A Natural History of Revolution

A Natural History of Revolution: Violence and Nature in the French Revolutionary Imagination, 1789–1794

Mary Ashburn Miller
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7v8qj
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  • Book Info
    A Natural History of Revolution
    Book Description:

    How did the French Revolutionaries explain, justify, and understand the extraordinary violence of their revolution? In debating this question, historians have looked to a variety of eighteenth-century sources, from Rousseau's writings to Old Regime protest tactics. A Natural History of Revolution suggests that it is perhaps on a different shelf of the Enlightenment library that we might find the best clues for understanding the French Revolution: namely, in studies of the natural world. In their attempts to portray and explain the events of the Revolution, political figures, playwrights, and journalists often turned to the book of nature: phenomena such as hailstorms and thunderbolts found their way into festivals, plays, and political speeches as descriptors of revolutionary activity. The particular way that revolutionaries deployed these metaphors drew on notions derived from the natural science of the day about regeneration, purgation, and balance.

    In examining a series of tropes (earthquakes, lightning, mountains, swamps, and volcanoes) that played an important role in the public language of the Revolution, A Natural History of Revolution reveals that understanding the use of this natural imagery is fundamental to our understanding of the Terror. Eighteenth-century natural histories had demonstrated that in the natural world, apparent disorder could lead to a restored equilibrium, or even regeneration. This logic drawn from the natural world offered the revolutionaries a crucial means of explaining and justifying revolutionary transformation. If thunder could restore balance in the atmosphere, and if volcanic eruptions could create more fertile soil, then so too could episodes of violence and disruption in the political realm be portrayed as necessary for forging a new order in revolutionary France.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6084-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-18)

    At daybreak on 10 August 1793, the people of Paris gathered at the ruins of the Bastille to take part in the Festival of Unity and Indivisibility. According to the festival organizer, Jacques-Louis David, the day and the festival were to begin together, so as to make clear the association between “France’s regeneration” and “the rising of the day’s star, which makes us tremble with the joy of nature.”¹ At the Place de la Bastille, the crowd stood before a statue of Nature whose bosom gushed forth flowing waters; an inscription at its base reminded the assembled Parisians that they...

  6. 1 ORDERING A DISORDERED WORLD
    (pp. 19-42)

    On 16 September 1793, a writer for the Feuille du Salut Public, the official mouthpiece of the Committee of Public Safety, offered his vision of an ideal government by comparing politics to nature. “Everything moves, clashes, collides [se froisse] in nature; it is in this movement that life, equilibrium, harmony are born. The political world resembles the material world in this regard. It constantly needs action and reaction; from this shock emerges light from light, truth from truth, harmony and order without which nothing can endure, no matter how perfect the government.”¹ In this account, harmony and order were not...

  7. 2 TERRIBLE LIKE AN EARTHQUAKE: Violence as a “Revolution of the Earth”
    (pp. 43-71)

    On 1 December 1792, Louis-Marie Prudhomme’s Révolutions de Paris assessed Parisian theater in the wake of the revolution of 10 August 1792. The fall of the monarchy on that day had brought an end to several counterrevolutionary productions and a burst of new patriotic ones, and yet it was a play performed under the guise of patriotism that was lambasted in the republican Prudhomme’s journal: L’Apothéose de Beaurepaire, playing at the Theater of the Nation. The newspaper charged that L’Apothéose, despite having been written in honor of the recent martyr of the Revolution Nicolas-Joseph de Beaurepaire, in fact was spreading...

  8. 3 LIGHTNING STRIKES
    (pp. 72-103)

    In his famous speech of 5 February 1794 (17 Pluviôse, Year II) on the principles of political morality under a revolutionary government, Maximilien Robespierre asserted the necessity of both terror and virtue during the Revolution. Under the “stormy” circumstances France was now enduring, he maintained that extraordinary measures needed to be taken, and he attempted to silence criticism of recent policies pursued by the Committee of Public Safety: “It has been said that terror was the mainspring of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble a despotism? Yes, like the blade that shimmers in the hands of a hero of...

  9. 4 PURE MOUNTAIN, CORRUPTIVE SWAMP
    (pp. 104-138)

    On 28 Nivôse, Year II (17 January 1794), a play called Les Petits Montagnards started its run at the Théâtre de la Cité-Variétés. Popular enough to garner large crowds and have its songs sung again at festivals and reprinted in collections of chansons patriotiques, the play translated the mythology of the Mountain, the popular nickname for the Jacobins, into song and dance. The play centered around two young children, Petit-Jacques and Georgette, living on a “volcanic mountain named the Puy de Montagnard,” whose poor father Gervais had come upon difficult times.¹ Having lost his wife years earlier, Gervais had fallen...

  10. 5 “MOUNTAIN, BECOME A VOLCANO”
    (pp. 139-163)

    Le Jugement dernier des rois, a play written by Sylvain Maréchal, opened to enthusiastic reviews at the Théâtre de la République in Vendémiaire of Year II (October 1793). “The Theater of the Republic . . . has never better fulfilled its title than since it has been putting on a play of an original genre, which has as its title, Le Jugement dernier des rois,” extolled Prudhomme’s Révolutions de Paris on 28 October 1793.¹ The Père Duchesne exclaimed, “There [at the Théâtre de la République] is a fit spectacle for republican eyes.”² The play gave an account of the exile...

  11. CONCLUSION: Revolutionary Like Nature, Natural Like a Revolution
    (pp. 164-172)

    The period from 1793 to 1794 marked the height of the relationship between pro-revolutionary violence and nature in revolutionary rhetoric. Soon after the Jacobins fell from power, the terms “mountain” and “volcano” both shed many of their positive connotations; volcano again became a term that signified rampant and uncontrollable destruction, and Edme Petit called for the word “Mountain” to be banned from the Convention floor a mere month after Thermidor.¹ A decree of 20 February 1795 mandated the dismantling of symbolic mountains across France, and two weeks later the saltpeter program came to an end.² Revolutionary forces could still strike...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 173-204)
  13. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 205-222)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 223-232)