The historiography of the French Revolution stretches back over two hundred years, as commentators and historians have sought to answer questions regarding the origins of the Revolution, and its meaning and effects. By the year 2000, many historians were saying that the field of the French Revolution was in intellectual disarray. The old model or paradigm focusing on class conflict has been challenged but no new explanatory model had gained widespread support.Nevertheless, there persists a very widespread agreement to the effect that the French Revolution was the watershed between the premodern and modern eras of Western history.
The literature in French is vast, and in English quite substantial.
The first major work on the Revolution by a French historian was published between 1823 and 1827 by Adolphe Thiers. His celebrated Histoire de la Révolution française, in ten volumes, founded his literary reputation and launched his political career. The complete work of ten volumes sold ten thousand sets, an enormous number for the time. It went through four more editions. Thiers' history was particularly popular in liberal circles and among younger Parisians. Written during the Restoration, when the tricolor flag and singing the Marseillaise were forbidden, the book praised the principles, leaders and accomplishments of the 1789 Revolution; the clear heroes were Mirabeau, Lafayette, and other moderate leaders. It condemned Marat, Robespierre and the other radical leaders, and also condemned the monarchy, aristocracy and clergy for their inability to change. The book played a notable role in undermining the legitimacy of the Bourbon regime of Charles X, and bringing about the July Revolution of 1830. Thiers went on to become a Deputy, twice Prime Minister, and the first president of the Third French Republic. He also headed the French government in 1871 which suppressed the Paris Commune.
Thiers' history of the Revolution was praised by the French authors Chateaubriand, Stendhal et Sainte-Beuve, was translated into English (1838) and Spanish (1889), and won him a seat in the Académie française in 1834.It was less appreciated by British critics, in large part because of his favorable view of the French Revolution and of Napoleon Bonaparte. The British historian Thomas Carlyle, who wrote his own history of the French Revolution, complained that it "was far as possible from meriting its high reputation", though he admitted that Thiers is "a brisk man in his way, and will tell you much if you know nothing." The British historian Hugh Chisholm wrote in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, "Thiers' historical work is marked by extreme inaccuracy, by prejudice which passes the limits of accidental unfairness, and by an almost complete indifference to the merits as compared with the successes of his heroes."
The constant stream of major books began with Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). In it he established the conservative stream of opinion, wherein even the revolution of July 1789 went "too far". His book is not so much studied today as part of Revolution studies, but rather as a classic of conservative political philosophy. In France, conspiracy theories were rife in the highly charged political atmosphere, with the Abbé Barruel, in perhaps the most influential work Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism (1797–1798), arguing that Freemasons and other dissidents had been responsible for an attempt to destroy the monarchy and the Catholic Church.Hippolyte Taine (1828–1893) was among the more conservative of the originators of social history. His most famous work is his Origines de la France Contemporaine (1875–1893).
Many minor studies appeared, such as The French Revolution: A Study in Democracy by British writer Nesta Webster, published in 1919. It advanced the theory that the progress of the French Revolution was considerably influenced by a conspiracy conducted by "the lodges of the German Freemasons and Illuminati". [ citation needed ]This theory was believed by Winston Churchill, who wrote in 1920: "This conspiracy against civilization dates from the days of Weishaupt ... as a modern historian Mrs. Webster has so ably shown, it played a recognisable role on the French Revolution."
A simplified description of the liberal approach to the Revolution was typically to support the achievements of the constitutional monarchy of the National Assembly but disown the later actions of radical violence like the invasion of the Tuileries and the Terror. French historians of the first half of the 19th century like the politician and man of letters François Guizot (1787–1874), historian François Mignet (published Histoire de la Révolution française in 1824), and famous philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, 1856) established and wrote in this tradition.
Other French historians in the 19th-century include:
One of the most famous English works on the Revolution remains Thomas Carlyle's three-volume The French Revolution, A History (1837) [ permanent dead link ]. It is a romantic work, both in style and viewpoint. Passionate in his concern for the poor and in his interest in the fears and hopes of revolution, he (while reasonably historically accurate) is often more concerned with conveying his impression of the hopes and aspirations of people (and his opposition to ossified ideology—"formulas" or "Isms"—as he called them) than with strict adherence to fact. The undoubted passion and intensity of the text may also be due to the famous incident where he sent the completed draft of the first volume to John Stuart Mill for comment, only for Mill's maid to accidentally burn the volume to ashes, forcing Carlyle to start from scratch. He wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson that the writing of the book was the "dreadfulest labor [he] ever undertook".
In 1909, Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist, published The Great French Revolution , which attempts to round out the political approach with the perspective and contribution to the Revolution of the common man.
Alphonse Aulard (1849–1928) was the first professional historian of the Revolution; he promoted graduate studies, scholarly editions, and learned journals.His appointment to the Sorbonne was promoted and funded by Republicans in the national and Paris governments, but he was not himself involved in party politics. He promoted a republican, bourgeois, and anticlerical view of the revolution. From 1886 he taught at the Sorbonne, trained advanced students, founded the Société de l'Histoire de la Révolution, and edited the scholarly journal La Révolution française. He assembled and published many key primary sources. He professionalized scholarship in the field, moving away from the literary multi-volume studies aimed at an upscale general public, promoting special political ideals, that had characterized writing on the Revolution before the 1880s. Instead his work was aimed at fellow scholars and researchers. His broad interpretation argued:
Aulard's historiography was based on positivism. The assumption was that methodology was all-important and the historian's duty was to present in chronological order the duly verified facts, to analyze relations between facts, and provide the most likely interpretation. Full documentation based on research in the primary sources was essential. He took the lead in training advanced students in the proper use and analysis of primary sources. Aulard's famous four volume history of the Revolution focused on technical issues.
Aulard's books favored the study of parliamentary debates, not action in the street; institutions, not insurrections. He emphasized public opinion, elections, parties, parliamentary majorities, and legislation. He recognized the complications that prevented the Revolution from fulfilling all its ideal promises – as when the legislators of 1793 made suffrage universal for all French men, but also established the dictatorship of the Terror.
The dominating approach to the French Revolution in historical scholarship in the first half of the 20th century was the Marxist, or Classic, approach. This view sees the French Revolution as an essentially 'bourgeois' revolution, marked by class struggle and resulting in a victory of the bourgeoisie. Influenced by socialist politician Jean Jaurès and historian Albert Mathiez (who broke with his teacher Aulard regarding class conflict), historians on the left led by Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul developed this view.
Lefebvre was inspired by Jaurès and came to the field from a mildly socialist viewpoint. His massive and reputation-making thesis, Les paysans du Nord (1924), was an account of the Revolution among provincial peasants. He continued to research along these lines, publishing The Great Fear of 1789 (1932, first English translation 1973), about the panic and violence which spread throughout rural France in the summer of 1789. His work largely approaches the Revolution "from below", favouring explanations in terms of classes. His most famous work was Quatre-Vingt-Neuf (literally Eighty-Nine, published in 1939 and translated into English as The Coming of the French Revolution, 1947). This skilfully and persuasively argued work interprets the Revolution through a Marxist lens: first there is the "aristocratic revolution" of the Assembly of Notables and the Paris Parlement in 1788; then the "bourgeois revolution" of the Third Estate; the "popular revolution", symbolised by the fall of the Bastille; and the "peasant revolution", represented by the "Great Fear" in the provinces and the burning of châteaux. (Alternately, one can view 1788 as the aristocratic revolution, 1789 the bourgeois revolution, and 1792/3 the popular revolution). This interpretation sees a rising capitalist middle-class overthrow a dying-out feudal aristocratic ruling caste, and held the field for almost twenty years.His major publication was La Révolution française (1957, translated and published in English in two volumes, 1962–1967). This, and particularly his later work on Napoleon and the Directory, remains highly regarded.
Some other influential French historians of this period:
Some of the significant conservative French historians of this period include:
The following five scholars have served as Chairs in the History of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne:
"Revisionism" in this context means the rejection of the Orthodox/Marxist model of a revolution carried out by the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy on the right, with intervention from the proletariat pushing it to the left. Shank finds that 21st century trends include a broader range of topics regarding the effects of the Revolution, and a more global perspective. He cites heavy use of the Internet, resources such as the H-France daily discussion email list,and use of digital sources to scan through massive amounts of text.
In 1954, Alfred Cobban used his inaugural lecture as Professor of French History at the University of London to attack what he called the "social interpretation" of the French Revolution. The lecture was later published as "The Myth of the French Revolution", but his seminal work arguing this point was The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution (1963). It was published in French translation only in 1984. His main point was that feudalism had long since disappeared in France; that the Revolution did not transform French society, and that it was principally a political revolution, not a social one as Lefebvre and others insisted.
Although dismissed and attacked by the mainstream journals at first, Cobban was persistent and determined, and his approach was soon supported and modified by a flood of new research both inside and outside France. American historian George V. Taylor's research established that the bourgeoisie of the Third Estate were not quite the budding capitalists they were made out to be; indeed Taylor showed the aristocrats were just as entrepreneurial if not more so. John McManners, Jean Egret, Franklin Ford and others wrote on the divided and complex situation of the nobility in pre-revolutionary France. The most significant opposition to arise in France was that of Annales historians François Furet, Denis Richet, and Mona Ozouf. Furet in the 1960s worked in terms of the Annales School, which locates the 1789 revolution in a "long" history of 19th century revolutionary France.
Another seminal figure in the revisionism debate is the Francophile Englishman Richard Cobb, who has produced a number of immensely detailed studies of both provincial and city life, avoiding the revisionism debate by "keeping his nose very close to the ground".Les armées révolutionnaires (1968, translated as The People's Armies in 1987) is his most famous work.
William Doyle, professor at Bristol University, has published The Origins of the French Revolution (1988) and a revisionist history, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (2nd edition 2002). Another historian working in this tradition is Keith Michael Baker. A collection of his essays (Inventing the French Revolution, 1990) examines the ideological origins of the Revolution.
Timothy Tackett in particular has changed approach, preferring archival research to historiographical dialectics. He challenges the ideas about nobility and bourgeoise in Becoming a Revolutionary (2006), a "collective biography" via letters and diaries of the third estate deputies of 1789. His other major work is When the King Took Flight (2004), a study of the rise of republicanism and radicalism in the Legislative Assembly in 1791/2. Tackett also has several works focusing on Reign of Terror, The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution (2015), and the psychology behind the paranoia affecting the Committee of Public Safety during the Terror. These insights provide a deeper look into how and why this event happened.
Simon Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989) is a popular, generally moderate/conservative history of the period. It is ostensibly a narrative of "Persons" and "Events", and more in the tradition of Carlyle than Tocqueville and Lefebvre.Its narrative- while massive- focuses on the most visible leaders of the Revolution, even through its more "popular" phases. The book's allegiance is to historical literary styles rather than schools. Thus Schama is simultaneously able to deny the existence of a so-called "bourgeois" revolution, reserve apotheoses for Robespierre, Louis XVI, and the sans-culottes alike, and utilize historical nuance to a degree usually associated with more liberal historians. Borrowing from the Romantics for imagery (the introduction closely follows that of Michelet's "History..."), "Citizens" also argues against the Romantics' belief in the necessity of the Revolution. Schama concentrates on the early years of the Revolution, the Republic only taking up about a fifth of the book. He also places increased emphasis on insurrectionary violence in Paris and violence in general, claiming that it was "not the unfortunate by-product of revolution, [but] the source of its energy."
Lynn Hunt, though often characterized as a feminist interpreter of the Revolution, is a historian working in the wake of the revisionists. Her major works include Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (1984), and The Family Romance of the French Revolution (1992), both interpretative works. The former focuses on the creation of a new democratic political culture from scratch, assigning the Revolution's greatest meaning here, in a political culture.In the latter study she works with a somewhat Freudian interpretation, the political Revolution as a whole being seen as an enormous dysfunctional family haunted by patricide: Louis as father, Marie-Antoinette as mother, and the revolutionaries as an unruly mob of brothers.
François Furet (1927–1997) was the leading figure in the rejection of the "classic" or "Marxist" interpretation. Desan (2000) concluded he "seemed to emerge the victor from the bicentennial, both in the media and in historiographic debates."A disillusioned ex-Communist, he published his La Révolution Française in 1965–66. It marked his transition from revolutionary leftist politics to liberal Left-center position, and reflected his ties to the social-science-oriented Annales School. He then moved to the right, re-examining the Revolution from the perspective of 20th century totalitarianism (as exemplified by Hitler and Stalin). His Penser la Révolution Française (1978; translated as Interpreting the French Revolution 1981) was an influential book that led many intellectuals to reevaluate Communism and the Revolution as inherently totalitarian and anti-democratic. Looking at modern French Communism he stressed the close resemblance between the 1960s and 1790s, with both favoring the inflexible and rote ideological discourse in party cells where decisions were made unanimously in a manipulated direct democracy. Furet further suggested that popularity of the Far Left to many French intellectuals was itself a result of their commitment to the ideals of the French Revolution. Working much of the year at the University of Chicago after 1979, Furet also rejected the Annales School, with its emphasis on very long-term structural factors, and emphasized intellectual history. Influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville and Augustin Cochin, Furet argues that Frenchmen must stop seeing the revolution as the key to all aspects of modern French history. His works include Interpreting the French Revolution (1981), a historiographical overview of what has preceded him and A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (1989).
Some other modern historians include:
Works mentioned, by date of first publication:
online covers the older studies.
The Annales school is a group of historians associated with a style of historiography developed by French historians in the 20th century to stress long-term social history. It is named after its scholarly journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, which remains the main source of scholarship, along with many books and monographs. The school has been highly influential in setting the agenda for historiography in France and numerous other countries, especially regarding the use of social scientific methods by historians, emphasizing social and economic rather than political or diplomatic themes.
The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution made a profound impression on the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.
The Society of the Friends of the Constitution, after 1792 renamed Society of the Jacobins, Friends of Freedom and Equality, commonly known as the Jacobin Club or simply the Jacobins, became the most influential political club during the French Revolution of 1789 and following. The period of their political ascendancy includes the Reign of Terror, during which time well over ten thousand people were put on trial and executed in France, many for political crimes.
François Victor Alphonse Aulard was the first professional French historian of the French Revolution and of Napoleon. His major achievement was to institutionalise and professionalise the practice of history in France. He argued:
Hippolyte Adolphe Taine was a French critic and historian. He was the chief theoretical influence of French naturalism, a major proponent of sociological positivism and one of the first practitioners of historicist criticism. Literary historicism as a critical movement has been said to originate with him. Taine is also remembered for his attempts to provide a scientific account of literature.
The National Convention was the first government of the French Revolution, following the two-year National Constituent Assembly and the one-year Legislative Assembly. Created after the great insurrection of 10 August 1792, it was the first French government organized as a republic, abandoning the monarchy altogether. The Convention sat as a single-chamber assembly from 20 September 1792 to 26 October 1795.
Cultural history combines the approaches of anthropology and history to look at popular cultural traditions and cultural interpretations of historical experience. It examines the records and narrative descriptions of past matter, encompassing the continuum of events pertaining to a culture.
Albert Marius Soboul was a historian of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. A professor at the Sorbonne, he was Chair of the History of the French Revolution and author of numerous influential works of history and historical interpretation. In his lifetime, he was internationally recognized as the foremost French authority on the Revolutionary era.
The War in the Vendée was a counter-revolution in the Vendée region of France during the French Revolution. The Vendée is a coastal region, located immediately south of the Loire River in western France. Initially, the war was similar to the 14th-century Jacquerie peasant uprising, but quickly acquired themes considered by the Jacobin government in Paris to be counter-revolutionary, and Royalist. The uprising headed by the newly formed Catholic and Royal Army was comparable to the Chouannerie, which took place in the area north of the Loire.
Georges Lefebvre was a French historian, best known for his work on the French Revolution and peasant life. He coined the term "history from below", which was later popularised by the British Marxist Historians, and the phrase the "death certificate of the old order" to describe the Great Fear of 1789. Among his most significant works was the 1924 book Les Paysans du Nord pendant la Révolution française, which was the result of 20 years of research into the role of the peasantry during the revolutionary period.
Albert Mathiez was a French historian, best known for his Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution. Mathiez emphasized class conflict. He argued that 1789 pitted the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy and then the Revolution pitted the bourgeoisie against the sans-culottes, who were a proletariat-in-the-making. Mathiez greatly influenced Georges Lefebvre and Albert Soboul in forming what came to be known as the orthodox Marxist interpretation of the Revolution. Mathiez admired Maximilien Robespierre, praised the Reign of Terror and did not extend complete sympathy to the struggle of the proletariat.
François Furet was a French historian and president of the Saint-Simon Foundation, best known for his books on the French Revolution.
Alfred Cobban was an English historian and professor of French history at University College, London, who along with prominent French historian François Furet advocated a classical liberal view of the French Revolution.
Pierre Nora is a French historian elected to the Académie française on 7 June 2001. He is known for his work on French identity and memory. His name is associated with the study of new history. He is the brother of the late Simon Nora, former French officer.
Jean-François-Auguste Moulin was a member of the French Directory. He had a long career as a military officer serving France in the Royal Army of King Louis XVI, the Garde Nationale of the French Revolution, and the Grande Armée of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Augustin Cochin was a French historian of the French Revolution. Much of his work was posthumously published in an incomplete state after he was killed in action in World War I.
Dame Olwen H. Hufton, is a British historian of early modern Europe and a pioneer of social history and of women's history. She is an expert on early modern, western European comparative socio-cultural history with special emphasis on gender, poverty, social relations, religion and work. Since 2006 she has been a part-time Professorial Research Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Claude-François de Payan was a political figure of the French Revolution.
The Fraternal Society of Patriots of Both Sexes, Defenders of the Constitution was a French revolutionary organization notable in the history of feminism as an early example of active participation of women in politics.
The natural borders of France are a political and geographic theory developed in France, notably during the French Revolution. They correspond to the Rhine, the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, the Pyrenees and the Alps, according to the revolutionaries.