Historians of Europe: The French Revolution

I. Contemporary Commentators: Can we know the past better than people knew it at the time?

Knowledge of the past is reconstructed from the accumulation of facts from numerous sources and the ordering and analysis of these facts. Contemporary commentators capture the feel of the past, register contemporary reactions, and explain the historiographical tradition. However, the historian, although removed from the past, has access to a wider lens than contemporary commentators did. At the same time the work of contemporary commentators is essential to the historians’ re-creation of a textured past. 

On this page we explore the different ways in which the French Revolution has been written about and understood over time. From the writing of contemporary writers – Carlyle and Burke – to political activists such as Gramsci, de Lamartine and Lenin, the French Revolution provided a source of inspiration for their understanding of modern society, how it worked and how it failed. As one of the central events of European history, the French revolution has also spawned its own myths, stories and iconographies – from literature, painting, to, by the twentieth century, film.

Contemporary writers on the French Revolution  

Amy Willbond

Overview of contemporary writers 

Many Historians view the French Revolution as a turning point between the early modern and modern world. Many contemporary writers saw the French Revolution as an event of significance because it created fear across Europe as many contemporaries believed that revolution would spread to the rest of Europe. The events that unfolded beginning in 1789 attracted much attention from contemporary historical writers, who all published works in unique writing styles making them accessible to wide or selective audiences due to the interest of historians Writers, such as Thomas Carlyle, used dramatic literary techniques to engage readers and focused on the oppression of the poor which demonstrated the social consequences of the French Revolution. On the other hand, writers, including Edmund Burke, wrote in a more political, factual style that highlighted anti-revolution views and showed how the Revolution would affect French and British interests. Contemporaries and modern scholars both praised and criticized the works of contemporary writers but, in retrospect of how these works were received, they all shaped modern perception of the French Revolution.

Edmund Burke: Image Source

Thomas Carlyle: Image Source

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) was one of the first political commentaries on the effects of the French revolution. Burke took a political stance emphasising on his anti-revolutionary views despite his initial support for the American Revolution. Burke’s book was divisive. However the political theorist Thomas Paine argued that Burke's work was misleading. Burke’s work was conservative in its emphasis on protecting the British constitution from the radical ideas of the French Revolution; it argued that the British should fear the Revolution and that the British constitution should be protected. Burke’s Reflections was widely circulated with 17,000 copies printed by the end of 1790; in 1791 Burke’s work had been translated into French and was circulating in France.[1]. The book’s success demonstrates that the French Revolution affected people beyond France’s boarders as well as those within.  Furthermore, it highlights contemporary interest in the political effects of the French Revolution which were by no means certain when Burke was writing. This shows that political opinions were important to contemporaries, hence the book’s popularity and opposition, as Burke's works generated interest and debate due to its controversial arguments during a time of uncertainty over both French and British interests.


[1] Richard Cobb and Colin Jones, Voices of the French Revolution (Salem House Publishers, 1988), 103.

Further Reading:

Cobb, Richard., and Jones, Colin. Voices of the French Revolution. Salem House Publishers, 1988.

Eaves, Richard Glen. “Edmund Burke: His Enduring Influence on Political Thought.” Journal of Thought Vol.14, No. 2 (April, 1979): 122 – 131.

Freeman, Michael. “Edmund Burke and the Theory of Revolution.” Political Theory Vol. 6, No. 6 (Aug, 1978): 277 – 297.

Whale, John, ed,. Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Manchester University Press, 2000.


Thomas Carlyle 

In his work The French Revolution: A History (1837), Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle incorporated dramatic prose and factual history to engage his readers, blurring the lines between truth and fiction. While this approach falls short of the expectation of historians today, from contemporaries Carlyle received much praise for his work. He has been described as, the first writer of a new type of history that regarded the French as active protagonists of the historical process focusing on social and cultural elements of the French Revolution.[1] Carlyle believed that the Revolutions did not have a single driving cause and that it needed to be explored from different angles, hence his focus on the Terror experienced by the French. To truly emphasise this, Carlyle used dramatic writing to communicate the scale of fear felt by the people. Furthermore, Carlyle understood the French Revolution as a gruesome class war that resulted from a loss of morals and faith; Carlyle believed that the French Revolution stripped of their virtues and honor. Evidently, Carlyle’s style of writing was different to his political counterparts as the social rather than the political is focused upon, making his contemporary work unique and interesting.


[1] Gareth Steadman Jones, “The Redemptive Power of Violence? Carlyle, Marx and Dickens,” History Workshop Journal No. 65 (Spring, 2008): 2.

Further Reading:

Burrow, John. “Carlyle’s French Revolution: History with a Hundred Tongues.” In A History of Histories Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to Twentieth Century, edited by John Burrow, 377 – 388. Penguin Book Ltd, 2007.

Ben-Israel, H. “Carlyle and the French Revolution.” The Historical Journal Vol. 1, No. 2 (1958): 115 – 135.

Steadman Jones, Gareth. “The Redemptive Power of Violence? Carlyle, Marx and Dickens.” History Workshop Journal No. 65 (Spring, 2008): 1 – 22.


II. Activism and Objectivity: Can political actors write reliable history?

 For two centuries, successive revolutionaries and politicians treated the French Revolution as a touchstone. Their analyses of its origins, course and consequences both reflected and informed their own political agendas. In certain respects, their ‘use’ of the Revolution was so impartial that it bordered on ‘abuse’. In other respects, their desire to see how this phase of the past related to the present and future led them to raise historiographical questions that remain pertinent even if critical modern historians consider their answers one-sided and dated.


Adam Baker

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was a founding member of Italy’s Communist Party. In 1926 he was imprisoned by Mussolini’s government, which wanted to suppress his Marxist views. Gramsci was released in 1934 on grounds of ill-health, and died in 1937. A prolific writer, Gramsci produced numerous works, most notably on political theory. During his time in prison, he wrote extensively on history and political theory in his famous ‘Prison Diaries’.

In his prison diaries, Gramsci expanded upon ideas about where power came from, departing from typical Marxist notions. Instead of looking solely to means of production and economics, Gramsci explored the use of ideology, the notion of nation, and use of culture to explain how the French Bourgeoisie gained and maintained power through not only economic control, but through ideology as well.

Gramsci created and expanded upon political thought in two areas influenced by the French Revolution: hegemony and passive revolution. Cultural hegemony refers to radical ideas becoming disseminated and diluted within the population. Gramsci believed that once these radical ideals have been accepted by the population, they become a normal part of the culture. The concept of hegemony had existed before, but with this theory, Gramsci pushed it further.

Gramsci believes that the Jacobins as initially upheld ideologies of equality and elements of Marxism, but that this eventually declined as the party began to embody the bourgeois class rather than the principle of equality that the revolution was founded upon. He criticized the Jacobins for seizing power for themselves, rather than having a truly universal program within an ideological framework, as the Russian revolutionaries did. Although the Jacobins fell with Robespierre in 1794, Gramsci saw their promotion of the bourgeoisie as surviving through Napoleon and their ruling position becoming an accepted part of French society.

Passive revolution follows neatly on from cultural hegemony. The French revolution is what Gramsci calls a ‘ruptural’ process, in which radical action transforms the social order. Gramsci believed that the Italian fascists who came to power under Mussolini did not cause a rupture, but instead took part in a ‘revolution-restoration’. Gramsci believed this process was not simply a reaction to protect the Bourgeoisie, but a rapid transition from a competitive market to a planned one without social upheaval.

While in light of more recent thinking, Gramsci's Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution may not stand up to modern eyes, his ideas about cultural hegemony and passive revolution have a more universal appeal.

Further Reading:

Antonio Gramsci, Pre-Prison Writings, Ed. Richard Bellamy. (Cambridge University Press 1994).

Antonio Gramsci, The Antonio Gramsci Reader Selected Writings 1916-1935, Ed. David Forgacs (Lawrence & Wishart, 1988).


Alphonse de Lamartine

Kaitlin Thornton

Alphonse de Lamartine: Image Source

Lamartine’s career was one of variety, and one made possible by the French Revolution. Born in 1790, he was too young to participate in the Revolution itself, however the events that unfolded afterwards shaped the rest of his life. He initially served in the military after the restoration of Louis XVIII, but abandoned this after the second Bourbon restoration to pursue the career that he would be remembered for: poetry.

Méditations Poétiques, Lamartine’s first collection was published in 1820; the romantic tone and sincerity of feeling found within his poems made them extremely successful in their time. The initial popularity of his poetry continued throughout his career. In 1838, he wrote one fragment of his epic Les Visions before leaving literature for some time to devote himself to the political side of his career. However, Lamartine never truly left literature, as he continued writing after the fall of his political career, writing some important historical works, including The History of the Revolution of 1848 and The History of the Restoration.

Having married Englishwoman Maria Ann Birch, in 1820 Lamartine enacted another career change that lead him to play his key role in the 1848 Revolution. He joined the diplomatic corps as a secretary to the French embassy at Naples, thus giving him his foothold into politics. Indeed, after the 1830 July Revolutions, and Louis-Philippe’s subsequent accession to the throne, Lamartine abandoned his diplomatic career for one in politics. A somewhat unique politician, Lamartine never identified himself with any party or faction, although he was later spokesperson for the Republicans, and refused to commit himself to the July Monarchy. Having once been a royalist like his parents, Lamartine found himself being drawn more to democracy as his life progressed. He wanted to call attention to social problems, and believed that the social question that he described as “the question of the proletariat” was the central issue of his time. He also maintained that a working-class revolution was inevitable, and promised the authorities in July 1848 a “revolution of scorn”.

Lamartine’s foray into writing historical works aided his political career significantly. In 1847 his Histoires des Girondins – a history of the anti-monarchy political group whose mass execution marked the beginning of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution - gained him substantial political popularity, as it was also a political pamphlet, and his subjects therefore became his models in politics. This demonstrates one way in which Lamartine used the history of the French Revolution to further his own position. Opposition saw his glorification of the French Revolution, and of the Girondins, as a criticism of Louis-Philippe’s regime. His book was so popular that it was said to be one of the causes of the 1848 Revolution; Lamartine himself felt that he “held a revolution in his hand”.

Following the 1848 Revolution, and the removal of Louis-Philippe in February, Lamartine was appointed by the Republicans as their spokesperson due to his oratory skills, and because he had been opposed to Louis-Philippe, which his historical works seemed to support. Although he was useful, and effective, in charming the savage Parisian mob when riot threatened, he was less effective as a member of Government, rarely showing decisiveness. However, his popularity continued to grow with the people due to his incredible eloquence, and he was one of the most influential men in France when he was elected to the National Assembly in April 1848. However, his political skill was not sufficient, and he was unable to prevent the June Days with speeches alone. His political reputation was ruined by the violence that broke out, and he subsequently lost his presidential campaign. This was thus the end of his political career, and he returned to writing, barely making enough to survive.

Further Reading:


A. Lamartine, ‘Review of the History of the Girondists’, The North American Review, 66 (1848), pp. 288-323.

J. Salwayan Schapiro, ‘Lamartine’, Political Science Quarterly, 34 (1919), pp. 632-6


Lenin and the French Revolution

Harry Howell

Lenin: Image Source

As historian Robert Service suggests, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1970-1924), commonly known as Vladimir Lenin, was ‘an exceptional figure’ and is arguably one of the most influential individuals of the twentieth century[1].  Lenin was one of the main architects behind the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, andsubsequently became the first head of the USSR – a position that he retained until his death in January 1924 [2]. Lenin’s perception of the French Revolution ultimately influenced his political thinking.

In an information leaflet entitled “The Achievements and Difficulties of the Soviet Union’ from March 1919, Lenin wrote that "The French revolution, against which the old powers hurled themselves at the beginning of the nineteenth century in order to crush it, we call great precisely because it succeeded in rousing the vast masses of the people in defence of its gains and they resisted the whole world; this was one of its greatest merits." This again shows the significance of the French revolution because it it ‘roused the masses’ which Lenin attempted to during his Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. 

For Lenin part of the importance of the French Revolution was how it provided a new model for the action of the people, not simply in France but across Europe. France contained to hold a central place withinthe iconography of revolution across the nineteenth century, with the Paris Commune providing another example of the action of the people.

Whilst addressing the Second All-Russian Trade Union Congress on January 20th 1919, Lenin stated that ‘"The Soviet movement has ... become the second step in the world-wide development of the socialist revolution. The first step was the Paris Commune, which showed that the working class cannot arrive at socialism except by way of dictatorship, by the forcible suppression of the exploiters. That is the first thing the Paris Commune showed, namely, that the working class cannot get to socialism via the old, bourgeois-democratic parliamentary state, but only via a new type of state, which will smash both parliamentarism and the bureaucracy from top to bottom."[3] This speech is significant because it suggests that the French Revolution was a key influence for the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917.


[1] Robert Service, Lenin: A Biography.

[2] http://sfr-21.org/french-revolutions.html

[3] Ibid.

III: Literary Representations: Is fiction useful as a historical tool?

Historians conventionally separate fact from fiction when they use genuine documents and cast aside forgeries. However, fictional accounts of the past can be interpreted and used as evidence of different sorts. Just as novels can shed light on mentalities at the time they were written, the genre of ‘historical fiction’ can help us to re-imagine the past and fill in gaps in traditional evidence with hypotheses that can then be tested by critical historians using other sources. Fictional accounts of the French Revolution are particularly famous and provide an interesting case study of how non-factual evidence can be used. 


The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), by Baroness Orczy’s

Catherine Pym

The whole book is available through Project Gutenberg.

Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel is the tale of a swashbuckling English aristocrat, who under the disguise of the Scarlet Pimpernel rescues some members of the French aristocracy from the guillotine, during the Terror (1793-1794). As an interpretation of the French Revolution, it is heavily romanticised and dramatized, and acts mostly as a backdrop for the heroism of the Scarlet Pimpernel. The novel paints an one-sidedly negative picture of the revolutionaries and peasants, as it favours the cause of the aristocrats sentenced to death and depicts their executioners as bloodthirsty animals. (Michael Dirda, "The Mystery Behind the Baroness," New Criterion, 34, 1, (2015): 31-35, 32.) The novel is not sympathetic towards the tens of thousands of others who were caught up in the Terror, who didn’t have the means to flee to England.

The novel reflects Orczy’s own life and struggles, as a daughter of Hungarian aristocrats, who fled to England with her family due to a peasant revolt that led to the loss of their family estate. (Dirda, "The Mystery Behind the Baroness," 33.) It is easy to see why a dispossessed noble-woman would sympathise with the French aristocracy. She wrote the book following the success of the theatrical version of the Scarlet Pimpernel, which hit the stage two years earlier in 1903. Her work was popular immediately with the reading public, and therefore it can be inferred that her views about the French revolution were shared by them. Orczy's works encouraged her readers to feel sympathy for the enemies of the Revolution, and the reading public appear to do so gladly.

An image of one of the many screen adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel


Further Reading:

Michael Dirda, "The Mystery Behind the Baroness," New Criterion, 34, 1, (2015): 31-35.

Glass-Blowers (1963), by Daphne Du Maurier

Katy Evans

The French Revolution is presented in an unusual way in Daphne Du Maurier’s 1963 book, The Glass-Blowers, which is set in the rural areas of France, outside Paris and away from key revolutionary events. The major events of the French Revolution function as the backdrop to the experiences of a French family involved in the Glassblowing business.

Written in 1963, well after the French Revolution, Du Maurier was inspired to write the novel after researching her French family’s history. Concerned with historical accuracy, Du Maurier enlisted the help of M Regis Bouis, a history master and regional historian. Du Maurier was proud to have republican ancestors, and wrote in a letter to Bouis that ‘I know at last from where I derive my republican sympathies’[1]. Du Maurier’s letters to Bouis tell us a lot about her approach to writing Glass-Blowers. On 26th May 1961, after introducing the idea of the book, she wrote that she ‘would not wish to begin before becoming as informed as possible about the historical reality’.[2] On 4th July 1961, after reiterating the importance of ‘authentic facts’[3], she also revealed that in her view ‘historical novels are often spoiled by silly errors’[4]. This has led some modern readers to criticise the book as being one of Du Maurier’s weaker novels; they consider it to be tied too closely to the facts, making the book a less interesting than other Du Maurier’s other works. Despite this, Du Maurier claims that the book was ‘written as a novel, not as a documentary’.

Du Maurier’s novel focuses on the everyday life of people during the Revolution. It is written in the style of a memoir and shows the journey of the narrator and her family as the Revolution progresses. The narrator, Sophie starts the story being horrified by the actions of the revolutionaries, but gradually finds herself being convinced of revolutionary ideals. The book also follows the lives of two of the narrator’s brothers who became local leaders in the new Republic. Through this we are shown the wide-scale violence and destruction of the French Revolution; looting chateaus as well as imprisoning and executing opponents to the new regime, which was common practice. However, the most violent event in the work is when the family become involved in the War of the Vendèe, in which royalists advanced against the Republic. However, the nature of the re-telling of the day-to-day in the book highlights other issues that were central to the lives of those living in the rural outskirts of Paris during the revolution. These issues include hunger, caused by a severe winter, delay or lack of communication that was often confused by rumours, and the great physical toil of the working and peasant classes. Daphne Du Maurier, therefore provides an accessible way to gain insight into the nature and hardships on the revolution to those living in rural France.


[1] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-4762.1997.tb00029.x/epdf

[2] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-4762.1997.tb00029.x/epdf

[3] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-4762.1997.tb00029.x/epdf

[4] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-4762.1997.tb00029.x/epdf

 Further Reading:

Glass-Blowers by Daphne Du Maurier



A Tale of Two Cities (1859), by Charles Dickens

Sam Russell


Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities presents the story of three families’ experience of social injustice and violence in France both in the years leading up to and after the storming of the Bastille in 1789. The tale acts as both a microcosm of the French Revolution and a portal to some of Dickens’ political views on the revolution. The events that transpire in Paris affecting the Manette, the Evremonde/Darnay and the Defarge families form the microcosm of the revolution that makes Dickens’ work a rare instance of true historical fiction for the author. A Tale of Two Cities stands out in this regard, as his novels rarely make the events of the historical setting integral to the plot.

The plot line that mirrors the Revolution starts with the rape and murder of a peasant girl and her brother perpetrated by the Marquis Evremonde and his brother, father to protagonist Charles Darnay. The pair do not merely get away with these crimes but have, Dr Manette thrown in the Bastille for 16 years, worrying that he would report their actions after requesting his help. The level of exploitation which is afforded by the class and status of the Evremondes is indicative Dickens’ view of the social injustice in France prior to the Revolution. Two innocents have been killed or raped by the aristocrats and a third has in effect suffered for their crimes just for turning up to do his job. The prison sentence ends up driving Manette insane, just to add to the injustice. The Marquis Evremonde does eventually sees justice at the hands of “Jacques” but for another crime: running over a peasant child. Evremonde is killed by the revolutionaries and Manette is saved from the Bastille, thus forming one part of the novel’s microcosm of the Revolution. Critics like John Gross (Gross, John. "A Tale of Two Cities (1962)." Dickens: Modern Judgements, ed. A. E. Dyson. London: Macmillan, 1968. Pp. 233-243.) even argue that Dickens is saying that what the Evremondes do to the pair alone is symbolic of the whole Revolution.

Dickens’ scepticism for the Revolution’s more violent actors such as Robespierre and Marat ("A Tale of Two Cities" (1859): A Model of the Integration of History and Literature” by Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor, Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University (Canada)) is revealed in the way Madame Defarge’s plot for revenge plays out in the novel and reflects the real French Revolution. Defarge, who it turns out was the sister of the Evremonde brothers’ victims, has been denied revenge by “Jacques” and now turns to Darnay and even his wife and newborn child to answer for the crimes of his ancestors at the guillotine. The further injustice created by the plot for revenge as well as the ensuing bloodbath to prevent the death sentences demonstrates Dickens’ distaste for the perpetual violence for Revolution. And while he opens by demonising the aristocrats in France he quickly shifts to criticising the revolutionary mobs once the Bastille has been stormed, “There could be no fewer than five hundred people, and they were dancing like five thousand demons” (“A Tale of Two Cities, p.290).

Further Reading:

Allingham, Philip, V. "A Tale of Two Cities" (1859): A Model of the Integration of History and Literature” Victorian Web; Faculty of Education, Lakehead University (Canada)

Gross, John. "A Tale of Two Cities (1962)." Dickens: Modern Judgements, ed. A. E. Dyson. London: Macmillan, 1968. Pp. 233-243

IV. Paintings and films as evidence and foci of explanation: Do paintings illustrate or inform what we know?

Many historians use paintings simply to illustrate what they describe with words. Some art historians, such as Michael Baxandall have called this a ‘philistine’ approach to visual sources. Although paintings surely can have an illustrative role for the French Revolution, we can also follow Baxandall is treating visual evidence as a ‘social fact’, asking why it was produced and what its forms tell us about who commissioned it and who it was intended to persuade. Rather than treating paintings as ‘photo-journalism’, we therefore can ask what ‘visual decisions’ the artist took in order to stage and present their subject. These ‘decisions’ provide us with a window into understanding that time. Film can be understood in similar ways. Film helps us to appreciate the atmosphere and costumes of a particular period, but we also need to be attentive to the ways in which directors’ norms and agendas shaped scripts and productions.


Histories and Representations of the French Revolution – Cinematic Representations

Hollie Wilson

In popular Western culture cinematic representations of the French Revolution are not difficult to unearth. Yet little of the French tradition for transparency (emanating from the collapse of the Ancien Régime) is reflected in Anglo-American films. Historically accurate films depicting the Revolution are rare. Film directors and producers have yet to embrace the ideological and political complexity of the Revolution. Like most non-scholarly assessments of the events of 1789-1794, they have instead conflated the totality of the Revolution with the Reign of Terror (5 September 1793 – 28 July 1794).1 The notion of taboo or distaste for accurately representing the French Revolution is particularly important when considering the significant role which historical film assumes in shaping popular opinion about the past. The maturation of the academic relationship between film and history has occasioned favourable attitudes towards the use of the conceptual device as a historical tool. In her critique of the moving picture industry on the depiction of resistance to slavery, historian Natalie Zemon Davis encourages academics to "take film seriously as a source of valuable and even innovative historical vision."2 The traditional machinations of film makers are being challenged by modern scholastic thought, which could imply that the pictorial representations of the French Revolution which are currently in existence are of little historical worth.

The American film industry (the most commercially dominant style of cinema) has historically approached the French Revolution with a large degree of discomfort. The unique trans-Atlantic history and factitious Franco- American relationship are understood as causal factors for the wholly one dimensional representation.3 This mentality is still evident within the American film industry, despite growing acceptance at popular level across the United States and Western Europe for the study of the French Revolution. The popular demand for historically valid film-based resources has yet to be fulfilled. Instead, films with limited educational appeal, such as Jefferson in Paris (1995) and Marie Antoinette (2006), are reluctantly used as historical teaching tools; their only legitimate portrayal being that of the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by the Bourbon monarchy. The fate of early American films (those produced within the first half of the twentieth century), such as Orphans of the Storm (1921), as educational materials is much worse. Themes of melodrama and heroism were considered démodé as early as the end of the Second World War.4

European cinematic attempts to depict the French Revolution have had greater success in overcoming the stigma classically associated with historical film. The French-Polish co-production Danton (1982), directed by Andrzej Wajda, has a clear political design. Wajda’s attack on inherently corrupt political systems has a highly personal aesthetic. The transference of the political and moral instability amid the height of Terror (a trope not exclusively projected by Anglo-American films) to Polish animosity against the Soviet-backed government generated a degree of international controversy.5 Despite its ulterior motives, Danton sat comfortably with audiences; a succession of prestigious award nominations even encouraged popular interest in the 1935 Polish play ‘The Danton Affair’ (from which the film originated).6

Unsurprisingly, the “master narrative” of pictorial representations of the French Revolution is rarely a French one. Since the early genre of film, directors and producers have set a trend to manipulate the Revolution to fit within specially constructed American, European or even global boundaries. Cinematic representations have worked in paradoxical fashion to both complicate and champion the legacy of the French Revolution. While film makers continue to neglect the call for accurate historical representation, the fuzzy relationship between film and the French Revolution is set to continue.


1 Casey Harison, ‘The French Revolution on Film: American and French Perspectives’, The History Teacher 38, 3 (May 1, 2005), 299.

2 Natalie Zemon Davis, Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 15.

3 Casey Harison, ‘The French Revolution on Film: American and French Perspectives’, The History Teacher 38, 3 (May 1, 2005), 317-318.

4 Peter Burley. "A Farrago of Nonsense: The French Revolution in the Cinema." History Today 39, 5 (May 1989), 52.

5 Janet Staiger, Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema (United States: Princeton University Press, 1992), 4-6.

6 Vincent Canby, “Wajda’s ‘Danton’, Inside the French Revolution Movie Review,” The New York Times, September 28, 1983, accessed February 25, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/movies/movie/12215/Danton/awards

Further Reading:

Burley, Peter. "A Farrago of Nonsense: The French Revolution in the Cinema." History Today 39, 5 (May 1989): 51-56.

Grindon, Leger. “Hollywood History and the French Revolution: From The Bastille to The Black Book.” In Shadows on the Past: Studies in the Historical Fiction Film, 69-90. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Harison, Casey. ‘The French Revolution on Film: American and French Perspectives’. The History Teacher 38, 3 (May 1, 2005): 299-324.

Sorlin, Pierre. "How to Look at an 'Historical' Film." In The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media, edited by Marcia Landy, 25-49. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Staiger, Janet. Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema. United States: Princeton University Press, 1992.


Orphans of the Storm


directed and produced by D.W. Griffith

running time 150 min.

available from United Artists




directed by Andrzej Wajda; produced by Margaret Menegoz for Gaumont

running time: 136 min.

available from Columbia TriStar

dialogue in French with English subtitles


Jefferson in Paris


directed by James Ivory; produced by Ismail Merchant for Touchstone Pictures

running time: 139 min.

available from Touchstone Pictures Home Video


Marie Antoinette


directed by Sofia Coppola; produced by Ross Katz for American Zoetrope

running time: 123 min.

available from Columbia Pictures.


Artistic Representations of the French Revolution

Tasha Colebrook

During the French revolution neo-classicalism became the dominant artistic style over Romanticism, as it depicted noble themes and ideas of sacrifice. The leading French painter of neo-classicalism was Jacques- Louis David, who played an active role in the Revolution. As the de facto minister for propaganda, David believed that art played a role in educating the public. One of David’s most prominent propaganda pieces was The Death of Marat (1793) depicting the murder of French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. David was a close friend of Marat’s and had visited him the day before his death. The painting acts to present Marat as a martyr. Marat is idealized; he is depicted in the bath to conceal his severe skin condition and his body is positioned so that is mirrors that of Christ in The Descent from the Cross. In comparing Marat to Jesus the revolutionaries were creating new secular saints of the Revolution. The lack of background in David’s work forces the viewer to focus entirely on Marat. In his hand Marat holds a letter with the name of his killer Charlotte Corday inscribed, the knife lies on the floor symbolizing Corday’s action as his killer. Corday is not depicted in David’s painting but other paintings of the event include her; Baudry’s Charlotte Corday depicts the scene from a different angle, placing Charlotte at the centre and portraying her as the true hero. David did not include Corday so as to not detract from Marat, as the painting was commissioned by the National Convention and therefore the focus needed to remain on Marat. David uses his painting to present the revolutionaries as righteous.

Similarly, Eugene Delacriox’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), a painting in the romantic style, presents the supporters of the Revolution as champions of the July revolution in 1830, in which the King fell. In a letter to his brother, Delacriox presents his painting as part of the war effort. In the classical style an allegorical figure is seen, a women personifying liberty, who is viewed as a symbol of France, leads the people over the bodies of the defeated. She is seen as a symbol of New France through her possessions; in her hands she holds the flag of the French Revolution, the tricolour flag, and a bayonet. All classes are seen to be working together, wearing the Phrygian cap that came to symbolize liberty during the revolution. Initially the painting received a poor reaction, and was hidden away from public viewing in 1863 as it was seen to be too revolutionary. However, the painting is thought to have inspired characters in Les Miserables and the Statue of Liberty. Both artists paintings are pro-revolutionary and used as propaganda pieces to present the fighters of the revolution as victorious and saintly, and give an idea of the immediate images revolutionaries needed to be presented at the time of the revolution, as the paintings would provide the audience with how events should be interpretted.


McIver, Gillian. Art History for Filmmakers. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.



Further Reading:

Kleiner. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History. Cengage Learning EMEA, 2009.

Murray, Christopher John. ¤Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760–1850. Routledge, 2013.

Vaughn, Will and Helen Weston. Jacques-Louis David’s ‘Marat’. Cambridge University Press, 1999.


Visual Representations of the French Revolution: Charlotte Corday and the Death of Marat

Emily Judd

The two paintings below both illustrate an important event in the early stages of the French Revolution: the assassination of Marat. The two paintings have significant differences in the way they portray of the events of 13 July 1793. The 'The Death of Marat' by Jacque-Louis David is the more famous of the two, and was painted in 1793, the year Marat died. This painting focuses mainly on Marat in the bath, and has no depiction of Charlotte Corday. This painting focuses on Marat because at the time of his death, he was considered a 'hero.' Marat’s funeral filled the streets of Paris due to his popularity with the people, although as Charlotte Corday believed, he caused unnecessary bloodshed of innocent people. The piece ‘Charlotte Corday’ by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry was painted in the last few years of the French Revolution. Due to it being painted during the Second Empire, the way it depicted the revolution was very different; Charlotte Corday was depicted as a heroin and Marat a revolutionary evil power. 

‘The Death of Marat,’ signifies certain opinions and feelings present during the French Revolution. It is obvious that Marat is the focus of the painting; the light focuses on his body, and he is placed in the most central position possible. He is shown already dead, with the wound on his chest present. It appears that he died in the middle of reading Charlotte Corday’s letter. This implies that David thought he was the victim in this situation. Normandy, where the expelled Girondins were camping until they took their next move, were the only people who sympathised with Corday. As they were on the same side as her they depicted her in their newspapers as Brave, Patriotic and Intelligent. The rest of France however saw Corday as the enemy and the evil figure, who murdered an ‘innocent’ man. She was described as being under the influence of a man, even though the autopsy proved she was still pure. She was ungendered as people would not believe that a woman was capable of committing such a crime. Chaumette[1], a politician of the revolutionary period, stated that women, who wanted to act as men, could not be protected by men. Thus the assassination of Marat brought about issues beyond the revolt against Royalty. Women, because of Corday’s actions were seen as more powerful, so that the man could no longer oppress them. Corday was the ‘evil’ actor in the painting; Marat was presented as weak and vulnerable, with only a sheet protecting him. The painting puts light around his head that appears almost halo like. It must be noted however that the piece was painted by a close colleague of Marat’s, thus will be more biased towards him being the innocent one in the event.

After the revolution, when the piece ‘Charlotte Corday’ was painted during the second empire (1860). At this time, those who supported Corday during the time of the assassination (the Royalists) were back in favour. Thus the piece offered a different interpretation of the assassination of Marat. The painting illuminates Charlotte Corday who stands in front of a map of France, implying that she helped save the country. Corday prevented ‘the principal author of the current and pending disasters' and happily ‘sacrificed her life for her country'. She was portrayed as the saviour of the many victims that Marat killed, and claimed that she had 'revenged many innocent victims and prevent many other disasters'.[2] The painting ‘Charlotte Corday’, used similar imagery as David’s depiction of Marat; both placed their heroes as the centralised figure. While in David’s painting Corday is barely present, 60 years later, Corday is the focal point – France’s saviour.


[1] Gullickson, Gay L. ‘Militant Women: Representations of Charlotte Corday, Louise Michel and Emmeline Pankhurst’ Women’s History Review 23, no. 6 (May 8, 2014) p 841

[2] Ibid. pg 839-840.

Further Reading:

DiCaprio, Lisa. The Origins of the Welfare State: Women, Work and the French Revolution. United States: University of Illinois Press, 2006.

Kindleberger, Elizabeth R. ‘Charlotte Corday in Text and Image: A Case Study in the French Revolution and Women’s History’. French Historical Studies 18, no. 4. 1994.

Mazeau Guillaume and Jean-Clement Martin. Le Bain de l’histoire. Charlote Corday et l’ttentat contre Marat, 1793-2009/ Guillaume Mazeau; Preface de Jean-Clement Martin. Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2009.


V. Twentieth-Century Historiography: What are the different approaches in the twentieth-century to French Revolution?


Adam Baker

The French revolution is one of the most written about controversies. Historians in the twentieth century studying political, economic, social, and cultural approaches of history have used the French Revolution a rich historiographical resource. Twentieth century historians have been able to provide a textured account of the Revolution using varied approaches, encompassing not only the political events, but also the experience of those in all three Estates during the Revolution. While not all historians have reached a consensus of the best approach, or probable cause, of the Revolution, their accounts shed light on how historians' views motivate findings.

Many historians believe the French Revolution signals a turning point in history, marking the end of the old and the beginning of what we call ‘Modern History’. But what this turning point actually means is open to interpretation. Opinions relating to the role of the French revolution on the European and world stage has shifted over the last 100 years, and the debate continues among historians even today.

Why, then, is it important to acknowledge this debate among historians?

Our perceptions of history are constantly changing. It seems that as quickly as one school of thought asserts itself as the truth another arrives to supplant it. Historians in Europe have been grappling with the French revolution since the event, with the most intense debates happening in the last century.

Broad interpretations of the French Revolution can be divided into three groups:

The Classical or Marxist interpretation was conceived in the late 1900s, and experienced a new meaning in the wake of the Russian revolution. Essentially, the Revolution is seen as an engine for progress. The debate goes beyond a good (republic) versus evil (monarchy) argument and sees the revolution as destroying the feudal system and replacing it with a capitalist society. This interpretation perceives the Revolution as a class war won by the capitalist bourgeoisie.

The Revisionist interpretation challenges the Marxist interpretation, questioning the role of the bourgeoisie in the revolution. This interpretation becomes more prominent after the Second World War, Marxism was perceived as threatening. Historians instead look towards political and cultural history rather than just economic factors.

The Post-Revisionist interpretation goes beyond the revisionist argument. Recent historical research has opened new fields, such as the role of women in the revolution and the impact of the French revolution on an international scale.  

Historians provide us with a map to allow us to navigate the sea of sources and opinions on the French Revolution. Without this historiography, we would not know the questions to ask nor be able to find the answers we seek. This section examines how the historians of Europe have viewed the French Revolution in the political, economic and social spheres.

Further Reading:

William Doyle. "Where it Stands" in A very short introduction to the French Revolution. (Oxford University Press 2001)

Gary Kates. The French Revolution: Recent Debates and New Controversies. (Routledge, 2006)

Jones, Colin. "Twenty Years After." French Historical Studies 32, no. 4 (Autumn 2009) pp. 679-687



Critical Historiography of the Twentieth Century – William Doyle

Hollie Wilson

William Doyle is a leading revisionist on the survey of the French Revolution. Though it does assume some knowledge of eighteenth-century French politics, Origins of the French Revolution (1988) provides an invaluable introduction to this significant and often misunderstood era of history. Doyle concentrates his efforts solely on the root of the Revolution, stopping his survey in the summer of 1789, just after la Grande Peur.[1] In exposé fashion, Doyle debunks the traditional myths and simplistic interpretations which are all too often associated with the outbreak of the Revolution. Rather curiously, the book begins with a review of twentieth-century historiography of the French Revolution. Scholarly opinions and interpretations such as revisionism and post-revisionism are widely researched. The exploration of a complex web of causal factors forms the meat of the book; Doyle addresses the Ancien Régime in meticulous detail. In engaging with all levels of French society, Origins of the French Revolution provides a thorough and informative glimpse into late-eighteenth-century France. The use of thematic (as opposed to chronological) presentation encourages a greater awareness for the large, systemic problems which France suffered; changes and continuities are understood in relation to themselves as well as time. The central thesis to the work is plainly that the Revolution was not occasioned by any one group, philosophy, or crisis, but that a milieu of factors intermixed together to create a volatile, unpredictable situation. Doyle is not an advocate of the deterministic model. He understands the escalation of circumstances as an organic process. The special precedence which is placed on politics, contingency and coincidence crushes any notion that the Revolution was a planned or programmed affair. Origins of the French Revolution is invaluable to any historian on the grounds of its clear and critical examination of old orthodoxy and new consensus interpretations alone. Its succinct explanation for the end of the Ancien Régime can almost be considered as an added bonus.


[1] la Grande Peur (or the Great Fear) was a general panic that developed between 17 July and 3 August 1789. For further understanding, see William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 114-5.

Further Reading:

Doyle, William. Origins of the French Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.


Critical Historiography, Michael Burleigh

Catherine Pym