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The September Massacres were a wave of mob violence which overtook Paris in late summer 1792, during the French Revolution. By the time it had subsided, half the prison population of Paris had been executed: some 1,200 trapped prisoners, including many women and young boys. Sporadic violence, in particular against the Roman Catholic Church, would continue throughout France for nearly a decade to come.
The political situation in Paris on the eve of the September Massacres was dire. No individual or organized body could truly claim exclusive sovereignty. The monarchy and short-lived Constitution of 1791 had been overthrown with the bloody journée of 10 August 1792, in which the Tuileries Palace was stormed by the mob and the royal family fled for their lives. The Legislative Assembly had been left impotent after a large number of deputies had fled, and its successor, the National Convention, had not yet met. To further complicate this matter, the insurrectionary Paris commune established 9 August 1792 incorporated some of the most radical revolutionary elements, including the sans-culottes, and briefly contended for the role of de facto government of France. Lacking a sovereign power, the Parisians' fear, hatred, and prejudice proved to be the seeds of the September Massacres.
The night before the assault on the Tuileries on 10 August 1792, an insurrection planned by the Jacobins overthrew the current Paris Commune headed by Pétion and proclaimed a new revolutionary Commune headed by transitional authorities. During the storming of the Tuileries Palace by the insurrectionists, Louis XVI fled with the royal family, and his authority as King was suspended by the Legislative Assembly; a de facto executive was named, but the actual power of decision rested with the revolutionary Commune, whose strength resided in the mobilized sans-culottes, the vast majority of Paris' fairly poor population. Supported by a new armed force (the 48 sections of Paris were fully equipped with munitions from the plundered arsenals the days before the Assault of the Tuileries, substituting the 60 National Guard battalions) the Commune and its sans-culottes took control of the city and dominated the Legislative Assembly and its decisions and for some weeks the Commune was the actual government of France.
The Commune took major steps towards democratizing the Revolution: the adoption of universal suffrage, the arming of the civilian population, absolute abolition of all remnants of noble privileges, the selling of the properties of the émigrés. These events meant a change of direction from the political and constitutional perspective of the Girondists, to a more social approach given by the Commune, as Cambon declared the 27 August:
To reject with more efficacy the defenders of despotism, we have to address the fortunes of the poor, we have to associate the Revolution with this multitude that possess nothing, we have to convert the people to the cause.
Besides these measures, the Commune engaged in a policy of political repression of all suspected counter-revolutionary activities. Beginning on 11 August every Paris section named its committee of vigilance. It was mostly these decentralized committees, not the Commune, that brought about the repression of August and September 1792. From 15 to 25 August, around five hundred detentions were registered. Half the detentions were made against non-jure priests, but even jure priests were caught in the wave. In Paris, all residual monasteries were closed and the rest of the religious orders were dissolved by the law of 15 August.
The Invasion by the Duke of Brunswick
On September 2, news reached Paris that the Duke of Brunswick, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand's Prussian army had invaded France (19 August), and with the invasion the fortress of Verdun had quickly fallen, that perhaps its own aristocratic officers had capitulated too easily, and that the Prussians were advancing quickly toward the capital. On 25 July Brunswick had circulated his bombastic "Brunswick Manifesto" from Coblenz: his avowed aim was
- "to put an end to the anarchy in the interior of France, to check the attacks upon the throne and the altar, to reestablish the legal power, to restore to the king the security and the liberty of which he is now deprived and to place him in a position to exercise once more the legitimate authority which belongs to him."
Additionally, the Manifesto threatened the French population with instant punishment should it resist the Imperial and Prussian armies, or the reinstatement of the monarchy. Such information fueled this first wave of mob hysteria of the Revolution. By the end of August, rumours circulated that many in Paris - such as non-juring priests - who secretly opposed the Revolution, would support the First Coalition of foreign powers allied against it. Furthermore, Paris lacked extensive food stocks.
When news of the collapse of defenses at Verdun reached the Convention, they ordered the tocsin rung and alarm guns fired, which, without a doubt, added to the sense of panic. An army of 60,000 was to be enlisted at the Champ de Mars, the British ambassador reported:
- "A party at the instigation of some one or other declared they would not quit Paris, as long as the prisons were filled with Traitors (for they called those so, that were confined in the different Prisons and Churches), who might in the absence of such a number of Citizens rise and not only effect the release of His Majesty, but make an entire counterrevolution."
The first instance of massacre occurred when twenty-four non-juring priests were being transported to the prison of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which had become a national prison of the revolutionary government. They were attacked by a mob that quickly killed them all as they were trying to escape into the prison, then mutilated the bodies, "with circumstances of barbarity too shocking to describe" according to the British diplomatic dispatch. Of 284 prisoners, 135 were killed, 27 were transferred, 86 were set free, and 36 had uncertain fates. In the afternoon of 2 September, 150 priests in the convent of Carmelites were massacred, mostly by sans-culottes. On 3 and 4 September, groups broke into other Paris prisons, where they murdered the prisoners, who, some feared, were counter-revolutionaries who would aid the invading Prussians. From 2 to 7 September, summary trials took place in all Paris prisons. Almost 1,400 prisoners were condemned and executed, in truth half the detained persons from the previous days. More than two hundred priests, almost a hundred Swiss guards and many political prisoners and aristocrats were among the victims.
Most notably, the crowds killed the Princesse de Lamballe, friend of Marie Antoinette and sister-in-law to the duc d'Orléans, and mutilated her body. Her head was paraded atop a pike under the captive Queen's windows at the Temple. Religious personalities also figured prominently among the victims: the massacres occurred during a time of great and rising resentment against the Roman Catholic Church, which eventually led to the temporary dechristianisation of France. Over a forty-eight hour period beginning on 2 September 1792, as the Legislative Assembly (successor to the National Constituent Assembly) dissolved into chaos, angry mobs massacred three bishops, including the Archbishop of Arles, and more than two hundred priests.
- The classic modern account of the legends and traditions that have accrued, and an appraisal of the sources on which a narrative account can be based, is Pierre Caron, Les Massacres de Septembre (Paris) 1935. Caron was curator of modern archives at the Archives nationales.
- Caron 1935, part IV is confined to comparable events in provincial cities that transpired from July to October 1792.
- Bergeron, Louis, Le Monde et son Histoire, Paris, 1970, Volume VII, Chapter VII, p. 324
- ib. Bergeron, p. 325
- ib. Bergeron, p. 326
- Leborgne, Dominique, Saint-Germain-des-Prés et son faubourg, p. 40, Éditions Parigramme, Paris, 2005, ISBN 2-84096-189-X
- ib. Bergeron, p. 327
- Dickens, Charles, A Tale of Two Cities, Holt Rinehart and Winston, Austin, 1859.
- Hibbert, Christopher, The Days of the French Revolution, William Morrow, New York, 1980.
- Schama, Simon, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1992.
- "The September Massacres : Sept. 2 – 7, 1792"
- The September Massacres witnessed by Restif de la Bretonne
- The September Massacres witnessed by Earl Gower, a British diplomat
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