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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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In the grand scheme of things the shortcomings of the Sicard text are more a matter of perception than substance. Whatever its place in the history of biography as a genre, the information it presents holds up well against scholarly scrutiny. Berthier relies on institutional documents and reports, private and official correspondence, and government decrees and public announcements, as well as his own eyewitness experience. He is not content to summarize: quotations abound, some of them brief, others quite lengthy. Of course the referencing apparatus found in today’s scholarly biographies had not yet been adopted for such undertakings. What is more, Berthier limited his research largely to the materials at hand, primarily those available in the institute’s archives. Scholars have since unearthed a good deal more. Alexis Karacostas, for example, presents a myriad of sources in his 1981 doctorat d’état dissertation, “L’Institution nationale des sourds-muets de Paris de 1790 à 1800” (“The National Deaf Institute of Paris from 1790 to 1800”); as does Sophia Rosenfeld in her 2001 A Revolution in Language: The Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001). Rather than undermining his efforts, however, the findings of these studies and others like them simply place today’s readers in a better position both to evaluate Berthier’s interpretation of events and to appreciate the vicissitudes of interpersonal relations, ideological biases, bureaucratic exigencies, and accommodations made in the interest of his target audience.

Berthier’s narrative moves the story along rapidly. Readers interested in an in-depth account of Sicard’s early years will have to look elsewhere. Chapter 1, a mere two and a half pages in length, broadly chronicles Sicard’s life and career first as the Abbé de l’Epée’s student, then as the director of the Bordeaux school for the deaf, and finally his appointment as director of the newly formed Paris Institute in 1790. What follows is high drama. Over the next six chapters Berthier recounts the riveting tale of Sicard’s narrow escape from the Revolution’s wrath. He is arrested, incarcerated, sentenced to death, and loaded into a carriage to be taken to his appointment with the executioner. A miraculous escape soon takes a bad turn, and a series of harrowing events keep the reader in suspense until Sicard is freed, in part owing to pressure from his deaf students. He is arrested a second time, freed again, and at a later date forced to go into hiding until a playwright and Napoleon come to his rescue. Ironically, it was the fame of the Abbé de l’Epée that paved the way for his return to duties at the school: The second performance of Jean Nicholas Bouilly’s 1799 drama (L’Abbé de l’Epée), which brought the storied deaf educator’s life on the stage, attracted the First Consul and his spouse. During the performance, as Berthier relates in chapter 7, several supporters began chanting a plea for Sicard’s return that was taken up by the entire theater. Napoleon quickly intervened in Sicard’s favor and further demonstrated his support by paying off the institute’s debts.

Ironically, this intervention may have left Sicard in an unfortunate position. L’Epée had attained legendary status; try as he may, Sicard was destined to remain in his shadow. In any case, there is little doubt about Berthier’s sentiments as Sicard’s biographer. His depictions of Sicard are almost always infused with an element of disrespect, including his descriptions of the director’s “heroism” during the tumultuous events of the Revolution. At first glance the verbal exchanges quoted by Berthier (from unidentified sources) seem out of place. He imbues Sicard with a provocative, brassy bravado that would have found little favor with his ruthless captors. The humility one would expect in such circumstances never surfaces. One might see it as an example of the exaggerated panegyric Berthier believed his audience expected—hardly a flattering inference in the age of Flaubert. Further evidence leads in another direction. Karacostas’s research finds that not only had Sicard refused to submit to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy as required by Revolutionary law, but also that he had treated the local Revolutionary committee with angry disrespect when he was refused a residence permit. His defiance in such situations and his failure to comply with other measures continued into the time of the Directory and led to the order for his deportation on September 5, 1798. Berthier’s depiction, then, would seem to be accurate. Elsewhere, it is necessary to add, he does go to great lengths to demean Sicard for his lack of eloquence, his uncomely Bordelais accent, and his underdeveloped social skills. In chapter 8 he identifies some possible motivations for Berthier’s behavior.

The eighth chapter moves the reader directly into the sphere of deaf language and education. It begins with Napoleon’s mistaken impression that the signs used by deaf students and teachers at the Paris school were linguistically deficient because they communicated only by means of nouns and adjectives. Berthier quickly discredits that notion and attributes the misunderstanding to Napoleon’s limited exposure to the language. Otherwise, he insists, the First Consul would have recognized that “the verb is indeed the heart of sign language.” For Berthier the very idea of a linguistic deficiency of such a magnitude translated all too clearly as a remnant of the misperception of deaf people as physical and intellectual inferiors. Napoleon’s erroneous observation serves as a springboard to an impassioned defense.

As in the Bébian biography, Berthier points a reproving finger at Sicard. The institute’s director himself had been guilty of fueling that damnable misconception in his Course of Instruction for a Person Born Deaf (1800). Berthier quotes the relevant passages verbatim and then pounces:

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