- Murder in Aubagne: Lynching, Law and Justice during the French Revolution
This is a depressing book, and also a salutary one. Centred around grimly murderous events in Aubagne, one of the hybrid agricultural towns of Provence, around 20 kilometres due east of Marseille, it reminds the reader in no uncertain terms that revolutionary events can have their own dynamics far removed from any political ideals. The logic of the book (though not always its explicit narrative) works backwards from a series of criminal enquiries of the late 1790s known to locals as the grande affaire d’Aubagne. Sutherland notes in his introduction that he had originally hoped that the records of these trials would provide the material for a classic microhistory, but the project eventually unfolded into something which of necessity also had a wider, regional dimension.
Sutherland has worked the archives diligently. We are able to meet many of the players of the 1790s in their previous, more peaceful incarnations as everything from vinegrowers to merchants, café-owners to lawyers. What we also come to see is that the French Revolution of 1789 did not erupt into this community and change everything. Rather, it merely provided a new context for resolutely local antagonisms to mutate towards overt, implacable violence. Aubagne did not draw on any of the “outsiders” that Lynn Hunt famously painted as agents of change and radicalisation. Pre-existing links with the nearby big city helped turn some Aubaniens into Jacobins, using their antagonism to the town’s ruling elite to give substance to a new identity and rhetoric. That elite, meanwhile, found ammunition in the shifting currents of anti-Jacobinism—from feuillantism in 1792, through Federalism in 1793, to out-right reaction in 1795—to build up a counter-party that ultimately produced, from relatively (but only relatively) humble individuals, the murderous violence that the grande affaire subsequently, and much belatedly, sought to punish.
So far, so not particularly unusual for the Midi. Gwynne Lewis and Colin Lucas, amongst others, identified this kind of factionalism and its increasingly vendetta-like waves of violence in the overheated political culture of the region a generation ago. What Sutherland adds here are several new dimensions to this approach. The first is the purely local. We witness the deep embedding of discord in local complaints about Old-Regime structures of governance that were blatantly distorted to favour the rich (often by diverting their tax-burden onto the humbler users of facilities, such as bake-ovens, owned by the town); and we also see how this core of just grievance becomes overlaid by violent sloganeering and personal power-seeking, as the town’s newly-minted Jacobins find a public role previously denied to them by their opponents, and milk it. By the time we see the post-thermidorian murder-gang meeting to glory in their exploits, we know that the same small café had sheltered them through episodes of conflict and persecution stretching back half a decade, as other similarly intimate haunts had given the Jacobins they now picked off an earlier strength and unity.
The second dimension is to tie the local and regional together in a genuinely innovative way. From Marseille to Aix to Arles to Toulon, Avignon, Nîmes and beyond, Sutherland expertly paints in the wider canvas against [End Page 314] which the Aubaniens imagined, and in some cases directly experienced, their rivalries. Regional waves of activism, spurred in response to national events or local quarrels, penetrated Aubagne, providing its factional leadership with examples of behaviour they were often only too eager to emulate. Sutherland is not always entirely effective at indicating how specific outbreaks of conflict came home to such a small town, but the general atmosphere clearly brought out local analogues, from the use of the festive Provençal farandole as a form of mass-mobilisation and intimidation, to the rhetorics and deeds of individual jailings, lynchings and expropriations.
It is in the exploration, particularly, of the regional culture of political killing that this...