Baroque Explorations

“Baroque Explorations” is a blog about my research into 17th and 18th century life. For my blog on (surviving) the writing life, click here. For either blog, if you subscribe—see lower left—you will be sent new posts. (I promise that your inbox will not be flooded.) Quote of the moment: “The future is the past, returning through another gate.”  —from a poem by Victoria Chang

Happy April Fools’ Day … or is it April Fish Day?

April Fool's Day

What is the history of April Fools’ Day?

A reference to April Fools’ Day pranks has been found as early as 1539, in a comical poem by Flemish writer Eduard De Dene. Over a century later, in 1686, John Aubrey of England noted “Fooles holy day” observed on April 1st. At the end of the century, a British newspaper noted a popular April Fools’ Day prank: sending people to the Tower of London to see the lions washed

In general, it seems that April Fools’ Day originated in Northern Europe and migrated to England. There are a number of theories on how this came about, but few conclusions. 

April Fool's Day

The calendar-change theory

Traditionally, the French used Easter as the start of the year In 1563, the French King Charles IX declared January 1 to be the New Year. According to legend, those who kept to the old calendar and celebrated the New Year in the spring had jokes played on them. Pranksters would surreptitiously stick paper fish to their backs. The victims of this prank were thus called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish, which is still the French term for an April Fool.

The French calendar-change theory is tidy, but for the fact that the switch to January 1 to mark the New Year happened very slowly over a century.

April Fool's Day

The abundance-of-fish theory

Another French theory traces the origin of April Fools’ Day to the abundance of fish to be found in during early April when fish have hatched. These young fish were easily fooled with a hook and lure. The French called them Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish. Soon it became customary (according to this theory) to fool people on April 1, as a way of celebrating the abundance of foolish fish. 

The Roman tradition theory

In 1766, this note was published in Gentleman’s Magazine in England:

“The strange custom prevalent throughout this kingdom, of people making fools of one another upon the first of April, arose from the year formerly beginning, as to some purpose, and in some respects, on the twenty-fifth of March, which was supposed to be the incarnation of our Lord; it being customary with the Romans, as well as with us, to hold a festival, attended by an octave, at the commencement of the new year—which festival lasted for eight days, whereof the first and last were the principal; therefore the first of April is the octave of the twenty-fifth of March, and, consequently, the close or ending of the feast, which was both the festival of the Annunciation and the beginning of the new year.”

I think this is a credible explanation. 

The renewal-ritual theory

Nearly every culture has a festival to celebrate the end of winter and the return of spring. Anthropologists call these “renewal festivals” and they often they involve mayhem and the wearing of disguises.

Might April Fools’ Day be the last vestiges of a pagan renewal festival? 

The custom of playing practical jokes on friends was part of the celebrations in ancient Rome on March 25 (Hilaria) and in India on March 31 (Huli). The timing seems related to the vernal equinox and the coming of spring — a time when nature fools us with sudden changes between showers and sunshine.

Certainly we are often fooled by hints of spring! 

For an excellent article on these puzzles, click here


Where Hortense’s father Alexandre de Beauharnais was guillotined and buried

Tracking down facts can be a time-crunching task … but a very enjoyable one when the goal is in sight.

I began with a simple question: Where was Hortense’s father executed and buried? I think these were things she might have wanted to know.


{Portrait of Josephine and her two children, Hortense and Eugène, visiting their father in prison.}

False leads

In the process, I found many wrong answers … which reinforces the common knowledge that the Net can’t be trusted. However, I knew enough to know when the answer was wrong, and kept looking.

In the process I ended up making a correction to a Wikipedia page … which rather thrilled me. Alexandre was defined, simply, as the lover of Princess Amalie of Salm-Kyrburg, a friend of Josephine’s who secretly acquired the land after the Revolution because her brother is buried there. Not only was it curious that Josephine and their children were not mentioned, but I very much doubt that Alexandre was Amalie’s lover. Other women, certainly, but not Amalie.


{Place du Trône-Renversé—now Place de la Nation—where Hortense’s father was guillotined.}

Alexandre was guillotined not in the Place de la Révolution (Place de la Concorde now) or Place de Grève (in front of the l’Hôtel-de-Ville), as if often claimed, but in Place du Trône-Renversé (now Place de la Nation), on the western edge of Paris. Apparently the other execution sites had become so bloody they had to find a new spot.

Mass executions at the height of the Terror

In a matter of about 6 weeks (from June 13 to July 27, 1794) 1306 men and women were guillotined, as many as 55 people a day. I imagine that it was hard work keeping the blade sufficiently sharp.

How to disposed of all the bodies?

It was also hard work disposing of the bodies. What is now the Picpus Cemetery was then land seized from a convent during the Revolution, conveniently close to Place du Trône-Renversé. A pit was dug at the end of the garden, and when that filled up, a second was dug. The bodies of all 1306 of the men and women executed in Place du Trône-Renversé were thrown into the common pits including 108 nobles, 136 monastics, and 579 commoners … .


{The mass graves are simply marked.}


names of those guillotined

{One of two wall listing the names and ages of the dead.}



{Le Cimetière de Picpus today.}

Of those executed, 197 were women, including 16 Carmelite nuns, who went to the scaffold singing hymns.

Nuns to be guillotined

4623442469_ce905dc3c0 257_Carmelites

In all the research I’ve done in Paris over the decades, I’ve yet to go to either the Place du Trône-Renversé (Place de la Nation) or the Picpus Cemetery. I believe I’m due.

On organizing research: citation information, bibliography & notes


I’m at sixes and sevens today (a soon to be Mother-of-the-Bride, so understandable). Even my 100-word writing minimum is a challenge. At such times, I turn to organizing research. It’s important to do, and it doesn’t require creative energy.

Organizing research: recording citation information

My system for organizing research texts is simple. I keep the list of all books or magazine articles in a Notebook application, but any outlining program would do. Each book or magazine is assigned a number (I’m up to 1148, yikes), which I write in pencil in the book or on a post-it note which I stick on the inside front cover.

Organizing research.

The application Notebook makes it possible for me to annotate the listings and add “stickers.” The double S sign shown here means that the book is in my library in Canada. I have stickers to indicate books that are in Mexico, books that go back and forth, library books and books that are on-line. For the on-line listings I will include a link in the citation.

Organizing research: organizing the bibliography

Then I moved the citation into the list of books I’m using for the WIP — the novel about Josephine’s daughter Hortense in this instance, and Notebook automatically alphabetizes them.

Organizing research

Organizing research: taking notes

And then the hard part: reading the texts and taking notes. Each reference I make to the book or magazine I reference with the text’s number, and page number:


That way I can track back to the source, should I need to later.

See also: My Research Method.

Photo at top: St. Florian Library at Melk Abbey in Austria.

How do you organize your research?

The amazing French Revolution Digital Archive: research heaven

Stanford University in the U.S. and the Bibliothèque national de France have collaborated in creating the French Revolution Digital Archive, an astonishing collection of documents on the French Revolution.

A search of the image database revealed this delightfully imaginative sketch of Josephine:


Here is one of Josephine’s arrogant first husband Alexandre:

Close up

There are, of course, many images of Josephine’s second husband, Napoleon.


For more images, see my Pinterest boards on Josephine and Napoleon.

“A Little Chaos”—a new Sun Court film staring Kate Winslet

Poster for the movie A Little Chaos

It’s always a pleasure to see a historical film set in the Court of the Sun King. This one, A Little Chaos, staring Kate Winslet, looks sumptuously made:

Of course I always take issue with the portrayals because I have my own vision of these characters. None the less, I’m eager to watch it, especially to see how Versailles is portrayed in its early days.

The story of A Little Chaos

[blackquote] Madame Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) is an unlikely candidate for landscape architect of the still?to-be-completed Palace of Versailles. She has little time for the classical, ordered designs of the man who hires her, the famous architect Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts). However, as she works on her creation, she finds herself drawn to the enigmatic Le Nôtre and forced to negotiate the perilous rivalries and intricate etiquette of the court of King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman). But Sabine is made of strong stuff; her honesty and compassion help her to overcome both the challenges of her newfound popularity, and an unspeakable tragedy from her past, to win the favour of the Sun King and the heart of Le Nôtre.

Oh, how this makes me long to see such a movie about Claudette or Petite!

Since I wrote this post, and since A Little Chaos has come out, there have been mixed reviews. One objection is that the real story of Le Nôtre is quite interesting enough without tarting it up with a love interest. He was the most steady and loyal of men.

From the Guardian: A Little Chaos: leads historical accuracy down the garden path

Only 6.5 on IMDb: too bad!

From the BBC: Costume drama A Little Chaos fails to blossom

Nonetheless, I can’t wait to see A Little Chaos. Have you seen it? What did you think?

Would you want this man sneaking down your chimney?

The original Santa is St. Nicholas of Myra. Although little is known about him (and some contest his very existence), he is generally believed to be a 4th century Greek bishop and saint.

Because of a number of miracles attributed to him, he is also known as Nicolas the Wonderworker (which I love). His feast day is traditionally December 6.

How did St. Nick become a gift-giver?

Nicolas had a reputation for secretly giving gifts. One legend has it that he heard of a man in his parish who couldn’t afford dowries for his three daughters, and thus intended to send them to a brothel.

St. Nicolas, at night, threw three bags of gold in their window (one for each girl), and thus began the tradition of Santa’s bag of gifts. (Who knew they were to save us from a brothel!)

Over the centuries, Santa evolved. In the 17th century, the Dutch celebrated Sinter Klaas (or Sinterklaas), who rode a flying white horse. Becoming secular, he now arrives on Christmas (rather than December 6). He no longer wears the robes of a bishop, but a red, fur-trimmed suit (not unlike a red bishop’s cloak, in fact). He’s round and jolly, no longer thin, and he drives a team of flying reindeer, rather than the flying horse.

Good Saint Nicolas is the official patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, children, students, and even (curiously) thieves. Today he seems to have also become the adopted patron saint of Capitalism. It’s refreshing to go back to his origins, to the kindly bishop who secretly put coins in the shoes of the impoverished.

For details of a French 17th century Christmas, see The Huguenot Sword on FaceBook.

An old hat, a necklace, and a letter likely rescued from the trash sell for close to 6 million

Monaco Palace To Auction Napoleon Collection At Fontainebleau

Both Josephine and Napoleon have been much in the news, of late. One of Napoleon’s hats sold at auction for over 2 million dollars.

 Jo's pearls

 A pearl and diamond necklace believed to have been owned by Josephine went for almost 3.5 million.

And, just today, a letter Josephine wrote—a letter heavily edited by Napoleon (one presumes)—sold for $33,000.

Josephine's edited letter

This letter is seen as showing how subservient women were in the 18th and 19th century, but I don’t really see it this way. This was a letter to Queen Charlotte of Wurtemberg.

[blackquote] According to manuscript specialist Thierry Bodin, “In this instance, Napoleon wanted to make a political union with the Charlotte’s daughter, so he dictated what she could say.”

I imagine that Josephine wrote a draft, fully intending to show it to Napoleon before sending out a revised copy. My husband and I often do the same thing—don’t you? I imagine that there were times when Napoleon consulted Josephine about what to say, how to respond, as well.

It’s thrilling to see such artifacts emerge. In the case of letters, I only hope that they are made digitally available to researchers.

Lost and found in France’s on-line library archives


It’s simply astonishing what one can now find on-line. In the way of any wander through library stacks, I came upon this title on, the French national library on-line:

Tableau historique, littéraire et politique de l’an VI de la Républic française.

Of course it was not at all what I was looking for, but although “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you find you get what you need.” :-)

I love the way the digital book opens with its cover:


And then turns to the marbled end-paper:

end papers

Here’s a crop of the title page:


(You can almost feel the rich texture of the paper.)

And then, the first chapter division:

1st chapter

What caught my attention “leafing” through this book was the section on legislation, a daily account of laws passed in the years 1798-1799.

They are very detailed: they needed to be. The French government was (once again) creating a government from scratch. Laws mentioned cover passport regulations, import duties, the re-establishment of a national lottery, the legislateurs’ own schedule (they will no longer meet on décadis (the end of the 10-day week), patents, manufacture of goods, the “uniform” to be worn by the members of the legislature …

“…habit français, couleur bleu national, croisé et dépassant le genou. Ceinture de soie tricolore, avec des franges d’or. Manteau écarlate à la grecque, orné de broderie en laine. Bonnet de velours, portant une aigrette tricolore.” – page 142

Alas, I am unable to find an illustration of this costume. No doubt they were somewhat more circumspect than those from 1796. Below left, Executive Director from 1796, compared to Napoleon’s uniform of choice as First Consul on the right:

Director Nap

The legal record is many pages long, but I’ll note a few:

One law passed condemns to death those who rob by force or violence. This is significant because violent crime had become rampant.

Marriages (which must be civil) could only be held on décadis.

One significant law, passed 12 Nivose, an VIII  (January 1, 1799), declares that Blacks born in Africa or in foreign colonies, and transferred to French islands, were free as soon as they step foot on French soil. The Revolutionary government had several years before outlawed slavery in France, but I don’t believe that it had gone so far as to declare it illegal in its colonies. (I should note that Napoleon will eventually reinstate slavery in the French colonies, and no: it was not Josephine’s doing.)

It’s delightful how worthwhile procrastinating can be. I found an excellent Revolutionary calendar (more on that later), learned the date when there was an eclipse of the moon, what the new national fêtes were to be, and much, much more.


The use of quarantine to prevent the spread of deadly diseases in 18th century France

Ague & Fever

Fear of Ebola is helping me understand how people felt and responded to fear of the plague—the Black Death—in the Napoleonic era.

During Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague after the French capture of Jaffa on 7 March 1799. The news that there was plague in Egypt must have terrified the families and friends of the soldiers who were fighting there.

This from Wikipedia:

Before leaving Jaffa, Bonaparte set up a divan for the city along with a large hospital on the site of the Carmelite monastery at Mount Carmel to treat those of his soldiers who had caught the plague, whose symptoms had been seen among them since the start of the siege. A report from generals Bon and Rampon on the plague’s spread worried Bonaparte. To calm his army, it is said he went into the sufferers’ rooms, spoke with and consoled the sick and touched them, saying “See, it’s nothing,” then left the hospital and told those who thought his actions unwise “It was my duty, I’m commander-in-chief.”

However, some later historians state that Napoleon avoided touching or even meeting plague-sufferers to avoid catching it and that his visits to the sick were invented by later Napoleonic propaganda.

For example, long after the campaign, Antoine-Jean Gros produced the propaganda painting Bonaparte visiting the plague-victims of Jaffa in 1804. This showed Napoleon touching a sick man’s body, modelling him on an Ancien Régime king-healer touching sufferers from the “King’s Evil” during his coronation rites – this was no coincidence, since 1804 was the year Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor.

Quarantine used to contain the spread of contagious diseases

One way of containing the spread of a highly-contageous disease in Europe was quarantine:

The practice of quarantine, as we know it, began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. This practice, called quarantine, was derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni, which mean 40 days.

When Napoleon returned to France from Egypt, landing in Fréjus, he was criticized for not having observed the obligatory quarantine imposed on people coming from a plague-infected country. The breech of the quarantine laws was no small matter: it was punishable even with death.

According to Napoleon’s secretary Bourrienne, however, when the citizens of the village swarmed Napoleon’s boat in their enthusiasm,

In vain we endeavoured to keep the people off; we were fairly lifted up, and carried on shore. When we told the crowd of men and women the danger they ran [of contracting the Plague] they all cried out, “We’d rather have the plague than the Austrians.”

And later:

When we consider that 500 people landed and all the goods brought from Alexandria, where the plague had been raging during the summer…[it was fortunate] that France and Europe were spared.

Related links

On Ebola quarantine today and in years past: Ebola is ‘Jerking Us Back to the 19th Century

Quarantine today.

Entire City Quarantined in China After Man Dies of the Bubonic Plague

Feeling Swinish: Or the Origins of “Pandemic”

Painting at top: Napoleon visiting the plague victims of Jaffa, by Antoine-Jean Gros.

Handwriting samples: Napoleon’s, Josephine’s, and that of Christophe Duroc

I have been falling victim to research excitement. On one search, I came upon these letters, which did not answer my questions, but were too exciting to pass by.

All of the letters are part of an auction of letters and manuscripts. The first two were dictated by Napoleon to Géraud Christophe Duroc, displaying Duroc’s lovely handwriting. Since he is a significant character in the Young Adult novels I am writing, seeing his graceful, elegant handwriting speaks volumes.

This first one was written on November 13, 1796, in Verona. (See here for details.)

 Duroc 1

This second letter, also dictated by Napoleon and written by Duroc, was sent on September 30, 1797, from Passeriano, Italy, during the peace negotiations with Austria.

Duroc handwriting

This next letter was written by Napoleon to his brother Joseph in October of 1792 from Ajaccio, Corsica, and it helps understand why Napoleon had need of a secretary. Napoleon’s handwriting was famously difficult to read.


This last one was written by Josephine on May 14, 1809, to her son Eugène.


It simply thrills me to see her signature.

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