12 Gatteaux


Nicolas Marie Gatteaux (1751 – 1832)

Assignat de cinquante sols, 1793 – 1796

Metal relief engraving and embossed inkless stamp

As Richard Taws has noted in his recent PhD thesis, assignats – paper banknotes of various denominations – were the most widely circulated form of print in revolutionary France, playing a vital role in the transmission of the Revolution’s symbols across the land. [1] The relatively low value of the notes on this uncut sheet would inevitably have meant that most French men and women would have owned such a ‘print’ at various points, although their possession of them would inevitably have been brief. The terrifying speed with which the value of the assignat depreciated would have made people eager to dispose of them as quickly as possible in exchange for goods with more tangible value.

In common with other assignats, these fifty sol notes are composed of a frame containing, at the top, a mechanically generated serial number and a date (in both the Gregorian and Republican calendars). The reference made to the law of 23rd May 1793 recalls the ruling that increased the circulation of these notes, which had in fact been in circulation since 1792. On the sides are warnings against counterfeiting assignats (a crime punishable by death) and encouragement to inform against anyone guilty of having done so.

The pictorial information contained within the frame reinforces the rule of law through the depiction of appropriately accessorised allegorical figures. Of the two women seated at the bottom of the note, the one on the left is depicted writing the Rights of Man, the manifesto embodying the principles of the Revolution published in 1791. At her feet sits a cockerel, symbol of vigilance and wakefulness (in this instance against the violation of those rights). The woman on the right embodies justice and fraternity, symbolised by the pair of scales that she holds in one hand and the fasces (a bundle of bound rods) in the other. Look closely and above them you will see two timbres sec, embossed, inkless stamps, the one bearing the image of a winged man and the inscription ‘Règne de la Loi’, ‘the rule of law’, the other a female figure armed with the sword and scales of justice. Beside her sits a tablet simply engraved with the word ‘loi’. Perhaps these virtuous figures were chosen from the pantheon of revolutionary deities to try and deter the host of forgers who were quickening the assignat’s depreciation. On a more practical note, it was hoped the use of very detailed engravings and timbres sec would reduce the chance of being able to successfully counterfeit the note.

The denomination of the note is specified within the frame alongside the printed signature of Saussay. Signatories were not usually chosen because they were important individuals – the equivalent of the governor of the bank of England, for instance – but because of the beauty of their handwriting! It is likely that Saussay was a low ranking bureaucrat. The note’s header, ‘Domaines nationaux’ (National property) is a reference to the fact that the note’s value was derived from the capital raised by the recent nationalisation of all church land. As such, ownership of the note was theoretically akin to ownership of a share of that nationalised land.

[1] Richard Taws, Currencies: Circulation and Spectatorship in the Print Culture of the French Revolution, Unpublished thesis (PhD), University of London, 2005. I would like to thank Richard for his assistance whilst compiling this entry.

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