The Damiens Affair and the Unraveling of the ANCIEN REGIME, 1750-1770

The Damiens Affair and the Unraveling of the ANCIEN REGIME, 1750-1770

by Dale K. Van Kley


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This book examines an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Louis XV of France and the trial of his assailant, Robert-Francois Damiens, revealing the beginnings of the French Revolution in the ecclesiastical controversies that dominated the Damiens affair.

Originally published in 1984.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691612768
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #506
Pages: 388
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Damiens Affair and the Unraveling of the Ancien Régime, 1750-1770

By Dale K. Van Kley


Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05402-5



The Domestic Servant

By mid-January the combined efforts of the magistracy and the police had filled in the missing spaces that remained after the assassin's first four or five interrogations. His full name was Robert-François Damiens, although he had usually called himself François; he came from the village of Tieulloy in Artois, although its inhabitants indeed pronounced it Culoy or Cueilloloy; and he was in fact forty-two years old, although it was still most common in the eighteenth century not to know one's precise age. It is probably not evidence of deviousness on his part that Damiens gave his age as forty, thirty-six or thirty-seven, and thirty-nine in his first three interrogations respectively. At the time of his arrest he was an unemployed domestic servant with no fixed address, having only recently returned to Paris after a six-month visit to his native province of Artois. Before that, however, he had served a wide variety of masters, mainly but not exclusively in Paris and many although by no means all from the parlementary magistracy. From the last of his masters, an international merchant named Jean Michel, he had stolen a sum of 240 louis, for which his arrest had been ordered the previous July, and which explains, in part, his trip to Artois. Of his immediate family, his wife, seventeen-year-old daughter, and younger brother, who was also a domestic servant, lived in Paris; an aged father, an older brother, and a widowed younger sister still lived in Artois.

Stated in bare outline, the would-be assassin's biography seemed unremarkable even to his judges and contemporaries — so unremarkable, in fact, as to be incommensurate with the enormity of his act, a cause unequal to its effect. The judges' first instinct was therefore to regard Damiens as only the most visible part of a much larger cause, the passive, venal agent of a dark and far-flung conspiracy. From the beginning of his trial to its very bitter end, their greatest efforts were accordingly devoted to persuading him to reveal his accomplices, the true and hidden authors of his crime. Only when this quest proved utterly fruitless were they driven to conclude that he had acted alone. But they tried at least to invest his madness with gigantic proportions. If he was not a religious fanatic, a throwback to the Ravaillacs and Jacques Clements of the age of religious warfare, he was then a political fanatic who got heated up about matters that did not concern him. Most of all, however, he was a "monster," a "scoundrel" of unprecedented perversity, an aberration of nature for which no nation, no province, could ultimately be held responsible.

Yet even in much greater detail, the banality of Damiens' biography remains recalcitrant to these constructions and rather resembles the careers of any number of others who left their native provinces to seek their fortunes in Paris and tragically failed to find them. His family was poor, his father having early sunk from the status of independent fermier to that of simple day laborer who could ill afford the ten children his wife bore him before her death around 1729. It was undoubtedly this death rather than the fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boy's "incorrigibility" — consisting, apparently, in his mediocre performance with a plow — that prompted his father to send Robert-François to be raised by his maternal great uncle Jacques-Louis Guillemant, a well-to-do grain merchant and cabaret owner in nearby Béthune. In any case, no hard evidence exists to substantiate the "official" conclusion that he was recalcitrant from "his tenderest youth." When asked about Robert-François' behavior as a boy, the most reliable witness on the subject, his father, answered on one occasion that he had behaved "very well" and on another that he had been "a little libertine," judgments that may well cancel each other out but fall short of substantiating the nickname "Robert the devil" that the prince de Cröy, governor of the province of Artois, claimed to have encountered in his investigations there.

Damiens himself testified that he remained with Guillemant for about four years and only left because his uncle "wanted to make him study and he had no taste for that"; indeed, he remained only technically literate for the rest of his life. Apparently Guillemant also tried to apprentice Damiens to a local locksmith with no better success, and at some personal cost. Damiens then left his uncle, and after a two-year stint as apprentice wig maker or cook in Artois left the province as well. Retrospectively alleging youthful "levity" and a "desire to see the country," he attached himself to a captain of the Swiss regiment as a domestic servant in 1733 and accompanied his new master on campaigns, among them the siege of Phillipsburg in 1734.

Although domesticity thereafter remained his sole profession, a tendency to change masters frequently and to irritate some of them with "impertinences" and "vivacities" continued as evidence, perhaps, of a certain instability and independence. Arriving in Paris with "the fever" after the siege of Phillipsburg, he left the service of Captain Dubas and obtained a position as common valet in the Jesuit college of Louis-le-Grand on the rue Saint-Jacques, where a distant relative, one Jean-François Neveu, also served as maitre d'hôtel. Here he remained from around 1736 to 1739 or 1740, serving both in the refectory and as a lackey for some of the students. But this deceptively long stay was interrupted midway by an eleven-month-long dismissal for reasons that are obscure — Damiens said his employers wanted to take him off wine for something he had done or said — and finally terminated altogether, according to Neveu, because of "impertinences he said against the Jesuits." During his temporary loss of Jesuitical sufficient grace, Damiens briefly served a certain Calobeau on the rue Vivienne, and before its definitive loss, he married Elizabeth Molerienne, a domestic servant of Irish origin who lived in the nearby cloister of Saint-Etienne-des-Grès (now, approximately, the rue Cujas). He nonetheless remained on friendly terms with some of the Jesuit professors at Louis-le-Grand; Père de Launay, in particular, continued to act as a sort of protector, recommending him for a position as late as 1753.

It was in fact Damiens' marriage, not his impertinences, that caused his final dismissal from Louis-le-Grand, because most domestic servants were supposed to be bachelors so that they could stay in the houses they served. This is undoubtedly the reason why Damiens thereafter presented himself as single, called himself by the common nickname "Flammand," and according to his daughter always made a "mystery," even to his family, of the masters he served. He was simply afraid they might come to see him, giving away his quality as husband and father. Asked during the trial which masters Damiens had served, his wife could remember only a few. And of these, the comte de Maridor admitted that he discovered only after hiring Damiens that he had a family and that his name was not simply "Flammand"; Bèze de Lys, whom Damiens served personally for a considerable time, never apparently knew him by any other name. Such an arrangement could hardly have been beneficial for a marriage. And indeed his wife complained that Damiens had "always lived badly with her, being often out of work," that he was "often drunk and chased women" including a "mistress called Manou." When he gave her money, he often "threw it at her as if she were a dog."

Being an occasional wine-imbibing, petticoat-chasing wife-beater does not of course make Damiens unique; the volume of complaints to this effect in the records of the Parisian commissioners of police stands as evidence that such problems were at least as legion in the eighteenth century as they are today. Of Damiens' case in particular, it is well to recall that his wife's remarks were neither unsolicited by her interrogators' questions nor made under circumstances when it was particularly easy to remember anything pleasant about him. Despite his recent theft, however, both she and their daughter seemed genuinely happy to see him when he returned from Arras to spend the 1757 New Year with them in Paris; and Damiens, for his part, was not wholly devoid of concern for their welfare. The majority of his unquestionable lies under oath were uttered "in fear that [they] would be harmed, having no knowledge of the crime he committed": he denied having any family at all until January 18, and it was not until near the end of his trial that he explicitly admitted to having seen his wife, daughter, and younger brother in Paris shortly before attacking the king. When in February he first learned that his entire family had been arrested and imprisoned, he was first "furious" but then "wept," bitterly protesting their innocence.

Resuming Damiens' traces around 1740, these undeniably form a more irregular impression after his marriage and final departure from the Jesuits. According to Damiens' testimony in the interrogation of January 18, he proceeded successively to serve the comte de Bouville, officer in the gendarmerie, on the rue du Temple for twenty-six months, ending in his dismissal "not knowing the reason"; Monsieur Boulenger (probably Bellenger d'Essenlis), councillor in the parlement, on the rue du Paradis, for "around twenty-six or twenty-seven months"; Louis-Anne Séguier, councillor in the parlement, rue Saint-Antoine, for "around nine months"; Dumetz de Ferriere, maitre d'hôtel, "for less than a year"; the comte de Raymond "for around fifteen months," including a trip to Bavaria and Ingolstadt but not to Angouleme where Damiens refused to follow him; Beze de Lys, councillor in the parlement, on the rue des Magons, for "two years in two different times," the first ending with his master's imprisonment in the fortress of Pierre-en-Cise, the second terminated "for vivacities"; Dupré de La Grange-Bleneau, councillor in the parlement, for seven months; madame la marechale de Montmorency, on the rue Jacob, for "seven months," including a "journey to Chaton with her"; the comte de Maridor for two years, whose employ he left because "he got bored in the country of Maine"; Mahé de La Bourdonnaye, gouvernor of Pondicherry, on the rue d'Enfer, "until his death which could not have been more than a year or so"; madame de Verneil Saint-Rheuse, on the rue Grange-Bateliere, who dismissed him after "around six months" because "she cast horoscopes, and having repeatedly studied his hand, predicted that he would be broken on the wheel"; a certain Le Paige, ecuyer of the dauphine, who dismissed him "after six weeks or so" because he "did not find him strong enough to suit his fancy"; and finally Jean Michel, a merchant in St. Petersburg, whose Parisian quarters on the rue des Bourdonnois Damiens fled after only two days, having stolen 240 louis from his master's portfolio.

This run-down contains serious lapses and errors of memory, however, which were uncorrected by any investigations at the time. Assuming this succession to have begun around 1740 after Damiens' definitive dismissal by the Jesuits, simple addition yields a total of at most thirteen and a half years, which gets us up to 1753, but hardly to July 1756 when Damiens finally left Paris for Artois. This time unaccounted for further expands with the knowledge that Damiens exaggerated the time he served with many if not all these masters. The periods that elapsed between his various "conditions" undoubtedly account for a fraction of these extra years, since his wife complained that he was often "out of work." But his wife also remembered his having served the councillor Louis Barré of the parlement's second chamber of enquetes, whom Damiens mentioned in none of his interrogations; and in one of his interrogations Damiens rather vividly recalled serving Le Corgne de Launay, a theology professor at the Sorbonne, even though he did not think to include him in the list recited on January 18. What is more, the order in which Damiens listed his masters on this date is almost certainly mistaken. Even if we can believe that Damiens followed the comte de Raymond to Bavaria and Ingolstadt while maintaining a wife and by that time a child in Paris (and not, as the parlement's secretary, Alexandre-André Le Breton, reconstructed it, before he was ever married or even settled in Paris in the first place), there remains the fact that, in his very first interrogation at Versailles, Damiens recalled a significantly different if very fragmentary order: the comte de Maridor, then Bèze de Lys, then La Bourdonnaye, and finally Saint-Rheuse. This is surely the correct order in view of the facts that Maridor, who had the decency to talk to Damiens and make a juridical deposition, recalled that "Flammand" had served him seven years earlier, around 1750, and that the period of Damiens' service to Bèze de Lys coincided with the height of the refusal of sacraments controversy between the parleinent and the archbishop of Paris, from about 1752 to 1754. The dates of his service to Mahé de La Bourdonnaye as given by his widow in deposition — October 1753 to sometime in January 1754 — further enable us to situate this service between the periods of longer service to Bèze de Lys, who was exiled from Paris and imprisoned in Pierre-en-Cise beginning in May 1753 and took Damiens back for awhile after the recall of the parlement in September 1754. These corrections are important, because they place Damiens' career as a rather "good" domestic servant before his demonstrably unsettling experience as Bèze de Lys' personal lackey in the early 1750s.

The fact that Damiens could be a reasonably good domestic servant is amply testified to by numbers of his former masters, at least before his service to Bèze de Lys. The comte de Maridor hired him upon the favorable testimony of the maréchale de Montmorency, who said that "aside from wine and a certain lightheadedness" he was a good servant, "faithful, pious, and perfectly obedient." The comte de Maridor himself claimed to have dismissed Damiens because of a "domestics' quarrel" having nothing to do with boredom in the province of Maine, and after eleven months, not two years as Damiens claimed. He also observed that Damiens "was quarrelsome in wine," with a character "difficult to define, being unstable, except that he liked to put order (mettre la police) everywhere and threaten all those who did him any injustice or whatever he imagined to be such." Yet this did not prevent Maridor from acknowledging in the same deposition that "he always appeared to be faithful and possessed of piety, that he approached the sacraments from time to time, heard mass nearly every day, served well and was intelligent." La Bourdonnaye's widow, Charlotte-Elizabeth Combaut d'Auteuil, likewise testified that Damiens' service had been "très exact." Damiens had come to them on the recommendation of the pere de Launay, the principal of Louis-le-Grand, and left only because he aspired to the position of maitre d'hotel rather than that of laquais-frotteur eventually offered him after La Bourdonnaye's death. Damiens returned these compliments in the course of the judicial confrontations with these witnesses. Maridor, he said, had been a "good master who had always given him good counsel and inspired him with the principles of religion"; and had he always remained in the service of La Bourdonnaye, "he would never have committed his crime...."

It remains nonetheless true that such favorable testimonies struggle upstream against the unfavorable impression created by Damiens' cascadelike succession of positions in the course of fifteen or twenty years. In the eighteenth century the domestic servant was still accounted part of the household, and the good domestic servant therefore faithfully served a single master just as the faithful son did not abandon his father. Damiens' younger brother Louis had exemplified this ideal, serving the councillor Charles-Louis Aubin for fifteen years. The only reason Damiens could give for not having done likewise was "that he could not get along with them [his masters], or otherwise they dismissed him." Yet this negative impression is somewhat mitigated by at least two considerations. First, it is demonstrably untrue, as quasi-official truth on his subject came to have it, that he had served more than sixty masters. From fifteen to twenty lies more modestly in the vicinity of reality. Second, the trend among domestics nationally after mid-century was in Damiens' direction, that is of greater mobility, increasingly giving the lie to the legal fiction that domestics were part of the households they served. Besides Damiens himself, nine other domestic servants including his wife, younger brother, and sister-in-law got caught in the web of his affair, and of the eight who were questioned about their previous masters, the most stable changed masters on an average of every five years or so, another did so every four, three did so at the rate of every three years give or take a half, and two in less than two. Of these latter, the twenty-two-year-old Quentin Ferard, called "Condé," from Lorraine would have served about as many masters as Damiens had by a comparable age if he continued at his youthful pace; and the forty-seven-year-old Noel Roi, called "Roi," from Franche-Comté had served an impressive total of seventeen including his present one, a notary at the Châtelet. Asked why he changed masters so frequently, he did little better than Damiens: "Said that it was because of some discontents and irritations [fatigues] he experienced in the said houses." The model domestic servant Louis Damiens was probably the exception, hardly the rule.


Excerpted from The Damiens Affair and the Unraveling of the Ancien Régime, 1750-1770 by Dale K. Van Kley. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Preface and Acknowledgments, pg. ix
  • Introduction, pg. 3
  • Chapter 1. Damiens, pg. 13
  • Chapter 2. Damiens’ Masters as Judges, pg. 56
  • Chapter 3. Damiens’ Masters as Magistrates: The Refusal of Sacraments Controversy and the Political Crisis of 1756-1757, pg. 99
  • Chapter 4. Damiens’ Masters as Theorists: Constitutional Thought from 1750 to 1770, pg. 166
  • Chapter 5. Damiens’ Peers, pg. 226
  • Conclusion, pg. 266
  • Notes, pg. 271
  • Bibliographical Note, pg. 352
  • Index, pg. 357

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