Home » Book Title: The Making of Revolutionary Paris

Book Title: The Making of Revolutionary Paris

Book Title: The Making of Revolutionary Paris
Book Author(s): DAVID GARRIOCH
Published by: University of California Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1png4x.17
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The Paris of 1789 was a very different city from the Paris of 1700. It
was three times larger in official surface area and its population had almost certainly increased substantially. Its economy had expanded and it
was a far more mobile society. Immigration had probably accelerated,
and movement to and from the city had grown along with the industries
it housed. Visitors came for business and for pleasure, and as transport
improved they came more often and from further afield. By 1777 the
stagecoach made it possible to leave Angers or Le Havre for Paris on
Monday morning, conduct one’s business, and be back home by Sunday
Young Parisians were increasingly likely to go to other places, too.
Growing numbers of merchants and bankers visited other European centers on business. More people even crossed the Atlantic, especially after
1776. In the international commercial dynasties that were multiplying
during the century, sons were increasingly likely to serve an apprenticeship with a relative or a partner in another city.2
Inside Paris itself the traffic was just as bad as in the late seventeenth
century but the congestion was spread over a wider area. Faster vehicles
competed with the wagons and with pedestrians. Almost all the streets
were now paved and they were easier to navigate at night: the sputtering
old tallow candles had been replaced first with brighter twin-candled
lamps and most recently with new oil lamps. The first sidewalks were laid
in the 1780s. While every quarter remained residential, the city had more
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differentiated areas specializing in business and commerce, manufacturing, administration, or leisure. As a result there was increasing internal
movement. Growing numbers of workers—though still a minority—
commuted between quarters and more people sought leisure outside their
Along with real movement went the imaginary mobility created by
travel literature, novels, and even by new products from distant lands.
Perhaps there were few people who paused in drinking their coffee to
consider where the sugar and coffee beans had come from, but when they
saw bright piles of oranges and tomatoes in the market even the least educated knew that these were exotic products from distant lands. Faraway
places had a taste and a perfume that increasing numbers of Parisians
could appreciate.
With European expansion overseas, people from very different backgrounds appeared in the city streets. Since 1774 Guillaume Delorme, a
black man from Haiti, had worked as a carriage maker in the faubourg
St-Antoine. The American Revolution focused French attention on the
New World and the French hero of that war, Marie-Joseph-Gilbert
Motier, marquis de La Fayette, brought America back with him—
literally when he had two young Indians sent to Paris, where they went
to school. The much-fêted ambassadors Benjamin Franklin and Thomas
Jefferson gave the infant American republic a cultured and popular face.
The expanding press brought news of faraway places, canvassed new
ideas, encouraged public debate. In a host of ways, as Helvétius exclaimed, “the horizon of our ideas is expanding from day to day.”3
Movement became not only more convenient but increasingly desirable, and the faster and farther the better. Distance, remarked JacquesHenri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre in the mid-1780s, “gives such charm to
objects on the horizon.”4 Literary tastes aside, as shorter traveling times
produced a significant reduction in the prices of luxury goods, time became money in a very concrete way. Even in the police and other
branches of administration, senior figures stressed speed as well as
efficiency. The duc de Polignac, director of the national postal service,
denounced wagoners who—conforming to an older, unhurried rhythm—
caused “a delay prejudicial to the speed of a service that deserves every
protection.” The emphasis that political economists placed on la circulation encouraged them to value speed as well. It is no coincidence that
it was Finance Minister Turgot, a key proponent of free trade, who introduced faster vehicles soon dubbed turgotines.5
Unhindered mobility in all its forms came to be seen as a positive thing.
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The economists pushed for free circulation of goods and money; urban
reformers for easy and rapid movement around the city, both for vehicles and for air to blow away disease-causing miasmas. There was growing demand for up-to-date information, hence the success of the new daily
paper the Journal de Paris. Liberal-minded intellectuals argued for the
free movement of ideas. Even social mobility became more acceptable,
despite the snobbery of the elites. The many examples of self-made men
and women testify to a new openness in Parisian society.
Growing movement had profound implications for urban life. It facilitated anonymity, enabling people to escape from the constraints of
their village or even of their Paris neighborhood. It is true that there had
long been a margin of maneuver in Paris that was absent in smaller places.
The two-thirds of the city’s population who came from other parts of
France could escape the intimate knowledge of their background and family that surrounded them in their place of birth. An unmarried woman
who was pregnant could invent a husband, dead or in the army: “I announced myself as a young widow,” recounted Nanette in Restif de la
Bretonne’s novel Monsieur Nicolas.6 But with increasing geographical
and social mobility this potential anonymity became even easier. As a
result the capacity of the local community to regulate behavior was diminishing. Illegitimacy rates rose and church attendance dropped. People
were able to dress and behave in ways once considered inconsistent with
their rank. Even the expression of political and religious dissent became
easier, and by 1789 Paris was far more secular than most other European cities.
A growing distance between the elites and the common people accelerated the relaxation of older forms of social control. For many newly
arrived immigrants, the contrast between the structures of deference in
Paris and those in the smaller places they came from must have been
striking. Everything conspired to distance members of the middle and
upper ranks from other sections of the population: their business interests, their recreations, their reading. At least as an ideal, home became
what in 1782 the mother of a lawyer called “l’île enchantée” (enchanted
island), a place of respite and delight cut off from the outside world.7
Middle-class people met their neighbors less often in the street; less often at church. Their children did not go to the same schools. Manon
Phlipon’s parish priest was pleased when she went to the catechism class
run by her uncle, because he thought this example “capable of persuading
individuals, who were not among those one called ‘the people,’ to also
send their children there.”8
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He was fighting a losing battle, because the forces of urban change
were stretching the ties that bound the local elites to the working population: the new cultural practices and uses of urban space, growing sensitivity to dirt and social promiscuity, shifting gender ideologies, more
private religious practices. So was the impact of the state, which relieved
merchants and officeholders of their administrative role in their quarter,
making them less likely to be known to the local people and less able to
influence the thinking and behavior of their neighbors.
The French capital was a far more fluid and less hierarchical place in
1789 than it had been in 1700. People continued to be acutely conscious
of fine gradations of wealth and status, yet it was harder to tell who was
who. “Paris was a city where people judged by appearances,” recalled
Giovanni Casanova in his memoirs, and yet “there was no place in the
world where it was easier to deceive.” Those with the right talents and
sufficient bravado could pass themselves off as gentlemen or ladies. It
was just as easy to move in the other direction: one day the future
Madame Roland, Manon Phlipon, borrowed clothes from her servant
and ventured out alone, “running like a real peasant girl, pushing everyone who got in my way, walking through the gutters and at full stretch
through the mud, getting pushed by people who would have made way
for me if they had seen me in my fine clothes.” Appearances were all that
distinguished the elite from the masses: hence the growing importance
of fashion as a social signifier.9
Appearances, together with the cash economy and the greater disposable incomes of a large minority of the population, contributed to
what contemporaries described as a “confusion of ranks.” In Paris most
things could be bought and sold and there were few controls on who
could buy what. The last sumptuary law—restricting certain forms of
dress—dated from 1665 and was no longer enforced.10 “The wife of a
clerk, or of the corner grocer, can dress like a duchess,” Mercier observed
disapprovingly. An English visitor recorded meeting her milkman one
evening, “dressed in a fashionable suit, with an embroidered waistcoat,
silk knee-breeches and lace cuffs.”11 A journeyman could purchase a
sword and dress like a young man of good family. The police tried to
catch mischievous poseurs, but they faced the same difficulties as everyone else: how could they tell who was who? It was even possible for men
and women to cross-dress and get away with it. Paris had an active homosexual scene that the police were aware of but could do little about.12
What a novelist termed “this contagious air of liberty that one seems
to breathe [in Paris]” was more than a literary trope.13 When people fell
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out with their employer or landlord—or even a noble patron—they could
give notice and go somewhere else: in a purely commercial relationship,
debts and obligations were easily liquidated. Artisans were proud of owning their own tools and boasted of their “liberty.” They demonstrated
what the elites referred to in horror as “a spirit of independence.” As several bakers told a surgeon’s wife, “We’ll put our racks in front of the doors
of greater lords and ladies than you!”14 Even unskilled laborers sometimes refused conventional deference to their social superiors. A lawyer
complained in 1780 that he could not get local errand boys to carry a
letter for him. Having refused to employ the first one who came because
the fellow did not understand the instructions, the lawyer sent for a second. Another fellow came but said “that he supported his comrades,”
“that none of them would go and that I could run my errands myself . . .
he used the kind of language customary among these sorts of people.”
The lawyer was outraged: “They form among themselves an insolent little republic.”15 A “republic” was of course quite the opposite of a monarchy and in eighteenth-century French parlance a synonym for anarchy.
The expression is significant though. The lack of deference that this witness was condemning was a product of the way the city had developed,
and it did threaten the monarchical hierarchy of the old social order.
The same process was under way at all levels of society. I have already
mentioned the lawsuit brought in 1782 against a nobleman who had tried
to expel a minor legal official from his seat at the theater. The plaintiff’s
lawyer “emphasized the general interest of the public, in defending an
individual whose status as a citizen should in itself have protected him
from any insult, in a place where money alone put nobility and commoners on the same level, according them equal rights.”16 There were
more and more such places in the new public sphere.
Maintaining deference was made still more difficult by the growing
access to information that Parisians enjoyed. Literacy rates were unusually high by eighteenth-century French standards: 90 percent of men and
80 percent of women who made wills were able to sign them, compared
with 71 percent and 44 percent in northern France as a whole. The Paris
town criers no longer read out a ruling of the Parlement but simply cried
“Arrêt du Parlement” and pasted it up for people to read for themselves.17
Journeymen could consult the statutes of their corporation and the rulings of the Parlement. The elites had no monopoly on written culture.
The high literacy rates also gave women ready access to information
and a means of further education. By the late 1760s the literary commentator Friedrich von Grimm quite expected shop girls to be reading
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Figure 35. The messenger boy. Note the ragged clothing but slightly insolent
air: he has not removed his hat to deliver the letter. On his arm, a stool for
cleaning shoes. Engraving by Augustin de Saint-Aubin, in Mes gens, ou les
commissionnaires ultramontains (Paris, n.d.). Bibliothèque historique de la
ville de Paris, photo Jean-Christophe Doerr.
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the novels of Baculard d’Arnault (of which he had a low opinion). Manon
Phlipon was undoubtedly unusual among artisans’ daughters in enjoying Plutarch and teaching herself Italian, but she was a product of a city
that, while it placed many constraints on women and denied them equality with men, nevertheless allowed them a degree of freedom that was
unusual in late-eighteenth-century Europe.18
The evolution of government itself inadvertently undermined traditional social hierarchies. Across the century the growing bureaucracy
slowly developed a professional ethos and a concept of public service in
the general interest that required equal treatment of all citizens. The nobility still got special handling, but there were some surprising incidents.
Nobles were rarely stopped at the Paris customs posts, but in 1758
Madame de Sénac was made to get out of her carriage so the customs
employees could search it for undeclared goods. “They paid no attention to my name and quality. . . . They replied in so many words . . . that
it made no difference to them.” This was the new bureaucratic spirit.
The police too were periodically at odds with people of high rank who
claimed exemptions from rules that were meant to apply to everyone.19
Each instance set two opposing concepts of the social order face to face.
Well before 1789 ideas of equality before the law and of the rule of law
were gaining currency, under the aegis of the monarchy itself.
All of these changes helped create a public that was independent, educated, and politically aware. In this process the widespread Jansenism
of the first half century was also an important factor, encouraging an independence of mind and a determination to resist oppression that—
thanks to the monarchy’s stance in religious affairs—left their stamp on
secular politics. At the very least, Jansenism fostered the belief that a merchant or a domestic servant could be more virtuous and express the truth
more readily than a priest or a nobleman. Dale Van Kley has even suggested that there was a direct link between the midcentury JansenistGallican coalition and the emerging “patriot party” of the 1770s and
1780s, and there were certainly many who followed this itinerary.20 At
any rate, by then many ordinary Parisians believed that they could legitimately hold a view on political matters, and even the monarchy had
begun to accede to this claim.
We might expect nobles to have been particularly hostile to the undermining of traditional hierarchies, and some were. Yet they too appreciated the freedom of the city, if the comte de Mirabeau is to be believed: “It is well known that all the nobles in France have been drawn
to the capital by ambition, by the quest for pleasure, by the ease with
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which income can be had in cash.”21 Furthermore, noble culture was itself changing, becoming more urban, and in the process moving closer
to that of other wealthy groups in Paris society. Blue-blooded boys now
received as good an education in the classics as in swordplay and blood
sports, and the cult of sensibility embraced even the aristocratic faubourg
St-Germain. Birth slowly ceased to be the sole basis of civility, and even
aristocratic military writers sometimes suggested that true courage drew
not on blood lines but on “reflection, knowledge, philosophy, misfortune, and above all the voice of a pure conscience.”22 Nobles and commoners mixed in some of the same societies, though there is debate about
the extent of this association. Both certainly joined the Société philanthropique, which boasted “a perfect equality between all its members,
whatever their rank and condition.”23 The abandonment of baroque
ostentation made the differences between great nobles and lesser ones,
even between courtiers and fashionable financiers, more subtle and harder
for the uninitiated to pick. “The magistrate, the bishop, the military
officer, the financier, the courtier seem to have borrowed something each
from the next,” observed Mercier. “There are only nuances between
them.” No longer did great noble households employ literally hundreds
of servants as a sign of their wealth and power. Instead they made do
with twenty or thirty!24
Now, too, the sons and daughters of nobles and of wealthy bourgeois
could boast similar accomplishments, even if their sense of themselves
remained light years apart. Better-off Paris merchants were sending their
children not to local establishments but to more exclusive boarding
schools where they mixed with young people from a range of affluent
backgrounds from all over the city. Already in 1743 “the sons [of merchants] are raised with the same education as people a rank above them,”
according to the lawyer-diarist Barbier, and the trend was to accelerate.
In 1778 Sophie Girard, the daughter of a wood merchant, was a boarder
at the Picpus convent on the edge of the faubourg St-Antoine. Her sister
Dorothée was at the prestigious convent of Notre-Dame-de-Longchamp—
either for schooling or (as one of their mother’s letters hints) to keep her
out of mischief—for which the family were paying 1,453 livres per year,
plus expenses of 1,477 livres. The Picpus fees of 500 livres a year were
slightly above average for girls’ boarding schools in Paris, while those of
Longchamp were at the very top of the price range. As there was a close
correlation between the fee scale and the rank of the youngsters attending, the Girard girls were almost certainly mixing with the daughters of
higher-ranking families. Their two older sisters, who presumably had a
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similar education, had married army officers, both minor nobles.25 This
was another form of convergence of ranks.
We must keep all these changes in perspective. In 1789 Paris remained
a city of churches, with a large clerical population and, by modern standards, a high rate of religious observance. Bonds of social obligation continued to link most employers and employees, and neighborhood interaction remained strong even between people of very different rank in most
parts of the city. Ties of dependence and clientage operated at all levels
of society, and deference was still an important part of daily life. The
capital’s egalitarianism was only relative. Nor did the independence of
mind, the decline of religious observance, or the loss of respect for the
clergy among part of the population pose any threat to law and order or
in normal circumstances to the stability of the regime.
The ideology of monarchy remained a very powerful tool, enabling
the enforcement of laws with very limited recourse to force. It was deliberately exploited by the authorities, who each time there was a royal
birth or wedding, or a military victory, knew just what sorts of displays
would appeal to the crowd. Every year there were processions on New
Year’s Day and on the principal holy days. Special celebrations always
included a procession and usually involved the officials of the municipality, the magistrates, and the leading clergy of the city, symbolizing an
ideal and unified hierarchy. Yet changes in religious belief and practice,
along with new attitudes to authority, had begun to undermine the power
of these rituals, and the “confusion of ranks” in everyday life gradually
emptied the ceremonial hierarchy of much of its meaning.
In the last years of Louis XV’s reign and under Louis XVI there was
growing condemnation of “despotism,” even though the government was
more responsive to “public opinion” than ever before. The liberalization
of the grain trade and subsequent sharp rises in the price of bread revived the belief that the government was profiteering on grain and did
immense damage to the authority of royal officials, even if they did not
directly touch Louis XVI himself. Within Paris the growing intervention
and greater efficiency of the police and other agencies contributed to the
feeling that ministerial despotism was increasing. And the impersonal
character of the semiautonomous régies that mushroomed in the second
half of the century, perhaps combined with the mounting exclusion of
the middle classes from local administration, fueled criticism of “arbitrary” government. All of this assisted in persuading Parisians that it was
not simply individual ministers who needed to be changed, but the system of government itself.
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The fragility of authority—rather than its strength—showed up in the
state’s use of the army against rioters. By the late eighteenth century the
authority of the commissaires and of other local notables had waned,
and recourse to armed force demonstrated both a fear of the mob and
the demise of the paternalistic relationship between the city’s rulers and
the Paris populace. The military had been employed before, but never
so frequently. Soldiers put an end to three days of rioting in 1775 and
were used again in April 1789. The newly militarized guard violently dispersed crowds several times from 1787 to early 1789. In July of that year
troops were again mobilized. But by then public opinion, including that
of the middle classes, had turned decisively against a government the
people deemed to be in the hands of a corrupt court, the soldiers refused
to obey, and the Parisian Revolution was under way.
parisian society and revolution
Changes in social relations and government had made a revolution possible. Across the 1790s the character and dynamism of Parisian society
continued to shape it. Only a city of some size could have provided the
extraordinary human energy that the events of 1789 unleashed. For most
of the decade Paris led and powered the Revolution. Many thousands of
its citizens turned out to protest and to act in July 1789 and again in October. Up to 30,000 protested after the attempted flight of the royal family in July 1791. Close to 15,000 militants were active in the sections in
late 1793 and rather more across the whole period of the Revolution.
The members of committees gave up hundreds of hours of leisure and
sleeping time to keep the city running and the wheels of revolution turning. Thousands served each week (not all of them willingly, it must be
said) in the Garde nationale. The National Guard had over 116,000 members in early 1793—around two out of every three adult males in the city.
The revolutionary armies recruited 7,000 volunteers who sometimes spent
lengthy periods away from their jobs and families scouring the provinces
for grain and for counterrevolutionaries. There were around 10,000 voters in the 1791 legislative elections; 14,000 for the election of the mayor
in 1790, and slightly more in 1793. Given people’s unfamiliarity with
the process and the long and complex voting system, the fact that 15 to
20 percent of the electorate voted in any one election is not bad. (It could
take several hours for the electoral officers to be chosen, the credentials
of the voters checked, and the candidates voted on, one at a time.)26
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developed news networks were vital for political participation. So was
the decay of the old patronage networks and the capital’s relative openness to newcomers and to innovation. Neither the nobility nor the clergy
ruled Paris. Nor, any longer, did the magistrates, officeholders, and wealthy
merchants who had once been so powerful: even the once-dominant Parlement faded into obscurity overnight. The old power bases, founded on
militia rank, local administration and patronage, guild government and
family networks, had all crumbled.
The new political landscape was already visible in April 1789, when
for the first time significant numbers of Parisians—those paying taxes to
the value of 3 livres, about three days’ wages for a laborer—got to elect
their representatives. The men they chose were often new figures, with
no power base in their quarters and no history of public office. The extent of the turnover is reflected in the small numbers of former churchwardens elected in 1789 and after: in the entire faubourg St-Antoine,
which after 1790 was divided into three sections, only 6 former churchwardens were among nearly 200 men elected to section committees up
to mid-1794.27
Some of the new men were schoolteachers, wine merchants, butchers; their occupations had been poorly represented among the old local
elites. Even lawyers, who had made up less than 10 percent of the notables chosen to participate in elections at the Hôtel de Ville between 1775
and 1789, now formed over 40 percent of the Third Estate electors. An
increasing number of the revolutionary leaders were migrants or sons of
migrants whose energy and drive had enabled them to make successful
careers in the big city: one was Antoine-Pierre Damoye, an entrepreneurial carriage maker who had diversified into carriage renting, haulage,
and real estate.28
As the Revolution went on, the numbers of men drawn from outside
the old political elite increased. Whereas during the Old Regime the
officials of the trades and the parish churchwardens were almost all Parisborn or had been in the city for many years, in 1794 half of the members of the civil committee of the faubourg Montmartre section had been
in Paris for less than eight years. And while seniority had been an important prerequisite for an Old Regime notable, now younger men began to play an active role, men like Nicolas-François Bellart, a twentytwo-year-old lawyer who was elected in April 1789 and subsequently
became secretary of the Petit-St-Antoine district. He was exceptional, but
across the city growing numbers of men in their thirties were elected to
public office in the early 1790s.29
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These newcomers were chosen on the basis less of rank, age, or family background (which was often unknown to many of the voters), but
according to their reputation, words, and deeds. The idea that individual worth rather than birth should be the basis for public office was already widespread in the late Enlightenment and was now being put into
action. It produced some unlikely leaders. Guillaume Bouland was one,
a former servant who became a radical voice in the Observatoire section
before winning office in the Finistère section, and who subsequently became a judge in the Paris courts. Just as unexpected was the appearance
in a section committee of Guillaume Carrel, a former dancer at the opera;
or the career of the former postal clerk Jean Varlet, aged twenty-seven
when he came to prominence in the radical Cordeliers Club.30
The Parisian Revolution was also precociously egalitarian. Very early,
many of the districts displayed an extraordinary spirit of inclusion. “It
is right for all citizens in turn to participate in the administration of the
commune,” felt the St-Marcel district committee, and that of St-Roch
threatened to fine notables who did not attend meetings. In recruitment
to the new citizen militia—what was to become the National Guard—
many districts welcomed volunteers of all ranks and at least two districts
stressed the need for simple uniforms that all could afford.31 These were
attitudes rooted in the social and political environment of prerevolutionary Paris, where many artisans were well aware of events and felt
they should have a say.
This fertile soil provided the seedbed for other ideas that took root in
the course of the Revolution. Republicanism was inconceivable in 1789,
and so was universal male suffrage. Yet the precocious appearance of
such demands and the widespread support they attracted in Paris as early
as 1791 are easier to comprehend if we recognize that the prerevolutionary city already provided a climate in which ordinary people felt
themselves ready and able to be citizens. The same was true of the extraordinary outburst of patriotism that accompanied the initial outbreak
of revolution in Paris, quickly developing into an unprecedented popular nationalism. The development of a national spirit has been very little studied, but responses to the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63 and the
appearance of the “patriot party” in the 1770s suggest that it had deep
roots, particularly in Paris. The patriotism of these years was a secular
mixture of Gallicanism and Jansenism. From the Jansenist belief that
Church doctrine should be determined by the community of all true believers, not solely by the pope, the bishops, or the clergy, it was only a
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step to the conviction that the political sovereignty lay with the people,
not with the king and his ministers.32 Patriotism was inseparable from
the growing sense that Parisians had of themselves as citizens of France,
not simply subjects of the French king. The political experience of the
refusals of sacraments, the Maupeou catastrophe, and distrust of the reforming efforts of the Paris police and other agencies led many people
in the city to identify patriotism with hostility to despotism. In July 1789
despotism was symbolized by the king’s dismissal of the ever-popular minister Necker and by the well-publicized machinations of the comte d’Artois, Madame de Polignac, and their supporters in what came to be called
“the court party” or even “the aristocracy.” “The nation asked for Necker
to be retained,” cried Camille Desmoulins in a famous speech in the PalaisRoyal on 12 July 1789. “Could you be more insolently defied?” he asked,
now identifying “the nation” with his Parisian audience. “After this coup
they will stop at nothing, and they may perhaps be planning a Saint
Bartholomew’s massacre of patriots.”33
But perhaps the clearest example of the influence of the urban environment on political events is the way many ordinary Parisian women
responded to revolution. The march to Versailles on 5 October 1789 was
largely the work of working women from the central market district and
from the faubourg St-Antoine—areas linked by numerous work ties. Suspicious of the court and its supporters and firmly believing that the political opponents of the Third Estate were trying to prevent reform by
driving up bread prices in Paris, these women gathered thousands of others around them and laid siege to the Hôtel de Ville. They expressed exasperation with the paper shufflers of the municipality, and one group
tried to set fire to papers stored in the building, saying “that it was all
that had been done since the Revolution began.” They were equally
scathing about their own menfolk: “these women repeated that the men
were not strong enough to avenge themselves and that they would show
themselves to be better than the men.” “The men are holding back,” said
others, “the men are cowards . . . we will take over.”34 They did, marching 12 miles through the rain to the royal palace. They returned with
promises of lower bread prices and of reform and brought the royal family with them as a guarantee.
This was the most dramatic women’s action of the Revolution. But
already, in September 1789, members of a deputation to the Hôtel de
Ville seeking action on bread shortages and high prices were heard to
say that “men did not understand anything about the matter and . . .
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they wanted to play a role in affairs.”35 Later the market women were
prominent in attacks on nuns whom they perceived to be counterrevolutionary, and in 1793 on radical women whose politics they equally
Other women were active in around a third of the popular societies
and in many sectional assemblies, where they sometimes forced issues
onto the agenda. In 1793 there were demands for female suffrage. Women
of all ranks attended sittings of the National Assembly and maintained
a noisy commentary on debates. The flexible and mobile nature of much
female work enabled them to drop in as they were passing, and to listen
while knitting or sewing. We know that women were among the most
enthusiastic supporters of Robespierre and other key Jacobins, and of
radicals like Jacques Hébert, Jacques Roux, Jean Varlet, and other lesser
figures who fought to have ceilings placed on food prices. Women were
active in most of the insurrectionary movements and finally revolted
against the Jacobin leadership. Without their participation the Parisian
Revolution would have been a very different affair. But without the independence that the social and economic environment of Paris gave
women, and plebeian women in particular, it is hard to imagine them
taking, from the very beginning and in large numbers, such independent
action. Mary Wollstonecraft firmly believed, having visited Paris in 1794,
that “from the enjoyment of more freedom than the women of other parts
of the world, those of France have acquired more independence of spirit
than any others.”36
The nature of urban work and social relationships helped shape the
distinctive political culture of revolutionary Paris. And revolutionary
events helped activate the city’s latent hostilities. Mistrust of merchants,
and of bakers in particular, is well documented and erupted each time
prices rose or shortages were experienced. It was exacerbated by breaches
of communitarian ethics by the growing numbers of entrepreneurs for
whom profit and consumer clienteles were more important than collective obligations to trade or neighborhood—and the turbulent 1790s provided ample opportunities for speculating of this sort. The Revolution
gave older attitudes a new political dimension by making profiteering on
necessities not only immoral but also unpatriotic. This outlook was not
confined to Paris.
Popular anticlericalism too was not unique to Paris, but its vigor there
was unusual. Here the continuities are not so clear, yet once again the
character of the city was crucial. Clergy in Old Regime Paris, perhaps
more than anywhere else, had to earn the respect of their congregation.
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A village priest might have a local monopoly, but in Paris dissatisfied
parishioners could attend monastery churches, go to other parishes, and
even not go to church at all. The Jansenist inheritance was again important. Going right back to the 1720s and 1730s, Parisians were accustomed to judging their clergy: there were “good” priests and “bad”
ones (whether they belonged to the Jansenist opposition or to the “devout” anti-Jansenist party). Although there was no obvious continuity
between Jansenist parishes and those where most of the clergy supported
the Revolution, the distinction between “good” and “bad” priests
reemerged in 1791, when roughly half the curés and just over a third of
the ordinary parish clergy took the oath of loyalty to the constitution.37
Patriots found more bad apples among the religious orders, where only
42 percent took the oath. This confirmed an already widespread prejudice against the regular clergy, who were increasingly condemned in novels, philosophical literature, and popular story as corrupt, decadent, or
at best a waste of potentially productive (and reproductive) citizens. Sentiments in Paris were mixed. Some of the religious orders worked closely
with the local people: the Frères de la charité were well regarded by the
printing workers for their care of the poor, and so were the Saint Vincent de Paul’s Soeurs de la charité. Some, like the Franciscans, were strong
supporters of the Revolution. At the same time, grocers and the fruit and
butter merchants protested at unfair competition from religious houses.
One Paris tanner was possibly putting a common view among the educated classes when he argued in his personal cahier in 1789 that monks
should be made to do useful work teaching the city’s children. A brewer
suggested using the income of a number of abbeys to help the poor.38
These sentiments, openly expressed, may have strengthened the strand
of anticlericalism that existed in prerevolutionary Paris. The very conservative stance of many of the clerical deputies to the Estates General
did not help. In August 1789 a number of drunk people called out “A
bas la calotte” (down with the priests) during a procession on the Ilede-la-Cité, and there was outspoken public criticism of the archbishop’s
politics. In October, when thousands of Parisian women marched to Versailles, some of them invaded the benches of the National Assembly and
shouted insults at the bishops, again to cries of “A bas la calotte!” Subsequently the pope’s condemnation of the Revolution and the refusal of
many clergy to take the oath of allegiance confirmed anticlericals in their
Just as significant in determining the fate of the Paris clergy, though,
may have been indifference. Across the eighteenth century the role of the
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Church in Paris was declining. By the 1780s probably less than half the
city’s adult population took communion.40 The Church’s role in poor
relief was diminishing as secular institutions intruded, and its capacity
to provide assistance was lessening along with bequests, donations, and
the contents of poor boxes and collection plates. The number of clergy
was not keeping up with the growth in population and some Parisians
had little contact with the Church.
In the climate of the 1790s, growing indifference or latent hostility to
established religion allowed active anticlericalism to emerge and spread.
Anticlericalism acquired legitimacy—even “patriotic” credentials—in
declarations by public figures like Marat. Well before official persecution of “refractory” clergy began—late in 1791—there were attacks on
nonjuror religious in Paris. In April groups of women broke into four
convents and took whips to nuns hostile to the Revolution. The following year many priests were imprisoned as “suspects.” The most horrific
incidents took place in early September 1792 when a band of men went
from prison to prison, apparently with the approval of members of the
Commune, and battered to death between 1,100 and 1,400 people, including 220 clergy.41 Most observers were horrified but afraid to intervene, and some public figures were prepared to excuse the violence. As
political intimidation grew, the many who believed in freedom of religion were afraid to speak out. The active hostility many religious displayed toward the Revolution also made the defense of patriotic clergy
increasingly difficult.
Nevertheless, dechristianization and anticlericalism were only ever minority movements in Paris. There were quite a number of priests like JeanJacques Poupart, the well-known curé of St-Eustache, who remained in
the city without being bothered.42 Some of the two thousand nuns driven
out of the convents adopted secular clothes but continued community
life of a kind, and those who worked with the poor were sometimes defended by their sections.43 As the political climate changed, in 1795, the
churches were reopened, generally by lay people. The restorers of religion were not counterrevolutionaries though, since the churches they
reestablished were mostly modeled on the revolutionary Constitutional
Church of 1791. They often had a democratic structure, with priests
elected by the parish council or in some cases by the entire congregation:
as some Jansenists had suggested years before.
Revolutionary anticlericalism, therefore, was a product of the encounter between a long-lived strand of hostility to the Church, widespread indifference, and the particular crises of the 1790s. It illustrates
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once again the way that prerevolutionary social relations made possible
and influenced the Parisian Revolution, yet without predetermining its
Sentiment against the nobility probably operated in a similar way. The
pretensions of minor nobles were resented by much of the Paris “public,” as the 1782 Moreton-Chabrillant incident demonstrated. A longstanding hostility in Paris to the court at Versailles grew acute in the late
1780s, holding the gilded courtesans and self-serving ministers responsible for the woes of Paris and providing a base for revolutionary antipathy to all nobles. There were already isolated threats against Parisian
nobles in the middle of 1789. Once the court moved to Paris at the end
of 1789, evidence of the numerous counterrevolutionaries within the
king’s entourage was right under the noses of Parisians. The king’s bodyguard were the most unpopular and they clashed frequently with National Guardsmen on duty at the Tuileries palace. In February 1791 quite
a number of noblemen at the Tuileries were disarmed by the National
Guard following a rumor that they had been about to assassinate the
king—further evidence of the population’s distrust.44
As in the case of the clergy, growing feeling against nobles was probably assisted by widespread indifference. Of all the Parisian elites, nobles had least contact with the ordinary people. Only a handful played
any role in the parish churches, and then mainly in an honorific capacity. With the possible exception of the duc d’Orléans, who seems to have
attempted to build a power base in the city in 1789, there is little evidence that noble families had more than commercial contacts with the
Paris middle classes. People had no reason to disbelieve reports of noble
plots against the Revolution, and the fate of the haughty Parisian nobility was a matter of indifference to most of the population.
the integration of the city and the revolution
Across the late eighteenth century the integration of Paris and changes
in the role of the local middle classes were undermining the quarter and
the parish as political units and making them less inclusive social entities. The importance of the broader outlook that resulted became clear
very early, when the districts quickly formed a central assembly of electors to coordinate their activity. The section representatives formed societies like the Club de l’Evêché and the Club de la Ste-Chapelle to coordinate their activity. Later the Jacobin and Cordeliers Clubs served the
same function. Especially after the beginning of 1790, frequent deputaThe City and the Revolution 299
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tions went from district to district and subsequently between the sections.
The local leaders were well aware of the way their counterparts elsewhere
in the city were thinking and were very conscious of the need to act in
Crowd action too repeatedly transcended local interests and boundaries, displaying a new, citywide approach to politics. Already in April
1789 the Réveillon affair, with its appeals by the population of the
faubourg St-Antoine to workers elsewhere in the city, had shown the potential for united action. In mid-July 1789 the same interplay of local
and citywide action occurred. The Hôtel de Ville, where the Assembly
of Electors was meeting, was the focal point to which the crowds from
all over the city returned repeatedly on 12, 13, and 14 July. The takers
of the Bastille were primarily people from the faubourg St-Antoine and
the neighborhoods immediately adjoining the fortress but included a
significant number from other parts of the city, once again particularly
from the faubourg St-Marcel. Again on 20 June 1792 citizens from all
over the city gathered—with little central organization—to force the king
to reinstate the popular ministers he had just dismissed.46
These acts had no direct prerevolutionary precedents but were prepared by the city’s growing integration and the sense of interdependence
that it created. By the 1780s changing uses of urban space were breaking down the psychological and social boundaries between quarters and
preparing the way for the citizens’ coordinated action.
At the same time, the remarkable local commitment displayed by many
of these same people suggests the incompleteness of the city’s integration. In July 1789 the defense of the city against possible military attack
was conducted on a local basis. While the notables of the district committees organized citizen militia units groups of neighbors spontaneously
prepared to repel the expected assault. “The women and children took
up the paving stones in the courtyards to attack these traitors to the patrie from the windows,” wrote a café owner near St-André-des-Arts.47
In the following weeks and months lawyers, priests, and merchants,
many of them active participants in the new metropolitan culture, reassumed responsibility for food supply, law and order, streetlighting and
maintenance, public health, and later poor relief. The boundaries of districts and subsequently of sections took on an administrative and political significance that local divisions of the city had not had for over a
century. And even after the initial emergency was over, the local leaders
fought to retain their role, onerous as it was. One of the characteristics
of both the districts and the sections was their jealous defense of local
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sovereignty, which repeatedly brought them into conflict with the municipality, the National Assembly, and with one another.48
At times they almost literally drew the wagons into a circle around
their own enclave. On 25 June 1792, at a time of high tension following renewed rumors of a planned coup by the court, the St-Marcel battalion of the National Guard was summoned by the tocsin to its parade
ground in the old cloister. Scouts were sent out into the streets leading
toward the city center and returned with news that the area was surrounded by troops loyal to the court. The battalion spent the entire day
under arms, its cannon loaded and covering the cloister’s entrances.49
There was in fact no such plot and no army units preparing to attack.
Even if there had been, they would hardly have been likely to pay much
attention to the outlying faubourg St-Marcel. But the incident illustrates
a strong sense that the areas beyond the narrow boundaries of their quarter were potentially hostile.
The popular movement also kept the customary mentality characteristic of the neighborhood communities of the city, often placing collective rights above individual ones within a local context. It remained bitterly opposed to the principles of economic liberalization that dominated
successive National Assemblies. The “grocery riots” of 1792, when crowds
seized sugar and coffee from warehouses in many parts of the city and
sold it at a “just” price, are often passed over as “traditional” forms of
protest somehow inconsistent with the “modern” revolutionary political culture. But they were perfectly at one with the aims of social justice
that were central to the popular movement. The short-lived victory of
that movement in 1793 marked the temporary triumph of this same mentality, particularly with the introduction of a ceiling on the prices of a
surprisingly wide range of “necessities.” This “maximum” was a measure that militants had sought repeatedly, using all the new techniques
of revolutionary action.
Thus the Parisian Revolution was shaped in numerous ways by the
long-term evolution of the city. Yet while continuities of all sorts were
present, I am not suggesting that its course was predetermined, or wishing to downplay the remarkable changes it wrought. The springs of revolutionary thought and action lay in the past, but the Revolution operated
an extraordinary transformation, opening up possibilities previously
glimpsed only in dreams. There was little in the prior lives of individual
Parisians to indicate what choices each would make when faced with a
more dramatic upheaval than most human beings ever have to confront.
Some forms of revolutionary action went far beyond anything the
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eighteenth-century history of the city would lead us to expect. In October 1789 the women’s march to Versailles, though rooted in the community of the central markets, gathered women from all over the city
and far exceeded in size, aims, and consequences anything that had happened in the eighteenth century. The republican petition of the Champ
de Mars, which five thousand people signed in 1791 to demand the dismissal of the king, was likewise startlingly new, transcended local boundaries, and foreshadowed the techniques of nineteenth- and twentiethcentury political movements. On 10 August 1792 the military attack on
the royal palace that overthrew the monarchy was an example of coordination and united political purpose worthy of twentieth-century revolutions. In these revolutionary actions we can detect elements of a new
political consciousness, of an emerging sense of class, in some instances
of modern feminism and of nineteenth-century popular nationalism.
These were above all products of the revolutionary context, scarcely detectable within the prerevolutionary population.
Late-eighteenth-century Paris was moving out of a world structured
by deference and hierarchy into one governed overwhelmingly by money
and appearances. The collective sanctions, limited horizons, and customary culture of small communities were being complemented and
modified by wider sources of identity and legitimacy—class and nation.
Personal monarchy was giving way to an abstract state. Collective rights
were being superseded by individual rights. In all of these areas Parisian
society was precocious, because of its dynamic market economy, its relatively large population, and its function as capital. It was only in such
a place, already a locus of social, economic, and political experimentation, a city unlike any other in Europe, that revolution could have taken
place in the form it did. And the Revolution took this extraordinary city
and transformed it still further.
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