France was at the heart of the early days of educating the deaf. A couple of years ago, Hearing International investigated the National Institute for the Deaf in Paris, founded and directed by Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Epée (1712-1789). De l’Epée, as we presented then, was in the forefront of developing education of the deaf as we know it today. He brought sign language from the streets of Paris and into the classroom, founding the Paris Institute. This week Hearing International recognizes the contributions of another Frenchman, Ferdinand Berthier (1803-1886). Berthier was President of the Société Centrale des Sourds-Muets, Dean of the Royal Deaf Institute of Paris, and a member of the Historical Institute of France.
Ferdinand Berthier enrolled at the National Institute for the Deaf in 1811 as a non-hearing, non-speaking 8-year-old. The school had been directed since the French Revolution by the hearing and speaking Abbé Roch-Ambroise Sicard (1742-1822), who had succeeded the Abbé de l’Epée as France’s most prominent deaf educator. The staff during Berthier’s formative years included two non-hearing and non-speaking teaching assistants—Jean Massieu (1772-1846) and Laurent Clerc (1985-1869)—as well as Sicard’s hearing and speaking godson and namesake, Roch-Ambroise-Auguste Bébian (1789-1839). Sicard (right), Massieu, Clerc,and Bébian, who all earned prominent places in the history of education for the deaf, became the principal figures in Berthier’s early life; together they would influence his decision to join the faculty at the National Institute for the Deaf and also to enter the political arena both as spokesman for the French deaf community and as an uncompromising advocate for deaf language and culture. As he advocated for deaf language and culture, each of his four mentors found their way into the Berthier’s numerous biographies.
Silent Banquets – A Tradition Is Established
Although there was a small meal held the year before where the idea for a more formal banquet germinated, it was in 1834 in Paris that Berthier hosted the first of his silent banquets that gained international fame. The banquets were social get-togethers of “deaf-mutes” who met each year to honor the birthday of Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Epée. Left is an invitation in French with an English translation on the right side for the first of these famous banquets. It was held on December 6, 1834 at a restaurant in the Place du Châtelet, a square on the right bank of the River Seine almost in the center of Paris (Right). To ensure that these banquets were held Berthier created a committee of deaf individuals which later, in 1838, became the Société Centrale des Sourds-Muets (Deaf Mutes). This organization became the voice for the deaf in France arguing for the defense of the language of signs and the equality between deaf and hearing persons in the face of much opposition from oralists.
Organized by and presided over by Berthier, the Society Centrale des Sourds-Muets had a powerful political presence representing the deaf community through the middle of the 19th century. While there is little written record of the first of these banquets, there are some writings of the second banquet held December 6, 1835 marking de l’Epée’s 123rd birthday at the restaurant in the Place du Chatelet (pictured at left from circa 1900).It was named as ‘le Veau qui Tette’ [The suckling calf] – from 1837, they moved on to Ladmiral’s on the Rue Sainte Marguerite in the Saint Germain neighborhood on the Left Bank of the Seine.
The Société Centrale des Sourds-Muets,with its roots in the Silent Banquets, is still active in pursuing its goals to serve as a Central Society for Education and to campaign for the use of sign language in France. Abbé Charles Michel de l’Epée had been dead for fifty years when the society was founded.. Yet he is regarded as its father, because it was he who first set out to “give voice” to the deaf. According to the society’s web site, Berthier, as a deaf student and then as a teacher at the National Institute for the Deaf, took over l’Epée’s mission, as he dedicated his life to the society.
Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet brought the society to America when they organized another banquet in New York in 1880, Today, silent banquets are still held routinely all over the world. Thus the tradition, established by Ferdinand Berthier and friends in 1834, continues.