“The Bourgeois de Calais”: Michel Bernard, sculpted history
“Les Bourgeois de Calais”, by Michel Bernard, La Table Ronde, 208 p., € 20, digital € 15.
The episode has a prominent place in the account of the famous Hundred Years War. On the strength of their victory at Crécy in 1346, the English besieged Calais. The city surrendered. To spare the inhabitants, King Edward III then demanded that six rich bourgeois be handed over to him. And here they are, walking barefoot, in shirts, the noose around their necks, going to carry the keys of their city to the victor. Safe to walk towards death. It will take the tears of the queen for them to be pardoned. All this was told to us by Jean Froissart (1337-1410) in his Chronicles. But if it hadn’t been for Rodin, who today would remember the burghers of Calais?
The work would never have existed without the will of a man who was far removed from the artistic circles of the time. Mayor of Calais in 1884, Omer Dewavrin, at 47, is a notary, father of a family, very wisely married. But this provincial notable has nothing of the Mr. Prudhomme by Henry Monnier. With him no received ideas, sententious conformism. He is from this bourgeoisie of the end of the XIXe century, positive, confident in the future, which owes its advent and its social ease to generations that appeared at the time of the Revolution and the First Empire. The centenary of the Revolution is approaching and precisely, in this IIIe Republic so attached to symbols (we have just declared July 14 a national holiday a few years earlier), the elected representative of Calais has sent well that it is necessary to firmly anchor his city to the commemoration. Of these six bourgeois from the Middle Ages surrendered to the enemy to save their fellow citizens, local history has made heroes. Why not raise them to the big story? They will have to dedicate a monument. He was told about a Parisian sculptor with promising modernity. This is how he made the trip to meet Rodin. He does not know that the adventure will occupy ten years of his life.
For about fifteen books, Michel Bernard has been unfolding the novel of France. Let him write about Maurice Genevoix (For Genevoix, 2011), Maurice Ravel (The Forests of Ravel, 2015), Claude Monet (Two remorse by Claude Monet, 2016) or Joan of Arc (The Good Heart and Common sense, 2018 and 2020; all published by La Table Ronde), it always blends in with the great destinies of the depth of the landscapes, intertwines the events of the time with the simple life of the moment. On Joan of Arc, moreover, in The Calonne Trench (The Round Table, 2007), an account in which we find the sketches of many of his texts, he quotes this statement from De Gaulle: “We think she is very far from us; in fact, it’s not huge. That makes six old men placed at the end of one another. In fact, we are very close. “ This way, across centuries, from one life to another, of closing “The fault of time” it’s own. Michel Bernard is the writer of continuity, of the proximity of our history.
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