Claire Trévien / History

Caricaturing Charlatans: Depictions of Science in the French Revoltion

Claire Trévien casts an eye over portrayals of magic in the early years of the French Revolution.

Portrayals of magic in the early years of the French Revolution

Science played an important part before and during the French Revolution, not just as an educational or medicinal area of interest, but also as an entertainment tool. The appropriation of science by magicians and charlatans keen on deceiving their audience meant, however, that spectacle blurred the boundaries of what ‘science’ could mean.

The blur was in part due to the emphasis on showmanship stressed by certain scientists but also due to ignorance of the techniques displayed. The magic lantern for instance, which could be used in class to illustrate the laws of geometrical optics, was so called because of its prodigious effects which, to those without knowledge of its tricks, would attribute to magic. [1] Meanwhile, magicians such as Henri Decremps, would take it upon themselves to give science lessons to the masses by publishing works such as La Science sancullotisé, an accessible work on astronomy.

While mountebanks were depicted throughout the Revolution as deceitful characters representing the worst excesses of showmanship, magic practitioners were far more popular both before and during the Revolution. It might seem strange to those who view the Revolution as an extension of Enlightenment’s age of critique and fight against superstition to find out that magic’s appeal was still strong during the pre-Revolutionary years. Yet, as Robert Darnton commented: ‘[a]lchemists, sorcerers, and fortune tellers had imbedded themselves so deeply in Parisian life that the police found them to be better even than priests at spying and providing secret information’. [2] With the arrival of the Revolution we can observe a trend of representations banking on their position of power to reassure the public that the events of 1789 promised a hopeful future.

To take one example, the 1789 print ‘Woman consulting Nostradamus on events‘, depicts a woman and her baby seeking reassurance from the famous magician. Nostradamus quells her fears both through the symbolic display of an eagle in the background making its nest at the top of an oak tree, and by presenting them with a marble tablet on which he predicts France’s invincibility in 1790. In another print from 1789 ‘Magician consulted on the Revolution of 1789‘ a sorceress conjures visions to the three orders (clergy, nobility, commoners) with only the third estate (commoners) welcoming the apparitions enthusiastically. These visions also depict the sorceress’ positive predictions for the future, which supports an accepted view of magic as fascinating the ‘lower classes’ of society, but also strongly suggests that the third estate’s open credulity is justified and it is the nobility’s skepticism and the clergy’s fear that should be criticized. [3] This kind of image helps support a growing idea that the good sense of the third estate trumps the educated and reluctant attitudes of the other two.

Another allegorical print from 1789 utilizing a benign sorceress is ‘La Fée patriote’, in which a fairy banishes various monsters while in the background the Bastille is being attacked, clearly linking her acts to the Revolutionary landmark. The presence of the Bastille in the process of being destroyed encourages the viewer to draw a connection between the two performed acts: the one physical, the other belonging to an otherworldly realm. It suggests that these monsters exist below the surface, a sort of invisible made visible by the print’s performance. Matthew Pressly sees the banishment of monsters in ‘La Fée patriote’ as the expulsion of the ‘nightmarish world of the ancien régime. Witchcraft and revolution are no longer threats to the social order’. [4] These prints insist that plain sight is to be trusted, even if it appears illusionary.

Other media played on the idea of predictions too, as is the case with the 1789 pamphlet L’astrologue patriote ou récit curieux et prodiges [The patriotic astrologer or curious and prodigious tale]. The pamphlet states that in a century where ‘it is fashionable to believe in nothing, I am quite prepared to see my predictions ridiculed’. Yet, armed with a telescope, he claims that it is in the skies that ‘the irrevocable ruling of our destiny is inscribed in fiery letters’. Meanwhile, M. J. D. L’s 1789 pamphlet L’oracle françois, dédié à l’Assemblée nationale, au roi et à toute la nation [The French oracle, dedicated to the National assembly, the king and the entire nation], assures the population that they will taste happiness shortly.

Portrayals of magic in the early years of the French Revolution

Anon, ‘Les Bons Conseils’, 1789, stipple engraving and etching on paper, hand-coloured in watercolour, acc. number 4232.2.9.14, Waddesdon, The Rothschild Collection (The National Trust), Photo: Imaging Services Bodleian Library © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor

A further sign that these depictions of oracles were a common trend during the Revolution is a print deriding the concept by depicting a dandy seeking advice from a donkey in the 1789-93 print ‘Les Bons Conseils Le Petit Maître consultant l’Oracle sur ses petites avantures’ [Good advice. The dandy consults the Oracle on his little adventures.]. [5] This fop, who has a bow slung across his hunchbacked frame seeks predictions on a far less grandiloquent level than previous examples: it is the affairs of the heart, rather than of the nation, which intrigue him.

What these examples demonstrate is that 1789 was rapidly understood to be a time of monumental changes, which would cause trepidation at every level in society. Furthermore, while as L’astrologue patriote ou récit curieux et prodiges suggests, the late eighteenth-century favoured reason, this did not mean that ancient modes of reassurance such as astrology or magic would not be summoned.

Despite magic and mountebanks relying in a similar way on showmanship to deceive their audiences, it is evident that magic was viewed more favourably as an ally of the Revolution. Perhaps this is because, to quote Voltaire’s words over 30 years prior to the Revolution, magic is ‘[t]he secret of doing what nature cannot; it is the impossible task’. [6] These prints would suggest that an impossible science is a suitable mode of reassurance for events that might still seem impossible. ■

Top image courtesy of geirkirkeby.

Claire Trévien completed a doctorate at the University of Warwick in 2012 on spectacle in prints of the French Revolution, and is currently a research editor at the Voltaire Foundation. You can follow her on Twitter @CTrevien.


[1] Yves Rifaux, Images dans la fumée ou Les secrets optiques des nécromanciens (Paris: Éd. de l’Art de l’enfance, 1981), p. 65.

[2] Darnton, Robert, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 34.

[3] Stafford, Artful Science, p. 93. See also Henry Breslaw, Breslaw’s Last Legacy; or, the Magical Companion (London: T. Moore, 1784).

[4] William Laurens Pressly, The French Revolution as Blasphemy: Johan Zoffany’s Paintings of the Massacre at Paris, August 10 1792 (London: University of California Press, 1999),pp. 86-87.

[5] Anon, ‘Les Bons Conseils’, hand-coloured stipple engraving and etching, 1789-93, Waddesdon Manor, acc. number 4232.2.9.14.

[6] Voltaire, La Philosophie de l’histoire, in Œuvre complètes de Voltaire, vol.59 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1969), p.208.

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