If the Phrygian cap fits…

(Jane Welsh Carlyle, whose husband Thomas Carlyle wrote “The French Revolution: a History”, was born on this day in 1801.)

The French have commemorated Le Quatorze Juillet since 1790. In 1789, French commoners were in the midst of breaking away from the monarchy and establishing a constitution. In fear of attack by the Royal military, they sought arms and gunpowder, both of which were stored at the Bastille, which also held political prisoners. The storming of the Bastille on the afternoon of 14th July, 1789, was followed within weeks by the abolition of feudalism and the end of the Ancien Regime.

In 1728, Voltaire had published his epic poem, “La Henriade”, in praise of Henri IV (1553-1610) of France and his appreciation of tolerance, peace, and humanity. In 1775, Jean Michel Moreau was commissioned to illustrate the poem. Alongside the King he depicted Feronia, Roman goddess of liberty. The ancient Roman scholar Varro identified Feronia with Libertas, the goddess who personified Liberty.

Feronia was especially honoured among plebeians and freedmen as the goddess who granted freedom to slaves, or civil rights to the most humble part of society. According to one tradition, slaves who had just been freed might go to the shrine at Terracina (near Rome) and receive upon their shaved heads the pileus, a felt hat that symbolised their liberty.

In the 16th Century, the Roman iconography of liberty had been revived in emblem books and numismatic handbooks, where the figure of Libertas was usually depicted with a pileus.

In 1675, the anti tax and anti nobility Stamp Paper revolt erupted in north western France, where it became known as the “bonnets rouges” uprising after the (blue or) red caps worn by the insurgents.

It was not until the early 1790s that the French cap of liberty was used in the Phrygian form. (In classical antiquity, Phrygia was a kingdom in what is now Asian Turkey, centred on the Sangarios River.) In this form, the liberty cap was a soft conical cap with the apex bent over. Its first documented use as a symbol of revolutionary France is in May 1790, at a festival in Troyes adorning a statue representing the nation, and at Lyon on a lance carried by the goddess Libertas.

In paintings by Nanine Vallain and Eugène Delacroix, the goddess of Liberty becomes Marianne, since the French Revolution the personification of the French Republic and of liberty and reason. To this day, as the national allegorical figure, she is shown wearing a red Phrygian cap.

All of which helps to explain why, in March 2018, Charles Moore should write in The Spectator:

“(George Canning) satirised the sort of Englishman who adored the French Revolution: “A steady patriot of the world alone,/ The friend of every country but his own.” That Phrygian cap fits Mr Corbyn perfectly.”.

Bonne Fete Nationale!

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