- Revolutionary Demands: A Content Analysis of the Cahiers de Doléances of 1789
Historians have long consulted the cahiers de doléances of the French Revolution. In the course of the 1789 elections to the Estates General, Frenchmen (and a few women) met to elect their representatives and to prepare a list of complaints to guide these individuals. Every electoral assembly produced such a document (estimated at between 25,000 to 60,000).
Scholars have wished to use these cahiers as a means to plumb public opinion in the months immediately preceding the convocation of the Estates General. Those who have followed this path include such notable historians as Beatrice Hyslop, George V. Taylor, and Roger Chartier. Yet for all their efforts, little consensus on this topic has emerged, and many areas remain unexplored. Both circumstances relate in part to the sheer size and complexity of this source which opens the door to numerous disagreements and a vast number of subjects.
Into this promising but troubled area comes a work of immense proportions that has its roots in Gilbert Shapiro’s efforts in the 1950’s. This endeavor finds form here in a book containing a text of some 200,000 words, 100 pages of appendices, and 80 pages of notes. A number of people have collaborated in the writing and many more in the research. And, in fact, this volume is more a report than a conventional book. Two of its four sections present the theory and use of content analysis to study the cahiers. Another part considers the process and nature of the cahiers at their creation in 1789; while a final section, composed of eight separate articles that together make up almost one-half the work, uses the cahiers to provide insights into the revolutionary crises consuming France. Almost all of the contents of this last part have been previously published, mostly in the late 1980’s. Of course these investigations neither can nor do provide a comprehensive understanding. In fact, the book frequently makes it clear that the data base that has been compiled is available for other research.
The size and diversity of this volume prevent any thorough discussion of its contents. But it is worth noting that its very authoritative discussion of content analysis will likely convince a number of doubters. Furthermore, the use of these techniques on the cahiers must rank among the most sophisticated and systematic ever attempted by historians. Yet this approach is very labor intensive, and detractors who argue that the results do not justify the magnitude of the investment will not be entirely silenced. In fact, many of the actual studies included here do not employ most, or even many, of the data possibilities. This raises the prospect that a less thorough attempt might have generated similar results, although this judgment may change if other future scholars utilize this data base.
Of all the questions concerning the cahiers as a source, none evokes more contentiousness than attempts to establish what these texts might mean. Against those who wish to see these complaints as a reflection of public opinion are many who argue other views, including that middle class leaders largely drowned out the peasant voice. But Shapiro and Markoff argue forcefully and effectively that the cahiers do allow a perspective on public opinion, or at least the opinions that a spectrum of society thought could be reasonably presented. This interpretation [End Page 443] seems to say that the public figured out what might be plausible. This is an interesting way of validating the cahiers’ importance to the history of the public. Many of the studies that conclude this volume, however, tend to use the cahiers’ contents more conventionally as a reflection of the “true” opinions of the French. In reporting the contents of the cahiers, those authors speculate about how we can explain the views. They mainly resort to the previous values held by the participants at the assemblies but seldom allude to what might...