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Jean Chouan

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For the royal treasurer of Louis XII, see Jean Cottereau.

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Jean Chouan

Jean Chouan was the nom de guerre of the Frenchman, Jean Cottereau, who was born at Saint-
Berthevin, near Laval, in the department of Mayenne on 30 October 1757[1] and died 18 July 1794
at Olivet, also in Mayenne. He was a counter-revolutionary, an insurrectionist, and a
staunch royalist.[2]
Of the four Cottereau brothers, Jean, Pierre, Franois, and Ren, Jean, the second-born, was
the one called chouan ("the silent one") by their father. Others say his nickname came from an
imitation of the call of the tawny owl (the chouette hulotte) he customarily used as a recognition
signal.[3] Less flatteringly, Jean's young comrades nicknamed him "the boy liar" (le Gars
mentoux or le garon menteur).[4]
The 1926 Luitz-Morat film, Jean Chouan, starred Maurice Lagrene as Chouan.

Contents
[hide]

1Reliability of sources
2Origins
3Before the French Revolution
4Discontent
5References
6External links

Reliability of sources[edit]
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Much of the biographical material on Jean Chouan is based on the work of Jacques Duchemin des
Cpeaux, in a work written in 1825 at the request of the king, Charles X, who ruled France from
1824 until 1830. Cpeaux is unapologetically a royalist partisan, and he presents a number of claims
that may be unfounded. The story of Jean Chouan is, therefore, almost certainly, in large part,
legendary. The persistence of the legend can be explained by the fact it has been continuously
nourished by a small faction of Catholics and royalist-legitimists who have remained active up to the
present day.
So, Chouan's role in history is, at best, questionable, and archives, even those belonging to
aristocrats living in the region, indicate that he was completely unknown prior to the Bourbon
restoration in 1814. One thing is certain: the republicans, in their effort to quell the insurgency,
contributed to the birth of the legend. The name, Jean Chouan, may, in fact, have been invented by
republican authorities who were unable to name the true leaders of the insurrection against their
own 1789 revolution, the revolution that had unseated the royal house of Bourbon in the first place.
There is, in much of the Jean Chouan material, a slight whiff of Robin Hood and his merry men.
Chouan is a romantic hero who, with a small band of devoted followers living in the forest, stage
courageous raids against a hated regime. How much of this is romantic legend and how much is
historically factual will probably always be open to debate, but, in either case, the shoddiness of the
history of this "hero" embarrasses many historians. The tales, true or not, have proved to be a rich
source of literary inspiration. Most notably, Honor de Balzac drew from this history in writing the last
of his series of novels, La Comdie humaine, a work called "The Chouans". Nonetheless, it
should be remembered that there is a history, indisputably true, associated with the figure of Jean
Chouan; it is the history of a bloody and costly civil war in western France.

Origins[edit]
Pierre Cottereau, a lumberjack and maker of wooden shoes (sabots), lived with his wife, Jeanne
Cottereau (born Jeanne Moyn), as a tenant at la Closerie des Poiriers (literally, the "pear orchard
enclosure"), a farm halfway between the villages of Saint-Oun-des-Toitsand Bourgneuf-la-Fort in
Mayenne, France. (An 'enclosure' is, in fact, a small farm, usually less than twenty acres in extent,
and the name comes from the need for farmers to enclose their properties with fences or hedges to
prevent cattle, sheep, and other domesticated animals from running free.) Tenancy on this piece of
property had been established by the Moyn family about 1750.
The elder Cottereau, like his father before him, made his family's living by criss-crossing the wooded
regions of western France, from the forest between Mondevert and Le Pertre to the forest of
Concise, felling trees, stacking and seasoning the timber, and making wooden shoes, which he sold
in the villages of Mayenne.
From the local parish registers, particularly those of the parish of Olivet, where the Closerie des
Poiriers was located, it is clear that this was a region deep in economic misery throughout the
second half of the eighteenth century. For example, in several birth records, there is the notation, "n
sur la lande" (born on the land), indicating that the child's parents were likely to have been casual
workers sleeping rough. So great was the misery of the forge workers at Port-Brillet, owned by the
prince of Talmont-Saint-Hilaire, Antoine Philippe de La Trmoille, that they took part in the French
Revolution, joined the National Guard and became ardent Republican patriots. Workers at La
Brlatte behaved similarly.
The Cottereau family came from a line of merchants, notaries, and priests, and, unlike most of his
neighbors, Pierre was literate and respectable. His children, however, were violent, quarrelsome,
lazy, and resolutely ignorant.
Without doubt, their father's prolonged absences, cutting timber in distant forests, carving shoes,
selling his sabots over a wide swath of Mayenne, deprived the Cottereau children of an authority
figure. Further, since their mother was illiterate, as was common at that time, the Cottereau children
were also largely unschooled. Their father died in 1778 when Jean Chouan was twenty-one years
old. Pierre the younger, Jean's only elder brother, proclaimed himself a sabotier like his father, but
he was neither so skillful nor so industrious as his father had been. To survive, all six Cottereaus,
four brothers and two sisters, became involved in salt-smuggling.
Before 1790, the gabelle was a very unpopular tax on salt. Traditionally, France has been composed
of a collection of regions, former duchies, principalities, or independent kingdoms, most of which
enjoyed long periods of sovereignty, periods when they were all-but-completely divorced, politically,
from the rest of France. Well-known examples of the regions are Normandy, Burgundy, Brittany,
and Aquitaine. As an accident of the historical development of an integrated France, these regions
had different tax rates for commodities like salt.
Whenever there is a disparity in prices or taxes between two neighboring jurisdictions, there will be
smuggling. For example, La Croixille is a town in the department of Mayenne, which was (and is) a
part of the region of Maine, in the eighteenth century, a high-salt-tax region. Across the River Vilaine,
the neighboring town of Princ, was, with respect to salt, in a tax-exempt region, Brittany. The huge
disparity between the price of salt in the two towns prompted active smuggling, with salt purchased
cheaply in Brittany being moved across the river and sold for a high price in Mayenne. A perpetual
guerrilla war between customs officers and salt-smugglers simmered in the valley of the Vilaine.
Those who engaged in this tax-avoidance traffic were known as "false-salters". The term, "false-
salter", referred to criminal attempts to falsely represent lightly taxed salt as salt that had already
been heavily taxed. An unarmed person caught "false-salting" was subject to condemnation to the
galleys and deportation; by law, an armed false-salter could be executed. Between 1730 and 1743,
585 salt-smugglers were deported to New France (Quebec).
Jean Chouan and his brothers, Franois and Ren, were actively involved in this kind of commerce,
and, although they knew the territory intimately, including all of the places in the forests of the
borderlands where illicit salt might be hidden, they were stopped on several smuggling trips and
narrowly avoided arrest.
Aside from their smuggling activities, the Cottereaus conducted a number of shady enterprises in
the Misedon woods that surrounded their house at the Closerie des Poiriers. Sometime before 1780,
Jean Cottereau, in the company of his brother, Ren, and a few others, were in the forest
drinking moonshine alcohol, in breach of the laws of Olivet, when they were surprised by two local
constables, Pierre Briteau and Jean Guitton. A brawl ensued. When it was over, a surgeon from
Laval declared that one of the two was so badly injured that he could not stand to be transported to
hospital. Instead, he was transported to an inn at Saint-Oun-des-Toits, where he remained for
several weeks. The Cottereaus, called before the bar of justice, were ordered to pay for the injured
man's medical treatment, and for his room and board during the period of his confinement.
This episode was just one of a large number of transgressions engaged in by Jean and his brothers.
The thuggish Cottereaus, over a period of several years managed to injure or cripple almost all their
neighbors, usually for nonsensical reasons, and, inevitably, one or more of them was brought to
court and forced to pay compensation to their victims in order to avoid imprisonment or deportation.
This ruined the family financially.

Before the French Revolution[edit]

Related Interests