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1793: Joseph Chalier, Jacobin martyr

July 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Joseph Chalier was guillotined in Lyon(s).

Chalier (English Wikipedia entry | French*), a knockabout silk merchants’ agent from Lyon, oddly became that city’s exemplary Jacobin fire-eater and the leading spirit in its Jacobin clubs. He was elected to the Lyon municipal council in 1792, and while in Paris even took part in the August 10, 1792 insurrection deposing Louis XVI.

Lyon, France’s “second city” and the hub of a considerable silk-weaving industry, was not nearly so amenable as Paris to the French Revolution’s radicals: indeed, the wartime anathema most of Europe had laid upon regicidal France devastated the weaving trade, and the particular grievances of established silk weaver artisans were here advanced but there complicated by the advent of the Revolution.**

Consequently, liberal Girondins, merchant elites, some craftsmen, and even outright royalists made a formidable coalition checking radical Jacobins in municipal politics. (Chalier even warned the National Assembly of this dynamic.)

Jacobins could never quite get political control of the city, until political crisis toppled the Lyon government in March 1793 and finally put Chalier et al in the saddle. (They immediately erected a public guillotine, of course.)

Their brief ascendancy expired 80 days later, when a municipal revolt put Chalier and his allies in chains, and reasserted more moderate control — just as the moderate Gironde was being expelled from the National Convention. After terse negotiations between Lyon and Paris hit a quick impasse, Lyon guillotined Chalier. “My death will cost this city dear,” Chalier warned his tribunal.

The next month, it lay under a terrible siege by the central government.

In the aftermath of that conquest, the Committee of Public Safety ruthlessly suppressed the seditious Lyonnaise, even going so far as to decree (without effect) the forfeit of the city’s very name — henceforward to be known as Ville-Affranchie, the Liberated City.

Hastening to the city and then hastening back to make political hay of the bloodbath, Committee of Public Safety member Collot d’Herbois “sent to Paris — over and against Robespierre‘s religion — quite another god, a horrible fetish, the head of Chalier, thrice crushed by the Girondin blade.”† This ghastly relic was then paraded in triumph in Paris for Collot d’Herbois’s heroic homecoming, its former owner apotheosized into the Revolution’s martyrs’ pantheon alongside Marat.

As a result, one can still today see porcelain busts of Chalier, of the type widely manufactured in early 1794 for posturing in churches, homes, civic clubs, and anywhere else a display of conspicuous patriotic sentiment might be advisable.


Chalier’s bust. By David Monniaux (self photo) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

* One of the best biographical resources on Chalier is an 1887 French scholarly article available (for free) from JSTOR.

** See David Longfellow, “Silk Weavers and the Social Struggle in Lyon during the French Revolution, 1789-1794″ in French Historical Studies, Spring 1981. Despite the title, this article also explicates the background of labor dynamics in the Lyon silk industry and its history of class conflict going back to the 17th century.

Jules Michelet, quoted by Chantal Thomas and David F. Bell in “Terror in Lyon”, SubStance, Vol. 27, No. 2, Issue 86: Special Issue: Reading Violence (1998).

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Politicians,Power,Public Executions

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3 Responses to “1793: Joseph Chalier, Jacobin martyr”

  1. 1
    Amelia Says:

    For your November 24 entry, you should do Jean-Jacques Ampère (father of the famous physicist André-Marie Ampère), a justice of the peace who was guillotined during the Jacobin reprisals for having signed Chalier’s death warrant.

  2. 2
    Alla Says:

    It is not appropriate to refer to “d’Herbois” in this context. It sounds like you may have assumed that Collot was his first name. The full name is Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois. Thank you very much for this article about Joseph Chalier. He was quite a remarkable character, a madman for some, and a saint for others.

  3. 3
    Headsman Says:

    Cheerfully corrected!

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