International Review of Social History

Research Article

Some Reflections on Corsican Secret Societies in the Early Nineteenth Century*

P. Savigear

Stendhal, in La Chartreuse de Parme, described a minister of police who

“se garde bien de nier la conspiration, au contraire, seul avec le prince, et armé jusqu'aux dents, il visite tous les coins des appartements, regarde sous les lits et, en un mot, se livre à une foule d'actions ridicules dignes d'une vieille femme.”

Thus it is when conspiracy is in the air, and such fears were not without parallel in the administrations of the European states in years between 1815 and 1848. The European cabinets in this “age of Metternich” were beset by a fear of revolution, international conspiracy, carbonari and illuminati, and a widespread suspicion of subversion. The picture of clandestine organisation whether drawn in Vienna, Paris, Berlin, Rome or Milan, was not vastly different nor entirely fictitious. The period was punctuated with armed revolts, coups, arrests of agitators, and the appearance of secret societies, often republican, dedicated to the overthrow of the existing order. It is not surprising that contemporaries and indeed some historians of the period exaggerated the links between these phenomena, even to the extent of occasionally suggesting that one principal organisation was at work with a series of national variants creating an international network. Revolt in Piedmont, Naples and Spain was readily conceived to have a connection with attempted coups elsewhere in Europe. Buonarroti, Mazzini, La Cecilia, Victor Cousin, General Lafayette and many others were observed by the police of Europe as they moved about the continent engaged on legitimate business and perhaps on work of a more subversive nature. The suspicion was constantly present that such men were the agents of international revolution. This was the case not least in the ranks of the French administration, where carbonarist activity came into prominence in 1821 and 1822 and a fear of traffic in revolution remained until the middle of the century.


* The research for this article was undertaken with the assistance of the Nuffield Foundation and the University of Leicester.