A conference paper on talking about the violence of revolution

Objects of Study or Agents of History – the continuing academic and moral conundrum of the violence of the French Revolution

David Andress

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.

Consider, for example, the fine and sweeping survey by Colin Jones, The Great Nation, which uses the word ‘sickening’ to introduce a short half-paragraph on the September Massacres of 1792, going on to describe an ‘ambience of pure carnage’, and use other phrases including ‘butchery’ and ‘cull’.[1] Taken in isolation, those are reasonable terms to describe a visceral response to what actually happened at that point in Paris. However, history does not happen in isolation. Two pages further on in Colin’s text, we read that ‘On 6 November, some 40,000 men under Dumouriez defeated 13,000 Austrian troops at Jemappes and strode on to occupy Brussels’.[2] And that’s that.

But the Battle of Jemappes killed more or less the same number of people as the September Massacres – and if anyone doubts that an eighteenth-century battlefield was a site of sickening carnage, there are plenty of contemporary descriptions to attest to it. Young conscripts blown to pieces by artillery – as many of the Austrian casualties at Jemappes were – are surely at least as innocent, helpless and frankly hard-done-by as any of the victims in the Parisian prisons.

I am not trying to call Colin Jones to account for his choices of language here, so much as pointing out that they are commonplace choices – in our narratives of revolutionary situations, we normalise and de-normalise different kinds of equally gruesome events.

We can look right back to the moment of revolution itself, and sometimes see writers attempting to do both at once. The death of Berthier, one of the two high officials lynched in Paris on 22 July 1789, was described by the journalist Loustalot  in terms as vivid and breathless as a live broadcast: ‘Already Berthier is no more; his head already is merely a mutilated mass separated from his body; already a man … a man! … O Gods! The barbarian! He tears his heart from his palpitating entrails.’

But at this point that eye-witness immediacy breaks down, and he goes on, ‘What am I saying? He revenges himself on a monster! This monster had killed his father.’ And here Loustalot inserts a footnote: ‘M. Berthier had really killed, so one is assured, the father of the Dragoon who did this’.[3]

From barbarism to (presumably fully-justified) personal vengeance in the space of a few lines, Loustalot frames this killing twice, and in both framings eludes what should perhaps have been the more significant, more political, context of this event. Berthier’s death followed that of his father-in-law Foulon, who had been hauled by a crowd of Parisians to the Hotel de Ville where, as mayor Bailly’s memoirs record, the crowd attempted to force the municipal council to constitute a court, with judges, advocates and other officers, to try him as a traitor there and then.[4] Undoubtedly we can see this as an attempt to formalise what was a foregone conclusion, but if it had gone ahead, and not been interrupted by Lafayette’s blustering attempts to seize control of the situation, it would have put these bloody killings into a more profoundly disruptive context of the recuperation of sovereign power by the crowd.

The tendency to normalise some forms of violence while looking askance at others runs through testimony and historiography from even earlier in the cycle of revolutionary events. Consider, for example, the Reveillon Riots of April 1789. Actions by the forces of order on the final day of the outbreak killed a bare minimum of 25 people – and rumour said hundreds – wounded dozens if not hundreds more, and led to the swift public execution of several young men who were probably innocent of any significant crime. Yet within a few weeks of this, radicalised Parisian crowds would be ardently working to attract the sympathies of the very soldiers who carried out this repression. Here we have deadly violence which is entirely normalised, in which the issue of treating it as a crime to be avenged does not seem even to arise, and the perpetrators slip towards a quasi-heroic status as they refuse further orders, and eventually join the uprising of 12-14 July. In that uprising itself, how much more literary, scholarly and public attention has been given to the scuffle that ended with de Launey’s head on a stick, compared to the cannon and musket fire that killed almost a hundred Parisians earlier that day?

Most of us are I’m sure familiar with the baseline historiographical issue here – the line of demonisations of revolutionary crowds that runs through Burke and Taine and onwards until it collides with the Marxist rampart of Rudé and Soboul, who refute its social bases without actually asking about the nature of the violence itself; and then the subsequent split between those who tend to weave violent actions into some combination of circumstances and culture, and those who present them as a form of ‘revolutionary psychosis’ that, in the case of Simon Schama, seems to take us full-circle back to Burke’s swinish multitude.

The see-saw question of how ‘normally’ to treat revolutionary violence can be seen across recent historiography. William Beik has commented on the extent to which even relatively sympathetic examinations of revolutionary imagery have addressed ‘exuberant’ violence as ‘an almost Freudian “return of the repressed” vision of atavistic revenge.’[5] He argues that it is not in Freud that we need to seek the motives of this violence, but in the well-defined ‘culture of retribution’ that he reads as a presence throughout the urban history of early-modern France. Yet Beik himself, writing of the September Massacres, speaks of the victims being ‘indiscriminately condemned’ – something which a detailed examination of the available evidence shows is simply not true.[6]

Micah Alpaugh’s recent publications on non-violent Parisian protest provide a notable counterpoint to this: but intriguing though his work is, I think that its rhetorical and analytical attachment to its core concept creates an artificial distinction between events that do and do not lead to overt expressions of force – and might, indeed, risk stigmatising forms of violence by insisting so strongly on their absence.[7] While he has noble motives in seeking to emphasise how many events remained without violent outcomes, it results in an uneven and incomplete picture of how, and to some extent why, large numbers of people sought to influence the public sphere through forms of direct action. In the historical conditions of the late eighteenth century, a more fluid openness to potential violent assertion needs to be brought into the discussion.

Jean-Clément Martin has stepped out in a different direction. Over his long and distinguished career he has placed increasing emphasis on the multilateral, self-aggravating and generally war-like aspects of what is otherwise framed as ‘revolutionary’ violence and death-dealing, seeking to break what he recently called ‘a sort of encystment’ around ‘terrorist’ violence. He notes that this produces an undue focus on certain kinds of radically-politicised bloodshed, while ‘the violences of the same period that do not fit within this framework are regularly marginalised or even neglected’.[8] I have much sympathy for this approach, but in its call for the  violence of the Revolution to be effectively ‘normalised’, I also wonder if it is not putting aside an opportunity to think about that violence as ‘abnormal’ in other ways.

Because it is in the end the abnormality of revolutionary violence that we need to retain as an object of study. It was its abnormality that made it revolutionary, and which startled and terrified contemporary observers, as I have already suggested in looking at Loustalot’s text. Ironically, the cultural context of his reaction is also perhaps partly responsible for our continued difficulty in describing such violence in ways which neither exaggerate nor minimise it.

What Loustalot is doing in the overtly fictive immediacy of his account is practising what the critic and cultural historian Ian Haywood has dubbed ‘Bloody Romanticism’.[9] The decades around the French Revolution were home to an entire literary and journalistic genre of emotive and sentimental response by cultured observers to horrible violence. As Haywood and other literary scholars observe, this genre of writing was both fictive – constructed around the point where the supposedly authentic natural feeling of sentimentalism meets the flesh-creeping nightmares of the Gothic – and also deeply bound up with notions of reportage, eye-witnessing, and broader moral and political testimony.[10] Thus, for example, before Edmund Burke horrified his readers with his Reflections on France, he had already caused near-hysteria in the audience at the trial of Warren Hastings with a vividly histrionic account of massacres and violations in British India.[11]

This rhetoric was highly gendered – Burke had decried the fate of “virgins … cruelly violated by the basest and wickedest of mankind” – as its further flowering around the princesse de Lamballe would show after September 1792, and also evidently directed by key notions of race and class. The three leading theatres of action for this genre were incursions on the imperial frontiers, particularly of Native Americans, the horrors of Caribbean slavery and slave revolt, and the destabilising violence of lower-class rebellion. Even when, as in the Hastings trial, such discourse put imperial power under scrutiny, its underlying structure relied on the centrality of a peaceful, stable, white upper-class cultured society, threatened by the intrusion of alien values and depredations. Actual and metaphorical fears and images overlapped. Thus Thomas Jefferson had denounced George III in the Declaration of Independence for raising against the Americans “the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”, and in one deleted draft section, had made the same charge concerning the stimulation of slave uprisings. Burke, describing the crowds bringing the royal family to Paris in October 1789, wrote of them as “a spectacle more resembling a procession of American savages … after some of their murders called victories, and leading into hovels hung round with scalps, their captives, overpowered with the scoffs and buffets of women as ferocious as themselves”.[12]

So powerful was the descriptive currency of this mode of discourse, that one of the problems for French revolutionary journalism was to speak of popular violence without lapsing entirely into such tropes. Hence we see a struggle to excuse: what Loustalot is clearly doing in his footnote, and what Babeuf’s famous pronouncement about the evil heritage of feudalism offered. Such excusing often shaded, in Robespierre’s rhetoric amongst others, into treating insurrectionary violence as something almost abstract.

These responses were international. James Mackintosh, riposting to Burke in his Vindiciae Gallicae, argued that “it is vain to expect that a people, inured to barbarism by their oppressors, and which has ages of oppression to avenge, will be punctiliously generous in their triumph, nicely discriminative in their vengeance, or cautiously mild in their mode of retaliation.”[13] He noted the partial and unreflective emotive response to such activity baldly: “the wild justice of the people has a naked and undisguised horror. Its slightest exertion awakens all our indignation, while murder and rapine, if arrayed in the gorgeous disguise of acts of State, may with impunity stalk abroad.”[14] Yet he also went on to consciously downplay the very horror he had just portrayed, criticising “The sensibility which shrinks at a present evil, without extending its views to future good”, and comparing the popular violence such feelings would halt to the self-evidently beneficial “arm of a Surgeon in amputating a gangrened limb, or the hand of a Judge in signing the sentence of a parricide.”[15]

These tendencies have, in some senses, merely been preserved down to the present day. Revolutionary violence is either ‘normal’ – as normal as the battlefield or the operating theatre, to be bracketed off from actual direct attention – and its real disruptive significance lost to analysis, or it is possessed of such an extreme ‘abnormality’ that a concern with emotive description jars against the potential for critical analysis.

To offer an absolutely up-to-date example – Don Sutherland has just published a fascinating article in Past & Present on events in several towns parallel to the Parisian September Massacres of 1792. His conclusions about the killers’ political motives are very close to those that I have myself published. This was a fundamentally disruptive seizure of the understood pathways and modalities of a harshly punitive concept of justice, in which self-righteous moralistic vengeance played at least as strong a role as what earlier historians have identified as more supposedly ‘rational’ defensive calculations.

Yet Sutherland also says of those killers that they were “exceptionally cruel and consequently repulsive”.[16] Now, what is it to be ‘cruel’? According to the Oxford Dictionaries online, it is “Wilfully causing pain or suffering to others”.[17] However, Sutherland’s key argument for the cruelty of the proceedings appears to be what he elsewhere in the piece calls “the most grisly feature of the massacres: post-mortem atrocities”.[18] I may be a callous person, but I do not think one can cause pain or suffering to a corpse. Doing horrible things to a dead body, or parts thereof, certainly conveys a very unpleasant impression to our modern sensibility, as it did to many in the 1790s; it was used in 1792 very clearly and explicitly as a means of violent intimidation, but to call it cruelty is to denounce it, and thus place it outside the frame of analysis – exactly where it should not be.

Perhaps one underlying issue here is that the late eighteenth century was such a liminal age for the conduct that our present-day culture understands as modern and civilised: an age of the abolition of torture, and the end to arbitrary proceedings and brutal justice, an age of sensibility to human suffering and the birth of democracy. But of course those who abolish torture have by the same token necessarily only just stopped doing it. Humanitarian modernity, if it had any real significance to the era at all outside later hindsight, was at best a thin veneer over a much deeper culture of public and private violence. A wider consciousness of, for example, how brutally war was waged against the so-called ‘Indian savages’ of the Ohio Valley in the 1780s and 90s, or of the fact that English law still saw fit to burn a woman at the stake in 1789, or more broadly still of the continuing genocide of slavery, needs to frame our understanding of what ordinary people understood justice to be, emergent from their own historical context, beyond what we might like to presume about a historical narrative of improvement.[19]

A number of recent writers have called on us to revalorise popular and violent revolutionary responses – whether in the sophisticated theoretical frames embraced by Sophie Wahnich, or the more popular narrative of French revolutionary heritage offered by Eric Hazan.[20] Pierre Serna, writing in a collection of essays that makes a bold and combative call for ‘making revolution’, has declared that ‘every revolution is a war of independence’, implicitly and explicitly valorising that latter term as justification.[21] Yet, as David Armitage has also pointed out, ‘every great revolution is a civil war’, a frame within which the question of violence and its outcomes appears very differently, and far less simply.[22]

If we are to avoid being stuck between an ongoing tendency to voyeuristic and exaggerated ‘bloody romanticism’ on one side, and a potential for blasé ‘bloodless romanticisation’ on the other, one of the things we must do, I would argue, is think very carefully about our choice of language. Knowing that the vocabulary of emotional shock lives on in discussing events over 220 years ago, we should reflect on what the reader reception of our discussion is likely to be, and the line between description and implicit judgment in that context.

Perhaps, finally, we need to recall the example of Natalie Zemon Davis, who more than forty years ago chose to look directly at what she called the “terrible, concrete details of filth, shame and torture”, and to see the sixteenth century’s rites of violence, “however cruel, not as random and limitless, but as aimed at defined targets and selected from a repertory of traditional punishments and forms of destruction”.[23] Beyond those exact phrases, in what is still an absolutely seminal piece of work, Davis declined absolutely to use the vocabulary of sickening carnage. If she was right to do so then, might it not be worth all of us doing the same for the events of the 1790s?


[1] Colin Jones, The Great Nation; France from Louis XIV to Napoleon, (London: Penguin, 2002), pp. 460-61.

[2] Ibid., p. 463.

[3] Révolutions de Paris, dédiées à la nation, no. 2, 18-25 juillet 1789, p. 24.

[4] Edmond Seligman, La justice en France pendant la Révolution (1789-1792), (Paris, 1901), pp. 210-11.

[5] William Beik, ‘The Violence of the French Crowd from Charivari to Revolution’, Past & Present, 197 (nov. 2007), pp. 75-110; p. 100.

[6] Ibid. p. 105. See discussion in David Andress, The Terror; civil war in the French Revolution (London, 2005), chapter 4.

[7] See for example, Micah Alpaugh, ‘The Politics of Escalation in French Revolutionary Protest: Political Demonstrations, Nonviolence and Violence in the Grandes journées of 1789’, French History 23 (2009), pp. 336-359; and idem ‘The Making of the Parisian Political Demonstration: A Case Study of 20 June 1792’, Proceedings of the Western Society for French History 34 (2007), pp. 101-119.

[8] Jean-Clément Martin, ‘Massacres, tueries, executions et meurtres de masse pendant la Révolution, quelles grilles d’analyse?’, La Révolution française [online] at http://lrf.revues.org/index201.html, posted 8 January 2011; paragraph 2.

[9] Ian Haywood, Bloody Romanticism; Spectacular Violence and the Politics of Representation, 1776-1832, (London, 2006).

[10] See, e.g., Sarah Knott, Sensibility and the American Revolution, (Chapel Hill, 2009). For cultural studies more focused in the literary arena, though branching necessarily into cultural history, see Lynn Festa, Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-century Britain and France (Baltimore, 2006); and Markman Ellis, The Politics of Sensibility; race, gender and commerce in the sentimental novel (Cambridge, 1996).

[11] See Siraj Ahmed, ‘The Theater of the Civilized Self; Edmund Burke and the East India trials’, Representations, 78, (2002), pp. 28-55, esp. pp. 44-45.

[12] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (London, 1790), p. 99.

[13] James Mackintosh, Vindiciae Gallicae, (fourth edn., London, 1792), p. 164.

[14] Ibid., p. 75.

[15] Ibid., p. 165.

[16] D.M.G. Sutherland, ‘Justice and Murder: massacres in the provinces, Versailles, Meaux and Reims in 1792’, Past & Present, 222 (feb. 2014), pp. 129-62; p. 161.

[17] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/cruel?q=cruel

[18] Sutherland, ‘Justice and Murder’, p. 133.

[19] I discuss these issues in David Andress, 1789; the threshold of the modern age, (London, 2008).

[20] Sophie Wahnich, La Révolution française, un événement de la raison sensible, (Paris, 2012), idem, La longue patience du peuple, 1792, naissance de la République, (Paris, 2008). Eric Hazan, Une histoire de la Révolution française, (Paris, 2012), English translation forthcoming from Verso.

[21] Pierre Serna, ‘Toute Révolution est guerre d’indépendance’, in Jean-Luc Chappey, Bernard Gainot, Guillaume Mazeau, Frédéric Régent & Pierre Serna, Pour quoi faire la revolution?, (Paris, 2012).

[22] Forthcoming in Scripting Revolutions, ed. Keith M. Baker & Dan Edelstein; currently available at http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/armitage/files/scripting_revolutions.pdf

[23] Natalie Zemon Davis ‘The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-Century France’, Past & Present, 59 (May, 1973), pp. 51-91; pp. 81, 53.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.