Monday, May 6, 2013

Happy 255th birthday, Maximilien Robespierre

The Institute of Tenancy Culture Studies sends its regards to French Revolutionary and birthday boy Maximilien Robespierre.

(Maximilien Robespierre, 1758-1794) 

As a member of the Committee for Public Safety and leader of the Jacobin Club, Robespierre was the principal figure in the phase of the Revolution known as the Reign of Terror (1793-94), during which the young republic, beset by invading forces on all sides, widespread internal revolt, and economic chaos, executed some 17 000 French men and women in the name of revolutionary virtue. The Terror ended when Robespierre himself went under the guillotine... by which time the republic had repelled the invaders, put down the insurgents, stabilised its economy, raised an army that would go on to dominate Europe for the next two decades, and created a political program that would inspire revolutionaries and reformers for the next two centuries.

And ever since, the prim, dandyish figure of Robespierre has been an object of scholarly fascination – sometimes admiring, more often horrified. He gets our attention because of one curious, if apparently minor fact: he was a tenant. In all his admittedly-not-very-long life, Robespierre never owned his own house.

In fact, for the most significant part of his career, Robespierre was a boarder. In an earlier phase of the Revolution, when the Paris mob and their Jacobin leaders were violently repressed at the massacre on the Champ de Mars, Robespierre was given shelter in the home of a cabinet-maker and fellow Jacobin, Maurice Duplay. Robespierre's room above the workshop and courtyard would be his home for the rest of his life (except for short period when he moved out to rent an apartment with his sister – which Maximilien instantly regretted and soon ended to move back in with the Duplays).

It was not, it should be said, an ordinary boarder-landlord relationship. Robespierre was doted on by Duplay and his family, with not-strictly-virtuous treats of coffee, white bread and oranges (Robespierre would later return the favour, if in a dubious way, by nominating Duplay to a seat on the Revolutionary Tribunal). Visitors to Robespierre's room came away and reported the extraordinary way in which the Duplays' house was decorated, with a proliferation of little portraits and busts of their boarder peeping from the walls.

That's those who got in to visit; others record that the Duplays enjoyed keeping their guest to themselves and their own circle, and that Robespierre became inaccessible to a wider group of (former) friends and revolutionary colleagues after moving in to the Duplays'. One can only speculate as to whether the power of the boarder's 'master of the house' may have shaped the complex power-plays of the French Revolution, and the course of history.

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