'Give me a place to stand,' said Archimedes, 'and I will move the earth.' In the spring of 1789, your place to stand was a huddle of streets on Paris's left bank. If you put your head out of the window of the café Procope, almost everyone you needed to overthrow the regime was within shouting distance. The Revolution was dreamed here before it was enacted, beneath the dark towers of Saint-Sulpice. George-Jacques Danton lived here, and Camille Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat, Legendre the master-butcher, Fabre d'Eglantine the political playwright, and a dozen others who would make their names through the fall of the old order. In the year the Revolution began, this area was known as the Cordeliers district, taking its name from the monastery of the Cordeliers, the Franciscan friars. It was not a working-class area like Saint-Antoine, but respectable with a bohemian fringe, bankers and civil servants ensconced on first floors, garrets stuffed with malcontent actors; its agitators garnished their invective with classical allusions. From 1789 onwards, this district, with Danton as ward boss, became notorious for hair-trigger revolutionary reflexes. 'Spontaneous' street protests could erupt there in an instant, and radical journalists hid their presses and their persons in the warren of houses. When a reorganisation of the city's divisions threatened the identity of the district, the citizens turned themselves into a political club, and colonised the disused monastery for a meeting place. With Danton in the chair, the Cordeliers were a formidably disruptive force, noisier and cheaper to join than the Jacobin club on the right bank. The Cordeliers had an opinion on everything, from the parish to the world; you would think they owned the Revolution.
LRB 6 August 2009 | PDF Download