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I wanted to share with you a glimpse back into history to one of the most peculiar and specialized cities of western history.  During the middle ages, monasticism was a vast and powerful cultural force.  Indeed, in certain times and places, it may have been the principal cultural force in a world which was painfully transforming from the slave society of classical antiquity into the modern kingdom states of Europe.

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West of the Alps, the great monastic order was the Benedictine order, founded by Saint Benedict of Nursia, a Roman nobleman who lived during the middle of the 6th century. “The Rule of Saint Benedict” weds classical Roman ideals of reason, order, balance, and moderation, with Judeo-Christian ideals of devotion, piety, and transcendence.   The Benedictine Order kept art, literature, philosophy, and science (such as it was) alive during the upheavals of Late Antiquity and the “Dark Ages”–the brothers (and sisters) were the keepers of the knowledge gleaned by Rome and Greece.  The monks also amassed enormous, wealth and power in Feudal European society.  The greatest abbots were equivalent to feudal lords and princes commanding enormous tracts of land and great estates of serfs.

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Nowhere was this more true than in Cluny, in east central France (near the Swiss Alps), where Duke William I of Aquitaine founded a monastic order with such extensive lands and such a generous charter that it grew beyond the scope of all other such communities in France, Germany, northern Europe, and the British Isles.  The Duke stipulated that the abbot of the monastery was beholden to no earthly authority save for that of the pope (and there were even rules concerning the extent of papal authority over the abbey), so the monks were free to choose their own leader instead of having crooked 2nd sons of noblemen fobbed off on them.

Cluny, Emile Sagot (1805-1888),Cluny XVI siecle, httppasserelles.bnf.fr

Additionally, the monastery created a system of “franchise monasteries” called priories which reported to the authority of the main abbot and paid tithes to Cluny.   This wealth allowed Cluny to become a veritable city of prayer.  The building, farming, and lay work was completed by serfs and retainers, while the brothers devoted themselves to prayer, art, scholarship, and otherworldly pursuits…and also to politics, statecraft, administration, feasting, and very worldly pursuits (since the community became incredibly ric)h.  The chandeliers, sacred chalices, and monstrances were made of gold and jewels, and the brothers wore habits of finest cloth (and even silk).

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The main tower of the Basilica towered to an amazing 200 meters (656 feet of height) and the abbey was the largest building in Europe until the enlargement of St. Peter’s Basilica in the 17th century.  At its zenith in the 11th and 12th century, the monastery was home to 10,000 monks. The abbots of Cluny were as powerful as kings (they kept a great townhouse in Paris), and four abbots later became popes.  At the top of the page I have included a magnificent painting by the great urban reconstruction artist, Jean-Claude Golvin, who painstakingly reconstructs vanished and destroyed cities of the past as computer models and then as sumptuous paintings.  Just look at the scope of the (3rd and greatest) monastery and the buildings around it.

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Such wealth also engendered decadence and corruption.  Later abbots were greedy and incompetent.  They oppressed the farmers and craftspeople who worked for them and tried to cheat the merchants and bankers they did business with.  The monastery fell into a long period of decline which ended (along with the ancien regime, about which similar things could be said) during the French Revolution.  Most of the monastery was burnt to the ground and only a secondary bell tower and hall remain.  Fortunately the greatest treasures of Cluny, the manuscripts of the ancient and the medieval world, were copied and disseminated.  The most precious became the centerpiece of the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris, and the British Museum also holds 60 or so ancient charters (because they are good at getting their hands on stuff like that).

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We can still imagine what it must have been like to live in the complex during the high middle ages, though, as part of a huge university-like community of prayer, thought, and beauty.  it was a world of profound lonely discipline tempered with fine dining, art, and general good living–an vanished yet eternal city of French Monastic life.

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Apse and northern facade (Felix Benoist, 1861, lithograph)

Saint Denis was a third century Roman Christian who was sent to Roman Gaul by Pope Fabian. Denis was the first bishop of Paris, but when relations between pagans and Christians soured in the era of the Decian persecutions, he was martyred by decapitation upon Montmartre, the highest hill of Paris. According to tradition, after he was beheaded, Denis picked up his head and carried it 10 kilometers (6 miles) north while delivering a stirring ceremony. When the decapitated saint found the right spot (in what are now the suburbs of Paris—but what was then a Gallo-Roman cemetery) he put down his head and expired. In the late 5th century, St. Genevieve purchased this land and built Saint-Denys de la Chapelle. In the early 7th century, Dagobert, the king of the Franks chose this site as the location of a great Benedictine monastery the Abbey of Saint Denis. The site became a major center for pilgrimages during the Middle Ages (and the monastery grew even more rich due to a lucrative whaling concession, from the crown), but as the centuries wore on, the Carolingian church started to wear out (and the original sacred complex was not big enough to contain the throngs of worshipers).

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West façade of Saint Denis, before the dismantling of the north tower (c. 1844 – 1845)

Thus, in the 12th century, Abbot Suger, a close friend of the kings of France, began to rebuild the church in a grand new style involving pointed arches, flying buttresses, large windows, high towers, and great interior spaces. This style—an abrupt departure from the Romanesque style, which had dominated architecture–was initially known as the French style. As the political fortunes of the Angevin dynasty waxed, the style spread throughout France, England, the Low Countries, Germany, Spain, northern Italy, and Sicily. The style quickly was renamed Gothic style and it became the dominant architecture of Europe in the late middle ages (and beyond). The Basilica of Saint Denis, the resting place of deceased French kings (did I mention that all but three French kings are buried there? I probably should have said that) was the first great Gothic building–the first high cathedral.

800px-St_denis_naveThe nave of the Basilica of St. Denis. Shot from the chancel.

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 The Choir of the Basilica of Saint Denis
 

 
 

 

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I’m sorry I haven’t yet said anything about the horrible Friday 13th mass slayings in Paris.  I love France and I love the French so I was too angry to write anything sensible.  My heart goes out to the victims and their families.  Vive la France! I would wish that the terrorist perpetrators from the so-called Islamic State were in hell–but based on what I see in the news–they are actively trying to build hell here on earth.  It is what the IS aspires to. It is hard to know how to properly curse such people: they already eagerly bear a more terrible malediction than any I could invoke.

Insigne de La Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre

Insigne de La Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre

Anyway, they have messed with the wrong folk.  The French are not just superb philosophers, bon vivants, aesthetes, and scientists, they are also extremely gifted warriors with one of the world’s finest armies.  Not only do they have similar high-precision weaponry to ours, they also have fearsome (albeit shadowy) special force squadrons who are battle hardened with field experience in Francophone North Africa.  The French are less keen on media-based warfare than we are.  A lot of times, their enemies just disappear without lots of splashy headlines.

But we will see how this unfolds in the real world in years to come.  In the meantime, to show solidarity with the French people, Ferrebeekeeper is going to spend this week writing about French subjects (which is something we should do every year anyway—perhaps around Bastille Day).

The Great Seal of France

The Great Seal of France

Let’s start with the Great Seal of France, the official seal of the French Republic.  Seals are an ancient cultural tradition in France dating back to the first Frankish kings, and before that to the ancient Romans. This particular seal was first adopted by the short-lived Second Republic of France (1848-1851) to replace both the royal seals of the Ancien Régime and the attainted seals of the First Revolution.  The great engraver Jean-Jacques Barre created the design which features the goddess liberty (or possibly Juno dressed as liberty) holding a fasces and leaning on a ship’s tiler with a Gallic cock upon it.  The goddess is wearing a seven arched crown with rays emanating from it—the same headdress which Bartholdi chose for the Statue of Liberty forty years later.

Around the goddess are symbols of knowledge, art, and power.  To quote Wikipedia:

At her feet is a vase with the letters “SU” (“Suffrage Universel“, “Universal suffrage”). At her right, in the background, are symbols of the arts (painter’s tools), architecture (Ionic order), education (burning lamp), agriculture (a sheaf of wheat) and industry (a cog wheel). The scene is surrounded by the legend “RÉPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE, DÉMOCRATIQUE, UNE ET INDIVISIBLE” (“French Republic, democratic, one and undividable”) and “24 FEV.1848” (24 February 1848) at the bottom.

The reverse bears the words “AU NOM DU PEUPLE FRANÇAIS” (“in the name of the French people”) surrounded by a crown of oak (symbol of perennity) and laurel (symbol of glory) leaves tied together with wheat and grapes (agriculture and wealth), with the circular national motto “LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ“.

The Great Seal is kept by the Minister of Justice, who is also the Keeper of the Seals.  It is used only for sealing the Constitution and Constitutional amendments—which are sealed with yellow or green wax on tricolour ribbons.

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Liberty Enlightens the World (Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, dedicated 1886, copper and steel)

Liberty Enlightens the World (Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, dedicated 1886, copper and steel)

As everyone knows, the Statue of Liberty (which is actually properly titled “Liberty Enlightening the World”) is a colossal neoclassical sculpture which stands in the harbor of my beloved home city, New York, New York. This is the 130th anniversary of the statue arriving in New York from France. The 93 meter tall statue was a lavish gift from the French people, who obviously know how to give astonishing amazing beautiful presents!  I won’t get into the elaborate political, engineering, and fundraising history behind the statue’s conception, fabrication, and construction: suffice to say, it has a very complicated story (as one would expect in a monumental joint artistic venture between two of Earth’s greatest nations).

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I will note that the statue has greatly overshadowed its creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi—which seems inconceivable today when most art is an afterthought to the virulent self-aggrandizement of art world personalities.  If something similar were attempted now we would probably end up with a 90 meter tall statue of Jeff Koons…or of some part of his anatomy (though I shudder to write that down, lest I give him any ideas).

A Statue by Bartholdi of Bartholdi with the Bartholdi statue that made him famous (OK, maybe he did have SOME self reflective self-promotional flair)

A Statue by Bartholdi of Bartholdi with the Bartholdi statue that made him famous (OK, maybe he did have SOME self reflective self-promotional flair)

Bartholdi was an Alsatian and a freemason.  He studied architecture and then served in the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (a conflict when the excesses of the Second Empire came back to haunt France—and a war which provided dark foreshadowing for the great industrial wars of the twentieth century).  Bartholdi conceived of the statue as a tribute to democracy and freedom just after the American Civil War—when France was under the dictatorial regime of Napoleon III.  Because of the authoritarianism and inequality of the time, the idea was shelved until after the Prussians drove this second Napoleon into exile and ushered in the third republic.

Although before Lady Liberty he designed a colossal statue for the entrance to the Suez Canal...

Although before Lady Liberty he designed a colossal statue for the entrance to the Suez Canal…

The Statue of Liberty is so universally iconic that it is hard to look at as a work of art—which is a shame because it is very lovely.  The fluid Roman robes belie the practical architecture beneath.  Atop the statue is a glowing crown of radiant beams—the neoclassical symbol for divinity. The enigmatic face is simultaneously stern and compassionate (though it is said that Bartholdi based it on his mother which might explain these juxtaposed emotions—and the very human tenderness with which the artist wrought the giant metal face).

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It is frustratingly difficult to find pictures of other Bartholdi sculptures.  I see here that he created a work titled “Genius in the Grasp of Misery” which sounds incredibly relevant and germane as I scrabble piteously for rent, but sadly I can’t find any photos of it.  He designed a fountain “The Little Vintner of Colmar” which features a handsome youth drinking a never-ending stream of wine.  The statue is as delightful as its description and was a gift from the city of Colmar to the city of Princeton New Jersey…What was going on in the nineteenth century that cities were all giving art to each other? It seems like an amazing trend which has passed.

The Little Vintner of Colmar (Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, 1869, bronze)

The Little Vintner of Colmar (Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, 1869, bronze)

Speaking of which, it occurs to me, that I have never thanked the French people for their far-sighted generosity.  Allow me to do so now!  Everyone here loves the statue and we deeply love our beautiful exasperating intelligent friends across the Atlantic (even if it sometimes seems like we are at odds).  Vive la France et merci pour le cadeau magnifique!

A quarter scale model of the Statue of Liber...Liberty Enlightens the World in Paris France--it's even on a miniature island.

A quarter scale model of the Statue of Liber…Liberty Enlightens the World in Paris France–it’s even on a miniature island.

City Center of Nantes

City Center of Nantes

You are probably familiar with Nantes because of the 1598 Edict of Nantes, a royal proclamation whereby the French king Henry IV granted substantial rights to his Protestant subjects. The Edict of Nantes–and its revocation in 1685 by Louis XIV–were critical drivers for the historical events in continental Europe during the Age of Absolutism (which in turn gave shape to the modern world). However Nantes is also a real place—an industrialized port city near where the Loire river empties into the Atlantic on the west coast of France.

The château of the Dukes of Brittany

The château of the Dukes of Brittany

Although Paris monopolizes most of the international attention which France receives, Nantes is notable as an extremely innovative city which eagerly tries out various new paradigms and technologies. Although not all of these concepts are winners, some of them have paid off remarkably well, and Nantes is often mentioned as one of the safest and most pleasant cities to live in. Indeed back in 2004, a magazine (which was a sort of periodically-issued softback book) named the city as Europe’s most livable.

The port of Nantes ( attributed to Nicolas Ozanne, ca. 1800, inkwash drawing)

The port of Nantes ( attributed to Nicolas Ozanne, ca. 1800, inkwash drawing)

Nantes has a long history as an innovator and early adapter. Through the troubling lens of history we can see how this has been both bad and good. For example, Nantes was the first French city to leap into the slave trade back in the era of colonial expansion and it remained the center of the French triangle trade until that evil commerce was abolished in 1818. Nantes also enthusiastically embraced the French revolution and it was an early industrialized city which featured what was arguably the world’s first mass-transit system.

The Nantes Tramway opened in 1985--as other cities got rid of their trams.

The Nantes Tramway opened in 1985–as other cities got rid of their trams.

In the contemporary world, Nantes has all sorts of futuristic architecture and art projects. These combine very evocatively with its dramatic Ancien Régime heritage to make it look like an alternate reality. Ultra-modern trams run along greenways beneath castle walls. Giant robot cranes loom above bike trails and sculpture gardens. Indeed the sculptures of Nantes are what drew my attention to it in the first place (I, uh, only knew about Nantes because of the famous edict and I sort of thought the place stopped existing after the counter-reformation). I’ll feature an interesting public sculpture from Nantes tomorrow!

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Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

January 14th was a fanciful medieval holiday known as the “Feast of the Ass.” The feast commemorates the flight into Egypt, a biblical episode from Christ’s (very) early career. Immediately after the birth of Jesus, Herod, the king of Judea heard a prophecy that a greater king than himself had just been born in Palestine. The king launched a murderous anti-infant pogrom to rid himself of competition before his rival could reach adulthood (an ugly spate of newborn killing known in Christianity as “the Massacre of the innocents”). Mary and Joseph fled Palestine with the baby Jesus. The little family traveled down into Roman Egypt with the exhausted post-partum Mary and her baby traveling on an ass (you can read about this directly in the New Testament (Matthew 2:13-23)). It was not the only episode in the Bible to portray Jesus on donkey back. On Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem (and to his ultimate death) he was mounted on a white ass. The medieval feast gently celebrated the donkey’s importance to Christianity with banqueting, sermons about the biblical events, and pageantry. A beautiful girl bearing a child would ride a donkey through town to the church. Thereafter the donkey stood beside the altar during the sermon. The congregation participated in the fun by answering the priest’s questions and observances by shouting “hee haw” (or whatever donkeys say in France–where the celebration was most often observed).

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1530s, oil on panel)

In our age of internet and celebrity worship, every day is the feast of the ass, but I wanted to write about the medieval celebration (which fell out of favor and vanished in the fifteenth century) so I could share these three beautiful paintings of the flight into Egypt. I also wanted this episode to be an introduction to tomorrow’s post about the donkey—for the poor animals are terribly underappreciated—being so disparagingly associated with human posteriors and loutish individuals. Additionally the donkey’s place in the world has been taken over by modern engines, and fancy patrician folk have not held on to them as a status symbol (as happened to the horse). It’s worth taking a moment and remembering that donkeys are very sacred in Christianity and have a better scriptural claim to being the animal of Christ than any other creature other than perhaps the sheep. More about asses tomorrow!

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

 

 

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Most of the crowns of history are gone. Long ago they were lost or broken or stolen. Kingdoms fall. Raiders and thieves carry off the crown jewels which are then picked apart and melted down for gold. Famous national symbols like crowns are also deliberately destroyed for political reasons. This blog has told the story of many such missing crowns—for example the crown of the Tudors, the crown of the kings of France, the crown of the arrogant little banker-prince of Liechtenstein, and the crown of Poland. Such is life—silly hats cannot last forever, no matter how precious their manufacture or how blood-sodden their history. Considering this, it is strange that we have the crown of one of history’s most controversial monarchs—and that said infamous crown is somehow relatively obscure.

The Crown of Napoleon

The Crown of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of history’s greatest conquerors. He needs no introduction, but I am going to give him a short biography anyway (ha). Bonaparte was a gifted soldier and political manipulator who rode the chaos of the French Revolution to national power at the end of the 18th century. As dictator of France from 1799 onward he proceeded to conquer most of Europe until he was defeated and permanently deposed in 1815. As ruler of France, Napoleon initially styled himself as “First Consul” but as his authority grew, he adopted the more nakedly authoritarian title of “Emperor of the French in 1804. For his coronation ceremony at Notre Dame, he needed an appropriate crown (since the traditional crown jewels of France had largely vanished during the revolution). Napoleon opted to use two crowns for the ceremony: the first was a plain gold laurel meant to evoke the imperial grandeur of ancient Rome. The second crown, however, was specially made for Bonaparte and it is this crown which still survives at the Louvre.

The Coronation of Napoleon (Jacques-Louis David, ca. 1807, oil on canvas)

The Coronation of Napoleon (Jacques-Louis David, ca. 1807, oil on canvas)

The crown of Napoleon was made in mock-medieval style with eight half arches holding up a gold globe with a cross. The reason the crown is still intact and was not sold by the French state (or stolen by Prussians or Germans) is that the precious stones in the crown are not really that precious.   Instead of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, the crown of Napoleon was set with shell cameos and carved carnelians. These carved pieces evoked the grandeur of ancient Rome (and followed the fashion of French empire) but did not compare with the huge gaudy gems which were popular for European crowns later in the 19th century.   When Napoleon went to Saint Helena, his crown stayed in Paris, but subsequent Bourbon monarchs (and even Napoleon III) eschewed the crown for other royal symbols.

The Crown of Napoleon

The Crown of Napoleon

History’s thieves, plunderers, and auctioneers all likewise ignored the crown regarding it as a fishpaste and gilt style prop rather than an actual precious relic. It can still be found in the Louvre, a bit threadbare but not substantially the worse for wear thanks to its handicraft “Etsy” aesthetic!

Baphomet, the Templars, and some sort of absurd Victorian Charlatan

Baphomet, the Templars, and some sort of absurd Victorian Charlatan

In 1307, Philip IV of France was deeply in debt to the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (a military order more commonly known as the Knights Templar).  The Templars had originated during the first crusade as a monastic order dedicated to helping pilgrims reach Jerusalem.  They soon became a powerful military presence in Outremer (the Christian-held lands within the Middle East) and because of an extra-national network of knights, they amassed immense power and wealth around Europe.  Since they had a financial infrastructure which stretched through many different countries, the Templars began acting as bankers (imagine if you deposited gold in England, and then withdrew it in Jerusalem without having to carry it through all the bandit-infested areas between).  They took over and managed the estates of noblemen who took up the cross and went to fight in the crusades, and, as Philip could attest, they leant money.  Some historians regard them as the first multinational corporation of Europe.

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Philip IV really liked money and he hated repaying debts.  In 1306 he had exiled France’s Jews so that he could take over the loans which had been made by them.  When rumors started cropping up about the profane nature of the Templar’s initiation rituals, the French king made sure the rumors spread widely and gained credence.  He used his influence over Pope Clement V (a weak pope who was almost entirely under Philip’s control) to squelch the order.  On October 13th 1307, hundreds of French Templars were rounded up and arrested.  They were then subjected to intense torture in order to find out the truth of their heresies.  Unsurprisingly, under torture, the imprisoned Templars confessed to all sorts of heresies (and other sins).  One of the things which Templars confessed to was worshipping the dark god Baphomet.  Baphomet had originated as a mispronunciation of Mohammed among untutored French soldiers during the First Crusade, however he was about to transcend his roots and become a deity in his own right.

Philip IV contemplates a group of Templars who have been tied to stakes and surrounded with flammable materials for some reason

Philip IV contemplates a group of Templars who have been tied to stakes and surrounded with flammable materials for some reason

With inspiration supplied by torturers the Templars came up with all sorts of examples of how they worshipped Baphomet idols and committed enormities in his name.  Philip’s purpose was to destroy the Templars not to find out truth and the Baphomet story worked very well.  Other imprisoned Templars were questioned about the entity, and when the rack and iron and pinchers were applied, they suddenly confirmed their fellow prisoners’ stories about the dark demon-god.

Baphomet, a hitherto nonexistent deity was literally born from the pain and fear and misinformation of the torture chamber.   During the 19th century, there was a burst of historical interest in the destruction of the Templars (I have left the ghastly details out of this post, but Philip IV was entirely effective in crushing the order for personal gain: the grandmaster of the Templars was burned at the stake in the middle of Paris in 1314).  Various authorities of the occult (which is to say fabulists) became interested in Baphomet and started providing further information about him.  Baphomet came to be pictured as a “Sabbatic Goat” a winged androgynous being with a pair of breasts, a goat’s head, and various evil supernatural accessories and emblems.

Baphomet as imagined by Victorian Occultists

Baphomet as imagined by Victorian Occultists

This image of Baphomet was seized on by Aleister Crowley, the influential English occultist, whose works had such an influence on modern neopaganism.  As a result, Baphomet has become popular.  You can buy devotional books and resin statues of him more easily than you can for almost any deity from my “deities of the underworld” category.   The fact that this deity has always been entirely a fraud, a bowdlerization of the medieval devil, and a complete invention (created under torture) seemingly has little bearing on the deitiy’s popularity.  Indeed it is a good origin story for a dark god and possibly has helped Baphomet to prominence.

  Bap

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, the great political philosopher and revolutionary, was born in England but he emigrated to Great Britain’s American colonies (thanks partly to encouragement from Ben Franklin).  In America, Paine was an immensely important figure in the American Revolution.  His best-selling book Common Sense was the voice of the revolution to such an extent that John Adams wrote, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.

Paine is revered as one of the nation’s founding fathers, but his revolutionary thinking and nonconformity prevented him from fitting into American society after the revolution. Paine was an Enlightenment deist who rejected organized religion and the Bible (which he regarded as “fabulous inventions”).  Additionally, the new country (with its slaveholders, capitalist merchants, feuding states, and theocratic undertones) did not live up to his ideal of a utopian republic.   Paine became involved in a feud involving the revolution’s funding with Robert Morris Junior a wealthy merchant & political insider who had set up the fledgling American economy (although Morris himself later went spectacularly bankrupt from injudicious land speculation and ended up in debtor’s prison).  Forced out of American politics by feud and scandal, Paine went back to England in 1787.  Then, as his writings became the subject of political and legal controversy, Paine moved again to revolutionary France, thus narrowly escaping being hanged for sedition.

Thomas Paine (Laurent Dabos, ca. 1890s)

Thomas Paine (Laurent Dabos, ca. 1790s)

Initially Paine was regarded as a hero by the French Revolution.  He was granted honorary French citizenship and elected to the National Convention (despite an inability to speak French).  However, once again Paine’s liberal and humanitarian ideals caused him trouble: he objected to capital punishment and argued that Louis XVI should be exiled to the United States rather than executed.  Paine also was an instrumental member of the Convention’s Constitutional Committee which drafted a highly principled Constitution.  The Constitution Committee was a moderate (Girondin) group and as the radical Montagnards took over, they regarded Paine as a political enemy.

Louis XVI Interrogated by The National Convention

Louis XVI Interrogated by The National Convention

In 1793, during the reign of terror, Thomas Paine was arrested by the Jacobins (who were acting under orders from Robespierre).  Paine languished in jail as his fellow prisoners were mercilessly slaughtered by the terror.  Paine pleaded for help from America’s minister to France, the wily Gouverneur Morris (who is credited with writing the preamble to the U.S. Constitution), but Morris offered no diplomatic support.  In summer of 1794 Paine’s execution was ordered.  A guard marked Paine’s cell with the chalk mark which indicated that the philosopher was to be taken to the guillotine the next day.  Paine had been feeling feverish and, as a mark of respect to him, his door was left open so a breeze could blow through the cell at night.  The guard accidentally wrote the fatal mark on the inside of the door–which was then closed in the morning.  The sickly Paine slept through the morning he should have been beheaded and woke to find the fatal mark inside the cell with him, unread by the executioner’s goons.  The Montagnards lost power a few days later and Robespierre himself went to the guillotine instead of Paine.  James Monroe, the new U.S. minister to France lost no time in securing Paine’s freedom.

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794

For decades Paine had mingled as an equal with the most influential politicians and thinkers of France, Britain, and the U.S., however his timing was always somehow tragically off.  He left France in 1802 or 1803 just as the Second Great Awakening was bringing old-fashioned religious intolerance sweeping across the United States. When Paine died in Greenwich Village in 1809 he was almost universally despised as an atheist.  Only 6 people attended his funeral when he was unceremoniously buried under a walnut tree on his farm in New Jersey.   Yet Paine has lived on through his books.  Many of the great figures who overshadowed Paine have faded from the public memory as their political battles were forgotten, but Paine’s books still appeal to revolutionaries, nonconformists, and idealists across the ages.

The Crown of Charlemagne, the coronation crown of French Kings for nearly a millenium (shown without cap)

The Crown of Charlemagne, the coronation crown of French Kings for nearly a millenium (shown without cap)

From the era of Frankish Kings until the French Revolution, the kings of France were crowned with the so-called Crown of Charlemagne, a circlet of four gold rectangles inset with jewels.  The crown was made for Charles the Bald, the Holy Roman Emperor who lived in the ninth century (who apparently needed an ornate head covering for some unknown reason).  Four large jeweled fleur-de-lis were added in the late twelfth century along with a connecting cap ornamented with gems.  A matching crown for the queen of France was melted down by the Catholic League in 1590 when Paris was besieged by the Protestant king Henry IV (before he was, you know, stabbed to death by a zealot when the royal carriage was stuck in traffic), yet the crown of Charlemagne survived France’s religious wars & was used in coronations up until 1775 when Louis XVI was crowned.  The crown vanished during the French revolution and has never been seen since.   A certain Corsican monarch crafted a replacement:  the second Crown of Charlemagne was completely different and will be the subject of a subsequent post.

The Crown of Charlemagne (In a detail from "The Mass of Saint Giles" painted in 1550

The Crown of Charlemagne (In a detail from “The Mass of Saint Giles” painted in 1550

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