Jul 132015


On this date in 1793 Charlotte Corday stabbed Jean-Paul Marat to death in his bath. Marat was a member of the radical Jacobin faction which had a leading role during the Reign of Terror. As a journalist, he exerted power and influence through his newspaper, L’Ami du peuple (“The Friend of the People”). Corday’s decision to kill Marat was stimulated not only by her revulsion at the September Massacres (part of the Reign of Terror), for which she held Marat responsible, but also by her fear of an all-out civil war. She believed that Marat was threatening the Republic, and that his death would end violence throughout the nation. She also believed that King Louis XVI should not have been executed (although in this case Marat had also been against it).

On 9 July 1793, Corday left her cousin’s (Madame Le Coustellier de Bretteville-Gouville’s) house in Caen where she lived, carrying a copy of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and went to Paris, where she took a room at the Hôtel de Providence. She bought a kitchen knife with a long blade, and then wrote her Addresse aux Français amis des lois et de la paix (“Address to the French people, friends of Law and Peace”) to explain her motives for assassinating Marat.


Initially, she planned to assassinate Marat in front of the entire National Convention, intending to make an example out of him, but upon arriving in Paris she discovered that Marat no longer attended meetings because his health was deteriorating due to a serious and painful skin disorder. She was then forced to change her plan. She went to Marat’s home before noon on 13 July, claiming to have knowledge of a planned Girondist uprising in Caen; she was turned away by his wife, Simonne Evrard. On her return that evening, Marat admitted her. At the time, he conducted most of his affairs from a bathtub because of his skin condition. Marat wrote down the names of the Girondists that she gave to him, then she pulled out the knife and plunged it into his chest, piercing his lung, aorta and left ventricle. He is said to have called out to his wife, Aidez-moi, ma chère amie! (“Help me, my dear friend!”) and died. Perhaps French experts can explain to me why he would use the vous form and not the tu form to his wife.

This moment was memorialized by Jacques-Louis David’s painting (image at top). The painting is pure propaganda, David being a staunch Jacobin and a friend to Marat. Marat’s figure is idealized. For example, the painting contains no sign of his skin problems. David, however, drew other details from his visit to Marat’s residence the day before the assassination: the green rug, the papers, and the pen. David promised his peers in the National Convention that he would later depict their murdered friend evocatively as “écrivant pour le bonheur du peuple” (writing for the good of the people). The Death of Marat is designed to commemorate a personable hero. Although the name Charlotte Corday can be seen on the paper held in Marat’s left hand, she herself is not visible. Close inspection of this painting shows Marat drawing his last breath, when Corday and many others were still nearby (Corday did not try to escape). Therefore, David intended to record more than just the horror of martyrdom. In this sense the painting, realistic as it is in its details, as a whole is a methodical construction (i.e. falsehood) focusing on the victim – a striking setup regarded today by several critics as an “awful beautiful lie”— certainly not a photograph in the forensic scientific sense and barely the simple image it may seem (for instance, in the painting, the knife is not to be seen where Corday had left it impaled in Marat’s chest, but on the ground, beside the bathtub).


The iconic pose of Marat dead in his bath was revisited from a different angle in Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry’s painting of 1860, both literally and interpretatively: Corday, rather than Marat, has been made the hero of the action.


At her trial, when Corday testified that she had carried out the assassination alone, saying “I killed one man to save 100,000”, she was likely alluding to Maximilien Robespierre’s words before the execution of King Louis XVI. On 17 July 1793, four days after she killed Marat, Corday was executed by guillotine and her corpse was disposed of in the Madeleine Cemetery.


After her decapitation, a man named Legros lifted her head from the basket and slapped it on the cheek. Charles-Henri Sanson, the executioner, indignantly rejected published reports that Legros was one of his assistants. However, Sanson stated in his diary that Legros was in fact a carpenter who had been hired to make repairs to the guillotine. Witnesses report an expression of “unequivocal indignation” on her face when her cheek was slapped. The often-repeated anecdote has served to suggest that victims of the guillotine may in fact retain consciousness for a short while, including by Albert Camus in his Reflections on the Guillotine (“Charlotte Corday’s severed head blushed, it is said, under the executioner’s slap.”). This offense against a woman executed moments before was considered unacceptable and Legros was imprisoned for three months because of his outburst.

Jacobin leaders had her body autopsied immediately after her death to see if she was a virgin. They believed there was a man sharing her bed and the assassination plans. To their dismay, she was found to be virgo intacta, a condition that focused more attention on women throughout France – laundresses, housewives, domestic servants – who were also rising up against authority after having been controlled by men for so long. The Jacobins were forced to accept that a woman did not need a man’s help for such an action. I sometimes wonder when such men will finally get it.

The assassination did not stop the Jacobins or the Terror: Marat became a martyr, and busts of him replaced crucifixes and religious statues that had been banished under the new regime. Eventually, though, the tide of public opinion turned and Corday is now often viewed as a heroine and martyr and Marat plays the role of the villain.


Corday spent most of her life in Caen, so this might seem the perfect occasion to give a recipe for the famous Tripes à la Mode de Caen, but [expletive deleted] I’ve already given two recipes here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/battle-of-hastings/ — the perils of blogging for years (and, by the way, where does the time go?). So, I’d suggest a cheese plate including the extraordinary Nuns of Caen cheese. Current Norman cheeses include Camembert, Livarot, Pont l’Évêque, Brillat-Savarin, Neufchâtel, Petit Suisse and Boursin, all of which I enjoy eating plain or cooking with.   I have been a staunch fan of Camembert ever since I was an exchange student in France as a teen in the ‘60s. But Nuns of Caen is something special. It’s a ewes’ milk cheese, produced in England but originated in Caen. It is now made by Charles Martell and Son in Gloucestershire who recreated the cheese from an old recipe. The original was produced by nuns from Caen who settled in Gloucestershire in the 12th century. The main site is here: http://www.charlesmartell.com/products/nuns-of-caen/


It’s not available online, and is made intermittently because of the seasonality of the milk supply. Still – worth the hunt. I’d suggest slicing peeled and cored apples and pears, tossing them in sugar and Calvados (all products of Normandy), baking in a moderate oven for about 25 minutes, then layering Nuns of Caen (or Camembert) on top and baking for another 15 minutes.