A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France

A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France

by Ronald Schechter


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In contemporary political discourse, it is common to denounce violent acts as “terroristic.” But this reflexive denunciation is a surprisingly recent development. In A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France, Ronald Schechter tells the story of the term’s evolution in Western thought, examining a neglected yet crucial chapter of our complicated romance with terror.
For centuries prior to the French Revolution, the word “terror” had largely positive connotations. Subjects flattered monarchs with the label “terror of his enemies.” Lawyers invoked the “terror of the laws.” Theater critics praised tragedies that imparted terror and pity. By August 1794, however, terror had lost its positive valence. As revolutionaries sought to rid France of its enemies, terror became associated with surveillance committees, tribunals, and the guillotine. By unearthing the tradition that associated terror with justice, magnificence, and health, Schechter helps us understand how the revolutionary call to make terror the order of the day could inspire such fervent loyalty in the first place—even as the gratuitous violence of the revolution eventually transformed it into the dreadful term we would recognize today. Most important, perhaps, Schechter proposes that terror is not an import to Western civilization—as contemporary discourse often suggests—but rather a domestic product with a long and consequential tradition. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226499574
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/11/2018
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ronald Schechter is professor of history at the College of William and Mary.

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Holy Terror and Divine Majesty


Our quest to understand what terror meant to the French revolutionaries begins with the Bible. The ultimate source of terror in the Judeo-Christian tradition is God, who throughout the biblical narrative instills terror via threats, judgments, and punishments. If this seems a long way back to search for sources of terror speech in eighteenth-century France, it is worth recalling that the Bible was a best-selling book in prerevolutionary France. From the Bible we shall proceed to writings of eighteenth-century theologians, then to the texts of sermons from the same period, and finally to the writings of philosophes who diverged from Christianity on theological matters but agreed that God was a legitimate source of terror for his human creatures. Taken together, these sources reveal a tradition of regarding terror as a suitable emotion in the face of the Almighty. To use a word frequently paired with "terror," it was "salutary," which suggests that it both promoted health and assured salvation. Paradoxically, terror of God could reduce the terror of his wrath. Those who blithely ignored the prospect of divine punishment were that much more likely to suffer it. In addition to being an emotion, terror was the source or object of that emotion. It was a chief attribute of God to be "terrible," and this descriptor also had positive emotional connotations, as God's capacity to terrify was closely linked to other divine attributes, namely glory, majesty, and justice. In the context of theological discussions, the words "terror" and "terrible" sounded good, and it felt good to write, speak, read, or hear them.

Terror in the Vulgate

Bible reading was widespread in eighteenth-century France, and not in opposition to any church policy. Nor was it restricted to Jansenists, though they were known to be particularly staunch advocates of studying the holy scriptures. As orthodox a Catholic as the Jesuit Père Guillaume-Hyacinthe Bougeant wrote in a catechism of 1741 that literate Christians who failed to read the Bible "would have to reproach themselves for having dispensed with one of the most useful means they had of nourishing their piety and for neglecting from among all readings that which is most capable of inspiring Christian sentiments in them." The official version of the Bible for French Catholics was the Vulgate of Saint Jerome, who had translated the scriptures into Latin. Though not all literate French people would have been able to read the Vulgate, it was central to the education of priests, who in turn interpreted the Bible for their flocks and instructed the faithful on their proper relationship with God.

The word terror (including its inflected forms) occurs forty-seven times in the Vulgate. All but one of these instances appear in the Old Testament. The word is first used in Genesis 9:2, where God endows the sons of Noah with dominion over animals, decreeing, "And may the terror of you [terror vester] and the trembling [ac tremor] be over all the animals of the earth and over all the birds of the sky." Thus the right to instill terror in creatures epitomized the power to rule over them, and the image of power less creatures trembling with terror dramatically symbolized the idea of divine power.

The Old Testament repeatedly depicts God striking terror into people and in the process signifying his sovereignty over them. The most famous example is in the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. The prophet Jeremiah offers a thanksgiving prayer to God for having "led your people Israel out of the land of Egypt with signs and portents and with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with great terror." King David expresses his gratitude in similar language in the book of Chronicles, where he thanks God for liberating his people with "greatness and with terrors." God had plans to terrorize Egypt once again, according to Ezekiel, who put these words into his mouth: "I shall destroy the likenesses and I shall make the idols of Memphis cease and the ruler of the land of Egypt shall be no more and I shall spread terror in the land of Egypt." Interestingly, the prophetic sequence of divine events did not begin with terror as a means of ridding Egypt of its idols and its ruler, but concluded with it, presumably when the main work of purging the country had already been done. In this case terror was not utilitarian. It was instead a sign of God's power.

What Ezekiel predicted for Egypt, Isaiah prognosticated for Assyria. In a passage that concisely links terror with glory, the prophet declares, "And the Lord shall make the glory of his voice heard and shall show the terror of his arm with the threat of fury, and the flame of devouring fire shall crash down with a swirl and with hailstones." Further, Isaiah refers to "the Assyrian," whose "courage will give way to terror" when God punishes his wicked nation. In a more generalized threat, the same prophet warns, "Behold, the Dominator, the Lord of Hosts shall shatter the flasks [of the arrogant] with terror, and the height of the lofty one shall be cut down, and the exalted ones shall be humbled." Nor was Israel exempt from terror. Among the many punishments God threatens for disobedience, in Deuteronomy he tells the Israelites that they will be driven "mad with terror." Similarly, Jeremiah reveals what God will say on the day of his vengeance: "I have multiplied [Jerusalem's] widows to more than the grains of sand in the sea ... I have suddenly cast terror over the city." Again, as in Ezekiel, the invocation of terror succeeds the actual violence and serves to legitimize it.

While the Israelites were in God's favor, however, they enjoyed the privilege not only of immunity to his terror, but of participation in the terror that God inflicted on his (and their) enemies. Just as they had the right to terrify the animal kingdom, they possessed a deputized power to terrify — and kill — proscribed nations. In the book of Exodus, after enumerating the Ten Commandments and other precepts, God promises, in exchange for fidelity, "I shall send my terror ahead of you, and I shall kill every people to whom you come, and I shall turn the backs of all your enemies from you." Likewise, in Deuteronomy God assures his people that if they keep his commandments, "no one shall stand against you; the Lord your God will spread the terror and fear of you [terrorem vestrum et formidinem] over all the land that you tread on."

Elsewhere in Deuteronomy Moses tells the Israelites that God will make them terrifying. He relays this promise: "Today I shall begin to put the terror and the fear of you into all the peoples who live under heaven, that they may be terrified and, in the manner of one about to give birth, tremble, and remain in pain." In the book of Joshua the prostitute Rahab turns against her compatriots in Jericho and assists in the Israelite conquest of her city, explaining, "I knew that the Lord had given you the land [of Jericho] because the terror of you rushed over us and all the inhabitants of the land slackened." In both cases gendered imagery reinforces the power dynamic of a terrible God (or his people) rightfully triumphing over a trembling parturient or "slackened" adversary. Moreover, it is significant that in Rahab's reasoning the land must belong to Israel because the people of Jericho are terrified. Again, terror itself stands for legitimate power. Finally, if terror borrowed from God could facilitate the conquest of land, it could also lead to conversion. After Esther foiled Haman's plot against the Jews of Persia and the wicked minister was executed along with his ten sons, "many other people were joined both to the sect of [the Jews'] religion and to their ceremonies, for a great terror of the name Jew had taken possession of everyone."

If the Chosen People were authorized to serve as God's proxies and spread terror in his name, other nations clearly did not possess that privilege. Indeed, Ezekiel prophesies nemesis for those who arrogate the power to terrorize. He enumerates various peoples that have ended up "in the midst of hell" for having committed this sin. "Elam is there," he reports, referring to the civilization east of Mesopotamia, whose inhabitants "had placed their own terror in the land of the living." The use of the possessive adjective suum, in this case meaning "their," is significant. God's terror was of course allowed, either directly or through authorized intermediaries, but the Elamites had spread terrorem suum, their own terror, and the penalty for this transgression was damnation. Ezekiel also describes the perdition of the Phrygian kingdoms "Meshech" and "Tubal," which "had descended into hell" because "terror of the bold [i.e., arrogant] ones had been spread in the land of the living." The pharaoh comes at the end of Ezekiel's list of damned souls, and here it becomes explicit that terror belongs only to God, whom the prophet quotes as saying, "For I spread my terror [terrorem meum] in the land of the living."

Just as the noun terror indicated God's power, so did the adjective "terrible" (terribilis, terribile, etc.), which appears sixty-one times in the Vulgate and almost always refers to God or his deeds. The descriptor first occurs in Genesis. Following his famous dream, Jacob exclaims, "How terrifying [pavens] and terrible [terribilis] is this place. This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven." For Jacob, as for many other biblical characters, "terrible" means awesome, glorious, and mighty and is therefore an obvious attribute of the Divinity. In the Song of the Sea, where Moses celebrates God's drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, the Almighty is simultaneously "terrible" and "praiseworthy." In Deuteronomy God assures his people that they need not fear their enemies, as they have on their side a "great and terrible God." Later in the same book he describes himself as "a great and powerful and terrible God" who has done "great and terrible things" for his people. The Psalms use the word "terrible" twenty-eight times, typically to glorify God. The faithful are enjoined to shout with joy, "for the Lord most high is a terrible, great king." The psalmist is elated because God's "works" are "most terrible" and urges the faithful to "come and see the works of the terrible God."

The word "terror" is rare in the New Testament, occurring only once, in the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus describes Judgment Day: "There shall be earthquakes in different places, and pestilences, and famines, and there shall also be terrors from heaven, and great signs." "Terrible" appears only twice, both times in Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews. The apostle warns the Jews that if they continue to sin after learning "of the truth," they should feel "a terrible expectation of judgment and fire" that will "consume" them. Still, overall the Bible provided many examples of terror and repeatedly linked the word with notions of God's power, majesty, and righteousness.

French readers who could not understand Latin or simply preferred their scripture in their native language had many options, the most popular of which was a French translation by the Jansenist Isaac Louis Le Maistre de Sacy (1613–1684), which appeared in thirty-four editions between 1701 and 1790. Sacy used the word terreur fifty times when translating the Bible. In twenty-five of the instances in which Jerome wrote the word terror, Sacy substituted the cognate terreur. For example, this is how Sacy translated God's promise to Noah in Genesis 9:2:

Que tous les animaux de la terre, & tous les oiseaux du ciel soient frappés de terreur & tremblent devant vous, avec tout ce qui se meut sur la terre. [May all the animals of the earth, and all the birds of the sky be struck with terror and tremble before you, with all that moves around the earth.]

Similarly, where the Vulgate has God promise, "I shall send my terror ahead of you," Sacy has him say, "I shall have the terror of my name march before you." Where Saint Jerome has God assure the Israelites, "Today I shall begin to put terror and fear of you into the peoples who live under all the skies," Sacy has him declare, "I shall begin today to cast the terror and fright of your arms into all the peoples who live under heaven." Jeremiah's prayer of thanks to God for having delivered the Israelites from Egypt "in great terror" appears thus in Sacy: "It is you who drew your people Israel out of Egypt with miracles and wonders, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and in the terror of your judgments."

In other cases Sacy chose synonyms for terreur where Jerome selected terror. For example, whereas Jerome has Moses report that God is going to test his people "that his terror may be in you and you will not sin," Sacy's Moses conveys the message that God's purpose is "to imprint the fear of him in you, that you not sin." Elsewhere the Vulgate has God threaten that his people will become "mad with terror" should they disobey him; Sacy translates God's words as "beside yourselves with fright" (hors de vous par la frayeur). Jerome's psalmist laments that "terrors of death fell upon me," whereas Sacy translates the complaint as "I was seized with fright and trembling" (J'ai été saisi de frayeur & de tremblement). In several other places Sacy writes frayeur where Jerome wrote terror. Alternatively, he uses l'épouvante, a word that could be translated into English as "terror" or "horror," instead of terreur.

Yet as often as Sacy employed a synonym for terreur to translate a passage in which Jerome chose terror, he used terreur to render a passage which Jerome had not translated with terror. For example, the Second Book of Chronicles (Vulgate version) records that pavor Domini prevented the kingdoms surrounding Judah from waging war against King Josaphat. Pavor is synonymous with terror, and pavor Domini can be translated as "terror of the Lord." Thus Sacy was translating in the same spirit when he attributed the inaction of Judah's enemies to "terror of the name of God." Elsewhere in the same biblical book Sacy chose terreur where Jerome had chosen pavor. Jerome wrote that "the terror [pavor] of the Lord came over all the kingdoms of the earth when they heard that the Lord fought against Israel's enemies." Sacy's version of that passage was: "And the terror [la terreur] of the Lord spread over all the neighboring kingdoms when they learned that the Lord himself had fought against Israel's enemies."

In some cases Sacy used terreur where Jerome had used timor or formido, words that are typically translated into English as "fear." Thus Ecclesiasticus 36:2 (in Jerome's version) urges God, "Send fear of you [timorem tuum] onto the nations" who worship other gods, while Sacy's rendition reads, "Spread your terror [votre terreur] over the nations." The First Book of Maccabees, in the Vulgate, reveals that "the enemies [of Judah the Maccabee] were repulsed by fear of him [prae timore eius]," whereas Sacy wrote, "The terror [terreur] of his name made his enemies flee before him." Elsewhere the reader of the Vulgate learns that "the fear and dread [timor ... et formido] of Judah and his brothers fell over all the nations in their vicinity," which Sacy rendered, "Then the terror [terreur] of Judah and his brothers spread from all sides among the neighboring nations."

Whether eighteenth-century French readers encountered the Latin terror or the French terreur when examining their Bibles, the message they received was similar. In addition to indicating emotions that might otherwise be indicated by words such as fear, fright, or dread, the terms terror and terreur suggested the power to instill these feelings. In most cases the source of these emotions was God, whose power to provoke them was an index of his might, his majesty, and his glory. He could delegate this power to his Chosen People, but their terribleness was contingent upon their obedience to him. Even when terror was attributed to nations God held in execration and was therefore a justification for their punishment, the word still had sacred connotations. Israel's enemies were being punished for wielding a sacred weapon to which they had no right, but that only enhanced the weapon's sense of sacrality.

Terror in the Writings of French Theologians

In the century prior to the Revolution, a wide variety of French Catholic writers drew on the biblical tradition of depicting terror as an instrument of God and a sign of his glory. Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet epitomized the Catholic position on piety-induced terror (and terror-induced piety). A bishop, court preacher, and tutor to the dauphin, Bossuet defined orthodoxy in the age of Louis XIV. In one work he told the story of Ananias and Saphira, a husband and wife who, according to the Acts of the Apostles (5: 1–11), sold land to donate the proceeds to the apostles but lied about the amount they had received from the sale and kept the difference. Peter discerned the deceit and confronted the couple, asking them why they had lied to the Holy Spirit, upon which Ananias and Saphira died. This event led to "great fear" among the people and, in Bossuet's view, solidified Peter's power as head of the apostolic church. Bossuet wrote that in killing Ananias and Saphira with his probing question, "Peter achieved the first miracle to appear in confirmation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; it was he who made an example of Ananias and Saphira: this first thunderbolt which inspired salutary terror in the faithful and affirmed the authority of the apostolic government proceeded from his lips."


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Table of Contents

1. Holy Terror and Divine Majesty
2. The Terror of Their Enemies: Kings and Nations
3. The Terror of the Laws: Crime and Punishment
4. Terror and Pity: The Springs of Tragedy
5. Terror and the Sublime
6. Terror and Medicine
7. Terror before “the Terror”: June 1789–August 1793
8. Terror Speech in the Year II

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