Ménétra’s experiences prepared him to understand possibilities


ON JANUARY 21, 1793, LOUIS XVI, KING OF FRANCE AND NAVARRE, HEIR to fourteen centuries of French monarchy, mounted the steps of the scaffold in Paris and met his death under the guillotine. His death became the symbol of the victorious revolutionary movement that had begun with the storming of the Bastille and the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789. Among those who watched the king’s carriage on its way to his execution were thousands of the commoners of Paris: the artisans, workers, and shopkeepers whose fervent embrace of the promises of liberty and equality had enabled that movement to topple France’s old order. A few years later, a glazier (or glassfitter) named Jacques-Louis Ménétra would become one of the few ordinary people to write an account of his own life before and during the Revolution.

The experiences Ménétra recalled in his memoirs put him on one side of the gulf between the two worlds—the world of hierarchy and privilege, in which Louis XVI was raised, and the world of ordinary people—that collided so violently during the French Revolution. Ménétra’s experiences growing up had prepared him, if not to make a revolution, at least to understand the possibilities of a world in which individuals could make important choices about their own lives and expect to be treated as equals. Louis XVI, in contrast, had been taught from childhood that the existence of society depended on people accepting the ranks assigned to them by birth. Louis XVI did not always enjoy the strictly programmed life he had been given; at times, he may have dreamed of living a freer existence, one more like Ménétra’s. Certainly his wife, Queen Marie-Antoinette, had imagined such an existence: she had an artificial village, the “Hameau,” constructed on the grounds of Versailles, so that she and her companions could play at being peasants. Neither the king nor the queen, however, could imagine a society in which individuals were free to change the situation into which they had been born. What brought them to their deaths in 1793 was their inability to accept the values that had come to seem natural and just to their former subjects. (Pg.10)

Only on rare occasions were the royal children allowed some informal fun. One of those occasions, as the glassfitter Ménétra remembered years later, was when he and some other artisans were hired to repair windows at Versailles. In the evenings, “we climbed up on the tables and pretended to fence,” Ménétra recalled. “The royal children were brought in to watch our antics.”1 (Pg.13)

In most ways, the future Louis XVI’s childhood could not have been more different from that of his future subject Jacques Ménétra, whose horseplay had once entertained him at Versailles. Ménétra was born in 1738 in Paris. His father was a glazier, and Ménétra’s birth probably took place in the cramped apartment in the center of the city where the family lived. Like the future king, the future glasscutter saw little of his parents during his infancy: as was customary among Paris artisans, he was placed with a wetnurse so that his mother could return as quickly as possible to helping her husband run the family business. Ménétra was still boarding with the wetnurse’s family when his mother died giving birth to her next child: commoners’ families were even more familiar than the king’s with the ravages caused by eighteenth-century medicine’s helplessness in the face of disease. According to his memoirs, Ménétra’s wetnurse tried to supplement the meager payments she received for caring for him by teaching him “the profession of begging.” Stopping by to check up on him, his grandmother was appalled to see that the son of a respectable artisan was in danger of slipping into a life of poverty. She took him home with her and raised him until he was eleven.3

Whereas the future Louis XVI’s childhood and education were strictly regulated, Ménétra’s early years were chaotic. He had a sweet voice and was briefly a choirboy at the family’s neighborhood church, where he would have received an education that might have led to a career in the clergy, but he could not adjust to the school’s discipline and soon returned to his grandmother’s home. He did learn to read and write—by the middle of the eighteenth century, most boys in Paris got at least some schooling, although their sisters often did not—but in his memoirs he was more eager to recall how he became “one of the leading mischief-makers in my neighborhood.”4 From an early age, Ménétra was also immersed in the adult world of work. Just as Louis XVI was prepared for the family profession of kingship, from an early age Ménétra was trained to follow in his glassfitting ancestors’ footsteps.

Whereas young Louis XVI had only the most limited exposure to the realities of other people’s lives, Ménétra came into contact with all levels of French society. The glazier’s trade took Ménétra into the homes of the wealthy, and he spent a good deal of time working in churches, whose structures incorporated more glass than other buildings of the time. Exposure to religion made the future king a dutiful Catholic, but Ménétra’s work gave him a behind-the-scenes perspective on the Church that had the opposite effect. Working in the abbey of Saint-Denis, where the kings of France were traditionally buried, he learned that the monks themselves didn’t know which saints’ bones were in the reliquaries they displayed to earnest pilgrims, and he lost his faith in the sanctity of the Catholic Mass when he witnessed a priest giving out unconsecrated hosts to his parishioners. “So I never wanted to be with these hypocrites and have never liked their company,” Ménétra concluded.5 (Pg.15)

The seven years Ménétra spent traveling around France gave him an acquaintance with the kingdom far more extensive than what Louis XVI learned from studying his beloved maps. In the course of his wanderings, Ménétra crossed the wheat-growing plains of France’s breadbasket around Paris; followed the slow-moving Loire River through cities such as Orléans, Tours, and Angers; sailed around the long Brittany peninsula on a privateering ship at the start of the Seven Years’ War; and stopped in the slave-trading port cities of Nantes, La Rochelle, and Bordeaux. In the Atlantic ports, he might have met blacks from the French colonies, some enslaved and some who were members of the “intermediate race” of free people of color produced by unions between white men and black women. These educated colonials would have been brought to France to serve their masters and to learn artisanal skills like his own, and like Ménétra, some of them would later join the revolutionary movement. From Bordeaux, Ménétra traveled through the southern provinces of Gascony and Languedoc to the Mediterranean coast and its main port of Marseilles, trekked up the valley of the Rhône to the silk-manufacturing center of Lyon, and then continued north through the Burgundian capital of Dijon and back to the capital. In general, Ménétra followed the well-maintained high roads that were one of the great achievements of Louis XV’s reign. Much admired by visitors from the rest of Europe, these roads knit the kingdom together so that by the last decades of the century, the trip from Paris to Lyon took only three and a half days by coach. (Today’s high-speed trains do it in two hours.)

As he tramped along, Ménétra passed by hundreds of villages, the homes of the rural peasantry who made up the vast majority of France’s population. They rarely figure in his memoirs. Able to read and write, equipped with a set of specialized skills and contemptuous of religion, Ménétra had little in common with country folk. Peasants were not potential customers for a glazier: their cottages seldom had glass windows. Ménétra and his companions thought nothing of stealing a peasant’s sheep to roast for their dinner; the owner of one farm set her dog on him, telling him that the animal was “doing his duty.”13 He was pleasantly surprised when another peasant offered him a meal, let him sleep overnight in his barn, and even gave him a little money to help him on his way.

Ménétra’s travels taught him little about the realities of peasant life. Neither he nor the villagers themselves would have had any idea that the country’s rural population had been growing rapidly since the last great climate crisis, the fearful winter of 1709–1710. He might have noticed how the main crops growing in the fields he passed changed from region to region—wheat in the Beauce near Paris; buckwheat and rye in poorer areas, including Brittany and the Sologne south of the Loire; wine grapes outside of Bordeaux; olive trees in the Mediterranean climate of Provence—but he did not care about the ways in which the lives of the peasants who worked those fields differed depending on what they raised, how much land they owned or rented, and what their relations were with their local seigneur, or lord. He certainly did not know that the introduction of new crops, such as American corn and potatoes, and of new farming practices were raising overall productivity and thus making an increase in population possible. (Pg.22)

For the first three years of his reign, Louis XVI’s marriage with Marie-Antoinette remained under great strain because of his inability to make her pregnant. Finally, on December 19, 1778, the queen gave birth to a child. It was under circumstances that reminded the royal couple of how heavily their specially privileged positions weighed on every aspect of their lives. Time-honored ritual dictated that a royal child’s birth had to be a public event, so that there could be no doubt about the infant’s parentage. “The rule of letting everyone in… was observed in such an exaggerated way,” Madame Campan remembered, that “the flood of spectators… almost made the queen perish.” Told that her baby was a girl rather than the longed-for male heir, Marie-Antoinette fainted, leading to a moment of panic when it was feared that she had died.21 The experience was so traumatic that precedent was broken and attendance limited at her subsequent deliveries.

The birth of a son in 1781 finally secured the future of the Bourbon dynasty, but the royal couple still clashed. The queen had always resented the strictness of French court etiquette, which was much more formal than Habsburg court etiquette in Vienna. Louis XVI indulged her, giving her the Petit Trianon palace in the Versailles gardens as a private retreat, and allowing her to build the imitation peasant village, where she and her friends played at being milkmaids. He seems to have looked the other way when she made the dashing young Swedish nobleman Axel von Fersen her lover; evidence suggests that Fersen fathered the last two children she bore.22

Like Ménétra and his wife, however, Louis and Marie-Antoinette argued regularly over money. Marie-Antoinette gambled heavily in the years before the birth of her first child, counting on the king to cover her debts, and she lobbied for extravagant favors for the families of her favorites, especially the countess Jules de Polignac. The sums she paid to her dressmaker, Rose Bertin, inspired nasty criticism at court, as did the designs she favored, which were often made from imported cotton fabrics rather than the heavy silks produced by the weavers of Lyon, whom the court was traditionally expected to support with its patronage. Marie-Antoinette’s unconventional taste in dress was featured in the portraits she commissioned from her favorite artist, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, another strong-minded and independent woman. (Pg.31)

Just as Ménétra settled down as he reached his late twenties, Louis XVI eventually seemed to become accustomed to his routine as king. Mercy d’Argenteau noted that, in spite of the many hours he spent each day hunting, he took his duties seriously, spending three or four hours every morning meeting with his ministers and minimizing the time he spent on formal ceremonies, such as the king’s daily lever, the elaborate ritual he had inherited from Louis XIV, in which courtiers had the privilege of handing him the various articles of his clothing. He might be impatient with court routine, but he did not question the necessity of maintaining it. So, too, the king expected that the monarchy he embodied and the country he ruled would continue to function as they had under his predecessors. That something might happen to shake the foundations of the palace of Versailles, and put power in the hands of men like the glassfitter who had once amused him when he was a child, never crossed his mind. Nor did it occur to Ménétra. And yet changes were afoot in France that would overturn the worlds of both the king and his subjects. (Pg.31)

“A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution” by Jeremy D. Popkin