French Revolution Reading List

Age of Revolutions Reading List #3

French Revolution

For our third list, we asked David Andress and Rebecca Spang – two experts on the French Revolution – to list the top five books they would suggest to graduate students or colleagues entering the field for the first time. Below you will find their lists, followed by brief descriptions. Neither list is intended to be comprehensive. They merely provide jumping off points. Comment below to make your own suggestions.

Suggested by David Andress, University of Portsmouth

David Andress, ed. The Oxford Handbook to the French Revolution

  • “Placing core dimensions of the history of the French Revolution in their transnational and global contexts, the contributors demonstrate that revolutionary times demand close analysis of sometimes tiny groups of key political actors – whether the king and his ministers or the besieged leaders of the Jacobin republic – and attention to the deeply local politics of both rural and urban populations. Identities of class, gender and ethnicity are interrogated, but so too are conceptions and practices linked to citizenship, community, order, security, and freedom: each in their way just as central to revolutionary experiences, and equally amenable to critical analysis and reflection.”

Peter McPhee, Liberty or Death: The French Revolution

  • “Was the Revolution a major turning point in French—even world—history, or was it instead a protracted period of violent upheaval and warfare that wrecked millions of lives? McPhee evaluates the Revolution within a genuinely global context: Europe, the Atlantic region, and even farther. He acknowledges the key revolutionary events that unfolded in Paris, yet also uncovers the varying experiences of French citizens outside the gates of the city: the provincial men and women whose daily lives were altered—or not—by developments in the capital. Enhanced with evocative stories of those who struggled to cope in unpredictable times, McPhee’s deeply researched book investigates the changing personal, social, and cultural world of the eighteenth century. His startling conclusions redefine and illuminate both the experience and the legacy of France’s transformative age of revolution.”

Timothy Tackett, The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution 

  • “Between 1793 and 1794, thousands of French citizens were imprisoned and hundreds sent to the guillotine by a powerful dictatorship that claimed to be acting in the public interest. Only a few years earlier, revolutionaries had proclaimed a new era of tolerance, equal justice, and human rights. How and why did the French Revolution’s lofty ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity descend into violence and terror? The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution offers a new interpretation of this turning point in world history. Timothy Tackett traces the inexorable emergence of a culture of violence among the Revolution’s political elite amid the turbulence of popular uprisings, pervasive subversion, and foreign invasion. Violence was neither a preplanned strategy nor an ideological imperative but rather the consequence of multiple factors of the Revolutionary process itself, including an initial breakdown in authority, the impact of the popular classes, and a cycle of rumors, denunciations, and panic fed by fear—fear of counterrevolutionary conspiracies, fear of anarchy, fear of oneself becoming the target of vengeance. To comprehend the coming of the Terror, we must understand the contagion of fear that left the revolutionaries themselves terrorized.”

Micah Alpaugh, Non-violence and the French Revolution: Political Demonstrations in Paris, 1787-1795 

  • “Historians of the French Revolution have traditionally emphasised the centrality of violence to revolutionary protest. However, Micah Alpaugh reveals instead the surprising prevalence of non-violent tactics to demonstrate that much of the popular action taken in revolutionary Paris was not in fact violent. Tracing the origins of the political demonstration to the French Revolutionary period, he reveals how Parisian protesters typically tried to avoid violence, conducting campaigns predominantly through peaceful marches, petitions, banquets and mass-meetings, which only rarely escalated to physical force in their stand-offs with authorities. Out of over 750 events, no more than twelve percent appear to have resulted in physical violence at any stage. Rewriting the political history of the people of Paris, Non-Violence and the French Revolution sheds new light on our understanding of Revolutionary France to show that revolutionary sans-culottes played a pivotal role in developing the democratically oriented protest techniques still used today.”

Rebecca L. Spang, Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution

  • Spang “uses one of the most infamous examples of monetary innovation, the assignats—a currency initially defined by French revolutionaries as “circulating land”—to demonstrate that money is as much a social and political mediator as it is an economic instrument. Following the assignats from creation to abandonment, Spang shows them to be subject to the same slippages between policies and practice, intentions and outcomes, as other human inventions. But Spang’s book is also a new history of the French Revolution, one in which radicalization was driven by an ever-widening gap between political ideals and the realities of daily life. Money played a critical role in creating this gulf. Wed to the idea that liberty required economic deregulation as well as political freedom, revolutionary legislators extended the notion of free trade to include “freedom of money.” The consequences were disastrous. Backed neither by the weight of tradition nor by the state that issued them, the assignats could not be a functioning currency. Ever reluctant to interfere in the workings of the market, lawmakers thought changes to the material form of the assignats should suffice to enhance their credibility. Their hopes were disappointed, and the Revolution spiraled out of control.”

Suggested by Rebecca Spang, Indiana University Bloomington*

*Spang explains her choices below. Click on the book title to go to the publisher’s website for greater detail.

Timothy Tackett, The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution 

Charley Coleman, The Virtues of Abandon: An Anti-Individualist History of the French Enlightenment 

  • Not a history of the Revolution, but since “Enlightenment” and “French Revolution” are often yoked together, it seemed legitimate to include it. Coleman’s attention to “economic theology” makes for an especially original and thought-provoking piece of intellectual-cultural history.

David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Making of the Modern World 

  • Bell’s thesis—that the modern model of “total war” was made possible by the eighteenth-century ideal of “universal peace”—is not unproblematic. But its engaging prose and broad narrative sweep make this book a good starting point for readers who previously imagined the violence of 1789-1815 solely in terms of guillotines.

William H. Sewell, Jr., Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation 

  • Okay, so only one chapter of this big book is directly about the Revolution. But “Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille” easily repays multiple readings. (See the chapter in article form here.)

Miranda F. Spieler, Empire and Underworld: Captivity in French Guiana 

  • Impressive in its chronological (Old Regime to Second Empire) as well as its geographical scope, Spieler’s book shows how the Revolution (long associated with the Rights of Man) created the noncitizen. Remarkable research and a compelling, troubling argument.

***Finally, I want to mention three books I am eagerly awaiting: Rafe Blaufarb on property (The Great Demarcation: The French Revolution and the Invention of Modern Property, published June 1, 2016), Laura Mason’s work on the later Republic and the Babeuf trial (previewed in her Journal of Modern History article, “’The Bosom of Proof’: Criminal Justice and the Renewal of Oral Culture during the French Revolution”), and Ron Schechter’s longue durée conceptual history of “terror.”

What books do you think are actively shaping the field?

4 thoughts on “French Revolution Reading List

  1. Very intersting list! I would have mentioned also Marisa Linton’s “Choosing Terror” and “A Companion to the French Revolution” edited by Peter McPhee. It’s quite strange that no books by French scholars have been mentioned. Personally I just remember Gueniffey’s essay on “La politique de la Terreur”.

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  2. About French scholars I would suggest the debate between Michel Volvelle and François Furet. The former a tradicional marxist, and the later has a broad approach about the subject. In the revolution biccentenary year they shown up in the press all long the year. To sum up, they made a great debate.

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  3. An interesting selection of works. However, I would suggest a few additions. William Doyle’s ‘Oxford History of the French Revolution’, provides a very accessible overview of the revolution and would be useful for someone new to the field. to Timothy Tackett’s ‘Becoming a Revolutionary’, takes an interesting prosopographical approach to the analysis of Third Estate deputies. Leigh Whaley’s ‘Radicals: Politics and Republicanism in the French Revolution’, is excellent in its analysis on the reasons for the split in the republican movement after Aug 1792. Rachel Hammersley’s ‘French Revolutionaries and English Republicans’, demonstrates the importance of the impact of the writings of English republicans such as Milton, Sidney and James Harrington on the Cordeliers club. Anything by Norman Hampsom, but especially, ‘Prelude to Terror.’

    As the above poster suggests Marissa Linton’s, ‘Choosing Terror’ is excellent and the ‘Longman Companion to the French Revolution’, edited by Colin Jones is the best reference book in English.

    That’s my two cents.

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