Reviews: Books


Bonaparte, Napoleon. Le Souper de Beaucaire. 1793

Le Souper de Beaucaire or the Supper at Beaucaire, Napoleon’s 1793 political pamphlet was well worth reading because it was so well written and skillfully constructed. Completed in July 29, 1793, while he was captain in the French Army, Napoleon wrote it as a plea to end a bloody civil war that was raging in the south of France during the summer of the same year.

During this conflict, troops of the Marseilles National Guard seized the city of Avignon, an important ammunition center, and massacred thirty civilians in cold blood, according to Napoleon’s biographer Vincent Cronin. On July 24, 1793, Napoleon took part in General Jean Carteaux’s successful attack to retake this city. As an active participant, Napoleon grimly witnessed the horrors of civil war when his own troops shot and killed national guardsmen and civilians.  This experience at Avignon deeply upset him and caused him to write a political pamphlet in which he wrote down his personal views of witnessing Frenchmen killing Frenchmen.   Thus the Supper at Beaucaire was born from this grim wartime experience.

 Having addressed his pamphlet to the representatives of the National Convention, who agreed to pay for it to be printed. Napoleon made his argument more readable by writing the pamphlet as a dinner-table discussion or dialogue in the Socratic mold.  The dialogue is between Napoleon, who played the part of a soldier representing the Jacobin point of view, two merchants from Marseilles who took up the cause of the Marseilles National Guard, and two civilians from the region, a man from Nimes and a Montpellier manufacturer. These last two acted as impartial contributors to the discussion by channeling the conversation in the right direction and encouraging the Marseilles men to reach a republican conclusion, according to Christopher Frayling, an Exeter University scholar who edited and translated the Supper at Beaucaire.

During the whole time they spoke, the Montpellier manufacturer only spoke twice, the man from Nimes spoke three times, and only one of the two Marseilles businessmen took part in the discussion.

Perhaps the most memorable passage in the whole pamphlet is the argument between the soldier and the Marseilles merchant. The businessman argued that the Marseilles guardsmen are entitled to fight for their political views and condemned Carteaux as a murderer.  Although sympathetic to the merchant’s moderate views, the soldier condemned the Marseilles guardsmen for plunging France into civil war and argued that changes in law making must take place legally not by armed rebellion.  The soldier then went on to explain that the majority of the French people supported the National Convention and that only the regular army with its discipline and loyalty can bring law and order to France.  Though he expressed his hatred of civil war, the soldier praised Carteaux as humane and honest since his troops did not steal anything from the people of Avignon.  He ends by urging the merchant, “Shake off the yoke of the small number of scoundrels who lead you to counter-revolution, reestablish your constituted authorities, accept the Constitution, and give the representatives their liberty, so that they can go to Paris to intercede for you.”

As we read this passage, we cannot help but to agree with Christopher Frayling’s observation that, “the soldier’s speeches are brisk and single-minded; when he has to explain a question of detail he writes in more complex sentences but never loses control of his material.”  If the merchants and the manufacturer ask the soldier a question, Frayling explained, “the soldier replies with precision, the Marseillais deny the facts vehemently and the soldier calmly refutes them.”  Frayling also comments that the vocabulary of the pamphlet was interesting since the military axioms and details of artillery warfare were expressed as considered professional opinions that are not too specialized.

For those who are interested in reading Le Souper de Beaucaire or the Supper at Beaucaire, this pamphlet can be found in either "Chapter 2" of Napoleon on Napoleon: An Autobiography of the Emperor or in Christopher Frayling’s Napoleon Wrote Fiction, containing Frayling’s translation of the Supper at Beaucaire

Sources:

Cronin, Vincent. Napoleon. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994. p. 71-72, quoted and paraphrased.

Frayling, Christopher. Napoleon Wrote Fiction. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1972. p.117-135, quoted and paraphrased.

Napoleon I. Napoleon on Napoleon: An Autobiography of the Emperor. Edited by Somerset de Chair. London: Cassell, 1992. p. 59-70.

Reviewed by Ira Grossman
Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2002

 

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