All entries for Monday 09 January 2006

January 09, 2006

The French Revolution

Colin said it might be a good idea for us to spend this holiday reading up on the causes of the French Revolution so we'd be able to keep up next term. Naturally if I were to read up and leave it then I am quite likely to forget everything. So I've decided this is the best place to put my findings. Avec helpful diagrams of course... This is all largely pilfered sourced from Colin's book.

Part One – Pissed Off.

By 1788 the French were a bit pissed off. Ok, they were very pissed off. The economy was in the dumper, the monarchy was broke and squeezing money out of the populace (but not the nobility or the clergy), and there were a series of poor harvests. The people were broke, hungry and grumpy. Like a student at their last few early morning lectures of term.

Louis XVI was king and he was another of those useless kings who far outnumber the genuinely good ones in history. He was a depressive and a fop. He also had a bunch of ministers who pretty much couldn't agree on what colour grass was, nevermind important decisions of state.

In September 1788 Louis got fed up and summoned Parlement. This was a law court where they passed opinions on the laws of the land but a) couldn't permanently prevent anything the monarch really wanted, because b) they could be exiled, dismissed, recalled and generally abused by the monarch. Not a hugely useful state of affairs. Also they weren't elected like British Parliament.

But by September 1788 they were in a powerful position because Louis was desperate. The people didn't like paying taxes whilst the nobility didn't pay. The Parlement's solution was to ask for an Estates General. This was a meeting of the three estates, the clergy (first estate), the nobility (second estate), and everyone else (third estate). There hadn't been one since 1614. Clearly forward looking solutions weren't fashionable that month.

This wasn't very popular with the people because they thought this meant that the first and second estates (i.e. not the people) would dominate the Estates General. They got angry at Parlement. The people of France got angry a lot in those days. Not like today when they never have massive riots or block entire ports with their lorries.

Anyway, these bolshy people were also publishing a lot of pamphlets and forming clubs to discuss politics, and generally did things which the king didn't like. This was known as thinking for yourself and is not popular with monarchs, especially slightly depressed ones.

The king agreed to the Estates General. Then Parlement changed its mind and decided it didn't want one after all but it was too late as the invitations had been sent out, and the king had ordered in the party hats and it would annoy the people who were very bolshy.

I wouldn't annoy those bolshy people, would you?

Part Two – The Estates General

One problem with the Estates General is illustrated below.

The Third Estate had as many members as the other two Estates put together (and event hen only because it had insisted before Louis XVI called the Estates General) but each Estate had one vote. So they weren't really represented. However the people were, as we have seen, a bit bolshy and Louis was worried, so he changed the rules so that there was per head voting, meaning that the Third Estate had as many votes as the other two put together. This may have been down to the troublesome Parisians or maybe it was the fault of Louis XVI's useless ministers.

The Third Estate were worried about government corruption, and privilege being misused. The people were inspired by this and sent in loads of _cahiers,_ very polite messages to the king to please out their problems, please.

The Third Estate was also letting people come into its sessions and view its working unlike the other two Estates. All of this seems very populist, but it's worth remembering that there were no peasants or workers in the Estates General. Smelly peasants might get mud on the bourgeoisie's clothes and we can't have that now can we?

But there was trouble brewing. The Third Estate were getting pissed off at the lack of progress. So they decided to do something. On 17th June 1789 they declared themselves to be the National Assembly and went it alone with those members of the clergy and nobility who agreed with them.

On 2th June 1789 the National Assembly went along to the chambers as usual only to find them locked by order of Louis XVI! Some people would have sent for the janitor to get it open or taken this as a sign of a day off and then gone shopping. But the National Assembly decided that it meant that Louis XVI was angry and planning to dismiss them or worse. They fled to the nearby tennis courts where they defeated Tim Henman in straight sets swore an oath not to disperse until there was a new constitution. To help future historians remember all this it was called the Tennis Court Oath.

Ironically it turned out that Louis XVI wasn't plotting an attack on the National Assembly, he was just fed up with all the rowing and wanted a day or two of peace and quiet to collect his thoughts, before he addressed the National Assembly in person…

Part Three – Chaos In Paris

On 23rd June 1789, Louis XVI addressed his, by now very bolshy, National Assembly. There was widespread unrest across France and large-scale defections from the First and Second Estates to the National Assembly. Louis XVI offered some reforms, but there was to be very little social change. This wasn't really what the National Assembly wanted to hear. Even when Louis XVI ordered all the remaining clergy and nobles to join the National Assembly there was unease.

For some people at the time this appeared to be a revolution completed. The monarch had been forced to concede and that was as far as revolutions usually went in those days.

Louis XVI then ballsed it up somewhat by sacking his moderate ministers and appointing new ones who were seen as counter-revolutionary. It really didn't help that he then ordered the army to move into Paris. Naturally the Parisians responded by panicking and rioting.

A city council was formed and the bourgeoisie joined a new, revolutionary armed forces. In an attempt to get weapons they stormed the notorious prison, the Bastille. This is a hugely symbolic event in French history, possibly only ruined a little by the fact that there were only seven prisoners in there at the time.

But it was cool enough to get the rest of France to have a few riots and frivolities of its own. This included the towns and the cities as well as the peasants who had practise in revolting before [insert joke about revolting peasants here]. It was united by a feeling of anti-seigneurialism, basically they didn't like the nobles getting all the good stuff in life like no taxes and everyone else getting crapped on from a great height. the National Assembly also called for an end to all this, possibly because they believed it (some did) and possibly because they wanted to gain control of the rioters and stop the rioting.

By the 28th August 1789 had come the Declaration Of The Rights Of Man, which is seen as the end of the Bourbon monarchy's absolute rule. Not that this was the end of the French Revolution. Hell, it was only the start, there was lots of fun to be had with wars, executions, terror and other things which make history quite depressing. But I'm off now to regurgitate all this in a seminar, so have fun!

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