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Le rire européen

Alastair B. Duncan
Anne Chamayou

Chapitre IV. Politiques du rire

Laughter as a Political Weapon: Humour and the French Revolution

Mike Rapport

Texte intégral

  • 1 R. Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and other episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Vintag (...)

1In what is now a seminal work of cultural history, Robert Darnton graphically describes how in the 1730s two apprentices in a Paris printing shop, aided by the journeymen, massacred the cats in the neighbourhood. As a ‘cat person’, I have no desire to repeat in any detail the slaughter of our feline friends, but what is important here is that, in recalling the ‘great cat massacre’ twenty years later, one of the workers responsible described it as the funniest thing that ever happened in the printing shop. He was not alone, for all the workers thought that their bludgeoning and strangulation of the cats was so hilarious that they acted out the entire episode in mimicry at least twenty times thereafter. Normally, this sort of boisterous behaviour was aimed at humiliating a particular worker in the shop, the object being to force him to ‘prendre la chèvre’ –to take the goat– which meant fuming with rage, much to the amusement of everyone else. In this case, however, the victims (apart from the cats) were the owners of the print shop. These ‘bourgeois’ had ordered the apprentices to rid the street of cats because they were keeping the master and his wife awake at night –but, explicitly, the men were not to harm the wife’s favourite, la grise. The workers, who despised the owners, had set out on their task with relish –and their first victim had been la grise. When the master and mistress tried in vain to confront the malefactors, the men were overcome not only with ‘joy’ and ‘disorder’, but also with ‘laughter’. As Darnton says, the hilarity derived from the slaughter of defenceless animals is alien to us today –indeed, the massacre is ‘unfunny, if not down right repulsive’, while the re-enactments afterwards, with ‘rough music’ and men prancing around bleating like goats (which represented the humiliation of the victims, a tradition drawn from the charivari of the early modern world), seem rather odd, rather than humorous. This, Darnton argues, is precisely the point: ‘Our own inability to get the joke is an indication of the distance that separates us from the workers of preindustrial Europe’. Yet the joke itself is a doorway into an alien culture: if one can understand why a particular social group or a particular society laughs at something which we find distinctly unfunny, then we have a key to understanding the broader culture of that community1.

2Darnton therefore sounds a warning for scholars seeking to understand the past –and particularly the way in which people acted and thought, while offering them some hope that understanding is possible, if only we know where to look. For the French Revolution, this is quite a challenge because, while rooted deeply in the past, it is still held to be of relevance today. François Furet made a brave attempt to convince the politicised specialists of the French Revolution that it was ‘over’, meaning that the subject should no longer be a battleground for present-day political ideologies, but can safely be thought of as history in a more strictly scholarly sense. Yet this appears to have been premature, for historians continue to project their own politics and present day concerns back on the French Revolution. This is almost inevitable, since the French Revolution, on the one hand, declared the Rights of Man and the Citizen and experimented with democracy and, on the other hand, spawned the proto-totalitarian regime of the Terror and the more long-lived dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. Yet Darnton’s warning has to be heeded, even as we reshape our interpretations of the Revolution to reflect our modern-day anxieties: obvious a point as it may seem, the Revolution was made and lived by French men and women of the later eighteenth century. While the ideologies, the political structures and even the rhetoric seem in many ways so close to our own, perhaps the mentalities, the attitudes and the behaviour beneath them are quite alien. If Darnton seeks to understand the popular culture of old regime French society through what made the apprentices of the printing shop on the rue Saint-Séverin laugh, then perhaps we can do the same with the French Revolution? Are there any ways in which the types of humour bellowed out in the 1790s –and the laughter which they provoked– allow us to penetrate the deeper attitudes which underlay the practice of revolutionary politics?

  • 2 M. Leon, ‘Molière and the Revolution: a Tale of Three ‘Dandins’, European Studies Journal, vol. xv (...)

3This, of course, seems like an odd subject: quite frankly, ‘laughter’ and ‘revolution’ are not words which usually sit close to each other in the same sentence. This is all the more so of the French Revolution, for two reasons. Firstly, the source material itself is a bit thin on recorded instances of laughter. Let me state at the outset, however, that this almost certainly does not mean that people in revolutionary France did not laugh. It is just that the densest sources are invariably official ones and bureaucrats rarely recorded when citizens laughed in front of them –and of course there were times during the Revolution when it was distinctly unwise for good citizens to do so. Secondly, old-style comedy was frowned upon during the Terror as ‘aristocratic’. Diderot had argued that comedy was ‘monarchical’ in character, for in an egalitarian society subjecting fellow citizens to ridicule was distasteful. Rousseau, in his famous debate with D’Alembert on theatre, criticised Molière for failing to condemn vice. Indeed, during the Terror the type of satire of which Voltaire was a master was most definitely ‘out’, while a more moralistic version of drama and literature– Rousseauist in style– was ‘in’. Molière’s plays were for a short period either banned or altered to conform to the political agenda of the day, since (as the Journal des Spectacles put it in January 1794), the comedies involving valets, lackeys and peasants trying to make their way in the world were simply reminders of the ‘humiliation of the French under the Old Regime’. For a brief period, laughter itself was frowned upon (at least amongst the more earnest Jacobins): under the Montagnard dictatorship of the Year 2, the rapier-like wit of would-be Voltaires was denounced as an ‘aristocracy of the mind’, while Robespierre (not, it is true, remembered for his sense of humour) thought of laughter as alien to the Spartan-style ‘Republic of Virtue’ which he envisaged in the long, hot summer of 17942. Yet banning laughter ran against something within human nature: it seems that there is a basic human need for it. This was certainly what the editor of a new and (it was claimed) ‘impartial’ newspaper, the Contradicteur, declared in June 1797, after years of upheaval and conflict:

  • 3 Les Soupers de Mme Angot, ou Le Contradicteur, 4 Messidor An 5, p. 1.

... nous ne pouvons pas nous dissimuler que depuis la révolution, on ne voit, même dans les spectacles, que des brigands, des spectres, des cavernes, des flammes, des meurtres, des enfers, des chevaux, etc. etc. Tout cela n’est point national. Le peuple a faim de rire3.

  • 4 Quoted in J. Robiquet, Daily Life in the French Revolution (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964) (...)

4Years of ‘worthy’, revolutionary theatre –precisely the kind dictated by the Jacobin regime in the Year 2– on top of the actual trials of real life, had left France in need of a good laugh. This found sartorial expression almost as soon as the lid was lifted on society after Thermidor, in the way in which some young people with the means dressed in an exuberant style. Women, aptly dubbed the Merveilleuses, wore revealing Grecian-style dresses and dramatic wigs, while the men, the Incroyables, wore over-sized hats over long, unkempt hair, golden ear-rings, improbably tall cravats and voluminous frock-coats over tight breeches. There was a dark side to this flamboyance: some of these dandified men, called Muscadins, also took to the streets with the intention of beating Jacobins to a pulp, their weapon of choice a knotted stick jocularly nicknamed ‘the executive power’. Still, these fashionable youths were also the butt of humour which (apparently) had been repressed during the Year 2. Only weeks after Thermidor, the Journal de Paris remarked that the style was actually caused by an illness whose symptoms including ‘a cooling of that natural warmth which is difficult to treat unless the patient wears a very tight-fitting buttoned suit and a sextuple cravat behind which the chin disappears and threatens to mount the nose’ 4.

  • 5 See, for example, the work of Antoine de Baecque, La Caricature révolutionnaire (Paris: CNRS, 1988 (...)

5Yet even during the Terror there was humour and (almost certainly) laughter, even if it was subterranean and not officially encouraged. Humour, it is argued here, could actually limit the impact of the repression of the Year 2 or, if it did not, it played a salutary role in deflating some of the more earnest (and therefore dangerous) zealots. The challenge in the present juxtaposition of ‘laughter’ with ‘revolution’ is to examine how humour and laughter were used politically in this period. There has been some important work on humour and comedy during the Revolution, on the stage, in caricature and in political discourse5. The task here is to look at instances of the use of humour within revolutionary politics itself, to try to use this as an entrance into the revolutionary mentality and political culture and, hopefully, to make some judgments (for which read: speculation) about what this all might mean. The conclusions which will be drawn here are, I think, quite reassuring about human nature and, particularly, about the power of humour and laughter to mollify even the worst of times.

  • 6 A. de Baecque, ‘Le Discours Anti-Noble (1787-1792) aux origins d’un slogan: “Le Peuple contre les (...)

6Before reaching that brighter point, however, it should be said that humour and laughter were used as weapons in revolutionary politics. In his study of anti-noble language in the years between 1787 and 1792, Antoine de Baecque notes how derision was used to belittle the privileged orders. Libellistes emphasised the vices, the decrepitude and the immorality of the nobility, building on stereotypes which had been present for decades. There was the dissipated libertine, the insatiable courtesan, the rake ridden with venereal disease, the effeminate courtier passing by with a puff of powder and streaming ribbons and the bloated aristocrat, corpulent from eating heavily all his life. The purpose of these caricatures was to emphasise the parasitical nature of the nobility and, by contrast, to emphasise the morality, the virtue and the productiveness of the Third Estate6. The humour was therefore in exaggerating the traits of some nobles, but it had a political point which is simply not funny, but very earnest. One of the underlying emotions here was anger –so to modern tastes the attacks are bitter, rather than amusing.

7There was, none the less, a trait within the journalism of the revolution which made politically –and socially– charged anger itself humorous. One of the masters of this was Jacques-René Hébert, the goldsmith’s son who had made his way in the Parisian radical press since the 1780s and who created as his own mouthpiece the notoriously aggressive Père Duchesne. Hébert’s appeal lay in his attempts to recreate the course and violent language of the streets (or what he thought was the language of the rough-and-ready sans-culotte). The eponymous artisan of the journal was initially presented, in the crude engravings on the banner at the top, as a rather respectable pipe-smoking artisan, complete with frock-coat and hat. In the background, there is always a stove, next to which he ruminates and declaims. When he opens his mouth, however, what comes out of it is immediately combative and coarse –and the Père Duchesne speaks from the page immediately, for beneath the image is his device: ‘Je suis le véritable Père Duchesne, foutre!’– this last word promising the kind of rough but straight-talking that a good sans-culotte was meant to use. The engraving of the Père Duchesne slowly changed, becoming more aggressive as the revolution progressed: eventually, he has a beard and is wielding an axe above his head, while a priest –that representative of the old order and of the counter-revolution– is kneeling in the corner, his hands clasped in prayer, beneath the ominous device: ‘Memento mori’. What does not change is the style of Hébert’s journal, which is so littered with ‘foutres’ and ‘bougres’ that it becomes a parody –and a quite deliberate one at that– of the language of the street, the workshop and the café. This, I think, is where its appeal lay: the Père Duchesne expressed the anxieties, the hopes and the frustrations of the Parisian popular movement, delivering them in an aggressive form of language, but one which is exaggeratedly crude.

  • 7 La Colère du Père Duchesne à l’aspect des abus (Paris, 1789).

8The humour here lies, firstly, in the Père Duchesne’s rather unbalanced psychology. He is prone to extremes of emotion, with a tendency to burst into a rage at almost any issue or topic –article titles often begin with ‘La colère du Père Duchense...’, ‘La grande colère du Père Duchesne...’, or ‘L’ indignation’of the same –but also to celebrate revolutionary and republican victories ecstatically: ‘la grande joie du Père Duchesne...’. Sometimes, the artisan gets himself worked up into such a frenzy that the obscenities come cascading incoherently from his mouth: in one pamphlet, on the very eve of the revolution, the Père Duchesne catalogues all the abuses which make him angry. The word ‘foutre’ is apparently about to be slipped into any word which begins with ‘fou’ –although delicately enough for these pre-revolutionary weeks, that is left up to the reader’s imagination: ‘cela me f... ournit des réflexions bien tristes’; ‘je les regarde comme des gens f... ougueux’; ‘cela ne vaut pas un fou... rneau’. Will he, or won’t he, say it? Eventually, as the list of abuses grows, he becomes so enraged that all he can utter with each is ‘cela me...’; ‘cela me...’; ‘cela me...’ until, finally, the dots cover a line and a half, leaving the explosion of rage entirely in the head of the reader7.

  • 8 T. C. W. Blanning, The French Revolutionary Wars 1787-1802 (London: Arnold, 1996), p. 118.

9Secondly, the joke (if it can be called that) rests in the crude language: the vocabulary –foutre, bougre, jean-foutre are interjected a lot– was no doubt very familiar to Parisian artisans, but it erupts so often that it pushes the street talk to its limits. Amusingly, older English-language translations coyly render ‘foutre’ merely as ‘dammit’ which I suppose was naughty a few decades ago. ‘Bougre’ is sometimes used in a back-slapping kind of way: one can be a ‘bon bougre’, but one could never be a good ‘jean-foutre’. One suspects, therefore, that the Père Duchesne was popular because it was, in a sense, ‘good for a laugh’, in that it parodied the violence and coarseness of Parisian language, while it also conveyed some serious political messages and mobilised genuine popular feeling. It was distributed to the army while the Hébertistes (as historians remember the extreme left of the revolutionary movement during the Terror) had one of their own as War Minister between the summer of 1793 and the spring of 1794. This gave the journal a large circulation, although that alone is no guarantee that it was read since, as Tim Blanning puts it mischievously, the troops may have found more mundane uses for the paper8.

  • 9 Darnton, Great Cat Massacre, p. 95-96.
  • 10 Quoted in D. Lacotte, Danton: le tribun de la Révolution (Lausanne: Favre, 1987), p. 187.

10Thirdly, there is a distinctly masculine forcefulness to the language. This, indeed, is a point made by Darnton about artisanal humour with reference to the ‘great cat massacre’. The slaughter of la grise recalled the old proverb that ‘at night all cats are grey’, which in the eighteenth-century meant that all women were beautiful enough at night –and, of course, la chatte and le minet was then, as now, slang for the female genitals. To the apprentices, the violence towards cats may well have been symbolic of male sexual aggression and was, therefore, a physical expression of misogyny9. In the 1790s, the Père Duchesne’s violent language contrasted starkly with the more refined –and allegedly effeminate– wit of the aristocratic and bourgeois salons of the Ancien Régime. Amongst the obvious targets of this coarse, misogynist humour was the Girondin, Manon Roland, who was widely believed (not without reason) to be the real power and intellect behind her mild-mannered husband, the onetime minister of the interior, Jean-Marie Roland. She wielded a political influence which was anathema to the revolutionaries, who not only recalled the alleged meddling of Marie-Antoinette in Louis XVI’s governance, but who almost universally agreed that public life was exclusively the natural sphere of men. Marat called Roland, ‘frère coupe-choux, que sa femme mène par le bout de l’oreille’10, conjuring up a biting image of a feeble, well-nagged and nearly emasculated husband: a coupe-choux was a short sword and here the term is perhaps meant to cast an aspersion on Citoyen Roland’s manhood.

11Did people laugh at all this, however? It is hard to tell, of course. We probably don’t find risible the image of an aristocrat aching to his bones with venereal disease, although there are modern-day ‘Pères Duchesnes’ among stand-up comedians who use crudity and coarseness to make serious points. With Darnton’s suggestion in mind, too, we should recall the social milieu in which much of this humour was received. In the first place, Hébert’s voice spoke directly to the experience of its presumed artisanal readership: the Père Duchesne, prone as he was to violent mood swings and to foul language, would have been recognisable in an exaggerated form to anyone who had worked as an apprentice or as a journeyman in a workshop. Young workers, in particular, were subjected to the insults, the occasional act of violence and rough humour visited upon them by everyone from the master down to the older hands on the shop floor. This was punctuated by bouts of drinking and the kind of rough hilarity which the apprentice on the rue Saint-Séverin enjoyed so much in the 1730s. The larger-than-life character of Hébert’s mouth piece could therefore cut quite close to the bone, since he exaggerated traits which the reader might have recognised both in his employers and perhaps in himself. This made the Père Duchesne both familiar and also humorous –perhaps grotesquely so– an exceptionally strong-willed, outspoken and extreme figure from the world of the artisan. Following Darnton’s suggestion, we might not ‘get’ the joke, but the Père Duchesne offers us a window into the mentality of the Parisian sans-culotte. Or does it? For the second point is this: how can we know how the newspaper was actually read? As a straight polemic with swearing, or as a parody of a brutal, foul-mouthed artisan? Remember, too, that such journals were read out loud to others –in cafés, in workshops and at the front– so how the reader chose to vocalise the Père Duchesne’s voice would determine how it was received by the audience.

  • 11 T. Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), p. 68.
  • 12 Philippe d’Orléans et le ci-devant comte de Mirabeau jugé par le Père Duchesne sur la procédure du (...)
  • 13 La Colère du Père Duchesne à l’aspect des abus.

12There is at least something in the language used by Hébert and other revolutionary polemicists which allowed humour to emphasise the egalitarianism inherent in revolutionary political discourse, which aimed to deflate the high and-mighty. As Theodore Zeldin has argued in a different context, humour can be a way of ‘shuffling the cards of life’ and thereby of reordering, if only symbolically, the existing hierarchies11. The Père Duchesne, in one pamphlet from the early days of the Revolution, defends the patriotism of the ci-devant comte de Mirabeau and duc d’Orléans, but he still irreverently addresses them as ‘Messieurs les bougres’12, an ironic reference to their former aristocratic status (Messieurs) in conjunction with the very familiar, jocular artisanal epithet. In an earlier writing dating from the 1789 pamphlet war over aristocratic privilege, the Père Duchesne laughs at the overinflated titles of the nobility: ‘Quand je vois des hommes qui pour la plupart sont très-petits, et dont la puissance est très-bornée, prétendre au titre de très-haut et très-puissant, cela me...’13. Given all this, none other than Bertrand Barère, one of the great spokesmen for the Committee of Public Safety during the Terror (and a great survivor, one should add), was himself extremely amused when –on one occasion only– a rather pretentious Parisian ‘bourgeois’ appeared at his home on the rue Saint-Honoré after the law of 27 Germinal Year 2 (16 April 1794) ordered, amongst other things, that all former nobles be expelled from Paris. The extract from Barère’s memoirs, which the author himself describes as ‘of such a piece such as the comic authors could have laid claim to’ is worth quoting in full:

  • 14 Extract in J. Hardman (ed.), The French Revolution Sourcebook (London: Arnold, 1999), p. 224.

A respectable Parisian from the Marais, the son of an alderman of the corporation of Paris, came to seek my advice as to whether he should leave the capital and go place himself under surveillance at Passy. I told him that his nobility was not that feudal kind which had lost everything in the Revolution and therefore fell under the suspicion of the legislator. But the bourgeois from the Marais insisted that he was covered by the law. I insisted in turn that he remain in Paris with his family, repeating that his nobility being absolutely modern, he was not in the least threatened. The son of the Paris alderman began to lose his temper in front of quite a few people. He raised his voice and said that he was a noble as any nobleman in France; that the office of alderman gave recognized, hereditary nobility. I tried to calm him by pretending to recognize the legitimacy of his rather unseasonable aristocratic pride and I offered to requisition him as a noble man of letters authorized to remain in Paris. ‘No, sir’, he returned, ‘I am not a man of letters. I am the son of an alderman of the corporation of Paris; I am obliged by laws to leave and leave I shall’. He withdrew in high dudgeon14.

13Barère’s story can pass without comment (except perhaps that there is more than a hint of Molière in it), for it is sometimes good just to let a good story be a good story.

  • 15 Quoted in C. Hibbert, The Days of the French Revolution (New York: Morrow Quill, 1981), p. 237.
  • 16 Quoted in W. Doyle, Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989 (...)
  • 17 Papiers inédits trouvés chez Robespierre, Saint-Just, Payan, etc., précédés du Rapport fait au nom (...)

14To move on, it should be said that the sort of humour aimed at cutting les grands down to size was not just aimed at the Revolution’s enemies. It could also be used amongst the revolutionaries themselves, in some instances against those who set themselves up as the paragons of virtue. In what might be an apocryphal story, Danton is once said to have lost patience with Robespierre, who in one of his interminable speeches was speaking (as he was wont to do) about ‘virtue’. Danton rose to cut Robespierre down with the interjection that virtue was actually what he and his wife got up to every night. For the unmarried Robespierre, this insult was probably especially cutting –or perhaps so thought Danton, who could never be said not to have lived life to the fullest. Whether or not Danton delivered those precise words, he certainly did ridicule Robespierre’s repeated references to ‘virtue’, for Robespierre complained of precisely this to himself in his private notebook: ‘Danton derides the word Virtue as though it were a joke. How can a man with so little conception of morality ever be a champion of freedom’15? Was Danton doing anything other than trying to mock Robespierre for the sake of it, because he was simply impatient with his moralising? Perhaps, but his associates who survived the carnage when Danton’s head fell on the Place de la Révolution on 5 April 1794 understandably nursed a bitterness towards the Jacobins which could express itself in darkly humorous terms. This seems to have reached a grim zenith when Robespierre was cast –since he was coincidentally President of the Convention at the time– as the unofficial ‘high priest’ of the new cult of the Supreme Being. During the ceremony on the artificial mountain on the Champ de Mars on 8 June, Robespierre pointedly ignored the smirking comments of his less elevated colleagues. As he gave one of his habitually long speeches on republican virtue, Jacques Thuriot, one of Danton’s former allies, audibly muttered: ‘Look at the bugger. It’ s not enough for him to be master, he has to be God’16. These sort of remarks struck home: Robespierre angrily wrote in his private notebook of Bourdon de l’Oise, another conventionnel loosely associated with Danton, that ‘le jour de la fête à l’Être suprème, en présence du peuple, il s’est permis sur ce sujet les plus grossiers sarcasmes et les déclamations les plus indécentes’17. Robespierre –as one might expect– was certainly wounded by the barbed humour of his enemies, but in fact their use of humour was driven by their own sense of powerlessness. Two days after the festival, the Convention acquiesced in passing the Law of 22 Prairial, which had the effect of intensifying the Terror, making it (more than ever before) a means of choking dissent as well as striking at actual counter-revolutionaries. In the atmosphere during the weeks after Danton’s death, biting sarcasm was the only political weapon which Robespierre’s opponents could get away with using.

  • 18 Quoted in N. Hampson, ‘The French Revolution and its Historians’, G. Best, The Permanent Revolutio (...)
  • 19 A. Soubiran, The Good Doctor Guillotin and his Strange Device (London: Souvenir Press, 1964), the (...)
  • 20 Soubiran, Good Doctor Guillotin, p. 216-217.

15This was because Robespierre seems to conform to the now stereotypical image of the humourless ‘leftie’ who simply cries out to be the butt of some jokes. Yet in the summer of 1794, there may also have been a deeper, psychological impulse at work: fear. Richard Cobb, one of the great British historians of the French Revolution, once admitted that he had ‘an almost constant urge to make fun of the revolutionary apostle, the solemn propagandist of Virtue and Unanimity. This is because I am afraid of him’18. This –the desire to mask one’s fear, or to reassure oneself, through laughing at the source of one’s anxiety– seems to have been shared by the revolutionaries themselves. It is said that when Dr. Guillotin introduced ‘his’ thoroughly egalitarian decapitating machine to the National Assembly, he got carried away with enthusiasm and exclaimed, ‘With my machine I’ll cut off your head in a flash and you’ll feel nothing’. It is said that a ripple of nervous laughter shimmered through the hundreds of deputies. The story appears to be apochryphal: the event does not, in any case, appear in the Archives Parlementaires, but that the story is so persistent illustrates a basic human response to potential threats. What is certain is that the royalist newspaper, the Actes des Apôtres, suggested that the decapitating device should be named after the good doctor –and the name stuck. Interestingly, when the journalist mocked Guillotin for being ‘as skilful a mechanic as he is a doctor’ and that ‘his’ invention would ‘carry the fame of France to the banks of the Bosphorus’, none other than the official Moniteur slapped the writer down: one did not joke about the death penalty, for it was a sure sign of ‘a paucity of wit, whose seat is in the soul’19. This did not stop the press from publishing macabre ditties about Guillotin and the machine: the incorrigible Actes des Apôtres printed no less than thirty-one songs relating to them, while the Journal en Vaudevilles outdid the royalist paper by publishing fifty-five, including such gems as ‘Il est dur d’ être pendu’; ‘J’ai fait une machine’and ‘Fait tomber-ber-ber’ 20. Men and women on the streets gave the guillotine jocular names: the ‘National Razor’, while to be sent to the guillotine was to look through ‘the National Window’.

  • 21 Quoted in Leon, ‘Molière and the Revolution’, p. 154.
  • 22 Leon, ‘Molière and the Revolution’, p. 154-156.

16This laughter –or at least gallows humour– in the face of one’s fears seems to be a human trait, which even the apparently humourless revolutionary government of the Terror could not resist in its official propaganda against its enemies. It is true that ‘laughter’ and ‘official propaganda’ rarely go together, for governments under siege do not really have much of a sense of humour, but that did not stop the Committee of Public Safety from trying during the Year 2. In August 1793, the Convention provided the government with funds to influence public opinion and some of this cash went to paying caricaturists to produce, up to October 1794 (so going into the months beyond the Terror), cartoons seeking to ‘awaken public spirit and to make apparent how atrocious and ridiculous are the enemies of liberty and the Republic’21. At first glance, emphasing the enemies’ ‘atrociousness’ while also ridiculing them is no easy task, for how can an enemy be appalling and fearful, while also funny? Interestingly, of eighteen images produced –in runs of a thousand at a time– fourteen depicted the greatest enemy of all, the British government and particularly Pitt and King George III, who is on more than one occasion portrayed as none other than Georges Dandin –clumsy, foolish, often a slave to Pitt’s war machine. As Mechele Leon explains, the whole purpose here is to juxtapose the ridiculous with the frightening, for ‘ridicule conquers fear’. The allegedly sinister British threat is made to look silly: ‘the anxiety of Revolutionary war-time meets the disruptive power of ridicule’22.

  • 23 Cited in N. Hampson, Danton (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), p. 149.
  • 24 Quoted in Hampson, Danton, p. 145-146.
  • 25 Arrivée du Pere-Duchesne et compagnie aux enfers (1794).
  • 26 La Grande Colère du Père Duchesne en voyant tomber sa tête par la fenêtre nationale (1794).

17For all that, however, it need hardly be said that fear was being inspired by the revolutionary government itself, amongst its own people. Moreover, Hébert, for all his egalitarianism and popular appeal, was scarcely the most sympathetic of revolutionaries: having taken on Marat’s populist mantle after the ‘Ami du Peuple’s’ murder in the summer of 1793, Hébert followed on with his blood thirsty rhetoric, trying to push the revolution to greater extremes. Eventually, Robespierre and his colleagues in the government struck and, in March 1794, had Hébert and his associates tried and guillotined. During the three-way political struggle between the Dantonistes, the Hébertistes and the revolutionary government, Hébert’s crudely overblown style and journalistic persona was an easy target. In December 1793, Camille Desmoulins, closely allied to Danton, had the courage to take on Hébert with his newspaper, the Vieux Cordelier. At this point in time, Hébert had lapsed into an uncharacteristic silence as the government was putting his associates under intense pressure, but when he finally retaliated in the Jacobin club, Desmoulins quipped that Hébert had ‘put his moustache back on again’ –a witty comment on the disjuncture between the real Hébert, who was clean-shaven and rather effete, and his hirsute Père Duchesne23. Danton himself laughingly dismissed his Hébertiste enemies as ‘so much internal wind that a misplaced sense of decorum prevents a man from blowing off’24. This was vintage Danton crudity, but it fits well as a sublimely apt description of Hébert’s brand of journalism. Once it was obviously safe to attack the bloodthirsty journalist after his execution, a number of pamphleteers seem to have exulted in parodying Hébert’s coarse humour. In one, the Père Duchesne arrives on the banks of the River Styx, clutching the pipe from his stove and exclaiming, ‘Ah b...! ah f...! ah sacrée mort! Nom d’un tuyau de poële enfoncé! tonnerre de dieu...’. The boatman, casually sitting in his vessel and smoking his pipe, tries to calm him down: ‘tâche un peu de te taire, et de ne pas troubler le repos des ombres’. It’s all a bit macabre– the artisan is covered in blood– but in the grisly context of the spring of 1794, the entire dialogue is grimly humorous25. Another pamphlet has the Père Duchesne –this time meeting Pluto– realising the error of his coarse ways: ‘Je suis dans une telle rage, que je ne puis plus jurer; et je vois, mais trop tard, que ce n’est point par des b... et des f... que l’on mène des républicains’26.

18Revolutionary laughter therefore appears from almost all quarters as a means by which one can ridicule one’s enemies and mask one’s fear of them. It is, therefore, primarily a weapon, an exercise of power in various ways. This is perhaps not surprising, given that this paper has scratched the surface of humour in the political context. This does not mean, however, that there were not moments of private levity, or that people did not laugh about aspects of everyday life. Yet even in politics there is one very reassuring –and rare– moment of a revolutionary using self-effacing humour to mollify the effects of the darkest moment of the Terror. The man in question was Charles Delacroix, who in the debates on the bloody law of 22 Prairial Year 2 (12 June 1794) managed to mitigate –however slightly– what was potentially one of the more open-ended clauses of the law. The decree included an article which ordered that those who tried to ‘deprave morals’ were to be translated before the Revolutionary Tribunal, which (under the terms of the new law) no longer had a jury, could convict on the dubious rubric of ‘moral proofs’ and which could only pronounce one sentence –death. Delacroix rose to call for a clearer definition of the crime of ‘depraving morals’:

  • 27 Extract in Hardman, French Revolution Sourcebook, p. 231.

I hope that at my age I will not be thought to have a vested interest. Nevertheless I would like this crime to be defined more explicitly; because surely there was no intention of treating as enemies of the people those who let slip in their conversation or writing or plays for the theatre a word which might make modesty blush27.

19Delacroix was born in 1741, making him one of the older members of the Convention. He thus in a self-deprecating way alluded to his age in order to protect himself as he intervened in the discussion. In doing so, he mollified a particularly draconian and sweeping part of the legislation. The humour was mild and it probably did not even stir any laughter (it is not recorded). Delacroix did not ask for the clause to be expunged entirely, only to be revised so that the ‘crime’ was more clearly defined (and it was). But it is an illustration –an isolated and perhaps too small to be entirely reassuring– that humour in revolutionary politics could not only wound, but also protect.

  • 28 G. Brulotte, ‘Laughing at Power’, in J. Parkin and J. Phillips (eds.), Laughter and Power (Oxford, (...)

20In an interesting article, Gaëtan Brulotte suggests that laughter is never in power, but it has power28. What is clear from the very limited evidence presented here is that although laughter was a political weapon, it was –almost invariably– the weapon of the outsider. The bitter jokes about nobles in the first years of the revolution were those of the Third Estate against the privileged orders. Later, Hébert’s journalism may well have appealed to the humour of the sans-culottes, the popular mainspring of the revolution, but during the Year 2 they were using their coercive force against the government and the Convention –or at least they threatened to do so (and it was for this that Hébert himself fell beneath the ‘national razor’). The government itself adopted caricature in its efforts to mobilise public opinion, but the fact that it also frowned on comedy and censored it –Molière was not exempt– suggests that the laughter which it sought to provoke against its enemies was also a laughter which it wanted to control. That effort is contradictory and was therefore destined to fail, for even the Committee of Public Safety, with all the coercive force at its disposal, could not police laughter. Laughter was –and is– something which binds together the people who share it, but it is also a private experience: one can imagine a circle of friends sharing a joke about Robespierre during the summer of 1794, but they would have to have had a death wish if they did so publicly. This goes to the heart of the issue raised by the ‘Great Cat Massacre’. Following Darnton, a joke should be one way into understanding the revolutionary mentality, but while we know what was written and even said, we do not really know how and when people laughed during the Terror, the radical height of the Revolution. This makes penetrating the culture of revolutionary politics through its jokes rather problematic. The government wanted people to ridicule some things, some of its opponents (like Hébert) mocked others, but because we do not know whether people actually obliged, we cannot penetrate their mindset in this way. We do know, however, that when the all-too-serious government was laughed at publicly, it did not like it at all –remember Robespierre’s bitter note to himself after Danton had deflated his moralising about ‘virtue’, or after Bourdon mocked him at the Festival of the Supreme Being.

21While, in terms of scholarship, we may have reached an impasse, on a human level all this is quite reassuring. In what may well be another apocryphal story, it is said that Danton told Robespierre at their last, fateful meeting that the Terror could not go on for long because it simply did not sit well with the French savoir-vivre. Danton would know that better than I ever can, so he must have been right: just as that thundering orator was one of the few to laugh openly at Robespierre and Virtue, so there may have been many others who did so in private, as a means of coping with fear, as a means of keeping a perspective on life in these hard times and, perhaps, as a means of subverting the more utopian messages coming from the government. I hope they did, not least because that brings them so much closer to us, over two centuries later.


1 R. Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and other episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), p. 75-78.

2 M. Leon, ‘Molière and the Revolution: a Tale of Three ‘Dandins’, European Studies Journal, vol. xvii-xviii (2000-2001), p. 147-152.

3 Les Soupers de Mme Angot, ou Le Contradicteur, 4 Messidor An 5, p. 1.

4 Quoted in J. Robiquet, Daily Life in the French Revolution (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964), p. 222.

5 See, for example, the work of Antoine de Baecque, La Caricature révolutionnaire (Paris: CNRS, 1988); O. Elyada, ‘La mise au pilori de l’ abbé Maury: imaginaire comique et mythe de l’antihéros pendant la Révolution française’, Annales historiques de la Révolution française no. xxxiv (2005), p. 1-24; P. Taïeb, ‘Dix Scènes d’ Opéra-Comique sous la Révolution: quelques elements pour une histoire culturelle du théâtre lyrique français’, Histoire, Économie et Société vol. 22 (2003), p. 239-260; and the work of Mechele Leon, already cited.

6 A. de Baecque, ‘Le Discours Anti-Noble (1787-1792) aux origins d’un slogan: “Le Peuple contre les Gros”’, Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine, vol. XXXVI (janv.-mars 1989), p. 3-28.

7 La Colère du Père Duchesne à l’aspect des abus (Paris, 1789).

8 T. C. W. Blanning, The French Revolutionary Wars 1787-1802 (London: Arnold, 1996), p. 118.

9 Darnton, Great Cat Massacre, p. 95-96.

10 Quoted in D. Lacotte, Danton: le tribun de la Révolution (Lausanne: Favre, 1987), p. 187.

11 T. Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), p. 68.

12 Philippe d’Orléans et le ci-devant comte de Mirabeau jugé par le Père Duchesne sur la procédure du Chastelet (s.l.n.d). BNF Lb39.9434.

13 La Colère du Père Duchesne à l’aspect des abus.

14 Extract in J. Hardman (ed.), The French Revolution Sourcebook (London: Arnold, 1999), p. 224.

15 Quoted in C. Hibbert, The Days of the French Revolution (New York: Morrow Quill, 1981), p. 237.

16 Quoted in W. Doyle, Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 277.

17 Papiers inédits trouvés chez Robespierre, Saint-Just, Payan, etc., précédés du Rapport fait au nom de la Commission chargée de l’examen des papiers de Robespierre, 3 vol., (Paris, 1828), II, p. 19-20.

18 Quoted in N. Hampson, ‘The French Revolution and its Historians’, G. Best, The Permanent Revolution: the French Revolution and its Legacy 1789-1989 (London: Fontana, 1988), p. 229.

19 A. Soubiran, The Good Doctor Guillotin and his Strange Device (London: Souvenir Press, 1964), the English translation of Ce Bon Docteur Guillotin (Paris: Librairie Académique Perrin, 1962), p. 118-119.

20 Soubiran, Good Doctor Guillotin, p. 216-217.

21 Quoted in Leon, ‘Molière and the Revolution’, p. 154.

22 Leon, ‘Molière and the Revolution’, p. 154-156.

23 Cited in N. Hampson, Danton (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), p. 149.

24 Quoted in Hampson, Danton, p. 145-146.

25 Arrivée du Pere-Duchesne et compagnie aux enfers (1794).

26 La Grande Colère du Père Duchesne en voyant tomber sa tête par la fenêtre nationale (1794).

27 Extract in Hardman, French Revolution Sourcebook, p. 231.

28 G. Brulotte, ‘Laughing at Power’, in J. Parkin and J. Phillips (eds.), Laughter and Power (Oxford, etc.: Peter Lang, 2006), p. 11.


Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Stirling. He has published on various aspects of the French Revolution, including a book entitled Nationality and Citizenship in Revolutionary France: The Treatment of Foreigners 1789-1799 (2000), and on European history, including Nineteenth-Century Europe (2005). He is currently working on books on the 1848 Revolutions and on the Napoleonic Wars in an imperial context. He is reviews editor of the journal, French History

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