David A. Bell has been keeping busy lately fanning the flames of revolutionary contention. See the updated post below for Eric Hazan’s response to a recent review, and this forthright exchange about a very different interpretation of what the French Revolution all really meant.
Popular sociability as a concept and a problem in revolutionary Paris, 1789-1791.
Given at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Montréal, Canada, October 2014.
The precise contours of popular sociability in distant periods are, like crime, one of the so-called ‘dark figures’ of history. We know that the lives of ordinary people were full, self-evidently, of interactions, and we can glimpse through the historical record a qualitative flavour of many of them, but a synthetic overview can only come by piecing together a few limited fragments. There were somewhere in the region of half a million people of the labouring and artisanal classes in late eighteenth-century Paris, and we can say an extraordinarily great deal more about many of them than we could half a century ago. Continue reading A conference paper on revolutionary popular sociability
According to the French leftist standard-bearer Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the act of turning the events of the 1790s into the backdrop for Assassins Creed Unity, the latest instalment in a successful first-person adventure game series, is “a dirty business of instilling more self-disgust and declinism in the French,” adding that it risks leaving the nation with nothing but religion and skin-colour to unite them – with evidently reactionary implications.
While one might be tempted to remark that historians of the French Revolution are now finding out how medievalists have felt all these years, there is no doubt that this game has occasioned lively debate – even before anyone had the chance to actually play it. Continue reading The existential horror of reducing the Great Revolution to a video game…
Objects of Study or Agents of History – the continuing academic and moral conundrum of the violence of the French Revolution
Given at the annual conference of the Society for the Study of French History, Durham, 11 July 2014
Today I’d like to talk about the question of how we talk about violence in the French Revolution. This is of course a perennial question over the last 225 years. However, it is also one that repeatedly tends to gravitate towards what are, I’d argue, particularly problematic types of answer. Violence in revolutionary situations is fundamental to our understanding of those situations, of their participants, and of their attitudes to the disruption and reconstitution of sovereign power. Too often, however, this direct attention has been, and continues to be, diverted into two opposing over-simplifications: violence as morally repugnant and shocking, on the one hand, and violence as the normalised exercise of power, on the other. Continue reading A conference paper on talking about the violence of revolution
Our colleague Annie Jourdan reviews Marisa Linton’s Choosing Terror, focusing on the key themes of the dilemmas of individual friendship and the duties of a virtuous public life.
I am delighted to say that interest in Maximilien Robespierre continues unabated. A new generation of historians has been reassessing his life and political contribution. Gavin Jacobson, a DPhil student at Balliol College, Oxford, and a contributor to this network, has reviewed two new collections that bring together some of the current thinking on Robespierre. The review essay appears in The English Historical Review.
It’s intriguing to note that making revolutionary demands remains in fashion amongst the Western intelligentsia – this is just one of a stream of publications one could point to – but none of them answer the fundamental question of how a fully socially-transformative “revolution” is supposed to achieve its goals in a complex and globally-dependent economy without starting by causing total collapse, mass starvation, and a spiral of violence.
That, after all, is what the great social revolutions of history all did.
“The age of revolution is not over: its fruits are just unevenly distributed around the world”.
The noted scholar of imperial and global history, David Armitage, offers some reflections on the continuing significance of R.R. Palmer’s Age of the Democratic Revolution in a foreword to a new edition; here excerpted in the Times Literary Supplement.