Carl Landauer


Jonathan P. Ribner, Broken Tablets: The Cult of the Law in French Art from David to Delacroix. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993. Pp. xxiii, 222. $50.00.

According to a contemporary account describing the festival of Simonneau, which took place in Paris in June of 1790, the "most curious item in the procession as a whole was a kind of shark raised aloft on the end of a pikestaff; the sea animal had its mouth open and was showing its teeth; on its body was written, 'Respect for the law'. Later in the procession, a "sword of the law" was held aloft, and concluding the procession was a "colossal statute of the law" with an inscription reading: "Truly free men are the slaves of the law." If these symbols seem rather artificial - we learn that the sea monster frightened no one "but made everybody laugh" - they clearly articulated the festival's overall message of the supremacy of law. The festival marshalled these curious elements to nurture what Jonathan Ribner, in his book Broken Tablets, characterizes as "the cult of law."

Ribner locates the French Revolution's cult of the law in its concentrated form as pronounced by the founder of the Tennis Court Society, Gilbert Romme: "Law is the religion of the state, which must also have its ministers, its apostles, its altars, and its schools." Starting with this image of law as a new religion, Ribner chronicles the cult of law in its various incarnations from the storming of the Bastille to the Revolution of 1848. As he tells us, "from 1789 to 1848 - a period that saw the introduction of constitutional, parliamentary government and the adoption of the Code Napoléon - law and lawgiving were imbued with evocative power, expressed in art and poetry as well as in political discourse."