Chateaubriand's memoirs, XXXIV, 2

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XXXIV, chapter 2
The trial of the Ministers – Saint-Germain-L’Auxerrois – The pillaging of the arch-diocese

Paris, April 1831.

I wrote that little introduction to this section of my Memoirs rapidly, in October last year; but could not continue the work because I had another in hand; it involved finishing the book which ends the edition of my Complete Works. I was even distracted from that work, firstly by the trial of the Ministers, then by the sacking of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois.

The trial of the Ministers and the troubles in Paris were no great thing to me: after the trial of Louis XVI and the revolutionary insurrections, every other judgement and insurrection seemed trivial indeed. The Ministers, brought from Vincennes to hear their sentence pronounced, arrived via the Rue d’Enfer. From the depths of my retreat I heard the sound of their carriage. What events have taken place outside my door! The men’s defence lawyers were not up to the job. No one took the thing seriously enough: the prosecutor over-dominated the proceedings. If my friend the Prince de Polignac had selected me as his second, how I would have glared at those oath-breakers set up as judges over an oath-breaker: ‘What,’ I would have said to them, ‘do you dare to be my client’s judges! You are the ones who, tarnished utterly by your oaths, dared to make him commit the crime of ruining his master while thinking he was serving him; you the provokers of it; you who urged him to present the decrees! Change places with him whom you pretend to judge: from accused he shall become accuser. If we have merited punishment, it is not from you; if we are guilty, it is not towards you, but towards the people: they wait for us in the courtyard of your palace, and we will let them have our heads.’

After the trial of the Ministers came the scandalous affair of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois. The Royalists, full of excellent qualities, but sometimes foolish and often provocative, never considering the consequences of their actions, always thinking to re-establish the Legitimacy by choosing to wear a coloured cravat or a flower in their buttonhole, caused deplorable scenes. It was evident that the revolutionary party would profit from the church service marking the anniversary of the Duc de Berry’s death to make trouble; now, the Legitimists were not strong enough to oppose them, and the government was not well enough established to maintain order; also the church itself was vandalised. An apothecary, a man of progress, and follower of Voltaire bravely conquered a steeple from 1300, and a cross which had already been pulled down by other Barbarians towards the end of the ninth century.

The devastation of the arch-diocese, the profanation of holy things and processions imitating those in Lyons followed the noble deeds of this enlightened pharmacist. They lacked the tumbrels full of victims; but they had Punch, maskers, and all the delights of the carnival. The procession, sacrilegiously burlesqued, travelled along one bank of the Seine while the National Guard marched down the other, apparently hastening to its aid. The river separated order and anarchy. I am told that a wit looking on, seeing the books and chasubles floating in the Seine, said; ‘What a pity they didn’t throw the archbishop in too!’ A profound comment, indeed, since an archbishop drowning would have been fun to watch: it would have been a great stride towards liberty and enlightenment! We, ancient witnesses of ancient events, are forced to tell you that you see here only pale and miserable imitations. You still possess the revolutionary instinct; but you lack the energy for it; you are only criminals in imagination; you wish to do evil, but your hearts lack courage and your arms strength; you would see other massacres, but you will not set your hands to the work. If you want the July Revolution to be great and remain great, do not treat Monsieur Cadet de Gassicourt as a true hero, or Mayeux as imaginary.