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Researching Hidden History in France

Musee de Carnvalet

As an author of historical fiction, I not only conduct research to get the facts right, but also to stimulate my imaginings of life in the 18th century during social upheaval. With mandatory tasting of food and wine, visiting France is no hardship.

While conducting research for the Château de Verzat series, a trilogy that takes place during the French Revolution, I headed for one of the oldest museums in Paris. Musée Carnavalet is dedicated to the history of the city and offers one of the most important collections on the French Revolution.

I spent two days immersing myself in details of clothing and furnishings – which affect the posture and movements of characters. A spindly side table, with its hidden drawer exposed, generated an idea for a plot twist.

Papillons, butterfly-shaped objects made of fabric and edged in seed pearls, which I thought were fans, drew me closer. Delighted to learn they were needle and pin holders, I made a note for one of my characters to hide coded messages in her papillon.

A leather portefeuille, a modern-looking briefcase, embossed in gold with the owner’s name, Barere de Vieuzac; title, Député L’ Assemblèe Nationale; and 1789, caught my attention. This object inspired not only the name for one of my characters (Vieuzac became Verzat), but also his occupation.

I found myself cringing before a miniature model of a guillotine and a pike’s razor-sharp blade. I wondered how I would feel facing both because my characters had to escape them. None of these ideas would have occurred to me while typing at my computer or cruising the web.

Despite leaving no corner unexplored, I could not find any monies from the late 1700s. I needed to know how bulky and heavy the coins would be for my characters to carry and hide. In my poor French, I inquired at the information desk. The sage gentleman smiled, picked up the phone, rattled off my need, and indicated for me to take the call.

I fumbled my request and received the question, “Quelles monnaies?”

Due to prior internet research, I knew not to say francs because they were not used at the start of the Revolution. I tried to pronounce the currencies perfectly: “Louis d’ors, les écux, les livres, et les assignants?”

“D’accord. Quand?”

He’d said okay. I was thrilled, but he’d also asked, when. My request was extreme, but I was departing the next day, and it was near closing time. “Maintenant?”

I feared I heard a slight growl.

“Dix minutes.” He rattled on. Shock must have registered on my face, for the gentleman smiled, took the phone, and proceeded to write down directions.

I had ten minutes to walk to a nearby mansion and through a checkpoint, resembling an airport security station. The guard requested my passport, placed it in a safe, and slammed the door. It would be returned when I departed. I hoped I had translated that correctly. I thought my request to the receptionist was grammatically correct, but she stifled a laugh as she picked up a phone and pointed to a couch.

I sat and reviewed the paper the information gentleman had given me. I had called Monsieur Thierry Sarmant, conservateur en chef, Cabinet Numismatique, Monsieur Charmant—Mr. Charming.

The room grew warm, and I jolted to my feet as M. Sarmant greeted me. He winced at my attempts at expressing my gratitude but graciously escorted me to his office. Drawers, of about ten centimeters (four inches) in depth, lined the walls like bookcases. He pulled out a drawer and placed it on the table before me. Two louis d’ors gleamed in the bright light. I could not stifle a gasp. M. Sarmant smiled and pulled out drawer after drawer of louis d’ors and silver écux, inviting me to take photos. So overcome, my French worsened. M. Sarmant took pity on me and switched to English.

“How have so many valuable coins survived—and in mint condition?” I asked.

“Many people during the Revolution secreted money in walls, fireplaces, and under hearths when assignants were issued and rapidly became worthless. Coins continue to be discovered during renovations and are donated to museums.”

This information proved priceless. On my return flight, I wrote a chapter in which a character reveals a cache of louis d’ors hidden behind the bricks of a fireplace.

Sarmant was proven correct once again in 2021. During the renovation of a house in Brittany, a stash of coins from the reigns of French Kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV, was discovered and sold at auction for one million euros. I felt the excitement of another story approaching my imagination.

As I continue to improve my French, I promise myself that in the future, I will make appointments before my arrival. I doubt those meetings will be as serendipitous, surprising, or as fruitful as my meetings with the Musée Carnavalet staff and M. Sarmant, who was indeed, charming. These gracious people helped me make my imaginary characters come alive in readers’ minds. In gratitude, I thanked them in the acknowledgement sections of Her Own Legacy.

Museum information: After a five-year closure and €58 million renovation, the Musée Carnavalet reopened in May 2021. The permanent collections are free of charge and no bookings are required. Voluntary donations are appreciated. Tickets are required for special exhibitions.

Debra Borchert is author of Her Own Legacy, the first book in the Château de Verzat series. Read our review here

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