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18th Century French History History Royal History Uncategorized

Marie Antoinette on Trial: Your Cut-Out-and-Keep Guide to Reading the Trial, Part 2

In the first part of this guide to Marie Antoinette’s trial (the account of which you can read in full here) we looked at the course of events that took the royal family from being an essential, if awkward, part of a constitutional monarchy to being at first an obstacle to further change, then a magnet for popular hatred, then an irrelevance, and finally an enemy of the Revolution. Once you had entered the latter category, it was really only a matter of time before you were called for your appointment with Madame Guillotine.

By the time Marie Antoinette found herself in the prison of the Conciergerie in August 1793, she was without a doubt deep in the blackest period of her life. bet 22 The king’s death had been a great blow to her – she seems to have entertained some hope that he might be reprieved, hopes that were only finally dashed when she heard the sound of drums and great cheer echoing round the streets, and she knew he was dead. From this point on she would be known as the Widow Capet, and she dressed accordingly in widow’s weeds. Her daughter was later to write

She no longer had any hope left in her heart or distinguished between life and death; sometimes she looked at us with a kind of compassion which was quite frightening.

Her physical health began to decline rapidly. By this time she was almost certainly suffering from tuberculosis, and the heavy bleeding that afflicted her may have been an early indicator of uterine cancer (as Antonia Fraser speculates). By this time most of the more legendary aspects of her personality had been stripped away – the airheaded gaiety, the extravagance, that often remarked upon glowing quality – leaving behind a cold, hard core of proud tenacity, a fierceness that had something in common with the popular depictions of her as a harpie, or a tigress. She never seems to have entirely abandoned hope, and her behaviour in the trial reveals some inward refusal to give even an inch of ground to her persecutors. Fraser argues that there were some grounds for hope. No queen in history had ever before been put on trial or executed, and there were precedents for royal women to be sent back to their native countries following the end of their marriages.

In Marie Antoinette’s case though, this seems highly unlikely to have ever been a real possibility, given her potency as a symbol of everything that the Revolution sought to expunge from the world, the strong belief in her active involvement in plots to destroy the Revolution (which would be a recurring theme in the trial) and her massive unpopularity with the increasingly vital sans-culottes. To his shame, even her nephew the Austrian Emperor showed little interest in the furtive negotiations which did take place over the possibility of exchanging the former queen for political prisoners. And it is known for certain that Marie Antoinette’s fate had been decided at a meeting of the Committee of Public Safety weeks before the trial began.

It’s crucial though to resist the tempatation to throw up your hands and bewail the trial as a travesty of justice, because it wasn’t. At least, no more than the other trials undertaken at the Revolutionary Tribunal. Indeed, the very ordinariness of Marie Antoinette’s trail was an important part of its symbolism. During the debate over the king’s death, Robespierre had said that she must be sent “before the courts, like all other persons charged with similar crimes”. Unlike her husband, her fate would not be debated before a full assembly of the nation’s elected representatives, and she would be given no opportunity to explain herself or reason with them. In short, there should be no indication that she mattered in any special way. This, for a former queen and daughter of Emperors, was punishment in itself.

In fact, my main tip before reading the trial is to turn your 21st century brain off, because it won’t help you here. لعبة الدومينو I’m no expect on the vagaries of the French legal system, but there are a few things it’s important to remember about Marie Antoinette’s trial in the legal context of the time (these courtesy of an obscure book called The Trials of Five Queens by R. Storry Deans).

  • French trials at the time (and to a lesser extent even now) were not litigious but inquisitional, meaning they didn’t consist of a prosecution formulating a charge against the accused which it was then required to prove. فريق أتلتيكو مدريد The trial was instead a more open-ended and general inquisition into the guilt and character of the accused.
  • Almost nothing in Marie Antoinette’s trial would be admissible as evidence in an English court today, and much of it not even at that time. However, procedures like the secret interrogation before the trial (when the court was not in session and no jury present) were standard procedure in eighteenth century France.
  • The distinction between thought and deed had not yet been firmly enshrined in law, so establishing that the accused had contemplated doing something, or even that they were the type of person who might contemplate it, was enough. Likewise, opinion, inference and hearsay were acceptable forms of evidence (and formed the bulk of Marie Antoinette’s trial, as concrete evidence is rarely provided).

One of the most difficult things about Marie Antoinette’s existence at this stage must have been the constant uncertainty. She was never given any forewarning of what was to happen to her, but was instead suddenly confronted with dramatic upheavals and forced to deal with them. In less than a year she had been imprisoned in the Tower, been separated from her husband and then her son, and finally moved to the Conciergerie – all suddenly, and completely against her will. Once at the Conciergerie she faced days of waiting, never knowing when her trial was to begin – or even, for certain, if she was to have a trial. Being reduced to a spectator in her own story, Marie Antoinette had started to default to an attitude of numb resignation. Then one night, two hours after she had gone to bed, she was woken roughly and summoned to another part of the prison. With no fanfare and without a second to prepare herself, Marie Antoinette’s trial, and the final fight of her life, had begun.

In the next part: The secret interrogation and the beginning of the trial.

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17th Century 18th Century Animals French History History Museums Royal History Uncategorized

Strange Meetings: The Royal Menagerie at Versailles – an Extract from Vintage Script Magazine

Royal Menagerie at Versailles

This month, you’ll find a piece I’ve written in Vintage Script, a new magazine dedicated to all things vintage, historical and retro. What’s most delightful about it is the range of different historical periods, as well as the different approaches taken to bringing them to life. In this month’s edition you’ll find stories on the history of tea time, flapper girls of the 1920s, Durham Cathedral and the truth behind the Scarlet Pimpernel. It really is well worth a read, so do please visit the web site and take a look.

Versailles Menagerie by D'Aveline

The Versailles Menagerie during Louis XIV’s reign, by D’Aveline.

In an attempt to whet your appetite, here’s an extract from my article on the history of the Royal Menagerie at Versailles. You’ll have to take my word for it, but the stuff I’ve cut out here is stupendous, so you really should get the magazine!

We take up the story from Louis XIV’s death. Before the Sun King, the French Royals had not had a permanent menagerie but instead contented themselves with a band of exotic or entertaining animals which followed them around their various royal residences. Louis XIV established two permanent menageries – one at Vincennes and one at Versailles, each with a different purpose and personality. The Vincennes menagerie was used for dramatic fights, such as the battle between a tiger and an elephant staged to amuse the Persian ambassador in 1682. The Versailles menagerie, on the other hand, was a model of order and rationality, where the far more fortunate animals were intended for peaceful display and, as all things at the palace, to augment the glory and prestige of the king. The conflict between these two very different styles of menagerie reflected the conflicts in Louis’ personality and style of leadership, but by the end of his reign the Versailles style had clearly won out, and the Vincennes zoo was closed.

Map of Versailles, by Delagrive (1689-1757), 1746.

Map of Versailles, by Delagrive (1689-1757), 1746 (via Wikimedia Commons), with the location of the menagerie highlighted. Below, the former site of the menagerie today, from Google Maps.

[cetsEmbedGmap src=http://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=versailles&hl=en&ll=48.804772,2.09502&spn=0.013143,0.033023&t=h&z=16 width=598 height=400 marginwidth=0 marginheight=0 frameborder=0 scrolling=no]

In some magical way Versailles transformed itself to match the character of the king at its heart, so when the Sun King died and was succeeded by his grandson Louis XV, everything changed. Louis XV was more interested in hunting animals than observing them in his menagerie, and his taste for exotic wildlife restricted itself more or less to Madame de Pompadour and his seraglio of royal mistresses. Animal gifts kept coming from every corner of the ever-expanding French trading empire, but the king lacked both the funds and the inclination to give them much of a welcome. When an elephant arrived in 1772, it was forced to walk more than three hundred miles from the coast to Versailles.

One can imagine the elephant was quite miffed about the debacle (but must have created quite a stir in the towns and villages along the road) and things got no better once it arrived at Versailles. The pond dug for the exotic birds to wade in was full of silt. The wall enclosing the rhinoceros which arrived two years earlier was literally crumbling (not a good thing, as the rhino was no doubt angered by visitors who laughed at its absurdly wrinkled skin). Even the animals in the once beautiful paintings which lined the walls of the observation room were faded and peeling. The elephant stuck it out for as long as possible, but in 1782, broke free of its enclosure and rampaged round the grounds of Versailles. Next morning, a strange new elephant-shaped island was found floating in the Grand Canal.

Sadly, the elephant died too late to witness the last gasp of the royal menagerie. Louis XVI had ascended the throne in 1775, and found a financial and political situation as neglected as the menagerie. Unlike his grandfather Louis XV, Louis XVI could not rely on winning charm to see him through – he had none. He was therefore much more attuned to symbolism, and strove constantly, in the face of an ever-deepening crisis, to project an image of undimmed power and royal prestige.

Although they never knew it, the animals of the menagerie were a perfect instrument for this. The very fact that they were there at all spoke eloquently of the scope and scale of the king’s influence. Overcoming the difficulties of finding and catching such rare and beautiful creatures, overcoming the problems of long distance travel and communication, overcoming the self-interest of every captain and sailor along the way who might have sold his precious cargo, the king had commanded that animals be brought, and they had come. The strength of his will even seemed to overcome death itself: such animals were notoriously difficult to keep alive on long voyages. Exotic birds especially had an irksome habit of dropping down dead when cannon fired, or simply pining away. Whispers began to circulate that the most beautiful birds of all simply could not live without their liberty.

Louis sent out a shopping list to his representatives around the world. “An elephant; 2 zebras, male and female; mandrill and baboon monkeys; 6 guineafoul”. Perhaps Louis wished to tame the zebras and teach them to draw his carriage, as some of his more flamboyant contemporaries did. But Louis was never to receive an elephant and only got one of the zebras he asked for, though the menagerie did benefit from an influx of new inmates, including a lion, a panther, some hyenas, a tiger, some ostriches and several kinds of monkey.

The popularity of the menagerie was also boosted by great vogue for the study of nature that flowered during Louis XVI’s reign. Naturalists had grown tired of studying the dusty tombs of Cabinets of Curiosity, where brown pickled fish bobbed in vinegar and faded birds stood stuffed in a peculiar imitation of life that seemed to startle the thought of death into everyone who looked at them. There was now, prompted by the bestselling work of Buffon, a desire to observe living animals. Now then, the animals of the menagerie had a new torment, as fashionable men and women toured the menagerie, staring deep into the eyes of monkeys and, with a pained expression, wondered aloud “What is it to be human?”. Nobody ever seemed to wonder what it is to be monkey.

As it turned out, of course, even if Louis had managed to obtain a hundred zebras to draw his carriage, they couldn’t have saved him from the coming of the Revolution. Perhaps the animals noticed a glow of torchlight up at the palace on the night in October 1789 when a crowd of thousands arrived to remove the royal family and take them back to Paris (henceforth to be caged and regarded with the same mixture of awed and disgusted curiosity that the inhabitants of the menagerie had been).

The menagerie must have been a sad and dispiritingly quiet place for the next couple of years, as history was written elsewhere, and the fate of a dwindling bunch of pampered pets was of no importance. But, in a perverse way, the violence and inhumanity of the revolution was to foster a new concern for these animals. After a few years, with the Terror in full flow, the bourgeois leaders of the Revolution began to grow concerned that the populace was becoming too accustomed to blood, too wild. They needed to be brought back to the civilising influence of orderly society – and what better way to demonstrate its advantages than through the example of these wild animals. If even a lion, when it is well cared for by enlightened rulers, can be tamed and made gentle, then there’s hope for anyone. This attitude to animals was extraordinary: in 1794, the Paris Commune received complaints about ‘disgusting displays’ of animals in the Place de la Révolution, but none about the twenty guillotinings that took place in the same square every day.

At the last minute, the few remaining animals of the royal menagerie, which had been due to be killed and stuffed, were saved, and made a part of plans for a new state menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Following a ban on animal shows, the authorities had sent out agents to round up all wild animals being kept or sold in Paris for this purpose. The only problem was, there was nowhere to put them except the basement of the museum at the Jardins des Plantes.

The wrinkly rhinoceros died before it could make the journey (run through, according to legend, by a revolutionary’s sabre), but the lion from Versailles was taken to Paris in 1794, and found itself in a room full of the motliest collection of animals since the Ark. Here was a leopard, there a sea lion. Perched on a crate were three eagles, bleating in the corner were three sheep with various lurid deformities, and god-knows-where was what had been promised to be a sea lion when the harassed zookeeper agreed to take it on, but was discovered on arrival to be a polar bear. There were in total 32 mammals and 26 birds.

Gradually a permanent, if very basic, home for these forlorn creatures was put together, and, amid trumpeting revolutionary rhetoric that the animals would “no longer wear on their brows, as in the menageries built by the pomp of kings, the brand of slavery”, its doors were opened to the public. This new, state menagerie was intended to be a pacifying haven of contemplation and rational study. It didn’t quite work out that way. As soon as the doors opened, the citizens of Paris made a beeline for the old lion from Versailles. They pulled at his fur, and shouted abuse when he tried to sleep, and spat at him because, they said, he used to be a king too.

The lion bore his torment for a short while, but in the famine-frosted winter of 1795, when there was no money for food and none to buy anyway, half the animals died, the lion probably among them. After this time, conditions at the menagerie slowly improved, and with the conquests of Napoleon, it was repopulated with inhabitants from new outposts of empire.

Today, there’s no trace of the menagerie beneath the impeccably manicured lawns of Versailles, but a piece of it survives. If you go to the Jardins des Plantes, past the small zoo which still survives and into the Natural History Museum, you’ll find a large glass case, containing a leathery rhinoceros, the first to ever be stuffed and preserved. Today people file by and study him quietly, as civilised and dispassionate as they were always meant to be, save perhaps for the occasional chuckle at his absurdly wrinkly skin. But this is an extraordinary survivor, called across the sea by the last pulse of royal power from France, witness to the end of an era, one of the last beings ever to truly live at Versailles, victim of the violence of the revolution – and yet, here he is. Through all the storms of history and politics, the revolutions and counter-revolutions, monarchies and republics, wars and peaces, the rhinoceros has stood safe in its glass case. Even today, the Versailles menagerie is drawing long-severed worlds into strange meetings.

Louis XV's Rhinoceros

Louis XV’s rhinoceros, at the Natural History Museum in Paris.


The rhinoceros was recently featured in an exhibition at Versailles, ‘Sciences and Curiosities at the Court of Versailles, which I’m bereft at having missed. This nice little video was made to coincide with the exhibition.

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18th Century Biography French History History Paris Uncategorized

Marie Antoinette on Trial: Your Cut-Out-and-Keep Guide to Reading the Trial, Part 1

To coincide with the English account of Marie Antoinette’s trial I uploaded last time, today I begin a guide to reading what can be a confusing and obscure document, and understanding this fascinating event in context.

The background to the trial 

To some extent ever since the Royal Family had been forcibly removed from Versailles and taken to Paris in October 1789, and much more urgently since the failed attempt by the family to escape the city in June 1791, the fate of monarchy in France had been one of the Revolution’s more awkward unanswered questions. When the family was captured at Varennes during the botched escape and returned to Paris, the crowds that lined the streets to watch greeted them in total, uneasy silence – forbidden to make a sound either to cheer or harass the captives.

The return of the royal family to Paris after Varennes

The return of the Royal Family to Paris, after the disastrous flight to Varennes. By Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, after a drawing by Jean-Louis Prieur, 1791.

Marie Antoinette in 1791

Marie Antoinette in 1791, painted by Alexandre Kucharski. Already a sombre-looking figure, legend has it her hair turned white overnight during the return from Varennes.

From this point on, the king was in reality no more than a figurehead in what was still technically a constitutional monarchy. Then on 10th August 1792, large crowds stormed the Tuileries Palace (then located next to the Louvre), and the Royal Family was forced to flee to the protection of the Legislative Assembly. The next day, Louis and Marie Antoinette sat in the Assembly and listened as the country was declared a republic and the position of king and queen ceased to exist. They would henceforth be known as Citoyen and Citoyenne Capet (a title both objected to as being inaccurate, Louis being of the House of Bourbon not the extinct medieval dynasty of Capet).

The Assault on the Tuileries Palace

The assault on the Tuileries Palace, by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux, 1793.

Inevitability is such a tasty spice to season history with, though often it tends to overwhelm the subtlety and complexity of the other flavours always present. In this case though, it seems accurate to say that the fate of the former king and queen was sealed during that session of the Legislative Assembly. العاب طاولة محبوسة Stripped of their powers, their necessity to the state and their mystique, every plausible scenario had to end in their death. Alive, they simply posed an unacceptable threat to the stability of the Revolution, and they could never have been allowed into exile, where they could regroup with the existing counter-revolutionary forces.

Despite this, the decision to execute Louis was not an easy one to take, even with the disastrous Brunswick Manifesto, a statement by the invading Imperial and Prussian powers which threatened to wreak ‘an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction’ unless the royals were released unharmed. Louis’ trial was held before the full convention, and most observers agreed that he acquitted himself with affecting dignity, even if it was somewhat shabby and increasingly sad. The guilty verdict on “conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety” was assured from the start, but the vote on the sentence was surprisingly close. 361 voted for immediate execution (plus a further 72 for a delayed execution), 288 against.

The Execution of Louis XVI

The execution of Louis XVI.

The king’s death in January 1793 removed any legal, constitutional, or practical obstacle standing in the way of executing Marie Antoinette too. The sympathy that the king was still able to engender was not to be a factor in proceedings against the queen, who was widely and bitterly reviled by the population at large, and held to be actively working against the Revolution. For this reason, many of even the best biographies of Marie Antoinette tend to dismiss her trial simply as a sham, affording it a couple of pages, perhaps, but otherwise seeing it as a blip in her inexorable descent towards the guillotine. This fails to do the event justice, as though it quite clearly was a sham in the sense that the verdict was never in doubt, that doesn’t make it any less interesting, both as a penetrating insight into the character of Marie Antoinette in this final stage of her life, and into the attitudes of the revolutionary authorities who were to try her.

In the time between the execution of the king and the trial of Marie Antoinette, significant developments radically altered the atmosphere in Paris and gave an added sense of urgency to the Revolution. The Reign of Terror began, which saw rapid and violent strikes against the forces of counter-revolution both within and outside France, as well as seismic shifts in political power away from Danton and towards Robespierre. قوانين لعبة اونو The Vendée rose in revolt against the revolutionary government; a revolt which was so firmly suppressed that somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 lives were lost on both sides in the fighting. During the summer of 1793 Marseille, Bordeaux, Lyon were all in conflict with the Convention, and the port of Toulon surrendered to the British. In July, Marat was assassinated.

The War in the Vendée

The fighting in the Vendée, a later (1853) painting by Jean Sorieul.

As summer turned to autumn, a kind of hysteria prevailed throughout France. The revolutionary authorities were almost entirely focused on securing control, and sealing off France from the chaos that surrounded it and threatened to eat it up from within. With so much confusion, the trial of Marie Antoinette suddenly seemed wonderfully controllable and powerfully symbolic – a chance for uncomplicated, visceral, unifying vengeance against a clear enemy of the revolution, and to sever one of the last remaining links to the ancien régime. العروض الترويجية

In August, Marie Antoinette was moved from her prison in the Temple Tower to the Conciergerie prison on the Ile-de-la-Cité, the home of the Revolutionary Tribunal. There she waited, never sure of what was happening, until on 13th October 1793 she was informed that her trial would commence in one day’s time.

Next time: The Trial Begins

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18th Century French History Historical Places Paris Uncategorized

Marie Antoinette on Trial: A Contemporary English Account to Read Online

If there’s one thing everyone knows about Marie Antoinette, it’s that unfortunate cake remark (which, of course, there’s no reason at all to believe she ever said). If there’s a second thing, it’s that she got her head chopped off. A lie and an ending – the foundations of our conceptions of the entire life of a woman. So much is left out of that dessicated biography – good and bad, edifying and embarassing, important and trivial. But frankly, even when you do begin to learn more, even when you read one of the excellent biographies (even the superlative one by historian heartthrob Antonia Frasier) she remains a pretty enigmatic woman, almost impossible to pin down. So much about her life and character seems so contradictory, and to vary so wildly in different accounts, that it’s very hard to emerge with any feeling of knowing her.

There are though a few pivotal events in her life where her character suddenly crystallises before your eyes, and she practically seems to walk into the room. Her trial is certainly the most powerful of these moments, but frustratingly it’s probably one of the least known elements of her life story. In all the hoopla of ‘Marie Antoinette got her head chopped off’, it’s easy to lose sight of basic questions like how that came to happen or precisely why. For this reason and many others the trial record makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the real Marie Antoinette, and more widely anyone interested in the Revolution as a whole. You might say I’m a bit of a fan – so much so, in fact, that I wrote a play about the trial a couple of years ago.

I’m going to write more about the trial in my next post, but for now I wanted to simply post this English account of the proceedings at the trial, published in 1793, the year after the trial, which I’ve scanned from an existing copy. I’m very excited to make this available, as I’ve been unable to find an English account freely available online, and it’s a document that deserves to be available to all.

http://cultureandstuff.com/Authentic_Trial_at_Large_of_Marie_Antoinette_via_Cultureandstuff.pdf

Click here to download the file as a PDF.

Although, as you’ll see, the preface and epilogue added to the record in this edition make the compiler’s sympathies for Marie Antoinette perfectly plain, the account of the trial itself tallies well with other published versions, and this one is most likely based on the accounts which appeared in English newspapers at the time. It is, as far as all my research shows, an authentic account of the proceedings. Also included are a brief  biographical sketch, the ‘secret interrogatories’ (questioning of Marie Antoinette that occurred in private before the trial itself), a description of her execution and events after the trial was closed, and a lamentation for the dead Queen.

I’m biting my tongue to stop myself talking more about it, because it’s remarkable enough to speak for itself and that’s what I want it to do. But I’ll be back next week with more details on the story of the trial, its more extraordinary moments, and its cast of characters.

Categories
17th Century 18th Century French History Historical Places History Lost Paris Medieval Paris

Lost Paris: All the Fun of the Fairs

February in medieval Paris can’t have been much fun. When the sun went south for the winter, the city must have been a gloomy place, returning to its prehistoric origins as a swamp (the city’s Roman name, Lutetia, derives from lutum, Latin for mud, according to one persuasive theory) and life for your average Parisian must have been painted an unappealing shade of dull, dirty brown. So it was with great excitement that the people of Paris awaited the coming of the annual Saint-Germain fair – quite literally a burst of light in the darkness, and an intoxicating, sensual shot in the arm to see them through to the first days of spring.

The Foire Saint Germain fair in 1763

In this picture of the fair, a miniature painted by Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe in 1763 now in the superb Wallace Collection, it’s the beautiful, warm light that draws you in to a world of wonders and theatrically illuminates the many spectacles of the experience. It’s one of those paintings you just want to jump into.

Together with religious festivals, the great fairs formed the foundations of the social life of the city in the medieval and early modern period, and, like the giddy thrill of a walk on the Pont Neuf (see my last post), almost everyone in Paris would at some stage have attended the fairs, the grandest rubbing shoulders (and quite possibly other body parts) with the humblest. There were two key annual fairs in Paris, the Saint-Germain (on the same site as the present covered market, off the Boulevard Saint-Germain), which first appears in the record in 1176, and the Saint-Laurent (roughly where the Gare de l’Est is today), its younger brother born in 1344. The Saint-Germain fair was traditionally open from 3rd February until Palm Sunday, and the Saint-Laurent from late July until the feast day of Saint Michel in September, though both were frequently extended. Though both fairs were popular, the Saint-Laurent was more well-behaved and respectable and less fun, and if you gave any Parisian the choice between the two they’d always plump for the Saint-Germain – and it’s this one I’ll be focusing on in this post.

View of the fair in the Merian (1615) and Turgot (1730s) maps of Paris.

Both fairs were started by monks in the middle ages less as entertainments than as a means of providing shelter and sustenance for pilgrims who came to honour the abbeys’ relics on particular days in the church calendar. Saint-Germain-des-Prés holds a particularly interesting place in the history of the city, existing as almost a separate entity from the rest of Paris up until the late 17th century. In the medieval period, the Abbey was outside the walls of the city, and owned a huge chunk of the land on the left bank, corresponding today to an area  from the Luxembourg Palace to the site of the Eiffel Tower. The abbots were powerful feudal lords, usually with royal blood, and like other abbeys in the city, Saint-Germain was outside the jurisdiction of the Parisian authorities. Not only that, but the entire abbey was surrounded by a great ditch and a thick, fortified wall, making it essentially its own little world where interesting and unusual activities flourished. The long arm of Parisian law did not stretch as far as Saint-Germain (which had its own courts, prison and gallows), so opportunistic criminals could seek refuge here and escape punishment if the monks proved amenable (and, one gets the impression, the monks of Saint-Germain could be extremely amenable if their palms were crossed with sufficient precious metals). The powerful and usually ultra-conservative guilds that controlled all arts and crafts in the city also had no influence in the abbey, which meant that the abbey benefited from the creative juices of talented foreign artists, who were forbidden to work in Paris proper by the guilds.

The  Saint-Germain fair was perhaps the most visible and wonderful manifestation of this strange jurisdictional bubble -a topsy-turvy world of indulgence, liberty and -yes – sin, which would have been frowned upon by Parisian society under normal circumstances, taking place not only in the shadow of one of the most holy churches in France, but in Lent no less! To understand what the fairs became once they moved away from merely serving the needs of pilgrims, it’s necessary to comprehend the curious doublethink that defined society in the early modern period, especially I think in Paris. This was a world at once still bound to religion and fearful of hell and damnation, and yet highly attuned to the fragility of life and the ever-present spectre of death, willing to mine every rare opportunity for every ounce of pleasure it would yield. It was also a very outward-looking society, fascinated by the new world opening up and the undreamt of wonders it contained, as well by rapid developments in the sciences. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the horizons of knowledge and exploration seemed unlimited – anything, suddenly, was possible, and excitement over every new discovery created a feeling of liberation, rather than the weighty, nagging knowledge of everything we don’t and can’t know which can often bog down the popular perception of science today. Parisians were hungry for the new – to see it, taste it, show it off – and the Saint-Germain fair offered them the chance to do just this.

A view of the fair in the 18th century, by Jollain.

Let’s visit the fair in the 17th century. By now, it covers a huge area and its centre is two huge pavilions, spanned by a roof  and sunk 6 to 8 feet into the earth. Simply entering these strange subterranean palaces could be a challenge, but thankfully there was generally such a crush of people cramming in alongside you that it would have been impossible to fall over. As your eyes adjust to the glow of lamplight, your nose begins to detect ripples of wonderful aromas. Almost everything you could dream of eating and drinking was available here – delicate pastries, pungently spiced breads, jams, waffles, fruit, confections, beer, hard cider, hippocras and eau-de-vie. If you can pick them out in the crowd, you might be able to buy a coffee from the two Armenians who worked the fairs from the early 1670s, or an exotic liquor infused from herbs and spices from Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, the Sicilian who in 1686 will parlay his success at the fairs into his very own establishment that will one day be known as the the Café Procope.

If you’re not in need of a nap after all those treats,and fancy some shopping, you can buy anything and everything a chap can unfold (excuse my Bedknobs and Broomsticks reference) at the market. You can see some of them in the miniature above – glinting Venetian mirrors, paintings and sculptures, together with heady perfumes, moroccan leather, gloves and knives. The paintings were often created by the artists working under the protection of the abbey, free from the guilds of Paris. The only problem was, in order to get their paintings from the abbey to the fair, the artists had to cross streets that were under the jurisdiction of the Paris guilds, whose heavies could stop them and seize and destroy their work. This led to elaborate subterfuge and smuggling, and a constant battle between the artists and the guilds. You could also, increasingly in the 18th century, buy popular optical devices and mechanical automatons to experience the wonders of modern science for yourself, and impress your friends.

A finely balanced and at times symbiotic ecosystem existed at the fair in which every desire of the visitor could be catered to the very instant he became aware of it, and money flowed liquidly from hand to hand, circulating round the pavilions in great tides and whispering eddies. So if gambling tickles your fancy tonight, you can put a coin in someone’s pocket and try your luck at cards or dice, or on the spinning wheel. If you’re lucky enough to win (the games are often rigged), there’s always a thief on hand to cut the fabric of your pocket and relieve you of the burden. Flush with his success, the thief decides to stroll towards the cabarets. On the way he walks past the little theatres, each with their own balcony outside where the actors put on free shows as a sort of a trailer for what can be seen inside (which again can be seen in the miniature). Tight-rope walkers teeter on ropes overhead, and acrobats shock the unwary by leaping suddenly and dramatically into the air. The thief stops at an animal attraction – not, this time, the ‘scholarly’ deer who can guess people’s age, or the rats trained to do ballet, or the ‘white bear from the icy sea’ from Monsieur Ruggieri’s  menagerie – but a monkey playing the hurdy gurdy which caused a great sensation at the fair. The thief throws a coin into a tin and the monkey begins to play an allemande very elegantly, then someone throws a nut and the creature scampers away to get it, but the music keeps playing. The thief yells at the charlatan keeper of the monkey for duping him, and gives chase, knocking over the tin and scattering his takings. A group of well-to-do boys pounce on the coins and run off to see one of the puppeteers – some so good they’re rumoured to be magicians commanding the devil’s minions – and thus the stream of cash continues to flow around the fair.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about the fairs is the degree of sexual permissiveness to be found there – which is more commonly associated with later periods in Paris’s history, and we’d blush at even today. Prostitution mainly centred around the cabarets, where sexual encounters took place on a large scale, and openly in booths, or in rooms rented our in nearby houses. The cabarets were frequently in trouble with the police and commissaires charged with the impossible task of keeping order at the fairs, but they never succeeded in shutting them down.

And yet, with all the chicanery, fights and prostitution, the fairs remained a respectable place for all classes of society to go – even high-ranking ladies could be seen there, turning a blind eye to the insults thrown by commoners as they jostled in the crowd. At the fair, the line between fantasy and real life was wilfully blurred – rules were left at the walls of the abbey and theatre spilled out onto the streets.

In the 18th century, the fairs, which had entertained Parisians for 600 years, began to decline, and this was hastened by a fire which destroyed the fair at Saint-Germain in 1762 – a blow from which it seems never to have recovered. Something of the spirit of the fairs was maintained, however, and found a new home at the Palais Royal – which I’ll be exploring in my next post.

Fire at Saint-Germain fair in 1762

The fire of 1762, from a roughly contemporary engraving

Another view of the fire, from a painting by Pierre-Antoine Demachy which recently sold at auction in Paris. Thanks to reader Marc Philippe for telling me about this.

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