Jacques was hardly more than a boy, with a shock of black hair curling about his forehead.
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Plenty of men in France these days called themselves "Jacques" and rose up against the gentry, seizing their lands and sometimes their throats, while the national barber did its clean work in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, and blood ran like wash. But this boy was really named after Saint James. And now he sat in a barge with a hundred other men and boys, as the craft floated down the sluggish Loire, westward toward the sea and the dying day.
The sun glowered through the smoke like the eye of a beast. There was smoke all round, and the glare of fires far off. It was cold and bitter. Pere François the curé paused in his prayer to look over his shoulder. Then he turned to pray again.
This was the work of Robespierre and his men of light. They profaned the Cathedral of Our Lady in Paris, parading a whore in place of the Mother of God and calling her the goddess Reason. They seized Church lands "for the republic' and put them up for sale. They made the clergy swear to be state puppets, their electors to include any drunken ruffians or atheists who lived in the parish. If the priests did not swear, there was the barber. They suppressed the monastic life, the birthplace of so many holy works and prayers. They dared to alter the time of God, depriving men of their Sabbath rest, replacing it with the rationalist's decadi, every tenth day, for the exhibition of patriotic sentiment, or else. They stripped religion bare, inventing for social utility the worship of L'Etre Suprême, who was neither Father nor Son nor Holy Spirit.
They sent nuns to the scaffold, their only offense that they would not offend. They laid hands on the kindly King Louis himself and his innocent wife and children. Their enlightened hatred knew no bounds.
"I see what Parisians mean by fraternité," said Jacques. The soldiers from Mainz who stormed his village were not bellowing in French. Assassins for pay: only from the throats of assassins could come sounds so ugly. They and the republican army put the Vendée to the torch, slaughtering every man they could reach, not sparing women and children. The marshes of the lower Loire, rich in pitch-pines, thick with the peaty soil where you could just toss a seed and it would grow — the plains that Jacques and his family had drained and plowed for three hundred years, were laid waste, with a stench of burnt swamp grass and turpentine and bitumen and death. It was Frenchmen murdering their brothers in the name of the brotherhood of man. It looked like the end of the world.
"Why has this happened, Monsieur le Curé?" said Jacques.
"For the same reason it always happens," said the curé. "Men have forgotten God." And the Loire seeped through the cracks of the barge and rose up over their shoes.
Pass the Pamphlet
The modern myth of the benign revolution is hard to shake. The most powerful nation on earth, the United States, won her freedom by a war that historians call Revolutionary; though the colonists thought of it as a war for political independence from the mother country, securing the rights of Englishmen under common law. Most of America's founders were wary of revolution, and were in that way more Roman and republican than the self-styled republicans of France. When you assassinate Caesar, you do not get a mild Brutus instead. You get libertine Antony and cold-hearted Octavian and their lists of men to be assassinated, with Octavian giving up Cicero to Antony, and Antony giving up his own brother to Octavian. When you send the meek Louis XVI to the guillotine, you do not get the prissy Voltaire instead. You get Marat and Saint-Just and Robespierre and the Reign of Terror.
The modern myth of the benign revolution is hard to shake.
Modern revolutions have never really come from the common people. The landsmen of the Vendée did not hate their masters. Something about working in the earth breeds a hardy race of men who hold their heads high, even as they doff their hats to greet the marquis when he reviews the fields. Pamphlets don't unite. Mud unites. Revolutionary slogans don't stick to such men. Clay sticks. And when the lord dismounts and you walk with him into the marshes, your rifle slung over the shoulder, slogging on to the covert in the cold before daybreak, waiting for the woodcock and the grouse, and you talk about hunting with your father and his father — you are more at one than any slogan of brotherhood could make you, even though he is the master and you are the man. That is not to mention when rich and poor fall to their knees at Mass.
The people of the Vendée were hard-working peasants whose "backward" ways the Parisians scorned. They loved the Church. Their sons became the broad-backed priests who could walk ten miles through wet country to give the oil of comfort to the dying. So they rose in rebellion against the party that pretended to speak for them. They did not want the Church reduced to a mockery. They did not want their king beheaded. And the republicans in Paris mustered an army to assist those peasants to their graves. For a while the brave peasants inflicted embarrassing defeats upon the legions of the new and enlightened future. Then the enlightened struck back with an overwhelming force, including German mercenaries. The massacre of the Vendée began, taking a quarter of a million lives.
Bearing Witness to Truth
In a world without God, men prey upon one another like monsters of the deep. No restraint, no mercy; blood for drink, or fuel; skulls smashed like eggshells for frying secular omelets. The 20th century stands as evidence. So too the Vendée.
Jacques looked at the shore toward Saint-Nazaire. Along its wide bends the Loire had frozen. The town was on fire. How had it come to this? A year ago he was swung on the rope of the church bell to toll the Christmas Mass at midnight. He had heard of the goings on in Paris, but that was another world. He and his brothers had no thought of bloodshed. Jacques knew how to swing a sickle, not a sword. His hands were thick with calluses round the thumb and under the four fingers. He knew how to trench a field, how to graft slips of sweet apples onto a tougher trunk, and when to stop what he was doing to say the Angelus. There was not one blessed place for political theory in all of his mind and body.
The massacre of the Vendée began, taking a quarter of a million lives.
The water was now above their ankles, and the barge spun slowly in the vagaries of the current. When he faced east again, Jacques could see the flare-lit gleam of a rifle. There were soldiers upstream, on the watch, lest someone on the barge should try something.
"My sons," said the priest, "it will be only a little while now. Confiteor Deo omnipotenti," he began, and there came the quiet voices of the others in the barge, the bass of old men, the piping tenor of lads who were sprouting the first down of manhood on the chin, praying in the ancient language of the Church. At mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, they clenched their fists by force of habit, but did not beat them upon the breast. Their arms were bound. Jacques had lost sensation in his feet. What did that matter? "De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine," said the priest, and the men replied as one, "Domine, exaudi vocem meam." And so on till the end of the psalm. Jacques heard a woman crying from the shore, and thought of his mother.
The priest gave them absolution. One of the men suddenly shook violently, causing the barge to rock and take on more water. The westward end tipped and sank. "In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum," said the priest, and Jacques repeated it in his mind as the waters closed over them.
Terrible as an Army with Banners
The Vendée was put down, and the French Revolution triumphed, so it seemed. The history of the world that men write is not the history as is written in the Book of Life. We do not know how many boys from the Vendée are robed in white, whole squadrons of Saints-Jacques and Saints-Etiennes. We do not know how the Lord will call us to testify to the truth, but in the end there is no evasion. You will volunteer for the army of God, or you will be conscripted into the ranks of the enemy.
The people of the Vendée gave their blood for their traditions, their king, and the Church. How will we respond when the call comes? Voltaire, grandfather of the revolution, cried out, "Ecrasez l'infame!" — tear down the unspeakable thing! Nothing has changed. As long as Mass is said in the world, there will be howls against the Church, as if she were the only thing between man and his liberation — liberation, as it will always prove, into slavish vice on earth, and the bondage of the lost below. Innocence itself will be a crime. For it is not hatred that most animates her enemies, but fear.
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To read Professor Esolen's work each month in Magnificat, along with daily Mass texts, other fine essays, art commentaries, meditations, and daily prayers inspired by the Liturgy of the Hours, visit www.magnificat.com to subscribe or to request a complimentary copy.
Anthony Esolen is writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts and serves on the Catholic Resource Education Center's advisory board. His newest book is "No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men." You can read his new Substack magazine at Word and Song, which in addition to free content will have podcasts and poetry readings for subscribers.Copyright © 2017 Magnificat
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