It’s easy for me to go back in time. I live in a village steeped in history, and there are vestiges everywhere I look. But my next trip will be  a political one – the elections are in the news, and the only reasons we have elections is because we are a Democracy. It was a messy job wresting the country away from the monarchy. There was a war, thousands of people died, there was mass confusion, hatred, fear…but also hope, elation, and in the end,  freedom. Or at least, as best a freedom as we know. And Mantes, my little village, played a small, but important part.

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Mantes la Jolie in 1650 – about 70 years before I visit! It didn’t change much.

The Revolution was in disarray. The army had lost many of its officers (most were nobles, and had fled to countries which were now marching on France.) More than 50,000 soldiers deserted, The emperors of Prussia and Austria with 120,000 men were coming to crush the Revolution. The kingdoms of England, Russia, and Spain support them.  The Revolution must be stopped! But today, the 11 July 1792, a decree will be published asking for volunteers – and the people will answer the call. The people of Mantes will be the first to join. The common people will save the Revolution. And I want to see the decree and hear the famous call to arms.

I left before daybreak. It’s always best to arrive back in time before there are too many people around. I timed it just right – the marketplace was empty. The guard (there were now guards in most towns – before they were only manning the gates – now they were everywhere making sure the new laws were obeyed) was slumped on his bench, his face covered with his hat, his snores muffled.

The river looked higher in this day and age. The locks had not been installed and the water came up to the fortifications. The town looked bigger too, somehow, than now, because of the palace behind the church and because of the high walls. Barges docked along the river, and in the pale light of dawn, people started to appear, heading to the fountains to fetch water. The buildings are stone, with first and second stories in timber and stucco. It’s cleaner than I thought it would be. A recent decree made it against the law to keep pigeons, chickens, ducks and pigs within the city limits, and it is now illegal to dump waste into the streets.

I walk across the market square and sit on a stone bench in an arched doorway. From here, I can see what will happen.  I’m wearing a plain brown skirt and unbleached linen blouse, and on my feet are wooden clogs. In the wake of the Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, the government of the city of Paris decreed that all citizens in the capital must wear a tricolor cockade, a round emblem constructed of ribbons displaying the city’s colors of red and blue as well as the monarchy’s standard white. Mantes is close enough to Paris so that almost everyone is wearing the cockade. Mine is pinned to my blouse. My hair is hidden beneath a linen scarf. I have a basket of plums with me – if anyone wonders, I’m from a farm a few kilometers away and I’ve come to sell some plums.

c. 1759 - Paul Sandby - London Cries- A Girl with a Basket of OrangesI’m dressed as a farm girl. My clothes are simple – I’m not pretending to be nobility. Here is a sketch of me; note the wooden shoes with the high heel – my only concession to vanity!  High class women wear fine muslin dresses and fancy hats, but I don’t expect to see any here in Mantes.

Mantes-la-Jolie sous la Révolution françaiseThe sun rises and the marketplace fills. Some vendors set up small stands, but what really stands out is a group of citizen soldiers who are busy pitching a large tent with tables and benches inside it. I pick up my basket and edge closer. A man appears with a leather satchel full of rolls and rolls of documents. He takes one, stands in front of the tent, and begins to shout.  “La patrie en danger ! Aux armes citoyens !” (The Fatherland is in danger! To arms, citizens!)  Soon, the tent is full of young men intent on signing up.

One of the first is Sérafin Casimir Leroy, French citizen living in Mantes, who, as it said on the paper he signed, promised to serve for 3 years with honor and loyalty. He’s 25 years old,  He  will get five livres upon inscription and for the first month, then 30 sols a month until the end of his service.

The citizen Leroy was measured at five feet, three inches. His hair and eyebrows were blond, his eyes gray, his nose was a little long, his mouth average, his chin pointy, and his face oval. He had a small scar near his right eye. All that was written down on his inscription paper. He was handed an assignat for the sum of five livres, and off he went to war. I don’t know if he ever came home.

The sun climbed higher and I became thirsty. There is a rule I follow when I time travel – drink beer when possible. On the whole, water in public fountains is perfectly fine and most people drink water. But beer throughout the ages has always been my favorite, (although I do enjoy a nice glass of wine now and then). I found a stand selling beer and bought a bottle, trading half my plums for it.  Beer was still the people’s choice at that time, although cider was becoming more popular. Soda water had been invented too, (but I didn’t trust the spigots made from leaded metals).  I drank my beer and gave the bottle back to the vendor, then sold the rest of my plums to a woman wearing a tricolor sash and cockade. She called me “sister”, and told me her three sons had signed up to fight for liberty.

My time was nearly up. I had to be back in the same spot I arrived to be picked up by the time-tractor beam. There is a strict rule about bringing back souvenirs, but I managed to get a copy of the decree, which I have here, and an assignat for 5 livres, which I swiped from the tent (they had a pile of them for the recruits!) Of course you realize I can’t tell you how I time travel – it’s a secret. Let’s just say it takes a great deal of energy, is easiest to do on stormy days, and the best thing to do after a trip is eat a bar of chocolate – (although that may simply be my excuse for eating lots of chocolate). It’s mostly a question of catching the time tractor beam at just the right place. Oh, and planning is important too – you have to know where you’re going so you can wear the right clothes (never stick out). I am already planning my next trip, and I will aim for a Christmas celebration – there is a heatwave coming here these next few days, and I want to escape that!

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Mantes la Jolie, today, view from the bridge.

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