Happy 13th of July! (Happy “Corday”?)

Today is the 229th anniversary of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marais, blood-thirsty Jacobin leader and media baron, in 1793, by Charlotte Corday. She belonged to the somewhat less extreme Girondin faction of the French Revolutionary movement, and blamed Marat for the execution of some of her Girondin friends.

(It might be worth noting in this context that she was Norman-born, and popular folklore claims that the Normans know how to hold a grudge. A related joke claims that the Normans brought the concept of vendetta to Sicily when they conquered it.)

The high-ranking Jacobins were horrified by the death of Marais, desperately spinning conspiracy theories about people who might conceivably have been plotting with Corday to attack other Jacobins. Some speculated that she must have had a lover, who had instigated her attack on Marais. This theory led to an autopsy conducted after her own execution, which indicated that, so far as the medical knowledge of the time could determine, she was a virgin.

To all appearances, she was in fact the free agent she claimed to be, not part of a larger anti-Jacobin terrorist group. A woman had shown these men, who talked so grandly about abstractions like Liberty and Equality and the Will of the French People, that they were not beyond the reach of actual, individual French people.

There is some debate about whether Marat was actively involved in the deaths she blamed him for, but he had plenty of other people’s blood on his hands, and I see no need to make excuses for him, or to pretend that Corday’s killing of him was somehow more lawless than everything else going in France in those unsettled times.