372: Voltaire’s Ideal.

Paris was like a madhouse in which all the demons of hell had been let loose. One after another Constitutional priests made their way into the Assembly to lay down their office, and men dressed up in ecclesiastical vestments made blasphemous declarations. Deputies of the Paris sections offered up church utensils on the altar of the fatherland. The Jews and Protestants also delivered up their sacred vessels.

Really horrible scenes were enacted in the churches in which the cult of Reason was practised. In this the three main currents of French ‘enlightened’ thought, especially the pantheistic one, were prominent, particular attention being paid to the ridicule of the Catholic religion. In the words of a member of the Convention: “In most cases the tabernacle of the high altar was used as a footstool for the throne of Reason. It was ministered to by artillerymen with pipes in their mouths. The confused shouts of thousands of people, the beating of drums, the shrill blasts of trumpets, the thundering of organs, gave the onlookers the impression of being among the bacchanals on the mountains of Thrace. The people, suddenly torn away from the bonds of the State and religion, had become a raving mob. Screaming the ‘Carmagnole’, they danced before the altars practically breechless, their necks and breasts bare, their stockings fallen down. With their rapid twisting and turning they were like whirlwinds, the harbingers of the storm that was to bring destruction and terror everywhere. The wife of the bookseller Momoro, a ranting Cordelier, the chanteuse Maillard, the actress Candeille, these were the deities of Reason; they were borne round in triumph and were given almost divine honours, to which they offered no objection. Great hangings had been fixed in front of the side-chapels in the nave, not without an ulterior motive, for sounds issued from these murky chambers which attracted the inquisitive, and when they raised the side of the curtain most indecent scenes were revealed to the passers-by.” The church of St. Eustache was converted into a common tavern, where shameless people caroused. St. Gervais was taken over by the women of the Halles; at nightfall public prostitutes held a ball in the Lady Chapel.

In the streets of Paris bands of Jacobins, “drunk with wine and blood, on their way back from viewing the executions,” formed processions, shouting “guillotine” and “rasoir national“. In the Place du Carrousel a kind of pyramid was erected in honour of Marat, with busts equalling in number the heads he intended to strike off.

The example set by the capital was followed by many other towns, where the new cult was welcomed by both the educated and the ignorant. An English Protestant lady who was living in France at the time gives us the following account: “When the festival of Reason is to be celebrated in a Département a delegate arrives some days in advance, accompanied by a goddess (if the town itself cannot supply a suitable one). She is attired in a Roman tunic of white satin, usually taken from a theatrical wardrobe, and wears a red cap trimmed with oak leaves. Her left arm rests on a plough, in her right hand she holds a lance. Her foot is on a globe and around her are mutilated symbols of feudalism. In this pose the goddess, with all her paraphernalia, is borne along by four sansculottes in red caps, and is escorted by the National Guard, the mayor, the judges, and other officials, who, whether enraptured or enraged, have to present an appearance of respect. The whole retinue having arrived, the goddess is installed on an altar especially erected for the purpose. From this position she addresses the people, who in return pay her homage and sing the ‘Carmagnole’ and other songs of the kind. The procession then enters the principal church, where the same ceremonies are re-enacted in the choir. Wherever possible a priest is procured to abjure his faith in public and to declare that Christianity is nothing but a fraud. The festival ends with a bonfire in which prayer-books, saints’ images, confessionals, and other pieces of church furniture are burnt. Most of those present stand looking on in silence, struck dumb with horror and amazement; others, either drunk or paid for playing these infamous antics, dance round the flames as though they were half-crazy or with a savage delight.” It was in this fashion that the glorious cathedrals of Chartres, Rheims, Metz, and Strasbourg were desecrated. At Laon and Abbeville the goddess of Reason was a harlot.

On the whole, the witches’ sabbath in the provinces was even worse than in Paris. Though the greater part of the population, especially in the Vendée, Lorraine, and Alsace, was still true to the religion of its forefathers, it had to stand by and watch how everything reminiscent of the religion of Christ, even names, was stamped out. Naturally, the first things to go were the crucifixes and statues of Our Lady. The churches and chapels were cleared out to the very last corner, and in spite of repeated prohibitions all the works of art produced by a great past were destroyed. The empty churches were then befouled outrageously or were converted into temples of Reason. In some places, such as Rochefort, Grenoble, and Tours, the new cult took on an atheistic character. One example will suffice to show the manner in which the representatives of the people reported on their activities. Le Carpentier wrote from St-Malo: “An obstinate priest has just left here — head foremost — to join the others who were dispatched (éxpediés) before him. The guillotine has been set up permanently for the conspirators, the prisons are full of people under suspicion, and Liberty smiles on the patriots.” Voltaire’s ideal, the throttling of the Infâme, seems to have been fulfilled as well as the dream of the Jansenists: the return to the age of the primitive church, the time of the catacombs.

(Ludwig von Pastor, The History of the Popes, Vol. 40. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953, pp. 206–209).

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372: Voltaire’s Ideal.