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Thursday, August 16, 2012

A New Look at the French Revolution

Stephanie A. Mann

(...)  Although the French Revolution’s ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood (Liberté, égalité, fraternité) seem laudable, in practice they were combined with a program of dechristianization. The revolutionaries were acting on the Enlightenment philosophes’ verbal attacks on the Catholic Church, regarding it as an ally of the old regime. The National Constituent Assembly of France seized all Church property, suppressed convents and monasteries, and forced priests to serve as employees of the State, swearing an oath to the Revolution while denying loyalty to the Pope. The Blessed Sacrament was desecrated, church furnishings and artwork wrecked, and churches destroyed in a massive campaign of iconoclasm. More than 200 non-juring priests and three bishops—those who would not take the required oath—were brutally massacred in Paris on September 2 and 3, 1793. Priests and nuns were also tied together and drowned in what revolutionaries called “Republican Weddings” in Nantes and Lyon. The Ursulines of Valencienne, the Carmelites of Compiegne, and groups of nuns from other religious orders were guillotined.

The final steps in the dechristianization of France were to eliminate the Gregorian calendar, the seven day week, the Sunday day of rest and worship; change any street or city name with a religious reference; and ban holy days and saints’ feasts. Robespierre, the leader of the Committee for Public Safety, instituted and led ceremonies in the new Cults of Reason and the Supreme Being. Churches and cathedrals, like Notre Dame de Paris, became Temples of the new cults. A new calendar began with Year I of the new Republic.

Not everyone agree with this legally enforced anti-Catholicism (or with the overthrow of the monarchy). One region of France that almost immediately dissented was the Vendee, in the west, south of the Loire River. The people there were loyal to both the King and the Church; they refused to join the Revolutionary Army. Thus the leaders of the Revolution had a rebellion on their hands. From Paris, the government of the First Republic sent 45,000 troops in March, 1793 to face the Catholic and Royal Army of the Vendee.

After Catholic and Royal victories that month, Robespierre’s Committee for Public Safety (the committee responsible for the Reign of Terror) ordered the destruction of the Vendee and thorough pacification of its inhabitants. When the Republican Army gained control of the war in October and December of that year, it began a new campaign of enforced evacuation. The Army destroyed crops and farms, razed towns and villages, ransacked churches, burned down forests—a complete scorched earth policy. They murdered anyone and everyone in the area: young, old, Catholic or Republican. All were dispatched with appalling cruelty. (...)

On December 12 and 13, 1793, the battle of Le Mans was a veritable massacre. The republican army, having made a surprise appearance in order to finish once and for all with the insurrection, took no prisoners. Starving and sick, the bulk of the Vendean population, half of which consisted of women, old people and children, had taken refuge in Le Mans in the hope of finding food and medical supplies. According to estimates between 2000 and 5000 persons were killed.

Six of the nine uncovered grave sites have been thoroughly examined. They only represent some of the victims, since they contain in all two hundred skeletons. The others are buried outside of the limits of the dig. A number of individuals bear the traces of very severe wounds on the skull, arm bones or lower members, inflicted by weapons other than firearms. "Some of the wounds show signs of great violence, of unrelenting fury," declares Elodie Cabot, an anthropologist at INRAP. Women and boys aged 12-13 (child-soldiers) were among the victims, as was a three-year-old child. Several people had been executed by bullets. (...)

Vendée - 217 Years Later

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