Historiography of the French Revolution  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
historiography

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.

Contemporary and 19th century historians

The constant stream of books could be said to begin with Anglo-Irish politician 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 (the 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, arguing that Freemasons and other dissidents had been responsible for an attempt to destroy the monarchy and the Catholic Church.

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 nineteenth 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 nineteenth-century (listed in rough chronological order):

  • Jules Michelet - his Histoire de la Révolution française, published after the Revolution of 1848, is one of the lesser works of a generally highly esteemed writer. To quote the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, "in actual picturesqueness as well as in general veracity of picture, the book cannot approach Carlyle's; while as a mere chronicle of the events it is inferior to half a dozen prosaic histories older and younger than itself." More recently, though viewed still as a flawed work, it has seen renewed influence for its appraisal of the Revolution in its own terms. Michelet has, with Carlyle, disciples in several schools of modern history, whose common aim is to approach the subject matter through involvement rather than objectivity.
  • Louis Blanc - Blanc's 13-volume Histoire de la Révolution française (18471862) displays utopian socialist views, and sympathizes with Jacobinism.
  • Théodore Gosselin (1855-1935) - writing under the name "G. Lenotre",
  • F.A. Aulard - founded the Société de l’Histoire de la Révolution and the bimonthly review Révolution française. Numerous works develop his republican, bourgeois, and anticlerical view of the revolution.
  • Hippolyte Taine - among the more conservative of the originators of social history, his most famous work is his Origines de la France Contemporaine (1875-1893).
  • Albert Sorel - diplomatic historian; L'Europe et la Révolution française (8 volumes, 1895–1904); introductory section of this work translated as Europe under the Old Regime (1947).
  • Edgar Quinet - late Romantic anti-Catholic nationalist.

One of the most famous English works on the Revolution remains Thomas Carlyle's two-volume The French Revolution, A History (1837) [1]. 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".

Another often overlooked work is ' The French Revolution - A Study in Democrasy ' by British writer Nesta Webster, published in 1919 which advances the theory that the progress of the French Revolution was considerably influenced by an Orleanist Conspiracy. While unabashedly partisan in favour of the monarchy, it vouches for this theory compellingly and offers many sources to back it up. Webster spent three years in the British Museum (London) and the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris) writing her historical critique of about 360 pages. It is remarkable for its trenchant views and the corroborative sources she offers to support her thesis.

The Marxist, or Classic, interpretation

The dominating approach to the French Revolution in historical scholarship in the first half of the twentieth 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, historians such as 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 Four-Twenty-Nine, the French way of saying the number 89, 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:

  • Ernest Labrousse, who performed extensive economic research on eighteenth-century France.
  • Albert Soboul. Although his reputation has fallen in recent years under the weight of the revisionist school, Soboul performed exhaustive research on the lower classes of the Revolution. His most famous work is The Sans-Culottes (1968).
  • George Rudé - another of Lefebvre's protégés, did further work on the popular side of the Revolution: The Crowd in the French Revolution (1959) is one of his most famous works.
  • Daniel Guérin - an anarchist, he is highly critical of the Jacobins.

Some of the significant conservative French historians of this period include:

  • Pierre Gaxotte - royalist: The French Revolution (1928)
  • Augustin Cochin - a conservative historian working at the beginning of the twentieth century, he found the origins of the Revolution in the activities of the intelligentsia
  • Albert Sorel - diplomatic historian: Europe et la Révolution française (8 volumes, 1895–1904); introductory section of this work translated as Europe under the Old Regime (1947).

The following five scholars have served as Chairs in the History of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne:

  • Hippolyte Taine
  • Alphonse Aulard - 1891 (for more than thirty years)
  • Georges Lefebvre - 1937-1959
  • Albert Soboul - 1967-1982
  • Michel Vovelle - 1982

Revisionism and modern work

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). The main point he made 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 of 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; 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 tends to realign the 1789 revolution in a "long" history of nineteenth century revolutionary France. 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).

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. 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 recent American 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.

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.

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 refutes 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 consummate historian working in the wake of the revisionists, often in an unusual and innovative way. 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. This novel approach has attracted more reserved reviews, described as "nervy and daring"..

Some other modern historians include:

  • Marcel Gauchet, author of La Révolution des droits de l'homme (1989) and La Révolution des pouvoirs (1995).
  • Owen Connelly - The French Revolution and Napoleonic Era (1993).
  • Olwen Hufton - writes on women in history. Her work with regard to the Revolution is Women and the Limits of Citizenship in the French Revolution (1999)
  • Dale K. Van Kley - a historian of religion, particularly with regard to eighteenth century France.
  • Mark Steel, a Marxist stand up comedian authored the humorous and accessible Vive La Revolution (2003)





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