Snippets of French history: les sans culottes and the French Revolution. Part 1.
Several people have asked me to write a “in-a-nutshell” summary of the French Revolution. But I just can’t. The politics of the years leading up to the Revolution, and the different factions, and factions within factions, in a constantly-changing political situation would be impossible to fit in to anything other than a very fat book. The French Revolution was riddled with legislation and counter-legislation, small groups gaining a bit of power and then receding, mass murders, beytrayals and atrocities, shifting regimes and groups within the regimes … I recall a professor at University saying that it was like ever-moving and churning vomit with no way of knowing who was where and what was next.
So. So, I have decided to split it up in to several different in-a-nutshell groups, starting with the sans-culottes.
The men on the right are wearing culottes; they are simple working men, but in employment. The man on the left is a sans-culottes. Needless to say there were appalling mix-ups on both sides with the “wrong” people being executed simply because of their clothing – talk about the wrong trousers!
The nickname came about because men in the middle- and upper-classes, and many men in employment wore the fahionable “culottes“, ie breeches as far as the knee, usually made of silk, sometimes buckskin or similar. The men who did not wear culottes were the lower working-classes, poor labourers from the urban areas of Paris. They wore trousers (pantalons) and were therefore sans culottes.
A dress-code was loosely established: they wore short coats (if they owned one), clogs (if they had any footwear) and a red beret or hat of some sort.
One cannot really describe the sans-culottes as a social entity, though they dominated the French Revolution. Their slogan was “No God! No religion! No king! No Constitution!” The original idea was to create a kind of social group of good, honest, hard-working men and women who were epitomized by the ficticious character of Pere Duchesne in a radical newspaper. Simple mathematics – numbers running in to thousands – made this one image impossible and in no time the wholesome idea that the initiators had tried to create was replaced by violence. Really, they were a mob. In no time a violent and blood-thirsty mob who, like so many of their ilk, started out with a few fairly reasonable demands but who, lacking any proper leadership, rapidly got out of control. They were directly responsible (along with others) for the murders of women and children, priests and nuns, prisoners and thousands of others.
In the initial stages their demands, although these were mostly men with no education of any sort and who came – frequently – from excessively rough backgrounds, were simple: affordable food and an end to the free market (ie the market was based entirely on supply and demand with no government control. This meant that those who could afford very little were also able to buy very little and that in turn meant that very little of their needs were met). More radically they wanted social and economic equality – an impossibility to acheive, in a comprehensive & realistic sense, in any society.
The sans-culottes, simply because of their numbers, were terrifying. Very rough men, desperately poor and hungry, were used by the successive Revolutionary governments to provide a backdrop of strength and power. As well as being called the sans-culottes they were also nicknamed Les Enrages – the enraged, or the furious (accent missing).
On the whole the sans-culottes centered on the Paris area and roamed the Paris streets. During the September of 1792 almost 2000 people were killed in a couple of days. Of course, this was an era where communication was very poor, and the movement had other movements within it, differing views and loyalties, and spread out over the rest of France. For the following ten years (yes, ten years!) bouts of violence, particularly against the Roman Catholic church, continued, with babies nailed to church doors (in the Vendee area), and torture and rape of women in front to their families and murder.
As Robespierre (more about him later) came to power during the Reign of Terror, many of the sans-culottes, who had supported Robespierre, found themselves unexpectedly in the wrong place and were executed almost randomly.
By 1794 the sans-culottes were largely repressed by the new Conservative French government and the Revolution took a small step towards eventual peace. The political ramifications of what the original sans-culottes were all about could go on for ever. The fact of the matter is that they were an active sector of a blood-bath.
The women caught-up in the massacres were every bit as blood-thirsty as the men. Although it is almost always the men who are portrayed in battlefields and scenes such as this, women played (rightly or wrongly) huge roles in the overall feeding, tending and organising of troops, sometimes even fighting.
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Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist.