Date and Place: Monday 27th January 2019 in the Chadwick Building, UCL
Speaker: Jonathan Smyth (Birkbeck)
Paper Title: Revelation & Revolution in France 1730-1830
Chair: Andrew WM Smith
In this wide-ranging paper, Jonathan Smyth explored his new project building on his previous book Robespierre and the Festival of the Supreme Being (Manchester University Press, 2018). Amidst the tumult of the Revolution, the notoriety of the prophetess Catherine Théot bears noting, especially given her implication in the fall of Robespierre and her ties to the cult of the Supreme Being. This Norman mystic was imprisoned before the Revolution and released in 1789 aged 83, proclaiming herself the herald of a new messiah and “the Mother of God”. Smyth highlighted how Robespierre’s detractors had tried to discredit him by implicating him in the mystic’s mess in 1794, producing a letter which dubbed him a new ‘John the Baptist’ in her world to come.
This form of revolutionary mysticism, Smyth explained, was not new and followed a pattern of moments where radical political change drew its share of seers. Prophets and their followings represented something of a popular endorsement of challenges to established authority. From the Jansenist controversy of 1730s, to the Revolution beginning in 1789, to the Social Catholicism after the Restoration in 1848, all of these moments of political and religious upheaval saw an uptick in teaching, preaching and proselytising from popular visionaries, mystics, and prophets.
The Jansenist controversy represented a criticism of the Jesuits through a valoration of St Augustine, pursuing a purification movement which targeted the church and became political in its broader social application. In the midst of this upheaval, Smyth spoke of the afterlife of the Jansenist deacon Francois de Paris (1690 – 1727) and the convulsions of those who visited his grave in the St-Médard cemetrary in search of miracles. As with this moment, Smyth showed how clashes of religious cults with political power could lead to difficult accommodations, investigations, and often violent repression. This was especially clear in the central focus of Smyth’s paper which examined the 3 prophets and mystics whose work tied them to the Revolution: Catherine Théot (1716-1794), Jacqueline-Aimée Brohot (1731-1776), and Suzette Labrousse (1747-1821). Variously in prison, in poverty and in the households of the powerful, all of these women ‘foresaw’ the Revolution in some manner, and all tied the process to a rhetoric of social purification. Political and social pressure produced its own language of interpreting providence and agency, and in these instances that language tended towards a revelatory prevalence of prophets.
Later, with the Restoration in 1848, Smyth discussed how the diminution of revolutionary change was led by religious groups. Yet, these schisms in French society clearly remained long after the Restoration, and the twin faces of that struggle (the secular and the religious) did not preclude the sustained existence of prophets, mystics, and more. In uncertain political times and periods of accelerated possibility, the idea of a singular transformational moment could gain traction. In the output of the prophets and mystics who tried to guess the date of that change, there was evidence of the search for agency and understanding of systemic upheaval. In guessing a date for the end of days, or in passionately endorsing someone else’s guess, there was the potential for control and purchase on issues of rapid development. Across a century of significant political change in France, one thing that united all these prophets, Smyth noted, was that they’d all guessed the date wrongly.
 Robert Darnton, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (Harvard University Press, 1968), 129.