Monday, 25 January 2016

1789: year of revolution

By the beginning of July 1789 many contemporary observers, such as the Briton Arthur Young, thought that the French Revolution had come to an end. The king had been forced to concede to the demands of the Third Estate and the nobles had given up their tax privileges.  The National Constituent Assembly had been charged with the task of drawing up a new constitution. In reality, however, there were many problems ahead.

  1. There was widespread mistrust of the king – would he use the armed forces to overthrow the Revolution?
  2. The poor harvest of 1788 meant that France, in particular, the urban areas, was faced with severe food shortages.
  3. Both in Paris and the countryside a range of economic and political grievances that had not been addressed.

The Estates-General

"Le Serment du Jeu de paume" by Jacques-Louis David
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 

The American War

In January 1777 Louis XVI granted the American rebels 2 million livres, without interest, to be repaid only when ‘the United States are settled in peace and prosperity’. This was a politically smart but financially disastrous decision as France was suffering from a series of bad harvests and attacks on farmers and bakers. The responsibility for balancing the books rested with, the Genevan banker, Jacques Necker, who became Director-General of Finances in June.   
'Jacques Necker'  Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis -
Licensed under Public domain v
ia Wikimedia Commons 
In February 1778 France formally allied with the Americans and in July declared war on Britain.  In October 1781 Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown to French and American troops. Since 1689 France had fought four wars with Britain. Unlike the others, this was a decisive victory. At the Peace of Paris in September 1783 Britain was forced to recognise the independence of the American colonies.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Challenges to the Ancien Régime

The Encyclopaedia,
the great achievement of the 

 French Enlightenment

The first challenge to the ancien régime came from the great eighteenth-century intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment

There are many debates and controversies about the Enlightenment, but the following features are generally agreed. The Enlightenment is often seen as a project. This implies

It was coherent
It was self-conscious
It depended on the existence of a ‘public sphere’

Its fundamental belief was that the increase of knowledge would produce happier, more virtuous people. This meant that it was opposed to what it saw as bigotry and obscurantism, especially as represented by the Catholic Church. 

Monday, 11 January 2016

Introduction: websites and bibliography

There is a huge literature on the French Revolution and some excellent websites. See here, and, in particular, here.

I have made particular use of the following books:

Andress, David, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution (Abacus, 2005)
Cadbury, Deborah, The Lost King of France: The Tragic Story of Marie-Antoinette’s Favourite Son (Fourth Estate, 2003)
Doyle, William, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1989)
Fraser, Antonia, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2001)
Christopher Hibbert, The French Revolution (Penguin, 1982)
Jones, Colin (ed.), The Longman Companion to the French Revolution (Longman, 1990)
Moorhead, Caroline, Dancing to the Precipice: Lucie De La Tour Du Pin and the French Revolution (Chatto and Windus, 2009)
Nagel, Susan, Marie-Thérèse: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter (Bloomsbury, 2008)
Schama, Simon, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution ( Alfred Knopf, 1989)
Scurr, Ruth, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Metropolitan Books, 2006).
I have also made use of the excellent material produced by the Open University for courses A103 ('Introduction to the Humanities) and A207 (Enlightenment to Romanticism).

The Ancien Régime

Louis XVI, 1775 by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis 
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons  

The ‘ancien régime’ is the name given to the French government before the Revolution. It was marked by privilege, inequality, injustice and economic inefficiency. With its population of 28 million (compared with 13 million in Britain) the country ought to have been prosperous, but many lived in great poverty.

The Three Estates

The nation was divided into three Estates: the First (the clergy); the Second (the nobility); the Third (the rest).  The first two Estates had important tax privileges, notably exemption from the taille, the main direct tax, and the gabelle, the hated salt monopoly.  The Catholic Church exercised monopoly religious power and the nobility exercised feudal privileges. 

The First Estate: In law, the 130,000 clergy ranked ahead of the nobility. Over half were monks or nuns, and parish priests were in a minority. All the king’s subjects were legally Catholic, and those who were not enjoyed no legal toleration or civil rights. The Church controlled education and poor relief. About a tenth of the land was in the hands of the church and the parish clergy were in theory entitled to tithes from their parishioners. Ecclesiastical revenues were exempt from ordinary taxation. Because the clergy were an estate rather than a class, clerical incomes varied wildly from wealthy bishops and abbots to parish curés, who, though wealthier than most of their parishioners, resented the unfair distribution of the Church’s wealth. Many of the most sought-after livings in the Church went to the younger sons of the greater nobility. They could also achieve political office, as when Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Toulouse, became chief minister in 1787.