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Le Serment du Jeu de palme
Transcript of Le Serment du Jeu de palme
Reading History in Art:
Jacques-Louis David, 1791
Copyright © 2011-2013, Scott A. Gavorsky
The Taking of the Tennis Court Oath on 20 July 1789 marked one of the pivotal events of the French Revolution--the unity of the Estates General, representing the nation, in face of an intrasigent king, Louis XVI.
The scene was captured two years later by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), whose works would capture the spirit of the Revolution.
David's "Le Serment du Jeu de palme" ("The Tennis-Court Oath") gives historians a map outlining the dynamics that led an effort to reform a political system into outright revolution . . .
The Gathering Storm of Discontent
1789: The Ancien Régime
Faces Multiple Crises
Political: Growing discontent with the Bourbon efforts at absolutism.
Social: The rise of the bourgeoisie.
Economic: Poor crop harvests, stagnant infrastructure.
Fiscal: Crushing national debt from two global wars.
Cultural: The Enlightenment.
The combination of issues made it increasingly difficult for existing institutions to resolve conflicts.
The Impact of the Enlightenment
If existing institutions could not provide solutions, the elite of French society reasoned, perhaps other institutions were needed.
The Enlightenment, succinctly summarized by Immanuel Kant's 1783 motto "Sapere Aude!" ("Dare to Know!"), allowed the French philosophes and their correspondents in the Republic of Letters to imagine alternatives to solving France's problems.
David's painting expresses the the conviction of the Enlightenment that all problems could be solved through the use of Reason.
The Unity of the Orders
Note that through the window blown open by the gathering storm, Enlightenment literally shines down on the gathered oath takers. As the cloudiness of tradition and fear is broken, the correct answer to the problem becomes blindingly apparent.
The Three Orders of Feudalism
The Estates General convoked in 1789 was still based on the three traditional feudal orders:
The Clergy: "Those Who Pray"
The Nobility: "Those Who Fight"
The Commons: "Those Who Labor"
French society, however, no longer matched this tenth-century social arrangement.
The rise of the bourgeoisie was the most significant complication.
The bourgeoisie grew out of the Commons, originally representing the urban educated specialists (lawyers, doctors, merchants) under feudal society.
The expansion of trade over the previous three centuries resulted in new-found wealth for the bourgeoisie--and an increased desire for power based on that wealth.
Louis XIV and his successors took advantage of this desire, bringing large numbers of the bourgeoisie into the growing state bureaucracy.
Struggle of the Orders
This new-found power of the bourgeoisie alienated the other orders.
For the nobility, the bourgeoisie threatened their traditional role as advisors to the king. Indeed, Louis XIV intended the new bureaucracies to break the power of the nobility, offering the bourgeoisie noble office in exchange for service to him.
While the bourgeoisie did not represent a direct threat to the Clergy, the participation of the bourgeoisie in the Enlightenment's growing critique of the Catholic Church strained relations.
The Estates General
The bourgeoisie, the nobility, and the clergy had worked together to resist Louis XVI's efforts to impose a new tax regime during the Assembly of Notables in 1787. Together, they forced Louis to call the Estates General, the only body they considered legitimate to represent the nation.
But the Estates General had not met since 1614. The Parlement of Paris, charged with setting the procedure for the Estates General, ruled that the body would be constituted as in 1614--meaning the bourgeoisie ennobled over the previous 175 years would be forced back into the Commons.
Voting - By Head or By Order?
Angered by the decision casting them into the Third Estate, the bourgeoisie focused on the issue of voting.
If the Estates General voted by order, the Clergy and the Nobility could easily stand united against the Commons.
If voting by head, the Third Estate had the opportunity to sway the votes of sympathetic nobles and clergymen.
Recognizing the controversy, the Parlement of Paris passed the decision to Louis XVI, who had made no decision when the Estates General convened in May 1789.
Third Estate = Nation
As Louis vacillated on the question of voting, the members of the Third Estate--led by the bourgeoisie--grew increasingly agitated.
On 17 June 1789, following the defection of a number of clergy members who sympathized with the bourgeoisie, this anger boiled over in the Third Estate proclaiming themselves the National Assembly, speaking for the French Nation as a whole.
Louis, recognizing that he was out of time, ordered on 20 June 1789 that the meeting rooms of the Third Estate be closed to prepare for a royal audience announcing his decision.
The Tennis Court Oath
When the Third Estate arrived at their meeting rooms and found them sealed off, they concluded Louis XVI had decided to disband the Estates General. The rumor spread quickly through the Versailles complex. The Third Estate, now joined by members of the Clergy and the Nobility, gathered in the largest room they could find--an indoor tennis court--and swore an oath not to disband until they had given France a new constitution
David's painting captures the moment when the Three Orders--the clergy in white habit on the left, the noble in his culottes on the right, and in the center the bourgeois lawyer--came together to build a better France.
The Public Sphere
A Fourth Estate?
The growth of a public sphere was one of the most important changes wrought by the Enlightenment. Newspapers, pamphlets, coffeehouses, civil society--all contributed to a new political force, the Public.
The members of the Estates General, particularly the bourgeoisie, were well-versed in arguing their positions in front of this new entity.
As the momentous decisions of 20 June and later were made, they rapidly were reported in Parisian papers, pamphlets, and letters that the representatives sent back to their home constituents. News circulated faster than ever before.
The solitary scrivener David placed at the front of the painting stands ready to record the historical event for the Public--perhaps through the newspaper that is sitting on the chair next to him.
The World Watches . . .
France at the Center
The events that unfolded in June 1789 caught the imaginations of Europeans.
In France, a sense of optimism spread rapidly. A crowd gathered at Versailles to cheer the events.
The Great Fear
In France, the initial reaction to the Tennis Court Oath was optimism. But the very real crises confronting France--economic, social, and political--could not be ignored. Just over three weeks later, a Parisian mob would storm the Bastille, killing the commander, the Marquis de Launay, and grotesquely parading his head through the streets.
Yet imaginations can lead to nightmares as well as dreams . . .
This event sparked "La Grande Peur", the "Great Fear", as violent revolts spread through the French countryside.
Foreign observers were no less impressed. The victory of National Assembly brought the promise of reform across Europe. It appeared that the Enlightenment had scored its first major victory.
The events in France were followed particularly closely across the Atlantic, where a new experiment in government had begun only three months earlier, when the U.S. Constitution went into effect.
The paradox of estatic hope and terrifying violence would become the troubling legacy of the events of 20 June 1789.
Is it any wonder, then, that David's observers watch with a mixture of joy and foreboding?
The Starkness of Moral Choices
Good versus Evil
The idea of the oath is to make a moral committment to a position. This basic fact was not lost on the men who swore the Tennis Court Oath.
Yet as the French Revolution increasingly took on a life of its own, it became harder and harder to be sure where the moral boundaries, the division between the right and the wrong, lay.
Part of the tragedy of the Revolutionary period is how often "moral committments" became justifications for horrific actions. It was not a coincidence Robespierre justified the Reign of Terror by appealing to "The Principles of Political Morality."
One can imagine that the harangued recalcitrant sitting at the far right of David's painting, perhaps a disgruntled member of the nobility, would meet his end at the National Razor--or perhaps at best as an émigré stripped of his family lands.
The issue of moral committment was one David returned to often in his paintings; "The Oath of the Honoratii" is the most famous example.