Discover more from Liminal Web
From the Archives: The Iron Closet
In which, I saw with my own eyes, one of the most famous artifacts of French history
Not having the time, the energy, nor the proper mood to write new content, I hope you won’t mind if I republish old things from my blogs. Some are timeless and you may have missed them. The original is here, just in case.
Look at this picture:
It’s not a good picture, I know.
It took it back in 2009. At the time, the only camera I had was a simple and cheap digital camera. It couldn’t really take decent pictures indoors without a flash. I was not allowed to use a flash in that room. Also, I only had a few seconds to literally point and shoot.
And it’s a shame that it is the only picture I have of this place because it’s one of the most amazing things I have seen in my life.
Let me explain.
During my last two years in Paris, I had one of the best jobs one can imagine in Paris (well, except for the money, the money sucked – you know public schools, they always have tight budgets). I worked at the University of Florida’s Paris Research Center. It was an amazing job for many reasons. One of them is that while working there, I got to see things and visit places that most people – not even French people – will never get to see.
One of these things is the Iron Closet in the French National Archives at the Hôtel de Soubise in the historical heart of Paris.
This bad picture is the Iron Closet. And yes, it is open.
What is it and why does it matter?
Well, it’s an iron closet. Except that, it’s not true. It’s actually three iron closets encased one into the other. It was built in 1790 (it may have been updated since… not sure though, the keys still look like very old keys). Its purpose then was to keep and protect the originals for official banknotes and other important and official documents of the time (this was in the middle of the French Revolution when the new regime was being put into place, at the eve of the first French Republic).
It’s supposed to be able to withstand fire, bombings, and more unpleasant and violent things.
Its contents have changed with time. Nowadays, it safeguards some of the most important documents of French History.
To name a few:
The originals of each one of the five Constitutions France has had since 1790.
Louis XIV’s will.
The keys to the Bastille.
The “Tennis Court Oath” (Serment du Jeu de Paume)
The original standard meter and standard kilogram (in case you didn’t know they both were invented in Paris during the Revolution).
There are more things of the same caliber…
I didn’t see any of these.
What I got to see (because we were there for a history class, we were not doing tourism – the iron closet doesn’t open for tourists) are two items that I didn’t mention above.
First, Marie-Antoinette’s last letter to her sister. She wrote it just hours before being sent to the guillotine.
It was a unique and eerie experience to read the words of this woman whom you’ve “known” your whole life. Except that she suddenly ceased to be a despised historical figure and instead became a real person who is about to die and who is writing her last words to someone who is dear to her, one of the last few people who still care about her.
The second document I got to see and read was Louis XVI’s infamous diary!
Because every French person knows what Louis XVI wrote in his diary on July 14th, 1789, right as the Bastille was being stormed and the French Revolution started.
(It means “nothing” by the way)
The most famous “rien” in French history.
It’s not a legend. Louis XVI actually wrote “rien” in his diary on July 14th, 1789. I saw it with my own eyes. Even years later, typing this, remembering it, I’m still pinching myself about it. Yes, it did happen. I saw the actual diary of Louis XVI. I saw his handwriting. I saw his “rien!”
Now, I need to put things into context a little bit. For more than two centuries, this “rien” has been used to show how clueless and disconnected Louis XVI was from the French people’s reality and hardships. This is how I learned about it in school and I assume most other French people did too.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Louis XVI was indeed quite disconnected from the plights of his people (just like every aristocracy and oligarchy is). However, with that being said, there are two things to keep in mind here:
First, living in Versailles, he simply couldn’t know what was happening in the eastern side of Paris as it was happening. Nowadays, we learn what’s happening on the other side of the planet pretty much in real-time, and we sometimes tend to forget that back in the 18th Century, the news didn’t go that fast. The king probably wasn’t made aware of the events unfolding in Paris before the night at the earliest. Historically, it is said that he was informed about the storming of the Bastille on the morning of the 15th.
The second reason for this “rien” is actually the most important one and is that the diary in question wasn’t a diary where the King recorded the historical events or anything of the sort. It simply was his hunting diary. And on July 14th, 1789, Louis XVI caught nothing “rien” (or didn’t even go hunting on that day?) so this is what he wrote in his diary.
Now you know.
Somehow I love how such a mundane thing took such proportions.
Also, it’s a good reminder about how storytelling can influence everything, even history.