The series of battles that took place in the Vendée have been almost entirely excluded from any recounting of the Revolution. Why? The rising in the Vendée paints a darker picture of the evils that Revolutionists did to those citizens, most of them peasants, who would not adopt the principles of the Revolution.
Something about the French revolution makes it a timeless topic: It encapsulates the totality of our human condition. That condition is our inability to fully measure the unintended consequences of even the best of our intentions. Of course, this opinion only summarizes what political thinkers have said for years, but I can think of no brighter future for history than one where we echo Burke’s writings through our own paraphrases. For Burke actually did something with history, and he is just one thinker whose interpretation of history helps us to make the field something applicable from which we can learn. History, after all, is not supposed to be about memorizing and preserving the past for its own sake: It has a practical use. George Santayana said this, Henry Adams said this.
That which we call history is an abstract concept of our own creation, like time. But history is as real as any tangible object because our nature made it so that we perceive the world through memory. For whatever reason it may be, we derive our understanding of who we are through memory of where and who we come from. History doesn’t discriminate, moreover. It can speak to our personal experiences without being directly related to us. Such is the case with the French Revolution: One need not have French ancestry to feel compelled by the lessons it demonstrated.
The way that we understand ourselves and make decisions would be drastically and dramatically altered if everyone had a respectable amount of knowledge of their country’s national history as well as world history (again, because history is not supposed to be subjective). For reasons that are too long and complicated to explore, history has hardly ever been taught in such a way that we would recognize as useful. The invention of the field of history, academically defined, has probably done more damage to the concept of history than anything else. History in schools is taught as a collection of facts. It lacks a context that is connected to the human soul, despite the fact that history is something which we ourselves created to understand our world—therefore, connected to our soul and expressive of it. But of course, that context connected to the soul exists: Literature.
I don’t think I had ever heard a better interpretation of the French Revolution, nor did I ever obtain an understanding of its complexity and multi-sided appropriation by people from all political, religious, and philosophical leanings, until I read that timeless introduction:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Book I, Ch. 1)
No amount of dates and facts could summarize the Revolution like Dickens did, with the same emotion. History, before its conversion into an academic subject in the nineteenth century, was narrated and interpreted by thinkers in a literary way: Take Burke, or even Thucydides for that matter, as an example. Anyone who reads literature, traditionally understood, and original narrations of history (primary source texts) will find that the textbooks we were given throughout our primary and secondary education (maybe even our higher education) were one-sided, or, in the best of cases, incomplete. There might be those who object to this claim, for how is it possible that contemporary history textbooks, which lack narratives and just present facts, push one interpretation of history over another? But the absence of opinion in historical recounting is impossible for the reason that I’m about to mention: It is not what is included, but rather what is omitted from historical events, that is telling of the version of history we are given.
Here the subject of this paper will stand as testimony for the previous claim. The series of battles that took place in the Vendée have been almost entirely excluded from any recounting of the Revolution. Why? One can only assume that it’s because what took place in the Vendée disrupts any narrative that we’ve been taught about the Revolution as a war that was fought by the oppressed, starving peasants against their cruel aristocracy and monarchy. The Revolution is introduced to us as a symbol of the triumph of the common man; the recognition of “human rights,” the intellectual climax of “reason” etc. “Enlightenment” etc. “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” etc. “Les Mis” etc. “Allons énfants de la patrie!” We know the story.
The rising in the Vendée paints a darker picture of the evils that Revolutionists did to those citizens, most of them peasants, who would not adopt the principles of the Revolution. The biggest principle of the French Revolution—which we are also not told—is that it was actively anti-Christian, persecuting both laymen, laywomen, and clergy mercilessly. The British historian Michael Davies wrote an eye-opening book about this event; “eye-opening” in the most metaphorical and literal sense. For Altar and Throne: The Rising in the Vendée is the kind of history story that students are not told about within the topic of the French Revolution. The rest of this essay will summarize the book, because the story deserves to be told time and time again.
There is a lecture online that Davies delivered on the French revolution where he states the following: “Last year, I talked to you about the Reformation, which was really a war against the Church. This year, I’m talking about the French Revolution. One can only describe it as a war against God.” He called the promulgation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 “an explicit repudiation of the kingship of Christ.” His summary might sound strange to anyone who has heard the anti-monarchy version of the Revolution, but Davies makes it a point to mention how the majority of Enlightenment philosophes and Encyclopédistes were liberal, Masonic, and anti-Catholic. This fact is important to remember in order to understand the reasons why men and women in the Vendée decided to rebel against France.
The “enlightenment” wave that took over Europe made it so that, by the start of the eighteenth century, all the main European powers had masonic first ministers (France, Portugal, Spain, even the Roman Empire). Davies argues that suppressing the Jesuit orders in these countries was “symptomatic of the control the masons and philosophes had over the governments of Europe. This control, in turn, allowed them to promote the principles that triumphed at the revolution in France.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influence on the Revolution is well-known. The Social Contract was the battle-cry of many Revolutionists because it revealed to them the “truths” about their condition: Men are born free, it is our artificial civilization which enslaves them; men are born good, it is our corrupt institutions and unjust laws which corrupt us. His solution was to establish the sovereignty of the people. But, as Davies noted, sovereignty in the people still required the establishment of a state to protect them. So, they owe the state their obedience in order for it to keep them safe. Davies writes that it was upon this “obedience” that those in charge of the Revolution exercised their power in the name of the sovereign people. Davies quotes the two famed historians who wrote the series, The Story of Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant: “Rousseau’s sovereignty of the people became the sovereignty of the state, then of the Committee of Public Safety, then of one man.”
Before 1789, the Vendée was just an obscure river in the western part of France. Today, people who know about this important uprising in history know it as a counterrevolutionary attack against the anti-Christian principles that the Revolution imposed on its citizens. The Vendée region was comprised of some of the most ancient provinces in France: Anjou, Britany, and Poitou. Davies called the region the most devoutly Catholic in the country. The Vendée had an unusual balance between the nobility and peasants; “complaints of unjust or absentee landlords” in the region was “virtually unknown,” as they had not exercised their feudal privileges since the seventeenth century. There was also “little crime in the region, few lawsuits, and even an exceptionally high rate of literacy for rural France at this time” which Davies attributes almost entirely “to the zeal of the clergy.”
What brought chaos to this peaceful and pious part of the world? King Louis XVI, Le Bon Roi, was executed in 1793. The year following Louis’ execution, the National Convention ordered the conscription of 300,000 men, which set off the uprising since many people in the Vendée region “refused to surrender their bodies and souls to those who for three years had shown contempt for their hopes and for their faith and had finally denied them freedom of conscience.” Prior to the conscription problem, there had already been a series of abuses done by the Revolutionists against the Church. One of these abuses was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, imposed in 1790. This bill featured measures that were meant to strip the Catholic Church in France of its independence, as it demanded that priests take an oath of fidelity to the state. This bill shocked many lay Catholics, since it essentially reduced clergy to the status of civil servants.
Another origin for the uprising in the Vendée is attributed to the nationalization of church property, partly to alleviate France from bankruptcy. More importantly, Davies writes, “along with the philosophes and liberal intellectuals, Freemasons were particularly active in denouncing monasticism as a way of life.” And so, municipal officers travelled to all regions of France where there were religious orders of men and women, and gave them the option to leave with a guarantee of receiving a national pension on which to live. Those who rejected this offer were re- housed with other religious brothers and sisters “with disregard to their order.” As many Catholic religious orders differed greatly in their ways of life, most men decided to leave.
Then came the September massacres in 1792. Members of the National Guard took three priests (on their way to jail for refusing to pledge an oath to the state) and “hacked them to pieces,” setting of a 48-hour killing spree in Paris prisons, murdering a total of about 1,100 prisoners who refused to take the oath, including women and children, 250 priests, and three bishops. For many in the Vendée region, the last straw before their revolt was being demanded to take the oath of loyalty to the Revolutionary Constitution. Most of the clergy and priests in other regions of France took this oath; in the Vendée, only one in six of clergy members took the oath (most later recanting), and, amazingly, five of every six priests refused the oath despite the fact that it would immediately eliminate their income. Those who pledged the oath to the state were called jurors, those who did not were called non-jurors and were imprisoned in the nearby city of Angers. Since a vast majority of the region clergy refused this oath, many jurors were brought in from the larger cities. Vendéan citizens harshly criticized those who did take the oath, rejected them, calling them intrus (intruders), or truts and trutons in slang.
One of the themes that emerged during this time was the rural versus cosmopolitan divide that exists in all nations. Most of the countryside during the Revolution remained Catholic, while larger towns were pro-republican. Vendéans were suspicious and hostile towards city-folk from their own country, for large cities had become as foreign to them as any other country. The government in Paris alienated and antagonized the entire peasant populations in the Vendée, deciding to persecute the non-juring clergy and imposing despised juring clergy in the parishes that did not want them. But the Vendéan public simply protested by not attending the clergy’s masses (they did not even deem them valid services, anyway). The battles that ensued in the region are long, multiple, and gruesome. For Altar and Throne mentions many of the atrocious ways in which the Revolutionists murdered Catholics in cold blood, with some atrocious anecdotes. It is not my purpose in this essay to enumerate and re-tell them all, although they are well worth reading for anyone who wants to uncover an untold story about the horrors of the Revolution.
What is worth highlighting for the purposes of this essay is the underlying message that the exclusion of this historical anecdote demonstrates: History is not a one-sided story. No matter what version of the French Revolution we are told, it is a non-negotiable fact that the Terror wanted and worked towards the de-Christianization of France. But, of all the tenets of the Revolution that it sought to accomplish, the de-Christianization of France was the greatest failure of them all. This act, Davies attributes entirely to the religious conviction and fighting spirit of the men and women of the Vendée. By March 21st in 1793, the Vendéan Catholic and Royal Armies won a series of victories and had taken a good number of towns, over forty. Davies mentions that they could have captured all the great cities of the region without difficulty; Napoleon himself recognized that the Vendéans could have “marched unopposed to Paris, taken it, and overthrown the Revolution.” But there was no greater testimony of their humility and honest faith than their decision to not take Paris: After their victory (as with all their victories), the Vendéans’ pride or greed did not increase. Instead, the peasants disbanded and returned to their families and farms. The special occasion for their return home in March 1793? To prepare for Easter.
As we approach this same time of year, it is good to remember their acts of bravery.
Despite the claims of republican propagandists, the peasants of the Vendée were not ignorant men who were manipulated by the clergy and the aristocracy. Davies cites an example of an historian who argued that priests and the gentry “stirred up” the peasants to fight on their behalf. But this was not the case. Working classes are often used to push the narrative of one intellectual’s ideology over the other, but they are people with a common sense of their own, perhaps even more reasonable and intuitive than that of any philosophe. As the introduction to Davies’ book explains, those who did the fighting “were not saints from stained glass windows, but creatures of flesh and blood…” They were untrained soldiers who fought for their faith, often barefooted, and their leaders carried rosaries. Their badge was the symbol of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with the pledge “Dieu, Le Roi”—for God and King. It was thanks to their fighting in the Vendée that France remained the main Catholic power in Europe. Their acts even won the admiration and respect of Napoleon, who, after seeing their bravery and dedication, later declared that nothing would be done against the establishment of the Catholic Church in France.
A lesson to be learned from the rising in the Vendée pertains to the liberal notion of human perfectibility and progress, which adamantly refuses, of all things, a natural progression towards change. The narrative we’ve been taught about the Revolution as progress versus stagnation is not true: It is about the pace in which dissatisfied men demand change. The social order of the Vendée rising was ahead of its time. It was a peasant’s revolt for peasants who valued their faith and who wanted to maintain their way of life. More admirably, peasants and aristocrats from the region fought side by side; aristocratic men were willing to take orders from peasant captains. One of the leaders of the Vendéan insurrection, Jacques Cathelineau, “the Saint of Anjou,” was a mere peddler before the battles. But this form of cooperation was not that which the Enlightenment thinkers wanted, because it did not fit in with their ideology. Progress is certainly valuable, but it can also be achieved through conscience and faith. The only problem with this method is that it takes much longer. It is easy to implement change by cutting off someone’s head; it is harder to inculcate decency, morality, and toleration and to live by those principles.
The progressive spirit is a paradox. Even as Thomas Jefferson, who was the Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States in Paris in the 1780s, played a part in drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man, he still maintained that people should be “forced to be free,” echoing what Rousseau wrote in his Social Contract. Never mind that this radical claim was merely utopic (or dystopic, depending on who you ask), for Jefferson never applied this concept to the slaves that he owned on his estate. His views reveal a chilling truth about how far Jefferson and other Enlightenment thinkers were willing to go when he justified and defended the murder of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and thousands of aristocrats under the following quote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
The greatest lesson from this story: The desire for radical change under the masquerade of progress has a destructive nature that envelops man in hatred of himself, of his culture, and of his past—of his history. The amount of permanent damage at the hands of the Revolution is difficult to convey. Apart from the countless deaths, Davies writes about the Monastery at Cluny, the greatest and most famous monastery in the world at that time: It only had fifty Benedictine monks living there during the Revolution, in contrast with the three-hundred that lived there in the thirteenth century. As the Revolution progressed, the monastery was sold to the town. The abbey church, which had been an architectural and artistic wonder of the middle ages, was almost completely destroyed; the manuscript treasures in its library burned by revolutionary mobs. Davies put it best when he said that the abbey’s destruction was “a monstrous crime against the cultural patrimony of Europe.”
One of the statesmen of the Revolution, Philippe Rühl, personally supervised the smashing of the phial that held the sacred oil with which King Clovis had been anointed, and all the French kings thereafter. Perhaps the destruction of the past that came with the Revolution sealed and portended France’s fate for the later centuries. Its contemporary dismal state proves that Louis XVI’s final words before his execution in 1793 were an omen that came true: “I die innocent of all the crimes imputed to me. I pardon the authors of my death and pray to God that the blood you are about to shed will never fall upon France.” But the legacy of the Vendée has not eluded everyone. In 1996, Pope John Paul II traveled to France to commemorate 1,500 years of Catholicism in France, initiated by the baptism of King Clovis into the Catholic Church at the Abbey of Saint-Remi in Reims, coming full circle. As the circle starts again, so it should be our task to promote and maintain stories like the rising in the Vendée that help preserve the cultural patrimony of the West. Not because we will save it, but because it will help us know how to act in the future: Let us strive to be Vendéans in a world of Revolutionists.
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1 Davies’ Lecture on the French Revolution; I recommend all of his other lectures online.
2 Michael Davies, For Altar and Throne: The Rising in the Vendée, (St. Paul, 1997), p. 9.
3 Ibid., p. 3.
4 Ibid., p. 57.
5 W. & A. Durant, The Age of Napoleon, (New York, 1975), p. 7.
6 Davies, For Altar and Throne, p. 20.
7 Davies, For Altar and Throne, p. 21.
8 Ibid., p. 22.
10 Ibid., p. xvi.
11 Ibid., p. 13.
12 Ibid. p. 13.
13 Ibid., p. 11.
14 Ibid., p. 12.
15 Ibid., p. 12.
16 Ibid., p. 15.
17 Ibid., p. 23.
19 Ibid., p. 27
20 Ibid., p. 40
21 Ibid., p. 34.
22 Ibid., p. xvi.
23 Ibid., p. 31.
24 Ibid., p. 28.
25 Ibid., pp. 19-20. Rousseau writes this in the last paragraph of Chapter 7, in Book I of The Social Contract.
26 Ibid., p. 20. Davies cites C. C. O’Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800, (London, 1996), p. 309.
27 Ibid., p. 12.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “Henri de La Rochejacquelein au combat de Cholet en 1793” by Paul-Émile Boutigny (1853-1929), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
About the Author: Nayeli Riano
Nayeli Riano is a freelance writer of politics, theology, and arts. She holds degrees from the University of St. Andrews, where she completed her Masters degree in Intellectual History, and from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received her BA in English and French Studies. Apart from The Imaginative Conservative, her work has been featured on National Review Online, The American Conservative, The American Interest, and the UK online journal Transpositions. Follow her on twitter@NayeliLRiano.