Jean Chouan’s widowed mother obtains the King’s pardon for her son

August 4, 2011

In Maine there existed a heavy impost on salt, called the gabelle, which was not levied in Brittany. Salt, therefore, the sugar of the poor, as the poet Beranger called it, cost only a sous per pound in the latter province, while in the former the price was thirteen sous…. [T]he poor were compelled not only to pay the higher price, but to consume a certain quantity. The minimum of consumption was fixed by the excise.

Hence arose a very active contraband trade between the two provinces. The smugglers of faux sel [false salt], as the salt which had never paid duty was called, were very numerous. Almost all the peasants on the boundary were devoted to this dangerous traffic; and among others, a family of the name of Cottereau. This family had been sabotiers [makers of wooden shoes] for generations, and lived in the recesses of the woods in huts constructed of leafy branches, where they plied their trade. Here the women brought forth their children without nurse or other assistance; and the boys grew up like wolves, and lived like their fathers before them as faux-sauniers, smugglers of salt. So savage did the whole family become by this wild existence, that the country people called them chouins, that is, in the patois of the district, chats-huants, screech-owls. From this the word chouan is a corruption….

Jean Chouan

Long before he declared war against the Blues, [Jean] was the most noted salt-smuggler in all Maine. He went by the sobriquet of the gas-menton, the lying lad, which he had acquired from his tricks on the excise officers, and his habit of saying “there is no danger,” by which he frequently led the smugglers into great scrapes. He himself not always escaped scatheless, notwithstanding his address and courage; and his family were frequently fined for his exploits. One day the bailiffs arrived to seize his furniture in lieu of the fine; but Jean and his brothers, aware of their intention, had removed all their goods and chattels to a neighbor’s house. Not a whit disconcerted, the bailiffs ordered their men to pull off the roof, to sell the slates. With the greatest goodwill in the world, Jean himself lent a helping hand; and when only the four walls were standing, invited the officers to examine whether the work had been done to their liking. They came in triumph, suspecting nothing; but scarcely were they within, when Jean fastened the door upon them, saying, that as they had unroofed other people’s houses, it was but fair they should themselves have experience of the comforts of a night in the open air; and as it was beginning to rain, he bade them good evening, and left them to their meditations.

Painting by Jules Breton in the Brooklyn Museum

After this, Jean and his brothers were tracked like foxes; all their property was seized, and the family reduced to ruin. At length, the gas-menton made up a party of young men, like himself desperate and reckless, to meet the officers, and have their revenge. The encounter resulted in the death of the most unpopular of the excisemen. Jean was advised to run away, and keep himself close in the woods of Brittany. But he replied, “there is no danger;” and the next night he was taken; and as the excise authorities had to judge him, he had little mercy to expect. His mother, the widow, on hearing of his apprehension, instantly perceived the danger. “He will be hanged,” she exclaimed in despair. Her first impulse was to hasten to the Prince de Talmont, who had always been a friend to her. But unfortunately he was then at court. Suddenly she took the resolution of going up to plead her son’s cause before the king himself. Seventy leagues she performed barefoot in five days, without stopping except for a morsel of bread which she begged as she walked, and a little sleep on the straw of the barns by the wayside. When she reached Versailles, she learned to her dismay that the prince, through whom alone she could gain access to majesty, was absent, and would not return for some time. One whole night she spent on her knees before the crucifix without ceasing to weep. She knew no one at Paris but the prince’s coachman, and this man, touched by her distress, asked her if she would have courage to speak to the king herself. “Have I not been speaking to the Blessed Trinity?” she replied. “Very well,” said the man, “then I will risk my place to serve a countrywoman. You shall get into my master the prince’s carriage; it will be thought that he is inside going to court; and they will let us pass the barrier. Then, when the king comes out of the grand vestibule to enter his coach, you must go and throw yourself at his feet; and pray God to give you grace to speak well, for the fate of both of us depends on how all turns out.” The thing was done the same day. Jeanne entered the prince’s carriage, waited for the king, and as soon as he appeared, ran to him crying, “Mercy, monseigneur; the excisemen have ruined us, and now they are going to take my son, because he is a salt-smuggler. Save Jean, monseigneur; we are seven to pray to God for you.”

Prince de Talmont - Antoine-Philippe de la Trémoille. Painting by Léon Cogniet

The king stared to hear himself called monseigneur by a woman in an outlandish dress; and the people about him cried out that she was a mad woman, and that they should seize her. But when she had finished her story, all were lost in admiration for her conduct; and the king returned to the palace to sign with his own hand a reprieve till the pardon should be made out. In a few days afterwards her son was liberated.

Louis XVI of France painted by Antoine-François Callet

Though he had felt the hangman’s rope round his neck, Jean Cottereau continued his contraband trade as a salt-smuggler. In an encounter with the excisemen one of them was again slain; and as Jean’s antecedents pointed him out as the murderer, he was compelled to throw himself upon the protection of the Talmonts, who could only save him by placing him in the army. He accordingly enlisted in Turenne’s regiment, then quartered at Lille. He remained in this new post a year, when he grew homesick and deserted. This new offense was not to be pardoned. But to save his life, his protectors obtained a lettre de cachet [Lettres de cachet were warrants for the secret arrest of persons at the will of the court] in his favor, and Jean spent two years in captivity. During this period he became a man; and on his return to his own country, his vagabond habits, and his piety showed itself to have been fortified by confinement. Just then the revolution broke out, and Jean immediately espoused the royal cause more warmly than all his neighbors. The king was more to him than to other Bretons; his mother had been received in the palace, she was acquainted with the king’s face and the sound of his voice. She had seen him sign her son’s pardon, and used to say with pride, that from that hour there was a link between the Bourbons and the Cottereaus.


George J. Hill, The Story of the War in La Vendée and the Little Chouannerie (New York: D. & J. Sadlier & Co. n.d.), pp. 175-179.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 97

[Commentary: Note the intimate, trusting attitude of Jeanne the widowed mother of Jean Chouan towards the Prince of Talmont and the King, how she distinguished between the tax revenue officers and the King, and how this episode informed Jean Chouan’s resolution to rise up in defense of his king. These quasi-feudal sentiments of trust, affection, and service of subjects to those in authority, and the corresponding affection and fatherly protection by those in authority for their subjects are diametrically opposed to a Marxist class struggle worldview. The King’s fatherly pardon of Jean Chouan and other magnanimous gestures of his endeared him to the people of France. ]



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