Daughter of Judith
The Book of Judith is a story the Hebrews long ago identified as part of their Apocrypha, sacred writings that are not canonically accepted for inclusion in the Old Testament. Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholics, however, have the story readily at their disposal – it is canonically included in Catholic versions of The Holy Bible.
The adventure of Judith is set during the 18th year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. He had sent an army to punish the peoples of lands to the west of his Babylonian empire. In that swath of destruction was Bethulia, a mountain village. In that village lived a pious but young and beautiful widow named Judith. After learning her village elders had decided to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar’s forces, led by a general named Holofernes, Judith devised a plan to save her people.
She left her village and allowed herself to be purposefully captured by members of the invading army who took her to their general’s tent. Feasting his eyes on the Jewish beauty he let her live among them unmolested. On the third night of her stay in the enemy camp, Holofernes threw a party for his household. Judith was invited. The Assyrian general drank himself into a stupor. After the other attendees left, he passed out on his bed. Judith used the opportunity to slice off his head with his own sword. She took it back to her people.
Finding their decapitated leader’s body the next day, the demoralized and panicked army fled, with Bethulian Israelites in pursuit. The army was
Nearly 2400 years later, another beautiful and brave woman cut off the head of the ugliness that was The French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. This “head” was named Jean-Paul Marat, and he reclined not on his bed, as Judith’s nemesis had, but in a bathtub.
Unfortunately, Marie-Anne Charlotte la Cordé d’Armont, better known in history more simply as Charlotte Corday, did not bask in accolades or live out the remainder of her life as a beloved heroine as Judith of Bethulia did.
Instead, Charlotte was guillotined four days after she stabbed Marat to death in a vain act of French monarchic patriotism.
The French Revolution, with its lofty goals of Égalité, Liberté, and Fraternité, was a miserable failure. Incited by the success of the recent American Revolution, the French tried to apply the same ideology and tactics to their own situation. However, they could not have done worse for themselves.
The American Revolutionary cause was not designed to eradicate an existing government. It was designed to create a new one in a new land. The Americans were not trying to depose the British monarch. The English Civil War had that as its issue; the Puritan military leader and agitator Oliver Cromwell succeeded in that goal in the mid 17th Century, much to Britain’s detriment. [Mercifully, his “reign” was brief, otherwise Britain would have devolved into a totalitarian Puritan theocracy, a direction Cromwell was well on the way to implementing. Luckily, he died in 1658; the Restoration (of the British monarchy) in 1660 must have been a welcome breath of comparative free air for the British.]
The French Revolution was radically different from the American one. France was not creating a virgin government where none had been. It sought to modify its standing monarchy. At heart, though, it shared similarities with the British “reform” ideals of Cromwell. France’s goal, however, was initially more moderate than Cromwell’s.
France’s mistake was taking away from the recent American example only the ideals of individual freedom. However, the American Revolution had, at its core, a bitter resentment over Britain’s restrictive expansionist policy (something the French were not facing). The Colonists were initially not terribly concerned about individual “freedom”. [Any early rhetoric about such freedoms was only smoke-and-mirrors to make the moneyed men’s true desires more palatable to the riff-raff.]
George III, at the suggestion of Prime Minister George Grenville, had constrained his English subjects to lands east of the Allegheny Mountains. Part of the reason for doing this was to avoid conflicts with the Native Americans.
Another, and more far-reaching reason, was to restrict trade in favor of Britain. Britain had established a monopoly on exporting to the Colonies. Any material goods coming into the country either originated in Britain or passed through British hands before delivery across the Atlantic. The Colonials were prohibited from directly trading with foreign powers. If the settlers, through expansion, were suddenly able to find and exploit certain materials in their own lands, they would no longer be reliant upon Britain’s trade. And British coffers, needing the revenues from duties on goods imported to the American shores, would be depleted.
Keeping the Colonials dependent upon Britain was good business—for Britain. The Colonials were abundantly aware of the rich vistas that lay beyond their lawful reach, however. While there was plenty of living space available in the East, opportunists and others wanted to move outward. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington (early in his life, a land surveyor) were but two of the many vocal opponents to these restrictions. The wilds were there beyond the mountains: many felt they should be able to settle and take advantage of them.
Though jingoists and sloganeers like to cite “taxation without representation” and trade tariffs as “reasons” for a revolution, those were all ancillary issues. It was George III’s restrictions on expansion that led to trouble. The tax burden imposed was not as onerous as popularly believed. Nor did the Colonials necessarily want to “leave” Britain (as is evidenced by the number of well-placed Loyalists cited in the history of the times). They wanted freedom to move about, develop their own resources, and import and export goods as they saw fit. These are concrete, financially motivated reasons, not nebulous, philosophical reasons about personal liberty or any vague pursuit of happiness.
The original goal of the American Revolution was to be shed of British business restraints. Undermining or eliminating the British homeland government was not the objective; failing relaxation in Britain’s expansionist policy, then the only solution was setting up an independent, autonomous government in the new country. Achieving that meant freedom to move across the country as the Colonials saw fit. [Had George III backed away from this foreign policy there might not have been any revolt.]
France, at odds with Britain, elected to throw its considerable influence and military might on the side of the Colonials. The French were the true heroes of the American Revolution. France saved the rebels’ cause from a certain doom – if not for its materiel and other military aid the Colonial revolt against Britain’s influence would not have succeeded. [In conjunction with that, George III had not strenuously pressed his point, either. He mostly did just enough to save face internationally. The British military efforts were not to their fullest. There can be no doubt that the mightiest standing army of its day could not have handily quashed the American’s “independence” activities if the Crown had decided to fully commit. Instead, it was a tiresome conflict fought over an ocean away and Britain had more important matters to attend on the Continent.]
In France in the late 1700s, the peasantry barely survived while the country’s nobility lived large and comfortably. Much of the reason for France’s poverty had to do with its involvement in the American Revolution (whose ideals some of the higher-minded in France had admired so much, using them as a springboard for their own revolutionary dreams). France’s support of the American rebellion against Britain had cost it dearly – the country was left impoverished by its act of political generosity. It was cash poor. Local famines had also begun to affect the political landscape; starving people, looking toward their king for relief, felt disillusioned and disenfranchised.
More enlightened minds considered moving France in the direction of a constitutional monarchy to curtail abuses of the public trust and its funds by the royal family and certain members of the nobility and highly-placed clergy. Unfortunately, the bulk of the country, like almost any other country in the world then and now, was not overwhelmingly populated with “enlightened minds”. France’s majority comprised the rabble – working illiterates, the unwashed masses of peasantry, and the indigent. And there were a handful of powerful intelligentsia and propagandists on hand to keep such rabble stirred up.
The masses are the people whose minds are most easily swayed by “patriotic” rhetoric and reactionary speeches. These are the people who can take an isolated incident and conflate it into a national cause, fomenting a populist movement.
Three Colonials were killed outright, including Crispus Attucks, an African-Native American runaway slave. Eight more Colonials were wounded; of them, two more died later of their gunshot wounds. [The 47-year-old Attucks was the first man shot, and may have been the instigator. Some historians think he may have been the mob’s “leader” as well. He is the only one of the Colonials killed whose name is recalled readily today.]
The actions of the British were censured. After all, British soldiers had opened fire on what were British citizens. Capt. Preston and eight of his nine men were brought to trial (a conveniently overlooked fact when “patriots” get all fervent over the “massacre”). At trial, the defendants were represented by John Adams (who would go on to become the second President of the United States). Capt. Preston and six of his men were acquitted. Two more were found guilty of manslaughter and were branded on the hand.
For the French, the event that came to be recognized as the start of the French Revolution was just as insignificant as the Boston Massacre. It, too, was a mountain made of a mole hill.
The Bastille was an old fortress that had been built in 1369 and expanded over the years. It was turned into a prison in the 17th Century, housing mostly political offenders, many of whom were there without benefit of a trial or even of formal charges being brought against them. Many such political prisoners might remain incarcerated for years with no actions taken on their behalf.
French writer Voltaire (real name François-Marie Arouet; 1694-1778) had made many remarks and written many anti-establishment diatribes against the Church and the French government in his earlier years. As a result he had enjoyed the Bastille’s “hospitality” twice in his life (once for about a year). He was also exiled to England in 1726 (he returned to his country in 1728 or 1729).
On July 14, 1789, a hungry mob, incited by “patriotic” ranting from lower-class agitators, had been milling around the Bastille, taunting its garrison guards. The keepers of the Bastille, rashly, fired on the crowd, killing 40 of them. In response, the mob stormed the fortress. The guards, faced with overwhelming numbers, surrendered. The prison’s commandant, under a white flag of surrender, was summarily executed by the group. The Bastille’s prisoners—all seven of them—were set free. The fortress was destroyed.
A patriot, by definition, is one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests. The country of the Colonials was England. Its authority was the British Crown. The Colonials had no other country to which to pledge allegiance since the North American lands on which they lived belonged to the British Crown. The American Colonials were not patriots; they were British citizens in an active state of rebellion. [Likewise, American Southerners—the Confederates—who also had no country other than the United States of America to whom they owed loyalties were not patriots during the American Civil War; they were rebels. The Confederate States never achieved its desired recognition internationally: saying something is an independent geopolitical entity doesn’t make it so.]
But the French people, unlike the British Colonials in North America, could have patriots since they had a country to which to pledge allegiance. In early 1789 (just a few months before the Bastille’s destruction became a national symbol for the revolution) King Louis XVI had called the National Assembly together to iron out France’s financial problems. It was the first time a king had called the body together since 1614; its composition had changed dramatically.
There were three estates represented: the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners. The number of commoners totaled more than the other two bodies combined. This became an issue. Decisions about whether or not each estate should vote on matters as a group (with, in effect, one vote per body) or separately came to the fore. Obviously, the commoners would have an overwhelming, and most likely undesirably negative, impact (considering their ranks were filled with blustering knee-jerk reactionary orators and agitators keeping the hoi polloi on edge). The Assembly could not agree on voting terms, and the commoners’ group separated itself and convened elsewhere (at a tennis court). They forced through a new constitution which limited the monarch’s power.
Among The Assembly’s “patriots” was an extremely radical group formed in 1789 called the Jacobin Club (named for its place of meeting, a former convent of the Dominicans, known in Paris as “Jacobins”). This group advocated violence as a means to France’s revolutionary ends. They agitated for the king’s execution and the overthrow of the Girondins.
The Girondins were a group of elected assemblymen. They were called the Girondins for the French department they represented, Gironde. Their goal was to institute a constitutional
Maximilien Robespierre was a member of the Jacobin Club. He advocated the execution of not only the French monarch, King Louis XVI, but also of anyone suspected of being enemies of the revolution. This included nobles, priests, and—surprisingly—hoarders (it can only be presumed Robespierre’s hatred of the practice was because it kept wealth out circulation at a time when the country desperately needed it). Domestic terrorism was instituted, and in 1792 things came to a bloody head when revolutionaries imprisoned the royal family and massacred nobles and clergy at the Tuileries.
The Reign of Terror had begun
He was not even French. Marat had been born near Neuchâtel in Switzerland in 1743. He studied medicine and later practiced in London. There he wrote a philosophical work on the nature of man that was published in 1773. His writing continued with a political manifesto, The Chains of Slavery (1774). And in 1775 he published the treatise, Diseases of the Eye.
He took up his medical practice in Paris, and at the first rumblings of revolution he came to the fore as a radical leader. He wrote several propaganda pamphlets espousing the revolutionary cause. Two months after the storming of the Bastille, Marat started a populist journal, L’Ami du peuple, which made its debut in September 1789. In this journal, he advocated a republican form of government and attacked leaders who did not accept or support the ideals of the revolution. More dangerously, though, he incited the populace to violence.
Though “for” the revolution, he did not hold particular allegiance to any one group. He did, however, throw his active support behind the extremist Jacobins while aggressively and bitterly opposing the Girondins. Marat’s rhetoric and printed propaganda inflamed the masses.
He, in turn, was persecuted by Girondins and others. Marat took to hiding out on many occasions in fear for his life. Sometimes these hiding places were in damp cellars. In many instances, though, he frequently sought cover in Paris’ extensive sewer system.
Thanks to his frequent exposure to the filth below the city’s streets he developed a horribly disfiguring and painful skin condition. He suffered with lesions on his scalp, and sores pocked his flesh. He stank of the rot of his flesh. The only relief he found from the constant burning and itching was in a warm bath peppered with salts and other compounds.
As his condition worsened, he took to conducting business while sitting in a tub, discussing politics or penning more vitriol to keep the fires of revolution burning in the souls of the unwashed masses. And it was in such a tub, engaged in an intrigue with what he thought was a valuable political informer, that Marat met his doom.
Both her mother and her older sister died when Charlotte was a little girl, leaving her in the masculine care of an indifferent father. He, in turn, was so self-absorbed by his grief over his wife’s death that he sent Charlotte and her younger sister to live in a convent in Caen (on the Orne River near the English Channel coast). It was in the convent, with access to a good library, that Charlotte discovered the works of Rousseau and Voltaire. She was taken in (after 1791) by a landed cousin who had an estate in Caen, and the noblewoman made Charlotte her heir.
Charlotte Corday had little interest in the revolutionary politics of France. She only became intrigued about the time the more extreme revolutionaries (the Jacobins and the Montagnards—a group supported by the Jacobins and, like them, bent on murdering all who opposed their objectives) made it clear that mass murder or imprisonment for any dissenters or perceived “enemies of the revolution” was the true path to glory. She found the extremist views distasteful and inhumane.
King Louis VXI and his family had attempted to flee the country in 1791. They were first returned to the palace, under a sort of house arrest, and later imprisoned in 1792. The king was
Meanwhile, Marat’s activities against the more temperate Girondins led to his being brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal on charges, but in April 1793 he was cleared of any wrongdoing. In June 1793, the Girondin faction was overthrown completely, leaving only the more extreme Jacobins and Montagnards in the halls of power.
Many of the fleeing Girondin leaders sought refuge away from Paris in Normandy. There, they held meetings and attempted, without success, to rouse the populace in their favor. In Caen, while living with her wealthy cousin, naïf Charlotte had occasion to meet some of these Girondins who had fled from Paris to safety in the area. Possibly because her father held the more moderate leanings of the Girondins, Charlotte embraced them as well. She took an interest in their temperate positions; certainly, when the massacres of 1792 had been in full swing, she had recognized that Robespierre (a Montagnard and a member of the Jacobin Club) was a villain.
But she also singled out another man, the propagandist of the nasty skin disease, Jean-Paul Marat. The Girondins described him to her sympathetic ears as a butcher and a tyrant. She saw these men, Robespierre and Marat, as truly evil, not operating in France’s best interest, and only having people put to death to forward their personal agendas.
Access to Robespierre would be nearly impossible. Marat, however, as a self-styled man of the people (after all, his populist publication was named “Friend of the People”) might be reached. Charlotte Corday decided France had had enough of the wrong kind of death. Perhaps it was time to mete out some justice from a different quarter.
With these thoughts in mind, Charlotte Corday reached into her patriotic soul and hatched a plan to end the bloodshed. Knowing she could never get to Robespierre (he occupied a position almost of dictator by then and was heavily guarded) she decided she would kill Marat instead. By doing so, in her mind, she would be saving thousands of lives she believed were still to be taken by him and Robespierre and the extremist Montagnards.
She decided she could work better closer to the action. On July 9, 1793, Charlotte Corday said goodbye to her cousin. With a copy of the classic tome, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, tucked under her arm she set out for Paris.
Finding the scabrous Marat wasn’t as easy as she had anticipated, though. Based on intelligence from her Girondin friends in Caen she first went to the assembly place of the National Convention. She learned the irascible Marat felt it no longer necessary to attend meetings (he also probably stayed away because of his embarrassment and physical distress from his skin problems).
Charlotte had to regroup. Deciding on a proper pretext, she made the bold move of going straight to his home. She presented herself before noon on July 13, 1793 (coincidentally, the day before Bastille Day). She told the attendant at Marat’s door that she had valuable information about a Girondin uprising developing in her adopted hometown of Caen (where Girondin leaders were in hiding). Interestingly enough, this intelligence did not pique Marat’s curiosity at that time; she was turned away.
Frustrated but determined, she returned to Marat’s house in the early evening of the same day. Guessing, perhaps, the persistent Charlotte might truly have something of value to impart, Marat had his servant send her to his rooms.
As had become his habit, Marat was soaking in a soothing bath. His head was wrapped in a turban that was soaked in vinegar, a folk remedy for migraines. The beautiful Charlotte Corday was given his undivided attention as she fabricated a tale of a Girondist plot to storm Paris. Marat had writing materials on hand; distractedly, he jotted down the names of the Girondin leaders as Charlotte rattled them off.
Without any warning or causing alarm, Charlotte quickly pulled her kitchen knife and plunged it into Marat’s chest. Her aim was true: one of his lungs, his aorta, and the left ventricle of his heart were pierced by the six-inch-long blade. Marat was not alone in his house, and he managed a cry for help, allegedly shrieking, “Aidez-moi, ma chère amie!” [“Help me, my dear friend!”] before he died of his wound.
She made reference in her defense (while not denying her crime) of saving lives by killing Marat. The sentiment was one Robespierre had expressed earlier in the year when ordering the beheading of King Louis XVI; he claimed by putting the king to death he was saving “100,000 lives”. She denied there were other conspirators involved in her act; she made it clear she had devised the plan and executed it without anyone else’s knowledge or input (testimony the hearing’s officials found hard to believe).
The Revolutionary Tribunal handily found her guilty of murdering Jean-Paul Marat.
Marie-Anne Charlotte la Cordé d’Armont (or, more simply, Charlotte Corday) was guillotined for Marat’s murder on July 17, 1793 (only eight days after she arrived in Paris, four days after killing Marat, and ten days before she was to turn 25 years old).
This outrage was reported in papers and quickly spread by word-of-mouth. Accusations were leveled that Legros was an associate of the executioner, a staunch Jacobin supporter named Charles-Henri Sanson, and he had been purposely put up to the infantile display. Sanson denied this publicly; a diary entry of his uncovered much later proved that not only was Legros known to Sanson, he was a carpenter that Sanson hired to make repairs to the Big Knife. Irrespective of Sanson’s acquaintance, Legros was sentenced to a much-deserved three months in prison for his outrageous act (for which there is no proof that he was acting in any manner other than spontaneously).
Even though she had acted alone (and she’d said as much in court), the Jacobins seemed shocked that a mere woman could be capable of planning and executing the murder of a public figure as Charlotte had done. It seemed more plausible that she would be the puppet of a man instead of a patriot in fear for her country’s future. Perhaps, they thought, she had a man in her life, one of influence, possibly a lover, who had put her up to the job.
Charlotte Corday was a young woman, less than two weeks away from her 25th birthday at the time of her arrest. She was also very attractive, with thick, flowing chestnut hair. French officials naturally assumed she had been with a man.
To answer the question about a possible male influence, Charlotte Corday’s body was examined immediately after her execution. The small-minded thinking was that if Charlotte’s hymen was intact, she was a virgin, and therefore had no lover who could have unduly manipulated her. Otherwise, they would have to be looking for her co-conspirator.
The Jacobins were sadly disappointed in the results: Charlotte Corday had not been a salacious wanton. She died with an intact hymen, with the French examiners inferring she was a virgin. [All of which proves nothing. Charlotte Corday was as influenced by the incendiary tales of her Girondist male friends and headlining news items about atrocities—that she was quite capable of reading herself—just as much as she could have been influenced by any male lover with a political agenda. She took the information she was given and acted upon it of her own volition, is all.]
Charlotte’s “unbroken” condition led the parties in power to start thinking about women as potentially able to form their own murderous plans without any male sexual influence. It led them to correctly conclude that women were capable of thinking for themselves. Suddenly, the paranoid Jacobins found themselves in the position of now having to look askance at every female domestic servant, wife, or lover as a potential assassin if the mood struck.
However, his influence did not last much longer after Charlotte’s death. The public became sickened by the constant chopping of the guillotine; beheadings were out of control. In June 1794, the guillotine ended 1300 lives in one month. This was too much for many tired of the bloodshed. France’s initially admirable goals of government reform had been subverted. Now, guillotinings were used merely on whims or as retribution for wrongs, whether real or imagined. The reputation of the country suffered in the eyes of the world for its barbarity. The National Convention took the matter up, and on July 27, 1794, Maximilien Robespierre and other Jacobin Club members were ordered executed by the machine he had so gleefully ordered used on others. The Reign of Terror was over.
During Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, over 300,000 people had been arrested and around 17,000 were executed (including scientists, philosophers, artists, and men and women of letters). Many others died in prison (without a right to trial or public defense).
Charlotte featured in a vicious caricature panel by James Gillray (published on July 29, 1793). The work shows a pompadoured, very matronly, and fancily dressed Charlotte majestically (and proudly manacled) addressing a court room filled with grossly drawn officials—they are grotesquely disproportionate, with thick, liver lips, sallow skin, and leering eyes. Marat’s body is shown lain out center-stage, complete with the sores he carried on his skin.
Another surprising element can be found in this drawing. There is a white shirt raised in the courtroom on a pikestaff. The shirt clearly has bloodstains on it and seems to indicate Marat was wearing it and had been stabbed multiple times by Charlotte. [Since he was in his bathtub, he would not have been wearing a shirt. And Charlotte only stabbed him once.]
The heroic Charlotte la Cordé, upon her Trial, at the bar of the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris, July 17th, 1793, for having rid the World of that monster of Atheism and Murder, the Regicide MARAT, whom she Stabbed in a bath, where he had retired on account of a Leprosy, with which Heaven had begun the punishment of his Crimes___: “The noble enthusiasm with which this Woman met the charge, & the elevated disdain with which she treated the self-created Tribunal, struck the whole assembly with terror & astonishment.”
Furthermore, the cartoon Charlotte has a speech balloon coming from her mouth with a florid diatribe spewing forth:
“Wretches – I did not expect to appear before you—I always thought that I should be delivered up to the rage of the people, torn in pieces, & that my head stuck on the top of a pike, would have preceded Marat on his state bed, to serve as a rallying point to Frenchmen, if there are still any worthy of that name. —But, happen what will, if I have the honours of the guillotine, & my clay-cold remains are buried, they will soon have conferred upon them the honours of the Pantheon; and my memory will be more honoured in France than that of Judith in Bethulia.”
Charlotte Corday has been featured as the main character or as an incidental one in many forms of media: books, operas, plays, and fine artworks. She found a home in pop music when the British singer-songwriter and folk rocker Al Stewart co-wrote a piece about her with alternative
She has been called an avenging angel, a paranoid with a martyr complex, a true martyr, and a traitorous murderess. She was the subject of much controversy and many arguments. In literature she has been sometimes heroine, sometimes villainess.
There remains one label that applies to Charlotte Corday beyond any doubt, though. It is something her American Revolutionary counter-parts, by definition, could not be. Charlotte Corday was a true patriot. She had a country for which she expressed fealty and love. And she went to her death for it, knowing she did the right thing for France.
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