19th Century

Eugene Sue’s “Mysteries of the People” (1848): “The Branding Needle” and the First French Commune | 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.

Previous discussions on the first six volumes can be found here:

(Unless otherwise stated, all images are from my own collection).

French author and politician Eugene Sue

The History of Class Struggle

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.[i]

Mysteries of the People

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.

Eugene Sue

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.

Sue’s novels sold moderately well and, as G.W.M. Reynolds remarked, his novels were respectable enough for the drawing room.[ii] 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).

Sue the Socialist

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.

Title page to Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris

Indeed, Sue’s “conversion” to socialism predated the publication of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto (1848). However, Sue would not have called himself a socialist but 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.

The Reynolds’s Miscellany Translation 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

Reynolds’s Miscellany translation of Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of the People (the tightness of the binding on this volume prevents me from taking a flatter picture)

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).[iii]

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.

An abridged American version of Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of the People, dating from the American Civil War.

Daniel de Leon’s Translation

In 1904, however, 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.[iv]

Daniel de Leon (Photo plate from Daniel DeLeon: The Man and His Work: A Symposium. Published by the National Executive Committee of the Socialist Labor Party)

De Leon’s 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:

  1. The Gold Sickle; or, Hena, the Virgin of the Isle of Sen;
  2. The Brass Bell; or, The Chariot of Death;
  3. The Iron Collar; or, Faustine and Syomara;
  4. The Silver Cross; or, The Carpenter of Nazareth;
  5. The Casque’s Lark; or, Victoria, The Mother of the Camps;
  6. The Poniard’s Hilt; or, Karadeucq and Ronan;
  7. The Branding Needle; or, The Monastery of Charolles;
  8. The Abbatial Crosier; or, Bonaik and Septimine;
  9. Carlovingian Coins; or, The Daughters of Charlemagne;
  10. The Iron Arrow-Head; or, The Maid of the Buckler;
  11. The Infant’s Skull; or, The End of the World;
  12. The Pilgrim’s Shell; or, Fergan the Quarryman;
  13. The Iron Pincers; or, Mylio and Karvel;
  14. The Iron Trevet; or, Jocelyn the Champion;
  15. The Executioner’s Knife; or, Joan of Arc;
  16. The Pocket Bible; or, Christian the Printer (2 vols);
  17. The Blacksmith’s Hammer; or, The Peasant-Code;
  18. The Sword of Honor; or, The Foundation of the French Republic (2 vols);
  19. The Galley-Slave’s Ring; or, The Family of Lebrenn.

The Roman Conquest of Gaul

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.

Vercingetorix rallies the Gauls against the Romans in The Gold Sickle

Jesus Christ: “The Socialist of Socialists”

Slavery was also 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 these Sylvest’s great granddaughter, Genevieve, meets “The Socialist of Socialists,” Jesus Christ in 33 A.D.

Genevieve at the foot of the cross in Sue’s Silver Cross; or, The Carpenter of Nazareth

The Gallic Empire

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.

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.

Victoria the Great from Eugene Sue’s The Casque’s Lark

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 Branding Needle; or, The Monastery of Charolles

In The Branding Needle we re-join, some years later in the year 613, those characters whom we met in The Poniard’s Hilt: Loysik and Ronan, the descendants of Guihern and Joel; the Master of the Hounds; the Bishopess; and many freed Gallic slaves (former victims of the feudal system imposed by the Franks). All are living in a self-governing commune named the Monastery of Charolles, which was granted to them by King Clotaire fifty years earlier.

Loysik the Monk, as depicted in Eugene Sue’s The Poniard’s Hilt

Life at the commune is good but trouble is brewing. The evil Brunhild of Austrasia has given permission to the Bishop of Chalons to invade the commune and assert his authority over it. As the ‘commune-ist’ colonists prepare for their annual festival, an army of mercenaries in the bishop’s employ is massing on the other side of the river ready to invade.

A battle ensues between the colonists and the bishop’s mercenaries and the colonists emerge victorious. On learning that the attempted invasion of the commune was carried out with Brunhild’s blessing, Loysik the Monk, the leader of the colony, travels to Chalon-on-the-Saone, the capital of Burgundy, to demand a meeting with the fearsome queen.

Loysik and Brunhild in Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of the People

Queen Brunhild

Brunhild of Austrasia is one of the most famous figures in ‘French’ history and literature. Often referred to as a ‘second Jezebel’,[v] Brunhild was depicted as a scheming villain in later chronicles and art.[vi]

Sue’s novel follows this model of presenting Brunhild as a second Jezebel because Sue, taking the Chronicle of Fredegar as his primary source text, depicts her as a femme fatale. A very attractive woman (which is at odds with the historical record at the end of her life, and is in tension with the illustrations used in Sue’s novel, which depict her as an ageing woman), she is certainly ambitious, as the following passage from the novel illustrates:

“I believe it. I feel it. Aye, I feel within me indomitable will and vitality. To reign! the ambition of great souls! To reign like the Emperors of Rome! I wish to emulate them in all their sovereign omnipotence! I wish to count by the millions the instruments of my will! I wish, by a mere gesture, to cause the power of my arms to be felt from one confine of the world to the other! I wish to increase my kingdom to an infinite extent! I wish to be able to say: ‘All these countries, from the nearest to the most distant, belong to me! I wish to concentrate the forces of all nations into my own hands and to cause all the peoples of the earth to bend under my yoke! I wish to raise in all parts of Gaul the marvels of art that now cover Burgundy—fortified castles, magnificent palaces, gold-naved basilicas, wide and interminable highways, prodigious monuments, all of which will in all the centuries to come re-echo the name of Brunhild!”[vii]

Depravity at the court Queen Brunhild in Eugene Sue’s The Branding Needle

The characterisation of Brunhild as an evil, scheming woman serves the purposes of historical romance very well, but historians have taken a different view of Brunhild. As we delve into some of the historiographical works written in the recent past, we find that Brunhild was friendly towards Jewish people and supported by them in great numbers. This was unusual at a time when antisemitism was rife.[viii]

Historian J. B. Bury had great respect for Brunhild who said that she had the qualities of a great statesman (Wikimedia Commons)

Going further back, remarks that J.B. Bury made at the end of the nineteenth century illustrate a respect for this ‘forceful’ woman who reduced the power of the nobles while shoring up the monarchy’s position, all the while appeasing the Church by granting various gifts to them.[ix] Bury concluded that, whatever has been written about Brunhild by her detractors, she

‘displayed the qualities of a great statesman’.

In Sue’s novel, it is Brunhild’s granting of gifts to the Church that brings Loysik and the commune into conflict with her. When Loysik meets Brunhild face-to-face, he reminds her that she is in no position to be harassing the commune because she will lose further allies and any goodwill from the people at a critical moment when she is engaged in a war against Clotaire II, as Loysik states

“Very well. You will send troops to the Valley. They will force their way in, arms in hand; they will crush our inhabitants despite any resistance that they may offer, and however heroic. Men, women and children will know how to die. After a stubborn fight, your soldiers will find upon their entrance into the Valley only corpses and ashes. But you seem to forget that war has been declared between you and Fredegonde’s son, that the moment is critical, and that you require all your available forces in order to resist your enemies. Execrated by the people, execrated by the seigneurs, the leading ones of whom have already joined the standard of Clotaire II, you are hardly certain of the loyalty of your own army, seeing that you have been obliged to call savage tribes to your aid and to allure them with the prospect of pillage. You seem to forget that, guided by an unerring instinct, and seeing the power of the mayors of the palaces on the ascendant, the people look upon these as the natural enemies of the Frankish Kings and are ready to revolt in support of the former. Despite the heroic resistance that they will offer, our people of the Valley will be crushed. I admit it. But do you imagine that the surrounding populations, however timid and cowed they may be, will remain impassive when they will see people of their own race slaughtered to the last man in the defense of their freedom? The horror of conquest, the hatred for slavery, the unbearable hardships of poverty have more than once driven people steeped in deeper degradation than our own to serious and stubborn revolt. To-morrow, who knows! some frightful insurrection may break out against you, called into being by the voice of the grandees who abhor you.”[x]

Loysik’s reasoning works; Brunhild’s grip on power is unstable and there is no reason for her to make further enemies. She sees sense and allows Loysik’s commune to remain unmolested.

The death of Queen Brunhild as depicted in Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of the People

The Death of Brunhild

Brunhild ultimately loses the war against Clotaire II. She is captured at the village of Ryonne by Clotaire’s forces and Sue, true to the historical record,[xi] has Brunhild tortured for three full days. Clotaire is, in fact, something of a sadist, as a soldier reveals to Loysik that in a house in that village

There is a little window through which one can look inside. Through that opening, the King, the dukes, the leudes, the Bishop of Troyes and a few other preferred personages went from time to time to contemplate the victim in her agony. Being a connoisseur, Clotaire never took a look inside when Brunhild was screaming; at times the woman screamed loud enough to be heard clean across the village; he never went to see her at such times; but the moment she began to moan, he walked to the window and peeped in; it is said the sufferings of victims in the torture are intenser when they moan than when they scream out aloud. It was a protracted holiday for the whole village. Like the generous King that he is, Clotaire allowed a large number of people, who followed Brunhild to the village, to remain to the end of the tortures, and had provisions distributed among them.[xii]

Coin depicting Clotaire II (Bibliotheque Nationale)

After three days of agonising torture Brunhild is put to death. Sue incorporates into his narrative of Brunhild’s death a legend that first appears in the eighth-century Liber Historiae Francorum, which states that

Then the army of the Franks and Burgundians joined into one, all shouted together that death would be most fitting for the very wicked Brunhilda. Then King Clotaire ordered that she be lifted onto a camel and led through the entire army. Then she was tied to the feet of wild horses and torn apart limb from limb. Finally she died. Her final grave was the fire. Her bones were burnt.[xiii]

After Brunhild’s death, Loysik approaches Clotaire II and asks him to affirm his commune’s charter once more. Clotaire’s respect for the actions of his ancestor who first placed his great seal on the commune’s charter leads him to enthusiastically reaffirm it.

The murder of Brunhilda, from De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, attributed to Maître François, Paris, c. 1475 (Schoyen Collection)

Yet Loysik knows that after his death the commune will fall either to the Church or to some Frankish faction who covet the fertile land. The combined class power of the Frankish aristocracy and the Catholic Church is too strong for the small commune to hold out against. That the commune will eventually fall, and the remaining free Gauls made subservient to the Franks and the Church, is in keeping with the vision related by the Gallic empress, Victoria, in The Casque’s Lark, in which a succession of Franks trample upon the free spirit of Gaul—until the French Revolution of 1789, of course, when the spirit of Gaul reasserts itself:

“What do I see? Is this the future that unveils itself before my eyes? Who is that woman—so pale, lying prostrate? Her robe is blood-bespattered. Also her chaplet of oaken leaves has drops of blood; the sword, that her virile hand once held, lies broken at her side. One of those savage Franks, his head ornamented with a crown, holds the noble woman under his knees; he looks with mild and timid mien at a man splendidly arrayed as a pontiff. Hesus! The bleeding woman—is Gaul! The barbarian who kneels down upon her—is a Frankish king! The pontiff—is the Bishop of Rome! Blood flows! a stream of blood! it carries in its course, to the light of the flames of conflagrations, a mass of ruins, thousands of corpses! Oh! the woman—Gaul, I see her again wan, worn, clad in rags, the iron collar of servitude on her neck; she drags herself on her knees; bending under a heavy burden! The Frankish king and the Roman bishop quicken the march of enslaved Gaul with their whips! Another torrent of blood; still the glamour of conflagration. Oh, Hesus! Enough! Enough ruins and massacre! Heaven be praised!” cried Victoria, whose face seemed for a moment to beam with divine splendor. “The noble woman has risen to her feet! Behold her—more beautiful, prouder than ever before! Her head is wreathed in a crown of fresh oak-leaves! In one hand she holds a sheaf of grain, grapes and flowers; in the other a red flag, surmounted by the Gallic cock. Superbly she tramples underfoot the fragments of her collar of slavery, the crown of the Frankish kings and that of the Roman pontiffs! Yes, that woman, free at last, stately, glorious and fruitful—she is Gaul! Hesus! Hesus! Be kind to her! Enable her to break the yoke of Kings and Pontiffs! Lead her to freedom, glorious and fruitful without being compelled to reach the goal by wading from century to century through those seas of tears, those seas of blood that affright me!”[xiv]

The Vision of Victoria the Great from Eugene Sue’s The Casque’s Lark, depicting a Gaul, trampled on over the centuries by a succession of bishops and Franks until, in 1789, the spirit of Gaul rises triumphantly over the crown and the mitre.

The Family’s Future

After Brunhild’s death Loysik returns to his commune at Charolles. Many more refugees enter. The descendants of Joel and Guilhern marry some of the newcomers. The descendants of Joel and Guilhern become more numerous and some aim to go their separate ways.

As the family gets bigger, Ronan recommends that a new family tradition should start: families should make a small tattoo on their arms to ensure that 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, a poniard’s hilt, and a branding needle.

The stage is now set for the next novel in the series: The Abbatial Crosier which tells the story of

The turbulent epoch that rocked the cradle of the Carlovingian dynasty, the dynasty from which issued the colossal historic figure of Charlemagne.[xv]

What further class-based oppression awaits the descendants of Joel under the rule of Charlemagne? The next instalment in Eugene Sue’s novel, The Abbatial Crosier, reveals the answer (Image: Wikimedia Commons)


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

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

[iii] 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.

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

[v] Janet L. Nelson, ‘Queens as Jezebels: the careers of Brunhild and Balthild in Merovingian history’, in Medieval Women, ed. by D. Baker (Oxford University Press, 1978), 31-77

[vi] Emma Jane Thomas, ‘The “second Jezebel”: representations of the sixth-century Queen Brunhild’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2012).

[vii][vii] Eugene Sue [online], The Branding Needle; or, The Monastery of Charolles, Trans. Daniel de Leon (New York Labor Publishing Company, 1908), accessed 24 December 2021, available at: http://www.gutenberg.org.

[viii] Jits van Straten, The Origin of Ashkenazi Jewry: The Controversy Unraveled (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011), 25.

[ix] J.B. Bury, The Cambridge Medieval History, ed. by H.M. Gwatkin and J.P. Whitney, 5 vols (London: MacMillan, 1913), II, 124.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding, Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography, 640–720 (Manchester University Press, 1996), 12.

[xii] Sue, The Branding Needle, op cit.

[xiii] See Valerie Thompson, From Source to Sea: A Meander Down the Dordogne Valley (London, 2019).

[xiv] Eugene Sue, The Casque’s Lark; or, Victoria, the Mother of the Camps, Trans. Daniel de Leon (New York Labor News, 1911), 271–73.

[xv] Eugene Sue, The Abbatial Crosier; or, Bonaik and Septimine, Trans. Daniel de Leon (New York Labor News, 1908), i.