The project team is delighted to announce that we have now completed a first draft of our transcription of the Duchess of Elbeuf’s Letters. We look forward to sharing our findings with you over the next year, and to hearing from many of you through the comments section of this blog (the links in the ‘Meet the Team’ tab also give you the details for contacting any of us individually).
Here is how Innocente-Catherine Rougé, Duchess of Elbeuf’s distinctive commentary on events in Revolutionary France begins:
Here is the project’s transcription of this:
A Paris ce samedi 13 Xbre 1788
L’assemblée des Notables après avoir passé 35 iours (depuis le 6. 9bre) à conferrer en chaque bureaux sur la façon d’assembler les états generaux, s’est tenue au moins par les deux tiers des voix, à suivre ce qu’on avoit fait pour la dernière Assemblée de 1614 […] Le Tiers etat n’est pas content de sa decission, et dès le soir il y avoit un chanson contre elle, qui lui réprochoit de n’avoir songé qu’à manger, et dormir.
And here is our translation of the same:
Paris, Saturday 13 December 1788
The Assembly of Notables, having spent 35 days (since the 6th of November) discussing in each of their committees how the Estates-General should be organised, decided by a majority of at least two-thirds to copy the arrangements from the last such Assembly in 1614 […] The Third Estate is not happy about this decision, and by that same evening a song was attacking it [the Assembly of Notables], accusing its members of only being interested in eating and sleeping.
This first blog post is no place for a lengthy explanatory note on the pre-revolutionary events we have plunged into here. Suffice to say that the Assembly of Notables and the Estates-General were two (very limited) representative innovations sanctioned by the French monarchy as the last throws of the dice in its battle against financial collapse. Just over six months later, on 17 June 1789, a breakaway section of the Estates-General would recast itself as a National Assembly and confirm that a political revolution was well under way – weeks before the Bastille fell on 14 July. This self-declared National Assembly was almost entirely made up of Third Estate deputies, representing the roughly 28 million French subjects who were neither members of the clergy (the First Estate) or nobility (the Second Estate).
What those first lines from the Elbeuf Letters highlight are two important features of this unique source: its author is politically engaged and has an eye for observational detail. Innocent-Catherine Rougé’s writing provides insights from right across the social, political and cultural spectrum during this tumultuous period in France’s history. In this first paragraph, for example, the Duchess juxtaposes elite decision-making (in the Assembly of Notables) and an instantaneous street-level Parisian reaction that mixed humour with hostility. The entry for 13 December 1788 goes on to cover provincial tensions mirroring those in the capital, rumours about a plot to hoard flour to drive up the price of bread (the quintessential eighteenth-century conspiracy theory), and praise for the Duke of Orléans, the cousin of King Louis XVI and also one of his most influential critics.
Now transcribed for the first time from the manuscript held in France’s National Archives in Paris, these are the writings we will be working with between now and December 2020 in a variety of formats and locations.
Extracts from the Elbeuf Letters are appearing in London as part of an exhibition which has just opened at UCL Art Gallery: ‘Witnessing Terror: French Revolutionary Prints, 1792-94’. This exhibition is free and open to the general public until 12 June 2020 (Tuesdays to Fridays, 13.00-17.00).
The Project Team are also exploring the Letters as a source for other lines of historical inquiry about the Revolutionary period. An English translation of a substantial amount of the Letters will be made available through this website as part of our broader dissemination plans, which include access for A-Level students here in the UK.
Updates to all this and more will be posted to this blog, so please subscribe to follow our work on the Revolutionary Duchess.