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Useful Notes / The French Revolution

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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 giving her subjects some dietary advice. The people responded by storming the Bastille, then Versailles, until they 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 Napoléon Bonaparte and engulfed Europe in war.

Well, that's The Theme Park Version. The real history of the French Revolution was even more of a wild (and bloody) ride.


Origins: The realm of Louis XVI and the pre-Revolution

Start with a series of nations (Britanny, Gascony, Languedoc, Auvergne, Dauphiné, Provençe, Burgundy, Île-de-France, etc. etc.) that have little in common with each other but are bound together 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 didn't have the experience or political will to make hard but necessary decisions, 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. All this in a nation with an obsolete form of government that had missed the reforms that modernized England in the intervening hundred years. Over and above, a series of bad winters and crop failures led to a famine, making bread too expensive for the average person in the Parisian Basin to buy (or at least too expensive for them to buy and have enough left over to pay the rent).

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 parlements: local judicial and quasi-legislative assemblies of jurists across France that held an important role in France's legislative process. (You thought the King's word was law? He wished!)note  As it so happened, the parlements were made up of people who to the last man believed they would be adversely affected by any serious reform, and they used every trick in the book to prevent or at least delay registration of any reform laws — and very effectively, since they were all lawyers. They even got a good amount of popular support, as they argued that they were acting as defenders of French freedom and the ancient traditions of the French constitution — even though they were blocking legislation that would make the lives of most Frenchmen materially better.

This was worrisome and annoying to the reformers, but for the front half of the 1780s nobody thought that a catastrophic sovereign-debt crisis was imminent — looming, yes, but only at a distance. However, in 1786, Callonne took a look at the royal books and realized that the crisis wasn't merely looming or imminent; it was more or less here. At Callonne's insistence, 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. After some heming and hawing (and shenanigans after the Assembly decided it just didn't like Callonne and moved to get him fired), the Assembly had a response to the package. The response was, in essence: "We can't help you. The critical parts of this are way too sweeping to push through the normal process. 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 — "look, the worthiest men of the realm are totally for these changes, don't you think you should just let the decrees go through?") 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. The Estates-General, being an assembly of all major groups of French society, would have the unquestioned legitimate authority to make whatever changes it wanted to the kingdom's revenue and financial systems. Moreover, given that everybody now understood the dire state of the treasury, the Estates were likely to actually use its legitimacy to make reforms. However, that same legitimacy would also allow it to attempt to conduct reforms and make demands that went beyond the royal finances, possibly even holding the financial reforms hostage to gain concessions.

Despite being a little dim, Louis was well aware that this is more or less exactly what had happened to Charles I of England about 150 years previously, and that calling the English Estates — that is, Parliament — to resolve a sovereign debt crisis had eventually cost Charles his head and the English monarchy nearly all of its political power. There was a reason that none of the French monarchs had seen fit to call an Estates-General since 1614 — an Estates-General was a powerful tool because of the immense legitimacy it had to make big changes, but that same legitimacy made it extremely dangerous. Better, Louis thought, to try to make do with what was possible without the Estates. But the Assembly of Notables was his last chance, and they told him in no uncertain terms that he had no options. He did make a few futile attempts to bring the parlements to heel in 1787 and 1788, but for all the effort the result was the same — the parlements uniformly held out.

Finally, on 17 August 1788, Étienne Charles de Brienne, the Archbishop of Sens and the royal Comptroller of Finances, was informed that His Majesty's Treasury only held 400,000 livres. This was literally enough money to run the French government for exactly one day. From 19 August onward, royal creditors would have to be paid in IOUs. With the Treasury literally incapable of satisfying state debts, the royal ministry had literally no choice but to call an Estates-General. King Louis XVI therefore signed a decree summoning the Estates-General, to meet at Versailles in May 1789.

The Estates-General of 1789

The election of the 1789 Estates General brought people from across France to the government. Many of the representatives were quite young and very few of them had 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. The great debate was that traditionally, the Estates-General had been composed of three equally sized bodies who each met separately and offered one vote per estate. Previous Estates-General had thus been dominated by aristocrats, who were the nobility (obviously) and generally the clergy, since most of the clergy chosen to go to the First Estate were high-ranking church officials who in turn were generally non-inheriting younger children of nobles. The Third Estate protested this greatly and in an age where newspapers were rampant and the Enlightenment was running wild across Europe, they demanded that the Third Estate be double the size (in essence, 250 nobles, 250 clergy, 500 commoners) and that voting be done by head rather than by order (thus handing most power to the Third Estate). The king and his ministry quickly agreed to double the Third Estate's numbers, but never did get around to deciding whether voting would be by orders or by head.

Therefore, when the Estates met in May 1789, there were still no clear procedures for how the body would function. However, within a few days, the Third Estate had realized that under the circumstances, it could basically dictate terms to the other two estates. Besides the fact that it had as many members as the other two estates combined, the Third Estate realized quickly that unlike previous sessions of the Estates, the Second and especially the First Estates were not uniformly aristocratic in inclination. For various reasons, the First Estate of 1789 was composed primarily not of prelates of noble descent but of common parish priests, who were uniformly of humble birth and whose concerns were much more aligned with the commoners of the Third Estate than the nobles of the Second. Consequently, the First Estate was sharply divided against itself in 1789, where in previous sessions it had been a relatively united aristocratic assembly.

On top of this, a significant contingent of liberal nobles sympathetic to the Third Estate's concerns had won election to the Second Estate, including both the Marquis de La Fayette (a great liberal hero in those days) and the King's cousin Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orléans (a great supporter of liberal causes who had also been a gleeful thorn in the side of the royal ministry during the Assembly of Notablesnote ). (The Duke of Orleans's love of taking the piss out of his crowned cousin probably informed his liberalism almost as much as actual conviction.) While they were hardly a majority, there were enough liberal nobles that the Second Estate's meetings were not the picture of aristocratic unity the Crown might have hoped them to be. (The Duke of Orléans in particular took joy in being as much of a pest as he had been in the Assembly of Notables.)

In light of this, the Third Estate declared itself a "National Assembly" at the suggestion of the abbé Sieyès (who although a clergyman was a Third Estate delegate for Var), and invited members of the other two estates to join. Several parish priests crossed over from the First Estate to the "National Assembly", which led to a tug of war between the "National Assembly" on one hand and the Second and First Estate on the other. A few liberal nobles also trickled in from the Second Estate (La Fayette being the most prominent).

The National Assembly

The situation crystallized when the "National Assembly", upon finding out one day that their meeting hall was locked for some reason,note  chose to meet on their own in a tennis court. They took an oath not to disband until a new constitution was established for France, which was basically a dare for anyone else to challenge the "National Assembly's" authority.

It quickly became clear that nobody could do anything without the "National Assembly." After a large group of liberal nobles led by the Duke of Orleans crossed over to the Assembly, the king decided he had had enough of this nonsense and ordered the rest of the First and Second Estates to follow them. This made it most apparent that the fading aristocracy would have little voice and role in a more modern state bringing about reactions in the government, both sides became bolder in their positions. This created the tensions of the Revolution, as 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 and responding to rumors (some of which were true) that troops were marching to shut down the Third Estate, stormed the Bastille (a French fortress) 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 owed to their master. The National Assembly, very concerned by these actions and trying to calm the rebellious anger,note  figuratively got high off patriotism and self-sacrifice and then literally tore down feudalism overnight with the August Decrees of 1789, by magnanimously surrendering their privileges and then calling on others to do the same, abusing the hell out of peer pressure. Finally, in October, the King and Queen were dragged from Versailles to the Tuileries Palace in the city by the women of Paris. By which point, Nothing Is the Same Anymore.

After this, the Revolution faced a series of problems, many of them revolving on debates that were literally Older Than Feudalism and many more that were as old (because they were about feudalism) but got stirred up 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, or at least, if their power was limited anyhow, 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 that most of France, outside of the Paris Basin, didn't really feel this unified 'French' identity, and nobody was sure about how, if at all, this idea of the "French nation" was ever to really replace the local traditions of feudal monarchy, always backed by the Church that was more than a millennium old.

A few voices even suggested doing away with the King and declaring a republic, but most were still skeptical that a republic could govern such a large nation since republicanism had hitherto mostly been observed in Italian city-states and the ancient world, and in both cases these republics covered smaller areas. The only republic of comparable size was the United States, and even the most sympathetic French rightly viewed it skeptically; the first government under its new federal constitution had met that very spring, and even then it still didn't have full control of its claimed territory (North Carolina would not join until November; Rhode Island held out until May 1790).note  The largest stable republic anyone had ever seen was the Netherlands, and even that was seen as more or less a monarchy (since the Prince of Orange was almost inevitably the stadtholder of all or most of the constituent provinces). The only precedent they had for stable popular government in a country that size was Great Britain's constitutional monarchy.

The revolution's original sin: The Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the Revolt in the Vendée

And then there was religion. 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 Revolution.note  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 French Revolution's original sin: the well-intentioned mess of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. This legislation demanded that priests across France accept nationalization and confiscation of Church property and become elected (!) public officials taking a government wage. The Assembly also required priests in this new order swear an oath to the Nation above all other authorities (including the Pope). This was truly divisive and controversial to say the least, since it offended the beliefs of many devout (or at least less anticlerical) Catholics, including the King.

The oath particularly stung, since papal supremacy in spiritual matters is a core Catholic tenet, and the new oath didn't seem to leave any room for that. The state wages were not really a problem, being a logical extension of the "Gallican" theory of papal power of which France had long been a bastion. The Gallican theory was that the Pope had no authority over temporal affairs outside of lands he personally ruled, and that included decisions about Church administration and what amounted to Church HR. For centuries, the French Crown had enjoyed the absolute right to appoint all bishops and abbots in France—with a theoretical but never-used papal vetonote —and there was no expectation this would change.

Consequently, most French clerics wouldn't have seen the wage as that big an issue — just a beefier form of Gallicanism. While the tithe the wages were replacing had some biblical support, the way the tithes were distributed in Ancien Regime France — mostly to the high prelates, with practically nothing going to the parish priests — meant that for the vast majority of French clergy, the regular civil service wage the Civil Constitution promised was actually a better deal than they had been getting. While the parish priests would definitely have preferred the continuation of tithes, with the income stream being redirected at them, becoming a government employee wasn't a huge deal in itself — especially if it meant that the bishops and abbots who had been getting the tithes were now getting payscale at best and nothing at worst. As for the bishops and abbots, they were almost to a man the younger sons of exactly the sort of high nobility who had come to the grim realization that this revolution meant their time was up. (Except of course for the ones like Sieyès and Talleyrand who had had the good sense to be liberals well before the revolution and could join the new administration.)

There was less daylight between the parish priests and the hierarchy on the subject of Church property, but it wasn't as big a deal as it seemed. While they all hated the principle of seizing Church property and railed against it in their sermons, this wasn't anything they hadn't seen before. Governments across Europe had seized Church property from time to time since the Middle Ages, and while the Church always made a big fuss about it, the resistance was usually limited to scathing oratory so long as the situation was dire (which the French Church admitted it was) and the state took only what it needed.note  Besides, the priests had long grumbled about the extraordinary splendor of the prelates, and probably didn't care all that much so long as what was seized was just farms and jewels and such that happened to be Church-owned rather than actual church buildings and holy items. Indeed, parish priests probably would have had not a little bit of schadenfreude at the prospect of seizing property from the abbeys and monasteries, which were often seen as "refuges" for indolent and troublesome nobles and unproductive parasites that consumed Church income without ministering to the people or doing any productive work themselves. Also while the business of standing for election as priest or bishop—by assemblies which were not limited to Catholics, by the way, so in theory you could have elections for priest turning on the votes of Protestants, atheists, or even Jews—was roundly denounced, it was sufficiently of the times as to just be written off as a weird thing they’d just have to go with.

The oath, however, was a bridge too far. Centuries of Gallicanism had conditioned the vast majority of French Catholics to believe that at a minimum their government had a right to expect that in the event of a political conflict between France and the Papal States, the French clergy wouldn't be actively pushing enemy propaganda from their pulpits every Sunday. However, Gallicanism always recognized the authority of the Pope in matters of Church doctrine, and the Civil Constitution's oath seemed to contradict that, as well. Under such an oath, could the French Church really be seen as "Catholic" in any significant way?

The plan was also implemented without full understanding of regional diversity. In relatively urbanized areas under close royal supervision, like the Paris Basin, people largely went along with the plan, even if there was some grumbling by the particularly devout (like, again, the King). By contrast, the Civil Constitution failed utterly in more rural regions, traditionally far away from royal influence; most priests in these regions refused to take the oath and thus became known as "nonjuring" priests (i.e. refusing to swear).note 

Nowhere in France was the failure of the Civil Constitution more apparent in the very rural western region known as the Vendée. The Vendée was a fairly poor and rather out-of-the-way backwater sandwiched between the much more relevant Gironde (the region centered on Bordeaux) to the south and Brittany to the north. Thus, the nobility in the Vendée were not particularly well-off or well-connected, and lacked the means to spend more time at Versailles than required. Vendée nobles therefore tended to live on their estates and tend to their agricultural interests rather than schmoozing the king. Meanwhile, the Vendée's relative poverty meant that it was a fairly undesirable posting for highborn clerics, so the church hierarchy in the region tended to be local, too.

As a result, in the Vendée, most of the peasants liked the local nobles, who by and large kept to the old principle of noblesse oblige, and the local clergy, whom they regarded as honorable defenders of their deeply-held Catholic faith. Together, the nobles and the clergy funded and ran Catholic charities that served as a fairly decent social support for the region (making the Vendée one of the few places in France where the idealized notions about the nobility and the Church came close to reality). The Civil Constitution, which stripped the Church of its property, combined with the emigration of the nobility and the division of the émigré lands, therefore not only seemed like an unjust attack to the people of the Vendée, it stripped them of their safety net. And they needed that net because of rampant Loophole Abuse with the sale of the seized property, which was supposed to be available to peasants but was in practice all taken by well-off bourgeois merchants. Moreover, because of the weird way in which seignieurial dues were supposedly "abolished" (certain ones were deemed property rights that could not be taken away without compensation, and so still remained after "abolition"), these new bourgeois owners often enforced to the hilt various dues the less businesslike nobles and Church had let slide, squeezing the peasantry just as they were losing their main means of support in hard times.

This, along with enforcing conscription there, seriously undermined popular support for revolutionary aims in the Vendée. The aristocratic counterrevolutionaries opposed the Revolution's changes on general principle (as well as outrage for losing ancient privileges they felt entitled to), but their numbers were few and their political attitude could be best described as "utterly demoralized." By contrast, the Civil Constitution alienated poor but devout peasants, who might have gone along with some of the Revolution's policies (after all, what kind of peasant doesn't want more land and lower taxes?), but turned permanently against the Revolution when it turned on their beloved Church — especially after the Civil Constitution was condemned by the Pope. This led to a long-running counterrevolutionary revolt/insurgency in the Vendée (occasionally spreading to surrounding regions like Brittany). The insurgency became a constant, festering ulcer for the Revolution, often distracting from other policy priorities and threats (including foreign wars) at critical moments, and indiscriminate massacres and atrocities by the Republic's Infernal Columns that killed up to 25% of the population of Vendée ensued.

Crafting a new regime and other legacies

Then there's the issue of who gets to vote. About the only thing everyone (Rightist-Centrist-Leftist) agreed on was that only men could 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 truly universal suffrage (for adult male nationals).note  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 off 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 on 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 Napoléon Bonaparte.

The Revolution's liberal and progressive achievements were 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.note  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 Republic.note 

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 and slave revolt in Haiti.note 

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, with some (as well as many reactionaries) going so far as to argue that the whole event was arranged by a small minority (possibly members of the Freemasons and/or The Illuminati, though French reactionaries at the time actually tended to blame the Duke of Orléansnote ) and had zero popular support. Moderate 17th century liberals argued that everything was`going fine until it was derailed by bloodthirsty radicals who gave power to completely unqualified people, rather than trusting in carefully elected elites. Radical revolutionaries looked at the Terror and said, "Yes, more of that, please," and believed that events failed because its leaders weren't ruthless enough. 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

  • The French Revolution's political goal wasn't originally to abolish the monarchy, but merely to diminish the King's powers. Louis XVI remained popular until the Flight to Varennes and 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 many 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 Provençe called Federalists. These last came mainly from Marseilles and along the way they picked up a song and popularized it during their march, which thus became known as "La Marseillaise" (literally "the one from Marseilles") — now the (surprisingly bloody-minded) national anthem of France.
  • The King was imprisoned in the Temple Fortress (as the name implies, it was built by The Knights Templar centuries prior) 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-revolutionary rebellion. When the republic started losing ground in the war 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 serious opposition from enemies on all sides, two rebellions inside its borders, 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 came 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 Committee of Public Safety to ensure that the government remained "Revolutionary until the Peace". Membership in the Committee was renewed every month by votes in the convention and they were an executive body of twelve 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 are believed to number approximately 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 (though considering they were less than 2% of the population, they did suffer 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 all 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 measures. note  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 (Messidor,note  Thermidor,note  Fructidornote ). One problem with the new calendar, apart from widespread cultural inertia vis-a-vis the Gregorian calendar, was that the new months, while corresponding well, more or less, to the seasonal climate of Paris, were not quite as appropriate to the colonies or parts of France where a month literally called "Snowy" (Nivôse) might not get any snow. A more prosaic reason the calendar was unpopular was that it reduced the number of weekends people got (one day's rest out of ten, instead of one out of seven). The calendar was also deliberately designed so that what would be Sunday in the old calendar would now be a normal workday, just to grind the Church's face into the dirt a little more. Today the Calendar only 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 time.note 
  • There were only seven prisoners in the Bastille when it was stormed, none of whose imprisonments were political in nature: four forgers, a lunatic, a failed assassin, and one "sexually deviant" aristocrat. In any case, the goal of the rioters wasn't to free political prisoners, but to plunder the Bastille's stores of gunpowder. This didn't stop the revolutionary press from immediately depicting the Bastille as a fortress of horrors, printing lurid stories of hundreds of political prisoners, tortured and held for decades, and portraying the storming as a heroic strike against despotic tyranny.
  • The different governments of the Revolution were: the National Assembly (1789), the National Constituent Assembly (1789-1791), the Legislative Assembly (1791-1792), the National Convention (1792-1795), the Directory (1795-1799) and the Consulate (1799-1804).
  • Napoléon Bonaparte ended this when he took direct power. He was initially a co-conspirator of a liberal coup masterminded by the abbott Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, 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 the 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 on 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 bourgeoisie 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.
  • Off with His Head!: The use of the guillotine quickly became a symbol of the Revolution, and of the Reign of Terror in particular. Originally designed as a more humane method of execution, it instead became a symbol of mass execution, as well as becoming associated with the Revolution's egalitarianism and the destruction of the aristocracy.
  • Reign of Terror: The Trope Namer. Mark Twain reflected on what he considered 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 peoplenote , 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 works of fiction, 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 initially critical and dismissive of the Revolution but later came to embrace it.
    • Early Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge were initially supportive of the Revolution before becoming disillusioned. Early Romanticist writings across Europe (but especially in England and Germany) and even in France itself, 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 and left-leaning 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's personal papers are lost, believed to have been burned 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, historians have generally regarded most if not all of her "death masks" as fakes, which hasn't stopped 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-type figure who rose against an "unlawful" republic while living in the forest with his merry men.note 
    • During the Restoration, a number of Urban Legends 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  There is no hard evidence to support any of this.
    • 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 pornography. 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 .
  • Signature Headgear: Of course, the 18th century was an age of fancy hats, but the Revolution has its own hat specifically associated with it: the bonnet rouge, a red Phrygian cap with a tricolor cockade.

Works that are set in this time period include:

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    Anime & Manga 

    Art & 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.
  • Liberty Leading the People: It was painted in 1830 by Eugène Delacroix to celebrate the abdication of King Charles X after the July Revolution.
  • Statue of Liberty (1886): Lady Liberty embodies and celebrates the freedom ideals of The French and American Revolutions. In the sense that a person's liberty is paramount to anything else and fighting for is always noble and necessary.

    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 Works 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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, 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 (1938), starring Norma Shearer and Robert Morley.
  • The French Revolution, a 1989 film produced for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Noteworthy for being surprisingly neutral in regards to the events. The movie is divided into two parts, La Révolution française: les Années lumière ("The French Revolution: The Years of Hope") and La Révolution française: les Années terribles ("The French Revolution: The Years of Terror"). The first half, directed by Robert Enrico, begins with a brief prologue in 1774 before skipping forward to the summoning of the Estates General and then following events through to the deposition of Louis XVI. The second half, directed by Richard T. Heffron, focuses on the Reign of Terror, picking up where the first one left off and ending with the execution of Robespierre.
  • 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 (1923)
  • Scaramouche (1952)
  • 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.
  • The Revolution Bookends Brotherhood of the Wolf, with an older Thomas d'Apcher facing the wrath of a popular mob.
  • 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.
  • Marie Antoinette (2006), directed by Sofia Coppola with Kirsten Dunst portraying the titular queen. It follows Marie Antoientte's life from her marriage to Louis XVI to the beginning of the French Revolution.
  • Farewell, My Queen a 2012 French film starring Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette. It explores Versailles in the first three days of the Revolution.
  • That Night in 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 (1971), 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 ends up navigating 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.
  • Vaincre ou Mourir: The Vendée Civil War during the Reign of Terror in 1793-1796, with the royalist historical figure and insurgency commander François Athanase Charette de La Contrie as protagonist.
  • Napoleon (2023) is a Napoleon Bonaparte biopic which early parts are set during the Revolution era. The film starts in 1793 with Marie-Antoinette's execution during the Reign of Terror, then features the Siege of Toulon (where Napoléon Bonaparte had his first major feat of arms), the fall of Robespierre, the [[13 Vendémiaire revolt, the Egypt campaign, and the 1799 coup.
  • Les Visiteurs. The medieval 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, Bastille Day, deals with their fate as they are stranded in 1793 during the Reign of Terror.

  • A Tale of Two Cities is probably the most famous depiction of the French Revolution in Anglosphere pop culture. It is, after all, a Charles Dickens novel and has naturally received numerous adaptations. Taking place before and during the Revolution, the story focuses on a group of fictional characters in both London and Paris, which are the two cities of the title. In particular, it centers on a Love Triangle, with French aristocrat Charles Darnay and English lawyer Sydney Carton vying for the affections of Lucie Manette, whose father was once imprisoned in the Bastille. Meanwhile, the vindictive revolutionary Madame Defarge wants Darnay to pay for his family's crimes.
  • La Vendée by Anthony Trollope, which predated A Tale of Two Cities by nine years and focused on the Vendean uprising.
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel
  • Scaramouche, subtitled "A Romance of the French Revolution", begins just before the calling of the States General and climaxes against the backdrop of the Storming of the Tuileries. The protagonist mostly tries to stay out of it, but still gets involved in several key events along the way and serves for a while as a delegate to the National Assembly, less because he has believes in the ideals of the reformers and more because he has beef against one corrupt aristocrat in particular.
  • 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 Napoléon 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 The Red Lion.
  • The Way to the Lantern
  • French writer Anatole France's The Gods Are Athirst explores the Terror from the perspective of a Robespierre fanatic.
  • Cuban author Alejo Carpentier 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.
  • The earlier timeline in The Eight by Katherine Neville focuses mainly on original characters, but notably features Talleyrand, David, and the Bonaparte family.
  • The Runaway Queen, one of the short stories from The Bane Chronicles takes place in this period. The storie follows the warlock Magnus Bane who gets hired by Count Alex von Fersen to save queen Marie Antoinette.
  • Thunder of Valmy, by Geoffrey Trease (also known as "Victory at Valmy" in the US) is a YA novel detailing the events of the revolution as seen by Pierre, the book's portagonist. Pierre, youngest son of a peasant family, has been adopted by an old extravangant Lady painter, to nurture and develop his artistic talent. This also puts him in a previleged position to witness (and sometimes participate in) the events of the revolution, from the forming of the National Assembly up to the eponymous battle at Valmy.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Blackadder the Third (for one episode)
  • Doctor Who: "The Reign of Terror"
  • The Time Tunnel episode "Reign of Terror".
  • Horatio Hornblower: Episode "The Wrong War" (aka "The Frogs and the Lobsters") deals with a civil war between the Royalists and the Revolutionaries.
  • Die Jagd nach dem Urmeter/Un mètre pour mesurer le monde (The hunt for the first meter/One meter to measure the world), a very well made German documentary about the difficult birth of the Metric system, especially the meter.
  • Napoléon is a four-parts miniseries covering the life of Napoléon Bonaparte. The first episode is mostlty set during the Directory eranote  and the events depicted include the 13 Vendémiaire revolt, the Italy and Egypt campaigns, and the 1799 coup.
  • John Adams: The appropriate American response to the French Revolution is a significant point starting in "Unite or Die" and is a major issue of the title character's presidency starting in "Unnecessary War" (which includes the Citizen Genêt affair). On a personal level, the response to the French Revolution is the start of the rift between Adams and his old friend Thomas Jefferson — Jefferson is sympathetic with it, even during the Terror, while Adams is horrified by the Terror and pursues neutrality as President.

  • 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 the second-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. (It was surpassed by the tenth and final season on the Russian Revolutions, which comes in at a whopping 103 episodes, although that's slightly cheating since that season covers the 1905 Revolution and both 1917 Revolutions.) The French Revolution is also discussed in Season 4 when Duncan deals with the Haitian Revolution (Haiti starting out as a French colony with the vast majority of its population slaves) and the early episodes of Season 5 (about Simón Bolívar) naturally mention how events in Europe (mostly France and Spain) influenced Spanish America.


    Tabletop Games 
  • Guillotine is a Wizards of the Coast card game in which each player portrays a rival executioner during the French Revolution and takes turns guillotining prisoners. Players compete by manipulating the line to claim the highest-value heads.

  • Danton's Death (play by Georg Büchner)
  • Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss
  • Andrea Chenier, 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.
  • The French Revolution, a French 1973 Rock Opera by Alain Boublil and Jean-Max Rivière.
  • Hamilton brings up the Revolution during "Cabinet Battle #2", where Jefferson and Hamilton discuss the worsening situation with Washington.

    Video Games 
  • Assassin's Creed: Unity follows the course of the Revolution between 1789 and 1793 and several historical figures impact the plot.
  • Banner of the Maid is set in an alternate history version of the later stages of the Revolution, chronicling the early campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte's sister Pauline against various enemies of France.
  • We. The Revolution puts the player in the skin of a Revolutionary Tribunal judge who does his duty both on mundane everyday cases for the common folk and on bigger affairs that had much attention during the era.

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 

Alternative Title(s): French Revolution