‘Reciprocity, Reputation and the Pupil-School Relationship in Letters from the École Royale Militaire’, by Gemma Tidman

The École Royale Militaire, the Parisian Royal military school, was founded by Louis XV in January 1751, to educate 500 boys of the poor nobility entirely at the government’s cost. Pupils were instructed in the practical exercises and theoretical sciences relevant to the art of war, including maths, technical drawing, military drills, history, and ‘belles-lettres’. The École militaire quickly gained success with numerous publics: the Encyclopédistes championed it as an alternative to the French collèges, which were facing increasing criticism in the 1750s and 60s. And by the early 1780s the school was so popular that letters were sent to parents explaining that only a tenth of eligible applicants could be accommodated.


In my paper, I argued that the school responded to and manipulated letters in order to encourage pupils to uphold a reciprocal pact with the school. This pact required pupils to ‘repay’ the École militaire (and ultimately the king) for their free education by demonstrating exemplary military conduct, thereby improving the ‘public’ reputation of the school. However, who ‘the public’ is frequently changes, and is often discussed only as an abstract concept. My approach draws on the work of Mona Ozouf, who suggests that the value of the notion of ‘public opinion’ as a weapon in the late eighteenth century might explain why so few contemporary texts offer descriptive definitions of it. She explains, ‘les textes se préoccupent moins d’apporter une information que d’utiliser le concept à des fins polemiques’.[1]


I focused on two epistolary exchanges between the École militaire and pupils’ family members. The first was a set of unpublished correspondence between the mother of an ex-pupil, and the school’s principal, the Marquis de Timbrune.[2] In her letter dated August, 1777, Mme de Bridiers requests financial assistance for her son, André-Claude. André-Claude entered the school in 1770 but was sent back to his mother in 1772 when it was discovered that he suffered from epilepsy and was declared unfit for military service. No longer able to care for André-Claude, Mme de Bridiers begs the school to pay for a bed in a hospice for him. However, the Bridiers family’s situation was more complicated. André-Claude’s older brother, Alexandre, was expelled from the École militaire in 1775 for violent and disobedient behaviour; were he allowed to graduate and enter a regiment, ‘il donneroit, de cette maison, l’opinion la plus facheuse.’[3] Given these brothers’ failure to contribute to the school’s good reputation by dutifully serving in the military, the school refuse to financially assist Mme de Bridiers.


The second letter I looked at was written by Mlle de Barry to her brother, a military school pupil; de Barry’s brother was about to graduate, and her letter offers him advice on how to conduct himself in the French military. De Barry warns her brother that he is obliged to repay the king for giving him his education, and that he now owes his life to the king, and to exemplary military service. This letter was published in the Mercure de France in 1758, and republished by Louis Domairon in his 1784 literary teaching manual, the Principes généraux des belles-lettres, as a model ‘advice letter’: exemplary for both its aesthetic and moral values.[4] Domairon was chair of French grammar and literature at the École militaire, and used this literary manual in his classes. Though Mlle de Barry’s letter may never have been a private letter – it may always have been written for publication in the Mercure – Domairon uses this ostensibly private letter to try and teach military school pupils to sublimate their private desires to the public interests of the school: namely, to teach them to uphold the pupil-school pact.


Also important to my argument was the school’s decision, in 1751, to award its pupils a unique military cross. Boys were to wear this cross at all times, and it was intended to visibly ‘publish’ boys as alumni so that, ‘en les faisant reconnoître par-tout où ils se trouveront, [elle] leur remette sans cesse devant les yeux les obligations qu’ils auront contractées envers Nous & notre État’.[5] Such publication was supposed to censor their behaviour, for fear of its being seen, judged, and reflecting poorly on their school. But seen and judged by whom?


Both of these letters and the Edict regarding the military cross refer to a nebulous concept of ‘public opinion’, or being in the ‘public eye’. Yet, whether this ‘public’ actually existed, or who it refers to, is unclear. In my paper, rather than attempt to describe how the École militaire defined ‘public opinion’, I focused on what the school aimed to achieve through the polemical mobilisation of the concept. I argued that idea of an abstract ‘public tribunal’ (as Malesherbes puts it) who would judge the pupils, and by extension their old school, was used to try to control alumni’s behaviour.[6] This idea is all the more powerful in that it is not equated to one concrete entity: since the public could be anyone, boys must be constantly well-behaved, as the potentially omnipresent tribunal could always be watching and judging them.


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Attendees offered many useful comments and asked some thought-provoking questions in response to the paper, for which I am very grateful. Andrew Kahn suggested thinking of the École militaire students themselves as one of the ‘publics’ intended to ‘keep an eye on’ alumni. He and Alice Bray suggested that the military cross may have been most recognisable to other alumni, functioning like the ‘old school tie’ of British public schools. Several questions from Emma Claussen and Suzanne Jones addressed the issue of whether there is evidence of pupils having written letters themselves; although there was nominally time set aside in the weekly school timetable for this, sadly I was unable to find any such letters in the institutional archives, perhaps because the boys’ letters were sent to their families and copies were not made. This led on to interesting questions from Pamela Clemit about what is conserved in the archives, and what this might suggest the school felt was valuable. Simon Park asked whether the reciprocal relationship between pupil and school might be framed in terms of patronage; this does indeed seem to be a helpful concept, especially given the links to monarchy. Nicholas Cronk provided useful insights into the possible status of the letter written by Mlle de Barry, ostensibly to her brother, and published in the Mercure de France. Nicholas noted that Voltaire’s letters often surfaced in gazettes such as the Mercure, and that he often sent them to the editors himself; this raised the possibility that Mlle de Barry may have done something similar. Alexander Iosad raised interesting potential connections between the École militaire and the St Petersburg Cadet Academy. Finally, Kelsey Rubin-Detlev asked what happened to these pupils, and other military school alumni, during the Revolutionary years; this question is one I deal with in part of my thesis, when I investigate what made certain military school alumni ‘grands hommes’, and why some ex-students were celebrated in collected biographies of ‘grands hommes’ published in the early nineteenth century.


Gemma Tidman



[1] ‘Texts are less concerned with providing information, than with using the concept for polemical ends’, (my translation). Mona Ozouf, ‘L’Opinion publique’, in The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture, ed. by Keith M. Baker, I (Oxford: Pergamon, 1987), pp. 419-434, p. 423

[2] The archives of the École royale militaire are split between the Archives nationales (Paris) and the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) (Vincennes). These letters come from the latter archive, in the sub-series Y Ya 146.

[3] SHD, Y Ya 146

[4] For the full letter and Domairon’s prefatory comments about it, see Principes généraux des belles-lettres. Dédiés aux cadets gentils-hommes de l’École royale militaire, par M. Domairon, professeur royale des belles lettres à ladite école; de l’Académie de Beziers, 2 vols, I (Paris: Laporte, 1784), pp. 256-259.

[5] Edit du Roy, portant création d’une École royale militaire, donné à Versailles au mois de Janvier 1751, registré en Parlement (Paris: Imprimerie royale, 1751), p. 10.

[6] Malesherbes famously defines the public as ‘un tribunal indépendent de toutes les puissances, et que toutes les puissances respectent’. ‘Discours de reception à l’Académie Française, 16 février 1775’, in Œuvres inédites de Chrétien-Guillaume Lamoignon Malesherbes, ed. Pissot (Paris: Henée, Buisson, & Giguet et Michaud, 1808), p. 151.