The Historiography of the French Revolution

Since the 1920s, historians have tended to interpret the Revolution in social and economic terms. This approach owes much to Marxist interpretations, but has been contested by revisionist historians.

Lefebvre was a major figure in this reworking of the Revolution. His work presented the peasantry and urban sans-culottes as a complex of widely varying social groups.

1. Michelet

Michelet regarded the French people as the true custodians of Joan of Arc’s spirit and that their revolution had been a revelation of their inherent nobility. He presented this idea in his seven volume History of the French Revolution. Its entries categorized events, actors and institutions and creations (such as the revolutionary calendar or the civil code) but also included ideas such as liberty, fraternity, and equality.

Though Michelet’s approach is skewed by emotional bias against the clergy, nobility and monarchy, historians recognize his great scholarship and ability to evoke times and places. Hannoosh shows how Michelet used art works to support his historiography. He examined the Gothic cathedrals, the northern Renaissance artworks of Durer and many others to elicit an image of the past.

2. Tocqueville

After the revolution Tocqueville lost his aristocratic fortune and his family home in Normandy. He began to write a history of France, but instead focused his study on the new French society and compared it with democracy as exemplified in America.

He characterized the society as one of rigid rules and weak enforcement, in which the nobility’s feudal role was replaced by an exclusive civic role as government servants. This allowed the bourgeoisie to masterfully take advantage of a revolution that they did not initiate. In this way Tocqueville was able to show that the revolutionary events had no connection with progress and only served as a means for conflict and class struggle. He was the first historian of the french revolution to use this understanding of the revolution.

3. Jaures

Jaures was a member of parliament who worked to separate church and state. Although not a Dreyfusard he was sympathetic to the case and fought for enlarging the scope of freedom of association.

He was one of the early revisionist historians but he shunned Marxist interpretations. He was more aligned with liberals such as Tocqueville who saw the revolution as a triumph of democratic republican values.

Jaures was born into a lower middle class family and did well at school. He studied at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris and then taught high school in Albi before moving on to Toulouse in 1883. He was not a historian of the masses but he understood peasant mentality and comportment. He was not a social historian but he did understand that economic problems were a factor in revolutions.

4. Mathiez

Albert Mathiez, a member of the French bourgeoisie who had escaped its conservative roots, was one of the early revisionist historians. Born in La Bruyere in eastern France, he graduated from the Ecole Normale in 1897 and taught for a while in provincial schools. His doctoral thesis on revolutionary religious cults (which used the work of Emile Durkheim) marked him as an independent-minded scholar.

His main works, however, were about the Revolution. He presented it as a social struggle between classes and, in particular, the bourgeoisie. This was a departure from Michelet who presented the insurgents as bandits, braconniers and vagabonds. It also differed from Lefebvre’s emphasis on lower class grievances and struggles.

5. Labrousse

Although displaying wide differences in social outlook, political affiliation and emphasis, the nineteenth-century historians of the Revolution shared certain characteristics. For one, they all tended to present it as a conflict of classes. The aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the peasantry, they argued, were the main contenders for power in France, and their aims were essentially the same.

Moreover, the historians of this period (with the exceptions of Tocqueville and Barnave) almost always studied these two classes from above. By contrast, Jaures looked at the conflict from below, focusing not only on the peasantry but also on the Parisian sans-culottes – workshop masters, small shopkeepers and journeymen. He thus added a new dimension to Revolutionary studies. The significance of this new approach has not yet been fully realized.

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