The Abb é Gregoire, notorious for annihilating the patois of France
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Henri Grégoire (often referred to as Abbé Grégoire; December 4, 1750 –
May 20, 1831) was a French Roman Catholic priest, constitutional
bishop of Blois and a revolutionary leader.
1 Early life
2 Constitutional bishop
3 Advocate of racial equality
4 Annihilating the patois of France
5 Political career after Thermidor
6 During the Second Restoration
7 Religious views
9.1 Other references
10 See also
11 External links
He was born at Vého near Lunéville, the son of a tailor. Educated at
the Jesuit college at Nancy, he became curé (priest) of Emberménil in
1782. In 1783 he was crowned by the Academy of Nancy for his Eloge de
la poésie, and in 1788 by that of Metz for an Essai sur la
régénération physique et morale des Juifs.
He was elected in 1789 by the clergy of the bailliage of Nancy to the
Estates-General, where he soon made his name as one of the group of
clerical and lay deputies of Jansenist or Gallican sympathies who
supported the Revolution. He was one of the first of the clergy to
join the third estate, and contributed notably to the union of the
three orders; he presided at the session which lasted sixty-two hours
while the Bastille was being attacked by the people, and spoke
vehemently against the enemies of the nation. He later took a leading
role in the abolition of the privileges of the nobles and the Church.
Under the new Civil Constitution of the Clergy, to which he was the
first priest to take the oath (December 27, 1790), he was elected
bishop by two départements. He selected that of Loir-et-Cher, taking
the old title of bishop of Blois, and for ten years (1791-1801) ruled
his diocese with exemplary zeal. An ardent republican, it was he who
in the first session of the National Convention (September 21, 1792)
proposed the motion for the abolition of the kingship, in a speech in
which occurred the memorable phrase that "Kings are in morality what
monsters are in the world of nature.". (Source: Herbert A. L. Fisher,
The Republican Tradition in Europe, The Harvard University Lowell
On November 15 he delivered a speech in which he demanded that king
Louis XVI should be brought to trial, and immediately afterwards was
elected president of the Convention, over which he presided in his
episcopal dress. During the trial, being absent with other three
colleagues on a mission for the union of Savoy to France, he along
with them wrote a letter urging the condemnation of the king, but
attempted to save the life of the monarch by proposing that the death
penalty should be suspended.
When, on November 7, 1793, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Gobel, bishop of
Paris, was intimidated into resigning his episcopal office at the bar
of the Convention, Grégoire, who was temporarily absent, hearing what
had happened, faced the indignation of many deputies, refusing to give
up either his religion or his office. This display of courage
ultimately saved him from the guillotine.
Throughout the Reign of Terror, in spite of attacks in the Convention,
in the press, and on placards posted at the street corners, he
appeared in the streets in his episcopal dress and daily read mass in
his house. After Maximilien Robespierre's fall (the Thermidor), he was
the first to advocate the reopening of the churches (speech of
December 21, 1794).
He also tried to get measures put in place for restraining the
vandalism, extended his protection to several artists and writers, and
devoted attention to the reorganization of the public libraries, the
establishment of botanic gardens, and the improvement of technical
education. In fact, he coined the term, vandalism, in a series of
three monumental reports in 1794, i.e., Report on the Destruction
Brought About by Vandalism,… (op. cit., J.L. Sax, p. 1149;
"Vandalism", Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed.). He is credited by
scholars (e.g. Joseph Sax) with the idea of preservation of cultural
Advocate of racial equality
In October 1789, Grégoire took a great interest in abolitionism, after
meeting Julien Raimond, a free colored planter from Saint-Domingue who
was trying to win admission to the Constituent Assembly as a
representative of his group. He published numerous pamphlets and
later, books, on the subject of racial equality, and became an
influential member of the Society of the Friends of the Blacks. It was
on Grégoire's motion in May 1791 that the Constituent Assembly passed
its first law admitting some wealthy free men of colour in the French
colonies to the same rights as whites.
Annihilating the patois of France
Abbé Grégoire is also notorious for writing his Report on the
necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalise the
use of the French language, which he presented on June 4, 1794 to the
National Convention. In a France where according to his own findings,
a vast majority of people spoke one of 33 patois, French had to be
imposed on the population and all other so-called dialects eradicated.
In his hardly reliable classification, notable mistakes and prejudices
included Corsican and Alsatian being described as "highly degenerate"
(très-dégénérés) forms of Italian and German while Occitan was
decomposed into a variety of syntactically loose local remnants of the
language of troubadours with no intelligibility between them, and had
to be abandoned in favour of the language of the capital. This,
coupled with Jules Ferry's brutal policy less than a century later,
led to the weakening of most unofficial languages (not dialects) in
France, all of them being subsequently banned from public documents,
administration and school. The government of today's France still
refuses to ratify (let alone apply) the 1992 European Charter for
Regional or Minority Languages (see also: Language policy in France).
Political career after Thermidor
On the establishment of the new constitution, Grégoire was elected to
the Council of Five Hundred, and after 18 Brumaire he became a member
of the Corps Législatif, then of the Senate (1801). He took the lead
in the national church councils of 1797 and 1801; but he was
strenuously opposed to Napoleon Bonaparte's policy of reconciliation
with the Holy See, and after the signature of the concordat he
resigned his bishopric (October 8, 1801).
He was one of the minority of five in the Senate who voted against the
proclamation of the French Empire, and he opposed the creation of a
new French nobility and Napoleon's divorce from Joséphine de
Beauharnais; notwithstanding this, he was created a Count of the
Empire and officer of the Légion d'honneur. During the later years of
Napoleon's reign he travelled to England and Germany, but in 1814 he
returned to France and opposed Napoleon throughout the Hundred Days.
During the Second Restoration
To the clerical Ultra-royalist faction which dominated the Lower
Chamber and court circles after the Second Restoration, Grégoire was a
revolutionary and a schismatic bishop, and thus the object of hatred.
He was expelled from the Institut de France, and forced into
retirement, but he remained influential.
In 1814 he published, De la constitution française de l'an 1814, in
which be commented on the Charter from a Liberal point of view, and
this reached its fourth edition in 1819, in which year he was elected
to the Lower Chamber by the département of Isère. This was considered
a potentially harmful episode by the powers of the Quintuple Alliance,
and the question was raised of a fresh armed intervention in France
under the terms of the secret Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. To prevent
this, Louis XVIII decided on a modification of the franchise; the
Marquis Dessolles ministry resigned; and the first act of Count
Decazes, the new premier, was to annul the election of Grégoire.
>>From this time onward the ex-bishop lived in retirement, occupying
himself in literary pursuits and in correspondence with other
intellectual figures of Europe; he was compelled to sell his library
to obtain means of support.
According to his own principles, Grégoire remained a devout Roman
Catholic and a priest, while remaining a revolutionary, Gallican, and
a Liberal. During his last illness, he confessed to his parish curé, a
priest of Jansenist sympathies, expressing his desire for the last
sacraments of the Church. These Hyacinthe-Louis De Quelen, the
Archbishop of Paris, would only concede on condition that he retract
his oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which he refused to
In defiance of the archbishop, the abbé Baradère gave him the
viaticum, while the rite of extreme unction was administered by the
abbé Guillon, an opponent of the Civil Constitution, without
consulting the archbishop or the parish curé. The attitude of the
archbishop caused great excitement in Paris, and the government had to
take precautions to avoid a repetition of the riots which in the
preceding February had led to the sacking of the church of
Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois and the archiepiscopal palace. Grégoire's
funeral was celebrated at the church of the Abbaye-aux-Bois; the
clergy absented themselves in obedience to the archbishop's orders,
but mass was sung by the abbé Grieu assisted by two clergy, the
catafalque being decorated with the episcopal insignia. After the
hearse set out from the church the horses were unyoked, and it was
dragged by students to the cemetery of Montparnasse, the cortege being
followed by a sympathetic crowd of some 20,000 people.
Grégoire paid effort to assert that Catholic Christianity was not
irreconcilable with political liberty, while becoming dissatisfied
with the revolutionary outcome of an Empire which had reached a
compromise with the Papacy. Grégoire's Gallicanism clashed with the
prevalent view of the authority in his times, and appealed to those
French Catholics who had sided with the liberties promised by the
Revolution; this version of Catholicism was to be included in those
rejected by Pope Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors (1864).
Besides several political pamphlets, Grégoire was the author of:
De la littérature des nègres, ou Recherches sur leurs facultés
intellectuelles, leurs qualités morales et leur littérature (1808)
Histoire des sectes religieuses, depuis le commencement du siècle
dernier jusqu'à l'époque actuelle (a vols., 1810)
Essai historique sur les libertés de l'église gallicane (1818)
De l'influence du Christianisme sur la condition des femmes (1821)
Histoire des confesseurs des empereurs, des rois, et d'autres princes (1824)
Histoire du manage des primes en France (1826).
Grégoireana, ou résumé général de la conduite, des actions, et des
écrits de M. le comte Henri Grégkoire, preceded by a biographical
notice by Cousin d'Avalon, was published in 1821; and the Mémoires …
de Grégoire, with a biographical notice by H Carnot, appeared in 1837
^ Rapport Grégoire an II
^ Otto Dann, "The Invention of National Languages," Unity and
Diversity in European Culture C. 1800, ed. Tim Blanning and Hagen
Schulze (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 126.
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica
Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain. This in turn
gives the following references:
A. Debidour, L'Abbé Grégoire (1881).
A. Gazier, Etudes sur l'histoire religieuse de la Révolution Française (1883).
L. Maggiolo, La Vie et les œuvres de l'abbé Grégoire (Nancy, 1884).
Numerous articles in La Révolution Française; E. Meaume, Étude hist.
et biog. sur les Lorrains révolutionnaires (Nancy, 1882).
Numerous articles in A. Gazier, Études sur l'histoire religieuse de la
Révolution Française (1887).
Rita Hermon-Belot, L'abbé Grégoire, la politique et la vérité, Paris :
Éd. du Seuil, 2000
Grégoire et la cause des noirs (1789-1831) : combats et projects, sous
la dir. de Yves Bénot, Saint Denis , Société française d'histoire
d'outre-mer , 2000.
Henri Grégoire, De la Noblesse de la peau ou Du préjugé des blancs
contre la couleur des Africains et celle de leurs descendants noirs et
sang-mêlés (1826), Grenoble: Millon, 2002.
Ruth F. Necheles, The Abbé Grégoire, 1787-1831: The odyssey of an
egalitarian, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Pub. Corp., 1971.
Joseph L. Sax, "Historic Preservation as a Public Duty: The Abbe
Gregoire and the Origin of an Idea", Michigan Law Review, vol. 88, no.
5 (April 1990), pp. 1142-69.
Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, The Abbé Grégoire and the French
Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2005
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