The Leading Edge: Noah Shusterman on Religion, Gender, and the French Revolution, 1789-1799

February 18, 2014, 10:22 am

Noah Shusterman joins us this week on the Leading Edge to talk about the French Revolution, the subject of a book he just published. Noah writes from Hong Kong, where he works at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This makes him the most distant Leading Edge author yet, an early but still crucial record.

NCSBookCoverCertain events from the French Revolution stand out, and rightly so. The storming of the Bastille in July 1789, commemorated now every 14 July, showed the role that the people of Paris would play in the Revolution. The execution of Louis XVI in 1793 was another dramatic turning point, a burning of the bridges with France’s monarchical past. The execution of Maximilian Robespierre and his allies in July 1794 signaled an end to the Reign of Terror that had been going on for the past 10 months.

The assassination of Jean-Paul Marat in July 1793 might not have been the turning point that those other events were, but it was not lacking in drama. A previously unknown woman from Normandy in Western France, Charlotte Corday, had travelled to Paris, purchased a knife, then gone to Marat’s house where he was working from his bathtub due to a skin condition. Corday misrepresented her reason for coming to Paris, then after a brief tubside conversation, plunged the knife into his chest.

It is the aftermath of Marat’s assassination that interests me, though. Corday herself was tried, found guilty, and executed. Hardly surprising. Nor is it too surprising that Marat came to be seen as a martyr for the Revolutionary cause. But there are new modes of martyrdom and old modes, and Marat’s martyrdom verged on the medieval. His heart was taken and placed in a political club, as if it had been the nose or foot of a sixth-century Catholic saint. During his funeral procession, crowds filled the streets, parading his bathtub and a bloody shirt. Some women even gathered what they claimed was Marat’s blood, calling for it to become the seed – the French word here was sémence – for future revolutionaries.

For the men who were at least putatively in charge of the Revolution, Marat’s assassination led to a new wave of concerns about their own well-being. To some, this meant a concern about the dangers that women posed. One local politician made this point in a speech commemorating Marat, warning of the dangers posed by a woman like Corday, guided, he thought, by “fanatical priests.” Then he had to realize who his audience was. “Pardon, citizenesses,” he told the largely female, entirely pro-Marat crowd, “it is not of you that I am speaking… you are not to blame, if nature has created a monster bearing the image of your sex.”

Jacques Louis David La Mort de MaratHere, in the aftermath of Marat’s death, were some of the key dynamics of the French Revolution. Yes, this was a violent episode in an event often known for its violence. But the reactions to the violence show how the Revolution’s participants often understood events in religious terms, while also showing the vitality of female activism. There was some mistrust of women among the leading politicians, but historians have overemphasized that aspect of the Revolution in recent decades. Neither Marat nor Robespierre, for instance, would have had the success they had without the female support they received.

The importance of religion is easier to discern among opponents of the Revolution. In the summer of 1790 the National Assembly restructured France’s Catholic Church, issuing a law called the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. This largely administrative document would alienate half of the nation’s clerics from the Revolution, and transform the Counter-Revolution from the impotent sword-rattling of a handful of disgruntled aristocrats into a popular movement. Its passage lacked the drama of the Revolution’s most famous events, but was no less of a turning point. Soon there were two Catholic Churches in France – a “schism” – and opponents of the Revolution increasingly portrayed themselves as defenders of Catholicism.

By the spring of 1793, the opposition to the Revolution that had started with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy had evolved into a full-scale civil war in Western France. Armies of hundreds of thousands faced each other in some of the cruelest fighting of the wars of the French Revolution. Soldiers on the rebel side continued to identify their cause with God and the Church; soldiers on the Revolution’s side continued to blame priests and women for the Civil War. But as the collection of repurposed religious practices showed – Revolutionary catechisms and almanacs, republican festivals and holidays, even relics – traditional ways of knowing and acting helped shape events on the pro-Revolution side as well.

These aspects of the Revolution – the importance of religion, the vitality of female activism, and the male ambivalence toward that activism – were often intertwined, and it is this dynamic that lies at the center of my book The French Revolution: Faith, Desire and Politics. The book is not a history of gender and religion during the French Revolution. It is, rather, a history of the French Revolution that places gender and religion at the heart of the story. That was how the French understood their revolution, and that is how I have explained it.

Noah Shusterman is Assistant Professor of Western History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Religion and the Politics of Time: Holidays in France from Louis XIV to Napoleon (Catholic University of America Press, 2010) and The French Revolution: Faith, Desire and Politics (Routledge, 2013). He is currently working on a history of militias in the eighteenth-century Atlantic World.

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