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American Annals of the Deaf

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Forging Deaf Education in Nineteenth-Century France: Biographical Sketches of Bébian, Sicard, Massieu, and Clerc

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or the art of speaking well. Egotism and nationalism thus heightened the threat that oralism posed in France and rendered the struggle all the more difficult. Berthier’s criticism does not stop there; the methodical signs developed by the Abbé de l’Epée come under close scrutiny, especially as they evolved under the auspices of the Abbé Sicard. The difference, he explained, was that l’Epée had used the natural language of his deaf charges as a point of departure. Sicard, on the other hand, recognized only what he thought the language should be according to the conventions of the speaking world. That thinking, Berthier emphasizes, resulted in a “contresens,” a cumbersome, complex, artificial language that hindered communication.

A significant portion of the essay meticulously compares the methodical signs used by l’Epée and Sicard and the language Auguste Bébian called la mimique, an assessment Berthier had failed to make in the biography of his mentor but that would become standard in later works. Berthier praises the authenticity, simplicity, and accuracy of mimicry:

Monsieur Bébian freed instruction from the intellectual baggage that served only to impede communication and brought back the simplicity and the truthfulness from which the Abbé de l’Epée never strayed. . . . Mimicry, more proficiently endowed than any conventional language and capable of reproducing those fleeting, ephemeral expressions accurately and with little difficulty, lends itself with marvelous flexibility to all the extremes of discourse. Thought is reflected as in a mirror, even in its most delicate forms.
That said, Berthier goes on to explain, much needs to be done to perfect the system and to standardize it so that it can be used as universally as possible. What is needed, he elaborates, are enlightened instructors who have mastered the language and who are exacting and demanding in their instruction. That point had validity in another linguistic realm as well; students of the history of the French language will recognize in these remarks the very concerns that were being expressed at the time by grammarians, lexicologists, members of the French Academy, and even politicians with regard to the undisciplined state of the national idiom.

Given the competition’s announced topic, it is not surprising to find in the essay a significant amount of anecdotal material relating to the Abbé de l’Epée’s career and beliefs. Berthier’s research had uncovered a good deal more, and he hoped to publish it in toto in the form of a work in support of the erection of a monument to l’Epée following the discovery (1838) of the remains of his burial vault at Saint-Roch Church in Paris. In reality, that project was already under way when the announcement of the essay competition was made in 1839. Berthier’s initial efforts to fund the full work were destined to fall short, however; indeed, it would take more than a decade for it to find its way into print—enriched as it was by further research and the acquisition of related documents—and thanks in large part to the support of the city of Versailles, l’Epée’s birthplace. Thus came to fruition in 1852 the biography Berthier would call his “humble claim to glory,” L’abbé de l’Epée, sa vie, son apostolat, ses travaux, sa lutte et ses succès (The Abbé de l’Epée, His Life, His Apostolate, His Work, His Struggles, and His Successes), published by the well-known house of Michel Lévy Frères.

Its 38 chapters and 413 pages (including more than 50 pages of notes) contain a wealth of information and form the wellspring from which both further research and legend would flow. Chapters 1 through 3 are purely biographical and detail l’Epée’s life up to the time he met the deaf sisters who would lead him to his calling as an educator. From there Berthier takes the reader into the heart of deaf education as l’Epée conceived it, practiced it, promoted it, and defended it against antagonists both in France and abroad. In the subsequent chapters he explores issues relating to the philosophical underpinnings of deaf education, including its early and contemporary practitioners; the relative merits of natural signs, artificial signs, and the manual alphabet; the debates surrounding oralism; and case histories of deaf individuals. At about its midpoint, the book begins to chronicle the adulation heaped upon l’Epée after his death; commemorative events and descriptions of monuments erected in his honor are interspersed with government decrees, committee reports, financial documents, and in particular the expressions of regard sponsored by the city of Versailles. In the end, the business of promoting deaf education receives almost as much attention as the subject of the biography.

Berthier’s biography of the Abbé de l’Epée was a resounding success in the deaf community, nevertheless. Two years following its publication, at the1854 banquet celebrating the founding father’s birth, Berthier was asked to undertake yet another project: the writing of a biography of the Abbé Sicard. Although he accepted the challenge, the task must have seemed daunting to him. His own philosophy of deaf language and education clashed painfully with Sicard’s uncompromising commitment to methodical signs. His experience at the school during the Sicard years had been colored by his contact with Massieu, Bébian, and Clerc. Berthier had little respect for Massieu, despite Massieu’s loyalty to the school and the daring and compassion he demonstrated on Sicard’s behalf during the Revolution. Berthier’s opinion of Massieu derived as much from Sicard’s influence and his use of his prize pupil as the “star puppet” in his demonstrations as it did from the personal limitations the biographer observed in his teacher. Berthier, as Massieu’s student, found reason to question his intelligence and considered his attitude toward deaf people in general to be detrimental to their welfare. Where Massieu saw barriers, Berthier saw opportunity and possibility; where Massieu advised restraint, Berthier championed ambition and initiative.

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