Some pretty epic social and political change went down as a result of the French Revolution (1789–1799) — helloooo modern Western intellectual and political culture!
So, here are a few of the weirdest facts about Revolutionary France:
1. In the 1730s, a group of printing apprentices massacred “every cat they could find” on Paris’ Rue Saint-Séverin. The cats were subsequently tried (in a mock trial, BUT STILL), found guilty of witchcraft, and hanged.
The deets: The apprentices were treated poorly by their masters, and were often fed “cat food” (scraps of old and rotten meat) that the cats themselves wouldn’t eat.
To exact his revenge, one apprentice sat outside his master’s bedroom one evening, howling and meowing. After several sleepless nights, the master believed he and his wife were being bewitched — because witches have cats, OBVIOUSLY — and ordered the cats rounded up and killed.
Some historians now recognize the incident as an early instance of worker’s revolt, similar to that social upheaval that came with the French Revolution several decades later.
2. King Louis XVI had a slight, er, “lock and key” problem.
The deets: Louis XVI’s hobby as a locksmith was well known, so when he and Marie Antoinette couldn’t conceive a child for seven years at the beginning of their marriage, more than a few racy libelles mocked their fertility problems (“Can the King do it?” “He can’t find the keyhole.” et al.).
Some historians believe that Louis was eventually diagnosed with a condition called phimosis — google that, I dare you — that was corrected through a simple procedure, while others simply believe he was disinterested in sex. Eventually, the couple went on to have four children.
3. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, most French citizens ate two pounds of bread each day. TWO POUNDS.
The deets: Because of Louis XVI’s financial mismanagement leading up to the Revolution in 1789, the price of flour skyrocketed and caused the cost of a loaf of bread to become equal to a peasant’s monthly earnings. Cue riots.
4. One of the earliest acts of defiance in the Revolution took place on a tennis court.
The deets: The Tennis Court Oath was the first “fuck you, monarchy” of the French Revolution.
Members of the Third Estate (commoners) — clergy and nobility made up the First and Second Estates, respectively — gathered on June 20, 1789, on a tennis court near the Palace of Versailles after being locked out of a meeting of the Estates General.
The Oath marked the formation of the National Assembly, as well as the first time French citizens so publicly opposed King Louis XVI.
5. Marie Antoinette didn’t actually say, “Let them eat cake.”
The deets: Most historians agree that the so-called Madame Deficit probably didn’t care enough about her subjects to ever utter these words. The phrase is now considered a journalistic cliché, and may have originated with rumors among French peasants.
6. Affectionately called the “national razor,” the swift-killing guillotine was popularized during the French Revolution and was a legal form of execution in France until 1981.
That’s right: You could lose your head by way of guillotine until 1981, when France abolished capital punishment. The country’s last guillotine execution, however, was in 1977.
The deets: Revolutionaries were called “sans-culottes,” literally “without culottes.” To distinguish themselves from the French nobility who wore the silk knee britches called culottes, sans-culottes wore long trousers called pantalons, short-skirted coats called carmagnoles, red caps to symbolize liberty, and clogs (sabots).
8. The Bastille was torn down BY HAND. Totally badass.
The deets: Because they didn’t have powerful explosives, the men, women, and children that stormed the Parisian fortress tore it down brick by brick. The bricks were given away/sold as symbols of the breakdown of tyranny.
Bonus: In his diary for July 14, 1789, Louis XVI simply wrote “nothing,” referring to a hunting trip he took earlier in the day.
9. There was a lot of weird erotica slandering the monarchy during the years of and leading up to the Revolution.
The deets: Libelle pamphlets were meant to undermine the power of the monarchy, and often threw shade at the personal lives of the French nobility. Marie Antoinette became a symbol of extravagancy because of her outlandish spending and partying, and therefore an easy target for libelle authors.
10. Radical revolutionary journalist Jean-Paul Marat was murdered in his bathtub.
The deets: In Marat’s newspaper L’ami du peuple (“The Friend of the People”), he published works defending the sans-cullottes, but due to a chronic skin disease, he spent the three years prior to his assassination in a medicinal bath.
Charlotte Corday, a Girondist sympathizer, murdered Marat with a five-inch kitchen knife on July 13, 1793, blaming him for 1792’s September Massacres and fearing an all-out civil war in France brought on by his writings. She was later executed by guillotine.
11. The first public zoo was created in Paris during the French Revolution: the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes.
The deets: The National Assembly, one of the transitional governing bodies during the Revolution, passed a decision that exotic animals held privately were to be donated to the menagerie at Versailles, or killed, stuffed, and donated to scientists at the Jardin des Plantes.
The animals were not killed — go scientists! — and the world’s first public zoo was created in the interest of public education. Thanks, French Revolution!
Looking for more history buzz? Check out Your Historical Misconceptions Corrected.
Facts via Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre and Revolution in Print: the Press in France 1775–1800, History Channel’s The French Revolution documentary, History.com, and Wikipedia.