The French Revolution Study Notes

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The French Revolution

Section 1:The Old Order

- At the time when the Americans were gaining independence from Great Britain, the French monarchy was at it's height.

- All French people belonged to one of three estates, or orders of society

- These estates determined the legal rights and status of the person.

- The First Estate was formed by the Catholic Clergy. The Second Estate was formed by the nobility. Everyone else formed the Third Estate.

- The people of the First Estate were entitled to many things. One of these things was the tithe. The tithe was a ten percent tax income from each church member.

- However one 'deconstructs' their undoubtedly scholarly work on ideological grounds, these publications did help to shift the debate on 'artisans and sansculottes' away from what had become rather sterile arguments about how many sans-culottes could dance on the tip of a marxist pin to wider concerns about the value of community, work processes and relationships, as well as the impact of philosophical and political ideas on late eighteenth-century French society.

- 'Culture' was rapidly replacing 'class' as the buzz-word of a new generation of researchers.

- This new interest in intellectual and cultural history enabled many good historians of the Revolution to pour new conceptual wine into old 'class' bottles.

- Another corrective to ideologically-charged and structuralist accounts of 'the People' can be found in Richard Cobb's highly original and readable,

- The Police and the People. Although influenced in his earlier years by marxist scholars, Cobb was, in reality, an English, Oxbridge anarchist/individualist, endowed with a profound knowledge of French archives and French bars, who liked to tell it as it was, rather than how it should have been in the book according to Marx, Weber, or, indeed, anyone else!

- He wrote great history, but 'in his own image'

- Artisans are also evident in studies of 'peasant' insurrections, since they formed an essential part of village life, particularly when you consider that most villages in the north, the west and the south-east of France were engaged in textile-production.

- They figure prominently - though they do not, of course, form the majority of rioters, in Georges Lefebvre's Grande Peur, that path-breaking study of the five regional revolts which coalesced into the massive peasant insurrection of the summer of 1789 known as 'the Great Fear'.

Section 2: Constitutional Government

- Peter Jones, in his excellent general study, The Peasantry in the French Revolution, includes a breakdown of insurgents in the south-west of France in 1789 which shows that around one-third of them were artisans. However, it seems from Jones' own work and other studies that peasant insurrections could attract support from a wide section of the population, from well-to-do farmers to day-labourers, with a heavy participation of small and middling peasants to share-croppers, depending on the region. Winegrowers, for example, badly affected by the economic recession of the 1780s, were much in evidence in parts of the south, as were share-croppers, very numerous in the south-west. But peasant insurrections could also be led by village (even town) merchants and priests, often the 'natural' leader of village communities.

- Jones sums it up: 'In some instances it is clearly more helpful to conceive of the mobilisation as the revolts of entire communities'. I would press for more work to be done on the involvement of village 'peasant-artisans', often textile-workers, in the revolts of the 1790s: they, more than any section of the community were adversely affected by the economic and political upheavals of the period.

- Finally, challenging the older marxist (vulgarised) myths about the impact of commercial capitalism and the State upon 'traditional' village communities, Hilton Root's work on Burgundy, and European peasant history in general, has insisted...
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