Putting the French Revolution on the Map

By Bryan A. Banks

The extent to which space determines historical change independent from and alongside human action has been a subject of debate for a long time. Montesquieu argued in L’esprit de lois (1748) that society was largely determined by climate. Fast-forward two hundred years and Fernand Braudel would make an argument that similarly downgraded human agency to the dustbin of the courte durée. Social historians, starting in the 1960s and 1970s, pushed back against the Annales school of the Braudelian sort and in doing so refocused their attention away from dramatic differences in climate to the dynamics of local history. What constituted local differences? To what extent these were determined by the landscape largely fell by the wayside in favor of societal systems like ecclesiastical and seigneurial regimes in the historiography on eighteenth-century France. As such, historians produced countless studies from provincial archives, including histories of the curés of the Alpine diocese of Gap, lay religion and popular politics in the Yonne, and agrarian reform and the roots of absolutism in Burgundy. These studies revealed considerable insight into the workings of France, but the work of synthesizing these findings proved daunting. In a way, we are in a similar moment following the rise of global Francophone studies. How do we connect them all back together? Thinking critically about space helps us to make these connections and the work is already underway in the form of new imperial histories of France, as well as a renewed focus on capitalism and slavery.[1] Especially in the latter, the study of economic and social structures or realities helps us to better understand how political ideologies emerged.

In short, France is a geographical expression as much as it is a political entity, both of which are constantly in the process of being reshaped in the minds of people. So how do we teach students about the history of the French Revolution in a way that does not privilege certain spaces (either Paris or the metropole in the imperial perspective)? How can we translate the breadth of research for students to think through issues of space and historical geography?

What follows is an in-class exercise I had students complete for my Intro to Digital Humanities (DH) class, but is easily an approach that could also be adapted to a variety of classes where space is a category of analysis. To give them an anchor for their studies, each unit of my DH class deals with some facet of the French Revolution. I teach students the basics of public digital humanities, text-mining, statistical analysis, and geo-spatial analysis. It is during this latter unit of the course that I take up the question of space. Not all geo-spatial analytical tools are created equal, and some require far more advanced preparation to make them useable than others. So to begin the unit on geo-spatial analysis, I started them off in Google Earth.

Screenshot of “Cartographical Biographies of the French Revolution” student project.

For our purposes, I also wanted the students to think about how crowd-sourcing information for big mapping projects can be very useful (as well as present some problems).[2] To do this, students had to identify a revolutionary figure from an extensive list and then pick at least 3 place marks they could add to the Google Earth project I created for the class. The instructions indicated that the point should be “important” to the person’s life, so most students went with place of origin, place of death, and a third for a place where they made the greatest impact. For each point, they had to include an image and a paragraph of text explaining why that place was important for said figure. As students add place markers to the project, Google Earth keeps a running list that can be used to present geographical data at a later date. My class added more than 30 historical figures to the list and more than 90 place markers.

From this data, we discussed the primacy of Paris for political debate and action, which had a total of 40 markers. This sparked larger discussions of the urban-rural divide and the ways that such cartographical and biographical information could complicate this dichotomy – especially given that many revolutionaries came from the provinces or the colonies. The majority of the place markers appear in France or Europe, but several also extend to the Caribbean and North America, and one could imagine expanding the list of people (or curating a specific list of cosmopolitan revolutionaries) to identify further arenas of activity around the Atlantic World.

Space is a category of historical analysis and one facet of that is how maps and map-making change over time. I have students critically reflect on the different features available to them in Google Earth and how toggling some features might add unnecessary information to the map or may even prove misleading. The most obvious features are borders and road networks. Representing historical data can be difficult and for many projects, this requires using a variety of DH tools like Map Warper and OpenStreetMap, which the Artists in Paris: Mapping the 18th-Century Art World project authors did. The map above is stripped of all borders, labels, place names, and road networks intentionally in order to emphasize the space, but inevitably information is also lost in this process as the students cannot readily identify France’s eighteenth-century internal boundaries or external borders. Discussing the limitations of Google Earth then led us to explore other geo-spatial DH tools like Palladio, ArcGIS, and ArcGIS StoryMaps.[3]

How could such an approach be altered for a variety of classes? One could easily turn this exercise into a single cartographical biography project as a kind of “unessay” assignment. Lines can be drawn in Google Earth to indicate correspondence connections or human movement as well. It is an obvious point, but is worth stating explicitly: Google Earth can be used to help students think globally and to consider seriously the spatial factors that shape such subjects. Students could see historical actors moving across internal borders between provinces (and later départments when the revolutionaries created them in March 1790). They also moved internationally, pulling people into the French revolutionary realm, and expelling them. While I used this exercise to introduce students to DH geo-spatial thinking, the possibilities for altering the instructions abound for teachers interested in getting students to think spatially.


Bryan A. Banks is Assistant Professor of History and the acting Director of the Faculty Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at Columbus State University. He teaches courses on European history, the Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution, nineteenth-century Europe, and historical writing. His current research focuses on Huguenot refugees during the French Enlightenment and French Revolution. Follow him on Twitter @BryanBanksPhD.

Title Image: Screenshot of student project including points in the Caribbean and Europe.

Further Readings:

On “space” as a historical category and France and Atlantic World:

Benton, Lauren. “Spatial Histories of Empire.” Itinerario 30, no. 3 (2006): 19–34.

Branch, Jordan. The Cartographic State: Maps, Territory, and the Origins of Sovereignty. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Drayton, Richard. “The Globalisation of France: Provincial Cities and French Expansion, c. 1500– 1800.” History of European Ideas 34, no. 4 (2008): 424–30.

Dunlop, Catherine Tatiana. Cartophilia: Maps and the Search for Identity in the French-German Borderland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Maruschke, Megan, and Matthias Middell, eds. The French Revolution as a Moment of Respatialization. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019.

Pedley, Mary Sponberg. The Commerce of Cartography: Making and Marketing Maps in Eighteenth-Century France and England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

On teaching historical geography and the Digital Humanities:

Guiliano, Jennifer. A Primer for Teaching Digital History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022.

Lemercier, Claire and Claire Zalc. Quantitative Methods in the Humanities: An Introduction. Trans. by Arthur Goldhammer. Charlottesville, NC: University of Virginia Press, 2019.

Morrissey, John. Key Concepts in Historical Geography. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2014.


[1] Miranda Spieler, “The Legal Structure of Colonial Rule during the French Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 66, no. 2 (2009): 365-408; Megan Maruschke, “The French Revolution and the New Spatial Format for Empire: A Nation-State with Imperial Extensions,” French Historical Studies 44, no. 3 (August 2021): 499-528; Alan Forrest, The Death of the French Atlantic: Trade, War, and Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020); William Sewell, Capitalism and the Emergence of Civic Equality in Eighteenth-Century France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021).

[2] Keeping the instructions minimal and giving them an example helped cut down on a lot of the quality disparities and formatting issues one would expect. There are many crowdsourcing projects. Recogito is just one that some of the students encountered.

[3] Dr. Melanie Conroy led a fascinating session for my class on her work related to literary geographies and Palladio. See Melanie Conroy, Literary Geographies in Balzac and Proust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

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