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Project Widow is a promotional website for Assassin's Creed: Unity. The site features a street-level view of Paris, with art from Unity and entries on the French Revolution and other features of the game dotted around the map.
The French Revolution was the uprising of the common people against those more privileged under what was known as the Ancien Régime (Old Regime). King Louis XVI presided over his monarchy divided into Three Estates: The clergy (First), nobility (Second) and the people (Third). The Roman Catholic clergy were exempt from taxation, more or less owing to being answerable only to God. The Nobility avoided financial accountability since their wealth was invested in the protection of France.
So it was left to the beggars, bakers, cloth merchants and estate owners to pay taxes. This accounted for over 96 percent of the population, and over a third of those taxed were farmers. As the country sank deeper into financial ruin owing to the failures of ambitious overseas military campaigns, the burden weighed heavier and heavier on the common people's shoulders. Reforms were inevitable, leading to the first public opinion poll of modern times, so that France, not the King, could rise as a nation to meet the desperate needs they now faced. It began peacefully, and the rest is history.
The King levied increasing taxes on the middle classes and peasants, putting the entire burden of France's crippling debts on those that were barely surviving anyway. The clergy, with their direct line to God, were exempt from taxation, as were those with a grip on most of France’s wealth, the nobility. The King spent extravagantly, indulging in his sumptuous and gluttonous court in the decadent Palace of Versailles, as his people began to starve. Unsurprisingly, hatred and rage became to spread amongst the lower classes.
Of France's population of 26 million, 22 million were farmers, mostly with meagre smallholdings that barely supported their families. Their plight was compounded by a decade of bad harvests. Where England and other European countries adopted the potato as a staple of their diet, the French were suspicious of this alien vegetable, calling it "Devil's Food". They wanted bread and leading up to the Revolution desperate farmers flooded to the cities in search of work and food. Conditions in the cities deteriorated even further.
While women were at the frontline of many famous encounters during the French Revolution, they remained unequal to men politically. The equality proposed in the landmark and lofty-principled "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen" formalised in 1789, did not extend to women. Women were to be denied political equality for more than another 150 years in France until they finally got the vote in 1944.
There were some who fought for women’s rights in the Revolution. In 1791, the actress Olympe de Gouges put forward her own Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizenesses stating: "Woman is born free and remains equal to man in rights. Social distinctions may only be based on common utility." Apparently written as a "parody", many a truth is spoken in jest.
As to who stormed the Bastille, the mob became known as Les Enragés ("the enraged") or more descriptively the sans-culottes in the absence of knee-breeches worn by the rich. They comprised elements from the Third Estate; merchants and peasants, basically anyone that was not a member of the Clergy or Nobility. Despite being poor, the financial burden of the country lay on their shoulders, and they demanded to be heard...
Demands for arms and munitions may have amounted to not much more than riots were it not for an unexpected turn of events on 14 July, 1789. Members of the French Guards, officially under the employ of the Ancien Régime, joined forces with the hatters and locksmiths to instigate an organised and heavily armed assault. Their modest backgrounds gave them more in common with Les Enragés than their aristocratic leaders.
Not one of the freed prisoners during the storming of the Bastille was worth rescuing. And so, the French media invented the perfect candidate; a character called the Comte de Lorges. The Count was based on the wizened appearance of old Jacques-François-Xavier de Whyte and the reputation of a genuine anti-royalist Auguste Tavernier. Newspapers published an etching of de Lorges being rescued, one author claimed to have met him.
If you really must know how de Sade earned such a reputation for himself, here are some fun facts to share over dinner. De Sade was introduced to pornographic literature as a very young boy after being sent to live with his uncle as punishment for battering a French prince. Though de Sade was later to marry and have three children, this did not discourage him from having an affair with his sister-in-law and indulging in local prostitutes. He didn't get away with this, because his mother-in-law ensured that he went to prison for his crimes.
Upon his release he hired more prostitutes, including a boy, to indulge in experimental orgies that would inspire the book "120 Days of Sodom", which de Sade claimed was capable of "corrupting the devil". As for the kids, the eldest boy joined the army and died for Napoleon, the youngest undertook lesser degrees of mischief than his father. The daughter became a lifelong nun, which was quite understandable really...
The poorest districts of Paris, such as those bordering on the polluted Bievre river, earned themselves the nickname Cour des Miracles (Court of Miracles). Here is where society's outcasts lived, most of them jobless, begging to survive – looking as pitiful as possible. This is how the districts became known as the Court of Miracles, owing to the miraculous recovery of the lame and blind as they returned home from "work".
One of the key catalysts of the Revolution was the extraordinary increase to the costs of living, but in particular the price of bread. In A Concise History of the French Revolution researcher Sylvia Neely states that a loaf of bread was worth 88 percent of an average worker’s wage. This led to riots around bakers' shops and the ransacking of an army warehouse, depriving troops of supplies.
Dubbed "vast antechamber of death" by one surviving inmate, the Conciergerie was a medieval palace turned prison with a frightful reputation. Almost 3000 detainees awaited their date with the guillotine, the wealthiest of whom were charged for the comfort of a bed. Marie-Antoinette was resident here, along with her seven-year-old son Louis-Charles. The guards locked up Louis-Charles on the floor below his mother so that she could hear him crying.
At the height of the Revolution, during "The Terror" in which countless heads rolled, traitors destined for the guillotine were so many that prisons could not accommodate them. The unlikeliest of Parisian monuments were claimed as detention centres, the Palais de Luxembourg among them. Historians have wondered if this might've been more symbolic than practical, as the palace had been given as a gift from Louis XVI to his brother.
Le Bièvre (the beaver) river, which in modern times is almost completely covered over, was a festering open wound during the time of the French Revolution. Tanneries and dyeing shops, such as those in the Saint-Marcel suburb of Paris, would dump waste into the river, making the area even more despicable to live in. Unsurprisingly the downtrodden, filth sodden inhabitants of such places were among the most active revolutionaries.
With Roman Catholic leaders heading for the guillotine, and Christianity itself under scrutiny, a new belief stepped in to unite the French revolutionaries: philosophy. However, even during this pursuit of truth and liberty, people desired a congregation and a good old sing-song. One such occasion was the Festival of Reason that was held at Saint-Jean Cathedral, during which the words of an ex-priest were sung as a kind of anti-hymn.
The greatest atrocities of the Revolution took place from 2-7 September, 1792 across France though principally in Paris. Over 1400 prisoners were killed in cold blood by revolutionaries, starting with a group of priests outside the gates of the prison de l'Abbaye at the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Other victims, so-called enemies of liberty, included aristocrats, Swiss Guards and royalist writers. 162 prisoners were murdered at Bicêtre, the youngest just 12-years-old.
With the dechristianisation of France an official policy, Paris' most celebrated edifice to Roman Catholicism became the focus of change. Notre Dame lost its statues of kings, and the building itself was declared a Temple of Reason. The newly appointed National Guard, resplendent in iconic blue, white and red were formally established during a benediction here. Later on, Notre Dame became an inglorious though temporary storage facility for the troops.
Somewhat less grounded in reality than the Cult of Reason though no less inspiring was Maximilien Robespierre's Cult of the Supreme Being. The Supreme Being in question was nature itself, capable of uniting people with "pure and feeling hearts". There was a political edge to this of course with Robespierre nominating himself president of a festival in its name during which the Hymn of the Supreme Being would be sung.
The Palais-Royal is sometimes called the birthplace of the French Revolution, owing to the free-thinking writers and orators that made it their home. Among them was Jean-Paul Marat whose incendiary placards littered around Paris were among those that provoked the horrific September Massacres. Ironically, it was at the Palais-Royal that the assassin Charlotte Corday, appalled by revolutionary extremism, bought the knife with which she stabbed Marat through the heart.
Weekend crowds were guaranteed at the fashionable Palais-Royal; the wealthy mingled with society's lower echelons, the former enjoying the shops and cafés while the latter sold their services (and themselves). At Café Foy on Sunday 12 July, 1789, the young writer Camille Desmoulins gave a speech, crying "to arms, to arms" in response to the dismissed Third-Estate champion Jacques Necker. This incited the revolutionary mob that marched on the Bastille.
The Café de la Régence in the Palais-Royal was a meeting place for the sharpest of minds in all of Paris. Maximilien Robespierre was among its clients, philosophising over games of chess, rubbing shoulders with great thinkers of the enlightenment: Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. The American President and chess fanatic Ben Franklin also paid a visit, so too did another future leader Napoleon. The coffee must've been awesome.
Louis Philippe Joseph d'Orléans, despite noble heritage, supported the Revolution. He adopted the name Philippe Égalité to prove it. He was the mastermind behind the Palais-Royal's transformation from gardens bordering the Louvre into a public area of cafés and theatres, which became a hotbed for Jacobin politicians inspired by the Enlightenment thinkers. Unfortunately for Philippe his eldest son's failed treacherous exploits in 1793 led to his imprisonment and the guillotine.
Among the most evocative paintings of the 18th century is "The Death of Marat" by Jacques-Louis David. It shows the flame-fanning journalist slumped in the bathtub in which he was murdered, still writing down his thoughts for the safety of the country. Marat was originally a medical theorist but after his ideas were not taken seriously he reinvented himself as the "voice of the people", becoming the world’s first investigative reporter.
In modern day Paris you can easily forget that parts of the city became battlegrounds for the Revolutionary versus Royalist forces. However the Church of Saint-Roch bears the scars of many such quarrels, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte's tactical defeat of a Royalist insurrection. On a happier note, the one and only marriage of the Marquis de Sade took place here, to noble lady Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil with the King's blessing.
It was at Tuileries that Robespierre's lavish counter argument to dechristianisation took place on 8 June, 1794. Robespierre’s painter friend Jacques-Louis David collaborated with opera composer François-Joseph Gossec and dramatist Marie-Joseph Chenier to make this an unforgettable occasion with a chorus of 2400. Dissatisfied by Chenier's lyrics, Robiespierre brought in Théodore Désorgues as a replacement. Years later Désorgues was imprisoned for rhyming "Napoleon" with "chameleon" in one of his poems.
On October 5, 1789 the women of Paris decided to march on Versailles to protest about, among other things, the price of bread, and to insist that the royal family accompany them back to Paris. 6000 women set out with violent intention, arriving at the Palace gates around midnight carrying pitch forks, muskets and scythes. Having been prevented access, the mob breached the walls at 6am, rushing the palace guards and beheading those they defeated.
They paraded around the palace grounds waving guards' heads on pikes, which proved to be quite the convincing argument. Thus humiliated and returned to Tuileries Palace, the King was metaphorically and physically put in his rightful place, opening up the possibility for France to become a constitutional monarchy.
The Jacobin politician Maximilien Robespierre was among the most famous and charismatic leaders of the Revolution. He was the architect of the guillotine killing-spree known as The Terror, executing people from all walks of life on often spurious charges such as "Crimes against the Revolution". Robespierre was fond of saying that he would gladly die for the Revolution... and when the paranoia reached fever pitch the mob turned its gaze on him and granted his wish. He was spectacularly guillotined after a failed suicide attempt, a victim of his own draconian policies that had escalated out of control.
Madame Marie Tussaud's mother was a housekeeper to Dr. Philippe Curtis, a physician skilled in modelling body parts in wax. From him she learned the art, excelling at it. She modelled likenesses of many famous people including Ben Franklin who was then the US Ambassador to France. During the bloody days of the Revolution she continued to model the famous and the infamous, retrieving their severed heads at the guillotine and creating death masks. These proved very popular amongst the angry Revolutionary crowds who paraded them around the streets of Paris.
Under charges of being decadent, morally corrupt, a deviant and a traitor to France, the controversial Queen was sentenced to death on the eve of her 38th birthday. Marie-Antoinette had tied up her hair and put on plum-coloured shoes in readiness for her procession to meet Madame Guillotine. However her executioner, Henri Sanson, attempted to humiliate her by hacking off her carefully dressed locks. Dignified to the last, radical journalist Jacques Hébert claimed only to see the Queen’s legs fail at the moment she was tipped forward.
Maximilien François Isidore de Robespierre was the provincial lawyer turned Revolution leader for whom power went to his head, which was eventually chopped off. As a politician Robespierre was among the first to voice concerns about failing military campaigns in Austria and Prussia – speaking as a Jacobin to disparage his Girondin adversaries in government. He collaborated with the painter Jacques-Louis David to use culture as a political device, promoting the Cult of the Supreme Being to further endear the Jacobins, but mainly himself, to the French in the absence of Roman Catholicism. The Supreme Being no longer referred to God, but "Nature itself".
By 1794 Robespierre had become the dominant voice on the Committee of Public Safety, established in 1793 to come down hard on anyone suspected of counter-revolutionary activity. A staggering 16594 Parisians were guillotined during the period known as The Terror. Jacobism became associated with extremism, and Robespierre started to look suspicious in obvious pursuit of his own political gain. He was outlawed by the National Convention, alongside his deputies, and sentenced to death by the dread tool of his own making. He took shelter in the Hôtel de Ville where he was captured by Convention guards. An apparent suicide attempt resulted in a gunshot wound that shattered his jaw, hastily bandaged with paper. Before the blade fell, the executioner tore off the bandage causing Robespierre to scream loudly before silence.
Gruesome though it does seem to modern sensibilities, the guillotine – aka "the machine", "the national razor", "the hot hand", and "The Widow" – was originally proposed as a way to exercise the death penalty. It takes its name from the Deputy of the National Assembly Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin who proposed a reform of capital punishment. However the device itself was engineered by a German piano maker named Tobias Schmidt. Its first victim was a violent thief, Nicolas Pelletier.
Battered though the exterior may be, step inside the Church of Saint-Roch and you find yourself blessed by the company of three famous Enlightenment thinkers: Denis Diderot, Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron d'Holbach) and Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin are all entombed here. So too is the prolific landscape architect André Le Nôtre, whose genius gave us the park of Palace of Versailles, Champs-Élysées avenue and the gardens of St Germain among others.
Among the most diabolical encounters of the French Revolution was the slaughter of the Swiss Guard at Tuileries Palace. Essentially the King was voted unfit to run the country, and the use of force was deemed necessary to overthrow the crown. The royal family fled to safety while the National Guard descended, vastly outnumbering the 900 Swiss Guards in residence. The few that escaped were chopped down in the streets.
According to Archibald Alison in his History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution there were so many people put to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror that an immense aqueduct was built to drain away the gore. It stretched from Place de la Concorde to Porte St Antoine. Four men were employed to empty the blood of victims into this reservoir each day.
From September 1793 until July 1794, terror became a principle of government in France; all counter-revolutionaries were to fear for their lives. Hastily appointed officers of the "revolutionary army" were to arrest aristocrats, priests or any other such traitors and send them to the guillotine. Almost 17,000 people were sliced not necessarily for what they had done, but for what they represented, with preposterously contrived trials to seal their fate.
With executions and mob attacks being liberally doled out to "counter revolutionaries", fear spread through all three estates. The bright red Liberty Cap, the uniform of a true revolutionary, became an extremely popular way to display the wearers loyalty. As you may well imagine, these were in high demand among the guillotine's crowd. Therefore, to pass the time, Parisian "knitting ladies" ("Tricoteuse") sat nonchalantly in the front row of The Widow watching the show as they knitted hundreds of Liberty Caps.
Historical Character: NO
Date of Birth: 1768
Personality: Brash, forceful, independent and smart
Skills: Acrobatics, fencing, manipulation
Background: Arno, the son of a murdered Assassin, is adopted at a young age by François De La Serre, a minor nobleman. He grows up in Versailles alongside De La Serre's daughter, Élise. Arno and Élise are fast friends throughout childhood before Élise leaves to further her education in Paris. When Arno is framed for De La Serre's murder, he learns of his true heritage, joins the Assassins, and fights to save Paris from sinister Templar machinations.
Historical Character: NO
Date of Birth: 1741
Personality: Grizzled and cantankerous, doesn't take any crap. More radical than the others, he has Jacobin sympathies. Has an earthy sense of humor. Believes in the Brotherhood with a soldier's passion, but has a simplistic, fanatical view of their philosophy.
Skills: Combat & Tactics
Profession: Retired soldier
Background: Took part in the Seven Years' War as a corporal and discovered his Assassin lineage at that time. Took care not to rise in the ranks, as he was more valuable as a nondescript soldier.
Historical Character: YES
Date of Birth: 1749
Personality: Charming. Despite his ugliness, a great seducer of women. His impetuosity got him in trouble repeatedly. A compelling and influential orator, but capable of violent eruptions. Speaks in a booming baritone. A man of high taste in litterature, worldly and knowledgable. Ambitious and vain and unafraid of attacking powerful figures. Genuinely believed in the virtue of his goals - but was not above taking money from the Royal Family to help pay off his enormous debts.
Skills: Charm, seduction, oration
Profession: Marquis. Later Representative at the National Assembly
Background: Grew up in an aristocratic family (he was a marquis) near Marseilles. Often imprisoned (by his father! - a common disciplinary tactic among the upper-crust in those days) for his indiscrete sexual affairs. Wrote famously indecent love-letters to Sophie, a married woman whom he seduced and who followed him to exile in Switzerland. He was subsequently caught and jailed in Vincennes for rape (despite Sophie's devotion to him). A gifted orator, he argued and won an order that all charges against him would be dropped. He went to Holland and started up with a Dutch woman, then went to England where he hung out with various Barons and Baronets. Returned to France and became a member of the Estates General and advanced to the Assembly. Mirabeau cultivated connections to the Queen and the court. Suspicions that he was secretly working for the royalist cause or at a minimum bribed by the Crown dogged him (the Crown did pay some of his debts). In any case, he was a voice of moderation in the Assembly and seemed to advocate a sort of constitutional monarchy (he admired the British constitutional monarchy that he had seen first-hand).
Historical Character: YES
Date of Birth: 1740
Personality: Intense concentration, witty, free-thinking individual. Sexual, but not a mincing caricature.
Profession: Writer, Noble
Background: The pampered child of nobility, the Marquis was raised surrounded by the influential and the powerful. After an expert education from his uncle, the Abbe de Sade, he fought in the Seven Years' War as a Colonel. Returning from battle to his castle in Lacoste, he began the life of a libertine, committed to sensuality, excess and above all else, freedom.