Modern history

IV THE MAN WHO LOVED RATS

If Linguet was the writer who enabled the thousands who read his book to feel, vicariously, the shutting out of light, another, quite different but equally popular book gave its readers the elation of escape. In this sense, the “Chevalier” Latude’s autobiography was the perfect complement to Linguet’s memoir.

“Latude” was in reality a soldier named Danry who found himself without means or prospects in Paris after the end of the War of Austrian Succession. Like countless petty adventurers, he attempted to use the machinery of court favoritism to advance himself but he did so with an unconventionally risky stratagem. In 1750 he wrote a personal letter to Mme de Pompadour – the object of countless personal plots – alerting her to a letter bomb that would shortly be sent her way. Danry/Latude could be confident of this because he himself was the author of just such a letter. The half-baked plan was very quickly unraveled, and instead of receiving a pension in gratitude for saving the life of the King’s mistress, Latude found himself in the Bastille. Transferred after a few months to Vincennes, he made the first of what was to be a series of escapes.

Latude’s account of his first moments of freedom, running through fields and vineyards, making for the highway, hiding away in a chambre garnie in Paris, has exhilarating credibility. But even more astonishing was his decision to extricate himself from the fear of discovery by writing again to Mme de Pompadour, explaining his folly and throwing himself on her mercy. Since he had become acquainted with no less an eminence than Dr. Quesnay, he entrusted him with this apologetic memorandum.

This was a serious mistake. Latude had been so naively confident of clemency that he had even indicated his address on the letter. Within a day or so he was back in the Bastille: a setback but not a defeat. The innocent was rapidly becoming accustomed to the cunning of the world. Within a few months he had devised a secret mailbox by working loose a brick in the prison chapel, and he with a cellmate, d’Alè gre, spent six months constructing the rope ladder that would take him to freedom again. This extraordinary piece of work required considerable sacrifice since the rungs had to be made from the firewood given to the prisoners during the winter. Shirts and bed linen, torn apart, knotted and restitched with painstaking care, made up the length. A crude knife was fashioned from the iron crossbar of their trestle table. With his passion for giving sacred names to the instruments of freedom (also a precaution against discovery) Latude called the runged ladder “Jacob,” the white rope his “dove.” In his memoir he represents himself as the perfect artisan: frugal, industrious, ingenious and pure of heart – Jean-Jacques as convict.

On the night of the twenty-fifth of February the two prisoners climbed up the chimney of their cell, “almost suffocating from soot and nearly burned alive,” then worked the iron grate apart to allow them onto the roof of one of the towers. From there they used the three-hundred-foot ladder to descend into one of the moats. It was here, said Latude, that he felt a pang of regret at having to abandon his tools and the ladder that had served him so well: “rare and precious monuments of human industry and the virtues that were the outcome of the love of liberty.” The two men were still not free. The rain on which they had counted to remove the sentries had stopped and they were making their rounds as usual, armed with broad lanterns. The only way out was to work from below, removing the bricks of a wall, one by one, with a minimum of noise, to allow for an eventual exit. And when they finally had made a hole large enough to squeeze through, the two men, in the dark, fell headlong into an aqueduct and were nearly drowned.

After this ordeal they were hidden for a time in the Abbaye Saint-Germain by a tailor before going their separate ways through the Low Countries. In Antwerp, Latude encountered a Savoyard who, without blinking, recited to him the story of two men who had escaped from the Bastille. One of them, he said, had already been recaptured and the “exempts” – police who moved freely across borders – were out looking for the other. In Amsterdam they caught up with Latude and, tied into a dreadful leather harness “more humiliating than any slave’s,” he was taken back to the Bastille. His liberty had lasted just three months.

This time the jailbird’s wings were clipped. Latude was placed in one of the appalling underground cachots to make escape quite impossible. And it was in this genuinely nightmarish confinement that he discovered new companions: the rats. Compared with the inhumanity Latude had endured, the rats seemed endearing. Using pieces of bread he trained them to eat off his plate and to allow him to scratch them around the neck and chin. They too were given names, and some, like the female “Rapino-hirondelle,” would even beg like a dog or do jumping tricks for her pieces of bread. The scene of an idyll in hell was completed when Latude managed to make a primitive flute out of bits of his iron grille so that, from time to time, he could serenade his rodent friends with an air or a gavotte as they gnawed contentedly on his leavings. They were, as he wrote, his “little family,” all twenty-six of them, and Latude studiously observed their life cycle – their matings and breedings, battles and games – with all the tender concern of Rousseau’s guardian-tutor.

Years passed. Latude busied himself by preparing a project reforming the halberdiers and pikemen in the French army, which he was sure the Minister of War would want to see. Deprived of paper he used tablets of bread, moistened and flattened with his saliva and then dried, and for ink his own blood diluted with water. When he was hauled out of the cachot, he grieved to lose his rats but made a new family out of the pigeons, until in a vindictive fit they were killed on orders from the governor. Another escape was made in 1765, aborted again through Latude’s incurable innocence when he presented himself at the Versailles office of a government minister whose reputation for benevolence he trusted. He was moved back to the Château de Vincennes, and it was only in the new reign that Malesherbes became acquainted with his plight and had him moved to Charenton, the asylum for the mentally disturbed. There he met up again with d’Alè gre, his old companion in flight, whose years of incarceration had completely destroyed his sanity. Seeing Latude, d’Alè gre thought he was God and covered him with tears and benedictions.

In 1777 Latude was finally released but immediately published his Memoirs of Vengeance, which guaranteed his rearrest, first in the Petit Châtelet and then in Bicê tre. From there he continued to write accounts of his many ordeals, one of which found its way to a poor vendor of pamphlets and magazines, Mme Legros. Campaigning for Latude at the doors of les Grands she finally found a willing audience in Mme Necker and even the Queen. In March 1784 Latude was finally released, and though he was formally “exiled” from Paris he was not only permitted to live there but was given a royal pension of four hundred livres a year. Unlike d’Alè gre Latude had somehow come through twenty-eight years of prison with his wits very much intact, and he became an immediate celebrity. Lionized by the Académie Française, greeted by Jefferson, he became the beneficiary of a public fund.

Latude’s story, published in many forms and editions before the Revolution, looked like the triumph of the honnête homme over the worst miseries that despotism could inflict. Together with Linguet’s memoir and other writings like The Bastille Revealed, it contributed to a growing campaign, first to restrict lettres de cachet and summary imprisonment to those who genuinely threatened the public peace, and then to demolish the Bastille altogether. Such plans were in keeping with plans of urban embellishment that removed medieval walls and citadels to make room for public gardens, squares and promenades. In 1784, as an accompaniment to Breteuil’s memorandum limiting the use of lettres de cachet, the architect Brogniard proposed an open, circular, colonnaded space and in June 1789 the project was revived by the Royal Academy of Architecture.

Just a few weeks before it fell to the citizens’ army, then, the Bastille had already been demolished in official memoranda. In the broad open space to be created by its removal would be a column, perhaps in bronze, higher than the old prison. Its base was to be sheathed in rocks from which fountains would play, in keeping with the new Romantic aesthetic. A simple inscription would suffice to indicate to posterity the victory of benevolence over tyranny: “Louis XVI, Restorer of Public Freedom.”

This peaceful victory was not to be. The attempt of the monarchy to impose its will by military force had ended any possibility of recasting its legitimacy as the benefactor of freedom. Instead, the towers of the Bastille, its cannon pointing from the embrasures, stood as the symbol of intransigence. So, although, as historians never tire of pointing out, the crowd of a thousand that gathered before its front court was after gunpowder rather than demolition, it was, without any question, also mobilized by the immense force of the Bastille’s evil mystique.

The Marquis de Sade, for one, knew exactly how to exploit this. Briefed by his wife during her weekly visits on all the news from Versailles, he decided to join the roll of honorable martyrs of the Bastille. His periodically shouted addresses from the tower walks to passersby suddenly became political at the beginning of July. Deprived of those walks, he followed the tradition of artisanal ingenuity in the Bastille by adapting into an improvised megaphone the metal funnel used to deposit his urine and slops into the moat. From de Sade’s window, at regular intervals, like news bulletins on the hour, came broadcast announcements to the effect that Governor de Launay planned a massacre of all the prisoners; that they were at this minute being massacred and that the People should deliver them before it was too late. Already in a state of jitters, de Launay had the troublemaker removed on about the fifth of July to Charenton, where he raged at the indignity of being shut up with so many epileptics and lunatics.

De Sade had become a revolutionary.

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