Ten myths demolished about the French Revolution

Many people agree that the French Revolution was one of the most significant events in European history and, indeed, in world history, but there are still numerous myths about it. For example, Marie-Antoinette did not say ‘Let them eat cake’, while Robespierre was not the ruthless dictator he is often made out to be.

Kingston University historian, Marisa Linton, has just published a blog for Oxford University Press (OUP) which sets out to demolish ten of these myths, some of which have become firmly entrenched in popular history.

Marisa explained: ‘Today (28 July, 2015) is the 221st anniversary of the death of Robespierre. Along with 107 of his supporters, he was guillotined in a coup that became known as ‘Thermidor’, after the revolutionary month in which it took place’. She continued: ‘There are many myths about what happened in Thermidor, just as there are many myths about the French Revolution itself. So I decided to write a blog called ‘Ten myths about the French Revolution’ in order to dispel some of the most persistent of those myths’.

One claim, which has been repeated regularly over the years (including by some eminent historians), is that the Revolution was made by the poor and the hungry. In fact, according to Marisa, it was begun by members of the elite.

Marisa’s new OUP blog also follows up nicely on her recent article in the June, 2015, issue of History Today, on Jacques-Pierre Brissot, the man who led the Girondin group. An online version of that article is available for History Today subscribers to read here.

Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793) [Image: WikiCommons]

Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793) [Image: WikiCommons]

In her blog for OUP, Marisa returns to the fascinating figure of Brissot. She deals very effectively with the myth that Brissot’s Girodin faction were the ‘moderates’ and Robespierre’s Jacobins were the brutal ‘bloodthirsty’ ones. Again, according to Marisa’s research, this was not true. In 1791-92, Brissot was actually the voice of radicalism, calling for war with foreign powers, a plan that was opposed by Robespierre.

Similarly, the persistent idea that the Jacobins were able to install a ‘system of terror’ is a contentious claim, and many modern historians now strongly contest it, pointing to evidence that what actually operated at the time was chaotic and ad hoc, and was clearly not a coherent ‘system’.

And how many times have we seen in historical writings, best-selling novels and popular culture an image of the guillotine as the principal means of execution in this period? It is a tool which in many ways has become the central iconic symbol of the events of the French Revolution. However, as Marisa points out, although the guillotine was certainly used, many more people were shot or died of illness in French prisons.

Marisa’s most recent book, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2013), on the choices made by Brissot and other French Revolutionary leaders that led to Terror, is now out in paperback, and is available in all good bookshops or direct from Oxford University Press.

You can read Marisa’s new OUP blog at:

http://blog.oup.com/2015/07/ten-myths-french-revolution/

Marisa L. Linton is Reader in History at Kingston University

186Linton, Marisa

For more of Marisa’s work on the Revolution, see the French Revolution Network at:

http://revolution.hypotheses.org/

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