Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Cause De- H2O, The Metric System, and 6-degrees of history

Sometimes it is truly intriguing to see how history is woven together. This can seem very contrived in fiction at times, and yet, there is an interlocking nature to people, events, and ideas of the same period.

In 1777 Antoine Lavoisier (pictured to the left with his wife), published a paper titled "Sur la Combustion en General" (On Combustion, Generally) in which he posited that hydrogen, when combined with oxygen, which he named, formed water. This may seem obvious to us, but at the time it was radical. He also later put forward the Theory of Conservation of Mass, in which he said that the mass of matter is the same even after it undergoes a chemical change, such as burning or being dissolved in water. He later summed up these and many other discoveries and theories in what would come to be regarded as the first modern chemistry textbook, "Traite Elementaire de Chimie".

Surely the Enlightenment darlings, the philosophers, politicans, movers and shakers loved him! Not so. Though he had tried to reform the tax system to use uniform weights and measures, by helping to develop the metric system, he did so as a member of the much-hated Ferme Generale, the powerful tax farmers of France. He also stood up to the revolutionaries and attained freedom for foreign scientists and mathematicians who were threatened with imprisonment for being simply foreign, a deed that ultimately cost him his head in 1794.

So why 6-degrees of history? Olympe's story is ultimately a fiction, but there is truth woven into it that has a way of popping up now and again.
- Lavoisier was part of the Ferme Generale, as was his father-in-law, the same company that Thierry works for in a much lowlier position.
- As discussed previously one of the problems plaguing the Ferme was the evasion of taxes on salt and tobacco, and it was partly for "selling watered down tobacco" that Lavoisier was accused and executed at the instigation of the famous revolutionary, Marat, whom he had snubbed some years earlier.
- Perhaps the most famous image of Marat is of him in his bathtub, by David; the same painter responsible for the portrait of Lavoisier and his wife above.
- Finally, the tax farm from whence the Ferme grew was set up by the Duc de Sully in 1598; the same Sully who gave his name to the residence at which Olympe currently resides when in Paris.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Cause De- Salt Tax and Smugglers

"Salt and tobacco were the most frequently smuggled commodities. Faux-saunage, or breaking of the salt laws, was a daily occurrence in the[areas] where the salt tax was highest...The worst offenders were sentenced to the king's galleys: between 1777 and 1789 the judges of Saumur sent a thousand men to the galleys, while the judges of Reims sent three hundred men between 1740 and 1742 and another four hundred between 1786 and 1789. Everywhere the majority of people convicted...were men, and two-thirds were adults under the age of forty." -France in the Enlightenment

Consider in conjunction with this information the fact that we are speaking of a time when salt was not merely a flavoring or a luxury, but a necessity for preserving food without refrigeration, and even in non-edible processes like dyeing. People had to have it, and to have it they had to pay; but not everyone. Further data also tells us that in some cities the bourgeoisie did not have to pay for their salt.

Going further back in history, Roman soldiers received a salt allowance as part of their pay. This is the origin of the phrase "worth his salt", and also of the word "salary".

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Cause De...Des Vignerons

"A Cause De" means basically "With a cause" or "The cause of". It's tempting as students of history to try and assign reason why certain things happened, or to point out where and how they could have been predicted, or even to say that they were in some way inevitable. There is, in contrast to this, something called "The Black Swan" theory, based on the fact that such a creature was once thought to be mythical, which asserts that history is defined and changed by the very events which are unanticipated and unusual. Frequently we attempt to find the causes of the French Revolution, for example, to point to economic stresses, societal pressures and perogatives, and historical precedents and ideals, and to say that these being present the outcome was a forgone conclusion, even if the contemporaries to these factors were unaware of it. I make no judgement on the matter, instead I present to you a series, "A Cause De", which will consist of quotes, data, and events presenting facts from the time period which may have influenced the people living then. In short, let's look through their eyes.

"A typical vigneron [one who tended vines or grew grapes]- even one who owned his own land- might easily pay more than 40 percent in taxes to the local nobleman and clergy just for the right  to be permitted to harvest and crush his grapes. In rural France, the vestiges of an ancient feudalism remained, and the law gave the local lord the exclusive right to control the village mill or its winepress."- The Widow Cliquot

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

January 18th, 1781

The party on the twelfth was most enjoyable, though both F- and T- were in attendance. They were tolerably pleasant to one another, and as always happens masks, and some shoes, were lost long before the end of the evening.

A loan from T- enabled me to keep abreast of my expenses, but unless Chateaugay sells soon I will need another solution. I have let it be known that I will be quitting Sully and most of it's staff and furnishings in a few months, ostensibly in preparation for the wedding in May. F- increasingly presses me to take up residence at his home in town, while his sister acts as chaperone, but I am cherishing the last of my independence while I have it. There is the question of where we will live once married, and I think that F- supposes it will be at his home in Franconville-aux-Bois, but I long to return to my quiet and beloved Saint Saturnin. We may, of course, split our time between them.

Olympe, Comtesse

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Book review: Auvergne and Its People

Is it any wonder why I bought this book? With Olympe Countess of the entire province (at least titularly); for a province it was prior to the Revolution, I am intrigued by this lesser-known area of France. I should do a post about what Auvergne is really about, but that's for the future.

Written and published in 1911, I was fortunate enough to find an original copy with illustrations. I love old books, and I found that there were two ways to enjoy this one; as a description of the still very peasant-based society of this region, or as an early twentieth-century travelogue. Indeed it stopped me in my tracks at times to note that when the author talks about young men storming the beaches, even WWI had not yet begun and she means something quite different. 1911 was the year of the Mexican Revolution, the foundation of the Republic of China, and Italy's war with the still-existant Ottoman Empire. It was also the year of the first Monte Carlo automobile race, and whenever the author refers to her own trip by car she uses the term "automobile" and speaks of people coming out to see it as the English couple cruises thorough towns and up and down mountains.

This alone would make the book worth reading to my mind, but add to that the endless list of little towns, churches, and dormant volcanoes which sculpt the region and you have a good picture of the landscape and the scope of people's lives. Mrs. Gostling does assume that her reader knows at least some french and the annecdotes, poems, and saying which infuse the book gave me a mental workout that I appreciated (though some are translated where deemed appropriate).

Clearly the author knows a great deal about French history, for she references and explains many both famous and obscure incidents and characters throughout, but her real passion seems to be for the saints, churches, and religious legends of Auvergne, and they abound. In fact, I found myself putting down the book on more than one occasion when I felt I could not take another miraculous shepherdess, or curiously-carved, black, wooden Virgin adapted from pagan times. Still, I was glad that I stuck it out, because it was like a vacation back in time and to another place, with a guide who was full of interesting asides, humor, and apreciation for the natural beauty and culture that surrounded her.

Don't pick this book up expecting it to be free of tendentiousness either, Ms. Gostling has her own opinions about the historical characters she mentions, as well as of the nobility and the revolutionaries. At times she was almost condescending towards the lives of the Auvergnat people, but always she pulled up just short and I found myself continuing to like her company. I think that this book is best understood in its own historical context, but I would be interested to know if things have changed dramatically in the last 100 years. Wow, it' easy to forget how long it has really been.

Have you read this book? Have an opinion about it's content, author, or style? I'd love to hear from you!

January 5, 1781

My estate agent has been notified and Chateaugay should now be on the market, or very soon will be. In reality I ought to give up more of my estates, but I love my dear Saint Saturnin too much to sell it, Opme is where I was born, Maman would never forgive me for selling Lespinasse, and I need Portaberaud to be my seat in Riom. It would never do for the people of Auvergne's most prominent city to see me sell my estate there.

If Chateaugay sells quickly then all will be well, but if it takes some time then I do not know what I shall do. I was expecting some money from home, but instead this letter informing me that we have almost nothing has put me into a difficult situation, for I cannot pay my servants here.

A bookseller came to my Lever this morning with some selections that he thought I might like, and often I have patronized his shop so he is familiar with my tastes. Indeed I liked one of the books so well that I could not restrain myself from exclaiming over it, and could not then feign disinterest and avoid purchasing it. I'm afraid to admit that I accepted the selection, and then sent the man away with the promise that I would send a servant with payment later. This is a habit which I try never to indulge, though some I know do so regularly. It is a dangerous way to live without a sure income. I have not spoken to either Thierry or F- about matters, and having delayed in the selling of my jewelry I must do one or the other soon. The jewelry I think will go today or tomorrow, and I will send Marianne with it for the sake of my own shame.

There is little enough of other note. Thierry continues to toil away at the Ferme and tells me that he must away on business in a week, this time north to Calais, but does not expect to be gone long. Pauline's little Hercule is walking and I shall look forward to seeing him when I return to Auvergne in the Spring. The war in the American colonies continues with no end in sight, despite our brave Lafayette. Oh, and the Comte and Comtesse de Rochechouart have decided to hold a ball to celebrate the end of the Christmas season on the 12th. It will be a masquerade, though no one seems to keep masqued until the very end. I wonder if there is a way to re-make my old costume into something new, or if I should simply wear a nice gown.

Olympe, Comtesse

Monday, January 3, 2011

January 2nd, 1781

1780 drew to a close swiftly and without much rejoicing by myself. It was a troubled year and I pray that this one may be better, which is how I begin every year in truth. I was fortunate in that Christine came to visit and stayed a few days with me here at Sully. We ate and drank well and enjoyed all of the aesthetic pleasures that Paris affords. Her sister, lately married, is already expecting her first child, so she and I commiserated over our siblings' good fortunes.

No sooner had she departed than a letter arrived from my steward informing me that there is almost no money left to send unless I raise the rents of my tenants back in Auvergne. This I am most unwilling to do, but I must or else find a charge at court quickly, which is difficult to do without the money to purchase one. I could ask F-, but that I am even more unwilling to do. I feel myself slipping into his power already and a sizeable loan would only strengthen the impression. Of course I could ask Thierry, and he would give it to me if he were able, especially as I have done as much for him many times over the years, but I am not sure that he could do so, and he will stretch himself beyond his means to help me. I go tomorrow to sell some jewelry and see if that will be enough for now.

I have promised myself that this year I will be more frugal. I will sell l'Hotel de Sully in the spring and take a more modest house, perhaps outside of the city, in the autumn. I must sell at least one of my estates in Auvergne, but I dare not rid myself of Lespinasse whilst Maman lives, for it was her childhood home. Still, soon I think decisions must be made, and I will have to make excuses for not joining in many of the frivolities of my friends. It would be good to relieve myself of these debts before the wedding. I am determined, all shall be well.

Olympe, Comtesse