A Terrible Bloody Memento

EBay auctions bricks from the razing of the Berlin Wall, posters for Japanese Internment Camps from World War II, and documents signed by Mussolini.  We might wonder what bids would be placed on the mementos Helen Maria Williams describes in her letters from France in the 1790’s. Williams records two occasions when the French collected souvenirs of horrific ordeals experienced by their countrymen, giving insight into a memorable period in history.

On July 14, 1789, the Bastille was “stormed by an armed mob of Parisians in the opening days of the French Revolution” (Bastille). The emerging Government called for the prison’s razing, concluding the atrocities perpetrated within.  Just as the bricks from the Berlin Wall were collected as symbols of an ending era, it is apparent the stones of France’s infamous penitentiary were also removed as keepsakes of a cast-aside regime.  Williams describes how Madame Brulart displayed “a medallion made of a stone from the Bastille polished.  In the middle of the medallion, Liberté was written in diamonds; above was marked, in diamonds, the planet that shone on the 14th of July, and below was seen the moon, of the size she appeared that memorable night.  The medallion was set in a branch of laurel, composed of emeralds, and tied at the top with the national cockade, formed of brilliant stones of the three national colours” (Damrosch 113).  The modest stones of a besieged bastion became ostentatious icons of “distinguished patriotism” ensuring those who had died surrounded by those stones were remembered (112).

Williams’ letter written in 1789 recalled more grotesque collectibles accumulated during the French Revolution. Louis XVI, the ill-fated French king, according to Williams, stood hopeful that the blade hanging treacherously above him would not be allowed to separate his person, apparently unaware of the insatiability of those who surrounded him.  Louis believed his people “would demand that his life might be spared” (141), but the demands made that day were far more macabre.  As the royal head hung from the executioner’s hands and cries of “Vive la Republique” rang out, some felt a “chill[] of horror” at what they had witnessed, while others reveled (141). As blood from the head dripped to the ground, “some dipt their handkerchiefs” in the crimson puddle collecting below, taking with them a reminder of the heights (or depths) the Revolution had reached.  The collection of blood did not suffice for some as Williams further recounts how Louis’ “hair was sold in separate tresses at the foot of the scaffold” (141).  One can only imagine where these severed tresses ended up.  Perhaps the tricoteuse knit the strands into their works, or they were encased in gold and hung around necks.  Regardless, the blood and hair of a king became little more than souvenirs of a heinous period in French history.

Human compunctions to collect reach back through time and will undoubtedly continue into our future.  Williams’ record of just two examples of this compunction gives insight into a terrible time that should never be forgotten, although their method of remembering might appall modern sensibilities.

Works Cited

Bastille.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition.

Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 04 Oct. 2013. <http://0-www.britannica.com.library.uark.edu/EBchecked/topic/55622/Bastille>.

Damrosch, David, and Kevin JH Dettmar, eds. The Longman Anthology of British Literature.

Fifth ed. Vol. 2A. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.