This blog is a selection of interesting things I've come across during my history research. I have a wide interest in history ranging from Wars of the Roses, country houses, Stuarts, Georgians, Louis XIV, Napoleon and criminals. So expect to see a bit of everything on here, with a focus on little known stories.
During the summer, I have been working for a community based charity local to me, called Blue Box Belper. Their aim is to offer community events in a town called Belper in Derbyshire, as well as to raise money for a brand new community centre. Me and another girl, Abi, have been helping out at some of their events, as well as pitching some new ideas for them.
One of the events I’ve been helping out at has a catchy title, ‘Cuppa Cake Chat’, which does what it says on the tin really. It’s a nice informal coffee morning, where sometimes guest speakers, or members of the group, share about themselves. It was my turn this week. As many of you regular followers will have guessed, I decided to make it history themed. I must admit I had to think for a while about what to talk on as I wanted something quite interesting and not too heavy. Thankfully, I had the perfect topic to talk about from some of my current research on Napoleonic prisoners of war in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.
Back in March, following a trip to Ludlow in Shropshire, I discovered that Napoleon’s brother, Lucien, had been held prisoner there during the Napoleonic Wars. With my curiosity piqued, I brought a book on his time imprisoned, which also made some references to how other prisoners of war were kept at that time. In the same book, I saw a sentence explaining how two prisoners, called General Joseph Exelmans and Colonel Auguste de la Grange, had escaped from Chesterfield.
As little was mentioned about how they’d escaped, I decided to look more into it, as well as the conditions for the prisoners in Chesterfield at that time. That led me to an utterly fascinating discovery of many different and interesting stories, which I don’t really have the time to share now. It’s an amazing story and one that I’m glad I’m now able to share as it is something that seems to have been lost.
If you would like to know more, please to have a read of the two blog posts I wrote for my work at the local archives in Derbyshire, known as the Derbyshire Record Office, please do click here and here. I promise that they are full of entertaining and exciting things!
I’m not usually a fan of World War Two, although I know many others are, so this book was an unusual choice for me. I really brought it as I have visited the Louvre many times and didn’t know the story of how the museum had dealt with keeping the priceless treasures safe during a time of war. After reading this book, which describes the dangerous situations, often at the threat of the lives of museum staff, as well as the many times the art was nearly taken by the Nazis, has made me realise just how much we take these amazing institutions for granted. It does try and focus on a good mixture of the fate of the curators and other museum staff, as well as their families. There is a keen focus on Jacques Jaujard, the Director of the Musee Nationaux, who was instrumental to the evacuation process and dealing with the Nazis once they occupied France. This gives the book a very personal feel and at some points, makes the reader feel very connected with those involved.
Whilst the book doesn’t instantly talk about the evacuation, I thought the background on how the Louvre became a museum, as well as explanations as to why the staff had learnt from previous threats to the museum, all contribute to a greater understanding of the challenges and logistics required to organise such a venture.
Despite the title, the book does cover all the art evacuated from the Louvre, and other French museums in preparation for the Second World War, which had to be spread across many different chateaus for safety reasons. I do like though that it covers all the art works, with mentions of the Mona Lisa sprinkled throughout. Personally I liked this as I felt a bit disappointed at easing the Mona Lisa, as I much preferred other paintings in the museum. This also helps to demonstrate the enormous challenges the staff faced in such an evacuation, especially with the larger paintings and sculptures. Whilst I enjoyed this part, I feel others would find this hard to get into as it is more background context than specifically focuses on the World War Two topic promised. However, if this isn’t to your taste, once you get a few chapters in, you won’t be disappointed.
There are some graphic description of violence and war, which is to be expected considering the topic, but I must admit these parts were hard to read. Although these are important to the narrative and explain the genuine dangers the museum staff had to contend with. I would be prepared for these as I had to take a break from reading at this point. These, alongside mentions of wider war issues, such as food shortages, the difference between Occupied and Vichy France, could have used with better context, but I understand this wasn’t necessarily the scope of this book. However, it could easily be used as a platform for further learning about the period.
I do especially like the epilogue, which mentions what happened to the main people after the end of the war, including the awards given in recognition for the courage, bravery and can do attitude that all museum staff had in the face of great adversity. This was a touching tribute and I must admit I was quite emotional to see the recognition the staff had received. It was a very fitting way to end what is a very fascinating and easy read. Thank you to Gerri Chanel for writing this book in acknowledgment for the achievements of the staff.
I would definitely recommend this book as the easy writing style made it very hard to put down. Whilst it’s a nonfiction book, it very much reads like a novel in its easy style, reading much like an adventure story. This has definitely been one of my favourite books that I’ve read this year. Whenever I am finally able to go back to Paris, especially the Louvre, I will now look on it in a new and grateful light for the sacrifice the staff and their families made at the time to keep the art protected for the world, not just for France.
On the 1st of July 1798, Napoleon, along with nearly 55,000 men and 400 ships arrived in Egypt. Among them were around 150 scientists, engineers, and academics, hoping to learn more about the mysterious country. Napoleon claimed that the so-called invasion had two aims, to liberate the people of Egypt from despotism, and to bring knowledge of the history, nature, and culture of the country to the Western World. As Peter Hicks argues, the 3 year long expedition to gain knowledge following the invasion was used as a romantic ‘smoke screen’ to cover up the military reasons Napoleon had arrived in Egypt, specifically to curb British interests in the country. Whatever motives lay behind the invasion and subsequent expedition, there is no doubt that it did “open the eyes of Europe to the glory that was Egypt” and helped to start the “professional study of Egyptology”.
The academics who came with the French to Egypt were tasked with collecting knowledge and cloning French style learning. To do this, they created the Institute of Egypt, which focused on 4 main areas of study: mathematics, physics (which covered all the sciences), political economy and culture. The Institute followed 3 simple objectives:
To progress and spread the enlightenment in Egypt.
Research, study and publish about the natural, industrial, and historical context of Egypt.
In order to achieve these aims, the academics had to take part in intellectual debate and report on long term investigations, such as agricultural improvements, studies of ancient monuments, geology and wildlife, just to name a few. However, much of the intellectual debate that took place was actually not relevant to Egypt, instead focusing on their own personal work they had research prior to the expedition. Whilst this appeared to follow the aim of spreading enlightenment ideas in Egypt, these previous studies had nothing to do with the unique context of Egypt itself.
The Institute was housed in two former palaces outside Cairo, which were well equipped with a library full of books specifically chosen by Napoleon for the expedition, alongside printing presses to print their findings. This did cause controversy as many in the Egyptian high society saw this as blasphemous, as only religious texts should be printed. Following discussions on the topic, it was found that many of them actually owned books on other topics, such as history and philosophy, meaning that the opposition didn’t last long. Other activities were found to be more favourable. These included a workshop and foundry used to recreate scientific equipment lost from Alexandria harbour, and a botanical garden featuring a menagerie of local birds, monkeys, and snakes.
Certainly, the most successful part of the expedition was the surveying of the historical sites in Egypt. All the sites we now recognise when we think of Ancient Egypt were studied, ranging from temples, tombs, statues, and pyramids, including Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. Each one was meticulously measured, mapped and drawn, so they could be turned into engravings. All of these engravings later featured in the Description de l’Egypte, an encyclopaedic folio published by the academics following their return to France in 1801. It featured aspects of Egyptian life and culture such as antiquities, customs, and natural history, including the first large-scale map of the Nile Valley. The sheer volume of information collected during their 3 years in Egypt is noticeable in the extent of what was published in the Description de l’Egypte. A total of 23 volumes were published between 1809 and 1828, featuring 837 engravings. Copies of this were sold all over Europe, meaning that the interest in Egypt and its treasures would reach never seen before levels. Prior to the expedition, interest had only been on an individual scale, but the publication of these new wonders meant people wanted to travel to see them for themselves.
Perhaps the most important find of the expedition was the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone would later become the key to reading hieroglyphics as it featured Greek letters which were used to decipher the unused Egyptian language. It was actually found by accident when French soldiers were digging foundations for an extension to the fort at Rosetta. It had been used as a building stone for a very old wall. Luckily some of the academics were residing at Rosetta and recognised the significance of the stone. Following the French being kicked out of Egypt in 1801 by the British, any antiquities not already sent to France were forfeited under the terms if the Treaty of Alexandria. It was eventually sent back to England and arrived at Portsmouth in 1802. This started a race between the English physicist, Thomas Young, and the French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion, to decode the ancient mystery of hieroglyphics. The Frenchman won, much to the dismay of Young, who was in the audience at the lecture where the findings were unveiled.
The military aspect of the expedition was a failure because the soldiers sent were going into unmarked territory and weren’t prepared for the hot climate of Egypt. Sadly, an estimated 10,000-15,000 died of disease or heat exhaustion. For this reason Napoleon abandoned his men and sailed back to France, preparing for the coup that would see him become First Consul. There was also strong opposition from the Egyptians, who saw the expedition as the first time since the Crusades that the West unwantedly intruded in the Arab world. Whilst of course this is true as the invasion and expedition sought to ‘acquire’ the people and intellectual property of Egypt, it did start the study and appreciation of the history and culture that formed Ancient Egypt. After seeing the Tutankhamun exhibition in London as a birthday present for my mum last November, I must admit I have a newfound appreciation for all the treasures of Ancient Egypt. The amount of gold and wonderful craftsmanship in the objects was truly outstanding. When the French saw such things, it would have been the first time anyone in the West would have known about them, so I can only begin to imagine just what they felt when they first saw such things.
 Coulston Gillespie, C., ‘Scientific Aspects of the French Egyptian Expedition, 1798-1801’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 133.4 (1989), p. 447; Jeffreys D., ‘Introduction- Two Hundred Years of Ancient Egypt: Modern History and Ancient Archaeology’, in Jeffreys D. (ed), Views of Ancient Egypt Since Napoleon Bonaparte: Imperialism, Colonialism and Modern Appropriations (London: Routledge, 2016), p. 1.