19th Century

Eugene Sue’s “Mysteries of the People” (1848): “The Poniard’s Hilt” and the Arrival of Feudalism in France | Stephen Basdeo

By Stephen Basdeo, a writer and historian based in Leeds, United Kingdom. This article follows on from previous posts on Eugene Sue’s epic socialist novel Mysteries of the People.

Visionary French Author Eugene Sue (Stephen Basdeo Collection)

In 1848 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto. In it, they argued that all history was essentially the history of class struggle. And they continued to outline how this relationship of oppression between the dominant class and the oppressed class worked in practice for in each epoch of history we have

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.[1]

The Red Republican politician and author of The Mysteries of Paris, Eugene Sue, decided to represent this history of class struggle through the medium of fiction. The result was The Mysteries of the People, published at the end of 1848. It was a chronicle of the lives of a proletarian family—originally the Brenn clan, whose chief was named Joel—and his descendants (whose name, over time, is changed to the more recognisably French Lebrenne). Throughout all 21 volumes of this fascinating novel Joel’s descendants participate in all of the major class struggles and revolutions in France, from Caesar’s invasion of Gaul to the French Revolution of 1848.

Title page to Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of the People

Eugene Sue (1804–57) was the son of Jean Joseph Sue II and his Marie Sophie Tison de Reilly. Jean Joseph was a surgeon who served Napoleon, and whose ancestors were surgeons to the French royal family. A well-connected family, Eugene had the Empress Josephine for his godmother. It was expected that Eugene would enter the medical profession but, with his father dying in 1829 and a vast fortune passing to him, Eugene decided to become a writer. His early works were stories of pirates and other historical tales, for he endeavoured to emulate the American writer James Fenimore Cooper. His novels sold moderately well and, as G.W.M. Reynolds remarked, Sue’s novels were respectable enough for the drawing room.[2] But Sue never truly distinguished himself until he wrote The Mysteries of Paris (1843)—a shocking exposé of the vice and depravity in French criminal underworld, and in the aristocratic French “upperworld.” After that, Sue was a household name and even inspired Reynolds’s Mysteries of London (1844–48).

A daguerrotype of the Paris in the 1830s: The World that Eugene Sue knew.

Although Sue was brought up in a thoroughly bourgeois family, the time spent among the slums of Paris researching his Mysteries of Paris opened his eyes to the poverty suffered by the French proletariat. This brought with it a change in his politics. He became a socialist. He was never a Marxist communist. Indeed, Sue’s “conversion” to socialism predated the publication of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto (1848). Instead Sue would have called himself a Red Republican—a member of an internationalist group of labour activists who called for universal suffrage; nationalization of the land and factories; and universal education. Sue was eventually elected, as a member of the Red Republican Party of France—nicknamed “The Mountain”—to the French legislature but he was exiled from Paris by Louis-Napoleon in 1851 after the latter’s coup d’etat.

US Civil War Era edition of Mysteries of the People

It was after Sue’s conversion to Red Republicanism that Sue wrote The Mysteries of the People (French: Mysteres du Peuple). The final part of the novel, which deals with the French Revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848, was translated into English and published ‘exclusively’ in Reynolds’s Miscellany with the somewhat longer title of Mysteries of the People; or, The History of a Proletarian Family from the Earliest Ages to the Present Time (it was serialised in Reynolds’s Miscellany alongside three of Reynolds’s novels: The Bronze Statue; or, The Virgin’s Kiss; The Drunkard’s Progress; and The Pixy; or, The Unbaptized Child).[3]

In spite of its serialisation in Reynolds’s Miscellany, Mysteries of the People was quickly forgotten about in the English-speaking world and it was never, unlike the rest of Sue’s works, printed in a one volume edition in English.

But in 1904 the American socialist writer Daniel de Leon “rediscovered” the novel and set about translating it into English for the benefit of the American proletariat. He was captivated with Sue’s novel because

It graphically traces the special features of class-rule as they have succeeded one another from epoch to epoch, together with the special character of the struggle between the contending classes. The “Law,” “Order,” “Patriotism,” “Religion,” “Family,” etc., etc., that each successive tyrant class, despite its change of form, fraudulently sought refuge in to justify its criminal existence whenever threatened; the varying economic causes of the oppression of the toilers; the mistakes incurred by these in their struggles for redress; the varying fortunes of the conflict;—all these social dramas are therein reproduced in a majestic series of “novels” covering leading and successive episodes in the history of the race—an inestimable gift, above all to our own generation, above all to the American working class, the short history of whose country deprives it of historic back-ground.[4]

The English translation was divided into 21 volumes, each with a different title that is based upon one of the family relics passed down from age to age:

The Gold Sickle; or, Hena, the Virgin of the Isle of Sen;

The Brass Bell; or, The Chariot of Death;

The Iron Collar; or, Faustine and Syomara;

The Silver Cross; or, The Carpenter of Nazareth;

The Casque’s Lark; or, Victoria, The Mother of the Camps;

The Poniard’s Hilt; or, Karadeucq and Ronan;

The Branding Needle; or, The Monastery of Charolles;

The Abbatial Crosier; or, Bonaik and Septimine;

Carlovingian Coins; or, The Daughters of Charlemagne;

The Iron Arrow-Head; or, The Maid of the Buckler;

The Infant’s Skull; or, The End of the World;

The Pilgrim’s Shell; or, Fergan the Quarryman;

The Iron Pincers; or, Mylio and Karvel;

The Iron Trevet; or, Jocelyn the Champion;

The Executioner’s Knife; or, Joan of Arc;

The Pocket Bible; or, Christian the Printer (2 vols);

The Blacksmith’s Hammer; or, The Peasant-Code;

The Sword of Honor; or, The Foundation of the French Republic (2 vols);

The Galley-Slave’s Ring; or, The Family of Lebrenn.

Previous posts on this website have examined the first five volumes of Sue’s epic story, in which the fate of Guilhern’s descendants typify the struggles and adversities faced by the working classes throughout the ages. In The Gold Sickle and The Brass Bell we were witness to the fortunes and misfortunes of the brave Gallic warrior Guilhern who was sold into slavery in the aftermath of the Roman Conquest of Gaul. And slavery was the fate of Guilhern’s son, Sylvest, and his daughter Syomara, and the stories of their descendants were told in The Iron Collar and The Silver Cross—in the last of which Sylvest’s great granddaughter, Genevieve, meets “The Socialist of Socialists,” Jesus Christ in 33 A.D. (Christ was called “The socialist of socialists” by Louis Blanc) (follow the links for my discussion of the first four novels). The Casque’s Lark introduced readers to one of Guilhern’s descendants, Schanvoch, who along with Victoria and Victorinus—the real life leaders of the breakaway Gallic Empire in the third century—helped to fight off the Frankish invasion of Gaul.

The conquests of Gaul by the Franks

It was also in The Casque’s Lark, for the first time, that the descendants of Guilhern came face-to-face with the Neroweg family—in subsequent volumes, the Neroweg family is representative of the oppressor class, and Guilhern’s family is representative of the oppressed working class.

The Poniard’s Hilt continues this story of the battle between the oppressed Lebrennes and the haughty Nerowegs by telling a tale of how, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the invasion of the Frankish barbarians, feudalism was imposed onto what is now France.

The year is 511 A.D. The Frankish King Clovis I has died, having united all of the Frankish tribes under his rule, as Guilhern’s descendant Araim exclaims:

Alas! After nearly two centuries the gloomy prophecy of the foster sister of our ancestor Schanvoch has been verified. Victoria the Great predicted it but too accurately. Long ago did the Franks pour over the our frontier of the Rhine; they have since spread themselves over the whole of Gaul and subjugated the land—except our Breton Armorica.[5]

Coins depicting Clotaire

Brittany—where Araim resides—has not yet been subdued. But he knows that Clovis’s death has led to a power vacuum; Clovis’s four sons, Theuderic, Chlodomer, Childebert and Clotaire (the last of which, at this period, was steadily conquering his brothers’ lands) scramble for power like rats in a sack. Each son tries to out-vie his brother and overthrow them by courting alliances with the lesser Frankish counts. Even the sons of these men attempt to usurp their power. Later in the novel readers are introduced to Chram, the son of Clotaire, who plots to kill his father and usurp his position as ruler of the King of the Franks.

While actual slavery of the type that the Gauls experienced under the Romans is no more, the Frankish rulers have imposed a new system on their social inferiors: the lowest of the low are literally ‘owned’ by their lords. They must work on their signeurs’ land and give over the major part of what they produce to their lords, retaining only a small portion for their own subsistence, and Sue sums up the situation in the following manner in one of his asides to the reader:

Who produced these wines, these mountains of venison, of fish, of beef, of pork, of mutton, of game, of poultry, of vegetables and fruit? Gaul! The country that is cultivated and rendered fruitful by a population of starvelings, whose representatives, wan with hunger and privation in the midst of such plenty, officiate as living torches to light the banquet. That heap of good things is produced by men and women who, huddled in mud and straw huts, are, at that very moment, and in utter exhaustion, partaking with pittance.[6]

A Catholic bishop entertains the tyrant Count Neroweg

In exchange for their ‘service’ to the Frankish seigneurs, society’s underlings—these new ‘serfs’—receive supposed ‘protection’ from the Frankish lords. The Franks have also found a powerful ally in the Catholic Church, whose bishops—many of whom are of Gallic descent and therefore viewed by Bretons as traitors to their country—endorse this new system and preach to the subjugated Gallic masses that their low station in life has been ordained by God. Christianity has made most of the once proud, fierce, and independent-minded Gauls docile:

The bishops undermined the mental virility of the people, besotted them, and rendered them submissive prey to the conquerors.[7]

Meanwhile, the Bretons, although their own region is independent of the invaders’ rule, mourn the conquest of their country by the barbarian Franks.

It is precisely such a topic that Araim, one of Joel’s descendants, and his wife are discussing in their homestead in rural Brittany when a traveller arrives and requests hospitality for the evening. Accommodation is immediately granted. As the traveller comes from the Frankish domains, Araim requests the traveller to tell him the latest news from the Kingdom of the Franks.

Neroweg torturing his serfs for fun

The traveller reveals that some Gauls are fighting back against the Franks: Groups of men named Vagres (outlaws) have been, much like Robin Hood did in later medieval England, stealing from the rich Franks to give to the poor.

Inspired by their stories, the next evening Araim’s teenaged son Karadequcq runs away and becomes a vagre.

As the years progress, Karadeucq has a son named Ronan, whom he raises to be an outlaw just like himself. Indeed, the novel becomes a classic nineteenth-century outlaw novel with classic tropes from the genre such as robbing fat bishops and relieving rich aristocrats of their purses.

Ronan the outlaw and his friends are captured and imprisoned by Neroweg

However, one day Ronan and some of his fellow outlaws are captured by Count Neroweg who decides that, to entertain Clotaire’s son Chram, the famous vagre Ronan shall be executed. Karadeucq then leaves a band of vagres to rescue his son from the dungeons of Neroweg’s burg. The outlaws burn Neroweg’s burg to the ground.

Loysik, the hermit monk who joins the outlaws

Yet as one of the Christian vagres—a kind of ‘serious’ Friar Tuck character—reminds the vagres: they can only ever win small victories; as much as the outlaws might want to, their depredations can never hope to completely destroy this new ‘feudal’ system that has been imposed on the Gauls:

Your vengeance fatedly begets incalculable misfortunes. No doubt there is now many a seigneur who, merciless until recently, does now conduct himself with less cruelty towards his slaves, as a consequence of the terror with which you inspire him. But the next day? You will then be far away, and the butchers then resume their murderous propensities. You set the homes of the conquerors on fire; but those buildings are speedily raised again, and it is our brothers, the slaves, who are forced to rebuild them. You distribute among the poor a part of the tribute that you levy upon the seigneurs and the prelates; but after a few days of abundance, misery weighs anew upon the unhappy population, and, by contrast, it is more painful than before. The coffers that you rifle must all be refilled by our brothers, the slaves, by dint of fresh and crushing labors. What floods of tears! What floods of blood are shed! How many ruins mark your tracks, how many irreparable disasters![8]

Neroweg’s burg is burned by the outlaws

This of course begs the question whether, for all their ‘smash the Franks’ rhetoric, the vagres are radical at all. Sue does not provide easy answers to this question, and such a question—whether outlaws are radical—is indeed debated still by Robin Hood scholars such as Stephen Knight and James C. Holt.[9] At best, outlaws can only hope to make minor changes to society and outlawry is a sign, in Sue’s novel at least, of the Gallic people’s impotence to challenge the oppressive system that is being imposed on them by their Frankish conquerors.

Some years later, after Clotaire kills his own son Chram for waging battle against him, Bishop Chalons—with Clotaire’s blessing—grants the vagres land so they can live on it, farm it, and form a self-governing commune. The commune is formed and it is there that Karadeucq’s son Ronan makes a life for himself. Yet the act of breaking away from society de-radicalises the vagres even more—one gets the sense from Sue’s novel that Clotaire’s approval of Chalons’ scheme was more about keeping these marauders all in one place, keeping an eye over them, and not have them causing disruption.

The vagres are now ‘free’ from outside Frankish control, but their fellow Gauls are not.

Many years later, Ronan travels to Brittany to find his long lost relatives—whom his own father, Karadeucq, ran away from to become an outlaw some decades ago. Ronan finds his uncle Kervan, his wife, and their son Yvon. Ronan gives his relatives the written narrative of his own and Karadeucq’s life to add to the family relics, along with a carved sword hilt that was once in Karadeucq’s possession.

Among the family relics now there are several written narratives, spanning some five hundred years, along with a golden sickle, a brass bell, an iron collar, a silver cross, a casque’s lark, and a poniard’s hilt.

[1] K. Marx and F. Engels [online], The Communist Manifesto (1848), accessed 6 July 2021. Available at: http://www.marxists.org.

[2] George W.M. Reynolds, The Modern Literature of France, 2 vols (London: George Henderson, 1839), I, p. 79.

[3] Eugene Sue, ‘Mysteries of the People; or, The History of a Proletarian Family from the Earliest Ages to the Present Time’, Reynolds’s Miscellany, 19 January 1850, 414 marks the beginning of Sue’s novel in this magazine which ran for a year.

[4] Daniel de Leon, ‘Translator’s Preface’, in Eugene Sue, The Gold Sickle, Trans. Daniel de Leon (New York Labor News, 1904), pp. i–ii.

[5] Eugene Sue, The Poniard’s Hilt; or, Karadeucq and Ronan, Trans. Daniel de Leon (New York Labour News, 1907), p.13.

[6] Sue, The Poniard’s Hilt, p. 145.

[7] Sue, The Poniard’s Hilt, p. 260.

[8] Sue, The Poniard’s Hilt, p. 265.

[9] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003)