Monday, July 13, 2009

Le jour de gloire est arrivé (updated)


Place Broglie, Opera House at the far end. If you squint, you can just make out the tri-colour banners decorating it

Today's the Fête Nationale here in France, and so, a thematic post for you.

Strasbourg was, like so many European cities, originally founded by the Romans. What is today Place Broglie was just on the outskirts of the Roman settlement. In the Middle Ages, when Strasbourg was a Free City of the Holy Roman Empire, it was a tournament grounds, where men insecure in their medieval masculinity could bash the living crap out of each other with swords and maces for the public’s enjoyment.*

When the French took over, they used the available real-estate to build themselves somewhere to house the fonctionaires they sent east from Paris to run their new possessions. Therefore, the prefect’s mansion, the officer’s mess, and the new City Hall all sprung up around Place Broglie, which was now anchored by an Opera House for the French aristocrats’ entertainment.

Today, Place Broglie’s more a place to pass through on your way to other parts of the city than the center of urban life it once was. But in 1792, it became the apex of the spirit of the French Revolution.

Not because Strasbourg was particularly hard hit by revolutionary fervour. Though the Hotel de Ville was sacked by a mob only five days after the Bastille was stormed in Paris, and the Republican governor of Alsace imposed some 30 death sentences during his tenure, Strasbourg’s not a revolutionary sort of place. That the entire population was forced to donate their overcoats to the Republican Army by Louis de St-Just, a.k.a. “The Angel of Death” probably did much to cool their ardor.


It turns out you can fight city hall

However, it was Strasbourg’s position as a border city that led to its unique role in the history of the French Revolution. France was at war with most of the monarchies of Europe, not least the German states to the immediate East. An army engineer, by the name of Rouget de Lisle, was asked by Frédéric de Dietrich, Strasbourg’s then-mayor, to compose a song to rally the troops: “The Marching Song of the Rhine” was composed that night, and performed for the first time on Place Broglie the next day.

It was an instant hit, being adopted, most famously, by the Marseillaise sanscoulottes that marched on Paris. Through that association, the song became known as “La Marseillaise” and is now, of course, the French national anthem.


Statue commemorating the composition of the Hymn Nationale: Allons enfants de la patrie!

Of course, Rouget de Lisle was not too impressed by the Revolution, and was drummed out of the army and into prison, on suspicion of Royalist sympathies. Frédéric de Dietrich, who commissioned the song, fared even worse. Despite his talent spotting, he ran afoul of Robespierre and his fellow Terror-crats in Paris. He was induced by grace of the guillotine to bid au revoir to his head the following year.

Next: I have no idea! Any requests?

Incidentally, I just read up on the lyrics to the French national anthem: the chorus is roughly - "Form your battalions! Their dirty blood will water our fields!" Which is a whole heck of a lot more active than Canada's "We'll stand on guard for thee," which would have been followed by the line "Though we can't imagine against who" if the composer hadn't run out of notes.

* My friend David left a interesting comment on this post that deserves publication here: Curiously, the tournaments that you mention in connection with Place Broglie, were a great way for younger (and therefore ultimately disinherited) sons of noble families to make a living without actually working (which would have been to be 'de-classed'): a victor kept his defeated adversary's horse and armour. Tournaments were held in different market towns and cities around the kingdom and the arrival of these travelling horsemen, or knights errant (the reality had nothing to do with rescuing damsels in distress or killing dragons), heralded a bad time for local farmers or shopkeepers: these guys drank far too much and liked to get boisterous in their amusements. In fact, they were such pests that in England, where the middle class established itself as a powerful force much earlier than in France, the French King (Henry II at the time) banned jousting. So instead the English sprigs of the nobility would have to travel to France for their jousts, since France kept the nobles far more securely in power for far longer, allowing them to trample joyfully over everyone else - no small contributing factor to the excesses of the revolution.

2 comments:

David Beeson said...

Curiously, the tournaments that you mention in connection with Place Broglie, were a great way for younger (and therefore ultimately disinherited) sons of noble families to make a living without actually working (which would have been to be 'de-classed'): a victor kept his defeated adversary's horse and armour. Tournaments were held in different market towns and cities around the kingdom and the arrival of these travelling horsemen, or knights errant (the reality had nothing to do with rescuing damsels in distress or killing dragons), heralded a bad time for local farmers or shopkeepers: these guys drank far too much and liked to get boisterous in their amusements. In fact, they were such pests that in England, where the middle class established itself as a powerful force much earlier than in France, the French King (Henry II at the time) banned jousting. So instead the English sprigs of the nobility would have to travel to France for their jousts, since France kept the nobles far more securely in power for far longer, allowing them to trample joyfully over everyone else - no small contributing factor to the excesses of the revolution.

Mark Reynolds said...

Thanks David - that's very interesting. I'm moving that into the main body of the post, if you don't mind.