Some parts of Europe have been tormented by a revolutionary exaltation, which secret societies nourish and propagate, by endeavouring chiefly to mislead the youth. These secret societies have been imported into France, and are come to soil this land of honour with their frightful oaths, their detestable plots, and their poniards—the arms worthy to second their projects. From their bosom have issued numerous emissaries, who, traversing the kingdom, have sought everywhere for support, or rather accomplices. These emissaries formed ties, which united these secret and criminal associations, and by their intervention all the correspondence took place. – First page excerpt, from the Charbonnerie trial indictment at Colmar, July 1822
Order of Misraïm
Two of the six lodges during the Restoration that were openly hostile toward the Bourbons, were “Les Trinosophes” and “Les Sectateurs de Zoroastre.” The first was formed in 1815 by Jean-Marie Ragon de Bettignies (1781-1866), holder of a multitude of higher degrees and subsequently a prolific masonic writer; he was a member of l’Ordre de Misraïm, but had to renounce membership for the lodge to be recognized by the Grand Orient (Songhurst 101). (To this day, the rites of Memphis-Misraïm are considered fringe or clandestine and not officially acknowledged by most Grand Lodges.) The second, however, “Les Sectateurs de Zoroastre” [Zoroaster Cultists] was indeed a fully-fledged lodge of the Order of Misraïm, and directly tied to the rite’s founders — the Bédarride brothers (Clavel 259-61).
In brief: the precise origin of the rite is obscure. However it is acknowledged that the first Egyptian themed lodges—the Hebrew name for Egypt is Mizraim—were established in Italy, probably by Cagliostro himself in 1784 or 1788, prior to his incarceration by the Inquisition. In short order, the rituals were elaborated and expanded upon, and exported to France in 1814, by the brothers Michel, Joseph, and Marc Bédarride from Naples. These are in turn connected with another Egyptian-flavoured “Disciples of Memphis,” founded at about the same time and general area, by Gabriel-Matthieu Marconis, but ceasing activity because of its similarity with Misraïm, only to later emerge again in 1838 under the leadership of Marconis’ son, Jacques-Étienne Marconis de Nègre (1795-1868). Finally, the rites were officially reconciled and merged into the Primitive Rite of Memphis-Misraïm in 1881/82, the revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) as its “Grand Hierophant” (GLFM “Histoire”; Galtier 1989: 125; Hanegraaff 329, 768). Both Misraïm and Memphis contain 90+ degrees of rituals replete with pseudo-Egyptian themes, Alchemy, Hermeticism, the Kabbalah, as well as cribbing directly from the founding myths of the Golden and Rosy Cross of Germany, enunciated in the mid-18th-century.
The French authorities immediately began to monitor its lodges, particularly because of its Italian origin, suspected alliance with the Carbonari and recruiting within the military. The fact that the Bédarrides were Jewish, including at least one Rabbi in its inner circle (GLFM “Histoire”) must have added to the suspicion. Perhaps the authorities were also privy to an 1818 Austrian police report about a “Société Secrète Egyptienne,” established in Alexandria and Cairo. Its “Grand-Cophte” was Bernardino Drovetti (1776-1852), the Napoleonic consul to Egypt. Utilizing masonic lodges, according to the report, its purpose was to meddle in the politics in Italy and the Ionian Islands. Agents and emissaries of the secret society were said to be stationed in the islands and ports of the Mediterranean Sea (Galtier 2006).
As recounted by Spitzer:
[T]he police archives are filled with reports on the Egyptian rite of the Misraïm, an offshoot of masonry which enjoyed considerable success with the ninety grades its hierarchy could boast in competition with the mere thirty-three of the Scottish rite. The orthodox Grand Orient finally denounced this new rite to the government which shut it down in 1822, concluding after painstaking investigations that it was a pernicious but unrevolutionary enterprise invented to line the pocket of its founders (56).
In regards to it being an “unrevolutionary enterprise,” however, one police inspector concluded otherwise.
Peg-leg-Duplay (jambe de bois) they called him. In 1792, at the age of eighteen, Simon Duplay (1774-1827) had lost his leg while a volunteer at the battle of Valmy. Maurice Duplay (1736-1820), the landlord of Robespierre, was his uncle. Fond of the young Simon, Robespierre employed him as a secretary for a time. Maurice was a Jacobin too, and his hospitable household was just doors away from the Jacobin club; the home of the Duplays became an extended family for Robespierre and he was happy living there until his death. Since Buonarroti was a friend of the Duplays, and visited there on occasion, it was certainly during this time that Simon had become acquainted with him (Scurr 171-2, 194).
After Robespierre’s fall and execution, most of the Duplay family were arrested — Maurice, his wife Françoise, daughters Élisabeth and Éléonore, son Jacques and nephew Simon. Tragically, Françoise was found hanged in her cell—either suicide or murder. Maurice was imprisoned for a short time only and managed to avoid the guillotine. Simon, along with his cousins, ended up spending over a year in prison (McPhee 223). During his incarceration at du Plessis prison in Paris, Simon first met Gracchus Babeuf (as did Buonarroti who was also in jail). Buonarroti himself places Simon directly in the middle of the Pantheon Club and subsequent Conspiracy of Equals (Buonarroti 40, 88, 97-8).
Drawing on this rich past, then, Simon certainly was eminently qualified for his future post as “a remarkable specialist” at “the heart of the Restoration security system” (Spitzer 70). And even though it was Napoleon who broke up the Conspiracy of Equals, Simon had managed to get a job under the self-proclaimed Emperor and compiled for him a dossier “of all known political conspiracies since 1792.” It came to be known as the “green book” (Billington 123).
Following Napoleon’s abdication
… [and] as the armies of the European monarchies entered Paris, all hopes for revolution seemed to have ended. Babeuf’s son committed suicide; and Simon Duplay committed to the flames his “green book,” which alone might have provided a definitive history of early revolutionary conspiracy. But no sooner had he destroyed this massive inventory of those who had “troubled the tranquility of France” since 1792 than he was forced to begin another. Working for the restored Bourbons from 1815 until his death in 1827, he compiled some fifteen thousand dossiers on real-life organizations far more fanciful than Nodier’s Philadelphians or Buonarroti’s Sublime Perfect Masters. In his view, the seminal revolutionary organization was Didier’s; and the key role in developing a revolutionary movement throughout France was played by the Masonic Association of Misraïm, allegedly the original Egyptian Rite with 90 degrees of membership (128; my emphasis).
The main source for Billington’s revelation about Misraim’s “key role in developing a revolutionary movement throughout France” (which I haven’t been able to consult), was a lengthy report penned by Duplay, found in the Archives Nationales F7 6666, and published in full by Léonce Grasilier: “Un secrétaire de Robespierre: Simon Duplay (1774-1827) et son Mémoire sur les Sociétés secrètes et les conspirations sous la restauration,” in Revue internationale des sociétés secrètes, n°3 (Paris: 5 march 1913), pp. 510-554.
A document from the same folio series (F7 6666) is posted on the scholarly/primary-source website carboneria.it. Most likely it was written by Duplay himself and part of the report published by Grasilier. In any case, we’re informed, the lodges of the rite were shut down in 1823, in Paris and throughout France; the archives of the Order were confiscated by the government the year pervious. On its Supreme Council were two names worthy of note: Pierre-Joseph Briot (1771-1827) and Charles Teste. Both were linked to Buonarroti and his secret societies, the Italian Carbonari, and involved with the leaders of the French Charbonnerie (Lehning 133; Eisenstein 105). In the case of Teste, as mentioned above, he was one of the first recruits in Joseph Rey’s Union — this alone attests to his revolutionary ties at an early date, before 1820. Afterwards, he would be well-known as one of Buonarroti’s most trusted agents, from 1828 onwards (Eisenstein 101-09, 149-51). On Briot, here’s a short synopsis (Billington 130-1):
The original Philadelphians of the 1790s had come from the wooded and relatively unspoiled Jura region between Besancon and Geneva; Buonarroti and his friends operated there until he moved to Brussels in 1824 … This rural mutation of Masonry from Besancon was transplanted by the Napoleonic armies to southern Italy, where it was politicized and popularized throughout the Kingdom of Naples during the rule of Napoleon’s maverick brother-in-law, Joachim Murat (1808-15). A leading role was played by a veteran of the Besancon group, Jean-Pierre Briot, whose fascination with a new type of forest fraternity was apparently fueled by the experience of escaping from Austrian imprisonment into the Black Forest and by his own political experience as revolutionary commissioner for the Island of Elba in 1801-02, before moving to Naples and founding the first Carbonari group in 1807.
This Grand Master of Misraïm—on its directing council no less—was responsible, it seems, for founding the Carbonari itself. Furthermore, nearly everything I’ve read about the secret society discusses Briot as having played a prominent role, if not its actual founder. J. M. Roberts even—that unrelenting naysayer of the power of secret societies during the 18th and 19th centuries—wrote that after arriving in Naples in 1806, Briot “seems to have sown the seeds of the first Carbonari lodges. In 1808 he is known to have asked his wife to send him his masonic notebooks and it may have been in connexion with the setting-up of the Carbonari that he did this” (298).
It is not such a stretch to suppose that both Teste and Briot may have been “mobile deacons” for the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits. Briot, after all, was a member of the Philadelphes which, as previously noted, had been absorbed into Buonarroti’s secret society in 1812. Of the 90 degrees in Misraïm at the time, the last three were purposely concealed. The masonic archivist Claude-Antoine Thory, in the first volume of the valuable Acta Latomorum, published in 1815, notes: “All its degrees, except the 88th, 89th and 90th have different names that can be read in our nomenclature. With regard to these last three, we do not know their name: in the manuscript we have they are indicated as veiled, and those who possess it are called Maîtres absolus [Absolute masters]; they claim the privilege of leading instinctively all branches of Freemasonry” (Thory 327-8). A further bit of circumstantial evidence, though admittedly unreliable, comes via the police informant/turncoat J. Witt-Döring, who testified to the Bayreuth authorities in 1824 that the last veiled grades of Misraïm were “dependent on the ‘Comité directeur’” (Lehning 133 n.5) — that is to say, the secret controlling body of conspirators assumed to be pulling the strings behind the scenes, either in Paris or Geneva.
When Joubert and Dugied returned with information on the inner-workings of the Italian Carbonari, they found that their cohorts had been busy studying the techniques of German secret societies (Spitzer 231 and n. 58). These methods probably included those of the Burschenschaften, but would also have encompassed the system that Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830) proposed for the Illuminati.
In a letter dated 16 February, 1782, Weishaupt writes to his underling, Franz Xaver von Zwack (1756-1843):
I would like to introduce amongst the brethren a perfect discipline … My work with you shall be carried out as indicated by the following figure:Immediately under me, I have two [subordinates] into whom I infuse my whole spirit; these two in turn correspond with two others, and so on. In this manner, and with the simplest means possible, I will inflame a thousand men into action. Similarly, this is the same method by which secret societies necessarily operate within the political sphere (Nachtrag, I, 31-2).
And again, more explicitly, Weishaupt to Ferdinand Maria Baader (1747-97) a few days later.
I have sent to Cato an outline according to which we can, methodically and without much trouble, lead, with the largest number of men, the greatest Order to the best results..
The spirit of the first, the most zealous and the most enlightened, communicates daily and incessantly with a a; the a interacts with b b, and the other a with c c; b b and c c convey [their orders] in the same fashion to the 8 immediately below, these to the next 16, the 16 to the 32 which follow, and so forth. I have written to Cato already in more detail. In short: each one has two wing-adjutants, through whose intermediary he acts on all the others. It is from the center that the whole force issues and flows back upon itself again. Each member bounds in definite subordination two initiates, whom he studies and observes completely, moulds, excites and drills, so to speak, like recruits, so that finally some day they have the advantage of exercising with the whole regiment. We can proceed in this manner throughout all the degrees (ibid 59-60; cf. Melanson 241-243).
The budding revolutionaries during the subsequent centuries marvelled at the ingeniousness, almost military precision of such a stratagem. They must have; for it was replicated, implemented, and tinkered with endlessly. The beauty of such a system is the simplicity and rate with which it could be expanded, all the while maintaining a protective buffer for those “unknown superiors” at the top. Additionally, those at the same level had no way of contacting, or even knowing that the others existed—both a cellular and pyramidal structure.
It was almost identical to the way the Italian Carbonari had operated and the French Charbonnerie as well. On the precise method of the latter, we can do no better than to quote from Louis Blanc (the socialist contemporary and friend of many of those involved):
It was agreed that around a parent association called the haute vente, there should be formed under the name of ventes centrales other associations, which again were to have under them ventes particulieres. The number of members in each association was limited to twenty, to evade the provisions of the penal code. The haute vente was originally composed of the seven founders of charbonnerie, Bazard, Flotard, Buchez, Dugied, Carriol, Joubert, and Limperani. It filled up vacancies in its own body.
The following was the method adopted to form the ventes centrales: Two members of the haute vente took a third person as their associate without making him acquainted with their rank, and they named him president of the incipient vente, at the same time assuming to themselves the one the title of deputy, the other that of censor. The duty of the deputy being to correspond with the superior association, and that of censor to control the proceedings of the secondary association, the haute vente became by these means the brain as it were of each of the ventes it created, whilst it remained in relation to them mistress of its own secret and of its own acts.
The ventes particulieres were only administrative subdivisions, having for objects to avoid the complications which the progress of charbonnerie might introduce into the relations between the haute vente and the deputies of the ventes centrales. As the latter emanated from the parent society, so did the inferior societies from the secondary. There was an admirable elasticity in this arrangement: the ventes were speedily multiplied ad infinitum.
The impossibility of altogether baffling the efforts of the police had been clearly foreseen: in order to diminish the importance of this difficulty, it was agreed that the several ventes should act in common, without, however, knowing each other, so that the police might not be able to lay hold on the whole ramification of the system, except by penetrating the secrets of the haute vente. It was consequently forbidden every charbonnier belonging to one vente to attempt to gain admission into another, and this prohibition was backed by the penalty of death.
The founders of charbonnerie had counted on the support of the troops; hence the double organization given to the system. Each vente was subjected to a military staff, the gradations of which were parallel with those of the civil officership. Corresponding respectively with charbonnerie, the haute vente, the ventes centrales, and the ventes particulieres, there were the legion, the cohortes, the centuries, and the manipules. When charbonnerie acted civilly, the military officership was in abeyance; on the other hand, when it acted in a military point of view, the functions of the civil officers were suspended. Independently of the force derived from the play of these two powers, and from their alternate government, the double denominations they rendered necessary afforded a means of baffling the researches of the police.
The duties of the charbonnier were, to have in his possession a gun and fifty cartridges, to be ready to devote himself, and blindly to obey the orders of unknown leaders (Blanc 49-50).
By the end of 1821 “several hundred ventes” were operating in Paris (Spitzer 191). From this center, cells (or ventes) quickly spread throughout France, concentrated mostly in the east and west (see Google Map below; markers correspond to verified cells). At its height, after only a little more than a year, there were as many as 50,000 members, though the guesses of the government ran as high as 800,000 (241-3).
The following is a chronological list of Carbonari conspiracy, 1821-22 (condensed from Spitzer 77-141).
- The cavalry school plot, at Saumur, in December 1821: a plan for simultaneous insurrections is uncovered, with direct connections to a pseudo-masonic, secret society called Chevaliers de la Liberté, which was allied and later subsumed by the Carbonari.
- Belfort, 1 January 1822: officers conspire in an attempted coup; shots fired; bandits chased away. Arrests and investigations quickly followed; the taking of Belfort was to be a signal for a national revolution.
- Toulon, 7 January: a Captain Vallé unwittingly discloses a plot to overthrow the government within the next three or four days; Carbonari documents uncovered by the police on follow-up investigation.
- Nantes, 5 February: several officers and noncoms of the thirteenth regiment are arrested after the revelations of a Sergeant Major Ranvaud; Carbonari are implicated, and the Chevaliers de la Liberté as well — statutes, oaths, ceremonies, secret signs and grips of the latter are uncovered.
- 24-25 February: at 6AM on the 24th, the citizens at Thouars are awakened by the revolutionary tocsin; the town had been seized by General Jean-Baptiste Berton along with “rotten elements in the National Guard led by armed officers and reinforced by persons from the surrounding countryside” (109). They march onward toward Saumur and arrive in the evening. Its mayor confronts Berton and persuades him not to engage. The stalemate continues through the night, which allows most of the insurgents to escape before morning, including Berton.
- Mid-March: subversion of the forty-fifth regiment. The famous Four Sergeants of La Rochelle—Pommier, Goubin, Bories, Raoulx—arrested. Detailed confessions from at least two would disclose Carbonari operations and recruits all the way to the heart of Paris; fugitive Berton was implicated as well.
- Late March/early April: subversion of the fortieth regiment at Strasbourg. A soldier manages to get initiated into the Carbonari in an undercover investigation; four Lieutenants are arrested.
- July, the Colmar Affair: the entrapment of ex-Colonel Caron. The latter had sussed out recruits to free the Belfort conspirators held in Colmar. After leading him on for a bit, the authorities arrested him.
After the conspiracies and attempted insurrections were thwarted, suspects arrested and interrogated—Berton too, in June—the justice system took over, and a series of trials played out in public. Eight members of the Amis de la Vérité were implicated in the Belfort plot and another five in the La Rochelle affair (191), including Buchez, Bazard, Joubert and Flottard (122, 161-2).
The situation is best summarized in the Ohio University “Charbonnerie” entry by Spitzer, which forms part of its “Encyclopedia of Revolutions of 1848”:
Although there was not sufficient evidence to bring most of the leaders of the organization to book, the police netted a sufficient number of less prudent elements to stage a series of political trials that contributed ten victims to revolutionary martyrology, notably including the appealing, poignantly naive four sergeants of La Rochelle who became, and remain to this day, the object of a minor cult. The arrest and executions of 1822 marked the end of a large-scale attempt at the overthrow of the Bourbon regime through plot and insurrection, and many of the activists of the conspiratorial organization turned to the legal opposition that contributed to the last crisis of the monarchy in 1830. While ex-carbonari did not notably figure on the barricades in the Three Glorious Days, they were actively engaged in consolidating the new revolutionary administration in Paris.
The four sergeants were guillotined at Place de Grève in Paris, 21 September, 1822. Following the July Revolution of 1830, a public celebration was held there, on the eighth anniversary, in which a spokesman for the Amis de la Vérité is recorded as saying: “What was their crime? Their crime, citizens [was that] they had attempted what you have accomplished: they conspired for liberty” (Spitzer 4).
During the tenth anniversary, the lodge took to the streets again. The event is recorded in Revue de la franc-maçonnerie:
The lodge of the Amis de la Vérité, who had resolved to publicly celebrate the anniversary of the execution of the brothers Bories, Pommier, Goubin et Raoux [sic], all four members of this lodge, accused of conspiracy against the government of the Bourbons, which took place September 21, 1822, met locally for its regular meeting at rue de Grenelle St. Honoré. At half past two, the procession advanced and headed to the Place de Grève. Four commissioners, decorated with tricolor armbands, each carried a banner decorated with oak leaves, embroidered with the names Bories, Pommier, Goubin and Raoux. Respect and order greeted the procession; the 300 brothers exiting the rue de Grenelle, rose to 500 in the court of the Louvre, and increased successively until 2000 arrived at the place de Grève, where they were met with the silence of a large crowd. Wherever they had gone, the line of the National Guard gave military honours, and everyone was inspired with reverence and admiration. At precisely four o’clock, that fatal hour of these unfortunate victims, a drum roll is heard, and one of the members of the lodge, the brother Buchez, gave a speech appropriate for the occasion. After the ceremony, the procession returned to the local lodge, where a petition to the Chamber of Deputies for the abolition of the death penalty, was adopted by vote, and, in an instant, covered with signatures.
Billington, James H. Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (Basic Books, 1980)
Blanc, Louis. The History of Ten Years, 1830-1840, Vol. 1 (Chapman and Hall, 1844)
Blanchet, Régis. “La Charbonnerie française du début du XIXe siècle,” Carbonería.it
Boisson, Nicolas. Les figures de Joseph Rey (1779-1855): conspirateur libéral, “philosophe” et socialiste “utopique” (Université de Grenoble 2 IEP 2001)
Buonarroti, Filippo (tr. Bronterre). Buonarroti’s History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality (London: H. Hetherington 1836)
Cavaignac, Godefroy ed. Paris révolutionnaire (Paris 1848)
Clavel, François-Timoléon Bègue. Histoire pittoresque de la franc-maçonnerie et des sociétés secrètes anciennes et modernes (3rd ed.) (1844)
Combes, André. Histoire de la franc-maçonnerie au XIXe siècle, v. 1 (Éditions du Rocher, 1998)
Darnton, Robert. Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (Harvard University Press, 1968)
Dumolard, Henry. “Joseph Rey de Grenoble (1779-1855) et ses ‘memoires politiques,'” Annales de l’université de Grenoble, IV, n.1, 1927
Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. First Professional Revolutionist: Filippo Michele Buonarroti, 1761-1837(Harvard University Press, 1959)
Galtier, Gérard. “La société secrète égyptienne de B. Drovetti,” Cahiers de la Méditerranée, 72, 2006
—. “L’époque révolutionnaire et le retour aux Mystères antiques: la naissance des rites égyptiens de la maçonnerie,” POLITICA HERMETICA, n° 3 (1989)
Girollet, Anne. Victor Schoelcher, républicain et Franc-Maçon (Paris; Editions maçonniques de France, 2000)
Grandjonc, Jacques. “Quelques dates à propos des termes communiste et communisme,” In: Mots, October 1983, N°7
Grande Loge Française du rite de Misraïm [GLFM herein], “Histoire”
Hanegraaff, Wouter J. (ed.) Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism (Brill, 2005)
Lehning, Arthur. “Buonarroti and His International Secret Societies,” International Review of Social History (1956 v. 1)
Mattei, Roberto De. Pius IX (Gracewing Publishing, 2004)
McPhee, Peter. Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life (Yale University Press 2012)
Melanson, Terry. Perfectibilists: The 18th Century Bavarian Order of the Illuminati (Trineday, 2009)
Nachtrag von weitern Originalschriften, welche die Illuminatensekte (1787)
Roberts, J. M. The Mythology of The Secret Societies (Paladin 1974)
Saitta, Armando. Filippo Buonarroti. Contributi alla storia della sua vita e del suo pensiero, vol. II (Rome 1951)
Scurr, Ruth. Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Macmillan 2007)
Songhurst, Bro. W. John. “Ragon,” Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, Vol. 18 (1905)
Spitzer, Alan B. Old Hatreds and Young Hopes: The French Carbonari against the Bourbon Restoration (Harvard University Press, 1971)
Thory, C.A. Acta Latomorum, ou chronologie de l’histoire de la franche-maçonnerie française et étrangere, v. 1 (1815)
Weill, Georges. “Les Memoires de Joseph Rey,” Revue historique, n°157 (1928)