The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 4

Carmagnole complete.

Simultaneously with this Tophet-black aspect, there unfolds itself another aspect, which one may call a Tophet-red aspect: the Destruction of the Catholic Religion; and indeed, for the time being of Religion itself. We saw Romme’s New Calendar establish its Tenth Day of Rest; and asked, what would become of the Christian Sabbath? The Calendar is hardly a month old, till all this is set at rest. Very singular, as Mercier observes: last Corpus–Christi Day 1792, the whole world, and Sovereign Authority itself, walked in religious gala, with a quite devout air; — Butcher Legendre, supposed to be irreverent, was like to be massacred in his Gig, as the thing went by. A Gallican Hierarchy, and Church, and Church Formulas seemed to flourish, a little brown-leaved or so, but not browner than of late years or decades; to flourish, far and wide, in the sympathies of an unsophisticated People; defying Philosophism, Legislature and the Encyclopedie. Far and wide, alas, like a brown-leaved Vallombrosa; which waits but one whirlblast of the November wind, and in an hour stands bare! Since that Corpus–Christi Day, Brunswick has come, and the Emigrants, and La Vendee, and eighteen months of Time: to all flourishing, especially to brown-leaved flourishing, there comes, were it never so slowly, an end.

On the 7th of November, a certain Citoyen Parens, Curate of Boissise-le-Bertrand, writes to the Convention that he has all his life been preaching a lie, and is grown weary of doing it; wherefore he will now lay down his Curacy and stipend, and begs that an august Convention would give him something else to live upon. ‘Mention honorable,’ shall we give him? Or ‘reference to Committee of Finances?’ Hardly is this got decided, when goose Gobel, Constitutional Bishop of Paris, with his Chapter, with Municipal and Departmental escort in red nightcaps, makes his appearance, to do as Parens has done. Goose Gobel will now acknowledge ‘no Religion but Liberty;’ therefore he doffs his Priest-gear, and receives the Fraternal embrace. To the joy of Departmental Momoro, of Municipal Chaumettes and Heberts, of Vincent and the Revolutionary Army! Chaumette asks, Ought there not, in these circumstances, to be among our intercalary Days Sans-breeches, a Feast of Reason? (Moniteur, Seance du 17 Brumaire (7th November), 1793.) Proper surely! Let Atheist Marechal, Lalande, and little Atheist Naigeon rejoice; let Clootz, Speaker of Mankind, present to the Convention his Evidences of the Mahometan Religion, ‘a work evincing the nullity of all Religions,’ — with thanks. There shall be Universal Republic now, thinks Clootz; and ‘one God only, Le Peuple.’

The French Nation is of gregarious imitative nature; it needed but a fugle-motion in this matter; and goose Gobel, driven by Municipality and force of circumstances, has given one. What Cure will be behind him of Boissise; what Bishop behind him of Paris? Bishop Gregoire, indeed, courageously declines; to the sound of “We force no one; let Gregoire consult his conscience;” but Protestant and Romish by the hundred volunteer and assent. From far and near, all through November into December, till the work is accomplished, come Letters of renegation, come Curates who are ‘learning to be Carpenters,’ Curates with their new-wedded Nuns: has not the Day of Reason dawned, very swiftly, and become noon? From sequestered Townships comes Addresses, stating plainly, though in Patois dialect, That ‘they will have no more to do with the black animal called Curay, animal noir, appelle Curay.’ (Analyse du Moniteur (Paris, 1801), ii. 280.)

Above all things there come Patriotic Gifts, of Church-furniture. The remnant of bells, except for tocsin, descend from their belfries, into the National meltingpot, to make cannon. Censers and all sacred vessels are beaten broad; of silver, they are fit for the poverty-stricken Mint; of pewter, let them become bullets to shoot the ‘enemies of du genre humain.’ Dalmatics of plush make breeches for him who has none; linen stoles will clip into shirts for the Defenders of the Country: old-clothesmen, Jew or Heathen, drive the briskest trade. Chalier’s Ass Procession, at Lyons, was but a type of what went on, in those same days, in all Towns. In all Towns and Townships as quick as the guillotine may go, so quick goes the axe and the wrench: sacristies, lutrins, altar-rails are pulled down; the Mass Books torn into cartridge papers: men dance the Carmagnole all night about the bonfire. All highways jingle with metallic Priest-tackle, beaten broad; sent to the Convention, to the poverty-stricken Mint. Good Sainte Genevieve’s Chasse is let down: alas, to be burst open, this time, and burnt on the Place de Greve. Saint Louis’s shirt is burnt; — might not a Defender of the Country have had it? At Saint–Denis Town, no longer Saint–Denis but Franciade, Patriotism has been down among the Tombs, rummaging; the Revolutionary Army has taken spoil. This, accordingly, is what the streets of Paris saw:

‘Most of these persons were still drunk, with the brandy they had swallowed out of chalices; — eating mackerel on the patenas! Mounted on Asses, which were housed with Priests’ cloaks, they reined them with Priests’ stoles: they held clutched with the same hand communion-cup and sacred wafer. They stopped at the doors of Dramshops; held out ciboriums: and the landlord, stoop in hand, had to fill them thrice. Next came Mules high-laden with crosses, chandeliers, censers, holy-water vessels, hyssops; — recalling to mind the Priests of Cybele, whose panniers, filled with the instruments of their worship, served at once as storehouse, sacristy and temple. In such equipage did these profaners advance towards the Convention. They enter there, in an immense train, ranged in two rows; all masked like mummers in fantastic sacerdotal vestments; bearing on hand-barrows their heaped plunder, — ciboriums, suns, candelabras, plates of gold and silver.’ (Mercier, iv. 134. See Moniteur, Seance du 10 Novembre.)

The Address we do not give; for indeed it was in strophes, sung viva voce, with all the parts; — Danton glooming considerably, in his place; and demanding that there be prose and decency in future. (See also Moniteur, Seance du 26 Novembre.) Nevertheless the captors of such spolia opima crave, not untouched with liquor, permission to dance the Carmagnole also on the spot: whereto an exhilarated Convention cannot but accede. Nay, ‘several Members,’ continues the exaggerative Mercier, who was not there to witness, being in Limbo now, as one of Duperret’s Seventy-three, ‘several Members, quitting their curule chairs, took the hand of girls flaunting in Priest’s vestures, and danced the Carmagnole along with them.’ Such Old–Hallow-tide have they, in this year, once named of Grace, 1793.

Out of which strange fall of Formulas, tumbling there in confused welter, betrampled by the Patriotic dance, is it not passing strange to see a new Formula arise? For the human tongue is not adequate to speak what ‘triviality run distracted’ there is in human nature. Black Mumbo–Jumbo of the woods, and most Indian Wau-waus, one can understand: but this of Procureur Anaxagoras whilom John–Peter Chaumette? We will say only: Man is a born idol-worshipper, sight-worshipper, so sensuous-imaginative is he; and also partakes much of the nature of the ape.

For the same day, while this brave Carmagnole dance has hardly jigged itself out, there arrive Procureur Chaumette and Municipals and Departmentals, and with them the strangest freightage: a New Religion! Demoiselle Candeille, of the Opera; a woman fair to look upon, when well rouged: she, borne on palanquin shoulder-high; with red woolen nightcap; in azure mantle; garlanded with oak; holding in her hand the Pike of the Jupiter–Peuple, sails in; heralded by white young women girt in tricolor. Let the world consider it! This, O National Convention wonder of the universe, is our New Divinity; Goddess of Reason, worthy, and alone worthy of revering. Nay, were it too much to ask of an august National Representation that it also went with us to the ci-devant Cathedral called of Notre–Dame, and executed a few strophes in worship of her?

President and Secretaries give Goddess Candeille, borne at due height round their platform, successively the fraternal kiss; whereupon she, by decree, sails to the right-hand of the President and there alights. And now, after due pause and flourishes of oratory, the Convention, gathering its limbs, does get under way in the required procession towards Notre–Dame; — Reason, again in her litter, sitting in the van of them, borne, as one judges, by men in the Roman costume; escorted by wind-music, red nightcaps, and the madness of the world. And so straightway, Reason taking seat on the high-altar of Notre–Dame, the requisite worship or quasi-worship is, say the Newspapers, executed; National Convention chanting ‘the Hymn to Liberty, words by Chenier, music by Gossec.’ It is the first of the Feasts of Reason; first communion-service of the New Religion of Chaumette.

‘The corresponding Festival in the Church of Saint–Eustache,’ says Mercier, ‘offered the spectacle of a great tavern. The interior of the choir represented a landscape decorated with cottages and boskets of trees. Round the choir stood tables over-loaded with bottles, with sausages, pork-puddings, pastries and other meats. The guests flowed in and out through all doors: whosoever presented himself took part of the good things: children of eight, girls as well as boys, put hand to plate, in sign of Liberty; they drank also of the bottles, and their prompt intoxication created laughter. Reason sat in azure mantle aloft, in a serene manner; Cannoneers, pipe in mouth, serving her as acolytes. And out of doors,’ continues the exaggerative man, ‘were mad multitudes dancing round the bonfire of Chapel-balustrades, of Priests’ and Canons’ stalls; and the dancers, I exaggerate nothing, the dancers nigh bare of breeches, neck and breast naked, stockings down, went whirling and spinning, like those Dust-vortexes, forerunners of Tempest and Destruction.’ (Mercier, iv. 127–146.) At Saint–Gervais Church again there was a terrible ‘smell of herrings;’ Section or Municipality having provided no food, no condiment, but left it to chance. Other mysteries, seemingly of a Cabiric or even Paphian character, we heave under the Veil, which appropriately stretches itself ‘along the pillars of the aisles,’ — not to be lifted aside by the hand of History.

But there is one thing we should like almost better to understand than any other: what Reason herself thought of it, all the while. What articulate words poor Mrs. Momoro, for example, uttered; when she had become ungoddessed again, and the Bibliopolist and she sat quiet at home, at supper? For he was an earnest man, Bookseller Momoro; and had notions of Agrarian Law. Mrs. Momoro, it is admitted, made one of the best Goddesses of Reason; though her teeth were a little defective. And now if the reader will represent to himself that such visible Adoration of Reason went on ‘all over the Republic,’ through these November and December weeks, till the Church woodwork was burnt out, and the business otherwise completed, he will feel sufficiently what an adoring Republic it was, and without reluctance quit this part of the subject.

Such gifts of Church-spoil are chiefly the work of the Armee Revolutionnaire; raised, as we said, some time ago. It is an Army with portable guillotine: commanded by Playwright Ronsin in terrible moustachioes; and even by some uncertain shadow of Usher Maillard, the old Bastille Hero, Leader of the Menads, September Man in Grey! Clerk Vincent of the War–Office, one of Pache’s old Clerks, ‘with a head heated by the ancient orators,’ had a main hand in the appointments, at least in the staff-appointments.

But of the marchings and retreatings of these Six Thousand no Xenophon exists. Nothing, but an inarticulate hum, of cursing and sooty frenzy, surviving dubious in the memory of ages! They scour the country round Paris; seeking Prisoners; raising Requisitions; seeing that Edicts are executed, that the Farmers have thrashed sufficiently; lowering Church-bells or metallic Virgins. Detachments shoot forth dim, towards remote parts of France; nay new Provincial Revolutionary Armies rise dim, here and there, as Carrier’s Company of Marat, as Tallien’s Bourdeaux Troop; like sympathetic clouds in an atmosphere all electric. Ronsin, they say, admitted, in candid moments, that his troops were the elixir of the Rascality of the Earth. One sees them drawn up in market-places; travel-plashed, rough-bearded, in carmagnole complete: the first exploit is to prostrate what Royal or Ecclesiastical monument, crucifix or the like, there may be; to plant a cannon at the steeple, fetch down the bell without climbing for it, bell and belfry together. This, however, it is said, depends somewhat on the size of the town: if the town contains much population, and these perhaps of a dubious choleric aspect, the Revolutionary Army will do its work gently, by ladder and wrench; nay perhaps will take its billet without work at all; and, refreshing itself with a little liquor and sleep, pass on to the next stage. (Deux Amis, xii. 62–5.) Pipe in cheek, sabre on thigh; in carmagnole complete!

Such things have been; and may again be. Charles Second sent out his Highland Host over the Western Scotch Whigs; Jamaica Planters got Dogs from the Spanish Main to hunt their Maroons with: France too is bescoured with a Devil’s Pack, the baying of which, at this distance of half a century, still sounds in the mind’s ear.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30