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 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 profoundly altered 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 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.
Marie Joseph Louis Adolphe Thiers was a French statesman and historian. He was the second elected President of France, and the first President of the French Third Republic.
Charles X was King of France from 16 September 1824 until 2 August 1830. For most of his life he was known as the Count of Artois. An uncle of the uncrowned Louis XVII and younger brother to reigning kings Louis XVI and Louis XVIII, he supported the latter in exile. After the Bourbon Restoration in 1814, Charles became the leader of the ultra-royalists, a radical monarchist faction within the French court that affirmed rule by divine right and opposed the concessions towards liberals and guarantees of civil liberties granted by the Charter of 1814. Charles gained influence within the French court after the assassination of his son Charles Ferdinand, Duke of Berry, in 1820 and eventually succeeded his brother in 1824.
The French Revolution of 1830, also known as the July Revolution, Second French Revolution or Trois Glorieuses in French, led to the overthrow of King Charles X, the French Bourbon monarch, and the ascent of his cousin Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans, who himself, after 18 precarious years on the throne, would be overthrown in 1848. It marked the shift from one constitutional monarchy, under the restored House of Bourbon, to another, the July Monarchy; the transition of power from the House of Bourbon to its cadet branch, the House of Orléans; and the replacement of the principle of hereditary right by popular sovereignty. Supporters of the Bourbon would be called Legitimists, and supporters of Louis Philippe Orléanists.
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."
Marie-Henri Beyle, better known by his pen name Stendhal, was a 19th-century French writer. Best known for the novels Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme, he is highly regarded for the acute analysis of his characters' psychology and considered one of the early and foremost practitioners of realism.
The Académie française is the pre-eminent French council for matters pertaining to the French language. The Académie was officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. Suppressed in 1793 during the French Revolution, it was restored as a division of the Institut de France in 1803 by Napoleon Bonaparte. It is the oldest of the five académies of the institute.
Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, translator, historian, mathematician, and teacher. Considered one of the most important social commentators of his time, he presented many lectures during his lifetime with certain acclaim in the Victorian era. One of those conferences resulted in his famous work On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History where he argued that the key role in history lies in the actions of the "Great Man", claiming that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men".
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).
Edmund Burke was an Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher. Born in Dublin, Burke served as a member of parliament (MP) between 1766 and 1794 in the House of Commons with the Whig Party after moving to London in 1750.
Reflections on the Revolution in France is a political pamphlet written by the Irish statesman Edmund Burke and published in November 1790. One of the best-known intellectual attacks against the French Revolution, Reflections is a defining tract of modern conservatism as well as an important contribution to international theory. Above all else, it has been one of the defining efforts of Edmund Burke's transformation of "traditionalism into a self-conscious and fully conceived political philosophy of conservatism".
Political philosophy, also known as political theory, is the study of topics such as politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of laws by authority: what they are, if they are needed, what makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect, what form it should take, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever.
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 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 ascendency 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.
The sans-culottes were the common people of the lower classes in late 18th century France, a great many of whom became radical and militant partisans of the French Revolution in response to their poor quality of life under the Ancien Régime. The word sans-culotte, which is opposed to that of the aristocrat, came in vogue in 1792, during the demonstration of 20 June 1792. The name sans-culottes refers to their clothing, and through that to their lower-class status: culottes were the fashionable silk knee-breeches of the 18th-century nobility and bourgeoisie, and the working class sans-culottes wore pantaloons, or trousers, instead. The sans-culottes, most of them urban labourers, served as the driving popular force behind the revolution. They were judged by the other revolutionaries as "radicals" because they advocated a direct democracy, that is to say, without intermediaries such as members of parliament. Though ill-clad people and ill-equipped, with little or no support from the upper class, they made up the bulk of the Revolutionary army during the early years of the French Revolutionary Wars.
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 an uprising 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.
The Women's March on Versailles, also known as The October March, The October Days, or simply The March on Versailles, was one of the earliest and most significant events of the French Revolution. The march began among women in the marketplaces of Paris who, on the morning of 5 October 1789, were near rioting over the high price and scarcity of bread. Their demonstrations quickly became intertwined with the activities of revolutionaries, who were seeking liberal political reforms and a constitutional monarchy for France. The market women and their various allies grew into a mob of thousands. Encouraged by revolutionary agitators, they ransacked the city armory for weapons and marched to the Palace of Versailles. The crowd besieged the palace, and in a dramatic and violent confrontation, they successfully pressed their demands upon King Louis XVI. The next day, the crowd compelled the king, his family, and most of the French Assembly to return with them to Paris.
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.
Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre was a French lawyer and politician, as well as one of the best known and most influential figures associated with the French Revolution. As a member of the Constituent Assembly and the Jacobin Club, he campaigned for universal manhood suffrage, and the abolition of both celibacy for the clergy and of slavery. Robespierre was an outspoken advocate for the citizens without a voice, for their unrestricted admission to the National Guard, to public offices, and for the right to carry arms in self-defence. Robespierre played an important part in the agitation which brought about the fall of the French monarchy in August 1792 and the summoning of a National Convention.
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.