French Revolution trivia

This collection of French Revolution trivia and unusual facts has been selected and compiled by Alpha History authors. If you know of a fact or snippet that is appropriate for this page, please contact Alpha History.

The French Revolution was brought about, at least in part, by a volcano. The 1783 eruption of the Laki volcano on Iceland spewed large amounts of dust, ash and sulphur into the skies over Europe. This lowered mean temperatures for up to two years, causing disruption to harvests and a significant reduction in crop yields.

Census records and historical records suggest that on the eve of revolution, around one quarter of all Paris women aged between 15 and 35 derived at least some income from prostitution.

Notre Dame Cathedral, probably the most famous church in Paris, dates back to the 1100s. At the height of the French Revolution it was seized and re-dedicated as a ‘temple of liberty’ and many of its religious symbols and artworks were destroyed.

Louis XVI suffered from a minor disorder of the penis called phimosis. This prevented his foreskin from retracting when the penis was erect. Some historians believe this hampered his attempts to consummate his marriage to Marie Antoinette. Louis’ phimosis was eventually corrected by surgery, however the eight year gap between his marriage and the birth of his first child only fuelled rumours of the king’s impotence and the queen’s infidelity.

One of the crude nicknames bestowed on Marie Antoinette was l’Autrichienne, which can be interpreted as either ‘the Austrian woman’ or ‘the Austrian bitch’ (chienne being the French word for female dog).  Antoinette’s other nicknames during the revolution included the ‘Austrian whore’, ‘Madame Deficit’, ‘Madame Veto’ and the ‘Baker’s Wife’.

Louis XIV was known as the Sun King, a reflection of his personal charisma and dominance. Louis contracted gangrene of the foot in 1715 and died in agony. His rotting leg is believed to have died days before he did.

Denis Diderot’s 1751 Enlightenment text Encyclopadie was the first comprehensive encyclopaedia of science and the natural world. In his preface Diderot noted he wanted “to change the way people think”.

The French philosophe Voltaire (born François-Marie Arouet) was a prolific writer. In his lifetime he wrote around 2,000 essays and books and more than 20,000 letters. He also used 178 different pen names.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau earned acclaim for his views on philosophy, society and child-rearing – but Rousseau was hardly ‘father of the year’ material. During his lifetime he persuaded his unmarried lover to hand four of their illegitimate children to orphanages. In his memoirs, Rousseau admitted to doing this so as to avoid the “inconvenience of a brat”.

Jeanne de Valois, the woman at the centre of the ‘diamond necklace affair’, escaped from prison and fled to London in 1788. She made a modest living there, writing and retelling sordid but utterly fictitious stories about her lesbian trysts with Marie Antoinette. She died in 1791 from defenestration – or falling from a window.

The gabelle tax on salt was a hated impost because salt was an essential commodity in late 18th century France. In the days before refrigeration it was one of the few means of preserving meat. It also provided some flavour in an otherwise bland diet. Historians believe that salt was the most widely smuggled commodity in pre-revolutionary France.

When grain stocks were low French peasants often ate spoiled grain infected with ergot. Ergot is a fungus which, if eaten in sufficient quantities, produces hallucinogenic effects similar to the drug LSD. Some historians believe that ergot-fuelled hallucinations and hysteria may have triggered some or most of the unrest during the Great Fear.

France’s parlements retained the medieval authority to have prisoners put to torture, particularly if they refused to testify or provide information to the court. This power was abolished in 1788 by an order of Louis XVI. It was an important but overlooked liberal reform on the eve of revolution.

The French wallpaper manufacturer Jean-Baptise Réveillon, whose home and factory were later destroyed by riotous workers, was also interested in experiments in manned flight. The first recorded hot air balloon flight was launched in October 1783 from Réveillon’s private garden. The balloon, named Aérostat Réveillon, was decorated with swatches of Réveillon’s wallpaper.

History has condemned Louis XVI for his dithering and poor decision making at the Estates General in 1789. It is often overlooked that the king’s oldest son, Louis-Joseph, died in early June, four weeks into the Estates General.

According to contemporary reports the liberal revolutionary Honore Mirabeau was no oil painting. A bout of smallpox as a youngster left Mirabeau’s face heavily scarred and pock marked. Mirabeau’s fellow revolutionary Madame de Stael described him as “patched with foul moles and other eye-offending remarks”.

In 1780 the Marquis de Lafayette was so keen to participate in the revolution in America that he sneaked out of France and sailed for Philadelphia, ignoring orders from a superior officer that he report to Italy. In sneaking off to America, Lafayette also left behind his pregnant wife, Adrienne.

Joseph-Francois Foullon replaced the popular Jacques Necker as finance minister on July 12th 1789. After the fall of the Bastille, Foullon was captured by an angry crowd who believed he had suggested that hungry workers “eat grass”. The mob stuffed Foullon’s mouth full of hay, hanged him from a lamp post then paraded his head around Paris atop a pike.

The Marquis de Sade was a French aristocrat and writer, famous for his liberal sexual views and conduct. Sade’s seductions and sexual debauchery caused so much outrage that he was sentenced to several stints in the Bastille, spending almost a decade there in total. The Bastille fell on July 14th 1789 but Sade was not there – he had been shifted to an asylum just days before.

The king and his family were coerced into relocating to Paris in October 1789. They would never see Versailles again. The palace was stripped of most of its contents during the revolution. It lay empty for much of the 1800s before being converted into a museum.

During the October Days in 1789 a group of angry Parisians attempted to shut down the royal menagerie at Versailles. According to one report, they were upset that the king’s private pets were eating better than the people of Paris. As the revolution progressed most of the animals were moved from Versailles and later formed the basis of France’s first national zoo.

Implemented in France during the revolution, the metric system is today the official system of weights and measurement in all nations – except for Burma, Liberia and the United States.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy created a schism between France and the Catholic Church that lasted a decade. After the revolution, Napoleon’s troops marched into Italy, invaded the Vatican and kidnapped Pope Pius VI. They took the pontiff back to France, where he died weeks later.

Isaac Le Chapelier, who sponsored the notorious labour law of 1791, later fled to Britain. He returned to France in 1794, in an ill fated attempt to regain his property, but was quickly arrested and guillotined.

Legend has it that King Louis XVI was captured at Varennes in June 1791 because the postmaster there recognised his face from images of Louis on a coin or banknote.

Saint-Domingue won its independence in 1804, becoming the republic of Haiti. It is the oldest black republic in the world and the second-oldest republic in the hemisphere, after the United States.

France has had fifteen different constitutions since the revolution. Several of these constitutions were overturned or replaced without ever being fully implemented.

During sittings of the Legislative Assembly in 1791-92, deputies with radical views sat in benches to the left of the president’s chair, while those with moderate or conservative views sat to the right. This practice helped define the modern political spectrum, with its “left wing” and “right wing”.

Louis XVI’s younger brother, the Comte de Provence, fled France in July 1791, shortly after the king’s ill fated flight to Varennes. The Comte was actually successful in his escape, making it to Holland. He returned to France in 1815, after the death of Napoleon, and was crowned Louis XVIII.

In an event mirroring the destruction of the Bastille, the Tuileries palace was attacked by left wing revolutionaries in 1871. They doused it with tar, petrol and turpentine then set it alight, destroying the interior entirely. The stone ruins stood for a decade before being torn down.

Philippe de la Tremoille was a notable military leader of the Vendee rebels. Captured in 1793, Tremoille was executed and his head was hung from a chandelier in the home of a juring priest.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy’s well-known novel about the escape of nobles from revolutionary France, begins its first chapter with an account of the September massacres.

In late 1792 a parrot and its two female owners, Madame Louise de la Fiefville and Mademoiselle Francoise de Bethune, were hauled before the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris. The Tribunal was investigating reports the parrot frequently said “Long live the King!” The parrot, under cross examination, said nothing controversial, so the case was dismissed.

Less fortunate was a pet dog, which was guillotined by its master during the Reign of Terror. Its owner, a fervent republican, had allegedly taught its dog to howl at the mention of the Republic.

After the execution of Louis XVI, many in the crowd surged toward the guillotine to dip squares of cloth into the king’s spilled blood. This was a legacy of a medieval myth that claimed the blood of kings had mystical healing powers.

On October 31st 1793, 21 people were reportedly guillotined in Paris, in the space of just 38 minutes.

The mountain was both a revolutionary faction and a revolutionary symbol. As part of the Festival of the Supreme Being in June 1794, Maximilien Robespierre had a giant papier-mâché mountain built in the centre of Paris. On the top was a figure of Robespierre, wearing a toga.

After their expulsion from the National Convention in early June 1793, the Girondinists were given a show trial and 21 were executed on the same day. All went to the guillotine singing Plutot la mort que l’esclavage (‘Rather death than slavery’).

The young Maximilien Robespierre was a brilliant student. As a teenager Robespierre was chosen to deliver a Latin eulogy to the newly crowned King Louis XVI. After waiting for hours in the rain, the young Robespierre was denied the opportunity to speak when the king chose not to leave his carriage, then decided to leave early.

After his assassination in July 1793, Jean-Paul Marat’s heart was removed from his body, embalmed and placed in an urn. It was later hung from the ceiling of the Cordeliers Club as a symbol of revolutionary purity. Marat’s body was interred in the Panthéon. During the Thermidorian reaction it was exhumed and thrown into a public sewer.

Georges Danton was deeply in love with his young wife Antoinette, who died in 1793 while Danton was away inspecting the army. On his return to Paris the devastated Danton ordered that Antoinette’s body be exhumed, so that a sculptor might create a monument to her beauty.

The notorious prosecutor of the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal, Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, was put on trial by the Thermidor Convention. After a six week trial Fouquier-Tinville was found guilty and executed. Like the Nazi war criminals some 150 years later, Fouquier-Tinville’s main defence was that he was just following orders.

Under the Law of Suspects even the wrong choice of phrase could lead to one’s arrest and trial. There were at least two cases where the accused was put on trial for referring to another person as Monsieur (‘Mister’) instead of the mandated revolutionary greeting Citoyen (‘citizen’).

One of the victims of the Terror was Antoine Lavoisier. Considered now to be the father of modern chemistry, Lavoisier’s achievements included the identification and naming of oxygen and hydrogen, and the creation of the first periodic table. Lavoisier was convicted of treason and beheaded in 1794.

In mid 1793 there was a chronic shortage of soap in the French capital. This prompted washerwomen to strike and riot. According to contemporary diarists, many Paris citizens spent weeks in unwashed clothes due to the soap shortage and washerwomen strikes.

The 1794 Festival of the Supreme Being was organised by the noted artist Jacques-Louis David. It began with the burning of a statue representing atheism. Robespierre, at his own insistence, played a major part in the festival, delivering two speeches.

In 1794 the wheelchair bound revolutionary Georges Couthon was sent to the guillotine with Robespierre. According to some accounts it took several minutes to flatten Couthon’s body on the board because of his paralysis. Witnesses reported that Couthon, the architect of the notorious Law of 22 Prairial, screamed for mercy the whole time.

According to legend Robespierre was laid face-up on the guillotine – considered a more demeaning death because it was messier and the victim would see the blade falling. No reliable historical sources confirm this story, however, so it is probably untrue.

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