Modern history


An old motif in popular culture was the Death of Credit. Prints greeting this macabre dénouement bore images of grinning skeletons bearing worthless notes and empty purses. On August 16, 1788, Credit died in Paris and its demise threw the huge market in government paper into panic. Unlike Franklin Roosevelt’s version of the statement in 1933, the royal edict’s observation that “nothing is imperiled except through… fear” reassured no one. The Caisse d’Escompte was besieged with bondholders demanding redemption and had to close for fear of violence. The run lasted three days and nights before two further government announcements guaranteeing paper had a temporarily calming effect. But only a clean break was likely to restore the modicum of confidence needed to keep the government from disintegrating. In Brienne’s council there had been some talk of attempting the impossible – bringing Necker into the ministry – but if France was to be resurrected by representative government, it could hardly do it through the most powerful exponent of absolutism. In any event, listening to the drumbeat of applause already sounding for his return, Necker had no intention of sharing his glory with the discredited Archbishop. On August 25, Brienne resigned. That same night ten thousand people filled the Palais-Royal cheering themselves hoarse and letting off firecrackers in celebration of the news.

In the week that followed, Paris was given over to an immense outpouring of hatred, fired by a steep increase in the price of bread. Straw dummies of Brienne and Lamoignon were burned night after night, and on the Pont Neuf anyone not bowing to that popular totem, the statue of Henri IV, was manhandled. An English eyewitness walked out in the evening and saw the whole of the place Dauphine in a blaze from the burning of the Archbishop and the illumination of the windows; one huge sea of heads covered the whole Place and thousands and tens of thousands were wrapt in confusion, noise and violence.

On the twenty-ninth a mannequin dressed in Brienne’s archepiscopal costume was given a mock trial by a parody of Lamoignon’s grands bailliages courts and was sentenced to make “honorable amends” in front of the statue of Henri IV before being burned. There were so many of these bonfires that fuel became a problem for the celebrants. The stalls belonging to the women orange sellers of the Pont Neuf were seized, and when they had been burned, the sentry boxes on the bridge were snatched from their occupiers.

This did not please the gardes françaises militia or the troops who were gradually being mobilized for riot control. On the night of Brienne’s resignation regular soldiers had been used to clear the place Dauphine, and in the days that followed mounted soldiers regularly charged civilians armed with clubs, canes and stones. On the twenty-ninth things got sufficiently out of hand for the officer in command to order a volley of fire in the air before the crowd retreated. Already, then, the ability of the authorities to preserve order in the capital was being seriously tested.

In Grenoble, the funeral rites for absolutism were enacted with an uncanny literalness. On September 12 the ancient Maréchal de Vaux, who had come to Grenoble boasting that he had “ten thousand bolts to lock up the Palais de Justice,” went to his own grave. His body was placed in the chapelle ardente of the cathedral in a black tomb surrounded by hundreds of candles. Little Henri Beyle breathed in the acrid fumes and gaped at the sarcophagus. The order of military obedience embodied in the old Marshal was expiring beside his corpse. The drummers assigned to beat the dead march for his cortège were complaining that their black muffling cloths thrown over the drum had been unjustly skimped. By rights, they said, they were entitled to enough to make a pair of trousers, and it was only the meanness of that rich skinflint, the Marshal’s daughter, that had robbed them of their due.

Then came another death, much more disturbing. On October 8 the Bishop of Grenoble, Hay de Bonteville, was laid out in the cathedral as befitted a great prelate but with his face covered by a cloth that no one was permitted to lift. The reason was rapidly discovered. The previous evening he had withdrawn into his study in the Château d’Herbeys, burned all his papers, placed three bullets in a pistol, put the gun in his mouth, cocked the trigger and fired. Even while he had been professing support for the Grenoble Patriots, it seemed he had been secretly corresponding with Brienne and Lamoignon, offering support. He was one of the infâmes whom Mounier had wanted to excise from the body politic. At a preliminary meeting of the Estates of Dauphiné at Romans, the Bishop, now bereft of his patrons in the government, had, it seemed, uttered some words of imprudence. In a string of letters to Mounier he had implored him (as secretary of the Estates) to erase them from the minutes. But Mounier’s sense of correctness was inflexible. He failed to sense (what others saw) that Hay de Bonteville was deeply disturbed. “You drive me to despair,” the Bishop wrote, and a few days later acted accordingly. It was the first victory of Revolutionary Virtue over human failing.

The punitive aspects of the Bishop’s death did not go unremarked in Grenoble. It was, said local Patriot opinion, a fitting end for a scoundrel and a traitor. Indeed, as the old regime was in the process of doing away with itself, there was a quickening interest in the phenomenon of suicide. Malesherbes had found his own wife’s body in the woods. And in the spring of 1789 his cousin Lamoignon, who had endeavored so much and had fallen in the endeavor, was himself discovered shot at his country estate. The likelihood was that this was a hunting accident, and old Malesherbes in his sorrow and anxiety was certainly inclined to accept the official verdict. In the political Nation, however, where Lamoignon had no friends, it was commonly said that he had done away with himself and that, after all, it had been the only decent thing to do.

Brienne’s end was no happier. By resigning he had managed to avoid the full weight of odium that had befallen Calonne, but he was hardly a popular figure. During his ministry he had been promoted from the diocese of Toulouse to that of Sens, southeast of Paris. He returned there, attempting to ride out the storm. While, in England, Calonne was to become an active counter-revolutionary, Brienne did his best to abide by patriotic orthodoxy. In 1791, he was one of the few prelates of the old regime to swear the “civic oath” required by the revolutionary civil constitution. In a further gesture of patriotic good faith he even returned his cardinal’s hat to Rome. But, inevitably, the Terror caught up with him and he was arrested in his house in February 1794. Kept under watch at home, he found enough privacy to swallow a lethal dose of the opium and stramonium (thorn apple) he used to soothe the torment of his skin disease.

He had, after all, watched the old regime commit suicide.

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