A Whiff of Grapeshot

Hello and welcome to Paname, a podcast examines Paris, wrinkles and all. Today War Wounds. Now you don’t get to be as old and lived in as Paris without a few scars along the way. There are plenty which I would like to investigate but today I thought we might go and have a look at one which dates all the way back to the Revolution and to which we can blame a certain young Corsican and, in the words of historian Thomas Carlyle a whiff of grapeshot.

Here we are at the l’eglise St Roch in the 1st arrondissement on the stylish rue Saint Honoré . Saint Honore by the way is the patron saint of bakers, there is even a delicious Saint Honoré cake named after him. Now you might think this very fitting for a French street but ironically Saint Honoré, the street not the saint, is actually full of very expensive, high end boutiques where only the thinnest, and wealthiest of women, and men shop and I’m sure have never indulged in a Saint Honoré cake or any baked goods ever – but I digress.  

Saint Roch is rather less tastily the patron saint of Dogs, plague, cholera, skin rashes and false imprisonment. His story, because I love a good saint story, goes as follows;

He was a 14th centaury French nobleman. Legend claims that he was marked from birth by a red cross on his chest. So a holy type from the get go. Unfortunately both his parents died while he was still young so he moved to Rome where he cared for plague victims and miraculous cured them. unfortunately he contracted dreaded disease himself and decided to  head out to the woods to die rather than be a burden on others, what a saint.   He was however saved by a dog who brought him food and licked his wounds which began to heal. For that reason he is usually depicted with a nasty knee wound and a dog bringing him some bread to eat. Which is exactly what we can see here in this 17th Century church. The church itself  took over 100 years to complete, largely due to lack of funds. The first stone was laid by Louis XIV in 1653 but was only finished in 1754. There are a number of notables buried here including Andre le Notre, the landscape architect who laid out the gardens of Versailles, playwright Pierre Corneille, and Philosopher Denis Diderot. It was also where the marquis de Sade was married on the 17th of May 1763. One can only shudder at what the poor bride must have gone through on the wedding night. I am sure saint Roch was much in need in the disease filled and pestilent streets of 17th centaury Paris. But today not so much, instead you are more likely to find a lovely classical concert going on in the church.

Now, If you look carefully you will see that the façade of the church has been damaged ….. These marks, as I’ve said date back to the revolution and they tell an interesting and infamous story one that left its mark both on the edifice of Saint Roch and indeed on the career of Napoleon Bonaparte.  

I’m sure you all know about Napoleon, but, if you do not have his life story at your fingertips lets have a brief summary. He was born on the 15th  August 1769, was the fourth child of minor Corsican aristocrats. He was a man of great skill, and ambition. He distinguished himself in the Army early on, becoming a general at the age of only 24 and is recognised pretty much universally as a military genius. There are many myths surrounding Napoleon, we mentioned some last week, about both the man and his reign and one of them is that he was cruel and ruthless. The events that took place here in 1795, went in some way to creating this myth. So what actually happened?

The French Revolution had seen radical social and political reform particular for Catholics. The Revolutions strong anti-Catholic stance created an opportunity for an alliance between the pro-catholic and pro-royalist factions and the Armée catholique et royale was created and quickly gained British support. There were a number of uprisings and battles, ultimately defeated by the Revolutionary armies. However in 1795, a group lead by the Comte d’Artois started marching towards Paris bolstered by British troops and weapons. Royalists troops joined them and there was a strong feeling that young royalist supporters in Paris, known as the jeuness dorée, or gilded youth,  would also join in. There was even speculation and rumour  that the National Gard may defect. The situation looked critical. Général baron de Menou was given the task of defending the capital but with 5,000 troops at his disposal compared to a 30,000 strong Royalist army things were not looking good. The General’s initial attempts to quell the Royalist uprising were seen by many as weak – he had tried to negotiate with the rebels, but this only resulted in the rebels gaining in confidence and calling for a greater uprising. There was real fear that more would flock to the royalist cause. Baron de Menou was dismissed. The young General Napoleon Bonaparte offered his assistance and he was told to use any means necessary to quash the revolt.  

Napoleon had already distinguished himself at the battle  against a royalist army with difficult odds. In the battle of Toulon in 1793 his strategic planning and courage saw him win a decisive victory over the Royalists, even though the odds were stacked against him.

So then on the 5th of October although you will often see it written as the 13th Vendémiaire which

Hold on, what is Vendémiare I hear you ask. Good question. Lets turn to the encyclopaedia Britannica for a definition:

French revolutionaries believed they did not simply topple a government, but established a new social order founded on freedom and equality. Far from limiting reforms to the state, revolutionaries sought to align French institutions and mores on the basis of the new republican ideals through a multitude of changes, from reorganizing France’s regional divisions to abandoning the terms Monsieur and Madame in favour of the more egalitarian Citoyen and Citoyenne. To mark the advent of the new age of liberty, they also replaced, in October 1793, the old Gregorian calendar with a new republican calendar. Henceforth, the year of the official proclamation of the Republic (1792) would become Year One. In this secular calendar, the twelve months of the year were named after natural elements, while each day was named for a seed, tree, flower, fruit, animal, or tool, replacing the saints’-day names and Christian festivals. The republican calendar was abandoned by Napoleon on January 1, 1806. 

So they had, for example: Floréal april to may, the month of flowers, thermidor, (July- August) month of warmth or Pluviôse (Jan to Feb) month of rain. The saint days were also replaced with more day to day things like flowers or vegetables and so on – had I been named after my new ‘saint day’ I would be called shallot! Look up your day on Wikipedia and let me know your name.   But back to our story.

So then on the  13th Vendémiaire or the 5th of October 1795 Napoleon took charge. He ordered 40 cannons be brought to him – he placed 2 cannons, at what used to be the rue Saint Nicaise and  another facing the Church, with others in strategic spots within the city. Napoleon then took the unprecedented decision to use grapeshot. Grapeshot consists of musket balls packed into muslin bags that ripped open once fired from a canon.  Using grapeshot against a civilian uprising had never before been done in Paris. Napoleon did not fire until the first shot was made against him but then he returned fire with devastating effect. Between 2-3 hundred rebels were killed against very little losses, maybe half a dozen of Napoleons men even though they had been outnumbered.

It was a turning point in his career, he was given a promotion for avoiding civil uprising with some applauded him for saving the revolution while but others criticised him for being too harsh and even inhumane.

But we must keep in mind the historical context of the time.  Paris in 1795 had seen horrendous mob uprisings and riots. It was also an especially bloody time in French history what with all the recent beheadings. Napoleon himself had been in Paris during the September massacres, a particularly shameful and barbaric episode. The government feared that foreign and royalist armies might attack Paris and they believed that they planned to release the cities prisoner who would then join them in revolt. To avoid this around 1200 prisoners were murdered without trial, including 115 priests and even a number of children. Allowing a mob uprising in central Paris could have be disastrous and, some even feared, may have led to civil war. Napoleons actions were indeed harsh, but arguable quelled a potential greater disaster and averted further loss of life. Napoleon believed in the revolution and was defending it.

For some it’s interesting to think of Napoleon as saving the revolution when just a few years later, in 1804 he would crown himself emperor and for many destroy the revolution entirely but that is another story for another day.

Napoleon continues to be a complicated figure in French history. France does not celebrate any Napoleonic anniversaries. And there is still a pull between those that see him as a strong enlightened leader, and those that see him as a tyrant and megalomaniac. During WWII Hitler and Mussolini both showed great admiration for Napoleon, which did nothing for his reputation, linking, in some people’s minds, the Empire building ambitions of Napoleon with Hitler. Many of course lost their lives in the wars that Napoleon waged, although more wars were declared against Napoleon than he himself started. Ultimately, defeated by a coalition force at Waterloo the British sent him to Saint Helena, in the middle of the ocean to be forgotten. They were unsuccessful in this endeavour however as Napoleon undoubtedly left his mark in a very real way and not just on this church.

His complicated legacy however means that although there are a number of streets in Paris named after his great victories such as Pyramid, Rivoli or  Austerlitz – the man himself is conspicuous in his absence. There is one street simple called Rue Bonaparte in the 6th and only one statue of Napoleon himself sits atop the Vendome column in Place Vendome.

But despite his absence Napoleon can be seen throughout Paris through his building projects.  He believed that ‘men are only great through the monuments they leave behind’ and today the beautiful Rue de Rivoli, named after his battle in Italy against Austria gives us a taste of how he envisioned Paris looking. 3 bridges built by Napoleon can still be crossed today, Iena, Austerlitz and the beautiful Pont des arts. (improve) Napoleons reservoirs and sewers are still in use as are the quays that he built. Projects finished after his exile – the arc de triumph and the Madeline church still stand. Today, the legion of honour is still the highest order awarded for military or civil merit. 

One of my favourite improvements under Napoleon are the street numbers. Although numbering of houses had begun in 1729, each section of the city had its own system no uniformity rather chaotic results. So on February 5, 1805, the Prefect of Police, imposed a common system; even numbers on the right and the odd numbers on the left with the numbers beginning at the closest point to Seine and increasing as they went away from the river. The system remains in place today and makes finding your way much easier.

But for all his military might surely his civil achievements were the most profound and marking.  The Napoleonic code still forms the base of much of European law today and his lycee school system is still in place. There is so much more but books have been filled by and about Napoleon so lets leave it there for now.

If you want to visit the great man then you need to head to the muse de l’armee. Napoleon may have died in exile on the obscure and distant island of Saint Helena but he was moved back to France and Buried, with much pomp in a truly remarkable coffin which is in fact 6 coffins one inside the other made from iron, mahogany 2 in led, ebony and oak all wrapped up in a huge red marble sarcophagus. They sit  under the gorgeous golden dome of the Royal chapel. Napoleon was laid to rest here on the 2nd of December 1840, nearly 20 years after his death on Saint Helena on the anniversary or his coronation and his greatest victory at Austerlitz. At the entrance to the crypt are two bronze doors with the famous quote from Napoleons will

 Je désire que mes cendres reposent sur les bords de la Seine, au milieu de ce peuple français que j'ai tant aimé."