Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The October March of Women, 1789

" In the wee hours of October 6, 1789, a mob of peasant women broke into the Palace of Versailles. They had been encamped outside the chateau since the previous evening, awaiting an audience with my King, Louis XVI (16th), and his Queen, Marie Antoinette.

The women had come from Paris and they were starving. Their children and their aged, as well, were starving. A terrible storm had wiped out France’s wheat crop that summer. Now the common folk had no bread, their main – and sometimes only – source of food. I followed them from Paris as they struggled to make the 20 kilometer journey on foot, afraid for my King, afraid of the power of the mob. As the women marched, their numbers grew. All along the route, I observed as more women dropped their washing and their brooms and left their children to join the fray. They arrived at Versailles in the thousands, demanding that King Louis and Marie Antoinette save them from their misery. Their hunger had driven them to madness. Waiting through the night for a response from the King had transformed their desperation to fury.

Before dawn, they stormed the Palace through a servants’ entrance. I pushed in amongst them, hoping to reach the King first, to warn him or hide him, I knew not what. But the scene was one of total mayhem. Frantic women rushed in all directions. They ran down gilded corridors, flew up marble staircases, burst through passageways reserved for servants. 'If they refuse to come out', was heard the mob’s collective cry, 'we’ll drag them out!' They searched for the King and Queen, their rage now whipped to a savage frenzy. They killed anyone who got in their way.

Before dawn, the King and Queen were found with their two children and the King’s sister, Madame Elizabeth, huddled like mice before a gang of hungry cats, still in their bedclothes in the King’s private apartments. They were forced to dress quickly and pressed into waiting carriages bound for Paris, driven there by the mob so that they might bear witness to the misery of their subjects.

They would never see Versailles again.

Some among the women accompanied the king and queen with the severed heads of royal guards held high upon pikes, like tattered, bloody flags. Others stayed behind and shouting, Down with the Monarchy! Down with the King!, they hurried about the chateau, smashing statuary and precious antiques, pilfering what could be carried, seizing foodstuffs from the immense Versailles kitchen: fresh pheasant and duck, salted pork, baskets of vegetables, and bread still baking in the ovens for that morning’s royal meal.

I do not recall the moment I became conscious that I was powerless to save my King. But I do remember being gripped with the urgent imperative to save the King’s Garden. In a flash I knew, without thinking, that I, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu – the fourth member of my family to bear the title, Botanist-in-Chief to the King – was obliged to confront the mob to save the legacy of two centuries of adventurers and natural scientists, even if it meant my death.

The mob’s force was not diminished by its destruction of the chateau interior. The women’s anger only expanded with their ferocity, like a volcano whose vigor has been pent up for too long. And indeed, it did not take long for them to spill out into the Royal Gardens, intent on further rampage.

I was waiting for them. The botanists, master-gardeners, and under-gardeners of the Palace of Versailles were all waiting for them. We faced the mob armed only with the tools of our labors: shovels, spades, sickles and shears meant for pruning dead or dying leaves and branches from flowers and trees. We assembled to defend with our lives our life’s work: the plants and trees which for two hundred years had travelled to us from the far corners of the earth, and which we had so tenderly coaxed to adapt and thrive in the French soil and climate.

A woman with wrath in her eyes stepped out of the crowd. 'Move aside,' she bellowed. 'These gardens belong to the people, now.'

'Madam,' I said, taking a step forward as well. 'These gardens have always belonged to the people. They provide beauty for our pleasure as well as nourishment and medicine for our health. For 120 years, the products of the Versailles gardens have graced the King’s table and cured his ills. Destroy them and you destroy the means by which we may now help you to feed and care for your hungry children.'

An eerie hush fell upon the crowd. All that could be heard was the whisper of the pre-dawn winds through the trees and bushes of the vast gardens of Versailles. I gripped my ax; my heart raced as blood rushed to my pounding temples. It was the longest moment of my life.

Finally, I heard hope rise from deep within the crowd. I heard the words that I knew would save the gardens, the words that would allow me to breathe again. I heard the words that would mean salvation for the botanical wonders of the Versailles Palace.

'Long Live the King’s Garden!' someone shouted. 'Long Live the Garden of Plants!' cried another, changing the name of the garden to make it acceptable to the people. And then it grew, little by little until it was a resounding chorus: 'Vive le Jardin des Plantes! Long Live the Garden of Plants!'

And all at once, the chant shifted again. 'To Paris!' the women cried. And as they retreated, the gardens were flooded with the first light of a new dawn. The inheritance of two centuries of the blood and sweat of French plant hunters, botanists, and gardeners was saved, and it glowed in gratitude to those of us who had defended it."

Excerpted from the Time Traveler Paris Tours: Long Live the King's Garden, by Sarah B. Towle (copyright 2009), expected launch date: March 2010.

Versailles, the Chateau, exterior facade, views from southwest, Google Earth, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Triumph of the Parisian Army and the People, from http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/d/230/.

Portrait of Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, nephew of the de Jussieu brothers, Galerie des naturalistes de J. Pizzetta, Ed. Hennuyer, 1893, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

French Huguenots in Berlin

Last week I was in Berlin on a research trip for the Time Traveler Tours (expected launch date: March 2010). While lunching under the trees in lovely Gendarmenmarkt (Soldier’s Market) Square, in the shadow of two curiously-alike domed churches, I learned something I never knew about the history of French-German relations.

In the late 17th century, King Louis XIV outlawed the practice of reformed Christianity, or Protestantism, in France. So, a great number of adherents, derisively called Huguenots by the French, fled to Berlin to make a new home. Here’s what happened:

Protestantism emerged in France in the early 16th century, inspired by the writings of Jean Calvin. The movement's primary focus was to make the Bible accessible to the masses by translating it into local, or vernacular, languages. Up to that point, Catholic mass was delivered in Latin and understood only by the educated classes. Reformers took issue as well with the heavy reliance on ritual in the Catholic religious practice, believing that this did nothing to help pave the way toward salvation. They preached, instead, that the best expression of faith in God was in leading a simple life based on biblical law. They felt that the Catholic Church had become impure, rife with hypocrisy and corruption, and was, therefore, doomed to fail.

The Roman Catholic Church responded to these criticisms with such fanatic zeal that violent persecution of French Protestants, whom they called Huguenots, became the order of the day. The origin of the name "Huguenot" is not clearly understood today, though we do know it was used as a term of derision. French Protestants, in contrast, called themselves Les Reformés, meaning reformers or reformed.

Tensions between the Catholics and Les Reformés sparked the late 16th century Wars of Religion whose violent pinnacle came with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. The killing began in Paris, but quickly spread throughout the country. Approximately 70,000 Huguenots were cut down in a mere eight days. Many more fled France in horror of the bloodbath.

In 1598, King Henri IV, a one-time Protestant who turned Catholic upon accepting the French Crown, put a stop to the violence. Striking a balance with the Edict of Nantes, he declared Catholicism the state religion of France, but granted Protestants the right to religious freedom.

Nearly 100 years later, however, in 1685, France’s Sun King (Louis XIV) revoked this freedom with the Edict of Fontainebleau. He forbade the Protestants from leaving the country; but they left quickly and in droves, the memory of St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, still heavy on their minds.

It was then that Friedrich Wilhelm, the “Great Elector” of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, welcomed French Huguenots to Berlin. Though a staunch Calvinist himself, his motivations were not purely altruistic. He had economic objectives as well. He looked to the French Protestants, among them farmers and highly-skilled artisans such as goldsmiths, jewelers, watchmakers and sculptors, to help rebuild his war-ravaged and under-populated country. And that is precisely what they did.

Meanwhile, back in France, the exodus of the Huguenots created a “brain drain” from which that country would take decades to recover. What's more, renewed legalized persecution of Protestants in France greatly damaged Louis XIV’s reputation abroad, especially in England. But intolerance toward Huguenots continued well beyond his reign and into the 18th century. Indeed, it wasn’t until the French Revolution (1789-99) that Protestants were finally granted full citizenship under the law.

Not long after their arrival in Berlin, Huguenot refugees began work to erect their own church following the design of that which they'd left behind in France. The French Church went up on the same city square as the German Church. The two domed buildings continue to face each other today on the Gendarmenmarkt Square in historic Mitte in what was once East Berlin.


Gendarmenmarket Square, 2008, by Jhintz, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

"The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre", by François Dubois (1529–1584), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.(1529)

Portrait of Friedrich Wilhelm (1620-1688), the Elector of Brandenburg, by Frans Luycx, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.