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cassagnac2

 

In the A Tramp Abroad, published in 1880, Mark Twain mocked the French practice of dueling:

“Much as the modern French duel is ridiculed by certain smart people, it is in reality one of the most dangerous institutions of our day. Since it is always fought in the open air, the combatants are nearly sure to catch cold. M. Paul de Cassagnac, the most inveterate of the French duelists, had suffered so often in this way that he is at last a confirmed invalid; and the best physician in Paris has expressed the opinion that if he goes on dueling for fifteen or twenty years more—unless he forms the habit of fighting in a comfortable room where damps and droughts cannot intrude—he will eventually endanger his life.”

Paul de Cassagnac, who fought twenty-two duels, will be mentioned again in this post and in the embedded video you will be able to see his son follow the family’s dueling tradition.

Whatever Mark Twain might have said with his customary sarcasm, the duel was no laughing matter. In the Middle Ages, it was a legitimate procedure to settle a personal dispute. Yet as time went by, an excess of testosterone combined with personal pride made it the prime cause of death among young nobles, who felt obliged to fight for the slightest personal offense. At the rate of 500 deaths a year, France was in danger of losing all of her nobility to trivial disputes. Duels were outlawed by a royal edict. However, the social pressure remained strong and the image of a hero executing a mortal dance to avenge an insult had an irresistible pull. From public places, the duels merely moved to private enclosures or to forest clearings.

After the Revolution, all the royal edicts were abolished including those banning duels. All citizens were allowed to carry arms which led to the democratization of duel: now men of all classes could kill each other just as stupidly as the nobles had done for centuries. Fortunately, most of the duels fought by now ended with the first appearance of blood and a mere scratch was often good enough to satisfy the offended honor. Even so, 200 deaths in duels were registered between 1826 and 1834.

cassagnac3Although in the 19th century a duel kill could be punished as a murder, the authorities were generally indulgent if the result was a mere injury. For instance, in 1868, Paul de Cassagnac was condemned by the Sixth Chamber of the Criminal Court of the Seine to six days in jail and 200 francs fine after his victorious duel with his cousin Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray. The four witnesses were sentenced to 50 francs fine each. The victim was left off to lick his wounds. (Lissagaray was put to bed for a month. Barely recovered, he sent his witnesses to Cassagnac to continue the duel. Cassagnac replied: “No, sir. I left you on the ground riddled like a sieve. I could consent to be your opponent, it disgusts me to become your butcher.”)

Now we have heard enough about Paul de Cassagnac to be curious. Who was this duelist extraordinaire? A French Casanova?  Most would think that duels were fought mainly over a lady’s honor, especially in France, but that would be an error. Journalists and politicians were called out more often than wife’s lovers. De Cassagnac, both a journalist and a deputy at the National Assembly, made numerous enemies with his radical views. His son, Paul de Cassagnac Jr., inherited both his father’s dangerous occupations and his fiery temperament. You can see him fighting in the following video clip (second duel).

 

By the beginning of the 20th century, the duel was the thing of the past in all countries except in France, where it was still going strong until the killing fields of WWI took away the lives of an entire generation. There were a few duels afterward, all duly caught on film, but one would believe that even the French would be entirely done with dueling after the horrors of WWII. Right?

The last duel in Paris (Ribière left, Deferre in the center)

The last duel in Paris (Ribière left, Deferre in the center)

Wrong! The last duel in Paris was fought  April 21st 1967. Again, the point of contention was not an affair of the heart fought over by two young bucks. The participants were two staid politicians in the French hotbed of disagreement: the National Assembly. Deferre, the mayor of Marseille, was constantly interrupted in his speech by the deputy of Val d’Oise, René Ribière. “Mais taissez-vous donc, abruti!” (Shut up, asshole!), shouted Deferre. Refusing to apologize for the insult, he was challenged to a duel. President Charles de Gaulle sent emissaries to cancel the duel, but without success. The participants avoided the police and organized a secret encounter on a private property. The duel lasted four minutes and the referee put an end to it after the second scratch.  Just as well because Ribière, the loser, was getting married the next day. And so, after all the politics, we can finally mention l’amour.

Related post:

Events in the Street: Female duel with sand-filled socks

 

 

 

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Jean-Georges Béraud: Street Scene

Jean Béraud: Street Scene

“One of the characteristics of the people of Paris, for which they are known the world over, is their politeness,” wrote David W. Bartlett, an American author, who visited Paris during the Second Empire (1852-1870). Reading this, the immediate reaction of today’s visitors would be an utter disbelief since Parisians are known world-wide for their unpleasant behavior. The only consolation for the foreigner is that they don’t treat each other any better. During my last visit, my Parisian friend was called “une conne” (and a few more choice words) because of a tiny parking mistake she had made. The aggressor was a middle-class, middle-aged man. Things are looking up though. Well-aware of their bad reputation, Parisians are trying to soften their manners. In my experience (compared to ten, twenty years ago) there is a noticeable improvement.

David W. Bartlett

David W. Bartlett

Yet if we are to believe Mr. Bartlett, present-day Parisians come nowhere close to their ancestors’ civility. “I noticed this politeness in all circles and in all places,” he writes, and goes on: “In England John Bull stares at your dress if it differs from his own, and hunts you to the wall. Or if anything in your speech or manners pleases him, he laughs in your face. But in Paris, the Frenchman never is guilty of so ill-bred an action as to laugh at anybody in his presence, however provoking the occasion. If you are lost and inquire the way, he will run half a mile to show you, and will not even hear of thanks. The only time that I ever experienced anything but politeness in Paris, was when in a great hurry I chanced to hit a workman with a basket upon his head. The concussion was so great that the basket was dashed to the pavement. He turned round very slowly, and with a grin upon his countenance said, “Thank you, sir!” This was politeness with a little too much sarcasm. It was spoken so finely that I burst into a laugh, and the Frenchman joined me in it.”

Lucky Mr. Bartlett!

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Mending Their Manners

Events in the Street: Female duel with sand-filled socks

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1840

 

The following text, published in 1842, offers an interesting look at the mid-19th century Frenchwoman and, surprisingly, at the French esteem of quietness:

A stranger would not appreciate the degree of praise which is contained in the word quiet when used by the French, who appear to consider it as comprising all the cardinal virtues; when seeking a house or apartments, if you say anything favourable or unfavourable of them, they never fail to remind you that they are so quiet. The same eulogy they will pronounce on their daughters with peculiar pride and energy, when they wish to extol them to the skies, and in good truth their demoiselles are quiet enough in all conscience, for it requires often a considerable degree of ingenuity to extract from them more than monosyllables. We have been accustomed to consider the French as a restless, capricious, volatile people, and so I suppose they might have been formerly, but now they are undoubtedly the reverse, being a quiet routine plodding sort of people, particularly as regards the provincials; and even amongst the Parisians there are thousands that reside in one quarter of the city, which they seldom quit, never approaching what they consider the gay portion of Paris, but live amongst each other, visiting only within their own circle, consisting almost entirely of their relations and family connexions.

The women consider, even down to a housemaid, that their sex demands a certain tone of deference, however humble their position, and if a nobleman did not touch his hat to them when they open or shut the door for them, with the usual salutation of good day or good morning, they would pronounce his manners brutal, and say, that although he was a man of title he was not a gentleman; hence the very unceremonious manner that an Englishman has of addressing servants, whether male or female, has kept them very much out of favour with that class of the French community. A scullion, or what may be termed a girl of all work, that has not met with that degree of respect from some of our countrymen to which she considered herself entitled, will remark, that the English may be very rich, but they certainly are not enlightened as we are, with a little drawing up of the head, implying their consciousness of superiority over us semi-barbarians; your charwoman, your washerwoman’s drudge, fish woman, or girl that cries turf about the streets, are all Madame and Mademoiselle when they speak of each other, and with them there is no such word as woman; if a female, she must be a lady, even if her occupation be to pick up rags in the street.

Source:

HOW TO ENJOY PARIS IN 1842,

INTENDED TO SERVE AS A

COMPANION AND MONITOR

Indicating all that is useful and interesting

IN THE FRENCH METROPOLIS,

Containing

HISTORICAL, POLITICAL, COMMERCIAL, ARTISTICAL, THEATRICAL AND STATISTICAL INFORMATION.

AS ALSO A DESCRIPTION

Of the manners and customs of the Parisians of the present day;

WITH INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE STRANGER.

In Respect to Economy, and Advice to his general proceedings with the French.

By F. Hervé

Author of A Residence in Turkey and Greece, etc, etc.

 

 Related post: Mending their manners

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Excerpt from the Goncourt Journals 1851-1896

2 June 1868

Dinner at Magny’s. We heard some curious details about the German scholars Froenher and Oppert, a couple of pedants who are no more learned than anybody else but to whom the present-day cult of Germanism in the world of learning has brought ironic blessings—to the first a cosy sinecure in the Louvre, and to the other a prize of a hundred thousand francs for his work on cuneiforms, a language of which he alone knows the secrets and which nobody has ever been able to check.

One of our number had known Froehner when he was humble, poor, and wretched, and, like all Germans, played a piano in his garret. When he met him again, Froehner was wearing a cravat with pink spots and an astonishing suit, the sort of suit you can imagine a German scholar turned dandy would wear. “I dare say you find me changed, my dear fellow,” he said. “The fact is that I discovered that hard work, application, and all that was just nonsense. Hase told me that the only way to get to the top here was through women. Look at Longpérier: if he hadn’t begun frequenting drawing rooms…”

On another occasion Froehner got hold of our guest, taken him into a window recess and anxiously asked him if he thought that a German like himself, Froehner, would ever be able to talk smut to women as Frenchmen did, saying that he had tried but that what he said always became so coarse and filthy that he could never finish it properly.

What a comic sign of the times, erudition applying this method to achieve success! Erudition represented by these two Germans, these two vulgar natives of the land of artlessness, trying to succeed by means of the delicate corruption of France.

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