Useful Notes / The French Revolution
Storming of the Bastille, 14th of July 1789

"From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world (...)"
Goethe to the defeated German soldiers after the Battle of Valmy note 

The era in French History known for Marie Antoinette allegedly saying "Let Them Eat Cake" for which the people responded, by storming the Bastille, then Versailles, until the found her and her husband and guillotined them, and a few other nobles for good measure. It promised Liberty, Equality, Fraternity but led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. He marched across Europe, stopped only by Richard Sharpe or the Russian winter, depending on your nationality. That's The Theme Park Version. The real history of the French Revolution was even more of a wild ride. Start with a series of nations (Britanny, Gascogne, etc. etc.) that have little in common with each other but are bound by King and Church. France was drained by three major world wars in the last hundred years, and lots of smaller ones besides. There were these expensive-to-make-and-keep royal palaces, a new and very young king and queen who don't have a clue how to run the country, a nobility that did not want to pay exorbitant taxes even if they had money and didn't use it at all, with the emerging middle and lower-classes being asked to foot an exorbitant bill. A nation with an obsolete form of government that had missed the reforms that modernized England in the intervening hundred years. Over and above, there was the escalating famine, where bread is too expensive for the average person in the Parisian Basin to buy.

The King himself shared some of this frustration, and he and his various finance ministers (Turgot, Necker, and Callonne) spent the better part of the 1780s trying to figure out a way to reform the royal finances and thus avert financial catastrophe. They had a number of good ideas (and a large number of not-so-good ones), but that didn't really matter because in order for any royal decree to come into effect as law, it had to be registered by the parlementsnote  Thus in late 1786, the King called an "Assembly of Notables"—an appointed body of high-ranking and prominent men called in to advise the King, not called since 1620, in the hope that that would pressure the parlements to register the laws. No such luck—when the Notables met in 1787, they were mostly from the same class as the members of the parlements, and uniformly the response of the Assembly was "We can't help you. The only way to get around the parlements is to call the Estates-General."

Louis was not pleased at this response, because (1) he knew that (the point of the Assembly was not to get around the parlements, but to encourage/pressure the parlements to do what the King wanted), and (2) calling the Estates-General was exactly what he and the royal ministry had been trying to avoid. The Estates-General was an ancient body, going back to the truly feudal era, and largely similar to the old structure of the English/British Parliament: an assembly of clergy (the "First Estate"), an assembly of nobles (the "Second Estate"),note  and of everyone else (the "Third Estate"). Each "estate" chose its representatives, who would then meet and discuss and advise the King on important matters of state—particularly matters of finance (as France's patchwork tax system was often structured in a way that made it hard to change without an Estates-General). Louis knew that if he called an Estates-General, he could probably force through the needed financial reforms, but he also knew that the same Estates-General might attempt to conduct reforms and make demands that went beyond the royal finances, possibly even holding the financial reforms hostage to gain concessionsnote  But the Assembly of Notables was his last chance, and they told him in no uncertain terms that he had no options. So in May 1789, King Louis XVI called a meeting of the Estates-General at Versailles.

The election of the 1789 Estates General brought people from across France to the government. Several of them being quite young and very few of them having direct experience in handling politics. Almost immediately it became clear that the Third Estate, whose representatives were from the middle classes, professionals and guild members, were in effect a separate ruling body on their own and that they represented France better than the first two estates. This realization that the fading aristocracy would have little voice and role in a more modern state brought about reactions in the government that only made their opponents bolder. This created the tensions of the Revolution, the proposals of changes were met by reactions which spurred even more radical proposals for changes that provoked even more reactions and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, the citizens of Paris, emboldened by the initiative of the National Assembly (the ci-devant Third Estate) and responding to rumors (some of it was true) that troops were marching to shut down the Third Estate, stormed the Bastille in search of arms. This marked the start of the Revolution, with a peasant revolt breaking out in the countryside as peasants attacked castles and noble mansions and literally set fire to records containing list of dues they owe to their master. Finally, in October, the King and Queen were dragged from Versailles to Tuileries by the Women of Paris. By which point, Nothing Is the Same Anymore.

After this, the Revolution faced a series of problems, all of them revolving on debates that began during The Enlightenment. Obviously old-fashioned autocratic Kingdom, Divine Right of Kings, feudal class distinctions and religious control on social levers was getting increasingly unacceptable. If the King and Church was removed, what could take its place? The suggestion put forth was "the Nation" revolving around a conception of French identity that individuals of all classes, all beliefs in all regions could share and accept. Problem was, most of France, outside of the Paris Basin, don't really feel this unified 'French' identity, and nobody's sure how, if at all, this idea of the "nation" can really replace traditions of feudal monarchy backed by the Church that was more than a millennia old. A few voices even suggested doing away with the King and declaring a Republic, but most are still skeptical that a Republic can govern a large nation since it had hitherto only been observed in Italian City-States and the ancient world, which covered a smaller area, and the only other precedent they had was England's constitutional monarchy. The question of separating Church and State, provided a different set of problems and tools than that available to the leaders of the The American Revolutionnote . France was "the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church" and a pillar of the Counter-Reformation, and the Church was its largest land owner; heavily involved in culture, society and rituals, placing them in the firing range to many measures to reform finance, fix the economy and establish nationalism. They had support from reformist priests and bishopsnote  but not a complete consensus. The result was the well-intentioned mess of the Civil Constitution of the Clergynote  This was truly divisive and controversial to say the least, since it offended the beliefs of many devout Catholics, namely the King. The plan was also implemented without full understanding of regional diversitynote  and while the Counter-Revolution opposed changes and loss of privileges on general principle, the Civil Constitution became the rallying cry for their support among more traditional peasants, especially after it was condemned by the Pope.

Then there's the issue of who gets to vote. About the only thing everyone (Royalist-Centrist-Leftist) agreed on was that only men can vote, on this they agreed with the American Founding Fathers and the English Parliamentarians. But after that, the disagreements began. Initially there was suffrage censitatire — distinctions between active and passive citizenship, where active citizens (wealthy tax paying property owners) could vote but passive citizens could not. This struck many as a revival of feudal caste distinctions, but the historical precedent at the time was that no Republic or Democracy in the classical world ever had universal suffragenote . The people of Paris and other parts of France, gathering in a variety of political clubsnote  obviously resented these distinctions between passive and active citizens and felt miffed about having no voice after all the public support they gave to the Third Estate and Assembly. Repeated dismissals of these gatherings as a mob, also made them partial to the idea of "direct democracy"; where the assemblies of people in the Paris Commune, clubs and other parts of the nation were no less legitimate than the actions and goings on of the National Assembly. After all the Assembly claimed their legitimacy from popular sovereignty, and how could representatives compete with actual popular gatherings.note 

These debates, at first, played out in the National Assembly, in journals, debated in the clubs and the streets. Eventually it became matters of life and death, as everyone took a stance for their beliefs on increasingly partisan lines. A series of incidents took place, often described as a century's worth of activity in a decade. The King after seemingly accepting the Constitution and Limited Monarchy, discredited himself in the failed plot of the Flight to Varennes. This set of a chain reaction of events: there was an agitation for war to spread the revolution, a second insurrection that toppled the Constitutional Monarchy and installed the First French Republic, victory and setbacks in the battlefield, the execution of the King, internal insurrections in different parts of France, invasion by external powers on all sides, calls for extreme measures on the government to meet these threats, the Reign of Terror with its many high profile victims, the stunning reversal of the military situation from the jaws of defeat to total victory, the end of the terror, a new conservative Republic that resorted to using the army to purge factions that seem to topple the centrist hegemony, and ending with the military coup of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Revolution's liberal and progressive achievements was enshrined in The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. Several basic rights were first outlined here. In a radical idea at the time, divorce was legalized and so was, surprisingly, homosexual sex. Guilds were abolished, allowing more people to enter professions that had previously placed stringent requirements meant to protect its members from competition. It also expanded equal rights of citizenship to minorities such as Jews and Protestants, and later free men of colour and mulattos. The more radical measures from the later parts of the revolution would be reversed by the time of Napoleon's arrival, or even before it, but these measures still proved important for the later development of democracy. This includes the first general election of elected representatives by universal male suffrage in the history of the world. This took place in 1792 after the August 10 Insurrection and the establishment of the First French Republicnote . The other radical measure is the first general abolition of slavery in the Western World, without pre-conditions or compensation for slaveowners. This took place in February 1794, in response to the Revolution in Haitinote .

Ever since the Revolution took place, it has been one of the most debated and contested of all historical events, if not, the most contested and debated event. Conservatives disapproved of such radical social transformation on basic principle, reactionaries argued that the whole event was arranged by a small minority of the Freemasons and The Illuminati and had zero popular supportnote . Moderate 19th Century liberals argued that everything was going fine but was derailed by radicals who were greedy for voting rights they didn't merit, rather than trusting in their carefully voted-in elites. Radical revolutionaries unsurprisingly took inspiration from the Terror and saw it as means for bringing about utopian changes to society and believed the events failed because its leaders were too moderate. Unsurprisingly, these interpretations usually say more about later political developments than they do about the actual events. Political Ideologies of the 19th and 20th Century, and the European political spectrum, to this very day, is largely oriented by one's opinions on the French Revolution: the terms "left" and "right" themselves originate in where the delegates sat in the national assembly (other cool terms like Montagnard (Mountaineer) have not survived).note  The Revolution also made and codified tropes associated with nationalism, such as national flags, national festivals, national holidays on significant anniversaries, monuments open to the public, museums and institutions for public education.

Some basic notes

  • Louis XVI stayed King until 1792. His title before the Revolution was King of France and Navarre. In 1791, when he swore to uphold the Constitution, his title changed to "King of the French"note . He called the Estates-General in 1789 and despite recalcitrance, took an oath to abide by the Constitutional Monarchy which, at Mirabeau's insistence, gave him a veto. This did not work out quite as expected since, the King and the Royal Court kept issuing vetoes on every issue (earning him and his wife the nickname "Monsieur and Madame Veto").
  • Constitutional Monarchy at the time enjoyed consensus until the death of Mirabeau. At this time, even Robespierre was reluctant about a Republic, he wanted to erode the King's inviolability and veto, but felt confident in the Constitutional Monarchy. This changed after the Flight to Varennes, an unmitigated PR disaster which discredited the formerly popular King, led to a protest gathering to petition for a formation of a Republic, which was suppressed by the National Guard, leading to the Champs de Mars massacre. This led to increasing polarization and factionalism, and converted moderates into radicals.
  • A faction of the Jacobins, led by Jacques-Pierre Brissot came to be called the Girondins or Brissotins. They were the leading voices in the years 1792-early 1793. They were slow to pass reforms, represented and catered to the provincial cities rather than the Parisian sans-culottes/nascent working-class. They also sought to energize the Revolution by declaring war on Austria which Robespierre famously opposed, only to be silenced as it gained support even among extremists like the Hebertists.
  • The Storming of the Tuileries marked the end of Constitutional Monarchy and the birth of the Republic, which led to calls for a new republican constitution. This event took place on August 10, 1792 and was led by Cordeliers, sans culottes, the Paris Commune, the National Guard as well as volunteers from the Province called Federalists. They came mainly from Marseilles and along the way they picked up a song and popularized it during their march, this became known as "La marseillaise".
  • The King was imprisoned in the Temple Fortress after the insurrection, while the Queen was kept at La Force prison. He was executed in January 1793. The debates during the trial hardened the political polarization between Jacobins and Girondins, and the execution of the King broke off diplomatic relations between France and England, which had grown worse and worse until finally the Girondins declared war on England, which led to a Naval Blockade around France.
  • As the war started going badly, there were calls for Conscription. An attempt to call for conscription in the Vendee region provoked a massacre of 200 Republicans at Machecoul and the weakness of the early troops sent to deal with them exacerbated an insurrection into a full-blown counter-revolutoniary rebellion. When the War started losing ground, and General Dumouriez who the Girondins had touted as highly sympathetic to the nation, defected to the enemy along with other noble defections, France found its borders threatened. This led to a city-wide insurrection that put the Jacobins in power, drove the Girondins to exile and prison, sparking another provincial rebellion, described as the federalist revolt. France now had enemies on all its sides, two rebellions inside its border, and an increasingly angry Parisian mob.
  • To meet the challenge of the war, the emergency laws of the Terror were unleashed, in response to public demand. It was justified by Minister of Justice Georges Danton as maintaining the state monopoly on violence and to this end, Danton established the Revolutionary Tribunals. The proper beginning of the Terror comes with the passing of the Law of Suspects. The Reign of Terror was confined geographically to Paris, and areas of external and internal revolt, with the majority of France unaffected by it.
  • The National Convention granted mandate to the Commitee of Public Safety to ensure that the government remains "Revolutionary until the Peace". Membership in the Committee was renewed every month by votes in the convention and they were an executive body of 12 Men, charged with revolutionary dictatorship. They introduced mass Conscription - the Levee en masse issued by the great engineer Lazare Carnot. This involved able-bodied men, women and children performing all kinds of actions in what is often seen as the first attempt to mount a total war. Women were sent to hospitals and sent to work while the men were sent to fight the War in all kinds of capacities. Such initiative and mobilization would be repeated on a far grander scale during World War I and World War II.
  • The Terror killed 17,000 people by Guillotine after a trial. While unofficial executions may have gone up to 40,000. Towards the final month of Thermidor, it became worse, a period called the "Great Terror". Statistically, and contrary to popular belief, only 8% of the victims were aristocrats (who considering they were 1% of the population did feel a disproportionate impact), 25% of the victims were bourgeois and middle-class, 28% were peasants and working-class and the rest were clergy. During the "Great Terror" after the Law of 22 Prarial, where 1000 people were executed in a single month (matching the executions in Paris the previous year), the victims became 38% Nobility, 26% Clergy, with the wealthy victims discriminated against since the law deprived them of a right to call for witnesses, legal representatives or evidence by which according to Georges Couthon (who drafted the law to the Convention), wealthier accused escaped the blade before. Ironically, the largest single mass-execution of the Revolution, 77 people in a single day happened on the day after Robespierre's execution. Over three days , the National Convention purged and executed without trial 100 people connected to Robespierre and the Paris Commune.
  • The Revolutionary government introduced several cultural initiatives that changed the arts and sciences. The most successful were a bunch of units introduced by the National Convention in Year 3 (1795) like the meternote  for lengths, the liter for volumes of liquid, the gram for mass, along with multiples of these units by factors of 2 and 10 like the kilogram (1000 grams), double decaliter (20 liters), or the centimeter (0.01 meters). It since has become quasi universal.
  • During the Terror, the Revolutionary Calendar was introduced. The calendar operated in decimal measuresnote . Each year had 12 months divided into sets of three months to reflect the four seasons of Autumn (Vendémiaire note , Brumaire note , Frimaire note ), Winter (Nivôse note , Pluviôse note , Ventôse note ), Spring, (Germinal note , Floréal note , Prairial note ) and Summer (Messidornote , Thermidornote , Fructidornote ). There is a conversion table for contemporary dates into the French Calendar. The real problems with the use of the calendar aside from widespread cultural inertia with the Gregorian calendar, is that the new months while corresponding well, more or less, with the seasonal structure of France was not quite as appropriate to the colonies or parts of France where a Snowy Month (Nivôse) doesn't snow. During the Terror, the Gregorian calendar continued to be use in daily practice, and it was the Directory government that made serious efforts to enforce it facing opposition from workers who hated the number of holidays being reduced. The Calendar remains well known on account for the fact that some of the dates have become proverbial, namely 9 Thermidor(The Fall of Robespierre), and 18 Brumaire (The Rise of Napoleon).
  • It was during the Revolution that the Louvre Palace, already used as a warehouse for the Royal Art collection and a residency for artists patronized by the throne, became the Louvre Museum, opening it to the public and declaring it part of the cultural patrimony. Likewise the Royal Garden became the Jardin des Plantes, headed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who would eventually become a key pre-Darwin evolutionary theorist. That said some artists and scientists suffered during this timenote 
  • There were only seven prisoners in the Bastille when it was stormed, none of whom were political (the Marquis de Sade had been moved 10 days earlier). Besides, the goal of the rioters wasn't to free them but to get some weapons to defend themselves against royal troops. This event appears to have come about from rumours about said troops preparing a massacre of revolutionaries.
  • The Different governments of the Revolution were: The National Assembly (1789), The National Constituent Assembly (1789-1791), Legislative Assembly (1791-1792), National Convention (1792-1795), The Directory (1795-1799) and the Consulate (1799-1804).
  • Napoleon Bonaparte ended this when he took direct power. He was initially a co-conspirator of a liberal coup masterminded by Abbe Sieyes, but he hijacked the plot to strengthen his power. Bonaparte initially served as one of three Consuls in the Consulate before declaring himself The Emperor in December 1804 (marking the end of the First French Republic). During the Consulate, he ended Dechristianization, conducted a Concordat with the Catholic Church and oversaw the consolidation of many Revolutionary reforms with his Napoleonic Code (authored by Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, a member of the National Convention).

See also,

Tropes as depicted in fiction:

  • Aristocrats Are Evil: A very influential trope at the time and still present in pop-culture depictions, though usually overshadowed by disproportionate focus on Mob Violence.
  • Decided By One Vote: A very popular myth about Louis XVI's execution. Execution was in fact widely ahead, but if you add the "death with delaying conditions" to the opposing votes, it comes to this. It was a close run thing, out of 721 voters, 34 voted for death, by delay, 2 voted for life imprisonment in irons, 319 voted for imprisonment until the end of the war (to be followed by banishment). But a majority of 361 voted for death without conditions, among the people who voted was Philippe-Egalite, duc d'Orleans, the King's Cousin.
  • Eat the Rich: The Ur-Example for this Stock Phrase came about near this time when Jean-Jacques Rousseau reportedly said, "When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich". Anti-rich violence is a popular image of the Revolution and it is Truth in Television. One instance is the death of Foullon de Doué, referred to in A Tale of Two Cities. The finance minister was highly unpopular, hated by his own tax collectors and was rumoured to have said, "If those rascals have no bread, let them eat hay!" After 14 Juillet, he tried to flee to his country estate but the mob caught him, dragged him back to Paris at the Hotel de Ville and after several attempts to lynch him on a lamp-post beheaded him and stuffed his mouth with grass and paraded around Paris on a pike. On the same day, his son-in-law was killed and beheaded as well, and a creative mob decided to make him "Kiss Daddy" by pushing one head against the other.
  • Historical-Domain Character: Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and Napoleon spend so much time in fictions set in this period, one wonders how they managed to play their parts in history.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Quite a few characters get this:
    • The Revolt in the Vendée is often portrayed in a more romantic light by historians and novelists. They cite the large scale killings (130,000 but often inflated to 200,000) committed by the Republican side as an example of Revolutionary violence. In truth, the Republican response was driven by a massacre of Republican Vendeeans committed by Royalist Vendeeans when they killed 200 of them in Machecoul. The Vendean response by the Committee of Public Safety had considerable local support among Republican Vendeeans and peasants who were quite keen on the fact that the government was cutting down on the feudal privileges that the Royalists wanted to reinstate - namely giving out Church property to peasant landholders. One of France's greatest Prime Ministers Georges Clemenceau came from the Vendée and was descended from Republicans who had fought on the side of the Revolution. Undoubtedly there were atrocities committed by the Revolutionary side, but the Vendeeans' own atrocities and sparking the response is under-reported by comparison.
    • The Girondins in the Anglo-American media at least are regarded as more positive expressions of Revolution than the Jacobins, citing their moderate constitutional approach and their favoring provincial cities like Lyon and Bordeaux over a centralized Paris. What is usually glossed over is their corruption, their elitism, their laziness in pushing proper reforms and finally their belief in War for Fun and Profit in the name of "spreading the revolution", an action which unleashed 20 years of warfare across Europe.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Generally the extremists, whose actions saved France from invasion, ended up with the bad press:
    • Robespierre did some less than commendable things in the name of the Republic, but he was co-author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, he advocated against the death penalty, even if he helped to turn the first into dead letter and reversed his position on the second. But he was involved in such causes as the abolition of slavery, eliminating the property qualification to be represented in government, and granting rights to Protestants and Jews. Tell that to some fictional portrayals. As per Alfred Cobban, "No one at the time of the Revolution went as far as Robespierre in stating what were later to be recognized as the essential conditions of the democratic state."
    • Jean-Paul Marat perhaps got it worse than anybody else from that period, and went from being an almost godlike figure whose bust replaced crosses in churches to be described as an "angry monster insatiably hungry for blood" after the Reign of Terror was pretty much done and finished. The actual Marat, while not personally attractive, was actually a mix between moderate and extreme and a consistent anti-war activist. His death deprived the sans-culottes and working-class agitators a competent and widely respected voice in government leading to demagogues like Hebert to represent them. The famous post-colonial poet Aimé Cesaire also pointed out that Marat was the only major Revolutionary who stated that France's colonies had the right to self-determination and independence from France, a position that put him way ahead of his time, something that even a consistent abolitionist like Robespierre was ambivalent about.
    • Louis Antoine de Saint-Just is often portrayed in fiction as a violent extremist who wanted anyone of noble birth, even the ones on his side, wiped off the face of the earth. Now, while he did actually say this, he did so in the final years of his life (during the height of the Reign of Terror when they started executing people left and right), and for the most of his life had pretty moderate views.
    • As the history of the French Revolution is a highly contentious and partisan issue, counter-revolutionary rebels such as those of the Vendée also got this, being portrayed as barely human, cruel, ignorant, religously fanatic peasants led by cruel and decadent aristocrats. Thus a number of historical paintings of the Third Republic showed this on a level approaching Gorn e. g. in the case of The Massacre of Machecoul by Francois Flameng and The Death of Bara by Jean-Joseph Weerts.
    • The monarchs and nations fighting against France during the Wars of the French Revolution (often after France declared war on them) also often are portrayed as utter reactionaries hell-bent on undoing every single political and social advance created by the Revolution (or to "turn back the clock to before 1789"), in effect ascribing the ideology of the most extreme royalist "ultras" to all of them.note  Some nationalistic historians also like to portray the war as if the very existence of France was at stake, while the monarchic governments in fact pursued widely divergent aims - which e. g. made Prussia and Spain drop out of the coalition in 1795 - and for the sake of the balance of power wanted to preserve France in its established position as a major European power.
  • Impoverished Patrician: A trope that is quite popular in fictional depictions. Some notable examples include:
    • Comte de Mirabeau, the original leader of the Revolution, he rebelled against aristocratic conventions, did time in Bastille for "libertinage" and ultimately even lost his privileges which made him highly empathetic to the common people and their plight. Because of his complex background he became a popular leader and middleman between the aristocrats who were to be gently coerced to losing their privileges and the angry Third Estate.
    • Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, the future Empress Josephine, also fell to hard times thanks to the Revolution by which her family fortune in Martinique was threatened. In order to hide her aristocratic origins, she apprenticed her son Eugène with a cabinet-maker. Her first husband Alexandre de Beauharnnais was guillotined on a false charge during the Terror which led to her being imprisoned before being released after Thermidor, after which she met Napoleon.
    • The notorious Marquis de Sade was writing the 120 Days of Sodom in the Bastille before being released two weeks before 14 July, 1789. During the revolution, he worked in the popular theaters and became a spokesman in the Radical Paris Section (City Ward) Piques (it was Robespierre's ward!). He was highly popular and well-liked by the sectionnaires and sans-culottes and became a committed radical, even writing a eulogy for Marat which compared him to Jesus. He faced problems when his son, fighting in the French Army, defected to the enemy and he also argued against the Terror which led to his imprisonment. After Thermidor, he was virtually penniless, being forced to sell his remaining estate and barely subsisting until Napoleon whimsically ordered his imprisonment to Charenton after reading ''Juliette''.
    • The legendary Thomas Alexandre Davy de la Palettiere was the son of a French nobleman and a Haitian African slave. In France, he was raised with full privileges and education. During the Revolution, he fell out with his father and he took his mother's family name and called himself Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. He fell into hard times towards the end of the Revolutionary Wars and the Rise of Napoleon (they hated each other) and Dumas was unfairly stranded in an Italian prison for two years which badly affected his health. After his release, Napoleon refused to give him and his wife a pension and when he died, his wife had to raise her young son Alexandre Dumas in poor circumstances for which they blamed Napoleon.
    • In general, during the Revolution, a lot of money and property was transferred from the nobility and clergy to the bourgeosie and - to a lesser degree - the more well-to-do peasants, and a lot of shifts happened in the class structure. Napoleon and the Bourbon and July Monarchy restored some monarchical titles to good and bad effect but it was mostly In-Name-Only. In some cases, noblemen actually joined the sans-culottes and blended in and threw off their old life, hippie-style.
    • An example of the trickle-down effect: Famous Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni was living in Paris on a pension granted to him by Louis XVI. This was stopped because of the Revolution, and Goldoni died in abject poverty on 6 February 1793 - a day before the National Convention voted to restore the pension, which they had to turn into one for Goldoni's widow.
  • Reign of Terror: The Trope Namer. Mark Twain reflected on the disproportionate focus on the Terror and the association of it with the Revolution a hundred years later:
    "If we really think about it, there were two Reigns of Terror; in one people were murdered in hot and passionate violence; in the other they died because people were heartless and did not care. One Reign of Terror lasted a few months; the other had lasted for a thousand years; one killed a thousand people note , the other killed a hundred million people. However, we only feel horror at the French Revolution's Reign of Terror. But how bad is a quick execution, if you compare it to the slow misery of living and dying with hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak? A city cemetery is big enough to contain all the bodies from that short Reign of Terror, but the whole country of France isn't big enough to hold the bodies from the other terror. We are taught to think of that short Terror as a truly dreadful thing that should never have happened: but none of us are taught to recognize the other terror as the real terror and to feel pity for those people."
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: The overwhelming conservative opinion. It's also how the French Revolution is usually portrayed in fictions, especially anglophone anti-revolutionary popular culture, enshrined in works like A Tale of Two Cities which greatly shaped the collective imagination, focusing disproportionately on Mob Violence. Historians however, differ on why it wasn't civilized.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: The French Revolution is usually seen as the event that marked the two eras decisively with Romanticism largely being a reaction to the event. Romanticism itself was divided between hostility and enthusiasm for the French Revolution. A good example is Victor Hugo who was critical and dismissive of the Revolution but later came to embrace it.
    • Early Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge were initially supportive before becaming disillusioned. Early Romanticist writings across Europe (but especially in England and Germany) and even in France, were prone to nostalgia for the Ancien Regime and the centuries long tradition that the Revolution was radically upsetting. They also saw the Terror as a new form of Intellectually Supported Tyranny and the dangers of cold, excessive, rationalism which tended to clamp down on the individual.
    • Later Romantics such as Percy Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron who were liberal-leftist felt that the Revolution brought the spirit of change in Europe. They felt that poets and poetry should also be revolutionary, that artists could and should change society with art, a central belief in romantic literature. Some Romantic composers such as Beethoven were initially pro-Revolutionary but turned bitter when Napoleon became Emperor, i.e. a king with a different name. Some other Romantics, even liberals, saw Napoleon as the Romantic Hero, a Badass who by sheer merit and talent, recognized and rewarded by the Revolution, brought modernity to Europe by radically upsetting ideas of aristocracy and monarchy. His youth and good looks, made him closer to a Byronic Hero than Byron himself.
  • Shrouded in Myth: Quite a lot about the French Revolution became the stuff of legend, both positive and negative.
    • The storming of the Bastille and the "battle" of Valmy were much smaller-scale and in significant respects less heroic affairs than they are generally portrayed in the popular image.
    • Robespierre personal papers were burnt by the government after Thermidor. Consequently, we only know him through his speeches, letters and other people's testimonies. This partly explains the contradictory views about him, since we have no way to know him "from the inside".
    • Marie Grosholtz, a wax-maker later became an exile to England, remarried and became Madame Marie Tussaud. During the Revolution, she was briefly imprisoned (sharing a cell with Josephine de Beauharnais) but was spared by Collot d'Herbois. In exchange, according to her, she made death masks of famous victims. In London, Madame Tussaud's wax exhibitions were highly popular and endures to this day. However, historias have generally regarded most, if not all, her "death masks" as fakes, which doesn't stop semi-serious scholars from using them as a source to reconstruct appearances of historical figures.
    • On the side of the counter-revolution, during the Restoration a number of myths were formed to glorify Jean Chouan as a martyr for the rebellion in Mayenne and Brittany. The real Chouan was called Jean Cottereau and he was a smuggler and suspected murderer who rose against the Republic because they were clamping down on his illegal businesses. The restoration transformed him into a Reactionary Fantasy of a Robin Hood who rose against an "unlawful" republic while living in the forest with his merry men.note 
    • During the Restoration, a number of Urban Legend about the Revolution caught life, such as the idea that Louis XVI was executed because of a single vote majority (which helped the royalist propaganda that the King was an innocent done in by an evil cabal), that Revolutionaries converted Royalists into Genuine Human Hide and used the leather to bind books which shows up in some Revolutionary-era fiction like Explosion of a Cathedral and Assassin's Creed Unity. In addition there were tropes like Victims Balls where aristocratic women wore mourning clothes and red sashes around their necks as a symbol of the guillotine they narrowly avoided.note  None of this ever really happened, and there is no evidence to support any of it.
    • Both pro-and-anti-revolutionaries see the Parisian mob as uneducated illiterate uninformed rabble. Anti-revolutionaries see this as an example of anarchy and grubby peasants trying to attain rights they don't merit (as per Edmund Burke and Thomas Carlyle), while pro-revolutionaries, Marxists mainly, saw this as an example of the proletariat casting off their chains of oppression and attacking aristocrats. In actual fact, Paris had an entirely literate male population on the eve of the Revolution, they were schooled and aware of ideas by Rousseau and Voltaire as a result of pirated books which proliferated under the guise of poronography. Likewise, the so-called sans-culottes far from being "proletarians" were more accurately a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits comprising of lower-middle class shopkeepers, out of work actors and even some aristocrats who saw the fashion as "hippie lifestyle" avant-la-lettre. Some sans-cullotes were themselves property owners and employers who would agitate on the street, and then go back to his shop and boss his workers aroundnote .
  • Wham Line: Famously discussed by Albert Camus in The Rebel. Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, at the age of 25 one of the youngest members of the National Convention, gave his first speech, marking the real Point of No Return for the revolution:
    "A king should be tried not for the crimes of his administration, but for that of having been king, for nothing in the world can legitimize this usurpation, and whatever illusion, whatever conventions royalty surrounds itself in, it is an eternal crime against which every man has the right to rise up and arm himself... No one can reign innocently: the madness of this is too obvious. Every king is a rebel and a usurper. This man must reign or die."

Works that are set in this time period are:

Anime and Manga

Art and Architecture
  • Much of the work of Jacques-Louis David, an active participant in the revolution who produced official propaganda paintings and private portraits of many of the "celebrities" of his day. Particularly well-known are the iconic Marat assassiné and his quick sketch of Marie-Antoinette just before her execution. His massive Serment du jeu de paume (1791) to commemorate the Tennis Court Oath of 1789 was never finished, in part because many of the politicians on it fell into disgrace and were guillotined.
  • The revolution was rediscovered in a big way by historical painters during the Third Republic, which often invoked its memory.
  • The Arc de Triomphe, or to give it its full name: the Arc de triomphe de l'Etoile in Paris commemorates the Wars of the French Revolution as well as the Napoleonic Wars. Of special note is the group of figures "The Depart of the Volunteers of 1792" by Francois Rude.
  • The Panthéon was set up as a burial place for "the great men" of France during the Revolution. Inside several groups of figures were added during the Third Republic, including "The Battle of Valmy", Le Vengeur, "The National Convention", and "The generals of the Revolution", as well as a painted tryptich Vers la gloire by Edouard Detaille in honour of the armies of the revolution.

Comic Books
  • Batman: Reign of Terror: An Elseworlds story set during the French Revolution with Bruce Wayne as a French nobleman who becomes a masked crimefighter carrying convicted innocents out of France, a la The Scarlet Pimpernel.
  • The Sandman story "Thermidor" is a dark tale set in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
  • The Sky over the Louvre, by French bande-dessinee artist Bernar Yslaire and famous screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (who also wrote the famous film Danton). Commissioned by the Louvre itself, this comic explores the founding of the museum during the Revolution through the Odd Friendship between Robespierre and painter Jacques-Louis David.

Fan Fiction

  • Start the Revolution Without Me
  • La Marseillaise (Jean Renoir film). 1938 film which chronicles the early years from Bastille to the Storming of Tuileries and ending at the Battle of Valmy. Features costumes by Coco Chanel, a shadow theatre scene by exiled German animation pioneer Lotte Reiniger and amazing battle scenes. The linking thread is the development and Memetic Mutation of the song that would become France's National Anthem in a fictionalized portrayal of the volunteer battalion from Marseilles that brought it to Paris.
  • Reign of Terror/The Black Book a 1949 B-Movie done in a Film Noir style. The reign is used as a stand-in for the Red Scare during The Hollywood Blacklist and features an impressive lack of historical accuracy of any kind.
  • Danton (1983), directed by Andrzej Wajda and starring Gérard Depardieu as Danton in the face-off with Robespierre. It is based on the play "The Danton Case" by Stanislawa Przybyszewska which Wajda had alread produced on stage in Warsaw in 1975. The film was originally commissioned by the Mitterand government, but Wajda presented a much too dark image of the year 1794 for their liking, likening Paris during the Terror with Poland during the repression of the Solidarity movement.
  • Napoléon (1927), a huge French silent movie directed by Abel Gance, who himself appears in the film as Saint-Just. As Napoleon is the hero, he gets inserted into scenes not based on history, such as the already completely inaccurate scene of the first performance of the Marseillaise in Paris which finishes with captain Bonaparte shaking Rouget de Lisles's hand and congratulating him for his good work for the republic.
  • Marie Antoinette
  • The French Revolution (1989 movie, Robert Enrico). The film was produced for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Noteworthy for being surprisingly neutral in regards to the events.
  • Orphans of the Storm (though the original novel which was adapted was not set in this time period)
  • The Affair Of The Necklace about a scandal involving Marie Antoinette. Pre-revolution, but helped to lower her reputation in the eyes of the public.
  • Scaramouche
  • Stay Tuned: The protagonist fall into this setting on one of the channels.
  • Les Belles de nuit (1952), a René Clair comedy starring Gérard Philipe as a music teacher going back in time in his dreams, also stops during the French Revolution.
  • Jefferson in Paris, a biopic of Thomas Jefferson during his time as Ambassador in France, showing the events leading up to the French Revolution.
  • Brotherhood of the Wolf, at the beginning.
  • The Lady and the Duke, a French film by Eric Rohmer, starring Lucy Russell and Jean-Louis Dreyfuss showing the events from the perspective of Philippe Egalite, Duc d'Orleans and his mistress Grace Elliott.
  • Farewell, My Queen a 2012 French film starring Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette. It explores Versailles in the first three days of the Revolution.
  • La Nuit de Varennes ("The Night of Varennes"), a film by Ettore Scola which tells the story of the Flight to Varennes and the early phase of the French Revolution as seen through the eyes of the passengers of a stage coach that happens to follow on the tracks of the royal family's coach. The passengers mixes fictional characters such as a lady of Marie-Antoinette's court (Hanna Schygulla) with real-life writers Rétif de la Bretonne (Jean-Louis Barrault), Thomas Paine (Harvey Keitel), and Giacomo Casanova (Marcello Mastroianni).
  • The Married Couple of the Year Two, a comedy starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as a man who returns to Nantes during the Terror to get a divorce from his estranged wife and gets between the fronts of various revolutionary and royalist factions. One of the few movies involving the Revolution that does not contain a single scene set in Paris.
  • Chouans!, a 1988 film by Philippe de Broca, tells the story of an aristocratic family in Brittany torn asunder between its royalist and republican members.
  • History of the World Part I lampoons many of the clichés about the French Revolution in the relevant section.
  • Les Visiteurs. The knight Godefroy of Montmirail and his squire Jacquouille have been sent to this era by mistake at the end of the second film, The Corridors of Time. The third film, The Revolution, deals with their fate as they are stranded during this era.

  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel
  • Scaramouche
  • The Pink Carnation series.
  • A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel chronicles the Revolutionary from the perspective of the early friendship between Camille Desmoulins, Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre.
  • Honor Harrington takes place in the Napoleonic Wars IN SPACE! and thus has the entire plot in the background.
  • Alexandre Dumas wrote a number of novels set in the era:
    • Mémoires d'un médecin ("Memoirs of a Physician", but also known as the Marie-Antoinette series) is a tetralogy dealing with the years leading to, and during the Revolution. The first book, Joseph Balsamo famously featured a secret society who meet in a mountain and promise to usher in the Revolution. It is followed by The Queen's Necklace, Ange Pitou (also known as "The Storming of the Bastille"), and La Comtesse de Charny. The story is then continued in Le Chevalier de Maison-Rouge. In order to show the amount of research he put into his novels, Dumas also did a non-fiction book with the account of how he retraced the Flight to Varennes, discovering errors in famous historians' accounts and interviewing the few surviving eye-witnesses he could still find in the region.
    • Blanche de Beaulieu is a love story between General Marceau and a young aristocrat against the backdrop of the war in the Vendée. The author's father, revolutionary General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, also makes an appearance.
    • The Woman with the Velvet Necklace, takes place during the Terror. In reference to Moral Event Horizon, it mentions the execution of King Louis as "the single most important event in human history to date."
    • Alexandre Dumas finally wrote a trilogy of novels about royalist conspirators during the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars: Les Blancs et les Bleus, Les Compagnons de Jéhu (adapted into a French television series in 1966) and Le Chevalier de Saint-Hermine. The last one was left unfinished and was only rediscovered in 1990; in 2005 it became a bestseller in France.
  • Honoré de Balzac wrote the novel Les Chouans about royalist underground fighters in Brittany. It was adapted into a movie in 1947.
  • Italo Calvino's surrealist novella The Baron in the Trees deals with the influence of The Enlightenment and the finale features the Italian campaign of the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleon's retreat. Voltaire and Napoleon Bonaparte appear in the book.
  • Victor Hugo while initially conservative and skeptical about the Revolution came to see it as an essential fact of the modern world:
    • Les Misérables, though not actually set during the French Revolution, makes constant references to it (though the July Revolution was highly inspired by the Revolution as well); the revolutionary Enjolras is based on Louis Antoine de Saint-Just.
    • Ninety-Three his final novel is set during the Reign of Terror. Though it was actually inspired by Hugo's experiences during the Paris Commune.
  • A significant part of TheRedLion.
  • The Way to the Lantern
  • French writer Anatole France's The Gods Are Athirst explores the Terror from the perspective of a Robespierre fanatic.
  • Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban author wrote two classics about the impact of the French Revolution on Latin America.
    • The Kingdom of This World deals with the Haitian Revolution.
    • Explosion in a Cathedral note  deals with Victor Hugues, an obscure Revolutionary, who brought the Emancipation Decree of 1794 to the former slave-run sugar-owning colonies and started several Slave Liberation(s) in the Caribbean.
  • Heinrich von Kleist's novella The Betrothal in St. Domingo is set during the revolution in Haiti. His essay On the Gradual Production of Thoughts whilst Speaking uses Mirabeau's famous answer to the royal order to dissolve the Estates General as a prime example.
  • Stefan Zweig's series of historical miniatures Sternstunden der Menschheit includes the posthumously added story "Das Genie einer Nacht" ("The genius of a night") about the writing of the Marseillaise by Rouget de Lisle.

Live-Action TV

  • The third season of Revolutions by Mike Duncan is a history of the French Revolution. It is engrossing and highly detailed for a non-academic history, and by far the longest season of the podcast (clocking in at 54 approximately half-hour episodes, plus a few supplemental episodes, for what is about 27 hours of material on the subject—none of the others have gone beyond 19 episodes plus supplementals).


  • Danton's Death (play by Georg Büchner)
  • Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss
  • Andrea Chénier, an opera by Umberto Giordano based on the life and death of the poet André Chénier.
  • Dialogues of the Carmelites, an opera about the "Compiègne Martyrs", 16 nuns who were guillotined in 1794. Written by Francis Poulenc based on a screenplay by Georges Bernanos based on the novella The Last on the Scaffold by Gertrud von Le Fort.

Video Games

Web Comics

Web Original

Western Animation

Alternative Title(s): French Revolution