Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Everything Should End with Partial Nudity

During the struggles for power between the Girondins and the Jacobins, debates could very quickly dissolve into shouting matches full of really bizarre insults or over-dramatic gestures against each other. Today this seems somewhat nonsensical, but, within the context of 18th century political life, this was perfectly reasonable. It was probably something of a feat to give a speech without an illustrative prop, an insult at whoever spoke before you, or an express wish for martyrdom.

Take, for example, this debate between three Jacobins (Robespierre, a delegate, Marat, a delegate and newspaper editor, and David, a delegate and painter) and one Girondon (Pétion, a delegate), from April 12, 1793, which ended on a more dramatic note than your usual legislative debate:

: I demand censure of those who protect traitors.
Marat: Bravo, bravo!
Robespierre: And their accomplices.
Pétion: Yes, their accomplices, and you yourself. It is time at last to end all this infamy; it is time that traitors and perpetrators of calumny carried their heads to the scaffold; and here I take it upon myself to pursue them to death.
Robespierre: Stick to the facts.
Pétion: It is you I will pursue! [The Amateur Historian would like to add, 'No, duh'.]
David: (suddenly running into the middle of the hall) Strike here! (tears open his shirt and thumps his bare chest) I propose my own assassination! I, too, am a man of virtue! Liberty will win in the end!
Marat: (unacademic phrases the secretary did not see fit to record)

Needless to say, nothing else got done that day.


  1. Television and the movies have ruined public spectacle! Can you imagine actually witnessing this dramatic scene--I suspect there were cries and sobs from the galleries. I'm reading Foreman's bio of Georgianna, who arranged glorious Whig spectacles like parades and a balloon ascent. The crowds went wild! Thank you for another fascinating post.

  2. The Jacobins tended to take their symbolism very, very seriously, which is part of the reason why I enjoy reading about them.

    Oh, I love that biography! Foreman does such an excellent job presenting not only the Duchess of Devonshire, but the society in which she lived. There was some really excellent analysis of Georgiana's letters too. Foreman is my second favorite biographer, after Graham Robb.

  3. They were an extremely nasty lot but so dramatic!

  4. Hi Elyse. The Fench Revolution. They wanted to change the world and they did. Bloodily, admittedly but profoundly. My wife studied the french revolution as her main subject when she was doing her teaching degree many many years ago now. We were always popping over to Paris to see one more museum or site.(We live in Wimbledon, South London)

    However, I noticed in your profile you are interested in William Wilberforce. Living in Wimbledon, Wilberforce owned a house on the edge of Wimbledon Common by the way, we live close to Clapham and the church the Clapham Sect frequented. and the place the Clapham Sect lived together.
    I'll post some Wilberforce related pictures on my Blog for you.I mostly deal with Jane Austen on my blog but, Wilberforce is an interest of mine too and as he lived close to where I live I have got some photos of related sites.
    (Give me a couple of days. I'm a teacher and have a bit of work on at the moment.)

    All the best,
    My site;
    here's a link

  5. Hi Elyse,
    Posted some William Wilberforce related stuff for you on my Blog.

    All the best,

  6. Hey Tony- thanked you on your blog, but thank you again! It's so incredible to see the actual sites in color!