The Decree of Moscow, Legend and Reality

Author(s) : SAUVEL Tony
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The Decree of Moscow, legend and reality.

Does the Decree of Moscow deserve its Name?

It is accepted belief that it was in Moscow, on October 15, 1812, that Napoleon signed the famous decree reorganising the Comédie Française. One legal historian however maintains that this may not be the case.
I. The Facts
– The imperial decree No. 8577, “On the organization, administration, accounting, order and discipline of the Théâtre Français” was published in the Bulletin of Laws No. 469 – III-IV series of 26 January, 1813. It is dated “At the headquarters in Moscow, 15 October, 1812.” The same text had been published in the Moniteur, a few days earlier, which is unusual for the rules of publication.
– This decree, since called the “Decree of Moscow”, is not the only one to have been published with this appellation. Another example is that of 20 September on the transfer of the right to exploit the mine of La Voulte, and those of 21 September perpetuating a cattle and food fair at Donzac and allowing diverse donations and bequests to charitable organisations, etc..
II. A signature in Moscow: an undisputed fact
– In his memoirs, which are known to have been composed by at least four “ghostwriters” (Roquefort, Melliot, Luchet and Nisard), the valet Constant claims to have seen the Emperor work on the decree concerning Comédie française at the Kremlin. Thereafter, many historians took this 'fact' for granted.
III. Another theory
In a study published in July 1975 in the Revue historique de droit français et étranger, Tony Sauvel questioned the legend. Here is an outline of his argument:
– The decree reforming the Théâtre français was adopted by the Council of State, August 7, 1812, while the Grand Army was approaching Smolensk.
– The official record of the decree carries not one, but two of Napoleon's signatures.The first reference (“approved.Napoleon”) was crossed out and replaced by” approved in Moscow October 15, 1812.Napoleon”, and it does indeed appear in a small volume of collected minutes labeled “documents of October 15, 1812.” So far, so good.
– However, Sauvel noticed that the decree concerning the Comédie Française is the only non-military document in the dossier of October 15, and a slip of paper had been added, bearing the words: “The intention of the Emperor is that the decree be dated Moscow “(National Archives, IV AF 689, plaquette 5559, pièce 16).
– Another factor: if the portfolio of the session of the Council of State of 7th August had indeed been brought to Moscow by an auditor by the name of Debonnaire de Gif, all the files it contained would have been approved and initialed by the Emperor on 20, 21 and 22 September, 1812. The text pertaining to the Comédie Française is the only one to have been signed at a later and much more symbolic date, since October 15 is one of the last days Napoleon spent at the Kremlin. Sauvel argues that it is quite incredible that, just before departure and dedicating all his time to evacuating the city, Napoleon would have requested the document in order to sign it.
– In conclusion, Tony Sauvel writes: “The decree was neither signed before Moscow, nor in the city, and could not have been so until after the departure; either during retreat, or in Paris once the Emperor had returned. Even so, a signature during the retreat is a very difficult idea to accept, not only because of all the circumstances of the retreat, but also because it would have been the only administrative measure made during the retreat […]. I do not know of any others, and I find it simpler to believe that the signature and anonymous bulletin [indicating that Napoleon wished that the decree to be dated Moscow] were written in Paris in late 1812 or in the early days of 1813, when the Emperor dealt with a considerable backlog of cases. He must have remembered the signature given at Moscow and then crossed it out and wished, for reasons of prestige […] to make this decree simply the 'Decree of Moscow.' “
– “If the text had actually been signed in Moscow,” Sauvel remarks, “it would have been dated 20, 21 or 22 September, days dedicated to dispatching affairs contained in the portfolio of Debonairre de Gif … and we do not know if the project on Comédie Française was included in this portfolio.”
(See Tony Sauvel, “Le 'décret de Moscou' mérite-t-il son nom?”, Revue historique de droit français et étranger, 4e série, t.LIII, July 1975, p. 436-440).

The Comédie Française or Théâtre Français

The Comédie Française was founded in 1680. It was closed by the Committee of Public Safety on 3 September, 1793, and many of its actors were imprisoned.On 31 May, 1799, the Directory made  the Salle Richelieu, a theatre designed by the architect Victor Louis, available to the actors to allow them to re-form the company under the name Théâtre-Français.The troupe was refounded and reorganised via the decree of 6 Frimaire, An XI (28 November, 1802). With the constitutive instrument signed on 27 Germinal, An XII (17 April, 1804), the actors were associated contractually in the running of the theatre. They were placed under the supervision of a palace prefect (decree of 20 Frimaire, An XI, December 11, 1802) and the Surintendant des Spectacles (Decree of 1 November 1807). A government commissioner (equivalent to the current administrator) was part of the company: he chaired the administrative committee responsible for accounts and the repertoire, which was composed of six actors, half of whom were nominated by their colleagues and half by the Government. The Commissioner also possessed a great power of sanction over the players and staff, under the supervision of the palace prefect.
A new way or organising the troupe and theatre was decided upon by Napoleon and enshrined in the “decree of Moscow”, a new statute of 87 articles which remains largely in force two centuries later. The text underlined the authority of the government through the “monitoring” of the Superintendent and the presence of the Imperial Commissioner in the Théâtre Français, who mission was to transmit to the actors the Superintendent's “orders”. Under its motto Simul et singulis (being together and being oneself), the Théâtre Français was organised around its actors. They formed a company which was divided into two categories of membership: the members proper and actors in residence.The former participated in the distribution of profits and management. The latter received a stipend, the funds for which were taken from revenues. The company was managed by two bodies: a committee and a General Assembly. The committee was chaired by the Imperial Commissioner and composed of six members of the society appointed (and dismissed, where appropriate) by the Superintendent. Its role was to prepare and implement the budget, to take care of contracts, to manage the space and to organise “everything related to the administration of the theatre, training in the repertoire, and acquiring new plays”, etc. The general assembly, convened by the committee, was composed of all the members. This assembly gave advice on the budget, the discharge of accounts and decided on investments.
The 'Decree of Moscow' also codified the process of employment (the decision rested with the Superintendent), the training in and performance of the repertoire (for which the committee was responsible).The Superintendent could also order “debuts”, that is to say, the distribution of roles for young actors, including students of the conservatory. Although he had to consult the committee, he was not obliged to follow their advice. Article 64 stated that “the actors or actresses who have roles in these plays cannot refuse to play them, under penalty of a fine of one hundred and fifty francs.”
Finally, the statutes allowed for the establishment within the Imperial Conservatory of eighteen student places, nine of each sex, appointed by the Minister of Interior. A special program of drama was arranged for them within that institution.
(Excerpt from Quand Napoléon inventait la France. Dictionnaire des institutions politiques, administratives et de cour du Consulat et de l'Empire, Tallandier, 2008).

Publication Title :
Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien
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