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Era in French History when Marie Antoinette tried giving her subjects a little dietary advice, who responded by storming Versailles and putting her and her brave husband Louis XVI to death by the guillotine. Their son, the Dauphin, makes it out of France alive, though, thanks to the tireless efforts of that "demmed elusive Pimpernel". Everyone in this time period wore pastel-colored satin, big fancy wigs, fake beauty marks, and snorted snuff like it was cocaine. Unless they were poor, in which case they wore trousers with tricolor badges and sung "String the aristocrats from the lamp posts!" whilst waving their pitchforks and gnashing their rotting teeth. Don't forget about taking down l'ancien régime.
The more cynical version of the French Revolution wasn't nearly that much fun. Start with a nation bankrupted by the construction of palaces and drained by wars (The American Revolution in particular), add in a new and very young king and queen who don't have a clue how to run the country, throw in a famine that makes bread too expensive for the average person to buy, and don't forget to add a heaping helping of bitter, crude, filthy misogynist ranting over the "Austrian Bitch" at Versailles and an arbitary non-income-based tax system that meant many people's tax demand was greater than their entire income.
Simmer for a few years, then let the poor boil over, form mobs called the sans culotte (lit without knee breaches, as in they wore pants), and kill anyone they can catch, including the cream of the country's scientists, musicians, judges, educators, and artists. Burn to the ground any department that raises any objections. Spread lots of stories about Marie's sexual escapades and supposed indifference to the poor and Louis's supposed cruelty to justify your actions, and finish by executing everyone who instigated the revolution. Don't bother to actually feed the poor, though.
The revolution started with many liberal and progressive ideas. The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, declared many rights that are now considered basic human rights. In a radical idea at the time, divorce was legalized. Guilds were abolished, allowing more people to enter professions that had been protected by stringent requirements meant to protect its members from competition. Church lands were seized, and clergy were forced to swear an oath to the new constitution. At first the King seemed to be embracing the idea of a constitutional monarchy, even swearing an oath to uphold the constitution. However, in a scathing letter left behind when he escaped Paris, he made it clear that this was not the case. On the 10th of August 1792, the sans culottes and the National Guard attacked the Tuileries Palace and slaughtered the Swiss Guard guarding the royal family. The constitutional monarchy was no more, with the king placed under arrest. From there all order was lost, with the government declaring itself revolutionary and declaring terror to be its official policy.
An example of the variety of viewpoints is: in England "Jacobin" means "Jacobin", in America "Jacobin" means "fanatic", in Austria "Jacobin" means people like Alexander I of Russia, and in France "Jacobin" means "anti-federalists". To this day, the European political spectrum is largely oriented by one's opinions on the French Revolution: the terms "left" and "right" themselves originate in where the delegates sat in the national assembly; other cool terms like Montagnard (Mountaineer) have not survived. Moreover, liberalism consists in agreeing with it only so far as it went before the Reign of Terror; socialism consists in extending and "perfecting" it; conservatism consists in disliking it but working within the structures it creates; and reaction consists in trying to do away with it altogether. These notions have slipped a lot with time, the modern meaning of these terms being quite different. Red October and World War II changed these positions (for instance, the latter added fascism, a combination of socialism's revolutionary spirit with a conservative/reactionary opposition to its ideals), but did little to alter the overall orientation.
Ironically, at the time the French and American revolutions were seen as ideological twins (subject peoples inspired by radical liberal ideas overthrowing aristocracies... though that might be a stretch in America's case since it was largely lead by the middle classes and contained a fair number of American aristocracy) and supporters of one were usually supporters of the other (Tom Paine, the Anglo-US radical, considered a traitor by the British for his support of the American revolution, was an equally-fierce supporter of the revolution in France). Modern "interpretations" of the events of the period usually say much more about contemporary politics and bickering than they do about the late 18th century.
Lastly, we can't discuss La Revolution without talking about the Republican Calendar. Wanting to eliminate Christian influence, the French reset their calendars based on the new French Republic. 1792 (the year the Republic was founded) was now Year I (years were written in Roman numerals), and September 22 (the official beginning of the Republic) marked the beginning of the year. But it didn't end there. Years were divided into 12 months...but each month had 30 days (months were renamed after the common weather conditions of Paris), and each week had 10 days. A mostly decimal-based calendar looked good and orderly on paper, but in practice was somewhat more complicated. For instance, there would first be five-year intervals between leap years, followed by four. Even so, the French and eventually Napoleon persevered at it before giving up in 1805. The revolutionaries even tried to institute decimal hours, minutes, and seconds, but this proved even less popular. However, longer lasting where a bunch of units introduced by the National Convention in Year 3 (1795) like the meter for lengths, the liter for volumes of liquid, the gram for mass, along with multiples of these units by factors of 2 and 10 like the kilogram (1000 grams), double decaliter (20 liters), or the centimeter (0.01 meters). Other long lasting changes include the departments, whos borders have changed little since 1789 and the tricolor flag.
See also French Political System, for all the bizarre things that have happened in France since then.
Popular tropes from this time period are:
- The American Revolution: Whatever one may say, the two are linked together as contemporary events inspired by similar ideals. France's support of America during the Revolutionary War was one of many reasons France went bankrupt while many French revolutionary leaders were at least partly inspired by events across the pond; many, like Thomas Paine and Marquis de Lafayette, participated in both. Americans were nonetheless disgusted at the bloodshed of the French Revolution; death is inevitable in such things, but a lot of what was happening in France was so gratuitously cruel that there was little excuse.
- Angry Mob Song: La Marseillaise, now the French national anthem. See also La Carmagnole and Ah ca Ira.
- Aristocrats Are Evil: A very influential trope.
- Black and Grey Morality: Whether your sympathies are royalist or republican, neither side comes out particularly well.
- Boisterous Bruiser: Danton, by all accounts.
- Conspiracy Theory: There are claims that The Illuminati have secretly orchestrated the French Revolution despite their official disbandment years earlier. Note that this was two centuries before the McCarthyist "Soviet conspiracy" theories.
- Conspiracy theories were popular. Both the Jacobin and Cordeliers Club included rooting out counter-revolutionary conspiracies in their mission statements. After the fall of the king, the sans culotte believed their was a counter revolutionary conspiracy among prisoners leading to what is known as the September Massacres.
- Another variant, apparently popular among hardline royalists and later ultraconservatives, involved the Revolution being an anti-Christian conspiracy to destroy the "proper order" of the Ancien Regime and bring about the End Times. Coincidentally, the same theory is more or less used for other events and trends, ranging from the American Revolution to Vatican II.
- Crowning Moment of Awesome: The Battle of Valmy. With a Ragtag Army of Misfits, too. Ask Goethe, he was there. They did bring a poet.
- More generally, the French Revolutionary Wars stand as a Crowning Moment for France as a whole. The brand new republic is in chaos, its treasury is empty, and it's surrounded by hostile powers who want to destroy it. What does it do? Get some help from Poland, Denmark and Norway, and proceed to kick the asses of Germany, Britain, Spain, Russia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Austria, Turkey and Italy, expanding its territory in the process. This was also where Napoleon Bonaparte earned the reputation that would eventually lead him to found the French Empire.
- Decapitation Presentation: Look!
- Decided by One Vote: Louis XVI's execution. Sort of.
- Disproportionate Retribution: During the Terror, you could be convicted as a counter-revolutionary on the slimmest evidence, leading to people being executed for some pretty ridiculous things.
- One could actually be executed for not being enthusiastic enough, let alone against the Revolution.
- Or even suggesting an expansion of the scope of the terror. Yes, Robespierre considered extremists like Hebert to actually be counter-revolutionaries.
- One could actually be executed for not being enthusiastic enough, let alone against the Revolution.
- Eat the Rich: The Ur Example for this Stock Phrase came about during this time when Jean-Jacques Rousseau reportedly said, "When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich," which would make an interesting corollary with Marie Antoinette's alleged "Let them eat cake" comments.
- Everyone Went to School Together: Robespierre and Desmoulins were friends in law school; they wound up as political enemies, resulting in Desmoulins's execution. Louis XVI was there to hear Robespierre's valedictorian speech. Also, Napoleon went to school and was friends with Augustin Robespierre, Maximilien's younger brother.
- Evil Cripple: Georges Couthon was condemned by Thermidorians because of that.
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The instigators of the Reign of Terror actually called it that.
- For Want of a Nail: Some experts believe that the famine that was one of the primary catalysts of the Revolution might not have been so bad, or even been averted completely had the French public had not been so resistant to earlier government efforts to introduce a crop from the New World know as a pomme de terre or in English, a potato.
- God Save Us From the Queen: L'autrichienne.
- For those who don't speak French: autrichienne means '(female) Austrian', but chienne means, well, 'female dog' (and is just as insulting as in enlgish). In addition, autruche means 'ostrich'.
- Gorgeous Period Dress/Pimped-Out Dress: The new Greco-Roman inspired high-waisted muslin gowns replacing the aristocratic wigs and full-skirted dresses.
- Historical Domain Character: Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and Napoleon spend so much time in fictions set in this period, one wonders how they managed to play their parts in history.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Robespierre did some less than commendable things in the name of the Republic, but he was co-author of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and was involved in such causes as the abolition of slavery, eliminating the property qualification to be represented in government, and granting rights to Protestants and Jews . Tell that to some fictional portrayals.
- Jean-Paul Marat perhaps got it worse than anybody else from that period, and went from being an almost godlike figure whose bust replaced crosses in churches to be described as an "angry monster insatiably hungry for blood" after the Reign of Terror was pretty much done and finished.
- On the other side, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette got this, especially during the Revolution. Marie Antoinette did not actually say the infamous line, "Let them eat cake", and Louis XVI was not tyrannical, just incompetent. His two immediate predecessors, on the other hand...
- Hit So Hard the Calendar Felt It: As noted above, the revolutionary government made 1792 the Year I, and France counted years that way for a while thereafter.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: The salon culture of Paris that served as the intellectual birthplace of many Revolutionary ideas grew as the result of the active patronage of the Duke of Orleans, Louis XVI's uncle, who was hoping to use the popular discontent against the King to usurp the throne himself. Suffice to say, things did not go as planned.
- List of Transgressions: King Louis received one.
1 - On 20 June, 1789, you attacked the sovereignty of the people by suspending the assemblies of its representatives and by driving them by violence from the place of their sessions. Proof thereof exists in the procès-verbal drafted at the Tennis Court of Versailles by the members of the Constituent Assembly.
- Mind Screw: The Revolutionary period is often cited as one of the most complex and confusing areas of historical study, and is sometimes memetically invoked as something that drives people mad or puts them to sleep.
- More Deadly Than the Male: That was the tricoteuses' reputation, anyway.
- Off with His Head: The guillotine was extensively used, during the Reign of Terror in particular.
- Reign of Terror: The Trope Namer.
- The Remnant: The Royalists of Vendée and the Chouans saw themselves as this, along with La Résistance, in their uprising from 1793-1799. Their defiance and utter zeal caught the admiration of Napoleon Bonaparte. But even to this day, many of their descendants don't take to the Republic well.
- The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: The overwhelming conservative reaction.
- The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: That Angry Mob Song is now the French national anthem because of this.
- Rousing Speech: Several. For instance, Henri de la Rochejaquelein addressing the Vendean Royalist rebels: "If I advance, follow me; if I die, avenge me; if I retreat, kill me!"
- The most well-known may still be Danton's "(...) de l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace (...)!".
- Self-Made Man: Arguably, Napoleon Bonaparte. The Revolution had given him an opportunity to rise up the ranks to become the legendary general-turned-Emperor known to history. Especially through a mix of ability (merit replacing social standing in the military) and connections with some of the Revolution's leaders.
- Wooden Ships and Iron Men: The Revolution helped create this trope - the Ancien Regime had sometimes managed to defeat Britain at sea (most notably during The American Revolution) but the loss of France's best naval officers (as they were aristocrats) left Britain facing a weakened opponent and led to the string of victories that created Britain's naval mythos.
- Wouldn't Hit a Girl: How the king was forced back to Paris from Versailles.
- Upperclass Twit: Whatever else you think about Marie and Louis, it's pretty obvious they had no clue what they were doing. The other French aristocrats weren't much more efficient, and most higher clergy and nobles constantly blocked any economic reforms that would help the country (since said reforms would also require them to give up some of their cash and nobility privileges). Others (usually poorer ones) supported them, some because they sincerely believed the country needed change. Others opposed reforms just because they hated Calonne.
Works that are set in this time period are:
- Start the Revolution Without Me
- La Marseillaise (Jean Renoir film)
- Danton (1983 movie, Andrzej Wajda)
- Napoléon (1927 French silent movie by Abel Gance)
- Marie Antoinette
- The French Revolution (1989 movie, Robert Enrico). The film was produced for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.
- Orphans of the Storm
- The Affair of the Necklace film about a scandal involving Marie Antoinette. Pre-revolution.
- A Tale of Two Cities
- The Scarlet Pimpernel
- Victor Hugo's novel 93
- The Pink Carnation book series.
- The novel A Place of Greater Safety
- Honor Harrington takes place in the Napoleonic Wars In Space and thus has the entire plot in the background.
- The Woman with the Velvet Necklace takes place during the Terror. In reference to Moral Event Horizon, it mentions the execution of King Louis as "the single most important event in human history to date."
- Blackadder the Third (for one episode)
- Doctor Who: "The Reign of Terror"
- The Time Tunnel episode "Reign of Terror".
- Voltaire's song "The Headless Waltz"
- Allan Sherman's song "You Went the Wrong Way Old King Louis"
- Fireaxe's Raise the Black Flag
- "Bastille Day" by Rush
- Roger Waters' opera, Ca Ira, with some deliberate allegories to America in the mid-2000's.
- Queen's "Killer Queen" namechecks Marie Antoinette and the "let them eat cake" misquote in its opening lyrics.
- Danton's Death (play by Georg Büchner)
- Marat Sade by Peter Weiss
- It didn't actually refer to this one though.