curé, that is to say a charlatan; up to now a charlatan in good faith, for I have deceived no one but myself.” Gobel then announced that “there should be no other public cult than liberty and holy equality” and duly resigned, followed by Julien, a Protestant pastor from Toulouse, who declared that “the same destiny awaited every virtuous man whether he adores the God of Geneva, Rome, Mahomet or Confucius.”

Three days later a festival was held in Notre Dame, débaptisée the Temple of Reason. In the interior a gimcrack Greco-Roman structure had been erected beneath the Gothic vaulting. A mountain made of painted linen and papier-mâché was built at the end of the nave where Liberty (played by a singer from the Opéra), dressed in white, wearing the Phrygian bonnet and holding a pike, bowed to the flame of Reason and seated herself on a bank of flowers and plants. Mercier went to see similar ceremonies organized by the Commune, in Saint-Gervais, where the church “smelled of herring,” and Saint-Eustache, where actresses trod on creaking planks beneath stage scenery of woodland cottages and rocky escarpments. Around the choir he was horrified to see “bottles, sausages,andouilles, pâtés and other meats.”

In Paris, the Jacobins were divided over dechristianization. Hébert’s supporters were enthusiasts, none more so than the self-styled “printer of liberty” Momoro. Danton had complained about rhetorical excesses but had then asked the Convention at the end of October to grant him leave to retire to his home in Arcis. But some of his allies, such as Thuriot, were conspicuous dechristianizers, possibly to fight accusations that they were going soft on the Revolution. Robespierre, on the other hand, was deeply shocked by what he took to be the immorality of an assault that pretended to pass itself off as a “philosophy.” The festivals of Reason, he thought, were “ridiculous farces,” staged by “men without honor or religion.” To Fouché’s cemetery notice he retorted that death was not just “eternal sleep” but “the beginning of immortality.” It was probably his influence that prevented the Convention from accepting the invitation to go en masse to Notre Dame.

In Lyon, on the other hand, Fouché’s authority to conduct dechristianizing ceremonies went unchecked. As one of the représentants-en-mission in the city reconquered from the federalists at the beginning of October, he was given virtually dictatorial powers. He began by removing all traces of Christian iconography from the medieval clock tower of Saint-Cyr and replacing them with the revolutionary calendar. On the tenth of November, Chalier’s remains were borne in triumph through the streets (his head was later dispatched to Paris to receive the honors of the Panthéon, as had Marat). An ass, dressed in the robes and miter of Lamourette, the constitutional bishop (he who had orchestrated the “fraternal kiss” in the Legislative in 1792), and with a Bible and a missal tied to its tail, was followed by cartloads of church vessels that, at the end of the procession, were solemnly smashed over Chalier’s tomb. Drinking from an enormous chalice, Grandmaison, one of the most uncontrollable of the Jacobin exterminating angels, parodied the communion liturgy: “Verily I say to you, my brothers, this is the blood of kings, the true substance of republican communion, take and drink this precious substance.”

Three weeks later a fête de Raison was held in the Cathedral of Saint-Jean, at which republican officials bowed before a statue of Liberty and sang an antihymn to words by Fouchè celebrating “Reason as the Supreme Being.”

Lyon, however, had lost more than its church. After a long siege during which outlying satellite towns such as Saint-Etienne were evacuated, the famished, shell-shocked city capitulated on October 9 to the republican armies that encircled it. The muscadins of Lyon, like their counterparts at Marseille and Toulon, had not declared, as had the Vendéan rebels, for the old monarchy, but for the constitution of 1791. At one point, in fact, their commander, de Précy, had told the federalist municipality that he wanted to support a “Republic, one and indivisible.” His reputation in Paris, though, was of an aristocrat who had fought on the wrong side in the battle for the Tuileries on the tenth of August 1792. As a result, the city was subjected to something akin to a colonial occupation. To suggestions that the city might be treated as leniently as Bordeaux, Robespierre fulminated, “No, their memory [of Chalier and those who had been arrested with him] must be avenged and these monsters unmasked and exterminated,” adding, as usual, “Otherwise I myself will perish.”

It was Robespierre’s friend and loyal supporter the crippled Georges Couthon who, with two other colleagues, Châteauneuf-Randon and Delaporte, was first responsible for re-Jacobinizing the rebel city. On October 13 he wrote to Saint-Just that a wholesale regeneration was called for. People needed to be taught their “alphabet” all over again, but this would not be easy because the local population “are stupid by temperament since the mists of the Rhone and Saône carry into the atmosphere a fog which enshrouds clear ideas.” They should be given strong republican medicine: “a purge; a vomit and an enema.”

He wasted no time in applying this treatment. After reinstating the municipality removed on May 29 and reopening the popular clubs, Couthon, in his first decree, on October 12, announced the Convention’s policy of wiping Lyon off the map of the Republic. Henceforth it would be known as “Ville-Affranchie” (Liberated Town). The houses of the rich and anyone associated with the crime of rebellion would be demolished, leaving only those of the poor. On their ruins a column would be erected bearing the legend

Lyon fit la guerre aà la liberté

Lyon made war on liberty

Lyon n’est plus

Lyon is no more

On the twenty-sixth of October, Couthon was carried in his invalid’s chair, on the shoulders of four sans-culottes, to the place Bellecour, the most famous and elegant parade of eighteenth-century townhouses built at the beginning of Louis XVI’s reign. In a surprisingly powerful voice that belied his disability, Couthon declared to the crowd that the houses had been condemned to death “as habitations of crime where royal magnificence affronts the misery of the people and the simplicity of republican manners. May this terrible example strike fear into future generations and teach the universe that just as the French nation, always great and just, knows how to reward virtue, so it also knows how to abhor crime and punish rebellion.” With that, he raised a silver mallet, custom-made for the occasion, and struck a wall three times, pausing solemnly between each blow, like the great raps on the floor that announced the beginning of a play in French theaters. Hundreds of workers, including women and children, many of them from the depressed silk industry, ran forward with sledgehammers and pickaxes to inaugurate the demolition. Fifteen thousand people would be employed on this work before it was completed, paid by a six-million-livre tax on the rich. Sixteen hundred houses were demolished, including many in the Bourgneuf quartier, through which a new road to Paris was being built. Most important of all for the Republic, the fortifications that had served the federalists so well were razed, including the old Roman-medieval citadel of Pierre-Scize.

When the demolitions were reported to the Convention, not all deputies were happy with the policy. Most of the members of the Mountain had a deep respect for property, and one of them, the silk merchant Cusset, who had been born in Lyon, asked rhetorically, “Is it republican to tear down houses?” It was not houses, after all, he pointed out, but men who had fought against the Republic. How much better to follow the precedent of the Romans, who, on entering conquered cities, did not complete their destruction but on the contrary restored them to new grandeur and prosperity.

The mood in Paris, however, was not much disposed towards magnanimity. At the end of October, Couthon was recalled and Fouchéand Collot d’Herbois, who replaced him, substituted for his surrogate violence against property rather than people, much more direct forms of retribution. For Collot, the actor, stage manager and author of Lucie, or the Imprudent Relatives, it was a return to a scene of mixed notices. In 1782 he had been welcomed to the Théâtre des Terreaux (which looked onto the square where the guillotine had been set up) by the intendant de Flesselles. But his relations with the theater management, the local critics and the audience had not been warm. A good portion of them were about to learn the penalties of tepid applause. Collot’s general view of republican justice was ominously summarized in his remark, “The rights of man are made, not for counter-revolutionaries but only for sans-culottes.”

Together with Fouché, Collot decided that Couthon’s approach had been too fastidious. A mere twenty to thirty executions, most of them confined to officers in the federalist army and the most prominent members of the municipality, had taken place in October. This was to change dramatically. A Temporary Commission was set up to reinforce the local agents of revolutionary justice who were suspect for their leniency. Its leading figure was Mathieu Parein, a lawyer (and son of a master saddler), a friend of Ronsin’s and like him promoted with improbable swiftness to the rank of brigadier general in the armée révolutionnaire. He came to Lyon from the Vendée, where he had presided over a Revolutionary Tribunal at Angers, and the declaration published by the Commission bears the mark of his steely temperament as well as that of Fouché, with whom he predictably got along very well. It announced a regime of swift and massive punishment, encouraged denunciation (partly by a tariff of rewards with special bonuses for aristocrats and priests), and made a direct and unsparing attack on the rich, instituted through forced levies. Those, for example, whose income amounted to thirty thousand livres or more were required to pay a capital sum of thirty thousand livres immediately. All vestiges of organized religion would be obliterated, since “the republican has no other dignity than his patrie.”

The Terror went into action with impressive bureaucratic efficiency. House searches, usually made at night, were extensive and unsparing. All citizens were required to attach to their front doors a notice indicating all residents who lived inside. Entertaining anyone not on that list, even for a single night, was a serious crime. Denunciations poured into the Commission. People were accused of defaming Chalier, of attacking the liberty tree, secreting priests or émigrés, making speculative fortunes and – one of the standard crimes of the year II – writing or uttering “merde à la république.” From early December the guillotine went into action at a much greater tempo. As in Paris, pride was taken in its mechanical efficiency. On the eleventh of Nivôse, according to the scrupulous accounts kept, thirty-two heads were severed in twenty-five minutes; a week later, twelve heads in just five minutes.

For the most eager Terrorists, though, this was still a messy and inconvenient way of disposing of the political garbage. Citizens in the streets around the place des Terreaux, on the rue Lafont, for example, were complaining about the blood overflowing the drainage ditch that led from beneath the scaffold. A number of the condemned, then, were executed in mass shootings on the Plaine des Brotteaux – the field beside the Rhone where Montgolfier had made his ascent. Yet another ex-actor, Dorfeuille, presided over some of these mitraillades, in which as many as sixty prisoners were tied in a line by ropes and shot at with cannon. Those who were not killed outright by the fire were finished off with sabers, bayonets and rifles. On the fourth of December, Dorfeuille wrote to the President of the Convention that a hundred and thirteen inhabitants of “this new Sodom” had been executed on that single day and in those that followed he hoped another four to five hundred would “expiate their crimes with fire and shot.” Three days later, the barber-surgeon Achard wrote delightedly to his brother in Paris: “Still more heads and every day more heads fall! What pleasure you would have experienced if, the day before yesterday, you had seen national justice meted out to two hundred and nine villains. What majesty! What imposing tone! How completely edifying. How many of those grand fellows have that day bitten the dust [literally: mordu la poussière] in the arena of Brotteaux. What cement for the Republic.” “PS,” he added jovially, “say hello to Robespierre, Duplay and Nicolas.”

By the time that the killings in “Ville-Affranchie” had finished, one thousand nine hundred and five people had met their end. They included, of course, many of the Lyonnais notability – among them the seventy-five-year-old Albanette de Cessieux; Laurent Basset, the lieutenant of the old royal Sénéchaussée de Lyon; and Charles Clermont-Tonnerre. Aristocratic army officers, members of the rebel department of Rhone-et-Loire, federalist magistrates and priests were all high on the list, as was anyone who could be associated with the capacious category “the rich,” with “merchants” or with any tradesmen or manufacturers accused by sans-culottes of economic crimes. That still, however, left a vast number of the condemned who were quite ordinary types, presumably thesectionnaires who had supported the Girondins against Chalier, but who came from backgrounds identical to their Jacobin counterparts’ in Paris. (While the well-off were disproportionately represented in the death roll, the notion that the rich were being executed by the poor in Lyon seems to be pure myth.) If there were many silk manufacturers among the condemned, there were also no fewer than forty journeymen weavers. Trades that provided pro-Jacobin militants in Paris, such as those of hatters, cabinet makers, tailors and grocers, supplied the anti-Jacobin rank and file in Lyon. Other occupations represented were locksmiths, cobblers, coopers, innkeepers, caféowners, waiters, brewers (in some numbers); vinegar makers, lemonade vendors, bookkeepers, architects; chocolate makers; butchers, bakers and candle makers; doctors, the director of the bureau of wet nurses; coachmen, domestic servants; dyers, hosiers; muslin workers; two drummers, two other “musicians”; three actors (who, one hopes, had not crossed Collot in the green room); wigmakers, haberdashers, seamstresses; painters, two women’s hairdressers; a herbalist; a boatman, printers, a twenty-year-old mathematics student; a coal miner; the fishwife Pierrette Butin; a pastry cook, a public scribe, notaries; lawyers, a number of young men listed as “unemployed” and the forty-five-year-old Jacqueline Chataignier, who went down classified simply, but for the purposes of the tribunal, adequately, as “fanatique.” Among the last batch to be guillotined were the executioner Jean Ripet and his assistant, whose hard work over the months did not succeed in sparing them. A colleague from Clermont-Ferrand was specially summoned for the job.

Since many Lyonnais had also died under the saturation bombardment of the siege, an entire microcosm of Lyon society had been annihilated. The trauma left scars that took several generations to heal and that, even today, make its citizens less than radiantly warm on the subject of Paris and the Parisians. But because of the long-term importance of the great silk fabrique and the enormous expansion of markets created by the Napoleonic Empire, Lyon managed a partial recovery of its economic vitality. In some ways, the economic fate of the federalist port cities of Marseille, Bordeaux and Toulon, though they mercifully escaped mass executions on the scale of Lyon, was more permanently crippling.

In Ville-Sans-Nom (Town Without Name), as Marseille was now called, the représentants-en-mission Barras and Fréron seemed just as bent on a wholesale purge as Fouchéand Collot. “Marseille,” they wrote, “is the original and primordial cause of nearly all the evils that have afflicted the patrie.” And like Couthon they borrowed from Montesquieu a geographical theory to account for its recalcitrance. “By its very nature,” Marseille regarded itself as apart: “The mountains, the rivers which separate it from the rest of France, its own language all feed federalism;… they want laws for themselves; they see only Marseille; Marseille is their country; France is nothing.” And their conclusion was the same as Couthon’s. The stubborn localism was to be uprooted by ripping out the commercial elite who were at the core of the city’s prosperity and pride. The Revolutionary Tribunal that performed this work was, however, a good deal more attentive to legal forms than the one in Lyon. Of the 975 prisoners who appeared before it, almost half were acquitted. Among the 412 who were condemned to death was the cream of local society: men whose status and fortunes straddled the nobility and the bourgeoisie in precisely the manner so characteristic of ancien régime capitalism. They included, for example, Joseph-Marie Rostan, who was noble by birth but who described himself as a commerçant, who lived in the elegant rue Solon and who owned soap factories, warehouses, dwellings, and stock in Black Sea wool, colonial sugar and coffee. “I do not know if I am a noble,” he told the tribunal. “I have gloried in being a merchant.” His bewilderment at being socially stigmatized is an eloquent testimony to the anticapitalism of the Jacobin revolution. Rostan assumed that by professing himself to be a merchant, he would dilute the accusation of nobility, when in the eyes of his prosecutors his profession actually compounded it. Many others like him, including Antoine Chegarry, Jean-Joachim Dragon and Honoré-Philippe Magnon, the magistrates of the old tribunal of commerce, fell to the same condemnation.

Not all of France suffered in this way. Thirty-five years ago Donald Greer showed that 90 percent of all the executions during the Terror took place in only twenty of the eighty-six departments. All of those areas, excepting Paris, which had a special status in the matter, were war zones: either the theater of combat against the Coalition, the federalist strongholds of the Midi or the Rhone Valley and the western insurrection with its core in the Vendée. In thirty departments there were fewer than ten executions. During the hell of the Terror in Lyon and Nantes, there were major cities of France such as Grenoble and Besançon that, through the careful pragmatism of their public guardians and the simple good fortune of being out of the way of a war zone, were spared much of the domestic violence of the year II. There were other, smaller towns in the federalist orbit which remained conspicuously obedient to the Republic – not least because their relationship to Lyon or Bordeaux was as envenomed as the sentiment the big cities had towards Paris. The immediate threat to their food supplies came not from Paris or the armies but from their big neighbor. So on the principle that their enemy’s enemy was their friend, such towns as Clermont-Ferrand and Le Puy were fertile recruiting ground for the bleus who descended on Lyon.

In countless other places the Terror barely lived up to its name. The proceedings of the Revolutionary Tribunal in the Meurthe, for example, which according to Greer recorded ten to fifty executions, does not make for sensational reading. Though Saint-Just and his colleague en mission Lebas had set up a special commission to levy forced loans on the rich, in the department outside the chef-lieu, Nancy, the Terror petered out in inconsequentiality. A twenty-year-old ex-postilion serving with the hussars is court-martialed for kissing the fleur-de-lis on his old uniform. Three peasants are accused of making off with a cartload of oats they were supposed to deliver to the army and spoiling another load by mixing it with straw and manure, but are acquitted for lack of decisive evidence. A fisherman is tried in December 1793 for shouting “Vive Louis XVI” but since he also shouted “To the devil with the Catholic religion, bring Mohamedanism to France” it was concluded that he was drunk, mad or both. In January a twenty-two-year-old soldier named Vattel declared in public, “When I served the King I had money, now I serve the Nation and I am never paid and am miserable,” but spoiled this undeniable if dangerous truth by adding, “So I shit on the Nation… I am not a citizen and will die for my king,” an ambition he was duly permitted to fulfill. For every Vattel, though, there was an equal number of his opposite in these village dramas – for instance, Nicolas Tronquart, a schoolmaster at Lunéville who was arrested not for royalism but utopianism (specifically, for preaching the loi agraire, the division of all agricultural land among the peasantry).

The Terror, then, was highly selective in its geography. The harshness of its impact critically turned on the assiduousness or laxity of the représentants-en-mission; the seriousness with which the local revolutionary committees took their duties; the militancy of the popular societies; whether or not a town was on the route of the armées révolutionnaires, and for that matter how long the armées stayed in a particular region. Yet if it is important not to generalize from the experience of Lyon and Marseille, it is just as important not to relativize the Terror so that it becomes merely a set of lurid anecdotes, marginal to the history of some notionally “average” town. For if it operated with crushing effect on areas that were indeed the centers of war or revolt, those same areas happened to be exactly on the economically dynamic periphery of France. Though the Jacobins, as every history relentlessly points out, were great respecters of property, their war was a war against commercial capitalism. They may not have intended it that way at the beginning, but their incessant rhetoric against “rich egoists” and the incrimination of the commercial and financial elites in federalism meant that, in practice, mercantile and industrial enterprise – unless it had been pulled into the service of the military – was itself attacked. Not surprisingly, then, it was the great growth areas of eighteenth-century France – the Atlantic and Mediterranean ports, the textile towns of the north and the east, the great metropolis of Lyon – which were the major casualties of the Revolution. The “bourgeoisie” which Marxist history long believed to be the essential beneficiaries of the Revolution was, in fact, its principal victim.

The scholarly view of a limited Terror, moreover, hardly survives a scrutiny of the most dreadful enormity of the year II: the wholesale destruction of an entire region of France. Nowhere as much as in the area of the Vendée – including the neighboring departments of LoireInférieure and Maine-et-Loire – did the Terror fulfill Saint-Just’s dictum that the “republic consists in the extermination of everything that opposes it.”

The tide had turned in the war with Charette’s inability to take Nantes. By the end of the summer, the republican armies had been reinforced by the regiments that had been released from the defense of Mainz, and by the first major draft of the levée en masse. At Cholet, on October 17, the rebels lost a decisive battle, but they also lost a coherent military leadership. Charette’s army became detached from the main Grand Army, which on the death of Cathelineau before Nantes had fallen to the young La Rochejaquelein. Probably hoping to link up with a British disembarkation on the coast (which never came), the Grand Army crossed the Loire on October 19. Together with a huge train of women, children, priests and other noncombatants, possibly as many as twenty thousand, this nomadic army wandered around Brittany and Normandy for three months, harassed by the inexorably growing republican armies and occasionally fighting actions in which they did little more than stand their ground. At Angers they lost another major battle, and at Savenay on December 23, what was left of their army was routed, leaving La Rochejaquelein to take to the woods dressed as a peasant. Westermann, who had thus rehabilitated himself, wrote to the Committee of Public Safety, “There is no more Vendée, citizens, it has perished under our free sword along with its women and children. I have just buried it in the marshes and mud of Savenay. Following the orders that you gave me I have crushed children under the feet of horses, massacred women who at least… will engender no more brigands. I have no prisoners with which to reproach myself.”

In the true Terrorist style, Westermann may have exaggerated in order to show his zeal. But a policy of extermination, if not already embarked on, would shortly become an all too exacting reality in the Vendée. It had been announced much earlier in the summer when General Beyssier had decided that since the Republic had to fight a war of brigands it had better do it with brigandlike ruthlessness. In the urban centers, during December, this meant a Terrorism of exceptional brutality. Two hundred prisoners were executed at Angers in December alone, two thousand at Saint-Florent. Others were brought from the crowded prisons at Nantes and Angers to places like Pont-de-Cé and Avrillé, where three to four thousand were shot in one long, relentless slaughter.

The most notorious massacres were at Nantes, where the représentanten-mission, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, supplemented the guillotine with what he called “vertical deportations” in the river Loire. Holes were punched in the sides of flat-bottomed barges below the waterline, over which wooden planks were nailed to keep the boats temporarily afloat. Prisoners were put in with their hands and feet tied and the boats pushed into the center of the river to catch the current. The executioner-boatmen then broke or removed the planks and made haste to jump into boats that were alongside, while their victims helplessly watched the water rise about them. Anyone attempting to survive by jumping in was sabered in the water. At first these drownings were confined to priests and took place, almost guiltily, by night. But what the sans-culotte “Marat company” conspicuous in the repression humorously called “the republican baptisms” or the “national bath” became routinized and were executed in broad daylight, where some witnesses survived to describe them. In some cases, prisoners were stripped of their clothes and belongings (always an important source of perquisites for the soldiers), giving rise to accounts of “republican marriages”: young men and women tied naked together in the boats. Estimates of those who perished in this manner vary greatly, but there were certainly no fewer than two thousand and quite possibly as many as forty-eight hundred.

What unfolded in the Vendée itself in the first two months of 1794 was no more charitable. The basic republican strategy for reconquest had been set the previous summer, and it marked a radical departure from prevailing conventions of the “rules of war.” Since the Vendéans’ greatest asset was the strength of their home base, their opponents determined to destroy it. As well as the usual military targets of encampments, garrisons and arsenals, the entire social and economic infrastructure of the region was to be torn apart until those concealed within it were exposed to fire. Crops were to be burned, farm animals slaughtered or seized, barns and cottages razed, woods set on fire. More ominous still, distinctions between combatant and noncombatant sections of the population were to be blurred. Women and children were known to give support to the rebels, sometimes even fight with them. Very well, then, they too would fall under the injunction of “extermination.” Any town or hamlet known to have received rebel troops would automatically be wiped out. Ronsin, the senior militant commander in the Vendée, even proposed systematic depopulation, with the “brigands” deported and dispersed throughout France or sent to Madagascar. In their place legions of “pure” French colonists would settle the country and breed families untainted by their crime. There were still more sinister anticipations of the technological killings of the twentieth century. Carrier had suggested putting arsenic in the wells. Westermann thought a cask of poisoned brandy might be sent to the Vendéans (though he was worried lest his own soldiers drink it by mistake). Rossignol even asked the distinguished chemist Fourcroy to study the possibility of using “mines, gassings [fumigations] or other means to be able to destroy, put to sleep or asphyxiate the enemy.”

The mass production of death through the marriage of technology and bureaucracy would have to wait another century and a half. But what happened in February and March was bad enough. With the military rebellion more or less extinguished, the republican armies embarked on a march of “pacification” through the region. General Turreau’s twelve “infernal columns” were encouraged (if they were not given direct orders) to massacre virtually every living person who stood in their path. This indiscriminate slaughter inevitably included some on the wrong side. The family of Honoré Plantin, a well-off farmer and impeccable republican patriot living near Machecoul, survived the Vendéan massacre in that town only to succumb to the infernal columns. On their first visitation three of his sons and a son-in-law were killed and when they returned, the last son, his wife and their fifteen-year-old daughter were all massacred. Every atrocity the time could imagine was meted out to the defenseless population. Women were routinely raped, children killed, both mutilated. To save powder General Cordellier ordered his men to do their work with the saber rather than the gun. At Gonnord on January 23, General Crouzat’s column forced two hundred old people, along with mothers and children, to kneel in front of a large pit they had dug; they were then shot so as to tumble into their own grave. Some who attempted to flee were struck down by the hammer of a local Patriot mason. Thirty children and two women were buried alive when earth was shoveled onto the pit.

As in all places where these horrors were perpetrated, there were those on the republican side whose stomachs were turned by what they witnessed and who were haunted by the massacres for many years afterwards. Beaudesson, a chief agent of military provisioning, wrote that he “found fathers, mothers, children of all ages and both sexes swimming in their own blood, naked and in positions that the most ferocious soul could not imagine without shuddering.”

By mid-April 1794, the military pacification of the Vendée was more or less complete. The only surviving commanders of the once imposing Grand Royal and Catholic Army were Stofflet and Charette, both of whom took to a petite guerre of harassment, ambush and surprise raids, avoiding pitched battles and eluding capture. But their homeland was, as the republican generals had promised, a desert, its farmland incinerated, its great herds of fat cattle slaughtered, its villages razed and depopulated. Like the other centers of insurrection it had lost its very name, to be known henceforth as Vengé (Avenged).

It has been customary for scholars to be skeptical of the claims of pro-Vendéan historians’ estimates of massive population loss, and Donald Greer’s figure of forty thousand deaths for the whole period of the Terror in all departments has been accepted as plausible. It is not necessary, though, to accept Reynald Sécher’s characterization of the massacres as “genocide” to see that a human catastrophe of colossal proportions occurred in the Vendée in the year II that demands a substantial upward revision of these fatalities. Jean-Clément Martin, whose book on the same subject is a model of reasoned research, gives a total loss for the Vendée, Loire-Inférieure and Maine-et-Loire of just under a quarter of a million, or one third of the entire population of the region. This figure, moreover, does not include the tens of thousands of republican soldiers who lost their lives in the war.

Confronted with evidence of an apocalypse, it does historians no credit to look aside in the name of scholarly objectivity. True, events in the Vendée were in the nature of a war (though the butchery was at its worst after the battles were over); true, the Vendéan rebels themselves committed their share of massacres in the early stages of the rising. But whatever claims on political virtue the French Revolution may make on the historian’s sympathy, none can be so strong as to justify, to any degree, the unconscionable slaughters of the winter of the year II. Still less does it seem right to shunt off the history of the Vendée into a special category of works set aside from the rest of the history of the Revolution, as though it were some sort of aberration. The exterminations practiced there were, in fact, the logical outcome of an ideology that progressively dehumanized its adversaries and that had become incapable of seeing any middle ground between total triumph and utter eclipse. Commenting on the revolution of the tenth of August, Robespierre had rejoiced that “a river of blood would now divide France from its enemies.” That river was now swelling its banks; the current was flowing fast but it remained obscure, except to the intimates of the Incorruptible, where it was taking the Republic.

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