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Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI's coronation, and a legend unsubstantiated by primary sources

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Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI's coronation, and a legend unsubstantiated by primary sources

Post  Bunnies on Sat May 11, 2013 6:04 pm

In 1775, Louis XVI mounted the throne. Due to the bloody punctuation of his reign it has become a penchant for historians and storytellers alike to try and discern a foreshadowing of the disastrous end in the glorious beginning. The simplest method for this is to try and track down the future-Revolutionaries. What were the future rulers of France up to while the newest ruler was crowned?

"I want to see how a king is made!" boasted one boy to his classmates at Troyes a few days before the coronation ceremony. Not an empty wish, the child slipped out of school and hailed a carriage to Reims, smuggling himself into the city to try and catch a glimpse of the ceremony. And so he was in the crowd outside the cathedral as the dauphin was exalted as the new king but for all his exaggerated height it's unlikely he saw much. Probably disappointed, the he skipped back to his school which was now staffed by an incensed faculty. He justified his truancy by insisting that he had only left to see the ceremony in order to research an essay on kingship. His teachers didn't believe him. Still, he wrote the essay and his educators were so impressed with it that it won a prize.

In 1775 the child had gone to see how a king is made and in 1792 he would be a man who would see a king undone. That the essay has been lost is of piqued tragedy. Knowing young Georges Danton's opinion on kingship as a child would have been priceless.

The story is not without its skeptics. Danton's entire political career has generally been told by conflicting witnesses whose accounts inevitably begin with "Well, I knew this guy who had a cousin who heard one of Danton's speeches and he said that Danton said---" and his prerevolutionary life is even foggier. But it's generally been held as true by Danton's biographers so I'll just post it with the small 'smells sorta fishy' disclaimer.

And for all it's fantastic, it complements this next one nicely. Danton and Robespierre's careers are often viewed as parallels, the pair being contrasted far more than they are compared (a historiographical exercise that doesn't really make sense being that the two were political allies until a quarter into 1794, making them more-often allies than adversaries but anyway). And even their whereabouts for the king's coronation drip with their personal imprints, crisply drawing their personalities. Danton skips school to see a king and slaps an essay together to justify the matter, Robespierre is chosen to give a speech of welcome to the visiting king. The former is a burly rebel and the latter is pristinely correct - just like their possible portrayals.

But yes, when Louis XVI was crowned, he and his wife stopped briefly at the school Louis le Grande and heard a Latin speech recited by Maximilien Robespierre. It's all wonderfully ironic and for the past 200 years it has been a favorite pasttime to note how funny history is, how Maximilien "The King Must Die So the Country May Live" Robespierre first introduces himself to his monarch by welcoming him to the throne and effectively swearing fealty.

In fact, here's the scene as portrayed in La Revolution Francaise of 1989:



That's how the story is usually told. Robespierre, as a young child, kneels in the rain and is effectively ignored by the king and queen he's going through all the trouble for.

The truth of the matter is rather different. Robespierre was not a child: he was 17.

Nor was he received rudely. Now, someone tell me if I'm wrong but I'm almost positive the source of this story is the Abbe Proyart, who was a prefect at Robespierre's school. Proyart's biography on Robespierre does have its flaws but I'm inclined to place weight on his account of this incident primarily complimentary to Robespierre - obviously he was smart if he was chosen to welcome Louis XVI and Proyart, who hated Robespierre, isn't going to make up something complimentary. Moreover, Proyart did go to school with Robespierre. He is in a position to know and I believe he's the only eyewitness of the incident who wrote down what he remembered. So we don't got much choice here.

Anyway, Proyart writes (effectively, forgive my loose translation):

In 1775, Louis XVI, after the ceremony of his coronation, made his solemn entry into Paris, accompanied by the Queen and the Royal Family. Their Majesties...stopped before the Collee of Louis Le Grand [Robespierre's school], where they were complimented by the University's staff. This college, which subsisted on the benefits of our Kings, also owed a special tribute to Louis XVI and Robespierre was chosen to offer it in the name his classmates, in a speech composed by his teacher. I was present at the time and remember that the King deigned to lower a look of kindness at the young monster...who was one day to take the first stab at him.


On the other end of the scale, from the Look-Robespierre-Was-Totally-Perfect school, there's no mention of mistreatment or rudeness either. Ernest Hamel, who is not a primary source but who had access to primary sources since lost to us, recorded that:

His [Robespierre's] stay at the college of Louis-le-grand was marked by a rather singular circumstance. The young King Louis XVI took a fancy on his return to Reims where he had just been crowned to stop for a moment in the house that bore the name of one of his ancestors…Announced in advance, the visit plunged the University into turmoil. In addition to the speeches by the principal dignitaries, it was customary for the best student to be chosen to give a speech on the behalf of his classmates. The task fell to Maximilien Robespierre. He could not find a more favorable exercise his wit and to publicly demonstrate his independent spirit.

His discourse, full of biting allusions, was more filled with admonitions that praise, and sharply reported to the monarch the many abuses of his government. Submitted to the principal, it was, as we think, profoundly changed, and the royal visitor appeared satisfied.

The two writers conflict as to why Robespierre's speech was so mellow, the former suspecting the speech was written by a counselor and the latter suspecting that Robespierre's speech was edited by a counselor. But that's the main difference: both chroniclers agree that there was no rain, no mud-splatter, no Louis XVI-refusing-to-get-out-of-his-carriage and no making-everyone-wait-for-the-rain-to-stop.

Naturally, these embellishments were added in order to give the story more poignancy. I imagine both schools have had reason. Louis XVI was so arrogant that he refused to deign his flatterer with so much as a thank you and Robespierre was so petty that the snub inspired him to chop Louis XVI's head off. Now, there was no rudeness on Louis XVI's part giving Robespierre no petty grudge to fume over for 20 years: but that hasn't stopped "historians" or other writers from including the rain in their works.

Moral of the story: Primary sources. Use them.
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Re: Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI's coronation, and a legend unsubstantiated by primary sources

Post  Sophie on Sat May 11, 2013 8:40 pm

Bunnies wrote:Moral of the story: Primary sources. Use them.

queen Thank you for mentioning this topic! I totally agree with you. My only sorrow about primary sources is that they are so hard to find out if you are interested in foreigners' life and times. Internet could be a paradise, but 99% of the really interesting stuff isn't available. I just hope that the evolution of eBooks, internet archives and digital libraries will make this a bit more comfortable... (But even if I find something about Louis XVI in English, I always have to think about if the translation is biased or not.) Well, difficulties make everything worthier, even the research Very Happy
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Re: Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI's coronation, and a legend unsubstantiated by primary sources

Post  Bunnies on Sat May 11, 2013 9:45 pm

Well, it's one thing when your interest in the subject is recreational. It's reasonable to trust that the historian you're employing has properly done their research and isn't regurgitating urban legends. Unfortunately, historians - either through genuine blundering or political duplicity - really slack. I cannot tell you how many otherwise brilliant historians have gone on about the rain and Louis XVI's rudeness to Robespierre in 1775.

Now, this is a relatively small thing but it's not an isolated incident. Ruth Scurr, in her biography on Robespierre, cited Simon Schama for her chapters on Robespierre's political life in June-July 1794. Wonderful. Who is Simon Schama citing? Why, he's citing John Hardman. Who is John Hardman citing? ---Actually, John Hardman is better with primary sources than most, but for the events in question he's citing Thomas Caryle. Who is Thomas Caryle citing?

Good question. 'Tis a mystery. It's like they're all playing a game of telephone stretched out over 200 years, simply citing the previous generation of scholars rather than doing scholarly research themselves. In the first place: How cheap! If I wanted to see Simon Schama's analysis of June 1794 then I'd read Simon Schama and I wouldn't have shelled out another 15 bucks for Scurr's reiteration. In the second place: It leads to inaccuracies. Because if John Hardman made a mistake, and Schama doesn't check it, then Scurr's just cementing a misconception.

That's my primary complaint with the Revisionist school on the French Revolution. Francois Furet has even stated publicly that he will not employ primary sources and the dude practices what he preaches. Peter McPhee (who is not Revisionist, I must admit) was one of my favorite historians until I looked at his bibliography. David Andress, at a conference, bragged about how he was able to write an entire book on the Terror without once going through the Archives.

How --- How do you write a book on the Terror without the police records? Without anything from the archives? What's your source? A piece of your lower anatomy?

Gah, I'm ranting. Sorry I do that - but you know that by now, Sophie. But that is how a lot of the legends are proliferated. It's how we know Louis XVI was rude to Robespierre in the rain, that Saint Just was a sociopath, that Marie-Antoinette had an affair with Fersen, that Marat started a riot in Sweden when he was 8-years old and a myriad of other totes true facts that cannot be substantiated with any primary source.

But some historian in the 19th century said it happened and here we are today.
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Re: Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI's coronation, and a legend unsubstantiated by primary sources

Post  Sophie on Sun May 12, 2013 8:06 pm

Bunnies wrote:Who is Thomas Caryle citing? Good question. 'Tis a mystery.

I read Carlyle's series on the French Revoluion, and I found it beautifully written and deeply attaching. Like a novel. As I see, 19. century historical works (monographies as well as biographies) has from today's point of view more literally value than scientific. Carlyle, as I remember, hardly cited anyone. In his times, a historical work could have been mere storytelling, without referring to its primary or secondary sources, interviews and interpretations. I hope I don't get it wrong, I had a lecture at the university about comparing traditions of historical writing, but it was long ago, I should look through it again... Embarassed
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Re: Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI's coronation, and a legend unsubstantiated by primary sources

Post  Bunnies on Sun May 12, 2013 8:12 pm

No I agree! Caryle's work does read more like a novel. And that's part of the problem. It's riddled with inaccuracies that have been passed down through generations. His work should be, as you say, evaluated in English classes alongside A Tale of Two Cities and not cited as reference.
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Re: Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI's coronation, and a legend unsubstantiated by primary sources

Post  Elena on Mon May 13, 2013 8:29 pm

Thank you both for this excellent exegesis! Smile

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Re: Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI's coronation, and a legend unsubstantiated by primary sources

Post  Bunnies on Thu May 16, 2013 9:40 pm

Thank you, Ms. Vidal!

In all fairness though, it's been awhile since I've read Carlyle. He's one of those 'rites of passage' that you are almost required to read at the beginning of your research on the French Revolution because of how much of the mythology he created. The downside to this, of course, is that when I read him I had little to compare him to. I've since seen him lampooned by students of historiography, and not only by the pro-Revolution school. Mark Cumming wrote a fascinating essay on the work entitled "Carlyle's Seagreen Robespierre and the perilous delights of picturesque history" where he argues that Carlyle employed a damning visionary narrative that makes "history the raw material for a personal mythology which the reader is encouraged to accept by faith rather than criticize by reason." Not very scholarly. Historian Oscar Brown supported this view, confessing that he had once been delighted by Carlyle but lost esteem for the man once he personally tricycled from Paris to Varennes and discovered that Carlyle's depiction of the Flight of Varennes was "quite wrong and misleading." Up-and-coming historian Bureau, who is about to have his work published alongside Sophie Wahnich's (he's a friend of mine so I'm name dropping him for giggles) told me that most of the myths of the Revolution - that is, the absolute untruths that are not only unsubstantiated by contemporary accounts and primary sources but effectively contradicted by these - are rooted in Carlyle, making him, as I argued, more comparable to Dickens or Orczy than to, say, Aulard.

That said, as I confessed: I haven't read Carlyle in awhile. So my entire argument against his being unsubstantiated by primary sources rests on my employment of secondary sources which is, heh, a tad hypocritical of me when you think about it. But I do think the criticism I've found in regards to his scholarship, which ranges from those as far right as Brown to as far left as Lefebve, from historians such as Cumming to novelists such as Hilary Mantel, gives me enough justification to label him with the "smells sorta fishy" disclaimer like I did with the Danton anecdote above.
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Historical Sources

Post  Susan Abernethy on Sat May 18, 2013 6:21 pm

Dear Bunnies:

I very much enjoyed your piece on the young Robespierre and find your comments on historical research very relevant.

Because many historical sources are few and far between and subject to interpretation, historians have to walk a fine line. I find many historians insert their own personal biases into the telling of history. And it is unfortunate when historians embellish and then this becomes part of the "legend". Personally, I like to find out what the facts are and stick with that as you have done with the sources for this story. When reporting the facts and giving interpretation, I like historians who look at all the possibilities i.e. Alison Weir. But not everyone does this. All of this is what makes history so intriguing and fun to me. I try to look at the facts and find my own voice in reporting them. Really, the story of history in itself is perfect. Why embellish it?

Best regards,

Susan
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Re: Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI's coronation, and a legend unsubstantiated by primary sources

Post  Bunnies on Sat May 18, 2013 6:32 pm

I've heard nothing but wonderful things about Alison Weir but I have a confession: I've never actually read her, heh.

But historians do absolutely include their personal biases when it comes to history, all the more so when it comes to politically charged events such as the French and American Revolutionaries. Since the politics of Hamilton and Jefferson are still applicable to the United States today, historians are inevitably going to deride the champion of their rival political party. History then becomes nothing but political mudslinging dressed up in a dust jacket. Nobody cares what Hamilton or Jefferson actually said or actually meant, all that matters is that they fit into the necessary niche to push a political agenda.

In this sense, I'd say that medieval history is somewhat more accessible because --- let's face it --- no one really has a political motive to prove/disprove if Richard III murdered his nephews. Come the Renaissance, I suppose you'll find friction between the spiritually and secular minded but I'm not as familiar with that historiography as I should be.

I will add that obviously there are exceptions to every rule and you'll manage to find an objective historian who can leave aside his political biases.
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Re: Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI's coronation, and a legend unsubstantiated by primary sources

Post  Susan Abernethy on Sat May 18, 2013 7:10 pm

I agree Bunnies. People will rewrite history for their own ends and this makes it hard to find the real truth. As historians, we should try to remove these biases and report the true facts if we can. Although as I write this I'm thinking we would add our own interpretation to the facts! But we should try to do our best.

You would be surprised how much malice and viciousness there is among people today over whether Richard III killed his nephews or not. And this leads me to another point about historians. Whether you like what happened in history or not, it's what happened! The evidence is pretty convincing that Richard did kill his nephews. But there are pro-Ricardians who swear he didn't do it. There are some who "hate" William the Conqueror for conquering the Anglo-Saxon people. Yes, the Norman Conquest was a tragedy but it happened and let's move on. I could go on and on with many examples.

I would recommend "The Lady in the Tower" by Alison Weir if you ever have a chance. She deconstructs the plot to bring down Anne Boleyn in a very convincing manner. It's history at it's best. sunny

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Re: Danton, Robespierre, Louis XVI's coronation, and a legend unsubstantiated by primary sources

Post  Bunnies on Sun May 19, 2013 12:09 am

Susan Abernethy wrote:I agree Bunnies. People will rewrite history for their own ends and this makes it hard to find the real truth. As historians, we should try to remove these biases and report the true facts if we can. Although as I write this I'm thinking we would add our own interpretation to the facts! But we should try to do our best.

Oh, I didn't mean to imply that having a bias or interpretation immediately invalidates an historian's work! On the most practical of levels, this would eliminate all theses! A work sans a bias would have to lack all interpretation and would essentially be a regurgitation of primary sources --- but even then, the primary sources would be chosen according to the author's bias. But there is a difference between having done an extensive amount of research and drawing an opinion on this and having a strong opinion that you subsequently support with the most tenuous of arguments you can think of.

Bias is only a sin when the historian invents or omits facts that are inconvenient in order to support it. For example, someone arguing Louis XVI's elitism by citing how he was rude to Robespierre when the latter was reading him a congratulatory speech is acting dishonestly as the rudeness is a figment of legend.

Could you argue Louis XVI's elitism, if you really wanted to? Sure. It's an interpretation I disagree with and I daresay it probably springs from a republican bias. But so long as you can support the thesis with fact rather than fantasy I'm not going to deride your credibility as an historian.

I'd even argue that the historians who are open about their biases are the best. The ones who parade their objectivity about are just kidding themselves and are more likely to insidiously fool some of the less historiographically savvy into thinking their work is the gospel truth.

You would be surprised how much malice and viciousness there is among people today over whether Richard III killed his nephews or not. And this leads me to another point about historians. Whether you like what happened in history or not, it's what happened! The evidence is pretty convincing that Richard did kill his nephews. But there are pro-Ricardians who swear he didn't do it.

Oh, yes, I know. But that's more of an emotional bias rather than a political one. But you're right: It's an equally damning perspective. As I pointed out in the Richard III thread, the famous A Daughter of Time suffers from the pitfalls of bias that I condemn. That is, in order to argue Richard's innocence it conveniently omits the Buckingham Rebellion ("If Richard was such a tyrant, how come nobody ever rebelled?" Answer: Somebody did.) and acts as though princesses were viewed as possible claimants to the throne ("Why did Richard allow these threats to live and not the princes?" the book asks - the answer is that Richard did not view the princesses as threats, as indeed nobody would in Medieval England).

If your thesis is a fair one you do not need to invent or omit. The facts should bear your argument out. If they don't, then your argument is inherently flawed.

I would recommend "The Lady in the Tower" by Alison Weir if you ever have a chance. She deconstructs the plot to bring down Anne Boleyn in a very convincing manner. It's history at it's best. sunny


I actually have a copy of that! I'll check it out sometime. Anne Boleyn is one of my favorite historical figures and it's sort of unforgivable that I haven't read Weir's works on her...
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