A couple of weeks ago I blogged about Antoine Lavoisier, the eighteenth century chemist who did so much to advance modern chemistry. I wrote about how he made a powerful enemy in Jean-Paul Marat, who ultimately sent Lavoisier to the guillotine, but who ended up getting murdered himself in his bathtub by a young woman named Charlotte Corday.
I started reading more about Marat, who’s always fascinated me, and now I’m (once again) on a full-blown French Revolution craze. This will be the first of several blog posts about it. If you’re a kid and you think this subject sounds too much like what’s in your textbook, at least scroll down to the third-from-last paragraph, where I talk about a severed head that changes its expression. Trust me–that‘s not in your textbook.
Charlotte Corday by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, 1860, via Wikimedia Commons
Like so many characters from the French Revolution, Marat is complex and full of contradictions.
In the Lavoisier post, I quoted a historian who described Marat as “unhinged,” and I do think that’s true. But the common people loved him.
Marat was born in 1743, the son of lower-middle-class parents. He studied medicine and published scientific treatises about electricity, optics, and fire, but didn’t get into the Academie des Sciences (see the Lavoisier post). When the Revolution began (in 1789), he became the voice of the radical Jacobin faction. In his popular journal, he attacked many of France’s powerful citizens. In 1790, he was forced to flee into the Paris sewers to hide from his enemies. It was probably in those sewers that he contracted a pretty skeevy-sounding skin condition that would plague him for the rest of his life. The weeping sores all over his body did not exactly improve upon his physical appearance, which hadn’t been much to brag about before. Marat’s head was too large for his body–he was less than five feet tall–and one eye was higher than the other. Medical historians think he probably had some form of scrofula. People actually recoiled in horror at the sight of him.
His favorite desk became his bathtub. He spent most of his time sitting up to his waist in medicinal water, a damp towel draped around his shoulders, with his head bound in a bandana soaked in vinegar.
His radical views and his more or less constant calls for executions won him huge popularity with the common people, but he was feared and hated by the more moderate (Girondin) faction that supported a limited monarchy. His skin condition probably added to his irritability and paranoia; he was prone to furious denunciations and fits of temper. But beneath the unhinged stuff–inciting mob violence and demanding that aristocratic heads roll–was, as one historian writes, his “fervent, unremitting, unbribable support of the voteless proletaires.”*
It was during the Jacobin-initiated Reign of Terror that Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday d’Armont (1768 – 1793) shows up in the proceedings. She was from an aristocratic, but poor, family, and was descended from the dramatist Pierre Corneille. Loyal to the (slightly) more moderate Girondist faction, she held Marat responsible for the September Massacres in 1792, when thousands of unarmed captives held in Parisian prisons were slaughtered. The 25-year-old woman took a stagecoach in from the provinces, bought a large kitchen knife, and wrote a bunch of letters to various people calmly explaining what she was about to do, so that her actions wouldn’t be misconstrued by pro-Marat sympathizers. She then gained admittance to his bathroom, pretending to have names of traitors for him. As soon as they were alone, Charlotte plunged the knife into his chest, piercing his lung and heart and killing him almost immediately. Then she calmly surrendered to the authorities.
Four days after the murder, Corday was guillotined. And here’s that gruesome side note: one of the executioner’s assistants held up her head for the jeering crowd, and then slapped it on the cheek. Witnesses reported that an indignant expression appeared on her face. (That story may actually be true; according to Mary Roach’s fascinating book, Stiff, a severed head is theoretically capable of maintaining awareness for a brief time.)
Corday’s murder of Marat did not stop the Jacobins or the Terror. Quite the opposite occurred. Marat became a martyr in the eyes of the people (thanks in part to his friend, the artist David–more about him on Friday). More than thirty towns were renamed after him. Robespierre rose to power, and at least 16,000 more Frenchmen were put to death during that single, awful year.
Corday died not realizing she’d made things worse, not better, for the Girondins. One Girondin leader did realize this, but forgave her: “She has killed us, but she has taught us how to die.”**