Théroigne de Méricourt, Anne-Josèphe (1762–1817)
Théroigne de Méricourt, Anne-Josèphe (1762–1817)
Théroigne de Méricourt, Anne-Josèphe (1762–1817)
Activist during the French Revolution, notably advocating equality for women, including the right to bear arms, who became the subject of numerous legends, and, tragically, a prominent figure in the history of insanity. Name variations: Theroigne de Mericourt; Mme Campinado. Pronunciation: AWN sho-SEFF tay-ROYN der MERRY-coor. Born Anne-Josèphe Terwagne on August 13, 1762, in Marcourt (Luxembourg), Belgium; died of pneumonia at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris on June 8, 1817, and was buried in the ditch of the hospital cemetery; daughter of Pierre Terwagne (1731–1786, a peasant proprietor) and Anne-Elisabeth Lahaye (1732–1767); had little (if any) formal education; never married; children: (with an unknown man) daughter, Françoise-Louise Septenville (d. 1788).
Met Mme Colbert and escaped a drudge's life (1778); had liaisons with an English officer (1782–87?), and the Marquis de Persan (c. 1784–c. 1793); went to Italy with the castrato Tenducci (1788–89); was in Paris during the fall of the Bastille and at Versailles during the October march of the women (1789); helped found Les Amis de la loi and spoke at the Cordeliers Club, but went to Belgium to avoid possible arrest (1790); abducted by French émigrés, imprisoned and questioned by Austrian authorities, but released in Vienna (1791); returned to France, became an activist advocating further revolution and the arming of women, and participated in the assault on the Tuileries (August 10) which overthrew the monarchy (1792); tried to preach political reconciliation but was whipped as a Girondin by a mob of Jacobin women (1793); arrested during the Great Terror but was certified as insane (1794); was confined in asylums, including the Hôtel-Dieu and La Salpêtrière (1795–1817).
When the French Revolution began in the spring of 1789, Anne-Josèphe Théroigne was in Paris, a still-young (aged 27) woman of means. Because the source of her money was unclear, she was suspected of being a kept woman. The truth was more complicated. During the Revolution, moreover, legends concerning her grew up and were embellished throughout much of the 19th century, legends which historical research has destroyed.
Anne-Josèphe Terwagne, born on August 13, 1762, was the eldest child of Pierre Terwagne, a prosperous peasant proprietor, and his first wife Anne-Elisabeth Lahaye . Terwagne was the Walloon spelling of a common name whose Frenchified version was Théroigne. The addition de Méricourt, which Anne never used, was invented by the royalist press during the Revolution and was a corruption of Marcourt, her native village, which lies on the Ourthe River in the Ardennes region about 50 miles south of Liège in the province of Luxembourg in present-day Belgium. When she was born, Marcourt belonged to the Bishopric of Liège, part of the Austrian Empire.
Anne's childhood was wretchedly unhappy. Her mother had two sons, Pierre-Joseph (b. 1764) and Nicolas-Joseph (b. 1767), but died after Nicolas' birth. Pierre remarried, while Anne was sent to an aunt in Liège, who put her in a convent for several years until it proved too expensive. The girl then shuttled among her aunt, stepmother, and paternal grandparents, all of whom mistreated or humiliated her. With her father sinking into ruin because of lawsuits, Anne ran away to Limbourg, where she was a cowherd for a year before becoming a governess in Liège. In 1778, her fortunes turned when she became a companion to a Mme Colbert in Antwerp. For four years, Anne lived and traveled with this gracious woman, who introduced her to high society, literature, and especially music. Ambitious and impulsive, dreaming of a career as a singer, and blessed with good looks—not truly beautiful, but pretty and petite, with chestnut hair, delicate hands and feet, and a slim-waisted figure—Anne was ripe for picking when in 1782 she met an English officer. He took her off to England with promises of marriage when he received his large inheritance.
Until Anne returned to Paris from Italy in May 1789, her life became a tangle typical of courtesans, which lent to her a certain air of mystery. The English officer soon came into an inheritance but refused to marry her, though he gave her a sizeable sum, 200,000 livres, which she invested in stocks and jewels. At some point she gave birth to a daughter, Françoise-Louise Septenville, who died in the spring of 1788; the officer refused to acknowledge paternity, and the name Septenville is a mystery. She also contracted syphilis, was cured (supposedly) by mercury, but complained thereafter of pains, digestive problems, and fatigue. In Paris in 1784 or 1785, she met Anne-Nicolas Doublet de Persan, marquis de Persan (b. 1728), a high official in the Ministry of Finance, with whom she deposited 50,000 livres in return for an annuity of 5,000 per year—probably a device to hide her expected status as a kept woman. Apparently, she gave the marquis little or no satisfaction; he complained that he had to pay her (which he did, with delays, until perhaps as late as 1793) while she ignored him to pursue other lovers and her musical ambitions. In the mid-1780s, she was known in society as Mme Campinado (a name in her mother's family) and drew attention by appearing in public alone and bejeweled without disclosing the source of her wealth.
Anne apparently sang on occasion in London, although probably not in Paris. Perhaps as early as 1785, she planned to go to Italy with the Italian tenor Giacomo Davide (1750–1830) for musical training. He backed out, but in 1788, possibly following her daughter's death, she visited her birthplace—where to save appearances she posed as the widow of an English colonel named Spinster—then went to Italy with the celebrated castrato Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci (c. 1735–1790), a rake, deeply in debt, who doubtless hoped to get his hands on her money. Though she successfully sued him for breach of contract, she stayed in Italy for a year, mostly in Genoa. Running short of money, she arrived in Paris on May 11, 1789.
Such was her unstable existence when it was taken over by the French Revolution. Théroigne fervently embraced the Revolution's promise of liberty, "For I have always been extremely humiliated by the servitude and prejudices under which the pride of men has held my oppressed sex." She began to frequent the Palais Royal arcades and gain a political education from the gossip there. In order to circulate more freely and "avoid the humiliation of being a woman," she took to dressing like a man, wearing a white, blue, or red riding habit and a round hat with a turned-up brim and a black feather. She did not help lead the July 14 storming of the Bastille, as legend later said, but heard of it at the Palais Royal; she donned the tricolor cockade and on the 17th marched with the throng escorting Louis XVI to Paris to make amends.
Utterly absorbed now by the revolutionary drama, on August 18 she took a room at Versailles near the palace in order to attend sittings of the National Assembly. Her self-education progressed as she realized that "here were the People confronted face to face with Privilege." She became a fixture in the visitors' gallery, every day in her riding habit, and made the acquaintance of Jérôme Pétion and François Beaulieu, the brother of Abbé Sieyès. On October 5, she watched the mob of women arrive from Paris seeking "the baker" (King Louis) and his wife (Marie Antoinette ). Théroigne again mingled as a spectator, although she may have urged nearby National Guards to arrest some of the aristocratic deputies. She did not follow the crowd and the king back to Paris on the 6th, but returned only when the Assembly moved there on the 19th.
None of her activities resembled the tales printed three months later by Les Actes des apôtres, a royalist newspaper, which said she had raised the October mob herself, distributing money from the Duc d'Orléans, and ridden ahead of it to Versailles and back on a horse (or astride a cannon), dressed in red, a sabre (or lance) in hand and pistols in her belt. Thomas Carlyle and other historians later seized on the image, Alphonse de Lamartine in particular romanticizing it past measure.
In Paris again, Théroigne continued to attend every Assembly session and began to conduct a salon. Numerous prominent figures were said to have attended—Pétion, Brissot, Camille Desmoulins, Marie-Joseph Chénier, Anacharsis Cloots, Fabre d'Églantine, Basire, Gorsas, Barnave, Saint-Just, Momoro—but the regulars were secondary types, such as Augustin Bosc d'Antic (a friend of Mme Roland ), Bernard Maret (the future Duc de Bassano), Méjean de Luc, François Beaulieu, and Gilbert Romme (1750–1794). A mathematician, political theorist, and future member of the Convention, Romme, like Théroigne, was awakened by the Revolution and wanted to play a role. She inspired him to found one of the first political clubs, Les Amis de la loi (The Friends of the Law), which intended to gather all possible information about the Assembly, push forward reform, and enlighten the masses about their new liberties.
The Amis at first met in Théroigne's rooms, beginning on January 10, 1790. She was the only female member and served as archivist until February 21. The club, which never surpassed about 20 members, held too many conflicting views and last met on March 17. (By then the Amis de la Constitution, the famous Jacobin
Club, had emerged with a similar program and was growing rapidly.) Théroigne, to her chagrin, found nobody save Romme (who presently let her down) favoring equal rights for women. The club also refused to admit her brother Pierre, on the specious ground that he (a Walloon) did not know French. And, finally, she failed to get the club to affiliate with the Cordeliers Club. Probably sensing the decline of the Amis, she had gone to the Cordeliers on February 20 to try to be admitted. Allowed to address the club, she delivered a passionate speech calling for the National Assembly to be housed in a Temple of Liberty erected on the site of the demolished Bastille. She won enthusiastic applause—and discovered her gift for oratory—but the project was buried in a committee and she was denied membership because of her sex. To cap these snubs and failures, her attempt to found a Club des droits de l'homme (Club of the Rights of Man) after the demise of the Amis fizzled out.
Meanwhile, Théroigne had become the butt of vicious attacks by royalist papers, starting on November 10, 1789, in Les Actes des apôtres. That "la Belle Liégeoise," as she had soon become known, was a vocal presence every day in the gallery of the Assembly, dressed flamboyantly, and conducted a salon attended by prominent revolutionaries sufficed to make her a target. The Actes, Petit Gauthier, Sabbats Jacobites, and Apocalypse slandered her mercilessly, accusing her of being the revolutionaries' whore, reveling in debauchery and blood lust. She joined Germaine de Staël and Marie Antoinette, no less, as a favorite subject of scabrous stories, obscene cartoons, and even the text of a play in the Actes (Théroigne et Populus ou le triomphe de la démocratie, separately printed in 1791) recounting her "marriage" to a current deputy, Marie-Étienne Populus, whose name ("the People") suggested endless satirical possibilities. Ironically, she had in fact become quite resistant to the advances of the men around her.
Let us arm ourselves; we have the right by nature and even by the law. Let us show the men that we are not inferior to them, neither in virtues nor in courage.
—Théroigne de Méricourt
Discouraged and harassed, Théroigne was also running low on money, having pawned valuables since September 1789. The following spring, she changed her residence and name, perhaps upon learning that the Châtelet investigation of the October Days had heard a witness mention her. (Only 5 of some 400 did so.) By the end of May, she was back in Marcourt. "I left the French Revolution without too much regret," she said later. For a few months, she lived happily among her kinfolk in Marcourt and Xhoris and even sought to buy some land and settle down. The Revolution, however, still held her. In December 1790, she wrote her banker that she intended to return to Paris in ten months. While keeping a low profile—the Austrian Netherlands was bubbling due to spill-over from France—she did support some peasants' complaints and open her door to local patriots. Through her indiscretions, her presence became known to French émigré royalists nearby and thence to Austrian authorities up to Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II himself.
To save appearances, the Austrians arranged for her to be seized by French émigrés. On January 15, 1791, she was abducted at night from an inn at La Boverie (outside Liège) by two nobles and a former sergeant posing as friends. At Fribourg, they delivered her to the Austrians, who took her to Kufstein, the forbidding Tyrolean fortress-prison, arriving on March 9. Despite precautions, news of Théroigne's arrest leaked and briefly raised international tensions.
The Austrians, believing the royalist press, considered her a prize catch. They suspected she was a Jacobin spy sent to the Netherlands to raise rebellion, but above all they wanted her to reveal her role in the October Days (believing she had plotted to kill Marie Antoinette) and to inform them of the inner workings and personnel of the revolutionary movement. From May 29 to July 28, Aulic councillor François de Blanc interrogated her and also ordered her to write her autobiography. (It was first published in 1892 as her Confessions.) An honest, courageous official, he concluded she was no spy, the "confessions" she made to her abductors were fabrications, and the royalist press was totally unreliable. Ominously, a prominent physician called to examine her noted that her mental state "justifies every apprehension." She was taken to Vienna (arriving on August 14) and was interviewed by Imperial Chancellor Prince Kaunitz and, in great secrecy around October 25, by Leopold in an audience whose contents were never disclosed. The sagacious emperor decided to release her, probably hoping to dampen rising war talk in France and possibly thinking she might prove useful later because she, an Austrian subject, had never expressed any disloyalty or disrespect toward him. Having promised that she would not leave home without permission, Théroigne was freed on November 25 and arrived in Brussels on December 25.
Barely three weeks later, she was in Paris reviving her salon. No doubt the stifling atmosphere of Brussels and Liège, fostered by the failure of the revolution there and the authorities' surveillance of her, caused her to yearn for the free air of France. Moreover, the Châtelet's proceedings had been quashed on September 15, 1791. Her quick return, however, has always fed a suspicion that she was now an Austrian agent—yet more mystery—but no hard evidence supports it.
For the next eight months, Théroigne played her most active role during the Revolution. The constitutional monarchy set up in 1791 was already under siege. Théroigne sided with the rising Girondins (or Brissotins), moderate Jacobin republicans somewhat favorable to women's rights and pushing for a war abroad as a way to end the monarchy. The Montagnards, left-wing Jacobins heeding Robespierre, disagreed on both scores and were more frankly republican. On January 26, 1792, the Jacobin Club hailed her as a heroine of liberty and invited her to speak on February 1. Instead of relating her adventures, she issued an eloquent call in her Walloon-accented French for war on the émigrés and "despots" (though she never spoke ill of Leopold). She eagerly anticipated the liberation of her native land, assuring the Club that the Revolution had more supporters abroad than they imagined. She also launched an idea that had been heard now and then since 1789, namely, that legions of women soldiers ("amazons") should be formed.
The idea circulated during the fevered weeks leading to the declaration of war on Austria on April 20. On March 6, Pauline Léon and 300 others petitioned the Legislative Assembly (successor to the National Assembly) to allow women to arm themselves; and, on March 11, Théroigne summoned women to gather on the Champ de Mars for drill, but with little success. Meanwhile, she asked the Jacobins on March 4 to sponsor a patriotic demonstration to welcome the 40 amnestied soldiers of the Châteauvieux regiment who had been sent to the galleys in 1790 for mutiny against their royalist commanders at Nancy. The Jacobins voted it down, but on the 24th Théroigne petitioned the Paris city council, which approved it. The next day, she took part in a civic banquet on the Champs-Élysées followed by a march to the Jacobins and then to the hall of the Société fraternelle des Minimes on the rue Saint-Antoine, where she delivered a major speech on the amazon projects, advocating equality of the sexes and rejecting the view that women should be confined to care of the hearth: "Let us return to the days when the women of Gaul debated with men in the public assemblies and fought side by side with their husbands against the enemies of liberty."
Théroigne worked feverishly among the women of the faubourg Saint-Antoine to organize a political club and form a battalion of amazons. It was not to be. By some accounts, she was set upon by a crowd on April 12 and escaped a whipping only because authorities nearby snatched her away under armed escort. The next day at the Jacobin Club, a delegation from Saint-Antoine denounced her activities, saying she was luring women away from their domestic duties and that she had made unauthorized use of the names of Santerre, Collot d'Herbois, and Robespierre. Santerre mildly defended her but urged her to "desist from projects of this nature." Humiliated, she took no visible role in the Châteauvieux festival on the 15th—a massive demonstration by radical revolutionaries and a triumph for painter and pageant-master Jacques-Louis David. Her humiliation was crowned on April 23 at the Jacobin Club. Girondins and Montagnards were now coming to open war. Théroigne, who had outspokenly taken the Girondist side, was mocked by Montagnard Collot d'Herbois for presuming, as a woman, to have political opinions. Enraged by the derisive laughter, she vaulted the gallery railing and charged to the rostrum demanding to be heard. The president suspended the sitting during the ensuing tumult.
After this, Théroigne's activity became episodic. With invasion imminent, she probably helped organize the demonstration of June 20 ("The Visit to the King") urging a more radical war policy, but whether she was in—much less led—the mob which invaded the Tuileries is not known. Her presence in the August 10 assault which ended the monarchy, however, was widely noted. Clad in a blue riding habit, carrying pistols and a dagger, and in the grip of an intense excitement—behaving now the way her enemies had always depicted her—she urged on an already bloodthirsty crowd outside the Feuillants to kill the 22 royalist prisoners there. Eleven escaped; the nine who were slaughtered included François Suleau, a rabidly royalist editor at Les Actes des apôtres, who some accounts said, probably falsely, was stabbed by Théroigne herself. She then took a leading place in the final assault on the Tuileries and was one of the three women (with "Queen" Audu and Claire Lacombe ) decorated by the soldiers from Marseille (the féderés) who headed the uprising. After August 10, Théroigne retired from the public scene, emerging only briefly, and tragically, in May 1793. She took no part in the September Massacres, legend again to the contrary. She probably frequented the clubs, kept a salon of sorts, attended the Convention, the new Republic's legislature, and may have tried to write her memoirs. It is certain that she was in financial distress; by January 1793, she was living in a room at 273 rue Saint-Honoré, perhaps aided by Abbé Sieyès, who lived there.
She resurfaced early in May as the author of a broadsheet calling for political conciliation in the face of rising domestic violence and a renewed threat of invasion. The Girondins, predominant since August 10, were fast losing out to the Montagnards; hence, her call for conciliation was bound to be dismissed as Girondist pleading. This manifesto, despite some troubling syntax and diffuse construction, contained a remarkably acute analysis of the current political and military situation. Interestingly, she warned of Austrian agents working for civil war. Her remedy for domestic turmoil, however, seemed chimerical at best, and contrasted dramatically with her "military feminism" of a year ago. She called for election of six virtuous, wise women in each Paris section who, garbed in tricolor sashes, "would have the task of reconciling and uniting the men citizens" and monitoring their behavior in the section assemblies, where they would admonish miscreants. Not surprisingly, her proposal went nowhere.
Days later, on May 15, she received a wound from which she never fully recovered. A gang of women (mégères), led by the Jacobin sympathizer Claire Lacombe, was preventing their opponents access to the Convention's gallery. Théroigne, arriving as usual, was denounced as a "Brissotine" and mobbed by the women, who raised her skirts and whipped her savagely on her bare buttocks at the Convention's entrance. According to some accounts, Jean-Paul Marat, a Montagnard they revered, fortunately arrived and spirited her away. But her humiliation was profound—and had been inflicted by women.
After this sad affair, Théroigne withdrew from public life. She had long shown symptoms of mental illness, and in the following months she slowly sank toward a hopeless state. She likely worked on her memoirs until, on June 27, 1794, during the Great Terror, she was arrested on suspicion, probably for ill-considered words to neighbors. Her brother Nicolas, residing in Paris, had concurrently appealed to have her put in his custody. On July 26, the day before the fall of the Committee of Public Safety, she wrote a half-logical, half-delusional letter to Saint-Just, a powerful member, asking his aid. He was executed before he received it. On September 20, Théroigne was officially certified as insane, and, on December 11, she was released in her brother's care. Early in 1795, he had her committed to the madhouse of the faubourg Saint-Marceau. In 1797, she was known to be at the Hôtel-Dieu. On December 9, 1799, she was transferred to La Salpêtrière Hospital; on January 11, 1800, to the Petites-Maisons; and finally back to La Salpêtrière on December 7, 1807, where she died on June 8, 1817.
Théroigne's state in these last years was pitiable—locked up in hellish asylums, abandoned by her siblings, and fixated on the Revolution. She continually repeated words and slogans of the Revolution and would threaten others, "Moderates" and "Royalists," with arrest by the Committee of Public Safety. She complained of burning sensations, walked about naked, doused her person and bedclothes with cold water in winter or summer, crawled on all fours, and ate straw and feathers and excrement from the floor. Philippe Pinel's pupil and successor, Étienne Esquirol (1772–1840), carefully observed her from 1807 on, had an autopsy performed after her death, and described her case at length in Des maladies mentales (2 vols., 1838). It appears that her illness had no observable physical cause, notwithstanding her bout with syphilis. In current terminology, she would probably be described as afflicted with schizophrenia or manic-depressive psychosis.
Anne-Josèphe Théroigne's life was a tragedy. An ambitious, courageous woman who escaped from peasant drudgery only to fall into a life as a courtesan, she welcomed the French Revolution as a liberation. She longed to play a role and for all women to escape the oppression of their sex and be treated as equal to men in every way, including even the bearing of arms. The Revolution "transposed her repulsion at the idea of being a woman into a warrior feminism," writes Elisabeth Roudinesco . Sadly, because she was a déclassé woman of means and could not find acceptance among either middle-class or working women, she failed in almost everything she attempted. Paris organized no female legions, for example, although some were formed in the provinces. She was pilloried in the press, humiliated in public places, and by a terrible irony became famous (or infamous) for deeds she never did. Moreover, in later times, her insanity was taken, especially by conservatives, to symbolize the destiny of the Revolution itself. The Revolution certainly proved to be mostly a false dawn for her. The same was true for the women of France, who did not obtain the vote until 1944—150 years after Théroigne had disintegrated into madness.
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David S. Newhall , Professor Emeritus of History, Centre College, author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (Edwin Mellen, 1991)