British and Irish Literature French Revolution, 1789–1799
Nigel Ritchie
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0169


Birthed from national bankruptcy, the French Revolution was a painful political and social transformation that delivered some liberty and fraternity, if less equality, to its participants. While most would agree that our modern political world originated here, there is less consensus in understanding the causes or evolution of what political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville described as “a virus of a new and unknown kind.” The complexity of events, and subsequent layers of interpretation, make studying the French Revolution a daunting prospect for any historian; and its role as a key reference point for those either inspired or horrified by its outcomes continues to make it a focus of controversy and debate. A broad consensus concerning its nature—one of class-based conflict—most clearly expressed by French (Marxist) historians, briefly appeared toward the middle of the 20th century; however, this agreement has now been fatally undermined by an onslaught of diversified research findings that dissent from the old orthodoxies, most notably in emphasizing political over social or economic factors. What can be agreed is that the French Revolution was a transformative event. After the fall of the Bastille in July 1789, French revolutionaries suppressed feudal obligations, abolished the nobility (including titles), reorganized the Catholic Church, introduced (limited franchise) elections and a republican government, executed the king, and possibly most significantly, started a war that would draw in most of Europe and reach as far as the Caribbean. Over a quarter of a million people died in civil wars fought within France, hundreds of thousands more in wars with foreign powers, and 40,000 were executed for political crimes as alleged counterrevolutionaries. By 1799, France had tried out four different constitutions at home, imposed new ones on conquered territories in Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, and appeared set on revolutionizing most of Europe, with some countries proudly proclaiming their emancipation by adopting the tricolor flag of republican France. After a decade of revolutionary upheaval, fifteen years of rule by France’s new leader, the military dictator and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte restored a degree of stability (and authoritarianism) to France while continuing to impose revolutionary reforms on the rest of Europe.

General Overviews

For a long time, generations of historians adopted the Revolutionaries’ own view of their actions and portrayed it as a sharp break with the past. Much recent writing, such as Jones 2002 and Baker, et al. 1987–1994, has been concerned to stress continuity with aspects of the Old Regime, which ultimately failed to adjust to the long-term structural changes of the French economy and society, while also highlighting newer agendas focusing on the importance of the struggle for political legitimacy in the ensuing power vacuum. Kates 1997 and Andress 2015 provide invaluable snapshots of the variety of revisionist and post-revisionist thinking on some of these issues, as well as a more gender-sensitive approach. While the Revolution destroyed a variety of social hierarchies, it accelerated preexisting trends in politics, culture, economy, consumerism, demography and journalism, whose legacy is covered in some detail in Wolloch 1994. It also bought into existence a new set of symbols, ideas, and cultural understandings that precluded any return to the past, and, as Gildea 1994 shows, were instrumental in setting the political debate in France for the next two hundred years. In trying to answer the question of what made the French Revolution uniquely influential, whether violence was the inevitable price of progress and how its legacy influenced the modern world, historians have often focused on what they consider to be its main effects: namely, showing how it adopted the structures of absolutism into its administration to create a modern, centralized state; exposing how religious tensions helped to split society down the middle, as Aston 2000 shows; or exploring its social and political impact outside France, as Desan, et al. 2013 shows. Another important aspect, which was initially highlighted in Godechot 1972, and then increasingly by historians tackling the origins and nature of the Terror, such as in Andress 2005, was recognition of the ever-present dialectical dynamic between Revolution and counterrevolution, which was drastically accentuated by worsening economic conditions and the onset of internal and external conflict. More recently, Brown 2008 focuses attention on the latter half of the revolutionary decade to highlight the creation of new state apparatus, which led to the end of this democratic experiment, as “fatigue” set in, allowing a single leader (or dictator?) to take control and “stabilize” the situation.

  • Andress, David. The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution. London: Little Brown, 2005.

    For many, the violence of the Terror (1793–1794) has always been the French Revolution’s central problem. Was it a product of circumstance or was it already immanent within revolutionary ideology, as Furet (see Furet 2001, cited under Classic Historiography) would have us believe? Andress’s rethinking of this difficult period does not try to excuse what happened, only to explain, and to show how many faced “impossible dilemmas” in polarized circumstances.

  • Andress, David, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    An invaluable guide to the diverse and ever-expanding field of revolutionary historiography reflecting some of the latest thinking, which covers a timespan from 1787 (the Assembly of Notables) to 1815 (the Restoration). Almost forty essays from two generations of historians reflect a considerable diversity of topics and viewpoints, covering origins, the monarchy, the National Assembly, municipal politics, clubs and factions, religion, insurrection, diplomacy, war, migration, transnationalism, slavery, the Terror, Thermidor. and the Revolution’s legacy.

  • Aston, Nigel. Religion and Revolution in France, 1780–1804. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

    While most other aspects of the French Revolution have been intensively studied, the place of religion, and the conflict between church and state, have been relatively neglected. Aston’s magisterial study sets out to rectify this omission by surveying the Catholic Church’s role in France from the late Ancien Régime to the Napoleonic years. What sets his work apart is its broad coverage, synthesizing ambition, and treatment of Protestants and Jews alongside Catholics during this period of great change.

  • Baker, Keith Michael, François Furet, Mona Ozouf, and Colin Lucas, eds. The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture. 4 vols. Oxford: Pergamon, 1987–1994.

    This series comprises four volumes and four editors: Keith Baker is responsible for Vols. 1 & 4, The Political Culture of the Old Regime & The Terror; Colin Lucas for Vol. 2, The Political Culture of the French Revolution; and François Furet and Mona Ozouf for Vol. 3, The Transformation of Political Culture, 1789–1848. Together, these essays by many of the field’s leading practitioners provide a vital snapshot of current historical (and revisionist) thinking on the French Revolution.

  • Brown, Howard G. Ending the French Revolution: Violence, Justice and Repression from the Terror to Napoleon. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.

    Reversing a historic neglect, some of the most recent scholarship has focused on the period of the Directory and Consulate (1795–1799), between the fall of Robespierre and the rise of Napoleon. Brown’s authoritative study focuses on the pervasive impact of prolonged violence and fear on “the fledgling institutions of liberal democracy” by focusing on the attempts of republican regimes from 1795 onward to restore peace to a country ravaged by four persistent problems: “Catholicism, war, royalism and Jacobinism.”

  • Desan, Suzanne, Lynn Hunt, and William Max Nelson, eds. The French Revolution in Global Perspective. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.

    Since the 1990s, the global turn in history has come to dominate the field, especially in the United States, as a new generation of historians has sought to contextualize national events in international settings. While in some respects, the French Revolution has always been seen as transnational and “world historical,” few have delved closely into what this might mean, not just for its origins but also for its legacy. This wide-ranging volume seeks to reframe the revolutionary field of studies by encouraging a more decentered view.

  • Gildea, Robert. The Past in French History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

    A history not so much of events than of their perception, Gildea offers a revealing account of how far the act of commemoration, especially of the Revolution, pervades French public life. By surveying the ways in which various political communities have used competing constructions of the past to define their identities and legitimate their goals, Gildea shows how history is never fixed, but provides a continuous dialogue among past, present, and future.

  • Godechot, Jacques. The Counter-Revolution: Doctrine and Action, 1789–1804. Translated by Salvator Attanasio. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.

    Originally published in 1961. Godechot’s timely study filled a glaring lacuna in revolutionary studies, for without a clear understanding of the counterrevolution, the events of the Revolution make little sense. Divided into two parts, “Doctrine” deals with theory, ranging from Edmund Burke to François-Réné de Chateaubriand, while “Action” examines its manifestation, from the mass emigration of nobles and officers to civil war and the White Terror. Above all, Godechot shows how it led to the failure of constitutional government, and ultimately, to military dictatorship.

  • Jones, Colin. The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon, 1715–99. London: Allen Lane, 2002

    The French did not start to call themselves “The Great Nation” until a few years before this panoramic sweep of 18th-century French history ends. But if the French inhabited the largest, most populous, prestigious, and (almost) most prosperous country in western Europe, why did they need a revolution at all? Jones suggests that the absolute monarchy perfected by Louis XIV was incapable of adjusting to longer term economic and social changes.

  • Kates, Gary, ed. The French Revolution: Recent Debates and New Controversies. London: Routledge, 1997.

    Professional historians only started to study the French Revolution after 1898, following the creation of the first chair of the History of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne. Until then it had largely been the domain of enthusiasts, collectors, philosophers, politicians, and journalists who collectively helped to shape the public understanding of this momentous event. Bringing together many important essays, this collection tackles some of the quarrels and debates that have captivated historians since the 1989 bicentennial and overthrow of the Marxist paradigm.

  • Wolloch, Isser. The New Regime: Transformations of the French Civic Order, 1789–1820s. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

    After all the books focusing on the French Revolution’s causes, problems, and discursive qualities, Wolloch’s impressive synthetic study provides a welcome analysis of its consequences, looking at the institutional transformations, which took place at local, regional, and national levels, that helped to transform French political and social life. These included political suffrage, municipal government, village life, education, welfare, civil justice, and the army.

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