Miriam Franchina on French priests in the Haitian Revolution

In this new series ‘hors d’oeuvres’, we talk to authors about their new articles in French History. In this post we caught up with Dr. Miriam Franchina. After receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Halle (Germany), Miriam is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Trier (Germany) with a project on the impact of Catholicism in colonial and revolutionary Saint-Domingue and early independent Haiti funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

Q: Hi Miriam, thanks for joining us to talk about your new article on French priests in the Haitian Revolution. What do you think will most surprise readers in what you have to say?

I think we tend to think of “the colonial clergy” as a compact lot, while each individual’s strategies and moves during the Haitian and French Revolutions responded to divergent and at times even conflicting ideals. I hope to have shown that “the Catholic Church” and its representatives were just as torn as other actors in the Age of Revolutions and their choices are not always linear.

Q. Do you have a favourite example or anecdote you came across in this work?

The life of the Capuchin missionary Father Julien, one of the French clergymen active in revolutionary Saint-Domingue that I talk about in my article. Based on his memoirs, he survived two Revolutions (the Haitian and the French), crossed (voluntarily!) the Atlantic at war at least three times, shifted allegiances from his friar order and Burgundian superior, to the Jacobin culte de l’être suprème, back to the old Regime Church and the Pope captive in France, to Black revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture and to Bonaparte’s France. 

Julien was brought to trial twice and risked death by fire many more times but always made it out alive, ending his days as a quiet curé de campagne in France. The first reaction would be that he embodied the opportunism of the girouettte, but I think his story reveals the continual challenges of the Haitian and French Revolution and I find a certain coherence that guided his steps. 

Also, he was suspected of harboring a non-jurying priest in France during the Terror, and was found with suspicious papers from said priest. He deflected the accusations by declaring that he only kept the incriminated papers to use them as…toilet paper. 

Q. What’s the thing you most regret having to leave out of this piece?

Julien’s daring descriptions from within the Haitian revolutionaries’ ranks. He always managed to depict himself as a victim moved and protected only by the love of God. His pen (and I guess his tongue, too) literally saved his life more than once. 

While reading his manuscript, I felt as if were dangerously becoming too sympathetic to the sidekick of a movie who presented himself as the real hero against all odds.  But as a researcher, I knew that the real and too tragic heroes of the Haitian Revolution were Africans and Afro-descendants who barely left a trace in the archives and that Julien despised as a gullible lot in his writings. 

Q. Can we talk about the backstory to the article? How did you first get interested in this topic?

The official explanation is: I spent some time in the US and the ubiquity of the notion of “race” punched me in the face. Likewise, I realized that despite all my years studying history, I had barely heard of the Haitian Revolution. 

The unofficial explanation has more to do with the nitty-gritty of securing funding for a postdoctoral project and the inspirational role of a friend and colleague.

Q. Are you a ‘plan it all in detail’ writer, or a ‘start writing and see where it goes’ person?

I wish I were the former but always fall back to being the latter. Then enter the reviewers…

Q. Do you have a cure for writer’s block? We ask everyone this question because we live in hope.

This must be the question to attract as many readers as possible so I cannot leave it blank!

Let’s say that Father Julien never seemed to have suffered from a writer’s block but he had his head at stake rather than his scholarly reputation. 

Q. Who did you get feedback from on the article? Did you give talks on this topic or share drafts with colleagues or non-specialists? 

The friend and colleague who encouraged me to explore Haitian history in the first place. And I did present some preliminary research ideas at seminars, trying to catch the audience’s attention with an alternate title (and related alternate font on my PowerPoint): “A Transatlantic Game of Robes”. 

Q. What do you think helpful feedback on writing involves?

Considering the authors who are being reviewed not as deliberate sinners when they miss a date, forget to cite a colleague or embrace different interpretations than the reviewers’. 

And some of us may also make a grammar mistake or two that the copy-editor (paid extra) may have overseen. I truly believe that critiques can help research but sometimes reviews seem unnecessarily aggressive. 

Q. What do you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of this process?

How did your ideas change? Was there an epiphany?

As basic as it sounds, I hopefully learned to pick the prospective journal wisely and to deal with negative feedback constructively. An earlier draft of the same article was straight-up rejected by another journal.

Q. What’s the word you can never type right?

Hitherto. Or any other English words that has too many Hs that I cannot pronounce anyhow.

Q. What are you working on next?

I would like to shift my research to the early 19th century to look at the circulation of people and ideas between Haiti and Italy and between Senegal and Haiti. 

But I could not simply set Julien’s gripping memoirs aside and, fingers crossed, an article based on some of his narratives will soon see the light of day. 

Q. Éclair or saucisson?

I am Italian. Picking either one might have unwanted consequences.


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