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Four (mostly) forgotten figures from eighteenth-century France

While the French revolutionary era is a period of the past, it remains one of the most defining moments in the country’s legacy and history. The major victors and vices are well known in these moments of violence and change—but what about the forgotten? From radical cleric Henri Grégoire to military leader Armand-Louis de Gontaut, here are but four overlooked figures of the French Revolution.

Claudine Guérin de Tencin (1682-1749)

Her father, a stern magistrate in the city of Grenoble, intended for her a life as a nun. She had no choice but to agree, but before taking her vows secretly drew up a legal affidavit stating that she was doing so against her will. In 1712, after her father’s death, she used the affidavit to sue successfully for release from the convent. She then moved to Paris, where she became known as the hostess of one of the great intellectual salons of the early eighteenth century. Montesquieu, Fontenelle, Marivaux, and Bolingbroke were among those who attended, and read their works to her guests. She also had romantic liaisons with many of the most powerful men in France, including the foreign minister and the Maréchal de Richelieu. She used her political influence to advance the career of her brother Pierre-Paul in the church, and did it so well that he ended up a cardinal. She became pregnant by one of her lovers, the Chevalier Destouches, and had an illegitimate son in 1717. She left him on the steps of the Church of Saint-Jean-le-Rond in Paris, but she and Destouches arranged for him to be raised by artisans and given a good education. The son, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, grew up to become one of the leading philosophes of the French Enlightenment, a noted mathematician and co-editor, with Denis Diderot, of the Encyclopédie.

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“Church of Saint Medard” by Guillaume Speurt. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

François de Pâris (1690-1727)

The son of a wealthy Parisian magistrate, François de Pâris defied his father, who wanted a legal career for him, and instead entered a Catholic seminary. He was fervently attracted to the austere and persecuted current of Catholic thought called Jansenism, which emphasized mankind’s utter depravity. Becoming a deacon, he lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Paris, gave most of his money to the poor, wore a hairshirt, and practiced self-flagellation, even weaving iron wires into his clothing and whipping himself until he bled. He died at age thirty-six, and was buried in the cemetery of Saint-Médard on the Left Bank. Very soon, visitors to his gravesite claimed that they had been miraculously cured of diseases. Others experienced “convulsions,” had visions, and began to speak in tongues. Thousands thronged to the grave, and seemed to form the basis of a popular movement in favor of Jansenism. Finally, in 1732, King Louis XV ordered the graveyard closed. An unknown wit posted this piece of graffiti on the gate: “Par ordre du Roi, defense à Dieu / De faire miracles en ce lieu” (“By order of the King, God is forbidden to make miracles here”). But the so-called “convulsionary” movement continued in secret and inspired political radicalism, even in the midst of the century of Enlightenment.

Armand-Louis de Gontaut, duke of Lauzun and Biron (1747-1793)

Born into one of the wealthiest aristocratic families in France, the “beau Lauzun” grew up at the French court in Versailles. Known for his splendid appearance and superb manners, he became one of the great rakes and seducers of the century, squandering most of his fortune. Rumors linked him to Queen Marie-Antoinette. He had a successful military career, fighting in Corsica in 1768 (although dashing away from the battlefield to rendezvous with a mistress), and then leading the force that conquered Senegal for France in 1779. Soon afterwards, he raised a legion of his own and served with the French forces in the American Revolution, taking part in the Battle of Yorktown; he appears in Trumbull’s famous painting of Cornwallis’s surrender to George Washington. At the start of the French Revolution, he served as a moderate deputy in the National Assembly, and then went back into the army to fight the Austrians. Remaining loyal to the Revolution even after the execution of King Louis XVI, he took to the field against counter-revolutionary Catholic rebels in the Vendée, but tried to limit atrocities against the civilian population. Denounced by ultra-radicals for this moderation, he was recalled to Paris, imprisoned, and sentenced to the guillotine. A day before his execution, he wrote to his father: “Tomorrow, I will die.”

Henri Grégoire (1750-1831)

The son of a tailor from Lorraine, Grégoire became a parish priest, but had intellectual ambitions. In 1788, he gained national fame for a prize-winning essay that argued for the bestowal of full civil rights to French Jews. A year later, he became a member of the first National Assembly of the French Revolution, where he led the struggle in favor of Jewish emancipation. He also campaigned for the freedom of slaves in the French Caribbean colonies (which, in 1789, had as many slaves as the entire United States). When the Assembly approved a radical reform plan for the Catholic Church in France, Grégoire was among those priests who supported it, and won election as a bishop. He subsequently voted for the abolition of the monarchy and the death of King Louis XVI, but refused to abjure Christianity even when pressured to do so. During the radical phase of the French revolution he continued to defend the rights of people of color, and also became the leading advocate of French linguistic unification (at the time, most French people did not speak standard French as their mother tongue). After the Revolution, this radical cleric, while loathed by royalists, remained a well-known figure and prolific author. In 1808, he published one of the first studies of literature by people of African descent.

Image Credit: “Pairs of angels, sculptures; Martyrs’ Square – Place des Martyrs – Martelaarsplaats 3” by Dr Les (Leszek – Leslie) Sachs. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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